Round One

Stage 19 - Throwing Down the Gauntlet

Nakano Ghetto, Area 11

July 24, 2016 a.t.b.

They always told us to use the terrain to our advantage. You know the basics, I’m sure. Find cover. Force the enemy through choke points. Mud is bad, especially for knightmares. Keep your land spinners on firm land. We all get told the story of the unfortunately named Sir Henry ‘Sitting’ Duck who tried to cross a landslide during the Second Pacific War. That sort of thing. But the prince? It’d be an insult to phrase what he does so plainly. He doesn’t use the terrain. He commands it. The weather too. Were we born into a simpler time, I’d call it magic.

Some of us had witnessed him weaving his sorcery before, but the Battle of Saint Petersburg was my first experience with it. We’d been waiting for an opportunity to strike there for weeks. In jest, the prince had said we’d know the right moment when we saw it. Most of us (or at least I did) translated that to mean we’d get to it when we’d get to it. Let me try to paint a picture of what actually happened.

Imagine yourself snuggled in a warm bed. It’s the middle of the night when you get the call. “It’s time,” they say. “Dress for rain,” they say. Outside, there’s a heavy fog hanging over the bay giving the coast an eerie sense of mystery. You can feel the unease in the air. It’s quiet. Too quiet for Saint Petersburg. Are you late? Did you miss the battle? Is this what’s left?

Impossible, obviously. The prince is good, but he’s not that good. There’s no way you missed an entire battle. When you rush out the door, it never occurs to you to check the forecast.

Four hours later, you’re outside the city sitting not in a knightmare but a tank. Outdated junk. If anyone in a knightmare spots you, that’s it. You’re dead. There’s not even an escort to save your sorry arse, just more tanks.

But then the storm rolls in like a vengeful god. If you thought the fog was bad, the rain is blinding. The winds of the squall rock your sixty-tonne metal monstrosity hard enough that, for a moment, you fear it might turn over.

Cue the explosions. You think you can see little flashes of light in the distance across the bay. Your heart stills as you realise that your entire platoon parked itself on the wrong side of town. In a panic, you rush to the controls, but no. Your commander tells you to hold firm. He assures you you’re not in the wrong place. The prince knows what he’s on about.

And then it happens. The sea drains. Not all the way, but enough. The order is given. You’re to cross the bay and smash into the enemy’s rear while the prince keeps their attention on himself. In the thunderous torrent of rain and the howling winds, they’ll never see it coming.

They didn’t.

When we were done, we disengaged and slipped away in the rain. That might have been the most terrifying part of the battle. The gales would sometimes send us tumbling head over heel if we didn’t grab onto something. In the end, we lost a lot of material and left behind even more, but we’d inflicted a blow so heavy I’d bet the Russians felt it all the way across the country thousands of miles away at the Siberian front.

The next day, John taught me about reverse storm surges. Apparently, the prince has a couple meteorologists checking the weather for him or something. I don’t know. Personally, I think the countess is clairvoyant. I saw her casually nudge Reeves out of a sniper’s line of fire the other day like it was just another Tuesday morning. Didn’t even look at him. Just nudged him and went on her way back into the fray. The prince even has a standing order for her commands to override his unless he countermands them. No seriously, he does. He claimed we had the real Witch of Britannia on our side in jest. Her reaction when she first overheard that name being thrown around a few days later was priceless. A certain prince slept on the couch that night, I'm sure. Somehow I doubt Princess Cornelia will be sad to see the title go. I’ll be honest, though. I don’t question it. I’m just glad she’s looking out for us. The last noble I served under, well, let’s just say he died a well-deserved death.

Anyway, I digress. Rumour has it the prince dumped all of his plans for the day and rushed to Saint Pet–

A knock came at the door to Naoto’s flat. He set aside the letter to home turned news article and called out for his guest to enter. In the process, he woke Naomi from her nap. Not that it brought his pillow duties to an end, it seemed.

“Well, don’t you two look comfortable,” Kaname observed, a teasing tone in his voice.

With all the maturity of a grown woman, Naomi stuck her tongue out. For his own part, Naoto simply asked, “Can’t a man enjoy his day off?”

“Nope. Kururugi-san brought a girl to meet you.”

Naomi sighed. “All the more reason to bring Britannia down. I suppose you should go see what the princess wants if she came all the way down here herself.”

“Do I have to?” Naoto curled his arms around Naomi to prevent her from getting up. She giggled and put up only a token resistance at best.

Meanwhile, Kaname said, “It’s not her.”

“Huh? Then who?”

“I think they mentioned they were cousins. She introduced herself as Sumeragi Kaguya.”

Naoto’s eyes widened. He recognised the name as a member of the NAC and once one of the leading families of Japan. If he recalled correctly, she even claimed some close relation to the deceased Emperor of Japan. What could she possibly want with him? More importantly, why would Marrybell tacitly endorse this meeting with Suzaku’s presence?

There was only one way to find out.

Dolgoprudny Military Base

Moscow, Russia

July 24, 2016 a.t.b.

Leila hummed a cheery tune as she swept through the halls. She twirled an electronic key about her finger by its strap. This was long overdue, and she’d finally been given a good enough excuse to get her way. Back in the small but reasonably comfortable quarters she shared with Ayano, she found the girl still in bed but halfway awake. She’d hoped to do this covertly and leave Ayano to discover it sometime later, but such was life. Pranking was not her speciality anyway.

A tired moan met Leila’s approach to the bed. “What’s the emergency?” Ayano mumbled. “You’re never up before me.”

“I tolerate jet lag better than you,” Leila offered by way of explanation. “Now give me your leg.”

“What?” A wary look settled onto Ayano’s face. “Why?”

“Just do it.”

Ayano snorted, but she did kick aside her blankets to give Leila access. With the brushing aside of a pyjama leg and the quick tap of a key to a lock, a beep filled the silence. Then came the dull thud of the ankle monitor unbolting.

To Ayano’s stunned expression, Leila said, “I’m sorry it took so long. I would have arranged for this before we left, but we were in a hurry.”

“What? But…how?”

“I threw a tantrum. I just couldn’t survive without my lady’s maid, and I certainly couldn’t have her be traceable. Imagine! The prince could potentially find us anywhere if she were. And of course, she had to be you specifically. I wasn’t about to let some stranger touch me. Had to throw both my names around, but that did the trick.”

Ayano launched off the bed, wrapped both her arms around Leila’s neck, and hung there with a little support, given that her toes didn’t reach the ground. “You must have looked so stupid.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Despite herself, the corners of Leila’s lips pulled up. She’d squash the reaction before they parted lest Ayano realise that she could, in fact, smile. “You’re welcome. And who knows? With any luck, you might be forgotten by the time we return to France. Lost in the bureaucracy.”

“Can I smash it?” Ayano pulled back and, with big, pleading eyes full of tears which might have been real two seconds ago, gestured at the monitor with her head.

“I suppose. If you can find a hammer.” Whatever fine she’d be saddled with, Leila could easily afford to pay it. As Ayano fully detached herself and made for the door – still in pyjamas, which was sure to be amusing later – she added, “Just don’t disappear on me. It’s my neck on the line now.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ayano echoed back in imitation as she ran out the door.

I hope she means that. In all honesty, Leila wouldn’t blame Ayano for turning into a runaway. There were days she considered it herself. Not often, and never for long, but with enough frequency to weigh on her mind. She knew she could make a living as a travelling dancer should the need arise. Still, if they made it back to France together, and she trusted that they would, then Ayano would probably be here to stay.

Leila pushed the matter from her mind and departed for her temporary office. There were more pressing concerns at the moment which needed her attention; she had an entire war to get caught up on, after all. She expected a delivery soon as well. She did, however, briefly reconsider the wisdom in this course of action when she passed Ayano moving at a wobbling sprint through the halls bearing a sledgehammer at least a quarter of her own weight but ultimately restrained the instinct to worry.

For the next quarter of an hour, Leila spent her time reading the latest letters from the prince’s army republished for the entire world to see. Through them, confidential information ‘leaked’. Some even provided actionable intelligence, not that she would trust any of it to be anything but dangerously double-edged. While likely accurate – to some extent, at least – the prince made a habit of regularly tricking and outwitting his opponents. She refused to fall for his games.

Someone pounded on the door. Obviously not Ayano, who never needed an invitation, she assumed it was the delivery from the Imperial Security Bureau she'd been expecting. Indeed, when her guest entered, a highly overqualified and surly looking delivery boy stood in the doorway. Without even sparing a moment to think about it, she knew he’d gotten on the bad side of someone higher up the ladder who wanted to make her own life more difficult.

“Here’s the list of exotic holiday destinations you requested, Mlle Malcal.”

In response to the snark, Leila quirked an eyebrow. Almost no one she’d met so far appreciated having to work with a teenage Britannian girl who’d come here explicitly to tell them how to do their jobs better. Each trait alone posed its own challenge to overcome, but all four together? Honestly, she’d expected worse than she got. Most people here were far less overt in their hostility and contempt. Gene's endorsement of her must carry more weight than she’d thought.

Regardless, Leila was not in the mood to put up with this nonsense, so she put on a display of off-putting hyperfemininity and politeness. “Thank you so very much, Agent Amelin! I’ll be sure to send everyone who helped you with this a thank you letter later. I do so love travelling, you know. I wouldn’t want to miss my only chance to tour Russia.”

The nausea drained from agent’s face and his hackles rose a few seconds after Leila finished. She snorted to herself. Took him long enough to pick up on the insult.

Fortunately, before the agent could start a fight, Ayano – notably not in pyjamas – swept past him and shoved him out the door. She then flipped him off with both hands while slamming the door shut with a foot.

Leila shook her head from behind her desk and picked up the file she’d received. At first, she thought she’d only been given a printed list out of spite, but she found an SD card taped in at the very end. Still annoying, but this wasn’t the first time someone had given her a mildly inconvenient storage medium. She was prepared. At least it wasn’t a floppy disk this time.

“So what was that about? He looked about a second away from pummelling you. Well, trying to.

“Nothing in particular,” Leila idly replied as she set to work. “Just more of the usual.”

“Ah, the hard life of a Zero.”

Leila paused in her typing to glance at Ayano and arch her eyebrows. “A Zero?”

“Yeah, you know, like, the persecuted Britannian is a Zero like I’d be an Eleven. ‘Cause they’re like the first disenfranchised group, but…more first than Ones.”

“An interesting analogy, though perhaps not so eloquently stated.” Leila ignored Ayano’s protestation of the latter remark and returned to work. “I imagine anyone with a passion for irony or satire would quickly adopt it. That or use it as a rallying cry for revolution. If things don’t work out for me in the EU, maybe I’ll steal it.”

Whether unconsciously or subtly in a futile effort to hide how the words affected her, Ayano preened at the praise. “As long as you give credit where it’s due,” she said. “So? Whatcha doin’?”


Ayano grabbed a chair and plopped herself down beside Leila. “Isn’t that Anna’s job?”

“Everyone should know the basics these days as a life skill. It’s not hard.”

That elicited nothing more than a dismissive hum in response. “So what are you programming?”

“The ISB gave me a list of locations I need to parse and plot on a map,” a simple task which would barely take five minutes.

“What for?”

“A quick and dirty test to falsify a hypothesis of mine.”

“Shouldn’t you be trying to prove it instead?”

After quickly finishing a basic parsing script, Leila let her fingers move on autopilot for the rest of her task and gave her attention to Ayano. “It’s often easier to show something cannot be the case. Sometimes much easier. Instead of immediately dedicating all of your effort to proving yourself right, it’s usually a good idea to first see if you can quickly prove yourself wrong.”

Ayano hummed in interest. “So what’s your theory?”

“It’s nothing complicated. If the prince and his men have disguised themselves as ordinary travellers to live off the land, then it stands to reason that they behave as such during their down time. If – and again, I do mean if – they do, then they’re going to leave behind a paper trail. This–” Leila copy and pasted the parsed list the ISB had given her into a plotting utility she’d found on the Internet. A map popped up with a little circle at every location. “–is all of the cities and towns where a hundred people could stay in a few dozen different hotels and just be guests like any other.”

Leila then superimposed the much shorter and more readily available list of the prince’s battles atop the map as little triangles, most of which appeared within reasonable travel distance of a circle. “And this is everywhere the prince has been.” As she took in the data, she nodded to herself. As I expected. It’s not proof, not nearly, but it’s evidence enough to ask the ISB to pursue this line of inquiry for me.

“Neat. So we just need to check all the hotel records for people who have been to these places at the right time?”

“Not exactly. Remember, the prince doesn’t drag all of his men to every engagement. Each has probably only participated in two or three battles so far. Maybe four.” In that sense, time was their ally, but a fickle one. Sooner or later – and probably sooner – Britannia’s main army would arrive in Europe.

Ayano frowned in thought. “So we’re looking at people who have shown up more than once?”

“Ah, but what if they’re staying in pairs or have multiple false identities?”

“Hmm…” After a few seconds, Ayano said, “Well, they must have gotten into the country somehow. Check the border’s records and compare?”

While not a bad idea and certainly something Leila intended to suggest in her report just in case, she shook her head. “They probably came from the east in the chaos of the early invasion.”

“Oh. But then couldn’t we also check to see who was already here before the prince started his campaign?”

“That’s a step in the right direction.”

Ayano took a moment to consider the matter further before suggesting, “Maybe they also travel between battles over multiple days? You know, to rest or sell the tourist shtick. That would leave trails to follow.”

“Sort of,” Leila said, rolling her hand from side to side. “That idea has the same problems as before, but it does give us more data to refine our search. That’s how we win this game of hide and seek. We need as much useful data as possible while minimising garbage. Then we let the statisticians do the calculations to identify our possible enemies. No matter how hard we try, we will get a lot of false positives and negatives. This is a woolly business, unfortunately. It’s possible nothing may come of it in the end but a lot of wasted manpower.” She doubted it would come to that, but if it did, no one here would work with her again no matter how hard Gene pushed for her inclusion. She really only had one chance to prove herself useful.

“Couldn’t we just detain everyone suspicious and sort them out later?”

“Only if you want to bring down the government.” Leila was not blind to the unrest in the country. A few disregarded civil liberties in the wrong place at the wrong time could ignite the revolution and doom the country. Worse, most of the prince’s knights were probably posing as foreigners. Even if she sent the ISB out to arrest en masse and caught one enemy combatant for every five attempts, so many false imprisonments could cause an international incident and bring the EU to declare war on Russia. More frustratingly, the prince had probably known and relied upon this when originally formulating his campaign.

Indeed, Leila had considered the idea before from a different angle. The prince’s knights were likely transporting their equipment in regular lorries. If she could find those, she could grind his campaign to a halt. Unfortunately, the infrastructure to do so wasn’t in place. Even if it were, there were too many to check. And then even if there weren’t, shipping would slow. Food would stop getting to where it needed to be. The economy would nosedive. The rebellion would spread like wildfire, and while she sympathised, now was not the time.

With Ayano right next to her, Leila resisted thumping her head upon her desk. It really was no wonder Gene had no expectation of her winning against the prince. Beating him would be difficult enough in favourable conditions, and Russia was a powder keg waiting for that fateful spark.

“So once we get a bunch of possible names,” Ayano said, “we just have to watch for all of them and set a bunch of traps?”


“You know, I was expecting more excitement than sitting on my arse and twiddling my thumbs until something happens.”

Leila shrugged. “C’est la vie.”

Ayano pouted. “Why don’t we just look for the prince and countess specifically? Wouldn’t they be nearby every night before a battle? And always together?”

“You’re assuming they’re not resting while on the road, aren’t using a long series of different names, not staying with sleeper agents, and book their own rooms. Do recall that they’re a prince and a countess.”

“Bah! Fine, assuming all that” – the sarcasm was thick in Ayano’s voice as she rolled her eyes – “why don’t we just look for them?”

“Because the prince’s MO is outwitting his opponents.”

Bor, Russia

August 1, 2016 a.t.b.

Kallen was the first to wake. She blindly reached out for her phone before realising it was Lelouch’s making that awful racket. Muttering about how much she hated the necessity of ringtones that would wake them, she reached over him for his phone and silenced the damn thing by answering the call.

No less irritated at being awoken in the middle of the night, Lelouch grumbled a slurred, “Who is it?”

“Shinobu,” Kallen said by way of both answer and greeting. “Re–” A long yawn interrupted her. “–port.”

“An SO squad is gathering outside your hotel, My Lady.”

Kallen adopted the necessary state of mind but received no warning from her geass. That either meant they’d prevent her from being able to kill herself or someone she cared about or, much more likely now that she’d been alerted to their presence, they’d fail miserably in their attempt to capture her just like everyone else.

That or they’d take forever to just get on with it and surpass the limit of her foresight. Kallen committed to killing herself as soon as the attack began and got a response from her geass. With the information she wanted obtained, she quickly discarded the notion of suicide. It was perhaps not the most mentally healthy form of divination. When she got home, she’d see if her geass acknowledged a hypothetical beloved family pet’s death to use instead. But it worked. It was only too bad her power wasn’t recursive. If it were, she could theoretically answer any verifiable yes–no question from as far into the future as she liked through a chain of murders and suicides.

But then again, perhaps that was for the best. Recursion would complicate everything; she’d spent a few hours thinking about it one night and gone to bed with a headache. It was difficult enough to adjust her thought process with her geass in its current user-friendly version. Indeed, with it stuck always on now, she’d initially worried she’d have to time her suicides just right to avoid crosstalk and getting answers to questions before she asked them. Fortunately, that had turned out not to be the case.

“So they finally figured us out,” Kallen said. Took them long enough. While everyone else’s identity was thoroughly hidden so long as they maintained cover, she and Lelouch had been deliberately leaving a trail. “How many are there?”

“No more than twenty, I believe. We have eyes on three right now. From what we’ve seen, they appear to be favouring stealth and want to catch you in your sleep.”

Kallen snorted. “They must take us for arrogant children if they think we’d be caught by surprise,” but that does make sense of my geass’s lack of a response. “Is the army doing anything?”

“Not yet.”

“One sec. Switching phones.” Kallen hung up and tossed aside Lelouch’s phone for her own as she reluctantly shifted out from beneath the warm blankets.

As this happened, Lelouch asked, “Trouble?”

“Not as much as you hoped for.”

Lelouch had expected a much larger group to gather in force for their daily humiliation than this when someone picked up on their trail. “How disappointing,” he said. Perhaps this counted as the first failed plan of his campaign. What an amusing thought.

“I’ve got this,” Kallen said as she dialled Shinobu’s number. “You just go back to sleep.”

“Arrogance becomes you.” Even in the low light, Lelouch’s amused smirk shone through. “I’ll pack while you’re busy.”

Kallen turned her attention back to Shinobu and set about dressing in what she called combat casual. “I’ll find a quiet place in the lobby to give them a target. Be ready for me in two minutes. If you haven’t already, get the boys in the decoy room on standby and call up BALTIC’s associate in the local police. I want to know what their involvement is in this. If they plan to close roads, we need to be prepared.”

“Understood.” The line hung up.

Once dressed, Kallen picked up the phone that was officially under the name she was using after happily retiring Rose at the start of the campaign. When she'd boarded the lift and begun to descend, she turned it on. With any luck, her dance partners for tonight would hone right in on it. It was an obvious bait, of course, but then so was the trail she and Lelouch had blazed through Russia an obvious trap.

Dolgoprudny Military Base

Moscow, Russia

July 24, 2016 a.t.b.

“It’s one thing to find the prince’s men through the accumulation of incidental data,” Leila continued. “He can only do so much to keep them hidden before the logistical overhead of the campaign becomes unsustainable. But the commander and the Ace? Himself and his lover? He’ll keep the two of them hidden. If he doesn’t, it’s a trap. And an obvious one at that.” But maybe one too tempting for Russia to resist.

Leila stared at the map still displayed on her monitor with a new sense of unease. Finding the prince would be a natural consequence of finding his knights if he intended to be found. She doubted she could bury that information before it got to her. That could be problematic.

It was only then that Leila noticed Ayano smirking at her. “What?”

It hasn’t even been a week yet.

After waiting for Ayano to elaborate on that, Leila quirked her eyebrow. “And?”

“Oh, nothing. Nothing at all.” Affected innocence did not become Ayano. “Soooo, when the ISB takes the bait, fucks up, and probably screws you over, what do you want the prince to know?”

Central Province, Russia

August 1, 2016 a.t.b.

Kallen walked into the impromptu interrogation chambers Shinobu had arranged for in the middle of nowhere. One hand rubbed at her eyes, a thumb for the left and an index finger for the right. The other grasped a cup of iced tea for her to drink from. “It is too early for this,” she grumbled. She’d managed to get some more sleep but not nearly as much as she’d wanted and not nearly enough to pilot a knightmare to her usual level of skill. Not that it really mattered. What a waste of a day this had been.

“If I may, you look exhausted, My Lady.”

“No rest for the wicked, Shinjiro.” Kallen poked the ice of her tea to break through it with her straw and took another sip. “Are any of them talking yet?”

“Not talking, exactly, no.”

Kallen quirked an eyebrow.

“There’s one. He’s very…emphatic in his dislike of, and I quote, the ‘Brit bitch who led them into this trap’.”

Curiouser and curiouser. Perhaps today hasn’t been a complete waste. “Where is he?”

“Down the hall and to the left. Second door on the right. Shinobu is with him at the moment playing the downtrodden Eleven and egging him on.”

Kallen bid her thanks and went off as directed. Along the way, she practised her haughty sneer. If this was the route Shinobu had taken, she could play into it. Not as well as Lelouch, but he was otherwise occupied. Besides, she could affect the mien of the aristocratic stereotype expected of her well enough. She just needed to get into the right mindset.

Once she was ready, Kallen set her tea aside and waited just outside the door for a lull in the conversation inside. She briefly noted that they were speaking in English – Shinobu with a meekness no one who knew her would believe and a thicker accent than the man – and then swept into the room. Bound atop a small pile of hay for lack of proper bedding sat one of the ISB agents they’d captured still in uniform but stripped of everything else. Beside the man, Shinobu sat in seiza in worn clothes with a timid air about her. She flinched when she made eye contact with Kallen as though she’d been caught doing something wrong.

Kallen directed a cold, imperious glare at Shinobu. “Eleven, out,” she commanded.

Shinobu stole a worried glance at the man next to her before scurrying off with head down and a quiet, “Yes, Lady Stadtfeld.”

Once the door was closed, Kallen spoke. “Pathetic. I told His Highness that even you people wouldn’t fall for it, but you’ve not only made me lose a bet, you’ve pissed me off. I was promised a real fight, yet all I got were a bunch of brain-dead Seventeens.”

Now that got a reaction out of the man. Were he not bound, he’d be on his feet with fists flying. “Are you just here to gloat?”

“Yes, actually. You’ve ruined my day. A nice bit of verbal abuse should make me feel better.”

The man spat at Kallen. “You Brits are all the same. At least that Malcal bitch won’t be getting away from this.”

Dolgoprudny Military Base

Moscow, Russia

July 24, 2016 a.t.b.

“Ayano, I know you’re not the biggest fan of law enforcement, but have faith.”

“In what? Their incompetence?”

I don’t know what I was expecting. Leila sighed but decided to humour Ayano. “Since you ask, I suppose I’d want the prince to know it was me who found him. But also that I was against falling into his trap, of course.”

“Why? Don’t want him to think badly of you?”

Leila nodded.

“Well,” Ayano said, “I guess he is kind of hot in an androgynous sort of way.”

With a light backhanded slap of the arm, Leila said, “Be serious.”

“Alright, alright. Why, then? Wouldn’t it be good for him to underestimate you?”

“If we were going into a single decisive battle or fighting a conventional war, it would. Unfortunately, we have the unenviable task of actually finding him. Doing so once I think I can manage if I lurk around long enough. After that, however, he’s going to be more careful.”

Bemused, Ayano asked, “So how does making him more wary of you help?”

“The purpose of his campaign is to make a name for himself. Some minor setbacks won’t faze him. They happen. Everyone makes mistakes. But if a worthy opponent trounces him and starts bragging about it to everyone with ears? And if she happens to have a lovely new knightmare worth the time and effort to defeat?”

“You can force him to come to you.”

Leila offered Ayano a rare smile.

Central Province, Russia

August 1, 2016 a.t.b.

One ring, two, and then the call connected. “Fleur?”

In a terribly sultry tone, Kallen asked, “Jean, do you have time for a private conversation?”

“Only if you intend to finish what you start tonight, Milady,” Lelouch replied no less suggestively.

Kallen laughed. “Maybe when we get home if you’re a good boy.”

“Oh? I might hold you to that. Anyway, I assume someone talked?”

“Not exactly, but I picked up a few things from a good rant. I figured I’d ask you if you know who Leila Malcal is before I waste a lot of time researching.”

“Malcal… Malcal… Ah. The Malcals are a political family in France who first rose to power during the French Revolution. If I remember correctly, one of them was a captain in the fleet at the battle of Trafalgar and later became an admiral. Very influential today, especially in Paris. The current head of the family is Claude Malcal. Works directly under the prime minister. There was some legal drama around him before we met, but I can’t recall what. I believe he only has sons, so Leila Malcal must be the wife or his mother.”

“I certainly hope not, since it sounds like she’s our age.” Kallen wedged her phone between her ear and shoulder to free up her hand and then went to unpack her laptop.

“Huh. Perhaps an aunt, then, though I don’t think he has–” A faint sound of a slap, likely a hand meeting a forehead, came over the phone. “Leila Breisgau. She’s the daughter of Claudia and Bradow von Breisgau.”

Kallen shot upright in surprise and nearly dropped her phone in the process. “The duke who relinquished his title and left for France? That certainly explains a few things. One of the guys here is absolutely convinced she’s one of ours.”

“I wouldn’t complain if she were. If we could manufacture some means to restore her to her duchy, she’d be a powerful ally deeply in our debt.”

“Only if she wanted it,” Kallen added. “She has taken up arms against us, you know.”

“True. But we know nothing of her motivation for doing so. I wouldn’t pass up a chance to recruit her if the opportunity presents itself.”

“Well, from the sound of it, she’s hunting us. Maybe we’ll run into her on the streets and take tea.”

Lelouch laughed.

“Speaking of, do you mind if I make some trouble for her?”

“What did you have in mind?”

Recalling how she’d played along with the ISB agent’s assumptions, Kallen coyly said, “I never denied that the Lady Breisgau is one of ours.”

That got another round of laughter from Lelouch.

“Keeping POWs is such a senseless drain on our resources, and I don’t want to commit a war crime just to get them out of our hair, but they don’t know that. Shinobu has been playing the meek, obedient Eleven to my evil countess, so I thought to myself, ‘Why not just let her organise a jailbreak in a day or two to escape her cruel masters?’”

“I love it. See it done.”

ISB Headquarters

Moscow, Russia

August 1, 2016 a.t.b.

This was a glorious, once-in-a-lifetime scene Ayano never thought she’d get to witness. Leila was so enraged, so far beyond the pale, she’d stormed into the ISB, marched right up to one of her de facto bosses not even in the privacy of his own office, and laid right into him. So explosive and volatile was her rhetoric, the people in the room who actually understood her nodded in agreement with accompanying glares at the man she was busy tearing down to the exclusion of all else.

Ayano hated to interrupt. She really did. She only knew just enough of the language to catch maybe one word in three of the vitriol Leila hurled at the man, but she’d never been more proud of her surrogate older sister. The girl had it within her to be so cool when she wanted to be. But there was a problem.

“Leila. Leila!” A sharp yank of the arm finally got her attention. “He doesn’t speak English.”

An angry snort escaped the girl in question as her gaze snapped back to her sort of boss. Ayano had a hard time remembering his name at the moment. In her defence, it used phonemes common to French or Japanese but not both and sometimes neither. She had a hard time approximating it under the best of circumstances.

“What part of ‘it’s a trap’ did you have trouble understanding?” Leila tried again in French. “I told you going after the prince was a trap. I explained why it was a trap. I showed you all the ways it would go wrong. I begged you not to fall for it. I pleaded with you not to waste the chance he was giving us. And you lied to me just to get me to go away.”

“It was a matter of operational secur–”

Leila was having none of that. “Don’t even try that with me. I have had it up to here with your distrust. Yes, I’m Britannian. Get over it. I was born in France. I was raised in France. My family is French. I’ve never even set foot in the homeland.” The man attempted to interrupt, but she spoke over him. “Do you think your boss is an idiot? He didn’t accept my assistance blindly.”

“You sound as if you think he actually values your presence. You’re just a glorified mouthpiece for General Smilas.”

Not rising to the bait, Leila retorted, “If you honestly believe that’s what I am, then you’re all the more the fool for ignoring my advice and moving forward behind my back.” A flash of anger passed over the man as she scored a direct hit. “Now twenty-five of your best are probably dead because you refused to listen to me. Were their lives worth proving that the prince is more able than you give him credit?”

The man’s fists tightened. “How dare you! They all knew what they were getting into. It was a calculated risk.”

“A calculated risk?” Leila echoed. A shiver ran down Ayano’s spine at how calm and detached she sounded. That never boded well for the recipient of her fury. “I presented you with more than enough evidence to the contrary. I showed you the prince slipping away from pursuers and out of blockades. I replayed the numerous battles where attempts to constrain his movements failed. Where did all that appear in your calculations when you were weighing lives?”

“Listen, you worthless bitch.” The man grasped Leila’s blouse by the collar. “If you have a problem with how I run my operations, you can fuck off right back to Britannia.” He feigned surprise. “Oh, wait. They don’t want you. No one does.”

“Worthless? That’s your estimation of me?” That got a soft chuckle out of Leila even as she hung on her toes in the man’s grip. “Yes, I see now. A calculated risk indeed. I at least cannot fault your multiplication skills. Twenty-five times zero is still zero. There was never anything at stake for yo–”

The next few seconds happened in the blink of an eye. With his free hand, the man struck not with a palm but a balled fist. Leila jerked in an odd way Ayano couldn’t follow that set the man off balance. While her feet fell back onto the ground, she allowed the punch to roll off her cheek to little effect.

Now with a solid stance, Leila’s hands and legs flew to work. The man toppled over under her assault and landed hard on his chest. The arm that had once grasped her blouse was held securely up in both her hands. With the leverage that provided, she used both her weight and his own to pin him with a foot on his back.

During all this, Ayano had barely taken a half-step forward to help before it was over. Most everyone else in the room had risen to assist as well but, like her, were left stunned with the display.

A moment passed.

Putain de merde! That was brilliant!

The room came to life again. A pair of agents moved to relieve Leila of her burden and ultimately dragged the still enraged man from the room.

And that left a power vacuum, one which Leila promptly set about securing for herself without even the slightest concern for the recent assault against her or anyone attempting to gainsay her.

Hours passed with the business of war, and lunch went unobserved. It wasn’t until much, much later that night at a very delayed dinner alone with Leila when Ayano felt she could properly react to the events.

“There are times when you are just – just…just the best. I don’t even have the words. They need to invent a new one just for you.”

Leila sighed in that ‘I’m flattered but don’t approve, so I won’t show it’ way of hers. “I shouldn’t have done that.”

“Are you mad? That guy was going to punch your lights out and beat you to a pulp, but you were all like–” Ayano imitated the move Leila had pulled to the best of her ability. Her expertise was in swords, not grappling. “And then he was on the ground before I could even blink, and you were just standing there on top of him like he was an insect not even worth your attention.”

This time Leila buried her face in her hands propped up by her elbows on the table. “I really shouldn’t have done that. I’m supposed to be a good influence on you.”

“Well, what were you supposed to do? Let him hit you?”

“Of course not,” Leila said evasively.

After a few seconds, the truth dawned on Ayano. “That was all on purpose? Everything?”

“Yeah,” Leila sighed.

“But – but you were ranting in English.”

Reluctantly, Leila admitted, “I knew he didn’t speak the language. It was a good way to address the audience and get the mob on my side before he could defend himself. Enough people throughout the world speak English. It wasn’t even a gamble. After that, it was just a matter of seeming the reasonable party when I went to provoke him.”

“Are you serious?”

Leila refused to meet Ayano’s eyes.

“No offence, Sis, but you’re kind of scary.” Ayano meant it as a compliment, and Leila knew that even if she herself didn’t consider it as such.

“I suppose I can’t say I’ve learnt nothing living with the Malcals…” Leila sighed once more.

It was at that moment that Ayano remembered something which truly needed to be said. She cleared her throat and waited until she had Leila’s full attention. “By the way, what happened today? I told you so.

It took a few seconds, but eventually Leila groaned. “Anyway,” she said in a graceless attempt to change the topic which only underscored her loss, “hopefully when our missing agents return they’ll have some useful information for me.”

Ayano paused with her fork halfway to her mouth to ask, “Didn’t you say they’re probably dead?” A half-second later she added, “No, nevermind. You were just whipping up the mob and asking for a fight.”

“More or less. Some of them are probably dead, but the prince has been opting not to kill when he doesn’t need to. I doubt all of them will be coming back, but some of them will before too long. I cannot believe he has the resources to hold low-value prisoners for long.”

“And if they don’t?”

“Then I’ll think of something. I have a few other ideas, one of which I can act on now. Nothing may come of it, but if I’m going to have people idling around until a better opportunity presents itself, I might as well have them idling somewhere useful.”

Curious, Ayano asked, “And where’s that?”

“The prince was uncharacteristically inactive between the sixteenth and the eighteenth. Perhaps it was a planned day of rest. Perhaps something happened that forced him to abandon his plans for the seventeenth. The trail he left us certainly makes it look like he merely took a holiday while travelling between one battle and the next, but considering the lightning pace he’d maintained up to that point, I doubt it was intended. I think he cancelled an operation. And if he considered it worth his time before, he may well have put it back on his to-do list.”

“Makes sense. So where was he on the seventeenth?”

“The same place I have Anna delivering the Alexander.”

Norivny, Russia

August 13, 2016 a.t.b.

Returning to Norivny had Kallen on edge. If she hadn’t grown up heavily involved in Britannian politics, she doubted she could affect even half the calm she presented to the world as she strolled though the city on Lelouch’s arm. It wasn’t the thought of an ambush that worried her, of course. One didn’t need to be a prophetess to know there was one waiting for them. They’d come here expecting one and the opportunity to strike another massive material blow to the Russians. No, it was much worse than that.

Kallen glanced at a pavement table with three suspect targets around it and quickly formulated the intention to send Lelouch over to introduce himself to them as his royal self. If they reacted the way she expected, she would kill him. If they didn’t or something else went wrong, she would more reliably kill herself. Dual-railing her geass as such, to borrow a term from electrical engineering, allowed her more flexibility in asking questions and provided clearer answers when in situations where she could rely upon the implementation.

However, if neither she nor Lelouch died in the coming moments, however unlikely, then they’d be in serious trouble: they’d have to follow through with her plan and suffer the consequences or else her geass wouldn’t function to begin with. Such was the price of the increased divination power. Simple conditionals on things outside her control didn’t require her to do anything.

As soon as she formalised her intent, Kallen’s geass informed her that Lelouch was going to die. The only outward reaction she showed to the information as she discarded her plans was to tap her finger on Lelouch’s arm three times to some unheard tune. That was three more enemy combatants to add to the count.

Kallen caught another probable out of the corner of her eye walk into a restaurant, presumably for lunch. This time she asked if there was at least one enemy inside, then two, three, four, and finally received a negative response at five. She tapped Lelouch’s arm four more times and left it to him to keep count.

No, it wasn’t the ambush waiting for them that bothered Kallen, it was the ambush waiting for them in plain sight. That left only three plausible explanations. One, they’d bled Russia enough that they needed the heavy industry here intact. Two, whoever organised this ‘ambush’ was grossly incompetent. Three, the huntress had a better understanding of their motivations than they’d expected.

Personally, Kallen regarded the third option as the most likely. By their estimates, the first was still a few months off at their current pace. While she and Lelouch liked to make jokes to maintain the illusion of invincibility, the second gave too little credit to the Russians. If they were that inept, Laertes would have already rolled over Siberia and won the war.

That left only the third option. The huntress had shown her hand and invited them to play. The only question was if she intended to play along or to exploit their need to take larger risks for greater glory. Kallen’s money was on the latter and assumed Breisgau had an ace up her sleeve.

After an hour of leisurely reconnaissance, the pair stopped at a cafe for tea. Lelouch choose it for the publicly available chessboard inside, because of course he did. While he was busy ordering, Kallen opened an encrypted group chat with the surveillance team.

‘Q1 reporting. At least 231 in the area we searched.’

A series of other reports came in over the next few minutes, none of which did anything to alleviate Kallen’s worries. But there was some good news.

Shion wrote, ‘No more than 100 KMFs in official hangars.’

That puts us at about equal strength in knightmares, only slightly outnumbered. Of course, they had also brought nearly twice as many people, unusually many of whom triggered Kallen’s geass, and equal material to this engagement as they normally did. That brought up more questions. Did Breisgau expect to outnumber us or did she intend to match us to tempt us into a pitched battle?

Kallen hated these minds games, but that was what she had Lelouch for. He was far better at reading people than her. A new message from Shinobu recaptured her attention.

‘Located the huntress. Out for lunch with company. Orders?’

‘Keep an eye on her, but leave her be,’ Kallen sent back. As tactically sound as disrupting the chain of command would be, she and Lelouch had an image to protect and present to the world. They would either ignore Breisgau or meet her in battle; there was no in-between.

“I can’t help but notice you’re all alone. Care for a game, gorgeous?”

Kallen rolled her eyes as Lelouch offered up her tea and a blueberry muffin. “Is that how you pick up women, Liam? By challenging them to chess matches?”

“Did it work?”

“Well, you brought me food, so how can I resist?”

The pair relocated from the window seat Kallen had acquired to the chess table off by the wall. As soon as they finished setting up the board, she stole Lelouch’s queen. She considered it the very minimum handicap he could give her and teasingly said, “Your queen stands before you in open rebellion. I don’t know why you look so surprised.”

There was no hesitation in Lelouch’s response. “It is not the rebellion that surprises me. She always was a wilful piece. But to see her following another king, it breaks my heart.”

“Oh, I’m sure he’s just a jumped up pawn dancing in the palm of her hand.”

Kallen and Lelouch looked at each other for a second before both broke into identical smiles. With that, the game began. The opening played out quickly at the lightning pace Kallen set.

“You know, even with all the pieces I have before you, I still worry it won’t be enough. I don’t like fair fights any more than you do.”

No hints were needed as to what they were really talking about. “I’m sure you’ll do fine,” Lelouch said. “It may be a greater challenge than you’re used to, but you have experience and unshakable loyalty on your side. Recall how well it served you against my sister. And you have an advantage that no one else has or could predict.”

“That’s true.” Kallen kept her smirk off her face even as she quickly made her next move. Probably without even noticing, Lelouch matched her pace as he had the whole game so far. They both knew he didn’t need to pay too much attention to beat her.

“If something goes wrong, you can always retreat. It wouldn’t be the first time you’ve feigned a rout only to turn the tables.”

“Also true.”

Lelouch frowned as Kallen moved her queen forward. She didn’t know why that bothered him, but she would find out soon enough. A few turns later, she forked a knight and a rook with the piece.

Now properly paying attention to the game, Lelouch glanced up from the board with narrowed eyes. “I forgot to mention one important fact. You cheat.”

“Me? Never.” Exposed, Kallen no longer bothered to hide her grin.

With a click of his tongue, Lelouch moved his knight forward. “What AI do I have the honour of facing?”

“Nothing fancy,” Kallen replied. “Just something I can access from my phone.” For each piece available to her, she asked if it was the next one she should move until she received a positive response to her rook. From there, she only had to determine where to move it. In this case, it was back one space. “I’ll have to look into something better in the future. When we get home, I think I might go trounce your brother.”

That elicited a territorial growl and a glare. No one but Lelouch was allowed to topple Schneizel from his throne, it seemed. Kallen laughed.

The first one came without warning as it always did. It happened. People died in battle. That was the nature of things. Kallen would pay closer attention to Morgan and do her best to avert the loss when the time came.

The second came a few moments later. That, too, happened. Twice was a coincidence. She could save John as well.

The third came, which paradoxically set her at ease. If three people died so quickly in succession, it typically indicated a single root cause. That would be easier to prevent than multiple little ones.

Then the fourth came, and then the fifth, and the sixth, and the seventh. The images grew more vivid with each one. Crushed skulls, snapped necks, hemorrhages, and always the searing heat and the flames. The charred flesh, the skin flaking to ash. The final flash of light before blindness. Every time she recovered from the shock, another blow came. One after another, everyone she knew and cared for but herself and her prince died.

“Lelouch. Lelouch.” Kallen weakly pawed at her knightmare’s communications. Her geass partially receded with the simple act but still left her reeling.

“Q1, what – Kallen! What’s wrong?”

“Everyone. Dies.” Kallen’s breathing was ragged. She was sure she was hyperventilating.

“What? How?”

“In knightmares. Probably.” The biggest flaw of Kallen’s geass was its omission of circumstance. It wasn’t enough. How better could she describe it? “Quickly. Sequentially.”

As soon as Kallen decided on the last two words, her geass faded further. Her heart hammered in her chest, but she could finally think. She could see the gears whirling in Lelouch’s mind. Soon enough, he pulled Shinobu onto the line.

“Was Anna Clément with Breisgau?”

The dossier Kallen had read on Breisgau last week had mentioned that name. If she remembered correctly, Clément was Breisgau’s best friend, schoolmate, and a hobby…roboticist.

Oh no.

“She was, Your Highness.”

Kallen paled. Lelouch muttered something under his breath. They’d both experienced first hand the power a decisive technological advantage could grant if used well at the outset of the war.

“Thank you, Shinobu.” Lelouch removed her from the call and then immediately slammed his fists onto his console. “Of all the asinine possibilities! I read it, but I didn’t see it. I didn’t even think – she’s barely an adult!”

“So are we,” Kallen observed.

“What can my oracle tell me?”

“We’ll lose more than we’ve lost cumulatively over our entire campaign.” And with that, Kallen’s geass became eminently more manageable. “And we’ll lose a lot less now that you know that.”

“I see.” Although he ground his teeth, Lelouch resigned himself to the facts. “I would rather suffer a minor setback than win a Pyrrhic victory. I’ll order a tactical withdrawal. I need you to blunt whatever Breisgau is about to throw at us.”

“They’re retreating?” Leila stood incredulous at the sight in her command centre. She’d been watching and waiting. She’d wanted them to have the first strike so that they’d be committed to the fight. “Why?” It’s a trap. It has to be a trap. I wasn’t even being subtle about asking for the fight I know the prince wants. Nothing could have frightened him off in these last few minutes. Not unless he learnt of the Alexander with absurdly dramatic timing.

“Your orders, Ma’am?”

Leila gnawed on her lip in thought as she struggled to come to a decision. If I go after them, I risk lives and looking like a fool. I can’t be a fool in the prince’s eyes if I want him to ever come to me. But if don’t, it could be months before I run into him again. I don’t have that kind of time.

In the end, Leila made the only decision she could. “We pursue with caution. Nobody takes any risks. I don’t want any heroes.”

Despite all the warnings her geass gave her, Kallen knew she and Lelouch were going to live through this battle. Even when everyone else died, they would go on. She doubted that meant anything good; the huntress must want her prey alive.

As the group retreated through the forest, Kallen slowly pulled her knightmare closer and closer to Morgan’s. Even after she’d altered the timeline, the poor woman would be the first to fall without her intervention. Presumably, that would be where Breisgau first sicked whatever new machine she had on them.

The sound of cannon fire broke the silence. Through the trees, Kallen could spot flashes of light and wisps of smoke rising into the air. It’d begun. She grasped her controls tighter and prepared for the fight of her life.

“Q1, P5 reporting – oh, fuck, it’s fa–”

The line went ominously dead at the same time an explosion erupted not too far away. For better or for worse, Kallen hadn’t known Private Ainsley well.

“N1, gather your squad,” Kallen commanded. “From the sound of it, we’re dealing with something light, fast, and probably agile. I’ll keep it busy. You fire on both of us in a line. It’ll take hits harder than me.”

After a few precious moments, Morgan finally responded, “Yes, Ma’am.”

Well, that ensures her survival. Let’s hope this–

The factspheres of Kallen’s knightmare picked up an approaching knightmare. It was taller than her Panzer Hummel but willowy. It’s humanoid design went a step further toward realism than even Britannia’s latest with the head itself bearing a pair of small, glowing green eyes, likely factspheres. The frame was painted white, trimmed in red with grey accents, and it was the fastest knightmare she had ever seen, easily beating out the Gloucester and even the Ganymede.

Kallen didn’t even wait to see if she’d been noticed. She immediately rushed toward where Morgan was preparing the ambush. And sure enough, she had that new knightmare on her tail and gaining quickly. The only thing keeping her in the lead was her obviously greater experience traversing forests in a knightmare and perhaps one odd design choice. Does it not have slash harkens?

As she jerked herself onto a clearer path with one, Kallen risked diverting her attention to observe the knightmare more closely. It doesn’t. But they’re so useful! How does it climb and clear terrain landspinners won’t pass without them? I mean, what if it got stuck in the mud? That’d be so embarrassing.

Kallen shook the questions from her mind. There would be a time for them after she’d gotten out of here alive and free. She slowed herself slightly to match her pursuer’s speed so that they’d arrive at the ambush point together. In the back of her mind, she wished the Panzer Hummel had hands for her to brawl with. She hated not having a melee option, especially when her opponent had a pair of very sharp daggers attached to its frame at its hands which could probably tear hers to ribbons.

All went according to plan. Kallen turned on the knightmare behind her and opened fire.

The white knightmare easily dodged. It spun in a narrowing circle faster than the Panzer Hummel could turn, but that was fine, because it was now in the firing line with her.

“N1, do it.”

Morgan’s squad took aim. The white knightmare tried to duck out of the way, demonstrating its frustrating flexibility. Nonetheless, that wouldn’t–

“It transforms!” Stunned – and privately very jealous – Kallen watched in horror as the now four-legged knightmare fired the artillery mounted on its back at the firing squad. And here she’d had the counterintuitive thought that it had hands to hold things like its main – or possibly only – ranged weapon. But no, apparently hands were overrated.

The first shot fired and hit Morgan dead centre. She managed to eject in time, but her squad scattered with her to get to cover.

That left Kallen alone with the transforming robot. It was already back on two legs and dodging her attempts to shoot it with nonchalance. It’s knives apparently retracted into its arms, as they popped out threateningly.

Fantastic. I’ve brought painfully slow cannons to a close quarters knife fight. If I had a Gloucester or even just a Sutherland…

In a rather desperate move, Kallen used a slash harken to yank herself sideways. It gave her enough speed to bat away the white knightmare’s killing thrust with one of the cannons that passed for hands on the Panzer Hummel. She tried to fire the other cannon into the knightmare’s chest, but it just returned the favour with much less fuss.

“Alright, you wanna rumble? Fine. Bring it on.”

Lelouch sighed as Kallen was carefully transferred into his knightmare for the time being. The only thing coherent he’d gotten out of her was something about hating Panzer Hummels, which was fair enough, he supposed. They were nearly antithetical to her natural fighting style, and it appeared she’d hit her head during the ejection process. He couldn’t blame her. The Panzer Hummel’s design was a product of necessary haste to field an answer to Glasgows. Hopefully in the next war they fought, they’d have access to good Britannian tech instead.

As much as he sympathised with her right now, however, Lelouch made a mental note to ‘rehabilitate’ her. According to preliminary reports, Kallen had started out well but had ultimately relapsed and tunnelled on the white knightmare which, for all intents and purposes, had turned the fight into a one on one duel. And she did so well against Suzaku… He shook his head fondly. He was a little disappointed, sure, but she’d tried. Far less could be said of most people. At least she’s safe.

“K1, there’s a signal on the open channel.”

That had to be Breisgau. “Thank you, R2. I’ll take care of it.” Lelouch briefly considered ignoring the call but decided against being petty. After quickly making himself more presentable, he stowed Kallen at his feet out of sight. The last thing he needed right now was his opponent learning that his best Ace was completely out of commission. When he was at last ready, he opened the line.

“Good evening, Your Highness,” Breisgau said with an infuriatingly cocky smile.

Lelouch refused to rise to the bait. “Good evening, Huntress.”

“Huntress?” Breisgau echoed in bemusement. After a moment to process the name, the smile returned even wider. “An excellent sobriquet. I thank you for it.”

“Your gratitude is misplaced. My knight decided upon it.”

“Oh? I don’t suppose you’d be willing to surrender so I could thank her myself?”

As an answer, Lelouch asked, “I don’t suppose you intend to chase after us?”

“No, I think not. I’m not naive enough to follow you. Unlike some people, I choose to learn from what happened to the previous commanders who thought they’d routed you. You’ll just have to extend my thanks to the countess for me.”

“I’m sure she’ll appreciate that, but I fear we shall banter all night if left unchecked. Perhaps we should dispense with the idle pleasantries.”

“Very well, then. I’d just like to remind you not to keep a lady waiting. I look forward to our next encounter.”

Lelouch immediately understood exactly how much of a thorn in his side Breisgau intended to make herself. Nonetheless, he wasn’t about to show his hand so easily. “They say absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

“Don’t be coy. A black mark like this on your record? Letting the world believe there’s someone who can match wits with you and claim the advantage at the end of the day? You can hardly afford to let that stand.”

“Hmph.” Lelouch hadn’t expect any other response, but it still rankled. “Until next time, Huntress.”

“A bientôt, Your Highness.”