Adjusting the pleats of Mars' ceremonial shawl and smoothing out his lapels, Ceres stepped back and admired her handiwork. There, much better.
Both of them were waiting in a room in the palace, where they had been placed by the same wiry, bespectacled man who had escorted them from the Cloud Whale to their hotel on their first day at the Capital. The man had met up with them when they had reported to the reception with their identification documents and the invite to the audience with the Emperor.
The palace was a grand construction with pristine white stone walls and expansive lawns. On their way in, they had passed through a beautifully maintained garden with scarlet roses in full bloom. A sweet floral aroma permeated the air. Their escort had explained that it was the Empress who personally oversaw the gardening. It was a hobby of hers.
Then they had traversed a series of corridors, with ornate tapestries and suits of armour decorating their walls, before they had arrived at this waiting room.
The room, too, was quite lavish with polished wooden flooring, plush furniture, and beautifully framed paintings on every wall. The large fireplace in one corner blazed cheerfully, driving out the chill of winter. An actual blaze, rather than a fire-stone hearth, that gave an orange cast to the room and created a cozy ambiance.
"Are you sure you want to be here? I could–"
Ceres laid a palm on Mars' lips, silencing him. Taking it away, she said, "I'm sure. There are only two ways I can conduct myself to allay the suspicions of the people. Either I step forward and thoroughly involve myself with high-society, gain visibility and over time acceptance. Or, I vanish entirely out of the public's line of sight and wait to be forgotten."
She stared him straight in the eye. "I choose the former."
Mars maintained the gaze for a while, his eyes seeming to see through her and gauge her determination. Then he smiled, "If that's what you want, then that's what'll happen. I'll help however I can."
She smiled back, feeling warm inside.
The three-day tour of the Capital had been hectic but enjoyable. They had tried to cram as many things into their schedule as possible to get a feeling for every sector and the city as a whole. They had watched the sun rising above the Light sector and admired the advanced medical facilities there, traversed the canals of the Water sector on the ornate gondolas that served as public transport, experienced the hustle and bustle of the industrial sector of the Capital: The Fire sector, and cut their teeth upon the perpetual night scene of the Shadow sector – a sector of frivolity where all the entertainment establishments like the casinos and night shops were concentrated.
All within two days.
This was their fourth day at the Capital and the time for their audience with the Emperor had finally come. Phobos and Deimos had chosen to stay at away from the meeting. The former eager to return to her research at the library and uninterested in politics. The latter desirous of sleeping in after three uncharacteristically early mornings and similarly disinterested in the machinations of the upper circles of society. That left only her to accompany Mars here.
A knock at the door interrupted the moment and they turned in tandem to face it.
Hearing Mars' permission, their escort turned the handle and entered. "Young Lord, Lady, the Council meeting will begin momentarily. You're invited to make your entrance."
Nodding, the two of them followed him as he guided them down another corridor to the Council Chamber. As they walked, he quickly went over the courtesies expected of them, ensuring that they didn't commit a social gaffe at the meeting.
"Young Lord, you are here in the capacity of the Kingdom's emissary and you have been authorized by King Corvus to speak in his stead. That puts your status on par with the members of the Council. You needn't bow to them. Only to the Emperor. A polite greeting will suffice for the rest."
Turning to Ceres, he said, "As for you, Young Lady, you need to make a full curtsy towards the Emperor and a three-quarters one to the rest of the Council Members."
Both of them nodded along. The Council Members were the heads of the hereditary noble families as well as the Dukes of the eight – now seven – provinces. They were all Tier 4 mages as the Tier 5s served in the military as Generals.
Apart from Emperor Adam and Maeve the Lightbringer (his only wife to have reached the level of Demigod), there had been a total of thirty-two Demigods over the course of Regiis history. This only resulted in twelve hereditary noble bloodlines as more than one Demigod often appeared from the same clan. As the hereditary nobles couldn't hold any lands, their power and influence at a certain point in time was measured by the cultivation base of their mages.
Currently, there were eight Demigods in Regiis, seven of whom had come from the Clans and the last was Isabella.
Even if they didn't have a Demigod in their family now, it was statistically more probable for one to appear from the clans. So, they had a high status and their lack of landed holdings was compensated by the power they wielded in the form of a ballot vote at the Council.
Reaching the door of the Council Chamber, the guide preceded them and announced them.
"Emissary of the South-Eastern Kingdom, Mars Felidae and his spouse Ceres Felidae."
Following him in, one step behind Mars, Ceres quickly scanned the gathering. There were twenty-one chairs arranged around a long rectangular table. One short edge of the table approached the door they had entered from. There was no chair there while the Council members were seated along the longer edges – ten on each side. All the chairs but one was occupied by well-dressed men and women.
Her eyes immediately fell upon the man sitting on a throne farthest from the door at the head of the table. The throne was only slightly raised – enough to ensure that it was clear who was the leader of the meeting but not so much that it made him seemed too superior.
The man had violet hair and eyes, two wings that shimmered with bluish-green iridescence and a magnificent tail of feathers which was mostly hidden behind his throne. Cyn Pavone, Emperor of Regiis.
Behind him and a little to the right, sat a woman with steel wings and sun-kissed golden curls interwoven with oranges and pastel pinks. Her iron grey eyes were locked intensely on Mars. Feeling her vision, the woman turned and their eyes met.
Those eyes felt like they were trying to pierce into her very core – no, more likely trying to run her through with a sword to see what colour she bled. Uncomfortable, Ceres broke the gaze. She decided that she didn't like the woman very much. Though, given her unique characteristics it wasn't hard to identify who she was. Sword Maiden Artemis, First Princess of the Empire.
Raising the edges of her flowing skirt, she curtsied deeply towards the Emperor in tandem with Mars who put a hand on his chest and bent his waist slightly.
"For the Empire."
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