Victoria addressed the crowd, disseminating instructions on evacuation procedures and mobilisation plans. While she spoke, Lily’s party stood to the side, admiring her calm demeanour. Despite the imminent threat of an enemy attack, Victoria was speaking calmly and precisely, keeping the crowd in order and answering questions posed by the townspeople. She had clearly been preparing for such a possibility for quite some time – the confidence with which she spoke belied a deep degree of familiarity with her plans and contingencies.
The three girls continued watching for a while, but as more and more citizens came up to Victoria to ask about the evacuation plans and raised various concerns, it became clear that it was going to be a substantially long time before she would have leave to speak with them. Lily turned to Prei.
“Does Riasode have a war room of some sort?”
Prei nodded as she answered.
“Yes, it does. Just below Victoria’s office. I have a key.”
“Good. We’ll wait there. Tell the guards where we’re going, then lead the way.”
Prei walked up to the nearest guard and tapped him on the shoulder. She gestured to Lily, then to Victoria, while speaking in a low voice, such that the crowd would not hear her. The soldier saluted her smartly, then turned to Lily and saluted her as well. Unsure how to react, Lily smiled and nodded. Prei turned back to Lily and gestured for Lily and Tate to follow her.
The war room was far larger than Victoria’s office, which was reasonably large in its own right. A large, round table stood prominently in the center of the room, which featured a map of the continent laying open across its surface – a larger and more detailed version of the map which Lily had been consulting. There were no chairs around the table itself, though there were several rows of chairs lining the room’s sides. Clearly, seating was not a priority when discussing matters of war. Lily strode up to the table and glanced at the map. A set of measurement tools lay atop it, and there were numerous white triangles scattered about next to these tools. Looking carefully, Lily noted that the place on the map occupied by the white triangles coincided with her own predictions of the approaching army’s current position. Twenty triangles, for an army of two hundred thousand. Ten thousand per triangle?
What struck Lily as interesting, however, was the way in which these triangles were arranged: They were arranged into four neat rows of five triangles each. Assuming that the arrangement of the triangles was meant as an accurate representation of the army’s formation, that meant the approaching army was far more organised and cohesive than any army of such numbers ought to be. Numbers gave one an advantage in battle, yes: Having more soldiers than the opponent meant being able to overwhelm them more easily. It meant that you could afford to sustain more losses. However, numbers also complicated the logistics of war: More soldiers meant more mouths to feed, more injuries to treat, more disputes to resolve. The most significant issue was that of communication: Trying to deliver a message to an army of such size was a highly impractical endeavour. The only way was to disseminate the information along the chain of command, but in such a large army, with so many individuals that held differing priorities, messages were constantly being lost or altered along the chain of command.
Lily had never been in an actual war, but she had thoroughly studied its theory in preparation for the day when she would have to defend her home. She had read countless books on the subject, consulted various case studies. Many of these case studies had visual representations for each stage of their respective campaigns, captured in a war map much like the one that occupied the table. In each of the case studies where excessively large armies like this had been involved, the army was usually massed together in one big cluster. There was an occasional example where a brilliant leader had led an army to move in a somewhat organised manner, but the units were usually staggered more haphazardly. Seeing a representation that was as neat and perfect as what lay on the table felt almost unnatural. Lily could rationalise it as a result of her lack of actual wartime experience, but something about the situation felt wrong to her nonetheless, as if some sort of supernatural power was at work – which, considering that Vessel was the leader of the coalition, was not entirely impossible.
Lily, Tate and Prei pored over the map together, focusing on the terrain around the city, brainstorming defensive countermeasures using a combination of Lily’s ingenuity, Prei’s military knowledge and Tate’s expertise in defensive systems. As they conversed, producing, evaluating and discarding ideas, the door to the war room swung open, revealing a Victoria who wore a serious expression. Lily nodded and gestured for her to come over to the table, whereupon Lily noticed that she was alone.
“Victoria, are there no other commanders in this city?”
Victoria shook her head and answered.
“There are, but I had them focus on distributing the evacuation details and doing a check of supplies in case of a siege. None of them are quite as capable as Prei, anyway.”
Prei struggled to hide a blush at the unexpected praise. Victoria ignored her and continued, her usual amiable atmosphere replaced by the air of a woman who had a problem she was resolved to solve despite lacking the tools to do so.
“I trust Prei’s already told you what’s going on.”
A statement, not a question. Lily nodded as an affirmative, then raised a concern.
“I noticed your map had the enemy army arranged very neatly. I’m hoping this is just an aesthetic decision…”
Victoria furrowed her brow.
“Sadly, no. It is as you suspect. I did this arrangement following reports of the way that the army moved. As far as I can tell, this army is unnaturally well-organised. How they’re doing it, we have no idea – though we suspect that the winged woman who calls herself Vessel is responsible.”
Lily sighed. She had expected as much. She turned her gaze away from the map and instead looked Victoria in the eyes.
“We have a plan that might be able to protect the city.”
“…But it would mean giving up on a rout. There’s just too many of them – there’s no way we can wipe them out. Reduce their numbers, maybe. But we won’t be able to stop their advance if they choose to leave Riasode and head to the capital.”
“What are you proposing?”
Lily turned to Tate, who nodded and stepped forth.
“My specialty is in defensive magic. If I have the right equipment, I should be able to erect a powerful barrier over the city to stop any attempt at intrusion. Of course, I can’t sustain it indefinitely, but I should be able to last at least three days. For it to be powerful enough, it has to be a proper barrier. Nobody goes out, nobody comes in. If I do this, we’ll be walled in for however long I keep it up.”
Victoria blinked, surprised. She had clearly not expected Tate to be able to pull off such a feat. However, she bit her lips as she considered the implications.
“We were prepared for siege, so that won’t be an issue. The problem, as I see it, is as you said, Lily. If Tate is truly able to perform such a task, it will be the best defensive strategy we can employ. However, we won’t be able to stop the enemy from advancing on the capital.”
Lily replied with a piercing gaze.
“Exactly. Attempting to stop them here would be an exercise in futility – we simply lack the manpower. A defensive strategy makes the most sense, but if we do that, the best case scenario would be for them to decide not to attack us, instead bypassing us to head for the capital. But that would mean the capital’s safety would be imperiled. So the question now, Victoria, is this: wherein do your loyalties lie? With the city? Or with your king?”
Victoria narrowed her eyes, anger briefly flashing across them.
“Naturally, my loyalties lie with this city. I may be a demon, but the people of this city elected me to mayor, and chose me to lead them. I would be a disgrace as a knight and noble if I were to forsake my retainers. As far as possible, I would like to keep the Demon King safe. However, if forced to choose between his life and the lives of the many who have placed their trust in me, my answer lies with the people.”
“That’s what I wanted to hear. If you had shown that you valued the king more, I would have immediately withdrawn my support.”
Victoria smiled a little before returning to a serious expression, deep in thought.
“The problem is if the enemy chooses to wait us out. If, as Tate says, she can only keep the barrier up for three days at a time, then after that time period, will we not be vulnerable to attack? Furthermore, if the enemy succeeds in toppling our capital, they will surely turn their sights back on us. We cannot live under siege conditions forever.”
Prei was the one who answered this time.
“You’re right. So we need to disincentivise attacking Riasode. We need to convince the invading army that attempting to take this city is simply not worth their time. Basically, our plan is to launch a pre-emptive attack. We strike fast and hard and try to reduce their numbers. It’s not practical to attempt to rout them there, but we may be able to chip away at their two hundred thousand strong army. It won’t be easy, but we’ll aim to reduce it by at least ten thousand. We hit hard and retreat. When they try to pursue, Tate sets up the barrier. We’ll use the barrier to keep them at bay for a day, then lower it so we can launch another attack, and try to force them to retreat. The time they take to regroup will be time for Tate to rest up so she can stagger her barrier use. We’ll keep doing this, changing duration for which Tate sustains the barrier. Ideally, we’ll chip away at their numbers sufficiently enough for them to decide that they have more to lose than gain by attacking us, and they’ll leave us alone. This will also deter them from attacking us later on if they triumph against the Demon King. If nothing else, it’ll provide us some space for negotiation.”
Victoria stroked her chin as she considered the proposal.
“Yes… I can see it working. But it’s a bit of a stretch. You’re counting on them weighing costs and consequences into their war decisions, and more importantly, you’re counting on us being able to make them retreat! Against such numbers, it’s not going to be easy to consistently force a retreat. Also, Tate mentioned that she requires special equipment. Do you have such equipment? Will you be able to procure it in time? Based on my estimates, we only have about a week before the army arrives knocking on our gates.”
Lily and Tate looked at each other for a moment, before Lily responded.
“We don’t have the equipment yet, since, well… it doesn’t exist yet. But I have an idea of how to make it work, so I can definitely finish the machine within the next two days. So that’s not a problem. As for forcing a retreat, well…”
“No matter their numbers, the enemy is still human. Intimidation factor is all we need to force a retreat. We don’t have to do enough damage to force a retreat, we just need to convince them that we have the ability to do enough damage to force a retreat. And when it comes to intimidation, well, that’s not going to be an issue.”
Lily glanced at Prei, who met her gaze and grinned, a mischievous twinkle gracing her eyes. Prei was the one who completed Lily’s explanation.
“After all, we’re going to be the ones fighting.”