"All political thinking for years past has been vitiated in the same way. People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome."
- George Orwell

Chapter XX: Banquet

Prince Schneizel Square
London, Britain, Holy Britannian Empire
July 3, 2025

The coldest stones were the oldest stones, and these stones dated back to 1372, though they had changed form frequently as time went on. Indeed, these stones had seen many Emperors and Empresses come and go, as well as the Peasants' Revolt, the Reformation, the First Britannian Civil War, the Great Fire and, of course, the aftermath of Trafalgar and the exile of the Tudors and their followers to Edinburgh, and then to the West. And now, they had lived to see the return of the Imperials to their "rightful" homeland.

Originally built as the Emperor's Mews, or private stable and carriage houses, the site had been demolished in 1860 when the French and their allies had occupied London following their victory at Trafalgar. Under the auspices of architects John Nash and William Wilkins, who to this day the Imperialists claimed were forced into collaboration by the city's new masters, the area was rebuilt into Trafalgar Square, a public square meant to commemorate the French naval victory and the following "liberation" of the British Isles from the Empire's "tyranny". For obvious reasons, the square was not well received by the public at that time, who considered it a symbol of their humiliation and loss, though later generations would eventually come to accept it alongside their being part of the EU. From that point on, the square would remain unblemished for over an entire century; it was only now, after the Britannians' return to the Isles, that the square had once again been demolished, both from wayward firing during the Battle of London and from the scorn of Britannian soldiers at its presence.

As such, what was once a pristine order of stone and granite was now a virtual wasteland filled with ruin. Blast craters, bullet holes, indented tread marks from vehicles and knightmares and collapsed buildings and structures were littered as far as the eye could see. The grey and gloomy sky, always present in this part of the world, didn't help its image; had the rest of the city not remained intact, one would have believed London and its residence had joined the likes of Tokyo, Kyoto and Yokohama in the realm beyond. Fortunately it wasn't going to remain like this; the newly established Area government, having renamed the section Prince Schneizel Square in an ironic echo of the French's original act, had already decreed that it and the rest of London would be rebuilt in the next few years. For the time being however, desolation remained.

Yet it was that same desolation, as well as the accompanying inattentiveness from the Imperial authorities and local residents, that made the square a perfect meeting place between two dedicated enemies of Britannia. Sitting at the foot of what had once been Villeneuve's Column, Milly Ashford continued to gaze out at the landscape around her while ignoring the emotions inside of her. The Column had especially been the focal point of the Britannian soldiers' wrath; what remained of it was a broken stump from the Corinthian column base, small fragments of the four bronze lions that had once guarded it and the mangled form of Vice Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve's statue, crushed by a Sutherland's hands and thrown to the opposite side of the square. The Grand Duchess sighed at that; so much history now laid to waste in the blink of an eye.

Then again, Villeneuve was a prissy bastard anyway. she thought, recalling what the history books, both Britannian and European written, claimed about the Admiral. Rumor had it even Bonaparte couldn't stand the man.

She wasn't able to think further on that line however, as the sound of footsteps nearby soon entered her ears; she did not turn to look, as she had a pretty good idea of who it was. Sure enough, a single yet familiar looking man casually walked up to her. "Your Grace..." the man started, speaking in a subdued tone. "The Black King has invited you to Mount Fuji."

Milly resisted the urge to roll her eyes at that code. Even now it still sounded like a brainwashing technique to her. "I am honored to accept his invitation." came the confirmation, before she stood up and looked back toward the newcomer. "I trust we are perfectly alone, General Reid?"

"For the moment at least, discounting my security staff around the perimeter of course." Diethard replied knowingly. "I must say I'm impressed. I did not expect the leader of the Ashford Underground to come all the way out here herself."

Milly just shrugged. "I could say the same about you, the head of the Black Knights Intelligence Division."

"Heh." Diethard replied with a small smirk. "We are both leaders, so it's only logical that I meet with you directly rather than send a representative." a piqued look entered his eyes. "That said, I am curious. Why are you out here?"

Milly gestured toward the surrounding square. "My ancestors once owned a fair portion of this island, when it was the original Homeland. Now that it has returned to the Empire, that same land has again fallen under the Ashford family's, or more precisely my, ownership." she returned her own smirked. "Officially, I'm here to inspect my new acquisitions."

"And what of the MI5 agents that were sent to monitor you?" Diethard inquired. "Do you have a double in place?"

The aristocrat chuckled. "Yes, and she was the best actress in Ashford Academy's drama club." her expression then turned serious. "Now, as we are both pressed for time, might I suggest we continue?"

"Certainly." Diethard agreed with a nod.

With that, Milly reached into her purse and pulled out a datapad, quickly handing it to Diethard. "Almost everything you requested is in there." Milly explained. "Schematics on Britannia's newest weapons, the latest deployments in Europe, production figures from Britannic and Northrum, and much, much more." she then tapped the datapad. "And don't worry, we have backup files on the Underground's servers. So long as you copy the access codes from this, as well as provide a sample for a DNA trace, you'll be able to access them."

"And Erebor?" Diethard inquired. Erebor was the codename for the secret Britannian sakuradite source that Zero had theorized months ago, fittingly named after the Lonely Mountain itself. Up to this point there had been no progress in it discovery, though it still remained a primary objective for the Black Knights.

Milly shook her head. "I did say almost everything didn't I?" she sighed. "I've used almost every asset in the military and scientific communities, and looked into every major corporation that utilizes sakuradite for production, and still there aren't any leads. For all accounts and purposes, Erebor doesn't exist."

"With respect Your Grace, Zero believes otherwise," Diethard replied cryptically. "Are you sure the Underground wasn't able to find anything?"

That caused a thought to occur in the back of Milly's mind. "There is one curious thing we've taken notice of." she said. Retaking the datapad, the Grand Duchess quickly tapped a few keys, bringing up a digital map of Central Britannia (Area 3) on the pad screen, which displayed several arrow markings pointing to a central location. She quickly handed it back to Diethard. "We've traced several massive sakuradite shipments being made to Enfield as of late."

Diethard raised an eyebrow. He could tell right away that wasn't Erebor, since the shipments were going to instead of coming from Enfield, but the figures still made it worth looking into. "What do we know about Enfield, besides the obvious?"

Milly gestured to the center point on the map. "This marked area falls under the ownership of the Toromo Corporation. They recently discovered a meteor crater there, which they've designated Judecca, and have since established a facility there."

Now Diethard was truly curious. "What kind of facility?"

"The official story claims it as a mining facility," she said with a smirk. "Apparently the crater is rich with titanium and other rare metal deposits." she stated in an ironic tone of voice, knowing that Diethard would pick up on the underlying message.

Indeed, Diethard was quick to match with a smirk of his own. "Interesting." he said as he looked at the markings again. It was obviously a cover story, and a flimsy one at that; first, Enfield held little in the way of natural resources, and so there would have been little reason to have a mine there. Second, even if sakuradite were actually utilized in the mining of lesser resources, which it wasn't, the displayed shipment figures were well beyond that of a simple mining operation. And finally, the 'mining operation' cover story was a well-practiced public relations tactic, which private and government entities often used to shield their rural centers; it was the best way to explain the massive industrialization of the area, and so long as they didn't spoil the surrounding nature, mining plants had a positive reputation for aiding local economy, thus ensuring that the neighboring populaces would accept its presence.

Placed all together, and there could only be one glaring conclusion: there was something very big happening around Judecca Crater. Big enough that Toromo and its backers wanted it kept out of the public eye as much as possible.

As such, it was a shame that Diethard couldn't follow up on it right away, since he was preoccupied with the events in Eurasia at this time. Besides, he didn't have any agents in position at the moment, and it was a good guess that the Underground didn't either. Still, it was something to remember for the future. "Be sure to forward my personal thanks to your agents." Diethard said as he tucked the datapad away into his jacket.

"Of course." Milly replied herself. "Give my regards to Zero as well."

Diethard nodded, thus concluding the meeting. With that, the commander of the Black Knights Intelligence Division turned and began to make his way out of the square. However, before he could go back into the distance, Milly spoke up again. "Actually, if you don't mind General..." she began. "How is Zero doing these days? We haven't heard anything since Pearl."

Diethard turned back momentarily. At first he wanted to remind her that Zero's status was top secret, but seeing the high interest behind the Duchess' eyes as well as remembering her personal history with the Black Knights' leader, as well as those close to her, he relented a bit. Even he could feel sympathetic at times. "He is doing well. I can't give you any specifics, but right now he's fighting the good fight, like the rest of us."

Milly nodded, feeling relief well up inside of her. It wasn't much, but just knowing Lelouch was okay helped alleviate her own inner turmoil somewhat. After all, she had already lost so many friends in the past eight years. "There are others who would like to hear that as well."

Knowing what the Duchess meant by that statement, the Black Knights' intelligence chief immediately recalled Rivalz Cardemonde and Shirley Fenette, the two remaining students of Ashford's Student Council that remained under Grand Duchess Ashford's employ. Besides the Duchess, they were also the only Underground members who had had their memories restored to them by C.C. "Go ahead and tell them." he shrugged, deciding it was no huge security issue. "I'm sure Zero will appreciate it from our end."

Again Milly nodded, this time a warm smile forming on her lips. "Thank you."

With that, Diethard took his leave. "Stay safe, Your Grace." he said, as he walked off, waving her off as he disappeared into the distance.

Not long after, Milly herself began to walk back to where her limousine was parked. It took a few minutes, but she reached it soon enough. When she did, she found the chauffeur, a different man from her usual driver Roberto, leaning against the driver's side and looking over the latest Penthouse. Sighing inwardly at the display, she finally spoke up. "Was I gone for that long? Or is your libido really that uncontrollable?"

"For your information, I'm trying to look casual, though that's almost impossible given our surroundings." Rivalz said as he tucked the magazine away, looking back at the Duchess with sardonic eyes as he gestured toward their less than glamorous surroundings. "Really Milly, couldn't we have arranged this at Hyde Park?"

Milly flashed a narrowed glance in turn. "That's 'Your Grace', 'Your Ladyship' or 'Grand Duchess' to you, Benjamin." she emphasized Rivalz's cover name extensively. "If you want to tag along on these expeditions, then you must act your role."

"Right right." Rivalz said as he stomped back to the rear door and opened it, allowing Milly to enter in. After securing the door, he quickly returned to the limo's front and got in the driver's side. "So, how was the meeting with General Spooky?"

The Grand Duchess leaned back as she considered Rivalz's nickname; indeed, for all his projected charm, General Reid had a disturbing and distrustful presence about him. However, that was unimportant at the present time. "I passed along the data, and also mentioned Judecca. He seemed interested in the latter, though it will take time for him to follow on it."

Rivalz nodded, figuring that would be the case. He himself wished Ashford had someone inside Toromo, but the corporation had only just recently appeared on their radar and it usually took several months to put one of their own in place. As such, both he and Milly could only hope the former Computer Club members, who now served as the Underground's clandestine hacker squad, would be able to break into Toromo's servers and figure out what was going on.

As he started the car and began their drive back to the hotel, Rivalz then brought up the million pound question. "I don't suppose he said anything about Lelouch."

Milly sighed as she looked out the window, toward the deserted, battle scarred streets of London. "Nothing specific." she answered. "Though he did hint that Lelouch is conducting his latest scheme, whatever it is."

Rivalz chuckled at a thought. "Maybe he's chasing another cat around Naha."

The memory caused Milly to laugh as well. That had definitely been one of the more interesting days at Ashford Academy, and it only became more so later on, when they learned of the true reason behind it. "You'd think he'd learn to keep track of his masks by now."

"Heh." Rivalz answered before adding onto it. "Could you imagine it? Him sending the Black Knights out on a Cat Hunt, complete with knightmare support?"

Now Milly was in near hysterics. "And the prize being a kiss from Kallen?" the resulting laughter was as jovial as it was pleasant, directly contrasting both the present setting and the world they both lived in. Such was the memory of happier times.

When the laughter died down, Rivalz continued to look on ahead. "Ah well, we'll probably figure it out when the dust settles." he said reassuringly. "He'll be alright Milly."

Milly smiled flatly, pretending to be reassured. "I know." she said, before turning to look back out the window. Really Lelouch, just what kind of cat are you chasing now?

Vermillion Forbidden Palace
Luoyang Settlement, Duchy of Henan, Area 22 (China), Holy Britannian Empire
July 4, 2025

"I'm sorry sir, but your names are not on the guest list." the bespectacled, clearly overworked doorman stated as he looked from his guest list up to the man in front of him. "In fact, there is no mention of 'Ashford' anywhere on this list."

"It's alright. Everything is perfectly fine." replied the relatively imposing Britannian man in a velvet smooth tone. For some reason that the doorman couldn't fathom, the man looked completely unaffected by the rejection. "You can let us in regardless."

The doorman took a breath. This was going to be a long night for him. "No sir, it's not fine. You can't..."

"I said..." the man interrupted while closing his eyes. "Everything is perfectly fine." he stated as he opened his eyes again, the left eye now emitting a mysterious red glow. "You can let us in regardless."

The doorman could only watch as, just as he was able to open his mouth again, a glowing bird-shaped emblem took flight and flew directly into him. A moment later, two glowing rings appeared around his irises while a disturbed looking smile appeared on his lips. "Yes sir. Everything is perfectly fine." the doorman repeated happily. "I can let you in regardless."

"Good. In that case we will go right in." Lelouch said with a smile of his own. With that accomplished, he and Kallen walked past the doorman and entered the front entrance to the Vermillion Forbidden Palace, the original residence of the Chinese Federal Chairmanship and before that the various Emperors of the Qing and Ming Dynasties.

As they came up to the central staircase that ascended to the main hall, they removed their coats and passed them on to nearby attendants. As soon as the attendants disappeared and the two started walking up the long flight of stairs, arm in arm for the sake of appearances, Kallen looked back toward Lelouch. "You know you could have Geassed him right away." she minutely admonished. "It would have saved us some time."

"What, can't I have some fun?" Lelouch retorted, looking far more ready to enjoy the night than he should have. "After all, that was the first time I used my Geass in eight years. I wanted to make sure I haven't lost my skill."

"Skill in what? Giving commands? Or emitting some kind of evil love beam?" Kallen shot back in turn, causing the latter to roll his eyes at the reference. "Either way, we're still on a mission deep within enemy territory, so we can't afford to stand out too much."

Lelouch chuckled. "Relax. This isn't anything either of us have never done before." upon reaching the midway point on the staircase, he stopped and had them separate for a moment. "Still, I must warn you to watch what you say here, as there are ears everywhere. And I'm not just talking the other guests."

Kallen sighed. "MI6?"

"Indeed." Lelouch confirmed, then smiling darkly. "As well as MSS."

"Great. Just who I want to spend my evening with," Kallen snarled as the name of China's leftover secret police was brought up. As if Britannian spies weren't enough.

"The feeling is mutual, but it must be done all the same." Lelouch answered, before turning serious. "Remember, the most important thing is to track everyone on the list." he referred to the list that he had Kallen memorize and then destroy before coming here. "If I cannot get their attention, then you will have to direct them toward me. We cannot leave the party until they are under my Geass' spell."

"And what if any of them leave before us?" Kallen asked.

"They will not, at least not before the party's end." Lelouch replied. "To do so would be considered an insult to their hosts, and we both know how they repay insults."

Kallen felt a chill rundown her spine at that notion. Even so, after taking a breath, she readied herself. "Anything else you want to tell me?"

"Yes, one more thing..." Lelouch started as he offered his arm again. "No matter what happens, I love you."

Kallen felt her heart skip a beat at that statement, such that she just barely kept herself from tripping over her own astonishment. "What?" she was just able to let out.

Lelouch resisted the urge to sigh. "Because we're married."

It took Kallen a few moments to recall that they were posing as a married couple for this venture. "Oh, right..." Kallen stammered, taking his arm once more while trying to ignore the weight in her stomach. If Lelouch picked up on her inner turmoil, he didn't show it.

Soon enough they reached the top, and immediately the Chinese porter turned to face them. "Can I help you?" he asked, clearly unsure of the couple. It was then Lelouch realized he forgot to have the doorman radio their entry to the porter, which was standard procedure.

Even so, Lelouch smirked as his left eye again flashed red. "We are the Lord and Lady Rochester." he stated, Geass in full effect. "Would you kindly announce our arrival and let us in?"

Immediately the glowing rings appeared in the porter's eyes. "Yes, my Lord." he replied, dutiful as one would expect.

The porter then turned to face the hall. "Announcing the arrival of The Right Honourable, The Lord and Lady Rochester!" he called out, before bowing and stepping away to allow the couple through. As such, Lelouch and Kallen, or more precisely Daniel Ashford and Maria Stadtfeld-Ashford, 29th Baron and Baroness of Rochester, entered the main hall.

The hall was more or less how they expected it to be; in fact, Lelouch was quick to notice how similarly arranged it was to Tianzi's wedding banquet seven years ago. Whole food tables which held both traditional Britannian and Chinese cuisine were lined up down the middle, on either sides of the orange and red pathway while seating tables placed at synchronized intervals throughout the rest of the space; naturally, the hosts' table was placed at the end of the pathway on a heightened platform, where the eight Eunuchs could all sit and look over their guests like gods above their mortal subjects. Various nobles and other higher ups stood around the hall, all dressed in regal Britannian/Chinese garb or military uniforms to fit the occasion, speaking on subjects such as efforts to colonize and modernize Area 22, the various going-ons of the Imperial Court back home and the latest events of the war. A traditional Britannian party in the making, even with all the native Area 22 themes adapted to it; indeed, it wasn't anything either of them had not done before.

As one would expect, both Lelouch and Kallen looked as different from their true selves as their names represented. Since Lelouch's cover was a scion of the Ashford family, he had dyed his hair blonde for the occasion, while the digital face mask he wore bore a striking resemblance to Milly's, complete with blue eyes, infectious smile, and the left eye lens modified to either suppress or project his Geass. Accompanying that image was a crisp tuxedo with black bow tie, which was less fanciful than most of the nobility around him were wearing, but otherwise fit the evening. Inside his jacket, he kept his standard Browning L105A1 and several other items relevant to the mission.

Meanwhile, Kallen's cover was that of a Stadtfeld heiress who had married into the Ashford family, and she naturally went about it distancing herself from her late father's image; after all, it had been through him that she had received her trademark red hair. For that purpose, she had recalled that her grandfather had black hair in his youth, so she adapted that for herself by dyeing her hair in a jet black shade, while her own digital facemask had been modeled after one of her cousins; this included a pair of dark brown eyes (which were as far from her own blue eyes as she could go), accompanying black eyeliner that gave said eyes a fittingly dragon-like quality, and wine colored lipstick across the "mouth" and matching nail polish. For dress, she herself wore a black backless evening gown with embroidered tulle along the top, arranged to intentionally show off a very fair portion of her upper torso, while a pair of black dress shoes and her Luger, which she kept in a thigh holster underneath her skirt, completed the ensemble.

Overall they both looked like a typical noble couple, which among the present company would be seen and acknowledged one minute and then forgotten the next. Exactly what was needed.

Several minutes went by and the party continued on. Unfortunately, while he and his "wife" made themselves known to several of the guests, Lelouch was still having difficulty tracking their targets, to say nothing of the security layout of the hall. There was just too much activity. "We'll have to spread out." Lelouch said as they continued on through the rounds. "So that we can get a bearing on the targets, as well as the security."

Kallen minutely shook. "For crying out loud..." she muttered as she activated her Geass while keeping up with her apparent husband. "There are fifteen MI6 and twenty-three MSS agents in the hall. The MI6 agents are disguised as party guests, while the MSS are all waiting staff; if you look close enough, you can identify them by their earpieces. Outside, there are no more than fifty Imperial Army soldiers, all armed with assault rifles."

Lelouch scowled as the information came in. "Didn't I order you never to use your Geass unless it couldn't be avoided?"

"If you get to use yours, then I get to use mine." Kallen replied with unflinching strength, before she had them come to a stop in a certain area of the hall. She then gestured toward a rather plump Britannian in an Army Colonel's uniform, loading his plate at the buffet table. "He's the closest target, and nobody's looking." she then minutely smirked, her Geass fading. "Go get him, darling."

The former prince frowned at the last word; Kallen was having more fun with this than she should have. Regardless though, he adapted a game face and walked to the buffet tables. "Colonel Shelby! What a pleasant surprise!" Lelouch started upon approach, quickly gaining the Army officer's attention. "I haven't seen you since the Emperor's Jubilee."

As expected, the Colonel stammered to recall the memory, but kept up the pretense and shook Lelouch's hand when he presented it. "An honor to meet you again, sir..."

"The honor is mine, Colonel." Lelouch replied graciously. "And now that I have your attention..." he said, just as his left eye once more flashed with Geass. "Could you please follow these instructions?" Upon that question, his hand slipped into his jacket pocket and produced an envelope, which had INSTRUCTIONS INSIDE - PUT AWAY AND DO NOT OPEN UNTIL AFTER PARTY written on the outside.

Under the spell of Absolute Obedience, Shelby had no issue taking the envelope from Lelouch's hand and placed it inside his uniform. "Yes, I will do as it says." he said in a hypnotized tone.

"Very good." Lelouch responded with dark satisfaction, letting his Geass die away again. "Once more an honor, Colonel." he said before he wandered off, leaving a baffled Colonel Shelby behind to ponder the occurrence.

Xigong Ghetto
Luoyang Settlement,
Duchy of Henan, Area 22 (China), Holy Britannian Empire
July 4, 2025

While Luoyang, being the one time capital of an economically and politically destitute supernation, was never what one may have considered a "lively" setting, Setsuna had to admit that this was an entirely new level. As he and a fellow member of Hokage Squadron, Captain Yukihiro Sanada (Hokage Two), walked down the ruined street, he continued to stare out over the wide street through the lenses of his digital facemask. There really was no one outside right now; the whole ghetto was pretty much lifeless, its population tucked away in whatever quarters they had for themselves. This would have left a very foreboding feeling if Setsuna hadn't known why: the universal curfew for the non-Homeland Areas was in effect, and anyone caught outside at this time would likely be arrested or shot on the spot.

This, of course, included himself and his partner, especially when they were currently disguised as elderly Twenty-Twos. But that in itself was the point: they wanted the attention from the local authorities, as it was required for their mission. Thus for the time being they need only continue and wait for the resident bogeymen to appear to detain them, at which point they would reveal themselves as the bigger bogeymen. The anticipation almost made him anxious, but for now at least, he remained patient.

In the meantime, he continued to look over the ghetto around him, which was just as dystopian as one would expect. Nothing but ramshackle buildings, which mostly consisted of communal apartments and warehouses, and broken streets as far as the eye could see, while very trace amounts of light emanated from barely operating lampposts that were scarcely arrayed around the setting. Interestingly, several communist propaganda items remaining lining the walls and buildings, despite the current times; they were mostly posters that promoted the ideals and "successes" of Maoism, claimed Tianzi and/or the Chinese Communist Party as "All Knowing" and "Saviors of 'The People'", or denounced the European Union and (ironically in hindsight) Britannia as bourgeois, capitalist and evil. One thing that did stand out, however, was billboard mural that stood over one of the buildings, which depicted Mao Zedong looking down from a crimson sky upon several Chinese proletarian types, who in turn looked back up at Sun with pure admiration, while various banners depicting communist and revolutionary emblems waved in the background. A header at the top of the mural read out "All Knowing Father of Our Nation and Engineer of the Human Soul" in Chinese script.

This really is Oceania. Setsuna thought as he continued to look over the various image work. What he found curious wasn't the propaganda itself, but rather why they were still intact on the walls; he would have thought either the Britannians or the local Numbers would have torn them down as soon as the first Britannian flags began to wave over the city. The best reasons he could come up with were either the Britannians hadn't gotten around to the task yet, or the Twenty-Twos were too desolate to care. Or both.

However, the object that stood out the most wasn't amongst the posters, the mural or the broken buildings; in fact, it wasn't even present on that street altogether. Rather, it was in the distant background, standing out from the rest of the city skyline like a machination of Stephen King or J.R.R. Tolkien: a hadron cannon tower, one of what he assumed to be dozens spread around the city, set alongside an additional number of missile towers and hyper-velocity cannon towers as well as Blaze Luminous shield projectors along the city perimeter. All of which came together to constitute the Argus defense net.

Setsuna frowned at that, recalling Zero had once claimed Argus was Calares' one stroke of brilliance throughout his service to Britannia; indeed, its conception did seem uncharacteristically brilliant for the viceroy. Essentially an arrangement of automated weapons platforms and shield projectors spread across every key city and installation in Area 22, Argus was perhaps the breakthrough defensive system of the modern world. It could lay waste to entire armies on multiple fronts, as the weapon towers were specifically arranged to cover both the insides and outskirts of each host city. It could repel any form of firepower as well as outright sieges, as the Blaze Luminous it employed were large and powerful enough to encompass Area 22's largest metropolis, which was Luoyang obviously. And above even those, it was controlled by an automation system designed specifically to resist hacking, such that even the Black Knights Intelligence Division's hacker force wouldn't have been able to access it.

Of course, it also had additional functions, and Setsuna had a feeling Calares had fully intended them when he designed Argus. Similar to the purpose and function of Operation Nero, a particularly zealous Britannian commander could turn Argus upon the cities it was meant to defend, have the weapon towers be used to obliterate the structures and the Blaze Luminous be used to keep the enemy armies, as well as the native populaces, from escaping. In other words, Argus was capable of enacting a Scorched Earth attack that would be second only to the Devastation, though this was obviously a last resort, on the off chance the CLA did actually come close to winning.

Just like we did. Setsuna thought as he continued looking up at the tower. All that said though, there was one effective counter to Argus: it was highly susceptible to certain types of jamming and electronic interference. The CLA had used that to their advantage in the past, namely during their most recent offensive in Beijing, as one of their Chawla knightmares was equipped with a specialized ECM system; when activated, it rendered Argus inoperable for a time, but only in the immediate location. Considering that for a moment, Setsuna supposed the system could also be vulnerable to standard Gefjun Disturbers, especially when the Britannians had yet to devise a counter against them. On the other hand, the only way that could work would be to deploy Gefjun missiles en masse; such an attack would certainly disable Argus, but then it would also disable all other electronics in the area, including those belonging to the Black Knights and CLA.

Setsuna inwardly shook his head at the thought. Zero has his own plan for dealing with Argus. We just have to follow that. he then paused at the thought. Heh, listen to me. I'm starting to sound like Sayoko and the other believers.

A sudden flash of light quickly interrupted his thoughts. "You there!" came a hardened call, as the silhouettes of two humans came marching up to meet Setsuna and Yukihiro. "What are you two doing!?"

Setsuna suppressed the urge to grin. Right on time. Say what you will about the Thought Police, but at least they're punctual.

While the incoming duo were not quite the villains from George Orwell's novel 2024, which even Setsuna had found strangely captivating as far as Britannian literature went, they were perhaps the closest any institution had come to creating them. These men were members of the former Chinese Federation's Ministry of State Security (MSS).

Though the Federation no longer existed and the ideology it represented had well been cast aside, the secret police that had long kept China's proles suppressed had remained, continuing their role as the Eunuch's main enforcement arm when the Britannian forces were either inadequate or unwilling. While Calares' jackboots mostly contended themselves with the CLA and the rest of Area 22's militant factions, it was the MSS that maintained the Eunuchs' reign of terror upon the docile, non-rebelling Numbers, both to ensure the status quo and simply because they had the power. This, expectedly, included everything from day to day "disappearances" to lesser ghetto purges to monitoring higher profile officials in the Area; chances were even Calares and other Britannian nobles were kept under their watch. The more things changed the more they stayed the same it seemed.

Soon enough, the two were close enough that Setsuna and his partner could depict them. Both wore standard MSS garb, which were clones of the standard CLA uniform with commissar caps, black gloves and redarmbands that depicted the organization insignia, an upward pointed jian impaling a red and gold outline shield - one that displayed the Chinese Sun, the Vermillion Forbidden Palace and the Great Wall in descending order - over a golden laurel. The respective rank insignia indicated either as a Second Lieutenant. Alongside those uniforms, both men also wore overly angry and sadistic expressions that one equated to people in their line of work; the kind of expressions one would find on schoolyard bullies and hired muscle. More or less what was expected.

From there, the two ninja slowly turned and entered a nearby building, which appeared to be an abandoned tea shop, while the pursuing MSS officials continued after them, calling throughout. They kept walking deeper into the building until one of the officials drew his pistol and fired a bullet right over Setsuna's shoulder. "Don't move!" the shooter glowered.

"We-Ve-Ry-Saw-Wy. We-Dun-Spek-Bri-Taw-Nin." Setsuna replied in a stereotypical caricature of a Chinese accent, complete with broken English and pauses between syllables. "Nǐ huì shuō zhōngwén ma?" he then asked. Can you speak in Chinese?

That last line only served to anger them more, as Twenty-Twos had long been banned from speaking their native tongue. "Put down the bag and turn around!"

They both did as they were told, placing their hand bags on the ground and turning to face the two men. In the face of their deathly gazes, Setsuna smiled, revealing a mouth of mismatched teeth (he had included a set of costume dentures with his ensemble) while Yukihiro remained facially inert. "We-Jus-Ol-Man. We-Har-les."

The two officers quickly sported vicious looking smiles; clearly they also thought the two "old men" were harmless. "You both know you're not supposed to during curfew." the one with the pistol said as he put away his gun. "Perhaps you're too senile to figure that out."

The other one cracked his knuckles. "Or perhaps you're both CLA traitors about to sabotage something."

Aren't you bastards classic. Setsuna thought dryly, maintaining the act. "We-Nawt-See-El-Aa. We-Go-Hoam."

"Maybe you are, maybe you're not. You're not going home until we know for sure." the first one stepped forward, until he was looming over the apparent old men. "You shouldn't have stayed out, you old shits."

It was at that point Yukihiro finally spoke up. "And you should have stayed away," he said in straight forward monotone.

At that, the MSS' viciousness disappeared and was replaced with uncertain shock. Simultaneously, kunai slipped down from the two shinobis' sleeves and into their hands, to which they applied with deadly force; Setsuna slashed the throat of the officer in front of them while Yukihiro threw his directly between the eyes of the second, who had only just begun to draw for his gun. Both secret policeman were dead before their bodies hit the ground, and long before they could ever realize what was happening.

For a moment, Setsuna looked down at the corpses with something akin to disappointment in his voice. "Well...that was anti-climatic." he said, just as he slipped off his facemask, wig and false teeth.

Yukihiro removed his mask and wig as well, revealing his unkept jet black hair and piercing red eyes. Whereas Setsuna was aloof and easy going, it was apparent Yukihiro was the serious type. "It's to be expected Major." he replied to his squad leader's assessment. "Secret police are meant to keep those without power in line; they're bullies, not warriors."

"I know. But you'd think after all the things we've heard about the Chinese Federation's 'great' MSS, they'd put up more of a fight than that." Setsuna said, sighing a little.

Yukihiro stifled a sigh himself; sometimes he wished that his friend/superior and current heir to the Shinozaki name would be more serious. Unfortunately, Yukihiro had known Setsuna since they were infants, as the Sanada family were the traditional retainers of the Shinozakis as well as their direct subordinates in their ninjutsu school, and throughout that entire span of time he had only seen Hanzo Shinozaki's eldest child be serious on very few subjects. Even so, that had no bearing on the current setting. "Let's continue regardless." he said simply.

Quickly, both stripped off their "old men" garb, revealing the MSS uniforms that they wore underneath, then taking the accompanying commissar caps and black gloves from their handbags. Following this, they then placed their respective facemasks on either of the corpses, from which the digital masks began to alter themselves after their new hosts; during the process, both Setsuna and Yukihiro went through their respective corpse, retrieving their dogtags and personal possessions. Once that was accomplished, they stripped off the MSS officials' black gloves and then placed their hands against their respective corpses'; from this, the digital palm and fingerprint covers they had on their own hands altered themselves to match that of the dead Chinese. They then placed their own gloves on, but not before either altered their hair to also match that of the MSS officials.

Minutes later, the facemasks finished altering themselves, from which both ninja stripped them off and placed them back on their own faces. Instead of the masks being shaped after the faces of old men, they were now perfect matches of the former MSS officials, making Setsuna and Yukihiro perfect twins to the men they had just killed.

From there, Setsuna reached up at took a look at his new dogtags, while noting amusingly how the MSS still used old fashioned metal plate tags instead of modern electronic ones. The datedness of Chinese technology continued to amaze him. "I'm Second Lieutenant Song Feng." he said, now speaking in the voice of his deceased victim. "You?"

"Second Lieutenant Lo Pan." Yukihiro confirmed after looking at his own tags. He too now had the voice of his respective character.

That struck Setsuna with peculiarity. "Lo Pan..." he repeated. "Sounds like the name of some cheesy movie villain."

Yukihiro shrugged. "I wouldn't know." he replied, before looking at his watch. "We have twenty minutes to meet with the others. Assuming that they succeeded on their own ends."

"They'll be there." Setsuna reassured. He had all the faith in the world in his unit.

Yukihiro nodded in turn, before reaching back into his handbag and withdrawing a disc shaped device. After tapping the arming switch on top of it, he placed it on the ground between the two corpses and their shed "old man" disguises.

With that done, both ninja moved toward the door, but not before Setsuna looked back at the two corpses one last time, his smirk ever present. "Hǎohàn, bùyòng qǐláile. Wǒmen zìjǐ zǒu." he said in a mockingly mannered tone. Don't get up gentlemen. We'll let ourselves out.

No more than thirty seconds after the two members of Hokage Squadron exited, the disc began emitting a purple colored gas, bathing the entire room, as well as the aforementioned corpses and items, with a thick and otherwise pungent mist. As soon as its internal sensors registered that the immediate area was suitably covered, it then set off a single spark, igniting the chemical and setting off a bright and instantaneous flash that momentarily lit up the entire building. Afterward, all that remained of the corpses and any of the left behind items were ashes, thus ensuring that the Black Knights' presence in China was, once again, completely erased.

Black Knights mobile battleship Mikasa
Xiaopei Fortress, Duchy of Jiangsu, Area 22 (China), Holy Britannian Empire
July 4, 2025

Although he was not a man known for his vices, it was something of an open secret that Kyoshiro Tohdoh was a lover of classical literature. When he was not attending to his duties as commander of the Black Knights' First Army, honing his renowned fighting skills or putting up with the antics of the Four Holy Swords, he enjoyed nothing more than sitting back and reading a book from a past age. There was just something about reading upon the words of men and women who lived decades, if not centuries ago, during periods both abstract and alien from the modern world. Something that both entertained Tohdoh and sated his never-ending desire for knowledge.

Tonight, sitting upon the bed of his personal quarters, bathed within silence and dim lighting, the story Tohdoh was reading was The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. He had only begun reading it just a little while ago, specifically after Pearl Harbor, and had not been able to put it down since. It was only natural he supposed; the story was written with several of his favorite themes, namely war, honor, duty, tradition and loyalty. The characters were realistically and intriguingly written, each one holding a unique and definable personality alongside motivations entirely separate from the others, yet still contributed to the main story. The plot tended to jump around through different events, both fictional and historical, but much like with the characters, they all came together effectively enough. And the writing itself was nothing short of spectacular; the words flowed with certain grace and eloquence, such that they could be translated into Japanese and still elicit the same feeling upon the reader.

Overall, Dumas might not have been the best French writer of all time, a title that Tohdoh felt belonged to the great Victor Hugo, but his most famous novel was indeed a true epic.

D'Artagnan, who was accustomed to his friend's manner of acting, and who perceived immediately, by a word, a gesture, or a sign from him, that the circumstances were serious, took Athos's arm, and went out without saying anything. Porthos followed, chatting with Aramis.

On their way they met Grimaud. Athos made him a sign to come with them. Grimaud, according to custom, obeyed in silence; the poor lad had nearly come to the pass of forgetting how to speak.

They arrived at the drinking room of the Parpaillot. It was seven o'clock in the morning, and daylight began to appear. The three friends ordered breakfast, and went into a room in which the host said they would not be disturbed.

Unfortunately, the hour was badly chosen for a private conference. The morning drum had just been beaten; everyone shook off the drowsiness of night, and to dispel the humid morning air, came to take a drop at the inn. Dragoons, Swiss, Guardsmen, Musketeers, light-horsemen, succeeded one another with a rapidity which might answer the purpose of the host very well, but agreed badly with the views of the four friends. Thus they applied very curtly to the salutations, healths, and jokes of their companions.

Tohdoh's line of reading was interrupted by the knock at his door. He sighed, as he really didn't wish to be disturbed at this hour. At the same time however, his position as Field Commander meant he was on twenty-four hour call. "Enter."

The door quickly shifted open to reveal Chiba, who quickly stepped in. Tohdoh felt his gut clench as his most loyal – as well as his most troublesome – subordinate came to stand in front of him and saluted. "General." she started. "I would like your opinion."

Resisting the urge to sigh again, Tohdoh put down the book and looked back up. "Yes?" he awaited.

At meeting his eyes, Chiba instantly looked away. "Sir..." she started, reorienting herself. "...I know the Chinese are fierce warriors..." She then managed to look back. "...but do you really think that they'll have a chance against the Britannians?"

Tohdoh considered that. "I take it you've been doing simulation drills with them." One of the conditions Zero had made with Tianzi was that the Black Knights be able to run battle simulations with the CLA, in an effort to establish a cooperative spirit between the two armies.

"Yes, sir. And I must say I'm not impressed with what I see." she replied, frustration evident. "I'll admit the Chinese have drive, and they're highly disciplined, but they possess virtually no individual skill and their tactics are completely inadequate on the modern battlefield."

The general took that in. "That is all to be expected, Chiba." Tohdoh answered. "The CLA is not built like most professional armies. They are trained to completely adhere to the chain of command, as well as to function as a single cohesive unit when in battle; as such, their individual troops are lacking fighters, and they cannot effectively function without direct guidance from the higher echelons."

Tohdoh's eyes narrowed for emphasis. "On the other hand, that cohesion and adherence to command makes them an effective force under a skilled commander like Li, such that it almost balances out their weaknesses. Their survival for the last seven years is testament to that."

Despite that explanation, Chiba looked far from convinced. "With all due respect, sir." she repeated. "Surviving is not the same as winning."

"No, but it's not losing, either." Tohdoh replied. "As long as the army and the will to fight live on, then so too does the potential for victory." Certain bitterness appeared in his eyes as a certain memory came up. "You and I can both attest to that fact, as we also spent seven years surviving our war."

Chiba had no trouble understanding Tohdoh's indirect reference, causing bitterness to rise up in her as well. "Are you saying the CLA is no different from the Japan Liberation Front?" she asked, sounding as if she had been insulted.

"In a way, yes." Tohdoh considered. "Though we obviously had better troops and higher-end equipment, and we could conduct ourselves on the battlefield far more effectively, we still ended up fighting the same war that the CLA is fighting now."

Chiba frowned at that. "That's not exactly reassuring, sir." she admonished. "As you said, for all that we had going for us during the Insurrection, we still never struck a decisive blow against the Britannians until Zero took control of things."

"And now the CLA has reached that point, as we're here to take control of things." Tohdoh answered. "So to answer your question, I admit I have my own doubts about the CLA's effectiveness." he said, quickly continuing before Chiba could reply. "That being said however, I have all the faith in the world in our army, as well as the belief that we will win this battle, as we did Pearl Harbor." He then looked her straight in the eye. "Both matter more to me than anything I may think about our second rate allies."

The junior officer was quick to understand the underlying message. "Yes, sir." she replied stiffly.

Tohdoh nodded in acknowledgment. "Is that all you wished to speak to me on?"

Uneasiness flickered across Chiba's eyes before she answered again. "Yes, sir," she repeated, this time in a more shaken tone.

Disturbance quickly welled up in the General's stomach as a part of him recognized his subordinate's sudden change in mood. He attempted to try and head it off before anything more could develop from it. "Then you're dismissed." he stated plainly, before reaching back for his book.

Chiba looked down at that, such that her hair obscured her eyes. "Once more with all due respect, General..." she said, her voice suddenly taking up a heated tone. "That was not the only reason I came here."

Immediately Tohdoh felt his blood freeze as his ears picked up the sound of Chiba's belt being unbuckled, alongside her breathing becoming heavier. He purposely kept his eyes glued onto his book, such that they now picked up and emphasized each word individually, but that did nothing to keep down the beating of his heart and the sudden rising level of heat, much less Chiba's continued movements. In the end, he knew there was nothing he could do to keep the sounds and feelings from running their course, much less keep his body from reacting to them.

His ears soon picked upon his subordinate kicking off her boots, before moving to undo her uniform pants, which dropped to the ground in a bunch, which she minutely stepped out of. Her jacket quickly followed, as she smoothly undid the seal that ran along its right side and then slanted center until reaching her neck; she pulled it off of herself, its fall signaled by the ding of her belt buckle against the cold metal floor. And then, seemingly at long last, he heard the sound of a bra being unclasped and dropped, followed by the minute sagging of panties being pulled down a pair of legs, which were also soon discarded; this was soon followed by the sound of Chiba's foot stamping lightly back down on the floor signaling that she had finished. Her breathing only grew heavier throughout.

Several more moments passed, with silence and uneasiness filling the room like a flood. In spite of his full knowledge of what was happening, Tohdoh still refused to look up, but that in itself did not matter, as his other senses were working against him in over time. He could literally feel the heat of Chiba's naked body from the other end of his bed, alongside the heat of her unbridled gaze. His ears continued to pick upon her heavy breathing, with each pant quickening his heartbeat ever further. And even more, his nose was quick to pick upon Chiba's heady scent, which cumulated as jasmines and orchids mixed with heat and metal; the unmistakable scent of a warrior woman.

He continued to look toward his book, even as he felt his bed shift from Chiba slowly coming over it, her knee falling upon the end first, then followed by her hands and her other knee. He said nothing, even as he felt Chiba slowly crawl up to him, the heat of her body now in close proximity of his own skin; it didn't help that he was completely bare on top, with his current attire being a pair of sweatpants. And despite his best efforts, he remained motionless as Chiba slowly maneuvered the book away from his eyes and toward his side, such that they were now staring straight into her sultry browns. From there, the very next thing Tohdoh felt was the feeling of her lips pressed against his, alongside her breasts pressed against his broadened chest.

For a few more moments, his mind only became hazier, as Chiba continued to drive the kiss, using it to bring herself closer to Tohdoh, such that her entire body became pressed against his own. During that time span, the general could only instinctively reply in kind, bringing his own arms up around her if only out of reaction, pressing Chiba even further to himself. As such, it was only when he felt Chiba's hand slowly move down to his pants and stroke him between the legs did he quickly remember what was going on. Thus, he managed to work up enough internal willpower to push her away.

"Enough, Chiba!" he unintentionally barked as he did, pushing Chiba just far enough that she was not in direct contact with his skin any more, but still close.

Chiba recoiled from the intensity in Tohdoh's voice, shock entering her eyes. "I don't understand..." she spoke in almost a whimper, looking more like a child on the verge of tears rather than a fully grown woman. "...did I do something wrong?"

Upon seeing that look, Tohdoh calmed down a little, but still kept up a displeased image. "It's..." he started, looking to the side before sighing. "Tonight's just not a good night, Chiba." he stated flatly.

That response only served to distraught Chiba further. "But sir..." she replied, again her manner more childlike than one could ever believe. "We don't know what will happen in the next few days. I thought..." she stammered. "...I thought now was the best time to..."

In response to that, Tohdoh felt a fissure run down his cold exterior. "You did nothing wrong. I just need time to myself for right now."

That seemed to alleviate Chiba a little bit, though she still remained uneasy. "If that's the case..." she replied. "...perhaps I could come back later tonight?"

Immediately Tohdoh wanted to say 'no'; going entirely against the needs of his body, he wanted to tell her not to come back at all, that there was nothing to be gained in such action for either of them. However, as had been with so many other times he had tried to tell her, he was quickly stopped by the fragility in her eyes; the same emotional fragility he had seen for fifteen years. And just like all those previous occasions, he felt himself halting his own command while whatever coldness he held in his heart slowly died away, replaced with care, concern and certain fear.

Slowly, he managed to reorient himself just enough, ignoring the heat of both his body and hers long enough to give her the answer she sought. "Yes, that will work." he replied, drowning out the rational part of his mind, which was crying for him to reconsider. "I promise I won't need much time."

Chiba nodded at that, relief finally dawning from her eyes. "Thank you, sir." she replied, before slowly backing off the bed.

The next several moments were once more spent in silence, only this time with Chiba putting her clothes back on. For that entire span, Tohdoh kept up his cold exterior, even when underneath he only felt physical remorse at the loss of heat. He inwardly sneered at that, wishing that he felt nothing at all. Just as he wished he could say what truly needed to be said, despite Chiba's feelings and his care for her.

Soon enough, Chiba was back in uniform. As such, she quickly turned and saluted, though her eyes remained somewhat downtrodden. She then quietly made her exit, once more leaving Tohdoh alone in his quarters.

This time however, Tohdoh did not move to pick up The Three Musketeers. Instead, he slowly turned out the light and laid back, letting his thoughts drift, a vain attempt to force what had just happened out of his mind. Unfortunately it was a futile endeavor; he could not keep himself from feeling the same condemnation that had remained with him for over a decade, the same hatred he felt toward himself for what he had done so long ago. Nor could he keep the memories, the damning memories of his greatest sin, out of his mind's eye.

As such, he slowly felt himself back in time to fifteen years ago, where he once again found himself along the slopes of Itsukushima...

"Damn it Rai, your sense of direction sucks!" Alfred growled in (mock) frustration. "I thought you had this place mapped out."

For his part, Rai only chuckled at his friend's demeanor. "I said I had a rough idea of how Xiaopei was lined out. Rough, as in general, but not perfect." he clarified. "Really, why do you think I wanted to go exploring in the first place?"

Perched on his shoulder, Andreas let out a shrill cry in response to Rai's claim. "Exactly what I was thinking." Alfred followed up with as he continued to walk along. "We really should have stayed aboard the Mikasa."

"Well, I guess that's a positive, as you're both only now regretting accompanying me." Rai retorted, seemingly not at all bothered at their predicament. For him, it was all part of the adventure, and it wasn't like the Chinese wanted to hinder them. At least, not so far.

In truth, both of them knew they were being tracked, though they had yet to confront their pursuers. Also in truth, they already had a decent layout of Xiaopei, as the Mikasa's Druid System had scanned the interior upon entry and laid out a map of the entire fortress, which was then transferred to individual datapads for each of the Black Knights. As such, it was all part of the show they were throwing, until they could reach the specific open area they were heading toward.

It had all started several minutes ago, when Rai, Alfred and Andreas had indeed left the Mikasa to do some exploring around Xiaopei; several of the other Black Knights had also gotten off the ship, and outside some specified areas of the fortress which were highlighted on the map, the Chinese held virtually no concern toward their "allies" moving about their sanctum. For a period of time the trio were given free reign toward walking around the fortress, with only the threatening glances of passing CLA soldiers indicating that they were still not entirely welcome amongst the Chinese. But then, just as they had exited one of the mess halls, where they had been treated to an "authentic" Chinese meal (or so the chef had claimed with a following snicker), both pilots soon realized that they were no longer alone; there were at least two behind them, and though they kept to the shadows, their hostile intent was more than detectable for veteran warriors such as them. Since that point, they wandered aimlessly around Xiaopei to see if their pursuers would keep up, which they had, thus necessitating that they confront them directly.

Soon enough, they arrived to a wide open section of Xiaopei, which looked to be one of the supply caches. As they had expected from their maps before, it was largely empty, with only a few supply bins placed around them while illumination came from a series of ceiling lights. But more importantly, it was well out of the way of the regular routes, ensuring that the rest of the fortress would be undisturbed by the events set to occur. Thus, after taking several steps into the area, both Rai and Alfred came to a stop. In turn, Andreas turned around and let out another call, aimed directly toward the shadows behind them.

"You can come out now." Alfred started a minute, but challenging tone, which accompanied Andreas' call well enough. "There's no point in remaining hidden when your quarry is aware of your presence."

"Though we are impressed." Rai joined in as well. "Outside of our special forces, there aren't many who can remain so effectively covert."

They were quickly greeted by the sound of venomous laughter, both that of a boy and a girl. Sure enough, the two stepped out of the entryway and into the open, their green CLA uniforms immediately defining themselves and their wearers under the light. "You're impressed...?" the female repeated as she and her comrade stared down the two Black Knight officers with beastly intent. "On the contrary, it is we who should be impressed..."

She then added with her own smirk. "That you didn't sense us sooner."

"Indeed. We projected ourselves to such an extent, a child could have sensed our approach." the male said as well, who held the same predatory gaze as his twin. "For people that fashion themselves as 'knights', you are lacking warriors."

Despite the fact they were seemingly cornered, neither Rai nor Alfred seemed deterred. "So this is the famous Tianshou Team..." Rai exclaimed. "Followers of Li, protectors of Tianzi, so-called Heavenly Beasts."

"Correct, Major," the female acknowledged, before proceeding with an overly dramatic bow. "I'm Captain Yu Yin, Tianshou Three. And beside me is my brother Captain Yu Bai, Tianshou Two."

"Charmed," Bai stated in turn, the expression on his face being anything but. He then looked toward Alfred. "That's what you Britannians say when attempting to be courteous, right Mr. Glaston?"

Alfred looked nonplussed at that, already wishing he had his sidearm with him. Unfortunately, one of the conditions for the Black Knights' free passage into Xiaopei was that they could only do so unarmed. "I don't suppose you've been following us for our autographs."

Bai chuckled non-amusedly response. "Ah, there's that famous Britannian dry wit. We've come to know it well these last seven years." he stated, just as a flash of vehemence appeared in his eyes. "Among several other of your cultural contributions."

Again Andreas let out a call, this one sounding far more threatening than before. Rai followed up on that himself. "Captain Darlton is no longer part of the Imperial Army. And when he was, he never took action against you or your countrymen," he pointed out, an edge in his own tone. "Repaying Britannia's crimes on him would be meaningless."

Yin sniffed at that. "As much as we wouldn't mind killing the last son of Andreas Darlton, that is not our purpose here."

Even so, Alfred didn't relax yet, even signaling Andreas to take off and find a perch. "Then what is it you want?" he spoke, after Andreas took flight.

It was then Bai grinned viciously. "Well, to put it simply, we've heard many stories about the so-called Blue Thunder God and Zero Squadron..."

A grin that Yin was quick to match. "...and we want to see if you live up to the legends."

The two twins charged at them with blinding speed, covering the distance between them in a fast sprint. Bai leaped up in the air, bringing his leg down on Rai's head with a vicious axe kick as Yin's foot swept out in a low kick that could have easily snapped Alfred's knee.

Rai's forearms shot up to block the descending blow with a crossed guard, but even then he staggered back with a hiss of pain at the harsh impact. That kick alone told him all he needed to know about his opponent, and how different he was from the average Chinese. Only a follower of Li could induce such a powerful kick and cause that amount of pain in one strike.

His opponent tried a kick to his jaw, but Rai caught his heel and twisted. Bai turned in mid-air with the blow to avoid getting his ankle broken, from which he tried to catch Rai with his opposite foot. However, Rai was quicker, as he managed to push the Chinese away, to which the latter landed in a handstand and flipping into a crouch, eyeing the white-haired Black Knight with renewed wariness.

At the same time, Rai heard a meaty thwack and then saw Yin stumble away in his peripheral vision. Alfred had assumed a loose boxer's stance, jumping on the balls of his feet, grinning widely. It was at that point Rai dimly remembered that fist fighting was a popular pastime in His Imperial Majesty's Army.

"Really, is that all you two got?" the Britannian taunted, loosening his collar. "For elites, you sure haven't impressed us yet!"

Yin turned her head back towards them, rubbing the back of her hand across the corner of her mouth. It came away red. Meanwhile, Bai crouched in a low stance, with his leg outstretched and his arms raised, wary and guarded. Rai instantly recognized the style as Northern Shaolin, though he didn't know which branch.

Yin examined the blood on her hand and exchanged a look with her brother, before both turned their heads to face them in an unnervingly snake-like manner. And then they both grinned.

"Not bad." Yin said, teeth flashing. "Not bad at all."

"You might just be worth our attention yet!" Bai hissed. With that, both siblings again charged.

As if seeking reprisal for the blood in her mouth, Yin unleashed a brutal yet elegant butterfly kick that would have caught Alfred in the head, only for the former Glaston to duck under it. Even so, Yin maintained the offense, unleashing three punches at Alfred's head and torso, and then following them up with a snap kick at his side. Alfred managed to block or evade these, but it still took him a fair amount of effort to do so, such that when he finally managed to exploit and opening and throw another punch, Yin easily evaded it, and then instantly counterattacked.

Some distance away, Rai wasn't doing much better with his opponent, as Bai was now sending a flurry of punches at him. Moving fluidly, Rai evaded each of them, then knocked one of the punches away so that he could perform a spinning hammer kick. However, Bai banked to the side to evade, and then deflected a following high kick by unleashing his own. The counterattack came immediately, with Bai striking Rai in the chest with a palm thrust, knocking him back and causing him to violently cough from the shock to his lungs. Bai followed that up with a spin kick that smashed into the Black Knight pilot's side, sending him sliding against the floor. However, that wasn't enough to finish Rai, who quickly flipped out of the way just as Bai attempted another axe kick, which landed on the ground so hard it left an indentation.

At that very moment, Yin sent a kick straight into Alfred's stomach, causing him to stumble back and hunch over and cough blood himself. Relishing that sight, as she finally repaid blood for blood, Yin went leaped into the air, went into a lateral spin and then used the momentum to execute a drop kick that would have smashed the back of Alfred's skull. Only a sidestep saved Alfred, who in turn executed a takedown, lifting Yin up over his shoulder and then pile driving her into the ground behind him. When both got up, Alfred again smashed his fist into her right cheek, then threw her against a nearby crate and started unleashing punches into the Chinese fighter's torso.

Meanwhile, Bai continued his offense with a trio of spin kicks, the last of which succeeded in knocking Rai again to the floor. This time however, Rai was prepared, as he unleashed a low sweep kick that knocked Bai down as well, and then leaped up so that he could execute a follow up side kick into the Chinese fighter's face. By some miracle Bai's nose didn't break from the impact; again, General Li's training was shining through his subordinates. As such, not wishing for Bai to regain the offensive, Rai unleashed a hammer punch against the Tianshou's head that sent him stumbling back even further, then continued on with an assortment of singular, power based punches and kicks that only kept the Chinese fighter moving back until he literally hit a wall. At that point, Rai spun him around with yet another punch and then put him in a choke hold.

"Am I worth your attention now?" Rai growled into the Chinese warrior's ear.

To his surprise, Bai hissed out a laughed in response. "Just barely, fu zha." he stated. It was then he performed a technique that Rai had only seen in kung fu movies: Bai ran his legs out and up along the wall, using the momentum to flip out of Rai's hold and land right behind him. From there, Bai reversed their earlier positions, sending another palm thrust into Rai's torso and sending the Black Knight against the wall, where Bai unleashed several more punches and kicks in a standard Northern Shaolin all out offense. It only when Rai grabbed his arm in the midst of a punch did that offense end, with Rai then following up with a palm thrust to his own, and then a spinning hook kick that sent Bai flying back.

Having regained the offensive sometime ago, Yin just finished executing a roundhouse that whipped Alfred across the face, then continued with a second roundhouse to form a double kick. For a moment Alfred thought he felt his teeth rattle in his skull; fortunately he didn't see any fly out. When Yin moved to launch a triple kick, Alfred finally ducked under the blow, slipped behind the woman fighter and landed a punch into her back. That sent her forward some distance, enough for Alfred to follow up with a Britannian kickboxing style back kick into the rear of her skull, which sent her flying forward.

Thus, both siblings landed against each other, while their respective opponents moved in to finish them with a respective KO. However, as both Rai and Alfred found out, both Yu siblings were far from finished, as Yin and Bai both leaped up again, deflected the finishing blows, and then responded with synchronized power kicks. Now it was the Black Knights' turn to be sent back, their torsos aching from the latest blows, which were even more damaging than the last had been.

A stalemate then materialized between the Black Knights and Tianshou, as neither side took the initiative nor admit defeat. Retaining their defenses, the two Tianshou began to circle their "prey" once more, while the opposing two Black Knights watched them, waiting for them to reengage.

"Impressive, most impressive." Yin suddenly spoke up again, breaking the silence, her voice retaining certain edge. "I can see why the Britannians have had such problems with your kind."

"Always nice to be praised." Rai replied straight off.

"Heh. Too bad for you we're not Britannians." Bai replied, the fire in his eyes growing. "Nor anywhere as weak."

"Nor anywhere as professional apparently." Alfred replied, gaining a smirk. "General Li must not be overly fond of discipline, seeing how disgraceful his subordinates appear to be." that smirked increased when he saw it had an effect on the two Chinese. "In the Imperial Army, you would have been thrown in the stockade for such unwarranted acts of aggression, no matter your rank or status."

Rai decided to add in his own words, also gaining a smirk. "I guess when you spend seven years hiding in a hole while the rest of the world fights on, you lose a few things."

The amusement quickly disappeared from either of the Tianshou. "You better watch yourselves Black Knights." Yin stated in a low warning. "We Chinese do not take such insults lightly."

"As if your feelings of inferiority are any concern of ours." Alfred stated in turn.

Bai's face further twisted into barely contained rage. "Hun dan!" he snarled. "Do you have any idea who you're dealing with!?"

Rai only smirked back. "Do you?" he retorted, just as his right eye suddenly flashed red, a bird-like sigil appearing in its center.

At that, the two Tianshou renewed their assault and once more charged at their designated opponents. However, before they could effectively close the distance, a third figure leaped out from the shadows and, moving far faster than they had, knocked either fighter back with a respective punch for Bai and a kick for Yin.

Bai was just barely able to look up to see his new attacker. "...Hei!"

"That's enough, both of you." Major Yu Hei stated evenly, looking down at his two siblings with certain authority. Though visibly indiscernible from either Yin or Bai, having the exact same physical features (including same length queue going down his back) as well as the same uniform, it was pretty obvious that he was the "elder" triplet. The Major rank badge on his chest certainly indicated it.

"But...!" Yin started to speak up.

"The alliance is delicate enough. We cannot afford any disputes such as this one." Hei explained, retaining his evenness, but speaking with unobjectionable command. "This is the will of our master."

Despite that ultimatum, Bai still saw fit to throw in one last line. "We were just testing them! We had no intention of...!"

"Gòule." Hei immediately silenced his brother. He then looked between the two of them. "You have both done enough. Return."

"Mǎshàng!" both Yin and Bai acknowledged upon rising to their feet. Without any more words, the two antagonists disappeared back into the shadows, departing to parts unknown.

When he sensed their presences at an acceptable distance, Hei turned around and faced the two Black Knights for the first time. "I apologize for my brother and sister." he stated to the two. "Though we are triplets, I'm afraid that they are still rather unrestrained."

Both Alfred and Rai could only look back with certain disturbance in their minds; neither of them had detected Hei's approach until the very last second, when he had intervened. This was not a good thing in the least.

Even so, Rai was quick to acknowledge. "No harm was done, Major." he stated. "Though I would not have expected two of the Tiger's followers to be so...forward."

More like jerkasses. Alfred thought, but didn't dare say.

"We were trained by the best warrior in all of China, Major Sumeragi, so it is only natural that we hold great pride. Both in ourselves and in our abilities." Hei explained as he looked toward where Yin and Bai had disappeared to. "Unfortunately, my siblings are ruled by that pride, instead of it being the other way around."

"Indeed." Rai exclaimed, examining the other man to see if he too were the same way. He found absolutely no indication of it. So this is Tianshou One. "I suppose it's best that Captain Darlton and I return to the Mikasa."

"That would be agreeable." Hei replied, still showing no outward emotion. "While the CLA and the Black Knights are allies at this time, I'm afraid there are still those who do not view our alliance acceptably." his eyes narrowed minutely. "As such, I cannot guarantee your safety if you remain within Xiaopei."

"We get the message." Alfred stated directly, before turning around. "Come on Rai, let's get back to the ship." he said, as Andreas swooped down and once again perched on his shoulder.

Rai nodded, and then turned around as well. However, just as he made it to the doorway, he turned one last time to look back toward Yu Hei.

As Rai half-expected, he was no longer there.

Vermillion Forbidden Palace
Luoyang Settlement,
Duchy of Henan, Area 22 (China), Holy Britannian Empire
July 4, 2025

"I have to say, I have never met a woman so charming... Nor so alluring as you, Lady Ashford." the reptile spoke with failing charm. Just by looking at him, one almost expected a forked tongue to slink its way out of his mouth and lick his lips.

Resisting the urge to bash the subhuman's face in, Kallen forced a smile. "Your words are too kind, Minister Ling." she spoke, her words oozing with warmth. "I must say myself, I've never met a...man like you." That was partly true, as she had never met a creature like the one before her, even amongst the Britannians.

Standing at barely over a meter in height, Ling Yun was a short and stocky being that was pushing well into his forties with each successive breath. Appearing more as an upright walking lizard than a human being, he had small, squintier than average eyes that were covered by rounded glasses, a balding head that was topped with thin black hair, and pale, rough looking skin that one swore was covered in scales. His body was thin and spindly looking, while his hands were very much unpolished, almost claw-like. And even though he was obviously bathed and dressed in a high profile Mao suit, one could almost smell the blood of his thousands if not millions of victims coming off his body in a foul odor.

Overall, Ling Yun was exactly what Kallen thought the head of Area 22's (formerly the Chinese Federation's) Ministry of State Security would be.

"It's a shame that this Area's native women cannot match such beauty." Ling continued, the look in his eyes nothing short of pure lust as he continued to gaze over Kallen. It was so obvious that it made her nauseous. "Shame that it can only be found in the Homeland."

"I don't know Minister. I'm sure there are others like me in Area 22; you just have to look." Kallen said, wishing Lelouch would hurry up. Ling was on Lelouch's list of targets for Geassing, and so as he had emphasized to her at the beginning, it was up to her to hold him there. Otherwise she wouldn't have acknowledged his existence, though that in itself would have likely led to him deploying his MSS goons after her. Not that she couldn't handle them if need be.

"No, unfortunately there aren't any, I assure you." Ling continued, completely oblivious to Kallen's disgust. "It's one of the downsides of our conformist society I'm afraid. Chinese...excuse me, Twenty-Two women do not have much variety going for them; after sometime you feel that they all look the same, almost believing that they come off a factory assembly line somewhere."

He shrugged. "Still, even though they're rather bland to look at, women remain women all the same." a disturbing twinkle soon entered Ling's eye. "And as such, they still have their...uses."

Of course you would think that, you sick son of a bitch. Kallen thought as she felt her gut twist, recalling certain stories she had heard from the CLA on the Minister's personal hobbies. The ones that struck in her mind the most was how he would go out on nightly patrols in his limo and pick up any woman that caught his eye right off the street, and then the morning after would have one of his underlings present his victims with bouquets, which "implicated" that they had consented to Ling's advances. Fortunately she still managed to keep her ever growing disgust off her face.

"Even so, I truly look forward to the day when Britannian women like yourself become a common sight in this Area." Ling spoke, again causing one to expect a forked tongue to flicker out of his mouth and lick his lips upon that line. "Perhaps when that day occurs, Area 22 will no longer be considered a wasteland."

"I'm sure that day will come soon, Minister." Kallen spoke, finally deciding she had enough and that Lelouch could find the bastard on his own. "If you'll please excuse me..."

Almost instantly she felt the Minster's hand reach out and clasp her own, almost causing her to reflexively throw him across the room. Fortunately, she managed to keep that reflex down. "Please don't go," Ling said, almost in a snake-like hiss. "Stay, so that we can get further acquainted."

"I'm sorry Minister, but I must decline." Kallen replied, bringing up her ringed hand. "My husband would take offense to the acquaintance you're suggesting."

Ling sniffed at that. "So what if he does." he continued. "Surely he's not half the man I am..."

"Actually, I was thinking just the opposite." Lelouch stated as he came up, staring down the Minister (indeed, it did seem like Ling was half Lelouch's height) with certain venom in his eyes. "And as a matter of fact, I do take offense to your harassing my wife, Minister."

Ling's eyes suddenly narrowed, giving him an even greater lizard-like visage. "This has nothing to do with you." he stated threateningly. "I suggest..."

"Enough." Lelouch silenced him immediately, Geass emerging. "I only have two things to say to you, Minister. First, you will follow these instructions..." he quickly handed an envelope out to Ling, who, under the full influence of Geass, took it and placed it in his suit pocket. "And second..." Lelouch continued, smirking. "...you're now a diarrhetic."

With that, Lelouch's Geass disappeared. No sooner than that happened, a very loud rumble emerged from Ling's stomach, to which he reflexively grasped, before looking back up at Kallen. "Please excuse me my dear. I'm afraid I..." he stammered, before another rumble emerged.

From there, the Minister started on a dead run toward the side of the building, nearly knocking over several people along the way, while Lelouch and Kallen watched on. When he disappeared, Kallen flashed a smirk of her own. "I didn't know your Geass could do that."

Lelouch retained his own smirk. "As long as the commands can be heard and followed, my Geass can do anything." he stated proudly, before turning serious. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry you had to go through all that."

Kallen shrugged. "He wasn't the first pervert to come after me. And I doubt he'll be the last." she stated matter of factly, before looking back at Lelouch. "Though I do wish you made him impotent while you were at it."

"Don't worry." Lelouch stated, a knowing look in his eyes. "With the orders I gave him, I assure you he won't be..."

"Announcing the arrival of Sir Johann, Knight of Two, Sir Michael, Knight of Five, and Dame Nena, Knight of Eight!" the porter declared throughout the banquet hall.

Immediately Lelouch froze in his statement as certain dread entered his eyes as well as Kallen's. Quickly, both he and Kallen turned to face the entrance to the hall, just in time to see three figures make their way up the steps. Sure enough, those figures each wore the white suit-like uniforms of the Rounds, accompanied by respective red, olive and maroon cloaks that bore the Britannian cross on their backs. As soon as they came up to the top, attendants quickly came up and took their cloaks, before disappearing, while the three gazed out to the ever awing crowd.

"What the hell are they doing here!?" Kallen muttered quietly to Lelouch, worry seizing up in her chest. She then turned toward Lelouch, only to freeze again when she saw the look on his face.

"Johann...?" Lelouch barely muttered as he stared at the face of the middle Round, who gazed back to the crowd with contrasting emotionless to the vivid zeal of his two comrades. As ice suddenly started run throughout his veins, Lelouch felt his body stop cold, as something akin to a mixture of fear and grave concern entered his mind; the feeling that a gravely unforeseen element had come into play against his plans. It was a feeling he had felt upon seeing Schneizel within Kamine Island eight years ago, where he immediately realized that the entire Japanese Insurrection had changed with his elder brother's presence. And before that, it was a feeling he had felt upon seeing Suzaku within the Lancelot's open cockpit, dressed in a Britannian pilot uniform with his hands directly upon the controls.

And just like either event back then, Lelouch felt the entire war within Area 22 had been changed.

Beside him, Kallen, knowing that her "husband's" continued gaping would attract unwanted attention, quickly seized Lelouch's arm and began quietly guided him away from the hall. A few minutes later, she brought him onto an outside balcony, which overlooked the inner court of the palace. Much to Kallen's relief, there was no one else present, and after verifying that there were no listening devices there with her Geass, she turned back to her partner.

"What's going on Lelouch?" she whispered with a forceful tone, already not liking where this was going to go.

"This is really bad." Lelouch muttered, the fear still in his eyes. "Of all the Rounds my father could have sent, why did it have to be him?"

"Who?" Kallen stated, pushing further. Outside Suzaku and his father, she had never seen Lelouch so fearful of one man before, and it was scaring her deeply.

Lelouch took a breath before answering. "Johann Ernst, the Knight of Two."

At that, Kallen again looked back into the hall, where she managed to pick out the dark skinned Round, who was currently greeting several party guests. At face value, he looked like any other Knight of the Round Kallen had seen; that in itself warranted concern, for obvious reasons, but at the same time she didn't understand why Lelouch would be afraid of this one particular Round. Especially not when his personal instructor had been the Knight of One himself.

Knowing what Kallen was thinking, Lelouch began to explain. "While all Knights of the Round are high class warriors, Johann is unique among them. As his title indicates, he's second only to Bismarck in the Rounds' hierarchy, and just like the others, he's both a skilled pilot and combatant." a certain chill entered his voice as he went on. "However, none of those are his greatest attribute."

Kallen was almost too afraid to ask. "What is it then?"

Lelouch then looked up to face her. "Amongst the Rounds, he's considered the best commander." he stated. "Whereas the others are simply high class warriors, he is a tactician and strategist like myself; one capable of devising as well as enacting. Even Bismarck recognizes his superiority in that area."

As terrifying as that was, that still didn't tell Kallen everything. "So what? How does that make him a dangerous opponent for you?"

"Because..." Lelouch started, again taking a breath. "Do you know I only lost one game of chess, ever?"

Kallen recalled that. "C.C. told me that story. As a boy, you challenged members of the Britannian Imperial Court, and when you were in Japan, you challenged officials from the JSDF and the Kururugi Cabinet. All throughout, you never lost a game..." she exclaimed. "...except to your brother Schneizel."

"That's correct." Lelouch said, nodding. "However, that story has now become outdated."

The Guren pilot immediately realized the implications of that. "You mean..." she again looked back toward Johann, a whole new perspective in her eyes. "...he beat you?"

"Yes." Lelouch said. "We only had one game, and I was under my father's Geass at the time, but that's still no excuse..." his voice then became lowered toned. "...especially when I beat Bismarck and the other Rounds in respective matches."

"My God." Kallen cursed, now fully understanding why Lelouch was afraid. Even if it had just been one game, the fact someone else beside Schneizel had defeated him in the very game that defined his existence spoke volumes of that individual's tactical prowess. Hell, as far as Kallen was concerned, that individual could be capable of anything.

"Obviously, the game has changed." Lelouch said as he finally managed to straighten himself out, even though the worry in his voice remained. "We're no longer dealing with Calares, but a far more capable foe who can make the most of the Britannian forces here." an even more disturbing thought occurred to him. "And more importantly, one that can track down the CLA's hideouts."

Kallen's eyes widened at that. "Are you sure?"

Lelouch looked back gravely. "If I can find them, so can he."

Even greater concern came over the Guren pilot. "Then we have to get back and warn everyone!" she stated minutely.

"Agreed, but at the same time our mission here isn't over yet." Lelouch stated. "If I don't get the rest under my control, we lose anyway."

That in itself gave Kallen an idea. "Does Johann know about Geass?"

Lelouch immediately knew what Kallen was getting at. "No, that won't work." he stated. "I don't think Johann knows, but at the same time he's very attentive; he'll foresee any approach. And even more, my Geass isn't instant." he continued, reaching his hand up to his left eye. "When cast, it takes 0.6 seconds to reach full effect. Usually it doesn't matter, but for Johann, that's just enough time to see it coming and turn away."

"Damn it." Kallen exclaimed, suddenly running out of ideas. Lelouch's Geass was the best weapon they had in this type of situation; if it couldn't be utilized, then she wasn't sure if anything else could be done.

However, as Lelouch continued to turn his head over the situation, another thought entered his psyche. One that he hadn't considered before. "On the other hand, his ignorance of Geass may work for us in a different way." he spoke again as certain hope appeared in his eyes, slowly clearing away the uneasiness. "It's a long shot, but still the best move we have."

For her part, Kallen didn't know what Lelouch was indicating, but she didn't care. The fact he had a plan in the face of this setback was enough for her to follow. "What do you need?" she asked.

Lelouch nodded. "I need you to lure out two specific targets..."

Black Knights mobile battleship Mikasa
Xiaopei Fortress, Duchy of Jiangsu, Area 22 (China), Holy Britannian Empire
July 4, 2025

Another day, another pound sterling. Rakshata thought as she looked over her computer screen, her eyes running up and down the specs of her newest knightmare designs. Though she only had rough designs for all of them, as she had only been working on them for the last few days, she knew that once they were completed, they would be the best knightmares of the eighth generation. Or at least, that was assuming they would ever come to see the light of day; as much as she intended to see her work go into fruitation, Rakshata was also aware that not all machines made that treacherous transition from the design board into actual functioning machinery. That being said, she still had hope for this group.

She sighed as she looked over their designs ever lovingly, her newest children yet to be born. As she had just only gotten past the conception stage, there was still a lot of work ahead of her; she would have to go over the designs multiple times over before producing a final set of blueprints, and from there she would have to gather the resources and material to produce the individual parts for each machine, which in turn would be compounded by research and testing of some of the "experimental" modules, and then she would have to put them all together and continue experimenting with each before handing them over to the Black Knights proper. And then would come mass production and distribution. Indeed, so much work.

At the same time however, Rakshata only looked forward to the whole process, not unlike an actual mother looking forward to the birth of her children. Though she was often teased and made fun of over her habit of referring to her designs as her children (never to her face of course), in her opinion there was little difference in development between a technology and human beings. After all, both required basic conception, as well as hours of labor and development before formal production, and from that point there was only additional development as physical flaws were isolated and corrected, and behavioral methods, whether for the psyche of a child or the combat systems of a knightmare, were instituted, all followed upon by a series of triumphs and disappointments. And just as human child grow up, so too do knightmares; for a time they "mature" into perfect, cutting edge machines that perform their desired functions in spectacular faction, and then as time goes by, they become aged and obsolete while a newer generation takes hold.

Indeed. Rakshata thought, as she again looked toward her picture of the young girl, Sati, smiling with a lotus blossum in her hands, which remained on her desk as always. There's little difference.

At that, she felt herself yawn unconsciously. Apparently she had her fill for the night, as working any longer would cause complications. That and she already had gotten an earful from her benefactor, the token Viceroy of Area 21, over her poor sleeping habits. The last thing she wanted was to get chewed out over her health and her importance to India's future through a real time communiqué.

"Goddamn Bapu." Rakshata snarled, the image of the subject in question appearing in her mind. Even when she merely thought of him, he still managed to get on her nerves.

A knock at the door quickly interrupted her thoughts, causing her to reflexively straighten out. "Enter." she replied just as reflexively, before she processed the thought to verify the newcomer's identity. As such, she quickly regretted it as the door opened.

Ever in uniform, Li Xingke casually entered the room, a datapad in his hand. Upon the sight of him, Rakshata adopted a highly uncharacteristic scowl. "What do you want Chinaman?" she snarled, resisting the instinctive urge to go for her sidearm at the mere sight of a Chinese man dressed in a CLA uniform.

Li sighed at that. He knew this was going to be difficult, given the bad history between the Chinese and the Indians. A history that stemmed over forty years, all the way back to the Chinese Federation's conquest and subjugation of India during Mao Zedong's War of the Orient. "This is the latest maintenance log on the Shen Hu and its siblings." Li replied straight to the point. "As their original designer, I was hoping you could go over this and pick out any mistakes my mechanics have been making."

Rakshata raised an eyebrow at that. "That's an awful lot of trust you're putting into an 'ignorant brown-ass.'" she quipped.

Again Li inwardly sighed as the chief insult the Chinese had often used against Indians was brought up. Indeed, this was truly going to be difficult. "I am well aware of your intellect General Chawla. We would not have the Four Beasts without it."

That only made Rakshata even more angry. "Bad choice of words Chinaman. Now I'm definitely not going to help you." she snarled, quickly turning around and giving her back to Li. "Make sure the door doesn't hit you on the way out."

In spite of the obvious rejection, Li was quick to notice an underlying tone to the Black Knight Science Division chief's anger. Something that transcended mere bad blood. "I don't understand." he prodded. "I thought you didn't just see your designs as mere creations, but as your actual children."

He then took note of the picture on Rakshata's desk, at least before Rakshata put the picture face down. He continued. "And with respect General, you don't strike me as the kind of woman who would reject her children. Not even out of spite."

Rakshata sniffed at that, staying momentarily silent before responding. "You really don't know how I came to bear those quadruplets, do you?" she turned back, this time with intense hatred in her eyes and voice, such that even the stoic Li was visibly disturbed. "How an Indian woman like myself came to design weapons for her peoples' oppressors."

Immediately Li knew this was not going to be pleasant. "I assume you were forced to." he said, retaining his stoic front even in the face of such hatred.

"Understatement of the decade." Rakshata replied derisively.

With great hesitance, Li decided to press on. "What was it?" he asked. "What convinced you to create those four?"

The hatred in Rakshata's eyes grew ever colder. "Just one thing." she stated, her voice now hollow, so much so that it seemed to echo with pure wrath. "Mumbai."

At that, even Li's internal control snapped and allowed the shock to reach his face. The Mumbai Massacre, otherwise known as the Rape of Mumbai by the outside world, had been one of the most brutal acts the Chinese Federation had inflicted upon the Indians. Over four million of the city's population had been slaughtered by the CLA, while mass rape, mutilation and looting had also been committed. General Cao Kun, the commander of the Militarized Zone of India at the time, as well as the source of the original deployment orders, had described the whole act with one word: xūnzhēng. Fumigation.

Along that line, Li responded as such before he could consider his words. "How is that possible?" he exclaimed in true astonishment. "It had been reported that there were terrorist cells within the city, and that when we moved in to round them up, the city broke into riots."

Rakshata's glare intensified at that. "You fool." she seethed. "There were never any 'terrorists' in Mumbai. That was just Cao covering his ass." her eyes narrowed even further. "Not that he ever needed an excuse. Four million dead Indians is hardly any concern to you Chinese."

It was a concern to me. Li thought, but for some reason didn't say aloud. In truth, he had suspected Cao had lied about Mumbai, but never had the ability to prove it; both the State Council and the CLA General Staff had been quick in sealing all records regarding Mumbai, and not even Li's top level clearance had given him access. Alongside that, Cao had also been moved out of reach, as his command had been transferred to Liaodong right after the Massacre; it was from this new post that Cao masterminded Operation Hai Long Wang (Sea Dragon), the attempted false flag invasion of Japan through Kyushu, two years later. Now Li knew exactly why on all of it.

"Ten years ago, Cao, having somehow heard of my designing the Guren Isshiki for the JLF, came to me and presented me with an offer of commission. And when I say 'offer', I mean he strapped me to a chair and held a gun to my head." Rakshata stated in spiteful sarcasm. "He wanted me to create a series of seventh generation knightmares for the Chinese Federation, models that could fight on the same level as the Guren and Britannia's Lancelot."

She closed her eyes at the memory. "Naturally, I refused." she explained. "At the time I had just lost something most precious to me, and so held no wish to continue living."

Beneath notice, Li's eyes shifted over to the downturned picture while Rakshata went on with her story. "When he saw that his threats weren't working, Cao changed tactics: he said that if I didn't cooperate, then he would massacre the citizens of Mumbai."

Li was quick to realize the implications of that, evidenced by his renewed shock. It wasn't hard to guess what happened, considering the Shen Hu and its siblings existed. "That bastard..." he growled, looking away in shame.

"You figured it out." Rakshata nodded at Li's expression. "After I completed the Four Beasts, Cao decided to go forward with the massacre anyway. He said it would remind me 'who was the master and who was the brown-ass slave.'" she smiled coldly. "A rather ironic statement from a communist. And at the same time, not so much."

The Indian woman continued look down at the Chinese general, the very representation of all that she hated. "So that is to say, General, those four are indeed my children." she exclaimed, her voice becoming even more harsh. "Specifically, they are products of Cao's rape, and your Federation's complicity in it."

It was all Li could do to remain standing, let alone refuse to sling his shoulders in dejection. For much of his lifetime, he had been forced to endure the crimes of a government that was said to have been of the People, by the People, for the People. It never got easier, even when the things other nations (even Britannia) considered "atrocities" became normalities with the Federation; if anything it had made him even more disgusted with his own country. And now here he was again, listening to another one of the Chinese Federation's crimes against humanity, from the woman who had been at the center of it. It especially hurt him this time, as he had directly benefitted from that crime's outcome with four state of the art weapons.

Sometimes he wondered if he really was fighting for the right side. Fortunately, it only took the image of Tianzi, as well as the suffering multitudes within the former Federation, to resolidify his resolve. Indeed, the Chinese Federation may have been as evil as Britannia, perhaps more so, but that didn't mean his people were doing better as Twenty-Twos. Especially not when Zhao Hao and his compatriots were the ones running things.

Those thoughts gave him enough strength to respond. "I understand." he stated in monotone. "I have no right to ask anything of you. Likewise, I do not dismiss the crimes the country and ideology I represent have done to your people."

Rakshata continued to observe the general as he went on. "Having said that though, I still ask for your support, as I have no other choice." he said. "Those four knightmares, despite the fact you consider them bastard children, have given the CLA an edge against the Britannians we would not have gained on our own. In fact, they're the only effective weapons we have against them; as such, if there is any chance in increasing their performance, I must take it, even at the cost of my pride."

Again Rakshata sniffed. "You have balls, Chinaman. I'll give you that." she stated, before turning around again. "But that's not enough for me to help you."

"Please." Li replied, now starting to sound desperate. "I understand your hatred toward myself and my people, but surely you realize that they do not deserve this." he emphasized the point. "Surely you realize that China has suffered as much under as India, whether under the Federation or Britannia."

The General's eyes looked even more pleading. "That in spite of all we have done, we're still human...!"

Rakshata clenched teeth out that, stopping herself from whirling around again and throwing something at the general. As much as she wished he were wrong, he wasn't. Even so, before she responded, she took a moment to calm herself. "In India, we have various perceptions of Chinese. Some believe you are yellow skinned Asura, which the supreme god Vishnu has sent upon us as karmic punishment for our sins. Others believe you are Preta, beings damned with eternal hunger and thirst, and that your desecration of your land and ours are but extensions of your damnation. And even more believe you to be escapees from Naraka itself." she looked up. "Beside those, there are many others, but of all their number, not one ever denotes as you 'human'."

Li hesitated for a moment before asking. "And what do you believe us to be?"

Rakshata let out a breath from her nostrils. "I don't believe. I know the ultimate and completely disgusting truth: that just as you said, you are as human as we are."

Again she turned to face the general. "In the end, no matter how much I wish to deny it, and no matter how much it sickens me, there is no difference between us." she stated, her tone far less harsh and pointed now. "We both have hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections and passions. We are fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, and warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer. We both bleed when we're pricked, laugh when we're tickled, die when we're poisoned."

Hostility soon returned to her eyes. "And most importantly, we both desire revenge when we're wronged."

If Li was shaken by that last claim, he didn't show it. Regardless, Rakshata went on. "Really, out of every detestable trait you Chinese possess, it's your lack of difference from we Indians, or any other race in the world, that I hate the most about you." she stated with slight derision. "Yet at the same time, that single trait is what makes you just as deserving of salvation from Britannia's jackboots as we are..."

She grit her teeth as she spoke her next sentence. "...regardless of the crimes of your thrice-damned Federation."

From that, silence soon dawned between the Indian and Chinese generals, as if neither side knew how to continue. A few moments later however, Rakshata growled again. "Fine, goddamn it." she muttered, right before getting up and swiping the datapad out of Li's arms. "I'll take a look at the log. I can't promise anything, but if I find things that can be fixed or improved, I'll be sure to forward them to your mechanics."

She then gave off a leer. "That is, assuming they're willing to listen to an Indian."

Li blinked once, and then nodded in gratitude. "I'll be sure to inform them to do so." he stated simply. From that, Rakshata returned to her chair while Li turned to make his way out.

However, just as he reached the door, he spoke again. "For the record, I had General Cao executed when I took full command of the CLA."

"So I heard. Him and twelve others." Rakshata said banefully. "Even I have to admit that was very clever of you. You removed your potential rivals and deterred any others, as well as ensured that both your authority and Tianzi's remained unquestioned." she smirked derisively. "All as one would expect of the Chinese Tiger."

Li paused before answering. "That is all true. However, it also sent another message: wanton acts, such as the ones committed by those thirteen, would not be tolerated under my command." he explained. "For this reason and several others, you have not seen a repeat of Mumbai these last seven years. At least, not by the CLA's hand." With that, he opened the door and exited without another word.

Alone again, Rakshata allowed the silence to fall around her once more.

Vermillion Forbidden Palace
Luoyang Settlement,
Duchy of Henan, Area 22 (China), Holy Britannian Empire
July 4, 2025

"For the last time Calares, no, we cannot end the party now." Zhao Hao stated with visible annoyance. "In spite of your security concerns, which I find nonsensical at best."

From that, Calares took a moment close his eyes and rub his temples. "Look, I get it Zhao Hao." he started. "You and your compatriots are noblemen. You all have more money than most fourth world dictators, and you're the absolute lords of this particular land. And if that wasn't high enough status, you also possess the recognition of Prince Schneizel himself."

Calares then adapted a knowing look. "Unfortunately however, due to totally unfounded rumors started by the local Numbers, people think you eight have certain...plumbing issues." he enjoyed watching Zhao Hao squirm on that one. "Which combined with your lack of natural beauty and grace, as well as your being traitors, has stuck you all with a less than popular image. Thus, the only way you can make up for all of those things is by wearing expensive clothes, driving around in sports cars, throwing large parties such as this one..."

The Viceroy then drew a minute smirk. "And forcing women to look attracted to you." he said, before the smirk disappeared and a dark, accusing expression took its place. "Which in itself also misleads people who don't know your true preference."

Zhao Hao could only adjust his collar on that one, as well as ignore the minute intensity behind Calares' eyes. While he was far from apologetic over his sexual tastes, he had no illusions of what the Viceroy, or many others under his military command, would have done to him had he not possessed his title and the protection it granted. "Is there a point you're trying to make? Or are you just going to keep mocking me?"

"Just the same point I've been making over and over again: your gatherings are too large, too open and, above everything else, too frequent." Calares reiterated for what felt like the hundredth time that night. "You've invited practically every name in the Area to them, and you never held back in advertising. If the CLA hasn't heard about them by now, then it means Li and his generals have all turned blind and deaf."

"What difference would that make?" Zhao Hao said pointedly. "Damn it all Calares, we're in the middle of Luoyang, under the protection of your prized Argus. There's no way Li would be able to stage an attack here."

Calares resisted the urge to slap his forehead. "For once in your completely godforsaken life, think Zhao Hao." he growled. "Li doesn't need to attack this place directly. He could have planted spies amongst the guests or staff, or placed listening devices around the palace. Hell, he could have just as easily placed bombs."

"I thought your men had checked the palace grounds this morning." Zhao Hao recalled.

"They did, but it makes no difference as the palace is too large to keep effectively monitored. And it also doesn't help that you won't allow my men into the inner areas." Calares reminded.

"That's what the MSS is for." Zhao Hao replied, waving it off. "They're very good at keeping things under watch."

Calares' expression showed he was far from convinced. "The only thing the MSS is good at is tormenting passive Twenty-Twos. In everything else, they're unreliable." he then looked at Zhao Hao squarely. "And considering how easily they betrayed their previous government and idealism, their loyalty is also far from absolute."

"I will be the judge of that." Zhao Hao stated. One of the reasons behind the Chinese Federation's smooth transition to Area 22 seven years ago was that he had brought Minister Ling in on the scheme; this in itself wasn't too hard given Ling's own greed and his underlings only caring about retaining power and authority. With the MSS aboard, it was all too easy to round up the rest of the government that wasn't in on Prince Schneizel's scheme.

On that, Zhao Hao looked around for a moment. Where is Ling anyway? I thought he used nights like this to pick out new victims.

"Look, if you're going to keep going with this, then at least let me post some soldiers in the interior." Calares demanded, reaching for a compromise. "If nothing else, it will provide additional security."

"Forget it. I will not have your soldiers scaring my guests; they've done enough of that outside the palace." Zhao Hao stated with finality. "Really Calares, you're being paranoid. And annoying."

Calares balled his fists at his sides. "I'll remember those words the next time the CLA strikes and you and your 'friends' come crying to me to do something about it."

Zhao Hao turned red on that one. "The CLA will never, never reach us here! And that's final!" he declared, finally having enough. He then, after spending a few moments to catch his breath, turned around abruptly. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have guests to attend to."

From there, Calares watched as the fat, pale skinned Chinese noble stormed off to "bestow favor" onto another group of people. On that, it was Calares' turn to feel disgusted. He really does look like an upright walking pig in a suit.

He shook his head, as he had more important things on his mind. Namely, how he was going to salvage his career and standing, especially when he had to work under three Knights of the Round, one whom was said to have been on par with Prince Schneizel and Prince Lelouch as a commander, strategist and tactician. That latter only made him glower even more; he did not spend seven years of his life in the godforsaken hellhole known as Area 22 so that his career could be thrown out from under him by an upstart in a red cloak! He had worked too hard and sacrificed way too much for that to happen.

The problem was, what could he do about it? Even though he was a General, the Knights of the Round were all above the Army chain of command, and Johann Ernst was number two in their order. There was no way Calares could go around his orders nor countermand him, and he definitely couldn't rely on his troops to stand by him should he challenge Sir Johann directly. After all, turning against a Round was the same as doing so to the Emperor himself, and was automatically considered high treason.

Essentially, all he could do was stand back and follow orders as if he were of lower rank and status, which technically he was. And much worse, all he had to look forward at the end of it was either retaining his current position, or being transferred to the Eastern Front. In other words, it was a choice between remaining in a scorched wasteland, where he took words from the bombastic Zhao Hao, or he transferred to a frozen wasteland, where he would take orders from the infamous Princess Marrybell.

Thinking that choice, Calares sighed. For the first time he wished he were back in Area 12 hunting down the (hilariously named) Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao and the various Philippine Republican Army remnants spread across the other islands. Compared to the CLA, they were little more than a nuisance, and though Calares hadn't particularly liked the jungles nor the inhabitants, at least he had been a valued commander at that time. That and he hadn't had people like Zhao Hao and his fellow Eunuchs to put up with.

On the other hand, there was always the option of early retirement and returning to his family's land of Argentine, in which he was currently the reigning Duke. It was a job he didn't look forward to, as the life of a plain nobleman was boring compared to the military, and despite his current situation, Calares was still proud of his service to the Crown. He considered himself a soldier first and the Duke of Argentine second. Distantly second. How could he throw his career away with that mindset?

However, as he pondered his situation while absent mindedly eating an entree of Britannian food (his stomach could not take the spices of Chinese cuisine), one option did come up that he had not considered before. Taking out the CLA before Sir Johann did.

It was then that he realized that, of all the negative effects the Knight of Two's presence held, it gave him one advantage he had not held originally. For seven years, Calares had been unable to locate the main CLA hideout, the one that contained Li's central command and likely held Tianzi; he had been able to isolate several CLA bases over the years, which he had eradicated with little difficulty, but never the one that directed them all. It had been a great source of personal humiliation to him, as well as the main reason why the CLA had not yet been eradicated.

That being said, if Johann Ernst were half the strategist he had been reputed, then surely he had already deduced its location, alongside every other CLA base out there. More than that, Sir Johann was going to give a briefing tomorrow morning on his entire strategy tomorrow, in which he would assuredly divulge his findings to Calares and the rest of his staff. That thought alone warmed Calares' stomach more than his dinner ever could.

So what if the brat found it when I did not. As long as I'm the one who calls the assault and gains victory, it will be considered my triumph regardless. he thought as he took a mouthful of pork, smirking a little as he chewed. Indeed, His Majesty and the Imperial High Command would have to recognize him then, even if he had technically gone around the Knight of Two's authority in order to enact it.

Thus, for the first time in entire years, Calares felt a semblance of hope for his long humiliated career, as well as dark and powerful ambition. After what was almost an entire decade, he was on the offensive, and once he capitalized on it, his enemies, both within the CLA and Britannia itself, would be laid to rest. And from that, final glory would be his.

It was nearing midnight now in local Chinese time. Despite that fact, as well as the additional fact that it had begun around six o'clock in the afternoon, the party only continued on at full speed. As he stood on the sidelines of it, watching the partygoers went on their idle conversations while eating dessert (as they had all long finished their main entrees), Lelouch couldn't help but wonder if the Eunuchs had threatened these people with summary execution if they so much as looked tired. He certainly felt exhausted, though he was not about to show it.

He was alone now, standing along one of the side railing at the end of the hall, taking occasional sips from his glass of plum wine; he could afford it, as he had high alcohol tolerance, and he had already finished Geassing his targets. The only thing that remained now was their exit, which was only held up by one totally unforeseen obstacle: Kallen had gone to answer a call of nature a few minutes back, and obviously Lelouch couldn't leave without her. It was aggravating, especially with time being a major factor now, but such an event was not something he could, or would, fault her with. Besides, they had a long trip back to Xiaopei waiting for them, so it was best for such matters to be taken care of now.

Thus he had a quiet moment to himself, standing in the middle of a social whirlwind. If anything it gave him an up close perspective on the corruption and decadence practiced by the Area elite; they all went about eating food, vast amounts of food in a land plagued by seemingly eternal famine, drinking wine that had to be worth a thousand pounds per bottle, and holding to conversations about trends and fashions from the Homeland. Alongside this, they were all completely indifferent to the suffering Numbers around them; whenever Twenty-Twos were brought up in a conversation, it was either in derision or as an attempt at humor, the latter usually highlighting on some animalistic trait they supposedly possessed. Not one guest recognized the fact they were enjoying the modern day equivalent of a Manchu Han Imperial Feast while billions starved around them, nor that just by being present they were enjoying status and privileges that the Chinese masses had not held in centuries, if at all.

Lelouch inwardly glowered at all of them; this was an entirely new low for Britannia, one that easily surpassed their acts in every other Area to date. Even the colonists of Area 11 had not been so callous to the so-called Elevens; yes the Japanese had been treated horribly by their overseers, but even those who lived in the ghettos had never been forced into starvation, nor did the Britannians deprive them of basic resources like electricity and running water. For whatever subjugations the Japanese had endured, they had been allowed to live as human beings (albeit on the most basic of levels), whereas the Chinese had been damned to a collectively slow and agonizing death.

That in itself made Lelouch wonder if that had been Britannia's true intentions here. Rather than forwardly purge the Twenty-Twos like they had in other Areas, simply let them all die from hunger, dehydration and disease, and then relegate the Area to a Britannian instituted Year Zero, where it could be rebuilt as a 'true' extension of the Empire. It certainly seemed likely, given what he had seen up to now. He also didn't put it past the power that be; indeed, such a plan would be akin to his father's way of thinking, with the strong thriving and the weak dying out.

Needless to say, Lelouch was very much enraged as he gazed out at all of them. Not as much as he had been upon seeing the ruins of Japan, but still considerably more than he thought he would be upon coming here. This is precisely what I'm fighting against. Lelouch told himself, as he mentally recorded the party. This is exactly what I intend to destroy at the end of my crusade.

"Well, it's nice to see a fellow sideliner," a familiar voice spoke from behind, causing Lelouch to suddenly freeze where he stood. Turning to the side, he watched as Johann minutely came up to him. "Though I am often called for such occasions, I'm afraid I lack the stomach for them."

From that, Lelouch quickly realized his cover was not blown; Johann just wanted to have a friendly conversation. That said however, Lelouch still had to be careful, as the Knight of Two could easily pick up on any wrong words or tones, no matter how inconspicuous they were. "Am I really that transparent, Sir Johann?" he answered thusly.

"Quite the contrary, Lord Ashford." Johann replied matter of factly, before turning to face his guest. "You conceal your emotions quite well, and to an extent none of these people could ever read."

"I'll take that as a compliment." Lelouch replied.

"As it was meant to be." Johann acknowledged. He then tilted his head a little. "I am rather curious. I had come to believe that, with the exception of the current Grand Duchess of New York, the House of Ashford had been wiped away."

Lelouch inwardly sniffed at that; he knew when he was being probed. "Despite rumors, Sir Johann, not everyone followed my grandfather Reuben to Area 11. Some of us felt prospects could still be gained within the Homeland." he looked down as if in remorse. "I only wish the rest of my family were alive to enjoy them."

"I see." Johann nodded in acknowledgement. "My apologies then, I did not mean to remind you of your loss." he continued. "Having said that however, I am still intrigued by your presence in Area 22, as the Ashford Foundation has no holdings here."

"Not yet anyway." Lelouch answered.

"Oh?" Johann inquired.

"I hope to change that in the near future." Lelouch answered, continuing his explanation. "While this land has little in the way of resources, it still possesses an abundance of open space; a perfect blank slate for industrialization."

"Yes, I have heard this assessment." Johann concluded as well. "But surely there's more to the Ashford Foundation's interests than that."

Lelouch faked a laugh. "You really are gifted at seeing beyond the obvious, Sir Johann." he complimented before going on. "The truth is, the Foundation has recently absorbed the Eden Corporation. This includes the rights to Eden's Genesis project."

"Ah yes, Genesis. The generation of ecology through spontaneously applied molecular engineering." Johann acknowledged, looking up in recollection. "I thought that had been banned by the Senate years ago."

"Yes, because Eden wanted to test it in the Homeland, specifically in California. The Senate ruled against it because they feared the tests could potentially affect the present ecology of that region, and perhaps the rest of Area 1." Lelouch explained, before giving off an almost devious expression. "Fortunately, Area 22 is not part of the Homeland, and the ongoing desertification of its northern territory makes it a more suitable testing ground."

Johann considered that, and Lelouch could tell from his eyes that he found it logical. "This Area would certainly benefit from such a rejuvenation, assuming it were successfully applied." he stated, before looking at Lelouch knowingly. "Of course, any fallout would have an adverse effect on the local populace."

Again Lelouch knew he was being probed, to which he once more forced a laugh. "Look around you Sir Johann. Nobody cares about how the Twenty-Twos feel about anything." he then gestured toward the Eunuchs. "And they wouldn't care if we were testing chemical weapons, so long as they're paid sufficiently."

The Knight of the Round raised an eyebrow. "That's a rather heartless outlook coming from an Ashford," he noted perceptively. "I would have thought your family would be sympathetic to the Numbers, considering your cousin's time amongst them."

Lelouch shrugged. "As I said Sir Johann, my side of the family chose not to follow my grandfather to Area 11," he prayed that Johann didn't pick up on that lie. "And my cousin Milly has left it up to me to choose a testing site, which is why I'm here and she's not. Besides, as you have observed, this Area and its inhabitants would only benefit from a successful rejuvenation."

Johann again nodded, apparently bemused that he had been caught with his own words. "If nothing else, Lord Ashford, I appreciate your candor. As well as your logic," he complimented again, his gaze further emphasized. "But even so, I must confess, you are still something a mystery to me."

Lelouch suddenly felt unease creep up his spine. "I thought I made my intentions, as well as my character, quite clear, Sir Johann."

"Once more to the contrary, Lord Ashford." Johann said, before he narrowed his gaze into Lelouch's eyes. "I believe you are far more than what you appear to be."

A very uncomfortable moment of silence, at least for Lelouch, resulted from there. However, it wasn't long before Lelouch saw Kallen moving through the background, who immediately froze when she saw Johann. As such, Lelouch then looked toward his watch, before sighing in false regret. "Well, that's it for me," he stated, before nodding to Johann. "If you'll excuse me, Sir Johann, I'm afraid I must turn in for the evening."

Johann nodded in return, seeing no reason to keep the lord. "Until we meet again then, Your Lordship," he said, before moving away.

At that, Kallen came up, looking as though she had just went through a heart attack. "What the hell was that all about?" she whispered urgently.

"Nothing serious, darling," Lelouch reassured her, passing his wine glass to a waiter who walked by. "Sir Johann just wanted to say hello."

"Considering what you've told me about him, that looked to be more than a simple 'hello'." Kallen replied back.

Lelouch again faked a laugh - for what was likely the twentieth time that night - making it look like his 'wife' had said something funny and completely harmless. "I assure you it was nothing serious." he stated, though he knew Kallen would see right through that. "Have you taken care of all your business?"

Kallen rolled her eyes on that one. "Yes, I took care of all my business." she looked on disgustedly as they started to walk toward the front staircase. "That's the last time I eat half-cooked shiitaki dumplings."

Lelouch chuckled (for real) in turn. "That's what I love about you the most, Maria. Your extravagant tastes."

"You better shut up now, Daniel," Kallen replied sweetly, donning a smile. "Before I kick your ass in front of all these nice people."

Lelouch's reply to that came in the form of an overly drawn sigh. "And to think, I could have married Miya Hillmick."

The exchange, which continued as they both descended the stairs, reached the front entrance and moved further on, did well to disguise the dread they both felt simultaneously.

"Well, this is unexpected," C.C. observed as she watched Lelouch and Kallen enter the limo from the front mirror (she was posing as their chauffeur). She was quick to note that both, on top of being physically exhausted from the hours of interaction and keeping up appearances, were visibly disturbed. "Almost disappointing even."

"Let me guess, you were expecting us to come out hot, with guards on our tails and Sutherlands moving to block our exit," Kallen summarized as she climbed into the limo, Lelouch closing the door when she was in.

C.C. nodded. "And I was so looking forward to the car chase." she spoke in mock disappointment. "What a way to ruin my evening."

"We don't have time!" Lelouch barked as he practically threw himself into the limo, his eyes speaking of certain urgency. "Get us to the rendezvous point, and transmit for immediate pick up! Now!"

"Alright alright," C.C. replied as she started the engine, quickly taking the limo down the inlet toward the front palace gate. Lelouch had specifically chosen her to be the chaffeur due to her intimate knowledge of Luoyang; after all, she had visited, and lived within, the city at several points in her excessive lifetime. "I take it the worst has occurred."

"Our worst nightmare has occurred," Kallen confirmed with a dreading nod.

"Does this thing have a long-range radio?" Lelouch demanded. They had "acquired" the limo from one of the local Army commanders, through the same means Lelouch acquired the Black Knights' original mobile home base eight years ago. Logically it would have possessed a long-range communication system, but he hadn't had time to make sure before the party.

"Yes, it does." C.C. confirmed with a nod, to which she flipped a switch and caused a panel to open near Lelouch's seat, revealing the radio set. "However, if you use it within Luoyang, the Britannians might..."

"That's a risk we'll have to take." Lelouch interrupted, his voice holding the same urgency as he took up the radio. "Gyoku One to Huxue, come in." he stated. Hǔxué, or "The Tiger's Den", was the callsign for Xiaopei. "Repeat, Gyoku One to Huxue, come in!"

"This is Huxue," came the staunch reply. "Gyoku One, what are you doing on this channel? It's meant for emergency communications only!"

"This is an emergency!" Lelouch replied just as staunchly. "I need to speak to Shangdi One!" Shangdi One was, naturally, Li's personal callsign.

For a moment, it seemed like the operator was going to tell Lelouch to get off the radio. However, after a brief moment of time passed without a response, a new voice came on. "This is Shangdi One. Go ahead."

"Shangdi One, this is a priority level emergency. The Britannians are or will soon be aware of Huxue. Repeat, Huxue is compromised!" Lelouch stated, already seeing the shocked looks upon the CLA personnel on the other end. "Recommend immediate evacuation. Over."

Another moment of silence passed before Li responded. "Gyoku One, is Britannian incursion imminent?" he asked.

Lelouch thought about that for a moment, then shook his head. He doubted either Johann or Calares had an assault planned at the current time, as Johann and his compatriots could have only recently arrived. "Negative, Britannian incursion is not imminent. However, it's still recommended you begin evacuation."

Yet another pause. "Acknowledged. How close are you to main rendezvous point?"

Lelouch looked over to C.C., who waved a twenty minutes sign. "Twenty minutes out. Timetable remains unaffected."

"Very well. I will meet with you upon your return. Huxue out," Li replied, before the radio turned silent.

By now, the limo was well passed the main palace gate and driving down the deserted streets of Luoyang. Fifteen minutes later, it would rendezvous with an incoming Sanzuniao VTOL (which had been modified with a Gefjun Disturber) that the CLA had loaned to the Black Knights for this assignment; after all, it would not do them well for the Black Knights' presence to revealed so early on. From there, they would abandon and destroy the limo and then take the gunship directly back to Xiaopei, where they would arrive just before sunup.

The whole operation remained on perfect schedule, with no deviations nor interruptions to hinder the recovery and return. Despite that however, both Lelouch and Kallen could not help but feel that, even when they made final approach to their home base, that it was still too late.