Round One

Stage 14 - One Small Favour


Kōzuki Resistance HQ

Nakano Ghetto, Area 11

March 25, 2016 a.t.b.


“Kōzuki-sama,” said Shinozaki Sayoko. She bowed low in respect. “I require your assistance.”

For a moment, Naoto stared at the very much not dead woman standing before him. He blinked and shook his head slightly, but she was still there. A ghost of the past, she might be, but not a trick of the light. Hopefully, she had not come here to haunt him.

“Well…I’ll see what I can do,” Naoto said at a loss for any other words. He gestured with a hand and offered, “Please be seated?” That should not have come off as a question, but it had. He cleared his throat. “Are you aware that Lelouch-kun has been looking for you for years now?”

“I assumed so, yes.”

Since no elaboration proved forthcoming, Naoto asked, “Why have you been avoiding him, then?”

“I’m not at liberty to say. I apologise if my presence here has put you in an awkward position.”

Naoto quietly sighed. This had the potential to spiral into something that went beyond mere awkwardness. “I suppose I should ask the obvious question. Are you still an imperial agent?”

“I am.” The admission came without hesitation or concern. “I also have no interest nor obligation to report your activities.

Right…

No one would ever believe this.

Let’s examine just how wrong this situation is. Shinozaki-san is a Britannian spy. She somehow waltzed into the heart of our pseudo government uncontested. She’s here to ask for the rebellion’s aid. She’s not going to inform the authorities. She’s not simply turning to the OSI or Lelouch-kun for assistance. Oh, and to top it all off, of course, I’m the vastly underqualified, renounced aristocratic leader of the Japanese rebellion operating with the tacit consent of perhaps the single most dangerous prince.

Naoto breathed deeply.

Okay.

Absurdity had the delightful property of being easier to ignore the more intensely it expressed itself. Now there was only one thing to do. There was but one solitary rational course of action any sane man could pursue.

“Would you care for some tea?” Naoto offered. Though they be beset by war, by poverty, by sickness, and by atrocity, though they be divided by race, by belief, by circumstance, and by loyalty, all would not be lost while the basic courtesies, honour, and tea endured.

Shinozaki smiled and nodded. She might very well have chuckled, even. “That would be most appreciated, Kōzuki-sama.”

“Japanese or Britannian?” A silent cheer rose in Naoto’s mind when Shinozaki asked for the latter. It had been far too long since he’d last shared a good cuppa with company. He briefly excused himself to see to its preparation. All the gods, both new and old, knew no one here but he could brew a proper cup of Britannian tea. He’d sooner die than show such poor hospitality in providing anything less, much less settle for it himself.

Sometime later, Naoto returned with all the necessities. He handed Shinozaki her cup and saucer, placed the milk and sugar on his desk between them, and then finally retook his seat. A lifetime of discarded traditions passed in those few silent moments as they each prepared their tea as they wished and exchanged polite conversation.

A smile crossed his face as Naoto remembered Kallen once balancing a still steaming teacup atop her head at their home in Hinode. For the life of him, he could not recall what had possessed her to do so. Regardless, it had not ended well.

“What is it?” Shinozaki asked, and Naoto shared his story. She very clearly hid a smile behind her cup and then went on to tell a story of her own involving tea, rope, one more dress than was appropriate, and a very angry prince.

“How did you acquire the addiction?” Naoto asked, gesturing to the teapot with his head. Britannian tea had never been popular in Japan. The only person here he personally knew who shared even half his love was Sugiyama, and despite appearances, he, too, was half Britannian, although with a far less pleasant childhood.

“Milly-sama often insisted I join her when partaking. She is hard to deny, and the habit grew on me.”

“‘Hard to deny’?” Naoto said, chuckling. “My sister would use stronger words, I believe.”

“Imposing?” Shinozaki suggested with a small grin.

“Domineering, perhaps?”

“Energetic.”

“Tyrannous.”

Shinozaki’s veneer of detachment finally cracked at that. She laughed, and Naoto joined her. Oh, how he had missed this particular vein of conversation.

But it was not to last. As they laughed, Naoto met Shinozaki’s eye, and the moment passed. Nostalgia had had its time, albeit far too shortly. Present affairs now reigned, and so Naoto set down his cup and spoke.

“Before we discuss why you’ve come, am I correct in assuming that if I call Lelouch-kun, you will leave?”

“That would put me in a difficult position, Kōzuki-sama. I think it would be best for everyone if you did not place such a call.”

A shiver ran down Naoto’s spine. Despite the pleasant smile and easy tone, he recognised the threat for what it was. The stakes were unknown – very likely low, in fact – but he knew better than to call a shinobi’s bluff. He sipped from his teacup.

“May I at least ask a few questions on Lelouch-kun’s behalf?”

Shinozaki considered that for a moment. She then said, “So long as you understand I may choose not to answer.”

That was probably the best Naoto was going to get, so he accepted the terms as they were. “What can you tell me about Empress Marianne’s death?”

“Nothing that Lelouch-sama could not.”

Naoto blew out a short puff of air, and Shinozaki offered an apologetic smile.

“Can you at least tell me if you witnessed it?”

“Hmm… Very well. I did not.

That…sounds like a half-truth. “Were you ever at the scene at the time of the crime?”

“I cannot answer that.”

“Do you know why Her Majesty was at Aries Palace?”

“I cannot answer that.”

Naoto sighed in exasperation. “Who killed her?”

“I cannot answer that.”

Naoto buried his face in a hand and massaged his temples. He wilfully ignored the amused smile he caught between his fingers on Shinozaki’s face as she sipped her tea.

“I'm sorry I cannot be more helpful, Kōzuki-sama, especially when I have come to beg succour. I can offer you this, at least. It is Empress Marianne’s orders that bind my tongue.”

Interesting, I suppose, but not very informative. It doesn’t surprise me that Her Majesty left contingency plans for her death. Maybe Lelouch-kun will be able to make more of it.

“Thank you anyway,” Naoto said while making no secret of his disappointment. He made a mental note to call Lelouch after whatever business Shinozaki had with him was finished. “Perhaps you should explain what brought you here. You said you needed my help?”

All levity fled Shinozaki’s face as she adopted a solemn expression. “Indeed I do. A very delicate and volatile situation has developed. The sort whose consequences might ripple out across the entire globe should it not be resolved carefully.”

Naoto hesitated. In theory, the liberation of Japan would have such an effect itself if he ever got that far, but here and now he was yet untested and ill-prepared for such weighty matters. “How significant do you mean?”

In perfect severity, Shinozaki replied, “Potentially on the scale of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.”

Well, fuck. That was not something Naoto could ignore. “Before you reveal what I’m sure is classified information, are you sure you need my help?”

Shinozaki nodded. “I have been unable to resolve the situation myself, and asking the emperor for direct assistance would present…difficulties. He is, however, aware of the situation and has tasked me with resolving it by any means necessary.”

“Don’t you come from a clan of shinobi?” Naoto pressed. “Why not go to them?

After several long silent seconds had passed, to Naoto’s surprise, Shinozaki actually answered the question. “One of Her Majesty’s more persistent enemies might notice if I did and discover my purpose in doing so. Suffice it to say, for the moment, that this would be very bad.”

Considering the scale of ‘bad’ they were operating on, Naoto took that at face value. “Very well. Brief me, and then we’ll go from there.”

“Thank you.”

Naoto blinked as Shinozaki pulled a thick file from nowhere and placed it on his desk. He caught the slightest hint of a smirk pass over her face. Perhaps, he wondered, shinobi did this sort of thing just for their own amusement.

But with that behind them, Shinozaki opened the file, withdrew a photo of a green haired girl about Kallen's age, and passed it to Naoto. She then said, “Recently, Prince Clovis captured a friend of Her Majesty’s. She goes by C.C. when not undercover.”

Naoto searched his memory of what little he knew of Empress Marianne’s court and came up with nothing pertaining to the woman in the picture. But then that was not surprising given that Shinozaki had implied C.C. often went in disguise. He then asked, “Who is she exactly that you’re comparing her to the archduke? She’s not secretly the crown princess, is she?”

“Not exactly. She’s of great personal significance to the emperor and Her Majesty–”

Oh, fantastic.

“–but she’s not a member of the imperial family.” As an afterthought, Shinozaki added, “Nor a mistress of either, I believe.” She focused inwardly for a moment before continuing. “Regardless, the issue is not with her imprisonment so much as what has been done to her and by who.”

Considering which prince had her, Naoto guessed, “Raped?”

“No.”

“She’s been tortured?” Naoto asked in surprise. His gaze fell back onto the picture. Britannia had a strange, flirtatious history with civil rights that tended to embarrass the EU, but C.C. fit the right profile to have her civil rights taken for granted, namely she looked Britannian enough. What pretext could Prince Clovis have possibly used to justify torture?

And then the two little words Shinozaki uttered, “Far worse,” caught up with Naoto, and that made this whole mess a great deal more damning.

“Who is involved?” Naoto dreaded the answer.

“Although to differing extents, much of the highest level of authority in the prince’s administration including both General Asprius and the Duke of Tokyo, Lord Calares.”

Bollocks! That can’t be hidden, and that big of a power bloc won’t go quietly.

Worse, if Prince Clovis and his inner circle were removed, his successor would be, if not openly antagonistic, then at minimum no friend to the corrupt local administration. That could and probably would result in the ruin of them all. It would be all too easy to convince them to secede from the empire, especially with the leaders of the local military already involved. Japan possessed the natural resources and wealth necessary to be a strong, independent nation. If the prince discovered his offence was known, he would surely split from the empire to escape the emperor’s wrath, and that would never do. War would be inevitable.

But a far more terrible consequence loomed. The ensuing civil war would be no Second Pacific War. With knightmares on both sides, the rest of the world would have time to mobilise. The Chinese Federation would join the fray next with the exiled Sawasaki at the head of a ‘liberation’ army. And then when the EU finally managed to mobilise through Russia, it would never consent to be left out of the battle for the majority of the world’s sakuradite. All three superpowers would clash in a war that would quickly embroil the entire world. Japan would be lucky to make it out the other end as anything more than a smoking crater.

Naoto breathed deep in an attempt to regain his calm and professionalism, yet it was still a terrified man with the fate of not just Japan in his hands who said, “Thank you for answering my questions. I now understand the severity of the situation, but I want to be fully on the same page.” He could guess, but he had to know for sure. “Why did you come to me in particular?”

“Three reasons. First, you are less threatening to Prince Clovis than, say, the JLF. He will be less liable to make untoward decisions chasing some no-name terrorist who got lucky.”

Cold, brutal, and yet not logic Naoto could fault.

“Rest assured that he and everyone involved will not escape this unscathed. You must understand, however, that some time will be required for the emperor’s displeasure or justice, whichever you prefer to name it, to reach them.”

Naoto nodded.

“Second, we know each other, and I know you to be a man of honour and learning, so you would be more likely than anyone else who can help to actually consider doing so. I also won’t have to lie to you.”

Just not answer all of my questions, Naoto wryly commented to himself.

“Lastly, although you do not yet know it, you have a personal stake in this matter.”

Now that came as a surprise. “How so?”

“C.C.-sama offers a unique form of protection for Lelouch-sama and Kallen-sama from the enemy of Her Majesty’s I mentioned earlier.”

Naoto’s eyes narrowed. “Who?”

“I cannot answer that.”

“Kallen is my sister!” Naoto protested.

“My apologies, Kōzuki-sama, but I cannot tell you. Even if I did, you are in no position to do anything for her that she could not do herself. I may, however, point out that the longer we delay action, the more likely your sister's state of vulnerability is to be noticed.” Shinozaki gestured to the open file on the desk between them. “If you wish to help her, your path is clear.”

Naoto glared at Shinozaki, but she sat impassive and unaffected. In hindsight, he would later admit he had no idea how he had expected that to work against a shinobi.

“Fine,” Naoto conceded with a huff. “So we need to rescue the girl, ensure the architects don’t feel threatened by the emperor, and then go to ground for a few months until a series of ‘accidents’ occur. Does that sum up the situation?”

“In broad strokes, yes.”

“Alright. Let me gather my chief staff. We can discuss the details with them. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll have Ito-san show you to the lounge, such as it is.”

A few minutes later, Naoto knocked on the door to Kaname’s office. He’d taken the intervening time to reflect and consider how exactly to broach the news, but he had no idea how to blunt the impact. Straight and direct it would be.

“Come in.” The very instant Naoto stepped inside, Kaname said, “You’ve got that look on your face. What is it this time? Did Prince Schneizel stop by for tea?”

Naoto tried to laugh at the joke to little effect. It struck too close to truth. “Not exactly,” he said. “Are you ready to do your duty for king and country?”

A groan accompanied the sound of Kaname slapping a hand to his forehead. “You do realise you’re the only Britannian citizen here, right?”

That was not true. There were probably a one or two honourary Britannian spies around giving their reports. Shinozaki almost certainly had proper citizenship as well and not the half status Britannia so graciously bestowed upon unnaturalised colonials. Naoto opened his mouth, but Kaname spoke first.

“I don’t want to hear your quibbles. Just tell me what’s going on.”

“We have a big problem.” Naoto summarised the relevant parts of his conversation with Shinozaki.

“Why couldn't it have just been Prince Schneizel and tea?” Kaname muttered.

Naoto forewent mentioning that there had, in fact, been tea.

“So I get that a big war centred on Japan is bad and that Prince Clovis is in a bad spot, but explain to me why the entire Area Eleven government would rebel.”

“Because if they don’t, they’ll be in nearly as much trouble with the next viceroy. I admit it’s not a sure thing. Loyalty to the crown might win out. But it’s not a gamble worth taking. Humans are well known to take extreme measures to avoid ruin, and corruption is already rampant here without desperate need spurring it on.”

“Here?” Kaname quirked his eyebrows. “Why does that matter? Britannia is corrupt everywhere.”

“It's not,” Naoto said, but that came across wrong, and Kaname rightly gave him an odd look. “Let me rephrase that. Ethically, no question. But politically, especially in the homeland, what they call corruption is remarkably absent. Britannians take their honour and public service very seriously.

“Here, though, it's a mess. I’ll not get into why. It’s mostly to do with our early surrender with half our strength and resources intact.

“Anyway, Lelouch-kun and I talked politics when he was last here. He’s convinced the local administration will self-destruct without intervention in a few years. According to him, the viceroy is either a lucky fool or a covert genius for being able to cope with the corruption. But Prince Clovis is a temperate man willing to play by the unwritten rules. If he goes, who do you think his successor would be?”

Kaname gave the question some thought. “Well, she's not exactly in favour at court, if I recall correctly, but there would be no one better qualified than Princess Marrybell.”

“Exactly.” Or if not Marrybell then another equally dangerous royal. “She’s the principle voice pushing the viceroy to stabilise the area and end the corruption. Everyone knows it, and she’s…motivated.” There were less kind but perhaps more precise words available. Naoto had only met her the once, but there was a dangerous hatred bottled up inside. He should know; he saw it everyday in the ghettos. “There would be no clemency on her crusade.”

“Hmm. Fair enough. What guarantee do we have that we won’t be taken out immediately after rescuing the girl?”

“The entire point of our involvement is to take the fall, not get caught, and keep Prince Clovis and his friends busy hunting us. Being dead or crippled doesn’t serve the latter two.”

“So we won’t have to worry until after they’re gone,” Kaname mused. “Well, I can’t say I’m eager to do the emperor’s dirty work for him, but if you think this is the right path, then so be it.”

Naoto gave a thankful smile. He was sure he could convince everyone to follow his lead as usual, but it always helped to have his second in command already on his side. This mission was going to be a hard enough sell without the extra resistance.


“And that’s the situation we find ourselves in,” Naoto concluded. He carefully observed the reactions of his chief staff.

Kaname was on board, of course. Inoue, head of engineering, looked sceptical but prepared. Minami, head of intelligence, had glanced around the table and had since adopted a resigned expression. Sugiyama, commander of the special forces, nevermind that they were also the only forces, clearly wanted to bang his head against a wall.

Lastly, there was Yoshida Tōru, head of logistics. He was a relatively new addition now that they had enough logistics to manage to justify a position solely dedicated to the task. He looked at Naoto as though an alien had descended from the sky. And had Inoue’s eyes just flicked to him with a mischievous twinkle?

Bollocks.

Naoto knew he would regret it long before he opened his mouth, yet he still said, “I open the floor to discussion.”

“My Lord Stadtfeld,” Inoue began, “should we call in the prince and the countess or the princess to aid in the fulfilment of this patriotic duty for the homeland? Our interests seem very aligned. They wouldn’t want Britannia to lose control of its colony.”

Naoto heaved a sigh. These jests were kept in private, so no harm done, and with no malice intended, they hardly bothered him, but he had to wonder when they would finally end. He’d once been so optimistic.

“Inoue-san, that is grossly inappropriate.” Naoto’s thankful smile turned to a scowl as Kaname’s betrayal become clear. “The countess is Lady Stadtfeld and most definitely not married to her own brother. Address Lord Naoto properly.”

“Oh! My apologies, Lord Naoto. I didn’t mean to imply anything so perverse. Please forgive me, My Lord.”

It was at that point that those two broke down into giggles. Even the ever serious Minami had a small smile. Sugiyama then, of course, decided to add his own cheek.

“Shouldn’t that be ‘Master of New York’? I mean, he’s the heir apparent until his sister has kids, isn’t he? Unless I remember incorrectly, that’s how Night at Balmoral would have put it.”

“I hate all of you,” Naoto deadpanned. Privately, he did admit that a little levity was not uncalled for. Controlling the fate of all Japan was new territory for them that needed some easing into. “And for your information, one, I’m the heir presumptive. Two, I can’t believe you enjoy manor dramas. Three, Britannian forms of address changed radically after Napoleon removed them from Europe and they lost all the estates attached to their titles. Four, it’s Lord Naoto, you commoner filth.”

After the laughter died down, Naoto said, “Inoue-san, to answer your question, no. If their involvement were discovered, the ruse would be broken. We cannot risk that. Moreover, Marrybell-san and Lelouch-kun have their own agenda, and I’d rather not throw a spanner in the works.”

Inoue nodded in acceptance, but now that the shock had faded, the floodgates opened. Naoto found himself under siege with questions ranging from how an imperial agent had managed to get into his office to how he expected them to be able to liberate such a high profile prisoner without bringing the full wrath of Britannia down upon the ghettos. He answered the ones he could, but once they'd reduced the list to operational questions, he called for their guest to join the meeting.

“Everyone, this is Shinozaki Sayoko, the one who brought this request to us. She used to work for the Flash as a shinobi.”

“What, like a real one?”

In a blink, a dull thump sounded throughout the room. A small lock of Yoshida’s hair drifted down to fall onto his lap. Embedded in the wall behind him was a kunai. Shinozaki, of course, stood next to Naoto with an innocent expression on her face.

“I withdraw my question.”

Naoto glanced at Shinozaki and raised his eyebrows, silently asking, “Was that necessary?”

She merely smiled slightly.

How did she even get that past security? Urgh, whatever. “I'll leave it to Shinozaki-san to explain from here.”

“Thank you, Kōzuki-sama,” Shinozaki said as Naoto took his seat. “Before I begin, I know my clan's loyalty to the vi Britannias must come as an affront. I would like to express my appreciation for your indulgence despite this. I do not consider myself a patriotic woman, nor do I aspire to be one. I offer my allegiance to individuals, not nations. But even one such as I does not desire to see the land of my birth permanently removed from the map. In this I hope we find what solidarity we may for the coming trial.”

After a few moments of reflective silence, Sugiyama cleared his throat for attention. He then said, “This is perhaps the strangest, most contradictory resistance group in history yet somehow the most productive. I see nothing incongruous with working alongside you, Shinozaki-san.”

A few self-aware laughs proceeded the rest of the group’s concurrence. Naoto quietly breathed a sigh of relief even as he smiled at Sugiyama’s remark. They were too far along to properly fit the description anymore, but he personally still liked to think of themselves as a ragtag band of obviously unqualified heroes.

“I’ll be in your care,” Shinozaki said with a slight bow. “Kōzuki-sama, the file, please. Thank you.” She opened it, sorted the contents into several smaller piles, and then held up a familiar picture. “To begin, our goal is to effect the rescue of this woman, C.C.-sama. She’s held in Prince Clovis’s custody in a lab in Kokubunji, although many others are equally involved in her detainment for the Code R project.”

Shinozaki set the photo down and met the gaze of each and every person present in turn as she spoke. “This mission will not be for the light of heart, and it must be done as swiftly as possible. Torture, death, disease – all manner of terrible things are old friends, but what I saw while infiltrating the site horrified even one such as I. Code R is a research project involving the vilest, unceasing human experimentation on their solitary test subject.”

Nausea and anger stormed through the room. C.C. might not be Japanese – she might very well be Britannian – but there were lines that should never be crossed. It was Inoue who finally gave voice to the obvious question.

“Why C.C.-san?”

Rather than the half-expected ‘I cannot answer that’, Shinozaki said, “A rare quirk of biology makes her more suitable for the procedures.” As she added, “Please don’t ask me to embarrass myself attempting to explain,” she gave a thin, weary smile.

Curious. Perhaps this isn’t the first time she’s given this briefing? Shrugging away the thought, Naoto asked, “Will we be physically able to remove C.C.-san alive from the facilities?”

Shinozaki nodded. “Since penetrating deep enough past security, I’ve been sabotaging the more…onerous experiments. She may or may not be up to walking, but she will be stable enough to escape.”

“How far have you gotten past security?” Sugiyama asked.

A hint of pride underlaid Shinozaki’s reply. “I have spoken with C.C.-sama during one of her more lucid moments.”

Sugiyama whistled, impressed. “Do you really even need us?”

“I do indeed. Unfortunately, security is too tight to extract C.C.-sama without conflict. I can get her out of the building, but then I would have to face knightmares.”

“Ah. How many?”

Shinozaki pulled a thick stack of paper from one of her piles. The stack proved to be a single large sheet as she unfolded it into a heavily annotated map. From context, Naoto assumed the large grounds displayed detailed the research facility holding C.C.. Hand drawn and colour coded across the entire map were times, schedules, and routes. Several doors, he noted, even had what appeared to be combinations written beside them.

“Amazing!”

“Damn…”

“How?”

“What do these numbers here mean?”

Shinozaki leaned over to glance at the digits in question. “Ah, that door requires a set of fingerprints I acquired. Any of those labels will do.”

Although he tried not to show it outwardly, Naoto was beyond impressed. Even Minami looked blown away. An envious curse passed his lips. If this was the standard quality of a single shinobi’s work, he could only imagine the talent Lelouch no doubt commanded.

“And these here are patrol routes?”

Shinozaki nodded.

“And this squiggly line?”

“That one has an irregular schedule and requires a wide margin of error if it cannot be avoided entirely. One of the men on rotation is frequently late or early.”

“I think I'm in love,” Sugiyama deadpanned as he pored over the map. “This operation is going to be so much easier to plan than I thought. How many knightmares do they have on hand?”

“Not as many as they might, I suspect,” Shinozaki said. “The army has yet to recoup the purists’ losses and so is a little low on equipment. The hangers are south of the central compound. To blend in, they're not well fortified, but as there are eyes everywhere to compensate, I've not risked exploring them.”

“This map is true to scale?” Inoue asked. When she received a nod, she continued, “Then judging by the size, I personally wouldn't try to pack more than thirty knightmares into them. My maintenance team would be up in arms.”

“That's manageable if we must engage them in battle,” Sugiyama said. “Assuming we don't linger long enough for reinforcements to arrive. But I'd rather ‘smash and grab’, so to speak, be our primary strategy. You mentioned you could get C.C.-san outside?”

“I can,” Shinozaki said, “but I would tip my hand in doing so. I am not unknown to the viceroy. If you ask it of me, another team will need to destroy the site’s surveillance records while I secure C.C.-sama.”

A thought occurred, and Naoto asked, “Should we destroy the research data as well? It might discourage them from trying this again.”

Shinozaki turned inward to hold a debate with herself for a time. Eventually, she replied, “If it is convenient. I would, however, prefer you first obtain a copy of the data and then let C.C.-sama decide what to do with it after she’s had some time to distance herself from the experience.”

“That’s fair.” Naoto turned in silent question to his chief engineer.

Inoue gnawed on her lip in thought. “If we intend to be in and out as quickly as possible, the best I can promise you is to steal all the hard drives and SSDs. Given the horrific nature of the experiments, I’d imagine they store everything hidden on site. I will need to get into the system first, though, to find out where everything important is. Also along that line, assuming the research team isn’t comprised of drooling monkeys, they’ll have the data encrypted. Without the passwords, the drives would just be macabre doorstops.”

“I have a few passwords already and could obtain more before or after the assault,” Shinozaki offered.

“Ah…” Naoto hesitated a moment to bring up one of the more delicate questions concerning the operation, but it had to be addressed. “About that. Fighting armed guards and soldiers is one thing, but what about the research team and staff? I would usually argue vehemently to avoid civilian casualties at all costs, but…”

Shinozaki spoke in a icy voice, sharp and succinct, before anyone else could voice their opinion. “I've submitted a list of each and every name involved to the emperor. Any casualties incurred will only advance the date of their execution.” Then as quickly as it came, the chill abated. “I appreciate your ethics, Kōzuki-sama. They're one of the reasons I came to you. But lofty principles oft do not well weather purpose. Let not the integrity of the raid suffer for our own.”

Naoto exchanged a glance with Kaname, the quiet observer. Military matters were not his forte. Most of his time was spent overseeing education. In moments such as this, he served as an outside perspective. And in this particular moment, he offered a resigned shrug.

And so Naoto said, “I understand, but we do have not only a reputation to uphold but an example to set. Justly or not, hundreds of thousands of people look to us for guidance and follow our lead. As much as possible without sacrificing efficacy, I wish to minimise the damage we do. At the very least, we must not involve bystanders in neighbouring buildings.”

Shinozaki considered that for a time. “I understand your position,” she conceded. The others soon expressed their agreement. She then volunteered, “Most of the other labs nearby tend to keep to traditional business hours. A weekend would be ideal for the operation.”

“Thank you. Now then” – as Kallen had once told Naoto to do – “let's take five minutes to discuss what needs to happen during this rescue and what major resistance and obstacles we can expect.”


Ashford Academy

Tokyo Settlement, Area 11

March 25, 2016 a.t.b.


“This is an outage! They have broken all bonds of fellowship!”

Euphemia politely smiled and nodded along as Milly decried Lelouch and Kallen for the slight of not coming to Ashford for the latter’s birthday. With the varyingly reluctant assistance of the rest of the student council, she then set about plotting ‘justice’ over lunch.

Through the ensuing discussion, Euphemia found her thoughts more often than not attempting to piece together the why behind Lelouch and Kallen’s absence. They had left for Area Two to ski, which was unusual in and of itself: skiing trips were winter family affairs. And as Milly had emphatically pointed out, they’d also not given a proper reason to run off on their own to celebrate Kallen’s birthday.

Something big was brewing.

There was the idea that Rivalz had casually thrown out. Perhaps Lelouch intended to propose the very moment Kallen attained her majority. If it were anyone else, Euphemia would give some small credence to it. Even if they were a little young for such things, it would be a wonderfully romantic overture, a fine gesture of gallantry.

There’s no way. Those two aren’t…sweet. They’re…dramatic. Theatrical. They wouldn’t do something as momentous as getting engaged on a peaceful holiday so far away from everyone and everything. Euphemia silently chuckled to herself. If they could get away with it, they’d want to be engaged and married in the midst of a single battle when all hope seems lost.

Sadly, those two were too pragmatic for proper romance. Euphemia blew a puff of air out her nose. If they ever do get engaged, it will be with much pageantry. Anything to help put Lelouch on the throne, I’m sure. And if Kallen were to be empress – and what a peculiar thought that was; Euphemia still struggled with the prospect of referring to Lelouch as ‘His Majesty’ – then all the better to be…flamboyant. The more people sing her praises, the more powerful the surprise when it comes out she’s a half-blood.

Euphemia snorted in silence. Politics. But if nothing else, it did fit Lelouch and Kallen’s sense of humour. I hope they never sacrifice too much of themselves – or others – for their ambition. I suppose it’s everyone else’s job to ensure they don’t. And there were plenty of people who would do just that, herself included. With a sigh, she turned her thoughts to more immediate concerns.

So what mischief are those two up to now? If they were in trouble with Father, it would be far more obvious. But…perhaps he saw what they did here and sent them to do something similar? Nonette is with them.

Euphemia considered that for a moment but ultimately shook her head. Area Two was one of, if not the, most stable areas in the empire. There were no radicals for any cause. Legal Twos were ever rarer than Ones. Although she paid little attention to such affairs, she’d also not heard of anyone particularly important leaving for or living in the area. To all appearances, Lelouch and Kallen really were just on a skiing trip. They had even sent pictures. It baffled the mind.

Eventually, the impromptu student council meeting came to an end with Euphemia no closer to an answer than before. The group finished eating and went back to their final classes for the week. Euphemia had maths and chemistry, which were straightforward enough, and then history at the end of the day. The latter was neither her best nor favourite subject, but it certainly was intriguing to experience the non-royal version focused more on the what and the why than the how.

“Hey. Hey, Euphie.”

Euphemia sent a questioning hum Shirley's way as she copied the last of today's notes on the formation of Germany from the board.

“Nina wasn't paying attention again in physics.”

“She of all people hardly needs to,” Euphemia said without much thought. She pressed the rubber of her pencil to her lip. Hmm… Otto von Bismarck might have been a better diplomat than even Schneizel. By all rights, Austria should have–

“No, I mean she wasn't paying attention to anyone. She was barely with us at lunch, too, and now that I think about it, yesterday had a few warning signs. I think you need to pull her out of her own little world again.”

“Oh. Yes, I can do that.” Nina did need someone to pull her out of her research every so often. “Do you know where she is?”

“Last I saw, she was headed toward the clubhouse.”

“So probably in her lair. I’ll be off, then. See you later tonight.”

After parting ways with Shirley, Euphemia set off on a stroll across campus to the student council building with the expectation of arriving in about an hour. Nina’s research binge was not an urgent concern, and she had other issues to address. Milly was, well, Milly, so students brought their problems to their vice president and their mad schemes to their president.

Indeed, Euphemia had no sooner stepped outside than a crowd of students mobbed her. She held up a hand, and the tumult ceased. “Miya, you first.”

One of the swimming club members stepped forward. “Euphyllia, we need proper locks on the girls locker room.”

Oh, dear. “What happened?”

“That damnable new club stole a few of our swimsuits and won’t give them back!”

Euphemia quirked her eyebrows. “Which new club do you mean?”

“The bloody Fantasy Seduction Club!”

It came only through a Herculean effort, but Euphemia resisted pinching the bridge of her nose.


No, that’s not right either. Unbounded solutions are bad.

Nina crumpled another sheet of paper with dead end equations and tossed it into the rubbish bin behind her. She quickly grabbed a new one and tried again with an altered approach.

Argh! No, that doesn’t work either. Why can’t infinity mean ‘infinite energy’ instead of ‘uncontrolled explosion’?

She was so close to a breakthrough. Her work in no way translated into a physical product, but proving something could be done in theory was the first step.

Sakuradite is practically phlebotinum. Why can’t I make it do what I want? It’s not like I’m asking for cold fusion. I only want safe, stable fission. Where am I going wrong that I keep falling into the clean city removal trap?

Nina picked up her steaming cup of tea and sipped. Bitter yet creamy, exactly as she liked.

Hmm, what if I added silver to the chamber? Silver can suffer a lot of abuse before undergoing fission.

With a mechanical pencil in one hand and a rubber in the other, Nina altered a series of numbers in her equations and squeezed a few more variables into the margins. She then set about updating the results.

That…could work, but – mmm, chocolate – that would just slow down the explosion or make the reaction too stable. I guess that’s a step in the right direction. What if I changed–

Biscuits did not well rub out pencil, it seemed. Although that left Nina with two questions. First, where had her rubber gone? Second, where had the biscuit come from? And when, actually. And upon reflection, the tea at her right was also a mystery.

“Good afternoon, Nina.”

“Eek!” With nowhere to hide, Nina shrunk into herself in a feeble attempt to vanish, but she fooled no one, not even herself. “G-g-good afternoon.” That was the best she could manage with her face flushed down to her neck. “How – how long… Um, good afternoon, Euphie.” And now she felt like banging her head against her desk. Could she be any more pathetic?

“Would you mind if I asked you for advice?”

“Huh? Advice? Me?” Now more confused than flustered, Nina said, “If I can help, I’d be happy to.”

“Thank you! I’ve been feeling a little unsure the past few months and could use an outside perspective. Have I ever told you why I joined the student council?”

Nina shook her head. Rather timidly, she confessed, “I joined because Prez told me I was the Student Secretary for Science. I thought, well…”

Euphie buried a laugh and a smile behind a hand. “That does sound like something Milly would do. If I hadn’t asked her for the vice presidency, I expect my life would look no different.”

“The role well suits you,” Nina offered for lack of anything else to say.

“Oh, I know that, but thank you all the same. Regardless, I asked for the position knowing that Milly’s reign over our…equally trying student body would involve endless administration against adversity. Or rather I asked for it because of that. This was an irreplaceable opportunity, you see. My family is…protective of me. Not without reason, of course, but it can become very stifling. As the vice president and, let’s be honest, the reason Milly can run amok, I have the chance to gain proper leadership experience.”

“For wha…” Halfway through that question, Nina remembered that she was almost certainly speaking with a princess.

Euphie wore a knowing smile and, it appeared, elected to continue their polite fiction. “I'll be involved in the family business once I graduate. Possibly sooner. For good or for ill, none of us have a choice in that. Many capacities in which I could serve are either beyond me or do not appeal; I am well aware of where my skills, interests, and opportunities intersect, hence my involvement in administration.”

“Um… Then what's troubling you?” It sounded like Euphie had her life figured out well enough.

“I feel…conflicted. There's a whole muddle of feelings working at cross purposes in me. As I said, no one has a choice as regards my inclusion into the family business. For me, that’s good. I want to be involved. I dearly love my family and want to make myself useful as more than emotional support. Especially so now that I'm certain of the scope of their ambition.

“The problem is that I expect I’ll be sidelined the moment I do become involved. That I’ll be given work that is important and needs to be done but doesn’t nearly make full use of me. I appreciate the safety and protection my family works so hard to provide me with, especially so against a marriage of convenience. I really enjoy my life at Ashford. But I feel…left out, sometimes. Unvalued. Yet at the same time, I know I don’t have the stomach for some of what I could be asked to do. Not as I am, at least, and being put into a position that would…change me is…daunting. It both touches and infuriates me that I also know they’ll never ask such of me. Yes, it's better for me that way. Yes, I have only the faintest idea of what I'm asking for. But I hate that they act as though my innocence is sacrosanct. Sometimes I just want to–”

Euphie sighed, and the frustration that had slowly crept onto her face faded away. “This is harder to put into words than I thought. I hope I’m not coming across as a whiny brat complaining about the easy life.”

“No, of course not!” Nina hastily said. “I, uh – I’m not the best with feelings, but even I know it’s important to at least acknowledge them.”

“True.” Euphie fell silent and turned her thoughts inward. A few seconds later, she shook her head at whatever had preoccupied her. “Still,” she said, “I’m unsure what I should do to resolve these feelings.”

Nina almost opted not to suggest the obvious, but it needed to be said. “Is there any reason not to just talk about this with, uh, your family?”

Euphie pursed her lips and spoke in halting words. “There’s an…unspoken…understanding between us. I believe. I think they might fear I would hate them if they took me fully into confidence. Or maybe stand against them.”

“Why?” Nina asked before she could help herself. The very moment the word escaped her, she realised Euphie might not be able to legally answer her, let alone want to.

But before Nina could awkwardly stumble her way into even more trouble as she always did whenever she opened her mouth, Euphie looked at her with a somber expression. “They hide it well, but there’s a certain…volatility to them. Their sense of moral weight is so skewed. Even knowing I weigh heavily in their minds, I just…

“Part of me always wonders when I’m next going to hear of some atrocity committed in defence or revenge of one another. Or – or in my name. I have an older sister who–” With a shake of her head, Euphie dropped that particular anecdote. “The last time one of them was in life-threatening danger, hundreds of people died. The time before that, an entire family tree was erased from the roots to the leaves. Only the heiress and – well, only she survived.”

Nina gulped. She’d known in passing that some manner of devastation had swept through the Stadtfelds, but she’d not realised it was so…complete – nor self-induced.

“And I just know they'd leave me to find out what they've done second hand through the Internet or from some random stranger off the street. Like I don't matter! As though I'm somehow insulated from the wider world! I–”

Euphie abruptly stopped and took a deep breath. She then laughed, a weak, feeble act, though Nina had no idea what there was to laugh about. “I do love them dearly, but I have difficulty understanding how they think sometimes.”

With a sigh, Euphie reached for her teacup. “I’m sorry for dumping all that on you. Please don’t think ill of them. They are good, kind people. I think I just really needed to say all that to someone.”

“It’s okay,” Nina said with a bit of a blush. “It’s not as though I’ve never done the same to you. I know it helps.”

“True. And…I do think I feel a little better already. Still, I don’t think I say it often enough, but you’re a good friend, Nina.”

“I – um, uh… Well, I–” Nina promptly descended into incomprehensible mumbling, face fully flushed. Better that, though, than what she might accidentally blather out if she could manage anything coherent. And Euphie giggled, so she counted that as a minor victory.

“So that’s my dilemma,” Euphie said. “I really don’t know what to do. Tradition would dictate that I plot and scheme, but something tells me that would not be a healthy or productive outlet.”

Nina offered a shy smile. “I should think not.”

“Do any ideas or thoughts come to mind?”

“Well…” There was one thing. “I wouldn’t recommend going behind their backs, but perhaps if you first worked with someone else to show them you can do more than they think? Perhaps someone your family trusts but doesn’t have too much influence over?”

“Hmm…” From the look on her face, Euphie had such a person in mind. “I think I might do just that. Thank you.”

“It was no trouble.”

And then out of nowhere, Euphie asked, “Hey, do you want to go shopping?”

“Huh?”

“Well, I could use something mindless to take my mind off of things, and your jumper is looking a little ragged.”

“I suppose if you want to.”

“Great!” Euphie jumped to her feet and pulled Nina up with her by the hand. Arm in arm, she marched them toward the door. “Then let’s get going.”

“Ah! But what about tea?”

“I’ll clean up later, and we can eat out. There’s a fancy new restaurant that Lelouch and Kallen recommended to me when they were last here. We can buy dresses, and get our hair done, and otherwise be pampered and act like vapid girls without problems. It’ll be fun.”

“Right…”


Tokyo Settlement, Area 11

March 25, 2016 a.t.b.


Out of place, incongruous, misplaced – there were many words to describe how Nina felt at the moment, but they all boiled down to the simple fact that she did not belong here. Her dress cost more pounds than the sum total that had ever passed her hands. And she attended Ashford Academy! She came from no modest means despite her family’s lack of a title. They’d bypassed the need for connections and reservations with – presumably – some royal magic, but there was no denying that everyone here had a name and a story – everyone except Nina herself.

Even so, Euphie never relaxed her grip on Nina’s attention. Probably without meaning to, if Nina were honest. Her thoughts were wandering to wholly inappropriate areas despite her best efforts. But there was no helping it! The woman across the table from her was gorgeous, and refined, and elegant, and, well, everything that poets rambled on about that average and awkward Nina was not. Only the absence of the woman’s natural pink hair left the image incomplete, but a goddess had descended nonetheless. This was not Euphie Linette but Princess Euphemia incarnate.

If Nina made it through the night with her dinner still in her nervous, fluttering stomach, she would consider it a miracle. If she ever summoned the courage and audacity to risk more than carefully doctoring her plate to look as though she’d eaten more than a mouse, of course.

“I never quite determined why, but that was our strangest tradition back in the homeland. Milly wants to revive it this year as soon as the weather turns warm, but I’m unsure where we’ll find the budget. Disregarding the cost of the ingredients, which is considerable, the Ganymede requires maintenance. We would need a devicer as well, and Kallen, Cornelia, and Nonette are the only people I personally know with the technical finesse required. Marianne used to do it, you see. However, even if one is available, she might not be willing or interested.”

Euphie formed her warm and captivating smile.

Ahhhh! Stop focusing on those perfect lips!

“But privately, I would much enjoy seeing them attempt to toss five tonnes of pizza dough in the Ganymede.”

“It would be a, uh, strange sight,” Nina said, stumbling over her words as though she were a love-struck schoolgirl.

Um…

Shut up! I know.

“I might be able to do the maintenance,” Nina offered. “If – if I had the manual and the parts.”

“That would certainly help. But I wouldn't want to take so much of your free time away from your research.”

Nina wondered if she would sound conceited if she admitted she could probably learn whatever she must and finish the repairs over a long weekend if she had access to prerequisite equipment and materials.

Probably.

“Speaking of,” Euphie said, “how is your research faring? You appeared particularly frustrated when I interrupted you this afternoon.”

“Oh, um, okay, I suppose.”

Euphie raised her eyebrows sceptically.

“Well… It could be going better.”

“I see. Is there anything I can do to help?”

Before Nina could stop herself, “Not unless you’re a sakuradite expert,” slipped out in a grumble. “Er, I mean–”

“I’m not,” Euphie said. “But I am aware of one in the area.”

“Really! I–” With no small effort, Nina pushed some of her energy and enthusiasm down so as not to make a scene. “Who?” she asked slightly more calmly. “How would I get in contact?”

“Oh, what was his name… Marrybell mentioned him to me. He’s the inventor of the energy filler.”

“Lloyd Asplund!”

“Ah, yes, that’s it. He relocated his research team here a few months ago. If you think he could help, Marrybell should be able to put you into contact with him.”

“Truly?” Euphie nodded with that dizzying smile of hers, and Nina swore she nearly swooned.

Argh! Stop it, hormones! We have no chance of mating even if she liked girls and weren't a princess!

A second passed before Nina realised exactly what she'd thought. Her face flushed, and she promptly looked down into her lap to hide that fact as best as she could. Anywhere else, she would have happily buried her head in her arms and banged it against the table, but here she restrained herself. She'd embarrassed Euphie quite enough already without making even more of a spectacle of herself. She just needed to make it through the rest of the night. Then she could go hide in a hole and just die.


Golding Casino

Tokyo Settlement, Area 11

March 28, 2016 a.t.b.


The White Queen was in her element. Crushing victories were her vice and her speciality. Her restraint had retreated, and damn but it felt good. She’d even sent one man away crying after worming her way into his head. And best of all, Suzaku was not available to frown disapprovingly at her!

For all his faults, Marrybell had respected, even admired, Clovis. Sure, he was a shameless flirt, but as in all things, he always proved sincere. Yes, he allowed the local corruption to flourish, but he’d been handed the reins of power both young and barely prepared and had somehow made the best of a bad situation that could be much, much worse. True, he held no love for non-Britannians, the Japanese in particular, but neither did he subjugate them to the breaking point to squeeze a few more pounds from his viceroyalty. Despite all the temptations lined up before him, he’d managed to remain a decent, upstanding human being.

And then Marrybell, at Lelouch’s request, had uncovered the Code R project. If Clovis were actually researching chemical weapons, she could accept that. If he secretly wanted to use them to rebel against the homeland, then she would gladly stand right beside him. If his plan had any chance of success, that was.

But the circumstantial evidence surrounding Code R suggested something far more sinister. And if Clovis could sponsor human experimentation terrible enough to hide behind treaty violations at which even the emperor would balk, then what else had he hidden from her?

With regret that only fuelled her anger, Marrybell had removed Clovis from her very short list of family she refused to kill.

“Checkmate.”

Another game won. In her victory, Marrybell then finished tearing apart her opponent mentally with a viciousness that perhaps went beyond what even bad taste allowed. Security promptly intervened and escorted him out before she could goad him into physically assaulting her – such a pity. After his timely departure, Carrie entered and sealed the room behind her.

“Okay, girl, what’s eating you?” Carrie asked. “I’m making tonnes of money off you, and I’ve seen you vent before, but I can’t in good conscience let you continue playing like this.”

Marrybell scoffed. “If I had my way, that man would be subjected to worse than a little verbal abuse. I have a list of crimes I could ruin him with if allowed.”

Carrie quirked an eyebrow. “So what else is new? Provoking high treason isn’t your usual operating principle.”

“Fine. I’m just feeling a little betrayed right now is all.”

“‘A little’?” The scepticism came across loud and clear.

Marrybell pressed her lips into a thin line, and Carrie sighed.

“Go home, Marrybell. Or better yet, go stay with a friend.”

“You’re kicking me out?” Marrybell asked aghast.

“I know, right?” Carrie said with a smirk. “I’m equally horrified that my concern for you outweighs my greed. Will you need a ride?”

“No. No, I… No. I’ll just…leave. I guess.”

“Eloquent.”

Ignoring the snark, Marrybell departed and reflected upon her behaviour. In hindsight, maybe she had gone a little overboard. Clovis’s self-inflicted character assassination infuriated her, but she usually had a better leash on her anger.

At least I haven’t tried to gut Clovis with my sword, Marrybell thought ruefully. A girl would develop a reputation.

“Where to, Your Highness?”

Marrybell leaned to the side and eventually let herself collapse onto her seat. As she laid there, she considered the question her chauffeur had posed. If she went home, she would just brood and maybe eventually start considering if destroying Clovis would be in her best interests.

Suzaku… No, I don’t feel like explaining myself. Oldrin? No, she’s probably asleep. And damn that girl’s absentminded habit of answering video calls in her nightdress. Lelouch and Kallen are busy. Maybe…

“Take me to the tunnels. I’ll walk to Ashford.”

Marrybell retrieved her phone and opened up a chat with Euphemia. ‘Hey, are you free? I could really use someone to talk to.’


Ashford Academy

Tokyo Settlement, Area 11

March 28, 2016 a.t.b.


“Clovis is doing what!”

“That was my reaction, too.”

“Are you sure?” Euphemia pressed. She knew this was not a matter anyone would lie about, but it was just so hard to believe.

Marrybell nodded solemnly with a scowl pulling at her lips and a restrained fire in her eyes. “Who would have thought it, right? I mean, it’s Clovis.”

“I can’t believe…” No, that was the wrong thing to say in this situation. “I believe you, but…why? I don’t understand.”

“I honestly don’t know. It’s not like I could just slap him and demand an answer. I don’t have the standing to put that kind of pressure on him, and he must know I’d not tolerate, let alone support, it. After this, I wouldn't be surprised if I suffered an ‘accident’ if I confronted him.”

“That’s true…” Euphemia weakly said. She hesitated as a rather callous thought occurred. She flinched away from it at first, but she’d not simply been redirecting Nina’s attention to the physical world when she’d asked for advice. She did feel left out.

If you want on board, Euphemia, now is the time. This is the Call knocking at your door. Nothing was happening before, and if you wait too long now, everyone will settle into their roles. Then you’ll forever be fighting an uphill battle to carve out a proper one for yourself.

Euphemia gulped and gathered her courage. “But I do.”

“What?” For a moment, a contemplative expression overtook Marrybell’s face. But that moment passed. “No. No way. Lelouch would go spare. The only thing worse would be if I let Nunnally do it. And if even half of the things I’ve heard about Cornelia are true, they’d never find my body.”

With a roll of her eyes, Euphemia gave an exasperated huff. “Honestly, if those two had their way, I’d live in a house made of – of…marshmallow atop a mountain with a lava moat surrounded by the entire Britannian army.”

Marrybell giggled, which was a small step up from outright denial. Unfortunately, however, she said, “Still no.”

“I want to help. I’ll no more tolerate Clovis’s behaviour than you.”

“No. Besides, the direct approach here won’t–” A sudden thoughtful expression came over Marrybell. She mumbled, “Well actually… But then – no, I couldn’t… But perhaps if Cornelia… No, she doesn’t have – but if it were you and she didn't object. And if I stay here after I turn sixteen…”

“Marrybell?”

Marrybell broke from her thoughts. She wore an evil grin as she asked, “How would you like to be the viceroy?

A moment passed in silence.

“Huh?”


After hours of debating back and forth – and who knew Euphemia had serious talent in the field? – Marrybell felt she finally had Euphemia in full support of making a bid for the area’s viceroyalty. Getting Euphemia to agree to take the position had been easy enough. They were both adamant that Clovis needed to be removed, and Euphemia had reluctantly conceded that no one relevant would entrust a colony as important as Area Eleven to Marrybell.

No, it was the manner of Clovis’s removal and what happened to him after that had required negotiation. Eventually, Marrybell had settled for a plan of increasing escalation until he fell out of office with the consequences being whatever they would be.

A knock came at the door. Marrybell promptly overturned the papers she and Euphemia had been writing on as the latter called out, “Come in!”

A few moments later, an adorkable, bespectacled girl with green hair tied into twin braids stepped inside with a laptop clutched tightly to her chest. Hmm… Nina Einstein, right? It had been a couple months since the last time Marrybell had found the time to accept an invitation to one of Milly’s parties, and even then, the girl’s shyness had kept her at the peripheries. Like the rest of the student council, though, she had gotten along well enough with Suzaku in her own way, and Euphemia counted her as a friend, so she must be a decent enough person.

“Oh!” Euphemia said. “I completely forgot. Come in and sit down, Nina.” As the girl did so, if in a very nervous, fidgety way, Euphemia turned and added, “Marrybell, Nina wanted to ask you for a favour.”

A favour? That Euphemia can’t grant herself? Marrybell gave her sister one last glance before turning to Nina. “Well, the worst I can do is say no. What’s up?”

“Well, um, my research, it needs help – er, I mean, I need help with my research. Euphie mentioned that you know Earl Asplund.”

“We’ve met at state affairs a few times recently,” Marrybell offered. “He moved his lab to Kokubunji in…November, I believe.”

“Do you think – that is, if you were to ask, would he be willing to speak with me?”

“Not likely,” Marrybell said. “To be frank, he clearly suffers Society solely to fund his research. Any response I elicit through such channels would produce only the most grudging of assistance.”

Seeing Nina wilt before her, Marrybell added, “What I can do is pass on a research pitch that he won’t outright ignore in favour of his own obsessions. What do you have for me?”

Nina brightened immediately and opened her laptop. Marrybell was then treated to an hour long physics lecture that went way over her head. What she did take away, however, was that Nina had an absolutely brilliant and very possibly plausible idea for clean energy on large scales without astronomical costs. That, and also giant death balls that deatomised the affected landscape without turning it into a radioactive wasteland, but really, what use was that?

This is…very dangerous. “Have you ever spoken of this with Lelouch or Kallen?”

Nina cocked her head to the side, bemused, but still replied, “I haven’t.”

I see. So they don’t know that one of their friends is developing doomsday weapons. After a brief moment of consideration, Marrybell decided to keep this to herself until after those two finished their war with Russia. Now how do I deal with this…

“Nina, do you realise that large explosions make for rather good weapons?”

The bright smile Nina had developed in her presentation vanished. “Uh, yes, well–”

“In fact, I might go so far as to suggest explosions are the basis of modern warfare.”

“But that’s not–” Nina timidly protested.

Marrybell interrupted again and silently signalled Euphemia not to intervene. “I would move the heavens and earth to enable you to develop the ultimate strategic weapon for me. Oh, the uses I would have for such a–”

“You can’t!” Nina shrieked. She remembered herself in the next moment and slapped her hands over her mouth in a panic. When Marrybell smiled at her, however, she seemed to understand what had just happened and relaxed somewhat.

Noticing the annoyed look Euphemia was giving her, Marrybell said, “What? You can’t tell me that wasn’t necessary. Your friend just enthusiastically presented a doomsday device to me without so much as politely asking me to keep it secret. Besides, I didn’t even have to suggest naming the warhead such that its acronym came out as NINA.”

“I didn’t say anything,” Euphemia insisted.

“Um…” Marrybell and Euphemia turned from each other to Nina. “It's okay. I – I understand. I wasn’t thinking. I’m sorry. Sometimes I just get so wrapped up in my research…”

Marrybell sighed. “I don’t blame you for being excited. I of all people know what it’s like to act without considering the consequences.” She paused a moment to consider her next words very carefully. “It would, however, be very irresponsible of me not to intervene here.”

“Marrybell!”

“Euphemia, you wanted to be involved in government. Consider this your first hard decision to make. What do you suggest we do?” Although she already had a good plan in mind, Marrybell needed to know if Euphemia was ready for… Oh, bollocks. “Er…Euphie, does Nina…know?”

With a sigh, Euphemia said, “Yes, she does.” She turned to Nina.

“Oh! I, uh, I’ve suspected for years but didn’t want to…”

“Ruin things?” Euphemia suggested, and Nina nodded. “I don’t believe it’s been a problem so far.”

With the friendship fluff sufficiently sated, Marrybell refocused the group. “So? What are we going to do about this? If, say, Schneizel ever heard of this, you know he’ll throw as many pounds at it as Britannia can afford. Maybe more. And then there's Father.”

“Well…” Euphemia looked at Nina with pursed lips. “I hate to ask this of you, Nina, but perhaps the world isn’t ready for your work.”

It spoke greatly to Nina’s character – or perhaps their friendship – that she accepted that with only a nod and some wetness shining at the corners of her eyes. There was heartbreak there, certainly, but also strength of equal measure.

Of course, that hardly mattered at the moment because Euphemia was wrong.

Marrybell cleared her throat. “While I’m sure we both agree that Miss Einstein here is special, I wouldn’t suggest that she’s unique.”

Euphemia processed that for a moment. “Oh. Oh! Oh, that’s…bad.”

“Indeed. Unfortunately, I’m not very familiar with the field. Nina, would you say your work is…” Marrybell snapped her fingers, searching for a word. “Oh, what’s the term academics use… Ah, low-hanging fruit?”

After perhaps half a minute of serious thought with her eyebrows scrunched together and an accompanying string of inaudible mumbles, Nina said, “No, but it’s not too far from the research frontier.”

“There you go,” Marrybell said. “Placing a moratorium on her won’t solve the problem. Someone will make the bomb sooner or later. Knowing that, what course of action do you recommend?”

“Well, if you put it like that.” Euphemia turned to Nina no less apprehensive now than before. “I hate to ask this of you even more, but if you developed the bomb version first, would it be possible to create a countermeasure?”

Ashen faced, Nina stammered, “I – I – I-I think so. Th-the reaction collapses if–”

Marrybell interjected, “We’re not physicists, Nina. ‘Yes’ will suffice for now. In a situation where it would matter, i.e., not over an ocean, do you believe shooting one down with conventional means would be a, let’s say, healthy alternative?”

Nina shook her head. “The energy involved – even a limited blast radius from a partial detonation could be ten kilometres wide.”

Well, that’s that, then. Marrybell sat back and waited for Euphemia’s reaction. If you won’t do it, I will. Fortunately, Marrybell did not have to wait long.

“Nina, there's no one I would trust more with this. I ask you this in my capacity as the Third Princess of the Realm. Will you design but not build this weapon and create a suitable counter?”

“I – Eu – Your Highness, I'm a physicist, not an engineer. I don't know anything about building rockets!”

“No one creates such things alone,” Marrybell commented. “You would have help as it becomes necessary. And regardless of your decision, you are, of course, free to pursue your original idea.”

“I…” Nina glanced at Euphemia before turning her gaze onto the floor. “I… O-okay. I'll do it.”

“Thank you, Nina.” Euphemia smiled just a little mischievously. “You do realise this is the sort of thing that will put you on posters and in statues, right?”

Nina emitted a high-pitched moan. “That would be so embarrassing!”

Marrybell rolled her eyes. “Do you still want to meet with the earl?”

“Yes, please. That would be very helpful.”

“Are you free this Saturday?” After Nina nodded, Marrybell said, “Alright. The man is married to his work, but he should be marginally freer then, and there should be fewer people around to ask unwanted questions. The only problem is he works for Schneizel. Hmm…”

“I can get by without help,” Nina said, although she sounded unsure of herself.

“No, no,” Marrybell said with a wave of her hand. “Don't worry about it. He has no reputation for stealing ideas nor patriotism, so he shouldn't be difficult to manage. Academic interest and ethics alone should ensure he won't talk.” She paused a moment, remembering something she had said to Suzaku. “I'm sure I know how to ensure his silence regardless.” If that or a research grant won't do it, then I'll just threaten to have Suzaku tip off the JLF. I swear, if that man hijacks one more conversation to talk about his Lancelot…


Kokubunji, Area 11

April 2, 2016 a.t.b.


Nina shrieked, and wasn’t that just the worst idea she’d ever had?