Round One

Stage 11 - Waiting for War


Alyeska Resort

Girdwood, Area 2

March 25, 2016 a.t.b.


Lelouch stared at the board before him, carefully pondering his next move. His left flank was locked in a deadly stalemate. He could press his attack there and force a trade to explore new opportunities, but that would be a dangerous gamble against his more experienced opponent.

Lelouch turned his attention next to the right. That half of the board was largely open. He could stall for time there, but the centre of the board required attention as well. He could make an advantageous trade there over the next six moves, but he would sacrifice position in return that might cost him the game in the long run.

Hmm… There’s nothing to be learnt in the familiar.

That decided, Lelouch pushed his man forward into danger on the left. It might ultimately result in defeat, but that was fine. There was no shame in losing. Draughts might not be an entirely new game to him – Kallen had once tried to beat him at it when he’d been unversed in its basic strategies – but he freely acknowledged that he had much to learn.

Play continued. Lelouch soon found himself pressed for answers. His minor grasp of the game’s intuition proved to be of little help, but he refused to go without a fight. In the end, he lost, but he nearly managed to reach a draw. Nought but a single enemy king remained on the board.

“Hmph. My mid game needs work to take advantage of king mobility later on.”

“It was a well played game nonetheless, Your Highness. Your best yet. You learn frighteningly quickly.”

Lelouch chuckled. “That may just be the greatest compliment anyone has ever paid me.”

“Oh? I’m glad to hear my practice flattering royalty has not been idle time ill spent. It will serve me well when I retire from the military.”

Another laugh escaped Lelouch. He liked this man, he decided. Baron Schutenkin Gordiengo III had a frankness and affability that belied his stern appearance. Had Marianne been born a few years earlier or him a few years later, it would have earned him a place at Aries Villa at the start of his career.

“Another game?”

Lelouch nodded. While Lord Gordiengo reset the board, Lelouch rose from his comfortable seat by the fireplace to order hot chocolate for both of them in place of the more traditional afternoon tea. He returned shortly, retook his seat, and the next game began.

“Not that I'm complaining,” Lord Gordiengo said, “but what brings you all the way to an Area Two ski resort only to play draughts with an old soldier?”

A frown quickly passed over Lelouch’s face before he banished it for a fond smile as his cover story came to mind. Ultimately, he’d come to wage war with the EU to make a name for himself, but the initial impetus for being here so early had come from a very unlikely source.


Imperial Palace

Pendragon, Britannia

March 19, 2016 a.t.b.


Raised from nothing during the fires of the Age of Revolution, the Imperial Palace was the beating heart of Britannia. A monumental building of unparallelled size and grandeur, it dominated the surrounding landscape as a man-made mountain of supple marble and gilded edges. It roared in defiance. It safeguarded values centuries in the making. Never again would Britannia be uprooted. Never again would such continental ideas as republicanism take root. Britannia stood tall. Britannia stood strong. This was the Imperial Palace, and from it flowed the strength of the nation.

Within these hallowed halls resided tens of thousands of people from common scullery maids to the singularly most powerful figures in the world. The unfamiliar might mistake the palace as a city unto itself if not for the surrounding metropolis that was Pendragon. Couriers rushed to deliver documents between offices, often detouring through Exelica Garden by bike or horseback to save time. The domestic staff quietly and invisibly saw to the upkeep of the palace. When the rarer courtier travelled about, the crowd subconsciously parted to make way without word or notice. Royalty passed with far greater fanfare and deference.

Prince Lelouch vi Britannia made his way through the Imperial Palace at a measured pace deep in thought. The wallpaper bowed in respect, sometimes genuine, usually feigned, but always with unacknowledged whispers in his wake. Those politicians he passed held no interest to him. Their generations long struggle to claw their way to the top baffled him. He understood their motivations well enough to use them, but he would never truly comprehend the pursuit of petty power for its own sake. These ambitious statesmen without ambition were pieces to be collected when necessary and someone else’s problem when not.

Countess Kallen Stadtfeld walked at her prince’s left in full uniform for the occasion as a royal knight. She recognised many faces amongst her peers on their path through the Imperial Palace. Those few friends among them she offered a nod and a soft smile. For the truly heinous who met her gaze, she plastered on a false smile to avoid a scowl. For everyone else, she maintained a polite indifference. She disliked them, but she bore them no true grudge. The baseline Britannian grew up in an environment that made moral judgement hard. Someday their character would be put to the test, but for now, they were only what Britannia had made them.

Sir Jeremiah Gottwald kept guard at his liege’s right. The odds of an attack on Prince Lelouch within the Imperial Palace itself were all but zero, yet such was his duty. He traded a silent greeting with several colleagues as they passed ways, wordless messages exchanged between them. He signalled Lady Stadtfeld without disturbing his liege’s thoughts, and they detoured to the right to avoid an unpleasant encounter with Princess Igraine. He would send his thanks by paying his debt forward some other day. It was no Aries Villa, but those stationed at the Imperial Palace were good people supporting the greater whole.

The trio made their way to their destination deep within the palace. An attendant directed them to a private room. There they were to await His Imperial Majesty’s pleasure.

The emperor had summoned Lelouch.

It was not long, surprisingly enough, before another attendant arrived to fetch the prince alone.

So it's to be a private meeting… Despite racking his mind for answers, Lelouch had few ideas on what the emperor could wish to speak of with him. He'd not done anything of particular note recently, and the emperor had never sought him out for anything since before his mother's death.

“I'll return shortly,” Lelouch said. Both of his knights shot him worried looks but were wise enough not to say a word. Not here.

Kallen placed a hand on Lelouch's arm. “I think I’ll go find Nonette while we wait,” she said. Her eyes added a silent command not to do anything stupid, which he returned with a confident smirk. He would be fine. “She returned from Africa this week. Cornelia mentioned souvenirs.”

And with that, Lelouch soon found himself led deeper within the Imperial Palace than he'd ever been before. As they descended stairway after stairway far underground, the architectural style shifted from the stylised elegance the Imperial Palace was known for to a surprisingly simple and practical modern aesthetic built atop the foundations laid down nearly two centuries ago.

At last, Lelouch’s guide came to a stop outside an unassuming doorway. After opening the door, he bowed and said, “His Majesty will be arriving momentarily. Please await him inside.”

Nodding, Lelouch stepped through the door and paused in surprise at the sight that met him.

Is that a maglev track? Where does that tunnel go?

Sure enough, within a minute a small carriage – for royalty – pulled into the station, for that was what this had to be. Out from it stepped the emperor himself accompanied by a young blonde boy of perhaps ten years. The boy immediately scowled at Lelouch upon seeing him.

Lelouch’s eyes swept over the child, quickly noting the usual tells of the royal family from the lithe build to the piercing violet eyes. Few royals could claim the acquaintance of even a quarter of their family, but all eventually recognised each other on sight.

This half-brother or nephew was someone new, someone hidden.

Lelouch steeled himself and bowed to the emperor as the boy walked past him and out the door without a word. “You summoned me, Your Majesty?”

“Walk with me,” the emperor merely said.

Nodding, Lelouch fell into step beside the emperor. Together, they walked through the empty halls of perhaps the lowest level of the palace to some unspoken destination.

The emperor broke the silence. “Have you heard the legend of Faust?”

What? After a moment spent futilely trying to understand where that question had come from, Lelouch said, “Do you mean the Marlowe version?”

“The early Germanic versions come closest to true history. A man forms a contact with a witch for power in exchange for granting her one wish. When he proves unfit to bear this power, the witch abandons him and condemns him to his fate, a tragedy of his own making through his blindness and arrogance. Pathetic.”

Lelouch still had no idea what he was supposed to take away from that, so he kept quiet and let the emperor continue in his own time.

“Other versions insist that the witch betrayed the man. Some say she intentionally set him up to fall. Some claim she murdered his wife to drive him to despair. The deplorably romantic would suggest the witch possessed unrequited affections. On occasion, the ending is undeservedly happy. Always, however, it is the man’s fault for ignoring the warning signs of his oncoming demise.”

Right…

“I have a task for you, my son.”

Lelouch quirked an eyebrow at the unexpected familial reference yet replied, “I am at your disposal, Father.” Perhaps this was to be considered the allegorical deal with the devil? It seemed unlikely.

“You are to depart at your leisure within the week for Anchorage in Area Two on a skiing trip.”

Knowing that it was a cover story for some darker task, Lelouch said, “That is very out of character for me.”

The emperor snorted. “Sit down with a hot drink, a book, and watch your woman enjoy herself on her birthday with a smile. The ruse never failed with your mother.”

“Uh-huh…” Lelouch could find no other words. That was not the response he’d expected from the emperor, especially so as it implied the man had bothered to learn Kallen’s birthday. And…was that tacit consent to court her? Preemptive consent? How much scrutiny was he under? Why? Since when?

Heedless to Lelouch’s racing thoughts and mounting questions, the emperor continued, “Russia will invade Area Two at the beginning of April without the support or approval of the EU. You are to take command. Repel them. Follow them. Crush them. After you establish a foothold in Siberia and Laertes arrives with our own invasion force, you may do as you wish. I trust you shall make full use of this opportunity.”

With the suggestive tone of those last few words, some of this conversation finally made sense. In the back of his mind, Lelouch made a note to thank Lord Manfredi for having a word with the emperor on his behalf.

“With pleasure,” Lelouch replied.

The emperor grunted in approval. “Your mother told me she would feel privileged to someday serve under your command. Do not make her a liar.”

Through the shock, Lelouch recognised the considerable compliment for what it was. His mother was not prone to exaggeration, and those not actively trying to bury her memory still likened her to the legendary Queen Boudicca herself. He'd not imagined she'd thought so highly of him at so young an age.

Before the words had fully worked through Lelouch, the emperor summoned an attendant from seemingly nowhere to escort him back to the surface. Although surprised at the abrupt dismissal, he made no protest to linger in the emperor’s presence. The man’s very existence was stifling. Lelouch may not actively despise him as Marrybell did, but his company was no more agreeable for it.

As soon as Lelouch returned above ground, reunited with Jeremiah, and was otherwise left alone, he pulled out his phone. Word for word as closely as he could remember, he wrote down everything about his audience with the emperor from his encounter with the blonde boy to his ultimate departure. It was the obvious thing to do after partaking in a mysterious conversation, and mysterious it had been. Not considering that first part – which he remained utterly clueless on – he hadn't felt this way in years. Something he believed was wrong – terribly, distressingly wrong.

The emperor was infamous for his brutal, unfiltered honesty at even the most inappropriate of times. Indeed, nothing the man had said but minutes ago had broken that pattern. Too little had been said for lies, yet too much had been conveyed to fit the usual pattern. He’d even been, Lelouch dared to think, sentimental.

A shudder ran through Lelouch as he fought off the cognitive dissonance. The emperor was the kind of person who would set his own daughter up to die just to start a war. There was nothing fatherly about him.

What makes a man like the emperor deviate from sixteen years of apathy to my existence? Just being useful isn’t enough. I’ve been known to be competent for well over a year now. A strange thought occurred, but Lelouch quickly dismissed it. He wouldn’t wait for me to be an adult to make use of me; he cares nothing for age, only ability. Proof of that was easy to come by; Kallen had received her invitation to the Rounds at fourteen.

Lelouch frowned as he recalled the emperor’s equally unexpected attendance at Kallen’s knighting. There were many parallels between her and his mother. As much as it galled him to admit it, he had the same taste in women as his father. Were it anyone else, he might suspect otherwise, but the emperor would be the absolute last person to live vicariously through him.

No, as amusing as it would be for the emperor to succumb to the usual afflictions and nostalgias of old age, he's not that old yet nor so inclined. Someone or something else is at work here. Lelouch hummed, annoyed. The only person with the influence and motive to make him act almost like a father is Mum, but the dead don't suddenly affect the living.

Perhaps… It felt wrong, but the idea fit. Is he honouring some promise to her? In hindsight, Lelouch did remember Marianne remarking on how ‘cute’ he and Kallen had looked together, and Kallen was about to reach marriageable age. But would he do that? Does her mere memory still have so much power over him? Is that possible?

It really, truly felt wrong, but it was the only explanation Lelouch could think of that fit all the facts. It was far too late for the emperor to even dream of exerting parental influence over him to whatever end. The man had to know that.

And what about that boy? Lelouch tore through his memories of his numerous brothers, sisters, and stepmothers for an elusive match. Who is he? I can't imagine our encounter was anything but engineered, but to what end?

Cursing his lack of information, Lelouch shoved his concerns to the back of his mind for now. He would give the matter more thought later.


Alyeska Resort

Girdwood, Area 2

March 25, 2016 a.t.b.


What brought Lelouch to Area Two? A knowing smirk worked its way across the prince’s face.

“What reason is it ever for men like us?” Lelouch said with a distinct note of levity in his tone. “I’m here either to take over the world or for a woman.”

Lord Gordiengo laughed. “So a woman, you say?”

Lelouch shrugged with a mysterious smirk on his face. “You know of my knight, Countess Stadtfeld?”

“I do. You two caused quite the sensation within the ranks considering your ages.”

That came as no surprise. Outside of Pendragon, few people knew exactly how substantiated the rumours about Lelouch and Kallen actually were. Not yet, that was.

“Had I waited any longer, she might have run off to join the Knights of the Round.” With mock worry, Lelouch added, “If I don’t keep her happy, she just might anyway.”

“Ha! Is she that good or are you that lovestruck?”

Lelouch snorted. “Kallen is a force multiplier.”

“That’s very high praise. I hope to have the opportunity to see her in action for myself someday.”

Lelouch resisted the urge to indulge in his fondness for dramatic irony.

After ruminating on his next move in their game, Lord Gordiengo said, “I take it you're not much for skiing, then?”

“No, I prefer the more cerebral joys in life. You?”

“My knees sadly no longer permit me to indulge outside of a knightmare, but my wife yet enjoys the rush.”

Lelouch laughed at the irony. “For a woman, eh?”

Lord Gordiengo traded smiles with Lelouch. With that out of the way, Lelouch had a perfect opening to ask after what had originally motivated him to sit down and start up a conversation.

“So skis on knightmares?”

“Hmm, yes,” Lord Gordiengo said as he considered his next move in their game. “Winter campaigns are a miserable experience by anyone’s standards, and the snow is even worse on knightmares than on regular infantry.”

“Really? I fear my knowledge of cold-weather warfare barely extends to a thrice underlined ‘don’t’.”

“Healthy advice. The cold saps the strength of even the toughest and most disciplined of men. Mobility is heavily reduced. If the ice isn’t thick enough, rivers become impassable terrain. Vehicles have no traction. The night never ends. Technological staples of the southern climes love to freeze and fail. Even the great thaw in spring almost makes conditions worse. The best advice anyone can give is to stay inside and let the enemy come to you whenever possible.”

“Is that coming from personal experience?”

A sad, affirmative hum escaped Lord Gordiengo. “I’ve lost one or two friends to the cold, and a great many more have suffered frostbite or worse. Let me tell you about the EU’s incursion into Area Four just after your father rose to the throne.”

As Lord Gordiengo began his story, Lelouch relaxed and silently took note of the common errors and pitfalls to avoid. Many he knew of at least in passing. Some he did not. While he doubted the coming invasion of Russia would last into the winter, such assumptions had gotten more than one person killed and lost more than one war. The Russian Winter had proven over and over again throughout history to be almost more dangerous than the Russians themselves. It would serve him ill not to be properly prepared.


Even though he had spent much of his time learning, devising strategies, and otherwise preparing to prosecute a war against Russia, Lelouch freely admitted he was enjoying this miniature holiday. Perhaps not as much as Kallen, for whom maintaining their cover literally meant enjoying herself in whatever way struck her fancy, but then it was her birthday approaching. As far as he was concerned, she could do whatever she wanted.

“I’ll see your knaves and raise you deuces!”

They were playing a team, trick-taking game with a name Lelouch had trouble pronouncing – or so Kallen claimed; he swore he’d repeated it exactly as she’d said it. Regardless, she’d unearthed the game from across the Pacific. It reminded him somewhat of Chinese poker and hearts blended together into a surprisingly intriguing game of strategy.

“Those are my Jacks, you know,” Kallen protested to her partner.

Nonette Enneagram, the Knight of Nine, perhaps the world’s greatest sniper, and one of Cornelia’s closest friends, smirked. “I’m aware.”

Officially, Nonette was here as Cornelia’s proxy to release Kallen’s inheritance in full to her on the twenty-ninth. Unofficially, Nonette was a friend of the family here to celebrate. Secretly, she was here to smooth over Lelouch’s assumption of power over the military when Russia invaded. In truth, she had leapt at any excuse to shirk her responsibilities entirely for two or three weeks.

Lelouch’s partner paused to consider the current state of the game. It was his turn to play or pass. There were considerable advantages to emptying one’s hand first. Nonette was low on cards – six remained, Lelouch thought. Kallen had ‘plenty’, which looked to be around twenty. Whoever took a trick got to lead the next one.

“I’ll play four tens,” Jeremiah said, laying down nearly half of the remaining points available this round.

Lelouch mentally sighed and wished table talk was allowed. The girls, damn them, knew each other’s play styles too well. From what he’d heard, they’d played dozens of iterations of this game together against Cornelia and Euphemia over the years.

“Four kings,” Kallen said, and there they were. Almost all of the remaining point cards sat on the pile.

With a resigned sigh, Lelouch said, “Pass.” And of course–

“Five long straight flush.” That included the last ten.

Three passes came in rapid succession. Nonette took the trick and led the next one.

“A three” – the lowest bloody singleton and weakest hand possible, to add insult to injury – “and I’m out!”

Kallen and Nonette high-fived each other across the table. They traded smug smirks as they were at it.

“Hook,” Kallen began.

“Line,” Nonette continued.

In unison, they finished, “And sinker.”

And with that, those two had taken all of the cards worth points this round, so there was no point playing out the rest of it. Lelouch tossed his hand into the pile of used cards for them to shuffle.

“One more round like that, boys,” Kallen said as she updated the score sheet, “and we win. You better get your act together.”

I need Marrybell. She and I could put these insufferable women in their place with a bit of practice.

Jeremiah frowned across the table. Taking pity on his knight, Lelouch said, “To be fair, it wasn’t a bad gamble. Nonette often bluffs when she’s low on cards but has the lead.”

Before any more could be said, a knock came at the door to their room. It opened shortly after, and their guest came to join them in the sitting room with quiet haste.

“Your Highness,” Shinobu Shinozaki said as she fell to one knee in reverence. “I come bearing troubling news.”

Rising, Lelouch excused himself and left the room with Shinobu for a private word. While Nonette’s first loyalties probably lay with Cornelia – and by extension himself – despite being a member of the Rounds, there was no need to test that.

Once alone, Lelouch said, “Report.”

“Hai. The agent we inserted into Lord Naoto’s group missed his regular check in, and we’ve been unable to contact him. We dispatched another operative to observe the situation and concluded that there should be no reason for delay. We assume that our agent’s identity has been exposed and him taken into custody.

Although he’d expected it, Lelouch still paused when he heard Shinobu’s conclusion. “That shouldn’t be possible.” The Shinozaki were not nearly so unskilled in espionage for an untrained group like Naoto’s to uncover one of them even on a bad day. And even if that had happened, they then had permission to reveal their employer to Naoto. He might be upset, but he would have no reason to take drastic action. He would either call to confirm or release his prisoner. As he had done neither, it followed that he was unaware of the situation.

This is indeed troubling. Someone must have recognised our informant, which implies not only a personal connection to the Shinozaki but a great need to go unrecognised in return. The former are already rare enough after the war. Perhaps it’s someone we believe deceased?

“Do we have permission to investigate more closely?” Shinobu asked.

Lelouch considered the matter. On the one hand, doing so might reveal that he kept watch over Naoto, however benignly. If that happened, it would be harder to continue in the future. But on the other hand, there was someone with an unknown motivation and highly suspect connections near Naoto. No one who knew the Shinozaki should have any reason to hide from them; they thoroughly destroyed both enemies and marks.

I can’t rush to Naoto’s rescue every time he falls in danger or I might as well join the rebellion. Still…

“You may,” Lelouch said, “but don’t use your own people for this if you can avoid it. Whoever is involved obviously knows who you are. Recover your agent if needed.” And possible.

“Thank you, Your Highness,” Shinobu said with a shallow bow. She then withdrew a folder from a hidden pocket on her pants. Even having witnessed the act firsthand, Lelouch found himself wondering where exactly the ninja had kept it. “We also have the report you requested on Russia.”

“Oh? Excellent.” Lelouch had a plan in mind for the coming war that only the mad and the truly inspired could conceive of. Now he could determine how feasible it would actually prove to be.

“If there’s nothing else…”

Leafing through the documents in his hands, Lelouch said, “Pass on my gratitude to your uncle for the good work.”

“Very well, Your Highness. As always, he sends his appreciation for your continued patronage.”

Lelouch snorted and glanced up. “As if I’d ever refuse the services of an entire clan of ninja.”

With that, they parted ways. Lelouch returned to the sitting room, skimming through the documents Shinobu had given him.

“Oi!” Nonette said. “No work at the table.”

Sighing softly, Lelouch set aside his folder. He picked up the hand he’d been dealt and set about sorting it. It could be better, but it could be much, much worse.

“I swear, you’re as bad as Cornelia.”

“You should see him when he’s trying to discreetly catch up on sleep.”

“Kallen,” Lelouch growled in warning. It unfortunately only drew a laugh from her.

“He’s mastered the art of sleeping upright while looking like he’s deep in thought. I have no idea how he does it.”

Unhelpfully, Jeremiah added, “It is a rather remarkable skill.”

“Damn. You must take after Cornelia. She did the same bloody thing at the Royal Military Academy during class. Made everyone jealous.”

Lelouch blinked. “Cornelia? My sister, Cornelia?”

Jeremiah faked a cough. “Her Highness was an exceptional student in all regards.”

“Oh, please. She was an honours student, not a model student. She spent most of her nights running around with Marianne and slept through lessons.”

“What?” Lelouch glanced at Kallen who looked just as confused. This was not some secret shared only amongst women, then.

“Did Cornelia really never tell you either of you about this?” Nonette asked.

Lelouch and Kallen both shook their heads.

“Oh, the stories I could share. She hated Marianne at first, but Marianne was having none of that.” Nonette chuckled to herself but did not elaborate.

“You cannot stop there,” Kallen protested. “I want to hear about Cornelia's delinquency.”

Nonette snorted, snickering, as Jeremiah said, “From what I heard, Empress Marianne recruited Her Highness for extracurricular activities in place of regular training.”

“I prefer how Kallen put it,” Nonette said. “Imagine the look on her face. Brilliant!” After reining in her amusement, she continued, “Tell you what, I'll trade you two. Tell me how you managed to get bloody ninja working for you, and then I'll tell you all about Cornelia's academy days.”

Kallen turned to Lelouch with an unnecessary plea in her eyes; he wanted to hear this just as much as her. With a shrug, he said, “There's not much of a story to tell. Mum earned the Shinozaki's favour, and I promised them a future. There's nothing more to it.”

“Marianne did? How?”

“I asked once and was told it was ‘a private matter that she would not wish spoken of’. I do know it happened when she was…” Lelouch paused, considering his word choice. Marianne's life before Ruben picked her up was not well known.

Nonette, however, had apparently been taken into confidence, as she said, “Living on the streets?” If that surprised Jeremiah, he hid it well.

“Exactly so. I'm afraid I don't know any more than that.”

“Boring,” Nonette complained. Nonetheless, a grin lit up her face right after. “Okay, how would you two like to hear about how Cornelia ended up entirely covered in peanut butter?”

“What?”

“How on Earth did that happen?”

“For the record,” Jeremiah said, “if Her Highness asks, I passionately objected to this story being told.”

“Uh-huh,” Kallen said. She turned back to Nonette. “As you were saying?”

“Well…”


Alyeska Resort

Girdwood, Area 2

March 28, 2016 a.t.b.


“A blizzard,” Kallen muttered. “Of course there's a blizzard today. Why bloody not? It better abate by tomorrow.”

Kallen shed her coat and skis, stored the latter away, and then trudged through the resort with white specks of snow still dotting her hair. She needed a warm shower, or hot cocoa, or a fireplace, or something – anything to shake the chill from her bones.

Up the lift and down the hall, Kallen entered her room. In the sitting room, she noticed Lelouch frowning intently at his laptop. It was the same expression he always showed the world when he was having trouble understanding something. Curious, Kallen postponed her shower to talk to him.

“Welcome back,” Lelouch said distractedly. “You’re early.”

“Blizzard,” Kallen explained. Lelouch gave her a silent nod, and she then asked, “So what's troubling you?”

“A few things.” Lelouch finally glanced up. “You look cold.”

With a shrug, Kallen said, “I'll thaw. So what's up?”

“Hmm… Russia's behaviour is strange. I don't understand its purpose in starting a solo war against us.”

And Lelouch did ever so hate not understanding his opponents. It made them harder to predict and manipulate.

“They could just be trying to force the whole EU into a war,” Kallen offered.

“Perhaps,” Lelouch said doubtfully. “I’ve not heard anything to suggest that, however. The populace is largely unconcerned with Cornelia’s campaign in Africa and only mildly troubled with Britannian imperialism. It would be an unpopular move both at home and abroad. That said, Russia is not historically known to be terribly responsive to its people’s desires even after their revolution.”

“Well, Russia, at least, is gearing up for war, right?”

A frustrated hum was the first answer Lelouch gave. He then added, “It's hard to tell. Assuming the emperor's information was correct, they obviously want it to be a surprise attack. That would limit their immediately available forces, however. Even if they manage to knock us out of the area, we're too close to the homeland for them to hold it.”

“Just putting it out there,” Kallen said, “but have you considered that the emperor might stage an attack to justify a war?”

“I have, and I have a plan for that, but Schneizel was the one unofficially tasked with obtaining Siberia, and that's not his style. He certainly won't hesitate to wage war when it comes, but he prefers to conquer with diplomacy and claim the moral high ground while someone else comes in with the whip to teach the slaves their place.” Lelouch muttered something that Kallen knew to be an insult directed at his brother.

“We’re monsters, Schneizel is a hypocrite, and you've still not beaten him at chess. What else is new?”

Lelouch's eyebrow twitched, but he let the jest pass without comment. “There's your brother's recent activities.”

“Oh?” Kallen tried not to let her worry creep into her voice. She'd let him follow his own path knowing he would get himself into trouble again. “Did Shinobu get back to you on the investigation?”

“Not exactly. The Shinozaki have no idea where their agent is or who was responsible for his disappearance. That's worrying enough on its own.”

Kallen silently agreed, but she at least had the comfort of knowing that Naoto was still free and unharmed. “What's changed, then?”

“All signs point to him preparing to engage in his first proper operation without us, but the target…”

Lelouch hit a few keys and spun his laptop around. The screen showed the top page of a dossier on a crown sponsored medical research facility. Although somewhat vague, its mission statement suggested an interest in regenerative medicine.

Kallen quirked an eyebrow.

“I know,” Lelouch said. “I called Marrybell, and she looked into it for me.” He tabbed over to another file. “This is what she uncovered.”

After skimming through the document, Kallen said, “Chemical weapons? That breaks more treaties than even your old man would dare.”

“Compounded with the fact that the company has turned out an impressive medical discovery in less than a month, and you have to ask yourself one question: for what do you use chemical weapons as your cover story?”

Oh, Naoto, what have you gotten yourself involved in? Kallen sighed. “Who's sponsoring this research? Clovis or someone higher?”

“Only Clovis. The Shinozaki have uncovered a few ties to the local military, but no one else appears to be involved.”

Well, that's something. Clovis will want to keep whatever he's up to in-house. That should keep the OSI from coming down on Naoto.

“Your thoughts?” Lelouch asked.

“Well… Normally I'd be interested enough to suggest we pursue this, but we're busy, I'm biased, and it's Clovis. For all we know, that mind of his might justify hiding a harem of slaves and a gallery of stolen art behind war crimes and a lucky discovery.”

Lelouch snorted, unable to suppress his amusement. “He's not that bad.”

“But it wouldn't surprise you,” Kallen insisted.

“No, it would not. But I am very curious. I'll put Marrybell in contact with the Shinozaki and let her follow up. I'm sure she, too, is intrigued enough to have already started making enquiries.”

“So what do you think Clovis is hiding?”

“I would guess human experimentation,” Lelouch said, “but I don't see where his sudden interest would have come from, and Naoto would only have cause to involve his people in such a high-risk venture so soon if a lot of Japanese were involved. Otherwise, he should just inform Marrybell and let her deal with it.”

A thought clicked into place in Kallen's mind, and she slapped a hand to her forehead. I'm so blind.That's why you took them out drinking together, isn't it?”

“I may have told Marrybell a few half-truths when she asked why. I got them past the initial awkwardness, but the onus is on Naoto and Marrybell to work out the rest. She genuinely cares about the Japanese and can provide legitimate aid in the right situation; if he can internalise that enough to act on it, he'll be easier to work with later on. Should help Marrybell curb that reflex hated, too. That, and keep Naoto out of unnecessary trouble.”

Lelouch sighed and massaged his temples. “Playing father is frustrating. If we adopt another problem child, they're your responsibility.”

“Hai, anata,” Kallen said, snickering.

“I understood that quip. Now unless me trouble wants to have her laugh, I have a few manfreds to share rather than be on me tod.”

Kallen blinked.

“Go take a warm bath if you want. I have a few ideas to bounce off of you after.”

“Right…” Kallen left to gather fresh clothes from her bedroom. A moment after she left, she stopped. Her curiosity compelled her to return. “When did you–”

“Mum lived on the streets for half her life,” Lelouch said. “She only got her dialect fully under control a few years before you arrived. It really didn't help her make friends.”

“Ah. Does Nunnally–”

“No.”

“You don't even know what I was going to ask.”

Lelouch levelled a glare at Kallen.

“Fine, fine. I'm going to soak for a while. I'll be back in an hour or so.”


A sudden blizzard?

Jeremiah pushed aside the memory of the last blizzard he’d witnessed firsthand and turned his gaze away from the resort’s cafe’s window. Gloomy thoughts were not well contemplated on gloomy days. Besides, he had the pleasure of better company than himself.

“Wait, hang on,” Lady Enneagram said. “I remember someone streaking across the rugby field. That was you, wasn’t it?”

“I assure you it was not. That was George… Hmm, his surname escapes me. Regardless, I understand the mistake. He did bear a striking resemblance to myself from a distance.”

“Oh! Then you were the one who flirted with Empress Amelia!”

“Not one of my finer moments,” Jeremiah admitted with a chuckle. “In my defence, the emperor officially had more wives at that point than I had relatives, and I still can't recite my entire family tree. I genuinely didn’t know who she was, and she decided to have her fun with me until Professor Everly cried scandal and dragged me away for punishment.”

Him?” Lady Enneagram said, aghast. “I’m surprised he didn’t cast you out of the academy for impropriety.”

Jeremiah snorted. “He certainly tried. I ended up–” His phone vibrated. “Ah, excuse me one moment.”

Withdrawing his phone from his pocket, Jeremiah frowned when he saw who had sent him a message. Les Maradi was an acquaintance of his stationed in Military District B, one of the more likely points of invasion in Area Two given its excellent accessibility to warships. After reading through the text, he immediately sent one off to his prince.

“We need to go,” Jeremiah said. “Russia is early.