The sheer size of the fleet he led meant Kentaro had not expected to achieve a surprise attack, so the failure to stop a Molmolian picket ship before it disappeared against the faint backdrop of Molmol caused him no great concern. Naru was positively pleased that the game had been given away. Neither she nor Kentaro were known for preferring anything other than the direct approach and the thought of meeting the Molmolians in a stand-up fight on the beaches suited her just fine.
"You should save some of your energy for the fight ahead, my dear Queen. Much as I enjoy your company, you really should spend at least the last leg of this journey on your own ship."
Kentaro was already realizing that he had underestimated what it meant to take Naru as a consort. He enjoyed her passion, even if that passion had been nothing more than than her means to an end, but over the days of this sea voyage he was starting to understand a bit of why Keitaro had fled from her. She had hardly set foot on her own flagship since her fleet had joined with his, and even then only when Kentaro had accompanied her there. Had he not been her king he doubted that he could have ever taken a moment's leave from her, and even then it had never been easy. All the while she lavished the comforts of her body upon him, making it ever more difficult for him to refuse her, and much as he had longed for this, she did not seem to pay much heed to the fact that they had a campaign to plan. Despite her strong role in initiating this war, during the en route meetings with the other rulers of Japan, she primarily used her voice to shout down any measure of dissent and pile excessive praise onto Kentaro's leadership, rather than offering any useful input towards the mechanics of this great victory she kept speaking of. The other rulers watched Naru's clinging to Kentaro, which at times bordered on the obscene, with raised eyebrows, and Kentaro himself was beginning to worry that Naru's minimal public inhibitions was costing him credibility in the eyes of his junior kings and queens.
Naru didn't slow her pace at the prow of Kentaro's ship at his words. Ever since Molmol had become visible on the horizon, she had been pacing like a caged lion that was being taunted with fresh meat. For the first time since they had left Japan, her attention was affixed to something other than him.
"As your partner in this war, should I not lead it at your side?" She answered plainly and without looking at him.
"Of course you should. But likewise you should lead from the front of your own army. Your generals are doubtlessly wondering why they have seen less of their queen than mine have."
The sight of their destination seemed to have brought a little focus back to Naru, and she was a little more receptive to reason now than she had been in days past.
"I'll have my boat take you to your flagship, and then why don't you move your fleet up alongside mine. We will hit the beaches together and march over it side by side."
Nevertheless Naru did show visible hesitation, but in the end her small but occasionally redeeming rational side won out.
"Very well," she said, quietly but deliberately. "Do me a favor and have those other ships to your starboard out of my way by the time I get my fleet up here."
Kentaro smirked slightly but withheld a snicker. "As you wish, my dear Queen."
With that, Kentaro made a motion to one of his orderlies, who promptly departed. He returned a short time later with Naru's entourage, and led them all to the stern where Kentaro's personal boat awaited them.
The picket ship had made port early that evening with word of the approaching invasion, so when the fleet became visible to Molmol's mountain top lookouts at first light the next morning, final defensive preparations were already well underway. Amara had decided not to meet the Japanese fleet in a battle on the open sea, as regardless of whether they were successful in driving the Japanese off, such a battle would have been very costly in Molmolian lives, as they held no advantage on the water. Thus Amara had successfully persuaded Marakesh to allow her to hold the fleet back and allow the Japanese to reach the shores. There she held the advantages of terrain and prepared defenses, and once the Japanese were tied up securing their beachhead, the fleet would move around the island and attack the Japanese from their rear while the army on land would launch a renewed assault. Trapped between these two forces, the Japanese would be left in a very poor tactical situation indeed.
Amara was standing over a large table with several of her generals when Kaolla entered the room. The table held a large sculpted likeness of the entire main island of Molmol and the group was finalizing strategies and contingencies, but one of the generals noticed the younger Suu as she slowly moved closer and brought it to Amara's attention. The discussion quickly came to a halt as the two sisters locked eyes.
"Generals, please excuse us for a moment," Amara said after a moment's silence.
The generals nodded and took their leave.
Amara and Kaolla continued to stare at one another in silence for a good 5 minutes before Amara broke the ice ... or perhaps refroze it, depending on how one took it.
"If you have something to say, sister, then say it. I have a lot of work to do and I don't have time for games of silence."
"Please forgive me, Amara," Kaolla said purposefully.
"Forgive you for what?"
"Now who's playing games?"
Amara sighed in annoyance and turned away, making for the doorway through which her generals had just passed. She was about to pass through it herself when Kaolla's unusually forceful hand latched onto her shoulder to stop her.
Barely suppressing the urge to swat her hand away and keep moving, Amara allowed herself to be stopped.
"I really mean it, Kaolla. If you have something worthwhile to say, spit it out or leave me to my business," Amara said, tension thick in her voice.
"I have already said what I had to say, and whether it is worthwhile or not is up to you."
Amara's nerves cooled slightly as she pondered her response, though only slightly. After a moment she spun on her heels to face Kaolla again. The younger woman released her grip on Amara's shoulder and began backing up as Amara advanced on her. After driving Kaolla back against the wall, Amara stopped and spoke.
"It was only a matter of time before King Kentaro's ambition grew too large for his own lands, Kaolla," Amara began softly. "This day was inevitable. Everyone who will die in the days to come, was destined to die by Japanese blade. For this, you are not responsible. However, your actions have brought this upon us before its due time. The fact that I allowed you to bring him here means that I share some of the blame as well. But I reserve the right to resent you for forcing me to choose between your life and the early deaths of our countrymen."
Kaolla listened to Amara's words without reply, and after another moment of silence between them, Amara turned and began walking away.
"Besides," Amara added as she left, "Our brother is the one you should be apologizing to, not me."
"I was expecting you right around this time," came Marakesh's voice from around the corner, even before Kaolla had rounded it into his throne room. Kaolla slowed her pace but did not answer, sighing heavily and then making herself visible.
Marakesh was not sitting on his throne. He had a large statue of the Turtle God that was Molmol's primary deity in the room, and he was knelt down before it in prayer. He said nothing else, and Kaolla slowly walked up beside him. Still without saying another word, she too knelt down before the statue and bowed her head.
"I pray that my country can forgive me for the coming tragedy that I have brought upon it," Kaolla said to the statue after a couple of minutes of silence.
Marakesh didn't break his prayer position, but nevertheless replied immediately.
"Your country loves you, Kaolla. Even if this war really was your fault, they would still be honored to fight for you."
Kaolla suppressed a tear.
"It is my fault, brother. It is. You know it as well as I do. Our countrymen are about to reap the consequences of my selfishness while I sleep in a soft bed with my prize."
Marakesh did break his position at that point. He slowly stood up, then reached down and hooked his hand under Kaolla's arm, pulling her slowly to her feet as well. When their eyes met, he spoke again.
"Do you love him?" He asked simply.
Kaolla was unsuccessful in suppressing her tears this time, and a pair of them ran down her cheeks.
"Yes, brother. I have loved many things and many people in my life, but never the way I love Keitaro. The thought of us being apart was hard enough to comprehend, but the Nagoyan queen is a vicious, horrible person who treated him like the lowliest of slaves. I could not leave him to that kind of life. I could not have lived with that."
To Kaolla's astonishment, Marakesh broke into a smile and continued to stare into her eyes for a few moments before breaking off to begin slowly walking around the side of the statue.
"The nations of men fight one another for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's for land, sometimes for power, sometimes for wealth, sometimes for glory or spite. In your lifetime alone, Molmolians have fought, killed and died for all of these reasons. Never in my life, nor those of our parents, did I ever hear of a war being triggered by love. But if there has to be a war, I can think of no better rallying cry than that."
"But there didn't have to be a war, brother! Had we not just concluded peace with Nagoya? Why does everyone keep ..."
Marakesh cut her off with a wave of his hand.
"Does that look like the fleet of a single kingdom of Japan out there?" He asked, motioning in the direction of the ocean with his head. "All the ships and soldiers of all Japan are not here for the wounded pride of one queen. For all your experience in matters of state, it surprises me if you truly believe that your actions are the real cause of this. All you've done is made something that was going to happen anyway happen a little sooner. And if your love for Keitaro Urashima happens to be what brings this conflict to a head, let the Japanese say they fight for land, for power, for wealth, and for spite. Let Molmol say we fight for love."
Kaolla was too surprised at her brother's reaction to have a ready response to what he had just said. He quickly continued, not leaving her hanging for long.
"By choosing the time for an inevitable conflict, we put ourselves at an advantage. We could never have afforded to keep our military on full alert indefinitely while we waited for King Kentaro's ambition to catch us unprepared. Knowing full well that Kentaro would seize this excuse to attack us, we have been able to prepare our defenses to the fullest extent. You weep because you fear you have brought needless death and destruction to our homeland, when in fact you have granted your sister the opportunity eliminate the greatest threat to Molmol on the most advantageous terms possible."
"Brother ... you make it sound as though the thought of what is to come pleases you. Like you wanted this to happen ..."
Marakesh's face took on a much more serious, though understanding, expression as he made his reply.
"If you are determined to see blood on your hands, there is nothing I can do to stop you," he began solemnly. "I doubt there is anything more I can say to you that Amara has not already said, though I suspect her thoughts are rather more harsh than mine. This affair is unpleasant business, but an unavoidable evil. No Kaolla, the thought of what is to come does not please me in the least. It was my sincerest hope that we might enjoy a decade of peace before this day arrived. But the Turtle God tests his people when and however he chooses. You should be grateful that he saw fit to allow you the love that was to begin his test."
Kaolla found herself without any arguments to offer up. Despite the total lack of hostile energy from her brother, she still felt very uncomfortable. Marakesh was well aware of this, and decided that her apology effort was over.
"You should go now, Kaolla. Your place right now is at Keitaro Urashima's side. Your role in this affair is to love. The things you fear, your sister will attend to. That is her role."
Regarding her brother with an uneasy puzzlement, Kaolla could still offer no dispute to him, and after a few moments, she silently stood up and walked back out of the throne room.
"I give it another 4 hours at most, my Lady," commented Admiral Androshyn, Commander of the Molmolian navy, as he, Amara, and several other officers watched the approaching Japanese fleet from a hilltop watchtower not far from the beach.
"I agree. I trust our fleet is ready to round the island at our signal?"
"It is, my Lady. And our land forces are ready and waiting as well."
Amara nodded and turned to her collection of officers.
"Well done, my friends. Let us all take our positions and await the enemy. Dismissed," she said, to which her officers saluted and then left for their stations.
The hours ticked by slowly as the approaching Japanese fleet grew larger and larger in the eyes of the defenders until the familiar sea horizon was all but blocked out by it. The defensive preparations had been completed well in advance, so there was little for the defenders to do but sit and watch ... and wait.
Haruka had worked her fleet to the rear of the formation, a process made easier by the disruptions caused by the Nagoyan fleet muscling its way to the front. The Hinatan forces had always featured prominently in Kentaro's actions since the first battle that they participated in, but if their absence from the front had been noticed at all, it had drawn no protest from Kentaro. The Tokyo leader was in no position to pick a fight with one of his key allies over something like the order of battle. Still, Haruka's stress factor was going up. She had a pretty good idea of what she was going to do, but there is always a difference between planning something in one's head, and the moment when one must put those plans into action. The attack would begin in well under an hour now, and there was no more time for speculation.
"My Queen! The van has been hit!"
A frantic cry from her lookouts snapped Haruka out of her trance and sent her hurrying up the gangway from her cabin to the main deck.
"What's going on up there, Lieutenant?" Haruka called to the head lookout at the top of the mainmast.
"I'm not sure, my Queen, but several lead ships are burning and sinking! I didn't see it, but it must have been something from Molmol!"
Haruka exchanged a few quick glances with a few of her other officers who had responded to the alarm call, then quickly tied up her hakama bottoms and kimono sleeves and climbed up the mast herself to the lookout platform. She arrived just in time to see half a dozen large, flaming archs lance out from a fortification on the Molmolian beach. Two of the fiery streaks missed and splashed into the ocean, but the other four appeared to pierce right through the ships that the struck, the only immediately obvious sign that they ships had been hit was the immediate spread of flame that radiated out from the impact points. Very quickly though, chunks of the vessels began to break off and rigging began to catch fire, and in less than a minute, crewers and soldiers spilled over the sides from two of the stricken ships as they began to sink.
"Great Kami in heaven ..." Haruka muttered to herself as she watched the spectacle. The lookouts sharing the platform with her turned in her direction at her words, and when she noticed their attentions, she smiled humorlessly at them.
"Signal the fleet to spread out. I want every one of my ships with at least 4 ship lengths between itself and its neighbor on either side, we're going to need the room to maneuver," she shouted down to her deck officers, and then swung herself back around the mast to begin climbing back down. Catching the eyes of her lookouts again, she then spoke to them.
"Good eyes, gentlemen. Keep me posted on whatever other warm welcomes await us," she said, and then quickly slid back down to the deck.
Kentaro had had his first moment of anxiety when he watched the first two ships sink, but a number of minutes later as a second volley of fire launched out from the beach and one of the fireballs was making a beeline for his own ship, he experienced a moment of genuine fear.
"HARD TO PORT! HARD TO PORT!" Kentaro bellowed at his helmsman, though the skilled seaman had already altered course at the first moment enemy fire had traced a path to his vessel. However, the ship immediately behind Kentaro's flagship less than a ship's length to the rear now, which saw itself in the path of the oncoming fire as well, also swung to port at almost the same time. A larger and less maneuverable ship than the flagship, it was unable to turn inside of Kentaro's circle. With all eyes on the incoming fire, no one on the flagship noticed the situation until they were knocked off their feet as the second ship crashed into them.
Amara watched from inside the bunker where the tar-soaked, iron-tipped logs were being launched from as her defenses drew first blood of the war.
"They've got less than 100 meters to go," she commented to an officer. "Signal the archers to prepare to fire."
The officer motioned to a signalman who immediately let fly with a signal arrow.
"It's no good sir. There's no way we're going to get the ships apart. We're sitting ducks like this, we must transfer your flag and abandon ship!" A frantic officer said to Kentaro as he returned from inspecting the damage.
Kentaro knew that the officer was correct, but still hesitated – it would be embarrassing, after all, to lose his flagship before the first Japanese troops set foot on Molmolian soil.
"Sir! The next enemy volley will fire any minute! We must clear the ship now!" The officer repeated.
"All hands, abandon ship!" Kentaro said, heeding his officer's advice without further delay. Indeed, the other ship was already disgorging its human and material cargo at breakneck speed, and the crew of the flagship had already taken it upon themselves to begin rounding up the most important gear.
The haste proved well founded, as less than 2 minutes later, another volley of the fire logs launched out from the beach, 3 of them targeting the immobile and helpless flagship and its unfortunate companion. In the 9 or 10 seconds of flight the remaining soldiers on deck abandoned their equipment and jumped overboard, but the small number still below were in more dire straights. The first projectile flew long and smashed through the stern of the second ship, flame spreading quickly through the vessel. The second shot hit the flagship amidships, only about 4 meters forward from the point where she had been rammed by her comrade. Fire spread there too, but the stress of the impact added to that which had been inflicted by the collision and proved too much for the hull. With the loud snapping of wood and the thump of water rushing into the empty space, the flagship split in half, the stern section being pulled backwards and away by the sinking companion vessel still embedded in that half of the ship while the bow section spun around in the water and remained floated for a few minutes before beginning to fill with water and sink.
Kentaro had of course made off in his personal boat beforehand, and had quickly received an invitation to board Naru's flagship even before the final demise of his own. The bombardment from Molmol's shore batteries continued, joined shortly by archers firing fire arrows. Not inconsiderable damage had been wrought on the Japanese fleet by the time they hit the beach, but in the end, the attackers sailed over the wrecked hulks of their comrades to ground themselves and bring the fight onto dry land.