Chapter 45

An Axiom of Doctrine

"Welcome back once more, Your Eminence," Diethard said, a clear, eager glint in his eyes as the cameras started rolling. "There are many, many matters I'm sure our audience is eager to hear your thoughts on."

Seated across from the reporter, Lelouch maintained his usual stoic demeanor, looking utterly unperturbed by Diethard's enthusiasm. As only the third time Lelouch had deigned to be interviewed on a live broadcast, much attention was focused on tonight's show. That the cardinal continued favoring Diethard for these exchanges was no small boon to the show's ratings. How long this favoritism lasted was unknown to anyone but Lelouch himself. For the interim though, the cardinal seemed to feel Diethard's show offered him the best platform from which to convey his message, even with the reporter constantly trying to probe for more information than Lelouch was prepared to divulge.

"Then let us not dally," Lelouch said. "You have only until the end of your timeslot to probe for answers after all."

"Very well," Diethard said, "then let me get to the point. Your Eminence, will you be appointed as one of Japan's provincial lords?"

After having hosted Lelouch a few times now, Diethard had learned the best way to get information out of the cardinal was to get straight to the point. Even so, it still took a certain amount of gall to be so blunt and on live TV at that.

"No provisions have been made towards that end," Lelouch responded, "nor has His Majesty or any representatives of his government broached the matter with me. As such the answer at this point is no."

"At this point?" Diethard repeated.

The cardinal shrugged. "I make no pretensions of prescience."

"Should I take that to mean your appointment as provincial lord is indeed a possibility?" Diethard pressed.

"In a mathematical sense," Lelouch shrugged again, "why not."

"A mathematical sense," Diethard was playing the part of a parrot well.

"Would you prefer statistical? The probability of my appointment is not zero, therefore the possibility exists. Is that easier to understand?"

Diethard's lips thinned. "Your Eminence, should I instead take some meaning from your evasiveness?"

"Only if you aspire to concoct stories instead of reporting them," Lelouch responded bluntly. "A lack of an answer to your questions is not evasion, it simply means I am not in possession of the information you seek."

"But how can that be, Your Eminence? You are Japan's viceroy, after all. How could you of all people not have awareness of Japan's future apportionment?"

"The question of Japan's organization into provinces falls under the jurisdiction of His Majesty, the sitting government, and parliament," Lelouch stated. "Until they elect to begin that process, there is no policy change for me to discharge, hence the irrelevancy to my duties as viceroy."

"Surely you have some thoughts and opinions on the matter even so," Diethard made one more attempt to pry something out of Lelouch. "After all, whoever is appointed will be steward of a land you exerted much effort to bringing into the Empire proper. It would not do for them to undo your legacy, no?"

"My thoughts are my own, and exist not to provide affirmation for anyone else's beliefs," Lelouch responded almost brusquely. "Considering the impact any opinion I express can have, it would be the height of irresponsibility to express it so frivolously."

"And yet you seem utterly unreserved in expression certain other opinions unreservedly," Diethard said. "And to a rather large audience, as well."

"Unreserved is not the same as frivolous," Lelouch said. "Any opinions I choose to express here are a deliberate, reasoned selection, as is the case for those that I withhold."

In other words, everything Lelouch revealed here were things he wanted the public to know, while those that he did not the cardinal would not breathe a peep of. And neither would his retainers, as the media had found out over the course of Lelouch's administration. Broadly, those tidbits leaked out to the press were all clearly predetermined releases, while attempts to fish out other information were met with stony silence. Attempts to ask leading questions at the various press conferences fared little better, as those deputies that headed the conferences were all very adept at providing entirely true while simultaneously entirely uninformative responses if they felt the need. Just like the cardinal, in fact.

"Then should I presume your answer to how much longer you will serve as viceroy will be equally, unequivocal?" Diethard asked.

"The duration of my appointment is at His Majesty's pleasure," Lelouch responded almost blandly, "along with Eden Vital's continued willingness to second me to His Majesty for extended duty. Should either of those conditions no longer hold, I would stand down as viceroy and revert solely to my ecclesiastical station."

Diethard blinked, apparently not having expected the slightly more informative answer he got.

"I cannot imagine His Majesty would have cause to withdraw his pleasure," Diethard said thoughtfully, "considering the success you have achieved. On the other hand the public has effectively zero insight into what motivated Eden Vital's willingness to second you, aside from the obvious need to stabilize Japan. Is Your Eminence suggesting there are other factors in play that might outweigh that objective?"

"While Eden Vital is obliged to provide the crown with certain services when so requested, these services are not complimentary and the crown is in turn obliged to provide renumeration. Should His Majesty determine that the costs of retaining my services are prohibitive relative to the value of those services, it is entirely within his prerogative to discharge me," Lelouch said. "Conversely, Eden Vital itself may determine that the increased duration of my secondment comes at an increasing cost for itself, for during my appointment I am obliged to split my attention between my secular and ecclesiastical duties. There comes a point where such an arrangement is simply not tenable, at which point it is within the Order's discretion to withdraw my availability to continue serving as viceroy."

While none of this was particularly surprising, there had previously been little in the way of public commentary about the exact terms under which Lelouch was serving as viceroy. If the cardinal was bringing it up now, that might mean he was prepared to actually divulge those terms. It was a genuine struggle for Diethard to not lick his lips.

"And would Your Eminence be willing to divulge those costs?" he asked. "Or is this another matter to be held in confidence?"

"The compensation is being drawn from the government's budget, and so would be part of the public record come reconciliation time," Lelouch said with a shrug, "so there is nothing to be held in confidence of. As for the sums involved, while I certainly do not have an exact breakdown memorized, I am aware of the rough allocations, if that is of actual interest to you and your audience."

"I think in this case it would be, Your Eminence."

The cardinal shrugged again. "Very well. For the duration of my secondment, the Britannian government is obliged to provide in full funding for the daily business expenses incurred by myself and my immediate staff. In addition, the stipends we receive as members of Eden Vital are covered in their entirety by the government. Neither I nor my staff draw a separate governmental salary, we remain officially on Eden Vital's payroll."

Logically, that all made sense. If Eden Vital was to effectively loan Lelouch out to the Britannian government, then the government certainly should be reimbursing the Order for any salaries and expenses incurred as part of Lelouch performing his assigned duty. Still, this was all rather mundane as far as arrangements went, and entirely lacking in the drama that the public tended to salivate over.

"In addition, the Britannian government agreed to pay Eden Vital a sum of ten million pounds per year for the duration of my secondment, to compensate for the Order's need to retain supplemental staff to handle those ecclesiastical duties of mine that I am unable to fulfill while serving as viceroy."

Some hard numbers here, though again fairly reasonable ones. With the competency that Lelouch brought to his duties, ten million was a trifling sum to secure his services. The decreased military expenditures thanks to the cessation in active hostilities between the bulk of the insurgency at the Empire alone more than made up for that.

"The final piece of compensation is an official warrant issued by His Majesty granting Eden Vital free reign in how to handle the Ise Grand Shrine."

Diethard's eyebrow rose. "Oh? And why would Eden Vital request such a condition?"

"Eden Vital and the Ise Grand Shrine have had longstanding ties that go all the way back to when Japan was opened up by Commodore Matthew Perry," Lelouch said. "Several of Ise's priesthood were also actually descended from missionaries sent to Japan after the conclusion of the Great War, albeit of Japanese-Britannians that chose to go home in the wake of that conflict's conclusion. Considering the closeness of our two orders' relations, Eden Vital felt it was only right to offer whatever haven it could to help Ise rebuild."

"Despite Ise being a, well, non-Christian denomination?"

"As I said before, Eden Vital does not proselytize. We would not deny others the oaths they've sworn, a courtesy we expect to be repaid in kind. Ise has always respected that position, and our two orders have collaborated on a wide range of initiatives over the years. Once the shrine has been properly restored and reconstituted, Eden Vital looks forward to many more such collaborations."

"That is genuinely fascinating," Diethard said, "though I suppose not terribly surprising, seeing as Japan and Britannia did have longstanding ties before the war."

"Indeed," Lelouch said, "and the war itself was an extremely regrettable tragedy. We cannot change the fact that it happened, but we can decide just what sort of future we want to forge in its wake."

"As aspirational as ever, Your Eminence," Diethard said with a wry smile. "One of many reasons why many people here in Japan are nervous at the prospect of you no longer being here in the future."

"For better or worse my departure is inevitable, especially seeing as we are already over halfway through the first of the three years Eden Vital is willing to second me to His Majesty."

Diethard froze. Three years. A hard, concrete number as to for how long Lelouch might remain as viceroy, irrespective of any soft metrics that might see him recalled earlier.

"Have I perhaps preempted one of your questions?" Lelouch said with a sly smirk.

"I suppose you have, Your Eminence," Diethard said. "Though knowing you, that preemption was entirely intentional."

The smirk remained on Lelouch's expression.

"Considering Your Eminence's willingness to divulge this bit of information, would this time limit have been publicized via some other means in the near future anyway, like in the government budget?"

"That probably depends on whether the government decided to preemptively make provisions for a multi-year appointment," Lelouch said. "In either case, we are now past the point where awareness of any limits to my term can be readily exploited by those that wish to undermine my policies. The program of reforms that I initiated are now to the point of being self-reinforcing. The civil administration has been restored to a degree of competency, while the military has had discipline properly reimposed. With the recent purge of those nobles that indulged in such barbarity as that offered by Babel, the rot has been thoroughly cleaned out on the Britannian side, all that remains is to finalize the terms acceptable to the Japanese populace for their integration into the Empire as full subjects and citizens."

In other words, even if it was not quite mission accomplished, much of the heavy lifting was already done and the rest was not likely to be derailed. Diethard had to admit a growing respect for the cardinal's guile. When he was contacted by the viceroy's office to see if he wanted Lelouch as a guest, the reporter knew immediately that the cardinal was seeking a means of clamping down on the mild hysteria building up over the possibility of him leaving Japan in the near future. Whether he would succeed in doing so was the variable that no one could entirely predict, especially as Diethard was himself not guaranteed to assist in that endeavor. The man was a reporter after all, and even if outright sensationism might be considered unbecoming, Diethard still considered it his duty to ask the hard questions and try to pry from his guests insights that they might not entirely have intended to disclose. That the cardinal nonetheless was able to outright redirect the flow of conversation in the direction he wanted despite Diethard's probes and leading questions, to use the show as a platform from which to promulgate such reassurances as regards their fears about his departure, that took a degree of artful oratory well beyond what Diethard usually witnessed even in other personages of state. And he did it while still being completely honest and frank.

"Was the three-year limit determined based on Eden Vital's needs, or an estimation by the government on how long it would take to stabilize the situation in Japan?"

"Mostly the former," Lelouch answered. "I am first and foremost a cardinal of Eden Vital, and the Order has multitudes of dependents not just in Japan but in the wider Empire. There comes a point where diverting my attention solely to Japan is to the detriment of those other dependents, something Eden Vital cannot in good conscience perpetuate. If I proved incapable of stabilizing Japan before that tipping point was reached, then I clearly am not the person for the job and the responsibility should be given to someone else."

"Is Your Eminence perhaps not a bit hard on yourself there?" Diethard remarked.

"Not when the solution to Japan's restoration is so obvious," Lelouch stated. "The Japanese people rose up because of the abuse and mistreatment they were suffering under the Britannian heel, mistreatment that in frankness should have never happened. Treat them with dignity and respect, and the choice they set themselves is not a question of whether to be Britannian or Japanese, but a recognition that the two are not mutually exclusive. Therein lies the path to successfully integrating Japan, both the land and its people, into the Empire. And once that integration is completed, it will matter not whether I am viceroy, my duties as cardinal would see me act as a shepherd for Japan, much as I do for the rest of the Empire."

Another reassurance, one that signaled even if Lelouch left, he would still be watching out for Japan, and complementary to the one he offered previously. The sheer simplicity of his words made them more readily acceptable, which if they did not entirely assuage the anxieties people felt, at lest dulled the edge that gnawed at them. The work Lelouch had accomplished would not be undone, and the cardinal would not simply be abandoning them even if recalled. Where before it was merely a hope that this would be the case, now it was easier to actually believe in it.

"I'm really sorry," Euphemia said. "I never thought my answer would take on a life of its own like this."

Standing, almost towering, before the princess was Milly, whose crossed arms conveyed a sternness unusual for the older girl.

"I wish I could say an apology is enough here, Euphie, but this has gotten blown way out of proportion by the tabloids and the talk shows. As things stand this has become a big distraction that's forcing Lelouch to invest time and effort in dealing with it that could have been spent on way more productive matters."

"How mad is Lelouch?" Euphemia asked somewhat haplessly.

"He rated this as a four out of ten on his internal scale of annoyances," Milly said, "so you're still a ways from him being actually mad at you. Still, don't expect him to feel like cooking any dinners anytime soon."

Euphemia sighed in clear relief. "So, what do we do?"

"Lelouch is working to get ahead of the whole thing and shut it down before it has time to fester and build up into a self-perpetuating doom and gloom fixation. If he can provide a soft landing, great, otherwise he'll have to go for the quick and sharp option, which'll cost him some political capital for seeming forceful and insensitive. You need a more rigorous education on what should and should not be said in a public setting like the Q&A."

"Is that even something that can be taught?" Euphemia said dubiously. "I mean, who could have predicted things would turn out this way?"

"Myself, Lelouch, most of his staff," Milly listed nonchalantly, then at Euphemia's surprised look. "Oh, I'm not saying we would have predicted play by play everything that's happened, but all of us took it as a given that the notion of Lelouch being recalled would cause a lot of anxieties in the local populace. The question here is why you never considered that."

Euphemia blinked, finding that she could muster no rationales.

"I guess, it just never even occurred to me," the princess said softly.

Milly sighed. "For better or worse, Euphie, that's really not good enough, especially for a working royal. Every word you utter out in public will get latched on to, so you need to watch what you say and minimize opportunities for the press to take you out of context."

"That, doesn't sound particularly simple," Euphemia said.

"Of course it's not simple," Milly said. "What, you think Lelouch went onto that interview on Nightline just like that? He spent quite a few hours putting together canned responses for a whole range of topics that he could expect Diethard to ask, just like you and I did for the SAAJ Q&A."

Euphemia's eyes widened. "Lelouch can't have possibly predicted all the questions he'd be asked."

Milly shrugged. "Close enough to it that it didn't really matter. Oh, I'm sure there were some points Diethard asked that Lelouch hadn't taken explicit steps to prepare for, but anytime Lelouch actually answered instead of just shutting that line of questioning down, it was because he was familiar with the matter anyway on account of his work. But nowhere in any of his answers did Lelouch ever try to speculate outside of what he actually knows."

A beat passed. "And bringing up past precedent about how provincial lords used to be appointed was speculation?"

"Euphie, was that all you actually did?"

The princess blinked. "What?"

"The current uproar has nothing to do with whether a viceroy might be appointed one of Japan's provincial lords, but whether Lelouch might get recalled," Milly stated. "If your remark about past precedents was a simple factual statement, what facts stand behind your comments about Lelouch's recall?"

That, Euphemia had to admit, was a valid point.

"So I should have just stopped there."

"Arguably you shouldn't have even started after I made clear we knew nothing about the matter of provincial patents," Milly said. "We didn't have the information Naomi wanted, and there was nothing further we could have said that would have changed that."

"That's…" Euphemia trailed off, a distinct note of dissatisfaction in her tone.

"That's what?" Milly prompted.

The younger girl grimaced. "Is that actually good enough? Shouldn't we always strive to answer to the greatest extent possible?"

"In a word, no," Milly stated bluntly.

That elicited a series of rapid blinking on Euphemia's part.

"This is something that gets covered in the senior year civics course, so I'm not entirely surprised you haven't run into it," Milly began, "though I would have thought considering your station your family would have at least tried introducing it earlier. Anyway, the basic decision-making process of a person involves taking in information, assessing it, and then making a decision based off of that information. The quality of the resulting decision is contingent not only on the quality of the provided information, but also in a person's ability to actually assess it. If the quality is poor, or the person lacking in ability, then the decision also reflects that lack.

"In general, as the provider of information, the main thing we can control is the quality of the information we dispense. We can affect the second condition, by providing high quality information that the recipient simply isn't qualified to understand, or providing too much information that they get overwhelmed, but in both cases the most important factor is in what kind and how much information we choose to dispense. Doing a good job entails providing the absolute minimum amount of information needed so that the receiver isn't driven to distraction, while ensuring what information provided is of sufficient quality that they don't err in their decision on account of what they are told. That is not to say the recipient can't still err even if we do everything perfectly, but there's a limit to how much we can influence the decisions of others without outright dictating it to them."

"Okay," Euphemia nodded slowly. "I can see that. But how do you know when too much is, well, too much?"

"Experience, mostly," Milly said. "It's why your first semi-public appearance aside from your debut was here at Ashford. It should have been a contained enough environment that we could have stamped out any missteps before the wider world picked up on it, but the news club got overly enthusiastic."

"Umm, are they also in trouble on account of me?"

Milly snorted. "This isn't the first time something like this has happened, so no Euphie, they aren't in trouble on account of you. They are most definitely in trouble though, but that's my problem as head girl, not yours."


"My problem," Milly emphasized. "Not yours."

"If you say so," Euphemia reluctantly conceded. "So, what now?"

"What I said before. You need a more rigorous education on how to handle yourself as a working royal. Fortunately, Ashford Academy actually has someone on hand that can teach you just that."

Euphemia blinked. "You do?"

Milly gave a big nod, then called out. "You can come in now."

The door opened to reveal a large man, one whose left arm ended in a stump at the wrist. Euphemia recognized him quickly, seeing as Jean DuBois was not only the instructor for the senior civics course, but also a family friend of the Ashfords and so dined with them from time to time.

"Mr. DuBois," Milly said with a degree of frivolous formality, "your student."

In his capacity as a teacher however, Mr. DuBois had a reputation as one of the most demanding of scholastic excellence from his classes.

The man gave a wry smile. "Your Highness, it is my understanding that you are a bright young woman, able to grasp a wide range of matters quickly. I look forward to putting that reputation to the test."

Euphemia's eyes widened as a single sound escaped her. "Eeep."

"Whoever's in the rear vehicle, I'm going as fast as I can, but I'm stuck behind some prick in a big truck who isn't going very fast."

The officer seated next to Coburg snickered as the master sergeant responded.

"Slow and stead, safety first when on the road."

"But we're not on a road," both the original speaker and the officer in the passenger seat stated with remarkable synchronicity.

It was also an accurate statement, as the convoy of three vehicles was rolling down a dirt path that one could only call a road euphemistically.

"All the more reason! We have little traction with the surface of the road, which isn't a road, cause it's dirt."

The slapping sound was probably someone's palm making contact with their face.

"Counterpoint," Coburg said, "I'm in command and I order you to stop complaining."

That was arguably an abuse of authority, but since Coburg actually was the ranking gendarme present, no one was around that could actually countermand or otherwise call him on it.

"Is that how you win all your arguments?" the other squad leader seated next to Coburg asked. "Pull rank?"

"It's worked so far," Coburg admitted cheerfully. "So how's your dog been? How's Gracie?"

"Dude, she has this problem," the other man took the shift in conversation in stride, "every time we go take out the trash, she just rips the bags open and chows down. Stomach made of iron though, hasn't gotten sick or anything."

"So like you."

"Well, I don't eat from the trash."

"Not while sober at least."

There was a noticeable pause.

"Mmm, I don't speak for drunk me."

"No, no one speaks for drunk you," Coburg agreed.

"Are we there yet?" a voice from the back called out.

"Oh don't even start," the master sergeant said. "And yes, we are there you burks!"

Indeed the trio of vehicles were pulling into a large clearing where several other vehicles were parked. There was even an occupied helipad.

"Wait, why did we take the dirt path when there was a perfectly serviceable road leading here?" the other squad leader said, pointing to the paved road off to the side.

"GPS claimed this route was the fastest," was Coburg's excuse.

"Yeah but it probably wasn't the smoothest. My ass feels like we've been riding over some teenager's face."

"Stop complaining," Coburg rolled his eyes. "Alright lads-er-everyone, fall in."

A total of four fireteams had been stuffed into the three vehicles in the convoy, two of the Imperial Gendarmerie and two of the Imperial Britannian Army's 597th regiment. Seeing as both groups had been headed in the same direction, the gendarmes had offered to give the soldiers a lift, which they accepted. That the two fireteams were both of women certainly was a nice plus. As the disembarking personnel lined up, another woman in an Eden Vital uniform approached.

"Fireteams Zulu and Foxtrot reporting as ordered," Coburg said.

"Squad 1-1, Alpha Company, 597th reporting as ordered," the sergeant next to Coburg said.

"Welcome to FOB Izumi," the woman greeted. "I am Sister Sancia of the Order Militant of Eden Vital."

Coburg immediately recognized the name as one of the Eden Vital operatives that coordinated the raid on Babel. To think that the disciplined, even stern voice that had guided his and other gendarme units to relative safety when McDougal's mercenaries appeared belonged to such a youthful looking girl.

"Briefing will be in twenty minutes at the eastern mustering grounds. Until then, please transfer any gear you have brought with you to the barracks."

Once Sanica took her leave, the other gendarme squad leader sighed.

"Barracks. They're sticking us in barracks. What are we, back in basic?"

"Izumi is just an FOB," the army sergeant said with a wry smile, "so they don't have that extensive additional facilities. And what extra facilities they do have probably went to the VIPs."

Of which included not just Colonel Gottwald, the 597th's commanding officer, but also General Darlton, the current ranking officer of the Area 11 occupational forces. Which in Coburg's mind really begged the question of why the gendarmerie was also asked to send a small unit to participate in the exercise. He supposed he would find out at the briefing.

"Alright ladies, you heard the sister," the army sergeant said. "Get your gear unloaded, double time. I want everyone gathered at the mustering grounds in ten!"

"What the sergeant said," Coburg followed up. "Just because we're gendarmerie doesn't mean we should fall behind the army. Hop to it!"

The gendarmes did not end up falling behind the soldiers, but there was certainly some labored breathing as they lined up. Amongst those assembled, Coburg could see not only those men and women that accompanied him here, but soldiers in the colors of Princess Cornelia's royal guard, and a group of rather young-looking women, girls really, in Eden Vital colors. It was certainly an eclectic collection and only further added to the mystery of what sort of training exercise was to be conducted.

"Ladies and gentlemen," the same darkhaired Eden Vital sister greeted everyone at the appointed time, "welcome to Exercise Pointbreak. The purpose of this exercise is to evaluate a new augmented reality system that Eden Vital has been developing, to see if it can be used to conduct more realistic training scenarios. Sister Kallen, if you would?"

A redhaired teen girl stepped forward, wearing a pair of shaded sunglasses and a padded bodysuit. She was also armed with an odd-looking rifle, one that did not appear to actually have a muzzle at the end of its barrel.

"The glasses Sister Kallen is wearing projects an overlay over the designated training facility, allowing for a wide range of environments to be simulated. In addition, the gun she is carrying is not an actual firearm and is instead an AR/VR controller. When firing, the simulation renders the gun firing, as well as the effects of hits. If the shot hits a wall, a bullet hole will be added to the environment. If the shot hits another person partaking in the exercise," Sancia drew a similarly muzzle-less pistol and pointed at Kallen before pulling the trigger, eliciting a pained and annoyed cry from the girl, "the suit the person wears will discharge an electrical shock at the approximate point of impact indicating the hit. Should the hit be fatal, the system will lock the user out from any further interactions with the simulation. Any questions?"

Besides a certain askance gapping at how casually Sancia had shot one of her fellow sisters, granted it was all virtual, only one hand rose.

"Yes, Sergeant?"

"How fragile are these glasses and controllers?" Coburg asked. "I mean, the way grunts are with equipment…"

"Rest assured," Sancia said with a serene smile. "The equipment has already gone through rigorous testing by Eden Vital's own militants. In their enthusiasm, they even used the controllers as clubs, as one might with an actual rifle. In the end, the soldiers themselves ended up in worse shape than the equipment."

Impressive, if true, considering the great propensity of the lower ranks to break anything and everything that they might be issued with.

"Today will be spent familiarizing all of you with the equipment," Sancia continued. "Tomorrow, the assembled teams will conduct a series of exercises, matching up against each other in different scenarios. In addition to General Darlton and Colonel Gottwald, His Eminence the Cardinal Lamperouge and Her Highness the Princess Cornelia will also be here to observe."

Coburg's eyes widened and he could hear a few muffled coughs around him as well. The presence of the two officers already signified the importance of the exercise. To have two royals present promised to turn this into an outright spectacle.

"A question, ma'am?" the army sergeant that had accompanied Coburg raised her hand. "I can understand why elements of Her Highness' guard were selected, and I'm sure Eden Vital has its reasons for the specific soldiers of its own that are here. But why the rest of us?"

Coburg breathed a sigh of relief at being relieved from asking that very question himself.

"The answer to that is simple enough," Sancia answered. "The four fireteams we selected from the 597th and the gendarmerie all participated in the Babel raid, and all four successfully completed their objectives with exemplary skill. Your own squad, Sergeant, was also specifically recommended by Colonel Gottwald on account of having the highest readiness scores of the entire regiment."

The gendarmerie master sergeant raised an eyebrow as he snuck a sideways glance at the army sergeant. That sort of proficiency was certainly noteworthy, and in stark contrast to his own two fireteams. Not that Zulu or Foxtrot were incompetent, if any of them had stooped that low they would have been booted out of the gendarmerie ages ago, but there was a definite greater dependency on luck pulling their asses out of the fire than Coburg would have liked. Hopefully they wouldn't end up embarrassing themselves in the upcoming simulations too badly. They were clearly going to be going up against the elites of the other services, and luck could only take one so far.

As it turned out, their luck didn't even get them that far. When the next day rolled around, Coburg found his gendarmes up first, facing off against the Princess Cornelia's royal guard.

"Ah fuck," the other gendarme sergeant so succinctly summed up Coburg's own thoughts.

Claudio grimaced slightly as he gripped his not-rifle. The first scenario of the day was a hostage rescue situation, with the Glaston Knights on the defensive while the gendarmerie were the attackers seeking to rescue the hostage. It was already a bit grating on his pride to have to play the bad guys in the exercise, though his sense of duty as a soldier was enough to mostly mollify that. What truly perturbed him however was the person playing the hostage. Lucretia, also wearing the AR glasses and suit, was sitting nonchalantly in a chair in the center of an otherwise barren room. If the girl herself was at all flustered with the situation she was in, she did not show it. In fact her serene composure was almost unnerving, to Claudio at least.

"Is everything alright, Sister Lucretia?"

The young woman looked up at Claudio. "Why would it not be, Captain Darlton?"

Lucretia's response was far from brusque, but the sheer formality of her mannerism would make anyone think she and Claudio were effectively strangers. And in frankness, that was not too far from the truth, seeing as even during Lucretia's secondment to Cornelia, the young woman had not made much of an effort to socialize with the knights sworn to the princess. Probably the longest conversation Claudio had had with her was when he was attempting to apologize for the debacle at Lake Kawaguchi, and even then, the captain could not say he was entirely successful in that endeavor.

"I suppose I just wanted to make sure you weren't anxious, is all," Claudio managed.

The Eden Vital sister tilted her head slightly. "Do you treat the women knights sworn to the Princess Cornelia as delicate wallflowers as well, Captain?"

"What? Of course not," Claudio responded emphatically.

"Then I would ask that you extend the same courtesy to myself," Lucretia said. "I am after all a battle sister of the Order of the Black Knights."

A battle sister. That was such an odd turn of phrase that Claudio wondered if it was pulled from some sort of bad pulp fiction. But Lucretia was clearly serious about her title, and her general vocation. Even if Claudio couldn't help but feel that her dainty figure had no place on the battlefield.

A faint boom followed by the sound of simulated gunfire could be heard in the earpieces they were all wearing.

"Contact!" one of Cornelia's female knights shouted over the radio. "Enemy approaching from the northwest bearing-gah!"

Said voice abruptly cut off, indicating the knight in question had taken a hit.

"Count is single fireteam!" another knight followed up. "Liliana is down! They're pushing hard!"

Marika's words were interspersed with further bangs, indicating the gendarmes were making ample use of flashbangs to cover their push. It was certainly an aggressive approach, though considering who they were up against the gendarmes might have decided a frontal assault was their best chance. Or maybe not, considering the knights had only spotted one fireteam.

"David, Edgar, go support Marika," Claudio ordered. "Keep your eyes peeled though, this might be a distraction to let their second fireteam sneak up on us."

In which case sending two of his own teammates away might not be the best idea, but Claudio was reasonably confident they'd be able to at least hold out long enough to recall them if the gendarmes did show up. As it turned out, he did not have to wait long to test that hypothesis out.

"Contact!" Alfred called out this time. "Incoming enemies from the southeast!"

That was arguably a predictable course of action, but with both sides restricted to two fireteams each, it was not like the gendarmes had too many options to begin with. Still, they had been sighted early enough that Alfred and Bart were able to open up first. That immediately blunted the gendarmes' momentum, and with Claudio added to the mix they were able to actually down one of the attackers before he could scurry back into cover.

While the immediate skirmish was tilting in the guards' favor, Claudio had arguably made a mistake when he had stepped away from watching over Lucretia. As the knights suppressed their gendarme opponents, Lucretia rose from her seat and walked over to Claudio. With his back to her, the knight did not even notice her approach until Lucretia was within arm's reach, by which point, it was too late.

"Huh? What are you-"

Lucretia drove a solid punch into Claudio's side, a hit that the knight thoroughly felt even through the padded armor. As he stumbled, Lucretia grabbed the pistol strapped to his hip and double tapped in him the chest.


The armor registered the hits by discharging twice, causing Claudio to keel over entirely.

"What the!?"

Bart was next to realize something was going on, but Lucretia already had him in her sights and nailed him with a headshot. The knight's armor dutifully also shocked him, though thankfully it was not set up to deliver them to his actual head.

"You bloody bitch!" Alfred, the last of the Glaston Knights presently standing, cursed as he switched his aim to Lucretia.

He never got a shot off, as one of the gendarmes that had used the commotion to sneak up opened fire, nailing Alfred with what sounded to be half a clip for good measure.

"Clear," the gendarme announced after giving the room a once-over. "And that is no way to talk to a lady. Sister Lucretia, are you alright?"

"Eminently so," Lucretia said, pulling off Claudio's earpiece and wiping it off before putting it on herself.

"Sister-" Claudio began.

Lucretia proceeded to shoot Claudio again, causing the knight to cry out.

"Hush," she said, "you're supposed to be dead."

Even the gendarmes had to wince a bit at that.

"I am now tapped into the op force's communications," Lucretia said. "Shall we go and relieve your other team?"

"Umm, well, technically we win if we're able to successfully extract you," Coburg said.

"You also win if the op force is wiped out and I remain unscathed," Lucretia said. "Would that not be a more satisfying victory?"

Coburg spent perhaps a moment or so staring at Lucretia, as if he could not quite figure out what to make of the graceful girl gripping the pistol. Eventually, the master sergeant shrugged.

"Hell, why not? Might as well go all-in."

"Then we are agreed," Lucretia said. "Let the hunt commence."

In the observation room some distance away, where the higherups were watching the unfolding exercise, Cornelia shot Lelouch an annoyed look. The cardinal in turn simply shrugged.

"It looks like Lucretia's still holding a slight grudge about getting shot in the back."

While that did not exactly diminish Cornelia's annoyance, the reminder of the prior indiscretion visited upon the young woman was still enough to silence whatever verbal protest the princess would have otherwise issued. That left Andreas to be the one to first express his opinion.

"This system is quite impressive," the general said, electing to focus on the actual merits of the exercise. "It provides a level of immersion even better than live fire exercises. How long has Eden Vital been developing it?"

To that Lelouch actually looked over at his assistant to answer.

"Approximately five years," Sancia did not disappoint. "The main difficulty was in developing a robust and performant enough wireless communication system to allow for real-time streaming of the rendered simulation environment to so many participants. Miniaturizing the AR glasses was a relatively straightforward manufacturing challenge in comparison."

"I see," the general rubbed his chin. "And just how many users can the system currently support?"

"Thirty-two, although there is a major upgrade in progress that would increase that number to sixty-four."

"Could the system create virtual enemies to fight?" Jeremiah asked. "So that instead of dividing the participants up into opposing teams, they could all be on the same side."

"That is an option," Sancia said with a nod, "though by their very nature AI controlled bots are not as creatively unpredictable as human opponents."

"Still, it does sound like the limitations are not insurmountable," said Andreas. "Is the system ready for wider deployment?"

"That would depend on the military's budget," Sancia stated frankly.

That saw the general glance over at Cornelia, eliciting a weary sigh from the princess.

"I will discuss the matter with Schneizel. Assuming a convincing case can be made, I'm sure some rearrangement of the budget is possible." Cornelia glanced over at Lelouch. "It's not like this would be the first time money has flowed to Eden Vital as some sort of military procurement."

In truth there was pretty much always a steady flow of money from the Britannian government to Eden Vital, with military spending only a small fraction compared to all the social services contracted out to the ecclesiastical order, not to mention the thought elevator compute time.

"Ah, it looks like the exercise is about to be concluded," Lelouch said instead of making any retorts to Cornelia's remark.

On the screen, they could see that the gendarme, plus Lucretia, had pincered the remaining guardsmen and wiped them out. Not that Cornelia's retainers had not put up quite a fight, but with the element of surprise and Lucretia eavesdropping on them, the field was simply too tilted against them to overcome with their surviving numbers. From the conversation over the radio, the disbelief at this outcome was shared by both sides.

"So does this still count as a win for us?" one of the gendarme sergeants asked the other. "I mean, that Eden Vital sister pretty much carried us the entire way."

"Nothing new for you then."

"Ha ha. But seriously, does this count as a win?"

"Probably. Why are you so hung up on it?"

"Well it's just I had us at 1-2 in the pool. If we've already won once, we technically need to lose the next two exercises."

"Did you actually bet against your own team?"

"Considering who we're up against, yeah, of course. Why, what'd you put in?"

"2-1 to us."

"See, you also thought we'd lose at least one."

"Well of course we'd probably lose at least one, but that doesn't mean I'd hurt morale by betting we'd lose overall!"

"Gentlemen," Lucretia's voice cut in. "You are aware the radio transmissions are being monitored by the observers?"

The absence of any follow-up indicated they at least were now.

End of Chapter 45

I've actually been working on the scenes for this and the next chapter somewhat out of order. Due to a bit of uncertainty as to how to proceed with a few of the scenes, I more or less started working my way backwards, filling out the bits that I could figure out as I went. One consequence is that some of the scenes ended up sprawling, again. The training exercise alone went out for a bit longer than I was expecting, to the point where I've actually split it. The rest will be in the next chapter, as well as some wrap-up.

As for future chapters, I have scenes outlined all the way up to my equivalent of the Black Rebellion. Conservatively, that's probably about three or four more chapters. Chapter count wise I've already surpassed Calculus as far as pacing goes. I am still likely to keep this constrained to below that story's chapter count, if only because I do not have the equivalent of an R3 arc like I did with Calculus, but we'll see.