Stage 13 - The Oracle
Britannian Army Encampment
Vladivostok Countryside, Russia
April 14, 2016 a.t.b.
For hours, Lelouch had been a hair's breadth away from ordering Vladivostok encircled and razed to the ground. No body had been found with Kallen, and he had never considered himself a man above revenge. Even if thousands of lives were destroyed in the wake of his fury, if she had died, he would pursue her killer with the same inexhaustible determination as his mother’s. But Kallen had survived, and so the city and the assassin somewhere within it would live another day.
By the time Lelouch heard Kallen was awake and made it to her ward, the doctors had long since cleared out and left her to her own devices. A full dozen men were placed to guard the only entrance to her room with specific instructions to ensure the door was physically obstructed and locked at all times unless otherwise authorised. The door itself had an alarm attached inside that blared whenever open which could not be deactivated without being destroyed. The bed itself also had an alarm that would sound without Kallen’s weight on it, and the room had been cleared of any combination of items that could approximate her mass. The precautions had caused more than a few raised eyebrows, but Lelouch was taking no chances until he heard what had happened from her own mouth.
Unless that’s not her lying in there.
After Lelouch passed the initial security check and verified his identity to the guards he’d placed, he drew his pistol. With what had happened in that alleyway, he assigned a nontrivial probability that the person inside Kallen’s room was an impostor. Invisibility was but a step away from illusion from a theoretical perspective. It was mere manipulation of light in either case.
Lelouch opened the door, and the alarm blared as expected. He immediately spotted Kallen lying in bed and lined up his shot as the door closed behind him. The alarm cut off, and he spoke. “I am the spear shaker.” Never had he been more thankful for the silly games that children played.
Kallen’s eyes snapped to attention on him and out of her thoughts. “Watashi wa ten no ikari desu.”
Lelouch lowered his gun with relief and approached the bed. That was Kallen.
“Do you know what happened to the assassin?”
“I killed him.”
“There was no body,” Lelouch countered, “and if he had backup to collect it, why would you be left alive?” It was one thing for a wounded assassin to crawl away like the worm he was after his target escaped and leave Kallen for dead. It was another thing entirely for an accomplice not to take five seconds to finish her off.
“No, I definitely – wait, was I the only one found there?” After Lelouch nodded, Kallen said, “Then that means…” She drifted off back into her thoughts.
“Kallen? Kallen?” When she failed to respond, Lelouch snapped his fingers in her face. That certainly got her attention back. Regrettably, however, she started in surprise and ended up quietly moaning in pain. “Sorry.”
“No worries. Urgh. It still hurts to breath.”
Lelouch bit down the reflexive quip on the tip of his tongue about collapsed lungs. If she laughed, it would hurt. If she scolded him, it would hurt. He liked to believe he had more tact than that.
“I think I know what happened to the body,” Kallen said. “And more besides. We don’t need to be on edge over sorcerers. Or, well, maybe we do, but not that particular one. Oh, but I have – so we wouldn’t–” She broke out of her babbling only to say, “Lelouch, when we get home, I want a statue of me inscribed, ‘Kallen Stadtfeld, Sorceress Supreme’ to commemorate my victory.”
Kallen chuckled only to flinch. “Damn,” she muttered. “This is way worse than last time. Who’s prepared for magic? Bloody unfair, that is. At least ‘get the assassination target away from the assassin’ went according to plan.”
It had, and Lelouch remained unsure how to feel about it. Even if he possessed the martial prowess of Sir Lancelot, the magical scabbard of King Arthur, and the agility of Robin Hood combined, it was the correct choice. There was no good reason to actively give an assassin with the initiative more chances to kill him when he could simply remove himself from the situation instead. But it still left a bad taste in his mouth.
“Help me sit up?”
Despite not knowing if he should, Lelouch obliged the request and stacked several pillows behind Kallen to support her injured back.
“Thanks. Lelouch, would you please find a revolver for me?”
“I need to prove something completely and utterly mad to you.”
Lelouch quirked an eyebrow, but Kallen just crossed her arms and stared back. Sighing, he left the room and spent the next fifteen minutes wandering about until he found someone who had a revolver. He forwent asking why, borrowed it, and returned to Kallen with it. She took it off his hands and unloaded all but one of the bullets from the cylinder.
“Kallen…” Lelouch had a really bad feeling about this, and it only got worse when she spun the cylinder without looking at it.
“Just stand there and watch,” Kallen said. “Trust me.”
“Russian Roulette is a matter of chance, not trust,” Lelouch said as Kallen placed the revolver’s muzzle against the side of her head. He restrained himself from taking the gun from her only because she was too coherent to be high and the doctors had never mentioned her suffering from head trauma.
Kallen was unmoved. “Each chamber has a one in six chance of containing the bullet. The odds of me pulling the trigger until the bullet comes up and then stopping in an unbiased game of chance are still one in six. I’m effectively just guessing the bullet’s offset from the starting position.”
“I’m going to demonstrate a probability zero event. Pick an epsilon, and I’ll get the odds below it. I swear this isn’t a cheap trick.” Kallen pulled the trigger three times one after another. She stopped on the fourth, opened the cylinder, and showed that the bullet had been next in line to fire. “One in six.”
Once more, Kallen spun the cylinder. She pulled the trigger twice this time, and once again the bullet was due to be fired when she stopped. “One in thirty-six.”
Kallen repeated the process. “One in two-sixteen.”
Again. “One in…six to the fourth.”
And again. “One in six to the fifth.”
And yet again. “One in six to the sixth.”
“Six to the twentieth.”
“That’s enough,” Lelouch said. He gently pulled the gun away from Kallen’s hands, his frayed nerves finally breaking. She obviously had some secret to share that worked and worked reliably, but her proving it to him nonetheless frightened him out of his mind. “How are you doing that?”
“You should sit down.” After Lelouch did so, Kallen continued, “Let me tell you what happened. After you left, things got really weird…”
Vladivostok Outskirts, Russia
April 12, 2016 a.t.b.
“I accept your contract!”
The deal was made, the power granted. The world snapped back into place, and the clarity that strange distorted reality granted vanished in a blink. It had been as ephemeral an experience as a dream. Now it was back to pain, and danger, and a racing heart.
But Kallen was not unchanged. She could feel her geass blazing in her eye. It filled her head with the certain knowledge that she was, in fact, going to die. Lelouch would then die with absolute certainty because he had too little time to guess the full extent of his assassin’s power.
Kallen threw her gun.
The pistol was empty, but as a projectile on its own it served its purpose well enough. It sailed through the air and slammed into the assassin’s head, momentarily disorienting him.
And Kallen knew she was going to die, but differently so.
With the time she had bought herself, Kallen unzipped her jacket and withdrew her parrying dagger from underneath.
With her eyes closed, not willing to trust her sight even if it came back to her, Kallen leapt forward and slid across the ground on one of the rubbish bin lids she’d thrown earlier. The first shot fired at her missed entirely, but the second struck her shoulder. That was going to bruise later, but her body armour did its job against bullets.
And still Kallen knew she was going to die, but Lelouch was out of danger now.
Grunting, Kallen pushed what energy she could muster into her legs and hoped physics had her back. She jumped. The next shot fired at her came dangerously close to the edge of her armour near her waist.
But that was fine, because Kallen was at last unsure if she would die, and so she would live.
The assassin grunted as Kallen slammed into him with her full weight. Before they even hit the ground, she brought her right arm up to stab him, but it was a feint. She’d switched her dagger to her left hand. The assassin brought his free hand up to block her right and left himself open for her to bury her dagger in his neck.
The assassin gurgled, a nauseous liquid sound. He managed a half-stifled cough that splattered warm blood across Kallen's face, each drop in stark contrast to the evening's chill. Finally, the assassin fell slack. It was over. She'd escaped the grasp of most certain death.
Kallen's breath came in ragged, painful gasps as though she'd run a marathon. That was not right. Something was still wrong. Another sorcerer, perhaps? Blinking, she found that her vision had returned to her but not as fully as she'd hoped.
Why is everything fuzzy?
Kallen struggled to her feet. Halfway there, she gave it up as a bad job, collapsed, and rolled off the assassin. The moment she hit her back, she screamed.
Right. Gaping wound. Blood loss.
But that was fine, because Kallen was unsure if she would die, and so she would live.
Think I’m…going to…sleep…no…
Britannian Army Encampment
Vladivostok Countryside, Russia
April 14, 2016 a.t.b.
“And I’ve given it some thought since I woke up,” Kallen said, finishing her all but unbelievable story. “There’s some basic instinct rolling around in my head. I know, more or less, what my geass is supposed to do, but the specifics aren’t there. It’s…hard to describe exactly what it does. It’s not as simple as merely letting me know when or if someone will die, but it’s also not so convenient that I know all the details. And I don’t see either you, or me, or Euphie, or whoever dying of old age, so it obviously has a limited view of the future, but how limited isn’t something I want to purposefully test, because when we go past the edge, someone will die. Probably. Maybe we could get creative, but–”
Lelouch held up a hand. “Kallen, stop. Give me a moment. Please. I don’t know if your…geass” – and what an odd choice of name that was; he would have to brush up on his Irish mythology – “makes you naturally accepting of this, but you’ve shattered my worldview. I need a minute or two to incorporate this new aspect of reality.”
“Heh. Fair enough.” After a moment’s pause, Kallen added, “And perhaps a touch concerning. I am feeling a little…bubbly.”
“That would be the drugs.”
“Ah. Well, I would not object to a higher dose.”
Lelouch shook his head and rolled his eyes.
“Perhaps something mundane, then?” Kallen suggested. “I missed the Vladivostok after action report, didn’t I?”
“I looked through your knightmare’s logs and gave yours for you. I’d much prefer you rest than worry about bureaucracy.”
“Well, thanks. Give me the highlights?”
“I… Very well.” Lelouch leaned back in his chair and relaxed, glad to have something to momentarily distract himself with. Beyond the whole ‘magic is real’ thing, Kallen being able to look into the future – however limited – induced a certain level of philosophical distress. Not much, of course, but enough that he would need to take a moment later to stamp it out.
“There’s not much to share,” Lelouch said. “The battle both on land and at sea went more or less as expected. I re-emphasised the necessity of combined arms at sea. The Portmans were so effective because our ships, fighters, and submarines kept Russia’s occupied, leaving them vulnerable. You know how tempted some of us are to rely solely on knightmares.
“I gave some thought to how I would counter the tactics we used and shared. The next naval battle we get involved with, we should expect low powered depth charges that will damage knightmares but not armoured hulls.”
“I was wondering what happened to that one battleship,” Kallen mused. “They tried to get the range just right with a standard charge but self-destructed?”
Lelouch shrugged. “That’s my running theory. I do believe we’ve effectively proven that Portmans are agile enough to avoid depth charges at anything but close range, however.”
“Are they singing our praises?” Kallen asked. Her eyes betrayed her anticipation of something. Or perhaps it was hope?
“Did you expect otherwise? The devicers are especially fond of you.”
Eyes now alight, Kallen asked, “Do I have a new epithet?”
Ah. I see now. A smile crept onto Lelouch’s face as he said, “I’m afraid not, my rose.”
Kallen muttered something inaudible and huffed.
“You’ll get something to stick someday.”
“I don’t need your false sympathy.” Lelouch quietly chuckled as Kallen mumbled, “Should have brought the valkyries. Start a gossip campaign. Use that hero worship for my own good, not theirs.”
For a time, Lelouch let himself relax and listened to Kallen chatter and ramble about nothing. The world and its troubles could wait. A warm feeling suffused him the longer she spoke and the more he allowed himself to accept that she really was alive.
“We really do need to talk more about what happened. I have startling revelations to share.”
Lelouch quirked an eyebrow. “More so than magic?”
“Well…no. Not objectively speaking. But I recognised the woman who gave me my geass.”
“Really?” On some level, that was unsurprising. Something like this did not happen by coincidence, or at least not with any significant probability. Yet if magic had been around them all their lives, then why were they only just now noticing it? More magic? “Who was it?”
Lelouch frowned, and his eyebrows narrowed in thought. That name sounded familiar. But where…
“She was the one who pointed me toward Aries Villa six years ago. Remember? She claimed to have been your midwife. If that’s true – and it would have been the strangest lie if not – then she must have been very close to Marianne.”
“Mum had a geass.” The words rolled off Lelouch’s tongue without prompting or thought. That…explained a lot about her death, actually. No one could figure out how she and her killer had gotten into Aries Villa because no one had considered magic of all things as a possibility. It might also explain the emperor’s inexplicable behaviour in the wake of her assassination.
Wait. Lelouch pulled out his phone and opened the transcript of his last conversation with the emperor. The first part had made absolutely no sense at the time, but not now. His grip tightened until his knuckles turned white.
“Hey! What is it?”
Lelouch turned his attention back to Kallen. “Something the emperor said to me. He knows more about Mum’s death. And his…negligence” – the succinct way to put it – “facilitated it.”
Kallen extended her hand, and Lelouch handed over his phone without a word. A few seconds later, she uttered a scornful, “I see.”
“We need to interrogate this C.C..”
“Agreed. But she did save–”
“–both our lives?” Lelouch snapped. He took a moment to compose himself and calm his temper. Kallen deserved none of it, and he never made good decisions in anger. “I know. The only evidence we have that she was involved with Mum’s death is a cryptic implication from the emperor, her probable acquaintance with Mum, and a lack of other suspects due to our own ignorance. I won’t do anything to earn the wrath of the witch of unknown power. But she must know something.”
After a few seconds passed in silence, Kallen said, “I didn’t get a good look at her this time, but I remember that C.C. had lime green hair and looked about sixteen or seventeen, maybe eighteen, when I last met her. That’s all I can recall with certainty. Oh, and I heard one of her bones crack when she got shot, but I have no idea which one.”
So we’re looking for an injured woman in her mid twenties. Unless she decides to come to us now that we know she exists.
A ghost of a smile overtook Lelouch as an idea struck him. “C.C.’s presence here cannot have been coincidence. Want to bet on how long she’s been following us around” – magically or otherwise – “protecting us from sorcerers?”
Kallen grinned. “Are we really going to keep using ‘magic’ and ‘sorcerer’?”
“It clearly amuses you,” Lelouch said dryly, “so I see no reason not to.”
With an even wider smile, Kallen said, “Alright. Let me think… Since Marianne’s death or after?”
“And I get all the time before then?” Which included the days and hours leading up to that moment. When Kallen nodded, Lelouch said, “It’s a bet. The usual stakes?”
“Of course.” A moment later, Kallen said, “But before you start antagonising C.C. with questions, ask her for your own geass. We need to get you a power upgrade, or else why would I need you?”
Lelouch quirked an eyebrow. “Perhaps my strategic brilliance, generalship, charisma, oratory skills, political savvy, dashing good looks, lineage, or at least friendship?”
“Oh, yes. I need a puppet on my throne. How foolish of me. You’ve made me feel very naive.”
“I’m sure,” Lelouch said, his voice laced with sarcasm. His gaze fell upon the discard revolver from earlier. “How far into the future do you know you can see?”
Kallen sank into thought. Eventually, she said, “Maybe fifteen minutes? I know the assassin would have killed you without my altering the timeline, but I’m unsure how long it would have taken him to catch up to you. I know you’re not as unfit as I like to tease. Why?”
It was a little awkward to point out, but the possibilities were too great to ignore and the longer her foresight the larger the search space she could support. He picked up the revolver and pointed it at Kallen’s head. “I’m thinking of a number between one and a hundred. If you guess wrong, I shoot you.”
Kallen blinked. And then she laughed, only to regret it a second later as her injuries caught up with her. Even so, she still clearly struggled to control herself. She did eventually manage, “Unless you’re thinking of the number one, you have to mean to fire if you want it to work.”
“Forty-two, actually,” Lelouch said. He shrugged and set aside the gun. “But point both made and taken, I believe.”
“Quite so. Quite so.”
Lelouch let Kallen naturally exhaust herself of her giggles. Once she settled down, he said, “We can discuss how to abuse your geass some other time. Is it always active?”
“No, I have to focus on it a little. But I suppose I might be able to train myself to keep it always on.”
“Unless it’s too distracting, do so.” Then because it was Kallen, Lelouch added, “After you recover.”
Kallen stuck her tongue out at Lelouch.
“We’ll have to work out the details of proximity and such as well. As there’s someone dying in the world every second and you’re not overwhelmed with useless information, you must have a filter on whose deaths you’re aware of. Your own and mine are on the list but not the assassin, so the obvious guess would be people you know plus or minus some additional constraints.”
Lelouch shook his head. He was getting carried away. This was a puzzle for later.
“Nevermind. It’s good to know we’re no longer dependent on someone we don't know for protection. I imagine this is not the first assassin C.C. has fought for us.”
Lelouch paused a moment as a thought came to him. He was, in fact, rather embarrassed this had not occurred to him before now. He must still be more perturbed from Kallen’s revelations than he thought. An hour to ruminate in solitude as she’d been permitted would not be amiss. It was terribly likely he was overlooking another important conclusion or two.
So if we believe C.C. is guarding us against geass, then someone with deep influence within– Lelouch searched for the right word. –a cabal must have a grievance strong enough to justify her presence. And if C.C. has been around for years, likely at Mum’s behest, then there’s only one suspect.
“If we capture the next assassin alive,” Lelouch began, “perhaps we can discover who was responsible for Mum’s murder.” Professional assassins tended to be notoriously difficult to interrogate, however, and he could be mistaken in his logic. Still, it remained a lead and perhaps their only one if Marianne had ordered C.C. not to reveal anything before she died. “Is it wrong to say I look forward to more attempts on my life?”
“Yes, you prat,” Kallen said with a roll of her eyes. She sighed. “How out of the fight am I? The doctors never specified.”
“They recommended I let you rest for a fortnight and keep you off duty for the following month.”
“Fantastic,” Kallen groaned. A wary tone entered her voice as she said, “At least this will help our cover?”
“Yes, it does make the ‘French tourists fleeing Britannia’ story more convincing.” When Kallen subtly sighed in relief, Lelouch added, “Don’t worry. You won’t be left behind. Laertes won’t arrive with the rest of our invasion force until next week anyway, so don’t push yourself. We can’t leave before he arrives.”
“I shall hold those words to my bosom and console myself with them as I lie here alone, bored, and useless.”
“Excellent. I’m glad I have such an effect on you” – Lelouch ignored Kallen’s scowl – “because I do need to get back to work now that I know you’re well.”
Kallen sighed in resignation. “I understand. But one last thing before you go. What are we fighting this war over again?”
Kallen already knew the answer and the actual justification was largely irrelevant, but despite the oddness of the question, Lelouch replied, “Something about how we stole Area Two from Russia some hundred years ago.”
“Oh, that old story. What did Area Two even used to be called?”
Lelouch shrugged. “I have no idea what the natives called it. The Russian name was something like Alyask.”
“And so they decided to fight a war for it out of nowhere? Without EU support?”
“Doubtful. The emperor usually likes to instigate such matters.” Possibly with magic. And with that thought in mind, the man no doubt had a geass of his own. How troubling. Lelouch would have to pore over history to have the slightest chance of determining what power it held, although he admittedly held little hope for success in such an endeavour.
Kallen broke Lelouch from his thoughts. “And the war started just before my birthday when we were caught in a fierce blizzard. Then the very first moment the Russians could reasonably be blamed for our deaths without anyone batting an eye, a geass assassin is set upon us.”
“Be careful, Lelouch. Whoever is out to get you or us is very involved in this war. And…maybe keep the secret magical powers just between us? For now, at least?”
“I believe it’s redundant to tell a man you – clearly now unjustly – call paranoid to be careful, but I will. Rest well. We'll be busy again soon enough.”
Britannian Army Encampment
Vladivostok Countryside, Russia
April 17, 2016 a.t.b.
Three days had passed without the slightest hint of a woman matching C.C.’s description. Britannia’s own ranks had not produced her. Vladivostok’s hospitals had treated plenty of gunshot wounds, but she had not been one of their patients. The more suspect ‘surgeons’ in the city had been tracked down and questioned without success. Two or three had been quietly disposed of for being irredeemable filth.
Being completely honest with himself, Lelouch had not expected to find C.C.. Locating someone who wished to remain hidden was hard enough, but she likely had six or more years of practice dodging his eye. And of course who knew what magic she could invoke to aid her. For all he knew, she possessed a geass that specifically let her avoid detection. It was, he conceded, entirely possible that she was standing in front of him laughing at his attempts to find her this very moment.
And so Lelouch had given up actively searching for C.C. as a bad job. If anyone spotted her, then fantastic, but otherwise trying to pursue her would only waste time and resources. As grudgingly as the admission came, he had more important things to be doing at the moment than blindly chasing after leads to his mother’s murderer.
Near the edge of the Britannian encampment, a large makeshift lecture hall had been erected on Lelouch’s order. There the task force he’d assembled while in Japan underwent a crash course in disguise and infiltration. As he refused to get the OSI involved, he’d asked the Shinozaki he’d brought along to teach the classes.
Lelouch glanced at a clock, noting the time, and set out for the lecture hall. He would have much preferred to do this with Kallen as she would be part of the mission, but he had delayed long enough already. He arrived a few minutes before the last class of the day ended and waited just outside the classroom.
“And that’s all we’ll cover for today. Please review and practice tonight. What you learn here could very well save not only your own life but your fellow soldiers’. If you require assistance or supplies, you need only ask. Lastly, His Highness wished to have a word. Please proceed to the parade grounds, and he’ll arrive momentarily.”
Lelouch stood unseen out of the way as approximately two-hundred men and women vacated the hall. At the end of the line came Shinobu. He waved her over.
“Is anyone causing you trouble?” Lelouch asked.
Shinobu bowed as she arrived. “We dismissed the troublemakers as you requested. To the less ill tempered, we asked how they intended to pass unnoticed in Russia if they could not treat us with civility. There have been no problems since.”
“Good. I apologise for providing such loathsome working conditions. Now if you’ll excuse me…”
Lelouch made his way to the parade grounds. There he took stock of the men and women gathered together. Of the two-thousand that he had originally selected, approximately a small sized regiment remained. For the plan he had in mind, that would do just fine. The logistics of it would be the real challenge.
The basics, Lelouch would provide. Aliases with the appropriate paperwork would be easy to obtain. Keeping in contact when dispersed in urban areas would be trivial in the modern age. Funding, well, even if he lacked imperial backing – which he did not – he was rich, and Kallen was obscenely wealthy. He could produce euros and rubles in excess. Provisions would have to be individually managed for a time, but that would be easy enough. They would not often be wandering the countryside.
Engineering would be relatively simple to provide for after the first two or three operations. Lelouch planned for his campaign to be largely self-sustaining. Most of what he lost in equipment he should be able to recoup from Russia. Medical supplies would be the more onerous challenge to obtain, but they should get by well enough for the wounded to safely blend into the swarm of refugees Laertes would surely create on his own campaign.
The one true worry Lelouch had was air power. He would have none. But with that said, Laertes should keep Russia so occupied in Siberia that they would have little to spare. He would be able to dispose of a few wings sent to harass him.
And so the die was cast.
“At ease,” Lelouch said. No small number amongst the audience had snapped to attention upon his arrival.
A moment later after the noise had died down, Lelouch began his speech.
“Gentlemen, Ladies, before we begin, I would like to personally welcome you to Area Seventeen and thank Russia for so kindly offering itself to us. I was shocked when I first heard they wished to fight us unaided. The hubris of it! For the last hundred and fifty years, Britannia has demonstrated its undisputed martial superiority to the world in an endless string of victories. Since the founding of our nation, we have thrived on battle, eagerly hastening to the next war to avoid the monotony of peace. We have spent centuries honing our strength and sharpening our minds. Now we rule the largest, most prosperous empire in the history of the world. And Russia believes it can challenge us?” Lelouch scoffed. “I applaud them for their bravery. Rarely do you see a kitten challenge a lion.”
A few in the audience laughed, but most bore proud smirks. Lelouch waited a few seconds for the crowd to settle.
“We have just experienced the two most overwhelming victories since the invasion of Area Eleven. Be proud of yourselves. By all rights, we should have lost. The Russians had greater numbers by far. They had more arms. They had the initiative. But no! We drove them back. Against staggering odds, we prevailed. When our mettle was tested, we rose to the challenge and exceeded all expectations. When our sons and daughters plead to hear our war stories, we will proudly speak of valour only the Iceni who repelled the Caesars could match.”
Once the cheers had died down, Lelouch continued. “While our brothers and sisters play with the Russians left behind in Area Two, the hard work falls to us. Unfortunately, I must apologise to each and every one of you. It was by chance that I led this counter invasion. Princes Laertes will assume command as soon as he arrives with the remainder of our forces.”
Lelouch inwardly smirked at the soft grumbling filling the air. Laertes had no military reputation to his name whatsoever and would likely lean heavily on his staff to conduct the campaign. The rank and file would loathe him. They did so hate when royalty played soldier. Inevitably, tens of thousands of lives were lost for nothing.
“Fortunately,” Lelouch said, and the crowd quieted instantly, “the emperor, perhaps negligently, informed me that I may do as I wish after my dearly esteemed brother arrives to carry on our good work. As much as I desire to use this permission to send Prince Laertes home, I fear I must instead settle for a smaller prize.
“Russia is an empire. Make no mistake of that. But it is a monarchy in name only. Their emperor dances at the whim of their parliament as a doll moves under the direction of a child, never daring to speak a word of his own mind or step out of line. As if that mockery of our culture were not enough for their revolution some hundred years ago, they had the gall to install another Caesar. Not an emperor, not an empress, not a king or a queen, but another Czar. It is past time we seek redress for this insult. I wish to bring their worst nightmare to life.
“Over two thousand years ago, Hannibal did the unthinkable. He crossed the Alps. And Rome was caught completely by surprise with the bulk of their legions far away. Then with intimate knowledge of Roman politics and their military commanders, Hannibal delivered defeat after defeat unto the larger Roman armies with brilliant strategy and ingenious deception. He traversed the Apennine Peninsula with impunity and turned the natives to his cause. Ultimately, he suffered defeat only because Carthage recalled him to fight Scipio Africanus’s legions in a simpleton's brawl in the desert heat.
“The situation we now find ourselves in is different only in that Prince Laertes cannot possibly bungle so terribly as to put the homeland in jeopardy. Russia is a deeply divided nation. Many of its peoples despise their government more than they do us. Every fire we ignite is one less battalion our brothers and sisters must conquer. Every supply train we intercept, one less wave of ammunition they must evade. Every blow to Russian morale, a powerful weapon we create. We shall be as ghosts haunting and beleaguering the Russian armies. We shall crumble Russia from the inside. We shall extinguish this final legacy of the Roman invaders.”
Lelouch raised his voice to speak above the energy in the air. “And so I ask you this. Will you cross the Urals with me? Will you help me finish this war? Will you help me tear down the last legacy of our most ancient enemy?” A moment, and then, “What say you!”
The question was met with roaring assent.
Jeremiah quietly reflected upon his prince’s speech not far away. He would hate to hear it, no doubt, but His Highness’s gift for public speaking clearly came from his father. Her Majesty’s idea of a motivational speech was more along the lines of ‘kill everyone before they kill you’. But then her plans had tended toward the direct, not smuggling hundreds of soldiers across enemy lines as refugees.
When his prince finished explaining some of the finer details of how this operation was intended to work and the meeting was over, Jeremiah fell into step at His Highness’s right as usual. From the parade grounds, they were off to join Lady Stadtfeld for dinner in her ward.
“How was I, Jeremiah?”
“I believe your audience answered that question for me.” In truth, Jeremiah had found himself enthralled despite having heard the speech delivered several times in practice.
“True. Anything to object to?”
A frown immediately made its way onto Jeremiah’s face. Before he could say anything, however, Prince Lelouch added, “Other than how I’m endangering myself and leaving you behind.”
Jeremiah snorted. The last two battles had briefly allowed him to delude himself into believing his prince would make his duty easier. His Highness had stayed in perfect safety in the command centre as far from harm as possible during them. And he had, technically speaking, in the sense that it was easier to care for a son who had run away.
The good news, however, was that Lady Stadtfeld would be by His Highness’s side at all times outside of battle until they returned. That soothed some of Jeremiah’s worry. He would not lie idle, either. His task was to keep tabs on Prince Laertes and relay the movements of the Britannian army. Easy enough, but a false report could be devastating, so the mission required someone of significant standing and unquestionable loyalty, traits he could proudly claim he possessed.
“There’s only one thing that comes to mind,” Jeremiah finally replied. “I beg of you to stay out of the Balkans.” They were notorious for their instability and for ruining the great powers who fought over them.
Prince Lelouch laughed. “On that you may rest easy,” he said. “No one ever truly wins there. I’ll not be heading that far south.”
That gave Jeremiah pause. “Where else did you intend to go? I can’t think of anywhere else that so despises Russian imperialism.”
“True. I would find ready support in the Balkan states, but it would inevitably drag the remainder of Europe into the war and crush us. Regardless of their own distaste for Russia’s imperialism, Western Europe would quail at the slightest hint of the continent at war with itself once more, especially so with how powerful Britannia has grown since The Great War. Perhaps if Russia had outright annexed the Balkans, a healthy dose of nationalist rhetoric would permit the civil war, but it serves no purpose to dwell upon such speculation. There are other allies to be had for those who only care to look.”
With no small amount of sarcasm, Prince Lelouch added, “We’re only after Siberia, after all. What business is that of European Russians?”
As they passed the mess hall, Jeremiah noticed the oddest sight inside from the corner of his eye. A young woman approximately his prince’s age sat with no less than four pizza boxes beside her, one opened and another carelessly discarded. Honestly, what were they coming to these days when soldiers in a war zone could order delivery?
Perhaps more surprising, however, was that someone had dared to fill the order. That was courage worthy of any true Britannian.
Tokyo Settlement, Area 11
April 17, 2016 a.t.b.
If Marika were to sum up her first impression of Ashford Academy in a single word, it would be opulence. The school grounds sprawled across vast acres nestled deep within one of the most expensive districts in the area. The buildings were ornate and gorgeous, often at the expense of practicality. A true and proper forest grew tall on the grounds, and the equestrian club had vast plains to ride upon. There was even a stream that ran between the younger and elder students’ campuses.
Now a week later, Marika privately theorised that the Ashfords had built a manor for themselves and then, when they had grown too lonely or bored, had decided to open a school.
“Marika! Wait up!”
Said girl paused on her way out of the girls hall. She turned around to see Princess Nunnally skipping toward her through the foyer. She checked her reflexive urge to curtsy at the arrival of royalty. It had been made very clear to her that if she blew the two princesses’ cover over social niceties, there would be consequences.
“Milly is throwing an absolute silence party today. Are you free?”
What on Earth is an absolute silence party? After a moment, Marika realised it must be exactly what it said on the tin. The question she knew she should ask was why anyone would want to host – let alone attend – one. But then this was actually very tame compared to some of the rumours she’d heard concerning the illustrious Milly Ashford’s escapades. “Er, maybe next time. I intended to spend the day familiarising myself with the tunnels below campus.”
When Princess Nunnally pouted, Marika mumbled a short apology. “I know Lily and Erika said they were free.”
“Hmm… Alright. There will be an after party for just us girls tonight if you’re done early. We usually have one every other week or so.”
“I’ll keep it in mind,” Marika said.
With that, they parted ways. The princess skipped off toward the grand staircase, and Marika headed to the closest entrance to the underground tunnels. That was another curious aspect of Ashford Academy. The school was remarkably integrated into the Tokyo Settlement’s infrastructure. It really had no business being so connected. Two imperial princesses did live on the grounds and their security enjoyed the benefits, but that was mere rationalisation.
Ignoring the mystery that was the academy, Marika entered her password to open the elevator and then descended. With map in hand, she set out to explore the underground. After a time, she came upon a curious chamber. Two massive pipes ran along the ceiling above in parallel. At one end between them, a waterfall roared and crashed into the ground. From there, it flowed in a gentle current out through the opposite wall to who knew where.
Marika navigated the narrow pathway floating atop the underground river. Lake? Pond? Whatever it was, she found her way to the centre.
What a singular place. What purpose does this serve? Is this sewer water? It doesn’t smell like it. How strange.
“Who are you?”
Marika jumped with a quiet squeak. Turning to one of the other entrances she’d not taken, she found a regal woman dressed casually at the door with an Eleven at her side. She knew at once who this was.
“Princess Marrybell.” Marika immediately slipped into the curtsy expected of her, but she felt conflicted. This was the princess who had once tried to kill the emperor. Princess Marrybell had been disowned and exiled, yet she’d survived perhaps the most brutal war in modern history. Kallen had called her a friend, and Marika knew that should be good enough for her, but doubts remained. Still, it would not do to be rude. “Corporal Marika Soresi of the Valkyrie Squad. I serve the vi Britannias. I’m currently assigned to Princess Nunnally’s protection.”
“Oh, yes. Kallen mentioned taking an interest in you. I assume you’re exploring?”
Marika nodded. “If I may ask, what brings you here?” Her gaze shifted to the Eleven. Then disapprovingly, she added, “With company.”
A distinct frown appeared on Princess Marrybell’s face. “I see why Kallen placed you with Nunnally and Euphemia.”
What does that mean?
“Regardless,” Princess Marrybell continued, “I’ve been under some stress over the last few weeks. When Milly invited me to her party tonight, I couldn’t refuse.”
Before Marika could reply to that, a new voice joined the conversation. “Marrybell? And Suzaku. Good afternoon.” The man speaking was another Eleven who apparently also knew the princess.
“Oh, it’s you.” Princess Marrybell’s voice was flat with a tinge of annoyance. She crossed her arms, but neither she nor the Eleven with her – Suzaku, if Marika had heard correctly – adopted a defensive stance. “You have a lot of nerve showing up here after the trouble you caused. I was already working on the Code R problem when you came in and sent everything into chaos.”
“Ah… Sorry. I wasn’t aware. I received a request from–”
Princess Marrybell held up a hand and interrupted in what Marika presumed was the Eleven’s native language. Marika heard her name come up, so she assumed this was a conversation they did not want her to overhear.
How suspicious. Marika wished she had a recording device better and less obvious than her phone.
Marrybell held up a hand and said, “Wait, Naoto-san. We have a guest.” She gestured with her head past the doorway. “Marika Soresi. One of your sister’s but not fully inducted.”
“Anyway, you can apologise to me later. What brings you here?”
Naoto paused a moment in thought before answering. “I intended to speak with Nunnally-chan, but perhaps you can help me. I’ve been trying to get in contact with Lelouch-kun.”
“He’s at war,” Marrybell said. “He was in Japan for a few days a couple weeks ago, but he’s otherwise been on local networks only. He did give me an emergency number to contact while he’s in Europe. I don’t believe he’s deep enough to have Russian cell service yet, however.”
Naoto frowned and sank into thought.
“I can pass on a message for you,” Marrybell offered.
“Hmm… Very well. Probably for the best if I have a buffer between me and Lelouch-kun.”
Marrybell quirked an eyebrow. “What did you do?”
“Ah, well, it’s more what I didn’t do,” Naoto mumbled. He pulled a phone from his pocket and tapped the screen a few times. “Nevermind that, though. I obtained some security footage during the Code R raid that you need to see to believe. I’m not sure what to do with it. I have no reason to sit on it, but…”
But you have no reason to give it to Britannia, either. Marrybell sighed to herself. Having a cordial relationship with an enemy was so…complex. Lelouch had made her life far too complicated. “Show it to me. That’s what you’re here for, right?”
Naoto shrugged and handed Marrybell his phone with the video primed to play. The moment she saw the still imagine, her eyes shot open. She recognised that face.
Kōzuki Resistance HQ
Nakano Ghetto, Area 11
March 25, 2016 a.t.b.
Life was full of irony. Perhaps some would call it fate. Naoto referred to it as his birthright catching up to him.
It felt fitting, almost – a twisted comeuppance. He had been glad to dodge responsibility for millions as the Earl of New York and had been eager to leave politics to his sister. Now Naoto ultimately found himself leading an organisation responsible for the same in far more trying circumstances.
Kallen had been somewhat generous with the truth when she said no one cared what numbers did to each other, but Britannian apathy extended surprisingly far. As the ghettos slowly organised one by one under his direction into nearly tolerable and half-safe places to live, Naoto forever expected a Britannian regiment to sweep through and reduce all of their hard work to rubble. Perhaps it was the lack of any overt sign of armament that stayed their hand. They were, for the moment, a mostly peaceful quasi-governmental organisation. It helped that the Battle of Shinjuku had scared off the more casual Britannian troublemakers – for now at least.
But the whispers spread far in advance of their direct influence even without further military action. The stories grew more exaggerated with every retelling. Naoto had once listened to a man in a bar tell him that Kōzuki-sama had come within inches of slaying Princess Marrybell herself in a fist fight. The Black Queen, they said, was a spirit of vengeance risen by the cry of motherless babes to reclaim Japan.
Rather unusually, the stories Britannians told each other came the nearer to actual truth. Not that anyone believed such obvious propaganda meant to undermine the Japanese victory.
That was the greatest irony of it all. Naoto knew he and his organisation were good for the Japanese living in the ghettos. They brought positive change. They were even welcomed to rule. Their power came from a mandate from the masses. And yet they derived and justified their rule not through elections, not through good works, not through any connection to the previous government, not even through the archaic notion of divine right, but from victory, from their perceived strength and ability to win.
Might made right. The most fit ruled. It was such a Britannian notion.
A knock came at the door to Naoto’s office. Ito Yui, his secretary – and how strange it felt to have one – stuck her head in. “Kōzuki-sama, there’s a woman here to see you. She doesn’t have an appointment but said you would know her. She was…ehem…armed.”
Naoto quirked his eyebrows. “With what?”
“What wasn’t she?” Ito mumbled just loud enough to hear. She then answered, “Kunai, smoke bombs, needles, wire, poison, chloroform, and a…” She snapped her fingers, searching for a word. “A rapier. That’s what she called it.”
Sounds like a shinobi. Naoto was only acquainted with one, but he did know who would likely employ another. A rapier, though? That’s more Kallen’s thing. Still. “Send her in.”
A minute later, a wave of nostalgia swept over Naoto. It took him a moment to place the face, but he recognised the woman. Although why she was still wearing a maid cap, he had no idea.
“Kōzuki-sama,” said Shinozaki Sayoko. She bowed low in respect. “I require your assistance.”