Hello and welcome back ladies and gentleworms, Neolyph here with more Darwin! As always, sorry for the weight. I'm balancing two other stories plus college and a tentative independent novel. So I've been busy. Not much else to say here other than to please read, review, etc.

Now for the reviews!

Imperator's slave: Mao the Refrain's actual Geass was a bit odd, so I basically just gave her a similar one to Charles, yes.

RandomReview: I agree that there is currently a lack of direct conflict for Lelouch. That will come later. Right now, Lelouch is executing his brutal opening moves against a wholly unprepared opponent. Once Britannia has a second to dig its heels in, he's going to be seeing some Knight of the Round, O.S.I, and other goodies.

Victorrules: Well, bear in mind that the idea of using a supernatural power to force yourself or literally the most loyal man on earth into doing something doesn't sound like something that would come in handy all that much. Not to mention it was the sex talking.

AnimeA55Kicker: I'd say no, just like how you can't Geass someone into doing something they don't know how to do.

Now, on with the show!

Chapter 7: Birth of the Black Knights

Hot water streamed through the air in its journey to the shower drain, soaking Kallen in the meanwhile. The redhead was cleaning herself in the private bathroom of her new master's office.

Master Lelouch... even after learning the truth of his identity, she couldn't help but view the charismatic demagogue in any light but from a subordinate to a superior. Even after sleeping with him, the notion of referring to him informally just felt... wrong, like swearing in a shrine. He wore authority with such ease that it was practically second nature to him—intrinsic to his personality.

And don't even get her started on the whole 'Geass' thing. If she hadn't seen his eyes supernaturally alter and spellbind her, she might have thought that the stress of leading his own little private rebellion had taken its tole on her newfound moral compass.

But she couldn't deny it. When those symbols had appeared in his eyes—the symbol from his mask upside-down, she belatedly realized—she'd been unable to move. She'd been paralyzed by his stare like a mouse before a snake.

Was that Geass? Or was that just Master Lelouch?

Honestly, she wasn't sure which answer would scare her more.

Letting the steaming water trickle down her body to clean off the sweat from their impromptu intercourse, she ran her fingers through her soaked hair. That was something else to consider. She'd not only just lost her virginity, but to a Britannian prince no less. She wasn't certain whether that was sad or ironic. Rationally, she knew that she should have pulled that trigger. The royal family were the living embodiment of Britannia; every single one of them deserved a lead fucking facial.

But despite that, it was like her finger had been paralyzed. The revolver had a hair trigger—the slightest twitch would have permanently ruined that perfect face of his and kept him from throwing her world into turmoil, but she just couldn't pull the goddamn trigger.

Instead she'd let him talk, and now she couldn't say that she regretted it. When she'd kissed him, realizing how truly similar they were, it had awoken something inside her. It was just such a fucking release, like ripping those Purists apart with her Knightmare had been. When he'd slammed her onto the desk, the same red haze had overtaken her. Next thing she knew they were both on his couch, panting and sweaty, and she was making demands of honesty from him.

It made sense, in a way. She knew from his work as Zero that she could trust his cause. But the promise she'd extracted on that couch made it so that she could trust him as a Britannian prince and lover.

Speaking of which... well, she was conflicted.

On the one hand their first time had been mind-boggingly good. He'd kept her up all night reminding her of that fact. He clearly had experience. On the other hand, he clearly had experience.

Perhaps it had been too much to hope for the someone like her would have a normal romance. After all, true love was for fairy tales. And she wasn't a princess, even if her love was a prince. 'Happily Ever After' didn't seem to be in the cards.

Yet, in spite of all that, she still felt a genuine connection between herself and Master Lelouch. Something was most certainly there, even if it wasn't the sort of love you read about in stories.

It was the reason why she knew that it didn't really matter who else her master was involved with. In the name of her vengeance and her hatred and her love, she would follow him to Hell. Because after years upon years of her and the others sitting on their asses in the ghetto, waiting for a savior to come along and show them the way, she'd found hers.

And his name was Lelouch vi Fucking Britannia.

As Kallen cleaned herself off in bathroom, Lelouch was reclining in his desk's chair and trying to process what had just happened.

He cursed himself for his impulsiveness in ceding to Kallen's demand. Doing so jeopardized his entire control of her. Now, if she caught him in even a single lie, her carefully cultivated trust and faith in him would be broken.

Why had he agreed? The question haunted him. It wasn't like him to make spur of the moment decisions, especially on such important matters.

Usually, with all his other lovers he was able to separate his feelings from his work. He had never let his love interfere with his crusade, and he had never made promises that would endanger it. Yet he had with Kallen. Had he underestimated the depths of his enamourment with the redhead? Had he unwittingly given Kallen far more control over him than he was comfortable with? The thought brought chills to his spine.

Groaning, his hands subconsciously slid open a side drawer on the desk to withdraw a cigarette from a pack along with an engraved, metal lighter. He placed the cigarette between his lips, taking comfort in the familiar weight.

Rubbing his fingers along the bumps that had been imprinted into the lighter to spell out 'Nunnally' in Braille, a quick flick lifted the cover off and sparked the flint wheel with the ease of long habit. He held the flame to the end of the cigarette and inhaled deeply, taking in a satisfying lungful of smoke.

Technically, he only smoked when he was stressed, but he'd been stressed ever since Jeremiah, Kewell, and Asplund had abducted him from Pendragon. Tobacco was just something Reuben had introduced him to—in addition to gambling on chess with the nobility, but that was another matter. Sex was his other usual outlet, but for obvious reasons he felt that another round with his new piece would simply exacerbate matters.

In this moment, he was realizing that Kallen Kozuki may be a far greater threat to his revolution than anticipated.

Exhaling a cloud of spiced smoke, Lelouch massaged his temple with his free hand. It wasn't like he could just avoid lying to her, either. He'd already sent Mao to 'convince' Kallen's old group to fulfill their part in the formation of the Black Knights. Right now, he wasn't sure how Kallen would react to the news of what he'd done to them. The dreadfully alien sensation of lacking control in a situation was clouding his mind, rendering him unable to predict Kallen's response.

Mao's orders in the event of the cell going rogue had been to rewrite whatever memories were necessary to silence their pedantic moral objections. They would fall in line, but at what cost?

Perhaps he'd be able to justify it, but that was risky. Maybe—

The bathroom door opened, and a refreshed but still red-faced Kallen emerged. Lelouch couldn't help but pause to appreciate her beauty. She was dressed once more in her uniform with the hood down and mask off, and her slightly damp hair was spiked up in her preferred style. She was a warrior goddess in human form. A hellhound that thought itself a retriever. Despite his hesitance, he acknowledged that she was still quite possibly his finest acquisition, regardless of the price.

Her reddened face darkened as she noticed his examination. The corner of his mouth twitched. At least he still had that power over her. Even if her trust in him was eventually broken, he would still hold her love in his hands. And that may be enough.

"Refreshed?" he queried gently with a raised eyebrow. She had been a virgin when he'd taken her, and in his experience with Milly, Sayoko, and Mao, women were always sore for quite a while after their first time. It was best to be accommodating.

Kallen hesitantly nodded, although Lelouch noted a slight limp in her step. He put out his cigarette in the ashtray, rose to his feet, and moved to assist her. When his hand wrapped around her elbow for support, she twitched and seemed about to glare at him in irritation over the condescension, before stumbling and nearly toppling.

Perspective thus gained, Kallen was more willing to lean into Lelouch's side and rely on his aid as he carefully led her to one of the two seats arranged before his desk, easing her into the same chair she'd been seated in before she had pointed a gun at him. Said gun had been returned to its place in Lelouch's shoulder holster by this point to prevent any... accidents.

Right as Lelouch was about to begin speaking, a soft rapping came from the other side of his office door.

"Enter," he sighed, sending an apologetic look towards Kallen. The door opened to reveal Sayoko, having done away with her field mask. While Kallen was in the shower, Lelouch had used his workstation computer to send out an alert ending Masquerade Protocol on the base.

As Sayoko entered, her sharp brown eyes honed in on Kallen and narrowed ever so slightly. Lelouch wasn't sure what precisely had given it away, but he had absolutely no doubt that the assassin had gleaned the details of his and Kallen's interactions over the last hour and was not particularly pleased. Of course, she had known that he had intentions towards Kallen, but that didn't change her displeasure at another woman joining her master's growing list of consorts.

Of course, Lelouch had a few ideas about how to make it up to the ninja, but that was for later.

He cleared his throat, drawing his assassin's attention back to him before Kallen noticed the hostility. "I asked not to be disturbed," he reminded her chidingly.

"Apologies, Master," she replied, bowing at the waist in penitence, "but there was an urgent matter that I require your authorization for. Time is of the essence, so I thought it better to interrupt than risk the operation."

"Sayoko, you're on the Board of Directors; what are you planning that requires my—" began Lelouch before pausing mid-sentence as he remembered Kallen sitting in front of him.

"How rude of me," he scolded himself, turning to face the confused redhead. "Kallen, this is Sayoko Shinozaki, our head of intelligence. I believe you met her under the name Ms. Black."

"Ah," exclaimed Kallen, her eyes lighting up in recognition as she stood and bowed formally to the ninja. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Shinozaki."

Sayoko smiled back, and only years of companionship, and later romance allowed Lelouch to notice the nearly imperceptible crease of irritation on her forehead as she returned the bow and greeting. There was a polite pause before both parties returned to their former positions.

"As I was saying," continued Lelouch once formalities had been attended to, "you're on the Board, Sayoko. What do you need my authorization for?"

"I would like your permission to utilize the Iscariot Paladins for Operation Caligula," replied Sayoko calmly. Despite the placid tone it was delivered with, Lelouch nearly lost his composure at the request.

Operation Caligula was the plan hatched just over a month ago to seed Kyoto's security forces with Sayoko's Shadows, so that they would be ready to subdue at a moment's notice should they or the JLF become a problem.

The Iscariots were a pack of vicious fanatics that he and Sayoko had gone on a special trip to Italy in order to recruit. They were named for Judas Iscariot, who was in turned named for the Sicarii, an ancient order of Jewish zealots that fought the Roman occupation of Israel with brutal assassination and terrorism. The new Iscariots, originating in the Vatican, were a Catholic quasi-cult that believed the Darwinistic, nobility-based New Anglican Church of Britannia to be a heresy, and Charles zi Britannia a heretic for founding it.

When they found themselves lacking Britannian targets in their homeland, they had turned their blades to any anti-war E.U figures they could access. This being a problem, several of Lelouch's E.U contacts had requested that he attempt to take the group off their hands and put them to work elsewhere.

They had been very difficult to convince, but eventually they were persuaded of his aims and 'divine' abilities. Once that was accomplished they quickly swore themselves to his service and joined the ranks of Fulcrum. An introduction to the wonders of Meld made their more aggressive members a force to be reckoned with. Numbering just over three dozen, they were Fulcrum's elite shock troopers. The former House Guard may have been Fulcrums's last line of defense, but the Iscariot Paladins were the organization's hammer and fist.

Due to their... enthusiastic nature however, Lelouch had made their deployment one of the few things that even the Board had to seek his permission on. They were hammers, after all, not scalpels. Using them recklessly was a major risk to operational security.

"I trust you would not request their services lightly Sayoko," he relented, "but know that I will expect a full report of your plans later. And I will be most cross should I find that you've deployed them without due cause..."

"Of course, Master," she consented with a bow. Under normal circumstances she would have been offended at the implied slight against her professionalism, but the Iscariots were borderline uncontrollable by anyone but Lelouch himself. If he wasn't there personally to reign them in, they could get very quickly out of control. She was confident in her plan, however.

Lelouch nodded. "Very good. Was there anything else you needed while you're here? I'll likely be occupied a while still as I explain to Kallen the finer details of our little organization."

"Nothing else, Master, except that Soresi bade me to remind you of the Board meeting in two hours."

"Tell him that I will be in attendance. Also, have the kitchens send meals and coffee up for Kallen and myself. It's nearing noon and neither of us got any sleep last night. Dismissed."

The ninja's eye twitched imperceptibly, but once again only Lelouch noticed. She tightly bowed once more before departing, and Lelouch almost felt a pang of guilt at his parting shot before shaking it off. Jealousy was not something he could not allow from Sayoko. It would disrupt team cohesion and make his personal life all the more difficult. He'd have to prey on her more exotic tastes to convince her that perhaps having another beautiful woman thrown into the mix would not be a bad thing for either of them.

Putting that aside, he turned back to Kallen who had been patiently waiting through the whole exchange and smiled slightly.

"Now where was I?"

Only once Sayoko was fully clear of her master's office did she allow a deep scowl to mar her typically placid face. She knew that Master Lelouch had made that last statement deliberately to remind her of her place. She knew that in the grand scheme of things she was but one of his consorts, but it still hurt to be reminded of that.

Sighing, she repeated to herself that she had accepted this when she'd entered into a relationship with him. It had been made quite clear that while Master Lelouch was... open to her affections, it would not be an exclusive relationship. 'The Emperor has one-hundred and eight consorts,' he would joke. 'With all the stress of leading this organization, I'm starting to see the practicality in that.'

At least she could console herself with the knowledge that he would almost certainly spend the next few days making it up to her. He didn't tolerate jealousy, but he did strive to be fair with them. She knew that she, Milly, and little Mao would all be seeing their fair share of their mutual lover to ensure that the peace was kept between them.

She suppressed a soft snort. Even in his love life Master Lelouch was tactical and methodical.

After several minutes of walking, her path led her to the bowels of the base, where the prisoner cells were kept. She entered the office near the interrogation room and exchanged a salute with the Warden, one of her many little Shadows. His artificial Geass allowed him to control the movements of any within his sight. This unique skillset make him specially suited for prisoner control.

"How is he?" she inquired, looking past him to gaze at the security monitors. A haggard Diethard Ried sat slumped at a metal desk in the interrogation room, still in his pajamas.

"Compliant, Ma'am," replied the Warden. His square jaw, scars, and military-style haircut gave him the impression of a meathead, but he was undeniably good at managing and breaking prisoners. "No outbursts or escape attempts. Not even a request for water or the bathroom. Ms. Grey hasn't had the chance to read him yet, but if you want my professional opinion, he's susceptible to turning."

Sayoko smiled. It had been a risk extracting him from the Hi-TV tower instead of killing him, but it seemed that it would pay off. He had begged for his life on his knees, swearing up and down that he would tell everything he knew about the inner-workings of Carine's regime if she would spare him.

The offer had tempted her. Publicists were a lot like priests; you had to tell them all of your dirty little secrets—and Ried had been the head media publicist for the Vicereine.

Needless to say, she was quite intrigued by the secrets she could pull from his head. Of course, anything that came out of his mouth had the potential for falsehood, so she was taking the far more direct route.

"Get a double-time on Ms. Grey's reading," she ordered. "The longer it takes to get his information, the less actionable it will be."

The Warden saluted in acknowledgment as Sayoko turned to depart the office.

Now for that other spot of business...

She navigated the base's many corridors once more until she reached an isolated set of barracks. The walls were done up with crucifixes and inscribed with Latin verses from the Bible. This was the section of barracks claimed by the Iscariot.

Several dozen figures in black cassocks snapped to attention as she entered. They parted to reveal a giant of a man who could very easily give Gottwald a run for his money.

"Yer back I see, Ms. Black," he leered with a thick Irish accent. "I take it that means Saint Lelouch has granted this mission his blessing?"

"It does," she confirmed and the giant grinned viciously. Father Anderson was even more of a vatjob than Jeremiah. While Lelouch's knight kept his visible augmentations at a minimum to avoid undue attention in public, the priest before Sayoko had given up all subtlety. Rather than bother with bone lacing, vat-grown muscle, and biofiber skin, Anderson had opted for full-on cybernetic enhancement until he was more metal than man. He had a reputation for being the only one on base capable of taking on Gottwald in the sparring ring.

"Hear that lads?" he barked, turning to face the assembled paladins behind him and grinning viciously. "We've been sanctioned by God's messenger himself! Once more will we aid in his holy cause and smite the unclean! Saint Lelouch calls on us again!"

The mad priest's smile broadened as he raised his hands in the manner of a sermon.

"I ask o' thee: Whit art thou?" he addressed in Latin.

"We are Iscariot, the Zealots of Judas!" they responded simultaneously in Britannian, forming ranks before the Irish zealot.

"In that case, Iscariot, I ask o' thee: Whit dost thou hold in thy right hand?" Anderson barked, managing to somehow mesh the tones of a drill sergeant and a revivalist preacher.

"Daggers and poisons!" the paladins professed, drawing their signature sicae from the folds of their cassocks. The twisted steel of the knives glinted in the dim light of the barracks, lending the ceremony a certain ominous air.

"In that case, Iscariot, I ask o' thee: Whit dost thou hold in thy left hand?" continued the priest, his fanatical smile growing as his flock worked themselves into a frenzy.

"Thirty silver pieces and a rope!" they shot back once more, retrieving the standard-issue Fulcrum cyanide capsules from their hip pouches.

"In that case, Iscariot, whit art thou?" finished Father Anderson softly, before joining his convocation in prayer.

"We are as apostles, yet not as apostles.

As adherents, yet not as adherents.

As believers, yet not as believers.

As traitors, yet not as traitors.

We are disciples of death.

Only bowing and praying forgiveness of the Lord;

Only bowing and defeating the enemies of the Lord.

Wielding our dagger in the night and poisoning the evening meal,

We are assassins; the Assassins Judas.

When the time comes, we shall cast our thirty silver pieces at the altar

And hang thy heads from our rope.

Thereby we shall fall to Hell in cabal.

Lined up in square formation, and seek to do battle with the countless legions of Hell."

"We are the Iscariot."

Sayoko let slip a small smile of her own. These were precisely whom she needed for Operation Caligula. Those short-sighted relics in Kyoto would rue the day they started poaching Fulcrum assets.

"So," began the Emperor with an air of forced civility, "have you anything to say for yourself?"

Carine swallowed, gazing up at the imposing figure of her father on the video screen. "No explanation, Your Majesty," she breathed softly. They were familiar words among the royal family—reserved for the times when they had screwed up utterly.

"I have given you far too much free reign in your governance," Charles continued, glaring down at his daughter balefully. "Area 11 is perhaps the single most important region of the Empire next to the homeland itself, and you've let its entire native population rise up against you overnight!"

The Vicereine flinched. "I-I can make this right, Your Majesty," she stammered. "I've just spoken to Duke Ashford, and together we've taken measures to regain control over the entire Area. I've drawn from the garrison at Mt. Fuji and when consolidated with my forces it will be easy to—"

"YOU'VE WHAT?" snarled the Emperor, spittle flying from his typically refined visage. "Did you just say that you've drawn forces away from Mt. Fuji? The single largest source of Sakuradite in the Empire? The beating heart of our war machine? You've taken soldiers and equipment away from manning it to put down a small bit of civil unrest?"

"Yes," Carine whimpered.

Charles seethed for a moment. "Listen here you foolish little girl: you will pull no forces from the Mt. Fuji mines. You will focus the entirety of your available forces on the Tokyo settlement, the mines, and the naval base in the North. You will take no unnecessary offensive actions and will sit on your hands until I can send along one of your more competent siblings to clean up your mess. Consider your little 'Purist' experiment over. You have demonstrated no control of your Numbers."

Carine made to protest, but the noise died in her throat. She heard her father converse briefly with Bismark, but she couldn't make out the words. The conversation went back and forth for several moments before he addressed her once more.

"Your sister Cornelia's forces have just started a campaign in Spain. If memory serves, she has experience in pacifying rebellious Areas. I'm told that she'll be ready to redeploy into your Area in just over a month's time. Pull back behind your walls and keep your head down. If you can ensure that Sakuradite flow remains uninterrupted, perhaps I may not strip you of your name once this is over."

As the video winked out, Carine shivered. She could not let Daddy disown her—that would mean the end of everything she'd ever worked for: her status, her reputation, the Purist Faction.

"Consider your little 'Purist' experiment over."

She couldn't let that happen. She had built the Purists with her own two hands from distinguished members of the enlightened circles she traveled. If they were dissolved, she was ruined. Even if she kept her name she would be the laughing stock of the courts for the rest of her life.

No. Daddy wasn't going to destroy everything she had built. She wouldn't let him. She would prove that the Purity was the true philosophy of Britannia. She would prove that this was but a snag in the route to pacification.

But if she was going to go behind Daddy's back, she was going to have to be cunning. He wouldn't tolerate any direct violation of his orders to consolidate forces in the three pillars of Area 11: the Tokyo Settlement, the core of Area 11 and the seat of the Ashford Military-Industrial Complex; the Mt. Fuji mines, the fortress-like series of quarries that fueled the Britannian army; and the Marianne vi Britannia Naval Facility, the well-stocked navy base on the Northern tip of the Area that when combined with the Tokyo docks maintained the naval fleet around Area 11 that kept the Chinese Federation at bay.

Avoid any unnecessary offensive actions.

Her main hurdle in dealing with Zero was that he was likely capable of resupplying his forces using the same sources as the JLF. She didn't know where Zero was, but she knew that the JLF was hiding somewhere in Narita. Her best shot at Zero was to destroy the JLF and in the course find their weapon supplier, then use that to cut off Zero and bleed him dry.

But how to attack the JLF without violating her orders to consolidate in her three main hard points?

An idea flitted through her mind and she snapped up in epiphany. She darted over to her office's war table and pulled up a map of the Area over its display. With a few taps of the nearby keypad, road maps appeared and routes were calculated. Carine grinned.

The most direct course from Tokyo to the MvB Naval Facility went straight through the Narita Mountains...

As Charles ended the call with his daughter, he allowed himself to sigh and sink into his throne. Dealing with Carine had always been... spiritually taxing, and this was the worst she'd ever been. Honestly, he had no idea why he'd ever put her in charge of the Area in the first place. Something as critical as Area 11 should have been managed by someone more capable.

But then again, his competent children were in short supply. Who else could he have given it to? Schneizel? Too busy. Odysseus? Too tepid. Clovis? Too frivolous. Cornelia? Too important. It was bad enough that he was having to redirect her in the first place. Just a short excursion to Area 11 was still going to set the war in Europe back by months.

If a single Sakuradite container failed to ship out of Tokyo on time, he didn't care what kind of earful he would be getting from her mother—he swore he'd take Carine's head as an example.

"Bismark, fetch Vanderbilt for me," he ordered eventually. The knight bowed and exited through a side door to the throne room. He returned several minutes later with Charles' Imperial Spymaster, Robert Vanderbilt.

"I trust you're familiar with the events in Area 11?" he drawled to the kneeling figure before him.

"Your Majesty," replied Vanderbilt with the confidence of a snake, "it's my job to know everything that goes on in your illustrious and holy empire."

"Good," said Charles shortly, "that saves time. I've given my daughter orders on how to handle the situation, but she has always been difficult. I want you to set up the OSI in Area 11 and begin feeding me new on everything that goes on there. I read the incident reports from the various overrun bases. Whoever this 'Zero' is, he's smart—smart enough to be a legitimate threat to Carine if she isn't careful. Keep me apprised on Carine's movements, and dig up on what you can on 'Zero'."

"As you command, Your Majesty."

Charles gave a satisfied nod before pausing in thought. "Also," he tacked on as an after-thought, "look into the Ashford Consortium. Carine mentioned that Duke Ashford helped her concoct that asinine plan of hers, but I know Reuben and he'd never endorse something so foolhardy. Something not right with that..."

Vanderbilt rose from his kneeling position and bowed once more, light glinting off his glasses menacingly.

"Nothing shall escape my sight, Your Majesty," he swore.

It took two hours for Lelouch to induct Kallen into Fulcrum. Some of the minor points had been glossed over, but he'd managed to hit the broad strokes well enough to give her a good idea of the organization's layout and hierarchy, along with its aims and methodology. The rest she could pick up over the course of the next few weeks.

He was just finishing up on some minor details when Sancia poked her head inside to remind him of the Board meeting. His eyes glanced towards the clock and confirmed this.

Exhaling softly, he ashed his cigarette and motioned for Kallen to rise with him.

"Come along for this," he ordered. "It'll give you a better idea of Fulcrum's inner structure, along with where we currently stand after yesterday's operations."

The redhead stood obediently and followed him from the office. Sancia and Lucretia, who had been standing guard outside the door, wordlessly trailed after pair. They were joined on the way by Alice and Dalque, and together they progressed to the meeting room.

They ended up being the last ones there. The rest of the Directors were already seated when Lelouch entered with Kallen, but they rose in respect. He waved for them to be seated, before taking his place at the head of the table. The Irregulars moved to the corners of the room and Kallen wavered for a moment before moving to stand at Lelouch's shoulder.

He suppressed a smile.

"Welcome once again everyone," began Lelouch, surveying the table. "We have a new face today with us. Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce you to Kallen Kozuki, our new liason to the Black Knights." Those seated affixed their gazes on the redhead, who looked uncomfortable at the attention. Lelouch subtly reached out and brushed her leg reassuringly, using the table and his coat to disguise the movement. She shivered, but stood straighter.

Lelouch's gloved hand, the one free of the cigarette, began motioning around the table. "Kallen, this is the Fulcrum Board of Directors; the ones who handle our day-to-day operations. You've met my knight Jeremiah, my adviser Kewell, our medical researcher Thomas, and our head of intelligence Sayoko. You met them under the names Orange, Green, Blue, and Black."

Kallen's eyes darted between the respective figures, putting names to faces. She nodded in greeting and they returned the gesture.

"You have yet to meet little Mao, our chief interrogator," he continued, gesturing to the not-so-little girl on his right. As Kallen directer her gaze towards the purple-haired agent, Lelouch caught the briefest flash of red in Mao's grey eyes before it vanished. His frown matched hers, although for different reasons. He understood her curiosity and jealousy, but he had explicitly forbade her from 'reading' other Fulcrum members without his permission.

Filing a mental note for later, he turned to Reuben. "Last but not least is our secret weapon, Reuben K. Ashford, our head of production and material research. He makes most of our toys, and together with Thomas designed your control rig. This whole organization wouldn't be possible without him."

"You flatter me, Your Highness," chuckled Reuben. "Something tells me you'd manage without me. It's nice to be appreciated, however."

"I'm sure," Lelouch agreed, taking one last drag from his cigarette before putting it out in the ashtray before him. "Now, let's get down to business. I read Sayoko's report while I was briefing Kallen this morning, but does anyone have anything else to report before we begin?"

Reuben raised his hand briefly, and Lelouch motioned for him to speak. "Just as you anticipated, the Vicereine paid me a visit early this morning to try and requisition some new frames. I redirected her towards Thomas' brother and the JLF as you instructed. I had to offer her some of the Consortium's security frames to keep her from getting too frustrated, but I doubt a few dozen aging Glasgows are going to be the reinforcements she needs. She put in an order for new frames, of course, but I convinced her they would take a month. If she's not dealt with by then, the process could very easily be sabotaged."

"I was not aware of these particular orders," interjected an amused Asplund. "What was that about my dear older brother?"

Ashford chuckled. "His Highness ordered that if the Vicereine tried to pressure me into supplying her, I should redirect her efforts towards your brother's little project for Prince Schneizel. It's a dead-end, but one she'll spend countless resources trying to make use of. Short of the Emperor sending in a Knight of the Round, no Britannian out there's going to make that thing move. But she'll try her damnedest anyway.."

"That always was Lloyd's weakness," Thomas sighed. "He never took the human element into account with his work. He could design the greatest machine on earth, and never thing about how you were supposed to use it."

"Very good," continued Lelouch, "very good indeed Reuben. Just play along and stall for now. Throw her a bone every now and then. What's important is that you remain on her good side and under her radar. Anyone else?"

Sayoko shifted. "I made a minor judgement call earlier this morning that didn't make it into my report. When I was carrying out the operation at the Hi-TV tower, I decided to extract Diethard Reid rather than leave him to die in the bombing. I felt that he had valuable intelligence and that the explosion would cover his kidnapping."'

"A brilliant move," praised Lelouch, both in genuine acknowledgment and out of a desire to balance his earlier slight against the ninja, "one I should have thought of. If anyone knows of blackmail material on the Vicereine's regime, it would be Reid. Well done."

"Thank you, Master," replied Sayoko simply, but he could see that his praise had put to rest her slight grievance over his subtle scolding regarding his night with Kallen.

Seeing that there were no other notes, Lelouch moved on. "As for today's agenda, in a few hours I will be addressing the various resistance groups that will form the core of the Black Knights. The Shadows have reported that Carine is consolidating her forces around the Settlement, the naval base in the North, and the Mt. Fuji mines. This is good. It gives us free reign to move openly between the ghettos without worrying about Britannian patrols."

"She's taking the defensive then?" Kewell pointed out. "That doesn't seem right. We thought she'd be cowed, but not that cowed. It's not in her character."

Lelouch paused. It was off, but within the predicted possibilities. "We did anticipate this potentiality. In all honesty, it's one of the smarter move she could have made. Perhaps she consulted with Nu or even Cornelia—no, Cornelia wouldn't give her the time of day. Carine used to bully Euphemia when they were younger. Schneizel maybe. Either way, this works for us. She's given up the offensive, but then again she doesn't need it. We're the ones on a timetable."

Solemn nods went around the board members. This was not a time when they could afford to be passive.

"Moving on," Lelouch continued, "on the Japanese front, our reports are that Kyoto's spies naturally became very interested in learning more about us. Our cells kept quiet, and the new recruits didn't know anything. Sayoko, I've read over your outline for Operation Caligula and I approve." The ninja nodded in thanks, mentally breathing a sigh of relief. It would have been hard to withdraw the Iscariots from their current positions.

"Regarding the cells, as we predicted, their numbers have swelled exponentially overnight. We've brought back the Japanese fighting spirit. They simply await someone to direct them. That's where Kallen and I come in."

Understanding expressions looked back at Lelouch from those seated at the table. None of this was news to them. The points Lelouch was discussing had been worked out at length months in advance. Kallen was the only new element, so the explanation was primarily for her benefit.

"Kallen, with her background in the ghettos, will be the liaison to the Black Knights—the friendly, human face and Zero's Right Hand. I will be Zero, the enigmatic, charismatic figurehead for the organization. The strong yet distant anchor around which the Black Knights will rally. My results will keep them loyal, and my distance will elevate me in their eyes to something beyond human."

Lelouch nodded in a decisive manner. "Now, with all of that said, does anyone have anything to say before I address the soldiers for the first time? Kallen and I go live in thirty minutes to all six ghettos."

Silence filled the room for several seconds, before Lelouch deigned it a long enough lack of objections.

"Good. Alice, Lucretia, you take Kallen to get makeup on. Mao, I will be speaking to you after I give the address. You know why. The rest of you are dismissed except Kewell. I'd like to go over my speech with you one more time before I go on."

With a number of murmured affirmations and the general scraping of chairs on carpet, the room quickly evacuated. Alice and Lucretia silently peeled off the corners to retrieve Kallen and guide her to where a Geass'd team of makeup artists brought in from a nearby television crew were waiting. This left Lelouch alone with Kewell, Sancia, and Dalque.

Kewell moved and took a seat in the chair on Lelouch's right hand.

"Alright," said Lelouch as he opened the binder in front of him, "I was feeling uncertain on my delivery of this section here."

Tetsuo Onmyojo sat uncertainly in the rotting seat of the long-abandoned Matsumoto Highschool auditorium. Seated around the other decomposing chairs were hundreds of other fresh recruits like himself. His mother had always claimed him too young to get involved with a resistance group like the Heirs of Nobunaga, but after the shit that went down last night, her tune had finally changed.

In all of Tetsuo's eighteen years, he'd never seen anything like it. He'd just gotten finished eating dinner with his mother when Reo from the Heirs dropped in.

The resistance fighter didn't say a ton, only delivered the warning that a big operation was going down that night and that if they didn't want to get caught up in it they should hide in the old subway tunnels with everyone else for the night. Tetsuo's mother left. Tetsuo stayed out of curiosity.

For several hours he watched the couple dozen guys from the Heirs rush back and forth through the streets before finally a lone Britannian cargo truck rolled slowly through the streets. He'd held his breath, wondering if the Heirs were planning to rip the truck off.

Instead, to his amazement, the truck stopped of its own accord and a hooded figure emerged from the cab and started talking with Kaito, the goddamn head of the Heirs. The hooded person gestured to the back of the truck, and at Kaito's command a handful of Heirs emerged to start unloading crates from the truck. The cherry on the top though, was when one of the Heirs went into the truck and came out in a motherfucking, bone-fide, fully-functioning Sutherland.

Despite the knowledge of what they'd done to his people, Tetsuo had always been a bit of a nerd when it came to Knightmares. The Sutherland was the most high-tech one on the field, at least until Britannia introduced the Gloucester for more than just private testing.

He found out he wasn't the only one watching. Hundreds of curious young would-be revolutionaries like himself had watched from the wings as the Heirs ran around the whole ghetto, planting odd little cylinders that only Tetsuo and a few others recognized as chaos mines.

With bated breath, he witnessed the masked figure from the truck drive it to the base of the wall and rush back to the Heirs. It gave what looked like some sort of speech before, at the stroke of midnight, the truck exploded.

It was everything Tetsuo had ever wanted without knowing it. It was the blood he'd secretly craved. The justice he'd always sought deep down.

The whole experience spoke deeply to his soul. Everything about the scene resonated with him, and he knew he wasn't alone. Hundreds of wide, excited eyes watched from behind windows and shutters as the Purists were shot like dogs in the streets. The roads were stained red as the blood flowed down the gutters. Screams and gunshots echoed down the avenues and alleys, to an appreciative audience.

When three dozen Sutherlands driven by his fellow Japanese roared past him half an hour later, Tetsuo knew that he was going to join the Heirs, his mother be damned.

But it turned out that was unnecessary. As his freshly-liberated neighbors took to the streets in celebration, his mother had rushed back into the apartment and pulled him into a hug. Sniffling, she told him that he had her blessing to fight the Britannians. That in this night, for the first time since she first saw the bombers in the sky above her home, she had hope.

He'd kissed her forehead, bade her goodbye, and departed that instant. Fireworks were being shot off left and right, and liquor flowed freely as he navigated through the streets. Never before had he ever seen them this crowded. Under normal circumstance, a crowd of Japanese looked enticing to the Purist guards, so rarely did you see more than four people at the same place in the ghetto.

Despite this, Tetsuo was having to shoulder past people to finally near the target of his search: Reo. On the spot, he'd offered his services to the Heirs of Nobunaga.

"You're the twenty-second so far," Reo had laughed, adding his name to a list he was carrying. Tetsuo looked around in surprise to see around him a few dozen other youths from his neighborhood. He knew most of them, but a few were unfamiliar faces.

"Reo, wasn't it?" inquired a soft but deep voice from behind Reo. The skinny resistance fighter nearly snapped to attention as he whirled.

"Yes sir," he responded with an uncomfortable stiffness, "how can I be of assistance?"

Tetsuo looked past Reo to see the hooded figure from earlier, still obscured by a featureless white mask. "Relax," the figure commanded gently, "tonight is a night for celebration. I just came by to ask you for your recruitment tally so far. I'm compiling a preliminary estimate to report in to Master Zero."

"Twenty-two as of just now, sir. I've been taking down names as you instructed," Reo replied with a degree more of ease.

"Good," praised the figure, "carry on and enjoy yourself. Just remember to keep marking names. If you'll excuse me, I've got another two dozen of your comrades to check in with."

Like a shadow, the figure seamlessly turned and melded back into the mingling crowd. Tetsuo blinked, and lost track of him completely.

"Who the hell was that?" he asked in bewilderment.

"I'm excited," Reo said, "I haven't been able to talk about before now. Well, you know how me and the rest of the Heirs kind of dropped off the map about nine months ago?"

Tetsuo nodded in confusion. It had caused him a great deal of distress when his idols it seemed had gone silent.

"Well he's why," Reo explained, gesturing in the direction of the disappeared figure, "or more specifically his boss, Master Zero." The few dozen recruits milling around the area began listening intently to the man's story.

"Mr. Maroon there shows up out of the blue nine months ago. Knows all of us by name, and extends us an offer to change things—not just blow up some trucks or smuggle food into the ghetto, but real change. Says he works for a proper revolutionary, goes by the title Master Zero, with beyond Kyoto-level resources. Now I thought the guy was nuts, but after all this I'm convinced that when I actually meet Master Zero I'm gonna kiss him on the mouth."

Reo paused when an attractive girl waded through the rapt audience to present the conquering hero with a bottle of proper whiskey. The revolutionary took a big swig to whet his throat before continuing with the girl draping herself over his arm.

"So anyway, Mr. Maroon, and through him Master Zero, they make us an offer. Basically, we agree to lie low and they set us up with training, supplies, equipment, plans, the works. I'll be honest, we had no idea what the fuck we were doing before this lot showed up. Kaito, God bless him, said yes. Next thing we know it's nine months later, we're all trained for motherfucking Knightmares and Mr. Maroon's bringing us a truck full of explosives, guns, and a Sutherland. And from there, well, you know the rest."

"What was that with him asking about recruitment?"

Reo looked left and right before leaning in. "I'm not really supposed to talk about this yet, but this Master Zero, he's got plans beyond just getting the Britannians out of the ghettos. He's putting together a fucking army. We're not the only ghetto he freed tonight. We just got word in that he's organized this same thing in all five other ghettos too. With all the buzz being generated by this, he's gonna have a few thousand fresh recruits tomorrow willing to sign on to anything that keeps this train rolling. I can't fucking wait."

And that was the last thing Tetsuo remembered from last night. Afterwards, a few more girls had showed up with more booze, and the night had descended into debauchery, a few drunken renditions of the Japanese national anthem, and an informal honors ceremony for the Heirs.

Now, with their hangovers mostly gone and the patriotic fervor lowered to a heated simmer, the hundreds of raw recruits were waiting in the spot they'd been told to report to, anticipating the address from the man who had brought all of this about.

The quietly murmering crown immediately fell to silence as there was the noise whir of a gas generator being activated in a neighboring room, before a projector on the ceiling of the auditorium turned on and shone a white square of light onto the curtain set up along the stage.

Once the projector was on, the hooded figure, Mr. Maroon, descended the stairs to the front row where the original Heirs were all seated in places of honor.

Mr. Maroon looked down at his watch, and seemed to be mentally counting down in his head. At an unseen cue from the device, he looked up at the screen.

With no fanfare at all, the lights dimmed and the screen changed to show a close-up view of a hooded individual in a black mask sitting at an oak desk. A similarly-clad figure stood at his left shoulder, but her head was offscreen.

"Good evening, my fellow patriots," began the seated figure, his visage contrasted with the Japanese flag hanging in the background, "I am Zero. As many of you have no doubt heard, I am the one who organized last night's operations. Under my direction and with my supplies and support, the cells I have allied with in your ghettos have risen up and ousted the Purist occupiers."

A few isolated cheers went out from the less disciplined recruits, only to be swiftly silenced by glowers from the trained fighters.

"Now, despite my actions, some of your will still harbor doubts against me. To those among you, there is little I can offer you. For reasons of security, all I can say is that I was once involved in government and that I have been planning for this day since the Britannian invaders first came to our shores."

Several uneasy glances were exchanged by the more paranoid recruits.

"For similar reasons, my many agents both within and without the ghettos must remain nameless and faceless. Since the invasion, our sole ally has been secrecy. It is our greatest weapon and most stalwart shield, and we will not abandon even if it costs us recruits."

At the prearranged cue, the camera panned back to reveal a stern yet alluring redheaded girl at Zero's left shoulder, standing at a stiff attention. Her mask was clasped tightly and held over her heart by her left hand, and she stared off into the middle distance expressionlessly.

"So that I do not alienate the less trusting among you, I extend the olive branch of my right hand, Kallen Kozuki. Some of you from Shinjuku may recognize young miss Kozuki. I recruited her from there when I saw her drive and competency. As one of you, she will serve as my liaison to you. The respective agents I have assigned to your cells will serve as your means of contacting her with questions or concerns.

The camera panned back in to focus on Zero once more. "Now, it is time to address my intentions towards your various cells. Through them I arranged for your liberation, but my ambitions do not end there. I intend to turn the scattered, weak, and divided cells of the Japanese fighting spirit into a singular, united entity that will once and for all return our homeland to our control."

Excited murmers dotted up around the crowd. This was unprecedented. Aside from perhaps the JLF, no cell realistically thought about doing something as grand as actually ousting Britannia. Yet for some reason, this Zero spoke like it wasn't just possible, but practically inevitable under his leadership.

"Some among you saw my broadcast early this morning to the Britannians where I executed an entire noble family, including their son. Some will call this evidence of my lack of morals. Instead, I ask you to see it as proof of my resolve. Though it pains me deeply, there is no such thing as a perfect revolution. Innocent blood will, must be shed to pave the way for progress. Anyone who tells you otherwise either has their head in the clouds, or a collar around your neck."

Despite his expressionless mask, those watching got the impression that Zero was frowning. "That said, I do not endavour to spill innocent blood without cause. That execution was a necessary evil. With the deaths of three Britannians, I have freed the ghettos from Britannian retribution. You will notice that you were not bombed during the night. My threat was why. Do not take my reluctance to harm the innocent as weakness, however. I fully intend to fulfill my threat should the Britannians not comply."

Had this been before the invasion, none in the room would have entertained someone who talked so frankly of murder. But after years and years of slow, systematic cruelty on the part of the Purists, the Japanese were done. They just wanted it to end, and few cared anymore what they had to shed to achieve that. Blood. Honor. Morals. Liberty.

The end now justified any means in their eyes. Putty in Lelouch's hands, really.

"My revolution will be bloody. My revolution will be cruel. Those greedy, cowardly fossils that call themselves Kyoto and claim to be the Japanese government will oppose me from outdated senses of what they think Japan is. Their lapdogs, the useless and faded JLF will likely even raise arms against me and I will beat them back into their nostalgic little burrows."

This was shakier ground with the Japanese. Many people in the room did think of Kyoto as the closest thing they still had to a government, and the JLF the closest to their army.

"Do you know why they will fight me? And why I will win? Because I have accomplished more in the last twenty-four hours than they have in the last six years. While they sneered at the ghettos from behind their tea cups in their mansions, occasionally tossing you pacifying table scraps of handguns and grenades, I was drawing the plan that will see us liberated. While the JLF saluted their flags and lorded over the smaller resistance groups, I was training your resistance fighters in Knightmare combat so that they may fight for your freedom!"

At the demagogue's inflammatory words, a change of mood overcame the crowds. The boiling fury at Britannia that had exploded on the streets last night began finding a new target to share. Six years of waiting for the promised and ever-close revolution turned to bitter venom in their hearts. Once dubious faces darkened with newfound anger.

"The reign of sadists and fools is over! I am Zero, and I will give the Japanese people the revolution they deserve! I will see the Britannian army ousted from our land! I will see Kyoto made accountable for their failure, and the JLF for being their blind tools!"

He raised his fist in the air with the declarations and in six ghettos the crowd almost unanimously joined him and cheered.

"I will not see Japan rebuilt—I will see Japan reborn from the fires of war! A better Japan! A new Japan! A Japan where our children will never have to fear for their mothers every time they go out to scavenge food! A Japan where there will be order and stability and peace!"

The roar from the crowd Tetsuo around was nearly deafening, but he didn't notice since he was unconsciously screaming right alongside them. He and the others went silent as Zero spoke once more, this time steady and sober.

"This new Japan is possible. I can bring it about in less than four months. There is just one thing I require to achieve it..."

With bated breaths, Tetsuo and his compatriots stared up at the figure looming above them like the vengeful face of God. He spoke with a slow deliberation, and as he did so his masked gaze seemed to penetrate every single member of the crowd to their very cores, as if each one of them were the sole object of his attention and he were addressing them directly. Tetsuo swallowed at the weight of his focus.

"Your absolute, unquestioning loyalty."

Lelouch grinned behind his mask like the cat who had just convinced the canary to swear lifelong allegiance to him. Honestly, he sometimes wondered why he even bothered with his Geass when most times he could just convince people to do what he wanted. Admittedly though, this was a lot more work.

The modified teleprompter in front of him displayed live feeds from each of the six meetings he was addressing. Thus far, only one man had left to the obvious ire of those around him. The rest stayed.

Oration had always fascinated him, how with the right words and gestures he could make men die for his cause. Like a conductor with a baton, he'd stoked the flames of the Japanese's anger, given them a dream of the future, and told them that the only obstacle between the two was their inhibitions. Honestly, it was Fulcrum's trademark tactic, a terribly subtle form of brainwashing. Just as he'd done with Kallen, he would deliberately shape their perceptions and drive them into unspeakable acts. The moment they killed their first Britannians at his command, they would be his.

Sure, in their current state they would follow his orders so long as they were in rough accordance with his promises, but they would eventually turn against him should he stray too far from his image. Once he had them locked in, like he did with Sayoko's Shadows, it wouldn't matter what he ordered them to do. Questioning him would mean questioning themselves, and fear of knowing oneself too well can be a powerful motivator.

Especially once you've killed for the man you're questioning.

"I take your remaining as assent to my terms. Let it be known that I ask for your obedience not from a desire for power, but simply because it is but one of many tools I need to bring about the new Japan. Those of you who remain, you will incorporated into your ghetto's cells and trained for combat. But let it be known that the cells you know, are no more. The Matsumoto ghetto's Heirs of Nobunaga are no more. The Fukuoka Fighters are no more. You are now the six divisions of a single new army."

The Japanese flag hanging behind Zero fell to the floor and out of sight, and in its place hung a new emblem. It resembled a black kite shield trimmed with silver, and its center bore a golden cross.

"As of this day, you are soldiers of the Black Knights!"