Chitose Base, Hokkaido, Area 11
Alexander felt the familiar thrill of adventure as he took in the new knightmare's cockpit. The walls formed a smooth, plated sphere around him, with no screens that he could make out. Apart from his joysticks and pedals, the only controls were two small panels set either side of his legs, along with a retractable keyboard hidden under his right armrest.
It was an unusual arrangement, like nothing he'd ever seen before. But for all that he couldn't help but feel at ease. It was almost as if the cockpit had been designed especially for him.
He felt a twinge of sorrow in that moment, as he thought of his old Gloucester. It was scrap and spare parts now, but it had shared in his triumphs, shielded him from danger.
"How are you finding it?" asked Livonze over his earpiece. "I do hope you like it."
"It's excellent," Alexander replied, running his fingers over the dark controls. "But I can't find most of the controls, and there's no screen."
"Ah!" Livonze sounded inordinately pleased. "The best part! Just power it on and see for yourself!" Seeing little point in prevarication, Alexander slid the key into its socket and turned it.
He let out a gasp of surprise as the cockpit lit up around him, resolving into the hangar from which he had entered the knightmare a moment earlier. For an instant it was as if he was sitting in mid-air, his seat hovering over the hangar floor under its own power. It made his heart jump.
"Did it surprise you?" asked Livonze, amusement in his tone. "Your heart rate and brain activity say it did."
"It's…amazing." Alexander glanced back and forth, up and down, taking in the view.
"Our prototype panoramic cockpit," Livonze explained proudly. "With this, your only blind spots are directly behind and under your seat. The HUD is projected on the cockpit wall itself."
As if on cue the HUD shimmered into being, seeming to hover in mid-air before him.
"You should have no problem with the rest, my Lord Waldstein," Livonze went on. "Please feel free to take her out."
Heart pounding with excitement, Alexander gripped the joysticks and settled his feet on the pedals. He pressed down one foot, and felt the knightmare step forward. A little pressure on the other pedal, and the other foot matched it. He fell easily into the old familiar tempo, and his excitement grew as the Gundam responded, stepping through the open hangar doors and into the sunlight.
The training ground before him was a mass of fake-looking buildings, arranged in an approximation of an urban area. To its left was a lake, fed by a river snaking through the buildings to the low hills beyond. It was an environment Alexander was broadly familiar with, for he had undergone his advanced knightmare training on ranges much like it. It seemed like a dozen lifetimes ago.
When he was with Cornelia…
He shook the thought away, driving down the darkness that lingered in the depths of his heart. He couldn't afford to be distracted, not even by something like that. Now was not the time.
"We have a delightful ensemble for you today," drawled Livonze. He seemed to be enjoying himself. "They're all under remote control, so feel free to let rip. I trust all weapons are online?"
Alexander pressed his rollerballs, cycling through his weapons; machine guns, plasma sword, beam rifle. All showed green.
"Weapons read online and ready."
"Excellent. The controls should work the way you're used to. Drones active in five…four…three…two…one…active!"
Alexander took a deep breath. He glanced at the minimap, then up at the view again. No sign of any threats. Not yet.
He pressed the pedals down and forward, activating the Landspinners. The Gundam rolled forward, taking him over the concrete and onto the training ground. Alexander felt his old instincts returning as the knightmare passed between the outermost buildings. He glanced left and right, marvelling at the view the panoramic cockpit provided.
His heart clenched as a flash of blue emerged from behind a wall to his left. In an instant he was turning, just in time to see a Sutherland leaning out, assault rifle raised to fire. He pressed his right pedal, jinking the Gundam to the right. But the dodge was slow, slower than he was used to, and he winced as 30mm rounds hammered against the Gundam's plastron. He managed to pull away, raising the beam rifle to fire, but the Sutherland darted back into cover.
The proximity alarm wailed, and Alexander turned to see two more Sutherlands moving up behind him, rifles blazing. He tried to dodge again, but the machine just wouldn't move fast enough, and again he felt the clatter of bullets. Trying to stay calm, Alexander brought up the beam rifle again. The two Sutherlands tried to split, but this time he was too fast. As the reticule slid over the left Sutherland, Alexander pulled the trigger.
White light momentarily blinded the screen, but Alexander could have sworn he could see the beam, jumping at the Sutherland like a lightning bolt. The Sutherland exploded, and Alexander was momentarily stunned by the violence of it. He knew what a detonating Yggdrasil drive looked like, but he had never seen a knightmare exploded like that.
The beeping of the Radar Warning Receiver shocked him back to reality. He looked up, and saw yet another Sutherland standing at the opposite end of the street, its form momentarily concealed by the explosion. It was aiming a G-cannon straight at him, and it had a target lock.
Alexander gritted his teeth as he hauled on the controls, willing the Gundam to get out of the way. But he saw the muzzle flash, and the warning buzzers screeched as the missile took flight.
But Gundam was already reacting. Icons flashed across the screen before him, twin reticules appearing over the oncoming missile. The machine guns set into the Gundam's brow opened fire, and the missile exploded.
Alexander gripped the joysticks tightly, trying to clear his adrenalin-frazzled mind. It wasn't that the Sutherland drones were all that capable; he had faced far worse in his time. The machine was just too damn sluggish. It was like moving in treacle.
Or was it him?
"Seems like you're having trouble," commented Livonze.
"I…I can't move it fast enough!" Alexander yanked the joysticks, turning the Gundam around to blaze fire at another Sutherland.
"I'm not surprised," Livonze mused. "The team suspected it would be clumsy on the ground. You might have more luck with the float system."
"But what about the power drain?" Alexander asked. His old Gloucester had been able to fly for only a few minutes, and he dreaded to think how much power a machine like the Gundam would use.
It occurred to him, rather uncomfortably, that he knew very little about the Gundam.
"Don't worry about that." Livonze sounded amused. "The control should be on your right joystick."
Seeing no alternative, Alexander pressed what he hoped was the right button. He felt his centre of gravity shift as the float system came online.
Another Sutherland appeared, rifle raised. Alexander pressed down the pedals to dodge, and his heart leapt as the Gundam danced lightly aside. The Sutherland tried to react, but Alexander was already aiming the beam rifle. This was the moment he knew so well. This was the moment when the enemy was vulnerable, the fraction of an instant between action and reaction, fight and flight. He fired, and almost cried out in exultation as the Sutherland exploded. He looked up, and saw the Sutherland with the G-cannon trying to take aim. But Alexander was faster, and the Sutherland went the way of its fellows.
The proximity alarm wailed again. Alexander moved, the float engines bearing the Gundam up and away as three more Sutherlands came slewing around the corner. Two carried rifles, but one was carrying a tall Shot-lancer. Alexander turned and landed, snapping off two shots at the Sutherlands. The two rifle-armed Sutherlands exploded, but the third came on, lance couched, the point aimed to puncture the Gundam's plastron.
Alexander reacted, bringing up his shield arm and keying for the plasma sword. The lance struck the shield, the point sliding off with a screech of tortured metal and a shower of sparks. Alexander raised the shield, forcing the lance up and away, as the Gundam's right hand came up with the plasma sword. The beam flashed into brilliant life, and Alexander thrust it between the Sutherland's waist and up into the cockpit. With a tap of the pedals he kicked the stricken knightmare away and leapt for the sky as the Sutherland detonated.
"Very nice," Livonze commented as Alexander brought the Gundam in to land. "You bring out the best in…"
Alexander's brow furrowed in surprise as Livonze's voice crackled into static. He heard the HUD beeping, and turned to see a warning message highlighted on the screen. Someone was running a military-grade jammer close by.
Very close by.
Alexander slammed down the pedals. The Gundam leapt, just as the ground where it had stood vanished in a cloud of dust. He glanced back and forth, searching frantically for his attacker as the knightmare descended.
"You think you're pretty cool," sneered a female voice from the comm. "But you're not so hot." Something flickered in the corner of his eye. Alexander's head snapped round, and saw what looked like a knightmare diving towards him. He jumped back, and the ground erupted as his assailant's fist struck.
He looked up as he landed, and saw that it was indeed a knightmare, though not a design he had ever seen before. It was tall, somewhere between a Sutherland and his Gundam in height. Its armour was bone-white, rounded and sculpted as if to fit a human body, with bundles of cord underneath that looked, for all the world, like exposed muscle.
Alexander tensed as the mysterious knightmare rose, straightening up with a grace more suited to a body of flesh than a mecha. Its heavy brow gleamed beetle-black, from under which narrow eyes gazed out at him. Those eyes seemed to relish the thought of fighting him, of killing him.
"Have a taste of this!" The knightmare charged, its balled fist aimed for the Gundam's head. Alexander dodged, raising his shield to deflect the blow as he broke away to the right. The Gundam juddered at the impact, but Alexander managed to land, drawing his plasma sword. The enemy came on again, fist drawn back to punch off Gundam's head. Alexander brought up his shield, deflecting the fist away as he lashed out with the plasma sword. The enemy twisted sideways to avoid the blade, but the glowing plasma tore through the knightmare's flank. The white knightmare staggered away, bleeding sparks from the gash. Alexander swung his shield around, smashing it to the ground.
"Who are you?!" he demanded through the loudspeaker. "Identify yourself!"
The RWR beeped. Alexander leapt back in reflex, and the ground where had he had stood exploded, hurling the white knightmare into a nearby building. He glanced at his sensor screen, and saw a contact about a hundred metres away to his right. He looked, and saw two more knightmares standing atop one of the concrete buildings, one standing, one crouching nearby. Both were similar in appearance to his assailant, but slimmer, more curvaceous. The one standing was carrying what looked like a G-cannon, but larger and bulkier-looking. Whatever it was, it was aiming at him.
Alexander snapped up the beam rifle and fired. The two knightmares broke left and right, barely avoiding the shot. He turned as the proximity sensor beeped, just in time to see a fourth knightmare charging along the street towards him, MVS blades flashing in its hands. He fell back, raising his shield to block the knightmare's blows. He felt the shudder of the impacts, and saw the sparks as the glowing blades rent the gleaming metal. But his enemy had overextended, and he thrust his right joystick forward, sending the plasma sword lancing for the white knightmare's heart.
But the blade didn't connect. Alexander let out a snarl of frustration as the knightmare bent and twisted, the blade scoring along its white plastron. He swung again, but the enemy was already moving, dropping back away from with swords raised to guard. He snarled, and made to pursue.
"Major!" A male voice cut through the comm crackle. "Major Waldstein! Stand down!"
"Who is this?!" Alexander barked back, shocked and offended by the intervention. "Why did you attack me?!"
"Major!" Alexander's heart jumped as he heard Villetta Nu's voice. "Please stand down!"
Fresh beeping drew Alexander's attention back to his minimap. He blinked, surprised by the number of icons on the previously blank screen. He saw that the ECM warning was also gone, and realised that the jammer his enemies were using must have been deactivated. But who were these newcomers?
The white knightmare tensed, and Alexander readied himself for another attack. But an instant later it seemed to calm down, even lowering its weapons. Alexander looked up, and saw two purple knightmares approaching along the street behind his erstwhile foe. As the adrenalin cloud faded, Alexander saw that they were Gloucesters. One was a standard model he recognized as Villetta's, but the other had blue pauldrons and twin rocket pods set either side and above the cockpit.
"Captain Nu!" Alexander managed to force his voice into something vaguely military-sounding. "Report!"
"It's all right sir!" Villetta's face appeared on the HUD. Her tone was calm and professional, just as he expected, but she looked flushed and unsettled. Had she actually worried about him? "The Special Honorary Foreign Legion has stood down!"
"Are you all right sir?" asked the male voice from before. With the interference gone it sounded familiar. "That was quite a fight you put up."
"Alfred?" Alexander hazarded a guess. "Sir Alfred Darlton? Is that you?"
"Yes sir!" Now it was Alfred Darlton's turn to appear on his HUD, wearing a wide grin. "Sir Alfred Darlton, of the Glaston Knights, at your service!"
Alexander blinked, trying to organise his thoughts and process all this new information. What were the Glaston Knights doing here? And why had the Special Honorary Foreign Legion, if that was who they were, attacked him like that?
"Captain Nu," he managed to say, returning his attention to Villetta. "Can you explain this situation to me?"
"Major sir!" another voice interjected. It was all Alexander could do to keep his mouth from dropping open as the face of a young girl appeared on the HUD next to those of Villetta and Alfred. Her hair was a dark golden blonde, like burnished gold, arranged into a pair of pigtails tied with long green ribbons. Her red eyes were wide and intense, her small mouth tight. "Alice of the Special Honorary Foreign Legion reporting! Please excuse our behaviour!"
Alexander couldn't bring himself to say anything. She must have been about Princess Nunnally's age, and Alexander still thought of her as a child. Yet here she was, piloting an advanced knightmare.
Who were they?
"You can stop laughing now, Livonze" Prince Schneizel el Britannia said dryly. "I think your little entertainment has come to an end."
"It…it wasn't mine, your highness," Livonze Almark spluttered, trying to compose himself. "I assure your highness it was entirely spontaneous!"
"I confess I'm a little surprised you find it so amusing," Schneizel commented. "Considering they disrupted the exercise you so carefully planned for me to see."
"I have no reason to be upset, your highness," Livonze replied, having finally regained his composure. "If anything, it proved the power of the Gundam far more effectively than those drones would have on their own."
"That I cannot deny." Schneizel returned his attention to the testing ground. Their vantage point atop the observation tower gave them a grandstand view. "The Innovators have truly excelled themselves Livonze. I commend you."
"Thank you, your highness." Livonze bowed low. "And thank you again, for allowing me the use of its inestimable pilot. They're proving to be an excellent combination, if I do say so myself."
Schneizel did not reply straight away. He spent a few moments gazing down at the testing ground, at the great white machine named Gundam. He didn't have a name for the way it made him feel, and he suspected no such name existed, but he knew it all the same. It was a feeling he always had when he saw something exceptional, whether it was a fine painting, or a well-bred stallion, or a piece of great literature. It was something like awe, something like reverence, something like yearning. It told him that this was a war machine like no other, a suit of armour for the greatest of warriors, an angel of death, and of rebirth.
Schneizel trusted his feelings.
"Tell me, Livonze," he said, without turning. "Why did you choose the name Gundam?" Livonze chuckled at the question.
"It's a little something from the writings of Aeolia Schenberg," he replied. "A concept he toyed with in one of his earlier books, The War Machine. Such an original thinker, even so early in his career."
"I see." Schneizel stared on at the white mecha as it strode back towards the hangar, accompanied by the smaller figures of the Glaston Knights, and the delinquent SHFL mechs.
"Gundam," he thought. "I see it now. You will make my dream a reality, and humanity will advance."
Somewhere in the EU
The corridor was long and dark, seemingly leading nowhere.
Something inside Kaguya Sumeragi made her hesitate. Once, not so long ago, she would have found this kind of thing quite exciting. But she was alone, and in a foreign land, at the mercy of intrigues beyond her vision or her reach. She could only hope she had made the right decision in seeking this meeting.
"Don't be put off by it," said Hamid. "They like this kind of thing."
Kaguya gulped, and hoped that he hadn't heard. She accompanied him through the door and into the wide corridor, though keeping up with him took some effort. It was difficult to walk quickly in the formal furisode she had chosen, though she had worn and moved around in such outfits all her life. The long-sleeved kimono was midnight black, decorated with her family's mon in white, and fastened with a gleaming white obi around her waist. It was not as decorative as it might have been, but it was dignified, and more than a little striking. She could not force them to see her as a grown woman, as the leader of her house, as someone they should take seriously. But she had her pride, and there was no harm in trying.
Hamid stopped suddenly, standing in the middle of the corridor. Kaguya glanced up at him. She had never seen him quite so grim, though something in his face made it seem natural somehow.
Her heart clenched in surprise as the floor moved under her. Kaguya managed not to cry out as a circular plate rose from the floor, bearing her and Hamid up through a matching hole in the ceiling. The lift stopped suddenly, leaving them in total darkness.
Kaguya almost jumped again as another light came on, revealing a man seated at a very long, very wide desk. The man's face was lowered, and partially concealed behind his clasped hands.
"Miss Sumeragi," the man said. "So good of you to come."
"This is Hernandez," Hamid interjected. "You'll get used to him…eventually."
"Mister…Hernandez," Kaguya greeted him cautiously. "I trust…I am to meet with you?"
"Not with me," Hernandez replied. His eyes were invisible, concealed by the gleam of the light on his glasses. "With the directors."
As he spoke, the chamber was filled with light. Kaguya glanced back and forth, doing her best not to look rattled. The light came from a series of rectangular screens, set in a ring around the walls of the chamber. Each screen showed a national flag, most of which she recognized.
"Miss Sumeragi," Hamid drawled, his languid tone seeming just a little forced. "I have the honour to present the directors of the European Security Directorate, otherwise known as EUROSEC."
Kaguya wanted to say something, but she didn't know what to say. She didn't even know what to think. The situation was so…bizarre. It was like she was in anime or something.
"Like I said," Hamid muttered, seeing the look on her face. "You'll get used to them eventually."
"Perhaps, Miss Sumeragi," Hernandez spoke up, "you would care to make your deputation to the directors."
Kaguya slowed her breathing, willing her heart to still. She cleared her throat.
"Directors," she began. "I am Kaguya Sumeragi, mistress and heir of the most noble House Sumeragi, lately of Japan, and the Six Houses of Kyoto." Her voice was high and clear, echoing around the chamber. "I come before you to beg your aid, in a matter that concerns us all."
The chamber fell silent, and stayed silent. Kaguya was just starting to wonder if they would ever reply, when the screen showing the British flag suddenly lit up.
"You refer to the hemicycle hearing taking place in three days' time." The voice was distorted, but Kaguya had the vague impression that it was female. "A hearing at which you have been called to testify."
"In what way does this concern us?"
Kaguya had to try very hard not to lose her cool. Were they being deliberately obtuse? Was this some kind of test?
"Directors, I believe this to be part of a deliberate ploy by a faction within the Council of Forty; a ploy intended to discredit and weaken the position of the First Consul, so that they can make a deal with Britannia. Directors, they intend to cave in to Britannia's demands!"
"Your analysis of the situation is correct," replied the Dutch director.
"But…" The blunt answer caught Kaguya off-guard, as did its implied meaning. "But if you know about this, why hasn't EUROSEC acted?! Surely you have the power to stop this!"
There was a long, cold silence. Kaguya could hear Hamid tutting under his breath, and knew she had made a mistake.
"We cannot prevent this," said the French director. "Not in the way you are implying."
"To directly involve ourselves in the political process would be unconstitutional and illegal," added the Swedish director. "Were we to do so, Second Consul Dressler would invoke the disclosure statute and paralyse our organisation."
"Do not patronize me, Directors!" Kaguya snapped. "It is well within your power to overcome Dressler. Or are you too cowardly to do what must be done?"
The silence hung heavy in the chamber. Kaguya heard Hamid let out a hiss, but she was too angry to be properly respectful.
"What you propose would be even more damaging to our society," said the British director. "Every time such a thing is done, it becomes easier and easier to do so again."
"It would also seriously discredit the political system in the eyes of the public," added the French director. "A system in which the security forces can make or unmake leaders cannot be called democratic."
"What do I care about your system?!" Kaguya barked, losing her temper. "What do my people care?! Why should they care about your democracy, when it condemns them to languish as refugees! What stake do they have? What reason?"
"The refugee crisis is not our doing," retorted the French director, sounding just a little bit miffed. "The politicians refuse to assign the necessary resources."
"The refugees have become objects of popular ill-feeling," added the German director. "The politicians pander to this prejudice in order to attract popular support, and to distract attention from unpopular policies. There are also vested interests, especially in the property sector, which they are unwilling to challenge."
"Excuses!" Kaguya drew a sharp breath. "I'll say this for Britannia! Offer them power, and they'll take it and use with without hesitation! But offer you power and you cower in terror, fearing even to look at it!" She paused, raging inwardly as she stared up at the cold, impassive screens. She wondered if there was anything human behind them, or if they were just programmed computers, incapable of being affected by her words.
"Directors…" She trailed off, trying to compose herself. Her anger had run its futile course. "I cannot ask you to break your laws for me. But if you cannot help me, then there is no hope for any of us. There is a power rising in the west and the east, and it means to destroy us all. If you cannot act, then allow me to act on your behalf."
Another long silence.
"We hope you understand what you are saying," said the German director. "If you commit to this, there can be no going back."
"Directors, I have nothing left to lose."
"Attend your hearing as scheduled," Hernandez said, after what seemed like an eternity. "We'll be in touch."
The light illuminating him went out, and the floor plate began lowering Kaguya and Hamid back down.
"That's it?" Kaguya was incredulous, almost in shock.
"That's it!" Hamid replied with a grin. "That was the Directors."
Kaguya hung her head as they walked back along the corridor. She felt drained, and more than a little embarrassed. She had spent so much time planning what she would say, imagining heroic speeches and grand declarations. She had pictured herself winning them over, inspiring them with her rhetoric. She had seen them falling over themselves to pledge their support. It had worked so many times before.
But that what had she really expected? They had said they would help her.
"You probably thought I was being childish," she said despondently.
"Not at all." She glanced up at Hamid, and to her surprise he was grinning a particularly demonic grin. "You handled yourself pretty well. There's not many who'd talk to them like that. I reckon that was what they were looking for."
"It was?" Kaguya was incredulous.
"You proved to them that you were serious," Hamid replied, still grinning. "After all, you'll be doing them a service, just like me."
Kaguya wasn't sure she liked the idea, but it was too late to worry about it now.
Tehran, Kingdom of Krugis
The meeting chamber was silent; an oppressive, cloying silence, broken only by the ticking of the big clock.
From the seat at the head of the table, the King of Krugis scanned his eyes over his military cabinet. Most of them were officers, clad in the same black and gold uniform as himself, while the civilians wore business-wear. The only variety came from the man seated to his left, his white robe and turban contrasting with a plain black cloak. All gazed intently back at him; some of them obvious uncomfortable, others almost defiant.
"So," the King began, his tone level but grim. "They have finally asked us."
"Respectfully, your majesty," replied Shapur Bakhtiar, the Prime Minister. "They have ordered us to mobilize."
"Mind what you say, Prime Minister," retorted General Javad Kazemi, commander of the Takavaran special forces. "The Emperor of Britannia does not give us orders."
"Oh doesn't he?" Bakhtiar snarked. "Can we refuse this lunatic suggestion then?"
"There's nothing lunatic about it!" insisted General Ardashir Madani, Chief of the General Staff. "We have power enough!"
"That is not my point, General Madani, as well you know."
Darius Ismail, Shah of Shahs, Light of the Aryans, and by Britannia's good graces King of Krugis, suppressed a weary sigh. He had expected Bakhtiar to cause trouble, but this was getting on his nerves.
"The Prime Minister also knows," he said, ending the argument, "that we are in no position to refuse this request. We owe Britannia our strength, our security, and our current prosperity. Without Britannia's generosity, we could not have developed our military technology and our armies to their current level. Without Britannian funding, and generous trade deals, we could not have developed our economy to its current level."
"Respectfully, your majesty," interjected Jaleh Homayoun, Minister of Finance. She had gotten good at hiding her nervousness, Darius thought as he regarded her, but he could still just about detect it. "Even with Britannian help, our economy is not in the best condition."
"I would've thought," Madani spoke up, his tone contemptuous, "that twenty years of ten percent growth would be more than enough for anyone."
"If anything, our economy has grown too much," Homayoun went on, trying her best to ignore him. "Inflation is reaching dangerous levels, and the benefits have not been evenly distributed." She looked straight at Darius, a pained sincerity in her eyes.
"Majesty, your land distribution scheme was well-intentioned, but it hasn't brought the reductions in rural poverty we hoped for. Around half the new landholders have gone bankrupt or sold up since the plan began. They just can't compete with the new factory farms, and there just isn't enough work in the cities for them. We're facing mass unemployment."
"I am aware of that fact, Minister," Darius replied, trying not to sound defensive. "But even God cannot create jobs out of thin air."
Many eyes turned towards the turbaned man with the neatly-combed beard seated to the Shah's right, half expecting some pious outburst. But if the Ayatollah Mahmud Shirazi was so-inclined, he made no show of it.
"If anything, majesty, this is all the more reason to accede to Britannia's requests," said Madani. "A war will unite our people, and success will create the opportunities the unemployed so desperately need."
"I was wondering when someone was going to make that argument," sneered Bakhtiar. "A short, victorious war. I suppose we wouldn't be the first to fall for it."
"Perhaps if the Prime Minister could see his way clear to making some constructive commentary," Madani snarked back, "we may be able to formulate an appropriate strategy."
"Agreed." Darius stared at Bakhtiar. "Prime Minister, please moderate your language during this meeting."
"As your majesty wishes." Darius knew it was the best he was going to get. Working with that man was hard enough at the best of times, but Britannia's request had really gotten his goat. He could only hope the man wasn't inclined to cause trouble. Bakhtiar's niece, Shirin, was personal advisor to his own niece, Princess Marina.
Sorrow hung about Darius' heart as he thought of her. He had not seen her since her return from Japan a few weeks earlier. Since then she had remained in her residence, apparently still mourning for her old friend Princess Euphemia.
Better that she remained there, for the moment. Better that she did not see what he was about to do.
"General Madani," he said. "Show us what the Britannians require of us." Madani nodded, then pressed a button on the keyboard before him. A holographic map shimmered into being over the table top, showing the Middle East in detail. Krugis' territories were marked out in purple, the Chinese Federation to the east in red, the EU to the north and west in blue, Britannian-occupied Africa in dark gold, and the member-states of the Middle-Eastern Federation in green.
"The Britannians intend to attack the EU on four fronts," Madani began. "One of them will pass through Turkey, and as such through the Middle East." He tapped at his keyboard, and white lines reached across the map, curving north from the Sinai, continuing up through Turkey, then splitting to move up through Greece and the Caspian sea.
"Our intended role," Madani went on, "is to prepare the way for Britannia's Army of Africa. We are to attack the Middle-Eastern Federation with maximum force, either bringing those countries to heel or ensuring that they cannot prevent Britannia's advance north."
Madani tapped at his keyboard again, and icons appeared along Krugis' border, representing its ground and air forces.
"Our active forces are centred around thirty combined-arms divisions, along with a dozen independent special forces brigades, and twenty independent knightmare squadrons. These are supported by twenty air support gunship squadrons and twenty-four air force combat squadrons. With these, we can overwhelm the MEF's armies in a matter of weeks."
"By running them into the ground, you mean," Bakhtiar spoke up harshly. "If you think the Arabs will simply crumble before you, you're sorely mistaken. And what about the Chinese Federation?"
"The Chinese Federation will not be a concern."
All eyes turned to see Cyrus Abdullah come striding into the chamber, his crimson cloak billowing.
"Lord Abdullah," Darius greeted the knight, as he halted and bowed. "It is good that you are here. I trust you have assurances from Prince Schneizel?"
"More than assurances, your majesty." At a gesture from Darius, Abdullah strode towards the lone empty chair and sat down in it. "I was present at his highness' planning sessions. He wishes me to assure your majesty that he has come to…an arrangement with the Chinese Federation."
"An arrangement?" Bakhtiar gave him a hard, suspicious look. "Would you care to share the details of that arrangement?"
"I cannot," Abdullah replied. The atmosphere suddenly changed, a ripple of discontent running around the table. "To do so would be to violate the oaths I took as a Knight of the Round Table; the oaths your majesty directed me to take."
Darius nodded. He knew the look in Abdullah's eyes, and understood only too well what the young knight was going through on his behalf.
"We must trust Lord Abdullah's word for now," he said, in as commanding a tone as he could manage. "But the Prime Minister nevertheless raises an important point. Can our forces truly break the Arab armies without becoming bogged down or simply exhausted?"
"Because we have adopted a high-mobility doctrine, based on knightmare frames, special forces, and air strikes," Madani replied confidently. "The MEF states have large armies, but our mobile strike forces can defeat them by striking at their weak points; their supply lines, their reconnaissance formations, their supply units, and such. Once weakened, our mechanized formations can strike the decisive blow."
"All very impressive," Bakhtiar spoke up again. "But you're forgetting something, General."
"And what is that, Prime Minister?"
"The people, General!" Bakhtiar snapped, as if he were a schoolmaster dealing with a particularly irritating pupil. "You may shatter the armies of their regimes, but how will you defeat the popular will?" He stood up and jabbed an accusing finger at the map, at the green image of Saudi Arabia. "If we send our Shia troops into Saudi Arabia, the land where the Holy Cities reside, then the entire region will explode!"
"Surely you exaggerate," replied General Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, commander of the Imperial Air Force. "Our empire encompasses both Sunni and Shia, and many more besides. This cannot be portrayed as a religious matter, not credibly at least."
"None of you understand!" Bakhtiar roared. "Don't try to deny it! You don't just intend to defeat the armies of the MEF, you want its territories too!"
"And why shouldn't we?" Madani snapped back. "With Saudi Arabia's oil, we will have an effective corner on global petrochemicals! Besides, their regime has no more legitimacy than ours! Why shouldn't they accept our rule?!"
"And what of Mecca and Medina?!" Bakhtiar barked. "Do you think they will let Shias take the Holy Cities from Sunni hands?! Do none of you see where this will lead?!"
"The Prime Minister has a point, Majesty," said Shirazi, speaking for the first time. "To many, such an act will be not merely blasphemous, but unjust. If we take the Holy Cities for ourselves, they will see us as being no different from the Saudis. They will believe you are trying to make yourself Caliph, and to exploit the sacred places for power and profit."
"Caliph?" Pahlavi was incredulous. "What nonsense!"
"Such are claims are indeed lunacy, majesty," Shirazi went on, "but when men are crushed by poverty and injustice, and also by war, they embrace such lunacy as their one and only comfort. What can you offer them, majesty, to prove that you are no mere conqueror? What can you do to prove you are not a puppet of the Britannians?"
All eyes turned to Darius, and the seemed thick and heavy with tension. Darius sighed. He hadn't wanted to bring it up, at least not yet, but he had run out of time.
"There is a way in which we can use this war to do good," he said, his heart thumping with every word. "There is a way in which we can build a better future for these lands."
He tapped at his own keyboard, and the entire cabinet stared as a new border snaked its way around the cities of Mecca and Medina.
"My plan is to establish the Holy Cities as a state, separate and distinct from all other lands. This state shall be governed by a democratic council, encompassing all the communities of Islam. No one power, no one state, shall have dominion over it. It shall serve to keep the Holy Cities for all Muslims everywhere."
He fell silent, waiting for the objections, the cries of anathema, the accusations of blasphemy. If anything, the silence was worse.
"It is…ambitious, your majesty," Shapur Bakhtiar said, almost dumbstruck. "I see your intent, and the possibilities it represents. Nevertheless, I also see the dangers. Only victory will allow this plan to succeed, and I fear the harm our country will suffer in the meantime."
"It is a work of brilliance, your majesty!" Madani cut in, barely giving Bakhtiar time to finish. "To do so will set your majesty up among the great ones! It will be a sign to all humanity that the Persians have risen again!"
As he finished speaking, all eyes fell on Shirazi. The cleric's face was expressionless.
"I will say only this," he said eventually, his tone noticeably harder than before. "There must be no fighting, no bloodshed, inside the Holy Cities. I will say no more before this council."
"Very well." Darius scanned his eyes around the table. "Then it is decided. We will go to war as Britannia directs. Commanders, make your preparations, and we will meet again in two days."
He stood up, followed swiftly by the others, the officers snapping off smart salutes. He saw defiance in Bakhtiar's eyes, but he raised no objection.
With the meeting broken up, the cabinet members filed out of the room, until only Darius and Shirazi remained. Darius walked slowly over to the main window, and gazed out over Tehran. The sun was setting, and the call to prayer would soon be made.
"I know what you are thinking, Mahmud," he said, without turning around.
"Perhaps you do," the cleric replied. "But Allah knows us both better than you do." Darius did not reply, but continued to stare out over the city. He imagined all the people out there, all the stories of all the lives, playing out before his eyes.
"I wish Rasa was here," he admitted, his voice hoarse. "He would try to talk me out of this."
"Yes majesty, he would." Shirazi's tone was level, betraying nothing. "But he is not here, and I am not the Shah. It is for you to decide the best path, and you alone."
"I know." Darius sighed. Never before, not even during the civil war, had the burden of his crown felt so heavy.
"Is it true, Mahmud?" His voice was low, almost a whisper. "Is it true, what Minister Houmayoun said?"
"I did not want to say so in front of General Madani, majesty," Shirazi said. "The great landowners, from whom you purchased land to give to the peasants, have used their wealth to turn their remaining lands into factory farms. The sharecroppers cannot compete with them. They end up selling their land back to the landowners, and thus become landless labourers, or else migrate to the cities. This is, of course, entirely legal and above board."
Though it pained him, Darius knew he was telling the truth. If anyone would know the truth of the matter, Shirazi would. The clergy were a spy network unto themselves, reaching into almost every facet of society. The everyday experiences of countless clerics gave Shirazi an invaluable insight into the true state of Krugis, and it was that knowledge as much as anything else that gave him a place in Darius' cabinet.
"They will destroy me," he whispered. "They will destroy me, and all that I have tried to build, if I cannot help them."
"They do not blame you yet, majesty," Shirazi insisted. His tone was low, but strangely sympathetic. "They blame the landowners, and the capitalists. But you are right that they will turn upon you in time."
"Rasa would want me to help them first," Darius went on. "And I know you, as his friend, want the same. Yet here I am, forced to make war lest by refusing I make things worse."
"You must do what you think is right, majesty. Only by listening to your heart can Allah guide you."
Darius lowered his head, and thought of a young woman with bright blue eyes, and a sincere and hopeful heart; a heart that might have been broken.
Central Hemicycle Building, Paris, EU
"The council is ready for you, Lady Sumeragi."
Kaguya steeled herself as the double doors were opened. A part of her wanted to turn and run. Another wanted to cast off the long, fur-lined cloak that swathed her body up to the neck. But she could not run, and the cloak could not go either. It concealed her trump card, her weapon of last resort.
She emerged into a vast circular chamber, rising to a high vaulted ceiling, with arches supported on tall columns. Between the columns stood wide, octagonal screens, all currently blank. Row upon row of benches and desks fanned out around the floor, from which hundreds of faces stared up at the podium, at her. The Consuls' podium stood opposite hers, topped with a row of three theatre-style boxes in which sat the three consuls in high-backed chairs. Above them, emblazoned in glory, was the EU's emblem; a massive two-headed eagle, its wings spread wide. To Kaguya, it was if the great bird was ready to swoop down upon her.
"Can you hear me?" said a voice in her ear. "Cross your fingers on your right hand."
Kaguya did so, not daring to voice a reply.
"Great," Hamid said, sounding pleased. "I can see you from the operations centre. You're doing fine."
Hamid evidently had more confidence in her that she herself did. All the same she could not falter, not now. Not when so much was riding on her.
Standing tall at the podium, Kaguya scanned her eyes over the three consuls. Maurice Sant-Clare sat in the central box, his grey hair and long beard giving him a comforting, almost grandfatherly air. He would be her ally in the battle to come.
To his right sat Richard Dressler, in the Second Consul's box. He was solidly-built, his black hair greying at the temples. He had a cultivated air, and seemed harmless, but Kaguya knew better. Hamid had warned her about him, and what he had been getting up to in dark places. He was behind her summons before the council, and she knew what he intended. He was most definitely her enemy.
To the left the Third Consul, Alois Bredahl. He was the least physically impressive of the three; about the same age as Sant-Clare and Dressler, but with ordinary, forgettable features, and no apparent presence. Kaguya had heard that he was a cipher, usually following what he saw as the General consensus, with no real agenda of his own. If that was true, then his support depended on winning over the representatives.
Kaguya glanced down at the hemicycle benches, knowing that would be the hard part. According to her information, the chamber was split near enough three ways, between pro-war, anti-war, and undecided. If what Hamid had learned was correct, then a substantial number of them were in Dressler's pocket, swayed by the same honeyed words and dark promises.
She shuddered at the thought, and almost felt sorry for the EU, or at least for its peoples. It was just like before, just like with Japan. History was about to repeat itself.
"The council is now in session!" declared a stentorian voice from the speaker's chair, set below the Consuls' pulpits. Seated in the central chair, First Consul Maurice Sant-Clare stared straight at Kaguya. He looked old, or so she thought, even older than his grey hair and beard would have implied.
"Kaguya Sumeragi," he began, his voice rich and deep. "You have been called before this council to give testimony regarding the recent uprising in the occupied nation of Japan. Are you ready to give testimony?"
"I am, First Consul." The sound system carried her voice around the chamber. It sounded good.
"Keep it together in there," Hamid said over the comm-bead in her ear. "EUROSEC's expecting a show."
"Miss Sumeragi." It was Second Consul Richard Dressler's turn to speak. "You are the heiress and sole survivor of House Sumeragi, are you not?"
"I am, Second Consul."
"Then you admit that you were a member of the Six Houses of Kyoto?"
"Yes, Second Consul."
Kaguya could hear muttering from the delegates around her. Tension wrapped itself and her heart, and she knew that was the point. Make her wait, keep her guessing, drag out the tension and terror as long as possible. Dressler wanted her broken, that much she knew. He wanted her to crack, to make mistakes, so say things she dared not say. There was nothing for her to do but ride the storm as long as she could, and hope EUROSEC didn't let her down.
"Then, Miss Sumeragi, you are well-placed to answer our questions." Dressler's face was unreadable, his tone sweet reason. Kaguya could've sworn she saw Sant-Clare glance at him, but it was of little comfort.
"As a member of the Six Houses, you took part in high-level decision-making for the Japanese rebels, did you not?"
"Yes, Second Consul." Another frisson of muttering around the chamber. They evidently hadn't expected her to simply admit it. But Kaguya knew there was no point in obfuscation; it was the answer Dressler wanted, and he could make the charge stick.
"Then you must also have known Kaname Ougi." Kaguya paused briefly, as her mind tried to guess Dressler's intent. She mastered herself, reminding herself that she had no hope of doing so.
"I do not know Kaname Ougi personally," she replied. "I knew him as a senior officer in the Order of the Black Knights."
"Very well." If Dressler was in any way disconcerted by her reply, he did not show it. "You are of course aware that he has been shortlisted as the new Prime Minister of the Japanese government-in-exile, on the recommendation of our own First Consul." He gave an apparently respectful nod to Sant-Clare.
"I am aware, Second Consul."
"And you have confidence in him, for this role?"
"Yes, Second Consul."
"Very well." Dresser lowered his eyes to his desktop screen. "Do you by any chance know Jacque Sant-Clare?"
Kaguya's blood ran cold. She had known this might happen, but had somehow convinced herself that it wouldn't. For a moment her mind went blank, and she struggled to regain her composure.
"Not personally, no."
"Then why have you been visiting the same hospital in Paris where he is staying?" Dressler's expression had not changed, but there was something predatory in his eyes. A rumble of discontent arose from the representatives. "Surely you understand how certain people might…interpret that?"
"My purpose in going there," Kaguya replied, in as cold and stiff a tone as she could manage, "was to offer moral support to his sister Colette, a particular friend of mine."
There was more hubbub from below, some of it sympathetic. Kaguya felt her confidence rise a little. Had Dressler over-reached himself?
"How very kind of you, Miss Sumeragi." Dressler seemed to be gathering himself. "Perhaps Miss Sant-Clare was good enough to describe her brother's injuries to you. Did she explain his injuries, Miss Sumeragi?"
Kaguya's rising confidence evaporated. So this was his game.
"His injuries, Miss Sumeragi," Dressler pressed. "How did he come by a half-dozen gunshot wounds, Miss Sumeragi?"
The chamber erupted in frantic whispering and muttering. Kaguya felt cold and sick; she knew what was coming. Where was EUROSEC? She needed them now!
"Do you deny, Miss Sumeragi, that a EUROFORCE and EUROSEC mission was deployed to Japan, without the mandate of this council?!" Dressler's countenance had changed. His eyes were bright, like a raptor sighting prey. "Do you deny that Jacque Sant-Clare was a member of that team?! A child of ten, taking part in a dangerous mission?!"
The hubbub became a roar. Kaguya clenched her fists, willing herself not to cry and scream. She hated him; hated him for going to such lengths for such selfish goals,for using Jacque against her like this.
She hated him, because she was about to do the same.
"Representatives!" Dressler stood up. He was in the ascendant, almost shining with triumph. "A man who would allow his ten-year-old son to go into battle is not fit to act as First Consul! I move that he be immediately impeached for crimes against humanity and democracy, and by my authority as Second Consul I invoke the Disclosure statute against both EUROFORCE and EUROSEC, effective immediately!"
Cries of agreement went up from the representatives, peppered here and there with angry denials and bellowed insults. The speaker roared for order, but no one seemed to hear him. Sant-Clare closed his eyes, and looked very, very old. Brendahl just looked nervous.
"Representatives!" Dressler continued, having evidently not quite gotten the response he wanted. "Do not allow yourselves to be swayed by your loyalty to this man!" He jabbed a finger at Sant-Clare. "He was once a great leader, but he is now a man of blood! The blood of his own son is upon his hands!"
"And upon my heart!"
For a moment the chamber fell silent. The representatives stared at Kaguya in disbelief, as if they did not understand how she could have shouted so loud.
"You speak of blood, Second Consul!" Kaguya snapped. "I will show you blood!"
She threw back her arms, the cloak flying aside to reveal the pink and purple kimono that had once been her trademark. A gasp of horror and disbelief went up as the representatives saw the rust-coloured stain spread all over it. Even Dressler looked surprised.
"Is that…blood?" babbled Brendahl, his face as white as a sheet.
"It is blood, Third Consul!" Kaguya replied, her voice high and clear, her heart at last resolved. "The blood upon my breast is the blood of Jacque Sant-Clare, spilled when he shielded me from the bullets that almost took his life!" She turned her head from right to left, speaking to all the chamber at once.
"Representatives! If you must destroy the First Consul for this, then you must destroy me too! As blood does not wash from silk, his blood shall never wash from my heart!"
The chamber roared and rumbled. And then Kaguya's heart leapt as some of the roars turned to cheers. She could hear applause, and feet stamping on the floor.
"Keep it up kiddo!" Hamid hissed. "You're doing just fine!"
"Representatives!" Dressler roared, his face colouring with rage. "Don't be fooled! This girl seeks to dupe you into war with Britannia, a war that serves only her own narrow interests!"
"That's right!" bellowed one of the representatives, standing in the anti-war end of the hall. "The Britannians want nothing but peace and justice! Prince Schneizel told us so himself!"
Kaguya's exultation faded as she saw how many shouted out in agreement. She was losing the initiative.
"This is a conspiracy!" Dressler barked. "A conspiracy between the First Consul and the Japanese government in exile! A conspiracy to subvert democracy, and to drag us into a war with the Holy Empire of Britannia, the mightiest power on Earth! A war to avenge a nation that brought doom upon itself with sakuradite politics!"
"You speak of democracy, Second Consul!" Kaguya almost spat his title. She no longer needed to pretend. "You accuse me and your own First Consul! You are yourselves accused!" She pointed her finger like a rapier at Dressler. "I accuse you, Richard Dressler, of treasonous conspiracy against this sacred union and all its peoples! I accuse you, and your confederates, of consorting with Britannian agents to deliver Europe into Britannian hands!"
The chamber was in pandemonium, the noise almost as bad as on the battlefield in Tokyo. Kaguya half-expected a brawl to break out at any moment. Here and there she could hear their shouts.
"Tell us more!"
"Where's your evidence!"
"Name the traitors!"
"We're on your side!"
She looked again at Dressler. His face was hard, but he seemed to have regained his self-control. Never in her life had she seen a look of such dire and bitter loathing, let alone directed at her.
"Those are very serious accusations!" His voice was as harsh as his eyes. "Dare I assume you have evidence to back them up?!"
Kaguya held her ground. Time seemed to slow down, a vice clenching around her heart.
And then the screens came alive. The image showed a window of a tall building, having apparently been filmed with a telescopic lens. There was a man seated behind the window, talking on a mobile phone.
"I have made my position clear," said a voice, apparently of the man. "The question is what you expect me to do about it."
"Prince Schneizel expects you to fulfil your end of the deal," replied the voice at the other end. "There must be no mobilization, and the Elevens must have no government in exile."
"How long do you expect me to wait? Even your people cannot win a war overnight."
"How you stay alive in the meantime is your own business. If you want your reward, you'll need to be in position to do what Prince Schneizel needs you to do. That way, it'll at least look like you tried."
"I have a way of dealing with Sant-Clare. His ex-wife dropped me something very interesting. I swear, that woman will never give up."
"I don't need to know about that. But if you and your flunkies want your titles, you'd better do what's required of you. Am I understood?"
"Perfectly. Tell the Prince he'll have what he needs."
"I'm glad to hear that, Duke Richard."
Dressler stared at one of the screens, his mouth lolling open, his skin pale as death. Below, someone threw a punch, and in an instant the floor was a mass of struggling bodies. Maurice Sant-Clare sat where he was, his face as unreadable as when Kaguya had first entered the room, while Brendahl frantically tried to get his attention.
"You may stand down, Miss Sumeragi," came Sant-Clare's voice from the podium's private comm. "And…thank you."
Kaguya turned around, and all but staggered away from the podium. She felt as if the life had been drained out of her. It was over.
It was over.
The doors to the antechamber were open. Kaguya stepped through, wanting to meet up with her attendants and get out of that place.
"Kaguya!" Kaguya jumped at the heart-felt cry, and turned just in time to see a Colette Sant-Clare racing across the ante-chamber towards her.
"Kaguya!" Colette flung her arms around her neck, hugging her tight. "You were wonderful! You did it! You beat them Kaguya!"
Kaguya was too stunned to reply. Then her mind cleared, and she returned Colette's embrace.
"Kaguya!" Colette pulled back, then kissed her on both cheeks. "I never knew you could do it!"
"Colette-chan…" Kaguya faltered, then let out a nervous giggle. "I…it was all I could do."
"Oh, and Kaguya…" Colette stood aside, and Kaguya gasped in surprise.
A wheelchair rolled towards them under its own power. The young boy seated on it was thin and pale-looking, more so than she remembered, but she saw the eyes she knew.
"Jacque…" she whispered. Colette beamed. Kaguya reached out a hand, wanting to touch him, to be sure it wasn't a dream. Her hand faltered, and Jacque reached out to take it in his own. He lowered his head, and kissed it with reverent lips.
"Kaguya," he breathed, his voice hoarse, but his eyes bright. "You are…my dream."
Kaguya let out a sob of pure joy, and flung her arms around his shoulders.
Down in the operations room, Hamid gazed up at the bank of monitor screens. The brawl had been going on for several minutes, and security officers were trying to separate the fighters. On another screen, he could see Richard Dressler and several others being led away by security officers and black-suited EUROSEC agents.
"You did good, missie," he said, grinning with a pride that surprised him. "Real good."
"It would seem this little mission was a success," answered Andrei Velichko, standing beside him. "Now, we might stand a fighting chance in this war."
"There's only one thing that bugs me," Hamid admitted, without turning his eyes from the screens. "That phone conversation."
"You don't believe we can do it?" Andrei asked. "You don't think we could break a direct line to an OSI satellite?"
"That's not what I'm talking about." Hamid turned to look at him. "It's just…well…" He paused, shifting his stance. "You'd think someone as smart as Dressler would be a little more…careful what he said over the phone; even on a secure line."
"Yes," Andrei mused. "You'd think so, wouldn't you?"
An accusing silence fell over the room.
"Well, it's your problem now," Hamid said eventually. "I hope for your sakes you've got enough good evidence; good enough for the Judicial council I mean. We all know how picky those guys can be."
"It's like you said," Andrei replied, smiling. "You'd think people would be more careful."
"Quite." Hamid looked back up at the screens.
"Yes," he thought. "There'll be a war now. A real war." His grin widened.
"I can't wait."
Tokyo Settlement, Area 11
Shirley Fenette was in a good mood on the whole.
It was a bright and sunny day, the sunlight glinting off the silver towers of Tokyo settlement. The city looked like a giant construction site, as workers hurried to restore the city to its former glory. The artificial plateau had been restored, and was even being expanded. Giant solar towers were being built in the river, rising into the sky like enormous fans.
She wouldn't normally have gone far on a day like this. But the local shopping arcade was open for business, and Milly would not take no for an answer.
So it was that she found herself in a shop selling nick-nacks and bric-a-brac. There hadn't been any particular reason why she'd wandered in there; she had just been window-shopping, and this shop was the next one in line.
That said, it wasn't a bad little shop at all. There were all manner of small items, some of them very fine. There was some quite nice china, and she'd thought of buying an item or two as a gift for her mother. There were some figurines too, of men and women in fancy outfits, or of young lovers, or of mothers holding children.
The sight made her pause, and she felt strangely warm inside. In her mind's eye she saw a warm smile, and a pair of beautiful, gentle eyes.
She remembered Christmas Eve, how they had embraced and kissed as the snow fell outside. She remembered when they had sat on his bed, he in his borrowed pyjamas, she in the most modest nightdress she could find, and talked of all that had happened. She remembered the pain and the tenderness in his eyes, the warmth of his arms, the innocent bliss of waking up in his arms.
They hadn't done anything wrong, of that she was certain. It wasn't as if they had actually done anything, nothing real anyway. No one would ever have to know, and no one did know.
Unless Milly knew something.
Shirley shook her head. There was no reason to be frightened of Milly and her warped sense of humour. They had done nothing wrong, nothing wrong at all!
She gazed at a figurine of a woman holding a young child in her arms. She remembered what he had told her about his childhood, about his life at the Imperial court, living with Empress Marianne and her children. She remembered the sorrow and grief in his eyes as he told of her death, and how it had led him to Princess Cornelia's service.
For all his noble strength, Shirley knew in her heart that he was lonely. She knew, for she knew what it meant to lose someone like that.
"Alexander," she thought. "I want to see you. I want to hear your voice."
She moved on from the figurines, trying to take her mind off him. She reached a rack of pendants, and spent a few moments admiring them. Some were very cute, and others quite elegant.
One of them caught her eye. It was a rearing white horse, beautifully carved from what looked like a piece of ivory. She picked it up by the chain and let it hang before her eyes. It looked like an escutcheon from a noble's coat of arms, a noble creature fit for a true knight to ride.
"Why don't you get it?"
Shirley let out a shriek of surprise, and only Milly's steadying hand prevented her from crashing into the nearest display case.
"M…Milly!" she spluttered. "What…"
"That's a lovely piece," Milly said, leaning in to look more closely at the pendant. "You should send it to your dear Alexander."
"Milly no!" Shirley wailed, her face turning red. "I…it's…it's not like that!"
"Oh isn't it?" There was that familiar smirk again, the one she wore when she was out to cause trouble. "It certainly looked that way on Christmas Eve!"
Shirley tried to cry out, to deny it, but her voice caught in her throat. She lowered her head, mortified at the thought of what she might have seen. She was glad the shop was practically deserted.
"Really Shirley," Milly admonished, with a twinkle in her eye. "A farmboy's sweetheart would give him a token. Doesn't your beloved Alexander deserve something to remember you by?" Her smirk widened. "Something to play with while he thinks of you?"
"Madame President." Shirley turned away. "You're being a pervert again." Milly laughed.
"Seriously though, you'd better buy it today," she said. "If you wait any longer, even I won't be able to get it to him in time."
"In time?" Shirley turned to look at her again, suddenly curious. "Is he leaving?"
"He certainly is." Milly leaned in closer, her countenance suddenly serious. "And he might never come back."
"He's…!" Shirley shivered, covering her mouth in shock. "Is he…how do you…?!"
"I have my ways," Milly replied, her smile returning suddenly. "So you should decide now, while you have the chance."
Shirley's mind was a whirl. She had known something was happening, of course. The news had been full of stories about it. Apparently the EU had denied having anything to do with the Black Rebellion, and refused to cooperate with Prince Schneizel's investigation. It was even said that they were training refugees from many Areas as terrorists, and sending them back to organise resistance groups and kill Britannian settlers. There were endless images of red-faced senators shaking their fists, of crowds chanting for war, of the bodies of murdered settlers in the wake of Zero's revolt.
Shirley hadn't known what to think or feel. All her life these things had seemed so distant; they had always been someone else's problem. It had taken her father's death at the Battle of Narita to make her realise how precarious life really was, and how easily any life could be invaded by war, by tragedy.
More than that, this time he would be involved. Alexander, her Alexander, would be going to war.
"You understand, don't you?" Milly asked. "You can't afford to miss a chance like this. If you don't tell him how you feel, and he gets killed, you'll regret it for the rest of your life."
"Milly…" Shirley looked from her to the horse, and back again, and at the horse again.
"Alexander…" she whispered, staring at the beautiful carving. It seemed to dance in the air before her, as if it were a pure white stallion bounding through a green meadow.
"I'll get it."
Chitose Base, Hokkaido, Area 11
The hangar was silent, but for the click of booted feet.
The 291st Special Dragoon Squadron stood arrayed in line, clad in their g-force suits. They stood at attention, staring impassively ahead, as soldiers should. Behind them, their knightmares were lined up for inspection. The blue or purple Gloucesters had been re-sprayed in gleaming white, to match his Gundam.
Alexander was pleased by the sight, as he followed at Andreas Darlton's shoulder, Villetta Nu behind him. The General had come to inspect the new squadron before loading, and Alexander desperately hoped that he would find it to his liking. He had done his best, but a week was simply not enough time to turn mismatched platoons into a company, but he had at least made a start. If not on the training ground, their comradeship would have to be born in battle.
Hopefully without losing too many of them in the process.
The review was going well thus far. The Glaston Knights, as A Platoon, stood in pride of place at the right of the line. They could be relied upon to know how to behave, and Alexander could see the pride in Darlton's eyes as he passed his adoptive sons. Next was B Platoon, consisting of six leftovers of Cornelia's royal guards. Darlton probably knew them better than he did, or so Alexander thought.
What really made him nervous was C Platoon, formally known as the Special Honorary Foreign Legion. Newly-promoted Lieutenant Soma Peries stood at their right; her face suitably impassive, her long silver hair still arranged in that cross-hatched style over her crown, just as it had been when he saw her last. Next to her stood Sancia, who with her long black hair and shapely figure was the most mature-looking of the platoon, though she was only about the same age as Soma. Lucretia was next, her hair long and curly, her pretty face somewhat melancholic. Next was Alice, with her long blonde pigtails, and then Dalque, her skin somewhat darker than the others, her short hair cut in a bob.
As Darlton approached them, Alexander prayed that nothing bad would happen. Despite Soma's efforts to get them under control, they were a prideful and boisterous lot. Alice was the best of them, but Dalque was the worst of all. Alexander was not surprised to learn that it was she who had attacked him first, and he dreaded the thought of her causing trouble in front of the General. His heart slowed in relief as Darlton passed them without incident.
His inspection done, the General strode away from the line, then turned to face them. Alexander and Villetta took their places at his side, waiting for his pronouncement. Darlton scanned his eyes over the company one last time, his face appropriately grim.
"You are ready," he said, his voice raised, but not quite a shout. "As ready as circumstances will permit. I would have had you train longer, but we are out of time."
He paused. Alexander felt his heart beat faster. He had a feeling he knew what was coming.
"You have heard that relations with the European Union are deteriorating," Darlton went on. "I say to you that relations with the European Union are dead." He paused, letting it sink in.
"The order has been given. Politics and the press no longer matter. At twenty-one hundred hours tonight, the floatship Radiant will leave this base to join a task force gathering to the north. You will receive further orders then." Another pause.
"Make no mistake! Within days we will be at war! It will be a war like no other! It is a war that was pre-ordained in history, a war that is and always was inevitable! You will fight in it! And you may not survive it! But first and foremost, you will fight in it, and you will give it your all!" He drew in a sharp breath.
"Long live the Emperor! All hail Britannia!"
"Long live the Emperor!" the company roared back. "All hail Britannia!"
"God be with you all!" Darlton turned to Alexander and Villetta. "Carry on Major!"
"Yes sir!" Alexander nodded to Villetta, who stepped forward.
"Company! Fall out! Get your knightmares ready to move!" As the company snapped to their duties, Darlton turned to face Alexander.
"How was my speech?" he asked. The old twinkle was back in his eyes. "Grandiose enough?"
"It was fine sir." Alexander felt profound pleasure at seeing him again, especially now that he had dropped the formality.
"I meant what I said though," Darlton went on, smiling. "You did about as well with this lot as anyone could. Princess Cornelia would be proud of you."
"Thank you…sir." The compliment warmed his heart, but to hear his princess mentioned was still a wrench. "Sir, is there any news? Anything it all?" At the question, Darlton's smile faded.
"I'm afraid not, Major." He gestured for Alexander to walk with him. "I've been in touch with some…old friends in the OSI. They're pretty sure she's still alive, but even they've got nothing. If she is alive, then she's dropped off the world."
Alexander's face fell, as did his heart. For a moment he'd dared to hope that his old comrade had actually found something, some small indication that his princess was still alive. He knew it was wrong to hold Darlton to such an expectation, especially considering he had done nothing about it himself, but he couldn't help the way he felt.
"Don't despair lad," Darlton said, his tone reminding Alexander of the old days, the happy days. "My feelings haven't changed. Until I see the body, she's not dead."
"Yes sir, likewise."
"That's the way to do it." Darlton smiled again. "Incidentally, they're attaching your squadron to my new division, the 195th, so you'll be under my command again."
"Yes sir," Alexander replied. "I'm glad of it sir." And he was.
"Don't be glad just yet," Darlton quipped, chuckling. "We're in 12 Corps. We're getting Arthur Goodman."
"Goodman?" Alexander looked quizzical. "I've never heard of him."
"And a good thing too." Darlton laughed. "But don't worry about it, I can handle him." He straightened up.
"I'd better get going." He saluted. "I'll see you on the Radiant, Major Waldstein."
"Sir!" Alexander returned the salute, and watched him stride out of the hangar. He glanced back towards his squadron, who were in the process of moving their knightmares towards the cargo elevator.
In a few days, he would be leading them into battle. Their lives, their deaths, were in his hands.
His responsibility, and his alone.
"Major Waldstein sir!"
Alexander turned around as the cry disturbed his reverie. He saw an officer in subaltern blue striding across the hangar floor towards him.
"Yes lieutenant?" he replied, as he made out the man's insignia.
"A packet for you sir." The lieutenant held out a small parcel. Alexander took it, and saw that it carried a priority stamp.
"Who sent it?" he asked, wondering who on Earth would be sending him a parcel at a time like this.
"Unstated sir," the lieutenant replied briskly. "But the priority stamp was applied on the authority of Earl Asplund."
Alexander was even more surprised by the revelation. He had met Lloyd Asplund more than once, but could think of no reason why the so-called Earl of Pudding would want to send him a packet. He dismissed the lieutenant, then opened the packet.
His eyes widened as a pendant slid out onto his open palm. It was a horse rampant, carved from ivory, hanging from a silver chain. He stared at it, marvelling at its simple beauty, and wondering what Earl Asplund could have meant by sending it. Was this another one of his pranks?
He looked inside the packet again, and found a folded note. He pulled it out and opened it.
My dear Sir Alexander
You're probably wondering why you've just received this little gift in a priority packet from Earl Asplund. You'll also be relieved to know that he did not in fact send it; I'm pretty sure he doesn't like you that way. Although this means owing him a small favour, upon which he will doubtless collect in the most inconvenient and embarrassing way he can think of, I thought it worthwhile.
Also, make sure you read the other note. It's vitally important that you do, lest there be unfortunate if amusing misunderstandings.
Your unsuspected friend
This was becoming very bizarre very quickly. Who would Milly want to help so badly that she would seek a favour from a fiancée she supposedly despised?
Was it her?
Alexander scrabbled inside the packet, and sure enough there was a second note. He opened it, heart pounding.
I know this is presumptuous of me, and I'm sorry if I offend you, but please accept this gift. I spotted it in a shop one day, and it made me think of you. It isn't much, but it's all I have to offer you. It carries all my feelings, and my hopes. I understand if you can't accept it, but I hope with all my heart that you can.
Please be careful, and come back safe.
Alexander stared at the letter, reading it over and over again. No, he hadn't been seeing things. He held up the pendant, letting it hang before his eyes, seeming to dance in the air before him.
Tuileries Palace, Paris, EU
In the ballroom of the Tuileries palace, the mood was festive.
Illuminated by the glow and glitter of crystal chandeliers, the guests mingled and chattered in small groups, served drinks by uniformed waiters, serenaded by a string quartet. They dressed in the manner currently fashionable among the European elite; sleek tuxedos for the men, figure-hugging dresses for the women. An observer would look in vain for the flowing ball-gowns currently fashionable in Britannia.
There was one figure that stood out, however, both in her dress and her behaviour.
Leila Malkal should by all rights have been a great success. Golden hair billowed down her back, and a finely-formed, almost doll-like face was perfected with eyes coloured a pale purple. Between that and her slim figure, she had the looks to be a success in any ball, reception, or soiree anywhere.
There were two factors that prevented this, at least in this case. One was her mode of dress; the blue and red uniform dress jacket of the EU's state forces, the insignia of a Major emblazoned on her left lapel, curiously combined with a ruffled skirt of black silk. To some in the hall the outfit was a calculated statement, a rejection of their notions of civility. The other factor was her general manner. Instead of mingling and seeking their attention, she leaned against the wall, her eyes fixed on a small book, giving off an air of boredom.
Their impression was correct. Leila Malkal was indeed bored rigid. She had little use for such events, and wondered why her superiors had browbeaten her into attending.
Of course her wondering was only rhetorical. She knew the real reason why.
Leila glanced across the hall, to the hubbub at the opposite end. The centre of attention was a certain Kaname Ougi, accompanied by the First and Third Consuls, looking very awkward in white tie and tails. That was only to be expected, having been sworn in as Prime Minister of the newly-formulated Japanese government-in-exile only a few hours earlier. Guests clustered around him, many of them Japanese or at least south-east Asian in appearance, clamouring for his attention, his favour.
Leila was not inclined to spit, or to throw tantrums. But she knew what sort of people they were, and why they were doing it. They were Japanese, some of them by birth, but all of them possessed of European citizenship. They were those who had managed to stay out of the refugee system, whether by dint of money, connections, marketable skills, or simply knowing how to play the system. Now here they were, surrounding this new symbol of Japan's hope of liberation, as if by being near him they could reaffirm themselves as loyal Japanese, convincing themselves that they hadn't sold out.
It was almost enough to make Leila want to spit. She didn't blame Ougi at all, in fact she pitied the poor man for the hole into which he'd been dumped. And she supposed she shouldn't condemn the hangers-on around him; it was human nature to try and survive, and that was all they had done.
Except she knew, only too well, how the other half lived. In the Wyvern corps there was no escape from it.
"You know," said a voice nearby. "No one's going to talk to a girl who reads Guibert at a party."
She looked up, and saw Lieutenant Akito Hyuga standing there, holding two tall glasses containing what looked like fruit juice. Her companion's presence was a clear reminder of precisely why the higher-ups had wanted her there. It was a show of unity, a display that all was going to be well.
After all, the refugees had a government-in-exile now, didn't they?
"So even Lieutanant Hyuga has a sense of humour," she commented, closing the book and taking a glass from him.
"It's my first time at the Tuileries palace," Akito went on, turning to look out over the hall. "As I expected, it's an elite event."
"As if it could be anything else." Leila sipped her drink. "Did you get a word in edgeways with the new Prime Minister?"
"No, Major," Akito replied stiffly.
"Oh?" Leila glanced at him. "I would've thought you'd at least want a glimpse of the princesses up close."
The princesses she referred to were Colette Sant-Clare and Kaguya Sumeragi. Standing near enough to Ougi as not to upstage him completely, they nevertheless totally outshone him. If Leila had read him correctly, he didn't mind one bit.
"No Major," Akito replied again. "I…don't belong near them."
Leila wanted to object, but it was pointless. She knew Akito too well to try and talk him out of it.
"Well if it isn't Major Malkal!" called a familiar voice. Leila looked up, wondering who had spoken.
"C…Colonel Mannequin! Colonel Kujo!" she spluttered as Kati Mannequin and Leesa Kujo slid through the throng to meet her. Unlike her state army blue, their uniforms were EUROFORCE grey.
"Relax Major," Leesa insisted, smiling indulgently. "We didn't mean to disturb your evening."
"Not all Colonel!" Leila protested, before remembering to lower her voice. "Oh, this is Lieutenant Akito Hyuga, of my unit." Akito could not salute with a drink in his hand, but he snapped his heels together and nodded respectfully. "But, what brings you here?"
"We heard you'd had this duty foisted on you," Kati commented dryly, "and we came to offer our former underclassman moral support."
"Um…thank you Colonel." Leila did not dare look at Akito. "Oh, Colonel Kujo, I heard a few days ago about your new command. Congratulations."
"Don't congratulate me yet," Leesa quipped, smiling awkwardly.
"And don't act like that," Kati retorted. "The post of Castellan isn't to be sneezed at, and Castellan of Santiago even less so."
"I know, I know," Leesa soothed, holding up her hands to placate Kati. "I'm just surprised they gave it to me, especially after what happened in Japan."
"Respectfully Colonel," Leila spoke up. "I believe they've made the right decision."
"Oh." Leesa smiled again. "Thank you, Leila. And I should congratulate you too. You seem to be doing well in the Wyvern Corps."
"Well…" Leila faltered, blushing as she smiled. She did not notice Akito watching her closely through the corner of his eye.
"I see Colonel Tohdoh has turned up," Kati commented, glaring across the hall towards the cluster around Ougi. Leila followed her line of sight, and there indeed was Kyoshiroh Tohdoh, clad in a dark green dress uniform, surrounded by similarly-dressed officers of the Free Japanese Army. The look on his face could have curdled milk.
"I heard there was a mutiny in Magadan," she commented, turning back to the colonels. "Was it resolved then?"
"Yes, just after Lady Kaguya's speech," Kati replied. "Of course, that means he's here too."
Leila wondered who she meant, and then saw a red-haired man with his arms around two young ladies, with several more clustered around in a twittering throng. He appeared to be thoroughly enjoying himself.
"Leila!" called a voice from somewhere nearby. "Leila Malcal!" Leila glanced around, and saw two men emerge from the throng, both of whom she knew very well. Her brother Daniel, of middling height and ever-widening girth, and her brother Stefan, a head taller and bamboo-thin. Both were in a remarkably good mood, considering the circumstances.
"You should've told us you were coming!" admonished Daniel. "It's been a year since we saw you last."
"It's been a while Daniel, Stefan," she greeted them as they approached.
"Leila!" Daniel groused, though the affection in his eyes took the edge off it. "Why are you wearing that outfit to such a great party? Don't be so boorish, dear."
"This is my best outfit," Leila retorted waspishly. "Besides, you're insulting my friends here." She gestured to the colonels and Akito.
"Oh!" Daniel looked panic-stricken. "I do apologise, uh…"
"Colonel Mannequin," Leila introduced them. "And Colonel Kujo. And this is Lieutenant Hyuga."
"I'm so sorry," pleaded Daniel. "I meant no offence, really!"
"It's all right," Leila reassured him, embarrassed. "But…what are you two doing here?"
"Mother sent us," Stefan explained. "She's hoping we can get them to go easy on father."
"Oh it's terrible!" Daniel wailed. "Leila, you were right to distance yourself!"
"Why?" Leila asked, suddenly concerned. "What's happened to father?"
"He's gotten himself arrested, that's what."
Leila shivered at the sound of that voice. She turned, and saw a young man with long, curly brown hair approaching, accompanied by two thinly-clad young women. There was a smile on the young man's face, but Leila knew what was behind it.
"Johann..." She felt something icy cold wrap around her stomach. Why, oh why did it have to be him?!
"Oh my, I seem to be in soldier's corner." Johann Malcal laughed briefly at his own joke, then disentangled himself from the two women and stalked rather unsteadily up to Leila. He had never been able to hold his liquor.
"Not that I have a problem with it," he drawled, leering at Kati and Leesa in a way that made Leila want to sink into the floor. "Oh, and you've hooked up with an Ele…oh, where are my manners, Japanese lieutenant!"
"This is Lieutenant Hyuga," Leila said, trying to stay calm. "My bodyguard."
"A pleasure, mister bodyguard." Johann gave Akito a bow that was as insincere as it was extravagant. "I am Johann Malcal, third son of the Malcal family, and Leila's older brother...by adoption."
"An honour, sir." Akito bowed stiffly, and Leila wondered how on earth he could keep his composure in the face of someone like Johann.
"Wanna hear a funny story?" Johann smirked. "She's my fiancée."
Leila's stomach clenched. She didn't like to think about it at the best of times, but for them to hear about it!
"Johann…" Daniel pleaded, to no avail. Kati and Leesa looked at Johann as if he were something scraped from the sole of a boot.
"That old fool thought he could curry favour with the beast!" Johann went on. "So he made her my fiancée, so that they'd make him a noble when they take over!" He let out a nasty, snickering laugh. "And then he got too close to that idiot Dressler, and now he's dumped us all in the shit pit!"
"Johann please!" Daniel wailed. Some of the guests had noticed the altercation, and were turning their heads to listen. Johann let out a snarl, and shoved Leila back. She dropped her glass, and tried to regain her balance. But Johann grabbed her by the chin and leaned in close. His breath stank of liquor.
"The thought of marrying you turns my stomach," Johann growled. "I fucking hate Britannians."
"Johann!" Daniel and Stefan darted in and grabbed Johann by the arms, hauling him away. "Johann stop it!"
"That's right!" Johann exclaimed, his eyes bulging. "I'll make you my mistress! It suits you Leila!"
Deep inside Leila, something was about to snap. She clenched her fists as her fury rose. She hated Johann, more than she had ever hated anyone else. In that moment, she wanted nothing more than smash his face in.
But Akito was faster. He sauntered forward, and up-ended his drink at Johann, soaking his expensive jacket and shirt.
"Oh," he said, "I'm sorry." Leila's rage turned to fear as Johann rounded on Akito, murder in his eyes. Daniel and Stefan backed away. They knew what was coming as well as she did.
"You…!" He arched his back, drawing back his fist. "You…!" Leila opened her mouth to cry out.
And then a grey blur flashed in front of Johann, as Kati and Leesa barrelled into his shoulders and drove their fists into his stomach. Johann slumped against them, the breath knocked out of him, his tongue lolling.
"Oh dear!" Kati quipped. "Monsieur seems to have had a little too much wine. Please excuse us Leila." They started towards the main door, hauling the semi-conscious Johann between them. Behind them Leila stood still, shaking a little, until Akito grabbed her hand.
"Let's go, Major Malcal." He hauled her off towards the verandah.
"Garcon!" Kati called as they reached the door. Two waiters hurried up and took Johann from them. As they turned to leave, Kati leaned in close to one of them.
"Do me a favour," she whispered, slipping a wad of banknotes into his breast pocket. "Dump him in the river, somewhere where he won't drown."
"As you please madame." And Johann was hauled off.
"Good thing we didn't bring Patrick," Kati commented. "Or we'd have a brawl on our hands." Leesa nodded in agreement.
Out on the balcony, Leila and Akito sat at one of the tables. Akito had brought two more drinks, and thought the January night was cold the floor heaters kept them warm.
"Lieutenant Hyuga," Leila began awkwardly. "Why did you…help me?"
"Because I don't like that guy," Akito replied plainly. "He was humiliating you for no good reason."
Leila regarded him for a moment. With his spiky blue hair, the bangs hanging over his wide, curiously blue eyes, his high cheekbones and tapering chin, Akito was more than tolerably handsome. She had to stop her train of thought from continuing along that particular route. Even if she had the time for a relationship, he was still a subordinate, and there were strict rules about that kind of thing.
"Besides," he went on. "It was those two colonels who helped you, not me."
"Even so…" Leila trailed off, not sure what to say without giving him the wrong idea.
"Those two," Akito said, after a short pause. "They were your...senpai?"
"Oh…yes" Leila replied, mentally translating the word. "In the Strategos Corps. I was the youngest when I studied under them."
"If you were in the Strategos Corps," Akito went on, "why didn't you enter EUROFORCE? Your grades were more than good enough."
"How do you know about my grades?" Leila asked, suddenly suspicious.
"Captain Clement told me."
"Anna!" Leila hissed. "She's such a loudmouth!" She wasn't much surprised that her old friend had blabbed, but it annoyed her all the same. Then she saw Akito, and realised he was waiting for an answer.
"I…" She sighed. "Strange as this might sound, I wanted the Wyvern Corps."
"Because of us?" Akito looked down at his drink. "You felt sorry for us."
"It's not that!" Leila protested. "Well, it's not…" She trailed off again, trying to compose herself. Would he be angry with her if he knew how she felt? Did he feel slighted?
"You don't have to apologise," Akito said, without looking up. "If that's your honest feeling, I can accept it."
Leila looked down, even more confused than before.
"I did it because…because I knew that it wouldn't be handled right otherwise. You deserve better."
She blushed at her words, realising how he might interpret them. Akito continued staring at his drink for a while, then looked at her again.
"You're friends with Captain Clement?"
"Yes, since we were children, when the Malcals adopted me." Leila paused, knowing the question in his eyes, and realised there was little point in denying it. "Apparently my parents were Britannian aristocrats. They never told me why they were living in Europe. I was only a child when they died."
Another long pause. Behind them the soiree carried on, the sounds muffled by the walls and windows.
"It's all right," Akito said, out of the blue.
"You don't have to be ashamed of yourself, or your reasons." Akito's tone was strangely gentle. "They're no worse than anyone else's." He leaned back in his chair, staring up at the moon.
"What a happy-go-lucky bunch," he mused. "Talking about bloodlines and wealth, currying favour, working out what they can get out of all this." His mouth suddenly split into a demonic smirk, making Leila shiver. He held up his glass to the crescent moon, staring up at it.
"Shall I erase it for you? This whole world?"
Floatship Radiant, over Hokkaido
The men and women of the 291st Squadron leapt to their feet as General Darlton strode into the room.
"Take your seats," he said, as he reached the front podium. There was a rumble as the devicers sat down. Alexander watched Darlton intently as he tapped at the podium's keyboard.
"The war begins tomorrow, and we're going in with the first wave," Darlton began. The screen behind him came online, showing the Kamchatka peninsula in intricate detail, with EU unit deployments marked out in red icons.
"Your target is here." The map zoomed in on an area of northern Kamchatka, very close to the border between Kamchatka Krai and Chukotka Okrug. "Our target is a prison camp, and the military facilities attached to it. We don't know for certain if the camp is still in use, but OSI thinks it might be, and that there are valuable prisoners inside."
He zoomed the map in again, showing the prison camp, a small base, and the terrain around it.
"You'll drop at 0400 hours tomorrow morning, accompanied by an Alpha Force detachment. They'll be responsible for securing the camp and processing any prisoners found within. Their mission is secret, so do not contact them, interfere in their mission, or concern yourselves with them in any way. Your primary mission is to neutralise the base, after which support units will land to resupply you. From there, you will contribute to the campaign against Magadan. Are there any questions?"
"Good. I knew I could count on you. Use the time until then to get some rest. If you want to contact anyone, do so within the next hour and no later. Dismissed!"
With the briefing over, Alexander strode out of the room and headed straight back to his quarters. If he didn't do it now, he might not get another chance.
Once inside, he sat at his desk terminal and keyed for the comm. Setting it to video mode, he dialled for Ashford Academy.
"What're you doing?!" Alice demanded, staring over Dalque's shoulder at the monitor screen.
"Getting back at our so-called commander!" Dalque retorted, her fingers flying over the keyboard. "He's gonna regret trashing my Alpha!"
"Dalque no!" Lucretia protested. "You'll get us all in trouble!"
"Aw lighten up!" Dalque had a mad grin on her face. "What're they gonna do? They need us, remember?"
"Dalque, this isn't just some prank!" Alice barked. "You're gonna end up on a charge if they catch you!"
"Quit being a wet blanket! You wanna know who he's calling don't you?"
"What if it's his father?!" Alice snapped. "Do you know what the Knight of One'll do to us if he catches us hacking his call?!"
"It won't be him!" Dalque insisted. She half turned to glance at them, a mischievous gleam in her eyes. "It'll be his girlfriend!"
"He has a girlfriend?" Lucretia asked. "It's the first I've heard of it."
"I'm sure he's got one!" Dalque went on, returning her attention to the screen. "Man, there's like no extra security in here! I never would've thought he was that naïve!"
"Or maybe," Alice groused, "he's not used to random idiots trying to hack his calls when we're supposed to be at war!"
"If you don't wanna see it, you can just go!" Dalque retorted. "I'm getting dirt on him whether you like it or not!"
"Why can't you just live with it?" Lucretia pleaded. "He beat you, and that's that."
"He didn't have to trash my Alpha!" Dalque snapped. "Besides, it wasn't a fair fight! He had some fancy-pants tech-demonstrator!"
"What the hell's going on in here?!" barked a voice from the door. Alice and Lucretia spun around, and saw Lieutenant Soma Peries standing in the doorway, Sancia beside her. Soma's face was hard, her eyes blazing.
"Uh…lieutenant…" Alice was in a panic . "We were just…!"
"I'm in!" proclaimed Dalque triumphantly.
"Dear sir Alexander!" Milly Ashford's image cooed. "How nice to hear from you again!"
"Miss Ashford," Alexander replied, trying to control his nervousness. "I don't mean to be rude, but…"
"She's right here!" Milly's face disappeared. For a few moments there came the sounds of someone being dragged across a room, and then Shirley was deposited in front of the screen.
"Oh! Sir Alexander!" Shirley blushed, and Alexander felt himself do the same. "I…it's so nice to…"
"Miss Fenette, I'll be going into battle soon," Alexander said, having decided to stick to the facts. "I wanted to thank you for this." He pulled out the pendant and held it up for her to see. "I was so happy to get it."
"Oh, it's nothing!" Shirley's face somehow went even redder, though she was smiling. "I know it's selfish of me, but I just wanted…well…I wanted you to think of me."
"It's all right." Alexander smiled back. He had never felt so good, so content, just seeing someone smile. "I'm glad of it. I want to remember you wherever I go."
"Oh…" Shirley looked away. "Sir Alexander…Alexander…There's something I…there's something…"
"What is it?" Alexander's heart hammered in his chest. "Please, tell me."
"I…I…oh it's nothing!"
Alexander blinked in surprise at her words. What had she been trying to tell him?
"Don't stop now!" exclaimed Milly from somewhere off-screen. "You can't just not tell him!"
"What?! What are you…?!" And then Shirley's words were lost in a cacophony of shrieks and giggles as a small horde of schoolgirls suddenly crowded around her.
"Sir Alexander!" one of them shrieked. "Shirley loves you!"
"She wants you to bang her!" cried another.
"No stop it!" Shirley protested, trying to fight them off. "This is…"
"She wants to ride you like a stallion!"
"You have to marry her!"
"Then marry all of us!"
"Can I be your mistress pretty please?!"
Alexander stared at the screen in horrified disbelief. Just what sort of education were those girls getting at Ashford Academy?
"Oh what a fairy tale is this!" bellowed a familiar voice over the comm. Now it was Alexander's turn to cry out in shock as a new comm-screen appeared next to Shirley's, bearing the grinning face of Andreas Darlton. The Glaston Knights were crowded in around him, wide grins on their faces. "A great and noble knight sees beauty in fair common heart and emerald eyes?"
"General Darlton!" Alexander yelled, his face burning with embarrassment. The Glaston Knights cheered and whooped.
"Major!" Another screen appeared, showing Alice of C Platoon, evidently in a blind panic. Behind her, an enraged Soma had a laughing Dalque in a suplex hold. "This was all a terrible misunderstanding! Dalque didn't mean to hack your private conversation! We don't know anything about your schoolgirl mistress!"
Alexander slumped in his chair, his mind a complete, traumatized blank.
(Finally done. I'm sorry that this took so long, but I've had a difficult and quite bad year. My muse returned with a vengeance just a few days ago, so I managed to rattle this off.
I know some of you would be hoping for more Alexander/Soran in this chapter. I'm sorry if there isn't enough, but I had to get this exposition done to set things up for the next chapters. Now that the war is just about underway, Alexander will take centre stage once again.
Of all of this, I have the least confidence in the last segment. I don't have much confidence in my comedy generally, so I apologise if this falls flat.)