Stage 16 - Endings and Beginnings
Narita, Area 11
April 3, 2016 a.t.b.
Even after six years, the scars of war lingered on the Narita mountains. The flora had returned and regrown over the craters left behind by artillery shell and air strike, but the new trees were young and growing, not yet ready to match their forebears. The pronounced gaps in the mountain forest revealed the tragic past of the land.
It was rather symbolic of Japan itself. Despite Britannia’s clear and overwhelming technological advantage during the war, the country’s leadership had refused to surrender. In response, Britannia had turned to massacring random sections of the population to force the issue. If Japan was determined to fight to the last man, be they soldier or civilian, then that resolve would be put to the test.
The persistence and willpower the Japanese had needed to remain firm in its conviction to see the war to its ultimate end possessed a certain admirability. It took considerable strength of character to stare death in the face and say, “This is my home. You will not take it from me while I yet draw breath.”
It was also terrifying in its pointlessness.
Britannia had not hesitated to mow down everyone who stood before them. The only future promised then to the Japanese was to be remembered with reverence for their conviction. Britannia respected that in friend and foe alike. Yet still no surrender came, not until one monster had taken it upon himself to inflict irreversible chaos within the Japanese government to end the madness.
And so the people endured. They returned and repopulated. They felt cheated, perhaps rightfully so, and they were scarred, but they endured nonetheless.
Suzaku sipped from his cup of tea.
The weather was pleasantly warm for early April. A gentle breeze rolled in from the sea, and sun shone freely in the sky above. Today was the perfect day to let go of everything until duty and responsibility called the day after.
Footsteps approached from behind, ascending in long, even beats. Their source was tall and moved with purpose to its destination.
Suzaku sipped from his cup of tea.
A presence settled into place at the crest of the hill beside Suzaku. It took in the vista before them in silent reflection, cloaked in an aura of quiet strength and wisdom.
“What is it that you see?” The question was simple and open-ended so as not to bias the listener, but the implied meaning was clear.
“The trees,” Suzaku stated simply. His answer never changed no matter how many different ways he had the question posed to him. “And you?”
“The mountain beneath the forest.” The same answer as always.
Suzaku sipped from his cup of tea.
Not in the mood to philosophise and rehash old arguments, Suzaku changed the subject. “Marrybell called earlier today. She asked me to return to Tokyo for a few weeks. She didn’t tell me why, but it sounded urgent.”
There was no hesitation in the response. “You may go. I’ll be absent myself for a time. I imagine she and I are wrestling with the same concern at the moment.”
Oh? How unusual. The JLF and Marrybell’s concerns were usually each other, not a common threat. Is the Chinese Federation up to something? Perhaps it has to do with the war with Russia. Hmm…
Suzaku sipped from his cup of tea.
“Come. We have a guest who wishes to speak with you.”
A guest for me? That rarely boded well. “Who, might I ask?”
“Ah.” A wary smile grew on Suzaku. “Please lead the way, then, Tohdoh-sensei.”
Together the pair left the hill at a sedate pace to return to their home nearby. Once inside, Tohdoh led Suzaku into the sitting room where he came face to face with his twelve-year-old cousin, Sumeragi Kaguya. She was dressed in a furisode, as was her wont, and wore a modified hime cut that left her forehead exposed. Upon her brow resided the last piece of imperial regalia left to the Japanese people.
Unlike her appearance, Kaguya’s reaction to Suzaku’s entrance was not what he had expected. She usually threw decorum to the wind except at the most formal of occasions and would have wrapped him in a clingy hug by now. Instead, she sat in seiza with a stern, solemn look upon her face so at odds with her youth.
In the face of this dramatic change, Suzaku hesitantly offered a, “Good afternoon, Kaguya-chan.”
“Good afternoon, Suzaku-kun. Please be seated.”
Suzaku glanced at Tohdoh out of the corner of his eye before doing as asked. The man revealed nothing and merely took a seat himself.
“Now, then,” Kaguya began, “please tell me everything you know about Kōzuki Naoto.”
Huh? Kallen’s half-brother? Bemused but recognising why he was being asked, Suzaku said, “Well, I know almost nothing about the man, but as you wish.”
Kōzuki Resistance HQ
Nakano Ghetto, Area 11
April 4, 2016 a.t.b.
“Then when I turned around, there was a Brit right behind me. She ran before I could catch more than a glimpse of her, so we sent Shinozaki-san and C.C.-san on ahead with Shinichirō-kun.”
Naoto resisted face palming. If Shinozaki – wherever she and C.C. were – had not already let him know that both of them had gotten out safely, he would have organised a massive search party. Then again, Tamaki had been getting somewhat more reliable lately. Perhaps he was being unfair.
“We chased the Brit downstairs, expecting an ambush. We’d cleared the area before, so we were on edge. When we caught up to her...we may have jumped to conclusions. She was hiding behind a Japanese man on Refrain, so we dragged her out to question her. We’d just gotten started when Hideyoshi-san started bleeding. Then there was this pink blur.”
Oh, please, no. If Marrybell had been personally involved, this could turn into a disaster. The rest of the raid had gone so well. With all of the information Shinozaki had provided, it’d been so easy.
“Another woman hit me with something that knocked me out. The next thing I knew, I was tied to a chair in a room with Princess Marrybell right in front of me and another woman behind me. She said the Brit was one of her friends.”
Naoto didn’t want to ask. He really wanted to pretend this had never happened. “What did her friend look like?”
“Uh, green hair. Glasses. Petite. Kinda looked like an otaku?”
Naoto swore under his breath. That sounded like Nina Einstein, which meant he was going to have four royals and his sister after his head – five royals if one counted the viceroy.
“Did the princess let you go?” Naoto asked. He assumed so, but one never knew.
“Yeah. After I answered a few questions about her friend, she just let me leave. I checked for bugs and trackers but didn’t find any.”
Naoto’s phone vibrated. He spared it a brief glance and saw he had a message from Marrybell.
“Go straight to Sugiyama-san and get checked over officially.” Naoto hesitated a moment. “You should probably take a laxative as well.”
Naoto’s phone vibrated again. He didn’t need to look to know Marrybell had sent him another message.
“Do you have anything else to report?”
“Then you’re dismissed.” Once Naoto was alone, he let out a long sigh. Warily, he picked up his phone.
‘Amateur,’ the first message read. The second was just a long string of mocking laughter.
Well, I might as well get this over with. Naoto dialled Marrybell’s number. The line connected before it could even ring. “You wanted to talk?”
“I’m not sure ‘talk’ is the most accurate verb choice, but it shall do.”
Naoto could feel a headache building already. This was a perfect example of why he'd never wanted to be an earl. Here was a situation where no one was really in the wrong, but someone had gotten hurt, and now he had to leave everyone happy enough not to start a war.
“I’m sorry Miss Einstein got caught up in my operation.”
“Oh, thank you! I’m sure you apologising to me will make Nina feel like a new woman.”
Ugh. “I know you’re upset, but–”
“Upset?” Marrybell interrupted. “Oh, no, Naoto. I’m not upset. I am so far beyond the pale that I’m positively bubbling.”
“Perhaps you should lead this conversation,” Naoto offered as politely as he could manage.
“Very well. Do you know why I’m angry?”
The memory of Kallen asking Naoto that exact same question after the Battle of Shinjuku flashed through his mind. He assumed that meant Marrybell’s fury didn’t stem from her friend’s unpleasant run-in with his people – or not directly, at least. There had to be some other root cause that Einstein’s trouble had prodded.
Of course, with personalities like Marrybell’s, there were a few standard fallbacks.
“You believe what happened to Miss Einstein is your fault?”
“Oh, so you do understand,” Marrybell said. The faux cheer in her voice had vanished.
Naoto said nothing. He’d honestly just been guessing. Fortunately, Marrybell went on to explain for him.
“I could crush you and your organisation. By all rights, I should. Kallen and Lelouch may have left you to do as you will, but that doesn’t grant you my wilful ignorance. I’ve chosen to trust you when I should simply put a stop to you. That makes you my responsibility. That makes your fuck ups my fuck ups. And that makes me doubly at fault for what happened to Nina. Under my aegis, she came to harm by your direct actions.”
As Naoto listened to Marrybell indirectly berate herself, he felt a deep sense of kinship take root within him. He’d developed a similar sense of responsibility for the actions of others not under his direct command after Kallen had chastised him following Shinjuku. If circumstances were different, they could probably be the best of friends.
“I want to know what was so bloody important that you started a full scale battle in a civilian area. Then maybe, maybe, I can sleep at night knowing that I wasn’t wrong to trust you.”
“I understand,” Naoto said. He did, but that still left him in the awkward position of needing to keep Marrybell from triggering the war he’d set out to prevent out of anger. “I'm not saying I won’t tell you” – the aura of Marrybell's rising temper was palpable even over the phone – “but there's more at stake here for all of us than you might realise. If I do inform you, can I trust you in turn to let me handle it?”
No answer came.
The silence stretched.
“Oh.” Naoto appreciated Marrybell’s honesty, if not her answer. He briefly considered offering to work together instead, but he doubted she would accept that either. She'd probably be offended. “I don’t know where that leaves us, then.”
“Well, if the military can't hunt you down – and if you're even half as competent as I believe, they won't – it will turn to Clovis for guidance, which is pointless, because he'll have none to offer. He'll then turn to me and give me his story, which I’ll be compelled to investigate myself. Possibly with all the grace of a sledgehammer.”
I see. So her counteroffer is to give her enough information to be a scalpel instead. Naoto sunk into thought and considered if it would be less disastrous for Marrybell to have it or to let her stumble around in the dark. Without it, she might get herself killed if she got caught. On the other hand, she would likely only get herself killed, not start a war. It would take time for her to investigate as well, and time, truthfully, was all he really needed from her.
Best give her just enough to understand how dire the situation is, Naoto decided. “Very well, Marrybell. I was acting to prevent a civil war. The viceroy was experimenting on a close friend of the emperor against her will.”
Indistinct noises came from the other end of the phone, and a sinking feeling settled into Naoto’s chest. Had he given away too much with such a simple admission?
“Marrybell? Are you still there?”
A few moments later, Marrybell said, “Yes. Thank you for telling me. I'll handle this information with extreme caution. You should do the same.”
“Your brother wasn't the only one involved,” Naoto hastily added.
“I'm sure. We can swap notes another time. I have someone else to deal with at the moment.”
Naoto winced as Marrybell abruptly ended the call. That could have gone better. Still, it could have gone worse. Certainly, he’d feared a far, far worse outcome. If nothing else, it at least sounded as though there would be no more battles or shinobi knocking on his doorstep in the near future.
Tokyo Settlement, Area 11
April 4, 2016 a.t.b.
On the walk to Marrybell’s house from the nearest railway station, the pavement followed a long, winding path through the surrounding hills until it reached the bottom of the valley and levelled out. Along the way, one could easily jump over the railing at the edge of a particularly steep slope and climb vertically down to bypass a whole kilometre. Euphemia always chose this route when she came to visit – excluding that first disastrous attempt in a skirt – and this time was no exception despite her minor variation in execution.
“Look out below!” Euphemia called out moments before she leapt over the railing with a mischievous smile. Gravity took hold of her, and she plummeted. Unconcerned, she leaned back and waited. Sure enough, as expected, she landed cradled in the arms of the man who’d been walking the lower path.
Bemused, Suzaku asked, “Are you alright?” as he set Euphemia down onto her feet.
“Perfectly. Thank you for your assistance, Suzaku.” She gave him a friendly thank you kiss on the cheek which left him blushing and unable to look her in the eye. Seeing that, she giggled to herself. Suzaku was such a sweet boy. It warmed Euphemia’s heart to know Marrybell had someone like him in her life to smooth out her rough edges.
“Ano… You're welcome. You're…Euphyllia Linette, right?”
“Just ‘Euphie’, please.”
“Euphie, then. What are you doing here?”
“Visiting my sister.” Euphemia looped her arm around Suzaku's. “As we seem to be headed the same way, could I impose upon you to escort me there?”
“I – of course, My Lady.” And they departed. After a few moments to set the pace, Suzaku said, “I remember being introduced to Nuuna, but I don't recall you mentioning having another sister.”
A small grin crept onto Euphemia’s face. It would seem Marrybell had neglected to inform Suzaku of their relation. “I have several, actually. I come from a big family.”
“Oh? How is that? I'm an only child.”
“It has its ups and downs,” Euphemia replied. “If nothing else, one can always find pleasurable company.”
“An interesting way to think of it. Marrybell would probably say something similar about hers.”
“I imagine she would put it in rather more extreme terms.”
“True,” Suzaku said with a firm nod. “So where may we find this sister of yours?”
“Really? Have they known each other long?”
“Oh yes. For years now.”
“Huh. That's strange.”
Euphemia suppressed her laughter and asked, “How so?”
“Marrybell usually only invites people she trusts absolutely into her home. I thought I knew them all. I know all of the staff, too.” Suzaku paused a moment. “Unless, perhaps, your sister is married?”
“I should hope not!” Euphemia said in feigned outrage. “She’s not even a year my elder. And even if she were, she would keep her name. But in the spirit of your question, however, she’s not a Linette.”
“She’s my half-sister.”
“Ano… I’m not sure if – should I not enquire further?”
“No, don’t worry,” Euphemia said reassuringly. “Our father married both of our mothers.” Seeing the question Suzaku wanted to ask but wouldn’t on his lips, she added, “At the same time, of course. Tragedy has touched our lives many times, but that came later.”
“I’m sorry for making you recall it.”
Euphemia waved off Suzaku’s concern; she’d come to terms with her own relatively minor bereavements long ago. As she did, the pair breezed through the outer security at the perimeter of Marrybell’s home, Suzaku being all but a resident and her a welcomed guest.
“Perhaps I can guess who your sister is?” Suzaku suggested as they continued the walk to Marrybell’s front door. “Tell me about her.”
“Hmm… Do you know the Pollyanna archetype?”
“Always happy and eager to see the best in every situation?”
“Mm-hmm,” Euphemia hummed. “Imagine the exact opposite with an intense drive to fix everything.”
“Euphie,” Suzaku began, barely holding back laughter, “that’s mean.”
“Oh, she’s very honest with herself. I think she would be the first to admit it. Probably even wear it as a badge of honour. Sound familiar to you?”
“A little,” Suzaku admitted, “but not to my advantage.” As they arrived at the front door, he held it open for Euphemia and said, “After you.”
“Thank you, kind sir, and thank you for escorting me.” As Euphemia said the words, Marrybell walked into the vestibule. Just for fun, she slipped into a curtsy appropriate for greeting royalty but most definitely strange between royals.
“I'm glad you’re both – what on Earth are you doing?”
“Good evening, Your Highness,” Euphemia said. She didn’t bother to hide her smile as she then confessed her crimes. “I beg clemency of you, for I have wronged your dear friend. At his expense, I have greatly enjoyed myself. Please have mercy upon this misguided soul.”
Marrybell rolled her eyes.
“Euphie, you don’t need to–”
Interrupting, Marrybell said, “Suzaku, let me reintroduce you now that we’re not at Ashford. This is my sister, Euphemia li Britannia.”
Suzaku looked back and forth between the sisters. “Well, I am the fool.”
“I'm not even going to ask,” Marrybell said. “I don't want to know.”
Suzaku mumbled his gratitude for the easy escape granted to him.
“Regardless,” Marrybell continued, “does anyone want to guess who was responsible for the incident in Kokubunji?”
Judging by the irritated tone, Euphemia could guess, but Suzaku beat her to it. “Naoto Kōzuki, right?” Marrybell regarded him questioningly, to which he replied, “Kaguya asked me to tell her everything I know about him yesterday.”
“Oh? Interesting. I’ll be eager to hear if he accepts Kyōto House’s aid when they reach out to him. He’d have to play by their rules, and I doubt that–” Marrybell paused a moment. “She was asking on their behalf, was she not?”
Suzaku shrugged. “Probably, but who knows with her.”
“True enough, the precocious little runt. So what did you tell her?”
“As she asked, everything.”
Marrybell chuckled. “Well, that must have left her frustrated.”
Suzaku shrugged again but added nothing more. With the lull in the conversation, Euphemia took the opportunity to clear her throat and remind those two that there was someone else in the room with them, someone who lacked considerable amounts of context.
“Ah. Sorry, about that,” Marrybell said. “Suzaku, would you ask Akane to prepare snacks for us while I get Euphemia caught up? This is going to be a long night.”
Suzaku agreed and departed deeper into the house toward the kitchen. As he did, the girls left for the parlour.
“How is Nina?” Euphemia asked as they walked.
“A little better than when you left for school this morning,” Marrybell said. “She was resting when I last checked in on her.”
“That’s good. Has she had another panic attack?”
“Unfortunately. She bumped into Akane after lunch. I’ve suggested she move to Ashford at least until her ribs heal, but she’s resolute.”
Euphemia sighed. Of course the usually pliable little scientist would choose her own health and wellbeing to become obstinate over. “She has too many role models in her life capable of shrugging off what she went through.” A thought occurred. “Kallen has gone through similar experiences before. Do you think she’ll have any leave here before she and Lelouch depart for Russia?”
“I’d imagine she could make time,” Marrybell said, “but do you really think she’s the right person for Nina to talk to?”
After a few seconds, Euphemia admitted, “No, not at all.”
“My thoughts exactly. I’m hoping a slightly more familiar face than Akane will help instead.”
“Hmm, he does manage the lonely, cuddly puppy look very well.”
Marrybell turned her head away and poorly buried a snicker beneath a hand.
“Have you told Nina anything about the incident?” Euphemia asked.
“I have, actually.”
“Oh? Not worried about her letting something slip?”
With a shrug, Marrybell said, “We’re trusting her with something far more important, so I saw no reason not to when she insisted. Knowing that it wasn’t just senseless violence did seem to help her somewhat.”
Euphemia’s lips pressed into a thin line. She’d truly hoped this would all turn out to be a big misunderstanding, but it was not to be. “So it was human experimentation, then?”
With a scowl and clenched fists, Marrybell nodded.
“Clovis…” What happened to you? Euphemia shook her head of the thought. “Have you told Nina who orchestrated the raid?”
“No, I’d intended to save that bombshell until she’s actually ready to hear it. Unless you think otherwise?”
“No, I agree. It’s not something she needs to hear right now. I do hope it won’t affect her friendship with Kallen, though.”
As the pair entered the parlour, Euphemia’s eyes quickly took in the obvious changes from only this morning. One of the tables had an oily sheet covering it. Atop it sat a whetstone, a pair of leather gloves, a small cloth, and a half-dozen other odds and ends. In its scabbard, an arming sword sat on the clean end of the sheet.
Euphemia knew the weapon was no more a decoration than Kallen’s was a chic accessory. She laughed in a light, uneasy manner as she pushed aside vivid imaginations of what use Marrybell had recently put it to. “Not exactly the mess one expects to encounter in a princess’s home,” she commented with a playful nudge from her shoulder.
“No, your sister would have guns out in your home instead.”
“Touché.” Euphemia chose not to observe that Cornelia was Kallen’s swordmaster and occasional sparring partner. Instead, she took her seat at a clean table.
“I apologise for the mess nonetheless. I’d been putting off maintenance, and after speaking with Naoto…”
“I understand,” Euphemia said. She’d seen Cornelia and Kallen slip into an almost meditative state when cleaning their own weapons more than once. “Anyway, you were going to bring me up to speed?”
“Indeed. I’m unsure what you already know, so I’ll just give you a summary of all the major players. When Suzaku gets back, I’ll brief you both on the current situation.”
With a nod, Euphemia leaned back into her chair and prepared to listen.
“There are a few dozen big names in the colony. Clovis you already know, but the two other most relevant are General Asprius and Duke Calares.
“General Asprius is the head of the local army. The son of two commoners, he worked his way up through the ranks mostly through his administrative skills. He distinguished himself by rallying the army after the defeat at Itsukushima during the Invasion of Japan and pressed on to take Hiroshima. After the Second Pacific War ended, Clovis acknowledged his efforts and loyalty to the imperial family and offered him his current command. Needless to say, he fights wars better than he puts down insurgency.
“Unlike the general, Duke Calares is aristocracy through and through. He’s the second son of a duke and managed to get Tokyo for his own through effective leadership on the field rather than off it. That and no small amount of familial influence. The management of Tokyo is left mostly to his advisers while he plays politics with the other nobles in the colony. Clovis usually lets him have his way as his ambitions are mostly harmless, although I have noticed that he’s followed Clovis’s lead more often recently.
“To the best of my knowledge, those two and Clovis are the primary minds behind the Code R project.
“On the other side, there’s Naoto, of course. You know him better than I do. He heads a growing pseudo-government in the ghettos that functions in many capacities that he really shouldn’t have to provide the Japanese for us. He raided the Code R site and rescued the subject or subjects within for reasons I’ll explain later. I don’t know where he got his information from as I’ve yet to properly interrogate him, but I have my suspicions.
“Lastly, observing everything, there’s the NAC. It stands for…Native…Alliance…Committee?” After a moment, Marrybell shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. Literally everyone uses the acronym. Anyway, in the terms of Japan’s surrender, it worked out a deal that allowed its members to retain control of the Mount Fuji sakuradite mines and their own enterprises. It consists of six of Japan’s wealthiest families, both then and now. To give you a sense of scale, they each have wealth on par with Kallen’s.”
Euphemia whistled, impressed. Between New York City’s tax revenue and Stadtfeld Industries, Kallen was the type of girl who regularly dealt with numbers in the tens of billions, sometimes hundreds.
“I can’t prove it, but the NAC is the primary source of funding behind the area’s resistance movements and terrorist cells. It operates under the name Kyōto House. Notably, its beneficiaries include the JLF but not the Kōzuki Resistance. Of the consortium, there are two members of particular note.
“Taizō Kirihara is the head of the Kirihara family and the unofficial leader of the NAC. He had a lot of pull with the Japanese government and worked closely with Britannia in establishing the colony after the war. Most Japanese call him Kirihara the Traitor. My next shogi match with him is this Saturday.”
Euphemia quirked an eyebrow. “Shogi? Not chess?”
“Loser picks,” Marrybell explained with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Clovis usually appoints me to act as his representative as regards the NAC since I know Kirihara, speak Japanese, and am not a dullard. He and I typically spend the time snarking at each other in-between actual business discussions.
“Finally, we come to Kaguya Sumeragi. She’s twelve, the last Sumeragi, and possesses the kind of precocious genius for politics that Nina has in physics. She’s also the closest living relative to the last Emperor of Japan. Fortunately, the NAC otherwise consists of traditional old men, so no one really listens to her.”
“She’s also my cousin and one of Marrybell’s closest friends,” Suzaku said as he walked into the room. He smiled and added, “Even if neither will admit it.”
“Mutual respect does not imply friendship,” Marrybell protested. “I’m not friends with the littlest terrorist.”
“Oh? Is that what she is?” Suzaku’s smile turned roguish. “But you just said that no one listens to her. She could be arguing for every Japanese woman to wed the emperor behind closed doors, and the world would look the same to you and me.”
“Don’t twist my words!”
“Very well. Then in that case, do you want me to tell Kaguya not to send her daifuku for your birthday this June?”
Marrybell looked visibly torn. No words passed her lips, but Euphemia did hear a soft, despairing whine emanate from her as she wrestled with the decision.
An amused Suzaku took his seat while he said, “And this is what I have to live with, Your Highness.”
Giggling, Euphemia returned Suzaku’s smile. “It’s still just Euphie, please, or Euphemia if you prefer.” After she received a nod, she asked, “So if you’re Kaguya’s cousin and she’s the heiress to the throne, should I be thinking of you as a prince?”
“No, no,” Suzaku said, waving his hand back and forth as if he could swat the idea from the air. “I’m far enough down the line of succession that it’s not worth mentioning at all. Japan’s royalty had no political power anyway. We were a republic in all but name.” Brushing the topic aside without a word more, he added, “Akane said she’d bring everything up in about twenty minutes.”
“Good,” Marrybell said. “In the meantime, let’s begin. We need to decide on a tentative course of action going forward tonight. First, Suzaku, do you have any questions?”
Suzaku shook his head and said, “Nothing immediate beyond the obvious.”
“Then I’ll start us off by sharing what I know of the incident on Saturday.
“According to Naoto, the Code R Project did involve human experimentation as we expected. Among the victims was one of the emperor’s personal friends.”
Marrybell didn’t need to explain why this was a very bad idea, but she did explain how far-reaching the consequences could be given the level of corruption in the Area Eleven government. Ignoring all of the other repercussions, igniting a war between all the superpowers centred on the Japanese islands would be the final nail in the coffin for a conquered country and the ruin of a failing colony.
“Ultimately,” Marrybell continued, “and though I hate to admit it, it’s probably for the best that Naoto was the one who shut down Code R. And it is gone. The site is nothing more than a ruin now. Whatever evidence we might have found there has been reduced to rubble.
“Anyway, as I was saying, I don’t know where Naoto got all his information from yet, but I’m not sure if I would have been able to obtain the important bit myself. At least not before I decided to expose Clovis. Needless to say, that would have been bad. For now, so long as Clovis thinks that Naoto believes he’s stolen poison gas, Clovis and his accomplices should keep themselves occupied chasing after ghosts instead of planning a desperate rebellion.”
With Marrybell’s explanation fresh in her mind and Lelouch and Kallen being off at war never far from her thoughts, a strange idea occurred to Euphemia. Her uncertainty must have shown on her face, as Marrybell asked, “Euphemia, what is it?”
“Well… You’re both aware that Russia declared war on us, right?” After Euphemia received a pair of nods, she continued, “If we manage to take Russia’s territory on the coast, the EU wouldn’t be able to exert nearly as much naval pressure in the Pacific, let alone invade the colony. I was just considering that maybe Father already knows about Clovis, but then I remembered that we weren’t the ones who declared war, so that couldn’t–”
“Euphemia,” Marrybell interrupted with a frigid anger underlying her voice. “Do you need me to list all the times and all the ways the emperor has gotten the war he wanted while seeming innocent himself?”
“What?” And then Euphemia remembered exactly who she was talking to. “Oh. No, you’re right. I’m sorry.”
“It’s a good idea, though,” Suzaku inserted into the silence, dispelling most of the lingering tension. “We could probably rebuff the Chinese Federation if the EU can’t interfere directly.”
“We can,” Marrybell said. The coldness left her voice. “I considered that myself, but the timing doesn’t match. The Code R Project hasn’t been around long enough for the emperor to discover it, notice his friend was an unwilling participant, and compel Russia into declaring war. It’s possible, I suppose, but unlikely.”
“But Lelouch and Kallen were ready and waiting for the invasion,” Euphemia commented.
“I didn’t say the emperor wasn’t responsible for the war or expecting it, only that his motivation – initially, at least – wasn’t to rescue and avenge his friend. Regardless, we’re veering off on a tangent. We need to decide what to do now that we don’t have evidence of Code R to tear down everyone involved with the project.”
“Do we need to do anything?” Suzaku asked. “Won’t the emperor deal with this himself?”
Marrybell pressed her lips into a thin line and hesitated to answer, so Euphemia took the lead. “He will, but we’d pass up a major opportunity to obtain political power and create a strong, positive public image for ourselves.”
“Exactly,” said Marrybell. A grateful smile flashed across her face. Having had to talk her down from outright murder, Euphemia knew she wanted – perhaps needed – to bring Clovis to justice herself. That more than any other potential gains was her goal. “There’s an added complication as well. Naoto said he intended to finish the job himself, which could mean several things.
“First, he could intend to make his own bid for the island, which would accomplish that, but considering his stated motivation for his actions, it’s highly unlikely. It’s also unlikely he has the material necessary to prosecute a war in even the most optimistic estimates. He leads more of a government than a rebellion.
“Second, he might intend to mete out justice himself. This would be in keeping with his usual behaviour of championing justice and order in the ghettos, and Suzaku, I don’t want to hear it.”
Suzaku held up his hands in submission. “I didn’t say a word. I know better than to argue with you again over the corruption in the police force. You don’t need to break out the charts.”
Marrybell harrumphed. Meanwhile, Euphemia smiled and chuckled to herself. Suzaku really was good for Marrybell. The last time she’d seen her sister so genuine as she’d been today, they’d both been children and Flora and Julia had been alive.
“Third, Naoto has no intention of taking independent action but knows something will be done and doesn't want us to get in the way of that. I personally consider this case the most likely. He knew far too much about the Code R site given the circumstances, which meant he was getting his information from someone outside his sphere of influence, probably someone he knows who works directly for the emperor. Euphemia, do you have any idea who that might be?”
Euphemia pushed her mind back to Aries Villa and Stadtfeld Manor. The only names she might be able to provide would have to come from the time between when Kallen – and Naoto, by extension – had entered her life but before she’d left the homeland for Ashford Academy. She listed each person as they came to her whether plausible or not.
“There’s Marianne and Sayoko, of course, and, if you count them, Lelouch and Kallen,” Euphemia rattled off.
“Dead, probably dead, and no,” Marrybell replied.
Continuing on, Euphemia said, “A few Knights of the Round I believe at least know of Naoto. Nonette. Lord Waldstein. Lord Manfredi. Lady Ernst.”
“Too high profile,” Marrybell commented.
“I know Cornelia has spoken with him several times.”
“Same problem but more so.”
“One of the staff from Aries Villa six years ago, perhaps.”
“A possibility,” Marrybell allowed.
“What about the Stadtfelds?” Suzaku asked.
Euphemia hesitated a moment and mentally rephrased the question. Suzaku clearly wasn’t aware of what had happened all those years ago. “It’s not likely. The current staff is loyal to Kallen alone.”
Suzaku opened his mouth, but a swift and none too subtle kick beneath the table from Marrybell clued him in on the exact meaning of ‘current’ and what had happened to the disloyal. “Right,” he said. “Anyone else?”
“Hmm…” One last name came to mind. “There’s Anya Alstreim,” Euphemia mused.
“Who?” Marrybell said.
“An old acquaintance I’ve lost touch with. I highly doubt she’d be involved, though. I’m not sure she even knows Naoto exists.”
“Other ideas, then?”
“No one in particular comes to mind.”
“Strange,” Marrybell said as much to herself as anyone else. “I wouldn’t expect Naoto to trust someone he doesn’t know when it comes to this kind of information.” After a few seconds, she shrugged. “Well, whatever. I don’t know him that well. So? Same question as before. What do we do now?”
“Would Kōzuki have taken evidence with him from Code R?” Suzaku asked.
“The raid was well executed,” Marrybell replied, “so unless he was instructed not to, I’d imagine so. I’ll ask after it eventually, but I highly doubt he’ll hand any of it over to me. He already has plans, whatever they are, and doesn’t want me to throw a spanner in the works. He’d have been more cooperative when I spoke with him otherwise.”
Unable to help herself, Euphemia giggled as an idea occurred. When Marrybell turned a curious eyebrow onto her, she said, “We could always steal it from him.”
Marrybell cracked a grin. “Yes, we could. Sounds like a migraine in the making, though, and I’d rather not risk it being accidentally destroyed.”
“The viceroy might have other major crimes we could look into,” Suzaku offered. “Ones that wouldn’t spark a rebellion.”
“I’m sure he does,” Marrybell said. “Finding them could take some time, but that approach isn’t mutually exclusive with any other.”
Both Suzaku and Marrybell turned to stare at Euphemia. She blushed under the attention and tapped her fingers together nervously. “Well, it’s just, Clovis doesn’t know that we don’t have the evidence, and since we don’t, he couldn’t steal it from us. Really, that we know what he was up to is bad enough for him, and I don’t think he’s really all that attached to the actual day-to-day ruling of the colony.”
“He’s not,” Marrybell said, “but extortion is an inherently dangerous gambit. Beyond simply letting the victim know you know too much, making enemies you don’t intend to destroy is usually an option of last resort. They have a tendency to bite you in the arse when you can least afford it.” After a pause, she added, “But we could always just kill him at the end.”
“No murdering our siblings,” Euphemia said with a sigh. She knew Marrybell was only half-serious in the suggestion.
“I prefer ‘delivering justice’ to ‘murder’.”
Suzaku, who had his face buried in his hands by this point, said, “Why don’t we spend the next month or so pursuing options that won’t make us the viceroy’s archenemy?”
“I think that’s a lovely idea,” Euphemia said. She and Suzaku turned to stare at the last member of the trio, who pouted comically with her cheeks puffed out.
“You two are so naive. The only thing waiting for Clovis at the end of all this is a bullet in the brain. The only thing that’ll change is who gets to do it.”
Despite how she flinched away from the thought, Euphemia knew that was a likely outcome. She knew it the very moment Marrybell had told her their father had a personal stake in the matter. It would take more charisma and political capital than she, Marrybell, and Clovis collectively possessed to save him. There were possible futures where he lived, she was sure, but far too few. Maybe Lelouch or Schneizel could weave the threads of fate down one, but she doubted either had the freedom or the inclination to help someone who, in all honesty, probably didn’t deserve it.
Still, Euphemia would try her best. Clovis was her brother, after all, and Marrybell had suffered the loss of too much family already.
As the staring continued, Marrybell eventually relented. “Fine, fine. I’ll see what I can make happen. Other thoughts?”
Tokyo Settlement, Area 11
April 6, 2016 a.t.b.
Marrybell grunted as she tossed aside another useless document. In Area Eleven, it was easy to find hints of corruption. She had plenty of practice chasing vague rumours and tiny irregularities to ironclad truth, but there was a stark difference between unearthing a criminal's misdeeds and finding evidence against a specific criminal. She'd keep looking both because she was sure she'd eventually find something and to satisfy Euphemia, but Clovis and the other major backers of Code R had hidden whatever else they were guilty of very well.
Well, everything of significance, that was. Marrybell had already stumbled upon weak evidence of outright bribery and other minor crimes, but nothing that would result in anything more than a slap on the wrist and the disappointed click of a tongue. That was just how Area Eleven operated.
A small part of Marrybell hoped she’d taken on an impossible task, that Clovis had nothing else important to hide. The betrayal would sting less if Code R was a one-time indiscretion. But nobody jumped from a morally upstanding guy to someone who conducted nightmarish experiments on his fellow man. There had to be some bridge between the two states. Or an extraordinary reason overriding normal moral judgement.
Marrybell’s phone rang, and she pushed that last thought from her mind. She glanced up from the paperwork scattered across her desk she’d been scrutinising to see if it was anyone important. A second later, she answered it and turned the speakerphone on so she could keep working.
“Good evening, Marrybell.”
“Evening, Lelouch. I heard about your crushing victory in Area Two. Good work.”
“I try. To be fair, the real challenge is upcoming. Russia was unprepared for Portmans.”
Portmans? Where have I heard… “Oh, yes. The new marine knightmare. How did those work out?”
“Very well when used properly. No one has developed countermeasures for them yet, so the battle went as well as the invasion of Japan.”
Marrybell bit her lip and said nothing to that. It was a fair comparison.
“Anyway, that’s not why I’m calling. Clovis called earlier today asking for my help with his little chemical weapons scandal in the making.”
“He actually went to you?” Marrybell asked, hardly able to believe it. “You’re in the middle of a war.” She’d thought Clovis had more good sense than to draw attention to himself like that.
“Be careful of who he asks next.”
“No kidding.” That last thing Marrybell wanted was someone like Schneizel sticking his nose into this mess. He would gladly help, too, and then his power over Clovis would be unshakable for however long the man lasted. “I’d reconsider his request to lead the investigation, but he knows me too well. I don’t think I could feign ignorance for long with him.”
“You know what he was up to, then?”
Marrybell let out a weary sigh. She didn’t have the emotional energy to be angry right now. “It was exactly what we expected with the worst possible victim.”
“Oh, just a personal friend of Daddy.” Marrybell chuckled. She could almost feel Lelouch cringe at the faux sweetness in her tone. “Naoto put an end to the experiments, but there’s still work to be done. I don’t know the full story yet.”
“Kallen could probably wring it out of him,” Lelouch offered.
“No, I’ve got the situation under control. You two just go enjoy your war. I wouldn’t want to distract you.”
“It wouldn’t be much of an imposition. Kallen is already in the Tokyo area.”
“Oh?” What could be important enough for such a large detour? “What is she up to, then?”
“She picked up some strays.”
Tokyo Settlement, Area 11
April 6, 2016 a.t.b.
“This is a school?” Erika asked incredulously. The very same question was on Marika’s mind as well as she took in the view. Ashford Academy, at a glance, was probably bigger than her and her fiancé’s estates put together. And it was in the middle of the Tokyo Settlement; the property values there ranked among the highest in the world!
Kallen chuckled. “I love the first reaction. Yes, this is a school. It boasts the best – if sometimes unorthodox – education in Britannia. Outside of homeschooling, of course, if you’re a complete swot.”
The Valkyries laughed, but Marika noticed an odd, almost rueful smile on Kallen’s face.
“Anyway, I hope you four will enjoy life here. Nowhere else in Britannia will you find a more open and accepting community, so do try to make friends, and don’t feel too bound to duty. If I remember correctly, everyone is required to join a club. When I next come back, I expect to see each of you in ones you actually enjoy, not just following Nunnally around. Understood?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Marika replied in chorus with her friends.
Marika turned to find an auburn haired girl Kallen’s age approaching and waving at them.
“Ah, perfect timing,” Kallen said. “Everyone, this is Shirley Fenette. She’s a member of the student council, the benign authoritarian regime that will control every aspect of your life outside the classroom.”
Say what now?
“Kallen, please don't give them the wrong impression,” Fenette protested. “Prez isn’t nearly that bad.”
“Whatever gets you through the day,” Kallen said. She and Fenette shared a smile. “Anyway, I need to speak with security and the headmaster to finalise your transfer here. Once I’m done, I’ll need to get back to Lelouch, so this will be goodbye for now. Someone will meet you later to show you the non-civvy stuff on campus, but in the meantime, I’ll leave you in Shirley’s capable hands.”
After farewells were given and Marika had expressed her gratitude one last time, Kallen separated from the group and left to head deeper into campus. A large part of Marika wished to leave with her, but there were more productive things to do than fight for a cause doomed to failure at the outset.
With a small sigh, Marika turned her attention from the most amazing woman she’d ever had the good fortune to meet back to Fenette.
As she walked toward the main entrance to the Academy, Kallen intertwined her fingers above her head to crack her knuckles and stretch her arms and back. A soft moan of pleasure escaped her with every pop. The Valkyries’ paperwork was finished, she’d covered their tuition, and the head of security was aware of the ostensible reason for their enrolment. She’d had time to chat with Ruben for a little while and remain ahead of schedule, and even the weather was warm.
What a wonderful day. Why can’t everyday be like–
Kallen froze as her day just became stranger. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the bottom half of a girl wearing an Ashford uniform sticking out of a bush. The skirt covered everything important, and the girl’s feet reached the ground, so Kallen doubted she needed assistance, but still.
What on Earth… After a quick glance back at Ashford’s clocktower, Kallen shrugged. Eh, I’ve still got time. This was entirely too interesting to ignore.
With silent footsteps, Kallen crept up behind the girl. Then standing on her toes, she peered over the bush. To her surprise, Nunnally was sitting in a field on the other side having a picnic with a few of her classmates.
“What are you doing?” Kallen asked.
“Taking pictures of the most adorable girl on campus,” the girl replied without a hint of shame, guilt, or surprise.
Kallen pinched the bridge of her nose and muttered a curse upon the eccentricities of Ashford students. “Did you ask if she’s fine with that?”
“No, but she knows she has a fan club and is okay with it.”
What does this place do to people? a bemused Kallen thought with a shake of her head. “I suppose I can’t fault you, then. Do you have a name and torso, or am I just talking to a pair of legs?”
“Every teenage boy’s dream, right?”
Despite herself, Kallen snickered as the girl withdrew from the bush. She had long black hair with a few leaves trapped in it, brown eyes, and appeared to be perhaps a year or two older than Kallen. She let her camera hang from her neck and quickly slipped into an elegant and precise curtsy that spoke of more knowledge of etiquette than Kallen had expected from her behaviour and diction.
“Good afternoon, Countess Stadtfeld. I’m Elizabeth Ward, but most people outside the academy call me Anne.”
“Oh, yes.” Both security and Ruben had mentioned the woman’s recent arrival. “You’re the OSI agent staying here undercover, correct?”
“The one and only,” Anne said, twirling gracefully as she did. Kallen noticed with some amusement that the act dislodged the leaves stuck in her hair. “You need not fret, however. My assignment doesn’t involve anyone at Ashford, so please don’t ask.”
Anne glanced around and fidgeted slightly. “Um… It’s very nice to meet you, and I would love to chat if you have the time. I’m a big fan, actually. Both as a knight and elsewhere. But I don’t suppose your prince is here, is he?”
Kallen smirked knowingly. “I’m afraid it’s just me.” She took no offence to Anne’s dispirited, “Oh,” and continued, “But I have a few spare minutes if you would like to take tea with me.”
“It would be my pleasure.”
With that, Kallen and Anne left together to seek out one of the cafes on campus. They chatted along the way and swapped stories about their jobs, laughing all the while. Before she even knew it, Kallen had placed her order and found a table outside to enjoy the sun on this unusually warm April day. She went for a more traditional teacake while Anne favoured the crepes.
“And the mission had already gone horribly wrong by that point,” Anne said, continuing her latest tale. “I knew it was going to be one of those days when I stumbled across a bloody harem of Britannian slaves. I even recognised one of them as a missing earl’s daughter. The baron had me knocked on the ground, a gun in his hand and me lying prone and groaning on my chest. Then he grabbed me by the hair – which fuck him, by the way; not cool – and yanked me up. He put the gun to the back of my head, and what does he do?”
“Bathe her and bring her to me,” Kallen mumbled with a chuckle.
“He says bathe her and bring her to me!” Anne cried in exasperation. “He tossed me back to the ground, and at first all I could think was, ‘Are you fucking serious?’ I mean, the man had to know that I was going to kill him after that, and if any of his appendages got between my teeth, he wasn’t going to keep them long.”
“So how did you kill the bastard?” There was no doubt that Anne had without too much trauma – if any – considering that she’d opted to share the story.
“Poison on my lips.”
Kallen let out a bark of laughter.
“I pursed them during the bath and played the victim. Not my favourite assassination technique, but I learnt to take the kill however I can get it long before I entered into the emperor’s service, and damn did the shock on his face feel good.”
“No doubt,” Kallen said, politely sidestepping the issue of Anne’s life before becoming an OSI agent. “I lament how few hilarious war stories of my own I possess. I have but one left to share, tragically.”
“Lay it on me,” Anne said with an eager grin.
After a moment of hesitation, Kallen returned the grin and said, “Gladly.” And so she told Anne of her first duel with Suzaku. She left out names and important identifying information as Anne had, but the tale left the woman pounding the table and gasping for breath nonetheless.
“You – you dropped the – the building!” Anne struggled to get out. “And then – and then – oh, that’s my girl! Bloody well done, Poppet. Absolutely brilliant!”
“I live to entertain,” Kallen remarked dryly. Then remembering how Anne had described the death of the baron, she asked, “Looking back, it was such a rush. An absolute thrill. I believe in what I do, but is it really okay to enjoy it so much?”
After her laughing fit finally abated, a marginally more serious Anne replied, “We’re human. It’s natural to enjoy the thrill of a challenge. Or feel a little vindictive.”
“I suppose so.” Kallen said. It was nothing she’d not thought before, but it did ease her conscience to hear someone other than Lelouch say it as well. She took a sip of her tea.
“We all do what we must to cope,” Anne said with a shrug. “We live in a horrible world.”
“No argument there. Even at the top of the heap, life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.”
“Not saying it’s not,” Anne grumbled, “but try growing up on the streets.”
Kallen quirked an eyebrow without a word. She wanted to hear more after that but didn’t intend to press Anne to go on if she chose not to.
“I was born in Rio,” Anne said dispassionately. “Mum and Dad died when I was five, and I slipped through the cracks in the system. Took me over a decade and a lot of time indoors to prove I wasn’t a Six. No one believes a thing street rats say. Learnt to pickpocket, beg, make myself unseen, fight, even kill when necessary. I lied, and cheated, and stole my way through life. Nearly got enslaved once, too.”
Kallen made a mental note to pick Anne’s brain for information when it came time to reform the empire. She and anyone like her should not exist.
“I loved to travel, though. That was the one upside. I got to see the world as I drifted from city to city. I even made it to Japan once. Lovely country. One day I picked the wrong target to lift a few quid from, but that turned out to be the best day of my life. He took me in and gave me a home. Most children like me aren’t so lucky, though.”
“I…” Kallen could say she sympathised and talk about Marianne, but those were secrets not her own to share. “I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry you had to go through all that.”
Anne sighed. “It’s in the past. I have a real life now to do with as I please.”
“And so you joined the OSI? As a field operative no less.” That was a dangerous profession, to say the least.
“Hey, I get to do what I do best, I love being a secret agent, and the emperor pays me a fortune to do it. It doesn’t get much better than that, now does it?”
Kallen shrugged and accepted the argument for what it was. “Is being an spy your dream job, then?”
“Hmm… It’s certainly up there. What about you? Is being a royal knight all it’s cracked up to be?”
“I don’t think I can answer that,” Kallen said. “Lelouch and I were friends for years before I gave him my oath. The only thing that’s changed is I answer to him now instead of the law. My actual job, if you want to call it that, is governing New York City and overseeing Stadtfeld Industries.”
Anne hummed in interest. “Why did you become a knight?”
“Lelouch and I want to make the world a better place. We have more options available to us this way.”
“Uh-huh. You know, you could achieve the same ends if you just married the boy.”
Kallen nearly choked on her tea before forcing it down while Anne giggled at her. She sent a glare the woman’s way.
“Make the world a better place, eh?” Anne mused as her smile faded. “I want to do that myself. When I look back, I think, ‘If someone had just believed me.’ ‘If someone had just taken the time to know what I was going through.’ Everything worked out for me in the end, but I’m the exception. I got lucky.”
Anne’s eyes left Kallen to stare at something only she could see. Her already remarkably decent posture straightened, and the conviction of a woman with a plan and the resolve to see it through entered into her voice.
“I want more than just a patch in the system. Britannia is not the only country with problems. Starvation. Disease. Racism. Poverty. Corruption. Betrayal. The world is rife with it all.”
“I would argue that those result from systemic failures,” Kallen said. Except for betrayal. “But what would you see changed?”
“I dream of a world where we all understand one another. A world where we ease each other’s suffering.”
“And how would you create such a perfect world?” Kallen asked.
A second passed, and then two.
“I was so certain once,” Anne whispered. Her eyes reflected the depth of pain Kallen expected of someone of her background, but the moment was fleeting. An easy smile slipped back onto her face soon enough. “Perhaps I’ll use magic.”
Unable to help herself, Kallen snorted in amusement. That wasn’t the answer she’d expected at all. Holding back a smirk, she said, “I hope your interest in my handsome prince isn’t so you can work your feminine magic on him.”
A disgusted grimace flashed over Anne’s face but was gone before Kallen could blink. “No, no. I assure you he’s all yours. I’m happily married, actually. Mostly. And not looking for more.”
“Really? How old are you?”
“Older than you,” Anne said with a playful warning in her voice.
Kallen laughed before she fully processed the asterisk Anne had added. “Wait, ‘mostly’? Want to talk about it?”
“It’s nothing,” Anne sighed. “My husband and I are having a bit of a tiff is all. Circumstances don’t give us much time alone together, but we’ll be fine once we finally get some bloody time to ourselves to talk without worrying about…others. And have mad, passionate make-up sex afterwards, of course.”
“Of course,” Kallen agreed with a sage nod. She chuckled as she drained her cup of the last of her tea. “I should probably get going, but I hope everything works out. It’s been nice talking to you.” As she stood up, she considered that it would be a waste to let talent like Anne simply walk away. She and Lelouch were always on the lookout for more allies. “Actually, what’s your email?”
Anne told her, and Kallen sent out an email so that they had each other’s.
“There’s mine. Contact me when Lelouch and I get back from the war, and we’ll talk. If you really want to make a better world, he and I are probably the right place for you.”
Without hesitation, a bright smile grew on Anne’s face. “Thank you, My Lady. I might very well take you up on that offer.”
“Just Kallen is fine.”
Tokyo Settlement, Area 11
April 17, 2016 a.t.b.
Marrybell stared wide-eyed at the image on Naoto’s phone in shock. The questions and mysteries kept piling up one after another. Code R had already shattered everything she thought she knew about Clovis, and now it threatened to turn Lelouch’s world upside down as well. She turned to Suzaku.
“Can you go distract Soresi-san?” There were few places more secure for conversation than the tunnels beneath Ashford with a roaring waterfall in the background, and this would need it. Suzaku hesitated a moment, curiosity on his face. “I’ll tell you everything later.”
“Alright,” Suzaku said.
“You know who that is, right?” Marrybell demanded the moment Suzaku managed to get Soresi out of the room.
“Shinozaki Sayoko, yes. But that’s not–”
Marrybell cut Naoto off. “Lelouch has been looking for her for years! She’s supposed to be dead!”
“I know, but–”
“How long have you known?” Marrybell pressed.
“A few weeks, but–”
“Why haven’t you–”
Taken aback, Marrybell closed her mouth.
“Listen,” Naoto began. “Shinozaki-san make it clear that if I told anyone she was around, she would leave, and she needed my help with Code R. I asked her the obvious questions Lelouch-kun would want to know, but she refused to answer them. She only gave me two straight answers. She didn’t witness Empress Marianne’s death, and the empress is the one who ordered her not to say anything. Okay?”
Marrybell let out an exasperated sigh. “No. I bet you’re expecting me to tell Lelouch now.”
“Better your head than mine,” Naoto said, the cheeky bastard.
“That’s not the point, though. You need to watch this security footage.”
“How much do you have?”
Naoto pinched the bridge of his nose. “Marrybell-san, we can argue over how to deal with the viceroy later. This is more important.”
Marrybell took Naoto’s phone and turned her attention fully onto it. It showed a lab of some sort with three entrances. There was a strange dome with pipes and valves attached to it about two metres tall in one corner with desks and cabinets in two others. Racks of computers laid in the final corner with thick cables leading from them to a chair in the centre of the room.
Besides Shinozaki, there were roughly a dozen soldiers in the room. Just inside one entrance, a pair of bodies lay splayed on the ground. One was another soldier, and the other was a woman with long green hair in a straitjacket that covered her whole body. From the position they’d fallen in, it looked like the soldier had been carrying the woman in his arms when he’d been shot.
The woman must be the emperor’s friend. Good to know. I assume she lives through this.
Marrybell moved to press play, but she hesitated when her eyes landed on small blur between the defenders and Shinozaki’s group.
What is that? Marrybell squinted. Is that a sword? What? Who throws a sword in these cir– She shook her head. Whatever.
Marrybell pressed play.
Everything happened too quickly to see or be believed. Marrybell turned the playback speed to its minimum setting and watched the video again.
“What on Earth?”
Marrybell played the video again. She tried watching the soldiers more closely, but the sequence of events was nonsensical. She watched it again, this time paying particular attention to wherever the sword went.
First, Shinozaki’s group charged into the room. The man carrying the woman came first, which made no sense if they were trying to rescue her. She needed to be protected at the back. And of course the man was mowed down in an instant, because there were a dozen soldiers at the other end of the room waiting to shoot him.
Immediately after that, Shinozaki rolled into the room and lobbed an unsheathed rapier toward the enemy. She took cover behind the weird dome. Meanwhile, one of the soldiers turned and fired on his allies. He killed three before he finally stopped.
Why? The question burned in Marrybell’s mind, and she paused the video for a moment to think. He already helped kill the man carrying the woman. Why turn on his comrades now? And why stop?
Marrybell resumed the video. Immediately after the traitor stopped firing, another soldier grasped the sword by the hilt as it flew past him. Then he stabbed the man next to him. As the shock and confusion worked its way through the group at yet another betrayal, he withdrew the sword and tossed it to another soldier. As he did, he was in turn shot by someone else.
The sword came into force again, resulting in yet another betrayal. Once more, it’s possessor tossed it through the air. Unlike the last two times, the intended new wielder moved to dodge, but the rest of his team had taken the hint and shot him before he could do anything.
Unfortunately for them, Shinozaki acted at that moment. She tossed a kunai straight into the throat of one of her last five remaining enemies, who fell down dead.
Marrybell paused the video as she witnessed another spontaneous betrayal from someone who had already fired at two traitors and pinched the bridge of her nose.
What is going on? The betrayals are sequential, and the only evidence of cooperation between the traitors is the sword.
The fight continued. Down to just three opponents, one who was nominally on her side, Shinozaki leapt into the fray herself and took down one of the two remaining probable enemies with an already bloodied dagger. She moved to take down the last remaining questionable but paused at a word from her maybe ally. A second later, she killed the soldier who’d spoken with the dagger in her hand and then shared a nod with the last remaining one.
Shinozaki retrieved the rapier while her apparent new ally picked up the green haired woman. Together, they left the room.
I don’t even – “is this some kind of joke?” Marrybell asked. She had other theories, but they were all unlikely and involved a level of incompetence that would prevent Shinozaki from getting as far as she had.
“It’s real,” Naoto said. “Watch it again, but watch C.C.-san.” To Marrybell’s quirked eyebrow, he added, “The woman they’re carrying.”
With a nod, Marrybell did as bidden. In the initial charge into the room, she noticed that the soldiers shot C.C. as much as the man carrying her.
“I see. So the rescue was a failure. That’s not going to make the emperor happy.”
When Marrybell looked up from the video, Naoto shook his head at her. “She’s not dead.”
“Are you mad? No one survives being shot a few dozen times in the chest.”
“C.C.-san was alive, walking, and talking less than ten minutes later.”
“If you’re going to lie to me,” Marrybell said flatly, “you could at least not insult me.”
“I’m not lying. I have two living eyewitnesses. Einstein-san might even be able to corroborate.”
Marrybell glared Naoto dead in the eye and waited for him to flinch. He didn’t.
“C.C.-san obviously has a body double or an identical twin, then,” Marrybell concluded. The former would not be surprising given her stated relationship with the emperor.
“That was what I believed, too. At first.” Naoto retook his phone and fiddled with it. “It changed when we started decrypting the Code R research. We were only going to look at the security footage for our own purposes out of respect, but, well, curiosity is one of man’s most predictable natures.”
Naoto handed his phone back with another video ready to play. “Only I and my head engineer have seen this. You – you may want to do this with a bucket or toilet at the ready.”
“Is this one of the experiments?”
Naoto nodded solemnly.
Having survived the invasion of Japan at its worst, Marrybell said, “I’ll take my chances.” Naoto sighed as she played the video. He shifted behind her and turned his eyes away. She let him do as he wished without a word.
Five minutes later, Marrybell was on her knees, retching. Naoto crouched behind her and kept her hair out of her face, gently rubbing her back. She’d long since lost the contents of her stomach, but every time her mind returned to what she’d witnessed–
Marrybell’s stomach heaved again. Her eyes brunt hot with tears.
“Naomi-chan watched hours of recordings before she showed me any of it,” Naoto said softly. “She wouldn’t come out of her bedroom for two days. It’s been a week since she’s voluntarily spoken to anyone other than me.” He fell quiet.
“And?” Marrybell bit out. Was that supposed to make her feel better?
“That” – Naoto gestured at his broken phone lying where Marrybell had dropped it – “she said, was the tame stuff.”
Marrybell roared, “How?” and shot to her feet. The surge of strength only lasted a moment before her knees buckled and her head spun. Her vision blackened, and she wobbled back to the floor. Every part of her felt sick and miserable.
“How? Naoto, did you not see what they did? How can it get worse! They cut things no one can survive without. There were wires sticking out of her head. There was a drain in the floor for her blood! There – there was bits of her brain on their gloves. Her voice was broken. I don’t even know if it was from screaming too much or if they just cut her throat to silence her.”
Another dry heave cut off Marrybell’s rant, but it didn’t stall her for long.
“They’re going to die. I’m going to kill all of them.” Marrybell couldn’t care less what Euphemia wanted anymore. She couldn’t care less what Suzaku would think of her. Clovis was going to die. He was going to suffer. If either of them took issue with that, they could watch the experiments and be scarred for life. “People like that aren’t allowed to live.”
“I agree,” Naoto said, “but plans have already been made.”
Marrybell whipped her head around to glare at Naoto but immediately regretted it as her body protested.
“Please just let things unfold. Let Shinozaki dispose of the trash.”
“Clovis is my brother,” Marrybell protested. And so much more.
“Then wait until it’s safe to deal with him. If I see Shinozaki again, I’ll ask her to leave him to you. Please. We can’t let any of these people slip through the net. Plans get messy when multiple people are plotting.”
No one could deny that. History even had a perfect example for anyone who cared to recall it: the Emblem of Blood. One wrong misstep in Area Eleven could set off an even worse catastrophe, and Marrybell knew it. She hated it, it infuriated her, she knew she’d still try to work around it, but Naoto was right.
“I’ll think about it,” Marrybell bit out. She refused to officially concede any more than that yet.
For a time, neither said a word. Marrybell tried to calm herself and digest just how little she’d known Clovis. It was a safer subject than the implications of C.C.’s existence. Those were too intimately tied to the experiments.
“I see trees of green–” Naoto sung.
“What are you doing?”
“–red roses too.”
“I see them bloom–”
Marrybell let her forehead hit the ground. She recognised the song now. Oldrin used to sing it to her all the time along with every other tooth-rotting sugar song the girl could get her hands on.
Damn, I miss her.
“–for me and you.”
Well, worst-case scenario, I dry heave again.
“And I think to myself,” Marrybell sung with Naoto, “what a wonderful world.”
When they made it all the way through the song, Marrybell broke down into sobbing laughter. “Your singing is terrible.”
Naoto chuckled. “My apologies, Your Highness. It’s been a while since I’ve performed karaoke.”
“Heh. Same. But you’ve got this.” She weakly fumbled at her phone and pulled up the lyrics to a less well known song. She handed them off to Naoto and launched straight into it without waiting.
“I believe the morning sun, always gonna shine again, and I believe a pot of gold, waits at every rainbow’s end. Oh, I believe in roses kissed with dew. Why shouldn’t I believe the same in you?”
With an infectious grin, the prat joined in the song. What a sight they must have made, a princess and a rebel singing disgustingly uplifting songs. If anyone stumbled upon them, they’d probably be dismissed as a hallucination.
“I will survive!”
Marrybell jabbed Naoto in the side with an elbow. “Not appropriate right now.”
“Fine,” Naoto wheezed, feigning injury.
“What were they even studying at that poor woman’s expense?” Code R had published some findings in the medical field, but surely there was something less mundane than mere medicine behind the madness – beyond the as of yet unspoken obvious.
“I haven’t looked into it much. We promised to let C.C. decide what we do with the research data.”
That was fair.
“My best guess is cybernetics,” Naoto continued. “I saw schematics and code for an artificial eye. I think there was a prototype for interfacing with the brain stem, too.”
“I see… It disgusts me to say it, but I hope C.C. doesn’t ask to have the research destroyed. That sounds like decades of progress squeezed into months.”
Naoto agreed. “But I will abide by her decision when it comes.”
A moment passed.
“If there was ever something to call mad science, this was it.”
Marrybell nodded. “I suppose when your test subject can’t die, you can get a lot done if you throw ethics to the kerb.”
And there it was, out in the open at last. Marrybell buried her head between her legs beneath her arms. She took a deep breath.
“Where the bloody hell did Clovis find an immortal woman?”
Naoto agreed with the sentiment. “I’d like to know the answer to that myself. And what happened with Shinozaki in the lab. Either she or C.C. clearly has some sort of power to bend others to her will. I spent a whole day reflecting on my decisions about the raid to make sure they were actually mine.”
A bright and shining light burst into life in Marrybell’s mind, but she smothered it within moments. Optimism resulted in heartbreak, and the idea it carried made little sense in context. Clovis was responsible for his own actions. No one would willingly endure what C.C. had for any scheme.
“I hope you realise this is information we are not meant to know,” Marrybell said in a monotone.
“If they can force others to obey, they can force us to answer questions. If we answer questions, everyone we tell will be a target.”
“Bollocks.” Clearly, Naoto hadn’t stopped to consider that before sharing. “Maybe… Maybe they can erase memories, too. That wouldn’t be such a bad alternative.”
“Erase, sure,” Marrybell said. “If they can alter memories, though, that would be the single most horrifying power in existence.” They could make me a devoted daughter. A chill crept over her, and she quickly moved on to avoid thinking about the idea. “I honestly have no idea where to go from here. I have no information, and I have no idea where to safely acquire more. Without knowing the limits of the abilities lined up against us, I may kill us or, worse, reduce us to mind slaves if I try to discover them.”
“We do have a little protection.”
Marrybell rolled her head to quirk an eyebrow at Naoto.
“Shinozaki likes Lelouch and Kallen, I’m sure, and they like us.”
Marrybell sighed. That was almost no protection at all. If Shinozaki was working for the emperor, he’d just get someone else to do the deed if she refused. He had no qualms about trampling someone’s feelings.
“I think,” Marrybell began as she stood up, “I’m going to go to the party I was invited to. I’m going to have a good time. I’m going to forget about all of this until tomorrow. And then…I don’t know. If I’m not dead by the time Lelouch and Kallen return, I’ll assume it’s safe to tell them about this. Sorry about your phone. I’ll pay you back. Later.”
“Uh, yeah. Later.”
After Naoto had picked up his broken phone and was out the door, Marrybell turned to head for Ashford Academy. As she left through her own exit, she stopped and called back, “And you’re not off the hook for Nina!”
Tokyo Settlement, Area 11
April 20, 2016 a.t.b.
Euphemia’s phone vibrated. Glancing at it, she saw she had a message from Marrybell. Opening that up, it read, ‘BBC News. I swear it wasn’t me.’
Now more than a little worried, Euphemia hurried to the student council building and turned the television therein to the appropriate channel.
“–jumped to his death just ten minutes ago. We do not yet know why Duke Calares chose to commit suicide, but the police have promised to chase down every lead they find. If there’s even a hint of foul play, the culprit will be caught.”