It was the 28th of the 2nd month, Year 604. Claude was aboard the Saint Hughslind which had just arrived at Port Northbay near the Great Plains of Canas. Skri and Eiblont were waiting for him. The two embraced Claude before he'd even stepped off the gantry.
A military council was held in Northbay's capital, Canpast, the next day. Claude announced Thundercrash's reorganisation. It would be made smaller, its personnel decreased from 150 thousand to 90 thousand and it would be split into four folks. The surplus staff left after the eldest were honourably discharged into retirement would be transferred to the Askilinian and Rimodran territories, where they would merge with the eight garrison lines to form Typhoon corps.
Typhoon would be the third corps to enter service under the autonomous region's military administration. Their main mission was to secure the fiefs on Freian soil near Northbay. They were a light-cavalry corps formed to target the local nomadic tribes. New members in the future would also be sourced from the local herder population.
Claude had planned to let Monolith defend the region and leave the Great Plains of Canas to Typhoon. Thundercrash, on the other hand, was the region's mobile fighting force and had to be ready to deploy at any moment on offensives against the enemy. As such, the region needed another standing corps to defend key areas.
Dyavid was to become the reformed Thundercrash's corpsman, whereas Berklin would take the role of chief of staff. Eiblont, on the other hand, would be in charge of forming Typhoon and managing the defence of the Great Plains of Canas and the Askilinian and Rimodran regions.
All those tasks had to be completed within four months, during which the eight homecoming Shiksan folks would be transferred to Northbay. Upon their arrival, Claude would formally launch his campaign to give Shiks a proper defeat.
The officers that were assigned their tasks left the meeting room. Claude, Skri and Eiblont then went to get dinner together. When Eiblont left after he had quite a few cups, Claude and Skri breathed a sigh of relief. They headed to Skri's residence and had another secret talk in his study.
"Are you sure that is the king himself?" Claude asked.
"Yes. I've tracked his movements before. When he secretly reached Northbay to meet with me, he is reported to have gone hunting in the royal manor in his kingdom. It is normal for him to go on extended hunting trips this time of year, as he doesn't like to mingle with other nobles. He tells his ministers he wouldn't have any free time for himself other than this season."
Claude cracked a smile. "This is not our usual flavour of kings."
Skri shook his head. "Not just that. He has a razor-sharp wit. I suspect he uses the excuse of going hunting in the royal manor every year to get his ministers off his tail and go survey his kingdom in disguise. That's why his kingdom has been developing rather well. While they are Shiks' vassal nation, they are actually the most powerful and have Shiks wary of them. To Shiks, the Kingdom of Bleyotte is a vassal nation they had never truly subjugated."
Claude looked at the open map of Bleyotte, a nation covered with mountains with only a third of its area being flat land. Bleyotteans were known for their hardiness and courage. In the past two centuries, they went to war with Shiks seven times and won only twice. However, Shiks had never been able to wipe them out properly.
Even five decades ago when the Bleyottean king, Mankdor I, was surrounded by the Shiksan army in the capital, the Bleyotteans still managed to give the Shiksans a good fight lasting up to three years using the mountainous terrain. Eventually, the Shiksans suffered so many casualties they were forced to retreat from the royal capital and take the initiative to sue for peace with the king. However, Mankdor I died not long after the treaty was signed from consuming poisoned wine. Many suspected it to be a Shiksan assassination.
The current king, Avitelli I, was Mankdor I's grandson. His father and three brothers had died in a war with Shiks, the last war the two kingdoms fought in recent time. Defeated, Bleyotte ceded its coastal territories to Shiks, effectively landlocking itself. Since then, it had lost its two port cities and a huge piece of flat land.
When Avitelli I ascended to the throne, he was only half a year old. He was made king as he was the sole survivor of the royal bloodline. It was said that a few nobles of the kingdom provided their own sons to be his body doubles to protect him during his growth and take his place in court. Avitelli I was put in the care of an old hunter's household to mature.
Some ten years before Avitelli I came of age, all the nobles that pretended to be him in court died. However, the nobles did manage to wait until he grew up to return to court and take the crown. It had been 34 years since his proper ascension to the Bleyottean throne.
Bleyotte didn't go to war with Shiks even once during his reign. While the Shiksans' demands of them were quite excessive, even for a vassal nation, the king still managed to find ways to appease them, leaving Shiks no excuse to give Bleyotte any trouble. He was also a wise and far-seeing ruler who endeavoured to get his nobles to lighten the burden on the peasants in their fiefs. Through that, the kingdom's might grew to a point where Shiks had to once more pay attention to them.
Bleyotte ranked at the top of the eleven vassal nations in the Shiksan sphere of influence, earning Avitelli I the reputation of a wise king among his people. However, this king of theirs had an odd habit. Every year during the 7th and 8th months, he would go to live in the old hunter's lodge he had stayed in since childhood with only a handful of servants and spend his time hunting.
Many nobles often tried to dissuade him from continuing that habit, but Avitelli I would not have any of it. He called himself a child of the mountains. He wanted to practice all the skills the old hunter taught him to continue being a king that can truly live up to the expectations of the Bleyotteans.
As such, all Bleyotteans would point to the mountains when asked where their king was during the 7th and 8th months. A sobriquet often attributed to him was 'Hunter King', being a testament to his love for hunting.
At the end of the 7th month last year, Skri had gone to the fiefs to survey the development there. On the way, he was stopped by a middle-aged man that introduced himself to be the Bleyottean king. The man proved his identity with his household crest and golden seal on condition that his presence was kept secret.
Skri immediately invited him into his carriage. On the way back, he had a long talk with the king, who had come to inquire whether the region had any intention of attacking Shiks, seeing as the two sides were still in a state of war.
Avitelli I hoped that Bleyotte could give them a helping hand in that attack. They could mobilise at least four corps, assuming the region was going to support them. During the last war they lost to Shiks, they lost not only their coastal areas but also their industrial prowess. All their weapons and gear were inferior to the Shiskans'.
After Avitelli I left in a hurry, Skri wrote a transcript of their meeting, but he didn't send it out through eagle message in fear of a leak. Instead, he had his adjutant travel with Ironclad to the region to hand Claude the letter personally. Only then did Claude make the decision to attack and exterminate Shiks.
"Now, we can finally send someone to get in touch with him to get him to start preparations. Do you have the item he entrusted you?" Claude asked.
Skri opened his drawer and took out a semicircular, golden arc.
"This is one half of the outer rim of a palm mirror. As long as it lines up with his palm mirror, they'll know it's someone we sent. There are also some code phrases. Basically, it's a haggle, which will end with us buying the mirror from them. If they want to buy our arc from us no matter what, it means something unexpected occurred."
The palm mirror was a popular item nobles and women in general used to tidy up their appearance and put on makeup. It was usually made with a crystal or glass surface. Nobles themselves would usually decorate their mirrors' base and rim with gold, silver and jewels whereas peasant female servants used bronze or bamboo.
Claude looked at the golden arc and noticed that it had been broken off by hand. It seemed Avitelli I didn't have some marker he could give away on hand and had no choice but to break the palm mirror he brought along. The random cracks of the arc would truly be hard to fake.
"Send more informants to check on whether anti-Shiksan sentiment among the populace is heavy. I know you've sent someone to investigate the king and verified that he truly wants to cooperate with us. However, we must always be careful as our troops' lives are on the line," Claude said with his brow furrowed, as if in deep thought.
"You can send your scouts to test them out," Skri said.
Claude shook his head.
"That won't do. Soldiers can easily be spotted even without uniform. The merchant informants, on the other hand, draw less attention. I've ordered Colonel Borkal to rush here next month to take care of correspondence with Avitelli I."
Skri nodded. "Good. Then I'll send someone to meet him first, get his demands, and introduce him to Colonel Borkal."
Skri eventually found out about Borkal and Claude's relationship as childhood playmates. Claude trusted his friend really much, and Borkal's figure didn't resemble that of a standard soldier at all, so he would be the best spy. However, his true genius lay in collecting information, a skill which he used to contribute a lot to the region.
"How are you planning to attack Shiks?" Skri asked, watching Claude stare at the map intently, "It'll be hard to do so by sea without suffering heavy casualties. My informants in Shiks returned to tell me that after Seaking was exterminated by us, they greatly fortified their five port cities. We'd be running straight into a wall of steel even with a combined attack by all ships in Ironclad."
"What wall of steel?" Claude laughed, "The Shiksans might be bluffing. They don't even have a navy now. How can land defences work on our ships? They're nothing more than stationary targets."
"They can only be called targets if our ships can hit them!--" As he said so, he took out a map from a scroll tube and unrolled it. "--This is the defence layout of those port cities our informants drew from memory. The Shiksans might've added more to them.
"The coasts of Northern Freia have always been known to have strong winds and huge waves. Most of the coastal area are muddy swamps and tall cliffs. Shiks' five port cities, for instance, are surrounded by mountainous terrain. It's those tall cliffs that block the ocean breeze that leave part of the waters there calm enough for a port to be built.
"Now, Shiks mobilised a great labour force to build many artillery platforms on the cliffs with a line of sight to the waterway into the port. Our informants managed to spot at least fifty of them. They have absolute superiority, being built on much higher altitude. I've asked Moriad about this and we won't be able to attack the platforms at all as our ship cannons can't shoot nearly that tall.
"And all that is only the first line of defence. The second line of defence is their boogie-trapped waterway. They filled up part of the waterway to decrease its breadth with rocks, timber and sunken ships, leaving only enough space for two ships to enter. Without a guide through the curvy waterway, accidents can easily happen. Even if you remember the route, you'll have to sail really slowly into it. That's when the cannons above can slowly aim and fire.
"The third line of defence is the huge cannons and tall walls and moats built at the docks, isolating the dock area completely. Even if we managed to break through their cannons and waterway to reach shore, our troops will have to break through another layer of defences before being able to find a secure place to rest.
"However, Shiks has eight standing corps now. One corps is stationed near each one of the five port cities. The moment they get word of an attack, they'll immediately come to reinforce the defences. Our ground forces will either be exterminated or chased back into the ocean."
Claude grimaced at the truly impregnable defences. Even the new rifles and the ironclad warships of the region wouldn't be able to fully mitigate the advantages the Shiksan defences offered.
"Actually, I believe Bleyotte won't be of much help to us at all," Skri said, "Even if Avitelli I attacks Shiks with his four corps, he wouldn't be able to divert the Shiksan forces at the coastal area to the eastern border. The three standing corps in the kingdom will be enough to weather the Bleyottean assault, and that's not bringing up the numerous reserve corps they can form and field.
"If we can't dock at any particular port and break through their defences to mount a pincer attack with the Bleyottean forces, this war might end in failure. On the Shiksan mainland, they hold the advantage in supplies and logistics, transportation of troops and recruiting new troops. Even if we occupy one port, we won't have enough manpower to maintain a supply line effectively.
"If we cannot rendezvous with the four Bleyottean corps soon enough, I doubt they'd be able to last long. Shiks will definitely defeat them first and chase them out of their nation before dealing with us. By then, we'd be alone in the fight.
"By the way, I almost forgot about the most troublesome part. Avitelli I asked us to provide military gear aid, or his troops won't have the weapons and supplies to fight. Currently, Bleyotte only has two under-armed standing corps. However, they have no coastal areas for us to transport resources to them. To their north is Shiks and their east, Mambamark. There is simply no way for us to bring them enough military gear."