Part I: Three Visits (1)
"This is unexpected." Lelouch greets Schneizel personally at the entrance to the inner compound. There is a carriage which has stopped outside the Ashford residence, visible from his window. It bears no insignia of the Second Prince - an indication that Schneizel is not in the area on official business for Britannia, or wishes to pass through relatively unnoticed - but Lelouch can recognize the arrival of his brother when he sees it. The Ashfords are not expecting any other visitors today.
Schneizel smiles mildly, removing his hat so the afternoon sun glints briefly off fair hair before he steps in alone. "It's good to see you too, brother." He spares a nod to the attendant who collects his cloak as well. "Keeping well, I see, since our last meeting."
Lelouch turns to lead back into the house. "Well as I can be." They pass Jeremiah, guarding faithfully from a small distance, lowered eyes and spine angled smooth and disciplined in reverence to their visitor.
Even in these parts, it is not uncommon knowledge that the Prime Minister of Westeros at times acts in his own capacity towards ends which may or may not be aligned with the Emperor's will. Either way, their father, head of the ruling and most powerful house in Westeros, does not seem to notice. It is more likely, of course, that Charles zi Britannia has simply chosen thus far not to concern himself with such troubles, allowing Schneizel free rein to play his own games even in this region, while political tensions continue to mount. Lelouch wonders if this is the reason for Schneizel's visit now. Calling upon Lelouch occasionally after Lelouch's exile across the Narrow Sea six years ago seems to be another thing Schneizel has managed to do without repercussions - though Lelouch has never believed these visits to be borne, at least not purely, out of genuine concern for his well-being or a desire to keep him entertained with chess and conversations about Britannia's latest affairs.
But in Essos, good chess opponents are difficult to come by, and Schneizel did assist him and Jeremiah in locating the Ashfords back when he had chosen his severance from the palace, so Lelouch finds it in himself to welcome his visits all the same.
Schneizel's presence is one reason why it is difficult for many here to forget that Lelouch was once a Britannian prince even though the title and its authority are no longer his to keep. Lelouch, however, does not mind so much at times like these, when Milly's two house-servants immediately bring tea and a second chair to the sitting room that he arrives at, and when his request once he and Schneizel are seated is heeded without delay. "Leave us."
Lelouch sets down the chessboard and the pieces without being asked, leaving Schneizel to pour the tea and open the game. He does not make this a habit merely because Schneizel has always favored white; with Schneizel Lelouch has always preferred the added security of a chance to analyze his intentions should the opening tone provide any revelations. It is the same both in game and in conversation.
Schneizel makes his move. "I trust you have already guessed what brought me here."
Lelouch has guessed. Three months ago, Kamine Island fell to Britannian attack, a seizure no doubt launched on leaked information that half of the Ashigaru's nearby reinforcement troops were away helping to open a new sakuradite mine on Ashigaru territory further inland. Caught between humiliating defeat and sending his remaining soldiers to fight to the death against Britannia's wildfire, the clan head Kururugi Genbu instead chose suicide, leaving remaining clan leadership with no other immediate option but surrender. Genbu's suicide is not, however, the curious news. Only Kamine Island was seized; the rest of Ashigaru land was not.
Lelouch leans back in his chair and watches Schneizel counter his pawn's move. "You don't know it either, do you? The reason why Britannia seems interested only in Kaminejima, and presumably its sakuradite. For now."
"Indeed. If it is ultimately another additional sakuradite resource that the Emperor wants, this would appear to have been a foolish move."
'The Emperor', he says, and not 'our father'; Schneizel has always known, since the events surrounding Marianne's death, never to refer to him as such in Lelouch's presence - one of the small measures of sincerity and respect offered to Lelouch, at the least. At most, it may well be by now that Schneizel too has entirely stopped referring to the Emperor as such.
Charles spends a significant amount of time now locked away in the towers of Pendragon. Not even Schneizel has knowledge of what his plans may be. Even now, they can only speculate on the apparent motives behind the siege of Kamine - Essos is richer in sakuradite than the entire land of Westeros ever was, and though much of it is found in the mountainous regions under jurisdiction of the Ashigaru and its sister clans, there are other sources of the prized fuel which could have been explored to feed Britannia's growing need. Instead Britannia has seemingly provoked the ire of one of the most influential clans in the region - at present also the clan believed to possess the biggest potential for resistance against Britannia's imminent encroachment on Essos.
Unlike Kawaguchi and Shikine, the two smaller nearby islands occupied by sister clans which have also fallen to Britannian rule in the recent years, Ashigaru territory extends beyond Kamine and Edo, right up to the Narita mountains and slightly further north-east. The people there are so named for their highly skilled and light-footed soldiers, and also the small-boned red elk native to their mountains, tamed ones of which are said to be noble steeds swifter and nimbler than horses. Given such circumstances, Britannia could not also have hoped to conquer them whole with the same amount of force that took Kawaguchi and Shikine, even if only half the Ashigaru troops had been at hand. Yet all reports say that Kamine Island was surrendered to troops no more than three thousand strong, numbers which clearly indicate there was no intention to press further and suppress all of Ashigaru's threat against the Britannian Empire's ambitions, wildfire ammunition or no. To most onlookers it is a mercy for the clan to have been caught by surprise and still be spared so much; to Lelouch and Schneizel it is a strangely missed opportunity on Britannia's part - and foolish, indeed, if Britannia has thought this enough to intimidate the Ashigaru from future aggression.
"What did you find?" Lelouch asks, failing to keep his curiosity at bay now that it is clear Schneizel came to probe for other possible motivations behind the attack.
Schneizel's mouth sets in a thin line as he shakes his head, and Lelouch knows his answer is in earnest. "Nothing that has led me to any other conclusions, for the time being." He folds his hands and eases into a smile. "But during my travels I found something else which I think may work in your favor."
In the second's pause that follows, Lelouch feels the events, words, and implications slide into alignment in his mind and realizes, knows what is coming next. Shogun Kururugi Genbu has only one immediate successor - a son likely around Lelouch's own age and most probably an alpha. The Ashigaru have something resembling a democratic system where the families occupying the government posts are rotated every once in awhile based on supposed divine blessing and the people's mandate, but given that no change of hands has seemed necessary in the near future and given the unexpected lurch Genbu has left them in, leadership has likely fallen now to the only heir, who - if the lack of news in these parts regarding the continuation of the Kururugi line is anything to go by - is unmated and himself heirless.
Across the table Schneizel says with calm, "Ashigaru knows now that it has been complacent to ignore Britannia's growing thirst for power, or at least to hope blindly in its ability to withstand an invasion. But to have no successors for the new shogun does not bode well for them in now uncertain times, especially since divine mandate is still upon the Kururugi house... or so I understand." His eyes fix directly on Lelouch's. "I picked up word that Kururugi's council is somewhat anxious now to have him mated - to one of House Britannia, no less, based on some vision granted to their Oracle. What it is, I do not know in detail, but... counterintuitive as their desired course of action may seem for now, I thought it a splendid opportunity."
"...For me," Lelouch says, terse, obvious though the answer already is to him.
"Would there be anyone else, dear brother? I took the liberty of sending them an offer on your behalf - anonymously, of course."
Lelouch does not need to hear what the response from Ashigaru was. That Schneizel is visiting now to tell him this is confirmation enough. And in that moment it is difficult not to feel a surge of anger at his own helplessness in everything that has just been sprung upon him, even if he can also already see the merits of going along with such a proposal. To think, of all things, that an exiled Britannian Prince is who the Ashigaru want to welcome into their leadership. There may be some sense to be found there - but the irony is no less.
He feels rather than sees himself withdraw his fingers before their tips can graze the crown of his queen, his chest tight. Out loud, Lelouch holds his voice steady and says, "There is nothing I have that any other woman or omega male cannot give."
A small attempt at questioning Schneizel's initiative. Strictly speaking, pregnancies among alpha females and even alpha and beta males are not unheard of, though they are uncommon, and it is only logical that all omegas and beta women tend to be favored partners in political unions where heirs are a consideration, owing to the more suited nature of their heat cycles and body types toward successful conception. Omega though Lelouch may be, however, there are only two comprehensible reasons why the Ashigaru would benefit from an alliance with one of royal Britannian blood: The first, his inside knowledge of Britannian warfare, of its tactics, the dragons and the wildfire, of Pendragon's fortresses and exploitable weaknesses in a pre-emptive attack. The second --
"No," Schneizel returns in agreement. "But you are Marianne's firstborn, and last of any of the lines that an egg given by C.C. has hatched for."
Ganymede. For the briefest of moments there is a tender memory that resurfaces. His mother's dragon had been a deep blue, scales like the sunlight glittering across the ocean's surface, a low rumble that had soon become as comforting and familiar as his mother's voice, a solid fortress with a gentle snout and a warm breath that he could curl up against while spending late afternoons reading in the gardens. A form that had never been very big, but was gargantuan and almighty in a young child's eyes. He breathes in and the memory vanishes, the same way the dragon did after his mother's death.
"The fact that C.C. favored my mother is no guarantee that she will appear for me."
"Even so." Schneizel smiles, smooth and undeterred. "It seems even Kururugi's council recognizes that a little hope can go a long way in strengthening a people's resolve."
Lelouch finds little humor in his own laugh. "An army to oppose Britannia, in exchange for my commitment as a mate and the mere hope that I bring dragons to fight fire with fire." It is not entirely baseless, given that C.C. had a penchant for physically appearing at certain new beginnings in Marianne's life - once, after her engagement, and another time, after Nunnally's birth - but out of all this one thing, at least, is clear. "You do have Pendragon's throne in sight, after all."
“You assume that my ambitions have carried me that far when much is still uncertain to us.” Schneizel lowers his tea from his lips, still smiling evenly. “The Prime Minister has a duty to all of Westeros to keep the peace and order, or at least, to restore it. But you know as well as I do that the paths toward accomplishing this are limited, things being what they are. The change may need to come from the outside.” His eyes consider the lack of movement on the chessboard before returning to Lelouch’s. “Whatever the case, you have my full assurance that in this matter, our interests align. And I think you’ll find it difficult to deny how this arrangement is useful to both of us."
That much can hardly be argued with. Whether or not Schneizel’s pursuits are mainly for personal gain, even the Prime Minister’s opposition to Charles can only be taken so far.
And for the six years since Nunnally succumbed to the frailties of her weakened body, the six years since he - in a fit of immature rage - confronted the man who fathered him and declared that he would no longer have any part in Britannia's oppressive rule, Lelouch has observed and waited. Waited for a chance, a route to pursue - any opportunity to be built upon that will aid in seeking answers and vengeance for his mother's and sister's deaths, and in crippling the current Britannian system, directly or otherwise. For six years no potential seeds he found ever came to fruition, but now here one is, ready and almost tailor-made with little need for maneuvering on his part.
"Be that as it may." Lelouch cannot help the bitter taste forming on his tongue, cannot help the biting accusation that makes it out of his mouth despite knowing better than to ask. "Is this what I am to you? Some pawn to be traded in your game of thrones?"
"You know I think more highly of you than that, brother." Schneizel either has enough decency left in him to look concerned, or makes a show of that as well. With him such things have never been certain. "And I would not have proposed anything had I thought I would find you strongly disagreeable. Kururugi and some of his men will be arriving tomorrow for you to discuss your terms with them. He is young - good-looking, if word of mouth is to be believed, and as I'm sure you were already aware." Schneizel slides his chair back and stands to leave, giving him a small smile. "It may be that your coming together is destined, after all."
"I will be the final judge of that." Lelouch manages to keep a lip from curling in response. Schneizel owes him that much. "Lord Kururugi meets with me alone."
His brother lets out a soft sigh, as if to emphasize how indulgent he finds the demand. "Very well, Lelouch. I hope you see to it that my efforts were not in vain."
Lelouch rises to see him to the door, and their chess game is left still in its early stages, untouched since Lelouch wavered over moving his queen.
The Ashfords have a pleasant garden, nowhere near as large as the ones of Pendragon's Aries Villa, but a fitting echo of it all the same. This is the place that feels closest to his childhood home, where memories of Marianne's laughter and Nunnally tackling him into the grass are relived the easiest. Blossoms native to Westeros flower in neatly trimmed clusters and in different bright and pastel colors; birdsong and a constant, soft trickle of water from the fountain are often the only sounds gracing the atmosphere. Here Lelouch came, often in the few months following his exile, to calm his rage and soothe the aching loss Nunnally left when she, too, had passed. It was here that the turbulence within eventually stilled to form a new resolve - new answers to seek and a new path to pursue, and it is here that Lelouch finds himself now, to clear his mind over Schneizel's latest proposition.
Marianne vi Britannia's body was found - on a lazy afternoon such as this when she had for unknown reasons asked her guards to stand down - collapsed in a heap over Nunnally's stricken form on the stairs, stabbed and bled to death from what Lelouch later determined was the work of slash harkens. He was dragged, kicking and screaming, from the scene he'd discovered by Cornelia - early enough so that it haunted him only in nightmares. Nunnally was not so fortunate, having suffered similar wounds to her legs before Marianne had presumably tried to shield her daughter, and having witnessed the whole event - a trauma which caused her to refuse to open her eyes even long after it had passed. Later she managed to convey that their assailants had emerged suddenly from the shadows, cloaked and masked, but she was unable to either recall or speak of anything more.
Lelouch was ten years old when that had happened; Nunnally - sweet and precious and his only full sibling - only seven. For the first few months after the incident she fought her own nightmares and demons and won, emerging from it all with smiles that still carried the same selfless warmth they once had. Nunnally had great strength of heart, but the attack left her blinded and crippled, stripped of her earlier exuberance due to her frailer condition, and two years later an illness that started in the diminished lower half of her body eventually consumed her and took her from him, too.
Till this day it is not clear who or what was behind the attack, though there are several possibilities that Lelouch has considered, over and over. Marianne, like her firstborn, was an omega, though that in and of itself was not the likely cause of the jealousy of the other imperial consorts, many of whom were also omegas with strident personalities in their own right. Charles reportedly never bonded with any of his consorts, but he seemed especially fond of Marianne - Marianne of the commoner family Lamperouge. A commoner with spirit and skill which she had used to rise in rank, who even had the bearer C.C.'s favor and who thought nothing of bringing Ganymede crashing into one of the Imperial gardens to ensure her children would never be bullied twice. So close was she with her dragon, too, that she was one of the few esteemed riders - a feat rarely accomplished by one who was not already a Knight of the Round.
Beyond the palace, as Lelouch soon found once he started searching for answers, more possibilities abounded. Britannia was a house once blessed with healthy dragon hatchlings; indeed, long had the dragon been the symbol of their house. When Charles had ascended the throne, he had embarked on a quest to unite the remaining lands of Westeros not already under Britannian control, and though some houses had agreed with the idea of a centralized government, the many who resisted had been tyrannized and forced to surrender nonetheless to the might of Britannia's dragon fire.
In the Britannian Empire those with power and wealth rule and control those without. This was the philosophy that was, with worsening conditions on the streets, finally starting to breed deep discontent even among several of their own commoners, and the same philosophy that the Emperor spat into his face the day his sister's hand slipped lifeless from his own, when he stormed into the throne room demanding an explanation for Charles' inaction on the part of both Marianne's death and Nunnally's.
Impudence and open criticism of his father's methods earned him banishment away from the shelter of the palace walls and the other siblings he loved, though with the pulling of a few strings Schneizel managed to put him in contact with the Ashfords - a house on friendly terms with his mother's and the beneficiaries of her goodwill when they had relocated to Essos to act as middlemen for the rich amount of trade that went on between both regions. They have been doing well since, and are not the only settlers from Westeros in the area, so much so that the house's matriarch-to-be, Milly Ashford, was until recent events drafting plans to start a school for Westerosi children.
Milly is all but two years ahead of him in age, bright eyes and light colored hair of undeniable Westerosi heritage that almost bounces when she walks. Never once has she not had a fond smile ready for him, though today it is touched with empathy when he tells her briefly of what is to come. Like him, Milly is no stranger to the rising tensions in the region. Nor does she fail to comprehend the weight of his decision, and so when she takes his hands in hers and grasps them tight, it is fierce and warm and oddly reassuring.
"If there is anything we can do to help - you only have to send me word."
"Thank you," Lelouch says to her softly, squeezing her hands in return and remembering, not for the first time, why he considers Milly thus far one of his only real friends in Essos.
Milly gives him one more smile, encouraging, before she leaves him to the garden entrance, disappearing down the marbled hallway with the gauze of her skirt trailing behind her.
He listens to the soft whispers of her dress fabric and thinks of the sound of his own mother's footsteps, and now Lelouch closes his eyes, breathes in deeply the faint scent of roses and wisteria and pine.
In his heart he knows already the path that he will most likely choose. Britannia must be stopped - changed, for the gentler, fairer world Nunnally wanted, there is no better opportunity that will ever come by, and if Lelouch is honest with himself it is hardly a reluctance to take a mate that is troubling him - No, it is his pride, wounded at the knowledge of Schneizel's hand in this and concerned with respect to the true nature of his brother's plans. Britannia's Second Prince has never been easy to read, not even to Lelouch.
To be bearing heirs would be another concern - to become a mother before any of his goals are achieved would make death in battle far less desirable, limit the number of compromises he can make at short notice.
But with a military strength as formidable as the Ashigaru's, there is a lot more that can be done in return, and if Schneizel should come to pose a new threat, there will be ways to deal with that as well. Which now leaves only one other person's wishes Lelouch will want to consider.
He beckons to Jeremiah, who is standing guard by the entrance back into the house. Inconspicuous, but ever watchful and alert, and he arrives promptly to kneel by Lelouch's feet in the pavillon, a knight's bow.
"Sir Jeremiah," Lelouch nods at him so that he may rise, and absentmindedly ends up letting go of the railing and mirroring the stance that Jeremiah assumes, clasping his hands behind his back as he gazes out at the greenery. "Indulge me in this and answer me honestly - if you had the chance to choose all over again, would you still come with me, and leave Pendragon behind?"
Jeremiah was eight when he first heard of Marianne's prowess as a knight, or so he has told Lelouch - he was ten when she became the fifth Empress and when he offered himself for training in guard duty, hoping to follow in her footsteps, twelve when Lelouch was born, fifteen when he was knighted and assigned to her personal unit. Marianne inspired admiration and devotion in no small number of people, and Jeremiah lived worthy of his title as a knight, standing steadfast by her children even in the wake of her death. When Lelouch was exiled, several were sympathetic, but an open show of support would have carried certain risk for many. Among the siblings dearer to him, Cornelia had her post as Commander of the Royal Guard and her sister Euphemia to worry about, Schneizel already had his own games and politics, Clovis, though he usually meant well, was always too self-absorbed. Only Jeremiah had nothing to lose, remaining faithfully by Lelouch's side ever since choosing to follow him over the Narrow Sea.
Now his oldest friend, aide and counsel answers him in a single breath, soft, but no less sincere. "I'd do it all again in a heartbeat."
Lelouch turns to look at him again, at shoulders held straight and proud and all the affection in eyes etched with the beginnings of careworn lines, and thinks then that Jeremiah looks old, now - old from all the years dedicated to Marianne and then to him, old from having lived no other life besides one of loyalty and service.
"It is a true honor," Lelouch holds out a hand to him in gratitude even as he knows he can never repay the debt he owes, "to have had your unconditional devotion all these years." When Jeremiah takes his hand he tells him softly, "I do not ask for you to follow me, if I should go along with what Schneizel has proposed. And I will release you if that is what you wish."
There is a new life Jeremiah can start, after all, even if he too can no longer return to Britannia. But it is the same now as it was six years ago when he left the palace. If Jeremiah were wearing his old cloak Lelouch imagines that the man would have swept it aside before kneeling to kiss his knuckles, but even without it the gesture and the words that follow are no less solemn and official. "There is nowhere my Lord can go that I will not follow - not if my Lord desires me with him."
Lelouch releases a silent breath, something like relief and a deep fondness stirring in his chest. "Then I will appeal on your behalf when I meet the lord shogun tomorrow." He smiles in acceptance of Jeremiah's declaration, and the Knight returns to his feet. "Nevertheless, I don’t think them likely to refuse."
"You intend to accept the arrangement, then?"
"We both already know that Kururugi is no brute." Lelouch smiles wryly; by the few reports so far it sounds like he would make a suitable enough mate, though Lelouch will still have to assess him for himself when they meet. No attempt at pair bonding while uncertain or insecure would be successful, in any case. "As long as the other terms we can agree on are favorable, I expect that I will make my offer."
He folds his arms over the railing to look out again at the garden, enveloped now in a warm glow by the beginnings of sunset, and when he speaks into it he feels as though he has already convinced himself.
"The better choice is all there is to it."
A dream, Kaguya says. It is a dream that visited her, a fortnight after the surrender of Kaminejima, of his fire bird and a dragon encircled and weaving in a dance before merging to give rise to a wyvern, its flamed wings glowing bright and glorious. Victorious. The message is clear. For the next generation of the Kururugi line Suzaku must take a mate from the Britannian house; for their people to triumph in the impending war against Britannia, he must find a way to ally with their very enemy itself.
The notion is ludicrous, at first, but Kaguya is not one to speak lightly of such matters. And Suzaku is youthful, but no longer the young heir, the seishi who can leave the monumental decisions to his father and his future responsibilities to the next day. As fate would have it, the night he chose to oppose his father's decision was the very night he became the Ashigaru's new shogun.
And when a messenger sends word that confirms an old rumor, word that says Britannia's eleventh prince has indeed been in exile in Essos for the last few years, and is willing to discuss an alliance, things begin to make more sense. For even in the east there have long been whispers of why the eleventh prince was banished, of who his mother was and of her skill with Britannia's winged beasts.
So they send word in return and Suzaku sets out for the meeting, bringing with him only Tohdoh and Kouzuki so that they may travel less conspicuously. His mentor and teacher and his best captain will be enough, at least for this journey where they will go as a show of goodwill, as recognition that in light of recent events it would currently be more dangerous for one of Britannian standing to come to them instead.
Yokosuka, where the Ashford residence is, is a day's journey on foot - far enough that it is better to ride but near enough that three Ashigaru on elk can pass easily as travelers who are in the port area for business matters.
Of course, should the Prince agree and should they marry, word of the union will nonetheless spread eventually. For now, though, precautions are still wise, and they wear their hoods and cut through the forests where they can, lest their faces be recognized. He leads first, careful to watch their surroundings and terrain for irregularities even as the ground rushes underfoot.
Prior to Kaminejima's fall, Suzaku had only recently begun to consider his marriage. There is no strict rule against taking others to the bed before a marriage or a soul bonding, as long as those who lie together have drunk of the appropriate herbs to moderate the reactions and heats of their bodies, so he has had a few partners, though none that he would consider lovers. The probability that he would have to take a mate for political purposes has always been clear, given his standing. For a time it was said that it would be Kaguya, his distant cousin from the Sumeragi line and now their Oracle, but nothing was ever made certain, and neither were the few other names that were ever spoken of. He supposes it is fortunate, that there is no promise of betrothal he will have to suddenly go back on given this new turn of events.
But ultimately it will not matter now even if that were the case.
If his people are looking to him, and if the vision is to be believed, then Suzaku must be prepared. If he was prepared to take matters into his own hands, Tohdoh told him that night - if he was prepared to decide for their people what was best for them - then he must do what is necessary to reassure them and continue leading them down that path.
Suzaku does not think himself wrong (his father was proud, determined and a strong leader - but stubborn and foolish too, in his own way), but he does hope that the Prince will at least be likable, and reasonable in his terms. Rumors have spoken only of the Prince being a beauty much like his mother, and it is not known exactly what his motives against Britannia are. By now, the launch of a counterattack seems inevitable for them, if they can find a suitable opening before they are attacked again - but Suzaku also does not want unnecessary bloodshed under his leadership. To be shogun is also to guard, nurture, protect - and fire may be a part of his namesake, a dangerous weapon in battle - but Suzaku thinks, too, of wings ablaze with life, hope - and knows that it cannot only bring death.
Yokosuka is a town with streets busier than their own, being one of the biggest ports between the two lands divided by the Narrow Sea. The lanes are narrower than they are in Edo, and Suzaku has to maneuver his elk through a few of them to get to the outskirts, Kallen and Tohdoh following close behind. He sees Kallen's lip curl in disgust once at the stares of some merchants by the roadside, not that they would notice it from the shadows of her hood. There are a few here who are unscrupulous and would waste no time making a tidy sum out of the fine horns on Tohdoh's elk if a chance is ever presented to them. The return journey will be more dangerous if they are followed - but it is pure folly for any poacher to try their darts and luck against an Ashigaru soldier's blades, especially Kallen's.
The Ashford residence is found at the town's edges where there is more space, immediately distinguishable by way of its foreign architecture - stone walls, large, curved arches and fine iron gates. It is perhaps unsurprising that even in exile, the Prince has managed to find refuge in such a place.
A woman meets them at the entrance, with a fine silk gown that falls to her ankles and blond hair in soft curls around her shoulders. Suzaku thinks that this must be Milly Ashford, heir to the fortune of the Ashford house.
They remove their hoods and dismount before entering the gates, a mark of respect, and she returns the small inclination of his head that he gives her in greeting. Her eyes twinkle when she smiles, warm in her welcome. "I'll let him know you've arrived," she says, after guiding them behind the walls to the inner compound, and disappears back into the house.
The common tongue in all of Westeros is Britannian, and all but a few here have learnt it in addition to their own dialects of Yayoi ever since trade started developing between the two lands. It is said that not all Westerosi are as familiar yet with the eastern tongues, though the settlers here are certainly expected to be, at least in the common Yayoi speech from which all other eastern tongues are said to descend. The Prince will likely be fluent enough by now not to have any trouble adapting quickly to Ashigaru, if he has indeed spent somewhere over five years in the area - although the message was initially delivered in Britannian, and Milly's greeting in the same.
She emerges some moments later with two men behind her, one about his age of eighteen and dressed simple but smart in a loose blouse tucked into slacks, and the taller one - judging not just from his more formal wear but from the way he carries himself and immediately assesses Suzaku's traveling party - his guard. They walk down the few steps to meet Suzaku and his military commanders upfront, three against three.
"I present," Milly says, taking a step back for emphasis, "Lelouch vi Britannia, firstborn of Empress Marianne Lamperouge and former Eleventh Prince of Westeros. As well as Sir Jeremiah of the noble house Gottwald."
Suzaku bows, deeper this time, so do his commanders.
"This is our lord Suzaku of the Ashigaru's Kururugi line." Tohdoh does their introductions. "I speak humbly as General Tohdoh Kyoshirou, and with us is High Captain Kouzuki Kallen."
Lelouch and Jeremiah bow in turn, elegant and precise with one arm behind each of their backs. As they straighten Lelouch lifts his eyes to his and the intensity of his gaze is enough to cause an average onlooker to reflexively turn away. Suzaku does not, though he has to keep himself from drawing too sharp a breath as he meets him for it.
The prince is dark-haired, slender with refined features, noticeably Westerosi only by his too-fair skin and the striking violet of his eyes, framed by lashes somehow darker still. He is almost exactly Suzaku's height - perhaps taller by only an inch. In the single, brief moment that passes Suzaku can sense that he is being given a silent once-over as well, and cannot help but feel pleased when the prince's gaze shifts into one of clear approval. They have dressed smartly for the occasion too of course, underneath light armor and their riding cloaks, and he is aware of the praise often sung about his physique and how he has his mother's face - but it is a compliment nonetheless, to have impressed.
"I apologize for making you travel all this way." Lelouch opens cordially with fluent, perfect Yayoi.
"It's a small matter. Please do not trouble yourself over it." Suzaku offers a smile, and the tension of their initial evaluation is finally eased. No immediate threat is pricking at his instinct, and he does not need to look to know that behind him, Kallen and Tohdoh have not sensed any danger either.
So when Lelouch inclines his chin toward a path down the garden and asks, "Shall we? They can watch us from here," Suzaku nods to his guards and they stand down willingly. He removes his katana from his waist in a display of trust, delivering it with both hands into Tohdoh's waiting ones, and Lelouch, who is not visibly armed, nods at Jeremiah to stand down as well.
"...If I may," Suzaku motions to his elk, resting a hand on her reins and looking to both Milly and Lelouch for permission. It is the Ashford's grass that Asa will graze on if he brings her for a walk with the Prince. But it would be better to have her along for good measure - in Ashigaru, possession of a tamed elk is known to warm many a potential partner's heart, and though Suzaku doesn't know yet if Lelouch is such a person, it will be good to see how well he takes to her, at least, and she to him.
Milly smiles and nods, and Asa, who has been waiting patiently behind him until now, nibbles his ear in response to the attention. Suzaku ducks deftly out of her reach, scratching her nose in gentle reproach before taking her reins and leading her to where Lelouch is now waiting. The prince gives them a smile. "Come."
They walk in silence for awhile, Asa pawing and nibbling at the grass close by him. There are a fair number of flowers and shrubs here that he has never seen near the mountains, and in the time that it takes to observe them Suzaku also determines that Lelouch is waiting for him to speak first.
So he does, delicately and this time in Britannian. "It would seem you have a pleasant life here. Why offer yourself as a shogun's mate?" In this case it will mean, after all, that Lelouch will have to join the Kururugi house, become Midai of the Ashigaru people and adapt to their way of life.
Lelouch's smile is dry. "Charles Britannia seems to fear being overtaken if he doesn't first conquer. For the last fifty years the kingdom of Britannia has been obsessed with taking what it can with its strength, while the weak are cast aside and trampled underfoot. For such reasons my mother's death was ignored and little concern was given to my sister before her own passing. And these are the same reasons why the Emperor seems to have his sights now set on Essos. If I can help you prevent them from seizing more of your lands, and have vengeance for my mother's and sister's deaths, then I will."
He says it as if it is the only logical thing to do. He knows enough about what the rumors surrounding his tragedy speak of, then. Suzaku wonders how bitter he must have been when he was first banished - all for opposing a system which was clearly unfair. "I am sorry for your loss."
Lelouch only smiles again, though less harsh this time. "What of yourself? Must it be only Britannian royalty that you wed?"
Suzaku laughs a little. "Well, no, I wouldn't put it that way." He still has enough authority to refuse, if he is truly uncomfortable with the idea. "I will not be forced. But my cousin - our oracle - she had a prophecy, and so far it seems... highly probable that you will be the one to fulfill it." He turns his gaze to watch his elk as she noses a patch of flowers and startles off an insect. "She dreamt two moons ago of a fire bird and a dragon merging to become a wyvern. We all believe it means an alliance with one of House Britannia is the way forward."
"And I suppose the fire bird is meant to symbolize..."
"It is a deity whose name I share." Suzaku confirms.
"I see." Lelouch stops when he notices that Asa has decided to approach him, her ears swiveling in curiosity as she steps gingerly across the grass. He waits till she is close enough before slowly extending an open palm, which she sniffs and then thrusts the smooth velvet of her nose against, drawing his laughter.
Suzaku smiles at their interaction. "This is Asa," he introduces, as Lelouch lifts his other hand to stroke the fur on her neck. "One of our mountain elk."
"She's quite the beauty. Word around here is that they make strong and fast steeds."
"She's a fine elk," Suzaku agrees, knows that from the fondness in his voice Lelouch will also hear 'I couldn't ask for better' if he is perceptive. Lelouch moves to scratch the fur on the underside of her neck and Asa grunts, shaking her head a little before whuffing gently into his palm. A grin tugs on Suzaku's mouth. "I think she likes you." A good sign, then.
Lelouch's look turns pensive even as he rubs the elk down her nose. "This cousin of yours," He has not forgotten the topic at hand. "Does she also believe that I will bring you dragons?"
Suzaku chooses his next words carefully. Kaguya herself has never spoken in definite terms - only that he should journey to accept the Prince's proposition - but as Oracle she is usually right. "I do not think that was a major consideration for her, but..."
Lelouch hums as Asa makes no move to leave them, still content to accept his show of affection. "What do you already know of Britannia's dragons?"
"Well," Suzaku watches the way he rubs her snout with ease, almost as if the action is already old, familiar. The lore surrounding the dragons of Westeros is age-old, too - older than the Britannian empire itself. "They are the revered beasts of Britannia. We know they are born from eggs bestowed by those like divine beings to whom they choose. And that they return to dust upon death." There is a reason why dragons are said to bring the power of kings, after all, even in these parts - though of what Suzaku hears is true, even the knights of the royal house can at times be blessed with their own winged companions. "We know also that there are less of them now," he says, gingerly - whether or not it is because fewer are bestowed or fewer eggs hatch, it is not clear. Though in light of how Britannia has yet to invade the region with the full force of its dragons, this perhaps is why.
Lelouch nods. "Britannia may now seem so prosperous, but during an ideal and peaceful reign, there would be no lack of dragons... or so used to be the saying." His mouth is a bitter smirk, now. "In my time, there are two known bearers - their names are V.V. and C.C. It's true that C.C. was fond of my mother, but she has not been seen ever since her death. And even if she should decide to bring to me the first dragon eggs in all of Essos, we do not know if they will hatch." Asa finally decides that she has had enough attention, and Lelouch's voice falls somewhat quieter as he watches her move away and return to grazing. "Hope may be a powerful thing, Lord Kururugi, but you should know that there is nothing I can give you for certain other than myself."
"Then I would hope that with your knowledge, we would still be readier to face Britannia than we currently are." Suzaku will be frank where Lelouch has also been. After all, it is not a desire to gamble on dragons that has led him here, but the desire for something greater. Surer. "And at least, it's as you've said - if as a symbol of the house of dragons you can lend me your strength to reinforce the purpose and hope of my people, I'm sure that in itself will be of much value."
The clan is still reeling from the double loss produced by Genbu's death and the siege of Kaminejima. And with him young and inexperienced and the last of his line, Suzaku does not blame them for the palpable uncertainty running through them now, well-liked a face though he may be in the market streets and the neighborhoods. It is no wonder that even Kaguya has been far from subtle in urging him to take a mate. To be peacefully wedded and bonded speaks of stability and support in their lands; to have heirs on the way, more so - a fresh start after over a decade of Genbu's disinclination to mate again following the death of Suzaku's mother. What more, now, for Suzaku to have a mate that was one of Britannia's, a mate bent on opposing the empire.
"...Besides," He continues, smiling more easily this time and feeling perhaps a bit foolish - in another time they would probably be considered young, almost too young to be speaking so freely at length about things which still feel far greater than and beyond them - but they cannot afford to be so young anymore. All the same, he finds it in himself to lighten the tone a little, "My cousin is a formidable woman, and her prophecies have yet to fail us. To return so quickly and tell her that I am declining her advice just because certain things cannot be guaranteed would... not be wise."
This prompts a short laugh from Lelouch; it lights his eyes and Suzaku feels his heartbeat quicken a little in response. Foolish and young.
"I presume they will want to ensure that we bond." Lelouch says after a moment has passed, voice soft but no less uncertain. Suzaku is less sure of whether or not Lelouch has consciously lowered his eyes - this matter concerns the most the most intimate connection their bodies and hearts are capable of forming, after all. And only a heat between two willing and untroubled partners can bring about a bond - the reason why it is thought, across almost all cultures, that bonds were how the First Men formed stable and committed partnerships to raise their children.
Now, to be wedded is one thing, to go the furthest is to choose the original ritual that will spiritually bind two bodies and souls for a lifetime. Even the Westerosi are said to take soul bonds seriously, or so Suzaku understands. Among the Ashigaru most marriages are already honored for life even without the binding process, but to bond is to enhance further still the understanding, affection and trust in a partnership. And it is how Lelouch has correctly guessed that for him to fully gain the clan's trust as an outsider, he and Suzaku must become pair bonds, for if his heart is true to Suzaku's, and Suzaku's to his, then...
But Suzaku looks at him and thinks, hopeful, that it will not be so difficult for either of them, perhaps even easier than expected. He can sense - smell now, really, at certain times - Lelouch's attraction to him, knows that he probably smells the same to Lelouch even though they have yet to touch. Subtle and modest, but there - though it is hardly an appropriate time to tell the Prince how pleasant he finds his scent. Out loud, Suzaku only acknowledges his question and responds with as much delicacy as he can manage, "If we wed, then during the ceremony we will be given a root tea that will help induce both our heats." He pauses, tentative. "I trust this is not too strange for you?"
Lelouch smiles and it seems to come easily, gentle on his features. "Not at all." Britannia must have similar methods, then. "...And if I were to request that Jeremiah be allowed to continue in service as one of my guards, in that case? He is the only one to have followed me across the sea - and like a brother to me."
There will not be problems here. Ashigaru value loyalty and honor and he doubts Kaguya will not approve either, so Suzaku smiles and says, "I don't see a reason why not."
"Very well," Lelouch appears satisfied. They have stopped walking again, but there is a finality approaching that Suzaku is not quite yet ready to reach, despite themselves.
"Your Highness, if I may now be so forward --" It has not been raised again since the conversation began. What may seem obvious to Lelouch is not yet as apparent to him, and Suzaku wants a clearer idea of what Lelouch's goals are. "You spoke earlier of vengeance. What exactly do you wish to achieve, by joining me?"
"What is it you want, Lord Kururugi?" It is effortless, the way Lelouch turns the question back on him, looking at him intently even as he smiles and asks without bite, "Why have you come to me?"
Suzaku thinks of Kawaguchiko, the great lake before the sea, and the small land of Shikinejima - their falls already the beginnings of Britannian encroachment. Thus far their neighbors have kept their colonizers appeased with what the mines produce, but Suzaku is no ignorant fool. It is a peace that will not last forever, especially if the unhappiness that is brewing in Westeros arises in the colonies, too - and because all of Essos is home to proud clans and free cities, and his people are no different. If a war comes to their shores there will be no further surrender from the clan, not now while they still have Genbu's honor to reclaim (not while they do not know its loss was his fault in the first place). It is hope that they lack now, and morale, but not the pride - never the pride that will have them fighting to the last breath even if dragon fire burns everything to the ground, not as long as he gives the word.
"I want the safety and the happiness of my people." He says softly at last. That is the role of the shogun, that is what he must do - to guard and carry the will of his clan.
Lelouch's lips press together in a thin line. "Then I think you will agree. We both know that your forces potentially present one of the largest resistances to Britannia yet, dragons or no dragons. Rather than sit idly and wait to defend yourselves against the full force of their army, in time to come you may find the need or the opportunity for a pre-emptive attack on Britannian shores. That is what I want." Lelouch's answer comes at last in a quiet breath. "To stop Britannia's poison from spreading further."
"You wish to storm Pendragon's palace and overthrow the Emperor?" Suzaku feels a frown crease his brow almost immediately. It is not as though the thought has never crossed his mind before - a retaliation, not to conquer, but to eliminate their biggest threat. But it is reckless, even with all the sakuradite they can still use for defense. Full-frontal assault, and all the sacrifices he must be prepared to make for such a battle. All the civilian lives that may be caught in between.
Lelouch only nods in affirmation. "Perhaps not for a few years. But if we can bide our time." There is a determination now that flashes bright in his eyes, that Suzaku would find himself admiring if not for all the weight his words carry. "For all its military might Britannia still has fault lines in its kingdom that are deepening even as we speak. The conquered Westerosi houses are oppressed and malcontent, as are the commoners, and even among my siblings there has been talk of vying for the Emperor's throne. If we make the right moves, these are all instabilities that we can use to our advantage."
"And what of that throne, should your quest succeed? Are we to suppose you don't desire it for yourself?"
"I do not." Lelouch says simply, without hesitation. "I have no intention of displacing one dictator only to make room for the next. It is Britannia's entire system that must be destroyed and created anew."
He burns with the same conviction as Suzaku's captains and generals, the best of his men. It is breathtaking, and difficult to ignore how even in tempered rage and defiance Lelouch is both striking and beautiful. And it is true, Suzaku is forced to admit to himself. Even if they were to defend their keep successfully, Britannia's threat will remain as long as it is not dealt with at the root. But they are not ready, as things are now, as they are now. Even if they are blessed somehow with dragons --
"That is still a big risk to ask of me, and my people." There is something tight in his chest, a stubbornness that wants another way each time he tries to face this problem, even though he already knows there may be none.
"I know it is no small feat." Lelouch's voice grows soft. "But we have some time yet to determine what Britannia is planning, and where its weaknesses are. And never will I knowingly urge you to send your soldiers to a place where only death awaits." A hushed promise, offered in understanding of Suzaku's reservations. "Although," he smiles now, and it is wry. "Surely you have realized that with or without me, you may not have a choice if it is your clan's safety and freedom you want."
"I have." Suzaku closes his eyes briefly and agrees. He knows that if Britannia presses them further - which they likely will - it is attack first, or die defending. (No more surrendering.) He finds himself wishing, not for the first time, that this decision was not his to make. He wishes he did not already sound so resigned. He wishes there was another solution, and that he could have Lelouch's impressive resolve if there is not. He is young, Suzaku can hear his father's voice saying again, young and foolish.
And he wonders if from this moment, he can cease to be.
Lelouch speaks quietly, as if hearing his thoughts. "Of course... if a better path emerges, let us take it."
He is still looking at Suzaku, his features softer now in something like empathy although none of the intensity in his eyes has faded, and when he smiles again, gentle, Suzaku thinks he knows what he must do.
The one weakness he has in his skill with the blade, Tohdoh tells him, is his tendency to waver at the last moment. The first time he almost defeats Tohdoh in a sword fight, a half-second where his blade wavers costs him his victory. It wavers also on the last night Suzaku faces his father; only his body, moving like flowing water, saves him. Today, Suzaku decides, and from this day forth - he must never let it waver again.
Suzaku breathes in.
"…Even if there is none," His voice is a soft rush as he takes Lelouch's hand - almost the same size, warm to the touch, smooth - and Suzaku lowers one knee to the ground to ask for the honor of Lelouch's favor and his life, and offer his own. "If you can help me, then my heart and my people are yours as well. If you will have me."
"I think," Lelouch breathes out his answer, grasping his hand firmly with both of his own. "I will."