I blinked the fuzz from my eyes. Gottwald had awakened me sometime between two and three in the morning by candlelight. It was an ancient ritual that dated back at least to the New England Primer days, but no less annoying for it. I looked down and noticed an unpolished patch on my left shoe. Maria must have missed it in the dim lighting.
An equally annoying coach ride had followed. I rubbed my eyes and blinked. My father raised an eyebrow.
"Tired?" he said.
"Yes, if you must know."
The coach punctuated his recommendation with a jolt. Beams of sunlight streamed into my face through a gap in the curtains that Just. Wouldn't. Close. For the tenth time that morning, I found myself thinking back to silk sheets and a four-post bed with extremely thick drapes.
"The State carriages could have done with better suspension, Father."
The Emperor smiled ever so slightly.
"Think of it as preparation," he said.
I scowled and stuffed my head into a pillow. For the next several hours, I remained just conscious enough to notice how much the coach's vibrations ticked me off. My teeth rattled. The pillow didn't block the light, either.
I'd visited the countryside before in my capacity as Count of Essex. I had not, however, visited Dunwich. Gaslights flickered in the streets where electric lamps should have been.
The Dunwich Latin School – which, incidentally, did not teach Latin – was still a few miles away when we stopped at some local inn or other. Boys in top hats milled around the bar, eating hot potatoes and chaffing their fellows between bites. The barmaid smiled at my father. I scowled at the familiarity, but looked more closely just the same. She was old, I realized. I found myself wondering whether she had met him when –
He shooed me upstairs.
The room was nice enough, in a primitive sort of way. Jeremiah started the fireplace. The warmth reminded me just how frozen my feet had become. My father followed a few minutes later, newspaper in hand. He sat down. A wave of his hand signaled Jeremiah to wait outside, so he did.
We sat in silence while the fireplace crackled. My father kicked off his boots, and I mine. The chambermaid arrived a few moments later with our order: stout for my father, a bundle of coffee wrapped in crisp paper for me (and my growing migraine), and a plate of steak and oyster sauce for both of us. After presenting us with our meal, the servants also withdrew. Steam wafted between us.
"Well…" my father said.
"Well," I replied.
"You'll like it, I think."
I raised an eyebrow.
"Not immediately, mind," he added. "But you'll see the advantages eventually."
"What," I said, "you mean the satisfaction in fifty years of sending my heir off to the School-Where-Childhood-Goes-To-Die?"
The edges of my father's mouth twitched upward a smidgeon. He crossed his feet near the fire. His voice, as always, was slow and deliberate.
"My dear son," he said. "Children grow up so fast these days. One moment they're barely out of diapers, and the next they're plotting palace revolutions against you. Surely you wouldn't begrudge me a little sadisti—ahem—fatherly enjoyment out of watching these character-forming moments in your life?"
I chanced a smirk.
"It's all academic, Pater dear," I said. "Nunnally'll probably assassinate both of us."
He crinkled the newspaper and looked down at me.
"You still haven't forgiven her for putting a dress on your Napoleon doll, have you?" he said.
"Putting a dress on my Napoleon action figure!" I snapped. "And it was sacrilege, Father! Blasphemy of the—"
He sighed. I shut up.
"We don't speak about important things very often," he said. "But I intend to tell you something."
I admit that this surprised me. We'd often spoken about things that I'd counted as very important – wars, politics, the economy, and such. Not that he listened to my advice, but the point remained…
"I'm listening, Father."
"You are a very clever young man," he began.
I felt a sort of antsy sensation in my shoulders, and the urge to look down.
Well of course I'm-
"You're probably thinking right now that I've said something rather condescending," he said. "And, unfortunately, my statement comes with a corollary. You are also a very inexperienced young man."
'Experience': That catch-all category that magically invalidates every argument from people younger than twenty.
Something of this must have shown in my face, since my father frowned a bit. Not much, though. He folded his paper in his lap and crooked his finger for me to come closer. I pulled my chair forward. Its squeal on the floorboards seemed like the breaking of a spell.
The bubble returned a few moments later, when my father prodded the logs with a poker. The fire crackled and snapped, and the flames danced.
"How much do you know about your uncle Vivian?" he said. "Or your grandmother on my side of the family?"
"Only what you told me," I replied. "Mother won't speak about them."
His voice hardened slightly.
"You asked her?"
"Then I applaud her discretion," he said. "Lelouch, I won't go into details, because they are not necessary to make my point. I will say that my mother—your grandmother—and my brother…"
"My uncle," I acknowledged.
"Your grandmother and your uncle died in a very unpleasant succession crisis. Your joke about Nunnally a moment ago was a young man's joke. I do not begrudge it to you, but it had more truth than you might realize."
Again, he must have seen my expression, since his voice warmed a bit. He patted my shoulder.
"Oh, not in the way you're thinking," he said. "I don't mean that Nunnally would actually threaten your life someday. But she may need to take others' lives. And you, the heir to the Britannian throne, will need to take them. There is no question of that. You grew up too late to realize just how fragile Britannia is."
I couldn't entirely keep the skepticism out of my voice.
"And you want to make sure I don't change your empire too much."
"I want to make sure that you can rule your empire as you see fit when the time comes," he replied, tapping my shoulder with his finger at each enunciation. "…And that, my son and heir, is a very different thing."
He had these hypnotic eyes, my father. Deep, deep purple. You could lose yourself in them when the firelight flickered just right. I looked away.
He ruffled my hair.
"I attended Dunwich as a boy," he said. "My uncle rode with me in the same carriage we just did."
"Oh?" I said.
"When you finish your first term, we'll exchange stories."
"I…would like that."
"I thought so."
Father took the next few minutes to finish his drink, and then rose from his chair. It was not customary to hug each other at this point. We shook hands, and I dipped my head in a slight bow.
"You have your luggage?"
"You had best be off, then."
Jeremiah escorted me to the carriage for the remainder of the ride. The chambermaid fussed over me a bit before I closed the door, brushing off a coffee ground from my jacket and calling me a "little dear" or something equally stupid. My father remained at the inn. So did Jeremiah.
The coach ride that followed left something to be desired.
My breath froze into clouds every time I exhaled. Between them, the window and my velvet collar had given up the fight to the November air. I hadn't brought a blanket along, and my feet hung exposed from the edge of the seat. Not that I could feel my legs or anything. At least I'd sneaked some hot coffee into a thermos.
I listened to the horses' hooves ring on the cobbles for a while. Their harnesses jingled. I stole a glance out the window and watched steam rising from their heads. The wind soon persuaded me that this was a bad idea, and I closed the window soon afterward.
The coffee ran out before the cold did. Eventually, though, we got there.
The coachman's horn sounded for the final time.
I arrived at Dunwich Latin School at around seven in the evening, heavily caffeinated. The gates squealed when the guard opened them. I squinted and looked around. The fields, forests, and streams promised good hunting. Broken trees, visible even by moonlight, promised something else: knightmare skirmishes.
So this was Dunwich, then, the School of Schools. This was the place where the students ran businesses from their dormitories, where the average second-year could give you a summary of the Statute of Uses directly from Coke, and where at least five children each year broke their legs climbing trees. Two more, on average, drowned in the rivers annually.
More than half of the Knights of the Round had attended this place. Most of the Emperors had as well.
"Jump down, Highness."
Uh, yeah…about that…
I did my best. My legs had other plans, but the coachman steadied me before I toppled over. On the bright side, the jolt from my feet landing on the cobbles woke me up a bit.
Everything was gray. At first, I'd attributed it to the lighting, but I soon corrected myself. A gray chapel, gray schoolhouse, gray headmaster's building, and gray tower loomed over me in turn. The clip-clop of my feet echoed through the compound. A Britannian flag flopped and sagged from the tower's pinnacle. Its blue and faded red would have blended into the rest if it wasn't for the green of the serpent's skin that had somehow escaped weathering.
A boy ran to greet me. He looked about my own age, with blue eyes and fluffy blond hair. I noted a slight tan that suggested a lot more outdoor exercise than I usually indulged in.
There was something else, too. The boy didn't stand; he lounged. As soon as he was within speaking distance, he nodded to the coachman as if he was dismissing him. After a moment, I realized that he was doing just that: the coachman bowed and withdrew.
"Lelouch, I presume?" the boy said.
"Prince Lelouch, if you don't—"
"—mind? Not at all. Unfortunately, the Management does. 'Equality until earned' and all that."
I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes, and instead shook his hand.
"Lelouch it is, then," I said.
He graced me with a wide, imbecilic grin.
"Gino Weinberg," he said.
I could already tell that this was going to be a long day, and Gino spared no time or expense in lengthening it. My hat, it seemed, did not meet school standards. Unspoken horrors would surely befall me without a regulation hat. Fortunately for all involved, the Dunwich school compound contained a milliner's shop, which soon relieved Mr. Weinberg of his fashion anxieties and me of a sizable sum of money. I ended up with a shiny top hat, though I'd briefly considered purchasing a sequined white pillowy headdress just for spite.
I'll give Gino some credit, though: he knew how to make you feel welcome. I'm told on good authority that a Lelouch vi Britannia whose skin is tingling and eyelids are drooping after thirty-six hours awake is not an ideal companion. Nevertheless, Gino introduced me to the rest of the rabble as we passed through the courtyard. I did not attempt to strangle any of them. We reached the school-house hall a short time later.
The hall opened into a quadrangle perhaps thirty by eighteen feet. Enormous tables ran along each side of the room. Heat was provided by two fireplaces, one on each side, that several boys clustered around. They sat tailor-style, and their amusements were varied: cards, studying or debating stock purchases at the case might be.
One of the boys waved to Gino, but my guide brushed past them with a nod.
We entered a hallway with a shallow arch and precious little light save for a bare bulb. It looked rather like a bunker, but less comfortable. A row of doors lined the left side of the wall. Gino stopped at the fourth and ushered me in.
The term 'cell' sprang immediately to mind. It was about six feet by four feet, with barred windows. Thin plaster walls completed the ambience, and I could hear a video game blaring in the next room. ("Contraband", my host assured me. The staff would probably confiscate it as soon as they found out).
Aside from this, I noticed a hard couch, a backless wooden chair, and 19th century prints of John L. Sullivan (plus a couple racehorses) that hung on the walls. Their colors had faded quite some time ago. The paper had yellowed. A few books with titles like Basic Tactics and Wilson's Property lay on a bookshelf. Beside them were a chipped cup and a box of candles. If anything, the chill in my room was worse than outside.
"They forgot the mousetrap," Gino said. "I'll give you one of my spares."
"And then there's this," he said.
He reached into his jacket. I caught a glint of gold, and felt a flutter of adrenaline. At last, something I was familiar with.
"Your knightmare frame's key," said Gino.
I admit that my smile was genuine when I took it.
A bell chimed. Gino motioned for me to follow him.
As we walked, he explained the niceties of heating. The prefect had apparently fixed a pair of curtain rods near his door, and he drew the curtains closed at night to siphon the heat into his room. This left us with two options: we could freeze or build our own fires. The latter option was smoky. The former was incredibly uncomfortable.
We arrived at the dining hall, and I got the first good look at my classmates.
For all that Britannia boasts of its uniformity, we were a pretty diverse lot. Noblemen's sons from Area 2 brought bottles of sauce and pickles with them. A blond patch of children at the table across from me munched on bjúgu sausages that their parents must have sent from Area 5. The Area 3'ers accompanied their meals with hotter fare. In some respects, though, the various groups were alike. They all whispered, stole bread from each other, and shot one another with pellets whenever they thought their prefects weren't looking.
A few of them talked to me. I gave them the Cliffnotes version of royal upbringing, and they gave me brief synopses of their family trees, education, and so on. Standard high society nonsense. One of them hinted darkly about rumors that Dunwich would see its first female pupils this year. Shock. Horror. Gino winked and said that he hoped so.
At the head of our table, an older man with swept-back hair and a scar across his face watched the proceedings from behind the covers of Mahan's Influence of Seapower Upon History. His name was Andreas Darlton; I'd met him before my father had appointed him Headmaster. He rose from his seat. Conversations ceased.
"Stand!" he barked.
We did, and said grace.
The meal took a little under an hour. We mostly kept mum, but occasional whispers got through the prefects' surveillance. Mine was not among them.
We filed out around 9:30 – an early night by my standards, but I was ready to fall into a coma by that point. Gino tapped me on the shoulder.
"Um, Lelouch…d'you have an alarm clock?"
"Never mind," he said. "Get some sleep. I'll wake you up for it."
Gino closed the door. I did not sleep much that night, partly because of the cold.
A/N: The use of Dunwich, Massachusetts neither confirms nor denies the presence of Ancient Horrors aside from C.C. Also, Britannian history and society in this story may occasionally diverge from the background provided in Code Geass.