Chapter 28: The Three Princes

"Dear Diary,

Politicians are taking up more and more time on TV. When I asked what was so important that One Piece had to be rescheduled, dad explained that it's politics. I said I didn't understand. He went on to explain that Britannia wants our Sakuradite, and the Prime Minister wants to challenge them, but others say that is too dangerous. That's why One Piece was rescheduled.

No one mentions war. Sensei said war is impossible. Our last war was a long time ago, when grandma was my age, and it was so terrible everyone agreed it could never happen again.

XxXxX

Dear Diary,

Politics were forgotten because today is the start of Summer Koshien. But not for long; two innings in the match on TV is interrupted for breaking news: Europe and the Chinese Federation condemn Britannia and fully support Japan's cause, but did not promise they would come help us if peace talks failed. A political science expert talked about the significance of the announcement. He used a lot of big words; the gist was Europe has no money and China does not meddle in other countries' affairs.

The news flash lasted fifteen minutes and coverage of the game continued; thank goodness no one scored. I cheered on our home team. Dad left the living room and talked with mom for a long time.

XxXxX

Dear Diary,

Today the Prime Minister appeared on TV looking very grave. He told us that Japan stood alone and called on all of us to defend the country. Afterwards the adults in the neighborhood gathered outside; no one knew what would happen next. We glued ourselves to the screen. The opposition parties introduced a motion of no confidence; it failed by four votes. When the final count was announced a shouting match broke out and turned into a brawl. Two hours later a reporter from Hawaii said Pearl Harbor was closed to visitors. The base's docks were empty; no one knows where all the sailors and ships went.

I was awoken by the tsunami warning sirens while lying in bed that night, but there had been no earthquake. It was just a drill.

XxXxX

Dear Diary,

Mom says we're going to Grandma's. Dad packed his fishing rods. He talked about how he'd catch our meals; I doubt it. I packed this week's Hana to Yume, a bag of caramels, my swimsuit, and my Walkman so I can listen to the tournament. The freeway was packed with others leaving Tokyo, and mom nagged dad for not taking the train. I heard the bad news just as I reached the midpoint of my manga: Koshien was postponed! First cartoons, then baseball. Things must be really serious."

The Diary of Haruka; HarperCollins, 2015."


Somewhere on the island of Kyushu, Area Eleven

In an abandoned factory hidden behind high walls, men and women in lab coats hustled about loading cargo into a row of delivery vans. What they could not bring they destroyed; incinerators roared, filling the air with an acrid stench. An industrial compressor mashed non-flammables into veiny blocks that were fork-lifted out back and buried beneath a mountain of gutted cars. The methods were a far cry from the clinical nature of their profession, but time was running out. Their orders were to erase all trace of their ever having been there.

"One hour! We leave in one hour!"

General Bartley dabbed the sweat on his bald head with his dainty handkerchief. He was a man who perspired easily—at boarding school, his classmates dubbed him Prespirus Asperus—and he had not stopped sweating since news of rebels seizing Fukuoka Base. His collar was filthy, his throat was hoarse from the disgusting air and from screaming at his staff. Bartley locked himself in the foreman's office and worked the desktop phone. The wireless networks were overloaded after the pretender Sawasaki's landing before going offline altogether, jammed by signals from the Base—ironically, a capability intended to help quell civil unrest.

His instructions were clear: When threatened with compromise, Bartley was to cover his tracks and move posthaste to the secured zone. That had been Fukuoka, a mere three hour drive away. Now his goal was to get as far away as possible from Fukuoka before the rebel perimeter expanded and closed his escape routes.

Bartley gripped the dusty phone—one of his technicians was just old enough to remember how copper landlines operated and repaired it. The phone threatened to slip from his damp palms.

"Sir! This is Bartley … Yes, the sample is stable and ready to move, but the rebels control the crossings to the mainland and the airports and… We cannot stay here! If we are discovered, if your role came to light…"

Bartley stopped abruptly, mouth agape as though an invisible hand grabbed his throat, and the color drained from his face. "No, no, of course not, please forgive me, I was not myself… I understand. Your humble servant."

XxXxXxXxX

"Look." From his seat by the window, clusters and lines of colorful dots—umbrellas carried by pedestrians and commuters—were visible through the rain and mist, "Even in a crisis they keep good order."

Sitting across the narrow cabin, Villetta fixed the headset over her long silver hair.

"Perhaps crisis is hyperbole. Compared to seven years ago, this must feel like a drill for the people of Tokyo." The prince mused as they flew by a dripping billboard with a girl sipping a bottle of iced tea.

Villetta said nothing, not even bothering to look up from her notebook. A patch of turbulence shook their transport. Lelouch hooked his finger beneath his suddenly snug collar. With no one to talk to, he looked outside again and saw one of the heavy gunships flying escort, but it was not danger from without that made him uneasy.

Following the incident at the hotel, Villetta had insisted that he cease associating with Kallen, who she deemed a security risk. While Marika and Claudio were satisfied by the prince's story, the baroness found the circumstances surrounding his steamy tryst with the redhead incredible.

Lelouch anticipated that she would not be so easily convinced:

"Have you proof that Miss Stadtfeld is an agent with a hostile agenda?"

"No, but her—pardon my choice of words—wanton behavior presents risks that outweigh any benefit."

He smiled. "Having experienced them first hand, I think it fair to say that I am the better judge of the risks and benefits."

Lelouch hoped that would allay Villetta's concerns. They did not. When Lelouch visited Nunnally and the Student Council he increasingly noticed his trusted lieutenant hovering in the background like an overbearing parent, thinly disguised in a tracksuit with a whistle dangled around her neck. Before long the student body began to buzz about a pretty new PE teacher.

Appreciative for her concern but feeling stifled, Lelouch tried again to assuage Villetta, omitting the details of how he had Suzaku trail Kallen and learn of her complicated family history. "Colonel, you'll be relieved to know that I have conducted a thorough personal investigation, and I assure you that Miss Stadtfeld is above suspicion."

He was not sure what went wrong—perhaps it was his smugness, which sometimes got the better of him—but Villetta withered him with a look that would have frozen mammoths.

"Indeed? I have no doubt your highness' investigation was thorough, and that Miss Stadtfeld was perfectly cooperative with… the probe, but I question your impartiality in reaching the conclusion, given the distractions she presents."

As she excused herself he heard her mutter, "Men."

They disembarked on top of the Governor's Palace, where they were greeted by one of Clovis' secretaries. Fighter jets roared overhead as the sky continued to pour. Security on the ground was visibly heightened with Elite Guard troopers lurking on every corner. Lelouch noticed the many vacant desks. "Has the Governor sent everyone home?"

The girl guiding them smiled, "Only the Honorary Britannians."

Lelouch had already been briefed on the known facts: Two days ago, a Marine air station in Okinawa contacted Tokyo, forwarding a report from SS-72, HMS Black Acre,observing Chinese Federation forces landing on Western Kyushu. Tokyo immediately contacted Fukuoka Base, which reported no unusual activity. The confusion caused by the conflicting accounts was resolved when the submarine ceased transmission. Around six AM, reports of foreign troops began trickling in from local police stations. The rumors were confirmed when online bulletins and the blog sphere exploded with photos and videos of Chinese knightmare frames and Japanese soldiers driving through the suburbs and approaching Fukuoka City proper.

Shortly after, all of Area Eleven tuned in to watch Sawasaki Atsushi, former Chief Cabinet Secretary of Japan, proclaim the liberation of Kyushu and himself the president of the new Japanese Republic. That was twenty-four hours ago.

"Imbeciles!"

Clovis' voice reverberated into the hallway. Inside the command center, he found his brother screaming at a group of officials. "What idiots work for me that I learn about an invasion of my area from the morning news? Do you realize how this makes me look? I'll have all of you fired for this!"

The tirade continued for another minute before Clovis booted the hapless men out. The room was alive with activity, staff keeping their heads down to avoid attracting the Governor's ire. Clovis shook his head as he walked towards Lelouch, palms up. "Good help is so hard to find."

Lelouch thought of the Honorary Britannians sent home and the current state of short-handedness. "Perhaps I may be of some assistance."

"I appreciate it. Your presence alone has increased the intelligence in this room two fold."

They stood before the main display, which showed north western Kyushu and a rotating pyramid denoting Fukuoka base. "The Navy has finally stirred from their slumber and closed the strait. The Federation's transports have scampered home and they've been smart enough to stay there, else the fish would feast aplenty."

Lelouch took measure of the situation: Elements of a Heavy Division, with its full strength of KMFs, were moving south from Hokkaido. There were plenty of troops in Area Eleven to confront the invaders, estimated at two brigades. The presence of the Royal Navy and Air Force meant a battle would be lopsided. "Any updates on Fukuoka Base?"

"No. The Federation had to have inside help, which is why I've put Honorary Britannians on administrative leave. "

"But you don't know the insider was an Eleven."

Clovis looked askance at his brother. "Who else could it be?"

Lelouch said nothing. A blue phone embedded in the desk rang. Clovis answered it himself. "General? I've been waiting to hear from you. I gave you orders to destroy enemy forces wherever they're found. Where are the explosions… what? Ordered to stand down? On whose authority?"

The doors to the conference room opened and the noise in the room died down. The phone was left dangling by its cord.

"… Schneizel."

"I came as soon as I heard." The second prince shed his dripping bridge coat and handed it to Kanon. He wore a light gray suit underneath, modest next to his usual regal wardrobe. "We must not provoke war with the Federation."

"Provoke? They started it!" Clovis' voice crackled. "All due respect, Lord High Chancellor, but this is my Area and as governor it is my duty to defend it."

"Of course, but the decision to go to war is not ours to make."

The chancellor's eyes lingered on the prominent portrait of the Emperor, and with that gentle reminder, he turned to the roomful of tense faces and smiled disarmingly, assuming authority without usurpation. "Please, continue as you were."

As work resumed, Schneizel opened the door to the governor's office and placed his hand on Clovis' shoulder. He looked at Lelouch, who followed after his brothers. When the three were alone Clovis stumbled to the sofa and plopped down, stretching out along its length.

"Has everyone had breakfast?" Schneizel rang for service, "Can't fight on an empty stomach."

"I don't want breakfast." Clovis hissed, fisting his hand against his eyes. "The barbarians are at the gates, now is not the time."

"Clovis." Schneizel addressed him quietly, "The more pressing the crisis, the more we must proceed cautiously."

"But…" Clovis fell silent. Lelouch watched Schneizel stroll to the great bay windows behind the governor's chair. A gale lashed fiercely against the thick double-paned windows. Two servants pushed in a trolley with fruit, pastries, and hot entrees.

"Thank you, we will serve ourselves."

The maids bowed and left. Schneizel filled and put a plate in front of the besieged Governor, who massaged his temples as though grappling with a hangover. "Eat."

Soon all three were seated around the coffee table. Schneizel served the tea; the waft of Darjeeling and the chink of silver and China restored a semblance of normalcy. "When was the last time the three of us dined together?"

Lelouch reached for the sugar bowl and picked up one cube for his brother. "Christmas, I think."

"That recent? It feels like more than a year ago."

Next door, as men and women scrambled to respond to the invasion, Schneizel chatted as though the troubles were a world away. Lelouch compared the two styles of leadership he saw in the past half-hour: one bluntly authoritarian, the other by calm example. While both could be effective—one need only look to the current Emperor—it was clear which was better received on this occasion.

"And how is life with the Ashfords?"

Lelouch replied vaguely. "Passable."

"Hmmm." The Chancellor examined his young brother over the rim of his cup. "I heard of an incident at the Ambassador Hotel. How did you so upset the girl?"

The eleventh prince grimaced. "I have matters under control."

"Hell hath no fury." Clovis snickered, coaxed from his brooding. "A week ago Cornelia scolded m—the third time—for letting him move into Ashford Academy."

"Why?"

"She's worried that little brother, sheltered his whole life and suddenly exposed to a pheromone-filled school will be overtaken by instinct and…"

The youngest sibling's countenance darkened in warning. "Clovis."

"…make Ashford his harem." Clovis popped a grape in his mouth. "Considering the paternal lineage, I agree her concern is not unfounded."

The eleventh prince stood up. "If there's nothing else you'd rather discuss..."

The chancellor chuckled and waved for him to sit down. "I'm sorry. I didn't ask you here just to pry."

Lelouch waited with his arms crossed. Schneizel finished his tea and put the saucer aside. "His Majesty has asked me to resolve this situation."

A resigned look came over Clovis' face. "What did father say?"

"He's displeased… but that is his usual disposition."

"Am I to be dismissed?"

"No, the matter did not come up."

"He always thought I was in over my head." Clovis' shoulders sagged. "Everyone does."

"You've done well rebuilding Area Eleven. He is not concerned about your record as Governor." The Chancellor leaned slightly forward. "His Majesty is concerned about the private research you've been pursuing outside your capacity as Governor."

Lelouch was taken aback by the violent change in Clovis' body language, snapping from depression to bewilderment and crumbling into trepidation. The Governor's eyes darted to his like a drowning man looking for a lifeline before shifting his gaze to his plate, unable to look Schneizel in the face. "I… I was going to report as soon as we verified the subject. You understand, after so many false positives…"

"Good, because that's how I explained it to the Emperor, 'Clovis is just proceeding with caution.'" The Chancellor smiled. "If father believed you were going behind his back, it would not be me, but Lord Waldstein here making inquiries instead."

Among Britannian nobility, nothing was dreaded more than an unannounced visit from the Knight of One, the Emperor's emissary of last resort.

It was clear to the eleventh prince by now Schneizel's was here for business besides the Federation's invasion, the same business which Clovis tried and failed to hide, and which Schneizel wanted him to hear… though whether to his benefit he could not ascertain. "What is this about?"

The eighteenth century clock standing in the corner ticked loudly. Clovis made to speak but Schneizel cut him off. "There is a specimen with qualities we are interested in. We call it C."

"Biological?" Schneizel nodded. "I thought we banned those types of weapons."

"We have." The Chancellor turned to admire a model of a three mast frigate inside a bottle. "Just because we've renounced the dark arts doesn't mean we stop studying them."

Finding the tea weak, Lelouch poured himself coffee. Schneizel continued. "C is, as far as we can tell, immortal. Not indestructible—it is easily damaged, but it seems to possess infinite capacity for self-regeneration, even when apparently destroyed."

"Kind of like cancer."

"Kind of."

Lelouch picked a biscuit from the tray. "You mentioned qualities. Why else are we interested?"

"Everyone who contracts C dies."

Thunder rumbled in the distance, but it was difficult to tell whether it was nature or manmade. "Some last longer, but all succumb in time. No group is safer than others, as C appears to choose its victims randomly, hence our interest."

"I see." Schneizel's way of describing C made it sound like some mythological evil rather than a malignant microorganism. It reminded Lelouch of the plague and how its Medieval victims ascribed it in supernatural terms.

"After C was secured, it was moved to somewhere in Kyushuu, far from our known research sites. That decision backfired, as the rebels and Federation control most of the island."

Schneizel looked at Clovis, whose lips were pressed into a hard line, before turning back to Lelouch. "We must recover C. Even more important is that the project remains secret. Few know its existence and I can only rely on those I completely trust."

"What would you have me do?"

XxXxXxXxX

Lloyd did not receive his orders well.

"No, no, no, a thousand times no! Has the Chancellor gone mad?"

Cecile held the letter signed and sealed by the Chancellor, requiring Camelot to ready Lancelot for deployment and transport, "to escort General Lelouch on a mission. It'd be nice if they told us more."

Lloyd mumbled as he paced. "What can be so important that they would send my Lancelot? It can't be that important if I have not heard of it."

Cecile remarked pointedly, "Maybe they kept it from you because of its importance."

Suzaku reread the brief one page communique, the cover page of which listed the names of those who were privileged to read its contents, including his. "It says it's a rescue mission."

"No, they have specialists for that sort of thing." The scientist waved his hand dismissively, then turned on the young soldier with eyes pleading. "Don't go, Kururugi. The horror! You, a novice, behind enemy lines? It's suicide!"

"But if someone out there needs our help…"

"Grrr, you are such a power puff!" Lloyd groaned in exasperation as he scratched his head. "Fine, go. But promise me you'll come back. If anything should happen to you who will pilot my precious? Promise you'll return, and if ever you're faced with the choice of saving Prince Lelouch or preserving Lancelot, just remember: the Emperor can sire plenty more princes, but there's only one Lancelot."

Suzaku laughed nervously. Lloyd held up his finger as if to pin down an emerging thought.

"Wait, suppose you were sick? If you can't go, then Lancelot can't go. Quick, Cecile made biscuits, in my office, they should put you down a good couple days at…"

Cecile chopped Lloyd at the base of the neck. He slid to the floor in a heap. She smiled at Suzaku like the big sister everyone wished for, "Bring yourself and the prince home safe."

XxXxXxXxX

Evening found Clovis and Schneizel retired to the cigar room of the Royal Residence. Clovis abhorred the smell of tobacco and how they tainted his clothes, so the dark-paneled room was just used for quiet entertainment. He poured brandy from a decanter and handed the tumbler to his older brother. "Where is your valet?"

"Upstairs packing for my trip."

"Aren't parleys supposed to be in neutral countries?"

"Few choices nearby: We said no to Hong Kong. They wouldn't agree to Singapore. Taiwan will do. "

The muted television reported little change in the situation: Britannian military buildup, rebels reaching out to civilians, continued talks between the Federation and the Empire, and rumors of an impending top-level meeting from an anonymous inside source. Clovis poured himself sherry and raised his glass. "To anonymous sources, without whom we could scarcely provide previews to the public."

A record player played on low volume; a tenor sang a aria, filled with hope and longing. Several minutes later, the third prince looked into the bottom of his glass. "You should not have brought him into this."

"Who?"

"Lelouch." He turned to his brother across the room, a rare look of reproach for the man he looked up to since boyhood. "You're putting him in danger."

Schneizel rested his feet on an Ottoman as he admired the view of the Concession glittering at night. The rain subsided in the afternoon, leaving clear skies and unlimited visibility. "I was telling the truth, was I not?"

"Misleading as it was, yes, I suppose so."

"Seven years now, and he's still searching for answers. He won't stop." The second prince sipped his drink and sighed. "If what I told him today is all he knows, maybe he won't look further in that direction."

"You were protecting him?"

Schneizel picked up the yellow sleeve of the record being played; a comedy that avoids a tragic ending. "No good comes from digging up the past. Marianne was killed by terrorists. That's all."

The track ended. Clovis stood next to the record player as the needle drew across blank plate with a whisper. His mind dwelled on the Blood Feud from the previous generation and the recent demise of his two half-brothers, already forgotten by many. "I just want him and Nunnally to have a normal life."

Schneizel finished his drink. "We're Charles Britannia's children. Normal is relative."

"Something to aspire towards." Clovis smiled as he picked up the record player's arm and set it aside. "If I tell Euphie where you're sending Lelouch, she will not speak to you for a year."

"Just don't tell Cornelia."

XxXxXxXxX

The next morning, Clovis surveyed the front from his chair in the center of the command center. Footage from satellites, spy planes, drones and ground vehicles were displayed on the monitor wall. What he saw discouraged him. "That is a lot of knightmares."

Villetta stood by, asked by Lelouch to advise the Governor in his absence. "The Chinese brigades are heavy on KMFs. We count two Chinese and one Japanese brigade, though they're hard to distinguish because of shared uniforms and equipment."

"Sneaky. In any event, we'll hold fire until the Chancellor has had a chance to meet with the Federation." Clovis grumbled. He had more than enough firepower to flatten Fukuoka Base, but was compelled to wait. "Hello, what am I looking at on screen five?"

"A feed from one of our high altitude spy planes."

"It's so pixelated I can't tell their tents from the trees."

"Sir, the resolution is limited by the camera…"

"I know that! So have them fly lower."

Villetta relayed the order and received a copy. Over the next ten minutes the imagery gradually improved. An audio link was established to the cockpit.

"This is U201, now at 16,000 meters, all green. Enemy activity normal... Wait, we're being painted! Incoming! Countermeasures, break, break…" The footage flashed white and was lost along with audio. Clovis held his breathe for what seemed like an hour until the pilot came back online.

"Command, this is U201. Engine 1 is gone. Stick sluggish. We're RTB. Appears enemy has taken control of our air defense systems and overridden IFF from Fukuoka Base. I repeat: SAMs active and hostile. Over and out."

"Pull them out. Get all of them out, now!" Clovis slumped back into his chair. "Well, there goes the plan."

To Be Continued.


Author's Notes:

Congratulations on birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries! Because it has been at least that long since last time.

What have I been up to? Twelve hour days including three hour commute. Not as bad as it sounds; mass transit lets me sleep, read, and write, which I do in that order. For six to seven months I talked to people about ways I could publish this story, gave up, then spent four to five months thinking about how I could publish a story like this one. Still working on it. In the meantime the writing itself was undertaken with long fits and short starts, and when I did write it was like trying to chisel the statue of David with a toothpick. Painfully slow.

Many of you have shown unbelievable patience and given me tremendous encouragement over the past year and more. Thank you.