XII. Return of the King
""What one must remember is that back then, the class lines which define Britannia also manifested themselves in her armed forces. The officer was viewed as a gentleman, and a commission in the army was considered a professional career with an esteemed place in society. The common soldier was treated with far less charity, however, and his aristocratic officer generally viewed him as such—an inferior creature to be commanded but not worthy of associating with outside the strictures of the camp; he dined in a separate mess and communed with his fellow officers in a club exclusive to their rank…
Both officer and enlisted man were poorly compensated. An officer's social obligations—the functions he was required to attend, the wardrobe he needed to maintain—rose with his rank, and a major could rarely afford to pay out of his salary the upkeep for the lifestyle necessitated by his office. This further placed the officer rank out of reach for the majority of Britannians, in that only the privileged classes such as nobles, landed gentry, and those who could afford the expenses that a commission entailed sent their sons (and in rare instances daughters) to become officers… Other than a mean allowance that barely covered living expenses, a first lieutenant's pay was 22,700 pounds per annum, a private 8400 pounds, with fifteen percent additional pay if he was deployed to war.
A footman working at a squire's country estate made an even thirteen grand, so for the majority of destitute and struggling families, it was far more desirable—if an opening was available and if the proper letters of recommendation could be obtained—to hire their children out to wealthy households as domestic help rather than enlistment. Ashfordshire's decline in 2010 was thus caused by the departure of the leading family of the county, who took with them not just the livelihoods of technicians, researchers, and factory workers but also that of menservants, maids, and other household staff.
The significance of Prince Lelouch's actions must then be placed within these historic circumstances. Upon his arrival, when he learned that the regiment's shortage of pilots was due to the lack of knights, the prince assembled the candidates—all trained and qualified but for the lack of a title—on the drilling field and knighted everyone there and then. He told us he believed that men are not born as but become gentlemen, and now was our chance to prove him right.
Today we know that it was by the prince's petition that a regiment was raised in Ashfordshire. To we who struggled for years under a selective and punitive recession, the prince represented hope; he gave us the opportunity to rise from our misery and we answered his call. A leader deals in hope, and the hope he brought nourished our desire for glory. Every man who came under his spell became a soldier—every man understood the confidence which the prince vested in him, and each strove to answer that confidence with his utmost. And when the odds were impossible; when common sense and all objective reason forecasted doom and disaster, none would lose heart, because so long as the Black Prince was leading us all believed that we would surely prevail…"
First Sergeant James Le Feuvre, knightmare company, 2nd Battalion, 382nd Ashfordshire Regiment.
Sixty Minutes with Diethard Reid: Class and Modern Military Reform, June 15, 2040."
Cornelia stood with her arms crossed inside a dark control room carved from the bedrock deep beneath the castle at Gibraltar, her somber expression dimly lit by a number of monitors as she observed the proceedings in the room next door through the large two way mirror. There, a senior commander from the Spanish army was hung from the ceiling by his ankles, recently captured during Cornelia's surprise attack—a large scale prisoner snatch disguised as a drive towards the port city of Algeciras. Her action was met with mixed reviews from back home; lauded as heroic by those hungering for war and reckless by the rest, including her second eldest brother. None of their opinions registered with the princess however, for her mind had been filled with a singular purpose since the assassination attempt took place; the return of her younger brother. "Again."
A Britannian soldier inside the interrogation chamber flipped a lever on the wall, releasing the chain which suspended its victim and plunged him into a hole in the ground filled with icy water. Twenty seconds of writhing and thrashing later the soldier reversed the switch and metallic gears grated as the man was lifted from the pool, his skin turned a shade of blue and body shaking as overworked lungs struggled to draw in oxygen. An interpreter stood close to the victim's face and repeated the question to which the commander replied in a stuttering voice that belied his desperation. The interpreter shook his head and turned towards the mirror and his superiors. "He says he doesn't know the prince's whereabouts."
Guilford, who had been viewing the process from behind Cornelia, averted his eyes from the gruesome spectacle. His concern for his master had grown over the past few days; although she was not known for her compassion, Princess Cornelia had always regarded interrogation by torture with distaste and left the unpleasant but important task to the experts. He had seen her show contempt for her enemies but never hatred on such a personal level, especially when that hatred may well be misdirected. After the hapless man was raised from the water for the fifth time he finally decided to voice his misgiving. "My lady, perhaps he is telling the truth."
She waited until the interpreter shook his head again. "The cattle prod."
"… And if that doesn't work, use coals." The princess glanced back over her shoulder, the cold fury in her eyes causing a chill to run down the bespectacled knight's spine. "Guilford, do you have some input on this matter?"
The young knight swallowed and nearly took a step backwards until he felt a heavy hand placed on his shoulder; it was Darlton, the elder knight who had served Cornelia the longest and knew her best. "Princess, with North Africa already in our hands the Europeans risk much and stand to gain little with such tricks. Nor is it in their character to do so."
Cornelia turned around slowly, the simmering wrath beneath her violet irises strong enough to cause any lesser man or woman to wilt or weep, but the veteran stood firm. "What are you suggesting?"
Darlton's voice lowered in spite of the fact that no one else was in the sound-proofed room. "…Those who wish the prince harm do not necessarily wear enemy uniforms."
A heavy silence ensued. After a minute, the princess spoke into the microphone which led next door. "Let him down; see to it that he lives, then put him back in the cell with the others."
She turned back to her subordinates and Guilford breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that she had regained her familiar expression; in command of her emotions despite the worry inside. "Keep talking with the Europeans. Remind them we're holding hundreds of theirs; if they have my brother they will return him."
"And if they don't have him?"
"Then they better hope we find him… soon."
Lelouch awoke when a hand gently shook him on the shoulder. Thin layers of parachute silk slid off his chest as he sat up drowsily, his attention immediately drawn to the harsh whistling from the wind outside the cave they had taken refuge in. He glanced at his watch and frowned; he had slept three hours past his turn to take the watch. "I told you to wake me at 2:00."
Villetta knelt by his side with her head bowed. "My apologies sire. I dozed off."
It was clearly a lie; he was worn out after two days of marching and she deliberately gave him more time to rest despite being close to exhaustion herself. "… Get some sleep. We'll delay our start today until this dust storm dies down a little."
The pair set off hours later with the winds still strong. After four days of walking Lelouch had come to the conclusion that it was both safer and less physically taxing to move by night, and decided that they should rest more often during daytime in order to conserve energy. Body still aching from the previous day's exertion, the prince shouldered his small pack and headed westwards with Villetta close behind, picking up the pace when the sun began to dip and the air turned cooler.
Jeremiah tapped his finger against his shoulder impatiently as his vehicle rolled along at a careful pace far below its normal speed; for the past two days a dust storm had grounded all flights over a large swathe of northern Libiya, compelling him to temporarily suspend search efforts and make his way to the crash site by land. In the backseat, Diethard Reid was busy fitting a filter over his camera, having hitched a ride (and nearly getting run down for his efforts) just as the column was heading out of base. The officer checked the time and cursed aloud, his eyes seeking out the red tail lights of the vehicle ahead through the swirling sands that lashed against the windshield. Thirty minutes later the column arrived at its destination when a soldier with a fluorescent baton guided the vehicle to a stop. Alighting from the transport, Jeremiah was dismayed to see the site filled with bundled up camera crews and huddled journalists. He turned to Diethard, who followed behind carrying his own camera. "It looks as though your colleagues beat you to the punch."
The pony-tailed reporter reached up to adjust his goggles. "Most of them are staying at the hotels in Tripoli; from there it's a shorter and much easier trip than the one we just made."
To keep out the dust, Jeremiah donned the ubiquitous infantry face mask as the soldiers under his command fanned out to clear the scene. The weight in his chest grew heavier with every step he took towards the remains of the transport; there was nothing left of the wings and fuselage except large and medium sized chunks of debris. The destruction wrought by the missile had been complete.
Too complete, perhaps.
"Odd," remarked Diethard as he walked up beside the officer and took in the scene. "I've covered a few plane crashes in my career but none have come close to this in terms of damage."
"I suppose none of them were shot down."
"True, but nor was this an ordinary civilian liner. Military transports are built to be more durable against attacks."
Jeremiah remained silent as he cast a glance towards the bagged remains of the pilots laid out beneath a tent that threatened to be carried off by the storm. They had been discovered near their ejected seats, which in turn were found near the epicenter of the crash in more or less one piece despite suffering severe fire damage; presumably, the pilots burned to death after their seats failed to launch fast or far enough away from impact. "Poor bastards…"
The lieutenant colonel frowned as he took in the wind-swept scene—there was no way to tell whether the prince and Villetta perished as well before a forensics team could arrive to sift through the bits and pieces for DNA samples, a task made just about impossible by the ravaging dust storm. Squatting down, he began to examine one of the seats and soon noticed that aside from the twists and deformations which resulted from the burning there were a number of small holes that appeared out of place. After leaning in for a closer look, he summoned one of his subordinates for a second opinion then finally yelled for the journalist, who came jogging over in a huff. Jeremiah directed Diethard's attention to the holes, which were roughly the width of a man's thumb.
"What sort of missile shoots bullets as well?"
At close to midnight, with the storm beyond them, Lelouch and Villetta arrived at a village by the ocean that had evidently been abandoned for some time. Finding few items of use except for a few mattresses and ill fitting articles of clothing, the two were about to settle down for the night when the sound of an motor engine was heard approaching.
Taking cover within a cottage, Villetta looked out and saw a single headlight come over the hill and towards the village—a motorcycle. The vehicle stopped close to the perimeter of the ring of houses and in the moonlight she made out the silhouettes of two dismounting riders; Britannian soldiers, the other whom had been riding in a sidecar, and she breathed a sigh of relief.
"Wait." A quick hand stopped her from rising. Lelouch peered over the windowsill as the two soldiers began walking through the houses one by one. "Do we inventory rigs like that?"
She looked again, brows knitting as she did so. "I'm not sure; it could be a special purchase by a different unit..."
At that moment, one of the midnight visitors stepped out from a house about fifty yards away and called out to his colleague. "Avez-vous trouvé?"
Lelouch and Villetta looked at each other, both acknowledging the changed situation in an instant.
Several minutes later, the two soldiers—their guard down after yet another search turned up empty—walked past the remnants of a walled off garden when suddenly a pop and hissing sound was heard and two flare sticks were thrust into their faces from around the corner. The bright light overloaded the image intensifying goggles they were wearing and sent the pair recoiling from temporary blindness. Stepping out from behind a section of the wall, Lelouch aimed and shot both flailing men twice in the back. Approaching the motionless bodies cautiously, he placed another round into the torso of each for precaution before kicking away the rifles lying on the ground. "Clear."
Villetta emerged from behind the corner and proceeded to stamp out the dropped flares. She looked at the bodies on the ground. "Who are these people?"
"I'm not sure, but we should leave before…"
In the next moment Lelouch was sprawled on the ground with his face pressed against the dirt. Grabbed by the back of his collar and flipped over violently, he found himself pinned under and staring up at his assailant, whose trickle of blood dripped from the corner of his mouth onto the prince's cheek as his hand seized around his throat. "Déverminage enfer!"
"My lord!" Villetta grabbed and raised one of the assault rifles to her shoulder, but her injury made aiming difficult and her finger remained taut on the trigger, paralyzed into indecision as the mortal struggle unfolded.
Unable to swallow or breathe, Lelouch clawed at the man's vise-like grip with his nails. Even with one arm hanging uselessly to the side, the strength in the soldier's single hand was still too much for him to pry away. Blood roaring in his ears and lungs screaming for air, he reached down to his waist, fumbling fingers finding and withdrawing a flare stick. With the last ounce of his strength, Lelouch ignited the flare by slamming the end of the tube into the ground and jammed the lit end into his assailant's face, averting his eyes from the blinding glare as he did so. The soldier roared in pain and Lelouch rolled away, gasping and hacking as his nostrils caught the pungent scent of burnt flesh. Villetta did not miss her opportunity and squeezed a three round burst through the man's chest; he collapsed forward and did not rise again.
She was immediately by Lelouch's side, supporting him as he sat up and slowly regained his breath and composure. He placed a shaking hand gingerly around his neck, feeling the welts there that were certain to bruise; it was as close to death as the young prince had experienced and the first time he took a life with his own hands. "… Let's go."
"I'm telling you, the scoundrels who shot down the prince are still out there. They arrived at the site, killed the pilots, and then blew everything to smithereens in order to make it look like they died from the crash."
Kewell dragged his fingers through his hair as he studied the images Jeremiah brought back through bloodshot eyes. "Half of our men have been out combing the desert between here and the crash site for the past four days. If a band of unidentified marauders were roaming about we would have certainly discovered them… unless they were disguised as Britannian soldiers."
Jeremiah shut his eyes as an even worse case scenario came to mind. "Or if they are Britannian soldiers."
The two men fell silent, the usually immaculate command center around them littered with foam coffee cups and ashtrays filled with cigarette stubs that reflected the bleak atmosphere. Both men knew that time was against them, the chances of their recovering their master and friend lessened with every hour that passed. Adding frustration to their stress was the unwillingness to send aid by the two other Britannian commanders in the theater, whose much larger forces could easily multiply the radius and thoroughness of the search effort. Jeremiah's repeated demands for an audience with both royals had been dismissed, and Kewell's lettered protests to Army High Command were met with ambiguous directives which ultimately left the decision to ranking local officers. Instead, the two princes had busied themselves in the past few days making preparations for the march to uncontested Cairo, the political and symbolic capital of the NAL, and both Jeremiah and Kewell were once again made aware of how thin and fickle support for their master was in high places back home.
At that moment an enlisted man burst into the room, nearly tripping as he rounded the corner at the doorway. Jeremiah recognized him as one of those under his command who had perimeter watch and waited for the excited soldier's explanation for leaving his post. "Well?"
The young private struggled for several seconds and then choked out his reply before he finished catching his breath. "The prince has returned!"
Hunched forms slumped over from lack of sleep straightened; tired eyes snapped open, every chair in the command center swung around towards the news bearer. Soon there was a stampede down the stairs and elevator with both senior officers right in the thick of the exodus as the noise from outside grew more audible. Once outside they saw that news had spread like wildfire and it seemed as if every soldier and officer in the regiment was sprinting from all across the base towards the front gates of Tobruk, where a raucous crowd had gathered and continued to grow.
In the midst of the hurrahs and hails and name chants and foot stamps and applause and service caps hurled into the air, Jeremiah elbowed his way through the mass of bodies (the euphoria and pandemonium was such that an order to give way could not be heard, and would not have been heeded in any case) until he reached the front of the human wall, where he saw his prince on a motorcycle, a white silken scarf tucked around his neck, surrounded by his joyful followers with a ragged-looking but smiling Villetta sitting in the sidecar. Tears broke from his eyes and he dropped to one knee and bowed in homage to his liege. "Welcome back, your highness."
Lelouch dismounted from the bike and smiled at his faithful servant. "Sorry for being late."
He raised his fist towards the sky, sending the thousands gathered into even greater uproar as they cheered their leader's triumphal return as though he defied death itself. A hundred feet away, Diethard had climbed onto the back of a Sutherland in order to capture footage of the scene on his camera. A surge of emotion which he vaguely identified as warm-blooded patriotism, mob adoration, and feverish hero-worship seized him by the soul as tears streamed down the side of his face. His heart soared like a man with scales removed from his eyes; after years of producing scripted talk shows and bland prescreened news he felt he had finally found the story of his career.
Seven hours later—after night fall and an afternoon spent fending off frenzied journalists who congregated at Tobruk after Diethard broke the good news to an ecstatic empire—Jeremiah walked into the top floor of the mobile base looking for a drink to relax his strained nerves. Instead he found his master out of bed, sitting on the sofa in the small lounge with a plate of sliced lemons, a bottle and tall glass of mineral water and a bucket of ice on the table. The marks on Lelouch's neck were dressed with fresh white bandages, his body covered in an oversized wine-colored bathrobe as he examined several documents sitting in his lap. "Jeremiah, have a seat."
The knight sat down, surprised that the prince was awake after so many restless nights in the desert. The prince added three more cubes of ice to his glass. "How is Villetta?"
"Resting in the ward; Kewell is with her. Doctor says the injury is minor and will heal shortly."
Lelouch closed his eyes momentarily as he raised his glass—in spite of the physician's negative diagnosis it was still somewhat uncomfortable to swallow. He placed one of the documents on the table and slid it towards his adjutant. "Have a look at this."
Jeremiah sat forward and began to study the contents. "70 million pounds from an account in the Bank of Britannia to… Leikhasse Handel & Co?"
"A private Swiss Banker, the transfer was made sixteen days ago." The prince tapped his finger against the series of zeroes printed near the bottom of the sheet. "Both accounts are codenamed and numbered, but the order originated from a branch in the Capital favored by nobles and the latter apparently belongs to a private military firm headquartered in Switzerland."
"And the men who attacked you spoke French."
"Could be a coincidence; still, if I were to chase down the numbers I wouldn't be surprised if they were linked to names in the family."
A deep-seated resentment began to boil within Jeremiah's chest. "How did you come across these, sire?"
Lelouch sank back into the cushions as he studied the logo of the company which had apparently been contracted to kill him. "A lieutenant from Signals, he said he received it from a member of the international media who arrived this afternoon and was asked to pass it on to me."
Jeremiah stood up. "I'll have the rosters checked right away."
"Don't bother, if this gift is from the EU—and I believe it is—then we won't find anything; they're naive, but not incompetent."
The officer slowly sat down again, elbow resting against one knee and chin in hand as he thought hard about the matter. "But why would the Europeans help us?"
"Perhaps to avoid war by directing us to the real culprits."
"Why us though? Why not go public with this evidence?"
"Because by now, no one in Britannia would trust a word from the EU… except maybe us." Lelouch turned on the television, where the news showed demonstrators joined by crowds bearing images and banners celebrating the Black Prince's return. "Also, if I were to publicly accuse members of the royal family—fellow commanders in the army, even—of plotting against my life at this crucial juncture, the empire would be thrown into bedlam and our will to enter war against Europe would be completely undermined."
"This is a trick then, the EU's attempt to divide and weaken us before war breaks out."
"No. The documents are credible, even though the gift comes with an ulterior motive." Lelouch smiled; having just survived one of the closest ordeals in his life, the youth found in himself the ability to find humor in the irony, that his enemies proved themselves more reliable and transparent than his allies.
Jeremiah watched the prince take another long sip of mineral water before asking the critical question. "What shall we do?"
Lelouch sighed and set the glass on the table. "If we act now it will be our word against theirs; secret tips from the hated Europeans, however true, will not aid our cause in court or in the eyes of the public."
Faced with the prince's cool countenance, a look of anger and dismay passed over the elder man's face. "Are we to swallow this offense then? Let the backstabbers get away with it?"
"Only for now." Lelouch lifted his chin and looked towards the ceiling as his eyelids grew heavy. "We'll sit on this for a little longer, and when this business in Africa is finished—when I return and consolidate my gains and when Alfred and Geoffrey have lost all credibility, then we shall settle accounts."
One week later, as mistrust and enmity continued to mount across the Atlantic and with no relief in sight, the Holy Britannian Empire declared war on the EU.
To be Continued
Author's Notes: Three weeks instead of my stated two, but this is an improvement, no? Happy Fourth of July to those in the United States! A welcome to the dozen or so new readers and a sincere thanks to the many who have stuck by this tortoise writer, especially when there are far more diligent authors out there. If anyone happens to read French I beg your pardon. If anyone is interested in what the three phrases say Google ought to turn up translations. This chapter concludes Lelouch's personal escapade and the next marks the beginning of the end of his run in the desert. In spite of the last line, the story's focus will eventually shift from war towards the eminent intrigue of society, school, and other fun things.
I have started taking a summer course and will travel to Switzerland and Munich in mid July, but hope that won't affect my pace (hah!) too much. Also, to those who have been reviewing: If you would note your gender and age I'd be much obliged. I'm guessing most of my readers are young males but hope to write a story that can appeal to both sides (one reason why the original show is so great). Thanks for reading, until next time.