Stage 04 - Without Marianne's Aegis
Pendragon County Court
November 13, 2009 a.t.b.
“Having heard all of the arguments for and against the Ashford Research Foundation’s claim, it is the decision of this court that it cannot hold the exclusive rights to research, develop, and produce ‘knightmares’.”
One simple sentence, that was all it took to destroy everything.
“While the Ashford Research Foundation retains the rights to the ‘Ganymede’ and all derivative products, for the glory and wellbeing of the empire, the court upholds Pacific Robotics’s patents on its ‘Glasgow’ and ‘slash harkens’ and all the rights therein.”
A bang of a gavel.
Quietly, Ruben Ashford slipped out of the courtroom and into the lobby. He moved with as much grace as he could muster and disappeared into the hallways. There he found the office given to him for his legal team’s use today. He entered the meeting room within, and only there did he allow his mask to crack.
Seated not far away was Ruben’s eldest son, Grey Ashford, and his wife, Atia Ashford née Eliot, and thankfully only them. Grey looked every inch his father’s son from the wavy blonde locks to the broad shoulders and hairy arms. Atia, of course, was where Milly got her slender frame and, in all likelihood, bewitching good looks. Her own blonde hair had prevailed against Atia’s brown, an Ashford through and through.
Ruben buried a hand into his grey hair and trudged his way to his seat at the head of the table. He collapsed there, staring forward, not yet ready to meet his son’s eyes.
How could things go so wrong so quickly…
“Father,” Grey said with a voice that held far too much confidence. “We can take this higher.”
Higher? Despite everything, a snort of amusement escaped Ruben. “The only place we can take this is six feet under to Her Majesty.” Strange how it’s me who lost his patron in the end, isn’t it, Marianne?
“Ruben, it’s not over ye–”
“Atia.” That one word from Ruben was enough to silence her. “It’s over. Any further appeal would be a waste of our remaining funds. The success of our project is our own undoing. Such irony.”
Indeed, Ruben had seen this coming from the very moment he’d heard of Marianne’s passing. Knightmare technology would have far too big of an impact for the army not to pursue it in every available avenue. Without Marianne and the leverage she provided, what was there to be done?
“Our sources say that Pacific Robotics will have their Glasgow completed within six to eight months. Without control of the knightmare market for a few years, we won’t be able to recoup our losses in development,” Grey stated.
“Yes, we will not. The Ashfords will forever be remembered as the ones who made it possible, not the ones who profited from it.”
“We still have some time,” Atia said. “We can reclaim some of our investment.”
Ruben shook his head. “The Ganymede isn’t combat ready. Only monsters like Marianne or Lord Waldstein can use it effectively.”
“The Stadtfeld girl–”
“Is also a prodigy,” Ruben finished. “The scientists at the lab started calling them Aces. Describing them as rare doesn’t do the truth justice if the statistics Pacific Robotics has provided are anywhere close to accurate. While the Ganymede outperforms the Glasgow, it’s also exponentially more difficult to not die in.”
Ah, I’m growing cynical. Ruben sighed to himself.
“That’s it!” Grey pounded a fist against his opposing palm. “We market it as a more expensive high-end device for Aces.”
For a brief moment, Ruben smiled, proud. Still, he said, “It won’t be enough, but it could help. But in proposing solutions, you’ve failed to identify the fundamental problem.”
Ruben drew only blank stares from that.
“We are beset by enemies. We made no friends bringing Marianne and the emperor into each other’s orbit. There are plenty of people who want to see every last trace of her influence removed from court, too, meaning us, her children, her men in the army, possibly even the Stadtfelds. A few will be willing to throw money and lives away just to ruin us.”
The silence that followed felt as heavy as the grief Ruben did his best to bury just to function. Some part of him was glad he’d never gotten around to formally adopting Marianne.
“What are we going to do?”
Ruben turned to glance at his son, who’d broken the silence. “We need to not have enemies. We can turn them, we can destroy them, we can run from them, or we can be beneath their notice. We have nothing to turn them with, we don’t have enough resources to destroy them, and we have nowhere to run that they can’t follow.”
One second passed, then two.
“Ruben!” Atia said, jumping to her feet. She slammed her palms on the table for emphasis. “You cannot be serious!”
“Our guards have been working overtime, Atia. Sayoko hasn’t returned from whatever mission Marianne sent her on as well. I would gladly relinquish my title and bow out of all this” – Ruben gestured out the window to Pendragon – “to ensure we live, thrive, and survive.”
“No! That can’t – where would we go?” Atia said. “What would we do?”
It was a callous gamble and a heartless conjecture, but it was the only good option Ruben saw before him for the Ashford family. “I’m open to suggestions, but I believe we could build a cosy niche for ourselves in Area Eleven if we get involved in the rebuilding efforts.”
“Father,” Grey said, hesitantly, “there is no Area Eleven. There’s not even an Area Ten yet, officially.”
“Just give it six to eight months.”
Alec la Britannia International Airport
December 6, 2009 a.t.b.
Euphemia wished the capital were on the west coast, or the desert, or really just further south would be fine. True, there was tradition and history in the Imperial Palace, a building slowly grown from nothing into a grand structure half the size of Pendragon itself. Discarding that would feel wrong, to say the least, nevermind that uprooting the imperial family would invoke not too distant memories of the Humiliation.
But it was cold, and winter hadn’t even set in yet. It was so cold. Euphemia already felt cold inside. She had no need of cold weather to freeze her within and without. Even her tears threatened to turn to ice.
“I hope you’re happy, Lelouch. This is the best birthday present I could get you.”
“Dammit, Milly. Just because I constantly wish you’d go away doesn’t mean I want you to leave.”
“Do you even listen to yourself?” With a weak smile, Milly leaned forward to pull Lelouch into a hug. When they broke apart, she said, “Then consider your present me staying until your party yesterday.”
Lelouch nodded and exchanged places with Kallen.
“I’m going to miss you, Milly. You kept me on my toes.”
Milly gave a weak laugh, clearly putting as much heart into it as she could. “I’ll miss causing you and Lelouch trouble. I’d have liked more time to get to know you.”
“Japan is…was…my home. I’ll be back someday.”
“How ironic,” Milly said. “Here I am escaping to Japan when you escaped from it.”
“Just keep off the mainland and stay hidden.”
After another hug, Milly traded Kallen for Nunnally.
“Ah, my partner in crime.”
“Do you have to go?” Nunnally asked. “Lelouch and I are staying with Kallen.”
Milly shook her head. “I’m sorry, Nunnally. I wish I could stay with our little patchwork family, but I have to go. We can still share ideas, but I entrust Lelouch’s torment to you.”
Beside her, Euphemia noticed Lelouch’s eye twitch. Then after an especially clingy hug, it was finally her turn to say goodbye.
“This isn’t how it was supposed to be,” Euphemia said. She hated that she was already crying.
“No, Dear, it wasn’t.” Milly swooped in for an early hug and pulled Euphemia tight.
“First Marianne, then Cornelia was transferred overseas two weeks later. I was just beginning to break through Anya’s shell, but she left, too. Now you’re leaving. I can’t even stay with Lelouch, Nunnally, and Kallen anymore often than usual. Why is this happening to us?”
“Wanna run away to Japan with me?”
Euphemia chuckled, albeit weakly. “I can’t do that. Maybe when things settle down, Nunnally and I can come join you for school.”
“That’d be wonderful. No Kallen and Lelouch, though? Are you protecting them now, too?”
“Heh. No, no. Lelouch is sprinting through material faster than ever, and you know Kallen. She refuses to lose. They’ll be done with comprehensive school before they turn sixteen, I’m sure.”
“What swots,” Milly said, a smile on her face. She lowered her voice and asked, “They’re up to something, then?”
Euphemia shrugged. “Promise to call?”
“Of course! I wouldn’t want anyone to go into withdrawal from lack of me.”
Naturally, Lelouch heard that and scoffed. Euphemia could almost feel Kallen rolling her eyes, too.
“Alright!” Milly spun in place and took the first few steps up the stairs to her family’s private jet. Fallen from grace or not, the Ashfords were still wealthy. “Goodbye, everyone! Hopefully, I’ll be seeing you all again soon. Lelouch, don’t you dare block my calls!”
“Begone, you demon,” Lelouch returned.
“Love you, too!”
With that, Milly returned to her climb to the sound of final goodbyes from the rest of the group. The door to the aeroplane slammed shut, and they took that as their cue to depart. Sadly, it was too cold to watch her take off.
Euphemia’s ears perked up at the barely audible sound of Lelouch over the roar of jet engines as they walked.
“Hmm?” While Kallen might have said something more, Euphemia didn’t catch it.
“I’ve been thinking about going home.”
A second passed before Kallen asked, “Are you sure that’s wise?”
“No, but I’ve intruded upon your and your Dad’s safety long enough.”
Another second passed in relative silence, and then Lelouch finally said, “I don’t know.”
Kallen sighed. “We’ll discuss this later.”
Having overheard enough, Euphemia sighed herself. All she wanted was for the people she cared about to be together and happy. Or if not happy, then together would do, and then maybe they, together, could work out how to be happy. Was that really so much to ask?
Pendragon Countryside, Britannia
January 3, 2010 a.t.b.
Everything was ready for the next interview. Lelouch’s desk was tidied without seeming empty. The hidden camera was once more recording. A picture of his once happy and complete family rested in easy sight on the off chance it tripped up anyone with a guilty conscience. And, of course, the one person he trusted implicitly to watch his back and to support his choices was once again out of sight.
As he waited, Lelouch read through the dossier on his next appointment with only half his attention. The other half continued to dwell on uncouth memories.
“Naoto, it’s Lelouch.”
“Well, this is unusual. What’s up? My sister’s birthday isn’t until the end of March, if you’re calling for present ideas.”
“No. I…need to ask something of Kallen. I have no right to, she won’t like doing it, and it’s beneath her. What would be the best way for me to go about doing that?”
After a few seconds, Naoto asked, “Is it important?”
“Will she be hurt?”
A moment of hesitation, and then Lelouch said, “Unlikely.”
For a few agonising seconds, Lelouch waited for Naoto’s response in perfect silence.
“Alright. Let me explain the cultural significance of a dogeza.”
A knock came at the door, breaking Lelouch out of his thoughts. He closed the dossier on one Erick Petersen and tucked it away into a drawer.
And so Lelouch found himself face to face with yet another in a long line of guards. The regular staff members would come later after he dealt with the ones who carried guns.
“Good afternoon, Mr Petersen,” Lelouch began. “I’ve asked you here to help me obtain a clearer picture of what happened the night of September twenty-seventh. While the previous investigation concluded that my mother’s assassination was the work of foreign terrorists” – and boy, was that hard to say without growling – “the actual how was never established before the investigation was terminated and your previous captain was sent overseas.
“Obviously, given the state of the guard at the time, there’s very little information we have to work with. However she came to be here that night and for whatever reason, my mother only has herself to blame for that. That said, I will not accept a repeat incident. Tell me everything you remember in the days leading up to and just after the twenty-seventh.”
And the guard did. Mr Petersen told Lelouch of how then Captain Cornelia had scheduled him to stand watch up to the twenty-sixth before taking the next few days off. He told Lelouch of going home to visit his parents in California. He told Lelouch of being summoned back early with all due haste on the morning of the twenty-eighth.
Mr Petersen told Lelouch nothing he’d not heard before.
Lelouch pushed for more detail – anything odd, new faces seen in the general vicinity of Aries Villa, unexpected phone calls, wrong numbers.
“Thank you for your time,” Lelouch said, not getting anything useful. “Dismissed.”
Once the room was cleared, the door shut, and the hidden camera off, Lelouch let his scowl show.
Well, what did you expect? A small part of Lelouch asked himself. He hated that voice. It sounded like Kallen telling him off for being an idiot. Cornelia had some time to investigate, and she has far more experience than you do. She's not incompetent.
Of course, Lelouch knew finding his mother’s killer would be harder than asking a few questions and putting the pieces together. Still, if he found no clues, his only resort would be to hunt down her enemies one by one. Which, come to think of it, would probably be wise to do anyway. They were, after all, enemies. The problem there, though, was that half the imperial court hated her on principle alone.
Tucked away beside the door to the office was a tall but narrow cabinet. The door to it opened, and Kallen emerged. Inside, Lelouch saw the laptop she had operating the camera allowing her to observe the room and record the interviews. The silenced pistol he’d given her rested atop the keyboard.
“L-Lelouch? What are you doing?”
From the ground, Lelouch buried his pride and spoke. “Kallen, I must trespass upon our friendship and beg a favour of you. You…” He paused, fumbling for the words he’d thought so well practised ahead of time. “I – Kallen, you are the only piece I have on the board. You are a queen. But for just one day, I need a knight to protect me while I sort out my mother’s pawns.”
“Protect you?” Kallen echoed, and it took her no longer to understand Lelouch's meaning. Her voice quieted. “You mean like I did before?”
“Mother and Cornelia are – were expert judges of character. I don’t anticipate any problems. But if necessary, yes. If anyone wants to get me alone to kill me, they’ll have their opportunity.”
Kallen breathed slowly and deeply.
“Nothing new with that one,” Kallen said. “I can’t say I’m surprised, but he seems loyal enough.”
Lelouch snapped out of his memory. “Quite,” he said. “Were you watching his face?”
“No, mostly his hands and feet. It’s easier to tell if someone is going to fall into your trap that way,” Kallen said with a slight frown. She still disapproved of Lelouch using himself as bait, it seemed, but that was no surprise. “Why?”
“I think he was one of the guards who found my mother attractive.”
Kallen giggled. “Lelouch, nearly everyone found Marianne attractive. I think you mean Mr Petersen was infatuated with her.”
“Yes, well, he can stay.” When Nunnally grew up, though, Lelouch was going to have to rethink some the Aries Villa’s hiring practises.
“I take it you won’t be promoting this pawn to a knight, either, hmm?”
Lelouch felt his eye twitch. “Are you ever going to let that go?”
“Never, Chess Boy,” Kallen said in perfect seriousness. “Be glad I’m not going to tell Milly you referred to me as your queen.”
Lelouch shifted uneasily within his chair and decided to change the topic. “Anyway, no. You read his dossier?” After getting a nod, he continued, “He’s not what I’m looking for in a knight or a captain of the guard. Not much leadership experience on record nor any known grasp of strategy or tactics. I wish I had time to play everyone in chess, but c’est la vie. Regardless, he didn’t strike me as someone I’d especially enjoy having following me around protecting me. Unless you’ve noticed something I missed, I’ll pass.”
“Nope. Now who’s next?”
From a drawer, Lelouch withdrew his schedule for today. “Ah. Jeremiah Gottwald.”
“Oh, I remember him. He seemed nice. He was the one who found Marianne’s body, right?”
Lelouch nodded. “With any luck, he’ll have a more enlightening story than the others.”
Today was not a good day. The very heavens themselves raged and wept for the loss the world suffered. The unrelenting blizzard refused rest to all as its frozen fingers invaded Aries Villa through any imperfection it could find.
Jeremiah shivered as a sudden chill blew past him and vanished. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a curtain move. Investigating, he found the window closed, but the seal was in need of repair. He'd thought all the damage to the villa had been mended, but perhaps that had been wishful thinking. Like so many other things, he had to wonder if it even could be fixed.
After reporting the problem to maintenance, Jeremiah found himself once more with nothing but his own thoughts to occupy his time. He clutched the manila envelope in his hands all the tighter. Within was the only option he saw for preserving even the slightest scraps of his honour, disgraced and wanting as he was.
But perhaps resigning was an undeserved honour. The prince wanted to see him soon. Perhaps he would simply be unceremoniously dismissed for his failure. Jeremiah expected no less. He deserved no less than a dishonourable discharge.
Wandering the grand halls of Aries Villa, Jeremiah paused to look out each window. It seemed fitting that the weather denied him even the pleasure of one last view of the natural beauty of the villa’s grounds.
And then it was time to face the living symbol of his failure. Jeremiah knocked on the door to the office his prince had commandeered for the foreseeable future. From within came what sounded like a cabinet and a few drawers closing, and then at last came the command.
Breathing deeply, Jeremiah steeled his resolve and did as bidden. And there he was. Prince Lelouch looked so much older than the last time Jeremiah had seen him. A paltry couple of months should never have such an effect upon a child, yet they had.
“Close the door.”
Jeremiah did. He took a few steps forward and fell to one knee. The hand not holding his resignation came to a rest clenched atop his heart. “Your Highness, you summoned me?”
Nodding, Prince Lelouch gestured to the chair on the other side of his desk. “Take a seat.”
And Jeremiah did.
“According to the records your previous captain left behind, you were on duty the night of the twenty-seventh. While I’m aware that the previous investigation was formally concluded, it never determined how the actual attack was carried out. I do not like holes in my security.”
“Your Highness, I will tell you anything you wish to know.”
“Then you can start by explaining the events leading up to that night and the immediate aftermath, in particular how you came to discover my mother’s body.”
And so Jeremiah told his tale. Sadly, he knew he had little useful information to impart. He spoke of how he’d been tasked with the first shift of the day for the entire week the vi Britannias would be absent, being given the following week off after that. He told of how he’d been assigned to inspect the house as soon as he had daylight to work with. He explained how he’d found Her Majesty’s body on the grand staircase just inside the main entryway.
“I want to hear firsthand what you saw.”
Jeremiah hesitated. “Are you sure?”
Getting a nod, Jeremiah proceeded to describe the horrible image burnt into his mind.
“I’d just unlocked the doors and stepped inside. As soon as I saw Her Majesty lying on the stairs, I rushed over to help her. It was only when I drew near that I realised there was nothing to be done. I called Captain – that is General Cornelia immediately before calling in backup to secure the scene. When I proved unable to find any suspects nearby, I moved to inspect the body.
“There was…blood. Although a bullet was found in Empress Marianne’s brain, we believe she died of exsanguination. At the time, her blood could be found scattered through the villa. She left a trail from the parlour upstairs down to the main entrance, weaving between rooms and cover. From the bruising, she likely acquired the first shot to her leg there and fell partway down the staircase.
“Continue,” Prince Lelouch said after Jeremiah had lapsed for too long.
“From there, Her Majesty was shot several more times. Once in each knee directly on the patella, once in each shoulder, a few times in the arms, once in the stomach, and ultimately in the brain from the left side of the skull. Excepting the last, each shot appears to have been made to cripple while minimising blood loss. It’s very likely that Her Majesty…engaged in conversation with her killer before she finally died.”
Prince Lelouch blinked. His mouth opened, but no words came out at first. “That is…more…extreme than the report Cornelia gave me indicated.”
“I’m sure Her Highness was merely trying to spare you the details,” Jeremiah said.
“If Nunnally asks for details, you will tell her the bare essentials. Understood?”
Jeremiah’s eyes briefly twitched toward his resignation, but that could wait for the moment. “Yes, Your Highness. If it’s of any comfort, Her Majesty went down fighting. A number of used and discarded weapons were found with her fingerprints on them. We did also find blood belonging to the suspect as well as Her Majesty’s.”
“We were unable to identify any further sources but never ruled out the possibility of accomplices.”
“I see.” Prince Lelouch then asked, “Were there any matches to the blood you found?”
“None on record.”
“Unsurprising. Disappointing, but unsurprising. Did you notice anything unusual outside of your shift?”
“No, Aries Villa was very quiet leading up to the incident. No one has even yet puzzled out how Her Majesty managed to make it into the villa without notice.”
“It doesn’t have to be about the villa itself,” Prince Lelouch pressed. “Any wrong numbers? Post accidentally delivered to you? An unusual face fleetingly glimpsed? Anything?”
“N–” A thought occurred but was as quickly dismissed. “No.”
“You hesitated. Tell me.”
It really bore no relevance, but Jeremiah supposed he owed his prince at least enough to answer. “I received a call from a friend I’d made during my university days. We’d been trying to arrange a time for our circle of friends to get together for a reunion, and he told me the date had been set for the one I’d suggested the day before the incident. Only I’ve not been able to recall ever making such a suggestion.”
After a few seconds of thought, Prince Lelouch asked, “Have you suffered any head injuries in the past year?”
“When and where would the initial call supposedly have occurred?”
“I was off duty nearby in Pendragon on the twenty-sixth in the afternoon.”
“Certainly not, Your Highness!”
“I’d actually have preferred to write it off as such,” Prince Lelouch said, a wry expression on his face. “Were you in any position where being distracted could have possibly allowed someone to sneak past you?”
“Not that I can recall, Sir.”
The prince hummed. “Strange. Very well, then. Thank you for your time. You may return to your duties.”
Now was the time. “Your Highness, there was something I wished to speak of with you.” Jeremiah sat up the tiniest bit straighter and placed the envelope containing his resignation on the desk. He pushed it across, and the prince then opened it.
“With your permission, Your Highness. I was near Aries Villa every hour of every day. I was the one who inspected the villa. I was the one tasked with detecting intrusions. Yet I failed to keep Her Majesty safe. I cannot even tell you how or when either she herself or her assailant entered the premises or for how long they stayed. I’m not worthy of service.”
Prince Lelouch snorted. “This situation is as much my mother’s making as anyone else’s. Regardless, if that’s how you feel, then I accept your resignation. I will require you to stay until we can find a replacement, however.”
“Understood. Thank you, Your Highness. It’s been an honour serving the vi Britannias. I only wish I'd not been found so wanting.”
When Jeremiah left the prince’s office, he let out a long breath. He’d quit his job. He’d confessed his failure to his prince. In the end, he’d not been blamed, but he’d needed that off his chest.
No, today was not a good day, but it felt just a little bit better.
Kallen stepped out of her cabinet looking as uneasy with what she’d heard as Lelouch felt. She took the same seat Gottwald had been in earlier and flumped down onto it without a word. There, she curled her legs up and wrapped her arms around them, resting her head on her knees.
Meanwhile, Lelouch was trying to organise his own thoughts. Cornelia had been purposefully lax on providing him with details of his mother’s murder. Given that he’d just ordered Gottwald to do the same if Nunnally asked, he supposed it would only be fair not to be upset with her over that.
Glancing up, Lelouch took in the uncharacteristically vulnerable-looking Kallen before him.
“If you want to cry, cry,” Lelouch plainly said. “I’ve certainly dealt with enough of Nunnally’s tears not to get scared and run away.”
Kallen managed a breathy chuckle. “Boys,” she said. “I’m fine. I just need a moment.”
Nodding, Lelouch returned to sorting out his thoughts. Before he could get very far, though, Kallen spoke up again.
“It sounds likes whoever killed Marianne did so for reasons beyond her just being…her.”
“I agree,” Lelouch said. It was nothing they'd not suspected, but confirmation was good. “Whoever did it was either after information or held a grudge. Probably both. No assassin professional enough to get into Aries Villa, even with the guard lowered, would waste time being pointlessly sadistic.”
“I still don’t understand why Marianne was here, though.”
“Neither do I. I’d thought perhaps Mum had been left here after her death, but that doesn’t fit the evidence. And even if that was what happened, I’d not be able to tell you why someone would go to the effort. Nothing about this makes any sense.”
“So Gottwald,” Kallen said.
Lelouch hummed, pulling out all the background information he had on the man from his drawer. “Do you remember how long he’s been here?”
“Three years, I think. Long enough that I doubt he was a sleeper agent, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Lelouch nodded and set about browsing through Gottwald’s personal history for the second time today. “I doubt anyone who would want to strike at Mum would have an asset in place so long and not avail themselves of it sooner, but it was a thought.”
“He’s the first to actually try resigning,” Kallen observed. Lelouch noted that she used ‘try’ before replying.
“The man clearly has an overdeveloped sense of self-importance.”
“Or an overdeveloped sense of loyalty and responsibility.”
Lelouch’s eye twitched. “Am I really so easy for you to read?”
Finally smiling again, Kallen shrugged. “What can I say? It’s a gift.”
“I see. As expected of my queen.”
Kallen blushed, and Lelouch smirked. Two could play at her game; if she wasn’t going to let him forget that, he could use it, too.
“I wish I knew where Sayoko was,” Lelouch said. “She would be the person I’d ask to do a more extensive background check.” And to protect Nunnally, if he could pry her away from the Ashfords without feeling guilty.
“Cornelia hired him. Marianne approved him.”
“Yes, that will have to be enough for now. According to his records, Gottwald’s physical skills leave nothing to be desired, and he attended officer training.”
“My vote would be for knight over captain of the guard,” Kallen said.
“I was thinking both for now,” Lelouch said. “I don’t imagine I’ll be gone from Aries Villa in the next few years long enough for it to be a problem. That or knight him when I turn sixteen and have more freedom to move about. I doubt a man like him would be lured away before then to further his career.”
“True. We do still have a number of people to work through, though.”
That they did. Lelouch exchanged Gottwald’s dossier for his schedule. Finding the next name on his list, he found the woman’s file and started reading. Kallen fetched her own copy and did the same.
Peering up over his file, Lelouch contemplated the girl in front of him. He was the king, of course. It was his life; if he died, the game was over for him.
My queen, eh?
It was a fitting description. Kallen was brilliant. She was smart, strong, charming when she wanted to be, and would likely grow up to be a beautiful woman. She was nobility, wealthy independent of her father’s title, and had been raised outside the normal aristocratic circles who believed in their own inherent superiority. When she reached her age of majority, Kallen Stadtfeld would be a queen in all but name.
If the world were at all fair, I wonder what I’d have given up to have Kallen in my life. She’s saved my life twice over already, and probably Nunnally’s, too…
New York, Britannia
October 14, 2009 a.t.b.
From his own seat, Lelouch dug his nails into his palms in what he knew was a doomed attempt to control his anger. He snapped his mouth closed as Cornelia repeated herself for Euphie.
“I’m being transferred to the war front.”
“But why?” Euphie asked.
To keep her out of the way, Lelouch growled to himself.
Sighing, Cornelia said, “Marianne was organising much of the war effort remotely from here through the Knights of the Round. I don’t know them nearly as well, which limits my ability to let them run wild, and Father wants the war brought to a swift, decisive end.”
“Can’t Schneizel do it?” Nunnally asked, her voice bordering on begging. That earned her a pat on the head, if nothing else.
“Schneizel is busy being the Prime Minister. He’s being run ragged these days keeping the EU and the Chinese Federation from interfering with us.”
“Cornelia,” Kallen began hesitantly, “what about the investigation?”
And there it was. Cornelia stiffened, and Lelouch fought ever harder not to explode, because he knew what was coming without being told.
“We don’t know how Marianne’s assassin managed to enter Aries Villa nor why Marianne was there. We have managed to identify what we believe to be the trail her assassin took to enter and leave the country. Unfortunately, the current political climate makes it impossible for us to pursue the matter further, so the investigation is being shut down.”
The chorus of objections from the girls drowned out Cornelia. A shrill whistle from her soon quieted them. Her features then fell as she continued, “I hate to say it, but I don’t think we’re going to catch either the assassin or the mastermind behind the crime. By the time the EU would be willing to cooperate with us, assuming they’re not responsible, the trail will have gone cold.”
Unable to help himself, Lelouch scoffed. Cornelia said nothing, but she did raise her eyebrows.
“If it were any of Father’s other consorts,” Lelouch said, barely keeping the venom seeping into his voice in check, “the entire imperial court would be in an uproar. They’d never let this go so easily. No one cares about commoner empresses. No one wants to catch whoever rid them of one.”
Although frowning, Cornelia reluctantly admitted, “Marianne was an outsider, but she wasn’t as unloved as you imagine. Even so, Britannia isn’t ready to declare war on the world. What would be different had it been someone else? The EU detests all of Father’s consorts equally and wouldn’t help.”
“Who?” Kallen and Nunnally chorused.
After a few seconds, Euphemia said, “Oh! Marrybell’s mother. I remember her. She was very kind.”
“Her death led directly to the conquest of Hawaii and the establishment of Area Seven,” Lelouch added.
Cornelia sighed. “Euphie, Nunnally, please go wash up for dinner.”
Despite their protests, both Euphie and Nunnally did eventually comply. They left the room, leaving just Cornelia, Lelouch, and Kallen behind.
“Um…” Kallen fidgeted and glanced toward the door herself. “Should I…”
“You may stay if you wish,” Cornelia said. “You’re…worldly enough. And I know Marianne meant a great deal to you, too.”
Once Kallen had reseated herself, Cornelia turned her attention back onto Lelouch. Her gaze had grown harder with the departure of the gentler members of their family.
“Understand that this is not spoken of in polite company. Flora mel Britannia’s death, as respected and well-regarded as she was, had nothing to do with the Pacific War. Father wanted a toehold into the Pacific. It was a simple as that. He instigated enough unrest to create a casus belli; Flora and her youngest, Julia, ultimately were the unlucky souls who paid the price. We’d decided to invade long before Flora died.”
“I know that,” Lelouch said flatly. “I remember Mum champing at the bit long before Flora’s assassination.”
“Marianne was involved in the Pacific War?” Kallen asked, surprise in her tone along with a tinge of disapproval.
Cornelia briefly said, “Since Father’s ascension to the throne, Marianne dealt with external armed conflicts for him.” She then turned back to Lelouch. “And if you were already aware, then why bring up Flora?”
“Because it doesn’t matter what Father and his inner circle wanted!” Lelouch said. He nearly stomped his foot in emphasis. “It was everyone else’s reaction that mattered. Everyone was up in arms. That was the point! It didn’t matter whether or not Hawaii was someone we could beat. They demanded blood.
“And now” – Lelouch felt a nail in his palm finally draw blood – “now everyone wants blood, too. But they want more of Mum’s. She hasn’t even been buried yet, and the Ashfords are already inundated with legal battles. And don’t think that I haven’t heard what’s been happening to her friends in Indochina, either. The Knights of the Round may be untouchable, but her own subordinates aren’t.
“So tell me, Cornelia. What exactly am I missing? Explain to me how this is not the systematic destruction of Mum’s very existence with her killer being given a pat on the back for a job well done. If I were you, I’d start investigating everyone who’s celebrating.”
Kallen’s eyes narrowed, and Lelouch could see her thoughts racing as her lips formed unspoken words. She understood. On the other hand, Cornelia’s reaction left much to be desired. She placed a hand on his shoulder in what he assumed was supposed to be a supportive gesture.
“Lelouch, there isn’t the slightest bit of evidence anyone in the family was involved. I know we don’t exactly have the most exemplary history of family unity, but no one would dare arrange an assassination. Especially not of Marianne. Father would be furious. Yes, he makes us compete against each other for position, rather than simply going by order of birth, but he would never–”
Cornelia faltered and took a moment to gather herself. “Lelouch, I was born into the Emblem of Blood. You have no idea how bad things were back then nor the lengths Father went to in order to end it permanently. Not long after you were born, a…second, I believe, cousin of ours tried to continue the family tradition of betrayal and assassination. There was very little evidence pointing to him, but Father eradicated him anyway. Then he went on to tear apart everyone with the slightest implication of being involved.”
On the verge of pointing out the obvious, Cornelia held up a hand to put Lelouch off for the moment. She then continued, “The next fool tried to frame an enemy of his. He did a good job of it, too. I don’t know how – no one does, really – but Father managed to suss out the truth. Now no one dares even think about such treason.”
Rather grudgingly, Lelouch said, “Maybe so.” Then with proper force, he added, “But you yourself said Father” – he spat the name – “should be furious over this. And he’s just going to let this go? Let all this happen? Let everything Mum built from nothing be destroyed and forgotten? How does that make any sense?”
“He’s probably running his own investigation quietly through the OSI,” Cornelia said, but the argument fell flat for Lelouch. Far too much of what Marianne cared for was disappearing even as they spoke for that to be the truth. Much of it could never be recovered.
“I’m done here,” Lelouch flatly stated. There was no point to extending the conversation if Cornelia was already so convinced that anyone outside their piecemeal little family actually cared. He stormed out of the room, annoyed with himself for being unable to rein in his temper. Cornelia called him to come back, but he ignored her.
As he moved through the halls of Stadtfeld Manor, Lelouch pulled out his phone. He had to take this higher. He found a nice place to hide himself away from the world and set to work.
The boy in question briefly looked up from his phone, momentarily surprised. Kallen, it seemed, had managed to find him in a corner of the library only a couple minutes after he’d left her and Cornelia.
“Let me guess. Cornelia is mad.”
In his peripheral vision, Lelouch noticed Kallen shrug. “I think she’s mostly just frustrated with everything and kept so busy she can’t find the time to mourn. She didn't send me to capture you, at any rate.” Close enough now, she peered over his shoulder at his phone. “What are you doing?”
“Filling out the forms to demand a meeting with my own bloody father.”
“What!” Kallen shrieked, eyes wide.
Lelouch lips parted, but before he made a sound, Kallen’s hand flew out and snatched his phone. The screen went black, and she moved to fling it across the room. Lelouch caught her arm to stop her, but that left her free to drop it instead.
Reacting on instinct, Lelouch brought his foot up to brace the phone’s impact. Kallen, having the complete opposite idea, ended up kicking his leg hard when it got in the way. Not deterred, Lelouch pulled her down on top of him, letting his other leg shift instead.
“What the bloody hell are you doing?” Lelouch demanded as he reached for his phone.
Kallen pounced on Lelouch, pushing him back onto the ground. “What the bloody hell are you doing?” she echoed back, kicking his phone away while he lay prone. “Please tell me you haven’t already done something to draw attention to you.”
“No paper trail? Will anyone notice you started filling that application out?” While Lelouch pondered this strange reaction, Kallen pressed on. “I shut your phone off. Do we need to destroy it? I don’t know how the Internet works.”
“Kallen, what are you on about?”
That question apparently brought Kallen up short. She froze in place for a moment before her voice found her. “Why exactly where you trying to meet the emperor?”
“Why do you think?” Lelouch said sharply. “To demand the same justice for my mother that any other consort would receive.”
“Have you taken leave of your senses! Think, you fool! If someone isn’t behaving the way you expect, then something you believe is wrong. You’re the one who taught me that. Put your temper aside and notice your own damn words. Who did you just get done saying isn’t acting the way you expected?”
After finally registering Kallen’s meaning, Lelouch did feel every bit the fool. “The emperor,” he whispered, the very man he’d been about to start a confrontation with who also happened to be the single most powerful man in the world.
“And what do you think you know about him that seems strange?”
Having the question actually posed to him gave Lelouch enough of a kick to finally reboot his brain. “The emperor. He should be on a warpath over Mum’s death, but he’s not.”
“And why do you believe that?” Kallen said.
“Mum and Father actually liked each other…” Lelouch shook his head. Even if that were true, which by everyone’s estimation was the case, there were less emotional reasons to consider.
“Mum was the Knight of Six and Britannia’s most successful general in centuries. Her death is a huge loss. Her allies were well chosen and talented; them being marginalised and discarded is just as bad. Even if they were on bad terms, letting Mum’s assassin go makes Father look weak, which goes against his entire regime’s social Darwinism. I don’t believe there’s anyone he would balk at executing, and even if so, he could just use a scapegoat.”
If he officially closes the investigation without using one… No word in English properly described how unexpected that would be.
“Something is very wrong here,” Lelouch concluded.
Kallen let out a relieved sigh. “I’m not trying to imply he was behind the assassination – honestly, I’m not – but what do you think the emperor would do if you marched into court and called him out on this whole debacle in front of everyone?”
Having brought Flora up himself, a horrible thought occurred. Paling, Lelouch said, “Send Nunnally and me to Japan and then kill us off when he’s ready to launch his next war.”
“Maybe – maybe not something so severe,” Kallen said, her voice weak.
“No. An uppity piece not even as useful as a pawn yet – I know the emperor well enough to say he’d have no problem sacrificing me without Mum around to object. I don’t have any value. No, I’m a liability at this point. I’m worse than useless. And Nunnally–”
Kallen pulled Lelouch into a hug, interrupting his thoughts.
“You’re not worthless, Lelouch. Just stay here. Don’t make any noise. Plot. Plan. Grow strong. Become invaluable. Dad and Cornelia will shelter you and Nunnally until then.”
His protest died on his lips when Kallen pulled Lelouch closer and held him tighter.
Sighing, Lelouch let himself relax into Kallen and returned the hug. “Fine. I’ll do my best not to get myself killed.”
A second passed in understanding silence.
“You need to work on your speeches.”
Kallen stomped on Lelouch’s toes to little effect through their shoes.
Pendragon Countryside, Britannia
January 3, 2010 a.t.b.
“You know, getting Gottwald to accept more responsibility for your safety is going to be such a chore. I’m glad that’s not my job.”
Lelouch snapped out of his thoughts. He’d been getting lost in memories far too often today.
“I doubt it’ll be as bad as you anticipate. Gottwald wants the job. He wants to be honourable. I just have to convince him that he has unrealistically high standards for himself. It shouldn’t be too hard to flip his sense of guilt from ‘I’m unworthy’ to ‘I need to atone’.”
Kallen shrugged. “Still glad that’s not my job. I freely admit you’re better at people stuff than I am. Anyway, I’m going to go get set up for our next guest.”
Nodding, Lelouch turned his attention more fully onto the dossier before him while Kallen returned to her cabinet. He could ruminate on his memories later when he had less to do.