Word Drama 04

Imperial Palace
Pendragon, Holy Britannian Empire
October 20th, 2017

It had been seven years since Milly Ashford had set foot in Britannia. Seven years since her family had been stripped of their nobility and their holdings and then exiled to the far east over their association to the late Empress Marianne. And now there she was, recently returned to her homeland, after so many years wondering if she would ever see it again. Many a night had she dreamed of simply setting foot on Britannian soil once more, breathing the air around her family's land, the Grand Duchy of New York, and along with all of it reuniting all the friends that she had left behind. And now, seven years later, it seemed as though that wish had finally come true.

Unfortunately however, it was far from the momentous occasion she had originally pictured. Very far.

She now stood in the middle of the Imperial throne room, alongside the rest of Ashford Academy's surviving student body, all of whom were dressed in their school uniforms as she had personally requested of them. The atmosphere was heavy, as the students around her fought to contain their fear; the Emperor himself had summoned them, or so the Letters Patent had claimed, and after the events of last September, many couldn't help but wonder if they had been brought to their own executions. It was nothing short of a miracle for many of them to stand there at all, much more keep their emotions in check, all the while they waited for His Imperial Majesty to appear and determine their fates.

The same could not be said for Milly however. Instead of quaking in her uniform like some others, she stood ramrod straight up, her hands at her sides and folded into fists. Instead of virtual tears running down her cheeks, her eyes were cold and hardened, appearing expressionless on the surface yet speaking of certain rage underneath them. And instead of the sounds of muffling or sobs escaping from her mouth, all that could be heard from her was breathing, near silent and completely controlled, not unlike that of a sleeping dragon. She was, for all intents and purposes, quite ready for the coming event, as well as entirely resigned to whatever Fate held for her.

Beside her, Rivalz and Shirley stood by her as always. They looked far less resolute than she had, with Rivalz looking far more nervous than he usually did and Shirley looking as though she were going to break down and cry then and there; after all, she was among those who had lost family, specifically her mother, in the events beforehand. But Milly knew better; no matter what would happen in the next few minutes, those two would always be there to stand with her and support her, just as they had upon the Student Council. Their devotion was beyond question, even if their current emotional standing was not.

That said however, it did deeply sadden her that they were the only members of the Student Council present. Lelouch had disappeared hours before the Black Rebellion had taken place, as did Nunnally not long into it; it was generally believed that they had perished during in the chaos of the rebellion, though Milly herself suspected otherwise. Kallen, after revealing herself as a Black Knight, had rejoined the fight not long afterward; like Lelouch and Nunnally, she too was believed to have been killed, whether in battle or by the sakuradite detonations. Nina, after her failure to detonate her impromptu atomic bomb, had been incarcerated somewhere aboard the Avalon and not seen since; Milly already had some ideas on what had happened to her, but she kept them to herself for the time being.

And as for Suzaku, the less said, the better. Milly felt her fury bubble under the surface just thinking about him.

"Presenting His Imperial Majesty!" announced one of the Imperial Guardsman, breaking Milly out of her thoughts.

Upon that call, the entire hall fell into a dreading silence as Emperor Charles entered. This was the first time that anyone in the Ashford student body, save for Milly of course, had seen the 98th Emperor of the Holy Britannian Empire in person; thus they were all immediately quelled by the presence of the most powerful man in the Empire, all the while keeping mind that their fates could and would be determined by this one man. It didn't help that he had not entered the throne room alone; beside him came Suzaku, dressed in the uniform of the Knights of the Round and displaying the blue cloak of the Knight of Seven. If any among the gathered felt relief at the former student's presence, it ended up being short lived when cast against the cold, emotionless gaze Suzaku gave out.

Even so, Milly remained undeterred. In fact, if anyone had been paying attention to her, they would have noticed that the intensity behind her own eyes had just tripled upon seeing the Emperor and his new seventh knight.

As soon as the Emperor took his seat, with Suzaku coming to his own place beside the throne, the same guard spoke out again. "Milly Ashford, approach the throne!" he ordered.

Silently, Milly followed the order, moving out from her place amongst the other students toward the center walkway, ignoring the fearful expressions of Rivalz and Shirley as she did so. Not unlike the convicted being presented at her own sentencing, she moved down the walkway, until she was just before the Emperor, who looked down upon her like a righteous judge. It didn't take much for her to remember that this was the same man who had, upon the death of Empress Marianne, stripped her family of its holdings, forcing them to seek exile in the Far East. Just as he was the same man who had cast out Lelouch and his sister over an childish but warranted outburst, one made by a nine year old boy still mourning his mother's demise.

For his part, Charles narrowed his eyes at the former aristocrat, the last direct scion of the once great House of Ashford. Despite the intensity that he cast down upon the granddaughter of Reuben Ashford, the former Grand Duke of New York, his expression was otherwise unreadable; he neither projected displeasure nor acceptance toward the young woman, yet at the same time his gaze was not one of indifference. The best anyone could claim was that he showed certain interest in Milly, yet not the kind one would expect from His Majesty; as opposed to the predatory fixation of a beast stalking wounded prey, which the Emperor often projected, he instead looked upon the woman with simple curiosity, almost as if he did not know what to expect from the newcomer (as impossible as it would have sounded). Obviously this only made everyone else all the more uncomfortable.

From there, the audience waited with baited breath. Whatever the His Majesty's intentions were, they would soon be finalized in the next few moments.

"…Kneel." came the Emperor's command.

Despite the command, Milly remained standing. His eyes narrowing further, the Emperor repeated his command. "I said kneel."

Milly then spoke up for the first time. "...No."

All of a sudden a bleak chill enveloped the throne room, as the sound of minute gasps emanated from the gathered; even Suzaku could not keep his eyes from widening at the former student council president's defiance. Responding automatically, the two flanking Imperial Guardsmen moved down and crossed their rifles in front of Milly; however, they withdrew as soon as their liege held up his hand, indirectly stating there was no need for that.

Now especially curious, yet somehow not showing any displeasure, the Emperor asked the apparent question. "Why?"

It was only then that Milly looked up to meet the Emperor's gaze, to which she no longer withheld her fury. For all of her bubbly eccentricity, Milly Ashford was a force to be reckoned with now. "One only kneels before his or her rightful ruler." she replied, fury echoing from her voice as well; even the Imperial Guardsmen couldn't help but feel shaken at its tremor. "I do not recognize you as mine, nor of those behind me."

"Milly, don't do this." Suzaku calmly pleaded, trying to save his friend before she sealed her fate. "Nothing will be gained from..."

"Shut up Suzaku!" Milly bellowed with such force that it broke through Suzaku's temperance, causing him to visibly recoil in shock. The withering glare that she cast over the Knight of Seven would have forced a lesser man to his own knees. "If you were as righteous as you pretend to be, you would be down here in my place!"

She then looked back at the Emperor. Once more, he kept his watch over her, projecting no forward emotion to her defiance, though at the same time he was not indifferent. She took that as an invitation to continue.

"Your Majesty..." she managed to say, resisting the urge to spit the title out like a poison. "...seven years ago you stripped my family, which has served the Crown since the time of Empress Elizabeth I, of its possessions and its honor, all for its association to the late Empress Marianne. By doing so, you forced us to leave the Homeland and venture to an unknown realm to start anew, in the hope of gaining whatever prosperity we could amidst our disgrace. To say those years were difficult would be an understatement, as many sacrifices were made in order to create Ashford Academy and keep it running through the years, especially in the aftermath of the Second Pacific War."

Her gaze grew even more intense. "During that time, I, along with the rest of family, had grown to hate this Empire and its rulership. For the first time in my life, I felt I had come to know what true hatred was, and though my family continued to labor under the belief that we could regain our nobility, I myself wanted absolutely nothing to do with that which had betrayed us and cast us out. As far as I was concerned, there could be no possible redemption for Britannia, and only out of obligation to my family did I make any effort in attempting to reclaim our peerage." again she looked to see if any emotion had entered the Emperor's eyes, and again she saw nothing. "For over seven years of my life, I had thought that would be the extension of my hatred. I believed I could not possibly come to hate you and your nation any more than I already had, just as I also believed that Britannia could not possibly do any more to earn my enmity than it had already done."

She took a breath before coming to the ultimatum. "But now, as I stand here before you, in the wake of all that has occurred..." she said, her voice now hollow. "...I realize just how wrong I was."

Now she was visibly trembling. "What you took then pales in comparison to what you took just over a month ago." she snarled, the hate even clearer now. "As much as that land and those titles were worth to my family, they're nothing compared to the loved ones you stole from these children before you!" she gestured out to the other students behind her. "Just how much of their families did you take from them!? How many fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters did you slaughter, all because you were about to lose one of your own possessions!?"

Her eyes narrowed further as her voice continually grew louder and louder. "How do you justify their deaths to them!?" she was now shouting, such that her voice echoed around the throne room. "Are you going to claim 'Britannia Marches On' just like you did at Prince Clovis' funeral!? Or that they deserved death, because they were too weak to survive several thousand kilometers of exploding sakuradite!? Or that they could not survive because they were too inherently 'different'!?" she then roared. "Tell me, Your Majesty!"

"That's enough Milly!" Suzaku shouted, just as the guards once more moved to seize Milly. Yet again the Emperor's hand raised, holding them back as well as silencing the Knight of Seven, who could only look back at the Emperor in surprise.

At that point, Milly could almost hear the voices behind her; the pleas of her students telling her to stop there, that she did not need to say any more. She could almost see the tears in Shirley's face as she tried to held it in, while Rivalz, his own feelings for her more apparent than ever, looked ready to charge in and shield her from the guards. Even Suzaku, despite all of his actions up to that point, looked torn between staying where he was or leaping down to his friend and protecting her from what would inevitably occur. Essentially, they all knew that if Milly said any more, she would no doubt be condemned to death; it was only a miracle that the Emperor had not ordered her summary execution at that time, for what reasons even she could not fathom.

But even so, they all overlooked one fact: Milly had nothing to lose. She was the last Ashford now, though it was not widely known; her grandfather had led the entire family to Japan in his quest to establish a new foothold there, and thus they had all been present for Operation Nero. With them, the only home she had known for the last seven years, as well as whatever possessions she had gained for herself, were gone. All she had left were those behind her, the select few students the Avalon had evacuated before the fire erupted, and though she knew they wanted her to live, she would rather die than let the Emperor go on without seeing firsthand their rage and loss. If her life was the price to pay for calling out the tyrant before her, then so be it.

It was only then that, much to her own dark amusement, she finally understood why Lelouch had done what he had done seven years ago, as well as how he had felt during.

That realization, as well as the Emperor's silence, allowed her to calm herself somewhat, though the rage still remained in her eyes. She continued. "As the Student Council President of Ashford Academy, as well as the granddaughter of its head administrator, I am both the representative and benefactor of these students; it was...it is my role to ensure their happiness and prosperity, just as it is your role to ensure the prosperity of your empire." she explained, inwardly wondering if Emperor Charles saw himself in that manner. "Thus, their loss, their pain, their sadness... They all fall upon myself to shoulder and bring before you, regardless of what the consequences may be...!"

A collective dread erupted from the students as they realized Milly was about to seal her fate. "For longer than I can remember, I have hated you and Britannia for myself." she went on. "Now...Now, I hate you even more, but this time I do so for them. Such that, I swear upon the Ashford name itself..." she seethed, her voice now low but still completely enraged. "...I will never forgive you!"

Her hand quickly balled back into a fist. "For them, I would set out to do what so many had attempted before me...!" she went on, continuing to ignore the silent please behind. "What the Romans, the Normans and the Spanish had failed to do...!" she emphasized. "What Napoleon Bonaparte and his European Union had nearly done...!" she could almost hear Shirley and Rivalz cry for her to stop. "What you feared Zero and the Black Knights would succeed in doing...!"

Even then, her eyes never flinched from the Emperor's. "I would...!" she let out, before letting out the ultimate declaration. "I WOULD DESTROY BRITANNIA!"

And so it was done. The words conveyed, the finality established and the silence ever deafening. Everyone knew what was going to happen next, much to their collective horror, as no man or woman could state such words before the most powerful man in the world and expect to be let off without retribution. Just as they also knew nothing on Earth or Heaven could save Milly Ashford from her impending fate now.

Once again however, Milly did not care. In fact, she took some inner solace in the idea that she would be reunited with her family soon. In such case, she only had two regrets: that she would be leaving those behind her to fend for themselves, and that she would never be able to respond to Rivalz's feelings for her. The latter especially stung her on the inside, as out of all the men she had known in her life (including Lelouch), he had been the only who had remained beside her throughout it all, such that his love for her was not only completely clear, but also beyond doubt. Even so, it was still something that she could accept along her trip to the afterlife.

I'm sorry... she thought, her mind hold a firm image of him behind her, still looking ready to charge the stage the moment the order was given.

However, the order never came, and several minutes of silence passed as a result. And then, at long last, the answer that all had been waiting on came in a completely unexpected form: laughter. With great force, the Emperor let out a laugh, one that began as a slight chuckle, but quickly built up into a roaring fit of jovialness.

Needless to say, a renewed form of astonishment embraced the room's occupants. Milly, who had just resigned herself to her fate, found herself completely unbelieving of what she was seeing before her, while Suzaku, still standing beside the throne, was completely aghast at his liege's response. Even the Imperial Guardsman were entirely unsure of what to make of His Majesty's sudden change in temperament.

And then, the Emperor finally spoke. "Well said." he exclaimed. "Well said, Milly Ashford."

Milly could only look on in shock, a response failing to form in her mouth. But that didn't matter, as the Emperor continued to speak. "Your power and will are completely undeniable, as well as a testament to your House. For however long Britannia has existed, no man, nor woman, has ever dared to speak such open words of defiance before its Emperor." he then smiled down upon her. "I can see why my son is so fond of you."

"Your son...?" Milly was finally able to mutter, still taken completely back. "...Lelouch?"

"Now..." Charles said as he got up from his throne, cape billowing as he did. "This part usually requires one to kneel..." he continued as he walked over to Milly, until he was directly overlooking her. "...but in recognition of your spirit, I will allow you to stand."

And so, before Milly could fathom what was going on, the Emperor proclaimed to the still unbelieving assembly. "I, Charles zi Britannia, by the Grace of God of the Holy Britannian Empire, Sovereign Head of the Dominion, Defender of the Faith, to all Lords Spiritual and Temporal and all my subjects. Whatsoever to whom these presents shall come greeting, know that I do advance and create Milly Ashford the style, dignity, title and honor of Grand Duchess of New York, and see to it that all titles, peerage and holdings previously held by the House of Ashford, past and present, be returned to her ownership."

A collective gasp rose from the assembled, as Charles again smiled down toward Milly. "I give back to you all that was lost seven years ago, Grand Duchess Ashford."

Milly could only remain aghast. What had just happened? Had she not spoke out against the Emperor, and all but proclaimed him a monster? Had she not declared her intention to destroy Britannia if she held power? And above all else, had she not resigned herself to die?

All at once, a sickening feeling akin to just being spat on came over her. For seven years, her family had dreamed of reclaiming their former dynasty, even going so far as to arrange a political marriage between her and Lloyd Asplund, the current Earl of Colchester, in order to gain some standing. Yet in all that time, they had made no progress; straight to the end that dream had been out of reach, with her family passing on with the rest of Area 11 as commoners. And now, in light of their collective pyre, alongside those whom Milly had just spoken of, did the Emperor finally deign to return to the Ashford family's honor.

Thus, she felt her rage return to her. "If you're trying to buy back my loyalty..." she started to seethe.

The Emperor was completely unfazed by that. "Your loyalty means nothing."

Again uncertainty crept upon Milly, though she kept her front. "Then why?"

"Why? That is not something you need to know." Charles repeated as he returned to his throne. He then gave off a dominating smirk. "All that matters is that I have returned what is rightfully yours Milly Ashford. Your titles, your land, your honor, all yours once again." that smirk grew even bolder. "You may do with them as you wish."

A crack soon appeared in Milly's mask, sensing there was some kind of underlying message there. "I don't understand..."

"You do not need to. Just accept what has been given to you." Charles said, as Suzaku took a step closer to the throne, the Knight of Seven's face once more impassive. "In return however..."

Suddenly, Milly and the others could only watch as the Emperor's eyes flashed red, a pair of bird shaped sigils appearing upon them. "...there is a price."