In the greater hall of the central pavilion a magnificent assembly had gathered, a spectacle of wealth and power concentrated at the heart of the empire. On the dais, elevated above the hundreds of guards, soldiers, councillors and noblemen sat Zeus, Regent of the Heavenly Kingdom, a hereditary monarchy that had survived for two centuries unbroken until now. Proud, powerful, and resolute, the regent had total command over his subjects. Though he may have styled himself as a wise benefactor to the people, Judas knew there was lingering unrest concerning his absolute authority over the state. Robed in white and gold Zeus was a resplendent and imperious figure. In his right hand he held the royal sceptre, ornately carved ivory with the emblem of the royal house at its tip—the wings of the vermillion bird. On his left hand was a jade ring bearing the same insignia, taken from the hand of the previous king upon his premature death. There was no one who seeing this figure on his throne surrounded by such regalia would be able to question the authority of the man.
Seated much lower to his right was the Crown Prince, the lawful heir to the throne, on whose behalf Zeus ruled the Heavenly Kingdom. Tranquil and poised, Suzaku no Rei was the jewel of the realm, unmatched for grace and beauty. Even without the layers of rich, red silk garments embroidered over in fine gold thread to boldly proclaim his royal pedigree, his preeminent status would have been immediately apparent from the way he carried himself: statuesque, dignified and impassive. Such delicate and effeminate features were so rare for a young man that Judas had been duly surprised the first time he had laid eyes on the prince. Yet for all his composure, there seemed a certain sadness surrounding the prince, hidden behind the royal mask, like a beautiful but slowly wilting flower. Though much speculation abounded as to whether the prince resented Zeus for his unlawful seizure of power and secretly plotted to regain his rightful throne, Judas, in all his time in the royal guard had never found any truth behind the rumours, nor certainly had Zeus himself. However, there were times he couldn't help but wonder what thoughts lay beneath the impassive face of the young monarch, and now was surely one of them.
Arrayed behind them in strict rows were two dozen members of the royal guard, as well as the personal bodyguards to the royal family. The only others on the dais were various attendants, bearing flags and other ceremonial items. The perimeter of the lower hall was surrounded by more of the palace guard, Judas' own handpicked men among whom he was the first. Clad in dark uniforms they were an imposing force, a silent symbol of the power and might of the Suzaku dynasty. In two lines on either side of the hall knelt the lesser aristocrats and councillors of the kingdom, their blue silk robes denoting their official capacity within the court.
It was amidst this splendour and display of authority that a solitary figure appeared at the end of the long walkway, clutching his plumed helmet at his side. With steady, even strides the man made his way up the centre of the grand hall, the sound of his heavy footsteps ringing throughout the near silent gallery. Upon reaching the foot of the dais, he swiftly fell down on one knee, eyes averted and head bowed before the regent in deference.
"The second division of General Lucifer and Commander Gabriel has been annihilated, your eminence."
"And the General?" Zeus asked.
"Neither the General nor the Commander were present at the battle. Members of our intelligence have received indication that they and a small army consisting of the remaining rogue first division are being sheltered within the territory of our satellite state, the Chikyuu Kingdom. However, our Chikyuu allies claim to know nothing of this and their ambassadors assure us that they will investigate these claims. Their branch of the forces has been an undeniable asset to our army."
"And yet still they think of turning on us," Zeus mused. "We must remind them why it is they became our tributary, and that they shall remain so as long as I safeguard this great kingdom. General Goh, bring two of your divisions to the Chikyuu border with my emissaries, who shall conduct a new treatise concerning the interests of our countries. If the Chikyuu do not bow to pressure and yield up to us those traitorous vermin they are hiding, they may see war once more."
"Sir," Goh said, lifting his head to meet the gaze of the monarch, "the Chikyuu Kingdom has yet failed to prove an unfaithful ally to our state. Moreover, the morale of the—"
"You have received your orders, General Goh. We must show them the iron fist of our empire. You are dismissed," Zeus said, waving his hand. The general's head dipped slightly in defeat, before he bowed once more, squared his shoulders, and swiftly strode out of the grand hall. Quiet murmurs followed him out this time, the court officials whispering amongst themselves in response to this turn of events.
Though the Crown Prince had not changed his expression throughout the entire scene, Judas thought his downcast eyes spoke volumes. To threaten the Chikyuu Kingdom like this was an unwarranted act of aggression toward their allies, and if the Chikyuu officials did not bend to Zeus' new demands, another costly war such as had happened shortly before their own time might arise. To jump so quickly to such a conclusion was dangerous. The hushed whispers gained increasing volume after General Goh fully retreated from the scene.
"Silence," Zeus commanded, rising to his feet. "On this I will not take any objections. We are adjourned," he said, and proceeded down the aisle where the general had just made his exit, followed by his retinue. As the rest of the assembly dispersed Judas signalled to the guards to fall out and return to their usual posts.
Stifled noises echoed through the quarters of the crown prince, empty of any attendants to hear them. Screened by intricately painted partitions that featured vibrant depictions of mythic events and pastoral tableaux, there was no one to witness the prince's closely guarded secret. Long strands of purple hair lay dishevelled against the layers of silk clothing he had been divested of, tangled and matted together. The graceful prince tried to hold back his cries, his hands clenching tighter with every passing moment, his eyes closed against the overpowering sensations.
A hand gripped his thigh firmly as the other man pounded into him again and again, nearing climax. Another stroked his erection, pushing him towards the edge and making it harder to suppress the overwhelming tension. The intensity was becoming unbearable as the other man thrust into him with increasing abandon until at last the prince suddenly attained his release, his paramour simultaneously finding completion.
He stopped himself from thinking at all for a moment, blindly holding on to the feeling of satiation. With a heavy-lidded, longing expression he looked up into his lover's crimson eyes.
"Kiss me, Luca."
His pale-haired lover happily obliged, drawing him into a sweet, heady embrace as both remained caught up in the dizzying ecstasy from before. Loving hands caressed Rei's face, light but reassuring in their touch. Gently Luca pulled away from the sweet embrace, settling next to the fair prince who wasted no time wrapping his arms tightly about his lover once more.
"Stay with me a while," Rei asked, resting his head against the other's chest.
"I can't for long, you know" Luca replied, lightly stroking Rei's violet locks.
"But a little while," Rei said quietly, "I feel better when you're here."
"Of course," Luca said, continuing his gentle ministrations as the prince slowly slipped into slumber.
"One, defend! Two, thrust! Three, parry! Four, retreat! Five, advance! Six, extend! One, defend…"
Shin repeated the cycle over and over again, moving his weapon through the air with as much finesse as he could. He tried not to focus overmuch on his footwork, which would only lead to him making a misstep anyways. He wasn't particularly graceful or smooth in his sword work, but he was determined to gain ground in the martial arts. Although his status among the lesser nobility guaranteed a certain degree of safety and a comfortable life, he felt that without more martial experience he was not only less likely to advance in court but also more susceptible to any threats should they arise.
Though the court was largely peaceful under Zeus' reign, it was in many ways a forced peace, and Shin was not blind to the potential for scheming that existed within such an atmosphere. Zeus himself was fond of creating rigid hierarchies that drew in the most ambitious and competitive among the aristocrats, and even among the common guards. His shrewdness generally prevented anyone too power-hungry from reaching the upper-echelons of the court but the potential always lingered there, and certainly the former General had been a testament to what this aggressive pursuit of power could lead to.
There was also his cousin to consider. He largely owed his current role in court life to his place as a companion to his distant relation, the Crown Prince. The prince had become fond of him, and Shin was reluctant to abandon him now. Though their blood connection was not particularly close, Shin had been invited to the court by Zeus to increase the prince's companionship with other nobles his age. A simple assessment of the others and himself made apparent that they were not among the powerful or those of the highest pedigree. Shin strongly suspected that Zeus saw each of them as the harmless sons of lesser lords, unlikely to foment rebellion or guide the prince to higher aspirations, but company enough to prevent the prince from becoming too restless in his gilded cage. Why else would Zeus, who so loved hierarchies, invite the undistinguished sons of the minor nobility to the court where prestige and ambition were the transcendent values? Shin pitied his cousin.
Though his ambition was primarily for knowledge, facing all of this Shin knew well enough that if he did not attempt to improve his social position he might well be sent away or else would quickly sink in the mire of intrigue. And so he dedicated himself to training at night, hours at a time, slowly working his way to becoming a better soldier instead of turning to his other, more favoured pursuits. He had very far to go, but was determined to improve himself, and with every repetition he made he was one step closer to his goal.
"Three, parry! Four, retreat! Five, advance…"
After a long watch duty at the north-western gate of the central citadel, Gai was burning with impatience to get back to the barracks. He had a longstanding debt to some fellow guards that he was certain he could win back tonight. Although it was frowned upon by the higher ups, the guard barracks were unsurprisingly a hotbed for gambling—one of the easiest forms of entertainment if you didn't bother leaving the palace grounds.
He walked briskly through the maze-like passages leading to the guard quarters, pausing briefly to pet some of the stray cats that always got into the palace no matter how well-guarded the premises were. "Give me all your luck, okay kitty?" he said, roughly scratching the nape of a black cat's neck. The cat simply meowed and moved on its way, leaving him standing there, too absorbed in thoughts of victory to watch its retreat. He had a good feeling about tonight!
Upon entering the barracks he was immediately hailed by his red-haired friend, who was busy watching an ongoing game in which the stakes were rising through the roof with each round.
"I've found some guys who will play with us! Think we can beat Erytheis and Tyche?" Maya said, guiding Gai to an empty table. He waved over the two others across the room and held out a die.
"You bet! Today I am coming out the winner," Gai said confidently, baring his teeth in a wide smile. Admittedly, he seldom had any lasting success, and Maya, who wore his heart on his sleeve and seemed positively incapable of hiding his feelings, also was a weak strategist when it came to gambling, but the one thing they both had on their side was sheer luck. Gai knew he led something of charmed life, and tonight he was going to put it to good use.
"What's on the table?" Tyche asked as everyone took turns rolling.
"Let's start with a day's wages and work up from there," said Gai.
"Are you sure? It could get seriously high the further we go on," Maya said with alarm, worrying about how his brother would criticise him for his recklessness if he found out.
"Come on, the higher the risk, the higher the pay off."
"Suits me fine," said Tyche.
"Me too," said Erytheis.
"Alright, alright," Maya said, regaining his enthusiastic expression and taking his turn rolling the die.
"Looks like first dealer is me," Erytheis said, handing the die back to Maya and gathering up tiles. He methodically distributed them amongst the four guards. "Read 'em and weep."
Gai grinned and winked at his friend. He knew he couldn't lose this time!