Round One

Stage 23 - In the Shadow of Victory I

Tokyo Settlement, Area 11

November 4, 2016 a.t.b.

There’s a storm rolling in from the south. Marrybell stood in front of her parlour’s great bay window as she made the observation. Tomorrow she knew would bring sunny skies, but tonight promised wind, and water, and the thunderbolt.

Marrybell loved a good deluge. They blinded the eye, deafened the ear, muted the foot. She’d have never gotten Suzaku to safety during the invasion without them. The pouring rains were much like a warm blanket to those who wished to move about unseen. He’d hardly needed another gunshot wound.

Even older memories arose, remnants of simpler times. Oldrin had so loved rain, and mud, and puddles, and everything that came with them. The silly girl had once even insisted on singing for her disgraced princess during a downpour. At the time, Marrybell hadn’t understood the point, but it’d been a fun day nonetheless. The thought brought a soft smile to her face.

But then a wet Oldrin brought other ideas to mind. That girl had the figure of a goddess. Drenched in water, her clothes would hug her every curve. Oh, and then she’d complain that they were just too tight and toss them off without a care in the world. “We’re both girls, after all,” she’d whisper in the ear, temptingly close. “What does it matter?” And then her hands would reach out for her princess’s wet dress, trailing agonisingly close past the breasts on the way to the zipper behind. Then came the faint hum of bare flesh’s unwrapping for her pleasure.

Flushed, Marrybell swatted the fantasy away. Not tonight. Not tonight. Such pleasant diversions had a time and place, but here and now was neither. She had plans, and they didn’t involve another lonely night in her bedroom. When the sound of approaching footsteps came from the corridor, she jumped in surprise and quickly busied herself with nonchalantly stoking the fire.

A few moments later, Akane entered the room with tea and desserts for two. As she set them down on the table, she said, “I can take care of that for you, Marrybell-sama.”

“No need. It’s done already.” Marrybell quietly sighed to herself in relief and returned the poker to its place. She tossed a fresh log into the fireplace and closed the screen. “Besides, who doesn’t love playing with fire?”

“I hope there’s less metaphor to that than I fear.”

One could say that daydreaming of Oldrin fit the bill, but Marrybell kept that to herself. “There will be time enough for that next year. I’m afraid I have nothing to worry you with but the regular variety tonight. How dreadfully boring.”

Akane looked at Marrybell as though she were an odd, curious beast.


“If you don’t mind me saying, Marrybell-sama, you’ve been much more a merry bell these last few days.”

Marrybell rolled her eyes.

“Did something happen?”

A lot had happened over the past year, but one recent event did stand out. “I suppose so. I’ve been holding onto a rather dangerous secret for some time. Now that you mention it, it wore me down more than I thought. It feels good to finally have it off my chest.” Or more precisely, the constant feeling of paranoia had finally abated. Or it somewhat had, at least.

Akane arched her eyebrows. “That must have been some secret. Considering all the other ones you keep, I mean.”

“You have no idea.”

“Well, a problem shared is a problem halved. I’m happy for you.” When she finished setting the table, Akane asked, “Shall I call Suzaku-san down for you?”

“Yes, thank you.”

Once Akane had left, Marrybell returned to idly watching the approaching storm as she contemplated how to approach the coming conversation. With Clovis’s demise fast approaching, it was time to start making concrete plans for stabilising Japan and purging the corruption. No more sitting on evidence. No more – well, less working in the shadows.

Suzaku arrived soon enough, and Marrybell asked him to sit down. Unfortunately, the invitation came off more as an instruction and visibly made him raise his guard. She chided herself for getting started on the wrong foot even if she did intend on a little interrogation. Still, what was done was done. She might as well get started.

“So what’s going on between you and Euphemia?”

Suzaku had the eyes of a guilty man, but he didn’t blush as expected, oddly enough. Perhaps, Marrybell considered, she’d been mistaken. Perhaps he didn’t fancy her sister. She would know one way or another before the night passed.


“Then I didn’t catch you staring at her dancing on stage?” Suzaku made to protest, but Marrybell added, “Multiple times.”

Rather than embarrass him, however, the accusation only made a frustrated Suzaku bury his face in a hand. “It’s not what you’re thinking.” And he did sound sincere in that. He let out a long sigh and then reached for his tea.

“I wouldn’t be upset if you were interested. You’d make a fine brother, and Euphemia is gorgeous. Generous. Gregarious. Graceful. Gifted… Glowing.”

That got a weak, strained chuckle out of Suzaku.

“Don’t laugh.” Marrybell lightly glared but let up as soon as Suzaku smiled. “I’d even shield you from Cornelia’s and Lelouch’s overprotectiveness. You know that, right?”

“Yes, I know. It’s really not what you’re thinking, though.”

Marrybell quirked an eyebrow.

“I’d prefer not to talk about it. Euphie and I are just friends.”

“Ah.” Marrybell drew the word out nice and long. “Got rejected?”

Now obviously annoyed, Suzaku delivered a firm, “No,” but quickly changed his answer. “Well, yes. Unintentionally. But not by her. Just… Look, I don’t want to talk about girls with you, alright? I know I’m going to put my foot in my mouth sooner or later.”

Marrybell scoffed. One of these days Suzaku would get over such nonsensical worries.

“Why didn’t you go with everyone else to Okinawa?” Suzaku asked. It was a crude means by which to change the subject but one Marrybell decided to allow.

“I have business in Tokyo that I can’t put off.” While Anne had never made explicit when she intended to drop by with Clovis, she’d said it would be ‘soon’. Moreover, Marrybell knew she’d refused an invitation to a beach party in the tropics. Even if she wanted to avoid one of Milly’s parties or refused to celebrate the anniversary of Kallen’s knighting, it was a beach party in the tropics. As such, Marrybell assumed that staying in town was the wiser course of action. “What about you? You didn’t have to stay with me.”

“I’ve never been a fan of beach episodes.”

Marrybell snickered. “Let me guess. Can’t swim?”

“I can swim just fine, thank you. I just didn’t feel like going.”

“Euphemia in a bikini,” Marrybell sang.


At the unexpected command, Marrybell immediately backed off. It seemed there really was something else going on here than the little infatuation she’d expected. Suzaku had never before reacted like that to her teasing. Had she unintentionally said something wrong? Had she missed some new trauma in his life or stepped on an old one? She didn’t think so, but then random weird stuff could set her off on occasion as well.

After a moment to let the tension bleed out of the air, Marrybell apologised and said, “If you need someone to talk to…”

“No, I’m sorry too.” Suzaku let out a heavy sigh. “Look, just – Euphie is a wonderful girl, and I’m sure she’d be an absolute pleasure for anyone to date, but let’s leave it at that. Okay?”

“Alright.” This would require further contemplation later. “It’s just as well. There’s something more important that I’d like to speak with you about.” Marrybell had Suzaku’s full attention. “Please don’t interrupt. Just let me get through this. I don’t intend this as a guilt trip, but I need to be honest with you before I reach the heart of the matter. I don’t want you accusing me of anything months from now.”

Although he hesitated a moment, gazing back at Marrybell with a worried eye, Suzaku nodded solemnly.

Marrybell breathed deeply. Alright, here we go. “Everyone important to me always leaves me. My mother. My sister. Oldrin. Clovis. Even you.” She held up a hand when Suzaku looked about to protest. “You fully intended to leave me when we were children. Don’t deny it. You convinced me to return to Britannia, and then I had to argue with you for hours to get you to come with. Even now… Suzaku, I hate your spy work. I loathe it entirely. Every time I offer to let you stay with me – safe, together – and you refuse, it twists the knife deeper.”

That drew a flinch from Suzaku. Marrybell noticed a slight tremble in his frame but didn’t comment.

“Most of Code R has been dealt with by now. The important people, anyway. There’s going to be a changing of the guard soon. It’s a time for new beginnings. New policies. Lelouch has already set the stage for us. There will be chaos in the transition, certainly, but it will settle in a few months. Once it has, I would like to make a bold statement. And, if I’m being honest, to force your hand on your living situation. I would like to knight you.”

A warped expression came over Suzaku’s face, a mixture of far too many emotions to distinguish. “That…is a lot of responsibility.” It wasn’t the immediate response Marrybell had hoped for – she’d dropped enough hints to give him a long time to think about this – but it was about what she’d expected. “What about Oldrin?”

“This isn’t about her. I’m not even sure if – no, nevermind.” Marrybell had every intention of trying to seduce Oldrin and hoped not to scare her off. They would go from there once their feelings were out in the open. “Let’s not evade the question. If you need time to think–”

Suzaku immediately quashed that notion. “I agreed years ago to go along with your plans. But if you’re just inventing excuses to protect me–”

“I’m not.” While Marrybell did want to keep Suzaku safe at her side, the politics of the situation were no less important. He scrutinised her, looking for any sign of falsity, before conceding.

“If you think this is a good idea, then…” Suzaku’s breaths came heavier, and there was no hiding the pain in his eyes for all that he kept the rest of his face a stony mask. “There’s something you should know. If we’re to be honest, this could backfire on you spectacularly. I…” Unable to make the words come out, he fell into Japanese. He spoke more naturally, though more haltingly. “I did something. When we were kids – if it ever got out, my people would despise me. They should despise me. All of them. I – I…”

A worried, “Suzaku?” escaped Marrybell’s lips.

“I killed my father.”

Marrybell sat in stunned silence. Of all the confessions Suzaku might have made, that one caught her completely off guard. When she recovered, she resisted the urge to laugh and congratulate him on a job well done. Genbu Kururugi had never endeared himself to her. Instead, she asked a simple, “To end the war?”

“I had to do it. Britannia was going to raze Japan to the ground. We lost.”

This…explains a lot, actually. Suzaku had known about his father’s death soon enough to find Marrybell, the otherwise useless hostage, and help her escape the Kururugi Shrine before she could be framed for it. Her disappearance was why everyone had thought she’d died during the war, secretly murdered by the Japanese. The conflict had somehow found a way to escalate in the resulting firestorm – a disgraced, treasonous princess was still a princess – until the Japanese government finally capitulated in the chaos.

“You weren’t wrong.”

Suzaku’s head snapped up to look at Marrybell.

“Your father was going to get everyone killed. His policy of resisting to the last man, military or civilian, was a death sentence. Suicide in its own right. You saved millions, Suzaku.”

In fact, had he surrendered earlier, Suzaku’s father might have been able to preserve Japan with only some key economic and territorial concessions. The Second Pacific War had started over resources and economics, after all; Marrybell’s presence had led him to believe he could push Britannia far past the pretext the emperor had needed to declare war. If anything, Suzaku had acted too late.

Marrybell doubted he would find comfort in that.

“I… Thank you.” The words were whispered but no less sincere.

“This doesn’t change anything, you know.” If it ever became a problem, Marrybell would both take the blame and claim credit. Britannia would cheer her, and she was already a controversial figure amongst the Japanese. No harm done. “My request still stands.”

A knock came at the door, but Marrybell paid it no mind. Suzaku looked at her as though she’d gone mad. He was going to object, she was sure. He opened his mouth, but no words came out. He evaded. “Shouldn’t you answer that?”

“If you need time, just say so. I can wait for your answer.”

Suzaku shook his head. “No. I…I accept your offer.”

“Brilliant!” Marrybell rose and leapt to hug Suzaku enthusiastically in gratitude and excitement. “I promise you won’t regret this.”

A second knock came at the door. This time Marrybell called for its source to enter, and Akane stepped inside. “You have a visitor, Marrybell-sama, one Ward Elizabeth. Shall I show her up?”

“No,” Marrybell said a little too quickly. She forced herself to remain cheerful for the moment for Suzaku’s sake. “I’ll go meet her. I expect we’ll be leaving for the night.” She turned to Suzaku once Akane had departed. “I’m really sorry, but I need to go. It’s time sensitive. We’ll continue this when I get back, okay?”

Half a smirk formed on Suzaku’s face. “You just asked me to be your knight of honour. Now you turn right around and leave me behind?”

“Yes, yes. You may see me out if you insist, oh valiant knight.”

Suzaku declined the offer in favour of tea and comfort foods, which seemed the wiser course of action. He still looked shaken from his confession and in no fit state to face the magical branch of the OSI. Marrybell reassured him that he’d done the right thing one more time before departing to see to her guest.

Speaking of, Marrybell soon met Anne waiting for her in the vestibule. Her facade of good humour had fallen apart the moment she’d stepped out of the parlour. “You have the most impeccable sense of timing. I assume this is about Clovis?”

In answer, Anne asked, “Do you want to do this here, or shall we head to the car?”

“Anywhere but here.” That would just be asking for trouble down the line.

A minute later, they pulled out of Marrybell’s drive and departed for the settlement’s outskirts. Clovis, apparently, held a position of honour, comfortably unconscious in the boot. She’d given it a good thump on her way by to her door. Anne sat at the wheel with a lime-haired girl who could only be C.C. in the passenger seat. As Marrybell had been warned, the latter was obviously not in the mood for conversation, not even managing a simple greeting.

Of course, that was just fine. Marrybell delivered a brief notification to C.C. that Lelouch and Kallen were looking for her and considered her duty to them done. With that out of the way, she could spend the rest of the trip contemplating what she was going to do and say to Clovis. She’d considered the matter before, but now she had to make a final decision. There were so many options, though her favourites all depended on C.C. having the patience to wait a little longer for her revenge.

“A fitting night for treason, wouldn’t you say?”

The night of the fourth of November with a storm rolling in fit the bill perfectly. Marrybell found it hard to decide if today’s date was Anne’s own sense of humour at work or a natural consequence of Lelouch and Kallen’s penchant for symbolism offering up a relatively easy opportunity to abduct the viceroy.

“I hope tonight’s has a better and more successful end for us,” Marrybell replied. Although little more eager for conversation than C.C. at the moment, she didn’t really want to test a probable sorceress’s patience. “But yes, I do agree.”

“I'm sure you know, but I need to check. You do understand we’re about to kill your brother, right?”

Marrybell scowled with a quiet growl. “I would do it myself if I didn’t feel C.C. has the greater claim. One less monster in the family.”

“Well, you’re not wrong.” There was no disguising the hostility underlying Anne’s voice. “If you’re so enthusiastic, there’s a much larger target I could aim you–”

C.C. interrupted to deliver a sharp, “No.”

“Why not? She’d be perfect.

No answer came. C.C. just turned her head to the side and ignored the question as she watched the storm they’d driven into. Marrybell, however, was intrigued.

“A larger target, you said?”

Anne heaved a sigh. “Lelouch could have so easily been her,” she mumbled to herself. Louder, she replied, “It’s not the emperor, Marrybell. But nevermind for now. C.C. is very particular about her contractors. Sometimes to a fault.”

“Contractors?” While Marrybell already knew C.C. could somehow grant geass, she had no idea how much Anne knew she knew.

“She can grant others a supernatural ability called geass. Power in exchange for a wish. You saw one of its many manifestations in the security footage Naoto showed you. Speaking of, given their relation, should I assume Kallen is aware of all this?”

“She knows everything I know. Or knew, rather. She did tell me about a strange encounter she had with an assassin in Russia.”

Anne’s head spun toward C.C. with an accusatory glare. Her eyes flicked away only as often as necessary to drive safely.

“What?” C.C. asked curtly. “You shipped me off with the kids less than a week after I escaped the bastard in the boot. I was exhausted. I still dealt with it.”

Well that all but confirms their theory that C.C. is their magical bodyguard.

“Please tell me you at least offered them some explanation.”

"They knew enough.”

And it seems C.C. either intends to keep Kallen's geass secret, wants me to think that, or Anne is too low on the totem pole to be privileged with the knowledge. As Marrybell watched Anne argue with a brick wall, she tentatively ruled out any more complex information game. Interesting.

Soon enough, Anne surrendered, and the car fell into a brooding silence until they neared their destination. She volunteered that they were headed for a rarely used OSI black site in the basement of a pizzeria. They pulled into the adjacent alley minutes later, a dark and narrow backstreet that weaved between offset buildings and easily hid anyone from a casual observer’s view. Beneath the pouring rain, Anne hefted Clovis roughly out of the boot while C.C. unlocked the cellar door.

The stairs down had turned into a virtual water slide, flooding the landing in inches of water that slowly drained away. With the combined efforts of all three of them, they hauled the unconscious, gagged, bound, and now soaked viceroy down the steps into the musty corridor below. It opened into a series of four doors. The first held a modestly stocked lounge area. The second and third together were a soundproofed interrogation chamber with a one-way mirror between them. The last, opposite the third, led to a few holding cells.

Anne tossed Clovis into one of the cells with a wet splat without much concern for his physical well-being. She then led the other two into the lounge and peeled off her coat, gesturing to a closet with a small wardrobe of dry clothes. After they’d all changed, she grabbed a soda from the fridge and then collapsed into the fluffiest chair in the room.

“So,” Anne began, “this is your chance to say goodbye. Beat him, curse him, hug him, whatever you want so long as you don’t damage him too badly. How do you want to go about this?”

A difficult question, to be sure, but if she were given that level of leeway, Marrybell knew the most fitting answer.

Time passed in a sluggish blur. The air itself felt heavy, and the world refused to stop swaying beneath him. A low groan escaped Clovis’s parched throat. After what felt like hours of stirring in and out of sleep, he finally awoke. The first thing he noticed was the wetness. He must have sweat through the night in some feverish state. Sickness certainly would explain how horrid he felt. He rose unsteadily from whatever awful mattress he’d spent the night on. He pressed a hand to his head to try to stop its swimming and opened his eyes.

To his credit, Clovis remained remarkably calm as he silently surveyed the area and assessed his situation. He sat within a poorly maintained cell of some sort, though the bars would stop him from escaping well enough. He was damp and cold, though bearably so. A single door left the room. There was enough light to see by, but no one would describe the room as well-lit.

And then Clovis’s gaze landed upon the occupant of the neighbouring cell. He froze for only a moment before he rushed to the bars separating them. His eyes swept over Marrybell’s wet, ragged dress, mussy hair, and still body before they stilled on the bruises covering her face.

“No, no, no. Not again. Marrybell, please wake up.”

It seemed fortune had not entirely abandoned Clovis today. Marrybell muttered, “Fantastic. You’re awake.”

“Who did this to you?”

Marrybell raised her head an inch just to let it thump back onto the concrete floor. Her voice was weak but not lacking in contempt. “Kallen knows her.”

Bemused, Clovis said, “Wha–” only for Marrybell to ignore and talk over him.

“So Lelouch knows her. He told me about her, so I reacted without surprise. Now she doesn’t believe I wasn’t involved, because the two of us, you and me, we’re just so close.” Marrybell cranked up the sarcasm on those last two words and rolled to turn her back to Clovis. The implied accusation left him shaking and shallow of breath. Through the tears in her dress, he saw the dark red of drying blood.

“I – Marrybell, I’m sorry. If I – no, whatever this situation is, I promise we’ll get out of it.” Clovis got no response, naturally. He’d not expected one. His sister was not the forgiving or optimistic type. “But please, I don’t understand. Who did this?”

“Ask yourself,” Marrybell snarled. “Who has the biggest grudge against you? I’m sure you can figure it out.”

Horror struck Clovis. He knew at once who Marrybell meant. The fool terrorists had opened the capsule! Whatever massacre they’d tried to propagate had failed. Instead of poison gas, they’d released a woman – no, not a woman, but a creature of vengeance. A whisper of a name passed his lips.

Marrybell must have heard it. She rolled back toward him, and she didn’t even try to conceal the disappointment and betrayal on her face. “Code R. Why?” she demanded.

“It’s…complicated. Sometimes interrogation–” Seeing the look in Marrybell’s eye, Clovis swallowed his attempt to mitigate the weight and consequences of one of the hardest decisions of his life. She deserved more than that anyway now that she knew the basics. “Do you know what C.C. is?”

“An unageing, unkillable sorceress.”

“True,” Clovis allowed, “yet not. She’s the world’s greatest monster.”

Marrybell scoffed and rolled away again.

“No! Please, you misunderstand me. It’s not what she is but rather the choices she’s made.” From the way Marrybell shifted, Clovis knew he had her attention once more. “I admit I didn’t get started on the right foot with her. General Bartley, who first discovered her, was…not the kindest host.” With C.C. free and out for revenge, it was probably for the best he’d recently died fighting terrorists while attempting to recapture the glory days. “I tried to make it up to her. Believe me, I did. You know how I am with women. But it became clear she would never willingly cooperate. She would never answer any questions about her abilities. I have no doubt she considers them a curse.

“Is that it?” The fury was palpable in Marrybell’s frigid voice as she dismissed Clovis’s very existence. “Just another selfish prince after immortality.”

Clovis breathed deeply and briefly curled his hands tightly about his thumbs to keep his hope from flagging. He would not lose his sister over this. However ashamed he felt, he knew he’d made the right decision. “Not just for me. For everyone. And I do mean everyone.”

A moment passed in silence before Marrybell turned back around, confusion written on her face.

“C.C. doesn’t need food or water. She’s effectively immune to disease. A simple prick triggers her regeneration and returns her to her base state. It would change the world overnight. Three universal problems solved in an instant forever. All the money and resources we spend on healthcare and agriculture free to be redistributed. Imagine what the great minds could create without the limitations of their own mortality.”

And there was always the possibility that lost loved ones might be revived. C.C. could regenerate from anything and everything. Code R had proven that. Why not, then, could the dead? That argument Clovis kept to himself. It hit too close to home for it to be effective. Marrybell could as easily concede to his point of view as explode in a fit of anger.

“But it’s not just about that. It should be, but it’s not. I’m even less proud of it, but at the time, I thought…” Clovis pursed his lips together, hesitant to continue. Marrybell insisted, however, and his sister needed to hear this. She needed someone to tell her. “I don’t know what deal you made with Lelouch – yes, I’m not blind to his schemes and ambitions, nor yours – but you will never ascend to the throne. You will never be empress. You will get yourself killed trying.”

Despite her scowl, Marrybell merely asked, “So what? Were you going to claim it with an invincible army?”

Clovis’s voice slowly sank into a whisper. “No. I’m not a prodigy like you, or Lelouch, or Schneizel, or Father. Do you think I could? I have some small skill in managing politicians and playing them against each other, but this – this was something I could do. The opportunity landed right in my lap. No politics. No plans. No battles. Just science. I thought if I could at least take away their most pressing problems, you’d not–

That went a step too far. “Stop! Don’t you dare put that on me.”

“I’m not. I just – you wanted to know–”

“No, Clovis!” Marrybell snapped. “Keep it to yourself. I don’t care how you intended to finish that. I don’t care if you’re telling the truth or just trying to win my sympathy. I have enough problems without you saddling me with that kind of guilt.”

“I…” It did seem fair that Marrybell so wholly rejected the notion. Clovis had gotten them into this situation, after all. Resigned, he sighed and tried to make himself more comfortable in the inhospitable cell. If he at least had a ratty blanket, he could make a pillow. Unfortunately, he instead made do with leaning up against the freezing stone wall with only a couple layers of wet cloth between it and himself.

How long will it be before someone finds us? Lelouch, at least, should realise I’m missing by tomorrow. Or later today. Maybe he already knows? Clovis had no idea how long he’d been unconscious.

An eternity later, Marrybell broke the silence. “I would be the last person to tell you the ends don’t justify the means. Sometimes you must commit evil to defeat a greater evil. There’s necessary evils. Expedient evils. Expeditious evils. The trick of it is picking and choosing your evils wisely.” She snorted dismissively and rolled away. “Father would be so proud. You’re the second person to rip out my heart.”

There were no words more apt to describe the ache in Clovis’s own chest. “Marrybell–”

“I hate you.”

Nothing Clovis said or did after that could get Marrybell to pay him the slightest bit of attention. She laid there in silence but for her uneven breathing as he tried in vain to apologise and explain. All of his pleas fell on deaf ears, but he persisted until he found himself spent and emotionally exhausted, his every effort proven futile.

Then lights turned fully on, and the creature of vengeance herself appeared at the cell door.

The broken screams were the worst part, Marrybell decided as she watched her brother suffer on the other side of the one-way mirror. He’d long since torn his voice box. Sometime soon, the muscle spasms racking his frame would catch up with the damage. It was, without a doubt, the second most horrific sight she had ever seen. The Code R experiments took the gold, of course.

Marrybell resolved to not let C.C. touch her if it could be at all avoided.

As silent as a ghost, Anne appeared at Marrybell’s side. “How are you holding up?”

“Fine.” Anne looked like she wanted to comment, but Marrybell denied her the opportunity. “What is she doing to him?”

“Memory dump. I’m sure you can guess which ones.

Marrybell nodded. A fitting punishment.

“It’s not an ability C.C. uses often, but she mentioned practising between her rescue and now. Not sure on who.” Marrybell pitied the poor victim, although she expected C.C. had used more pleasant memories in her own experiments. “She’s not normally like this, you should know. Code R wasn’t nearly her first time undergoing torture, even torture beyond human limits, but–”

“But what Clovis subjected her to holds a special place in her heart.” Marrybell understood perfectly. “I would do far worse myself if I could if I were in her shoes. I’m not judging.”

Anne managed a wan smile as she gently pulled Marrybell toward the door by the arm. “Come on. Let’s get you out of those wet clothes and somewhere warm. I’ll help you remove all that makeup.”

Although reluctant, Marrybell allowed herself to be led from the interrogation room back to the lounge. It took far less time to clean her up and change than it had to prepare her for her farewell to Clovis. When they finished, Anne handed her a glass of warm milk and a blanket. With her thanks, she gladly shifted to wrap the latter around her. She had to admit she felt both numb and cold.

Minutes or perhaps hours passed as Marrybell stared into her milk, watching the ripples in idle fascination. Occasionally, she sipped from it. At times she found herself contemplating her breathing more than anything. Her mind quietly slipped into a meditative state, shutting out both the world around her and her own thoughts.

A gentle nudge brought Marrybell around. Her eyes snapped open, she sat up straighter, and she noticed her milk had disappeared. “Huh?” Bemused, she glanced about in confusion.

“You nodded off for a bit there. Would you like me to take you home? It’s late.”

“No.” Marrybell rubbed the rheum from her eyes, blinking rapidly to wake herself up. “Not until we’re done.”

“C.C. could be at this for some time.”

That could mean anything from a few hours to the whole night to months, although the latter seemed unlikely. It was a risk to hold a missing viceroy and prince for so long. “I’ll wait. How exactly are we explaining this to the public?”

Although she took some time to respond, Anne did answer the question with what Marrybell thought was the truth. “We have an agent who’s not exactly happy with his boss or his line of work. He has the ability to, as he puts it, become anyone he chooses to be. I’m giving him the opportunity to fake his death with this mission and align himself with me.”

Marrybell arched an eyebrow. “Power struggles in the cabal?”

“You have no idea,” Anne lamented. Her frustration saturated her voice. “It’s setting us back years.

Without a word, Marrybell tucked that information away for later. She assumed the agent’s boss was the larger target Anne had mentioned before and refused to elaborate upon.

“Anyway, the plan is simple. Our agent is seen by dozens of witnesses boarding Clovis’s private jet to Okinawa. He flies it out over the ocean and then brings it down. The eventual investigation will reach whatever conclusion it reaches. Meanwhile, we drown Clovis and then head for our agent’s location with the body. We pick him up, drop your brother off, and then go home. As a bonus, the local government will likely want to keep this quiet until Clovis is found, so we won’t disrupt Kallen’s beach party.”

Marrybell rolled her eyes. “Simple enough with magic, I suppose.” Abducting the viceroy, usually a near impossible task, must have been trivial with Sayoko’s ability to control others. The agent disguised as Clovis couldn’t be seen through and was presumably well equipped for the remainder of his duty. The word ‘cheating’ came to mind.

“It does make some things much easier. Assassination especially. Others, less so.” Anne placed a hand on Marrybell’s. Her eyes held the obvious question in them with an accompanying offer of emotional support.

It was unnecessary.

Okinawa, Area 11

November 5, 2016 a.t.b.

A soft knock – one more for the sake of knocking than announcing its source – at the door roused Lelouch from his light slumber. Before he could respond to it, Kallen slipped silently inside wearing nothing but a nightdress and shut the door behind her. The brief flash of light from the corridor gave him a glimpse of her deathly pale face. This was certainly no romantic rendezvous.

Seeing no urgency in Kallen, he held aloft his bed’s blankets in invitation. She immediately took it and, as before, slipped beneath them in silence. Saying nothing, she snuggled close for the comfort Lelouch willingly provided. Before too long, Kallen finally spoke.

“My geass wakes me up.”

Well, that was mixed news. “Who’s about to die?” Lelouch could guess.

“Clovis died.”

Ah. Past tense. That was not unexpected. They’d known Clovis’s death was coming. But it was the first time Kallen had lost someone she truly considered family, if distantly, since obtaining her geass. That would explain the haunted look about her. “You know, I don’t recall you ever explaining to me precisely how your geass works. Perhaps it would help to talk about it.”

Kallen shook her head in silence. “I experience the death.”

Lelouch’s eyes widened in alarm.

“No, it’s not – that’s the simplest way to describe it but also not entirely accurate.” Kallen paused, struggling for words. “I’m not there living in the moment. It’s…muted. And there’s no context. If you died from a gunshot but had a stab wound, I would feel both. If you fell to your death, I wouldn’t know off what. Clovis… I don’t…”

With his morbid curiosity risen, Lelouch asked, “What happened?”

“He…drowned.” Kallen nodded as though to assure herself of that fact. “Yes, he drowned. I don’t – I don’t understand what else was done to him. I don’t want to know. But I’m sure he drowned.”

That’s not ominous at all… What exactly did it take to make Kallen unable to articulate what had happened?

“There’s more.”

What more could there possibly be?

“It was a momentary thing. The possibility was there, and then he died a few seconds later.”

Comprehension dawned on Lelouch before Kallen spelt it out.

Someone is meddling with the timeline.

Viceroy’s Palace

Government Borough, Area 11

November 12, 2016 a.t.b.

Although the government had kept Clovis’s disappearance quiet, Empress Gabrielle la Britannia had dropped everything and arrived the very next day in the middle of the night. Despite the show of energy, the woman wore a haggard look about her like a cloak. Whispered worries heralded her approach and trailed in her wake, haunting reminders of the horrors that thrived during the Emblem of Blood. When his body was found, his death confirmed, she fell apart.

Today, the coroner had released his body to his mother. Tomorrow, it would be taken back to Pendragon. But today, it seemed, was also the day Gabrielle had worked up the strength to tell her daughter the news. They’d shed tears together, no doubt, but she obviously lacked the ability to provide much in the way of emotional support.

So it was that Marrybell found herself with a sobbing Laila la Britannia locked in a vice grip around her waist. The little blonde girl – the exact same shade as her mother and brother – wore her hair up in twin tails. She tended toward the cute end of the spectrum and was roughly Nunnally’s age but with a more temperate and less mischievous disposition. Or so Marrybell remembered from before her exile. Their relationship had rapidly soured after the war.

“Thank you for agreeing to look after her,” Gabrielle said. There was a weight to her voice beyond just grief and exhaustion. “I – there’s so much to do, and I couldn’t bear to leave her to anyone but family.”

“It’s no trouble. I understand how difficult and sudden this must be. Clovis… He meant a lot to me, too.”

Gabrielle smiled, though it was a pale imitation of the real thing. “Yes, I was so proud of him for taking you in. When he was born, I couldn’t imagine that ever happening. He was my little prince. But now…”

Marrybell could take a hint, and she’d had several. She glanced down before asking, “Relatively speaking, are you doing well?”

With Laila’s face buried in Marrybell’s chest, she missed Gabrielle shake her head no but reply, “As well as can be expected. I have my health, at least.”

So she’s ill. At her age and considering how stressed she is, that won’t end well. And with Clovis gone… It took no stretch of the imagination the conclude that Gabrielle needed someone to protect Laila and shield her from the vultures both in and outside the family. She must be absolutely petrified for her daughter’s safety above all else if she’s reaching out to me first. What can I offer her but protection?

“I’m happy to hear that,” Marrybell said. “Laila would be lost without you. I know I wouldn’t have had any future at all if I’d had to struggle on my own.”

This time Gabrielle’s smile contained a hint of genuine warmth. “You’re a bright young woman.” Clearly, they were on the same page. “I trust you would have done well enough. Clovis always spoke very highly of you.”

“Personally, I’d not trust the infamous flatterer of women even on matters concerning his sisters.” Marrybell looked down at the girl still clinging to her. She owed Clovis nothing, but then this wasn’t about him. Granting Laila her aegis would be the right thing to do, sort of. Her small part in Clovis’s death might create severe problems down the line. But it would be useful to have another royal firmly on her side. She could twist Laila’s grief into hatred and direct it at the emperor. It wouldn’t even be a challenge.

However, upon reflection, that could backfire spectacularly on her. Perhaps not, then. It left a bad taste in her mouth, anyway. That was the kind of manipulative, ruthless pragmatism dear old dad approved of. Besides, there were better ways, lasting ways, to turn loyalties. And she had enough self-awareness to know she would need help with this. She could manage protective and some variety of nurturing, but right now Laila needed warm and cuddly, not cold and prickly. Fortunately, there was enough of that to go around.

Marrybell pried Laila off of her just enough to bend down and address her properly. “Euphemia and Nunnally still live in the area, as does Milly if you remember her. Lelouch and Kallen are around right now as well. Would you like to go see them with me?”

After a few seconds spent trying to pull herself together, Marrybell handed Laila a handkerchief to a nearly inaudible, “Thank you.” She blew her nose. “I would.”

“If that’s alright with you,” Marrybell added. She saw Gabrielle nod tentatively at first and then more firmly. “Then we’ll watch over her as long as you need us to.” To assure Gabrielle the diffused responsibility wouldn’t leave Laila neglected, she claimed primary guardianship. “Call me if anything comes up.”

Ashford Academy

Tokyo Settlement, Area 11

November 12, 2016 a.t.b.

“I think you were too young to remember this,” Euphemia began, “but Clovis used to come to Aries Villa almost every day to challenge Lelouch to chess.”

Kallen snickered in the background. She’d been around for the very tail end of that.

“He lost every single game starting from when Lelouch was five.”

Now Laila was laughing too. Lelouch had to admit to some embarrassment on his late brother’s behalf. Clovis had been his first and most relentless opponent. On that note, he said, “If I recall correctly, I fool’s mated him one of the earlier games.”

Nunnally spoke next. “There was one time he tried to slide down the grand staircase’s banister at Aries Villa and ended up plowing straight into a trio of distracted maids.”

It came as some surprise that she remembered that. Although Nunnally’s dare had instigated the incident, she’d barely been four at the time. Those poor women. They’d crossed each other’s paths and stopped for a chat at the worst possible time and place.

“One had a box full of syrup, another a bag of ice, and the last had an old, torn feather pillow. It ended as well as you’d expect.”

Good times. Good times. Lelouch would miss Clovis despite what he’d done to earn execution via assassination. But the spectre lurking in the shadows, however pleasant a face she wore, probably felt otherwise – or perhaps hated that she did not. Lelouch dropped an unobtrusive signal to Kallen to keep their guest occupied and then quietly pulled Marrybell out into the corridor.

“Come on. Let’s talk.” As Marrybell proved agreeable, Lelouch led them out of the student council building onto campus. They would need privacy, preferably somewhere little princesses couldn’t sneak up on them and eavesdrop – the clocktower, perhaps.

“You know, I always thought Laila hated me.” Marrybell snorted. “Accused me of stealing her brother once or twice.”

“And how old was she?”

“That’s not the point.” The answer all but confirmed Lelouch’s expectations. “It’s nice to be able to talk to her again without all the jealousy. Even if she did cry all over me.”

“Ah, yes. Nothing brings family together quite like the gift of death.”

There was too much truth in that to be amusing, but Marrybell paid it no mind. “Gabrielle asked me to look after her the way Clovis did for me. She’s sick, apparently. Gabrielle, that is.”

Lelouch had a strong opinion about that, but he said nothing for now and let Marrybell continue uninterrupted.

“I accepted. I hoped protecting her could be a family endeavour.”

Ah. That’s more reasonable.

“Between you, me, and Cornelia, it shouldn’t be difficult to keep the emperor’s eye off of her; she’s too young and inexperienced to be of use.” Marrybell qualified that statement with some muted muttering likely about her own past. “If Gabrielle has to pass on full custody to me, as far as I know, Euphemia isn’t planning to leave Tokyo anytime soon. Nunnally could be her classmate whether she chooses to board at Ashford or commute from my home. Assuming she’s okay with enrolling here, of course.”

It appeared that Marrybell had finished her musings. “I personally have no objections,” Lelouch said. He didn’t know Laila well, but she’d never particularly offended his sensibilities as had so many of his other sisters. “You’d have to ask Euphemia and Cornelia how much of themselves they’re willing to commit, but I don’t expect they’ll refuse. I assume you’ve considered that this is Clovis’s little sister.”

“I’m well aware,” Marrybell bit out. “I will do my best not to make a personal enemy of her.”

Yes, that could become a very large problem in the future. Once the pair found the privacy they needed, Lelouch broached the matter at hand. “Kallen told me you were involved in Clovis’s death.”

“How–” Marrybell clicked her tongue. “Seers,” she muttered. “Yes, I was complicit.”

Needless to say, that was sufficient to meet Marrybell’s criteria for revenge. Laila could become a dangerous loose end. They would have to handle her very carefully as she grew until her loyalties fell one way or the other.

“Who else was involved?”

“What,” Marrybell snapped, “did your oracle not divine all the sordid details for you?”

As his sister obviously had a story to tell, though he doubted he could coax it from her, Lelouch politely disregarded the sudden hostility. “No. Kallen doesn’t pry without good reason. Clovis’s death was alarming, but once she’d uncovered your involvement, she let the matter go.”

The defensiveness visibly seeped from Marrybell’s bearing. “That’s fair,” she said blandly. “Anne was there, as was C.C.. The latter did the deed, of course.”

And so Lelouch had his prime suspect for who’d meddled with the timeline. But a more important matter had now been raised. “Did you ask C.C.–”

Marrybell cut Lelouch off. With a nonchalant air about her, she asked, “Did you know C.C. can force you to relive her memories with the slightest touch? Through clothes, even.”

A shiver ran through Lelouch as he dropped his own question without protest. “I did not.” Entirely unintentionally, Clovis had given the woman the ultimate self-defence technique. Not that she considers it worth it, I’m sure. “An odd secondary power to immortality.”

“And the ability to grant geass,” Marrybell added. “She’s different than Kallen, Sayoko, and that assassin you two ran into.”

Lelouch concurred with the point in the literal sense but not in essence. Kallen’s geass had grown stronger over their time in Russia and might possibly continue to do so. If it did, what would it become? Was C.C. the end result of another geass’s evolution? Even with the admittedly small sample size they had, memory tampering felt like her primary power. Would Kallen eventually become immortal, then? If so, why was the world not flooded with immortals? What was the limiting factor? Did geass place a strain on the body that typically caused premature death? Did most bearers just not have what it takes to fully develop it? Did immortals retain a maximum lifespan? If none of the above, then there must be some indirect cause. Perhaps geass simply made their bearers more inclined to risky behaviour.

“I told C.C. you two were looking for her and left it at that.”

“Ah, thank you.” For now, Lelouch pushed the questions aside. He’d not pulled Marrybell away from the group to speak of magic. “Did you find out what Clovis hoped to gain from his experiments?”

He was just another prince after immortality and willing to do anything to get it.

“Clovis was hardly ‘just another prince’.”

A sharp and bitter, “Don’t,” promptly shut down Lelouch’s attempt at counselling. Even so, he wanted to at least get his main point across even if he had to deliver it in abridged form.

“It’s okay to love monsters, Marrybell.” This wasn’t something Lelouch liked to think about, much less speak of, but his sister needed a lifeline to keep from tearing herself apart. “I’m not blind to all of the horrible things my mother did for our father, but I love her anyway. I just returned from enslaving half a country, but Euphemia and Nunnally love me no less for it despite their disapproval. It’s not a betrayal of your principles to still care.”

Marrybell said nothing, opting instead to glare in silence. Lelouch just sighed. He’d tried. Perhaps later he’d send in the big guns: Euphemia.

Imperial Palace

Pendragon, Britannia

November 20, 2016 a.t.b.

The grand audience chamber, a colossal hall of such monumental proportion that one could easily build a golf course inside it. Indeed, the ninety-sixth emperor had. At its head played out all the imperial dignity due to the occasion. A sombre procession of black filed onto the great dais behind the throne as the imperial family and their personal guests gathered. For the first time since the months after the emperor’s ascension to the throne, there was to be a state funeral.

Although the entire nation watched the ceremony from the far corners of the world, the present audience itself sprawled out from the dais to the very end of the hall. Three great columns, each at least a two hundred guests wide, stretched almost as far as the eye could see. The total number easily cleared a hundred thousand at least. Most were nobility come to pay homage and affirm their loyalty to the crown. Whispered rumours spoke of the suspected involvement of domestic sabotage in Clovis’s death, after all.

A wall of white roses rose up behind the imperial family atop the dais. Above them hung a portrait of the late Clovis la Britannia, enlarged so that even those at the far end of the hall might see it. However little comfort it might be to the dead, the entire affair proved a magnificent spectacle of mourning. Clovis would have appreciated the effort.

“Announcing His Imperial Majesty!”

A live performance of the national anthem began as the emperor strode solemnly out into the hall. The entire audience rose with an arm placed across each chest and a fist centred above the heart. The music ceased with perfect timing just as the emperor reached the podium placed before his throne.

“All men are not created equal!” The emperor’s deep voice boomed out across the hall, the echo lending it an extra level of weight and power. Even his worst enemies must admit he struck an imposing figure.

Kallen silently clicked her tongue. Of course. Beside her, she noticed Nunnally wilt as the emperor began his speech. Glad that Lelouch had possessed the foresight to seat his sister between them, she grasped Nunnally’s hand almost at the same time he reached out for the other. This was no time to show weakness. Even Empress Gabrielle sitting in the front row with Laila knew that, though where the broken woman found the strength remained a mystery.

“Some are born swifter of foot, some with greater beauty. Some are born into poverty, and others are born sick and feeble. Both in birth and in upbringing, in sheer scope of ability, every human is inherently different! Yes, that is why people discriminate against one another, which is why there is struggle, competition, and the unfaltering march of progress! Inequality is not wrong, equality is!

“What of the EU who made equality a right? Rabble politics by a popularity contest. The Chinese Federation with its equal distribution of wealth? A nation of lazy dullards. But not our beloved Britannia. We fight. We compete. Evolution is continuous! Britannia alone moves forward, advancing steadily into the future.

Even the death of my son Clovis demonstrates Britannia’s unswerving commitment to progress! We will fight on; we shall struggle, compete, plunder, and dominate; and in the end the future shall be ours! All Hail Britannia!”

The crowd took up the chant, some earnestly, some not to stand out. The worst part was that the emperor wasn’t exactly wrong. People might possess more similarities than not, but they were different, and those differences were important. For good or for ill, they made everyone unique. Moreover, Britannia worked. No one could deny that.

But it could work better. One day it would.

What a farce. For perhaps the first time, Lelouch was glad his mother’s death had passed without proper acknowledgement. Cornelia had seen to the funerary arrangements with all the dignity due to a venerated empress. Really, she could have been carelessly tossed into a pyre and left to rot; anything was better than the treatment Clovis had received from the emperor.

Lelouch would later admit that this was probably part of his brother’s sentence. Whatever passing favour Clovis had once accrued with the emperor lay buried beneath the ruins of the Code R site. The opportunity to humiliate him posthumously was likely the only reason a state funeral had even been held.

With a whisper in Nunnally’s ear, Lelouch suggested that she might want to request a private word with Laila. Somewhere quiet and out of the way. Nunnally understood at once and went to whisk their sister off to safety away from the vultures poking and prodding for weakness around a tiring empress and her daughter. A few seconds after the two girls had departed, Gabrielle’s weary eyes found Lelouch’s and offered him a thankful nod. He returned it with a respectful bow from across the room. That she’d not yet fallen to pieces or lashed out after how her son had been treated today surprised and impressed him, especially after witnessing how inconsolable she’d been back in Japan.

“Your Highness, Prince Lelouch.” The messenger who’d spoken waited to be acknowledged. “His Majesty requests your presence in the council chamber behind the throne room.”

Now?” Even for the emperor, that represented an extraordinary lack of tact.

“Yes, Your Highness.”

Lelouch let out a heavy, seething breath through closed lips but assured the messenger that he would be there shortly. As soon as the man had scurried away under his glare to see to other business, Kallen wrapped her arms around his shoulders from behind.

“Keep calm, mon chéri.”

Ingrained habits took hold for a moment, a layer of dissociation between reality and the familiar mask of the besotted lover, just as Kallen surely knew they would. A long sigh escaped Lelouch as he gained some distance from his anger. “A useful technique, Milady, but perhaps a habit best broken.”

“You’re going to make me train you all over again?” Kallen tittered at Lelouch’s scoff. “His negligence may have facilitated Marianne’s murder, but it was still just negligence toward a woman perfectly capable of defending herself. Remember that and you’ll get through this.”

With a final promise to behave, Lelouch departed. He ignored the hateful stares sent his way and whispers of how ‘it should have been him’ as he moved through the crowd with a peculiar sense of relief at the familiarity. He’d been beginning to forget what that felt like. It was so good to have the whole family together for once.

Nobles from afar and locals of all flavours flooded the palace corridors, but Lelouch made good time. His destination was near, and the crowds parted to let him pass. Unlike the royals, many of them showed him genuine respect. Not all, of course. Not nearly. And mostly the commoners, but it was enough for now.

Lelouch soon found the emperor awaiting him alone. The man stood at the head of the long council table with a thick book in hand, seemingly oblivious to his arrival.

“You summoned me, Your Majesty?”

“Sit.” The emperor gestured to the chair beside him where Schneizel would usually be seated. Lelouch wondered if there was some deeper meaning behind the command but didn’t ask. As the emperor took his seat, he snapped his book – a physical record of Area Eleven’s finances, judging by the label – closed and tossed it onto the table. “There are several matters we must speak of, the most pressing of which is Clovis’s replacement.”

Lelouch hesitated a moment as he considered the best way to subtly indicate his disinterest in the position. “I’m surprised you would discuss that with me instead of your prime minister.”

“Hmph. You have none of your mother’s gift for directness.”

Lelouch’s eye twitched. “Very well. I do not desire the viceroyalty.”

“Good. I have more important tasks for you in the coming years than unravelling this tangled mess.” The emperor gestured to the ledger on the table. “I am, however, aware you know a great deal about the current state of the colony. I would have your advice on who to name as viceroy. Area Eleven is too important to the empire to entrust to the wrong hands.”

Well, this is different. “If you want my honest opinion, Marrybell has spent the past six years being stonewalled in her attempt to clean up the area.”

“And if I appointed her, she would be one step closer to killing me and you two steps closer to the throne.”

…very different.

“But the idea has some merit. She is capable and motivated.” The emperor sank into thought for some time. “Yes, I know how to make use of her. The next matter is that of your marriage.

Lelouch clenched his fists beneath the table. Very carefully, he said, “To Countess Stadtfeld if she’s agreeable, I trust?”

“I suggest you not dawdle if you wish to enjoy the pleasures of a good woman. The tasks I set you will not wait for your personal life.”

“I…understand.” Was that really what Lelouch thought it was? However abridged, had he just experienced a father–son talk about women? Something somewhere had broken in the world and urgently needed fixing.

“Lastly, there is the matter of geass and your mother’s murder.”

Direct was certainly an apt word to describe that. Marrybell did mention Anne knows we know, hence the emperor must as well. “I did deduce that the two were linked,” Lelouch hazarded, uncertain of where this conversation was headed.

“Indeed,” the emperor rumbled. He scowled, though not at Lelouch. “Marianne never wanted you involved, but the situation has changed. I suggest you acquire a geass of your own if you intend to continue your investigation.

Perhaps, Lelouch dared to consider, there were some things he could see eye to eye on with his father. In an oblique sort of way. To not overplay his hand, he asked, “And how would I do that?”

“If you don’t already know, you should reconsider who you trust.”

A bluff? No. The emperor had no reason to resort to such tactics, and such deceptions were not his style. Then did Anne tell Marrybell, or does he know Kallen has a geass?

Regardless, the emperor dismissed Lelouch. That was all the time he had to spare for this particular son, it seemed.

It was a poor way to distract herself from fretting over Lelouch, but Kallen had to admit to a certain amount of amusement. Without Nonette, they couldn’t play their usual game, but bankrupting Cornelia proved an interesting alternative. Without looking at her hand, she removed three cards and replaced them with three Cornelia dealt her from the deck.

Euphie folded as Kallen knew she would.

Cornelia, however, was too stubborn. When Kallen threw another thousand pounds into the pot, she saw the bet.

Grinning, Kallen said, “Two pair, aces and tens,” and flipped over her cards. She’d been dealt three of a kind but had deliberately ruined her hand for the fun of it. Seeing that and understanding what had happened, Cornelia scowled and tossed her own pairs of aces and nines onto the table.

“And the rich get richer.” Kallen chuckled as she pulled her winnings toward her. Not prepared for it, Cornelia caught her completely by surprise with a pair of gloves to the face.

“Blindfold yourself.”

Euphemia sighed and probably went unnoticed as she said, “Sister, just admit magic is real already…”

Nonetheless, Kallen did as demanded and tied Cornelia’s gloves together. She wrapped them around her eyes and secured them in place with a loose knot behind her head. “Satisfied?”

“For now.”

As soon as Cornelia dealt the next hand – she didn’t trust either of her opponents to shuffle or deal at the moment, which was fair – Kallen immediately said, “I fold.” While there was more to poker than the cards, it was simplicity itself to check the thirty-two possible discards she could make against her opponents’ final hands. She would lose this round unless she could get Cornelia and Euphie to fold, but both of their hands would be too good to bluff into submission this time.

Cornelia grumbled through the hand and, distracted, lost to Euphie.

The next two rounds Kallen won easily.

“If you’d just concede that I’m a seeress, I’d stop cheating.”

An indistinct mutter emanated from Cornelia’s general direction.

“If you’re feeling tired, I can just hold your purse for you. You don’t have to–”

“Fine!” Cornelia erupted. “I admit it!” She reached across the table and retrieved her gloves none too gently. “Magic.” She shook her head disapprovingly. “You believe Marianne also had a…geass, was it?”

“We do. We’re not sure what it did, though, only that it likely had use in espionage and assassination.”

“That makes sense,” Cornelia mused. A few moments passed with a reflective look on her face. “And Father?”

Nodding, Kallen replied, “Probably, but for all we know it allows him to teleport to the moon.”

“Somehow I think not.” Euphie had since shuffled the deck, dealt, and now hid her smile behind her hand.

The game continued as a more subdued affair while Cornelia properly absorbed everything now that she actually believed. As promised, Kallen ceased use of her geass, thus evening the playing field. Cornelia had managed to win back some of her wallet when the door to their room opened and Lelouch walked in deep in thought with Jeremiah on his heels.

“Poker at a funeral?” the latter commented.

“I refuse to acknowledge what happened today as a funeral.” Surprisingly, it was Euphie who spoke with such steel in her voice, but she echoed the sentiments of everyone in the room.

“Agreed,” Kallen said. “Lelouch, what did the emperor want?”

Lelouch hesitated a moment at the simple question, never a good sign. No one present was untrustworthy in the least. “He wanted my input on who to name as Clovis’s replacement.” How typical. Before anyone could comment, he added, “He also suggested I obtain a geass if I intend to continue investigating Mum’s murder.”

Silence swept through the room.

“He knows who did it?” Cornelia hissed. Her voice had a dangerous quiet to it, the kind of cold rage that promised a sword through the chest.

“He obviously knows more than he’s telling, but I’m unsure if he knows the actual culprit or merely has suspects.”

“The latter, I believe.” Euphie gathered the discarded cards into a pile with eyes downcast. “Considering what he ordered done to Clovis.”

Lelouch admitted that was possible, but he added, “Don’t forget there’s a cabal of sorcerers only nominally under the control of the crown.”

“I still find that hard to believe,” Cornelia said.

“It’s the most likely hypothesis in view of the evidence we have.”

“But how has no one noticed?”

With a shrug, Lelouch replied, “More magic? Subtlety? Perhaps magical interference in politics is so commonplace we don’t find it’s influence strange because we see nothing out of the ordinary.”

That last argument, however unlikely, had a haunting, frightful quality to it which preyed at the mind. Such was the seed of nightmares and paranoia.

“Regardless, at least some of the cabal considered Mum their enemy; she did place C.C. to guard us against them, and they’ve made at least one attempt already. There’s our primary suspects, whoever they are. Then given what Kallen alone can do” – Lelouch gestured in her direction – “it’s not impossible that a known culprit is beyond the emperor’s reach.”

A contradiction lay in wait. “But not yours?” Kallen asked sceptically. If Lelouch was right and the emperor had all but given his blessing to pursue the matter, it implied he thought Lelouch could succeed where he and all his power could not.

“Perhaps,” Cornelia said thoughtfully. “Neither of you have been very subtle in your distaste for Father’s policies.”

From the corner of her eye, Kallen noticed Lelouch flinch slightly. She took it to mean that the emperor had remarked upon that himself in some manner. It would be amusing if it were any less dangerous.

Cornelia continued, “Lelouch is an independent agent. Even as that closes some doors, it opens others.”

“Quite.” Lelouch pulled up a chair to the table and sat heavily. “Deal me in. I have very mixed feelings about being an instrument of the emperor’s revenge which I wish to put from my mind.”

Euphie began shuffling with a small smile. She looked to Jeremiah and asked, “Will you join us?”

A rather conspicuous eye fell upon the very large piles of banknotes littering the table.

“Perhaps a maximum bet,” Euphie suggested as she dealt.

The group quickly agreed, and they returned to their game.

Aries Palace

Pendragon Countryside, Britannia

December 7, 2016 a.t.b.

The last few weeks had been so full of emotional whiplash; Kallen felt she deserved a pat on the back for keeping herself together. Granted, she’d not been as close to Clovis as some members of her patchwork little family, but it was still hard. She’d gone straight from her celebratory return, to mourning Clovis, to her knighting anniversary, to pretending nothing had happened at Lelouch’s victory ball, to a live state ‘funeral’, and then most recently to the birthday party Milly insisted on for Lelouch to take everyone’s mind off of heavier matters.

Exhausted, Kallen fell into her seat in the conservatory alone but for the plants. Having seen off the last of the guests just this morning – or at least all those without permanent rooms at the Villa – she finally had time to wind down, relax, and maybe even enjoy a little kip. In a few days, she’d need to head to New York for the ceremonial acceptance of her peerage. She’d skipped out on that to go to war. And speaking of, she’d delegated, of course, but she no doubt had a lot of work backed up on that front as well. Decisions to make. Problems that needed seeing to. Issues that needed fixes before they became problems. But for now, at long last for a few precious days, her time was entirely her own to spend as she wished.

The remainder of the morning passed in peace, warmth, and short, sporadic sleep. Drifting in and out of blissful unconsciousness, Kallen breathed deep of the familiar scents of the villa. It was so good to be home.

A little before noon, as Kallen was browsing through and answering her mail, a new message arrived from Anne. Opening it, she read, ‘Hey, I’m finally back in Pendragon! If you’re free, you could finally give me your recruitment pitch. Over lunch, maybe?’

Kallen, for a brief moment, contemplated getting up. Her legs screamed no more at her, and the rest of her body went slack in protest. Well, I’m not in pyjamas, I guess. Lazily, she sent back, ‘Feel free to stop by Aries Villa. Nothing formal, please,’ followed by directions and what little information Anne would need to get through security.

Once Kallen got a positive response, she sent another message to Jeremiah to arrange for Anne’s arrival. A third went to the kitchens informing the staff she intended to eat lunch in the conservatory with a guest. After that, she finished reading through the rest of her mail and drifted off back to sleep.

“Lady Stadtfeld.”

As she stirred, Kallen made an odd mumbling noise that she supposed sounded enquiring enough to prompt the maid who’d awoken her to continue.

“Your guest has arrived. Shall I ask her to wait until you’re ready to receive her?”

“N–” A yawn interrupted Kallen as she stretched in place. “No, just send her in. Thank you.”

As the maid left, Kallen hurriedly patted her hair down and straightened her clothes. That would do well enough. After a moment’s thought, however, she redid her hair to allow some of her fringe to dangle tastefully over her left eye down her face. Now ready, she awaited her guest. Anne walked in a minute later wearing a simple earthen dress with an odd energy about her and a skip to her step. She waved as she approached, her smile dazzling.

“Well, someone looks happy. Did something good happen?”

“No, no. I’ve just been away from Pendragon for so long. It’s so good to be home after a long, long mission.”

“Yes, I know that feeling. I only wish I’d not missed the majority of the orchard’s entire harvest season. I fear I’ve become spoilt growing up here on freshly picked fruit.” There were a few fruit trees in the conservatory but sadly not nearly enough to last the entire winter. “Ah, well. I’m sorry I haven’t had time for more than a quick ‘hi, bye’ until now. I would say you chose a very inopportune time to assassinate Clovis, but I can only assume our return brought an eager C.C. with us.”

“Ah… No hard feelings about that, I hope.”

As she had with Marrybell, Kallen shoved aside the feeling of loss. “I can’t speak for any of his siblings, but no, I don’t blame the executioner. I’ll miss him, but he earned at least a life sentence in any reasonable society.”

Anne smiled again, if more cautiously than before. She took a step closer and subtly to her right. “You and Marrybell keep each other well informed. She mentioned you had a run in with C.C. in Russia. Something C.C. neglected to tell me.” Though her eyes met Kallen’s, they shifted ever so slightly to try and better see the veiled one.

Gotcha. Kallen tilted her head to reveal her eye. Anne stiffened just long enough to be noticed. “You could just ask.”

“I…” Anne visibly deflated with a resigned sigh – or perhaps a defeated one. “Do you mind if we sit?”

“Please do. I have many questions.”

Anne took the invitation and sat heavily. While she collected herself, Kallen went to retrieve a pair of apples from a nearby tree until lunch arrived. After washing them off in the conservatory’s fountain, she lobbed one to Anne. The assassin caught it easily, barely making an effort, and wound up fiddling with it in both of her hands. Kallen shrugged and bit into her own with a refreshing, juicy crunch.

“So,” Kallen began, “Euphie, Lelouch, Nunnally, Milly, and I all don’t remember seeing you around, but this isn’t your first time at Aries Villa, is it?”

Anne visibly gulped. “No.”

“We thought not. Now comes the hard part.” As much as Kallen would like to use her geass to short circuit this entire process, she didn’t know what power Anne had and wouldn’t risk it yet. “I know you’re a skilled spy and hence actress. You obviously have an interest in our family. The question now is are you unintentionally lowering your guard around us, are you dropping hints you’re not permitted to say directly, or are you a mole?”

Anne looked like she wanted to say something very badly but bit her tongue. “Is there any point to me answering that?”

“No, but you can answer this.” The only people that should know the answer were those close to the family. Anyone guessing would probably pick something more dignified first. She glanced at the exact time displayed on her phone. “How did Marianne address me in private?”

Although stricken at the question, Anne correctly replied, “P-Poppet.”

Kallen glanced at her phone again. Only the expected two seconds had passed. Satisfied on that front, she openly projected her intention to kill Anne. She pushed into the thought all the pain of the worst death she’d experienced indirectly through her magic. Her geass reacted immediately to Anne – a curiosity in and off itself – rather than her more roundabout confirmation kill. Her guest didn’t so much as flinch.

Well, while that doesn’t completely rule out mind reading and other powers that allow information gathering, I’ll go with the higher probability hypothesis and assume she actually knew the answer. For now, at least, Kallen would extend Anne her trust. If nothing else, her geass thought she considered the woman her friend. “So how did you come to know Marianne? You’re not a long lost sister or something, right?”

Anne blinked, bemused. Apparently, she’d not expected that question. It made a girl wonder what she’d been so dreading to share, but that would keep until another time. “Oh. No. She assigned me to assist C.C. in protecting her family. I’ve wanted to step out of the shadows for years, but, well, you were never supposed to get mixed up with geass. Marianne was very clear when she said she wanted you kept in the dark.” A distinctly resigned look settled onto Anne’s face. “Too late for that now.”

“Fair enough.” And reassuring since Anne’s story matched the emperor’s. “Are you ageless like C.C., then?”

“I’m not.”

“No?” As far as Kallen knew, Marianne didn’t put children into dangerous situations. Seven years ago, Anne surely must have been an adult, then, but her appearance belied her age. “How old are you?”

“Still older than you.”

In all fairness, Kallen hadn’t expected any other answer. “What exactly does your geass do then?” Anne must have one since she’d been looking for Kallen’s; only the magical could see magic.

“I don’t think I’m emotionally ready to share that with you.”

It was a valiant attempt at a coquettish nonanswer but not enough to disguise that Anne meant every word she said. Kallen could easily think of several troublesome or overly intimate powers, but none particularly explained her unusually young appearance.

Unless she can alter her appearance… For all Kallen knew, Anne could be biologically male or even an alien. They lived in a world of magic. Why not nonhuman sentients as well? That would certainly be a secret worth concealing. She snorted, both amused and dismissive. She gave far more credence to the boy theory.

Lunch arrived before Kallen could press for a real answer or at least a hint. By the time the servants were on their way again, dismissed early to continue the conversation in private, she decided to drop the matter for now. Secrets or no, Anne had enough personal investment in her charges to be considered an asset rather than a threat.

“You’ve already lost control of your geass, haven’t you?”

Kallen paused with a spoon of soup halfway to her mouth as she considered the question. “That’s normal, then?”

“It’s a symptom of overuse. The more you use your geass, the stronger it grows. Too much too soon, and you lose control.”

Since it’d been nearly half a year hence, Kallen presumed she would be fine. Still, she asked, “Will that cause me any problems?”

“Well…you’re not babbling nonsense or spouting random prophecies, so I would assume not.”

Kallen chuckled. “I really wasn’t very subtle, was I?”

“No, Oracle, you were not. But no matter. You’re already enough of a legend that you’re permitted to do the impossible without explanation. Even I didn’t suspect until I heard C.C. made contact with you.”

“Did C.C. not tell you?” Marrybell had mentioned C.C.’s proclivity for secrecy.

“No.” Anne poked at her soup as she searched for the right words. “C.C. has a…difficult sense of loyalty to her contractors. She’ll keep your secrets, but anything more… Well, it’s usually best just to bribe her with pizza of all things if you want her to do something specific.”

Although Kallen laughed, the claim niggled at some memory in the back of her mind. Why does that sound so familiar? And then it hit her. She’d already done just that. A groan escaped her. “I am so stupid. I already owe her a giant pizza.”

Anne snickered. “What for?”

“What I now suspect is a firsthand account of the Hundred Years’ War’s finale.”

The snickering turned into a cackle.

“I didn’t know she was immortal yet!”

That wasn’t enough.

“She was a polyglot! I assumed she picked the languages up doing something useful like learning history.”

And then came the killing blow. “What name did she go by?”

“Cecile Carr…”

“Face it, Kallen. There’s no way to defend yourself here.”

She pinched the bridge of her nose and refused to agree aloud, but Kallen had already admitted she’d been completely blind. There really wasn’t anything more to be said. “Would you tell C.C. that Lelouch and I would like to speak with her? I know Marrybell said she did already, but considering what else happened that night, a reminder might be necessary.”

“I…suppose.” There was no small amount of hesitation in that reply. Although Kallen and Lelouch knew about magic, Anne would be directly disobeying Marianne’s last order to keep them away from geass. That had to feel uncomfortable.

As such, Kallen simply said, “Thank you,” and left it at that. On the topic, however, there was a question she wanted answered. “By the way, were you the one meddling with the timeline that night?” She suspected C.C. more as Clovis’s executioner, but it didn’t hurt to ask.

Anne shook her head and adopted a contemplative look. “You must be thinking of C.C.. Geass don’t work on her, so she’s probably a walking, talking disruption to the timeline.”

“Huh.” That made sense of why C.C. had seemed unaffected by that illusionist assassin, but there was one point of clarification to be made. “All geass or just ones she grants?”


Having lived with Lelouch for years, Kallen spotted a critical failing of her particular wording. “She’s not the only person who can grant geass, is she?”

Anne chuckled. “No, no. How to explain…” She tilted her gaze up and idly tapped her spoon against her bowl. “All humans are connected in a way. It’s nothing physical, nothing you could observe in a lab.” She paused a moment, reconsidering. “Well, no, that’s not entirely true, I suspect, but I digress. Geass use this connection to tamper with the minds of others. To see things that aren’t there. To gather information. To supplant wills. To know what is yet to come.

“C.C. is different. Her connection is…broken, you might say. She exists independently, apart, yet able to brush against and manipulate those connections. Some of the things she can do with them are fascinating; she managed to create a permanent telepathic link with Marianne.”

That sounded incredibly useful. But while interesting, pumping Anne for information about magic was only half the reason Kallen had invited her to the villa. “You’re being surprisingly helpful. Do I actually need to recruit you?”

A long hum came in answer as Anne considered the question. “Yes and no. I have my own plans in the works which have zero intersection with yours, I’m sure. I have no reason not to help you, but please do convince me to distract myself from my own designs. I love a good seduction.”

“A seduction, eh? I usually sic Lelouch on people for that. He has a way with words I never will. Besides, where is the temptation to resist? The moral struggle? The ultimate descent into darkness?”

Can a heroine not tempt a villain from the darkness?

“True. True.” Kallen managed a serious expression and held back her smile at the silliness of the conversation. “Let me tell you about the true power of friendship and love.”

“Do recall that I’m happily married,” Anne replied. “No need to proselytise on love and friendship. I stand firm and untainted. I have no weakness, Heroine, no chink in my armour.”

Kallen chuckled, a mocking and sinister affair. “Everyone has a weakness to exploit. I merely have to uncover it.” She paused dramatically. “I do recall you mentioned losing faith in your own plans to…magic the world better, was it?”


“Oh, but you have. I can sense it. Why not tell me what troubles you so?”

This time Anne hesitated. Rather more seriously, she replied, “Not the plan itself but the ability of those involved to work together.”

“So you do need a friendship speech!”

Anne laughed, disjointedly protesting that she’d done nothing wrong and not started it.

Setting aside the game they’d played, Kallen offered up a simple, “Infighting is the worst.”

“I’ll drink to that.” Anne held up her glass as she recovered, and Kallen did the same. They brought them together, quaffed half of each, and shared another laugh over shared troubles.

“Speaking of,” Kallen began, “do you know who killed Marianne?”

“No, I don’t. I’m sorry.”

Kallen turned the question and answer over in her mind for a few moments, scrutinising them for the tiniest flaw in their wording. But both short and straightforward, she didn’t see any way for Anne to have mislead her without outright lying, and the woman did look and sound sincere in her reply.

There was, however, something Naoto had mentioned, something Sayoko had told him to convince him to help her. “Marianne had an enemy. A magical enemy. One whose grudge against her seems to have transcended her death.”

Anne shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She clearly knew of whom Kallen spoke. “It’s…complicated,” she eventually admitted. “You and Lelouch are nowhere near ready to challenge that – him.” There was acid in that tone and stronger language buried beneath it. “But he is, in most ways, defanged for now. Pay him no mind.”

“How reassuring,” Kallen replied dryly. It could be worse, she supposed. She had her geass, and apparently Marianne had left a protection service in place for them.

“No matter. Now as much fun as it is seducing you with laughter, let’s be serious for a moment. My plan” – it was more Lelouch’s plan, to be fair; she offered critiques, but he masterminded the implementation – “when I brought it to Lelouch as a child, was rather simplistic. We were brilliant children, and the emperor was growing old. The timing fit perfectly. When his father finally died or functionally retired, he’d be young, of age, and exceedingly capable. If I could put him on the throne for sixty years, we could reform our empire and leave it to a generation that barely remembered the way things once were.”

Anne pointed her spoon at Kallen in accusation. “You stole that plan from Alwin the First. Plagiarist.”

“Plagiarist!” In the jesting spirit with which the charge had been brought against her, Kallen replied, “One, I highly doubt he considered that his plan instead of something that just sort of happened. Two, my Britannian history was terrible at that age. Three, Augustus would be a better fit for the pattern. Four, we’re meant to learn from history.” She huffed and then muttered, “Plagiarism, she says.”

“Fine, fine. I exonerate you of all wrongdoing.” It sounded like such a favour Anne was doing Kallen. “At any rate, what reforms were you thinking of?”

“We have a list. It spans all the way from marriage law to the abolition of the number system.”

As expected of someone who’d needed to ‘prove she wasn’t a Six’, Anne’s attention immediately zeroed in on the latter. “That’s impossible.”

Kallen smirked and replied, “Someone told me I’m permitted to do the impossible.”

“That’s not–” Anne pinched the bridge of her nose and admitted defeat. “Fine. I can conceive of a Britannia without the number system, but there’s so many problems. Britannia’s economy, its infrastructure, its beliefs, its government, practically everything is built around its colonial system. You’d tear the empire apart.”

That would likely be the case if they tried to change everything all at once and right away. Kallen could easily imagine Lelouch sending her out to put down uprisings even with their more careful plans. Removing the number system was no small task, though ultimately a necessary one to stabilise the empire in the long run.

“I don’t disagree about our colonial system,” Kallen said. “It’s obviously not something that can be altered with the stroke of a pen, and trying to change it bottom-up would take forever. Even if that worked, we’d likely fall victim to the same problems that plague the EU’s empires.”


“But just because something is hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Britannia could be so much more than it is. The number system has to go.”

Anne shook her head. “You are so sheltered behind these walls.”

“So what?” Kallen had no reason or cause to deny the accusation. “I don’t need to be part of the problem to fix it.”

“No, but you don’t understand how deep the bias against numbers runs. How ingrained it is.”

That held a grain of truth, but only just. “No? Do you think I never saw how people treated Lelouch and Marianne for the circumstances of their birth? Do you think I still don’t?”

“Obviously, and you saw how that worked out, didn’t you?”

Kallen’s eyebrows narrowed. That hit too close to home. “All the more motivation to change things.”

“Marianne was one person. You saw the hostility directed at her for rising above her station. You want to so elevate millions. Billions!”

“I never said it would be easy.”

Anne’s hands braced herself against the table, and she grit her teeth. “It’s beyond just difficult. This is the kind of thing wars are fought over.”

“We fight wars all the time.”

“Not civil wars!”

“Would you rather servile wars? Let the numbers wear us down until we die to a thousand cuts?”

For what little good it did, Anne took a moment to try to calm herself, but to no avail. As she continued, her breathing grew more ragged as she spoke.

“Kallen, I lived in the thick of the Emblem of Blood. I watched the imperial family tear itself apart. I stood beside Charles as he massacred his way to the throne. It was – there was so much – my childhood was bad, but this was worse. A nightmare that’d escaped into reality. Nowhere was safe. No one was safe. I – we can’t go back to that ever again. Ever. Especially not with it enveloping the entire empire! People are rotten enough without giving them all the excuses in the world to hurt each other. You can’t – I – I can’t.”

Taken aback by how strongly she felt about this, Kallen gave Anne all the time she needed to compose herself. The almost wild look of a woman ready to lash out at anything she perceived as a threat faded in time. The shallow, heavy breaths slowed. Eventually, the woman slumped onto the table, propped up by her elbows. She fell silent, trying to fight back tears judging by the rapid blinking.

Softly, Kallen said, “You’ve been holding that in a long time, haven’t you?” Working for the OSI, probably directly under the emperor, didn’t allow one much time for such moments of weakness.

“I’m sorry. I…” Anne found herself lost for words and instead chose to dispassionately explain away the incident. “No one came out of that time unchanged, but I don’t normally trigger like that. It won’t happen again.”

“It’s okay. You’re not the first person I’ve seen break down like that.” It’d been after a sparring session years ago. Kallen recalled Cornelia’s trembling form as she recounted the experiences of her early childhood. A pervasive layer of fear had coloured everything from something as simple as breakfast to the absolute vulnerability of sleep. It was no wonder how protective she was of Euphie. “If it makes you feel any better, Lelouch and I don’t intend on an abrupt transition. It’s ironic, really, but we can easily recycle the current emperor’s rhetoric for our own goals.”

Anne chuckled weakly at the gall and gumption. “Drop the focus on Britannian supremacy, and he does preach a rather cutthroat meritocracy of sorts, doesn’t he?”

“Of sorts,” Kallen echoed with less humour. “Regardless, there’s a reason I said I wanted to put Lelouch on the throne for sixty years. I know dismantling the number system will be a slow, gradual, incremental process. I’ve done some experimenting myself with Stadtfeld Industries to…mixed results. Without me at the top pressuring for my policies, I suspect it would revert to old practises soon enough. But on the other hand, I’m richer than ever!”

Anne laughed at the joke.

“More seriously, it has yet to blow up in my face. It’s hard to argue with profits. At some point I’m sure economic interests will eventually outweigh racial biases. Once they have, I can chip away at the latter more overtly. It won’t be perfect, there will always be outliers, but that’s life. Even if everyone is ‘good’, when you have thousands of people bouncing off of each other, you’ll always end up with a mess.”

It would be nice if that wasn’t true.

“Oh, I agree. It would certainly make my life a lot easier.”

“Mine, too,” Anne said. “Maybe someday we’ll crack the magic formula.”

Kallen snorted. “If you ever do, let me know. I have eight million people determined to give me headaches and flood my office with paperwork.”

“So what is His High–”

“Just call him Lelouch.” Now that she knew more about Anne, Kallen could spot the woman fumbling slightly over the formal address. “I assure you he won’t mind in private. None of us will.”

“So what is Lelouch, then, doing while you enrich yourself?”

“Oh, he runs his own little social experiments. He usually flits from one group to the next while I indulge in my long-term case study. Most recently, while we were in Russia, he organised for our loyal shinobi to work with our regular soldiery. It worked out better than I expected.”

“Yes, I noticed. How do you plan to get Lelouch on the throne?”

It would certainly not involve starting another purge of the imperial family. Kallen quickly reassured Anne of that. “Our next move is fairly obvious. We need to topple Schneizel from his position as the obvious successor. We can’t really eclipse him in power so completely; the best we could really do is match him. That means we need to force him to severely misstep somehow.”

“Have you and Lelouch ever considered just asking for the throne?”

Kallen went to laugh but ended up inhaling some of her soup instead. Once she’d coughed it out of her lungs, she said, “Yes, I’m sure that’ll work.”

With an appropriate dramatic flair, Anne made a show of dialling an imaginary phone and then put it to her ear. “Dad? Yes, I know I never call or visit. Look, I just wanted to know who you planned to leave the throne to. What do you mean I’m the first person to ask?”

Kallen tried her best, but she couldn’t stop snickering.

“Me? Really? Because I remind you of yourself when you were young? Bah! I don’t need your charity. I’m going to make my life extremely complicated scheming for the throne and spilling blood to get it so I can fix everything I see wrong with my country. Yes, I know I’ll still be at it twenty years later. What? No, I don’t see the parallels! I assure you, I do not ‘even have the same taste in women’.”

“Enough. Enough!” Kallen said. She swore she was going to pull something if she laughed any harder. “Be realistic.” The emperor didn’t even have time for any of his children not actively involved in his government.

“Well, at any rate, you two can count on my support so long as you don’t do anything too extreme.”

Between gasps for air as she recovered, Kallen offered her gratitude.

“No problem. Oh! By the way, let me be the first to congratulate you two on securing the Japanese viceroyalty for Euphemia.”

Kallen sobered in an instant as her jaw dropped.

“I guess that wasn’t you?”