Part 152: Siege of the Fleet
They glared quietly and fearlessly at the eerie fleet of ships across the horizon. Shannon slowly lifted her hands. Kanon also raised his right hand, and a red blade appeared there.
"Stop right there. I forbid you to come any closer."
"...If you do, I'll kill you."
They could see a single dinghy leave the fleet and approach them. They couldn't tell if it was a messenger or the first wave. Shannon and Kanon watched it cautiously...
At the head of that dinghy rowed by goats... stood Erika. Where could she have gotten that from? Maybe she's trying to act the part of the fleet's leader. Erika was glaring at them and smiling aggressively, with what appeared to be a pirate hat on her head.
BGM: Bore Ral
Shannon and Kanon looked at each other. Erika was the one offering this deal. It wasn't likely to be anything agreeable. However, if they turned her away, the attack would probably begin at once. Since they were in a firmly inferior position, they wanted to buy time by any means they could. At Shannon's nod, Kanon erased his sword...
The Golden Land was filled with a hard downpour accompanied by occasional thunder. Erika, who realized that this weather spoke for their emotions, smiled even more boldly. At the center of the Golden Land... was the arbor surrounded by the golden rose garden. A large number of humans and fantasy creatures were there, arguing about something. Even without asking, it was easy to guess the nature of the debate by their anguished expressions. After all, in this life-or-death situation, they didn't have many options they could take...
In the direction Erika was being led, Beato stood waiting, accompanied by the Chiester Sisters Troops. When Erika, followed by her goat guards, saw her, she gave a bow that only appeared graceful. Beato followed suit and gave the sort of graceful bow that was rarely seen from her.
As though hinting that she was more than ready to go through with this farce, Beato introduced herself boldly and requested that Erika do the same.
"We have been dispatched from the Great Witch of Theatergoing, Drama, and Spectating's Noble City of Carefully Selected Books. I am the Witch of Truth, the commander of the Library Fleet, which is committed to bestowing honor and protection to books. My name is Furudo Erika. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance."
"Shall we get down to business?"
"You ought to celebrate. We of the Library Fleet, dedicated to offering honor and protection to books, have come to bring good news to you all. First, I would like to announce that, after careful selection, the City of Books has acknowledged and accepted the game board created by the Endless Witch Beatrice as a great and honorable book."
"Hoh. That is indeed a great honor."
"That game board is a profoundly entertaining and original masterpiece, worthy of close study. It deserves to be released for all of our subjects to read. And so, the City of Books has ordered us to grant eternal honor and protection to this game board."
"This is all quite long and boring. Get to the point."
"We demand that you hand the entirety of this game board over to the honorable City of Books. Doing so will give this board and its pieces the greatest honor and protection imaginable."
"And if we refuse?"
"You will be prosecuted for the crime of monopolizing a great cultural artifact that ought to be shared among all of our subjects. We are here to notify you of the impending assault, one which will be waged by us to protect the benefits that are the rightful property of all subjects, not yours alone."
"Are you not concerned that the shared property of all subjects might be destroyed in this assault of yours?"
"According to the Great Library Protective Regulations, when a criminal guilty of monopolization of a cultural artifact raises that objection as you have now done.. the executive fleet may prioritize arrest over its protective duties, as long as they obtain permission from the Great Court. Of course, we have already obtained the Great Court's written authorization."
"I imagine the word 'arrest' is closely followed by 'dead or alive'. Am I right?"
"My, my. I'm impressed that you can read those tiny letters. Now, enough fooling around. Let's hear your answer."
"What do we have to gain by accepting your conditions?"
"Both of us will be saved a troublesome task. Furthermore, your brave and noble acts will be written down as a glorious final chapter in the City of Books."
"...You do understand, right? You have no chance of winning. This isn't even a fight. It's just you, sitting there at the bottom of a well, and looking up at the stones thrown down at you."
"...So, you claim that my only option is to decide how the library witches write of my final moments. *cackle*cackle*..."
"The rest is up to you. If you treasure this game board, you ought to surrender. The pieces will be treasured by our many subjects for all time, and will be able to continue their roles on into eternity."
"Hmph. In other words, the tragedies I created at will shall continue forevermore."
"How is that any different from what you've been doing so far?"
"...It isn't. Is there anything else? If not, allow me to give you my answer."
She might shout 'here is my answer' dramatically and do something crazy. They say a cornered rat is the most dangerous. Furthermore, Erika had intel telling her that the great Lady Lambdadelta, witch of the Senate, had been spending her time inside the Golden Land, though only as a theatergoer. Erika needed to carry out this noble task that her master had assigned her, and she had to carry it out perfectly. If she was honest, she wanted to make Beato raise a white flag, even by trickery if necessary. So, even though this was a farce, she held back from giving any unneeded provocation.
She gulped and tried to size Beato up. And then, with a pathetic expression on her face, Beato let out a sigh.
"...What do you mean by that?"
"My game had already achieved its purpose when my fight with Battler ended. And yet, for various reasons, the game has repeated several times since then. To be perfectly honest, I am tired of it."
"...To be honest, I certainly didn't expect that answer. So, you want to surrender? Really...?"
"Simply put, I don't care either way. It doesn't matter whether I surrender or whether we're vanquished by you. I simply wish to have the curtain closed on this game board and tale, regardless of who does the deed."
For now, their best option... was to play for time. They would fix Erika's attention to this spot, and during that time, Battler and the others would steal the key from Bernkastel while she was completely off her guard. Once they had the key, they would return to the Golden Land, use that key to let Ange open the door to the future, and see her off. That was their goal. Everything after that... was inside the cat box. Ange would live on into the future, with hope. No one would know whether Beato and the others were alive or dead. That was enough. The only strategy Beato and the others could use to achieve this... was to buy time.
"...If you do surrender, it may be a bit of an anti-climax, but it will save me a lot of trouble."
"But, well, it is not so simple. You see, and this is just between you and me, as you may know, the great Lady Lambdadelta is staying here. She is, you see, pushing us to show her a dramatic climax."
"...That's a pretty cruel whim to force on someone. How are a few wimpy people in what's basically an already-solved puzzle supposed to fight against our fleet, with its hundreds of thousands of troops?"
"Very true, very true... The gap in strength is overwhelming. We told her that it wouldn't even be a fight, but... Well, Lady Lambdadelta didn't listen, and just said she would bring some of her friends to support us, so we should fight with everything we had."
"...Lady Lambdadelta's... friends...?"
Her friends and patrons were either territory lords of great influence that came from all over the place, or else monsters that had become legends in their own lifetimes. In all seriousness, her so-called 'fan club' had enough size and influence that it could have suddenly declared itself a separate country in the sea of Fragments without anyone being overly surprised.
"...This is quite a problem for us, with Lady Lambdadelta all ready for action. Without any regard for us, she keeps calling up friends and acquaintances on the phone from all over the place, telling them to come over..."
...Of course, this was all a lie. Lambdadelta had turned into a small candy comet and was now shooting towards the City of Books, with Battler and Ange in tow. So, to make sure that Lambdadelta's and Battler's absences were not noticed, everyone was crowded around the arbor, pretending to argue furiously with each other...
"I firmly oppose taking a last stand that would lead to our deaths! What could possibly be gained by dying?"
"How can you be such a coward?! It is inconceivable that we should live on in shame as prisoners!"
"There are times when the mere fact of being alive gives one opportunities."
"...Yes, indeed. A short temper makes a bad leader..."
"Battler, if you call yourself a man, now's the time to act like one! The Great Lambdadelta-sama is even willing to help out, right?!"
"I agree! These are the times when a man has to make a tough decision...!"
"...In many cases, the timing of a decision is more valuable than the decision itself."
"I, if we surrender, they might not be violent..."
"You can't be serious!! Weren't you supposed to be a male lion?! Where are your fangs now?!!"
"If death awaits us regardless, I would rather die as a wolf than as a pig."
"Are you stupid?! Are you saying you want to die like a dog?!"
"...It all depends on the strength of the support Lambdadelta-san can provide..."
"Lambdadelta-san. Are your friends really strong enough to win against them...?"
"...It's a bet. Do we surrender and die, or do we lose a bet and die?"
"Interesting. In that case, our chances for survival must be higher if we take that bet."
"...An honorable surrender will surely cause the Great Court to show MERCY."
"They're backed by the Senate, aren't they? Sure, they'll hem and haw, but we'll all see the guillotine in the end."
"A, anyway, let's all calm down...! Cool your heads...! I'm opposed to letting our emotions control us!"
"Why don't you calm down first? We have another possible strategy: mutually assured destruction. We might not be able to win, but if we can convince them that we plan on taking enough of them with us, that might force our opponents to show restraint."
"So, basically, if they're determined to attack, we'll let them know we aren't going down without doing some damage first!!"
"Kihihihihihihihihi!! All of Lambdadelta's friends are incredible...!! She knows lots and lots of witches, beasts, demons and gods, all of which have really, really huge legends and histories! Even if those ships outnumbered the stars in the sky, Lambdadelta's friends would wipe them out in a single blast! Kihihihihi!!"
"...W, will this really work? She hasn't seen through our act yet, has she...?"
"It is working. You must speak more forcefully as well. Do not worry about politeness."
"Enough, you gutless swine!! Do you lack the backbone to finish with a bang?!!"
"H, h, h, hold on...! Don't forget that some of us are opposed to fighting! I think we should surrender!!"
"Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?! Gooooooooooohda, you loser-loving foooooooooooooool!!"
"Ah, ow, ouch, Master, it's j, just an act, gyaaarrrrgghhh!!"
"Well, it looks like the debate has gotten quite heated!!"
"So, will we surrender?! Or will we fight back?! Which will it be?!"
"Personally speaking, I would like to surrender. If my purpose is to come to an end in any event, I would prefer that my game board be preserved the way I made it. I could not bear to have Lady Lambdadelta continue to use it however she pleases."
"...We don't want that either. I came here to fight you, but I'm no match for Lady Lambdadelta's friends."
And, she was relieved that she hadn't pushed too hard earlier on. She wanted to flatter Beato and end this with a bloodless takeover. Even the Great Lady Lambdadelta probably wouldn't seriously think of picking a fight with the Senate. Her motive was probably something much more trivial, a simple desire to watch the game board's final fireworks from a front row seat. However, if she really did have some fireworks of her own prepared, it was at least possible that this could turn into a ruckus that Erika would have no chance of quelling.
...Beato saw all of this going on in Erika's mind. So, she continued to act with an even more pathetic expression on her face. Even among witches, her acting ability was top-notch.
"...I understand. I'd like to end this quietly too, if I can. So, how can we work together?"
"For some time now, we have been arguing over whether we should surrender or resist. I intend to return to them and propose that we surrender and ask Lady Lambdadelta not to do anything that might destroy the game board."
"That would please me very much. So, what should I do?"
"I would like you to guarantee that we have the necessary time to debate the matter. After all, your ships are surrounding and pressuring us at the moment. Everyone is so tense at the thought that we may be attacked at any time that they're falling apart. So, if you guarantee that we will have enough time to discuss this amongst ourselves, everyone will surely be able to keep their composure during that time. Furthermore, I will have enough time to convince Lady Lambdadelta."
"...Very well. About how long do you need?"
"Would you be gracious and avoid giving a specific time limit? If a time limit is imposed, everyone will just fall apart again as the limit nears, possibly leading to an agitated decision..."
"...You have a point there. The most important thing about a fuse is whether it's lit or not. The length of the fuse is a trivial matter."
"In that case, will you give us the time we need?"
"Understood. I guarantee that you will have time to discuss it. However, that time will not be unlimited. I will wait here and listen in on your discussion."
"Well, as far as that goes, it is true that your mere presence here has everyone on edge..."
"I have already made my concessions. Isn't it your turn now?"
They were some distance away from the arbor, but it was just close enough to give a general idea of what was going on. It was far enough that they just might be able to hide the fact that Battler and Lambdadelta were missing, just far enough for them to convincingly act like this was a white-hot argument in gridlock. If it were possible, they would rather have kept Erika at an even greater distance. They had planned to set up a seat of honor for their guest at one of the far corners of the garden maze...
"...Is there some sort of problem?"
"Okay, okay. Don't make such a scary face... In that case, please wait here. This is a, um, confidential conference! So, you must, uh, come no closer than this line...!"
Beato drew a line in the ground with her foot.
"Help them see me in a good light. If it's clear that I have obtained a generous agreement from you, that will be a powerful weapon in my hands in the debate."
"...Could I get a chair?"
"Y, yes, yes, of course! Chiester Troops, bring Lady Erika a chair and umbrella at once...! And a hand towel too! I'll wipe it nice and clean for you...!"
"Milady, have there been any developments in our negotiations...?"
"That's our Beatrice-sama!"
"All we can do is argue fiercely, squabble amongst ourselves, and make it look like things will turn for the worse if negotiations break down."
"Indeed. This is yet another fight to support Battler's group. Get yourselves ready, everyone. Let us argue and insult with all we have. Got it...?!"
"Mmm, mmyes, Master!"
The sight of Gohda, his cheek red and swollen from being pinched, made everyone snort, but they quickly covered their mouths and put fingers to their lips... Then, everyone nodded at each other, and the fake argument resumed. Erika was sitting in the chair that the Chiester Sisters had brought her, filling a goat in on the details of their discussions. The goats would probably return and tell the rest of the fleet. The fleet would tell Bernkastel, and Bernkastel might think of some plan to deal with this situation or give new orders.
The conversation with the goat ended, and it spun around. It would return to the dinghy and report on this to the fleet. It slipped out from a rose bush and passed through the garden maze, heading towards the door that led outside...
Is it really okay to let that goat reach the boats...? If it goes back, Erika's report will reach Bernkastel's ears... The Chiester Sisters spoke through a secret channel that only they could use.
"...It's just about to leave Erika's sphere of awareness. Estimated 10 seconds before it reaches the goat boatman's sphere, so assassination can be carried out successfully."
"Lady Beatrice, permission to assassinate. We can do it. Erika will sense nothing."
"You do not have permission. Do you think an envoy would leave their boat without setting a time limit? The fleet probably has orders to attack if it isn't contacted within a certain period of time. Let that goat go."
The goat passed through the door. Then, after receiving a silent bow from Shannon and Kanon, it got on the dinghy and returned to the fleet. The fleet would probably follow Erika's orders and stand by until an attack order was given. That gave the residents of the Golden Land a chance to assassinate Erika, but of course, that wasn't going to be possible, practically speaking. She was Bernkastel's greatest underling, and a witch who controlled truth. Tricking her was all they could hope for. Anything else would be overconfident...
"...You need have no worries about us."
Without any hint that she had just been talking about assassinations, 00 stood upright with her hands clasped behind her back... Surrender, or resist until the end. The false argument resumed. Just how far and how long would they be able to trick Erika? Yes. The final fight for the Golden Land... had already begun.
"...Battler. You can count on us to handle things here. It's time for you and Ange to take this final game back...!"