Stage 20 - Lining Up the Dominoes
Tokyo Settlement, Area 11
August 30, 2016 a.t.b.
Marika stormed into the room Erika and Jean shared with a magazine clenched in her hand. She waved it in the air, crying, “I cannot believe the rubbish this rag prints!” A curious Liliana, her own roommate, followed at a more sedate pace through the door.
Reclined on her bed, Jean glanced up from her book and quirked her eyebrows. As she did, Erika held out a hand and said, “Well? Let’s have it, then.” Marika handed the magazine over. “Oh, another letter about the countess. Is it giving her a hard time for barely holding the line against that monstrous Alexander or something?”
“Just read it.”
“Alright.” After a moment, Erika asked, “Are any of the first several paragraphs relevant?”
Marika waved her hand dismissively.
“Let’s see… Here we are. ‘But enough about me. Let me tell you about the shock of my life. I wake up with a cast and covered in bandages. I barely remember a streak of white, and I’m damn lucky to have come out in one piece. If the prince’s ninjas (no, seriously, they’re real, and let’s just say I’m glad they’re loyal to him) hadn’t discovered that white knightmare before we engaged, I’d be dead. But I lived, so surely everyone got out alright, right?
“‘Then I notice there right across from me is the Rose herself. If they got her, who else did they get? How many of us got away?’ You know, Marika, terror in the face of Kallen’s defeat sort of shows a lot of respect.”
Marika rolled her hand to tell Erika to keep reading.
“Okay, okay.” For a few seconds, Erika mumbled to herself as she scanned the document. “Ah. ‘It’s such a disorienting feeling. The prince and the countess have these…presences about them. It’s hard to describe. It’s this mix of camaraderie and awe that makes you leap to follow them and be damn proud of it.
“‘Then I see the countess sulking about our ward like she’s been grounded instead of injured. Her minders occasionally march her back to bed, but she’s always looking for something to do or someone to talk to. If there wasn’t a ninja beside her at all hours, she’d probably try to escape. It’s at that point that I remember, oh yeah, she’s just a kid. One who practically raised herself.’”
“Is that it?” Liliana asked dismissively.
“‘Is that it?’” Marika thrust her hand toward the offending article. “She’s calling her childish!”
Both Liliana and Jean rolled their eyes. The latter went back to reading her book.
“I think,” Erika began as she snapped the magazine shut, “you may be overreacting a little.”
Her hair flying back and forth, Marika gave a fierce shake of her head. “She’s brilliant. Besides, if she’s a child, what does that make us?”
“Children,” Jean idly stated.
Erika echoed, “Children.”
“Children,” Liliana agreed.
“Besides,” Erika added, “I think it’s endearing.”
That got a chorus of laughter from the other three girls. They didn’t understand.
“Hey. If this letter has been published for everyone and their mum to read, that means the countess is already better, right?”
Somewhere in Siberia
August 30, 2016 a.t.b.
Jeremiah did his best to stare down Lady Stadtfeld with his best stern frown to which he added just a touch of disappointment and reprimand. He doubted it had the full desired effect across a video call, but he would not relent. She’d promised not to leave their shared liege unattended for a single moment, yet there she stood after two weeks of absence. Nonetheless, he said, “It’s good to see you up and about again.”
“It’s good to be out,” Lady Stadtfeld replied. “Two or three more days, and I’d have gone irrevocably mad. Of course, Lelouch kept his promise to dump most of his administrative work onto me, so there’s that. Not that I’m complaining. He obviously needs the rest. He’s been sleeping twelve hours a day since we reunited. I imagine he’d stay in bed longer if he could, but we don’t have the time.”
As Lady Stadtfeld spoke, Jeremiah hummed approvingly. Even though she’d been the cause of their prince’s most recent exhaustion, she had her priorities in order.
“Anyway, how is the campaign proceeding on your end?”
“Well enough. Fortunately, the general staff who actually plan and run most operations have prevented Laertes from taking any rash actions to match your successes.” After a moment, Jeremiah added, “With Lady Enneagram leaning heavily on them.”
“Does she have to sit on them, or is she out in the field?”
Jeremiah shrugged. “It varies. When a sniper is needed for a critical mission, she’ll usually take the job. For the greater part, however, she remains around command.”
“Sounds about right for her. I wish Lord Manfredi were available to supervise. Or better yet, take control. The coming months will be critical. We need to wrap this up before winter sets in.”
“Oh?” Jeremiah let the question hang in the air unasked.
“Breisgau and her Alexander aren’t actually a problem. Lelouch has been gifting her the occasional minor victory. Honestly, Jeremiah, have some faith.”
“I wouldn’t want to assume and be wrong.”
With a shrug, Lady Stadtfeld said, “Fair enough. But speaking of, the final push is coming. We need roughly a month to prepare. Perhaps as little as three weeks if all goes well. Either Lelouch or I will give you a better estimate when the time draws nearer. Inform Nonette that she needs to be ready to spur the army onward.”
“As you wish, My Lady.”
With his instructions given, Jeremiah set out to track down the Knight of Nine and deliver the news.
August 30, 2016 a.t.b.
At times like these, Leila wanted to spread rumours. Clearly, since the prince felt so strongly against air bases, he must be afraid of flying. It was only logical.
Leila, frustrated, rubbed at her temple with a heavy sigh. Moving around quickly in central Russia was beginning to become difficult. Soon enough, she’d have to start using commercial airports and private flights. If that was the prince’s plan, then bully for him. He’d managed to thoroughly vex her. But things were never that simple with him. She assumed he wanted to move more openly, for whatever reason, but had little ability to defend himself from air strikes.
At least we’re inflicting some damage on him now. The more air bases he destroys, the more material he frees up for us to use to defend other ones. Not exactly the most desirable method to gain an advantage, but I’ll take what I can get.
With the list of damages from her latest bout with the prince fully read, Leila set it aside. This was, without question, still an asymmetrical war, and that was all she really needed to know. Instead, she now turned her attention to the stack of dossiers the ISB had generated while vetting everyone who’d known about the Alexander at Norivny before its deployment. No one appeared to be a spy, they’d told her, but they’d also not found anyone who might have let the secret slip.
Of course, if the prince’s men are to be believed, he has ninja of all things working for him. That could explain much.
Nonetheless, Leila picked up the first dossier and began reading. It never hurt to know a little more about the people she worked with. She was also curious how many red flags both Ayano’s and her own would have. If they’d even given her a copy, that was.
Sadly, they had not. But on the other hand, the entire Alexander team was clean. The only two Leila had worried about in the least were Sayama and Hyūga, the two Japanese newcomers with potential ties to Britannia. Sayama, however, had lost all of his family except for his parents in the Second Pacific War and didn’t appear to have any surviving friendships in the colony that could be used as leverage against him.
Hyūga’s life, in stark contrast, was an unmitigated disaster. His mother lost two husbands before dying young during Britannia’s invasion of Japan. He had an older half-brother, one Shin Hyūga, who’d outright murdered everyone except Akito – and not for lack of trying – in the orphanage they’d been placed in before vanishing to parts unknown. His closest non-homicidal relatives not presumed dead were a great-aunt and a second cousin once removed via his brother’s father, which was practically no relation at all. While technically still a Britannian subject, he’d made no mystery of his desire to gain French citizenship even if that ultimately meant a period of service in the foreign legion.
When Leila made it through the last report, she concurred with the ISB’s opinion. She’d likely had a security leak at Norivny rather than a spy in her ranks. Finding it might prove difficult, however, especially if it hadn’t left the city with her.
“Oh well,” Leila sighed. When she found the problem, she’d learn from it and know better in the future. She had better things to do than crying over spilt milk. There were easily a dozen potential battlefields she needed to familiarise herself with, plans to make for each of them, past conflicts to review, commanders to contact. The list went on.
Petrov Air Base
September 5, 2016 a.t.b.
In a reversal of circumstances from when she first arrived in Russia, Leila now sat surrounded by her advisers and lieutenants, the brightest military minds in the country not preoccupied with events in the east. Only a month ago, her voice had been but one amongst many and easily ignored. Now with her success against the prince known far and wide, the public would accept no other at the helm. Mob rule at its finest.
It was not exactly what Leila had intended. Her propaganda campaign against the prince hadn’t been meant to secure power for herself, only to force him to come to her. While this unintended side effect made it easier for her to act, certainly, it also pinned all of Russia’s resurgent morale squarely on her. If she lost, the nation lost.
Outside, the sun slowly slipped beneath the horizon and bathed the drizzling sky in all hues of purple. Today’s storm had passed and, with it, so had the prince’s usual strike time. It left a growing disquiet in Leila. Where was he? Was he planning something big and carefully moving into position? Was he on holiday? Had the rain delayed him? If so, was he here in town?
Fate, it seemed, had an answer for her. A messenger rushed into the war room bearing news. The prince indeed had something special in mind for them. He’d simultaneously begun an assault on every single remaining major air base west of the Urals except for the one Leila had come to with the Alexander.
Leila clicked her tongue. “Everyone, to your stations.” There was no time for motivational speeches or pretty words.
Just as Leila rose to her feet, sirens blared. Seconds later, the ground shook, the windows rattled, and the air roared. The suddenness of it all sent her tumbling back onto her seat, but the shock lasted only a moment as the sound of explosion after explosion became background noise.
“Move!” Leila barked out the command, and the room burst into motion. As she rushed out the door to leave for her command centre, she spared a glance out the window with grit teeth and clenched fists. This shouldn’t have happened. She’d been ready for this. She’d had more than adequate defences in place. Even if the prince had managed to get through them, she should have had at least a few minutes’ warning, not a few seconds’.
Kallen watched the flames spread in the distance. From her vantage point nearly a kilometre away from the air base atop a cliff, she could see all the action. Every minute or so, another building would collapse, but that was mere collateral damage. The real victory lay in the loss of bombers and the extensive damage to the runway. It would take weeks to repair in a best-case scenario, and aircraft were not so quickly replaced.
“When we get home,” Lelouch began, “I’m building you your statue.”
It took Kallen a moment, but eventually she recalled the joke with a smirk. “That’s Sorceress Supreme to you, Your Highness.”
They fell silent for a moment in idle satisfaction. Lelouch had made the plan. He’d given all the orders. He could have done it all himself, but he’d fine-tuned the details with magic in real time to present this almost casual masterpiece. Kallen could only imagine what kind of impossible genius he must seem to someone not in the know.
To be honest, she remained impressed regardless. Even without the practice and instincts that came with her geass, Lelouch had grown comfortable enough querying his oracle to the point where he rarely bothered to pose the actual question he had in mind anymore. As long as she knew that a question in fact existed and he provided a yes or a no in the future which would never be, she could relay the answer back. The only limit was how quickly he could formulate the questions in his own mind and then apply the result.
“I imagine the huntress must be very frustrated right now.”
“Oh, unbelievably,” Kallen replied.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it. Push the Alexander as hard as you can on our way out. I’d like as few surprises as possible when the final battle is upon us.”
Kallen nodded and cut the line to avoid distraction, her job as a prophetess finished for the moment. While they would prefer to defeat the Alexander properly in the climactic battle in a moment of pageantry and theatre, if it proved itself too strong to deal with conventionally, then they needed to know that now. Granted, she was using a Glasgow today they’d gone out of their way to procure from an arms dealer instead of a more readily available Panzer Hummel, but she paid no mind to such trivialities.
In the minute after the sirens blared to life, Ryō dropped his dinner and sprang into action. Clément had the Alexander ready to go by the time he reached the hanger. Moments later, he launched to join the fray before the prince escaped again.
As soon as Ryō left the base, he encountered a scene much unlike at Norivny. There the Brits had been in full retreat. This time they stood firm and organised as they slowly disengaged, fighting all the while. Before, the battle had been in a forest with low visibility and lots of cover. Here, an open field sprawled out before which the rain had practically turned into a marsh.
“Well, fuck.” The Alexander’s design emphasised agility, not durability. It wasn’t made for crossing a killing field. “Damn Brits.”
A forest abutted the field off to the east and sprawled northward toward where the Brits were retreating. If he went through it, Ryō could get behind enemy lines and sow chaos. The detour would take time, though. He might arrive too late to do anything. On the other hand, his only other realistic option was to hang back and unleash long-range cannon fire.
“Hey, Clément. Get me Malcal.”
“Hmm… Seems she’s not yet at – oh, there she is. Give her a few moments, please.”
With an exasperated sigh, Ryō retreated to the base and climbed atop one of the few still standing buildings. There he transformed into Insect Mode and fired the Alexander’s back-mounted cannon down into the battle. Until he got other orders, he’d have to stay put and participate in the main fight. He begrudgingly acknowledged that the Brit knew what she was on about when it came to war.
A few confirmed hits later and far more misses, Malcal’s voice came over the radio. “What is it?”
“Permission to head into the forest and hit the Brits from behind?”
Ryō pulled back in surprise. In protest, he said, “The Alexander is too flimsy to be anything but a cannon here!”
“And where exactly do you think the countess is?”
The question gave Ryō pause. Now that Malcal mentioned it, he’d not noticed the usual swath of destruction left in her wake anywhere. “Another battle?” he hazarded.
“No,” came the immediate, flat denial.
“She’s not a problem.” Ryō had beaten her before, after all.
“Perhaps, but I’m perfectly happy with her sidelining herself and you contributing. Just stay–”
During the explanation, Ryō nearly missed a warning from his fact spheres. On pure reflex, he jumped backwards just in time for a bullet to pass beneath him and through the roof below.
Kallen clicked her tongue as she reloaded her sniper rifle. So those eyes aren’t just for show. The factspheres on the Alexander must be a drastic improvement over fourth and fifth gen versions to give its devicer enough time to dodge.
Or perhaps whoever’s inside just has really good situational awareness. It’s not impossible, I suppose. Marianne walked home just fine after a year of fighting in an exposed cockpit.
After watching her target’s movements for a few seconds, Kallen lined up her next shot.
Let’s try this again.
It was probably a good thing Malcal didn’t speak Japanese, because Ryō was swearing creatively enough to make a sailor blush. A sniper at a higher elevation across an open plain was very possibly the single worst enemy for the Alexander to face.
Malcal’s sigh came loud and clear over the radio. “Well, if she’s going to force the issue, you might as well go fight her. Just watch out for traps and ambushes.”
“Right. On my way.” The moment Ryō stuck his head out from behind a building, another shot zipped past his frame.
I’m really not very good at this, Kallen chided herself. Unfortunately, sniping was too variable a business for her geass to do much in the way of aim assistance. It could, of course, tell her if she would hit or not, but except under the best of circumstances, the most she could get out of it was ballpark estimates. Note to self: ask Nonette for lessons when we get home.
For now, however, Kallen continued harassing the Alexander as it fled toward the woods. If she got a lucky shot, great. If not, then that was fine as well. It still gave her valuable data on the Alexander’s manoeuvrability, the latency in its factspheres, and its devicer’s level of skill.
Ryō breathed a sigh of relief when he finally made it beneath the forest canopy and out of sight. Snipers, it seemed, were obnoxious, frustrating, infuriating arses in real life just as they were in games. Now that he was safe, though, he quickly transformed into Insect Mode and headed north as quickly as he dared.
Kallen hummed the finale to William Tell Overture as she swapped out her map data for a more detailed version covering the forest specifically. If the Alexander’s devicer thought he was going to get away from her, he was in for a rude awakening. She might not be able to pinpoint his position due to how long it would take to verify it, for which he would not likely obligingly stand still, but she could certainly approximate it.
“N2, is your P group ready?”
“They are. We calibrated the heavy mortars firing into the main battle already.”
“Excellent.” Mark always did good work with infantry. “Let’s get started, then. Fire at…C4.”
A dozen or more warnings lit up Ryō’s displays. He immediately ground the Alexander to a halt as a virtual blanket of mortar shells descended into the forest in front of him and exploded in a wide area. A thick branch flew over his head along with other debris and shrapnel. Had he not been in Insect Mode, most of it would have hit him.
A moment passed as Ryō absorbed what had just happened.
And then he noticed another salvo falling from the sky directly on top of him.
“Oh, you have to be kidding me!”
Hmm… It’s still moving. Glancing up from her map, Kallen saw the frantic and winding path the Alexander had taken through the forest via the fires and smoking clearings her mortar team had created. Another round of fire, another round of misses. Disappointing, but not unexpected.
“Q1,” Marc said, “that was our last round of ammunition.”
“That’s fine. The Alexander is nearing your minimum range anyway. Pack up and get to safety.”
After delivering a crisp salute, Marc turned to do as commanded. In the meantime, Kallen ensured she saved all of her radio data – and thus targeting information – for later analysis. If they learnt nothing else from the bombardment, then they’d still uncovered the Alexander’s impressive dodging skills.
Right, then. Time to start the merry dance.
With a slash harken firmly embedded in a tree behind her, Kallen rappelled down the cliff before her into the forest below. From her last encounter with the Alexander and given the current weather conditions, she expected she could stay ahead of it indefinitely this time. She’d have to put that theory to the test, however.
Ryō was one hundred and ten percent done with the countess. When he found her, he was going to tear her to shreds, rip her from her knightmare, and then beat her down with his bare fists before dragging her back to base as a prisoner and quite possibly ending the prince’s rampage across the country then and there.
Speaking of, a notification of an approaching knightmare caught Ryō’s attention. It was a Glasgow, probably the same one who’d been sniping him. A feral smile crept onto his face. How kind of his prey to present herself to him.
“I don’t believe we’ve been introduced properly,” came the countess’s voice over her Glasgow’s external speakers. Everyone was trained to recognise it on the off chance they bumped into her on the streets.
Ryō didn’t wait to exchange pleasantries. He rushed straight at her at full speed. She fired her rifle at him as she retreated, of course, but he easily dodged as he gave chase.
“Hmm… No, French, eh?” The countess said something else in what Ryō assumed was English. After that, she said, “I’m not expecting it, but how about Japanese?”
The strangeness of hearing a Brit speak not only his native tongue but also one they’d consigned to history stunned Ryō for a moment, but only just. He roared back, “You have no right to that language!”
“Oh, how surprising. An Eleven all the way out here.”
Furious, Ryō pushed the Alexander to its max speed to catch the countess. She fired a slash harken to the right, but it was a feint, as she veered left the next moment. He turned to cut her off only to be surprised when her Glasgow spun unnaturally around and sped off to the right. When he went to follow, his feet slid out from under him. He quickly recovered by switching into Insect Mode and jumped out of the path of an incoming slash harken, but he couldn’t dodge the countess’s mocking laughter.
“Rookie mistake. How…disappointing.”
Ryō briefly noted the muddy ground his Alexander had slipped on as he took a shot at his quarry with his cannon. Unfortunately, she read his intentions and almost casually twirled away behind a thick tree. He fired twice more straight at her cover, and he could see the holes left in the trunk, but he’d either missed or the tree had absorbed too much energy.
“Need to work on that temper, Rookie-chan.”
Despite his grinding teeth, Ryō had enough presence of mind to recognise that he needed to calm down. The countess obviously intended to goad him into a blinding rage. He breathed deeply, glad that he had her pinned behind cover. It allowed him a moment’s peace to get himself under control.
“Private Sayama Ryō.”
The countess took a second or two to reply. With a thick bank of trees between, their battle came to a momentary ceasefire. When she did respond, she seemed to have decided to drop the mockery. “Dame Kallen Stadtfeld will suffice. Let’s enjoy our dance.”
She then lobbed a chaos mine at him.
Leila had long since ceded local command to her staff. The prince was here, in top form, and to be honest, she didn’t want to know what madness the countess had unleashed upon poor Sayama. The only reason she hadn’t opted to just let the prince go and be done with him was to keep as much of his attention here as possible. The other battles were going much better for her. Those air bases were all up in flames now, regrettably, but she could dare say she was winning – not losing, drawing even, or coming out slightly ahead but actually winning.
It sparked an interesting theory. The prince might be brilliant, but perhaps his officers lacked even a fraction of his genius. It’d go a long way to explaining why he’s never run simultaneous operations before. If I could divide his army or even just keep him personally occupied, his battle plans might collapse around him next time.
“Ma’am, Sayama wants a word.”
“Tell him to wait a moment.” Quickly, Leila gave out a handful of orders to free herself up to process whatever news Sayama had for her. She then had her communications officer patch him in. “What is…” The clammy look, the slowing but still heavy breaths, and the otherwise ruffled look told a story all their own. “–it?” she finished lamely.
Sayama took a large breath to tide his lungs over for a few sentences. “The countess retreated up a cliff the Alexander can’t scale. For what it’s worth, she’s down an arm.”
Field repairs were quick and easy, though wasteful, so Leila dismissed the information.
“How’s your energy filler?”
“About forty percent.”
Leila sighed inwardly. Based on the Alexander’s comparative energy efficiency, the countess had probably been running low on fuel when she left. “Return to base. I don’t want you in another protracted fight when you’re that low.”
As soon as Sayama acknowledged his orders, Leila cut the line. When this was over, she needed to go over the Alexander’s logs with a fine-toothed comb to find out what exactly had happened in that forest.
The first sign of Kallen’s return was an unexpected swelling of the lines. After that, it became obvious when the enemy’s right flank shrunk back under heavy losses. Lelouch called upon her as soon as he had a free moment.
Quick and crisp, Kallen replied, “The Alexander is mildly damaged but delayed by terrain. I’m low on energy and down an arm. You have…eight minutes before the Alexander reappears.” After a momentary pause, she added, “Well, beyond my sight now.”
“Yes, now that you’re back, I think it’s time for us to leave. Go swap out your energy filler and then help our right flank disengage. I want to be out of here in five minutes.”
“Consider it done.”
September 6, 2016 a.t.b.
Leila read the preliminary report on last night’s battles with a deeply satisfying sense of triumph. The prince may have rolled over her in Lodovo, but the Alexander had not fallen, and there was no question that she’d beaten him everywhere else.
He committed so much material to last night’s battle and lost nearly half of it. That should buy me a few days of peace to regroup and reorganise while he scrambles to get his army back in working order. He’ll need to shuffle resources around to continue on as he has, promote lesser replacements into vacant positions, prop up his men’s morale, let them rest…
A smirk crawled up Leila’s face, and a small skip forced its way into her step. She almost wanted to twirl. Even though this was not the way she would choose to do so in an ideal world, it felt fantastic to be out on her own away from the Malcals and doing something good and productive in the world.
Wherever you are right now, Your Highness – Leila didn’t bother to filter the smugness out of her voice in the privacy of her own mind – I hope it was worth it, because it certainly was for me.
Riviera Water Park
September 8, 2016 a.t.b.
“You look horribly disappointed.”
Lelouch quickly schooled his expression and cursed Kallen’s ability to read his tiniest of slips.
“Oh, you poor boy. So used to ogling your fiancée in her bikini, you don’t know what to say.” Kallen laughed as she reached out for some fruity drink she’d bought between when they’d parted at the changing rooms and now. Truthfully, though, she looked exquisite in a tankini as well. “Maybe I should demand you wear briefs in compensation.”
“Hmph. You’re mistaken.” Lelouch took the free chaise longue beside Kallen and let himself fully relax for the first time in weeks. “It’s just unexpected. I believe you invented the phrase ‘if you’ve got it, flaunt it’.”
“Mon chéri, I have a big, disfiguring scar on my back.”
“Which prevents me from, as you claim, ogling you why exactly?” Lelouch asked in feigned confusion. The absolute last thing he wanted was for Kallen to become body conscious around him, especially not over a mere scar. His own mother had accrued dozens and had been no less beautiful for them. He would not risk his choice of empress over something so asinine.
Kallen chuckled, a genuine smile on her lips. “You’re sweet, but you don’t need to do that.”
“Tch. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Uh-huh. Sure.” Kallen threaded her slender fingers through Lelouch’s own and made a point to rub her sword calluses against the back of his hand. “Don’t let it bother you. Things are different back home. Our culture has a…more encompassing view of women and beauty. I’d explain the historical basis, but I’m afraid my academic interests checked out when we checked in to our resort. Let’s just leave it at I don’t want to give anyone here any reason to ask questions and hope the sunshine lasts the rest of the week.”
After a moment, Lelouch decided to take Kallen at her word. “Very well. I bow to your expertise in the matter.”
It was an hour or two of contented sunbathing and idle chatter later when a little piece of information Lelouch had been awaiting for weeks finally arrived. When he eventually got around to checking his phone and saw it, he grinned. “Hey.” Rolling onto his side to place his phone between them, he asked, “What to have a little fun?”
Kallen hummed curiously. “What kind of fun exactly?” Then she saw it. “Oh, I am so in. Hang on. I think I have some recent pictures of us without anyone recognisable in the shot.”
September 8, 2016 a.t.b.
For the past two days, Ayano had been reduced to an errand girl. There were worse fates, she supposed. Technically, she was a lady’s maid anyway. It wasn’t glorious or all that interesting, but it needed to be done, and it let her feel involved while she waited for something to happen. Without any relevant air bases to lurk around anymore and no leads, Leila had gone back to coordinating the search for the prince.
Ayano returned from one such chore to Leila’s office just in time to witness her spray a stream of tea from her mouth all over her desk. She coughed – clearly some of her drink had gone down the wrong pipe – and reached for a handful of tissues to clean up her mess before it could stain and completely ruin her papers.
Far too curious to give Leila the chance to hide whatever had so surprised her, Ayano quickly slipped around the desk. It took her a second or two to understand what she was looking at, but once she did, she broke into laughter. On the monitor was a picture of the prince and the countess wearing swimsuits undisguised in broad daylight at the beach with a crowd in the background. The caption beneath was in English, but she could guess enough to assume it read something approximating, ‘Greetings from the Volga. Hope your holiday has been as enjoyable as ours has.’
“There’s no way that’s real,” Ayano said, still chuckling.
“That’s from my personal email,” as opposed to the one Leila used with the military. That changed things. She gave that out to almost no one. Most who had it were nearby and accounted for. Even the Malcals contented themselves with the phone number they paid for or more public means of communication.
“Oh. Well…I don’t think he got it from me. Maybe Anna? She can be a bit, eh, careless at times.”
Already furiously typing a reply, Leila said, “There are easier targets back home.”
That was true.
“Ayano, I need you to go tell Agent Markov to direct special attention to the Volga but to assume there’s a land mine every step in front of him. And make sure I’m informed immediately if anything happens in case this is a distraction. If he has someone on hand who can track emails, get them here now.”
“Uh, right. Sure.” It was too bad she’d miss Leila and the prince’s spat.
A half-second after Ayano was out the door, a chat popped up with the prince and the countess.
‘A charming threat, really,’ the prince wrote, ‘but unnecessary.’
‘It might amuse you to know His Highness wanted to walk right up to you in public to talk.’
‘Yes, well, my governess here insisted you might do something rash to all our detriment.’ After a moment’s delay, the prince added, ‘My knight has just physically abused me!’
‘Pay him no mind.’
Leila ignored the byplay and pressed for a proper answer. ‘Who did you get this email from?’
‘One moment.’ Nearly a minute later, the prince replied, ‘Louise Faix. Apparently, she misplaced her phone. One of my subjects was kind enough to return it to her.’
Although Leila doubted the prince would stoop to an easily discredited lie, she made a quick call to Louise nonetheless and verified what happened while she continued the conversation. ‘And why have you gone to the extra effort to contact me? There are easier ways.’
‘When was the last time you checked any social media?’ the countess replied.
When she puts it like that – ‘Fair enough. What do you want?’
‘Nothing, really. I have some idle time and thought to fill it. I’m most curious about you. In particular, I’d like to know why you fight.’
Leila frowned. She’d imagined the prince had more guile than this and found herself strangely disappointed. ‘I’m not interested in working for you.’
‘Oh? Well, we’ll see about that in the years to come, but nevermind that for now. If you don’t wish to answer, I’ll understand.’
Uh-huh. Sure. Regardless of whether Leila believed him, however, she assumed she needed to keep the prince talking to be able to trace him. She could easily see to that. ‘I don’t know what you want me to say. It seems the natural choice. I approve of neither Britannia’s policies nor you.’
‘How refreshingly blunt. I take no offence, but how much do you actually know of us?’
‘Enough to know you place your own pursuit of power over the lives of others.’
‘That’s not entirely true,’ the prince replied, ‘but neither do I deny it. Which of Britannia’s policies, specifically, do you disagree with?”
There were so many to choose from. ‘Primarily its colonial system, expansionism, and political structure.’
‘And if you were in my place, how would you go about changing them?’
When Leila went to reply, her hands hovered over her keyboard. This was not the direction she’d expected this conversation to go, nor had she spent much time considering how to fix her ancestral homeland. ‘I don’t know,’ she answered candidly. ‘But I’d need much more information and time to make a fair and honest attempt at your hypothetical.’
‘Reasonable. But what do you plan to do to combat this injustice you see? I assume you’ve thought about that at least.’
‘Certainly not propagate it myself.’ Regardless of it were a lie, a trap, or an unlikely but honest appeal, the implication in the prince’s words could not be more clear. ‘I already told you I’m not interested in your recruitment pitch.’
At that moment, the assistance Leila had requested finally arrived. “You have an email you need to track, Ma’am?”
“That or a chat. The prince somehow got my email.”
The agent’s eyes widened as he recognised the opportunity before them. “Keep him talking. I will warn you in advance that email and IMS services are static, meaning we can’t execute code. If he’s security conscious” – which the prince was, obviously – “we’re not going to get anything, but it’s worth a try.”
Leila nodded and turned back to her conversation. The prince’s latest message read, ‘Yes, yes. But you do realise that Britannia is large enough at this point to be entirely self-sufficient, I hope. You have no realistic means of changing it externally except through war.’
‘Not true. I don’t have to do anything. Empires which experience rapid expansion almost universally have severe internal crises when they stop. Sometimes even before then. The obvious example is Rome and the chaos that arguably began with the Gracchi brothers.’
“May I step in for a moment?” Leila gestured for the agent to go ahead. He pulled up an internal ISB website, logged in, and went to a nearly empty page with a short textual summary, a browse button, and a generation button. “One of the boys created this a decade ago. Tracking is a simple trick. It generates an image, a video, and a web page and gives you a seemingly innocent short URL for each. When either is accessed, it tells you where the request originated from. Observe.”
The agent went through the process and accessed the link from Leila’s desktop. The page he got it from updated a list with an IP address, a physical location in Moscow, and a bunch of other less useful information.
“Email or IMS clients’ implementations and security settings vary. Sometimes you can get a hit with the video or image without the recipient even clicking on it, but its usually best to assume otherwise. Alternatively, you can upload a file if you have something that won’t arouse his suspicion to look at.”
“So I need to trick him into clicking on one of them?”
“Probably your best bet. There are a few other approaches we can try. They’re more complex, involve external cooperation we’re not likely to get, and probably won’t work if this doesn’t, but we’ll see what we can do. If you get logged out, your own account’s credentials will work. Good luck.”
‘That’s not a terrible plan, I suppose,’ the prince wrote. ‘Of course, it requires the other actors to actually halt the hegemon’s expansion and take advantage of said internal crisis.’
The countess commented, ‘See the Emblem of Blood, in which the rest of the world utterly failed to do the latter while we got our act together.’
‘Quite. Britannia is hardly going to collapse under its own weight anytime soon without cause. However, even if you can find a cause that’s not based in war, as the empire crumbles, the weakened former areas become available for annexation. That’s not likely to end bloodlessly.’
‘To be honest,’ Leila wrote now that she’d caught up to the conversation, ‘I have little against Britannia as an empire in and of itself. I don’t feel too strongly about nation states in a world where I can live in France yet easily maintain a normal friendship with someone in Australia.’ An idea struck like lightning. ‘My father actually wrote a treatise on the subject. An expansion of one of his speeches arguing for a strong central government in the EU, I believe. Let me see if I can find it.’
‘Oh? How ahead of his time. It must be at least ten years old.’
‘Fourteen, I think.’ As Leila browsed a server Anna had set up years ago for her parents’ old work and tried to recall where she’d put the document in question, she wrote, ‘When I said I hoped for an internal crisis, I was more hoping for a major reformation or outright revolution specifically to avoid an international scramble for territory. I don’t hate my own people, Your Highness. It just saddens me that we’ve become the culture-destroying slavers that our nation first formed to drive from our soil.’
Surprisingly, the countess was the first to respond. ‘Speaking as someone who spent her early years outside Britannia, you should consider spending, say, a year touring the country. Travel the areas. Visit the homeland. Attend court. Britannia both is and is not what you imagine.’
Leila found her father’s treatise, quickly uploaded it, and copy pasted the link into the chat. She then wrote, ‘Yes, I’m sure the exile will be welcomed home with open arms.’
‘Just like we are in Russia. :p,’ the countess replied.
Rolling her eyes, Leila checked to see if anyone had accessed the link yet to her disappointment but not surprise. The prince spoke next.
‘For the sake of argument, suppose there exists a great evil in the land. A just knight, righteous in cause, asks to train the people to slay the beast, but the monster will savage the land while he prepares. A charismatic rogue suggests innocents be selected, gathered, and sacrificed so that he may perform the deed while the creature, distracted, feasts. A hardened general insists they burn their own country and slaughter whoever happens to cross their path for the spectre, in want of food, to starve and the survivors to thrive. Lastly, a wealthy merchant suggests a mercenary army of fleeting loyalty be brought in to butcher the monster. Whose plan does the king choose?’
Leila parsed the true meaning of the question easily enough. Revolution, Reformation, Collapse, or Conquest. ‘Were I the queen, the general’s.’ The prince had obviously chosen the rogue’s path long ago.
‘I assumed so. It’s been a pleasure, Huntress. I feel we understand one another much better now.’ After a momentary pause, the prince added, ‘By the way, I’m curious. Where am I?’
Leila cursed under her breath and checked the access log for the link she’d sent to the prince and countess. There were two entries. ‘Either Honolulu or Timbuktu,’ she begrudgingly replied. The prince only laughed before disconnecting while the countess said she looked forward to their next battle and promised they wouldn’t divulge Leila’s email address if she showed them the same courtesy.
Nearly five minutes later and with a conspicuous red spot on Leila’s forehead, Ayano returned. To fend off the question behind the girl’s knowing smirk, she restated the prince’s little thought experiment. “So? Which one would you choose?”
“Hmm… The rogue’s plan, I think.” Considering how Ayano had dealt with her own personal tragedy, that made sense. “It’s gonna cause problems anyway. Might as well get it over with. Why do you ask?”
Riviera Water Park
September 8, 2016 a.t.b.
“Interesting girl,” Kallen said. “Wasn’t really what I was expecting.”
“I imagined she’d be staunchly anti-imperialistic, but then most major EU member states are still empires to varying degrees.” Lelouch withdrew a book from their bag and opened it to the first page. Curious, Kallen leaned over to peek at the text.
Lelouch hummed an affirmative. “I’ve been meaning to brush up on my mythology ever since you became a magical girl.” As he must have expected, that earned him a backhanded slap on the arm in protest of the term. “I recalled a few references that reminded me of geass, so…” He gestured to the book.
Now that he mentions it, I think I remember something related about…faeries? “Found anything interesting so far?”
“Possibly. There’s a concept in Irish mythology called a geas. It can be a gift or a curse. It’s a spell that prohibits some action but grants power in exchange for observing the taboo. Usually granted by a woman of otherworldly origin.”
Not needing even a moment to consider the description, Kallen nodded and said, “That sure sounds like a mythological interpretation.”
“I’ve run across a few scattered references in other Celtic–Britannian mythoses as well but none so direct. Considering the intertwined nature of the mythoses’ origins, I assume the actual events occurred in Ireland with the plot device then radiating outward into mainland Britannia.”
“While interesting, please recall what I told you about the state of my brain.” As Lelouch chuckled, Kallen craned her neck to get a better view of the text. “So are the stories any good?”
With a shrug, Lelouch said, “I haven’t read any of these before. I have a feeling you’d like the first branch of the Mabinogi, though.” Kallen hummed her interest, and that was enough to get him to explain. “It’s supposedly about a prince who conquers the entire otherworld and his consort who’s intelligent, witty, politically savvy, beautiful, probably a sorceress, and saves the day. The two somehow have an astonishingly strong marriage despite fierce opposition.”
“Alright, you’ve sold me.” Kallen shifted between chairs to lean up against Lelouch. “Mind if I read over your shoulder?”
“I believe this is on my shoulder.”
“That’s a no, then.”
Volga Province, Russia
September 12, 2016 a.t.b.
The week of rest was over. The regiment was fresh. The huntress rested easy. The Shinozaki had left to perform their last major infiltration and surveillance operation of this campaign. The sappers had, if not finished the work Lelouch had asked of them, at least gotten far enough along for it to be ready when he arrived at the scene of the final battle.
Lelouch couldn’t keep the smile from his face as his army assembled. All of the conditions were met for victory.
“I’ve let Jeremiah know he has one to two weeks before we end this and to plan accordingly.”
“Excellent. Thank you, Kallen. Are you ready?”
“Of course. Shall we?”
With a nod, Lelouch led the way to their makeshift rostrum from which they would give their first formal address to the entire regiment since Vladivostok and the last until the final battle was won. Atop it, they could see at most a third of their army clearly. Hundreds of knightmares sprawled out before them alongside tanks, transports, supply trains, medical convoys, scout vehicles, and all other manner of gadgetry and machinery. One thousand three hundred was a small number, but that many people with all of their equipment filled an enormous amount of space.
Lelouch stepped up to the microphone first. There was too much chaos, distance, and background noise this time to be heard unaided. He quickly verified it was on, but when the crowd began to gather, he waved them off. “Time is short. Remain where you are unless you can’t hear me.”
Once everyone had settled down, Lelouch began. “Together again at last! It’s been a long five months. We’re nearly done, and I’d like to say I’m proud of each and every one of you.” He paused until the cheering to die down. “I asked for a lot, far above and beyond what was expected of you when you enlisted, and all of your delivered.” Again he had to wait.
“Our last mission especially I want to emphasise how impressed I am. Losing is hard, but losing purposefully? Taking fire by design without bending, without breaking? That is one of the most difficult tasks for any army of any age. Everyone who took part, congratulations.”
Lelouch led the applause this time, closely followed by Kallen and then everyone who had sat that battle out or had been with him at Lodovo. Now that the introductory material was out of the way, he set into the core of his speech.
“At this point, Breisgau severely underestimates the forces available to us. Our first mission on our march west up the Volga is to capture a few cargo ships nearby. We will use them primarily to conceal our numbers and to rotate machines out for maintenance.
“Along the way, our regiment will slowly bleed numbers to fall behind enemy lines. If you’re among that group, be sure not to miss your departure time when it comes, and do not dawdle. Unlike your previous missions, this will be one continuous operation over the course of at least a week. Rest. Recover. Seek out your equipment. But be ever mindful of the passage of time. If we are to smash Breisgau here and begin the end of this war, your timing is critical.”
Lelouch paused at least ten seconds and let the silence hang. He wouldn’t lose if his plan went wrong, but it would prolong this conflict, and he did not want to drag the war into the winter.
“Now, then. I turn the floor over to my knight who has a few final words before we set out.”
Lelouch stepped aside, and Kallen moved forward.
“Everyone should have already read the report I collated on the Alexander, but I’d like to remind you all of a few key points before we march. One, and most importantly, it’s land spinners aren’t much different than a Sutherland’s. They have a higher top speed, certainly, but comparable traction and acceleration. The Alexander’s impressive agility stems largely from its ability to more closely mimic human movements and its transformed state.
“Two, the devicer is Japanese, one Ryō Sayama, and has a temper. He does, however, seem to be able to get himself under control quickly, so don’t rely on it if you run into him.
“On the same topic, three, Sayama is young and new to both piloting the Alexander and knightmares in general. Do not mistake me when I say that. He’s liable to make errors a veteran won’t, but he’s still good. I swear, if I find out any of you died because you thought, ‘Oh, he’s only an Eleven,’ I will find a way to kill you again. After that, I’ll hand you over to Shinobu for the Shinozaki clan’s children to practice their torture and interrogation. Am I understood?”
An unsettled crowd chorused, “Yes, My Lady!” back at her.
Kallen nodded in satisfaction. “Good. Four, at this point, we’re fairly certain there is not an ejection system for the devicer on the Alexander. If you back Sayama into a corner, he has no escape. Expect him to fight tooth and nail to the very end.
“Five, the Alexander doesn’t have slash harkens. Odd design choice, I know, but there it is. It comes with all of the limitations you might expect. For example, so far as we know, if you can’t ascend an incline without them, neither can he. I imagine Insect Mode will give him a little more leeway than you, but the climb should be slow and leave him vulnerable.”
Kallen took a slow breath and then brought her briefing to an end. “Alright, it’s time for us to march. Pack up, and let’s move out.”