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Disclaimer: Code Geass isn't mine.

Beta'd by BigCC

"Kallen." - Speech

'Lelouch.' – Thoughts/mental communication

"{Die.}" - Geass Command

"Halt!" - Loudspeaker

"Roger." - Radio/Walkie-talkie

Chapter 37: Knight of Honour

Later That Day

Nobility's Morgue, Area 11 Administration Building

Reuben Ashford gazed down at the corpse of his only son, his face seemingly carved from stone. The forensic specialists in the Viceroy's employ had done a remarkable job sealing and concealing the two bullet wounds that had caused Roderick's death.

'At least he appears at rest now…' the elder head of the Ashford Family thought with a mental sigh, nodding tiredly at the attendant to once again cover his son's face. 'I'm sorry Roderick, I failed as your father. I can only hope that you find peace now wherever you are, free from the grasp of that woman at last.'

Turning around, he slowly began to head to the door where Sir Gilbert P. Guilford awaited him, the bespectacled man's head bowing slightly in sympathy.

"Lord Ashford, rest assured that the ones behind this heinous crime shall be found and they shall pay." the Knight of Honour stated respectfully.

"You have my thanks, Sir Guilford." Ruben responded calmly, before a small frown crossed his lips. "Sadly, I suspect that the ones responsible for the tragedy seven years ago also had a hand in the death of my son. From what I've learned about their servants' final declaration, it seems the only logical conclusion."

The younger man grimaced at that. "Yes, those are My Lady's thoughts on the matter as well. If it isn't an inconvenience, the Viceroy would like a moment of your time."

"By all means." the Head of the Ashford Foundation inclined his head. "Lead on, sir Knight."

A few minutes later, Reuben was ushered into the Viceroy's office. Cornelia was seated within, looking as she had been shouting at a lot of people for a long time and nursing a small tumbler of whiskey. The elder Ashford Head spied the bottle resting on her desk and quickly calculated how much the bottle had cost.

"Famous Grouse Whiskey, from before the Humiliation of Edinburgh no less? Even for someone of your means, Your Highness, that must have cost you quite the pretty penny." He offered as he strode forward to stand opposite of her desk.

"Reuben…" Cornelia merely rolled her eyes in exasperation, though a small, genuine smile crossed her lips at the familiar rebuke.

Reuben Ashford was never what anyone would call a teetotaller by any means, but he had never been one for particularly expensive libations, save for when celebrating a particularly special occasion. Anything from before 1807, the year of the Humiliation of Edinburgh, when Queen Elizabeth the Third was forced to abdicate the throne by a local revolutionary group in the city of Edinburgh, was priced high enough that he could fund several clubs in Ashford Academy for an entire year comfortably, and still have enough left over to cover any unexpected expenses.

Andreas Darlton stepped forward from where he'd been standing off to the side. "Lord Ashford, we are sorry to have to bring you here when you have just lost your only son, but it was deemed necessary when the ones who murdered both him and your daughter-in-law were servants in your employ." he offered professionally.

"Ah, to make a small correction, Sir Dalton, the servants in question were in fact originally in the service of the DeAmbury Family that Melisande brought with her when she married Roderick." Reuben responded amicably. "They were paid solely by Melisande through her and my son's allowance. They were restricted to their wing of Ashford Manor and rarely interacted with the rest of the staff, and specifically never with me."

"That sounds…oddly specific." Guilford responded cautiously.

"I do not trust my matters to those whose loyalties I cannot trust." Reuben answered calmly. "Melisande's servants were loyal to her alone, and that woman had never hidden her desire to see my son take control of the Ashford Foundation. For similar reasons, I can assure you that none of them had access to our armoury. I had my own security force run an audit of the mansion's armoury within an hour of learning what happened to them both, and they found no weapons missing. I would hope that you've had time to run the serial numbers of the murder weapons by this point. What have you managed to discover?"

"All of the weapons used were manufactured in Area 7, approximately four years ago." Dalton replied clinically. "They were used in various criminal acts across several different Areas before falling into police custody sometime last year. They apparently disappeared several months ago before suddenly reappearing in the hands of the servants that killed Melisande and Roderick Ashford."

"And precisely where did they go missing from, Andreas?" Cornelia asked with a scowl.

"The Tokyo Settlement's Central Police Station's Evidence Locker and Impound." Darlton replied with a dark frown. "We already knew that the Knightpolice were corrupt, with at least one Knightpolice Knightmare being sold on the black market to a set of Refrain Dealers working from within the Settlement before they were taken down in one of the Black Knight's raids, but we have never had reason to believe that corruption was just as rampant within the regular police force. Now that we do, and linked to a double-murder of members of an allied family of the Viceroy of an Area no less, I'll be sending my boys around to personally ask some questions as soon as Sub-Viceroy finishes her preparations."

"Very good, please make sure they let everyone involved know that I expect their complete cooperation with this investigation. Any attempt to maintain the so-called 'Blue Wall of Silence' with anything regarding this investigation will see the offender being conscripted into the Britannian Foreign Legion." The Viceroy stated firmly, making all the other occupants wince slightly. The Britannian Foreign Legion was the name given to the regiments recruited from the Number population of any given Area, as well as a place to conscript any commoner Britannians who had pissed off a member of the Imperial Family.

Their more common nickname of 'The Expendables' among the nobility told one all they needed to know of that tour of duty.

"So noted, Your Highness." her elder Knight confirmed.

"I believe I might be able to shed some light on how Melisande's servants came into possession of those weapons." Reuben put in with a grimace. "Since shortly after we arrived and began to establish ourselves, my idiot daughter-in-law began mingling with…upper echelons of Area 11's criminal element. I discovered it shortly after she began and kept tabs on her activities in order to both keep her in line and prevent her from doing anything…foolish. It's quite likely that she managed to use those acquaintances of hers in order to acquire the firearms you found on her servants. Though precisely why they were armed today is beyond me; although I would assume it has something to do with the fact that I was essentially banishing the both of them to the Okinawa Settlement without any proper bodyguards."

"Any information you could provide would be appreciated, Reuben." Cornelia said as she absently sipped at the small measure of flavourful liquid she'd poured herself.

"I'd anticipated as much." the elder industrialist smirked before reaching into his coat pocket and pulling out a thumb drive before handing it to Darlton. "I've made it a point to keep a backup of the information I'd gathered on Melisande's…friends on hand just in case someone, somehow managed to find their way into my computer system. I also have a secondary drive, one that contains the identity of a particularly big fish you might be interested in learning about. The identity of the Black King himself."

"…you managed to find him? My brother's investigations into the man have going on for five years and had been utterly fruitless up until his death." Cornelia responded flatly.

'And not for a lack of effort, surprisingly.' she added silently to herself. The Black King had been the only criminal that Clovis had actually put some effort into tracking down and executing during his entire appointment as Viceroy of Area 11, all to no avail. Though whether that was due to incompetence or corruption was something she was going to find out, and cure either way. Incompetents would simply be fired, while corruption would…excised. With prejudice.

"Melisande had whored herself out to the man in exchange for favours." Reuben spat out in disgust. "It was bad enough that she ground my son's spirit into the ground, but she also spat on their marriage vows to add salt to the wound. She will not be buried with my family; she will be sent back to the DeAmbury family for burial and her name stricken from my family's registry. The Black King's true identity is one Eduardo Royale; she'd secretly recorded a rather sordid and disgusting meeting between them before they 'consummated' one of their bargains. I kept it separate from the other information considering the…nature of her partner."

Pulling a second little device out of another pocket, he passed it directly to Cornelia, who eyed the small object in distaste.

"I'd advise keeping Princess Euphemia from listening to this one….its is both extremely explicit and utterly distasteful." the elder Ashford added disdainfully.

"So noted." Cornelia agreed with a mental note to have some anti-nausea medicine ready for when she listened to that particular file. "The Black King has been a particularly nasty parasite since shortly after Area 11 came under Britannian jurisdiction. We suspect that his hands were involved in quite a bit of the bribery, corruption, and blackmail that were rampant prior to my taking control of the Area's administration. While he's certainly no Zero, removing this particular piece of filth will be a very satisfying experience."

"Lord Ashford, can I ask what prompted you to abruptly exile your son and daughter-in-law?" Darlton asked.

"Melisande pulled a derringer on me yesterday afternoon." Reuben shrugged lazily, looking supremely unconcerned. "It was all well within my expectations. Our recent agreements have not only countered her most recent attempt to forcefully marry off my granddaughter in order to regain her noble title, but also ruined any chances of her placing her husband as the puppet head of the Ashford Foundation. I had two of my private bodyguards standing in wait to deadlock her when she tried while a third managed to sneak behind her and stun her with a taser. Some of the things she'd threatened during our brief stand-off were…unconscionable and removed the last of my patience with her attempts. I gave her a simple choice: accept a life in exile or be handed over to Her Highness for attempted murder. She chose to leave, no doubt already plotting some dastardly scheme to topple me, I'll wager."

"You should have just handed her over to me." Cornelia growled out, before sighing. "However, this does beg the question of why the person or persons responsible for this incident even bothered. All said, Roderick and Melisande had both been rendered non-entities in the Ashford Family; so was the timing merely happenstance, or was this meant to send a message of some kind?"

"I noticed something odd while reviewing the footage and audio transcripts from the airport's security." Guilford put in. "There was a sudden shift in the way these men and women were moving after they overheard a tannoy call from an 'Alan Spacer' regarding a call from a 'Sue Donym.' Before they called, they moved as normal civilian workers, but immediately afterwards all of them began moving with a cohesion closer to a military unit, even their body language shifted dynamically. I…I believe that they had been turned into sleeper agents of some kind."

"What? Like through some form of brainwashing or hypnotism of some kind?" Cornelia scoffed. "That kind of brainwashing takes time, and hypnosis can't affect people like that."

"I would ordinarily agree, except for the fact that, according to the call-logs of the terminal, there was no call for an 'Alan Spacer', nor did anyone call and give the name 'Sue Donym'." the bespectacled Knight stated, adjusting his glasses with one hand. "If you think about it, 'Sue Donym' is 'Pseudonym', a word meaning 'a fictitious name'. Whoever is doing this wasn't even bothering to invent a non-suspicious name. They're taunting us, Your Highness!"

That actually caused a fierce scowl to cross the purplette's face. "They mock me, while killing members of an old ally's family…Guilford, I want security stepped up in all seaports, airports, airfields and checkpoints, at once! Everyone is to be swept for weapons, regardless of noble status! Unless they have papers permitting them to carry concealed, any sign of any weapon on their person is an offence warranting being detained!"

"Yes, Your Highness!"

"Darlton, you're in charge of sorting through the information Reuben has provided us with today, and I want you personally planning and leading the raid to bring the Black King into custody as soon as possible." Cornelia ordered, turning to address her other Knight. "I want any of these noble parasites that have managed to escape Zero and my sister's notice arrested yesterday! With both the Black Knights and the Neo Shinsengumi causing havoc, not to mention these mysterious assassins lurking in the shadows, the last thing we need is some lowly criminals causing trouble or aiding and abetting these threats in any manner. By removing the Black King from play and putting his organization to the sword, we can force the rest of the criminal element into hiding while we deal with the actual threats."

"I'll have a plan ready for your approval inside of the week, Princess." the veteran Knight nodded grimly.

"How is Millicent handling everything, Reuben?" the Viceroy asked, recalling the younger girl who'd already been through a great deal recently.

"She is…conflicted, Your Highness." the old industrialist offered with a bone-weary sigh. "On the one hand, her parents are dead and that brings up several natural reactions. On the other hand, neither my son nor Melisande were anything close to good parents for my granddaughter. Melisande treated her more as a commodity than a person, and Roderick was a practical nonentity in her life. She has referred to them several times as her 'sperm donor' and 'uterine receptacle', so her feelings for them were ambivalent at best. Honestly, she's more upset about how Roderick's death is affecting me, rather than actually mourning either of her parents."

"'Uterine receptacle'?" Cornelia chuckled grimly in response. "I must remember that one for the next I speak of mother."

Victoria li Britannia, the woman who had birthed both Euphie and herself, had been, at best, an indifferent parent. At worst, she had utterly ignored the existence of her daughters unless she could find some benefit or use for them. She was the Fourth Imperial Consort, with Cassandra eu Britannia, Sistine el Britannia and Elisabet de Britannia being the First, Second and Third Consorts respectively. Cornelia had been raised by maids, but had loved her sister the instant she had seen baby Euphemia, so had raised her with the help of maids.

With that taken into account, 'uterine receptacle' was an apt term for Victoria, and indeed for Melisande.

"Princess, if I may, I'd beg a favour of you." Reuben suddenly asked, bowing forward. When Cornelia curiously waved him continue. "Given Sir Guilford's word about the possibility of sleeper agents, I intend to have a thorough vetting of all of my remaining staff and employees. I will be prioritizing those who work directly with myself, and who have access to or are employed at either Ashford Manor or the Academy, but it will still likely take the better part of a week to complete. I would humbly request that you offer my granddaughter sanctuary within the Administration Building until I can confirm that we have no more vipers in our midst."

Cornelia quickly gave a sharp nod of agreement. "Of course, Reuben. You son died on my watch; ensuring your granddaughter's safety while you clean house is the least I can do as an apology. And I'd dare say Euphie would enjoy having an old friend nearby for a time, I'll even arrange neighbouring rooms so both can benefit from the added security."

"You have my thanks, Your Highness." Reuben responded with a bow. "Ah, there's one other matter. Lord Jeremiah has finished his preliminary testing and has managed to score an 83% sync ratio in the Galeschin without any adjustments. Once we have fully loaded in his combat data and made the suitable adjustments to the Frame, my experts are expecting him to reach at least a 92% ratio. That should be done within the next two days."

"Excellent, quick and efficient work as ever." Cornelia nodded, a grin on her lips. Another reason she preferred working with professionals over eccentrics like Earl Asplund.

"Your praise is ever appreciated, Milady." Reuben replied proudly with another short bow. "Might I ask how long it will take for my son's body to be released into my custody? Arranging a proper burial without a body is a tedious affair."

Cornelia gave a brief look and nod to Guilford, who quickly answered in her place. "I believe the coroner should be finished by the end of the day. I will personally see the body sent to the Ashford Mortuary before midday tomorrow at the latest."

"Thank you, Sir Guilford." the industrialist nodded politely to the younger Knight. "Then it's best I return home and start making arrangements. I wish you all a good day."

"And to you Reuben." Cornelia returned, allowing the elder industrialist to bout face and leave the room at an easy walk.

"Poor fellow." Darlton shook his head in sympathy. "Roderick might have been a disappointment, but he was still his son. No father enjoys outliving their children, and now the Ashford Family is down to just him and young Millicent.

"Just another reason to ensure nothing happens to her under our watch." Cornelia responded firmly. "Have one of your boys run both her and Euphie through a gun simulator once she arrives and settles in. Also run them through a basic knife-handling drill as well. I want both of them to know how to defend themselves with the kinds of threats we have running around these days."

"I'll have Bart handle it." the older man agreed with a nod.

"Good. Now we've got a report to prepare for the Homeland, and I very much doubt father will be happy with the amount of complaints and demands from Area Nobility this will generate." the Viceroy sighed out.

There were two kinds of Nobility in Britannia; the Homeland Nobility, those who were given land and titles in the Britannian Homeland itself, and the Area Nobility, those who accepted titles, land and responsibilities in the far-flung Areas under Britannian domination. Jeremiah Gottwald was an Area 11 Noble, the Margrave of Iida, while Dorothea Ernst was the Baroness of Cutler's Hook, on the Britannian Mainland.

There was a strong disparity between Area Nobility and Homeland Nobility; any Homeland Noble counted as being three steps above their rank when compared to an Area Noble. This meant that Dorothea Ernst, despite only being a Baroness, was counted as an equal to Jeremiah, a Margrave. Another difference was that no Area Noble could hold rank above that of Margrave, and only a small handful of Area Nobility ever reached that rank in the first place.

Still, Nobility was Nobility and they were bound to start screeching and complaining the moment her orders inconvenienced them; which would no doubt irritate the Emperor. Having all their ducks in a row to respond to any enquiries would be a most prudent idea if it ever came to a head. So, with no small amount of reluctance, Cornelia bent her head and started on her paperwork, pausing occasionally to throw a longing glance toward the auburn bird decorating the bottle on her sideboard.

Later

Laboratory, Central Area, Theta Base

"…and that should fix that." Reuben offered offhandedly as he deftly manipulated the controls of one the numerous machines below the control booth as they finished assembling the third prototype of his Engagement Suit. The first had been a resounding success during its initial testing operation, the attack on the Code-R facility in Fukuoka, and had provided Lelouch with a cornucopia of data to help improve the machine going forward.

Sadly, he'd hit a wall when the second prototype had collapsed mid-test. Thankfully it hadn't been in motion at the time or the operator, Lelouch himself, could have been severely injured. As embarrassing as the incident had been, it had also stymied Lelouch's enthusiasm enough that he'd called in Reuben's technical expertise to sort out the issue.

According to the more experienced engineer/scientist, Lelouch had failed to take the increased stress the new systems would put on the frame into account. A quick redesigns of the machine's support frame and joints had yielded an appropriate design at only a minor increase to weight.

"And this is a good reminder that I am neither Lloyd Asplund, nor Rakshata Chawla." the raven-haired boy shook his head. "My skills in engineering and design are fairly average, and I should keep that in mind when designing something."

"I'd hardly call you average at anything, my boy. Engineering is a much different beast than strategy, you simply need to learn to trust your intuition and accept that mistakes will happen." the old industrialist chided his soon-to-be grandson-in-law. "In combat you can't make mistakes because they will cost you your mission and the lives of your men, so you rely on known statistics and numbers to plan your operations as smoothly as possible. Developing new machinery is a far more bumpy road. The fact that your first prototype worked so well is a credit to your talent and ability; you simply need to trust yourself a bit more and learn to have a bit of faith."

"I take it you're speaking from experience there?" Lelouch responded with a small, tired grin. "I suppose you're right, either way. It's just…this machine is going to have a living, breathing person in it soon, and it isn't going to be me. It's nerve-wracking, and in a far different way than planning a battle or strategy."

"That, my dear boy, is your sense of responsibility flaring up." Reuben informed the regicide calmly as he adjusted various controls in front of him. "The responsibility of an inventor is a different thing from the responsibilities of a leader, tactician, or strategist that you are more accustomed to. You know others will be relying on your inventions and feel responsible for ensuring that it will meet if not exceed their expectations and needs. It honestly speaks well of you, Lelouch; far too many forget that their creations serve as something more than an extension of their own ego.

"Besides you needn't worry. This machine speaks well of your abilities; it's all good and solid engineering. All it required was a bit of an experienced hand to fine-tune it." the elder industrialist added with a grin. "I must admit, changing your Ashigaru into a Transformable machine was a stroke of brilliance on your part. Should you need any further assistance, don't hesitate to call. It's so rare these days that I get a chance to get my hands dirty in a real project like this."

"Thank you, Reuben." the Exiled Prince nodded as the work on the Ashigaru MKIII Prototype continued. "And…I am sorry that we had to eliminate Roderick."

"Lelouch, my son had been gone for a long time before those bullets entered his skull. Ever since that harridan Melisande got her claws into him." the Head of the Ashford Family offered simply. "She destroyed everything that made my son a person, grinding him away beneath her boot heel. By the time I'd realized what she'd done, it was too late. We might have been able to completely reprogram him with your Geass, but even that wouldn't have brought my son back. No…death was a kindness for him; at least now he's free of his puppet-master. I can only hope my darling wife will forgive me my failures when we meet again."

Lelouch had never had the opportunity to meet Marie Ashford née Wallace, the woman having passed away from illness years before either he or Milly had even been born, but everything he'd head of her from both Reuben and his own mother had painted a picture of a plain-spoken, no-nonsense person. He only hoped she'd place the blame where it was due (himself and Melisande) rather than Reuben.

"So, how are you planning on mass producing these machines?" Reuben asked absently as he fiddled minutely with the controls. "I doubt a regular Knightmare assembly line would work; you're going to need customized machinery to deal with the difference in size and scale. I've no doubt you've already designed all the mechanical components you'll need, but you'll still need technicians and other personnel to ensure everything runs smoothly."

"I believe that the Six Houses will be most interested in providing a proper base to act as a manufacturing plant once we prove the Ashigaru MKIII's utility." Lelouch responded confidently. "They have the means to provide both the machinery and the personnel we need, and I'm sure they'll be quite eager to have a truly original 'Japanese' weapon to match the Knightmare Frames. I'll keep a few trusted Black Knight on site to oversee security and ensure that nobody tries to make off with anything, but I'd likely do the same no matter how I set up the factory."

"Old Kirihara's group? Good to see that wily old goat's still kicking." the equally old man chuckled. "Negotiating with that man was always like trying to get blood from a stone."

Once Lelouch had read Reuben in about Geass, he had felt safe revealing everything else involving Zero and his various allies to the older man. Reuben was a capable ally, and he'd already realized much more than Lelouch had anticipated; giving him all the information so that he could better aid him simply made sense.

"True, but the man will spare no expense when it comes to preparing and outfitting the soldiers that are working to liberate Japan." Lelouch replied honestly. "Speaking of construction, how goes work on your new factory?"

"With the deal officially signed and notarized, we've already begun work on modifying the chosen site." Reuben responded with a grin. "The factory that we were able to acquire from another 'down on their luck' noble family might have been outfitted for heavy machinery work, but it was in a rather poor state. We're basically rebuilding the entire thing from the ground up, which will actually make things a bit easier for us when it comes to preparing the new defences. While the main construction overhead is being completed, a few of our 'loyal' construction crew will be working on an area in the factory's foundation; connecting it to the Ashford Underground and constructing the area your specifications set forth. With the additional manufacturing lines installed below the main factory, you should be able to produce quite the number of 5th Generation Knightmares for your own uses."

"Perfect." Lelouch smirked. Where better to hide a secret Knightmare factory than beneath another Knightmare factory? Connecting the facilities to the Ashford Underground and Theta Base, as well as installing several white noise generators to prevent any noticeable noises from reaching the aboveground factory, and thermal absorbers to counter the excess heat generated being put out by the machines. Once that was done, they'd simply need loyal personnel to quietly man it, without leaking the location, and they would have a means of producing BK-type Sutherlands and Gloucesters as needed for his army.

That would free up Kyoto Houses' own production lines to focus on the Mass Production of the Jinrai Knightmare Frames they'd developed, along with whatever Knightmares Rakshata designed. Granted, he'd have to provide a way to get the parts needed to build the Knightmares without dipping into the Ashford Family's stockpile, so no hint of suspicion could be cast on the factory. He also wouldn't be an idiot and have a way between the two factories that a snoop or spy could stumble upon. The only way employees would be able to access it would be via a single access tunnel bristling with surveillance gear and an x-ray machine or two to see if the people had weapons or cameras hidden beneath their clothing. Perhaps even require staff to wear uniforms that would be required to be worn on-site, requiring changing rooms which could be searched…?

"You're planning and plotting again, my boy." Reuben observed in amusement. It was actually a sign of trust from Lelouch; he never allowed himself to lose himself to his thoughts around people he didn't have complete faith in.

Such thoughts warmed Reuben's old heart. He may have lost his son, but his family's next generation was looking stronger and better than ever. He could only hope he lived long enough to see what kind of chaos his great-grandchildren would unleash.

"Just thinking about what we'll need for when the factory is up and running on both sides." Lelouch answered simply, shaking his head to get himself back on track. "I'd also like you to have a quick look at the preliminary weapon designs I've prepared for the Ashigaru. Most are fairly straightforward affairs, but I think there's one I'd like an expert's eye on…"

"I look forward to it!" the old man offered with a short laugh. "After letting myself go addle-brained dealing with Melisande's plots and plans for seven years, a bit of good, old-fashioned engineering work is just what the doctor ordered. Nothing like a good, solid puzzle to shake the cobwebs off."

"Never change Reuben." the former prince chuckled slightly. "I can only hope to be half as energetic as you are when I'm your age."

"Bah, I don't doubt you'll be in better condition than me, my boy." Reuben replied with an absent wave of his hand. "I've always merely exercised to keep myself in a reasonable shape; you have a training routine that would have left me broken and panting at your age."

"If I live that long anyway." Lelouch responded with a bit of self-depreciation. "Considering I'm rebelling against the strongest superpower in the world's history, most wouldn't give me good odds of reaching middle age, let alone your venerable stature."

"Were you truly fighting alone, then perhaps I'd have agreed with them." the industrialist responded as he retuned his focus to the machines in front of him. "No man is an island, always remember that Lelouch. Confide in C.C., confide in Milly, confide in Sayoko, in me, in Kirihara, in Kaguya. In those you know you can trust and who trust you in turn. Alone, you can make mistakes, but many eyes and hands are surer than any single pair. Closing yourself off from the others would trap and limit your world-view and thinking. I am honestly happier than ever that Sayoko managed to kick some of that arrogance out of you five years ago."

The Regicide winced and absently rubbed his jaw as he remembered Sayoko's first and most important lesson to him. She'd handed him a gun and ordered him to defend himself before (lightly) kicking him before he could so much as raise it. She'd repeated the process over a half-dozen times until he'd finally got the message. It didn't matter how clever he was if he was too slow or weak physically to actually make use of it.

"I do wish that lesson hadn't involved being kicked into a wall several times." he offered dryly. There were still cracks from his impacts in the training room's wall, a constant reminder of that most important lesson.

"But it did marvels for breaking through that stubborn streak of yours." Reuben replied with a laugh.

"Why precisely am I marrying into your family again?" Lelouch mock-groaned in annoyance.

The evil old man just cackled.

Yes, it was far too easy to see who Milly took after sometimes.

That Night

Euphemia li Britannia's Bedroom, Area 11 Administration Building

"Geez, Grandfather….!" Milly huffed from her position kneeling on the bed, clad only in a pale blue nightdress and panties. "I can't believe he's overreacting like this!"

"Milly, your parents were just assassinated, by their own servants no less." Euphie gently remonstrated her childhood friend/rival. The pinkette was clad similarly to Milly, but the older girl's more mature figure had caused the younger and more svelte princess to cast her more than one envious look since their 'sleepover' had begun. "I'd dare say that Lord Ashford is showing a completely appropriate level of caution. Having you stay somewhere safe while he does an audit of the staff is a perfectly reasonable precaution after what happened."

Milly simply pouted at her for a moment. While that might have been true on the face of things, both she and her grandfather knew that there were no other sleeper agents in their employ. Well, there were none that were any threat to her anyway. Her grandfather had known that a few of his employees were compromised by various Noble Families and business rivals and had kept them on in order to use them to feed false information and keep their employers from trying to send more competent spies in.

Better the enemy you know and all that.

Now, with recent developments, those spies now belonged to her new lover, Lelouch. She was sure they'd find some use for them eventually.

Knowing Lulu, her lover had likely suggested this to giver her time to consider any further relations with him, with her grandfather simply going along with it to humour Lelouch's concerns. The both of them were likely going to use this 'internal audit' to reorganize Ashford's internal and external security now that they no longer had to deal with any internal threats from Roderick and Melisande.

Why did the two most important men in her life have to share the same overly loyal and noble streak?

"Oh, come on Milly. We should be trying to have fun at least; it's been over seven years since our last sleepover." Euphie returned Milly's pout with one of her own. "I've missed those times. You, me, and Nunnally staying up for hours chatting about everything and anything…even after Big Sister came in and tried to force us all into bed asleep by midnight."

That particular memory jolted a small laugh from the blonde girl. "Heh, yeah! Then we'd all cuddle up in one of those oversized beds in the Villa's guest rooms and keep talking until we all dozed off together."

Memories of simpler, more innocent times caused both young ladies to smile fondly, before Euphie sat herself on the bed next to Milly.

"So, how does it feel to be a free woman again now that your 'arrangement' with Earl Asplund is no longer a concern?" she asked.

"Like someone has removed a lead collar from around my neck, Euphie." Milly groaned out, closing her eyes as she leaned back in relief. "It almost felt like an execution date, you know. As soon as I was married off to Asplund, then Grandfather would have had no choice but to formally name Roderick as his heir…which basically meant Melisande would have been heir in all but name. Then it would have only been a matter of time before she forced Grandfather to step down, even if she had to resort to extralegal means to do it, if you understand me."

Euphie felt her breath catch in her throat. While her relationship with her birth mother had never been particularly good (Cornelia having long replaced the woman as a strange mix of mother and sister in her life), she had never been so blasé about what she might to do advance in the cut-throat ream of Britannian politicking. Victoria li Britannia was something of a cold fish, for all of her striking looks, and had a personality as warm as an empty fireplace in winter, but she had never been so ruthless as to use murder as a means to advance her ends. It was often suggested that the li Britannia sisters had gotten their passion and empathy from their father's side.

Considering who their father was and his relationship with his own relatives, that was a very worrying idea indeed.

Still, for Milly to so openly say she'd expected her mother to have attempted to assassinate Reuben after her marriage, it made Euphie wonder just how bad Milly's relationship with her birth parents had been, particularly compared to the warm, loving relationship it was obvious she shared with her grandfather.

"You're…genuinely not sad that they're dead, are you?" the princess asked frankly.

"No…no, I'm not." Milly agreed with a gusty sigh and a sad smile. "Honestly, that's a lot sadder than it is awful in my book. There should be some level of automatic familial love between a child and their parents, even if they don't like each other, but I've never had anything like that between myself and Melisande, let alone Roderick. Melisande never treated me as anything other than a tool to get herself back into the nobility, and Roderick couldn't even talk to me without Melisande there to give him cues on what to say. When I heard they'd been killed…the first thing I felt was a sense of relief. They were gone, and they couldn't interfere with my life again, never threaten to use me like some prized mare to be flaunted so males can vie to breed me."

"You do remember that you'll need to get married at some point to maintain the Ashford Family." Euphie pointed out softly, not sure of how else to respond. By Britannia's dynastic laws, a female Head of a Noble Family had to be married and give birth to an heir before they reached an age where they could no longer bear children lest they be forced to surrender the position to another member of the family. Such was the reality of the life of one of noble birth.

"Ah, but do remember Your Highness, the Ashford Family no longer have a patent of nobility, meaning that those dynastic rules no longer apply to us for now." the blonde heiress responded smugly. "I want to make my own name as a woman of business, and possibly see my family reclaim their Noble Title, before I rear any children. And with your dear sister's patronage and the new Knightmare Contract she and Grandfather have signed, that should be possible within the next ten years, maybe less if fortune continues to smile on us. By that time, I'll only be in my late twenties, plenty of time left then to think of heirs and husbands. Thank god for the Markham Amendment."

Most of the Patents of Nobility were granted by the House of Lords with approval of the Emperor, but that was only in regards to the creation of entirely new Patents. Even if the Patent of Nobility had been stripped from a Noble Family, the Patent itself would still exist and could be earned back by the Family in question through hard work and accomplishments in services to the Empire within the next two generations. The only exception was in the case of a Family Head and/or the majority of a Noble Family being found guilty of High Treason Against the Realm; where the Patent was ritualistically burned, often as part of the offender's execution proceedings.

That set of laws, known collectively as the Markham Amendment, had been passed by Emperor Markham ka Britannia, Lelouch's great-grandfather. Markham's own father had been a paranoid, vindictive bastard by any measure, and had stripped a extremely large number of Noble Families of their Patents for petty or unrealistic infractions. By the time that Markham replaced the man, there was a civil war brewing on the horizon as the multitude of former Nobles were slowly coming together against the Crown. His Amendment had been able to stave it off for a time, both by offering the angered Nobles a way to regain their Patents and by pitting those same Nobles against each other as they competed to earn back their Title before their rivals could and gain some form of advantage in the game of politics.

It sadly hadn't stopped a dissatisfied group of nobles from eventually poisoning him.

His only son and heir, Maximilian mi Britannia, had ascended to the throne shortly afterwards. Maximilian had been an…average ruler in most aspects, but he had possessed a talent for maintaining the tenuous balance his father had struck and had one of the longest reigns on record in the Britannian Royal Family. Unfortunately, he was every bit the womanizer his son Charles would become, having over thirty Imperial Consorts and over two dozen children between them. His sudden death some sixty-odd years after he first took the throne would trigger the Emblem of Blood Period that saw Charles zi Britannia rise to the throne.

For all that Markham himself was still as nearly as unpopular as his own father (at least in the eyes of the Nobility), the Markham Amendment was still on the books and had never faced a serious attempt at being repealed. The Nobles quite enjoyed having a safety net should one of their relations do something foolish enough to cost them their Patents of Nobility. In fact, the Markham Amendment was one of the most regularly updated and modern laws on the Britannian Charter of Nobility, always being kept at level where it was neither too easy, nor too difficult, to qualify for it.

"Well, you certainly seem to have everything planned out." Euphie stated with a small smile on her lips.

"I am a Fallen Noble, dear princess; I have to have things planned out if I want to excel." Milly responded with a smirk. "Now, what's with the looks you and your sister have been trading all night. Cornelia was looking particularly sour."

It was the pinkette's turn to sigh tiredly, body slumping as she let her exhaustion from the hours of bickering show. "My sister has….concerns about my choice of Knight of Honour, but with everything happening with the Black Knights and Neo Shinsengumi, and whoever is responsible for the recent assassination attempts, she's literally run out of steam to fight it anymore."

"Oh? And who have you picked that's gotten Cornelia in such a foul temper?" Milly asked with convincingly feigned curiosity. She'd already heard all about this from Lelouch.

"Lady Villetta Nu." Euphie responded simply.

Milly faux-paused for a moment to think, before snapping her fingers. "Ah, the former Pureblood subcommander and Interim Sub-Viceroy?" she asked with a raised eyebrow. "Why her, if you don't mind me asking?"

"Originally, my first choice had been Lord Jeremiah, but he sadly refused. The poor man is still riddled with guilt over what he sees as a personal failure in failing to protect Lady Marianne and Clovis." Euphie began.

'Actually it's because a Knight can only be a Knight of Honour for a single person at a time.' Milly corrected her mentally. 'And Jeremiah's already Lulu's Knight of Honour.'

"After Lord Jeremiah, she is one of the best Knights in the Area not originally under my sister's command, a capable Knightmare Pilot and an able administrator. Most importantly I believe she will actually listen to me before Cornelia, something I can't trust on any of her preferred choices for me." Euphie continued.

'But not before Lulu.' Milly added mentally, before asking another question aloud. "Can you trust her?"

"I, I believe that I can. Lord Jeremiah has vouched for her on multiple occasions, and while she is ambitious, she is also sensible enough not to let that ambition overwhelm her good sense. Besides, I know Sister and her own Knights will be keeping an eye on her, at least at the start. She will have time to prove her trustworthiness from there." Euphie responded, looking determined. "Milly, the Knighting Ceremony is going to be in three days time, and I'd like you to stand with me as my Handmaiden during the ceremony.

Milly blinked in shock at the sudden request. Handmaidens, as in capital-H ones rather than the servants, were an increasingly uncommon, but still recognized, position in Britannian High Society. A Handmaiden was a position which seemed to be just a Noblewoman serving another Noblewoman of higher rank, or royal princess, in the capacity of a companion and aide.

The truth was that most Handmaidens in the service of royal princesses were given Royal Privilege, the right to draw arms on behalf of their mistress in their defence, and were thus permitted, and even required in some circumstances, to be armed around their mistress. It was a position given only to those the princess trusted implicitly.

By having Milly take the position of her Handmaiden, even temporarily, Euphie was stating to the world that Milly, and by extension the Ashford Family, had her complete trust and support. It would practically state to all and sundry that the li Britannia line and the Ashford Family were allies once more.

"Are you sure? Has Cornelia agreed?" Milly asked in shock. Lulu certainly hadn't predicted this!

"It was Big Sister's idea." Euphie responded, a familiar look in her eyes, one that she shared with her sister and half-brother. A look of iron determination and willpower. "Sister would have likely agreed even before today's incident anyway, if only to spite the people who dared to strike against Lady Marianne. Now, she's agreed to show that the Ashford Family is fully under her protection and show them exactly who they will be facing. Sister is truly angry, Milly…angrier than I've seen her since the investigation into Lelouch and Nunnally's disappearances here in Area 11 after the invasion was called off after just three days."

"Wait…I never heard that!" Milly sat up in shock. "Who ordered that?!"

Ashamed, the pinkette looked away and uttered one word. "Father."

"Oh…" Milly winced. If that order wasn't what had broken Cornelia's ability to trust the Emperor, she'd don a cast-iron chastity belt and throw away the key.

"As for whether or not I'm sure, I am." Euphie continued, not looking directly at Milly. "You're the only friend from my childhood that I have left, and I refuse to let you stand without every protection that my Sister and I can offer, even if it is as immaterial as my 'favour.' Nobody wants to upset me, because they know it will make my sister angry, and with her current disposition, angering Cornelia would not be a pleasant experience for anyone involved."

"Oh, Euphie…" the Ashford Heiress hugged the princess before a devilish expression crossed her face. "Take this!"

"Eek!" Euphie squeaked in shock as nimble and experienced fingers started tickling her sides. "M-Milly…hahahaha! Not…not my sides…hahahaha! Y-You…you know I'm ticklish…there! Hahahahaha!"

"Oh, how well do I know it!" the older girl grinned evilly. "Say uncle and it'll end!"

"Ne-never….hahahahahaha!" the princess writhed weakly in her captor's grip in a half-hearted effort to escape, but it was no good; Milly was evidently well versed at keeping squirming girls in her grasp.

And then Euphie was suddenly glad she was red from laughter, as she would otherwise have blushed at where her mind went with that thought. To say that the knowledge that her old friend and former rival for Lelouch's affections was at the very least Bi wasn't intriguing would be a lie. Having been wrapped in cotton wool most of her life by her overprotective sister, Euphie had only the most basic and clinical idea of how sex and reproduction worked, but the person who had given her The Talk had also included some information about homosexuality and bisexuality. It was rather abbreviated, but the lack of information had just intrigued Euphie all the more.

Of course, when you're in hotspots of conflict nearly all of your life, with only an old woman as a tutor, it becomes impossible to act on any possible curiosity one might have for that sort of thing, especially when you had an overbearingly overprotective sister keeping anyone your own age away from you.

In Area 11, though…

Euphie banished the thought as she lay panting on her bed, out of breath from Milly's tickle assault. That would keep for later. For now though, she was going to catch up with her friend and plan for the ceremony in three days' time.

"I…will…get you for this…." she promised her traitorous friend as she regained her breath. "I hope you realise that."

"Promises, promises." Milly smirked.

Three Days Later

Ceremonial Hall, Area 11 Administration Building

With the Britannian National Anthem roaring proudly in the background, Princess Euphemia li Britannia, Sub-Viceroy of Area 11, stood in her usual pink and cream dress, awaiting her soon-to-be Knight's arrival to the ceremonial stage. Standing by her side was Millicent Ashford, wearing a periwinkle blue dress, with a pure white sash around her waist with a bronze emblem pinned to it. The emblem proudly bore the personal crest of Euphemia li Britannia on its surface, the golden Lion Courant (Running Lion) of the li Britannia line, with a snake for a tail, the snake's head grasping a black-feathered swan's quill in its mouth.

This was the symbol of rank for an official Handmaiden, and not a single member of the Area Nobility that had gathered for the occasion doubted that the young Ashford was armed at this precise moment. Granted, such a thing was largely unnecessary at the moment, with the ceremony occurring at the very heart of Britannia's power and authority over Area 11. And directly beneath the icy gaze of Princess Cornelia li Britannia. Only a truly suicidal fool would attempt anything at such an occasion with the Witch of Britannia herself, and her Royal Guard, in direct attendance.

However the symbology of the gesture wasn't lost on, or appreciated by, the vast majority of the nobility attending.

"Why in the world are the bloody Ashfords being honoured like this!?"

"Didn't two of them just get themselves assassinated a few days ago? What is Her Highness thinking, letting her sister associate with such a blatant target."

'Ugh, listening to these petty idiots wag their tongues and spit venom is just as much of pain as it was when I was kid back in the Royal Court.' Milly thought, hiding her annoyance behind a placid, inscrutable mask-like expression. The petty insults and empty sniping of the jealous or angry nobles had always followed the Ashford Heiress, ever since her family had started their first rise, and it wasn't surprising that such things were returning with her family's recent good fortune.

As the final note of the anthem rang out, Dame Villetta Nu stepped through the entryway on the opposite end of the room. Dressed in an impeccably cut formal uniform done in royal purple, and conspicuously missing the red feather pin that had marked her as a part of the old Pureblood Faction. It was essentially a Dress Uniform version of her normal duty uniform; bearing the small collection of medals and awards she'd accrued during her service with the Britannian Army. On her hip was an arming sword, bound to its sheathe by a peace knot to prevent her from drawing it easily.

As she confidently strode down the length of the room, the elite of Area 11's nobility gathered on either side of her, Villetta Nu was barely managing to keep a straight face. She was finally reaching the lofty goals she'd dreamed of. Becoming a Knight of Honour, a position of both merit and acclaim that could easily become a foothold for her advancement up the ladder of Nobility.

'And to think, all it took was being turned into a sleeper agent by an enemy of the Empire.' she thought, the irony of just who she now served being particularly titillating at this moment. To swear herself into the service of one royal, while being in the pocket of her exiled half-brother; it sounded like something out of a bad drama. She had little doubts that her master (which was a more accurate way to describe Lelouch vi Britannia than 'employer') had left a fail-safe command of some sort locked inside of her just in case she tried to turn her coat again.

Not that she had any intention of doing so; there was simply no turning back from the choices she'd made. She had made her bed and would have to lie in it, regardless of what came.

Besides, the benefits of her new allegiance were already making themselves known.

Personally, she felt that Prince Lelouch was being a tad overprotective by having her placed as Euphemia's Knight of Honour. Granted, the information and access she would gain from the position would be invariably be useful, but it was blatantly obvious to her that arranging her new appointment was just as much about protecting Euphemia as it was gathering information. Which was honestly a little absurd given the princess was constantly in the presence of Cornelia Li Britannia, the Witch of Britannia, Gilbert P. Guilford, the Spearhead of the Empire, Andreas Darlton, the Witch's Guardian, and the five Glaston Knights around her at almost all hours.

Coming to a halt precisely five paces from Euphemia, the silver-haired woman knelt on the floor, head bowed to the pink-haired young woman who was to be her liege lady from this day on. Unstrapping her sheathed sword from her waist, she held it horizontally in her palms and offered it to the princess.

Euphie took the weapon and unwound the knot, allowing her to draw the blade. The silver flash of well-forged steel glimmered in the lights of the hall. A tradition with most Knights of Honour, if they were of Britannian birth, was to present them with a blade as a symbol of their service. There was a specific rule that prevented Honorary Britannians from receiving a sword if, by some miracle, they were chosen as a Knight of Honour. Regardless, something else that all Knights of Honour received was a badge bearing their liege lord/lady's personal emblem superimposed over the regular Britannian flag.

Millicent was currently holding the badge, and would present it to Villetta after the official knighting as part of her duty as Handmaiden.

Holding the sword flat in front of her, Euphie looked down at the kneeling Knight. "Villetta Nu, on this day, dost thou abandon yourself to become a sword and shield for the greater good?" she asked, her well-trained voice carrying across the hall, which had fallen silent the moment Villetta had dropped to one-knee.

"Yes, Your Highness!" the woman replied.

"Courage and Honour, Duty and Sacrifice, these are the hallmarks of a Knight of the Empire. Dost thou swear to hold these values foremost in thine heart and mind?" Euphie continued the ritual.

"Yes, Your Highness!" Villetta replied once again.

Euphie carefully lowered the sword and gently touched one of Villetta's shoulders, then the other, with the flat of the blade before holding it up before herself again. "Then, by the power invested in me as a Princess of Britannia, my noble bloodline, and as Euphemia li Britannia, I hereby recognize you as my Knight. Rise, Dame Villetta, and may you remain ever victorious."

Villetta rose and took her sword from her liege-lady, re-sheathing with a practised flourish when the sheath was handed back to her amidst scattered polite applause from the assembled nobility. Milly then handed Euphemia the badge, which was clipped onto Villetta's right breast pocket.

After reattaching the arming sword to her hip, Villetta executed an about-turn that would have made her old drill sergeant give a begrudging nod of approval, and stood at attention as the jealous and judgmental eyes of Area 11's nobility bored into her.

She locked eyes with the shadowy form of Cornelia li Britannia, lurking in an upper balcony to watch the ceremony, and read the message that the Witch of Britannia was clearly broadcasting through her body language: Let my sister get hurt under your watch and you'll wish that you were dead.

'Why the hell are so many of these bloody royals so goddamn terrifying? Aren't most of them supposed to be spoiled lushes? Why am I only meeting the scary ones?' she wondered idly as she held the gaze of the second-strongest woman in the Empire. After a few moments, Cornelia huffed, turned around, and was gone in a flutter of her white and purple cloak.

"I am sorry about my sister." Euphemia said in an undertone to her as the Britannian anthem started up again. "She's…I think the best description is 'having trouble cutting loose her apron strings' when it comes to me."

Banishing the strange, horrifying and oddly cute image of Cornelia wearing an apron from her mind, Villetta merely nodded back as the two left the room, Milly in tow. "I sort of expected it, Your Highness. Think nothing of it."

"It's my duty to look out for you against other royals, Villetta." the princess responded with a shake of her head. "That's the tradition between Royal and Knight of Honour; you protect my person from those who wish to bring me harm, I protect you from interference from my siblings as you go about your duties. You won't believe the stories I heard about the times not long after the ascension of Ricardo von Britannia to the throne. His children were supposedly an especially backbiting lot, constantly interfering with each other's Knights for reasons both petty and nefarious. Emperor Ricardo finally lost his temper when their infighting nearly started a riot at a royal gala and he penned down a law that set out and codified exactly what a Knight of Honour was and wasn't supposed to do, as well as making a Royal interfering with a Knight of Honour going about their duties without cause a punishable offence."

Villetta blinked at that. "I'd never heard of that law, let alone the history behind it." she admitted.

"It's not a very well-known one since it deals specifically with the Imperial Family and our personal Knights." Euphemia answered with a shrug. "Part of our basic education as members of the Imperial Family is to learn all the important and memorable contributions of our various forbearers, so my tutors were never shy about singing their various praises. Penning and rectifying the official duties, responsibilities, and rights of a Knight of Honour just happened to be one of Emperor Ricardo's more noteworthy achievements."

Shaking her head slightly, Euphemia got back on track. "Anyway, now that the ceremony is complete you will be moved into a room across from mine, and my daily itinerary will be forwarded to you for screening and approval each night beforehand."

"Given that you generally stay inside the Administration Building 24/7, I can imagine that the whole thing is somewhat perfunctory?" the newly-minted Knight of Honour asked knowingly.

"Given the security procedures my sister has instated for the building, you're very likely right." the youngest li Britannia laughed dryly. "However, if my sister and her Knights are out of the building, you will become the senior military office in case of an attack; as is the right and duty of a Sub-Viceroy's Knight of Honour."

"I imagine Her Highness and Sir Guilford and Dalton are going to be spending quite a bit of time drilling the building's schematics and defence plans into my head?" Villetta asked with bone-rattling sigh. More bloody memorisation of dry documents and patrol patterns. Was she back at Officer Candidate School?

"I'll be with you every step of the way." Euphemia promised comfortingly. "I need to be brought up to date on the Building's security anyway. I've been so caught up hunting down corrupt Nobles, officers, and bureaucrats that I've been neglecting my more official duties. Technically, overseeing the security of the Administrative Building is one of the responsibilities of a Sub-Viceroy, so you see…"

Behind the two, Milly was hiding a devious little smile. 'And of course, while you two are studying, Villetta will be making notes about said defences to give to Lelouch, while I bug a few places that Sayoko can't reach safely…such as Cornelia's briefing room and the Area 11 Council Chamber.'

As much as Lelouch's desire to protect her irked the Ashford Heiress, the fact that he did have the presence of mind to give her the job of ensuring that the coverage of his bugs in the Administration Building was more complete assuaged most of the ruffled feathers on Milly's part.

Always nice to have a partner who knew better than to treat her like spun glass.

Allowing a genuine smile to cross her face, Milly continued to follow her old friend and her Knight, her mind planning on how to get access to all of the areas that Lelouch had asked her to cover.

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Next Chapter: Meetings, Mecha and Manservants

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