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Setting

Pseudo-fantasy medieval setting at the dawn of industrialization. Gun powder is now a secret. The first ships with black powder weapons in the world are being built several days upriver of a coastal city. Refugees are coming into the city from the south. The site of the ship building is protected from scrying, so that what exactly is happening can't be found out with magic.

Question

How to I hide that these ships are being built? Or rather, what would be a workable cover story for this divergence of resources?

I need to make these huge movement of resources and people look like something other then what it is. This fleet needs to be build ASAP as we are under attack from a island nation with a strong fleet (that does not have gun powder). Most wizards not involved with magically cloaking the ship yards are involved with fighting the invading forces.

To clarify some points: A huge amount of resources are going to this major city and then sent upriver. This isn't a small scale thing where an extra cart form here and there will do it. This is the resources of pseudo North America being assigned to build a fleet to fight pseudo England's fleet. All while a war is happening and large sections of the south of the country are bring ripped apart by armies and war wizards. Enemy spies are going to notice because its their job to notice these things.

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closed as unclear what you're asking by Mołot, James, Alexander von Wernherr, Snow, Azuaron Feb 17 '17 at 14:44

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    $\begingroup$ Clarify your directions: you say the site is upriver of a coastal city, then you say there are refugees from the south. Which way is "up river"? This could mean the refugees are coming from farther up the river (if the river is flowing northward) or from off to one side of the river (if the river is flowing east or west to the sea). If refugees are going right past your construction site, it's going to produce rather different answers than if they never come near it. $\endgroup$ – Palarran Feb 16 '17 at 15:21
  • $\begingroup$ @Palarran That is a good point. The coast is vertical, north to south and upriver is inland to the West. $\endgroup$ – Overthinks Feb 16 '17 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ Having the camouflage shield is an invitation to investigate. Better hide in plain sight. Have the project listed as a giant floating M.A.S.H. hospital and divert enough resources to make 10 instead and load them with cannons instead of beds, make a mockery of the Ferengi Safe passage for medics convention. $\endgroup$ – KalleMP Feb 16 '17 at 21:03
  • $\begingroup$ I'll point out that one of the primary reasons to build a coastal city on a river is that goods can be delivered downriver TO the city. So anything coming in from upriver would just stop off at the construction site, instead of continuing on. Since you have no rail, and no highways, there really isn't any reason to move all the goods to the coastal city first. Your deliveries will be made overland, or by seagoing vessel, when not by river barge. The seagoing vessels will be prime targets for the enemy. $\endgroup$ – Seeds Feb 16 '17 at 23:36
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It's a lot easier to hide things in a medieval setting than a modern one.

With no reliable instant communication, an entire town could drop off the map and nobody would even realise until travelers stopped arriving from there. You've got a lot of leeway to divert resources with noone the wiser.

The simplest course of action would be to have a dedicated labour force building your ships and bringing supplies, and keep them on the job until it is finished. These men would travel to and from resource sites (farms, mines, forests) and bring the resources back to the construction site. The people at the resource sites would neither know nor care where their supplies were ending up; they'd only care that they got paid.

Your construction site needs to be somewhere remote and uninviting - a windswept moor, for example - to keep curious farmers from wandering nearby. You've probably pulled most people who live around the area into your labour force anyway. Refugees are going to follow the easiest path towards perceived safety - if you provide transportation "for the public good" further downstream, they'll be heading for there, not for your construction yard.

Edited to Add:

I realised that I hadn't made this part explicit (thanks, @Bellerophon), but an important safeguard will be to spread your resource gathering out. Don't raze an entire forest and bring all the lumber to one place, that would be difficult (though again, not impossible) to hide. Instead of cutting five hundred trees in one place, you'd have five hundred woodsmen all over the country cut three trees instead of two. Don't dig out an entire mountain for copper nails, have a dozen mines increase their output by twenty percent. You don't raise suspicion by focusing your attention in any one location.

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    $\begingroup$ In times of war, there will be enemy spies watching activities of your subjects. They will notice large amount of wood being carried to a single site. $\endgroup$ – Cem Kalyoncu Feb 16 '17 at 15:44
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    $\begingroup$ @CemKalyoncu That is indeed my issue. Armies and wizards are fighting in the south and a huge quantity of supplies is being sent West on a hurried and ongoing bases. Enemy spies are going to notice. $\endgroup$ – Overthinks Feb 16 '17 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ How? Unless they're following the carts to know whether they reach their stated destination, the only way they could notice such a diversion of materials would be by collating large amounts of data and finding discrepancies. That's tough to do quietly in a medieval setting. $\endgroup$ – Werrf Feb 16 '17 at 15:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Overthinks It all depends. If all the resources are bought from place A and transported to the building place spies may notice that demand for resources from place A has increased. If however the resources are bought in small amounts, a little wood form place A, a little from place C, a little from place Z, a little gathered on site etc the increased demand in one place is going to be too small to notice. As long as the resources all arrive at different times the amount of carts travelling to the building place won't increase much either so there would be no reason to be suspicious. $\endgroup$ – Bellerophon Feb 16 '17 at 16:41
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    $\begingroup$ I think all the debate over what is easy to spot and what isn't points out a key challenge with hiding a fleet in a story. Your ability to do this is intimately entwined with the spying capabilities of the enemy. Without understanding exactly the kind of spying activities that are going on, it's impossible to say what will go under their radar. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Feb 16 '17 at 17:15
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The enemy will expect that you will be doing war effort kinds of things. It would be weird if you weren't. You need to give them what they expect, such that they do not look for more and underestimate what you are really up to.

Art of War: /18. Hiding order beneath the cloak of disorder is simply a question of subdivision; concealing courage under a show of timidity presupposes a fund of latent energy; masking strength with weakness is to be effected by tactical dispositions.

  1. Thus one who is skillful at keeping the enemy on the move maintains deceitful appearances, according to which the enemy will act. He sacrifices something, that the enemy may snatch at it. /

I should note that a nonscrying area means to me something worth hiding, and so worth sending spies to learn about. Have the nonscrying area cover a heavily guarded, ineffectual, floundering riverside shipbuilding effort. The ships should be conventional ones of the type you use which are familiar to the enemy. Wood and humanitarian supplies move from there inland with groups of refugees to a refugee camp where ships are being built in plain sight as refugee housing and from where they will be moved in large pieces to the river for final assembly.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 for citing art of war. I was going to look some stuff up from there but chose to use other examples instead in particular with Oda Nobunaga's over night fort that was built. $\endgroup$ – ggiaquin16 Feb 16 '17 at 20:12
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@Bellerophon basically nailed it in his convo but I wanted to expand more on what he said. If you are trying to be covert... what you don't want to do is have a parade of 100 trees being carried away. In a war setting, it is obvious that most contruction will be used to build machines of war, but taking 1 or 2 trees from one point, 1 or 2 from another point, it could merely be repairs on housing that has been damaged or the construction of a catapult. By keeping the intake small but random frequent gather times, it is hard to tell what is going on by appearance alone and it wouldn't be anything suspicious enough for a spy to spend time following what could be just a home repair and miss out on something important.

Any large wood needs will be done at night. The setting means that at night time, their light source is fire and the moon. Visibility will be poor. As long as the large wood stock is remote, it will be hard to find at night for anyone who is not aware of it. Carrying it through the forest in the middle of night will also be extremely hard to see especially when remote. Look at Sunomata Castle. This fortress was built overnight RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE ENEMY. Nighttime provides massive coverage that can allow you to do many things in time of war.

EDIT: I believe the Trojan Horse was also constructed overnight right in front of the enemy as well on the outskirts of their city.

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To riff on some of the other answers, you could build a "Fishing" fleet upstream. Netting bunkers could conceal cannons, barrels of powder get labeled "Bait" and "Biscuits" and so on. Then, once out to sea, 20 minutes work with an axe and your warship is ready to go.

In this way, only ship specific details and plans need be kept secret.

Other methods might be to use a diffuse method of assembly to go along with your diffuse resource gathering. Debut a new kind of covered cart that is actually part of the ships prow. Logging shipments include one ships mast among 5 logs. A Canvas sack can hold many square meters worth of sail cloth to be tossed in with sacks of flour.

Think modular construction so that one warship can be built very fast at a final assembly site. That way it may not make sense to someone scrying. They may know something is up, but won't know what it is until you start pounding their coastal cities flat.

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