Pendragon, Holy Empire of Britannia, December 2017
Alexander Waldstein rose to his feet, snapping to attention as the tribunal filed into the chamber. He willed his heart to slow, but there was no remedy for the sick, cold feeling in his stomach. His fate had been decided in the small room beyond, and nothing and no one could change it now.
The three officers took their seats; high-backed chairs behind a long table covered by a Britannian flag. A sword lay across it, a reminder that this was a military court martial, not some civilian farce with smart-talking lawyers and cheap theatrics. Everything that had happened had taken place in accordance with the rules. All clean and tidy, all very military.
"Major Alexander Waldstein, formerly of her Imperial Highness Princess Cornelia's Regiment of Knightmare Guards," proclaimed the presiding officer, a balding army General by the name of Reynolds. "The tribunal has conferred and reached a decision, regarding all of the charges laid against you." He paused, and ran his eyes over the wad of papers in front of him. Alexander felt as if time was slowing down around him.
"The first charge, that you wilfully and knowingly abandoned your post in pursuit of a personal cause, thus contributing to the endangerment of the life of her Imperial Highness Princess Cornelia."
It was all Alexander could do not to shudder. That personal cause had been the safety of Shirley Fenette, or so the prosecutor had seemed convinced. How many hours of questioning had he endured on that point? How many times had he been forced to stand there, face straight, while that wretched JAG officer had impugned her honour by insisting that she was his lover and that he'd abandoned Princess Cornelia in order to protect her?
The things he had said. The things he had implied...
"While your leaving your post in order to attack the Black Knights command post at Ashford Academy was irregular," General Reynolds went on. "The need to recover the Z-01 Lancelot provides a military justification. A written affadavit from her Imperial Highness Princess Carline, to the effect that she gave you a direct order to go, has also been taken into account. While this tribunal finds that your actions constituted an error of judgement, it was neither criminal nor in any significant way contributory to the disappearance of Princess Cornelia. As such, this tribunal finds you not guilty of the charge."
Alexander felt a sliver of hope. The day Nena Carmine had brought her mistress' letter, and had given testimony in his defence, had been the best of the whole sordid period. He only wished she hadn't kept making eyes at him the whole time.
"The second charge, that you wilfully and knowingly failed to secure the terrorist known as Zero when you had the opportunity to do so, thus allowing him to escape and lead the so-called 'Black Rebellion'."
The big one. It was all Alexander could do to keep that tiny flicker of hope alive, though a part of him knew it was a delusion. There was only one possible explanation for not securing Zero, one possible defence, and even that wasn't a good one. But it was something he could never reveal to them. He could never tell them of the face he had found under Zero's mask, the face that had haunted him ever since.
He hadn't even told his father.
"This tribunal has had…concerns regarding your conduct in this matter." Reynolds was looking straight at him, his eyes old and hard. "The only justification you could offer for your failure to secure Zero was the need to protect her Imperial Highness Princess Euphemia, and you couldn't even manage to do that. Worse, you refused to reveal the identity of Zero, even though he was able to warn you of the impending assassination. You could offer no reason why you should have any other reason to believe him."
Reynolds paused, and Alexander could almost feel the axe upon his neck.
"However we have received…information regarding the identity of Zero, and why you have seen fit to remain silent. Under the circumstances, your actions were both understandable and justified. Upon that basis, this tribunal has found you not guilty. As such the tribunal discharges you, and reminds you that all matters related to Zero are secret and not to be revealed to unauthorized persons under any circumstances."
Somewhere in the EU
"Here we are again," Hamid thought sourly, as the lift plate bore him up into the audience chamber. It was only the second time, but the theatrics were already starting to get on his nerves.
As before, the chamber was pitch black. A light came on, revealing Mr Hernandez at his desk, staring back at him over interlaced fingers.
"Well then, Mr Al-Saachez," he said. "What have you to say for yourself?"
"What would you have me say?" Hamid growled back. "We did our part. It was Zero who screwed up."
"That was our general impression," said the German director, his station lighting up as he spoke. "But we would appreciate your input."
"I already submitted my report."
"Yes," answered the Russian director. "Now tell us what you didn't put in it."
"I see." Hamid almost smirked. "Well, there's not a whole lot to say." He glanced around the chamber, at the dark, silent stations, wondering for a moment at the faces behind them.
"We carried out our orders," he said. "We made contact with the Black Knights, and assisted them as best we could. We even made it out with a bunch of their knightmares." Then he smirked. "I imagine EUROFORCE is have a pleasant time analysing their technology."
"You imagine correctly," replied the Polish director. "They have provided valuable insights, allowing us to speed up completion and deployment of our newest knightmares."
"But," the German director spoke up again, "as valuable as this technology is, it does not justify the considerable amount of money spent on your expedition. The council is putting pressure on First Consul Sant-Clare. There is a chance they will invoke the disclosure statute."
"And that's my fault how exactly?" Hamid was on the verge of losing his temper. If they wanted him dead he probably wouldn't walk out of that chamber, but he was damned if he was going to beg. "I kept up my end! The money was well-spent! We did the best we could under the circumstances!"
"Calm yourself Hamid," the British director said. "It is not your competence we are calling into question."
"You said Zero was the one to blame," interjected the Italian director. "Explain."
"He launched the rebellion before we were ready!" Hamid snarled. "He said the opportunity was too good to pass up! And then, just when everything about to work out, he ran away and let it all fall apart! No one else could hold them together!"
There was silence.
"Do you have any notion," the German director asked, "as to why he left the battle?"
"No!" Hamid snapped. "I don't!"
"That will be all," Hernandez said. Hamid felt the lift plate lower him down to the corridor below. There, right where he had been standing a few minutes earlier, was Andrei Velichko.
"If you're going to kill me," Hamid quipped sourly, "then do it now and get it over with."
"No," Andrei replied. "I'm going to give you your orders."
St Darwin Boulevard, Pendragon
It was a beautiful day.
The air was cold, but bracingly so. The snow had stopped a few hours ago, leaving the landscape covered in a blanket of purest white. The gentle hill upon which he was walking provided a fine view.
Swathed as he was in a heavy cloak, Alexander did not feel the cold except on his face. It was the right combination of sensations to make for a pleasant stroll on a winter's day. He knew he should be happy, that he should be enjoying the beauty of the vista, and the coming of Christmas.
Except he wasn't. The landscape was beautiful, but its beauty stirred him only to melancholy. The thought of Christmas brought him no comfort either, despite all his happy memories of it. Because those he had shared those happy Christmases with were all lost to him, one way or another.
"You are unhappy, Alexander."
Alexander glanced at the man walking alongside him, stirred from his thoughts.
"Forgive me father," he replied, a little too slow. "I was…distracted."
"I might not have been present at your birth, Alexander," Bismarck Waldstein went on. "But I did raise you for two years of your childhood, though Marianne insisted on depriving me of the rest. It was a brief time, but long enough for me to learn your moods. You, my son, are extremely unhappy."
Alexander hung his head. It shamed him that he could not rid himself of those feelings; feelings that served no purpose. What right did he have to be sad, when so many lives had been ruined and lost? What right did he have to regret anything, when he bore such a burden of blame?
"What happened to Princess Euphemia was tragic," his father went on. "I don't blame you for being sad about it. But she would not have wanted you to suffer like this."
"It's not that, father." Alexander cleared his throat. "I have…accepted her death. But I can't but feel…that I allowed her to die." Bismarck sighed.
"I fear I have instilled this flaw in you," he said. "For as long as you have been my son, you have striven to grow beyond yourself, to win every battle, to accept nothing less than perfection. Such can lead a man to greatness, but also to ruin if he loses perspective."
"She was the little sister I never had," Alexander said mournfully. "How can I not have done more? How can I have done anything less?"
"My son, you have become too accustomed to greatness, at too young an age. You have gotten it into your head that you can achieve anything, and that nothing is beyond your power. It is that conceit that torments you when you fail, because you believe you had the power to do better, even though you were doing your utmost."
"The greatest warrior cannot see beyond the range of his eyes, or touch what is beyond the reach of his arms. Even at the controls of a knightmare frame, the sphere in which your power resides is limited. Princess Euphemia's fate was decided by actions taking place well outside of that sphere, beyond your knowledge or your reach."
"Princess Euphemia's fate was decided by one man!" Alexander snarled, anger rising to replace his melancholy. "It was Luciano Bradley who destroyed her, father! Surely you must know this!"
"Yes," Bismarck replied, his face expressionless. "I am aware of that."
"But…" Alexander was momentarily dumbstruck. "But then…why haven't you…?!"
"Why haven't I what, Alexander?" Bismarck asked rhetorically. "Why haven't I killed him? If I taught you anything, you would know the answer already."
"But he killed her!" Alexander protested, horrified. "You know that she did! You're…!"
"The Knight of One? The Emperor's blade? Do you suppose this means I can simply kill my brother knight?"
Alexander stared at his father in disbelief. His head fell, his shoulders hunching, as it sunk in that his father would not kill Bradley, even though he knew he was responsible for Euphemia's death.
His own father, the Knight of One.
"Then…I will do it!" he snarled, raising his head. "If you will not bring him to justice, then I will!"
"Oh you will, will you?" his father snarked, his sarcasm catching him off-guard. "You'll challenge and kill Luciano Bradley? The Knight of Ten? The Vampire of Britannia? Foolish boy!"
Alexander almost backed away, such was the force of the rebuke.
"You don't understand what you seek to fight!" Bismarck snarled, regaining some of his composure. "Luciano Bradley is a monster! I know that as well as anyone! But he is still a Knight of the Round Table, a hand of the Emperor, a symbol of his authority and power! If you kill him, even in a legal duel, you will be spitting upon that authority! My fellow knights and I would be oath-bound to hunt you to the ends of the Earth or die trying!"
He paused, his one good eye blazing.
"Must I kill you, my son? Must I destroy you, for trying to avenge a woman you dearly loved? Do you really think you can fight us all? Even your old friend Kururugi?"
"Suzaku?" Alexander was incredulous.
"I suppose you wouldn't have heard." Bismarck stalked away from him, looking out over the land. "Suzaku Kururugi has been admitted to the Round Table, as the Knight of Seven."
"But…" Alexander tried to gather his thoughts. "But he's…"
"Yes, he's a Number, but against the will of the Emperor such distinctions are meaningless. If Prince Schneizel can have Lord Abdullah admitted, do you think it unreasonable that his Majesty can admit an Eleven?"
"No father." Alexander sighed. "I was merely…surprised."
"So was I. But as it happens there was a reason. Lord Kururugi asked for the honour as a reward for bringing in your old friend Prince Lelouch. I get the impression he's after my position."
"Prince Lelouch?" Alexander breathed. "He's alive?"
"Oh yes." To Alexander's surprise, Bismarck actually smirked. "Lord Kururugi managed to subdue him on Kamine island, and bring him in alive."
"But what was he doing there?" Alexander asked. "I heard that he left the battle, but I could not understand why."
"Because we had managed to secure Princess Nunnally," Bismarck replied. "Yes, I know that you knew about her, and you did the right thing in keeping quiet. It would seem that his devotion to her outweighed his interest in the rebel cause."
"What is to become of him?"
"Oh, nothing much," Bismarck quipped. "The Emperor has rewritten his memories, and he has been sent back to Area 11 with an OSI handler, just to make sure."
Alexander was unable to respond. The words did not seem to register quite right.
"Yes, Alexander." Bismarck turned away from him, and reached up to his sealed eye. "His Majesty possesses such a thing as a Geass. As does Prince Lelouch…" he turned to face Alexander, "and myself."
It was all Alexander could do to stop his mouth from dropping open. His father's newly-exposed eye was obscured by a shimmering crimson sigil, in the shape of a bird on the wing.
"Fear not," Bismarck said. "This Geass is not of the same type as Prince Lelouch's. It has no effect on you, or anyone else for that matter."
"Then…what does it do?" Alexander could not stop himself from asking.
"It allows me, in short, to see the future," Bismarck replied. "It predicts movements and actions around me, a few seconds into the future. It is useful to me only in battle."
"You…sewed your eye shut," Alexander said, still trying to make sense of it. "Can you not…control it?"
"No, I can't. I can't switch it off any more than Mao or Prince Lelouch could. I…over-used it in my youth, in battles I could have won without it. After that, only one was ever strong enough to force me to use it."
"And his Majesty?"
"His Majesty has the power to re-write memories. He has done so with Prince Lelouch, in order to seal his Geass and ensure that he does not attempt another rebellion."
Alexander's mind was a maelstrom. A few moments ago he had been angry, outraged even. He was almost glad of his fury, for it had lifted him from his despair and sadness. But now he was confused, bewildered by this new knowledge. Questions that had haunted him for months were finally being answered, and he didn't know what to think or feel.
"I don't think I need to tell you," Bismarck went on, "that this is a matter of the utmost secrecy. Not that it matters, as I doubt anyone would believe a word of it."
"I…wouldn't believe it myself, father, but for what I had seen and heard."
"Yes." Bismarck's expression was grim. "Your encounter with Mao was…unfortunate." He put a fatherly hand on his shoulder, a gesture Alexander could scarcely remember having received before.
"Fear not. The matter of your…origin remains a secret. It appears Prince Lelouch kept it to himself in spite of everything. The only other person who might reveal it is our ultimate adversary."
"The woman CC?" Alexander was surprised.
"Yes." Bismarck half-turned, and began walking onward. Alexander matched his pace, wanting to hear more.
"It would take too long to explain who and what she is," Bismarck went on. "Suffice to say that while she runs free she is nothing but trouble. She is a bringer of chaos, a changer of the ways. She is what the credulous might call a witch."
"Why, father? What motivates her?"
"Nothing, my son. Nothing but the fulfilment of the contract she makes with those she empowers. It is they who wreak havoc with the powers she grants, bending history in ways they rarely if ever have time to comprehend. For what it's worth, I sincerely doubt she will tell anyone your secret. She has no reason to."
They walked in silence for a while. The wind picked up a little, moaning in the distance.
"You have gained quite the reputation," Bismarck said suddenly. "There is talk of raising you to the Round Table."
"I would have thought," Alexander replied, without looking at him, "that my court-martial would have made that impossible."
"Not so. You were acquitted. Your honour is intact. And even if it wasn't, it has no bearing on his Majesty's wishes."
"Why do you speak of this, father?" Alexander asked bitterly. "I have no means of earning such an honour." He looked down at the snow before his feet. "Princess Cornelia's guards have been disbanded. I cannot lead troops into battle, or even fight for myself."
"I speak of it," Bismarck said, "because if you were to rise to the Round Table, then and only then would you be in a position to do something about Lord Bradley. I also speak of it because I am about to give you the means."
"Father?" Alexander stopped, hope and disbelief warring within him. Bismarck stopped a couple of paces ahead, his eyes staring straight on.
"In the new year, there will be a war," he said, in the same tone as he would speak of a sporting fixture, or a court event. "Conflict with the EU is now inevitable, whether certain among them realise it or not. I have already been commanded to oversee the planning of operations."
To his mild surprise, Alexander felt nothing at the revelation. He half-remembered what Sir Alexei Smirnov had said, of how he had been convinced that the EU was interfering in Area 11. His father was probably right about war being inevitable, considering the harm Zero had wrought. Hundreds of thousands of Britannians had been killed; men, women, and children; and many had suffered fates far worse. Those left alive and unspoiled had seen their homes destroyed, their workplaces wrecked, their lives torn asunder by people they feared and hated.
Alexander realised in that moment why the court-martial had let him off so easily. Even if they had found him guilty, and hung him out for millions of grieving, frightened Britannians to vent their rage and pain upon, it would not have been enough.
Someone had to pay.
The Elevens had paid, but no more. Their extermination might have appeased the mob, but the expense of reconstruction would have been ruinous without their slave labour.
So the EU would pay instead.
"When that time comes, Alexander." Bismarck turned to face him, a slight smile on his face. "You will go into battle as commander of a Special Dragoon Squadron."
Alexander gaped. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. His own command? A Special Dragoon Squadron? After everything that had happened?
"Surprised, my son?" Bismarck smirked, and slapped him rather hard on the shoulder. "Don't be. It was easier than you could imagine. You will of course be promoted to colonel. Think of it as a Christmas gift, and restitution for all the Christmases I've missed."
Alexander still couldn't speak. The Special Dragoon Squadrons were the most prestigious units in the Royal Panzer Infantry, more so even than the Aerial Drop units. They were given near-complete autonomy, and sent on the most important, most pivotal, and most dangerous missions. The chances of survival were all too often slim, but they were the command every ambitious RPI officer dreamed of.
And he was being handed that dream on a silver platter.
"Father I…I'm not worthy."
"Not true, Alexander. You've more than proven yourself, and in any case you won't be the only one, not after all the losses we've suffered. Your subordinates will likely think you're a pampered milksop, but that's their prerogative as soldiers. You'll just have to show them that you're fit to lead, and I know for a fact that you can do it."
"Father…" Alexander cleared his throat, willing his racing mind to calm. "Thank you."
"Speaking of Christmas gifts, I'll be busy with the war planning and the Round Table's rituals, so I won't be home for Christmas."
That was nothing new. In fact, they had never spent Christmas together, at least not as far as Alexander could remember. It wasn't something he had considered strange until he had spent his first Christmas at Aries Villa. Only then had he realised what his father had sacrificed for the sake of the Empire.
"So then," Bismarck went on, as they continued on their walk once again. "What do you plan to do about it?"
"If you intend to return to San Clemente and spend Christmas in an empty house, I won't stop you. But that's not something a young man about to go into battle should be doing. I would've thought you'd have someone else to spend it with."
Alexander's heart sank. For so many years there had been a place he'd been welcome, a hearth around which to celebrate, that he'd never needed to think about it. But those places were closed to him now, those welcoming faces forever gone.
There was General Darlton, but he would be spending the holiday with his innumerable adopted children. There was even Graham Aker, who would like as not be spending it with his comrades, few of whom had any family to go home to. Rai had been recalled by Lady Enneagram, and he had not heard from the younger boy since.
Alexander did not want to intrude upon their merrymaking. They each had their own worlds, their own private spheres, places in which he might or might not be welcome. He couldn't bear the thought of endangering the few bonds he had left by invading those spaces at such a time.
But then where would he go? By whose fireside would he be welcome? And even if he had San Clemente to retreat to, who would care to share its fireside with him?
"No one," he said. "There's no one at all."
"Really?" His father actually sounded surprised. "No friends? No lover? Are you really my son?"
"There's no one, father." To his surprise, and shame, Alexander felt tears prick at his eyes. He looked away, fearing that his father would see. "I…was not made for thus."
He felt a warm hand squeeze his shoulder.
"Then we're the same, you and I," his father said, his voice deep and almost hoarse. "I never had time for friends, when I was your age. I never had time for lovers, or for a wife. But for you, I am all alone in this world."
"I received a letter from Reuben Ashford," Bismarck went on, his voice lighter. "He wrote to express his gratitude for your part in saving his students. His granddaughter included an invitation to their Christmas party."
Alexander was taken aback. From what he had known of Milly Ashford it did not surprise him that she would throw a party, even under such circumstances as that. But would he be welcome at such an event?
"Please go, my son." Bismarck squeezed his shoulder again. "Don't make the mistake I did. If you are fated to die, don't let it be with a lonely heart."
The wind moaned in the distance, and snow began to fall.
Ashford Academy, Tokyo Settlement, Area 11
Milly Ashford was in her element.
Some might have questioned the wisdom of throwing a party at such a time. It might have been Christmas Eve, but Tokyo Settlement was still for the most part a ruin. The work of rebuilding had been going on in earnest for just over a fortnight, but restoring the settlement to its former glory would take months, even with the combination of Britannia's vast resources and local labour that was so cheap as to be practically expendable. It had taken this long just to clear the rubble from the collapsed section, and to restore enough of the plateau to reconnect Ashford Academy to the rest of the settlement.
Tokyo Settlement was rising again, but the same could not be said for its peoples' hearts. Since the rebellion had collapsed the settlers had huddled inside their city, glaring out at the ghettoes with fear and suspicion. Only weeks ago the inhabitants of those godforsaken quarters had stormed the settlement, pouring into the streets like Vandals through the gates of Rome. The memory of that night would not soon fade.
As far as Milly was concerned, it was all the more reason to throw a party. For those still residing at the academy, for whatever reason, it was the perfect distraction from the hardship and uncertainty of the times. It was also an opportunity for Britannians and Honourary Britannians to pretend that the whole sordid mess hadn't happened. It might, just might, help start the healing process.
Milly had a smile on her face as she moved from place to place, and the smile was genuine. The academy had cleaned up beautifully, though admittedly the damage had been slight compared to some places. Decorations and lights hung along the walls and corridors, arranged in complex and tasteful patterns. She sometimes marvelled at the creative energy bound upon in Ashford Academy's student body, and would grab at any opportunity to let it loose. Outside the windows, the gardens were already covered in a dusting of snow.
As ironic as it was, it could not be more perfect.
She had spent the past hour moving around the student council building, making sure that no one was being neglected. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves enormously.
Milly hadn't been entirely surprised to see Rolo alone in the corridor, gazing out of the window. He had always been the quiet, wallflower type, ever since he had arrived with his brother a few years earlier. Milly sighed. Though she adored both the Lamperouge brothers, the younger was as much a handful as the elder, in his own unique way.
"Rolo!" she proclaimed, moving easily down the corridor to meet him. "Lelouch hasn't abandoned you, has he?"
"Oh, no, Miss Milly!" Rolo stammered, startled. "I was just waiting for someone."
"Somone?" Milly queried, intrigued. "Is it a young lady?"
"Oh no!" Rolo protested, his cherubic face reddening so adorably that she wanted to hug him to death. "It's just that…you said Lord Waldstein was coming, so…"
"And you just couldn't contain yourself!" Milly completed his sentence, giggling. "I never knew you were such a fan!"
"It's not…well…" Rolo trailed off, and for a moment he looked as if he was trying to reorganise his thoughts. "Lelouch thought I should keep an eye out, for the surprise you've got planned."
"Ah Lelouch," Milly quipped. "Always thinking too much. You don't need to hang around here by yourself because of him Rolo."
"No it's okay!" Rolo insisted, brightening. "I've always wanted to meet Lord Waldstein, even if it's like this."
Milly sighed, smiling indulgently as she looked Rolo over. He was shorter than his brother, with a round face, soft brown hair, and bright purple eyes. That was enough to make him cute, but his shyness made him positively adorable, especially in that fancy evening suit Lelouch had gotten him to wear.
She barely stifled a giggle as she remembered the last Crossdressing Festival. He and Lelouch had been beautiful sisters that day, though Milly sometimes wondered why Roloko's wig had to be that long. The effect had been…curiously appropriate, almost familiar.
"Ah!" Rolo cried out, his face lighting up. "I think that's his car now!"
Milly glanced out of the window. Sure enough, a very large black car was pulling up outside.
"I think you might be right!" she exclaimed, excited. "Be a dear and keep him entertained for few moments won't you Rolo?"
Alexander had to admit that he was impressed.
The Student Council building was much as he remembered it, as were most the grounds he had passed through. The Ashfords had done a fine job of repairing the damage wrought by the battle, and likely at no small expense.
"Lord Waldstein" Alexander looked to see a well-dressed young boy approach him at a dignified stride. There was a slight smile on his face as he came to a halt, holding himself at attention.
"Rolo Lamperouge my lord, at your service." Rolo bowed low. "Miss Ashford asked me to welcome you on her behalf."
"Thank you." Alexander allowed a maid to take his cloak. "I take it I am expected?"
"Of course." Rolo's eyes sparkled. "Would you mind stepping this way?" Alexander fell in beside the boy as they strolled up the main stairs. Rolo seemed to be in no hurry, and Alexander suspected that he had been tasked with keeping him occupied. He was content to play along, if it would put his hosts at their ease. He couldn't bear the thought of ruining their merrymaking with his presence.
"There's so much snow these days," he said. It was time to see if this was who he thought it was.
"It blows in on the northern wind," Rolo replied. He glanced up at Alexander, his eyes suddenly serious.
"Is it safe to talk?" Alexander asked, trying not to be unsettled by those eyes.
"It's fine." Rolo smiled, but his smile seemed forced, false. "No one can hear us out here." Alexander could hear the low murmur of conversation, overlaid with festive music. Rolo was probably right.
"I was told your people were keeping an eye on Lelouch," he said in a low voice. "I trust all is well."
"It's fine," Rolo replied. "He's settled in with no problems. There's no sign that he remembers."
"Good." Alexander paused. "I…need you to keep an eye on him. He's a…very important person."
"I will." Rolo gave him a strange, almost questioning look. "After all, I'm the only brother he has."
"Yes." Alexander, to his surprise, felt a twinge of sorrow at Rolo's words. "You are."
They rounded a corner, and the sound of music and conversation grew louder. Alexander almost paused as he saw another young man, slightly older than Rolo, mooching around the opposite end of the corridor. As the youth turned to face him, his face brightening, Alexander recognized him.
"Ah! Lord Waldstein! You made it!" Rivalz Cardemonde strode along the corridor in what he must have thought was an aristocratic manner, but in reality just made him look like his legs were out of joint. He wore a tuxedo, but whereas Rolo's was tasteful, his just looked flamboyant.
"Mister Rivalz Cardemonde?" Alexander asked, forcing himself to smile through his nervousness.
"Right first time!" Rivalz drawled, pumping his hand and smiling too much. "Oh, and you wore your uniform too! That's perfect!"
Alexander blinked in surprise. He hadn't been entirely sure about wearing his uniform, with its gold-frogged maroon coat and white trousers, and the sash Cornelia had given him. His regiment had been disbanded, but he still strictly-speaking retained the right to wear it. All the same he had felt uncertain, unworthy, and more than a little fearful that someone would call him out on it.
But Milly had requested it in her invitation, so etiquette demanded that he wear it. Besides, he didn't know how to wear anything else.
"I confess myself confused, Mister Rivalz," Alexander said. "Why did Miss Ashford make such a request?"
"The thing is," Rivalz replied, suddenly a little awkward. "This party isn't just for Christmas. It's so that we can thank you for saving us during the battle."
Alexander opened his mouth to reply, but no sound came out. It took him a moment to regain his composure.
"The ones you should thank are Earl Asplund and Lord Kururugi," he said. "They did far more for this place than I did, and so did Major Aker and his squad."
"Well, we were gonna invite Suzaku too, but we can't contact him, or Major Aker." Rivalz massaged the back of his neck. "And believe me, Earl Asplund is the last person Milly wants round here."
"But aren't they fiancées?"
"Well…I…" Alexander felt his cheeks reddening. "I have no words."
"Don't worry about it!" Rivalz grinned. "I'll announce you. Just wait here until the music starts, then come down the stairs and Milly will be waiting."
"I…see." Alexander sighed. Milly had roped him into one of her stunts, and there was nothing to do put play his part graciously. "Very well."
"Great!" Rivalz almost danced away into the chamber beyond.
"Lord Waldstein!" Rolo looked mortified. "Please understand! My brother had nothing to do with this! It's all Madam President's fault!"
"It's all right," Alexander said, as soothingly as he could manage. "I'm accustomed to this kind of thing." Both looked up at a sudden rumble of drumbeats.
"Ladies and Gentlemen of Ashford Academy!" It was Rivalz. "We are proud to present, a sensational…inspirational…!"
"Get on with it you twit!"
"Okay okay! Don't throw that! I'll do it!" A pause. Alexander steeled himself.
"Presenting Sir Alexander Waldstein!"
The music rose like a wave. As Alexander forced himself to step through the doorway, the sound became a stately rendition of Handel's See, the conquering hero comes. His heart skipped a beat as he reached the balcony parapet, and saw the faces gazing up at him from the floor below. They were smiling, eyes bright with joy, applause thundering from their clapping hands.
Gulping down his nerves, Alexander started down the nearest set of stairs, trying to keep his eyes on the guests while not focussing on any one in particular. He wondered how his Princess had been able to do it so effortlessly.
He saw Milly, surrounded by a cluster of students, gazing up at him with a look of complete satisfaction. As he neared the foot of the stairs, Milly detached herself from the throng and swept forward to greet him. She wore a Santa-babe outfit on what appeared to be red velvet, with white fur trimming and a matching hat. The dress was rather short, and Alexander had to force himself to meet her gaze lest his eyes be drawn elsewhere.
"Sir Alexander." Milly smiled wolfishly as she held out her hand. "Welcome to our humble gathering."
"I am honoured, Miss Ashford." Alexander took her hand and brushed his lips over her fingers. "I did not expect so kind an invitation. I am touched to the heart."
"Oh you flatterer!" Milly exclaimed, giggling. "Oh, but since you've met Rivalz already, you simply must meet the rest of our student council. Lelouch!"
"I come, Madam President!"
Alexander's heart skipped a beat as Lelouch emerged from among the students. He was clad in an evening suit identical to the one Rolo was wearing, and his handsome face wore a fulsome smile.
"May I offer my welcome also, my Lord?" Lelouch bowed low. "We are all of use grateful beyond words." He straightened up, and Alexander had to force his slight smile to stay in place. Those were Lelouch's eyes, but that wasn't Lelouch's soul behind them. There was none of the feeling he had seen there, none of the affection, or the sincerity, or the pain. The eyes before him were cold, insincere, dismissive even, accessories to a false smile.
"No," he thought. "You're not my prince. What happened to my prince?"
Alexander had been prepared for this. His father had told him of Lelouch's rewritten memories, and he had guessed that they would contain nothing of their shared past. He had come to terms with what had been lost, though it pained him terribly.
This was something more, something worse. It was as if some vital part of Lelouch, something noble and sincere, had been silenced forever. All that was left was this…doppleganger, smiling an empty smile at him.
"Is something wrong?" the false Lelouch asked, with empty and insincere concern. "You look as if you've seen a ghost."
"Forgive me." Alexander bowed slightly. "You…reminded me of someone I used to know."
"I presume you mean Prince Lelouch?" The fake Lelouch drew himself up. "I fear I was born in the same year as his highness. Our parents were rather conceited about the fact, hence my name."
Alexander felt his heart begin to break. He had known this was the case, but to hear the proof from his own mouth was almost too much to bear. Lady Marianne, Princess Nunnally, Princess Euphemia, even himself, all forgotten.
"You're the conceited one, Lelouch," Milly interjected waspishly, eliciting a flutter of laughter from the students. "We still have one more council member to introduce." She looked around in feigned bewilderment. "Where is that silly girl?"
"Come on Shirley!" called one of the students in the cluster behind Lelouch.
"N, n, no!" stammered a familiar voice. "No I can't!"
"Now Shirley!" Milly ordered with false harshness. "Come out here and let Sir Alexander see you!"
"No! You can't…!" The students parted, and Shirley Fenette tottered forward on high-heeled boots identical to those Milly was wearing. There was much merriment among the students at her predicament. Her outfit was similar to Milly's, though pink rather than red. She was obviously embarrassed at having to wear it, her cheeks red and her eyes bright.
The anguish Alexander had felt over Lelouch faded, replaced by something warm and gentle. It surrounded his heart, easing the sorrow that had built up there over so many weeks. It was sympathy, a yearning to embrace her, to comfort her and protect her from this embarrassment. But there was a wondrous peace, a contentment like nothing he had felt since those terrible days.
Imperial Command Bunker, Pendragon
The strategic hologram shone bright in the darkness, casting multi-coloured shadows on the faces of those gathered around it. The hologram displayed the entire northern hemisphere, centred on the Eurasian continent, with the east and west coasts of the north American continent, the Britannian homeland, at either end.
The faces looked up as the strategium's armoured doors slid open.
"Forgive me, noble knights, for keeping you waiting," said Schneizel el Britannia as he strode into the chamber. His personal attendant, Kanon Maldini, was at his shoulder.
"Be at peace, Chancellor," Bismarck Waldstein replied. "Your presence is an honour and help to us this night." He bowed his head as Schneizel stepped up to the hologram table, his fellow Knights of the Round Table doing likewise.
"Thank you for your kind words, Lord Bismarck." Schneizel regarded the assembled knights with a gracious smile. "And thank you all for your being here. This is not a good place to spend Christmastide."
"We know our duty, Chancellor," Bismarck replied. "And your highness is as put out as we are. We have no cause for resentment."
"If his highness has those he would spend it with," spoke up the blond-haired youth in the green cloak, "then he is doubly put out."
"Mind your words, Lord Weinberg," Bismarck warned sternly. Gino Weinberg was one of the newest members of the Round Table, having been invested only five months earlier. He knew that Gino was estranged from his family, who had not shown themselves at court since his investiture, but that was no excuse for disrespect.
"The Knight of Three jests with kindness I am sure," Schneizel said graciously. Gino bowed, much lower than he had before, reminding Bismarck that he wasn't quite as airheaded as he appeared.
"In any case, noble knights," Schneizel went on. "The political situation cares not for the saviour's birth, if Lord Abdullah will indulge me." If Cyrus Abdullah was offended, he showed no sign of it. "Relations with the EU are rapidly deteriorating. I have attempted to turn us from the precipice, but my pleas have thus far fallen on deaf ears, both in Paris and in Pendragon. There will almost certainly be war, at some time in the new year."
"Chancellor." The first to speak was Dorothea Ernst, the Knight of Four. Her green eyes, sharply contrasting with her dark skin, were bright and hard. "What news is there on the state of their armaments?"
From anyone but a Round, the question might have seemed impertinent. The Knights of the Round Table were the Emperor's personal agents; living symbols of his authority and power. The OSI were his shields in the darkness, and the Imperial Guard were his fists mailed in steel, but the Rounds were his bright swords in the sunlight; all of these things and more. It was their right, over all others, to speak openly and to offer advice.
"Our information is sadly limited," Schneizel replied. "EUROSEC is doing a fine job of silencing or misdirecting even my sources. We know that they have brought out a number of new war machines over the past two years, and in considerable numbers. However we have only sketchy information on their capabilities, and our attempts to capture examples for study have been largely unsuccessful."
"What about their knightmares?" asked Luciano Bradley. "They've produced nothing better than those clunky Panzer-Hummels for years."
"They definitely have new designs in development," Schneizel said. "Also, Panzer-Hummels have been appearing in their allies' arsenals in greater numbers over the past year, including very recent models."
"If they're clearing out the junk," Luciano quipped, smirking, "then they've got new stuff coming soon."
"Chancellor, I recommend in that case that we launch the attack sooner rather than later," Bismarck spoke up. "Their strength grows with every passing day. If we attack later than January, they may be too strong."
"Chancellor, may I speak?"
The voice was young and ardent, but also unexpected. The knights all looked to see Lord Suzaku Kururugi, the newly-invested Knight of Seven, gazing at Schneizel with bright, desperate eyes. He had hardly uttered a word since he had entered their fellowship, so his outburst was a considerable surprise.
"Lord Kururugi." Schneizel's tone was warm, as were his eyes. "As a Knight of the Round Table, you do not need to ask my permission."
"Your highness, is it really necessary to use violence?" There was sorrow in Suzaku's eyes, but also sincerity. "Can the EU not be persuaded?"
"Persuaded?" Luciano sneered. "Persuaded to throw down their weapons and roll over? Persuaded to become our lackeys? Somehow, I think not."
Bismarck could feel the tension in the chamber spike suddenly. Kururugi's entry into the order was the will of the Emperor, and as such it was not for him or any other Round to question it. But as it had been with Cyrus Abdullah, himself invested on the suggestion of Prince Schneizel, Kururugi's presence was not entirely welcome. Luciano had been the most openly hostile, and though Gino and Nonette Enneagram seemed more accepting, Bismarck could not help but think that the others would take the infamous 'vampire's side, at least for the moment.
"Chancellor," Suzaku pressed, paying little attention to Luciano. "I can't believe that they want to fight." Schneizel sighed a world-weary sigh.
"Lord Kururugi, I understand your feelings." His tone was kind, almost fatherly. "But this isn't a problem that words can solve. The hatred and fear that runs between our two peoples runs far too deep for that."
"I…understand, your highness." Suzaku's face was level, but Bismarck could see his inner turmoil in his eyes.
"If it comforts you any, Lord Kururugi," Schneizel went on. "There is another, much better reason to fight." He paused, and turned his head to address all the assembled knights.
"You know that I have always worked to prevent an alliance between the European Ultra-Union and the Chinese Federation. With a view to that, I have been conducting secret negotiations with the Grand Eunuchs for the past year; negotiations which are about to bear fruit." He paused. Bismarck knew what he was about to say, and suspected that he was enjoying himself.
"Next year," the Chancellor went on, "we will see an end, at last, to the threat posed by a Sino-European alliance. For next year we will see the union of our empire with the Chinese Federation."
He fell silent, letting the bombshell do its work. Even Luciano looked surprised.
"I'm afraid I cannot reveal any details for the moment," Schneizel said, forestalling their questions. "The particulars are still being worked out, and in any case our failure to defeat the EU will render the plan moot."
"May I ask why, Chancellor?" Suzaku asked, surprised and intrigued.
"Because the Eunuch fear that siding with us at this stage would lead to an EU invasion of their territory." Schneizel gestured to Kanon, who stepped forward and slotted a datastick into the terminal in front of him. He tapped a few keys, and the hologram shifted, refocusing on the western territory of the Chinese Federation. The Chinese territories were marked in red, those of Krugis in purple, and those of the EU in green.
"An EU counter-attack would most likely pass through here." Schneizel gestured a substantial segment directly to China's north-west and west. On cue, long green arrows materialized and snaked across from the north and the west.
"These are among the most neglected of the Federation's territories," Schneizel went on. "And also the most restive. The Eunuchs fear that the peoples of these territories will side with the EU in the event of an invasion, and that this in turn will spark off further unrest elsewhere." His eyes twinkled. "Of course, whether or not it'll happen is entirely irrelevant."
"So," Nonette Enneagram mused, smirking. "The price of the Chinese Federation is crushing the EU. Fair enough I suppose."
"Chancellor, this will be difficult." Bismarck stepped to his own terminal and started tapping keys. The map zoomed out to its previous state.
"The obvious route into the EU territory is via Kamchatka, and they won't make it easy. The area contains substantial forces, based around the Russian Pacific fleet base at Magadan." The map zoomed in on the Sea of Okhotsk, focusing on Magadan and the surrounding area. "The defences around Magadan are substantial, both on the landward and seaward sides. I recommend an attack on multiple fronts overland, along with an assault from the sea. Taking will be costly, but necessary if we are to establish control in eastern Siberia."
"Of course," Schneizel agreed, nodding.
"The European front will be considerably more difficult," Bismarck went on, shifting the map as he spoke. "The EU's Atlantic coast defences are extensive, more so than anything we've previously encountered. The British isles are practically fortresses, and the coast of Norway is less than ideal for large-scale landings, especially at this time at year. Further south," he gestured at France, Spain, and Portugal, "offer more possibilities, but the defences are all the stronger. I recommend that the thrust of our attack be upon Iceland. Not only is it within easy reach, and would provide us with a useable base in the area, but it's one of the EU's primary Sakuradite sources."
"Always a consideration," Schneizel said with a smile.
"But if we are to divide the EU's forces sufficiently, we must launch at least one more front, and that is where our difficulty lies." Bismarck shifted the map to the Middle East and north Africa. "Our forces in north Africa are more than sufficient to overcome the Middle-Eastern Federation and then move to attack Turkey, but they would in turn be vulnerable to interference from the EU's remaining African allies, not to mention from EU forces in the Mediterranean."
"There's an easy answer to that," Luciano interjected. "Why don't we have your Krugis pets pull their weight for once?"
"Lord Bradley has a point," Schneizel said, still smiling. "They would be the perfect instrument in the Middle East. After all, we've spent so much money on improving their economy and military, it seems only fair."
"Yes, your highness." Bismarck kept his face level, concealing his disquiet. "If Britannia calls, Krugis will answer. However, despite our efforts their society is still unstable. The pressure of a full-scale war could do considerable damage."
"But if it were successful," Schneizel mused, "it could have the opposite effect, might it not?"
"Your highness has a point, but…"
"Then we shall have Krugis contribute," Schneizel concluded. "Their role will be to destroy the Middle-Eastern Federation's forces, and support a combined thrust into Turkey. If we support them from our reserves…" Kanon tapped the keys, and several force icons vanished from the Britannian homeland and re-appeared in north Africa. "…then they should have no problems."
"Your highness, that would weaken our strategic reserve considerably," Bismarck spoke up. "Any attempt to force landings in northern or western Europe will be complicated."
"There will not be any landings in northern Europe, apart from Iceland," Schneizel replied. "I have already chosen the point of entrance." He nodded to Kanon, and the force icons remaining in the homeland moved. Schneizel's smile widened as he saw the knights' reaction.
"Oh my," Nonette said, her smirk widening. "How very bold, your highness."
"It's…unexpected," Luciano added, also smirking.
"Your highness." Dorothea cleared her throat. "That's the strongest portion of the network."
"Yes it is," Schneizel agreed, gesturing at a line of fortification icons along the south coast of Spain. "The Santiago line we've been hearing so much about. The fortification complex so strong that even my sister Cornelia baulked at the idea of attacking it. What tribute could we offer?"
"Chancellor," Bismarck spoke up, his tone as grim as his spirit. "Santiago is effectively impregnable."
"I would have thought a soldier of your experience would have understood," Schneizel replied, with just a hint of sarcasm, "that no defence is impregnable. More importantly, the EU's political leadership are as unaware of that fact as you seem to be. Breaking Santiago will break their morale, and they might start returning my calls."
Bismarck did not reply. It was clear that Schneizel had made up his mind, and would not be dissuaded. He cast his eye over the hologram as Schneizel continued the briefing, the shining icons becoming men and machines in his mind. He imagined their movements, their battles, their victories.
They would die. So many would die. With the reserves fully committed, there would be no fresh units to rotate into the battlezones. They would have to stay, far longer than was good for them. Bismarck knew, only too well, what staying too long at the front could do to men, to machines, to whole units.
Ninety days. That was all it took. Ninety days to ruin good men, perhaps forever.
Bismarck forced himself not shudder at the thought of it, at the thought of his son being hurled into the maelstrom. He felt something in that moment, not the pride he had felt in such abundance for so many years, but something for which he had no name, something he had not felt since Alexander was small enough to carry in his arms.
"Alexander," he thought, as the nightmare played out in front of him. "I hope you have done as I advised. You may not get another chance."
Alexander was weary.
He wasn't unhappy, at least not compared to how he had felt a few days earlier. Once past the initial embarrassment, the welcome the students have given him had warmed his heart. He wasn't certain that their goodwill would last, that he was anything more than a temporary amusement for them. But it was good to feel appreciated, if only for a while.
But their attention, and their merrymaking, had become too much for him after a while. Craving a few moments of solitude, he had slipped away from the happy throng and taken refuge in a corridor. The sounds of the party echoed from the chamber; the clink of glasses, the rumble of conversation, the trilling of open-hearted laughter.
Alexander paid it no mind. His eyes were on the garden beyond the window, and the gracefully-falling snow. There was something curiously peaceful about the scene, something gentle and comforting. It reminded him of another place, of happier times long past.
Times that would never come again.
Alexander almost jumped. His head snapped round, and he saw Shirley standing there.
"Are you leaving?" Shirley asked. "Please don't go!"
"I…" Alexander faltered, suddenly uncertain. "I…wasn't leaving…"
"Oh…" Shirley blushed. "That's good. I mean…" She trailed off. The silence was as awkward as any that had passed between them.
"I'm…sorry if I'm fouling the atmosphere," Alexander said humbly. "I didn't mean to upset anyone, least of all you Miss Fenette."
"It's not that," Shirley said. "I was just worried, that's all." She looked away, her cheeks still red. "When I saw you standing there, you seemed so…lonely."
Alexander was about to ask her just how long she had been watching him, but the words caught in his throat. He was confused, because he hadn't really felt lonely, at least not as far as he could tell. He wondered what had made her think that way.
"Milly told me about what happened." Shirley managed to look up at him again. Her eyes were wide and bright, but there was a sincerity in them that Alexander found quite captivating. "Did they really court-martial you?" Alexander drew in a long breath. He wasn't the sort to complain, to seek comfort from others, but something in her eyes made him want to tell her.
"Yes, they did."
"That's awful!" Shirley exclaimed. "How could they do that?! You saved us!"
"No I didn't, Miss Fenette." Alexander felt the cold darkness reaching up from within him, but he had to say it. "Lord Kururugi saved you. Earl Asplund saved you. Major Aker and his squad saved you. Besides, I failed, and a soldier must take responsibility for his failures."
Another long silence. Alexander only then noticed that the chamber had fallen silent. A musical introduction echoed along the corridor, followed by voices raised in song.
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
"It's because of Princess Euphemia, isn't it," Shirley said. "Milly told me you were close to her."
"She was…kind to me," Alexander replied, his voice catching in his throat. "More so than I deserve. And I let her die."
"I let her die…" Alexander's shoulders hunched. He began to shiver, as tears pricked at his eyes. "I let Zero escape...and I let her die…"
Something warm and soft wrapped itself around him. All at once an image rose in his mind, of a gentle, smiling face, framed with ebony hair, her long-fingered hand caressing his cheek.
"It wasn't your fault," Shirley whispered, her voice so tender, and so close. "It wasn't your fault."
"You're very brave," Marianne said, lowering her voice. "That's why your father chose you, I think."
Alexander's breath caught in his throat. He flung his arms around her, burying his head in her shoulder. He let out a whimper as the sorrow and shame flooded out of him.
"Earl Asplund didn't come for us," Shirley said. "He came for the Lancelot; Milly told me so. Major Aker came for a chance to kill Zero." She pulled back, looking Alexander in the eyes.
"You came for us," she went on. "At least, that's what I believe."
"Miss Fenette," Alexander croaked, overcome. "Shirley…"
"At last…" Shirley smiled, and he felt as if the world was newly-born. "You called me Shirley."
A part of him knew what this looked like, knew what someone might see. But in that moment, he could not bring himself to care.
From the doorway, just a few metres along the corridor, Milly Ashford smiled.
"I've still got it," she thought proudly, as she watched their loving embrace. Outside the windows, the snow fell like feathers shed from angels' wings. Behind her, the sweet voices of the Junior School choir lifted her soul. It could not have been more perfect, or more worthy.
"Merry Christmas Shirley," she thought. "And you, Alexander Waldstein."
She heard someone approaching. It was Rivalz, with a big, rather stupid grin on his face, redeemed by the two champagne flutes he was carrying. Milly allowed him an indulgent smile as she took one of them. Rivalz was silly, presumptuous, and obsessed with her truly divine beauty, but he was a loyal friend, and it was Christmas.
"So did it work?" he whispered, bouncing on his feet like a overexcited child on Christmas morning, which it very nearly was. He glanced around her shoulder, and his eyes almost popped out.
"Can I cook?" Milly quipped. "Or can I cook?" Rivalz beamed, and held out his glass. Their glasses clinked, and Milly sipped her champagne as she glanced back at the young couple.
"Uh…Madam President?" Milly turned, and saw Rivalz standing there, an expectant look on his blushing face. A curious notion made Milly glance upward, where a sprig of mistletoe was hanging. She heard giggling from above, and sighed.
"Oh, all right!"
A Merry Christmas to all who read this. I'm glad I managed to get this done in time, not just as a transitional chapter to what will come next, but also as a Christmas gift to all those who read this story and actually wanted to keep on reading this. I know it's been several months, and I want to apologise for that, but I was hoping to see at least one more episode of the Akito Gaiden before continuing. As it is, there'll be another transitional chapter to cover some of the other characters, before the war gets underway.