Chapter 27: Thief in the Night
"Dear pizza thief,
Recent student and staff complaints have brought you to our attention. This is a reminder that stealing pizzas from student organized events and the cafeteria kitchen violates the Student Honor Code, section 5(b)(ii) and section 1(a). The possible consequences for your conduct are severe: demerits, notification of your parents, and suspension up to five days. Most importantly, you will lose the esteem of your teachers and peers when you are caught. No pizza in the world—no matter how fresh, hot, and delicious—is worth such humiliation.
You are hereby ordered to cease your acts of larceny and turn yourself in to the Student Council immediately. We have our best man on your case—a cool, talented, dangerous man who will follow you to the ends of the earth. If you surrender, I, Milly Ashford, promise to use all my influence with the board of trustees to intercede on your behalf with the administration so that any ill effects on your college applications may be minimized.
Student Council President,
Milly C. Ashford."
The man crossed his leg, then crossed it the other way. Dressed in a striped nickel-gray suit, Sawasaki Atsushi looked like a sullen scarecrow as he tapped his knee with nervous energy. A jade ashtray was stuffed with half-smoked Longlife cigarettes. An imitation antique lamp lit the hotel room. The bureaucrat glanced furtively at the clock and reached for another smoke only to find the carton empty. Muttering a curse, he crushed the wrapper and threw the wad under the table.
The phone rang. He snatched up the receiver before the first rang finished. "You're late."
"Our meal lasted longer than expected."
"Get your priorities straight. My men are embarked and ready…"
"Operation Hai-Long-Wang is postponed."
"What?" His pitch rose shrilly. "Why? For how long?"
"Indefinitely. The EU-Britannian conflict has not escalated as we hoped. Without the Empire preoccupied with Europe, proceeding now presents undue risk."
"That is not true. The authorities in Japan are distracted by the appearance of Zero, whose deed has reenergized the resistance." Sawasaki did not know who Zero was or whose side he was on. What he did know was Operation Sea Dragon, which he had been planning and preparing every day for the past four years. "Everything is in place. Strike now and the entire nation will rally to us."
"We disagree. From our observation, the Elevens remain happily servile under their new master."
"Master…" The former Chief Cabinet Secretary snorted derisively. "Clovis is a milquetoast; it has been weeks since the Kirkham Kidnapping and he has done nothing. He is a sad excuse for a leader. If he cannot deal with one man opposed to his rule, he will soil himself when 18,000 crack troops land on his shores."
"The Black Prince is formidable."
"Not without his army." Sawasaki had foreseen this debate the day he learned of the prince's arrival in Japan. He had gotten to know his hosts very well since he came to their doorsteps seeking asylum seven years ago. They were scavengers—nocturnal, opportunistic, with unmatched survival instincts. They had circled and salivated over the juicy carcass of Japan for years, but were now having second thoughts at the sight of the young lion standing over their prize. "Fame has gotten to young Lelouch's head, and now he spends his days drowning in wine and women. We have seen this before."
A group murmur was heard on the other end. The Japanese statesman detected progress and pressed his case. "Our great nations share an ancient saying: One cannot seize the cub without entering the tiger's den. A sixth of Japan's Sakuradite deposits lies in Kyushu—10% of the world's supply—but only those who dare can reap the reward."
Silence, followed by a rebuke. "Despite your experiences you have little respect for your enemy, a harbinger of defeat." It was yet a different voice, one of eight, each of whom spoke in the plural on behalf of the collective. "We are concerned history shall repeat and our resources shall be wasted."
"This time is different. We are prepared, they are not. We'll be the ones catching them by surprise." He looked up to the Japanese flag displayed on the wall, which he took from the National Diet Building. "Upon my honor, I swear I shall succeed… and die if I do not."
More murmuring and deliberation; Sawasaki swallowed, his throat dried by nicotine and anticipation. The clock on the wall ticked loudly.
"Very well, General Zhao will contact you shortly. We have invested much treasure in your endeavor… do not betray us."
His hosts hung up.
Sawasaki slumped back in the chair. He ran his bony hand through his hair and found it slick with perspiration. A few minutes later he rose and pulled back the window curtains. The island city glittered beneath him, and beyond the ink-black ocean, mere hours away by ferry, lay Japan.
"With three days until the Founder's Fair, Ashford Academy is bubbling with excitement as students strive towards the finish line. Leading the charge are the members of the Student Council, joined by two distinguished honorary members who graciously volunteered their time to…"
Lelouch folded the school newspaper, looking like he'd just been served lukewarm tea at breakfast. "This article is inaccurate."
Shirley, pen twirling in hand, turned to the elder of the distinguished honorary members of their student council. "Where?"
"I did not volunteer."
"What a coincidence then! You showed up right when we were about to make the rounds."
"Milly texted, saying she had something important to tell me, and to meet her afterschool." Lelouch gave his old friend a dirty look; she smiled innocently. "You know had it been anyone else, they would almost certainly have gotten the wrong idea."
"Awww, were you disappointed?" Milly handed him a roll of tickets, each stamped with the President's seal. "Here you are; one hundred tickets. These will be good for all the booths and the raffle on the day of the fair."
Her hand remained extended, palm up. "That'll be fifty Pounds."
"What?" Lelouch frowned. "I thought council members got free tickets."
"That may be how they do things in Pendragon, but we run a tight, clean ship here, your lordship."
"Fine. You can have the tickets back."
Milly's wiped at invisible tears and quivered the corner of her lips. "How could you treat me with such indifference after I nursed you back to health from that awful cold? Day and night, I put aside my duties as President and stayed by your side, feeding you, comforting you, changed your clothes, bath…"
"Okay. Okay." Lelouch grumbled as he dug for his wallet, not wishing the world to hear Milly's sensational account of her playing nurse to his English patient. He had only himself to blame; running around in the middle of a freezing storm had consequences. Following the Kirkham incident, Darlton returned to Britannia unmolested and Clovis, after considering his younger sibling's advice, did not drive the investigation. Tabloids and experts filled the air with theories ranging from mob to government-sanctioned assassination.
For his role in ridding the world of a monster, Lelouch was rewarded with fever, chills, blocked nose and sore throat and was confined to bed for a week. During that time he was tended to in turn by Sayoko and Milly; Nunnally would've kept him company, but her constitution was no stronger than his and he was afraid she'd catch whatever he had. He resisted Milly at first, but Sayoko could not refuse her mistress and had to wait on Nunally during school. Lelouch yielded. Over the week people from the student council visited him with well-wishes and goodies. It was as comfortable a situation a patient could hope for. The lone exception was when Lelouch found himself alone with Kallen who, armed with a sharp fruit knife, peeled the apples Nina brought him. She also ate half of the apples.
The student council continued their inspection of the preparations for the festival. "Neeeeext up, the Italian Cuisine Club. They will offer wood-fired margarita pizzas from a brick oven." Rivalz inhaled deeply when they walked into the busy instructional kitchen.
"There's more than one cooking club?"
Nina flushed and averted her eyes when she realized the prince was talking to her. "Um, yes, students from the original club couldn't agree on what kind of food to make; some wanted to split off. Milly agreed to let the form a new club and have priority access to the kitchen if they could outsell their rivals."
Lelouch lifted a brow; it was a good call. Milly crossed her arms and puffed out her chest proudly, causing Rivalz to walk into a cabinet corner.
After checking all the boxes on the list, the group left and headed downstairs. Shirley walked up besides Lelouch. "So… I have a question I've been dying to ask."
"What's it like growing up with ninety-three brothers and sisters?"
He rubbed his chin. "Well, for starters, it's not like having ninety-three brothers and sisters. Each of the Emperor's wives has her own estate within the palace grounds, and each runs her own household. The ages of the wives and children vary greatly. Odysseus, my oldest brother is… 33. I believe the emperor's youngest wife is 21."
Kallen showed a look of revulsion. "That's kind of gross."
"I don't disagree. Anyways, the last issue was born two years ago. Aside from true siblings—that is to say, borne and brought up by the same mother—the rest are like normal strangers. I could try and tell you all the names of my half-siblings, but I can't guarantee I'd get them all."
"I wonder what it'd be like if all the Emperor's wives and children lived together." Shirley pictured the scene and giggled.
"They tried that once. Didn't work out."
There was a brief lull. Rivalz cleared his throat. "So... how many wives do you think you'll be having?"
Water dripped from the ceiling and the blinking fluorescent lights swayed whenever a metro rumbled overhead. Rolo sat on a folded stool and read a book—a story about high school boys and girls flirting and fighting and falling in love. It was a difficult read. He looked up now and then to see how the interview was going.
This was his first trip to Hong Kong, which the Empire turned from a sleepy village into one of the world's leading financial centers. The former colony now belonged to the Chinese Federation. Two decades ago, as the end of the 99 year lease drew near, there had been lively debate from the bar counter to the Emperor's Round Table on whether Britannia should turn over the territory. Hong Kong was considered the model colony, the crown jewel of the empire: integrated, prosperous, and peaceful. Some analogized the situation to returning an adopted child to biological parents who made their claim only after all the hardship and expenditure for raising a child to maturity had been borne by someone else.
Certainly there was no debate in the Federation; the prevailing view in China was that all Hong Kong yearned to be free from its colonial yoke and return to the embrace of the motherland, which it has been an inseparable part of for 5,000 years. In the interest of continued friendship between the two great powers, respect for regional stability, and international comity, the Federation urged the Empire to honor its word, or else.
As is par of course in dealings between great powers, the people most affected—the citizens of Hong Kong—had no say.
In the end, the doves at Pendragon—diplomats, fiscal conservatives, and business leaders—persuaded the former Emperor that Hong Kong was not worth fighting over. A common argument was even if Britannia succeeded in holding onto Hong Kong, the Federation would simply cut off water and electricity. The decision to give up the territory was much criticized, and the criticism only strengthened when shortly after the Federation aligned itself with the EU against Britannia. The backlash helped define foreign policy for the next generation: the Empire would never, ever, relinquish its hard earned acquisitions again.
The interview was being conducted in Cantonese, which Rolo was not fluent in, but he sensed his local counterpart—a young Asian man with the sleeves of his white dress shirt rolled up—was making progress with the shaking man handcuffed to his chair.
Interrogation was not Rolo's forte. It was not that he was morally opposed or unwilling to get his hands dirty. The fact was his youthful good looks did not lend his words credibility, and often he would have to cause much suffering before his subjects took him seriously. This ran counter to the art and object of interrogation, which was to obtain information with the least amount of physical invasion, undesirable for many reasons.
He was here to provide security and support. It helped that he had not been in Hong Kong before, and his face was unfamiliar to competing services operating in the city. He was dressed like a prep school student, and his chic uniform—navy blue jacket, imperial red tie, checkered slacks—contrasted starkly with the business at hand.
Rolo remembered the four Is of intelligence gathering: Ideals, Incentives, Intimidation, and finally, as a last resort, Injury. For now the interrogator stuck with show and tell; he showed the informant the instruments he would use on him if he did not talk while telling him that he could walk away to a bank account containing a nice bonus if he would just cooperate.
The young agent studied the professional at work: When the frightened subject seemed on the fence, he produced his smartphone and showed him high-definition videos of what they did to people who did not talk. Rolo took note of this innovative use of mobile technology. The subject began to talk.
Thirty minutes later, the pair emerged onto street level from the subway and blended into the well-heeled lunch time crowd. "Well?"
"The Federation is planning a big move."
"Not sure. Australia, Middle East, nowhere near here. It'll be soon though. He said there's no European connection, but that's not something he would know."
"What are the chances he's lying?"
"One out of three? I don't quite believe him myself, but we've been hearing things along a similar vein from various sources. Of course, he knows what we'll do to him if we found out he lied to us."
Rolo said nothing. Though MI6 could be brutal when it chose to be, there were far less civilized intelligence services who preferred Injury as the second, even first I out of the four. But his job was not to think about these matters. They would present their findings—sources indicate high likelihood of Federation direct action against Britannian interests outside Asia—and let the higher ups draw conclusions. He checked his watch. "Do we have time for lunch?"
"Sure, would be a shame if you didn't have dim-sum on your first trip to Hong Kong."
The student council lunched at a café close to campus. Lelouch picked up the tab, a much appreciated gesture from all except Kallen, who insisted on paying her own. "Did anyone watch Sunday's special report about Zero?"
Rivalz nodded as he chewed a mouthful of garlic bread. "Crazy how many holes they left in the walls."
"I think it's awful." Nina had spaghetti. "I had to change the channel when they started showing recreated footage of the scene."
"Zero, Zero Zero. That's all you've wanted to talk about lately." Milly licked a smidge of pie and ice cream from her spoon and pointed at Kallen's nose. "You, my dear, are completely in love with the Man Behind the Mask."
"I am not! I just think it was extraordinary how he took justice into his own hands."
"Justice?" Lelouch rested his cup back on its saucer. "Masked man armed with illegal assault weapons invades private residence, kills thirty-two and kidnaps the exonerated accused. Mass murder is more like it."
"I'm sure Kirkham and his crew did not have permits for their guns either. Everyone there took part in that massacre, and when the justice system failed to punish them, Zero did." Lelouch shrugged. Kallen held him with an intent gaze. "You must think of him as a terrorist."
"On the contrary, I think he's a hero."
Kallen mouth opened, then closed, then opened. "What?"
"Why not? He killed some very bad men. If I were Zero, I would've cased that lieutenant's feet in cement and dropped him in the deepest part of the ocean."
Kallen watched Lelouch in astonishment. The prince decided that since he had ventured this far he might as well play the line out all the way. "In fact-and this a State Secret, so I am swearing you all to secrecy-I am Zero: Playboy prince by day, avenging angel of justice at night."
Shirley frowned. "…Playboy?"
Kallen sat back, angry now that she realized he had been mocking her. "Zero tore a car in half. You couldn't lift a putter."
"How do you know that beneath these clothes I'm not concealing serious muscle?"
"Ha! Muscles? I can testify…"
"To what's under Lulu's clothes?" Milly placed her hands on the redhead's shoulders. "Is there something the two of you have been keeping from us?"
Kallen's face glowed. She glared at Lelouch, whose relaxed posture and little smile said what the heck are you talking about? Kallen stabbed her fried shrimp.
The janitor wheeled his cleaning cart down the hallway. He met a pair of security guards with pistols strapped to their thighs; they walked passed him as if he was invisible. Mindful of the floor's surveillance cameras' and their blind spots, the janitor unlocked a door and walked in. The sign on the door read Central AC.
He began working here four months ago. The contractor who handled civilian HR for the military saw that he studied English abroad in Seattle for two years and stamped him through. No one suspected a Master's degree holder applying for a job as a janitor; that was common for Elevens without Honorary Citizenship. His best friend from school—a PhD candidate before Britannia invaded—sold hot dogs in Shibuya. He tried to persuade his friend to join him, but his friend refused: Yes, he hated the Empire for ruining his life. Yes, it was an indignity for him, a Professor, to be peddling hot dogs on the street, but the hot dog stand put food on the table and kept his home lit and warm.
Rummaging through the garbage bin on his cart, the janitor pulled out a canister the size of a roll of toilet paper and a gas mask. With a screwdriver he removed a panel from the vent which carried air to the rest of the Communication and Command Center. He reached up and placed the canister inside the pipe, pushing a button on top. A barely audible hiss signaled the release of its contents. He smiled from behind the mask. "Nippon Banzai."
Around the same time, a hideous teal hatchback carrying a tourist and his irritable wife pulled up to the gatehouse in front of Fukuoka Naval Base; their GPS was malfunctioning (according to the husband) and they needed help getting back to their hotel.
The security guards exchanged looks,but at least the visit broke the monotony of the shift. One guard walked up to the car with a map in hand; he was shot three times in the chest. His colleague was knocked out of his seat by a high-powered rifle round that punched through the reinforced-glass window and shattered his shoulder. The last thing he saw was the wife walk in, silenced pistol in hand.
The husband texted the go-code into his cellphone. The front gates—access to which was controlled from inside the command center—opened, signaling to the couple that the infiltrators had succeeded. A column of tour buses pulled off the freeway and cruised into the base. Chinese Federation commandos poured out and fanned out towards their targets. They moved silently but swiftly; the landing was scheduled to start in 90 minutes.
It was another day on the job for the captain of HMS Black Acre, an attack submarine of the Royal Navy. Their patrol order, issued eight days ago from Pearl Harbor, was to creep along Japan's coastline while avoiding detection by friendly forces. The Service was concerned by Europe's submarine fleet, which wreaked havoc when the war broke out. As a result training exercises were increased, which meant shorter breaks in between deployments for the captain and his crew of 31. So far the wolf had eluded all the hunters and morale among the crew of was high.
"Captain, come see this."
He walked over to the sonar officer, who oversaw the instruments that served as the submarine's eyes and ears. "What is it?"
"Picking up a lot of activity… lots of activity."
"PACOM said the Koreans are conducting night exercises in this sector from 2300 till 0400 hours." The captain checked the printout from the communication unit, which received messages over extra low frequency when the submarine was submerged and out of reach by normal radio and satellite. The signals were relayed from broadcast stations around the world, the closest of which was in Fukuoka Naval Base. "They should be finishing up soon."
"I know sir, but something's off. Listen." The captain donned the extra pair of headphones. "Twin and single screws, high pitch, water jets. Not DDs or FGs. Have to be small boats; landing craft, bearing South South-East. That's Area Eleven, Sir. "
Odd indeed. The captain weighed the situation against his orders from PACOM to run silent for the duration of the patrol, and came to a decision. "XO."
"Antennae Depth. Ready the relay. We're going to check in with Fukuoka."
The boy mumbled before flipping onto his side. A firm grip on his shoulder jolted him awake. Eyes snapping open, he found the imposing silhouette of the Emperor towering by his bed. "Father?"
"Get up. Get dressed."
He shivered when he climbed out of the warmth of his bed and quickly pulled on a robe. It was barely morning. Out in the hallway he found many of the maids crying. The man servants whispered among themselves in grave tones. "What's happened, father?"
Charles did not reply. Lelouch ran to keep up with his giant strides. People in uniform hurried to and from the direction of his sister's bedroom down the hall. "What..."
"Silence." His tone brook no objection. Lelouch followed him meekly. He was scared. He saw his father once a month and they rarely talked. He wanted to be with Nunnally and he wanted his mother. Where was mother?
Charles led him to the empty library and closed the door. Satisfied that they were alone, the Emperor lowered himself until he was close to eye-level with his son. His eyes were dark and the rims were red. "Now, look at me and listen carefully to what I have to say…"
Lelouch opened his eyes and the world came into focus. He had broken out in a sweat and strands of his hair clung to his pale forehead. He could recall nothing from the dream but had the strange feeling that he seen it before. Some nights, increasingly rare as the years passed, he would wake up in the middle of the night and find his eyes wet, and he would know he had just dreamed about Marianne. This dream was different; it was as if his mind let down its guard in slumber and gave him a glimpse of something he was not supposed to see, and then he would wake up just in time, banishing the shadowy words and images in a flash.
It was all speculation of course. After all, how could his own mind act against him?
Climbing out of bed, nearly tripping on the gnarled sheets in the process, he walked to the table where a glass and pitcher sat. Feeling a unexpected breeze against his warm skin, he noticed he had left the French doors to the balcony open. The silken curtains swayed, and there was a sweet scent in the air from the flowers outside. He locked the doors, pulled back the sheets and tried to sleep.
Clovis lowered himself into the Jacuzzi full with bubbles and deeply inhaled the refreshing aroma of grapefruit oil. He was not a particular fan of grapefruit, but liked the fact that it took one ton of peel to produce 10 grams of oil. Mozart's concertos played from concealed speakers, transporting the prince to Strasbourg. This was how Clovis liked to start his days, and woe be unto the servant who interrupted his morning baths for any reason.
He reviewed the day ahead. In the morning he was scheduled to give a press conference on continued efforts to apprehend the infamous outlaw Zero.
"At this moment, I have ordered all law enforcement to make the arrest of Zero their top priority. All leads are being investigated, no resources spared… I am also announcing that the award for information leading to Zero's capture is hereby raised to the cool sum of… One million Pounds! No, wait, make that… 800,000… 750,000? 500,000. Yes. The cool sum of 500,000 Pounds. And if the renegade Zero and any of his accomplices are foolish enough to remain within our borders, rest assured he will be swiftly brought to justice."
Clovis had no doubt that the culprits had fled Area Eleven's borders and were far beyond of his jurisdiction by now, which was fine with him. Capturing the vigilante who invaded a fortress and prevailed in a shootout with 30 mercenaries would be some other governor's headache.
He cleared his throat, envisioning the cameras and faces of the roomful of journalists spellbound by his every word. "I would also like to take this opportunity to assure everyone that Area Eleven has never been safer, and there is no better place in the world… the Imperial realm, to live, visit, and do business… Sebastian?"
Rehearsing in the Jacuzzi made him thirsty. The butler placed a glass of Mimosa in the prince's hand. Clovis sipped, swept back his golden tendrils with one hand and pronounced the drink satisfactory. Sebastian was a rare gem among butlers who could consistently mix a Mimosa to meet his exacting standards, and who was really named Sebastian at birth (as warranted by the butler agency). It meant he was substantially more expensive to hire, but was worth it for the kudos one received from having a butler named Sebastian. "TV."
The mini-theater screen displayed twelve channels simultaneously. The dutiful butler, holding the remote, waited for his master's pleasure. Clovis scanned them quickly and frowned; something was going on. "Seventy-Seven."
Area Eleven News filled the screen. Cameras showed footage of soldiers riding on military vehicles and unfamiliar KMFs inching down packed urban streets, flanked by cheering onlookers. At first he thought he was watching documentary footage, or perhaps a trailer from a politically-incorrect, intentionally provocative upcoming Hollywood piece of filth.
Then the camera showed what was clearly a photo-op of the former Japanese Cabinet Secretary, wading ashore in knee-deep water, a general in Chinese Federation uniform besides him and a flag of Japan waving behind them like the sun. Sawasaki looked confidently into the camera and announced that as promised seven years ago, he had returned.
Sebastian flinched when His Highness hurled his Mimosa at the wall. An impressive string of perfect Parisian profanities followed. Clovis stepped out from the Jacuzzi, bubbles clinging to his form like an enraged Venus emerging from the sea. "Phone!"
The handset was in Clovis' hand in a second. "Hello? Yes... I saw it on the morning news. Do you understand me? My Area is being invaded and I am learning about it on TV!" He extended one arm as several maids appeared to towel him off and dress him. He did not like what the other end had to say. "I don't care who they are, I want bombs away over their heads by the time I arrive at my office. Understand?"
Clovis hung up. "Sebastian!"
"Yes Your Highness."
Clovis pointed at the ceiling. A moment later the pretty violin concerto ceased and was replaced by stirring Wagner. Clovis closed his eyes and soaked it in; listening to Mozart while crushing his enemies would be like pairing red meat with white wine, or white sox with black shoes. Clovis shuddered at the thought.
That would just be so wrong.
To be Continued
Author's Notes: Where to begin?
I took the BAR, and I was planning a trip to help myself forget that I took the BAR when I found a job at a firm. Although it requires me to get up at 6:30 every morning and commute three hours round-trip in increasing inclement weather, I'm glad to be working and consider myself lucky.
Now that the bleeding in the checking account has been halted, I find myself able to write again. Steve Jobs' passing (R.I.P., Wizard of Cupertino) prompted me to examine my current station in life: I was reminded that life is too short (particularly true in his case), and work is a big part of life, and that true satisfaction comes only when we feel we're doing great work, and to do great work we must love what we do, and we should not settle or stop searching until we find what we love doing.
I'm still searching for what I love, but at the moment, even after a hiatus of more than a year, it is clear that I like bringing this story to people who enjoy it more than my current job, way more. I'm not sure what that means; too bad Steve is no longer around or I'd have asked him. For now though, I'll keep on writing, and I hope you'll keep on reading too.