Stage 22 - In the Light of Victory
Tokyo Settlement, Area 11
October 8, 2016 a.t.b.
After the Battle of the Volga, all of Russia was open to us. The people were in revolt. The government barely managed to hold itself together. The garrisons were stretched thin and thinner where they pulled troops to maintain some semblance of order in the major cities.
Rather than marching on Moscow as everyone expected, the prince decided that we’d done enough to destabilise the country. Instead, we travelled east back across the Ural Mountains. We were barely a day’s march out on the other side when we crashed into Russia’s main army retreating to reinforce the capital.
Catching the enemy completely unprepared, we managed to carve our way through their ranks to link up with Lady Enneagram and Sir Jeremiah leading two divisions of our main army. Between our three separate detachments unified under the prince’s command, we managed to force a series of surrenders of truly mind-boggling numbers.
A call came in, interrupting Milly’s perusing of the news. To her great surprise, it was the very man of the hour himself. As far as she knew, no one had spoken so directly with him since he’d left. “Lelouch?”
“Hey, Milly. It’s been a while.”
“I’ll say. You certainly sound older. I’m touched you missed me so much that I’m the first person you called.”
Rather bluntly, Lelouch said, “You’re not. You’re the…twelfth, perhaps. I lost count.”
“Lelouch, that hurts.” Milly feigned a sob. “War has made you so cruel.”
“My heart is as cold as stone, unyielding and unmoved. Anyway, I’m bringing my entire army back to Japan.”
“Already?” Milly asked. The war hadn’t even reached an armistice yet, let alone a final resolution – not officially, anyway.
“Unless Laertes overextends past the Urals – in the middle of autumn, I might add – all that’s left to do is wrap up. Besides, we’ve done more than our fair share, and while I doubt there are many people who would choose him over me at this point, I don’t particularly wish to surround myself with the army officially under the command of the brother I just spent months humiliating.”
Milly’s gut twisted at the implication. “Fair enough.”
“Now as I was saying, I imagine there will be a victory ball for me and Kallen when we return to Pendragon, but that’ll be an exclusive event. Before I officially disperse my army, I thought I’d throw a party for them myself.”
Milly jumped to her feet in glee and fetched pen and paper. She knew exactly where this was headed: the swot needed someone to plan the celebration for him. “I’ll take the job!”
“No shenanigans,” Lelouch commanded.
“Yes, yes. I know.”
“Do you?” Despite the sceptical tone, Lelouch went on to make the offer of a lifetime. “Kallen and I are at the point in our lives where we need to find a trusted and dependable event planner familiar with the ins and outs of high society, preferably one close enough to us to coordinate our more personal occasions as well.”
Milly’s breath caught in her throat.
“Impress upon us that you can do this right and the job is yours.”
Barely able to believe what Lelouch was offering her, Milly asked, “You want to pay me to throw parties?”
“Assuming your interest and ability to rein in your eccentricities when inappropriate, yes.”
As much as Milly wanted to agree immediately, this opportunity might change a lot of her plans for the near future. “You’re not going to drag me out of school, are you?” Lelouch assured her she could graduate from ‘the academy she ruled with an iron fist’. Pouting, though she didn’t deny the accusation, she said, “I have family affairs that I’ll have to deal with from time to time…”
“Do you want the job or not?”
Well, put so bluntly, “yes.”
“Excellent. I’m sure we can work around any conflicts. But speaking of your family affairs, would you mention something to Ruben for me? I suspect he’ll need time to consider it before I speak with him myself.” Once Milly agreed, Lelouch continued, “I heard that the Duchy of Tokyo is up for grabs. I believe I have enough goodwill at court right now to ensure it lands in his lap if he wants it.”
Milly swallowed and had to wet her dry mouth before she could reply. “Lelouch, you really don’t have to–”
“I know it’s not Ashfordshire,” Lelouch interrupted, “but the marquessate is currently occupied. I may be able to give it to you someday as a secondary title for the Ashford heir, but until then, considering how deeply invested your family is in the city–”
“Lelouch. Stop.” Milly paused a moment to collect herself and rub a tear from her eye. “We’re doing well. You don’t need to do this for us.”
“Of course not. But so what?”
Milly had no ready answer to that.
With a sigh, Lelouch adopted a more sincere tone. “Milly, all politics set aside, your family was good to mine when it had absolutely no reason to be. I want to make right all the wrongs that were done while I was too vulnerable and powerless to prevent them. I can’t think of a better place to start than rectifying your family’s fall from grace.”
With no other words coming to her, Milly replied with a simple, “Thank you.”
“It’s the least I can do. Now go get to work on my party. I’m expecting an extravaganza unlike any I’ve ever seen before.”
Milly snorted as a smirk grew on her face. “Prepare to be blown away. In fact, just for you, I think I might call in a few favours.”
Tokyo Settlement, Area 11
October 29, 2016 a.t.b.
Having been kept out of the entire planning process except for a few odd questions, much to his relief, Lelouch had no idea what to expect when he showed up early to the party. It was Milly, after all. The only thing he knew with certainty was that it would be a masterfully done spectacle – for good or for ill.
Indeed, Milly had gone all out. From the food to the drinks, from the service to the entertainment, she had her talents on full display. The stage, Lelouch noted, had all of the equipment hinting at one very eclectic live band or multiple smaller ones serving as background or dance music. He’d even heard a rumour that Clovis himself, master of the ballroom, had come down to meddle but had left so impressed that he’d swapped tips with his new peer.
“There you are!” A very solid glomp came at Lelouch from behind. From the mostly familiar voice, the blonde hair at the corner of his vision, and the fact that Kallen had stood by, laughed, and let this assault pass unchallenged, it could only be Milly’s arms draped over his shoulders. “It’s about time you got here. I very nearly feared you’d arrive too late to learn your part.”
The reflexive quip about punctuality being the politeness of kings never left Lelouch’s lips. Instead, he blankly echoed, “My part?”
“Yes, of course,” Milly replied. “There’s politics afoot here. Don’t deny it. I can smell it. You wouldn’t want anyone to think you’re unsporting or above this sort of thing, now would you?”
Lelouch cursed Milly and her treacherous smirk even as Kallen, still laughing, said, “He’s broken bread, slept, and fought alongside these people. Certainly, he’s not about to turn around and denounce his reputation as such a personable, relatable prince.”
“I’ve surrounded myself with friends capable of the foulest betrayals. Come! Lead me to the gallows.”
If it were possible, Milly’s smile grew two sizes. “Don’t worry. You have a partner.”
Lelouch followed Milly’s gaze onto Kallen. The girl stood bemused for a few moments before realisation struck. “Wait, what?” she protested. “Hold on. I never learnt to entertain. Not like this.”
“Nonsense, my dear. You have a lovely singing voice. All I have to do is put you two together.”
As the urge to flee settled deeper into Kallen’s expression, Lelouch let out an amused snort. “Did I not warn you? You really should have seen this coming.”
“The foulest of betrayals,” Kallen muttered. The moment Milly looked away, however, she winked. Shocked at the true depth of this treason, Lelouch said nothing as his oracle added, “Lead on.”
“Excuse me, but I swear I’ve seen you before. You weren’t the one who pulled Amelia out of Tula, were you?”
“Er, no. I’m Princess Marrybell’s friend,” Suzaku politely explained and pointed back in her general direction. She smiled and gave a little wave.
“Ah!” The soldier’s not entirely sober eyes lit up in recognition. “Good on you, mate. Heard you once took a bullet for her. Say, your father used to be prime minister, eh?”
Suzaku nodded in that stiff manner of his whenever someone mentioned his father. Marrybell sympathised. Their relationship had slowly soured from the very moment she entered the picture until its abrupt end with the elder’s suicide.
“You wouldn’t happen to know Shinzo, would you?”
“Oh. No, I never met any of the Shinozaki before Prince Lelouch introduced himself to my princess.”
“Pity. Good folks, them. Listen, if you bump into the ninja, tell Shinzo Patrick wants to share a drink with him.”
Obviously unsure how to tell the man his request would likely never bear fruit, Suzaku simply agreed and went on his way deeper into the crowd toward the nearest refreshment table. Once he succeeded in retrieving a pair of nonalcoholic drinks, he slowly made his way back to the outskirts. Several more people delayed him on his return for a brief chat, though they were all too far away to eavesdrop on.
Marrybell watched on in idle wonder. Had the strange, wilful madness that plagued Ashford Academy leaked? Sure, she could blame the alcohol, but that usually only made Britannians more obstinate in their opinions and discriminations.
“Here’s your juice.” Suzaku handed off the drink with an odd look about him. He seemed at once both disquieted and uneasy about being so.
Marrybell thanked Suzaku and nursed her cup as she further surveyed the party. She’d not been sure of Lelouch’s intentions when he’d extended her an invitation. It could have been a mere courtesy. But if she were to guess now, she’d assume it was to witness him keeping up and actively working toward his end of their deal.
“This is weird,” Suzaku commented. As Marrybell idly nodded her agreement, he added, “Is that wrong of me to say?”
“Depends on how you mean it. If you take issue with being treated like an actual human being, then yes.”
“It’s not that. It’s…” Suzaku fell silent as he fumbled for words for a time. “This is exactly what you talked me out of doing. And it worked.”
Marrybell scoffed. While Suzaku wasn’t wrong, he wasn’t right either. “Congratulations, then. You were right. That doesn’t explain why you’re uncomfortable.”
“Well…you were right, too.”
“Damn right, I was.”
Lelouch had shoved an unrepresentative group of Japanese with strong Britannian virtues down his soldier’s throats. Then he’d forced them into a situation where they had to play nice or be caught and ingrained the habit with positive reinforcement. All as a byproduct of a larger scheme, of course, using his privileges and connections as a prince. It wasn’t a general solution nor one Suzaku could have implemented. At best, it was one step on a long and bloody road.
“Oh? Now this is a surprise.”
For a moment, Marrybell froze. Suzaku sent her a strange look, but she signalled him to drop it for now as she schooled her expression. “Anne,” she said, turning in place. “A surprise indeed. What are you doing here?”
“I could very well ask the same of you.” For what it was worth, Anne sounded friendly.
Marrybell shrugged. “Lelouch invited me. You?”
“Kallen is trying to recruit me.”
Kallen is? Does she know about… Marrybell pushed the matter from her mind to think about later.
“When I asked for an invitation, she put one in my hand the very next moment.”
“So you’re here for the beer and pretzels,” Marrybell concluded.
“Heh. I suppose. Who’s your friend?”
“Ah. My apologies. Anne, this is Suzaku Kururugi. I stayed with his family here before the war. Suzaku, this is Elizabeth Ward. She goes by Anne.”
Anne reached a hand out to shake. As the two exchanged greetings, she added, “I’m an OSI agent,” to explain why Kallen wanted to recruit her.
“Aren’t you a little young for that?”
“I’m older than I look.”
Marrybell’s grip on her drink tightened. It’s official. This girl is like C.C.. That is exactly the sort of wordplay someone in the know would use to amuse herself. Or test someone for recognition. It was good she’d not told Suzaku anything about the supernatural.
“Ooh, the show is starting.”
On the stage, a spotlight followed a woman striding toward its centre. She wore a flowing red dress that stopped halfway down her shin. Her hair fell loose about her, dyed her natural colour and impossibly long compared to the last time Marrybell had seen her. It wasn’t Lelouch. It wasn’t Kallen. Of all people–
“Is that Euphemia?”
Suzaku’s incredulity matched Marrybell’s own. However Lelouch had managed to get the near pacifist to so openly endorse his private war might be his greatest feat yet. Euphemia might on occasion resign herself to the inevitability of violence, but Marrybell had to drag her down that road kicking and screaming each and every time.
In the back of her mind, Marrybell acknowledged that was probably for the best. If all their plans worked out, she would need the moderating influence.
Euphemia delivered a brief welcoming and congratulatory speech that reeked of Lelouch’s influence. The particular diction made it obvious he’d not written the entire thing, but it was unlike her to notice such subtleties as, for example, the casualties prevented by turning Russia’s campaign inward. It was, however, exactly the sort of thing one would expect someone like her to mention.
“I hope they let her sing,” Anne commented. “It’s not really appropriate for this type of party, but she has the most dulcet voice. Have you ever heard her sing a lullaby?”
“I’ve not had the pleasure.”
Suzaku, on the other hand, said, “I’ve overheard her humming a song to herself.” He wore a light dusting of red on his cheeks. “Anne is right.”
Noting Suzaku’s reaction, Marrybell buried her smile in her drink. What had he been up to when those two were alone? She’d have to remember to grill him later and see if he had any intentions of becoming her brother – not that that would end in anything but tears – or if it was just the usual reaction women like Euphemia tended to draw from innocent boys.
The speech ended, and as both Suzaku and Anne hoped, the band started with Euphemia still on stage. But this was no soft or sweet song. The music filled the air with energy and the urge to move. When she sang, it was with fervour and vigour. She danced with a passion that sent both dress and hair flying around her. The crowd cheered.
Anne laughed, though there was a wistful air about it. “Well, that’s different.”
While she filed away the reaction for later analysis just like everything else about Anne, Marrybell punched Suzaku on the arm. “You’re staring.”
“Should he be staring at you instead?” Anne teased.
“Nonsense. Why don’t you go enjoy the party?”
“Am I not?”
Marrybell heaved a sigh. This conversation had no good ending for her, so she merely turned her attention back to Euphemia on the stage in answer and left Suzaku to chat with Anne. In another life, this might have been her sister’s calling. No one could deny Euphemia’s grace on her feet, and Marrybell’s companions tonight had hit the nail on the head: she had the voice of a siren.
Eventually, the song came to an end. Amidst cries for an encore and the subsequent promises to sing again later, the next act came onto the stage, a duo this time. Kallen had a visibly reluctant Lelouch by the arm as she practically dragged him onto the stage.
Wait a second. When would Lelouch have had time to… “Suzaku, let me know if you see Milly coming our way. I refuse to be shoved into the spotlight tonight.”
Despite the laughter the request evoked, Suzaku promised to do so. On the other hand, Marrybell had the feeling that Anne intended to call Milly over if she showed her face tonight.
The sound reinforcement system snapped on for Kallen and Lelouch mid-sentence. The former’s headworn microphone picked up and broadcasted, “–a little fun. What’s the problem? Scared I’m going to show you up or something?”
“Hardly,” Lelouch replied. He straightened the sleeve of his coat when Kallen finally released him at the centre of the stage. “This simply isn’t my idea of fun. Besides, I would hate to make you look bad.”
“Oh really?” Kallen poked Lelouch in the chest. “Anything you can do, I can do better.” With arms crossed and a smirk, she stared up at him in challenge.
And so despite his protests, Kallen led the two of them into an increasingly sexually charged rendition of Anything You Can Do. Long before Kallen collapsed into Lelouch’s arms, out of air from her part’s major sustained note, the two of them had convinced Marrybell that they were just flirting with each other in front of an adoring audience. They might have even forgotten they were singing for someone rather than to each other.
“Just kiss already.” Anne shouted the very same words in time with Marrybell. The two looked at each other in amusement.
“It is rather obvious those two are into each other,” Suzaku commented.
“Has either told you if there’s something going on between them?”
Since Lelouch had never told her to keep it secret, Marrybell answered Anne’s question. “If he hasn’t already” – and considering their little display on stage, he very well might have – “Lelouch is going to propose just as soon as Kallen formally puts herself on the market.”
Anne pumped a fist half beneath the table and hissed a quiet, “Yes!”
Marrybell silently quirked an eyebrow at the reaction but didn’t comment. “She doesn’t know, obviously, so don’t spoil the surprise.”
“Yes, obviously.” Anne rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t do that to her. Oh, I can’t wait to hear the story. My husband’s caught me completely by surprise. He was so dreadfully nervous, though you wouldn’t have known it from looking at him. Thought he was going to offend me, get turned down, and maybe even lose my services entirely.
“Silly man was worrying over nothing. We’d been working together for years, you see, and had grown close. Then one day after – well, that’s classified, but he proposed to me on…” A frown, nearly a pout, settled onto Anne’s face. “Well, that’s classified as well. But I assure you it was very romantic.”
“Be still my beating heart,” Marrybell replied dryly.
Anne harrumphed and downed the last of her beer. “I should get going. It was nice talking to you. Nice to meet you as well, Kururugi.” On her way out, she placed a hand on Marrybell’s shoulder and leaned in close. Her voice dropped to a whisper in the ear. “I’m going to stop by with your third brother someday soon.”
Marrybell very deliberately did not react to the news.
“Continue to ensure that anyone you confide in about anything knows the value of discretion.”
With a forced smile as Anne backed off, Marrybell said, “That sounds wonderful.”
“I did hope it would. A friend of mine will be there, too, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t badger her with questions. She’s not going to be in the most…tolerant of moods.”
I’d imagine not. “Understood. Am I allowed guests?”
“Best not. I’ll see you later, then.”
“Wait.” Marrybell grasped Anne’s arm. “Naoto?”
“Been and gone just before coming here. He’s well. Be sure to thank him sometime.”
“Think about it. I’m sure it’ll come to you.”
With that, Anne departed in as much cheer as she’d brought to the party. Meanwhile, Marrybell’s thoughts spun at the implications and puzzles presented. There was so much to unpack in so few words. And then there was the implicit approval to speak of the supernatural with whoever. What did that mean? Anne was, if not the emperor’s immediate friend, then at least his beast. What did that say about his plans for his least wanted daughter?
“Marrybell?” Suzaku placed a hand on her arm, pulling her from her thoughts.
“Yes? What is it?”
“‘What is it?’” Suzaku looked at Marrybell as though she’d grown a second head. “What did she say to you?”
Suzaku’s gaze fell down to Marrybell’s hand. It’d once held her drink but had since unknowingly crushed the plastic cup and spilled juice all over her. Now that she noticed, her hand felt horribly sticky.
“Nothing direct,” Marrybell amended. “Later. In private. There are a few things I need to tell you and Euphemia. We should snag Lelouch and Kallen on their way out. They need to know, too.”
Tokyo Settlement, Area 11
October 30, 2016 a.t.b.
Not a few yawns passed around the student council’s meeting room. As the academy was far closer to the party than Marrybell’s house, secure, and where three of the five gathered resided while in Tokyo, Lelouch had decided they’d meet here when Marrybell had insisted that they needed to talk urgently.
While Marrybell and Suzaku swept the room for bugs, Lelouch and Euphie caught up with each other and Kallen dozed on the former’s shoulder. It was far too late for intrigue. All Kallen wanted was to change out of her dress and go to sleep. Then again, she did miss sharing her bed. Maybe she could just nod off right now.
“The room is clear.”
“Really?” The surprise was plain in Lelouch’s voice. “I’d have assumed Milly had this room bugged.”
“She has before,” Euphie offered, “but the security you and Cornelia placed around the academy usually sweeps the building every night. I think she gave up.”
Kallen shook with silent laughter. She had to wonder just how long it took to wear Milly ‘never surrender’ Ashford down.
“Ah, excellent. I’m getting my money’s worth, then.”
As she pinched the bridge of her nose, Marrybell said, “This isn’t why I asked you all here.”
“Of course not. My apologies.” Lelouch gestured with his free arm for Marrybell to continue.
“Thank you.” Before she could even start, however, it seemed Marrybell was at a loss for the right words. She never made it to her own chair, instead choosing to pace across the far end of the room. Eventually, she stopped, took a slow breath, and turned to face her audience. “I have evidence, though nothing that could not be faked for…very convoluted reasons with ludicrous costs, so please keep an open mind. There’s much to divulge, but I’ll be blunt with the most important fact.” She paused a moment to brace herself for whatever shocking revelation she had in wait. “Magic is real.”
‘Magic is real’? She really couldn’t help herself. Kallen burst into laughter. She collapsed onto Lelouch’s lap and held her sides as she rolled in place. Without even looking or using her geass, she could feel everyone’s reactions. Marrybell glared at her. Suzaku and Euphie were taken aback both by the claim and by her breakdown. Lelouch, of course, just rolled his eyes at her and placed a hand on the crown of her head to stop her rolling. Once she had, he idly ran his hand through her hair.
“This is no joke.” A controlled heat underlaid Marrybell’s voice.
“No. No. Sorry. I–” Still caught in her giggle fit, Kallen plead, “Lelouch. Please.”
“Allow me to short-circuit much of this conversation. Suzaku, please write down an integer.”
Although hesitant, Suzaku agreed. “Sure…” He withdrew his phone from his pocket and typed a string of numbers.
Not needing any prompting, Kallen divined the number from most to least significant digit. “Nine. Three. Six. One. One. Zero. Two. Four. One. Eight. Three. Five. Two. Seven.”
Wide-eyed, Suzaku spun his phone around for everyone to see the perfect match.
“Kallen is a seer. She acquired the power after we alighted in Russia.” As far as explanations went, Lelouch’s said a lot in very few words. Rather than elaborating, he said, “I imagine Kallen was laughing because, like the giggling sorceress here, you’ve chosen to call it magic. The proper term for the power is geass.”
Of the stunned audience, Marrybell recovered first. Her lips first played with, “The Oracle,” in full understanding before she said, “You two are so–” Exasperated, she pinched the bridge of her nose. “Let’s swap stories. I have…more, so you first.”
Kallen glanced up at Lelouch, who shrugged and furtively signalled that he’d follow her lead on whatever she wanted to reveal. Upon consideration, the only thing she wanted to hide was the exact mechanism she used to peer into the future. She trusted everyone present well enough, certainly, but the information was dangerous to spread around. Who knew what magic existed? If an enemy mind reader picked it up by chance, she could potentially become a danger to everyone she cared about.
As such, Kallen retold the story of the assassination attempt on Lelouch, this time without the minor drug high. She noticed Marrybell start slightly when she mentioned C.C., and Lelouch certainly had as well judging by the stiffening of his legs and his hand freezing in place halfway through her hair for a time.
After Kallen had finished her part, she let Lelouch handle the rest as it more directly affected him. He shared a few of their suspicions, some of their mythological research, and a little of their guesswork. They assumed Marianne had possessed a geass – though they had no idea what power it held – and that she’d received it from C.C. as Kallen had. On that subject, he laid out their reasoning for why they suspected C.C. was their silent and unseen protector against magic. He finished with a warning that the emperor likely had a geass of his own and incomplete control over whatever other sorcerers the man employed.
Marrybell took that surprisingly well.
Lastly, Kallen asked Euphie to hand her pen and paper. Using her phone as a poor mirror, she sketched the red bird-shaped silhouette ever glowing in her left eye.
“This is the geass symbol. If you ever see it, be wary. Mine is in my eye.” Kallen tapped a finger beside it. “That said, no one has commented on it yet and Lelouch hasn’t been able to see it at all since I got it, so I assume you need to be magical to see magic. Cameras don’t pick it up, but I can see mine in the mirror. Don’t ask me how that works. It probably doesn’t involve photons.”
With their story finished, Marrybell started hers. “I haven’t had as direct an encounter with magic as you two have. The subject of Code R’s research was C.C..”
Kallen’s eyes widened. She rose halfway up onto her arms and asked after her brother. When Marrybell assured her he was fine, she breathed out a sigh of relief and settled back onto Lelouch’s lap.
“C.C.’s geass appears to grant her rapid regeneration, effectively rendering her unkillable and, from your description, ageless.”
Immortality, eh? Seems like a top tier power.
At the same time, Lelouch facepalmed. “Of course we never found her,” he muttered. “A woman in her twenties. Looking for a teenager.”
“It should come as no surprise, considering what you two told us,” Marrybell continued, “but apparently she’s friends with the emperor.” Indeed, that astonished no one. “Naoto effected her rescue, of course, but someone asked for his assistance. Lelouch, it was Sayoko Shinozaki.”
That came as Kallen’s first true surprise of the night – Lelouch’s, too. Euphie’s shocked gasp caught Marrybell off guard. Apparently, she hadn’t known the name meant anything to her sister.
“Sayoko is alive?” Euphie dared to ask.
Once Marrybell had nodded, Lelouch delivered an impassive, “Go on.”
“I don’t know where she is. Naoto asked her questions on your behalf, but apparently all she told him was that she didn’t witness your mother’s murder and Marianne ordered her to keep quiet.”
“Not surprising,” Lelouch said. “Magic explains much of the mysterious circumstances of her death.”
“Is Sayoko well?”
“As far as I know, Euphie, she is. She was responsible for our missing Shinozaki agent as well, who returned in good health after she disappeared again. For what it’s worth, she personally liberated C.C. during the Code R raid and seems to have the ability to control others. I’m guessing, mind, but I think she can possess exactly one person while still retaining control of her own body.”
With impressive speed, Euphie put the facts together. “Then Duke Calares’s assassination…”
Duke Calares? Kallen had heard that name before. Then it hit her. The man jumped off a skyscraper. Yikes.
“That’s horrid,” Suzaku commented. “Imagine what else she could make someone do.”
Euphie leapt to Sayoko’s defence. “She wouldn’t ever take advantage of her geass.”
Lelouch agreed. “But we obviously need subtle ways to identify each other. I expect there are others with similar magics in the world.”
“Something to do tomorrow,” Marrybell said. “I should also mention that Ashford’s resident OSI agent, Anne, is involved with the Code R cleanup. I don’t know how deeply, but I do suspect she’s older than she appears.”
“Hence she’s magical,” Lelouch concluded. “Or Sayoko is controlling her.”
Kallen considered that for a moment but ultimately discarded the idea. “I doubt it. When I’ve spoken to her, at least, the personalities, their speech, the way they move – they’re too distinct, in my opinion, even for a master of disguise. In hindsight, though, it wouldn’t surprise me if she were ten or twenty years older than she looks now that I know immortality is an option.”
“She did seem a capable general,” Euphie offered. “Enough to engage you in debate, Marrybell. I don’t recall Sayoko being so inclined at Aries Villa.”
Oh dear. That must have bored Euphie to tears if she had to sit through that. Kallen smiled to herself but didn’t comment.
“It’s not just that, however,” Marrybell said. “She’s made several comments that lead me to believe she was once close to your side of the family.”
“A friend or subordinate of my mother’s, then, I assume.”
Lelouch likely had the right of it, but now that he brought it up, Kallen recalled something Anne had told her. “They have similar backgrounds, actually. It wouldn’t surprise me if Marianne had been her patron at one point. Hence her codename.”
After a few moments, Lelouch said, “Yes, that must be it.”
Marrybell yawned. “Well, I think that covers most everything. Suzaku and I need to get home.”
“You’re welcome to spend the night here,” Euphie said. “I’m sure I can find room for you on campus.”
After a quick exchange between Marrybell and Suzaku, she said, “No thank you. I think I prefer the comforts of home. Can I leave you to explain Nina’s situation for me?”
Nina? “Nina Einstein?”
Euphie ignored the question and instead assured Marrybell that she would take care of it. Acting as a good host, she saw the two out to the doors of the student council building and left Kallen and Lelouch alone to discuss everything they’d heard so far.
“I’m glad Sayoko is alive,” Lelouch allowed. “I’m less thrilled she vanished for seven years.”
Kallen felt much the same. “I’ll head down to the ghetto and speak with Naoto in person tomorrow.”
“It can wait.” To Kallen’s arched eyebrows, Lelouch added, “Naoto isn’t going anywhere. We just got back and threw a huge party. Let’s take a few days to rest.”
That was much appreciated, and Kallen told Lelouch as such. They’d not had much of a break since they’d holidayed in Kazan. Life had been an endless string of battles, marches, travel, and bureaucracy since, not to mention watching their backs to prevent Laertes from plunging a knife into them.
Just as Kallen was about to fall asleep, Euphie returned. She grumbled an unintelligible curse upon royalty and their timing as the princess stared at them as though they were some manner of strange beast. Lelouch arched an eyebrow, and Euphemia sighed a smile onto her face.
“Welcome back. It’s been too long.”
“It’s good to be back.”
Kallen yawned. Sheepish, she said, “Sorry. But I agree. At least it was a relatively short campaign.”
“Mostly thanks to you two. I won’t say I’m happy to see more of my family off soldiering, but…well done, I suppose.” High praise from Euphie. She cleared her throat, eyes darting between Kallen and Lelouch. “I’ve been wondering all night, but I’ve been…distracted.”
An amused snort escaped Kallen.
Euphie hesitated. “Magic? Honestly?”
“You experienced the lighter shock,” Lelouch insisted. “My seeress here nearly died protecting me, and guess what the first thing she does when she wakes up is? She plays Russian Roulette with herself to prove it all to me.”
As might be expected, Euphie facepalmed. Kallen, despite the reaction, maintained that she’d picked the most efficient and efficacious means of convincing Lelouch of the truth. In the privacy of her own mind, however, she did feel somewhat abashed.
“Anyway, are you two courting? It’s just, well…” Euphie gestured at them.
That was a definite no, although Kallen did understand the confusion. “We’re not, but we’ve acted as though we were engaged for months. We have some habits to break.” Not that she much wanted to. The flirting had felt like a natural extension of their younger banter, and she’d miss it when it was gone. Someday she’d have to take Lelouch as a lover.
“I’m hurt. Can you so easily break the bonds of our love?”
Kallen cupped Lelouch’s cheek with a hand, sliding her fingers up his jaw, and met his eyes. “I’ve wept until I ran out of tears, mon chéri. I cry inside now.”
Observing the two, Euphie chuckled. “I see. If you decide otherwise, I’m open to gaining a new sister. But speaking of sisters, I’d like to apprise Cornelia of magic and your suspicions about Marianne. It would mean a lot to her.”
“I don’t mind,” Kallen replied. “If she needs proof, I’m available. Lelouch?”
“Go ahead. We should inform Jeremiah as well.”
“Nunnally?” Kallen suggested.
Lelouch shook his head. “She’s too young, I think. Perhaps the Valkyries, though?”
“Maybe.” Those girls had potential, but Kallen wanted Nunnally to rub off on them before she trusted them with anything important. “I’ll have to check up on them. I’d assume not right now. Milly?”
“Please tell me you’re not serious.”
As if I need to. “Could you imagine?”
“I’d prefer not to, thank you. Do we tell Naoto about your geass?”
Kallen hesitated but made the only decision she really could. “No. He’s not an enemy, exactly, but he’s also not on our side. Maybe someday, but until then, it’s enough that he knows about magic.”
“As you wish. Now then, what’s this situation with Nina Marrybell mentioned?”
Over the next ten minutes, Euphie explained how Nina came to be caught up in the Code R raid. While that was unfortunate and Kallen promised to tear a strip off her brother for it, it paled in comparison to what the girl had been working on in her unassuming little laboratory on campus.
“Why am I not surprised Milly managed to collect a mad scientist?” Lelouch took the words right out of Kallen’s mouth. “I trust you have the matter under control?”
“We do. And with that, I’ll leave you two for the night. Please try to remember that you have separate bedrooms.”
Kallen paid no mind to the teasing and wished Euphie pleasant dreams.
“Good night, Euphemia. Thank you again for performing tonight.”
“It was no trouble. I rather enjoyed myself, actually.” Euphie shifted in place and gnawed on her lip. She said, “Don’t hesitate to call upon me if you need me,” and then slipped out the door.
After they were both sure Euphie was gone, Lelouch said, “We have separate bedrooms?”
Kallen rolled her eyes.
Kōzuki Resistance HQ
Nakano Ghetto, Area 11
November 3, 2016 a.t.b.
The whispers spread far in advance of their subject. The Black Queen had returned to the ghettos. Kallen found herself mobbed with well-wishers and gift-bearers. As she looked around, the standard of living seemed to have improved from abject poverty to the regular variety, but she politely declined the offerings she needed far less than the people here.
Well, mostly. She did fall to the temptation of fresh taiyaki. She’d never claimed to be a saint.
Kallen’s journey slowed almost to a crawl as the crowd grew, but on the upside, she had hundreds of people actively volunteering to show her to Naoto. He’d taken up residence nearby but could usually be found at the ghettos’ central government building during the day.
Despite herself, Kallen had to laugh at the irony. It seems my brother has managed to make himself the de facto Earl of Greater Tokyo. I don’t think I’m ever going to let him live this down.
Eventually, Kallen made it to the secretary stationed just outside of her brother’s office. The woman announced her presence only to receive a hasty, nervous, and stuttered, “Thank you, Ito-san. Just a second,” in reply.
Kallen quirked an eyebrow at Ito who in turn silently extended her pinkie finger.
“My brother is hard at work, I see.”
While she successfully suppressed her laughter, a smile still forced its way onto Ito’s face. “Kōzuki-sama is our hope for the future, and you should show your brother respect.”
“I don’t suppose you have an older brother?” When Ito said that she did, Kallen asked, “What would you do in this situation?”
“Barge right in.”
And so Kallen did. She met no resistance. Inside, she caught Naoto and some woman both still with ruffled hair and clothes in disarray. At least they were technically fully dressed. She closed the door behind her.
“Ah! Kallen, I, uh, this is Inoue Naomi.”
“Good afternoon, Countess Stadtfeld.” Inoue dipped into a deep bow, probably as much to hide her blush as to show respect to her lover’s closest remaining family. “We’ve met before, actually.”
Kallen sized the woman up. Brown eyes; good figure; a pretty face, though nothing Clovis would write sonnets about; obviously Japanese, though the indigo hair hinted of at least some foreign ancestry. She could see why Naoto found the woman attractive on a physical level, though there remained the personality to consider. Who was she again? After a moment, it came to her.
“Oh, yes, the engineer. I remember you. You do good work. It’s nice to see you again.” Kallen turned to Naoto. “Sister-in-law, prospective, or other?”
Although put on the spot so bluntly after all but being caught in the act, Naoto had since regained his composure. “Prospective.”
Kallen hummed in acknowledgement. “You’re done very well for yourself since I last visited, Lord Kōzuki.”
“Yes, yes. Very funny,” Naoto said, distinctly unamused by the remark. “It’s more complicated than it looks. I’m trapped between Sumeragi-hime and Marrybell-san in whatever game they’re playing with each other. I assure you it’s not an enviable position.”
While curious, Kallen declined to enquire any further on the subject. Unless Naoto or Marrybell reached out to her for help, she was content with only a cursory knowledge of the situation so long as her brother remained safe. Better to not know, she figured, considering that she was Britannia’s new favourite daughter.
“I’ll not ask. I’m here on another matter. I’d like to talk about the” – Kallen gestured to Inoue with her eyes – “unusual aspects of Code R.”
“Naomi knows more than me.” Seeing the surprise and hint of reprimand on Kallen’s face, Naoto explained, “She decrypted the data we acquired.”
“Fair enough. In that case–” Kallen walked up to Naoto and slapped him. “–that was for Nina-chan.”
Rubbing his cheek, Naoto in turn said, “Fair enough.”
“Good. Now tell me everything.”
May 19, 2017 a.t.b.
“This is so pointless,” Kallen said. “I’ve spoken with the emperor on multiple occasions. All of Britannia knows who I am. This isn’t even my first social function.”
Cornelia chuckled as she adjusted a few pins in Kallen’s hair. “Yet a debutante you remain.”
With a huff, Kallen turned her attention back to her reflection in the mirror. I really should do something about my eye. Maybe a contact lens would hide my geass. It’s too easy for other sorcerers to identify me as one.
“You’re unusually testy this evening,” Cornelia observed. “Is something wrong?”
“Not particularly.” It was just what this evening represented that tried Kallen’s self-restraint. She might as well hang a large neon sign above her head proclaiming her availability and capacity for reproduction. More than that, though, was the prospect of finding a husband. It might not happen anytime soon, but it would happen. She’d not pretend to not have enormous and growing value on the marriage market. Someday they’d need to cash in on it.
“There.” Cornelia stepped back and looked Kallen up and down. “Perfect.”
There were words for this situation, and perfect was not one of them. “White is not my colour, I hate jewellery, hair extensions are so tiresome, and I’m unarmed.”
That last complaint especially elicited a laugh from Cornelia. “One night,” she said. “One night, and then you can go back to your usual manner of dress and play with your hair all you want. You can attend the rest of the Season in uniform if you wish, but tonight is all about tradition. I’d be a terrible guardian if I let you make a spectacle of yourself.”
“I know,” Kallen sighed.
Cornelia laid a hand on Kallen’s shoulder and offered her an encouraging smile. “Do try to enjoy yourself tonight. Meet new people. Accept at least a few dances. Be polite. Who knows? Maybe one of the young men professing their undying love for you might actually mean it.”
The only reply that deserved was a snort and a roll of the eyes.
“You never know. At any rate, I’ll be with you the entire night to ward off the more unsavoury breed of noblemen.”
A smile tugged at the corners of Kallen’s lips. “Been practising your glare?”
“I have.” At Kallen’s request, Cornelia demonstrated. She did have a gift, it seemed, and her reputation as a warrior princess would only enhance the effect. “Are you ready?”
Although she heaved a sigh, Kallen nodded.
The procession of debutantes carried on for what felt like hours, each dipping into a curtsy when presented to the sovereign before eagerly pressing on to mingle amongst high society ostensibly for the first time. Many were eager to find a good husband. The ambitious would use the ball as an opportunity to make connections.
In contrast, the emperor was as he always was: somber, solemn, serious. The discerning eye, however, could spot the signs of apathy and boredom in his movements and expressions. Would it not cause a riot from the social snub, he’d likely retire for the evening and leave Schneizel to act in his place. Even so, the man had a larger than life presence that filled his corner of the ballroom.
Lelouch watched the line of young women be introduced to his father as he carried on a few idle conversations. Most of them held no interest to him. A few he noted to ask for a dance to introduce himself. One face in particular he’d not expected to see but planned to speak with at length before the night was through.
Finally, Kallen arrived with Cornelia escorting her, a role that, had things been different, her mother traditionally would have filled. She resisted some no doubt amusing snark when it came time for her to ‘meet’ the emperor; Lelouch could see the temptation clearly on her face. When she was done, he excused himself from his conversation to go ask her for her – and his – first dance.
“Good evening, Milady. Would you honour me with your first dance?”
“I suppose it would be nice to start the night on a high note. Assuming my guardian doesn’t chase off a scoundrel like you, of course.”
Cornelia nodded sagely. “It’s true that princes only ever have one thing on their minds.”
Lelouch gave his sister a look. After years of not-so-subtle remarks and observations on Kallen’s suitability as a wife, did she really intend to make this akin to pulling teeth?
Message received. With a mildly repentant smile, Cornelia said, “Go on. The next song will start soon.”
And so Lelouch led Kallen through the throng out onto the dance floor. The music began shortly after; it was to be a waltz.
“So?” Kallen asked after a time. “Any big plans tonight?”
“Perhaps.” They depended on Kallen remaining unattached at the end of the ball, a not unlikely prospect. Lelouch had contemplated waiting until the end of the entire Season, but after their time together in Russia and the long months since, his patience wore thin. He wanted his fiancée back.
“Oh? Any lovely ladies you intend to sweep off their feet?”
Lelouch admitted that there were a few he intended to ask for a dance. “Much of the night I intend to dedicate to searching for diamonds in the rough. For most of the young ladies here, this is their first exposure to both the political world and us.”
“True. I suppose I should make my rounds with the men, then.”
“If you’d like,” Lelouch said. “I only ask that you please, for the sake of my sanity, if not your own, don’t dance with someone twice unless you’re interested in courting him. We don’t need such drama in our lives.”
“Yes, I know. I don’t want to deal with that either. Cornelia ensured I learnt all of the social cues and faux pas to watch out for.”
When the song ended, Lelouch returned Kallen to Cornelia’s custody and pointedly ignored the displeased look she gave him as he left when Kallen wasn’t looking. He’d never really considered her the matchmaker type, but then he doubted her persistence was entirely of her own creation. Over the years, he’d found several personal items of his mother’s hidden away inside Aries Villa. Amongst them were her intentions for her ‘darling protégé and handsome boy’, plans she’d no doubt shared with her dear friend and step daughter.
There had been more, too. Lelouch chuckled to himself at the memory of a side of his mother he’d never expected. Her Imperial Majesty, Empress Marianne the Flash: expert assassin, peerless general, unrivalled warrior, compulsive shipper.
“Excuse me, Countess Stadtfeld.”
Kallen turned her attention from the group that had surrounded her for conversation. Standing a respectful few steps behind her was a blue-eyed, blonde, handsome boy with an easy smile. He towered over her, easily clearing six feet in height. He had a trio of thin braids trailing down from the base of his neck but otherwise left his short hair wild and free in a controlled untidiness.
“Yes…” Kallen tailed off, waiting for an introduction.
“Gino Weinberg, heir to the Addersfield earldom.” Not a name or place Kallen recognised. “Could I trouble you for a dance?”
Seeing Cornelia give her nod of approval, Kallen said, “I suppose so.” To the crowd, she said, “Excuse me, gentlemen.”
While Lord Gino led Kallen out to dance, she lowered her voice to avoid being overheard. Despite his height, she had her suspicions. “You look a little young to be here tonight.” And he admitted it with an easygoing smile and laugh.
“I turn sixteen at the end of November. That’s not so far off.”
“Gatecrashing just for the pleasure of dancing with me?” Kallen teased. “I’m flattered.”
Lord Gino, clearly determined to prove himself the consummate flatterer, assured Kallen that her acceptance honoured him and he’d remember tonight for the rest of his life. “Would it ruin the moment too much if I asked you a few personal questions about business and politics?”
“Feel free.” As Kallen had the sense that her current dance partner was not the usual breed of nobleman, she added, “Better that then subtly enquiring after how to get into my knickers,” to test his reaction. He laughed, which was a good sign.
“I heard your company recently started an animation studio in Area Eleven.”
“And you staffed it primarily with Japanese who used to work in the industry.”
Japanese? Interesting. Kallen shrugged. “What can I say? I spent my early years in Japan, and I miss anime. I know I’m not the only one, and no one wants a Britannian knockoff. It should be a profitable enterprise. The labour market was begging for someone to seize it.”
“It’s not the only place you employ numbers in high positions.”
“It’s just good business. I can appreciate prioritising Britannians in the job market, but numbers are citizens as well – however begrudgingly – and it’s amazing how much you can get out of them when you’re one of the few employers who don’t treat them like refuse.”
Lord Gino fell silent as they moved through the steps of their dance, his smile thinning. He seemed to be mulling something over.
“I didn’t take you for the type to be interested in obscure economics.”
“Ah,” Kallen said in understanding. She took a leap of faith on her intuition. “It’s policy, then. Or perhaps ethics.” When no immediate denial came, she quickly pressed on with her deductions. “There were easier ways to open this dialogue with me than whatever you had to do to get yourself in here uninvited, so there’s intrigue involved. I’m far too well connected, rich, and powerful for this to be some ill-conceived plot at my expense. Perhaps we should skip the fanfare; I strongly disapprove of current imperial policy pertaining to numbers.”
The smile crept back onto Lord Gino’s face the longer Kallen spoke. When she finished, he said, “You have a certain reputation, and I’m glad to see it’s real. I need your help.”
A glimpse of wavy brown shone through the sea of faces. Lelouch headed through the crowd in pursuit of the brunette, politely declining a few invitations to speak along the way. Tonight, he’d found the hostility directed at him nowhere near as bad as it had once been against his mother. He was only half French commoner filth, after all, and now a war hero on good terms with many of the empire’s most powerful men and women.
Even so, the attention he received was nothing compared to the swarm he’d noticed gathering about Kallen. Without even factoring in her personal wealth, whoever married her became the consort to the most deceptively modest peerage in Britannia. Well over two percent of the homeland’s entire population lived in New York City under Kallen’s rule. By all rights, she should be a duchess, but any attempt to change the title could see her lose it entirely or have her domain broken up into a hundred smaller territories, so a countess she remained. Regardless, she was the grand prize for anyone in need of a wife.
Of course, with so many people vying for Kallen’s attention, none of them would receive more than a few fleeting moments of it. Though he’d expected it, it hadn’t been his intention. Lelouch did intend to drive home that she had options other than him tonight. He refused to make her feel trapped by oaths and promises. But he admitted to himself that he felt much more at ease to go about his other business tonight this way.
And one piece of that other business happened to be in front of him now. Lelouch dipped into a polite bow and struck up a conversation. “Lady Oldrin, I must admit I didn’t expect to see you here tonight.”
“We finally meet.” Lady Oldrin curtsied in return, though in a manner more appropriate between equals or friends than to royalty. Lelouch took the hint. “Marrybell has told me a lot about you.”
“She’s mentioned you a few times to me as well. I thought the infamous Oldrin Zevon would have returned to her princess by now.”
Oldrin pouted. “I would have, but my uncle managed to get me to promise not to leave until I’d been through my debutante ball. It was only a few more months, and she has Suzaku to protect her for now, so…you know.” That last remark came across singularly despondent.
Seeking relative privacy both from Oldrin’s escort and everyone else, Lelouch offered his arm. “Would you like to dance?”
When they were away from the most obvious prying eyes and ears, Lelouch quoted, “‘For all the sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: it might have been.’” Oldrin looked surprised, so he explained, “She denies it, but Kallen loves poetry, so I’ve made something of a study of it.”
Oldrin’s smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Marrybell mentioned you’d be wooing your ladylove tonight.”
“If all goes well, I hope to be engaged. I didn’t pull you away to speak of my love life, however. Is there something you’d like to get off your chest?”
The pair moved in time to the music for what felt like minutes before Oldrin sighed. “Why not? Marrybell tells me you like to think of yourself as her ‘good-ending counterpart’.” She adopted a wry smile. “When I was young, I met a princess. She came to live with me, and we quickly grew to be the best of friends. We made promises to each other, and I saw my life with her playing out exactly like yours and Kallen’s.”
It took a few seconds, but Lelouch eventually picked up on the subtext. Well, that’s…unexpected. And complicating. But potentially useful if Marrybell reciprocates. If only she weren’t a pariah.
“I don’t think my ladylove is interested.” A wistful sigh escaped Oldrin. “Marrybell told me she plans to knight Suzaku soon, too. I don’t – we’re not as close as we might have been. I don’t want to scare her away. Marrybell has never exactly been…stable, shall we say, since I met her, and she’s getting worse. I used to help her with that; there were times when she said she felt like her old self again. But then suddenly there was a continent and an ocean between us. Then came the war. Then Suzaku. Then the you-know-what with Clovis. I have no idea what to do now.”
Lelouch imagined himself exiled to Japan, befriending Suzaku, and leaving Kallen behind in the homeland. He emulated Marrybell’s bitterness and distrust and then contemplated the problem. How would Kallen get through to him? How had she gotten through to him? She’d managed to nip most of his issues in the bud before they could spiral out of control.
“Nothing particularly instructive comes to mind, but I have advice if you wish to hear it.”
“There are many reasons I call Kallen my friend, but what I appreciate most about her is her reliability. Loyalty. Fidelity. Whatever you want to call it. At the end of the day, no matter what I’ve done, I know she’ll always be both at my side and on my side. If I caused a massacre, she’d merely ask how I planned to make things right and how she can help.” Lelouch snorted. “Probably slap me first, knowing her, if not outright punch me.
“Regardless, having that constant in my life is indescribably precious, and I don’t believe Suzaku fulfils that function for her. They’re apart too often and” – the admission slipped grudgingly from Lelouch’s lips – “he seems better suited for Euphemia, in my opinion,” so long as he keeps his hands off her.
Oldrin wore a thoughtful frown as she asked, “And how do you suggest I go about so imprinting myself upon Marrybell’s heart?”
“Well,” Lelouch began, “Kallen and I naturally fell together over time and then underwent a series of life-changing experiences that ended with multiple bodies on the floor and our family scattered.”
Naturally, Oldrin stared at Lelouch as though he’d gone mad.
“If Marrybell is anything like me, she can pick up friendships after months or years of neglect as though no time has passed. It’s very likely she still considers you her best friend, nevermind if she also considers Suzaku as such. That’s step one complete.”
Cornelia had found a quiet section of the palace for Kallen to hear out Lord Gino’s request. Far removed from the ballroom and the celebrations, the trio settled into a comfortable reception chamber. He glanced at the princess and politely expressed his concerns about her presence here. He tried to be subtle, but Cornelia saw right through him.
“I assure you,” Cornelia began sternly, “I have little interest in imperial policy so long as Britannia continues to thrive. My only concern here is if someone who saw us step out were to find me alone and spread uncomplimentary gossip about my ward.”
“She’s much nicer and more open than her reputation suggests,” Kallen said in summary.
Cornelia sent Kallen a glare. She sent a smile back.
“Well, I suppose I’m the one asking for a boon. Guess I can’t complain. Alright. A year ago, my family hired a new maid. She and I hit it off right away. She was brilliant, witty, beautiful–”
Cornelia cleared her throat.
“Er, yes, well, she was also Japanese.”
Sighing silently, Kallen slumped back in her chair. She already knew where this was going.
“We were caught kissing, and that was all well and good until I had the gall to suggest I wanted more from her than her body. My father had her beaten and thrown out onto the streets. My parents have had me watched since, but I finally managed to find her last month. She’s… Well, let’s just say she needs help.”
So do millions of others. As much as Kallen wished it otherwise, even her resources weren’t infinite. She had to prioritise. This situation, however, seemed fairly straightforward. I can help the noble already inclined toward numbers’ rights, buy his support cheaply with one good deed, and feel good about myself. On the other hand, I can turn him away, probably have him brand me a robber baron forever because love gives no ground to reason, and feel bad all night. Yeah, easy decision.
“I’ll help.” Once Lord Gino had finished his exuberant thank yous, she pressed him for details. “I know this must be hard to talk about, but I need to know more about the situation. First, does she have or is she expecting a child, yours or otherwise?”
Kallen nodded. That simplified matters significantly. “Is she in need of medical aid?”
“Nothing physical that I know about.”
So therapy. “Education?”
“I…don’t know, actually.” Lord Gino rested his jaw on a hand in thought. “She knew enough to help me with my schoolwork at the time, at least.”
And so the discussion continued.
Lelouch was not nervous, but he had to admit he felt uneasy. The ball neared it’s end, and he had no idea where Kallen was. Worse, he knew she’d left in the company of some tall, handsome boy. Cornelia, too, but that meant little to the early stages of romance. She probably considered this justice for not asking Kallen to be his empress on the spot.
Perhaps he was a little nervous.
It was then that Lelouch really noticed the palpitations in his chest, his shorter breaths, and the fact that he hadn’t stood still for at least five minutes.
Perhaps he was very nervous. He was about to propose, after all. Kallen knew very well that he wouldn’t ask to court someone he didn’t intend to marry. Too much unnecessary drama otherwise with the possibility of earning lifelong enemies. Besides, he already knew what he needed and wanted from his empress, and she knew that, and she knew he knew she knew that, and–
With a deep breath to calm himself, if only in his mind, Lelouch gave up the search to get himself a drink to nurse and satisfy his fidgeting. Once he’d obtained one, he found a quiet spot with a commanding view of the ballroom to await Kallen’s return.
“You look anxious.”
Lelouch glanced at the woman a few steps away. Like him, she was leaned against the wall and merely observing the ball. He quickly took in her features: lime green hair, golden eyes, and one of the blankest expressions he’d ever seen. She looked younger than Kallen, yet her lack of a white dress likely meant she wasn’t a debutante, oddly enough.
“Yes,” Lelouch said distractedly. “I suppose I am.” A second later, he remembered his manners. “Lelouch vi Britannia. I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“We have.” Despite the curt reply, the woman didn’t sound or act offended.
“Sorry, but I don’t recall meeting you. May I ask your name?”
Lelouch’s head spun back to the woman. Now that he knew what he was looking at, she matched Kallen’s and Marrybell’s descriptions of her exactly: she hadn’t aged a day.
There were so many questions to ask. Lelouch found himself with the impossible task of picking one. It was only fitting that the most pertinent yet useless one eventually tumbled out of his mouth. “What are you doing here?”
“Marianne bribed me.”
Lelouch ground his teeth together knowing full well he was about to bash his head against a brick wall. “What do you know about my mother’s murder?”
In the privacy of his own mind, Lelouch vented his dissatisfaction with that response on the woman. Before he could ruin this opportunity and invoke the witch’s wrath, however, a more practical idea occurred to him. “Can I bribe you to give me a real answer?”
A pregnant silence fell as C.C. considered the proposition. “No,” she said, but her eyes betrayed her interest. “I won’t betray my contractors’ confidences. I could, however, be persuaded to pressure someone else to tell you.”
That was more progress than Lelouch had made in years even considering his discovery of magic. “What do you want?”
“We can discuss that whenever we next meet. For now…” C.C. pointed up at the balcony overlooking the ballroom. A few seconds later, Kallen walked out of a stairwell leading up to it with Cornelia in tow. When Lelouch turned back to C.C., she’d already started walking away at a relaxed pace. “Remind her she owes me a pizza.”
Lelouch had no context to understand C.C.’s parting remark, but it hardly mattered. Clearly, he was intended to make a choice.
With weary feet grateful for sensible heels, Kallen greeted the wall as a welcome partner, silent and supportive in its subtle labour. Cornelia noticed, of course, and gave her a dour frown but ultimately let the matter pass without comment and allowed her to rest. The ball would end soon, and for that she gave her thanks.
Kallen sipped her wine and surveyed the crowd below from the balcony. Here in the heart of the empire had gathered thousands of Britannia’s greatest men and women. Hundreds of them had come specifically for her to meet, to dance, to woo. She’d had a few subtle offers of marriage already, though none she’d accepted. No one wanted to miss their chance with Britannia’s new favourite daughter.
It’d been a long night even before Gino had brought his problems to her. It was, all of it, exhausting. The evening couldn't end soon enough.
“What a surprise to find a rose as a wallflower.”
Kallen huffed, annoyed, and pushed off from the wall with a gentle nudge of her hips. “Welcome back. Meet any interesting women?”
“A few,” Lelouch said with a politeness that belied his general disinterest. “Oldrin Zevon is here.”
It took a few seconds for the name to click. “Oh, Marrybell’s other childhood friend, right?” After Lelouch nodded, Kallen asked, “What’s she like?”
“I stepped through the looking glass and found your counterpart.”
“Ooh. Tell me more.”
Lelouch’s eyes flicked behind Kallen briefly before he said, “Perhaps later.” Curious, she glanced in the same direction but found only Cornelia a few steps away silently watching them. “The ball is nearly finished. Would Milady honour me with her last dance?”
“I suppose so. Assuming my guardian has no objections.”
“Go on,” Cornelia said blandly with the oddest hint of underlying eagerness. “Social niceties have tried my patience enough already tonight.”
“Well in that case” – Kallen took Lelouch’s offered arm – “lead on, Your Highness.”
Together, the pair made their way back downstairs. Kallen noticed that they were attracting more attention and whispers than she had alone but paid it little mind. The music lulled a moment, and they found some open space to claim for themselves. As the next song began and they stepped to the rhythm, she teasingly asked, “So, did you find love tonight?”
“Of course not,” came Lelouch’s ready response. “Love is not something one finds in a moment.”
“True. I hope you’re not expecting me to attend the entire Season.”
“There are a few events we won’t be able to avoid, but to answer the spirit of your question, no, I don’t see the need.”
Kallen spun in place at Lelouch’s direction, a much welcomed respite. The first words of an unsavoury conversation lay on the tip of her tongue. She’d been meaning have this discussion for years but had put it off over and over again. Now she was officially on the market; she could avoid it no longer. Sacrifices might need to be made. She steeled herself, gathered her resolve, and then spoke.
“I am willing to marry if necessary,” Kallen said stoically.
Lelouch said nothing for a few seconds as he peered at her with an impassive, quizzical gaze. He seemed oddly hurt before understanding showed on his face and mischief in his eyes. “Ah. I didn’t realise you were so opposed to the institution.”
“Huh?” Kallen returned his earlier bemused look. “I’m not. At all. Not the way Britannia structures it, at least. Empress Annwn did an excellent job generalising it. I just meant that if a marriage of convenience is necessary for our plans, I’m…not unwilling.”
“Ah, I see.” The tone of voice Lelouch used made Kallen acutely aware that he was making sport of her, although she knew not how. Despite it and her own admission, she still felt the sting of betrayal when he added, “I’d prefer us both to be happily married, but perhaps you’ll learn to love your prospective husband.”
“You – you already have someone in mind?”
Lelouch arched an eyebrow as if to say, “Who do you think I am? Of course I do.” Aloud, he replied, “I have for years. I admit I thought you had as well, but if you want to assign blame, you should rest it at Cornelia’s feet.”
Cornelia? Kallen’s gaze snapped up to the balcony where she found the woman in question watching her and Lelouch dance. “She suggested it?”
“Indeed. With an insistence that I doubt is entirely her own. The emperor himself spoke to the same effect, in his own way, which leads me to believe my mother’s hand is at work here.”
Incredulous, Kallen’s mouth hung half-open as words tried and failed to form on her lips. It was not unusual for the emperor to arrange political marriages for his own children, but for him to play matchmaker, even in a no doubt lesser form, it boggled the mind. And Marianne had been the source of it all? When Kallen was young, innocent, and not looking to put Lelouch on the throne?
The betrayal hurt. Kallen clenched her teeth and tried not to dig her fingernails into Lelouch as the fire within ignited into a blaze. She might be willing to be married off for the greater good now, but that was her own choice. She was not chattel to be sold. Even her own father had made her freedom to marry as she wished clear to her. How could Marianne believe she had the right to decide such things? And this after Kallen had saved her son from death! Who had she even intended–
Kallen’s train of indignant thought ground to a halt.
“Oh,” she mused.
It occurred to her now that this was, in fact, her second dance of the night with Lelouch.
“Oh!” she cried in full realisation.
As she reflected back on everything Lelouch had said, a fierce blush erupted onto her face. She’d been so prepared to discuss a marriage with anyone but him and so used to dancing together that she’d missed the obvious.
“Oh,” she said more shyly.
And then all of the ramifications of what this would mean struck her. She wanted Lelouch as a lover; she’d not deny that or prevaricate here and now. But an actual marriage carried infinitely more weight because of who they were. Her head spun as her thoughts raced.
Lelouch chuckled. “Now the lady understands. There’s no reason to sell your body so cheaply. Besides, what good is loyalty based in lust and greed? Such support is as mercurial and changeable as the weather.”
A fair point, Kallen admitted.
“How you continue your bloodline or not is your decision, and it would appear I don’t have to fight for that right myself.”
“Why me?” Kallen asked. She knew she was attractive in many aspects. She’d never lacked confidence there. But Lelouch was not a particularly sexual person. “I know we wouldn’t be having this conversation if you weren’t already set on marriage. And all that it entails.”
“Do you desire the truth or a romantic lie?”
Obviously, the former was what she needed, but Kallen wanted revenge for earlier. She pressed herself flush against Lelouch, never once disturbing their dance. She moved gracefully on her toes to allow her access to his ear. Well aware of her breasts pressing against him, she spoke in a sultry whisper. “Lie to me.”
When Kallen pulled back, she took in the sight. Lelouch’s movements were stiff, and she caught a hint of red at his cheeks and along his neck. Nevertheless, he hid his fluster well and gave as good as he got. He, in turn, held her close and spoke in a soft, amorous voice.
“As you wish. I have wanted you from the very moment I knew what it meant to want a woman. Even before then, I intended to marry you. I can only imagine what unearthly creature in female guise could enchant my eyes to stray from your beauty and my attention from your charm.
“Our time together in Russia has but exacerbated my longing. Before, I thought I knew everything about desire. Now? I must confess that the mere sight of you sets my loins ablaze. Every day I feel my control slipping. Every night it is your visage that haunts my dreams. This willing madness terrifies me. I fear what I might do, how I might stray. Yet no part of me can help but surrender to it. If you would have me, I ask of you to indulge my lapse in reason and be mine in return.”
Through the firmly closed lips of Kallen's smile came the staccato, smothered sound of her laughter grasped in tight but slipping reins. She held it at bay while Lelouch spoke and for a few seconds after, but the dam broke soon enough under the assault. She abandoned all pretence of dancing, buried her head in his shoulder, and broke down into chortles and giggles that shook her entire frame. To an outside observer, she no doubt looked to be sobbing. She did have tears in her eyes, but not from joy or sorrow. Her face had grown as red as her hair as she struggled to catch the occasional breath.
“Lelouch,” Kallen protested in a gasp. Her smile never left her still very red face. “Do you want to get us thrown out?” The occasional giggle yet assaulted her as she spoke. “‘Loins ablaze’?”
“If Milady would but control herself…” Lelouch trailed off with a satisfied smirk.
“Oh, quite. I see we’re both afflicted with similar problems now. I’m not going to be able to keep a straight face around you for months.”
“Of course not,” Lelouch stated. “You’ll be too overcome with love and swoon at the sight of me. It’s our shared curse. We’re both too beautiful for this world, much less each other. Truly, we are star-crossed lovers.”
Kallen snickered. This was going to be one singular proposal story someday. In a much better mood now, if slightly winded, she said, “Alright, enough. I’ve heard the lie. What's your real reasoning?” and pulled Lelouch back into their interrupted dance.
To the question, Lelouch offered a more sincere smile and a shrug. “I’ve considered all other women and found them wanting.”
Kallen rolled her eyes. “Thank you for the concise summary. Would you care to elaborate?”
“There’s both so much and so little to say. I could justify my intentions for hours on end, but it’s not complicated. I want a healthy domestic life in the imperial family going forward. I trust you with the reins of power. Your eclectic background makes you uniquely qualified to be empress of the Britannia we intend to create.”
In another world, if things had been different, such pragmatism might have offended Kallen. She knew, however, that there were few – if any – people Lelouch cared about more than her. As such, she lightly asked, “Are those your only reasons?”
“The only pertinent ones I care to mention.” To that rather plain statement, Lelouch appended, “After all, what would married life really change for us?”
“An enjoyable diversion, I’m sure. I admit that I don’t fully understand the obsession with it or its ubiquity in human culture, but I do find you attractive.”
“A more distant ordeal, one I’m confident we can weather once we’re more settled and have the time to be parents.”
Kallen opened her mouth, but no objection came out this time. She pursed her lips in thought. She and Lelouch already made most of their decisions together. They both had enough wealth that neither bothered to consider who paid for what or why. They’d spent years living under the same roof. They knew each other better than most couples and had a friendship to match. They’d been through far worse experiences together than most ever would. They'd even shared a bed for months.
“You know, now that you mention it,” Kallen began, “we should probably check to see if Pendragon has any irregular marriage laws we need to be aware of.”
“Yes, I can imagine the scandal. ‘Commoner prince married like the commonest of commoners’. Hmm, it might not be a bad idea.”
“Perhaps,” Kallen allowed, “but if I were to be married, I would want a proper ceremony.”
“Yes, if. No one I care to mention has actually asked me for my hand.”
“Ah. Then let me be direct. Kallen, will you marry me?”
Kallen placed a hand on Lelouch’s cheek. With a gentle yet insistent pull, she brought his lips to meet hers. This was not the place for an extended, passionate snog, but damn if she hadn’t wanted to do that for the longest time. “I will,” she said.
Lelouch broke into the widest grin, probably the most airy he’d ever had, one Kallen couldn’t help but mirror. “Brilliant!”
“I have some conditions.”
Still a bit dazed from the kiss, Lelouch said, “Whatever you want.”
“Oh?” Kallen couldn’t let that one go by without challenge. She trailed her hand along Lelouch’s jaw until she reached his chin and then brought her fingers up to play with his lips. “Give me the throne?”
“I wouldn’t mind if we shared it with you straddling me.”
Kallen flushed at the image evoked. They weren’t just teasing or flirting with each other or putting on an act anymore. Lelouch really meant what he said. That was going to take some getting used to.
“What promises did you actually want?”
“Nothing major. No children before my twenties no matter what wacky circumstances come up. I refuse to be a teen mother.”
Lelouch chuckled. “Of course.”
“When the time comes, we both agree on when. If one of us says no, the other backs off.”
“I never imagined otherwise, but I understand why you want to make that clear from the outset.”
Kallen hadn’t thought Lelouch would have any other response, but there were certain expectations placed upon an empress consort from both her husband and her empire. Kallen refused to be pressured into fulfilling them before she was ready.
“I want a healthy domestic life as much as you do. No bloody harems. Ever.” Kallen knew by his smirk that Lelouch was laughing inside. Still, it needed to be said even though both of them knew that sort of mess would never arise. “If, for whatever reason, one or both of us feels the need to complicate this relationship, we make that decision together.”
“I don’t foresee that being an issue, but agreed on both points. Anything else?”
“Yes.” The music had ended. The ball was over. Kallen pulled herself up to whisper in Lelouch’s ear. “I’ll need you to help me out of my dress tonight.”
Eyes wide, it took Lelouch three long seconds to find his voice again. Even when he had, it was somewhat hoarse. “I think I can do that.”
“Good.” Kallen pulled Lelouch down for their second kiss. “You know, I find it very fitting I’m marrying the eleventh prince.”
Lelouch chuckled. “Life is full of little ironies.”
“So it is. Come on. Let’s find Cornelia and head home.”