It took Nyssa a good while to catch her breath after they escaped from the python. After they'd passed the exposed part of the conway and ridden up onto a dirt section, followed by one that was paved with rattly cobblestones, she finally stopped clutching Pomodoro for comfort (Pomodoro, who had no bones, did not object to being squashed) and thought of some more things to wonder about so they wouldn't roll to a halt. She wondered if the snake had been telling the truth about the conway and about less flat things being similar to it. She wondered if that had been the same barbet or a different one. She wondered how far they'd have to go before she found a good place to sleep, as the sun was getting to be low in the sky and she was beginning to be a bit tired after such a long day. She wondered if her map was reasonably close to the real way the Realm of Possibility was laid out. And she wondered what sort of music it was that she heard up ahead.
"It sounds like trumpets," she told Pomodoro.
"Does it? I suppose you're right. It could be a concert," Pomodoro replied.
"I hope there's somewhere nearby that isn't quite so loud. It seems like it might be hard to sleep near all these trumpets," Nyssa yawned. "But if there's a concert, I bet - uh, I mean, I expect, that there'll be a town, or at least a village."
In fact, as they crested the hill they found that there was neither. Instead, there was a battlefield.
Bannered tents - one side's flags were pink with yellow specks, the other side's brown with darker brown irregular quadrilaterals - endcapped the meadow. And in the middle, two armies of tin soldiers uniformed in those same colors - each soldier not more than six inches high - were locked in intense combat. While Nyssa and Pomodoro watched, a small squad of pink soldiers circled around behind the brown army and stabbed some of the brown soldiers with their shiny pink swords. The damaged tin soldiers were carried off the field by their allies while the squad of pinks was driven back to their side of the field.
Nyssa watched this in bewilderment for a few minutes before she noticed a few ordinary people in the tents. In retrospect, she should have expected this, as the tents were of such a size that she would barely need to duck to get into one and were much too big for six-inch tin toys. The ordinary people were patching up damaged soldiers and muttering to each other.
The pink side was no closer than the brown side, but the slope to it was a little less steep. The curiosipede rolled up to those tents - Nyssa crossed her legs up on the bench so any wayward soldiers would have a hard time sticking her in the ankle - and said to the half dozen pink-clad people, "Hello?"
"Hello!" said a startled fellow. He was wearing pink, but it didn't look like a uniform; it didn't match the other five in cut or even in exact shade of pink, but rather it looked like six people had been told to come in pink outfits and thrown some things together to comply. "Hello, I don't recognize you - I'm Chief Petty Officer Rose."
"I'm Nyssa," said Nyssa. "Is this a... game? With the toy soldiers? How do they move on their own like that?"
"Well, they wouldn't be much good if we had to be out there puppetting them along, now, would they?" said Chief Petty Officer Rose. "There are only a few of us and there's so many soldiers, see."
"I suppose," allowed Nyssa.
"It's not a game," he went on. "It's an argument. This is the Field of Study."
"It used to be the Field of Study," corrected one of the other pink-wearing people, a woman in a feathered hat that looked like flamingos had been involved in its creation. "It hasn't been called that in years. Ever since..."
"Since the Princess was banished?" Nyssa guessed.
"Yes, I guess it was about that time," agreed the flamingo-hat lady.
"Well, now it's the Field of Battle!" said Chief Petty Officer Rose. "Now, if you'll excuse us, we have soldiers to work on." He turned to the rest of the officers. "Who've we lost lately?"
"We're down 'for those of you who prefer homemade, you can grow strawberries in your own garden' and 'the natural sweetness of strawberries means you require less added sugar'," reported an officer in a pink hoodie. "And 'chocolate contains caffeine' self-destructed in response to an unexpected sally by the enemy; they've captured the soldier and have it on their side now."
"But there's some good news," piped up an officer in pink boots and pink gloves. "We're seeing excellent performance from 'vitamin C is essential for health' and 'chocolate looks like mud' against our straw dummies, and sir, you should've seen it when 'chocolate is heavily processed' entered the field of battle! And the frozen yogurt squadron has been holding the north-northwest section well, sir."
"And the cannon fodder?" asked Chief Petty Officer Rose.
"'Chocolate killed my family' is holding fast," said an officer in a pink parka. "'Strawberries are more ethically harvested than cocoa beans' is flagging since they introduced 'chocolate is commonly available fair-trade'. However, I think 'strawberry ice cream is immune to freezer burn' can last the long haul, sir!"
"Good, good," said Chief Petty Officer Rose. "We'll have to -"
"Um," said Nyssa. "Is... is this a war about ice cream flavors?"
"Of course it is," said Chief Petty Officer Rose. "Now we'll have to patch up those damaged soldiers - I think they've got a few more sorties in them yet if we slap a new coat of paint on them, and -"
"But why?" Nyssa asked.
"Why, to win, of course," said Chief Petty Officer Rose.
"And," said flamingo-hat, "to have practice so that we can also win if anything else is ever argued on the Field of Study. I mean, Battle."
"Did chocolate actually kill any of your families?" Nyssa asked.
"Shhhhhh!" hissed Chief Petty Officer Rose. "Don't undermine our campaign!"
"Besides, who cares?" asked Pink Parka. "If chocolate did kill my family, you can bet the enemy wouldn't give us an inch on that account anyway!"
"And we wouldn't if they all said they'd been personally attacked by strawberries in their beds," said Chief Petty Officer Rose firmly. "You can't undermine your own arguments like that!"
"Does this even actually matter?" asked Nyssa. "I mean, you can all eat strawberry ice cream, and they can all eat chocolate ice cream, and that doesn't seem like it would do anybody any harm unless you ate enough to get stomachaches."
"Well, sure," said the officer in pink boots and gloves, who was painting a new determined grouchy expression onto a scuffed soldier, "you say that, but actually they're wrong and they've done appalling things - told all sorts of lies -"
"But you're also telling lies," Nyssa said.
"And even if you don't care about ice cream," continued the one in the boots and gloves, "we're honing our skills for the day this is about something even more serious. Something where it's absolutely essential that the right side triumph, that the truth come out -"
"...so that you can tell lies about that too?" Nyssa said. "But what if it's something more important than ice cream and you're actually wrong?"
"You know," said the one in the hoodie, "asking impertinent questions is known to increase your risk of insomnia." He turned a key in the back of a soldier, which came to life and turned its head to look at Nyssa.
"Wasting officers' time is tantamount to treason," said the one with the flamingo hat, adjusting the tiny uniform on another strawberry soldier and pointing it toward the curiosipede.
"Annoying little girls killed my family," said the one in the pink parka, with no trace of irony, lower lip trembling. She set a soldier down on the grass and it raised its arm to the other two. All three began to march.
Nyssa's curiosipede scooted backwards, turned straight around, and skirted the Field of Battle. She had intended to go all the way back to the road, but she couldn't help wondering if the chocolate side was just the same, and the curiosipede veered in that direction - just close enough that someone could reach out and stick a tentpole through the spokes of the wheel. The curiosipede shuddered to a halt.
"Hey!" cried Nyssa.
"You there!" said a man in a brown duster. "You've been conspiring with the enemy!"
"I don't even like strawberry ice cream!" cried Nyssa. "I like butter pecan! And dulce de leche!"
"That's what you say, but I saw you talking to them! I'll let you go if you give me some good intel," threatened the chocolate officer. "And you'd better tell me straight. Nobody lies to Chief Petty Officer Broma."
"Yes they do," said Nyssa, trying to extract the stick, winding up the curiosipede as far as she could trying to figure out how such a stupid argument could possibly have started and whether the strawberry soldiers would keep following her even when she reached the road. "They lie all the time, half their soldiers are lies."
"Ha! I knew it!" said Chief Petty Officer Broma. "And now I've got a reputable source! That'll make for a heck of a fighter, oh yes," he muttered, retrieving his tentpole and freeing the wheel. Nyssa could barely hear him as she zoomed away, shouting to his officers, "Boys and girls, have I got a doozy for you -!"
"What a waste of time," said Pomodoro, once they were back on the road. "I don't believe that they were even having any fun."
"Or learning to do anything useful," agreed Nyssa.
And they sped on eastward in the dimming sunset.