Round One

Stage 18 - The Exile


Direction Régionale de la Police Judiciaire de Paris

Paris, France

July 13, 2014 a.t.b.


For a twelve-year-old, Ayano Kosaka sat with remarkable poise in the face of certain doom. There was no escape from what she’d done. She’d been caught literally red-handed, covered in blood, and with her still dripping sword in hand. Not that it mattered anymore. She had nothing left.

Maman, I’m sorry, but I’ll be seeing you soon. A small sardonic smirk grew on Ayano’s face. Consider it payback for lying to me about your job.

The thump of a thick file hitting the table drew Ayano from her thoughts. A tall man whose military uniform must conceal considerable muscle fell heavily into the seat across from her. He ran a hand through his greying green hair. He exhaled heavily – not quite a sigh, but still very noticeable.

“Kid, I don’t even know what to say to you.”

“You don’t need to say anything. Just return my kodachi – or my family’s katana, if you found it – and I’ll save you all the trouble and commit seppuku.”

The man pinched the bridge of his nose. “Even if you could be tried as an adult, execution is never on the table. To be perfectly frank, the judge of inquiry doesn’t know what to do with you. He has no idea how he’s going to convince anyone an adorable little girl massacred…” He peeked inside the manila folder. “Thirty-seven!”

Ayano smiled proudly. She’d lost count. The man shook his head.

“Thirty-seven gangsters the police have been after for years.”

“I had inside information courtesy of Maman.”

“Which she requested you not read.”

Ayano shrugged.

The man truly sighed this time. “Well…motive isn’t hard to pin down, at least. Yuki Kosaka. Mid thirties. Immigrated to France as a child. Professional assassin. Sent on increasingly dangerous tasks, it eventually became obvious that the message was ‘just die already’.”

“It did,” Ayano bit out. As far as she could gather, her mother had fallen out of favour with the mafia and had been forced into a no-win situation. The woman had squirrelled away enough evidence to destroy them over the years and sent posthumous instructions to take it to the police, but she’d had other plans. “I’d have done worse to them if I could have.”

“And what was your plan for afterwards?”

Ayano shrugged again. “Didn't expect to get them all, to be honest.”

“Well, you did. Now suppose all the evidence against you magically disappeared and you walked out of here a free wo…girl. What then?”

“I don’t know.” Ayano had little interest in indulging impossible hypotheticals. “Wait to see where I get dumped and then go to school next Monday?” She hesitated. She knew the police had everything and already knew her mother’s last request in its entirety, but knowing its contents meant nothing compared to knowing how much weight it held.

“Your mother asked something of you.”

“Maman…asked me to grow up as a better woman than her,” a task Ayano had spectacularly failed already.

“Do you think you can?”

Ayano offered a blunt, “No.”

“I see.” The man stroked his chin, humming thoughtfully. “Well, it’s too late to dissuade you from pursuing revenge, but there’s someone I’d like you to meet regardless. The daughter of a dear friend of mine.


Malcal Manor

Paris, France

July 14, 2016 a.t.b.


Ayano’s eyes cracked open. She slammed them shut the very next instant and rolled away from the window. Forgot to draw the curtains last night. What time is it? Braving the sun’s light, she peeked at her alarm clock. Ugh. Need to get up. She rose, stretching, with a long yawn and then dragged herself out of bed to stumble toward the shower as she rubbed at her eyes.

What a depressing dream. Gonna turn into Leila if I’m not careful.

A quick turn of the knob got the hot water running. A warm steam would do her a world of good. With that going, Ayano flung her clothes off into a pile in the corner. The bottom of her pyjamas, frustratingly enough, got caught on the tracker anchored just above her ankle. She shook her leg harder and kicked hoping to dislodge the cloth before giving it up as a bad job and using her hand.

“Stupid piece of junk.” Don’t even know why I even have to wear it. I’ve got nowhere to go and no reason to leave. “Bah. Whatever.”

After showering, Ayano dressed quickly. She recalled that Leila intended to flee the manor as soon as possible today, thankfully, and so chose a set of plain clothes for herself instead of the uniform upon which her insufferable ladyship, Madame Malcal, insisted. Lastly, she went to brush and dry her hair. Once that was done, she finally left her room and the servants’ quarters to face the morning.

Today, luck was with her. Ayano climbed to the second floor of the manor and managed to reach the end of the family wing without running into any of the Malcals. She knocked on Leila’s bedroom door before slipping inside. Unsurprisingly, she found the girl still asleep with blankets in complete disarray.

Another nightmare, eh? Ayano shook her head as she approached the bed. She noticed that someone had yanked the alarm clock’s lead out of the wall. Overreaction much? Whatever are we going to do with you?

Ayano ripped the blankets off of Leila. When the girl continued to sleep like the dead, she crouched down, pulled her arms back, and then leapt onto the bed. Hopping atop it with the frenetic energy of youth, she said, “Get up! You’re gonna be late!”

Between the bouncing and the wake-up call, Leila’s eyes snapped open. Sadly, today was not one of those hilarious days where she rolled off the bed and fell shrieking onto the floor. She flung a pillow at Ayano as she mumbled some English profanity under her breath. “Must you wake me like this?”

“Hey, so long as I’m stuck here doing chores and cleaning up after you, you’re getting the whole little sister package.”

Leila grunted and sat up. She ran her fingers across her eyes, clearing the mucus and ultimately pinching the bridge of her nose. “What time is it?”

“Nearly ten. Hurry up and get in the shower, or you’ll be late to lunch with the knothead.”

That drew a long sigh from Leila that sounded more like a yawn. “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” she said for perhaps the thousandth time.

“Just get moving.” Ayano really didn’t want to discuss the general’s supposed kindness. She should probably be more grateful, but meh.

“Yeah, yeah.”

Despite the listless response, Leila did roll herself out of bed to shuffle off into her en suite. The sound of running water soon echoed out into the bedroom, and Ayano set about tidying up and preparing for the day. The bed needed making. The clock needed resetting. Clothes needed retrieving. By the time she returned from her trip downstairs to add last night’s discarded negligee to the wash, Leila was out of the shower and already dressed, although her hair still dripped all over her dress and the floor.

Seeing the look on Ayano’s face, Leila said, “In a hurry, remember? You don’t get to treat me as your dress-up doll today.”

“Fine. But your hair is mine.”

Before Leila could protest, Ayano pressed her into the chair in front of her dressing table and set to work with the tools of her trade. This would take a more than a few minutes. The girl had more hair than she knew what to do with and absolutely no interest in learning or delegating.

“There is no justice,” Ayano muttered.

“Hmm?”

“Nothing. Just jealous of these soft, voluminous, golden locks. Mine frizzes and frays before it gets to even a third your length.”

“Take better care of it?”

“Says the girl who can barely be bothered to let me do half that work for her.” Ayano picked up the dryer and a brush. “Don’t teach your hairdresser to suck eggs.”

“The expression you’re looking for is ‘don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs’.”

“Yeah, yeah. Don’t cut the hairs in four.” Ayano silently chuckled as she watched Leila’s eye twitch. The girl may be French-born, but her Britannian roots ran deep. “Anyway, what do you want today? Straight? Braids? I’ve got so much to work with.” She tousled Leila’s hair to emphasise the point. “You look good in old styles. Maybe something Scandinavian. You’d make a beautiful Viking princess. Ooh! Or Celtic. We’d just need to get you to actually smile once in a while.”

“Just the usual,” Leila insisted, unmoved.

“Urgh! You are so boring.” Despite that, Ayano did as asked and retrieved Leila’s usual hair braces from her jewellery box. The inner surfaces were still stained red, but the outer gold presented to the world appeared as well cared for as could be expected of heirlooms. The rubies were still missing, though. “There. Two egg buns. If you want to look any more like Sailor Moon, I can make them into twintails.”

Leila quirked an eyebrow.

“Nevermind. Let’s just get out of this house before a troll breaks down your door.”

“Now that sounds like a fine idea.”


Café Procope

Paris, France

July 14, 2016 a.t.b.


“No, it can’t be. Leila Breisgau, surely that can’t be you.”

Leila rolled her eyes even as the shadow of a smile curled the very ends of her lips.

“You get bigger every time I see you.”

“And you grew a beard.” It looked good, Leila supposed, but it would take some getting used to.

“That I have. I think it makes me look dashing. Like that young general you first fell in love with.”

“I was four,” Leila protested. “And I’d be more inclined to agree if you let me pluck all of the grey hairs from it.”

“Hmph. You take after your mother in more ways than your appearance.”

Leila mocked a curtsy. “I take that as a very great compliment.”

“You would. Now come. I get a hug, don’t I?”

Without hesitation, Leila fell into the pair of arms held wide in invitation. “It’s good to see you, Uncle Gene.”

“And you as well, Little Duchess.” After releasing Leila, Gene stepped back, adjusted the messenger bag hanging from his shoulder, and glanced around. He frowned. “You didn’t come here alone, did you?”

Leila quickly dismissed her honourary uncle’s concerns. “No, no. Ayano is lurking around somewhere nearby.” She’d not leave the girl alone with the winners of the who gets to adopt the Breisgau heiress game. Ayano was too vulnerable, legally speaking, and the Malcals too politically powerful. “She left me just around the corner. She’s off doing her own thing, I imagine.”

“Well, I’ll take what I can get. As long as she doesn’t stray too far. How are you two getting on lately?”

“Very well now, I think. She’s annoying but also a welcome distraction. I’m still not entirely comfortable with having her officially assigned as my lady’s maid, but we make it work.”

Gene made a sound somewhere between a grumble and a disgruntled hum. “That’s truly not what I’d hoped for when I intervened in her case.”

“She knows. She’s just frustrated. But I doubt you called me for lunch to discuss Ayano. Shall we head inside?”

With a nod of his head, Gene led the pair into the cafe. They got their reservation and spent the next hour catching up. With the chaos of the disastrous Russo–Britannian War, Gene might as well have dropped off the face of the Earth for all that Leila had heard from him in the last few months.

Leila vented her frustration over how stifling it’d become living as Leila Malcal. Her so-called fiancé, Ioan Malcal, wanted about as much to do with her as she did him, but he’d recently decided to be a complete arse about it. He’d bring over multiple lovers and refer to her as nothing more than his mistress to her face in front of them before explaining that she was a Brit and, as such, that arrangement would be perfectly normal for her. The boar had done that three times now. It was pathetic. It was racist. It was factually inaccurate.

One would be forgiven for thinking that his parents, the two who actually wanted the marriage, might rein in his behaviour.

Once Leila had let off enough steam, Gene spoke of the torrid affairs of state he’d participated in and how obstinate everyone involved had become. Diplomatic talks with Britannia went nowhere, which came as no surprise. They never did. Russia refused to throw in the towel before they lost everything. The Hemicycle insisted on keeping the EU’s combined military out of the conflict.

“A giant, completely avoidable mess,” Leila called it. She ran a finger along the rim of her teacup with a pensive expression.

Gene guzzled down the last of his coffee and set the mug down heavily. “You have no idea. I have three days off to rest before it's straight back to listening to grand speeches given with the express intent of accomplishing nothing at all.”

“Surely it's not that bad.”

“Bah! It might as well be.” With a heavy sigh, Gene slumped into the back of his chair and flagged down a waitress to get a refill. “This was always coming, of course.”

“Hmm?”

“This war. It didn't have to be Russia, but someone was going to do something stupid eventually. The Hemicycle is too weak to control its member states. It also cannot allow Russia to set a precedent of one nation unilaterally dragging us all into a war.”

“Thus their hands are tied,” Leila concluded. “My first instinct is to ask what purpose the EU serves if we don’t stand together, but I see your point. It’s quite the conundrum.”

“Ah, but you have a point as well. What purpose does the EU serve if we don’t stand together in times of trouble?” Gene stopped there and looked expectantly at Leila.

“Well…there’s the economic benefits of having a single currency and effectively no trade barriers. Cultural exchange, too. And, of course, we have more weight in world affairs when we’re perceived as a single massive entity. I suspect that’s not what you were getting at, however.”

Gene withdrew his wallet from his pocket. From it, he removed each in turn a five euro banknote, two-thousand rubles, a hundred Swiss francs, and a UK pound sterling. Thus arrayed on the table, he swept his hand out in display.

I only use euros,” Leila said. As an afterthought, she then added, “And Britannian pounds on occasion.”

“But…”

“But the evidence speaks for itself.” Leila placed each banknote into a pile so that the euros sat at the top. “From the outside, we look like a single power. However, when you peer beneath the surface–” She swept her hand across the pile to reveal the mixed currencies below. “–we do not act as if we were.”

Gene nodded. “I don’t suppose you’ve ever read the Articles of Confederation.”

“Which version? The one the colonial government adopted during Washington’s Rebellion?” A nod met the question. “I haven’t read the text itself, but I know enough about the Continental Congress to appreciate the significant influence its failings had upon the French Revolution. That is what you’re leading up to, is it not?”

“It is. I would not go so far as say the EU’s central government is as weak as the Continental Congress. Honestly, you would be hard pressed to create as nonfunctional a government and still call it a central authority. But we do suffer from similar problems. We pretend to be a federation, but in truth, we’re more of a confederate system.”

“That’s not necessarily bad,” Leila said. “Centralising authority has its own dangers. There is a reason, after all, why Napoleon’s grand dream of a unified Europe failed.”

“Yes, he fell victim to one of the classic blunders.”

“Never get involved in a land war in Asia?”

Bemused, Gene arched his eyebrows. “Not exactly, no. Invading Russia in the winter. Or more precisely, he overextended both at home and abroad. The Republic wasn’t ready for an emperor. It’s client states were arguably not ready to be folded into even a federal system either. Napoleon needed time to consolidate his gains and allow the people to settle into the new power structure. You should consider studying Caesar Augustus's rise to power.”

With tongue in cheek, Leila spoke in a haughty tone. “How dare you suggest your first citizen hasn’t read her classics.”

Gene chuckled. “My apologies, Little Duchess. Regardless, we’ve inherited an aversion to a strong central European government. I feel that crippling weakness everyday in the military. I do my best to foster a sense of unity within my troops and administration, but our divisions, both cultural and bureaucratic, run deep. Funding is a needless hassle. RTD is a nightmare to organise. Logistics…” He shook his head. “I’m glad they’re not my direct responsibility. And nothing is more frustrating than a surprise language barrier five minutes before an operation.”

“I imagine many of your problems would go away if the Hemicycle could directly levy taxes.”

“Less than you might think,” Gene said. He sighed. “Anyway, enough politics. I have an opportunity for you.”

“Oh?” Leila set down her tea and leant forward with interest. “What kind of opportunity?”

“The kind that gets you out of the house for an extended period of time.”

Interest had evolved into desire. “Tell me more.”

“How closely have you been following the war?”

The war? This was probably about humanitarian work, then. “Casually. Why?”

“Have you been reading about the Knights Errant?”

Leila scoffed. “Is that what they're calling the Commoner Prince's merry band now?”

“Yes…” An oddly tentative response for Gene. “You obviously have a strong opinion on the boy. Care to share?”

In all fairness, Leila had spent little time analysing the prince's actions or the war in general. Even so, she had read enough in the news. “Honestly, I'm appalled he hasn't been caught yet. He's treating this conflict like some grand adventure.”

“That's not entirely uncommon,” Gene commented. His tone clearly conveyed that this was merely a fact. "Even just a century ago before The Great War, he wouldn't have been short of good company. To say nothing of what happens after, the introduction of knightmares and the decreasing human cost of war has…shall we say regressed some views."

Leila said nothing to that.

"Of course, Britannia has also never suffered such a brutal, stagnant, pointless campaign. Indeed, they grew rich off the back of our suffering and probably laughed about it."

"Enough. I understand my own cultural heritage, Uncle Gene." Leila sighed and nursed her tea. "My point stands. The prince is treating this like a game. I've read enough to know he's showboating. I mean, he went out of his way to strike just outside of Moscow for no strategic reason and then vanished before an army could descend upon him. He might as well have carved 'Lelouch vi Britannia was here' in the centre of the Kremlin. He clearly thinks this is all a lark."

“Perhaps he does.”

Leila paused at the enigmatic tone. “What?” The only answer she got was a shrug and the silent command to come to her own conclusion – whatever that was supposed to be. “I’m missing something important, I take it.” A slight nod. “The obvious first guess, then, is that the prince is not as arrogant as I believe him to be.”

Almost idly – but no doubt only seemingly so – Gene remarked, “There’s a distinction to be made between arrogance and justified self-confidence.”

“I doubt you brought him up just to make that point.”

Gene nodded his head in recognition of the fact.

“Is this something I’m never going to guess because I haven’t been paying much attention?”

“Hmm…” Gene’s attention turned inward as he stared up at the ceiling. “I shouldn’t think so. But it is certainly something a casual outside observer would miss.”

“Alright. Then if you’re intimating that the prince isn’t an arrogant braggart, there must be some purpose to his self-presentation as such.”

That drew no reaction from Gene who merely looked on impassively.

“I guess he could be trying to make himself seem cocky to spring a trap. That’s hardly some big revelation, though. It has to be something more. It could be a media bias. I read with a sceptical eye, of course, but even with a large grain of salt, it doesn’t make him look much better.”

“It is easy to portray him as such. He is, in fact, taking bold, impudent risks.”

“And they’re working…” It had to require considerable skill to continuously taunt, provoke, and outmanoeuvre the Russians. Why would someone so clearly capable not be at the front? Why waste time faffing about behind enemy lines? With her attention drawn to the contradiction, an uneasy feeling settled into the pit of Leila’s stomach. Something she believed was very wrong.

“Perhaps consider a different point of view,” Gene suggested.

A different point of view? An abhorrent thought occurred. Leila picked up her phone and searched for Britannian news articles covering the prince’s campaign in western Russia. She skimmed through a few and immediately found a very different opinion of the prince. Where the EU had painted him as vainglorious and hubristic, Britannia portrayed him as a genius, someone who brought unlikely victory after unlikely victory against impossible odds because he really was just that good. Quotes and stories from his own men behind enemy lines had even leaked back to the homeland and fanned the flames. That couldn’t have happened without his knowledge and at least tacit consent if not open encouragement.

In contrast, the actual leader of the campaign, Prince Laertes, was dragged though the mud. His slow, grinding offensive in Siberia – nevermind that it was probably the right strategy and that he was winning – paled in comparison to the Black Prince’s success. This was exactly the reason her parents had left Britannia for the EU and abandoned their duchy – well, one among several.

“Politics.” Leila spat the word. “It’s all just politics. He’s killing people, fighting this war, humiliating his own brother, risking the lives of his own soldiery just for his own aggrandisement.”

Before Leila could build up to a good rant, Gene interrupted. “I don’t doubt that you’re right. It does seem to be his primary motivation. But” – he reached for his bag – “he’s causing considerably more damage than the media likes to portray.” A file labelled confidential fell onto the table. “He is exceptional, Leila. Whatever else you think of him, underestimate him at your own peril.”

The hard stare Gene sent her way made Leila take a mental step back. He was right, she realised. The prince’s motivations did not denigrate the frankly absurd amount of talent and preparation that must have gone into his plans. She placed a hand on the folder in front of her. “Should I be seeing this?”

“No, but have a read anyway.”

Leila huffed but didn’t reject the opportunity. She pulled the folder to herself and perused its contents. What she found within was a truly staggering amount of losses. To her mild surprise, it consisted mostly of material rather than lives. In pragmatic terms, that was probably worse. The lost knightmares alone must amount to billions of euros, a not insignificant fraction of Russia’s total military budget.

Included in the documents was a map listing the order and locations of the prince’s attacks alongside the approximate size of each engagement. None of the battles involved more than an estimated hundred men on the Britannian side. She bit at her lip and considered the map more closely. Having never plotted the locations herself, this was entirely new information to Leila. They dotted the landscape seemingly at random.

No. Leila shook her head. They probably are random. You can’t predict where he’s going to appear next if he’s rolling dice to decide. His campaign has the luxury of not needing to defend territory, so he can go anywhere. Her brows furrowed as she considered the number of attacks. How long has it been since he first resurfaced? May, was it? There's too many battles. This frequency is absurd.

“I don’t understand,” Leila said mostly to herself. “How is he moving around so quickly? He’s engaging the Russians almost daily. Perhaps he has the energy to keep that up, but he can’t maintain that pace and not expect his men to be fatigued. And if he’s moving in a group that big that fast, someone would have noticed them by now.”

Leila glanced up to see a proud, expectant smile on Gene’s face. No explanation would be forthcoming from him, then, but she must be on to something. She considered the logical implications that followed from assuming she was right, and just like that it became obvious.

“He’s not moving in one big group. He has hundreds of people with him. They disperse after a battle individually or in small groups to prepare for their next fight in a dozen different locations while he moves on to the immediate next conflict as quickly as he can. He presents the appearance of a small, highly mobile elite strike force when the reality is the complete opposite. It’s no wonder no one has found him! It’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack.”

“Brava! Exactly. On average, I expect his knights fight no more than once a week and no less than once a fortnight. As such, he likely has a fighting force between seven-hundred and fourteen-hundred strong plus reserves and logistical support, all of whom are capable of blending into the citizenry.”

Leila certainly understood now why Gene had called the prince exceptional. He was going to bleed Russia dry if no one stopped him.

"And now we come to the opportunity I have for you."

Leila faltered a moment as her mind shifted gears. She'd almost forgotten about – her eyes widened. "No," she said too quietly to be remarked upon.

"My hands are tied. I can't interfere in this personally or send my subordinates. But then you're neither."

"No. No, no, no. There must be older, more experienced strategists you can unearth as a proxy."

"You're older than the prince," Gene casually observed. When that earned him nothing more than an impassive stare, he admitted, "By less than a month."

Leila rolled her eyes.

"Regardless, I did not bring this to you on a whim. You're capable. You’re a free agent. I know you’ve been actively searching for a chance like this.”

“No. Absolutely not. I can’t. What do you expect me to do with Ayano if I go gallivanting across the continent?”

“Take her with you. I’m not expecting you to take on more than an advisory role.”

“An advisory role?” Leila echoed incredulously. The mere thought of it was absurd. No one would listen to a little girl. That might fly with Britannian royalty, but not in the EU. “Uncle Gene, this is a terrible idea.”

“You underestimate yourself.”

“It’s not about – why are you so set on this?”

“Why do you think?”

“No,” Leila stated bluntly. “No games. If you want me to even consider this, tell me or I walk out the door. It’s no skin off my nose if I do.”

Gene regarded Leila with a sceptical expression but ultimately relented. “A few reasons beyond the aforementioned. You’re capable, but you lack experience. I don’t expect you to fare particularly well against the prince, but you’ll learn. He’ll see to that well enough.”

“Thanks for the load of confidence,” Leila muttered.

“I also want to see your star rise. I know you want to follow in your father’s footsteps. This will get your foot in the door.”

“Do you not see the hypocrisy in that?” Not ten minutes ago she’d railed against the prince for that exact same motivation. Gene just shrugged.

“Lastly, well, I’m not getting any younger. This will be your world before too long. Whether it be in the field or at the negotiation table, I doubt this will be the last time you tangle with the prince. I’d prefer your first time not be when there are stakes at play where we can hope to affect the outcome.”

“That’s…” Despite how darkly pragmatic it was, Gene wasn’t exactly wrong. “–terrible,” Leila weakly finished.

“I play with the hand I’m dealt. Sometimes our sensibilities must take a backseat to practicalities.”

Leila said nothing. The silence stretched.

“Oh!” Gene said. The tension in the air broke as he pulled Leila out of her thoughts. “Let’s not forget that you command the loyalty of Anna Clément.”

“I’d prefer if you not speak of my friends as if they were pieces on my board.”

“Leila, you want to be a politician.”

The girl in question sighed. With a dismissive wave of her hand, she said, “Yeah, yeah,” and picked up her tea for a sip.

“Regardless, she’ll let you use her toy if you ask to borrow it.”

"I suppose." Anna wasn’t under a government contract, so that wouldn’t be a problem. She’d likely be glad for the opportunity to test her work in field conditions as well. If it were in working condition, that was. The last time Leila had spoken with her about the Alexander project, there were a few bugs, to put it gently, that needed fixing.

"Leila." Gene waited until he had her full attention before he continued. "I did mean it when I say I didn't bring this to you on a whim. I personally matched wits with the Flash on several occasions. If I could go back and fight her when she was still trying to figure out which way to point a gun, I would."

Despite herself, Leila chuckled at the image that evoked.

"All signs point to her son becoming a worthy successor in the coming years made worse by the division of mind and body." When Leila hummed questioningly, Gene rifled through the documents on the table for a photo of a beautiful girl on the cusp of becoming a gorgeous woman. "Countess Kallen Stadtfeld, his personal knight and probable lover. Don't let her appearance fool you. Even if you avoid the thorns, you'll find the rose's petals to be razors."

She hardly looks dangerous. Then again, neither does Ayano. Leila stared at the picture of the girl dressed remarkably similarly to the Knights of the Round. She would have mistaken it for their uniform were it not for the near opposite colour scheme. Lover, eh? She tucked that useful fact away for later. Wouldn't be surprised. Even the girls must want her.

"So?"

"I'll think about it." Leila held up a hand to forestall whatever Gene was about to say. "I'm not promising any more than that. I'll speak with Anna and Ayano and decide afterwards."

It was with a resigned voice that Gene said, "Very well. Just remember, the prince isn't waiting for you. Please don't dawdle." When Leila pushed the folder back to him, he added, "Keep it. I brought it for you."

Leila nodded and tucked it away next to her but otherwise banished the subject from her mind for now.


Champ de Mars

Paris, France

July 14, 2016 a.t.b.


“And that’s how my day has been so far.” Leila basked in the afternoon sun, eyes closed, atop a picnic blanket. Shifting to get more comfortable, she bumped her wicker basket and sent her precariously balanced phone tumbling to the ground. “Sorry,” she said as she replaced it. “Anyway, how’s yours?”

“Oh, as always, never with as much drama as yours,” Anna teased. “I’m just spending the holiday with family.”

Leila lazily hummed in acknowledgement. “Suppose I am too.”

“Ayano is there? Why didn’t you say so? Hi, Ayano!”

“No, she’s not–”

“Hey, Anna.” Leila cracked open her eyes to find the girl in question standing not two steps away. She had excellent timing – and a new blue velvet sun hat that matched her camisole. “What’s up?”

“Just listening to my favourite drama.”

Leila snorted indignantly.

“Anyway, I’ll think about what you’ve told me. Come to my lab tomorrow. We’ll discuss it then. Have fun, you two.” The line hung up, and Anna left the conversation.

“‘Have fun,’ she says.” Ayano glanced around. “You are so depressing. This is where your dad died, isn’t it?”

“Other end of the park.”

That clearly did not satisfy Ayano. “It’s the same thing.”

Leila shrugged. She liked this place, and she wasn’t about to let bad memories, terrorists, Britannian assassins, or political rivals – the mystery of which of the latter three had caused the former remained unsolved – take it away from her.

“Whatever.” Ayano stole a sandwich from the basket and sat down on the blanket. “So what did the general want?”

After a few moments of reflection, Leila summarised her entire conversation with Gene as, “He wants to prepare me to be his heiress.”

“Huh. Makes sense. You’re the closest thing to family he has, right?”

“He has a few cousins…”

Ayano blatantly ignored that, which was fair, and asked, “So what training did he have in mind? I assume it’s not balancing books on your head and proper curtsying.”

“Neither is really that difficult.” Leila chuckled as Ayano scoffed in contempt. “He actually wants to send me to Russia as a strategic adviser.”

“What? An adviser?” Ayano laughed. “You bought that?”

Head cocked to the side, Leila asked, “What do you mean?”

"You have serious control issues, Sis. Learnt to avoid stepping on them the hard way. I give you a week, maybe two, before someone fucks up and you move to topple him from power."

"That's not true." Is it? No, certainly not.

"Just wait and see. Anyway, please tell me I get to come with."

"I haven't decided if I'll go yet," Leila said. Before Ayano could protest, she added, "I intended to speak with you and Anna about it, but it seems I already have your vote."

Ayano's eyes lit up. "Anna is coming with? Does that mean I get the Alexander?"

"Absolutely not! Ayano, you're fourteen. If we go, I'm not fielding you. Especially not in that death trap."

A victorious smirk crawled up Ayano's face. "I'll tell Anna you said that if you don't," she sang.

"She'll never believe you."

"What if I was secretly recording this conversation?"

Leila called the bluff. "I don't believe you."

Ayano reached into her pocket for her phone. She turned it on and tapped it ominously. She glanced up, still grinning. She hovered over the play button.

"Do it," Leila commanded, unmoved by the display.

Music filled the air. "Stay shigachi na imeiji darake no~"

"Yeah," Leila said. "That's what I thought."

Ayano tossed her phone aside disappointed.

"Don't make threats you can't follow through on. Your credibility will suffer."

"Whatever."

Crisis averted, Leila reached for a sandwich of her own and happily dug in. A few bites later, she asked, "Is this song from something?"

"A dead film series. Maman was a huge fan of the original anime. Well, the first series, at least. She hated the sequels."

It wasn't often such a wistful tone entered Ayano's voice. Leila immediately picked up on it and made a decision. "Do you have a copy?"

"Probably on VHS somewhere. Why?"

"Want to order pizza tonight and binge watch the whole series?"

Ayano smiled innocently – a little too innocently. "I'd love to. My copy is in Japanese, but I'm sure there are at least English subs floating around the Internet."


Malcal Manor

Paris, France

July 14, 2016 a.t.b.


"There are how many episodes of this!"

"Just wait until we get to Myotismon. That’s when the show gets really good. He's the best."

Leila relaxed a little and returned to idly braiding Ayano’s hair. "When does he come in?"

"Oh, around episode twenty-five or twenty-six, I think."

The urge to scream grew.


Clément Manufacturing Alexander Lab

Greater Paris, France

July 15, 2016 a.t.b.


On the outskirts of town abutting the forest stood a warehouse. A small office of an entirely different architectural style adjoined it on one side and a larger one of a third fashion sat on the opposite end. After driving a kilometre down a lonely dirt road, one could veer left to reach a hardware shop and right to find an electronics shop further off. It was the perfect location for a mechanical savant with far too much money and too little patience to wait for basic parts.

This had once been the solitary haunt of Anna Clément, the laboratory where her parents let her indulge her interest in robotics unimpeded with no one around for her to bother or houses to set on fire. That state of affairs had abruptly changed last year when her father stopped by and realised exactly what she’d been working on. Now she had a team to do her bidding whether that be research, someone to bounce ideas off of, or just plain manual labour.

Even though she was still in charge, it was probably for the best that Anna had adult supervision now.

Leila knocked on the front door of Anna’s office just in case and let herself in after only silence met her. With nothing living inside besides herself and Anna’s bug collection, she moved into the warehouse proper. Moving past the clutter of shelves and machinery, she came into an empty open area with two familiar faces – well, familiar welding masks – working over what appeared to be part of a knightmare arm.

“Hilda, Chloe.” The two women looked up from their work in sync. “Is Anna around?”

Hilda pushed up her mask and pulled her glasses from her pocket. “Yeah, one sec.” She stepped outside through the massive garage door in the side of the building and shouted, “Hey, Boss! Leila is here!” The woman had an impressive pair of lungs.

A very faint, “Okay,” carried back through the forest.

While this happened, Leila took the opportunity to ask, “Chloe, while Anna isn’t here, can you give me a completely honest opinion on how the Alexander is coming along?”

The auburn haired woman removed her mask and set aside her arc welder. “We’ve actually made a lot of progress while you two were away at school. We’ve fixed most of the transformation and balance issues. We found a decent test pilot, too. Not much one for conversation, but there haven’t been any incidents yet stemming from user error.”

“Have you managed to incorporate an ejection system yet?” Aside from the mechanical malfunctions, that was Leila’s biggest complaint about the machine.

“We’ve tried, and we haven't given up, but it keeps getting in the way. We’d need to make the frame larger to fit it, which creates entirely new problems.”

Leila frowned but didn’t comment. She’d long since given her opinion on the matter and knew Anna’s team had no doubt given the task their all.

“Boss told us about the general’s offer,” Hilda said as she rejoined the conversation. “If you wanted to put the Alexander in the field, you could. We’d need to fabricate its armour and equipment, but we could have that done in a week or two.”

“I see…” To be honest, Leila had expected the Alexander to need months of work. This opened up more options. “How well does it fare against Sutherlands?”

“Akito – that’s our test pilot – hasn’t lost a duel yet in simulations. We’ve even had him face the whole team at once, and he won.” Chloe then admitted, “Although I wouldn’t call any of us expert devicers or tacticians.”

Hilde added, “The Alexander as is surpasses the Sutherland in practically every capacity. Right now, it’s probably straddling the boundary between a sixth and seventh gen knightmare. It’s not invincible, of course, but it’s effective. Beyond that, it’s up to you to use it properly.”

“Could it take down a Knight of the Round?” Leila suspected Countess Stadtfeld had an equivalent level of skill after reading up on her.

Chloe and Hilde looked to each other. The former spoke first. “In ideal circumstances, Akito could do it. I don’t know about in the field.”

“Against the Flash’s successors? That's clearly what she's asking.”

“Expertise only goes so far. At some point, the technological gap becomes too great to overcome.”

“I’m not sure if that applies in this case. The Alexander is good, but it isn’t that advanced.”

“Perhaps.”

“Regardless, out there” – Hilde gesticulated in a general eastward direction – “you’re not fighting gentlemanly duels. If the Alexander is too much for a direct confrontation, they’ll adapt and change strategies.”

The back and forth between the two scientists came to an abrupt end when Anna arrived and immediately wrapped Leila in an enthusiastic hug from behind.

As she plucked a few loose stands of her friend's long violet hair from her face, Leila dryly said, “It’s good to see you too, Anna. How long has it been? Six days? Seven? Eight?”

“Shush, you. Where’s Ayano?”

“At home in a food coma.” And also a little sick. Leila had asked a friend to watch over her and keep her out of trouble. “We were up late last night watching anime and eating pizza.”

“Sounds fun.”

“Eh…” Without Ayano’s nostalgia goggles, it had been an ordeal. “It was all very monster of the week. I will say we stopped for the night just as I was finally getting into it. Halfway through, it decided to tackle some surprisingly mature situations for a kids’ show.”

“I hope Ayano has expressed how good a sister you are at some point.” Unsurprisingly, Anna correctly deduced the situation for what it was. “Now come. We have important affairs of state to discuss.”

Anna led Leila back into her office and closed the door behind them. She sat her friend down and then landed on her own swivel chair with enough torque to spin a full revolution. She paused a moment before spinning around once more. After that, she suddenly slammed her palms down upon her desk with an unusually serious expression.

“Let’s go to war. When do we leave?”

“Huh?” Leila studied her friend’s face. “You’re unexpectedly gung-ho about this.”

“Ah, well…” That was as far as Anna got before her mask crumbled. “I thought it’d help you decide.”

“I was more hoping for a debate of pros and cons.”

“I’m not going to help you look for excuses to refuse something I know you want.”

That gave Leila pause. “Excuses?”

“Do you want me to psychoanalyse you? You’re a perfectionist. You don’t want to miss this chance, but you don’t feel fully prepared, so even though no one ever is and no plan survives contact with the enemy, you’re dilly-dallying.”

There was more truth to that than Leila felt comfortable admitting to herself, especially in light of Ayano’s accusation the previous day. In fact, she now recalled the time she’d torn down Davy Cuvier when his science project nearly sent their professor to the hospital. She didn’t want to be Davy Cuvier. Maybe Anna and Ayano had a point.

“As an engineer, I deal in good enoughs. And Leila, you are good enough. If you want to go, go. I’m up for it. I can only imagine Ayano is as well.”

"I see…” Anna gave a decent pep talk. “What about–"

"Excuse."

Leila frowned. "I wasn't–"

"Excuse for an excuse."

An exasperated huff this time. "I'm feeling very peer pressured right now."

"Evasion."

"Fine! I want to go. That doesn't mean I should."

"No," Anna said, "but shoulds rarely get us anywhere. Calculating the maximising argument from an infinite set of actions is nontrivial for all nontrivial evaluation functions. Often, it doesn’t even exist, only a theoretical supremum."

Leila arched her eyebrows. “I’m going to assume that was maths for don’t worry about it.”

“Yes, within a reasonable approximation.” Leila rolled her eyes to which Anna grinned. “For what it’s worth, I think you should accept the general’s offer.”

“Noted. Now as I was going to ask, is your test pilot available to go to war or would we need to find another devicer?”

“Well, Akito turned sixteen just last week.”

Leila waved a hand dismissively. “Say no more. We’ll find someone else. Uncle Gene might be able to point us toward someone not associated with the military. That or strong-arm the Russians into assigning us an Ace.”

It was at that point after organising her thoughts aloud when Leila noticed Anna’s knowing smile. “What?”

“We will find someone else?” Anna pointed out. “Sounds like someone has already decided to go and is busy making plans.”

“A slip of the tongue.”

Anna humoured Leila with an, “Of course.”

“How is the Alexander coming along, by the way?”

Eyes alight and successfully distracted, Anna immediately launched into an epic ode to her beloved metal giant.


Malcal Manor

Paris, France

July 16, 2016 a.t.b.


The grand dining room of Malcal Manor stood resplendent as a reflection upon its owners. Renaissance art decorated each of the four walls. A golden chandelier hung in the centre of the room, immaculate from its recent dusting. The light it cast shimmered and danced amongst its crystals before bathing the room in a soft glow. Below, masters of their craft had sculpted the dining table, a gorgeous antique that had once resided at Versailles itself during the reign of Louis XIV.

For tonight’s feast, as always, only the finest would do. The silverware was real silver, of course. The china had a long and storied history oft shared when guests frequented the manor. Servants waited not out of sight but most definitely out of mind at the side for when they were called upon, and all of them would be needed tonight. The entire family had gathered.

Odette Malcal sat dressed to impress regardless of the lack of company at the southern end of the table. She spoke with an aristocratic air about her as she shared the day’s gossip with the family. She had a good eye for scandal and a gift for public relations that had ruined more than one person standing in the way of the family’s rise to power. No one could say she lacked ambition. But the prize she most coveted despite its pointlessness remained out of grasp: entry into the peerage. It meant nothing in most EU states, but the desire remained. Having Leila marry into the family would be as close as she ever got.

Along the sides were the three brothers, Ioan, Daniel, and Stéphane. Ioan, the eldest, sat at his father’s left. Like their mother, he was dressed in formal clothes that admittedly made him look terribly handsome. No doubt he intended to spend the night out later at one party or another, ostensibly for political reasons but in reality likely just to flirt.

Directly across from him, Leila ate daintily with all the grace and etiquette that had been instilled into her from the very day she first understood what it meant to be impolite. Not that she was being particularly respectful as she ignored her adoptive mother’s endless droning. Plans flitted about her mind, quickly made, refined, discarded, and recycled. Moreover, the bouillabaisse – gloriously mismatched with a chicken breast with truffled risotto and foie gras at its left and right – was delicious today and far more worthy of her attention. She made a mental note to compliment the chef later tonight.

At the northern end of the table at Leila’s left was Claude Malcal, the head of the family and nearly the head of state. He was not a stern man nor cold. Most would call him handsome and jovial. In fact, his affability, his willingness to listen, and his dedication to the state made him the sane and rational vote for most Parisians. He was also ruthless to his enemies and ambitious enough to put politics before his family. He and his wife were well matched and a successful team.

As dinner drew to a close and shifted to dessert, the topic of conversation changed as well. Supplanting the lighter frivolities of the day, more weighty matters arose.

“Leila,” Claude said. She looked up from her crème caramel. “General Smilas stopped by my office today. He and I had a most interesting conversation.

“Oh? He did the same with me just the other day. We spoke of the war at some length. He seemed very…frustrated.”

Claude chuckled. “An apt description, although desperate might be more appropriate. Would you care to guess what favour he asked of me?”

“Desperate?” To maintain the status quo in the family dynamic, Leila feigned ignorance. She didn’t want to give anyone even the suspicion that she might have or be establishing her own power base. Why, she might very well be able to break away from the family if so. That would be just terrible. “My first thought would be he wants you to tell me to ask Anna to let him borrow her work. Someone from the government has come to pester her nearly everyday since this mess started. But then I imagine he would have asked me directly instead if that were the case.”

“You’re correct in both cases. He intimated as such as regards your friend, but that was not the full extent of it. No, he wanted to borrow you.”

Leila arched her eyebrows sceptically. “In what way does that qualify as a favour?”

“Apparently, he wishes to take command over the war, but the Hemicycle has forbidden his direct involvement. To get around this, he wants to send you as his proxy.”

Ioan snorted, more out of derision than amusement for those who knew his tells. “Desperate, Father? Why not mad?”

“While I would normally disagree – the general earned his position, after all – I must admit I’m sure there are better choices than me.” In that, at least, Leila had not lied. But Gene had gone so far as to explicitly state that the situation was unsalvageable. At that point, it truly didn’t matter who he sent or if he sent anyone at all.

“I should think so,” Odette said. “The battlefield is no place for a young lady.”

The image of Countess Stadtfeld overhearing that declaration came to mind. Whatever else could be said of the woman, Leila was sure the countess’s response would be as amusing to her as it would be unpleasant for Odette. She stifled a chuckle.

“Indeed, that was my first reaction as well.” Claude gave his wife a look that Leila recognised as their conspiratorial ‘don’t interfere; we’ll talk later’. Subtle and private, she doubted any of the brothers caught it or if they even knew it existed. “However, he made a compelling case and satisfied my concerns about Leila’s safety.” And Gene had no doubt promised a favour or two in return. “As such, I’ve decided to indulge his request.”

Leila ignored the outbreak of varyingly degrading protestations around her and the concerned looks on the servants in the background, although she appreciated the latter. Had she not wanted this, she’d be fuming inside at not being given a choice. Seriously, who sends their underage daughter off to war without even asking for her input?

That aside, Leila adopted a mildly distressed expression as though she’d seen this coming but hadn’t wanted to believe it and certainly hadn’t preplanned for it. It might be a little suspicious, but the entire family knew she possessed a sharp mind even if it sometimes went unacknowledged. It was not in her nature to act otherwise. “I see,” she said curtly, allowing the barest touch of indignation to enter her voice. “How long do I have to make arrangements?”

“You’re to leave this coming Monday. The general will collect you from here in the morning.”

“Very well. I’ll inform Ayano to pack for our departure.” Leila paused a moment, seemingly hesitant. “I have my reservations about this, Father, but I shall do as you command” as always. That was what good girls did, and as she had learnt the hard way, good, obedient girls were left mostly to their own devices. “May I be excused? I feel as though I’ll be hard pressed to find the time to prepare as is.”

Claude nodded. “Go. This is a big opportunity. Should nothing else of consequence occur, you’ll still have been placed in contact with many powerful men. I would hate to see you unready.”

A subtle warning? After a moment, Leila decided that it likely was. But is it to not get any ideas or to not miss the chance to rub shoulders for the family? Either way, she was careful not to break character until she reached her room where she knew she would have her privacy. Ayano sat waiting for her.

“Well?”

“We leave Monday morning.”

Ayano held no compunctions against victorious grins.


Norivny, Russia

July 16, 2016 a.t.b.


Lelouch felt the bed shift as Kallen pulled back the covers and finally came to join him. They needed a break sometime soon. Both of them were working themselves to the limit and picking up each other's slack when they collapsed. Perhaps they should cancel tomorrow's operation and take the day off. They could return and complete it in a few weeks if they wanted; it wasn't particularly time sensitive or essential, and they could afford to give Russia a little breathing room.

"Hey, are you awake?" Kallen whispered.

"Mm-hmm."

"We may have a problem."

That brought Lelouch to instant alertness. He rolled over to come face to face with Kallen. "What is it?"

"You know how you suggested I learn to keep my geass always on?"

Lelouch's brow furrowed. They knew almost nothing about the power, barely scraping together a few lacklustre guesses from the vague feelings and instincts it'd implanted directly into Kallen's mind and some minor testing. "Did you…" – he searched for the right words – "run out?"

"No. The opposite, actually. I can't turn it off."

Without an expert to consult, Lelouch had no idea how to respond to that. "That's a good problem to have?" he hazarded.

"I suppose." Kallen fell silent. Clearly, she had no idea what to think either. This could be a good development or a sign of danger to come. Geass affected her mind directly; if it was growing in strength, what else would it do to her?

"Does it feel different?"

"No. Just…stuck. It's hard to describe."

“Do you feel different?”

Kallen pursed her lips but shook her head.

"If–" Lelouch could hardly believe he was about to suggest this. "If you feel the need for whatever reason, we can–" He hesitated again but forced himself to press on. "–speak with the emperor." There was no one else they knew who they suspected could address their concerns.

Kallen didn't respond for the longest time, not orally, at least. A myriad of emotions worked their way silently across her face.

"No." Kallen wrapped her arms around Lelouch and cuddled into him in an approximation of a hug. "I'm not that worried. But I'll keep it in mind. We can talk more in the morning."

"Alright. Goodnight, Kallen."

"Goodnight, Lelouch."