XI. Foul Plays
""… The people's reaction was swift and severe—in the twenty-four hours following the assassination of Prince Lelouch mobs swarmed and laid siege to European embassies and consulates throughout the Empire, prompted by initial reports that the EU was behind the attack. No deaths occurred, but numerous foreign staff workers as well as protestors were injured during the upheaval. The disruption was such that the local and regional constabulary was overwhelmed and the Territorial Army was summoned to restore civic order.
The press fed fuel to the flames with bold oversized headlines such as "Day of Infamy" and "Britannia Must Strike Back." When search parties failed to account for the correct number of bodies at the crash site, suspicion arose that the celebrated young royal had been captured by his assailants. The spokesperson for the EU summarily denied any complicity in the affair but to no avail; the masses, seized by passion and stoked by fresh recollection of their dashing hero of the desert demanded retribution in blood.
The incident's fallout was felt also in the political sphere where cooler heads were in session. Bolstered by popular sentiment, the Hawks prevailed over their more moderate counterparts at court and passed motion to expel the EU's representatives from the negotiation table at Tripoli, sidelining the Union from further talks with the North African League. They stopped short of expelling all European diplomats only at the intervention of Chancellor Schneizel, who strove to maintain official channels of communication in spite of the deteriorating situation.
His efforts were torpedoed when less than two days later, after months of relative inactivity overseeing the defenses of Gibraltar, Princess Cornelia surprised and routed several European units before enemy reserves ground the blitz to a halt, the attack prompting Europe to recall its ambassadors. Shortly afterwards, Princes Geoffrey and Alfred announced their plan to occupy Cairo and seize the Suez Canal in retaliation against Europe's "heinous and ignoble injury against our brother and fellow officer."
Though it is now known that a timetable had already been established for an Atlantic campaign, and that the incident merely coincided with and advanced the schedule by a short period, at the time, it seemed clear to all that the attempt on Prince Lelouch's life had tipped the World irreversibly into another period of war.
Sir Colin Sinclair; Britannian Conquests in the 21st Century; Random House, 2067"
The Capital, Palace Grounds
Euphemia was roused from bed by her maid in the dead of night. When she heard the news, the princess briefly wondered whether this was a bad dream that she might soon wake from, like those she had experienced from time to time since Lelouch left home. After a captain from the Security Service arrived to brief her with what little facts were known, she immediately called for her carriage and asked to be taken to the Aeries Palace, insisting that she be the one to bear the ill news to Nunally. Looking out the window of the car she caught sight of unsettling bright glows and a multitude of voices and noise coming from the direction of Embassy Row. Unconsciously, she pulled her fur-lined coat closer around herself, having departed in such haste so has to have nothing on but what she had worn to bed.
She now sat besides her sister in front of the television as the news footage altered between scenes of pandemonium and scenes of peace—outdoor vigils and candlelit interiors of churches as tens of thousands prayed for the deliverance of their prince. A man and woman dressed in plain dark suits stood outside the door of Nunally's bedroom, with more agents from the Security Service posted throughout the main house and the vicinity of the residence. It was explained that they were merely there as a precaution, as the Royal Palace was the most secure location in the Empire, if not the world.
Euphemia held her younger sister's hands between her own, knowing well that the comforting gesture was as much for Nunally's benefit as for her own. She called Gibraltar half an hour ago, hoping to obtain the updates regarding the search and rescue effort and Cornelia's safety, only to have her call taken by Guilford, who informed her that no news was yet forthcoming, that all efforts were being made to locate the prince, and that Cornelia was safe, albeit too busy at the moment to come to the phone. Relieved though she was at the trusted knight's assurance, the knowledge that her elder sister was too preoccupied to even speak with her impressed further upon Euphemia the grave reality of the situation.
"Yes?" Spotting the clock at the corner of the screen, she realized how late it was. Wiping quickly at the corner of her eyes, she smiled and stood. "I'm sorry, you must be tired. I'll tuck you in and stay here tonight, if there is any news I'll wake you right away…"
The small pair of hands she had been holding took hers instead. Euphemia paused; outwardly composed but for the telltale sign of tears, she was numb with fear for Lelouch's fate despite knowing that uncertainty was far better than confirmation of what she dreaded most. "Nunally?"
"Don't worry, everything will be well."
Euphemia realized her hands were trembling; was she that afraid? Had she not prepared herself for the possibility that he might not return, a possibility she was reminded of every time she donned her black veil to visit the next of kin of soldiers who had died overseas?
"Brother promised he would come back to us. He's never broken a promise before."
Nunally gave her hand a gentle squeeze, the younger sibling's unshakable faith in her brother—her only real family left in the world—hiding whatever grief and insecurity she was experiencing. In the face of such surprising strength Euphemia felt her own give out and she sank to the floor, head and arms folded in Nunally's lap as she wept and grieved and prayed for his safe return. Praised as an expert of empathy to those most in need, only the princess understood the irony of her situation; how easily she came undone when confronted with the loss of the one with whom her heart rested
Somewhere along the North African coast
Lelouch was aware that he was being moved. The seat of his pants scraped against grit and pebbles as he was dragged along in indelicate fashion by anonymous hands linked beneath his arms. He was laid to rest with his back propped against an uneven surface—a boulder or a broken wall that provided some shade, for the air immediately felt cooler. A lone pair of footsteps departed and then returned after an indeterminable length of time. He flinched at first to the touch of moisture against the side of his face before relaxing to the soothing sensation. Moments later he opened his eyes, his blurry vision refocusing onto the face before him, and he exhaled a deep sigh of relief.
Villetta smiled. "Welcome back, my Lord."
She produced a packet of oral rehydration formula which he forced himself to drink slowly. Ten minutes later, sufficiently recovered from the shock of a rough landing, Lelouch stood up to survey their surroundings. The smoldering ruins of their aircraft was visible in the far distance, the exact distance being difficult to gauge due to visual distortion caused by rising air from the oppressive heat. About 100 meters away was their seating from the transport, sitting amidst a mess of silken parachute and a deflated rubber-like membrane; the two oversized chairs which he and his subordinate occupied had been ejected as a unit, breaking away from the disintegrating fuselage of the plane before the membrane inflated to form a compartmentalized cocoon that surrounded the passengers inside, protecting them from impact and other hazardous elements.
The knightmare frame had been borne out of a solution for pilots to safely exit their vehicles in instances of fatal structural failure, and over the years, Britannian engineers had refined and applied their know-how on ejection seats and escape pods to a wider range of platforms, including the VIP transport which Lelouch had the good fortune of traveling on. He knew not the fate of the two pilots; in the chaos which followed the missile's impact against the aircraft's wing the plane had spun out of control. Scanning all around, he saw no sign of other ejection seats. It was possible that they had landed beyond the wreckage hidden from his line of sight or into the ocean; it was also possible that their seats had failed to launch at all. "Any guess as to where our location is?"
The female officer bowed her head as she considered. "We were flying East along the coastline; given that we were thirty-five minutes out from Tobruk when we were struck, we should be about… 300 miles West of where the regiment is stationed."
Out of the corner of his eyes, Lelouch noticed that Villetta was favoring her left arm. More demanding of his immediate attention however was the pulsing red light emitting from the back of one of the ejection seats. "Signal beacon?"
"Aye, friendly forces should be en route as we speak."
Not saying a word, Lelouch trekked back to the site from where Villetta had pulled him clear of. Mentally congratulating himself for choosing to wear his service pistol, which had been an optional accessory to his dress uniform, he withdrew the gun from his waist and taking careful aim fired twice into the blinking transmitter embedded in the rear of the seat. He then circled around and repeated the procedure to the other seat as his adjutant came running up to him. "My Lord! Why…"
"The people closest to our location are the ones who shot us down." He replaced the pistol in its holster and proceeded to dig out the remaining survival kit packed into the base of the seat. "They were waiting for us, which means they knew our flight plan and course. I would assume that they also have the equipment to track our beacon."
With a grunt, the prince pulled free the pack from underneath the seat. Rummaging inside, he found the utility knife and began to cut away at the parachute, remembering what Jeremiah had taught him on their outdoor survival sessions (which Nunally had mistaken for a camping trip and pouted over her brother's refusal to let her participate). Realizing what he was trying to do, Villetta joined him, and in a few minutes both had fashioned from the fabric crude turban-like head coverings which shielded their faces and scarves which protected their necks and shoulders from the sun. Lelouch, aware that the adrenaline in his system might wear off soon as the reality of his near-death experience sank in, carefully sheathed the knife and slid it beneath his belt. "We need to put as much distance between ourselves and the crash site. That will give whoever is looking for us a wider radius to search. If the pilots made it the distress signal from their seats will distract our pursuers' attention and buy us some time."
Villetta nodded; she understood that there was nothing they could do for the others who had been onboard.
"We have to find transportation or a way to contact the regiment; there are local settlements and Britannian outposts along the coast between here and Tobruk. We need to reach one before we are cut off."
"Who do you think is behind this, Sire?"
"I don't know." He had several suspects in mind, but seeing how all of them were after the same thing—his life—he decided that it made no difference… for now. "Let's move. I'll examine your shoulder once we reach somewhere that offers better shelter and cover."
Tobruk, 382nd Ashfordshire "Black Knights" Regiment Head Quarters
Jeremiah stared at the strategic map display, hands grasping the edge of the table as he studied the probable location of the crash site and its surrounding terrain. His hair and dress was unkempt; to his right was a tall mug of black coffee stewed to near viscosity, tea judged as too weak for such an occasion. Until two hours ago he was still suffering the effects of too much citrus in his system. All that was promptly forgotten when Kewell pulled him out of bed, the rare look of panic in the steady Australian's eyes alerting him to the fact that something had gone seriously wrong; he was correct. Around him, the command center was abuzz with nervous activity as men ran to and fro receiving and sending orders and information. He ran his hand roughly through his hair—he had not been under so much stress since the day Lady Marianne died on his watch, and if the worst should come to the Prince…
He looked up to find his friend dressed not in his uniform or pilot suit but the combat fatigue of a foot soldier; he also carried a helmet and submachine gun. "Talk to me, Kewell."
"The reconnaissance platoons have already left. I'm flying out with the medics and pioneers. We'll leave in seven minutes."
"I'll go out in the Sutherland."
"No." Kewell pressed a firm hand against Jeremiah's shoulder. "You need to be here; the men need leadership at this time."
"You stay then. I'll go with the search party."
"The General left you in charge…"
"Dammit man, my master is out there! You can't tell me to sit and wait until they show his body on bloody television!"
The sound of someone clearing his throat loudly alerted the pair to the presence of another. Standing at the entrance to the command center was an officer with a mustache whose cuff and shoulder boards boasted a single star each. Jeremiah pushed off Kewell's arm and scowled at the new arrival. "Who the devil are you?"
"Brigadier general Smith-Cumming, lieutenant colonel Gottwald. I am his highness prince Alfred's aide-de-camp."
Jeremiah felt his ire rise at the elder man's emphasis on their respective ranks, but saluted none the less. "Beg your pardon, sir. As you can see we are quite busy here. Major Kewell is about to set off…"
"That won't be necessary."
The young officer blinked, wondering for a moment whether fatigue had degraded his hearing. "Excuse me?"
"Major Kewell won't be going anywhere. Recall whomever you've sent already."
The command center fell silent, all eyes turned to their leader and the much shorter man who minutes after arriving had brought all activity to a standstill. Jeremiah opened and closed his fists, popping several knuckles in this process. "I'm afraid I don't understand."
Smith-Cumming, running a finger along his mustache, looked as if he'd rather not waste his breath explaining, and did so with the air of bestowing a great favor. "The rescue operation is being handled by XIV Division. In the meantime 382nd Regiment will assist XV Division in other pressing duties."
"And that would be?"
"Processing prisoners for eventual handover."
Jeremiah lost it; slamming his fist onto the table, he jabbed a finger into the chest of the superior officer. "Bollocks. You go back and tell your master to stick to his champagne and chamber maids; when I'm finished here I'll come for him."
"Prince Alfred sent me to assist 382nd Regiment after the loss of its commander out of honor and charity. Should any difficulties arise however, he has authorized me to take over command of the Regiment until that time when Prince Lelouch's fate has been determined." Withdrawing a lace handkerchief from within his jacket, the shorter man dabbed away the bits of spit that landed on his uniform. "Jeremiah Gottwald, your negligence has already led to the death of one Royal family member in the past, and while that case was forgiven, I hardly a think a repeat offence could go overlooked."
The only thing that kept him from grabbing his gun and shooting the man was the fist that connected squarely with his jaw and sent him sprawling. Tasting blood in his mouth, Jeremiah looked up to see Kewell standing where he had been a moment ago, glaring down at him before turning and bowing to the elder man. "Sir, I beg your forgiveness for that unseemly display. I assure you it will never happen again."
The man merely sneered. Jeremiah gritted his teeth, seething at Kewell's betrayal before the major continued. "… Never the less, our general left specific orders that lieutenant colonel Jeremiah is responsible for the regiment in his absence, and so long as his fate remains in doubt, the effects of the order remain and are not subject to revision."
The short man stopped stroking his mustache. "Are you questioning my authority, major?"
Kewell politely ignored him. "I recommend, sir, that for the time being you return to your unit. The incident has placed us all under tremendous strain, and your presence, while appreciated, may unsettle the rank and file who are terribly anxious about the Prince; guaranteeing your safety may become an issue."
For the first time since his arrival Smith-Cumming deigned to observe his surroundings, and found himself the focal point of many dark looks from those present, a situation which did not put him at ease; he adjusted his collar and turned to leave. "Insubordination, threatening a superior officer, I'll have the lot of you court-martialed for this."
When the dour man had gone, Kewell reached out his hand and pulled his friend to his feet. "No need to thank me, the pleasure was mine."
Still smarting from the jab he had just received, Jeremiah managed to grin. "Good acting there, I was convinced that you'd gone turncoat and switched sides."
"I considered it, but the habit of covering after your arse kicked in first."
Jeremiah rubbed his jaw. "I'm going to get your for this, you know."
Kewell shrugged. "You're welcome, but first, we've got work to do."
An hour after they had set off, the sound of a distant explosion from the rear startled the trekking duo who turned around to see a plume of smoke rise from the direction of where their aircraft had crashed. The resounding rumble was followed by a series of low, heavy staccatos. Knowing that they had no time to waste, the pair marched even faster, confining their path to the rugged coastline where nooks, crannies, and tidal caves offered good concealment should the need to hide arise while minimizing risk of leaving a trail.
Five hours later, overtaken by fatigue, the two paused to rest and refill their canteens, the miniature filters from their survival packs producing a clear and drinkable—if oddly flavored—water-like product. Half an hour's rest later they were on their way once more as the temperature began to drop to a more bearable level. They continued even after nightfall, navigating the difficult terrain with the help of a full moon, hugging the cliffs and listening carefully for voices or the sound of engines; by the time they stopped it was close to midnight. Completely spent after more than ten hours of marching, Lelouch agreed to let Villetta take the first watch after repeating the order that she should wake him in three hours.
Using his backpack as a pillow, Lelouch stretched his aching body out on a soft patch of sand, his pistol placed inches away from his hand. With the sound of the waves behind him, he slept the dreamless sleep of the dead.
To be Continued
Author's Notes: And so Lelouch's troubles continue. Originally, his little adventure following the plane crash was supposed to be wrapped up after one (this) chapter, but I've decided to split it into two when I realized there was too much to cover. I also did not want to have readers wait for more than a month. This chapter brings back Euphemia and Nunally after a long absence, which shows from my rusty handling of the two compared to Jeremiah and Kewell, whom I've become comfortable at writing after much practice.
Thanks to everyone who left me such wonderful feedback. Your encouragement makes me try harder to catch up to several of the authors on my favorites list; they are the true masters. Couple of notes: CC, Suzaku and Kallen will join the story eventually. The story will eventually move to Japan. As for whether I'm shooting for a Villetta-Lulu pairing... I don't know, honestly. For those of you who may be interested, I wrote a comedy starring Schneizel and Lulu in order to remind myself to not take my writing too seriously. The title is "Code Geass Funnies." Until next time.