Stage 24 - In the Shadow of Victory II
Government Borough, Area 11
December 8, 2016 a.t.b.
It was a beautiful morning at the end of autumn. Euphemia awoke from a pleasant night’s sleep fully recharged after a long day and an even longer flight across the Pacific. As she went about her morning routine, she mentally catalogued everything she hoped to get done today, though she expected to barely make a dent.
Out of the corner of her eye, Euphemia noticed her phone’s screen lit up with an incoming call. It ended before she finished brushing her teeth, but it didn’t matter. When she finally got to it, she found that either Lelouch or Kallen had been calling repeatedly throughout the night. A minor reprieve, most likely for their supper, preceded the latest.
Somehow I suspect they just discovered who the new viceroy for Japan is. And before my public swearing in, too. I suppose I should call them back sometime before they head to bed. Let’s see who called me last…
The line didn’t even ring before Kallen answered.
“Good evening,” Euphemia offered. Rather casually, she asked, “You know, you don’t have to bombard me with phone calls. You can tell when I’m going to pick up, can’t you?”
Kallen sighed. “Good morning, Euphie. Lelouch is with me.”
“Oh! Evening, Lelouch.”
He tossed a brief greeting back.
“To answer your question,” Kallen began, “I can if I want, but I can only see so far. A dozen missed calls might make you more inclined to answer in an hour.”
“Or less,” Euphemia replied.
Kallen echoed back a dry, “Or less.”
“Or when I awaken.”
Lelouch’s patience broke first. He asked, “Euphemia, we just found out who the new viceroy of Japan is from…someone we barely know. Is there something you would like to tell us?”
“Well, that depends on if I will have already told you.” After a moment to reflect, Euphemia asked, “Is that the right tense?”
Light laughter met the question, distinctly Kallen’s. Lelouch, however, remained unimpressed; his tone made that perfectly clear. “Japan is without question our most important colony, Euphemia. That comes with some protection from interference, but there will be countless people actively trying to remove you from the position.”
“I know it’s dangerous,” Euphemia said patiently. It was best to just let Lelouch and Kallen get all this out of their system. They couldn’t be any worse than Cornelia had been. “I’ve been going through Clovis’s private records. This place is a mess.”
“The emperor forced this on you, didn’t he? I never should have suggested – he obviously intends to leash me and Marrybell this way.”
As Lelouch continued his wild accusations outside the audible range, Kallen lightly cleared her throat. “Euphie, for future reference, you can tell me anything in complete confidentiality. I just need to know you have something to say. Well, and a little time.”
Oh, now that was an interesting application of Kallen’s geass. No better encryption existed than the transition of messages without a medium. Still, those two were overreacting.
“I appreciate your concern. Honestly, I do. But it’s misplaced. I asked for the position.”
A chorus of, “What?” came over the phone.
“Mm-hmm. Cornelia helped me get it, and I’ve already arranged for Marrybell’s assistance with military matters. She’ll assume the late General Asprius’s position.”
As neither immediately responded, Euphemia assumed they were still in shock. She continued, “Thank you for securing the Tokyo duchy for Ruben, by the way. When Milly mentioned your offer to me, I went straight to him to ask for his support. Having the Duke of Tokyo on my side will greatly simplify matters.”
It took some time, but Lelouch eventually broke the silence. “I don’t know what to say.”
“You could say, ‘Thank you, Euphemia.’ I plan to finish my formal education, of course, but I do have to leave Ashford for this.”
Kallen said it first. “Thank you, Euphemia. Please take care of Japan.” A formal bow likely accompanied the request even if it went unobserved.
A long series of hushed and oft intense whispers followed before Lelouch finally replied in kind. Though it came reluctantly, he did say, “Thank you, Euphemia,” which was what counted.
“You’re both welcome.”
“Promise me you’ll be careful,” Lelouch demanded. “And stay safe.”
“I will.” It was distasteful to consider it a boon, but Clovis had left it to her all the same. “If it will let you sleep more soundly, there are a considerable number of important positions open after Anne and Sayoko swept through the area. There will be even more once I let Marrybell start dragging people into the courts. I should be able to fill the vacancies mostly with my own people.”
“I see. And how much of that did Marrybell instruct you to say?”
Now that was a little insulting. Euphemia puffed up her cheeks and pouted at her brother for all the good it did half the world away. “I’ll have you know you don’t have a monopoly on political savvy in this family.”
“Indeed. That was rude.”
Lelouch let out a long sigh. “My apologies. Please just take care of yourself.”
“And if you need help, ask.”
With a roll of her eyes – had she not already said she had plenty? – Euphemia replied, “Of course.”
“Lelouch!” This was really too much. “If you wish to mother a child, have one of your own.”
A quiet snickering filled the background, and Euphemia could perfectly imagine the glare her brother sent at his knight.
“Anyway,” Euphemia began, “if you don’t mind, I have a job to get to. I’m going to be busy for months just settling in, and I’d like to get started. Good night.”
Before Lelouch could protest, Kallen said, “I’ll bring your brother around for you. Have a good day, Euphie.” Some off the record prodding likely forced Lelouch to say goodbye as well with the call ending immediately after.
Well, that went better than I expected.
Pendragon Countryside, Britannia
December 7, 2016 a.t.b.
“She convinced Cornelia to help her get the position, Lelouch. She has Marrybell to guide her and look out for her. Nunnally is staying at Ashford. Why does this bother you so much?”
So many reasons leapt to mind, Lelouch had a hard time cataloguing them. With the viceroyalty of Japan came control over the vast majority of the world’s sakuradite. Euphemia had, in one fell swoop, made herself a kingmaker, an essential key to the empire. Everyone now would want her loyalty or, if that could not be obtained, her removal. Not all of her enemies would even be domestic. Worse, Clovis had left the colony in dire straits, and everyone knew her as a kind and gentle young woman with little bark and no bite. She could hardly have painted a larger target on her back.
But worst of all, Lelouch confessed, “Because she did it for us.”
Kallen sighed quietly but offered Lelouch an understanding smile. She didn’t push the subject after that, thankfully, and left him to his own thoughts on the matter. It wasn’t that he thought Euphemia couldn’t rise to the task, and he didn’t want to stifle her, but there were less dangerous ways to make herself useful if that was what she wanted. He could really use a socialite to speak on his behalf when he was unavailable. Or perhaps a lawyer who could plan the fine details and plot the path of least resistance for the reforms he ultimately intended to impose upon the empire. That was a mammoth task, and it would keep her safely ensconced within a legal library for years, decades. Or if not that, then–
With a wistful farewell to the many worlds which would never be, Lelouch turned his attention to Kallen.
“We were speaking of Anne’s visit.”
Oh, yes. Anne. “You were saying you had her age narrowed down?”
A nod met the question. “If we’re to believe her backstory, she took part in the Emblem of Blood and was mistaken for a Six as a child. She can’t reasonably be older than one hundred or younger than thirty-five. I get the general feeling she’s on the lower end of that scale, but why isn’t something I can put my finger on.”
Lelouch agreed, and he did have a theory on why. It’d originated as a stray thought after their return to Britannia, an idea provoked from something Kallen had said when they were introducing Marrybell, Euphemia, and Suzaku to magic. Surely he’d been mistaken. Yet every word that poured out of her mouth only seemed to strengthen it. He was glad he’d, in a moment of what Kallen would have called paranoia at the time, ordered the maids not to clean up after Anne’s lunch.
“Anyway, I think I had it backwards. I think it’s Marianne who modelled herself after Anne, although I’m sure the sword style she passed on to Cornelia and myself came from C.C..” Kallen chuckled. “I feel a little jealous, actually. Marianne got two mysterious mentors in her life, but I only got one. The other seems to be avoiding me.”
Lelouch shook his head at the joke. There were times when Kallen could be so childish. Still, he found it a rather endearing trait, although admittedly mostly because of her reactions when he teased her over it.
“I wonder if there’s some tradition I’m missing out on. Anne is Elizabeth Ward. Do you know if Marianne is your mother’s real name?”
“No, actually.” With all original documentation lost, including her birth certificate, all anyone could trust on the matter had been Marianne’s word. “But what is a ‘real name’?”
Kallen waved the question off dismissively. “Birth name, then. You know what I meant.”
“Please don’t start introducing yourself as Ann or any variation thereof.”
Rolling her eyes, Kallen nudged Lelouch with her foot. “Don’t be daft.” She hummed thoughtfully. “Kōzuki Karen… K.K.?”
“No. If you reach the ripe old age of six hundred, then you can consider it.”
“Whatever you say, L.L..”
Lelouch sighed and turned to gaze out the window. He suspected Kallen still held a petty grudge over the whole ‘Rose’ affair. After earning a new epithet, one she actually liked and which saw common usage, he’d hoped she’d have forgotten that. Maybe he could bribe her to forget about it. He had won their bet over C.C.’s protection of them, grudging though the admission had come from Kallen. He frowned. They could certainly trust the veracity of the information’s source.
“Hey.” At some point, Kallen had slipped out of her seat to find room beside Lelouch. She reached out and intertwined her fingers with his. “Don’t worry about Euphie. She’ll be okay. I promise. Your oracle is on the case.”
Reassuring, Lelouch was sure, but not the centre of his thoughts at the moment. “That’s not what’s on my mind.”
“No? Then what’s bothering you now?”
Lelouch’s frown deepened. He didn’t particularly want to voice his theory yet before he’d even sorted out how he felt about it. “You said geass all have some variety of mental effect?”
“So Anne implied, and our evidence corroborates. We have an illusionist that messed with our vision. C.C. is different but can, at minimum, memory dump and employ telepathy. Apparently there’s a shapeshifter running around, which is another sorcerer who tampers with perception. Sayoko has the power to take over someone’s will, though with the whole Euphie situation, I forgot to ask what her specific power was or if she’ll be returning to us anytime soon. Mine…” Kallen shrugged.
“Then in application, you would expect a shapeshifter to be unchanged beneath the illusion?”
Kallen thought about it for half a second before replying, “Yeah, I suppose.”
That matched Lelouch’s conclusion as well. It made sense to him, but he’d wanted to make sure he wasn’t grasping at straws.
“But do recall that Anne is a magical secret agent. I’d be willing to bet she’s been zeroed. You won’t find a single record of her in the system even if you managed to collect some of her DNA.”
“I already have it.” To Kallen’s surprised expression, Lelouch added, “You ate lunch with her. I’m sure the lab techs can pull it off of something she used.”
“Huh. Sneaky. But my point stands.”
It did, but Lelouch wasn’t flailing in the dark trying to uncover an identity. He just wanted to verify if it matched with one in particular. If that test returned negative, he would have to employ less savoury measures to ease his mind.
Government Borough, Area 11
December 13, 2016 a.t.b.
As she pushed through the seemingly endless piles of paperwork arrayed before her, Euphemia absentmindedly brushed a few strands of pink hair behind her ear. It felt so good to be permanently back in her natural colour. She still had to regrow it to her preferred length, of course, but she no longer jumped when brown locks suddenly fell into her face. Even after so many years, she had never gotten used to that.
A long sigh forced its way out of Euphemia. She pushed aside one completed form and took the next from the stack. It wasn’t much different from the work she did at Ashford, but it did fall short in the form of amusing anecdotes. Still, she’d brought this upon herself, and she was determined to power through it.
I just need to get caught up, Euphemia reminded herself. Once she cleared the backlog built up in Clovis’s absence, everything would slow down. Then she could start reforming the government and properly fill in all of the vacant positions Anne and Sayoko had created. Her ad hoc solution of overworking everyone, including herself, and doubling or tripling up jobs could only last her a week or two at most. Some people weren’t even qualified for the roles she’d pushed them into.
Indeed, a prime example of such just walked through the open door to her office. Dame Villetta Nu was a good knight and a decent administrator in her own right, but she made for a lousy personal assistant. Still, she was Jeremiah’s friend, and that bestowed a minimum level of trustworthiness into her, and that was all Euphemia really needed while she settled into her position.
“Please tell me you don’t have more paperwork for me.”
“Worse. There’s been a terrorist attack in the New Bath area.”
Already? Euphemia pinched the bridge of her nose. She hadn’t even finished officially clearing Marrybell for military service, let alone putting her in charge of the whole thing; it came as no surprise, but that process had quickly become a long, gruelling chore filled with red tape meant to keep her out. Sir Kewell Soresi worked as a stopgap to hold the army together, but he was a pale substitute, and there were plenty of more respected, qualified, and able people around, if not as trustworthy. The last thing Euphemia needed was the military upset with her.
“Is it over already?” Euphemia asked.
“Yes, Your Highness. The local police are responding to the incident in the city while the military has mobilised on the off chance they can pick up the terrorists’ trail. Early reports suggest they headed north toward the Black Hills.”
“Where?” Come to think of it, Euphemia had no idea where ‘New Bath’ lay either.
Dame Nu brought up a map on her phone and pointed out the location. Euphemia recognised it as the Gifu area.
“Can I assume that everything is well enough in hand that I don’t have to personally step in?”
“I suppose,” Dame Nu replied hesitantly. “Although His Highness, Prince Clovis, would usually issue a statement to the public.”
“I have a press conference this evening, don’t I? I’m sure I can answer questions I don’t know the answers to then well enough.” Euphemia let out a long sigh. She was more responsible than that. “Ask Marrybell to look into the situation for me on the off chance she isn’t already. I’ll need her expertise tonight.”
The look on Dame Nu’s face said everything for her.
“I don’t care what anyone’s opinion of my sister is. If you personally have a problem with her, keep it to yourself.”
“Yes, Your Highness.” Surprisingly, that came off without a hint of sarcasm or discontent.
“Is there anything else I need to know?”
Dame Nu hesitated again. With some silent prompting from Euphemia, she said, “Well, there were a few minor matters we were hoping to resolve without troubling you.” She glanced at the stack of paperwork on Euphemia’s desk and fidgeted with the phone that held far too many appointments for the foreseeable future. “Our garrisons are still stretched thin after…the incident in Shinjuku” – a wisely chosen description – “and Prince Lelouch’s requisition of men and material for the invasion of Russia. The Elevens have taken advantage of the situation to raid one of our manufactories in Berxley.”
Euphemia poked at her phone on her desk and found Berxley on the map. It was the new name for the city of Mito, apparently. Dame Nu noticed but didn’t comment.
“I think I need to reprioritise and get Marrybell in charge of the military before I get our government running again. What else?”
“The venue for next year’s summit on sakuradite exports still needs to be chosen. It’s usually held somewhere near the Fuji mines. Upper and Lower Foxley are said to have a beautiful view of the mountain.”
And those were the cities surrounding Lake Kawaguchi.
“Have the offers forwarded to me, and I’ll take a look at them.” That summit was too important to international politics for Euphemia not to attend to it personally.
“Er, I’m not sure if we have any yet. I’m honestly not sure where I’d look to find out.”
“Someone in the State Department should be organising the event.”
“Right.” Dame Nu made a note of that and then moved on to the next item. “Uh, outside the Tokyo Settlement, our transportation system is in dire need of expansion to ease intercity traffic if we can find the funds.”
Euphemia laughed without any heart to it. “We have no money for noncritical projects right now.” Once she managed to clean up or gain control of the judiciary system, then things could change. Marrybell possessed a mountain of evidence against a lot of officials and nobles in the colony. The resulting fines would generate an obscene amount of revenue over the next five to ten years. Unfortunately, that didn’t solve her immediate problems.
“Okay. Let’s see… There’s been concerning movement of the Elevens around Southwich Station.”
Another new name… Euphemia typed it into her phone, and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. “Enough!”
Dame Nu took a half-step back. “Your Highness?”
“Enough! Enough is enough! It’s Akihabara. Honestly! Japanese is one of the easiest languages to pronounce. We don’t have to systematically rename every last bloody thing on this island.”
“It’s imperial policy to–”
“I. Don’t. Care. What’s next? Tokyo? Mount Fuji?” Frustrated, Euphemia tore a blank sheet of paper from one of her desk’s drawers. She quickly penned out a new law, making sure to express her displeasure in unnecessary detail, and signed it with aplomb. “There. We’re reverting all of the names. I am so tired of having to look up landmarks.”
Euphemia held up her scratch paper law. When Dame Nu didn’t immediately leap to accept possession of it, she shook it insistently. “Go on. Take it and go. I want this on the books before lunch.”
“Uh, of course, Your Highness.”
The very moment Dame Nu disappeared into the corridor, Euphemia relaxed with a mischievous grin. There was nothing quite like a royal tantrum to pass reforms. It was then with a deep sigh that she returned to her job. She set aside everything she had been working on to focus on putting the military under Marrybell’s control. That had to take priority, lest she not have a colony to rule over. Hopefully, she could finish before she had to start attending meetings this afternoon.
A girl could dream.
A couple hours later, Marrybell herself appeared with Suzaku. She carried a ‘small’ stack of paper in one hand.
Euphemia, appropriately, said, “I hate you. Go away.”
And of course Marrybell chuckled, though there was something just slightly off about it. She held up the wad of paper. “It’s just the report on the terrorist attack. I can summarise it for you in less than five minutes if you’d like.”
“If it reaches any conclusion but ‘we need more knightmares’ or ‘we need more money’, then by all means.”
“I’ll just leave this here, then.” Marrybell set the report down on a corner of Euphemia’s desk where it would likely lie ignored for days, weeks, or until it fell onto the floor and got binned. “I assume you’ll want me at your press conference.”
Euphemia nodded. “I have a gift for you, too.” She shoved at least ten kilos of paper across the desk. “File these for me, and you’ll officially have the security clearance you were born with back.”
“There’s a label for the department you have to stop by on each form. And these” – Euphemia hefted an equally sizeable stack off of a third and let it thud onto her desk – “prevent me from having to assign someone to echo every order you give. It’s an ad hoc ‘in my name’ sort of thing. I haven’t managed to untangle all of the barriers Father put in front of you yet, and there are some I know I simply can’t, but it’s a start.”
Marrybell nodded silently as she straightened the piles placed in front of her. “I appreciate this, Euphemia. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Now scoot or you won’t finish before everyone goes home.”
“Yes, Your Highness.” Marrybell rolled her eyes and took one of the stacks for herself.
Suzaku moved to take the second but stopped when he got his fingers underneath it. He paused a moment in indecision. “Eto…”
“Do you have a moment?”
Behind Suzaku, Marrybell arched an eyebrow. Nonetheless, she said, “I’ll just go on ahead, then,” and left the room.
Now alone, although the doors remained open, Euphemia asked, “Is this something about Marrybell?”
“No. It’s not… Well, she’s been…distant lately. Not obviously so, but she’s, eh, not her usually grumpy self.”
It was horrible, but Euphemia hid a laugh behind a hand. “She’s not handling Clovis’s death well, is she?”
“Not at all.” Suzaku looked around at the ceiling. “Is this room under surveillance?”
With a flick of a switch, Euphemia said, “Only sound, and not anymore, but be aware there’s guards within shouting distance.”
“Good.” Suzaku’s gaze drifted down to the paper in his hands. Quietly, he leaned forward and said, “I think she was a party to it.”
Euphemia’s eyes widened as a small gasp escaped her. Marrybell had made no secret that she wished to be involved, but to hear she’d gone through with it came as a shock. “Are you sure?”
“She refuses to talk about the night it happened, so I can only assume.”
Oh, Marrybell, you poor, foolish girl.
“I probably shouldn’t have told you that.”
“No,” Euphemia said. “It’s good you did.” She now knew exactly what had Suzaku worried. She’d already lost a brother to this mess. She’d not lose a sister as well. “She’s going to need a lot of support. From all of us.”
“Thank you.” Suzaku shifted in place, clearly working up the nerve to say something. “I think I owe you an apology.”
Euphemia quirked her eyebrows. “Whatever for?”
“I, uh…” A nervous laugh escaped Suzaku. “I’ve had a bit of a thing for Marrybell for a while.”
Oh, royals and their knights. We have something of a type, don’t we? Euphemia chuckled to herself. “I assure you, you don’t have to apologise for that, Suzaku. I suppose I’m a little miffed you two waited so long to tell me, but I don’t blame either of you.”
“No, it’s not – she doesn’t know.”
“No?” Euphemia furrowed her brow, trying to understand where this was going.
“I, uh” – a light blush dusted Suzaku’s face – “I got shot down before I could say anything. Full stop.”
“Oh dear. I’m sorry to hear that.” After considering whether she should for a moment, Euphemia added, “I do think you two go very well together.”
Suzaku shrugged. “Anyway, I…well…you uh, well, look quite like her, and you’re a safe target to look at. Eto…”
She really shouldn’t with such an earnest boy, but Euphemia laughed anyway. She couldn’t help herself. “Apology accepted, Suzaku,” she managed between breaths.
“I… Thank you.” That was all Suzaku managed to get out through his now very pronounced blush.
As Euphemia opened her mouth to speak, her words turned into a shriek. Something soft and alive brushed up against her leg beneath her dress. She jumped back into her chair and ended up toppling over onto the ground.
“Euphie!” Concerned, Suzaku leapt over the desk, somehow not scattering paper everywhere, and landed at her side. “Are you okay?”
“A little sore, but–” Euphemia spotted the culprit beneath her desk. “Oh, aren’t you just the cutest little thing!” She tried mewling at it to coax it out of hiding, and to her great surprise, the tiny dark grey kitten came straight to her and leapt into her arms. The adorable ball of fluff had a black dot on its forehead, another spot around it’s right eye, and a third patch at the end of its tail.
At the door to the room, Euphemia noticed her guards about to storm inside and tackle, if not outright arrest, Suzaku. She silently dismissed them and hoped he hadn’t noticed the intrusion.
“A stray?” Suzaku said, observing that it didn’t have a collar. “How did it get in here?”
In jest, Euphemia replied, “Through the door, I’d imagine.” She quickly checked the kitten’s gender. “Well, I’ll not turn away the first supplicant to appear in my court. We need to find a good home for him.” A frown quickly grew on her face. “I don’t think I have enough time for a pet right now, especially not one so young.”
Suzaku reached his hand out warily to pet the kitten. He didn’t have a good track record with animals. Sure enough, the kitten bit him.
Suzaku flinched but otherwise didn’t react to the bite with more than a sigh. “Akane is allergic anyway. Marrybell and I can’t take him.”
“Hmm…” A better idea occurred. Euphemia found her phone and sent a picture of the kitten to Kallen. With it, she added, ‘Needs a good home.’ She recalled Kallen had mentioned considering getting a pet.
A minute later, Kallen replied with surprising enthusiasm. ‘A black cat! Perfect! This is just what I needed. Every sorceress needs a familiar or cute mascot character.’
‘He’s more grey than black,’ Euphemia replied.
‘Details. I’ll take him. Does he have a name?’
Euphemia grinned mischievously and tilted her phone to let Suzaku read her response. ‘Lelouch the Second.’ He snickered with a hint of reprimand in his eyes.
‘You’ve spent too much time serving under Milly.’
After debating back and forth with Suzaku for a short while, Euphemia sent back, ‘How about Arthur?’
It took a few minutes for Kallen to finally reply. When she did, it was with an abrupt, ‘Sure. Need to go. Lelouch needs me for something.’
Lelouch needs her? Considering the local time in Pendragon, Euphemia had to wonder exactly what her brother needed Kallen for. A smile grew on her face as she wished him better luck in love than Suzaku had. Not that she thought he needed it.
Pendragon Countryside, Britannia
December 12, 2016 a.t.b.
Kallen entered Lelouch’s study to find him at his desk. A manila envelope sat at its centre with what looked like a short report atop it. He sat with a dark, brooding expression on his face, illuminated only by moonlight and the fireplace.
“Honestly, you are so dramatic.” Kallen flipped the lights on. “What happened?”
“The DNA test came back.”
A casual hand invited Kallen to read the report, so she did. “Birth name Elizabeth Ward. Age eighteen?” She glanced up, and Lelouch rolled his hand to continue. “Female. Born and raised in Pendragon. Only living family is a great uncle in prison.”
A footnote came with that. None of Anne’s information was on record anywhere. It only happened to be the case that her DNA matched with her great uncle’s, who told them what had happened to her. But even that came down to luck; the empire had recently adopted a policy to catalogue the DNA of all newly convicted felons.
“Let’s see… Lost her family in a car crash. Miraculously recovered from a coma seven years ago only to slip back into it a few months later. She woke up again two years ago and has no paper trail until Ashford.” Kallen put the report down. “That is incredibly suspicious.”
“So she’s either lying through her teeth, damn good at it, and absolutely brilliant to make up for all that missed time or someone is using her body like a puppet.”
Lelouch checked the clock and stood up. “There are other possibilities,” he said as he walked around his desk. “Implanted memories, perhaps. Compulsions. Who knows?” He gestured for Kallen to follow him out the door. “Jeremiah is going to shut off all security near the villa in precisely five minutes for the next half-hour.”
“I need you to keep watch for me. This cannot leak to anyone. Including Jeremiah. I will not have anyone tampering with this test.”
With how serious Lelouch sounded, Kallen could do nothing but nod and agree as she followed him through the villa. He took a winding, circuitous route in utter silence. This late at night, they rarely ran into anyone who would mark their passing.
Eventually, they slipped into one of the secret passages that led outside the villa proper. Lelouch grabbed a torch to supplement the emergency lighting and continued on. Soon enough, Kallen knew their ultimate destination: the mausoleum.
“You cannot be serious. Do you actually believe Marianne would fake her death and…what? Just leave? Abandon her children?”
Lelouch halted and turned in place. He locked eyes with Kallen and said, “If I had a good reason, I would for Nunnally. For Euphemia. Cornelia. You.”
Without bidding, the memory of Anne saying that Marianne didn’t want them involved with magic came to mind along with how utterly defeated she’d looked when she’d confirmed that Kallen had a geass. Kallen averted her gaze. She knew she’d lost the argument. Lelouch continued on down the tunnel with her following behind.
“What if it is her you’re about to desecrate?” Kallen whispered.
“Then I was wrong,” Lelouch said plainly. “No harm done. The dead have no need for their corpse.”
Well, he’s not wrong…
They continued their march through the empty tunnel. After a few twists and turns, Lelouch broke the silence. “Besides, if it weren’t for imperial policy, Mum would have wanted a funeral pyre. I’ve thought about organising one in secret on multiple occasions.”
“Lucky you didn’t, I suppose.” Kallen wasn’t sure what else she was supposed to say to that.
Soon enough, they arrived at the mausoleum. The small palace of marble held the previous occupants of Aries Villa dating back to its original construction over a hundred years ago. The windows were of stained glass and depicted the god for which the palace was named overlooking some grand battle. A multitude of flowers whose meaning Kallen didn’t know were strewn about the room, some in bouquets and some in more permanent vases.
The lights turned on automatically when they eventually tripped a sensor. The pair then split up and quickly searched the tomb. To their good fortune, they found it empty. Once that was done, Lelouch set to work while Kallen took up her post at the only proper entrance to the building to stand guard. It seemed he knew what he was doing, and thankfully, she wouldn’t have to watch.
He tried to be quiet, Kallen was sure, and perhaps it was just the silence of the night amplifying the tiniest sounds, but Lelouch made enough noise to wake the dead. Urgh, wrong choice of idiom. She shoved the thought from her mind and tried to tune out the sounds echoing out of the tomb.
Lelouch called Kallen in briefly to help with the heavy lifting. Although she reluctantly complied, she still bolted as soon as possible. As much as she fought against it, she couldn’t stop her mind from conjuring vivid images of what must be happening inside. Her imagination ran wild without permission, and – what was that popping sound? No, don’t think about it, Kallen. Don’t think about it.
Ten minutes later, Lelouch recalled Kallen to help him replace everything. They moved in tandem and worked as quickly as possible. Once done, leaving not a speck of dust out of place, they beat a hasty retreat.
As soon as they were back in the tunnels, Kallen immediately said, “I don’t want to know.”
Lelouch, looking rather green, nodded. It came as somewhat of a relief to know he found his labour no more palatable than she did. “It was definitely a corpse, at least.”
Not wanting to prompt any more detailed description, Kallen said nothing. They made their way back to the villa in silence and went their separate ways with the unspoken understanding that they would never speak of tonight again.
Pendragon Countryside, Britannia
December 15, 2016 a.t.b.
Kallen had no idea how she was supposed to feel right now. On the one hand, having Marianne back, no matter what form she took, would be a miracle. But on the other, she’d been gone for seven years. A lot had changed, much of it stemming directly from her absence. Some things which were lost could never be recovered.
But as unsure and tempestuous as her own emotions were, Kallen could only imagine how Lelouch must feel when confronted with the possibility. It wasn’t like she’d had to face the idea herself with her own parents. Hearing of Naoto’s survival was the closest she had ever come, and she’d already expected that when she never found his body.
“Would you like me to open it?” Kallen asked.
He said that, but Lelouch handed over the DNA report still sealed in the envelope it’d been delivered in. Kallen took it and skimmed through the contents. She had to parse the scientific jargon and filter out all of the extraneous details. When she finally found the conclusion, she read it aloud.
“‘The male and female samples submitted were a match for mother and son.’” The icy fingers of loss pried deep into Kallen’s chest. Across from her, Lelouch fought to keep his face a stony mask. “Ninety-nine percent probability.” She let the report slip from her hand onto the table. “I’m sorry.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Lelouch’s voice cracked. He would fool no one right now. “Nothing has changed. At least I know for sure.”
Kallen kept silent and waited. If Lelouch needed her, she was there. Of course, as might be expected, he turned to life’s puzzles to distract himself.
“Yes, this changes nothing. Anne and Elizabeth Ward are not the same person, regardless of whatever puppetry the former employs. I believe we were mistaken about Sayoko as well.”
With what they knew now, it did seem likely that Anne, not Sayoko, was the one controlling people from the shadows in both the Code R raid and in the assassinations that followed. “Probably,” Kallen said. “But Anne is still a friend to us.”
“Yes, you’re likely right.” Lelouch ran a hand across his face. “I suppose it doesn’t matter who she really is or if she’s anyone at all.”
Now there was an idea. How many identities did Anne maintain with how many different bodies? Could she access the memories of whoever she possessed? Did she pick up their personalities, or did she have to put on a series of acts?
Interrupting Kallen’s train of thought, Lelouch said, “Don’t call her out on her geass. If she tells you herself, fine, but otherwise it’s best she doesn’t know we know. I’d rather not poke that sleeping dragon.”
That was fair enough. The last thing they needed was an angry or frightened puppeteer. For all they knew, Anne had torn through Japan and dismantled Clovis’s inner circle unnoticed and alone. The damage she could do… But an idea occurred. “Do you think Code R ever got anywhere with its geass research?”
“Ask your brother if you want, but I doubt it. They didn’t have C.C. for very long.” Lelouch reconsidered his words. “Well, not as science counts days. C.C. would beg to differ, I’m sure. Why the interest?”
“Just wondering if there’s a way to disrupt magic. Without gaining C.C.’s power set, that is.”
Lelouch gave it a few moments’ thought before saying, “Probably. Not that we have any way to experiment. Your power is too dangerous, and I’d rather not provoke the ancient, immortal witch with even a rumour of the idea carried on the breath of the wind.”
Tokyo Settlement, Area 11
January 16, 2017 a.t.b.
Deep breaths. Deep breaths. In and out. We’re done jumping at shadows. Be brave.
A new semester had commenced this morning. In the relatively pleasant Tokyo winter, students from every grade wandered across campus both indoors and out to reconnect with old friends, participate in one of Ashfords many clubs, or simply engage in whatever comedy intended to play itself out today. From the look of it, the Theatre Club had gotten into a drama battle with the Movie Club due to an overlap in their activities.
The clocktower bells rang out a single time heralding the new hour and the end of lunch. As usual, the students swarmed to get to their destinations in a great crowd, visibly forming into distinct flows. With the energy and chaos that daily infected the campus, it bore more than a passing resemblance to the panic in Kokubunji.
Her breathing rapidly shallowing as she watched the rush of students, Nina ducked behind a column. She placed her back to it and stared at the nice, stationary wall in front of her.
They’re just kids with too much energy, Nina told herself. There’s no terrorists.
Nina spent the next few minutes convincing herself not to break down or flee back to her lab in the student council building. She might not have class right now – or really much at all since the English and history classes she had to take conflicted with her university maths classes – but she didn’t have Euphie to drag her away from her computer anymore or even Marrybell to talk to about coping. She was on her own until the end of the school year and her early graduation.
As the sound of chatter faded into the background, Nina finally felt the edge of panic retreat. She let out a long miserable sigh, rose, and at last continued on her way to the cafeteria.
It happened again. I shouldn’t fall apart over nothing all the time. Why am I so pathetic? The memory of Marrybell leaping down onto a terrorist with sword and pistol in hand came to mind, an image Nina would never forget. Why can’t I be even just a little like her?
In the cafeteria, Nina ordered sushi for herself, a taste she’d acquired over her stay at Marrybell’s home. She then easily found an empty table for herself now that most students were back in class. It was only a few minutes before she had company, however. Nunnally took the seat across from her with a new face at her side. The brunette had a weary look about her, although as far as Nina could tell, her small smile did seem genuine.
“Afternoon, Nina,” Nunnally began. “Allow me to present my cousin and new roommate, Luna Linette. Luna, this is the student council’s Secretary for Science, Nina Einstein. She’s bloody brilliant at maths and physics.”
Nina and Luna – whose real name she felt she reasonably assumed was Laila – exchanged the usual pleasantries. As soon as they had, the Valkyrie girls appeared one by one and sat down at the table as well. And so her nice quiet lunch died a miserable death to a gaggle of thirteen and fourteen-year-olds.
It could be worse. Nina kept mostly to herself and quietly followed their conversation, forcing her mind not to wander back to her work. She suspected Milly would call Euphie away from the government to talk to her if she didn’t at least pretend to have a social life. That was just the sort of thing Prez did, nevermind that, as viceroy, Euphie had far more important things to do than bother with the hopeless little scientist she had to keep from destroying the world or throwing it into chaos.
Someone dropped Suzaku’s name, and though she was ashamed to admit it, Nina froze in place for a moment too scared to even jump in fright. The saddest part was how well that reaction compared to how she used to respond. No matter how often they told her it was okay and to go at her own pace, she knew she had to be trying both Marrybell’s and even Euphie’s patience. She could barely imagine how offended Suzaku and Akane must be whenever they witnessed her behaviour, nevermind Shizue.
Nina did her best to push her gloomy thoughts to the back of her mind and returned her attention to the conversation in front of her. It seemed someone had told Nunnally Marrybell planned to knight Suzaku once Euphie had settled into her position. The group had fallen into a debate over the merits of the action.
Nunnally approved, of course, and supported the appointment wholeheartedly. As far as Nina knew, the girl had always treated numbers as she would anyone else and knew Suzaku was fit for the position.
On the other side was the concerned sister. Laila considered it a terrible idea to give a number so much authority and trust which set a precedent everyone would be better off without. “And nevermind all that,” she said, “the last thing Euphemia needs is such a polarising issue so early in her incumbency. Marrybell is already a highly controversial choice to head the military.” It was a fair point.
The Valkyries found themselves in a more awkward position. In less than a week after meeting them, Nina had sussed out their varying levels of hero worship for Kallen. Kallen, who had personally assigned the Valkyries as Nunnally’s personal guard and obviously delivered a glowing endorsement with all the doting of an indulgent older sister. Even if they privately agreed with Laila, they could hardly find it in themselves to say so.
Nina had to admit she found it a little amusing to watch the Valkyries’ beliefs collide with their heroine’s. They were so adorably awkward about the whole thing, especially Soresi. Perhaps they didn’t know that Kallen was born and partially raised in Japan and still had friends amongst the Japanese?
“What’s your opinion, Miss Einstein?” Vergamon asked.
“Oh! Me?” Dragged into the debate, Nina gave it some thought. Politics were not her cup of tea, but she assumed Marrybell and Euphie knew what they were doing. And she knew how to win those two the Valkyries’ instant support. “Well, Suzaku is very strong. He’s skilled in a knightmare, in a brawl, and with a sword. I had the pleasure of watching him and Kallen duel once on campus.” She paused and made herself appear thoughtful for a moment. “You know, he and Marrybell have a lot in common with Kallen and Lelouch.”
Nina could actually see the change of opinion show on each Valkyrie's face. It was like magic. She doubted it would lead to any deeper revelations – Marrybell seemed to have given her a mild case of pessimism – but Nunnally now had the weight of numbers on her side. Thankfully, that let her step aside and finish eating her lunch in peace.
January 16, 2017 a.t.b.
A peaceful lunch was far from Leila’s mind.
“He is the most vain, egotistical, arrogant–” Words escaped Leila as she descended into a frustrated growl. “He actually had the gall to thank me for being his enemy.” She ripped a piece of bread in half with her teeth and muttered more insults as she chewed. “He even had the countess training Ayano while we were stuck on that bloody island with him. Who does that!”
“Ah, young rivalry,” Gene said wistfully.
Leila shot the man a glare.
“I remember when the Flash and I first shouted death threats across the field of battle. We were so young and in hate with each other.”
“Will you stop treating this like this is some schoolyard crush!”
Gene chuckled, which earned him no points.
“I lost a war to him!”
“Indeed, you did,” Gene said as if the chaos that now plagued Russia in the aftermath were a trifling matter of no import. “And yet this is the most alive I’ve seen you in years.”
“I–” It came as a heavy blow when, the more she considered it, the more Leila realised how right Gene was. She’d enjoyed matching wits with the prince far more than she should. And that moment when she thought she’d won had been so completely and utterly perfect.
Leila found something interesting to look at across the café and sipped from her tea in silence.
“So beyond the obvious, what’s your impression of Prince Lelouch?”
As tempted as she was to vent some more, Leila set her humiliation aside. “You were right on all accounts. I lost. The prince is brilliant. The countess is terrifying. They’re probably lovers. He was there for his own aggrandisement. His army was within your predictions. Worst of all, he thinks he’s the good guy.”
“Oh? Now that is different. The Flash was very upfront about how much she enjoyed her work.”
“I don’t doubt there’s an aspect of that,” Leila amended. She’d definitely gotten the sense that the prince enjoyed winning and outwitting people – or her, at least. Not that she had any right to condemn him for that in and of itself. “But he wants power to reform his empire.” Despite the prince’s penchant for deception, she did believe that of him. “He implied he wants the throne to do it.”
“A noble goal, although an uphill battle. If true, it would make him a more appealing successor than many of the current contenders. How do you intend to respond?”
What kind of question was that? “I don’t care what he gets up to in Britannia, but if he causes trouble outside it again, of course I’m going to stand in his way. I’m not going to just let him externalise Britannia’s problems.” As soon as she parsed the look on Gene’s face, Leila added, “And don’t you dare claim I’m being ‘possessive of my rival’ or some such nonsense,” before he could say anything.
Of course, Gene still wore that insufferable smirk of his. “You realise that’s what he wants, no?”
“He wants” – the word came out scathingly – “me to knock everyone else down and then lose to him. He is the most infuriating–” Leila cut herself off there before she went on another tirade. “It doesn’t fundamentally change the stakes. It’s still win or lose in the end. It’s just–” She let out a huff. As she picked up her tea, she finished, “–vexing.”
“Yes, the most frustrating people to fight are those who find enemies as useful as friends.”
Truer words had never been spoken.
“How did your return to the Malcals go?”
Leila sighed. “As expected.” No, that wasn’t quite right. She pondered whether she should say anything, but her hesitation did that for her. “Well, mostly.”
January 8, 2017 a.t.b.
Dinner was a miserable affair as it had been since Leila’s recent return from Russia. The only difference tonight was the presence of Claude Malcal, the head of the family. The three brothers took it upon themselves to insert insults into practically everything they said, some none too subtle. Ioan was the worst of the lot, as usual. Yes, she’d lost. She’d never denied that fact. But did they really have to constantly remind her? Did they have no other diversions in life?
Once they’d finished the evening’s pudding, Leila promptly excused herself from the table. Her departure, however, was delayed as Claude instructed her to meet him in his study. He would be along shortly to have a chat with her.
Sighing, Leila complied with the demand.
It was ten minutes later when Claude finally arrived with a dour frown. But once he’d pulled the door closed behind him and noticed her, he banished it for a wide smile. “Leila, it’s good to have you home.”
Leila didn’t respond immediately as she considered how she should. Ultimately, she decided upon a little honesty. Better that than outright lying or saying how much she wanted to leave. “To be honest, I’m very bored.”
That elicited a laugh from Claude. “I’d imagine so after your tussle with Prince Lelouch. It’s regrettable that you lost, though not unexpected. Regardless, I’m immensely proud of how you performed.”
What? Leila blinked at Claude once, then twice. “How so?”
“‘How so?’ she asks. You made yourself into a national heroine. And that despite your heritage in the political climate. It’s a pleasure to know you’ve yet to acquire swollen ankles, but it reflects perhaps more poorly upon your achievements to be so humble. It might surprise you how strong an impression you made on the politicians here at home.”
Oh, so that’s what this is about. I elevated the Malcal name. Of course that’s it. “It wasn’t as hard as you might think. All of the conditions were right. I just had to seize the opportunity. Even Ioan could have done it with the right military adviser.”
Claude scoffed. “Do not fill his head with ideas you know full well he’s unsuited for. Ioan may have a way with women, but he lacks the ability to charm his way into anything but their knickers, much less the people’s hearts.”
That was unexpectedly blunt, but Leila hazarded the slightest upturn of her lips.
“We’ll have to see what opportunities we can make for you in the future. The world is bound to grow more chaotic in the coming years. The rising, new Flash. The looming scramble for succession in Britannia. The wars in Africa and the tension in the Middle East. For good or for ill, we may be approaching a turning point in history. We will not be caught flat-footed and miss the chance to jump upon it.”
That had been Leila’s intention already, of course. She didn’t agree with the spirit of self-interest in which it was meant, but she recalled what Gene had said when this all started. He played with the hand that life dealt him. She would have to as well if she wanted to be a force for good in this world.
“I hadn’t intended to,” Leila said. “Was there anything else, Father?”
“No, no.” Claude dismissed her with a wave of his hand. “You did very well. Take some time to relax and enjoy life.”
Leila said her good nights and retreated from the study. On her way through the manor back to her room, she noticed Ioan glaring at her fiercely from down one of the corridors before abruptly turning and storming away in a fit. In fact, the middle brother, Daniel, reacted much the same when she passed by him, if less overtly.
What was that about?
January 16, 2017 a.t.b.
“It’s really nothing important, Uncle Gene,” Leila added. “It’s just more of the same except I’m useful now as more than a prop. How are the peace talks going?”
“About as well as you might expect between a hegemon and a state lacking a fully legitimate government. The most contentious issue is over the integrity of the empire. Britannia is insisting Russia divide itself into its component nation-states. After the loss of so much territory already, that’s not going over well.”
Leila sipped her tea as she considered the point. It was a brilliant ploy if one wanted an armistice to delay action until after winter had passed while looking like the reasonable party. The peace talks could go on for months internally without ever reaching a resolution. At the same time, it was hard for any foreign state to really argue against the idea considering how deeply rooted national sovereignty was laid out in the EU’s constitution.
Worst of all, however, Leila had a suspicion that she needed confirmed. “Whose idea was that?”
A shrug met the question. “Prince Schneizel is leading the negotiations. My first guess would be him.”
A reasonable guess. Even so, Leila had always wondered how the prince managed to move about Russia so easily. If he’d acquired the silent assistance of these nation-states Britannia was trying to fragment the Russian Empire into, it would go a long way to explaining the mystery. She shared her thoughts with Gene.
The man immediately muttered a curse upon the prince under his breath. “That boy is dangerous.”
“I’d prefer you not say anything,” Leila remarked. She disagreed with the choice, but she did have some sympathy for the probable desire for self-determination behind it. “I have no proof, and I’d rather not ruin the reputations of these fledgling states and thus shackle them to Britannia by leaking their possible complicity.”
Gene looked on with approval, if with a touch of melancholy.
“I wish your parents could be here to see the wonderful young woman you’re growing into. They would be so proud.”
“I certainly hope you’re right.”
Marianne vi Britannia International Airport
Tokyo Settlement, Area 11
May 24, 2017 a.t.b.
Seven years. Seven long years. That was how long it’d been since Marrybell had last seen her beloved Oldrin in person. She paced nervously as she watched Oldrin’s flight land and make its way toward the concourse. How was she supposed to react? Would hugging her give away her interest prematurely? Should she be casual? What if she couldn’t hold back?
Not far away, Suzaku stood watch, clearly amused with his liege. Marrybell glared at him when she noticed, but the boy proved incorrigible, so she pointedly ignored him.
At last, she appeared. The white sundress showed off every inch of her curves and skin as well as not a little cleavage. Her caramel hair flowed down her back despite being pulled up into a thick ponytail. How she managed to have all that hair and still maintain a full fringe, Marrybell would never know. She followed the pair of locks that had escaped the binding down the beauty’s face until she arrived at the lips.
Those soft, pink lips just begging to be kissed as they stretched into a smile and moved closer faster and faster and – I’m not ready! I’m not ready! Marrybell averted her eyes, flushed and embarrassed for losing herself in admiring her oldest friend’s appearance. She fidgeted with her own dress and composed herself. When she looked back up, it was just in time for Oldrin to crash into her for a needy embrace.
Marrybell really should have responded as enthusiastically and immediately, but every part of her lingering attachment to reality screamed at her that she should not make this sexual if she didn’t want to frighten Oldrin back to the homeland. But then the rest of her reminded her that Oldrin had pressed her supple, nubile self fully into her, and she should just enjoy it while she could, because something would inevitably ruin this for her just like everything else.
Oldrin released Marrybell, although her hands trailed down the princess’s arms to find and capture their opposite. They held each other’s gaze for a moment.
“Marrybell? Are you okay?”
The woman in question shook herself and broke her stare at those bewitching green eyes. “Yes. I just – I – um… Nevermind.”
Oldrin giggled even as Marrybell blushed.
“I’m very happy to be together again,” Marrybell tried, fumbling over her words. Internally, she cursed herself. She was more eloquent than this. How was she supposed to seduce Oldrin if she couldn’t even string words together properly?
“I am too. And this must be the innocent fool.”
With a sharp glare at his princess, Suzaku said, “What exactly have you been telling her about me?”
“Only the stuff that makes you look like a sweet, kind boy.”
Suzaku very much looked like he didn’t believe a word of that.
“It’s true! I swear,” Marrybell added. “Would I lie to you?”
Rather flatly, Suzaku replied, “Yes.”
“I’m hurt. Do you really trust me so little?”
Out of the corner of her eye, Marrybell noticed Oldrin briefly frown at the display before pushing a smile back onto her face. What was that about?
Nonetheless, Oldrin dipped into a shallow curtsy. “It’s nice to finally meet you in person, Suzaku.”
“Likewise,” he said. He returned the gesture with a bow.
“Well then. Shall we collect your luggage and return home?”
It was agreed. As they moved about the airport and chatted, the years melted away. Oldrin, it seemed, was the one aspect of Marrybell’s life that had remained completely untainted. No tragedy, no betrayal, no heartbreak, just long years of physical separation enforced by a father and an uncle.
After the long ride home, Marrybell offered to show Oldrin up to the room prepared for her. The pair detoured along the way with Marrybell giving a partial tour of her home and introducing any of the staff they bumped into. At last, though, they arrived at their destination.
“Here we are. If it’s not to your liking, we can find another bedroom for you.”
Oldrin shook her head. “This is perfect. Thank you.”
Marrybell smiled warmly at the general good cheer the girl emitted like the sun. And speaking of, she said, “I recall your disgusting energy upon rising. The sun is brightest in this part of the house in the morning, so I figured you’d enjoy it if that hasn’t changed.”
“Hey! It’s not my fault you’re a lazy princess.”
“Morning people,” Marrybell said with a shake of her head. Suzaku had the very same affliction. What tragic lives those two led. “If you need to sleep off your jet lag, feel free. If not, Akane will have supper ready soon. I’ll leave you to get settled in.”
Oldrin grasped Marrybell by the arm as she was halfway out the door. “Wait. A word, first?”
“I ran into Lelouch a few days ago at the start of the Season. He gave me some…absurd advice.”
Uh-huh… Marrybell wasn’t sure she wanted to know what it consisted of.
“But it got me thinking, and I think there’s a few things we should…clarify. Get out into the open.”
Somewhat worried now, Marrybell said, “I’m listening.”
The first question came out easily. “Do you still want me to be your knight?”
Oh. Marrybell could understand where that question had come from. “Of course I do. I’ve never forgotten the vow you made to me. Suzaku is another matter entirely.”
Oldrin nodded. Her next question she visibly had to first work up a little nerve for. “Are we still best friends?”
“I like to think so.” She knew the answer, she was sure, but Marrybell still warily asked, “Are we?”
“Yes!” The response came easily and eagerly. The third question, however, came both slowly and without warning. “Would you mind if I did this?”
Before Marrybell could even ask what ‘this’ was, Oldrin stepped forward and brought their lips together.
An insistent tongue pushed forward until Marrybell parted her lips more out of an attempt to voice her confusion than in invitation.
A moment later, Marrybell found herself with her back up against the wall. Oldrin stood on her toes to attain the necessary height to continue her good work, and her arms came up to wrap around her princess’s neck.
This never happened. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Marrybell had never not had to scrape and fight for her happiness. It had to be a trick of the light, a dream, something. It certainly felt like a dream come true. This sort of thing simply didn’t happen to her. She didn’t get happy endings.
Oldrin finally stopped and leant back. Blinking her eyes open, she snapped back to full awareness as regret washed over her. Sure enough, this would not end well. Of course it wouldn’t.
“Oh, Marrybell, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to… I – I understand. I won’t ever do that again.”
Again, the only coherent thought Marrybell could make at first was a simple, What? She then managed to ask, “Why wouldn’t you?”
Marrybell brought a hand up to her cheek. So she was. “Oh.” Dazed, she’d utterly failed to respond appropriately to the occasion. “I have a lot to tell you. Most of it bad.” She pushed forward and kissed Oldrin with all of the passion she should have put into the first one. “But later.”
Suzaku let out a long, resigned sigh as the last shreds of hope he’d unknowingly clung to dispersed. Marrybell could read people so well but was equally blind to the affections others had for her. This turn of events hadn’t surprised him, though it probably had her, but it would take some getting used to. But whether he did or not, this would be the first, last, and only time he shut the door for them.
May 28, 2017 a.t.b.
The sun hung overhead without a cloud in sight, bright and warm. The grass had regrown rich and lush through spring. The people gathered here kept their voices quiet out of respect but summed together produced a dull roar. It was so much like that day. Unlike then, though, it wasn’t an organised gathering, this crowd, just the result of the obvious date happening to fall on an otherwise pleasant weekend.
Many had been and gone already. A few had stumbled upon her silently overlooking the whole affair atop higher ground nearby and offered their condolences. Most didn’t. She wasn’t trying to be found today, this one day of the year she allowed herself to indulge and immerse herself in her grief.
Time crawled by until everyone but her had finally left. In the light of the setting sun, Leila descended down to her parents’ tomb. It stood tall and strong, hewn from solid stone and designed mostly after Britannian tradition with only a few minor concessions to better blend into the surrounding cemetery. Gene had organised its construction so many years ago.
“Hello, Mother. Father.” Leila sat down and made herself comfortable at the sealed entrance to the tomb. “I still haven’t gone native and found God, but…well, this has become something of a ritual for me. Helps me put my life in order, I suppose.”
Leila spent the next few hours retelling the year gone by since her last visit. Far too much of it featured the prince, but she tried to minimise how much both he and his war had consumed her attention to little success. There simply wasn’t much else to speak of between when she’d left for Russia and when she’d finally returned half a year later.
“I hope you’re not mad at me for dragging Ayano and Anna out of school for an entire trimester. We’ll make it up, I promise. I know school is important even if it’s a little slow for me. I just – I had to go. And I needed those two with me. I came so close to turning everything around.”
That might be less true than Leila wanted it to be. She’d certainly changed the way the prince had conducted his war, but that meant little on its own. In the end, she’d been forced to leave Russia in revolt before the brilliant idea to scapegoat her crystallised in some fool’s head. Even after her loss, the public still adored her. If someone tried to accuse her of intentionally leading the army into defeat, the whole mess would have spiralled even more out of control.
Leila leaned back onto her arms. “I think I bring this up every year, but it must have been so difficult to cast everything aside and leave Britannia. I think I understand a little now. It was hard to leave Russia at the end, but I could only make the situation worse if I stayed. It was the right thing to do even if I didn’t want to do it.
“I hope – I hope you’re proud of me. I miss you so much. There’s so much we missed out on. So much I’ll never…” A small sob escaped Leila. “Why? What did you ever do to deserve assassination? Was it because you were Britannian? Because you were important and spoke out against the emperor? Just because you were popular or had new ideas? I don’t understand.”
It was an old, dull ache, but so close to the heart, it still tore at Leila’s chest and left her in quiet tears. Her thoughts wandered back to her time with her parents, more echoes of recollections than memories themselves. She’d been too young when they’d passed. She could remember everything they’d had time to teach her, but she could barely remember them as people. The mind was so cruel in its function.
That was how the boy found her, mourning for her parents and lost opportunities. He had long blonde hair that fell all the way down to his feet and dressed in robes of white and the imperial purple with golden trim. If that alone weren’t enough to put Leila on her guard, his eyes were of a piercing violet. When she looked into them, it felt as though he’d stared back into the heart of her very being and taken her full measure.
Leila wiped the tears from her face. “Go away. I’m not interested in whatever the prince sent you here for.”
“I am not here on an errand for that whelp.”
Leila narrowed her eyes. The boy was way too young to have ever known her parents. What else could he be here for? “Go away. I’m also not interested in you taking advantage of my vulnerability today.”
“My, how blunt. It’s a shame your family left us; Charles would love you.”
“Go away,” Leila repeated for the third and final time. She rose to her feet.
The boy merely looked up to meet Leila’s eyes. “I have a gift for you, freely given with no expectation of reciprocation. Regrettably, it is one best given in moments of emotional stress.”
“‘Gift’,” Leila scoffed. Did the boy take her for a fool? “Who are you?”
“Someone who despises the vi Britannias but is…constrained in how he might act against them. That’s all you need to know. We will never meet again after tonight.”
Leila descended from the tomb step by step. “I’m not interested,” she said flatly as she moved to leave. She had no trust for this boy, and his insistence was only making her angry. Today was not a good day to test her patience. “I will not involve myself in imperial grudge matches. I may not like the prince. I may stand against him. But I have no interest in revenge.”
As Leila walked past the boy, he grasped her arm. The world fell away, and her body with it. A whirl of pulsing colours swept past her, not seen so much as experienced. Images of times long past from all around the world filled her mind interspersed with visions of her own life.
The boy’s voice spoke directly to Leila without so tiresome a medium as air or ears.
“I propose a deal.”
Pendragon Countryside, Britannia
June 16, 2017 a.t.b.
“And now we come to the most important question.”
“Milly,” Kallen sighed. She’d long since lain down on the settee, idly answering questions and trying not to think of all the actual work she still needed to get done today. At some point, Arthur had wandered into the room and curled up on top of her for a nap. “You’re killing me here. Lelouch and I have you so we don’t have to decide what colour the curtains should be to best compliment my dress.”
“A bride should take more interest in her wedding.” The rebuke went ignored, but Milly paid the nonreaction no mind. “Now as I was saying, the most important question. Do you love him?”
“What?” Arthur mewled in protest as Kallen sat upright but happily curled up again on her lap once she’d settled into place. “What kind of question is that?”
“Are you saying you wouldn’t marry him if it were ‘all part of the plan’?”
“Well…” She had resigned herself to a marriage of convenience before Lelouch’s proposal. Defeated, Kallen admitted, “Okay, I see your point.”
“Exactly. I have to look out for him. He only has tw – er, one older sibling who actually cares for him, and it was rather obvious she was pushing you two together.”
Yes, that had been quite the surprise. “So I recently heard. Apparently, Marianne shipped us practically since we met. Cornelia took it as her duty to continue the mission.”
Despite the surprise on her face, Milly still chuckled. “All the more reason to make sure you two aren’t making a mistake. You have a good thing going as friends. I’d hate to see you ruin that.”
“I would too.” A blissful grin slowly grew on Kallen’s face as she contemplated how to answer. “But you don’t need to worry. Things are going well, and I certainly won’t be a blushing bride.”
“Oh, now that is juicy gossip I can take back to Ashford.”
Kallen clicked her tongue. She shouldn’t have given Milly ammunition.
“I can’t wait to tell everyone. Shirley won’t be happy, I suppose, but she’ll get over it. She really only entertained her infatuation with Lelouch because they knew each other personally. I assume there’s not room for more?”
“Very unlikely. Lelouch doesn’t really…notice women.”
A predatory grin grew on Milly’s face.
“That’s not what I meant, and you know it!” Kallen immediately protested before Milly could pounce. There was a word for Lelouch these days, though she had a hard time pinning it down. Demisexual? Asexual but demiromantic? She shrugged. “If we brought anyone else into the relationship, it’d have to be someone we get along with and have spent years together. I’m not opposed to women, exactly, but Shirley isn’t that person.”
“‘We’?” Milly asked knowingly.
There was no need to give Milly anything else with which to tease them. Kallen simply replied, “Lelouch and I agreed to take lovers together or not at all. That’s all.”
Kallen rolled her eyes.
“Now let’s get back to work.”
“None of that now. At the reception, what kinds of pastries do you want? And where from?”
The minutes crawled by until they slowly turned into one hour, then two. In all honesty, Kallen just wanted to show up at her wedding, enjoy all of Milly’s hard work, and then get on with her life. Was that so much to ask? And then Nunnally walked into the room.
“Hello, not-yet-sister,” Kallen returned. “Would you by chance want to plan my wedding for me?”
Before Nunnally could answer, Milly said, “You are not going anywhere until we’re done here.”
“Of course not,” Kallen muttered. “Did you need something, Nunnally?”
“I was just looking for a spot of help with my summer homework. I think I bit off more than I can chew.”
As Kallen mentally tallied up how much time she could spare and came up wanting, Milly suggested, “Why don’t you go find your brother and put that swot’s brain to good use.”
“He’s not here right now.” The emperor had summoned Lelouch away to the Imperial Palace for another private meeting. “He and Jeremiah should be back in…soon.” Now that Kallen thought about it, they’d been gone longer than expected. If they didn’t appear within the hour, she’d have to go storm the palace gates. “What about Lai–” No, Laila was off staying with her mother right now. “How about the Valkyries?”
Nunnally shook her head. “They’re two classes behind me in maths.”
Did that reflect well on Nunnally or poorly on the Valkyries? Kallen had a feeling it was a little of both. “I think Shinobu is around.”
Huh. As odd as it was, Kallen doubted Nunnally had ever met any of the Shinozaki besides Sayoko. “Nevermind. I’ll introduce you sometime. And you know what? I think I need to spend some quality time with my soon-to-be sister-in-law.”
Heedless to Milly’s protests, Kallen stood up and let Arthur climb onto her shoulder in the process. Once on her feet, she rushed toward the door, stopping only to grab Nunnally and carry her off like luggage. She shouted back, “I trust you to take care of the rest! Thanks!” as she sped off down the corridor to the sound of Nunnally’s giggling.
After a few corners, breathing heavily, Kallen set Nunnally back down onto her feet. “Whew. Hold on a sec.” Kallen took one last deep breath. “You’re still a bunch of twigs in the shape of a girl, but you’re a lot heavier than you used to be.”
“And a couple feet taller.”
“Yeah, that would do it. Now do you actually need help, or was that just a clever ploy to save me?”
“Mostly the former,” Nunnally said, and so away they went.
The pair found a cosy space in the library together. Kallen spent the next hour or so tutoring Nunnally in mathematics and getting distracted by the adorable adolescent cat in their midst. Somewhere in the middle of the study session, Lelouch let her know he was finally on his way home.
As they were reviewing some of the more obscure aspects of conics, Lelouch appeared in the library. He and Nunnally exchanged a welcome back hug, and Kallen pulled him down into her chair to extract an abbreviated snog from him.
“Urgh. That is so weird.”
Kallen grinned at Nunnally. “Oh, yes. Boys are icky.”
Lelouch snorted and shoved her over to make space for himself. With the property now vacated, Arthur hopped back into Kallen’s lap and reclaimed it as his own. He then butted his head against her until she started petting him. A steady purr filled the background as she did.
“It’s not that.” Nunnally looked between the two of them. “It’s like watching my brother and my sister kiss.”
“I see I’m welcome to the family,” Kallen dryly observed. “Although I don’t see the problem. I do recall you once–”
Flushed and embarrassed, Nunnally spoke over Kallen. “Please stop talking. I’ll get used to it eventually.”
“So what are we working on?” Lelouch paged through the textbook on the table. “From the look of things, I’d guess the second year of algebra. I wasn’t aware you were so far ahead.”
Indeed, that had tripped Kallen up at first as well. “Ashford teaches geometry after both algebras,” she offered by way of explanation.
“Ah. Well, do catch me up.”
The reviewing went well, but it wasn’t too long later when Nunnally excused herself to get something to eat. Now alone, Lelouch leaned into Kallen for a chaste kiss and displaced Arthur in the process. The latter meowed in protest and pawed at her, but she only paid him enough attention for a brief pet and then shooed him away by the rear.
“What?” Kallen said to the odd look on Lelouch’s face.
A more pronounced frown grew on him. “That cat really likes you.”
“I’m just wondering what you’ll do if you smother it to death with affection.”
“Oh.” There was that. Kallen released a small sigh and snuggled into her lover. “Probably cry for hours and never own a pet again.”
Lelouch gave Kallen a worried look.
“I’m procrastinating. It’s not hard to convince myself that I should love and dote on him more and more. It would be terrible to waste all this time and effort. Surely, I need to make sure it’s enough. Surely, a little more, a little longer, wouldn’t hurt.”
Taking the hint, Lelouch asked, “You don’t think your geass will work on Arthur?”
“Yeah. At first, it was how Anne described geass that made me suspect. ‘All humans are connected’. It finally percolated through my mind a few months after she said it. I asked her, and she apparently asked around the magical community, but she couldn’t give me a definitive answer. It might work. It might not. You can’t fool a tiger with an illusion, but you can tell if it’s about to maul you to death.” Rather hastily, Kallen added, “Not speaking from personal experience, of course.”
Lelouch hummed as he extrapolated the logic out to its conclusion. “So it would depend on if your geass pulls information from the subject or from some independent observer.”
“I suspect it’s the former. If I try, I imagine all I’ll have in the end is disappointment, regret, and a dead cat.”
“Well, I won’t blame you if you don’t want to make the attempt. I can’t fault the reasoning behind the decision.”
Kallen leaned over and gave Lelouch a kiss on the cheek in thanks for not pushing the matter.
“We’re both going to look like fools if we’re wrong, though.”
With a grin, Kallen rolled herself over Lelouch’s legs to straddle him. “I can handle that.” Her hands found his, and she entwined their fingers. “So what did dear old Dad want?”
June 16, 2017 a.t.b.
Lelouch arrived at the Imperial Palace less than an hour after word of the emperor’s summons had reached him. Questioning a few attendants scurrying through the corridors gave him a destination. As court was currently in session, he headed there to make his arrival known. Once the emperor spotted him in the crowd, he received a small nod of acknowledgement and resigned himself to waiting with Jeremiah at the edge of the proceedings.
Nearly another hour passed before the emperor finally dissolved court. As he left, his path took him past Lelouch. He delivered a short, “Come,” and paused not even a moment in his stride. Whispers immediately surged through the crowd as Lelouch fell into step beside the emperor.
For a man who Lelouch knew did everything with a purpose and chose his words very carefully, that had been a very public prelude to a private meeting. He had to wonder exactly what message the emperor was trying to send with it.
The pair retreated to the council chambers as they had upon their last meeting. The emperor instructed Lelouch to be seated while he retrieved what Lelouch suspected to be a folded map or, failing that, a blueprint.
“What do you know about Schneizel’s latest scheme?”
Lelouch arched an eyebrow. “There are so many, but I imagine I would understand exactly what you meant if I were aware of it. So nothing.”
“Hmph. So your spies have yet to penetrate my government too deeply. Good. I won’t have to investigate and oust incompetents.”
As it was no longer any secret that the Shinozaki worked for him, if it ever had been for the emperor, Lelouch took the comment at face value. Everyone knew he had spies.
“Tell me what your opinion of the Chinese Federation is.”
So whatever Schneizel is up to involves the Federation? Given what he knew of his brother, Lelouch doubted Schneizel had a war in the works. He suspected some upcoming diplomatic coup. Regardless, he answered the question posed to him. “Nothing favourable. It has the surface appearance of a welfare state, but when the veneer of equality is peeled away, one discovers a government pulled right out of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. If it’s current empress doesn’t step up upon her majority or they don’t make some major changes, China is liable to break. Again.” That was a bit of a recurring theme throughout history.
“Sooner than you think,” the emperor said, bringing Lelouch up short. He explained, “Schneizel has discovered the corruptibility of the eunuchs. He’s in the process of buying the Federation from them.”
Lelouch sat stunned for a good quarter of a minute as he tried to process the claim. A betrayal of that sheer magnitude was unprecedented in history. Once he had, furious, he said, “They would outright sell their sovereignty! What could we possibly offer them that they couldn’t procure themselves?” The Chinese Federation was one of the three major powers in the world. It defied all logic.
A grunt of agreement came from the emperor. “Nonetheless, Schneizel is making steady progress.”
“Geass?” It was the only explanation Lelouch could wrap his head around.
The emperor, however, merely replied, “A silver tongue.”
“Quite. I want you to ruin the negotiations.”
Flabbergasted for the second time already, Lelouch’s lips parted as he tried and failed to find words.
“Use whatever means you desire, but be subtle about it if you don’t want to force me to disown you.”
Lelouch pulled himself together. “As you wish, Your Majesty. But might I ask why? It’s not to prevent Schneizel from becoming too powerful, I imagine.” It was the only somewhat legitimate reason which had so far come to mind and happened to coincide nicely with his own plans.
“You and I both know there are ways to control Schneizel which he cannot resist, unaware of the dangers as he is.”
Ah. Yes. Magic.
“In short,” the emperor continued, “absorbing the Chinese Federation would be too large of a distraction over the next several years for my plans.”
The emperor unfolded the paper he’d retrieved earlier to reveal a map of the world. Eight locations were marked upon it. Britannia controlled five of them, including the pair in the Homeland and the Caribbean, but the two in Siberia and Japan were more recent additions. And, as Lelouch recalled, the one in Antarctica was in territory annexed near the beginning of the emperor’s reign. Cornelia had shifted from her campaign in Africa to the Middle East, both of which contained another marked location. The last, ironically and worryingly, was in the Britannian Isles right atop King Alwin’s long abandoned capital city under the firm control of the EU.
This shed an entirely new light on the emperor’s extraordinarily aggressive expansionism.
Taking the emperor’s remark about directness upon their last meeting to heart, Lelouch asked, “What’s special about these places that you’re waging war over them?”
“There are geass ruins at each site.” That explained so much and yet so little. “Which, incidentally, is why I am loath to command Schneizel to abandon his plans. I do not need my entire government wondering why I’m uninterested in such a coup nor that curiosity spilling out into the public.”
“Understood.” Lelouch didn’t want that either. The last thing he needed was Schneizel stumbling upon magic. “I doubt I need to ask, but they’re not just crumbling piles of stone, correct?”
“Indeed not. For those who can read the language therein, they contain enough information to make Clovis and his experiments look like a child dabbling in potato batteries.”
As he stared at the map, Lelouch arched an eyebrow. A little hypocritical, all things considered, but interesting nonetheless. For now, he set aside the business of magic and ethics for politics lest he push too far too soon. He’d have to spare some time to think about what this meant for foreign policy in the coming years, but for now, he asked, “What can you tell me about the negotiations so far?”
Pendragon Countryside, Britannia
June 16, 2017 a.t.b.
“So what did dear old Dad want?” Kallen asked as she played with Lelouch’s fingers. It seemed rather distracting for him, although as amusing as that was, she doubted its necessity. Even considering Nunnally’s presence at the time, he’d returned home without any particular signs of displeasure.
“He wants me to put Schneizel in his place.”
Kallen leaned back in surprise. “Really?”
“Not in so many words, but that’s what it comes down to.” Lelouch quickly summarised his meeting with the emperor.
“I don’t suppose he mentioned exactly what information these geass ruins hold, did he?”
Lelouch shook his head. “No, but I did memorise the map. I wrote down the locations afterwards.”
“They’re probably not safe for tourists to visit.”
“Neither was Russia.”
Kallen grinned. She’d always wanted to try her hand at raiding an archaeological site. How adventurous. They’d have to befriend a linguist and a cryptanalyst to decipher whatever they found. “Do you get the sense that the emperor is using your curiosity against you?”
“Oh, definitely,” Lelouch replied. “Man’s most predictable nature.”
Now that was simply not true. “Second most, perhaps.” Kallen pushed Lelouch down onto his back and enjoyed a proper snog. Once she’d proven her point, she shifted atop her lover to settle into a slightly more comfortable position. “So,” she began, “we’re to be married. Immediately after that, we’re to go ruin someone else’s marriage?”
A chuckle escaped Lelouch, one Kallen felt by the rise and fall of his chest more than heard. “I highly doubt either Empress Tianzi or Odysseus is as enthused about their hypothetical nuptials as we are. If they’re even yet aware of them.”
“You sure? Odysseus has had a long time to marry. Maybe he’s been waiting for this.”
Lelouch rolled his eyes at the joke and didn’t deign to otherwise address the idea. Instead, he said, “It looks like we’re going to have a working honeymoon. But a long one, if that’s of any consolation.”
“I can live with that. And I think we both know who we can reach out to first for help.”
June 17, 2017 a.t.b.
Leila’s phone vibrated with an incoming email. She ignored it until the end of class, but when she eventually checked it, she scowled. It was from the prince. The subject read simply as ‘Invitation’. Anna looked on in interest from the seat next to her. Perhaps against good sense, she opened it to reply directly.
‘Dear Huntress, you are cordially invited to the marriage of His Imperial Highness Prince Odysseus, First Prince of the Realm, and Her Imperial Majesty, Empress Tianzi.’
What! No! Leila hurriedly reread the names with a growing dread. How is this the first I’ve heard of this disaster? She quickly scanned the rest of the message hoping to discover this was a prank.
Alas, Leila read, ‘The date has yet to be set as the negotiations are still ongoing, but I’m of the opinion that the more advance the notice the better in case anyone else would like to lay claim to one of the couple’s hearts. What’s the phrase you use during marriages in the EU? Should anyone know of any reason this couple should not be joined in matrimony, she should really speak now or forever hold her peace?’
Leila set down her phone and placed her head between her hands. Prince Odysseus was over thirty while the Tianzi had yet to enter her teens. Nevermind the disgusting implications, the age difference clearly made this a political marriage. The two had probably never even met! I have to do something before it’s too late. This would change everything. Britannia absorbing the Chinese Federation without a fight would make it unstoppable.
It hit Leila the very next moment. She reread the email and paid attention to its exact wording. The prince is asking me to interfere. Why? That doesn’t make any sense. Unless… One of his major rivals for the throne must be behind this scheme. She doubted he’d much care otherwise. He’d had no problem conquering all of Siberia, after all.
“Damn you,” Leila swore under her breath. Of course the prince had pushed her into a position where she had to act in his interests even as she worked against Britannia as a whole. That was so bloody typical.
“Oh dear. We don’t get out of school until the seventh.”
“What?” Leila looked to Anna, but her friend just pointed back to her phone. Looking back at it, she noticed a postscript.
‘P.S. If you haven’t heard yet, Kallen and I are set to be married on July 7th. We apologise if you normally celebrate Tanabata with Ayano and for the late notice, but please RSVP if you wish to attend.’
Leila let out an exasperated sigh. “That’s your reaction to this?”
“Yes?” Anna replied innocently. “Should I not assume you’ll take care of the rest?”
“Well…no.” Leila turned her attention back to the email. I probably shouldn’t forward this to Gene directly and risk it getting out into the public. The last thing I need is the prince throwing his own weight behind the marriage to preserve his reputation or just out of spite.
Leila created a new message and set to work.