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The Court of the Dragon Throne (PM for Invite)

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Morning court in Huangjing's Imperial Palace always begin the same way. As per tradition, the imperial monarch's courtiers assemble during most early mornings in the Hall of the Dragon Throne; the largest and most central structure within the royal complex. Inside is a tall and expansive throne room: every square inch inside is lavished with gold ornamentation and countless decorative motifs, while rows of pillars support the weight of the ceiling above. At the head of the great audience hall sits the fabled Dragon Throne; a gold-forged treasure raised above the rest of the room by a massive set of marble stairs, and adorned with depictions of majestic serpent dragons both on the chair itself and the enormous backdrop behind.

 

Precious few ever get a glimpse inside the Hall of the Dragon Throne, but those who do and describe what they see never fail to add further fuel to the legends about its unearthly splendor. Truly a worthy throne room for an emperor or empress of Long Guo.

 

Once the courtiers assemble on both sides of the hall (leaving a wide gap in the middle), the Empress finally enters to take her seat, flanked by the solemn brocade-clad guards of the Imperial Watch. All the gathered officials are expected to kowtow at this time, shouting;

 

"LONG LIVE THE EMPRESS! LONG MAY SHE REIGN!"

 

With proper reverence to the Heavenly Daughter of Dragons having been demonstrated, proceedings of court can finally begin. All those gathered must abide by the ancient rules of stately decorum: step directly in front of the stairs leading to the Throne when prompted by the Empress, always step forward (for the chief ministers who stood in front) or walk to the hall's center when commenting on the words of another, no outbursts of unchecked emotion, no gazing directly at the Empress unless addressing her, and NEVER use the sovereign's given name.....

 

 

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The Empress herself looked radiant as an empress should. Decked in her finest diyi of red shimmersilk along with a delicate crown of great beauty, there was little doubt that the qilin mare looked the part of Long Guo's ruler. Her attention this morning was drawn towards a very important guest, standing in front but off towards the side. His presence meant that today's morning court would be a symbolically important one.

 

"Before we move on to usual matters of state, there is a very important dignitary among us today who must be granted due attention. He has traveled a long distance, in the name of friendship between beings... of all nations.

 

.....May the honorable Shogun of Neighpon present himself at this time."

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Of everything that could be attributed to this country, a lack of respect towards tradition was not one of them.

 

He could say that, for sure.

 

For Long Guo, and only Long Guo in Rakuen Ryuichi's (admittedly) limited experience, was a country that held its Empress on a level above all other peers and states. Had their positions been reversed, the Empress of Long Guo would never have been made to present herself before the Seat of the Shogun, looking up at him from a lowered position. An extravagantly elegant and formal meeting room would have done for it instead, two seats on opposing sides at the same height - a meeting of equals. Even for something so simple as a goodwill proclamation of their dual intent and willingness to ally.

 

But no, the Dragon Children loved tradition, traditions that saw all beings (save the Dragons themselves, at that) below the Empress, and traditions were not something Ryuichi could fault in any country. They were, after all, the cornerstone of everything Neighpon had built herself upon, and the strong resistance islands like Ryushima maintained to modernization spoke to the belief of his citizens. Ancestors...traditions were exactly why the Hatamoto still existed after centuries of modernization, a veritable relic amidst a sea of bright lights and magitech. The way Neighpon still adored and venerated her Hatamoto spoke even more loudly of tradition and what it meant, even as she marched every onward towards new and magical inventions. 

 

Exactly why he was here, now - here, in the throne room of the Imperial Palace, rather than dictating a letter to be delivered by courier. While some members of the Shogunate had balked at the idea of an official presentation over a simple proclamation of good faith, others had urged him through to this public yet private appearance, going through the motions in the official setting. Such was the way it had been done before, years past, and even after communication became easier between continents, this hadn't changed. The actual format, yes, in this Long Guo was unique - but physically appearing to the country lead in question? 

 

Ryuichi would throw open The Door himself before shaming his ancestors with blatant disregard for his allies.

 

Which is why the young Ryuma stood completely still as he waited, eyes trained upon the Dragon Throne, and years of practice kept his features almost mind-numbingly blank even as he studied the royally garbed figure in some surprise.

 

Ancestors...how long had it been?

 

The Empress of Long Guo was a far cry from the little foal he had known back then, met only a few times but perfectly remembered alongside his mother's words of wisdom over their future acquaintanceship. Little had he - or anyone, for that matter - known back then how serious that acquaintanceship would actually turn out to be. A potential bride offer to secure an ongoing alliance, is what they had all thought might become of that acquaintanceship, mayhaps even someone of correspondence within the Emperor's personal court. 

 

And now here she was. Ascended atop the Dragon Throne. So much for that tradition, and those same years of practice kept the wry smile from forming on his face.

 

Sandā was, undoubtedly, keeping her head bowed at a respectful level as he, his Shīrudo, and a few other officials of note walked down the hall, but Ryuichi was unperturbed to keep his gaze on the Empress. His retinue was careful to stop a few paces back as they began to reach the end, while he alone walked the remaining few steps to stop directly at the base of the steps leading to the dais. And it was here that Ryuichi, after a careful moment's pause, lowered his head, slowly and formally, chin resting against his neckline for a moment, before he let up, golden eyes once again returning to the face of the Empress resplendent. 

 

Far cry, most certain.

 

"Long live Her Imperial Majesty, the Empress of the Great Féng Dynasty, Heavenly Daughter of Dragons, Sovereign of Ten Thousand Years," Ryuichi intoned, voice ringing in the silent hall. "Her Majesty honors all of Neighpon with Her gracious invitation." The ceremonial armor he wore, covered and complimented by the equally ceremonial robe of intricate and detailed design, gave visage to a warrior prince as Ryuichi remained at his full height, eyes steady on the Empress. "I present myself, in the halls of the Dragon Throne, to declare the intentions of myself and my country honorable, and to seek a lasting friendship with Her Imperial Majesty, and the great nation of Long Guo."

 

...And, of course, his nose was itchy. It never failed - start a speech, something started to itch. Either it was a condition he was unaware of, or one of his ancestors had a Door-cursed sense of cosmic humor. 

 

 

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For the next act in this day's performance of political theater, the Empress commenced an act reserved only for heads of state. It was indeed true that in dynasties past, all the other great princes and princesses were expected to acknowledge the supremacy of all the Heavenly Sons and Daughters of Dragons. Courtly protocols changed with recent Féng Dynasty reforms however; the rulers of the other realms were now treated as unofficial equals of the emperors and empresses.

 

Showing the Neighponese Shogun the respect he was entitled to, the Empress carefully sat up from the Dragon Throne and began a slow walk down the stairs. To treat the Shogun as an equal, a proper empress must stand on the same level as the other ruler. Gently, the royal qilin prod along until at the bottom of the steps, whereupon she slightly moved over to the side and faced her counterpart; a past acquaintance who once ranked rather highly in the young mare's fondness.

 

Yù Yuè never admitted it to anyone other than her twin brother Lián and sworn sister Mei, but in her youth, the qilin had been a great admirer of Rakuen Ryuichi. There had been something in the ryuma that the qilin mare found nobly dashing... cute, even. Back in those days — before her true destiny was revealed to all — little Yuè would have placed Ryuichi on the top of the list of potential suitors to be matched with. Considering how she was then viewed by the Imperial Court as a royal spare, there had been a great possibility that her wish would have come true.

 

Long distances and changed life goals made that childish dream fade as the years passed by. The Yuè standing in front of Ryuichi today would only see the succession crisis that would inevitably trigger should the two sovereigns agree to marry one another. Not to mention that as royal heads of state, the two of them must wisely use their available arranged marriages to secure vital domestic support. So it ever was, so will it always be.

 

For not the last time however, Yuè subtly gazed up and down upon Ryuichi's form for a moment, taking stock of how handsome the ryuma has become in his stallionhood. My my, what good fortune awaited Ryuichi's bride-to-be.....

 

When the Empress was finally ready to speak, her glistening azure eyes fixed themselves on the Shogun's own set of orbs. "Let it be known... that we, in turn, desire lasting friendship with the Shogunate of Neighpon. For thousands of years, our two great civilizations have maintained balance — and harmony — in the world. Although our nations have not always seen eye to eye, it is also true... that we are stronger together than apart. We therefore accept your noble offer, and we will reciprocate your friendship for ten thousand years."

 

As she finished speaking, the Empress nodded her head in a courteous bow; a standard gesture of respect. All throughout her miniature speech, the royal qilin's words reflected both the clear forcefulness of a leader and the calming serenity of a wise sage. A tough tightrope to trot, but all emperors and empresses are expected to maintain that delicate balance with the greatest of ease. But walk that tightrope Yuè did... and not once throughout her address did her eyes express anything else to Ryuichi but warmth.....

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...Huh. 

 

This was new, wasn't it?

 

He wasn't the only one to notice either, if the quiet intakes of breath from some of his retinue were any indication. Ryuichi kept his features placid and calm, even as he watched the progress of the Empress down the steps with sharp eyes. When she showed no signs of stopping - and, what's more, started moving away from the center of the platforms - Ryuichi quickly followed suit, repositioning himself a bit off to the side as well, so that the two of them would be equidistant from the center, rather than the Empress standing off to the side. 

 

It was only natural, after all. A meeting of equals.

 

Up close, the Empress of Long Guo was even more stunning than memory indicated...not to mention said memory all included a young filly rather than the grown mare standing in front of him now. Whatever the case, fact took priority over memory as Ryuichi carefully kept his eyes locked onto the Empress' face, ignoring the urge to take in the entirety of the mare, extravagant robe and all, and instead making due with the warmth emitting from her bright azure gaze, earnestness exuding from ever pore of her being.

 

How long had it been, really? Ryuichi could remember finding the possibility of marriage to this mare a pained but expected prospect - not a slight against the Kirin herself, but simply a young colt's natural inclination towards lumbering golems rather than due courting procedures. And now here he stood, matured, wiser, a memory grown into reality standing in front of him, the same reality that could now never be. And it was for the best, Ryuichi supposed. The Emperor last had, after all, broken centuries of tradition to ensure his daughter ascended over first born son, and there had to have been reason. With many offices and authoritative positions in Neighpon elected by merit rather than inherited by blood, several of his citizens had approved the change, while others balked at such a blatant disregard for tradition.

 

Senile old stallion, they said, gone mad in the last years of his life.

 

The mark, said others, the mark. It is her destiny. 

 

...In the end it mattered little. Empress Yù Yuè of the Féng Dynasty was seated on the Dragon Throne, for good or for ill, and was reciprocating the intent of Neighpon twofold, an equal standing on the fate of their two countries. Ryuichi closed his eyes briefly, that short moment of thinking and planning and considering before opening his mouth, and opened them again, bright golden gaze resting on the face of the Empress. "Then for Ten Thousand Years," the Shogun called out, now turning to face the assembled mass of ponies, side by side with the Empress, "let us rejoice in lasting peace between the Imperial Dynasty and the Shogunate. For a union of Might and Peace to reign in the East. Against all turmoil and strife, will the East stand strong in harmony!" 

 

There were no cheers as there would have been in front of an assembly of the strict regiment of court - instead there were well-rehearsed yet sincere shouts of both their titles carelessly thrown into the air, to mix and mingle and intertwine. Ryuichi stood still and silent, allowing the atmosphere of good-will and intention wash over the assembly - though, his eyes cut sideways to the Empress. Standing side by side atop the dais, formally arraigned in extravagant robes and armor, it almost gave sense to a declaration of marriage between the two leaders, a celebration of unity in the ultimate capacity...and to the memory of a small colt gagging and rolling his eyes as the hoof maidens gushed and prattled on over what a lovely union they would make.

 

He might have been able to stifle it, but Ryuichi didn't bother hiding the small, wry grin that twisted his lips as he returned his gaze back out to the mass of ponies, mentally charting his course back to Sandā's side and out the doorway. This proclamation had taken place first thing in the morning, after all, and the last time he'd tasted authentic Long Guo cuisine had been too long indeed. 

 

High time to remedy that. 

 

 

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By this point, there was little more need to be said by the two parties. Both the Empress and the Shogun expressed proclaimed strong declarations of fellowship in front of the Imperial Court. The words spoken by the two rulers would be written down by the court stenographer who'd be expected to release the transcripts for public viewing, allowing the citizens of Long Guo to accurately know where the reigning Empress stood on the Long Guo-Neighpon relationship.

 

There was only one more thing left to do; no publicized meeting of world leaders like this wasn't complete without an official photograph of record to disseminate to the populace. Two of the Palace servants came in front of the royal pair holding a folding plate camera and a tripod. In moments, the Empress and the Shogun — standing side-by-side — would be immortalized via the art of photography, their picture seen by Long Sun and ponies all throughout the Eastern Realms.

 

While waiting for the photographers to set up their equipment, Empress Yuè spoke to her counterpart in a hushed tone meant for his ears alone. "If you get the chance," a subtle smirk emerged from the qilin mare's muzzle; "Feel free to arrange a portrait session with my personal court painter. She's quite skilled at depicting a subject's inner beauty... if you don't mind taking off your entire wardrobe first." The shimmersilk-clad mare chuckled, fondly remembering her past experience of being painted by the Equestrian artist in question.

 

A couple camera flashes later, it was all finally over for the Shogun. One more shared bow of the head with the Empress, and that would be it for Ryuichi and his retinue. He'd be free to walk out and enjoy the rest of his stay in Huangjing.....

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Even years of etiquette practice and protocol couldn't prepare one for everything

 

Which is why Ryuichi was sure his ancestors would not find fault with him as he stood stock still for the photograph to be taken, perfect in every aspect of a stoic, serious Shogun...except for the faintest twitch of surprise in his left eye. The Ryuma kept his gaze fastened forward even as his ears followed suit, a treacherous twitch towards the right to better hear the low murmured words from the Empress standing next to him. 

 

Which were a surprise in and of themselves, no matter what they were actually saying. The playful smirk he could virtually hear in her voice, too, was a surprise, and Ryuichi could only thank his ancestors for the indescribable patience he felt, keeping his face looking forward when he longed to do nothing more but turn his muzzle and see if he was right about that smirk.

 

Because who could have guessed that the sovereign ruler of Long Guo, held esteemed and equaled to Dragon kind and venerated as an almost otherworldly being, was a bit of a mischievous minx? Ryuichi supposed he shouldn't be too surprised - after all, the stern and austere facade of the Shogun was always quick to wear thin, and goodness knows if it wasn't a mask he often wore even when he was feeling anything but. Such was the responsibility of a ruler, after all. But still...he supposed the level of respect and otherworldly awe the citizens of Long Guo saw their Empress had impressed upon him as well, to an extent. Hearing such an earthy tone of voice from an otherwise unearthly position sounded...strange. 

 

But in a bad way?

 

No...not in a bad way, at all.

 

"Is that so?" the dark-maned Ryuma murmured back after a moment's pause, eyeing the staff that had approached the both of them to spread out their robes into appropriately dramatic flairs. "It has been a while since my last official portrait...perhaps I shall seek her out for a new commission." Another pause as their dual staff finished fixing their robes and departed, making way for the photograph to be taken. "Although I have found," the Shogun added, "that a painter's skill makes no difference when the inspiration boasts perfection...clothed or no." 

 

A bright flash, and another. And two more besides. 

 

And then his time in the Court of the Dragon Throne was done. 

 

With one last bowed head for the Empress, Ryuichi departed from the steps, his hoof steps echoing around the chamber as he made his way towards the entrance doors. His retinue was quick to fall into place behind him, but it was only until the doors were closed, the hallways transformed into the familiar sights of his lodgings inside the Imperial Palace, that Ryuichi let out a pent up sigh. "Ancestors," the Ryuma groaned, tugging at the collar of his robe a bit, "but I'll be glad to be out of this. Don't suppose you can carry me for the rest of our time here?...no no, away," the Shogun ordered, annoyed, the wry grin of commiseration meant for Sandā transforming into a scowl aimed at the several servants that had moved closer to him, hooves outstretched. "Just - have some breakfast brought to my quarters, if you please." 

 

Ancestors...he was never serious when he joked about being carried. In ten thousand years he would still not be serious

 

And in ten thousand years he was sure he'd need to remind them again, bless them.

 

[[ Exit ]]

 

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Throughout the exchange, An Xiang had done her best to keep out of sight.  The meeting between her empress and the Neighponese shogun was going very well as far as she was concerned.  Not that she had expected anything to go wrong, but whenever two national leaders met there was a lot at stake, and a pony like the chancellor couldn't help but worry some.  Regardless, nothing had gone wrong, and the room was left in a very positive mood.  Which made the chancellor even more hesitant than usual, given that her news ran the risk of bringing down the mood.

 

There was a certain strategy for An Xiang in volunteering her own issue first.  Ponies were more likely to remember the end of an event over the beginning, even her esteemed empress.  To that end, if An Xiang spoke first and then another minister had more positive news, proceedings would be seen less negatively overall.  And if there was no positive news...well, at least it would be a more experienced minister subject to the most attention, who would likely be better equipped to recover.  

 

That wasn't to say she found it easy to speak.  An Xiang had kept quiet up until now, to ensure she didn't interfere in affairs which were beyond her, and in truth every instinct told her to do just that.  She had a faint hope that she might be able to resolve the problem on her own, saving the empress from needing concern herself with such things.  But no, it would be a failing of the chancellor to not inform the empress of the goings on in her own empire.

 

It still took An Xiang a moment to speak, she had some reservations about speaking to the empress without being addressed first, and the result was a moment of awkward silence.  “...Your highness,” she said eventually, “if we may move on to other matters...I have received a number of reports from around Spring Blossom Town of crops afflicted by an as yet unknown disease.”  The chancellor decided to stop there, as that was the gist of the matter.  The empress could decide from there whether or not this was a matter for the court, or if it would be best for An Xiang to resolve the issue on her own.

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"THE MINISTERS WILL NOW PRESENT THEIR REPORTS TO THE EMPRESS."

 

Chancellor An Xiang was the first of the assembled officials to speak up. Because the Chancellor was a relative newcomer in the world of the Imperial Bureaucracy, Empress Yuè had suspected that something fishy had been afoot when Xiang earned the chancellorship. Usually, one didn't earn such a high position until after decades of civil service and cultivating relationships with other courtiers. Lacking any other realistic reasons how a youngish mare managed to win over her late Father and his senior councilors, the Empress could only assume that either Xiang was a secret pawn in a senior minister's employ... or more ambitious than anyone could have possibly imagined.

 

It was really hard to get a proper read on An Xiang though, as for the most part, she diligently performed her duties without stirring up court drama. At least, not any drama that Empress Yuè was aware of. In any case, the Chancellor used this moment to warn the Empress of an unknown disease blighting the crops around Spring Blossom Town. Troublesome news to be sure, but not completely devastating. Long Guo had plenty more farmland (for now anyway), plus the Shimmering Silkworms that put Spring Blossom Town on the map weren't affected.


Still, this was a problem that couldn't be ignored. With a serene voice filled nonetheless filled with authority, the Empress asked; "How bad is this blight, Chancellor? What resources will be needed to identify and expunge this disease?"

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The empress asked further questions!  Perhaps a minor point in some ways, but it meant that An Xiang's choice to bring up the matter had been the correct one.  Which she knew to be the case, but being able to predict something and actually experiencing it were two different things.  She was caught slightly off guard that the empress would take such a personal interest in the matter, but she only hesitated for a moment.  She had prepared for this.

 

The questions asked were very straightforward, essentially 'what does it do' and 'what will it take to stop it'.  Both good questions, but as is the case with such things answering them was proving more complicated.  Unfortunately, An Xiang herself did not have full answers yet.  “The reports are still coming in, I'm afraid.  From what has been collected so far, it seems the symptoms aren't immediately apparent when a crop is afflicted, which makes answers difficult to find.”  She swallowed.  'I don't have an answer yet' wasn't really a good response in this context.  “I intend investigate personally, provided that doesn't interfere with my usual duties.  Though I am a little conflicted, I would rather avoid a panic caused by spreading word of an unknown disease...”  She trailed off, not quite sure how to finish the question, but she'd welcome any advice on the matter.  Of course, if none was forthcoming, An Xiang would find a solution herself.

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What to make of this information... or rather, lack of information? It was hard to say, really. Other than getting in touch with the local magistrate for a second opinion, there was little the Empress could personally do to dredge up more facts until the situation developed further. Although presently the Imperial Government might not have been able to help eradicate this unknown disease, it did have the power to start mitigating economic hardship.

 

The Empress commanded; "Have the best agricultural experts in Imperial service assist in your research, Chancellor. In the meantime, see to it that monetary compensation is provided to farmers who have lost crops to this disease. I shall trust your judgement in resolving this crisis; let it be known that your proclamations... are my own." Standard boilerplate decree by Imperial standards; all basic things a just sovereign of noble heart is expected to do when such situations arose.


"Do you have other matters to bring to the Court's attention?"

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That was it, An Xiang had the Empress' backing.  She knew that in some respects, such a sweeping-sonding degree was less significant than it first sounded.  As with anything at court, there was a heavy degree protocol and expectation at play, and when one reflected on it many aspects were things which already fell under the chancellor's responsibility and therefore authority.  That wasn't to say it was meaningless either however.  The Empress always had a choice, and this declaration indicated a trust in her Chancellor's ability to solve this problem.

 

An Xiang felt validated.  Bringing this up had been the right choice.  The Empress was made aware of the goings on of her empire, even if her direct intervention had not been required.  The Empress decided to trust An Xiang's judgement entirely in this regard, rather than make a recommendation on a course of action.  And the compensation for afflicted farmers, as well as being the most noble choice, could be leveraged to mitigate any panic as well.  The chancellor bowed deeply.  “Thank you, your highness.  I will being addressing the matter immediately.”

 

The Empress asked An Xiang if she had any further matters which demanded attention from the court, to which the chancellor shook her head.  “No your highness, all of my other responsibilities are in order.”  Technically a bit of an oversimplification, but there was nothing outside the typical concerns of someone in An Xiang's position.  Certainly nothing for the empress to be concerned with.  She figuratively stepped back, allowing another minister to address the court.

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King Oisin had been the monarch of the Velvet Strand for less than a lunar cycle.

 

He had been rushed through his courtly duties, his mock coronation, his lessons on the surrounding lands and nations beyond the Nimbusgait Lakes. And despite the confidence he strode with, there was always that slight awkward gait of a young buck that was trying to keep too much on his mind level whilst also trying not to get too excited by all the different things he was told he would learn in these 'diplomatic visits to other leaders'. Granted his kingdom was small, minute even, but he was still royalty and it was his duty to extend a dainty cervine hoof in friendship to heads of state. At least that's what his father's advisers had said. So, dressed in the royal treasures, groomed and fluffed and made presentable - he was soon made haste towards one of the notable kingdoms - or in this case, empires.

 

The Peryton was not sure what to make of it at first.

 

Having grown in the Emerald Grove, a bastion of natural beauty, flowers, plants and all that - he was not ready for the bustling streets, the ornamental buildings, rich silks and accoutrements that these ponies and longma were used to, it was more than a far cry from his rustic home and throne room, the pond he and his parents would sit by, but he was told that he'd encounter this and he would just have to silently observe. And try not to wince at the potted plants or fenced in decorative trees that were given barely any room to grow, which was a trial in its own right. But he was also in a new place and his excitement was more than obvious, despite his impressive rack of antlers and the crown upon his head - he was still young, impressionable and more than a little titillated at the idea of meeting new creatures. Not many longma visited the Velvet Strand! At least none he'd met personally or seen, he wondered if this Empress Yuè had been to his home? Maybe he should extend an invitation whilst he was here?

 

Once brought into the dazzling and downright near blinding throne room, with its grand golden treasures and pearlescent marble steps which made Oisin's minor treasures feel miniscule in comparison, he took a deep breath and approached the Dragon Throne with his intended 'future ally' as he had non so chalantly put it with some of the elder advisers and some of the entourage before he left, trying to compose himself internally and externally with some form of composure and regality. Striding smoothly, head aloft and a friendly smile that curled over his little fangs as he tucked his partly glittering wings to his frame as he finally set eyes on the 'Heavenly Daughter of the Dragons'.

 

Goodness she was pretty wasn't she? He hadn't prepared the boiling parts of his brain that were still addled with the awkwardness of adolescence for that scenario of the Empress being a lovely, granted no Peryton doe but by all means and circumstances still lovely. Oh well, at least it made his greeting speech more pleasantly accurate though! Clearing his throat as he stood at the bottom of the stairs he stooped to a graceful bow, his wings outstretched.

 

"O' Radiant treasure of Huangjing, I - King Oisin of the Velvet Strand, son of the Emerald Grove - do hereby offer my most humble of greetings upon my visitations," Maybe a bit too formal, but he did have to prepare himself and stood up as he looked to the Empress. "The stories of your beauty do not do you any favors compared to seeing you in person, o' Empress, I might even say you rival the sparkle of the diamond stars upon the crystal waters of Cirrus Lake back at my home."

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Who was King Oisin? It was a question that the entire Imperial Court had been failing to find answers for ever since receiving a message stating the Peryton King’s desire for a formal audience with the Empress of Long Guo. Not much was known about perytons in eastern lands, for their kind were seldom spotted outside their small realm. Of the Velvet Strand, Empress Yuè knew a little more than most, as those isles were identified as one of the great western sanctuaries of nature according to the accumulated knowledge of her monastic mentors.


Up-to-date records of the Velvet Strand also indicated that King Tiarnán ruled the Perytons. No news had come from across the sea indicating any sort of peryton succession, so word of this Oisin caused a massive scramble for information and overseas gossip. Unfortunately, perytons didn’t have much of a habit for traveling abroad and relaying news about their homeland, so the Imperial Court lacked any idea at all of the mystery buck’s temperament and desires.


Regardless, the protocols of courtly courtesy demanded that King Oisin’s request be granted.


Empress Yuè paid very close attention as the Peryton King strode towards the Dragon Throne. Outwardly, Oisin looked every bit the stately cervine as his fine clothes and grooming would indicate, but the royal qilin was well-practiced in seeing through the hearts of others. And just through rigorous observation of Oisin’s movements, something about him seemed a little out of the ordinary compared to the usual visiting dignitary. The Empress couldn’t quite put her hoof on it, however.


Yuè’s assessment of the King turned sour once he opened his mouth. She’d heard this all before; from eager suitors vying for the honor to be wed to an Empress to conniving petitioners spewing sweet words to conceal their selfish aims. As a seasoned sovereign, the qilin mare withstood the temptation to roll her eyes, instead relying on the one tried-and-true method of acknowledging overly fairspoken guests with the respect they were owed.


“I am not worthy of the praise you lavish upon me,” the Empress expressed modesty in an unfailing regal tone; “But I cannot deny your gift with words, King Oisin. Undoubtedly, there must be many a doe in your realm who believe without question that you will give your future queen the attention a faithful wife deserves.” With Yuè having subtly thrown her shade, it would be up to Oisin to grasp the full implications behind the Empress’s counter-compliment.


That being said, Yuè pressed on with other matters. “In the Dragon Kingdom, little is known about your kind, as the paths of Peryton and Long Sun rarely cross. As such, we are immensely honored that you have crossed over land and ocean to bestow Long Guo with the fabled grace of the Perytons. It pains us admitting to ignorance concerning news of the natural sanctuary once tended to by King Tiarnán, so we would be most grateful to be enlightened to recent developments.”


That was a polite long-winded way of asking Oisin what the heck was going on?

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It seemed to be going well! Oisin couldn't help but wiggle that tufty little tail of his in excitement at the positive response he'd garnered from the Empress, that practice paid off greatly and the King brought his wings to his side as he watched the Longma curiously. Although despite his knowledge of 'courtly love' and all those kind gestures one should show ladies, the counter-compliment and the subtleties of shade had been entirely lost on the completely blunt and slightly naive buck as he blinked his purple-green eyes a moment or two at her comment on his future wife and he couldn't help but look just a touch bashful at that. Ears flopped back and a small nervous smile etching just a bit at the corners of his mouth that made his tiny fangs.

 

Future Queen, oh boy that was a thing and a half wasn't it? One day he would either be betrothed to or meet the doe of his dreams, praise them in courtly love, show them the treasures of his beautiful natural kingdom and just...gah! The thoughts alone made it hard not to do the tiniest little happy flaps of those sparkly wings of his as he chortled happily, completely lost on the hints of the Dragon's Daughter and taking it purely at face value.

 

"But ofcourse!" He exclaimed happily. "To treat every maiden with grace and adoration is the way a true courtly gentlebuck should act! And whoever my future Queen shall be shall know every morning and every night that they are beauty to challenge even the most vibrant field of wild blooms!" Even though he was very proud of himself and excited to put those self learned charms into practice, he'd made it clear that maybe his learning of how exactly to treat ladies may have not been one hundred percent accurate to what acting properly in a social situation might have been. Oh dear.

 

However as the mention of his father came about, Oisin perked up and he took a deep breath to sort himself out, frivolity later Oisin, you learnt this. Be a good King. He nodded towards Yuè a slightly more level headed expression.

 

"My father, Tiarnán has stepped down as King due to...an injury of the antler, it is a grievous situation for our kind so he has retired from the throne, as the Crown Prince it is my duty to take the mantle." There was confidence there, but it was a facade, he was at his core nervous of this place, these people, he was so new to this and so terribly afraid of messing up and making his people suffer because of it. But he never let it make him falter. "But I fear I am in the same boat as you, great Empress, I share very little knowledge of the kingdoms and empires outside of the Velvet Strand so have been advised to visit and increase relations between the Perytons and other creatures of this world. T'is why I come here before you today!"

 

 

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If there was one lesson relentlessly drilled into Empress Yuè in preparation for her unexpected coronation, it was to never let her royal mask slip under any circumstance whatsoever. Do not break decorum by expressing uncouth joy, refrain from showing anger towards those who’ve wronged or offended you, and absolutely never show signs of emotional frailty. If a ruler unwisely took his or her mask off, their subjects — along with the rulers of other lands — would no longer be able to believe that an imperial sovereign possessed the draconic serenity required to sit on the Dragon Throne.


This was why the Empress found it disturbing to spot an increasing amount of instances where her peryton counterpart allowed his royal mask to slip. A wagging tail, twitching wings, an uncontrolled burst of excitement... and not to mention doubling down on the chivalric rhetoric. Maybe Yuè’s first impression had been spectacularly wrong; Oisin seemed less of a slick talker and more of a mischievous, happy-go-lucky imp who stumbled onto the Peryton throne by chance. Although it could also just be the buck’s little fangs coloring the newest assessment.


On the plus side however, Yuè believed she found a new potential friend to send Serpent King Àilóng’s way. That dragon never did seem to care whatsoever about wearing the ruler’s metaphorical mask.


As it just so happened, the Empress’s guess about Oisin stumbling onto his throne wasn’t that far off the mark. Truth be told... was that not how Yuè herself, a qilin mare who had intended to spend a humble life walking the Harmonious Path, ascended above her elder step-siblings to claim the highest title in the entire Dragon Kingdom? Just like Yuè, Oisin was now obligated to follow in his father’s hoofsteps; a task that wasn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination.


Now sensing that the two of them shared the same boat in more ways than one, Empress Yuè began the ceremonial ritual of getting up from her Dragon Throne and gracefully walking down the steps to stand on equal level with King Oisin. It was an honor accorded to all heads of state granted audience with the imperial sovereign, although this was the first time in recorded history it was granted to the Peryton monarch. Yuè finally betrayed a gleam in her eyes as she trotted over to Oisin’s side, close enough to closely inspect the winged deer’s physical form. To her surprise, the qilin surmised that her counterpart couldn’t have been any older than her; most likely he was even a little bit younger!


But no startlement was evidence in Empress Yuè’s voice as she commenced the usual diplomatic boilerplate expected of all empresses. “Ever since Long Guo was founded, we have always believed that to maintain balance and harmony in the world, all nations must stand together as one. Although our civilizations are separated by vast distances, there is no denying there is much that Long Sun and Peryton can learn from one another. Therefore, we hereby declare our intention to seek a lasting friendship with His Majesty, and the great nation of the Velvet Strand.” All throughout her speech, the Empress assertively but warmly bore into the King’s dream-like purple orbs.....

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Watching the Empress step down from her golden throne, Oisin tried his best to regather himself, poise and grace, Oisin, do your kind proud. Do your family proud.Taking a deep breath he tried to show the regal bearing for Yuè's scrutiny, golden antlers held high and wings held tight to his frame as he put his hooves together....chest maybe a bit puffed out too much to show one of his family's treasures proudly. Maybe they were not as decadent or...extravagant and numerous as the Longma had in her possession, his treasures were a coin in a fountain compared to this treasure trove, but he was proud of his treasures all the same. To be wearing them in the name of the Velvet Strand made him very proud.

 

Shaken out of his thoughts, his large ears swiveled forward to listen intently to his gracious host as he stood there, cheeks puffed a little in curiosity, even with the facade he tried to put on he was still young and curious about the world around him and of course learning of his new 'friends', or at least associates. The declaration of the Empress was especially hard to keep himself from smiling before he bowed his head respectfully in a grateful nod.

"Glorious Empress, I would be more than thankful to form a friendship with you for the betterment of yours and my own kingdom." A realization hit him as he stomped a hoof on the floor, "As such, I would like to offer this as a gift of friendship! I've been told it's very polite to bring gifts and there are none better than these jewels of the Strand."

 

One of Yuè's servants that'd been there to show the Peryton royal to the palace stepped in, a woven basket in the grasp of some levitating magic, it wasn't anything so supreme as what was to be expected of gifts for royalty. No silks or satins, no precious metals and certainly no jewels - despite the fact the contents glistened like them. Within the basket sat fruits, many types, apples and strawberries and grapes, all healthy and plump but all looking odd from their usual type. The strawberries glittered and shimmered like fresh cut sparkling rubies refracting every dancing light within the throne room, the grapes looked like glass, clean and clear with the slight iridescent shimmer of pearls despite their rich wine color and the apples were large hearty things, bright pink mottled with soft rose reds and just as fragrant. The sweetness billowed from the basket as tempting as any box of chocolates from some would-be suitor, all from this cheerful buck.

 

"The Velvet Strand, my home of the Emerald Grove especially, are known for their rich fertile lands, so from the heart of my home I offer these to you in friendship...I should hope one day you can come and sample these and more fresh from the land they grew."

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Oh my; those enchanted fruits looked too alluring to NOT taste this very instant! Normally, Palace protocol usually demanded that a servant first sample any food offered to the Empress to guarantee it fit for consumption. This time though, the attendant handling the fruit basket eagerly smiled in approval... and the grim-faced Imperial Watcher who had been assigned to escort King Oisin provided a subtle but clear nod signaling the offerings had already been tested and deemed safe.


Silently assured there was no foul play ahoof, the Empress plucked a single pearly grape and gracefully put it in her mouth. She took her time savoring the supernatural sweetness of the fruit; the royal qilin believed at long last, a true rival to the cultivating prowess of the Wise and Noble Long had been found... and the majestic Serpent Dragons as a whole were even more reclusive than the Perytons. Spellbound by Oisin’s bounty, Yuè failed to conceal the bliss expressed by her face as she gleefully swallowed the rest of her snack.


The Empress briefly quieted her vocal tone as she privately conferred with her counterpart... well, as best as two heads of state could manage when in front of a large audience. “At tonight’s banquet, I shall present the Palace Chef to you. I am confident she will be eager to incorporate the Velvet Strand’s bounties in her recipes.”


As she spoke, Empress Yuè gestured to her attendants, who saw their cue to fulfill their to return King Oisin’s gesture. Gift exchanges were a normal part of diplomatic affairs, especially between two civilizations attempting to open ties with one another. Thus, the Long Sun prepared offerings of their own; ones believed to be most appropriate for Perytons.


In perfectly coordinated unison, six heavy chests landed to King Oisin’s side with a thunderous THUD! Each chest was ornately adorned with a unique naturalistic motif, but otherwise betrayed no hints as to the contents inside. “May we present to you one of Long Guo’s most beloved treasures,” the Empress returned to her commanding Imperial Proclamation Voice; “The Six Friends of Harmony!”


One by one, prettily-dressed maidservants would open a chest, each one filled not with gold or gems or magical artifacts or even exquisite silverware. Nope; nothing but..... seeds. Seeds, seeds, and more seeds. Namely:


“Peony. Orchid. Lotus. Chrysanthemum. Plum Blossom. Bamboo. These are the six plants we hold most dear in our culture. Your kind have a well-earned reputation for loving all things that grow. We hope each of the Six Friends will take root in the Velvet Strand, serving as a reminder that Harmony is cherished by all beings of this World!”

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Needless to say, Oisin was very proud of himself - more so than usual - to get the Empress to smile at his homeland's goodies. He had been very careful to pick only the finest fruit that he himself liked to snack on and seeing that expression on her face he couldn't help but feel a swell of pride in his personal stock as he still held himself in a royal and regal manner, granted there was the itchings of a tiny smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. But he restrained himself after that look he got from the Empress earlier, maybe smiling wasn't a thing you were meant to do here as a royal? He was told near constantly by the advisers that he should be level headed, regal, a vision for others to look up to...but when such wonderful things happened how could he stand to be still?

 

But he did, for the dear Empress' sake. Besides, her offer of introducing her to the Royal Chef was all too pleasing to his ears. To imagine the Strand's bounty gracing the banquet table was enough for another calm bow of gratitude at such generosity. He hadn't tried many pony treats, or longma for that matter, he wondered what their cooking was like? He had hoped they'd be good enough for the Peryton palette.

 

However there was barely any time to think on that, as it appeared Yuè had her own gifts to give to the buck. Though he had to admit he was a bit reluctant.

 

Glancing about this palace and noting the chests, the worry of bringing back some great gaudy trinket made him worry if he was about to be impolite. What if he inadvertently caused a national scandal, or worldwide scandal by rejecting a gift from the Daughter of Dragons because it wasn't part of his culture? Such worries were of course put to rest as the chests were opened and he marveled at the seeds with wide, iridescent purple-green eyes. One ear flicked to listen to their names as he put them away in his mind and he couldn't help but beam in obvious appreciation, a dainty thin hoof raised to scoop one of the peony seeds to rest atop it as he took an admiring look over it like some proud and excited father might their fawn.

 

"How beautiful! And at such an early time of potential too," He settled the seed carefully down like he was handling fine glass and offered another grateful bow of his head. "And all these to grow within the Strand? Empress, they will have the finest place to grow within the Emerald Grove, mark me on this, every Peryton and visitor to the strand will be able to marvel on the gift you've given to the Peryton's homeland today."

 

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Empress Yuè had to give it to King Oisin; the young buck’s persistence at wearing his emotions on his sleeve may technically be incorrect protocol, but his mood was rather enduringly infectious. The Empress herself could feel the embers of pride stirring within her, making the qilin beam with delight at Oisin’s vow. More importantly than earning the enthusiastic acquaintance of a fellow leader, Yuè’s impeccable acumen will now allow more of the seeds of Long Sun culture to sprout and flourish in other lands!


And in return, the Empress gets a new supply of the sweetest fruits ever tasted. She could foresee sending Àilóng on many produce runs to the Velvet Strand in the near future.


Less guarded with her facial expressions, Empress Yuè playfully slipped a subtle grin towards her counterpart. “I will hold you to your word King Oisin, as I intend to be one of those visitors myself.” Yes, once all of Yuè’s gifts had time to grow, it would mark an excellent occasion for a reciprocal state visit to the Velvet Strand!


As per Palace custom, now that the pomp of today’s special session of morning court was nearing its conclusion, the Palace photographers came up to the two royals and began setting up their equipment. As she waited to get an official picture taken with the Peryton King, the Empress quietly suggested their next course of action; “Once we are done here, may I show you through the Palace Gardens? I know they can never compare to the natural beauty of your land, but it is Long Sun tradition to recreate and miniaturize natural landscapes in our gardening. As King of the Perytons, your insights would be most welcome.”


At the very least, walking along windy paths as they led past lotus ponds, miniature rock mountains, and groves of willows will give Oisin a change of pace from sprawling avenues and stately halls.....

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It had been some time since Feng had stepped foot in the Imperial Palace; modern as the transportation was between Long Guo and Equestria, the journey would never be a quick one.  Log enough, in any case, for the magnificent structure to loose the dull matte of familiarity to shine in all its splendor to new eyes!  Or perhaps that was the effect of approaching the Dragon throne by way of the Audience chambers, which were designed to Impress, rather than the more utilitarian back corridors that the Imperial Watcher used in taking up his position of duty.

 

The longma was taking this path due to returning successfully from a diplomatic mission.  It was a little unusual to send one of the Empress' feared security forces on a diplomatic task, but the task itself had hardly been usual.  Feng had been sent as a Long Guo representative to the Equestrian Iron Pony competition, meant to show strong cultural bonds between the two countries... as well as gain a little glory and renknown in the eyes of foreigners.  As for how he did?  Well, if he hadn't won, he certainly wouldn't be coming in through the front door.  As it was, he couldn't help but want to make a little show of it all.

 

Speaking of a show... the sight of the Dragon Throne and the Empress upon was truly striking, when viewed through the golden doorway into the inner Court.  All the furnishings and decor were meant to overawe in a display of magnificence, and for a moment, they did, even for Feng, who had seen it many times before.  But of course, what truly took his breath away, every time and always, was Yu Yue, the Empress, herself.  Whether clothed in all the silks of royalty, or in the plainer garb reserved for non-public appearances, he never failed to find her beautiful and captivating.  And she knew it, which might possibly have been a contributing factor as to why he was sent away, in addition to his athletic skills.  His affections were known to her, but not, as of yet, reciprocated.

 

True to all old sayings of absence and the heart, however, Feng had never once let her leave his mind.  It was for her sake that he gave 110% of himself on the field of play, and it was because of her that he was able to approach now, bedecked in medals of gold.  "Your Imperial Majesty!"  He called out, bowing before her hooves to let the medals and laurels of victory to slip off, making an offering before her throne.  "I return from the far lands of Equestria to report success of my mission!  I have spread good words of our intentions and character, forged bonds across the seas, and have won glory for Long Guo, for I have taken the title of Iron Pony!"  Looking up, he tried to gauge her reaction; it had been a faint but unshakeable hope of his that a good performance may yet open up the Empress' heart towards him...

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Tagging along just behind Feng was a rather nervous looking Yanhua. She didn't come back declared the Iron Pony, but she did come with at least two medals on her neck: One for cupcake eating and another for rock climbing. Most impressively, they were golden too. Seems that the representatives on Long Guo had definitely left their mark on the Equestrian event... though Yanhua was not looking forward to hearing any rumors that might come about in the future. For now, she was (mostly) content to stay close to Feng now that she was back in the palace. 

Once Feng finished his proud declaration, the chef popped out from behind him and held out her two medals. "Feng Did the bulk of the work on our mission, but I came back with some medals as well." Once she spoke up she seemed content to just slink back behind her friend, seemingly trying to keep her eyes off the empress... and not be frustrated by that look Feng always got when he came back with good news for her. The Chef took a deep breath through her nose to center herself before she noticed something odd in the air. She sniffed again and thought to herself. Where did she recognize this scent from? 

Scouring her memories she recalled this smell was that of the Velvet Strand. Traveling through the Equestrian Heartland, Yanhua had caught a whiff of that place's scent on the wind. It made the carriage rides throughout the country with Feng all the more pleasant. "Your Highness, Are we hosting someone from Equestria today?"

 

 

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Although the ceremony with King Oisin had ended, more internal affairs of state required discussion throughout the rest of the morning. And even after that, one last important matter remained. Long Guo’s delegation to Equestria’s Iron Pony competition had returned to the Imperial Capital bearing the fruits of victory!


Ironically, when Feng was initially chosen to represent the Dragon Kingdom, his superiors never planned on him winning the title of Iron Pony. There were three chief qualities that the Imperial Watch prized in its members: the willingness to utilize ruthless efficiency, the ability to cultivate an aura of fear, and a mastery of the art of going unnoticed without any effort (.....alongside demonstrating an almost fanatical devotion to the Empress). Although it was true that Feng succeeded at every mission and exerted himself harder than any other Watcher, his reputation amongst the ranks... left much to be desired.


Earning a glorious title at a high-profile sporting event overseas was exactly the sort of fame a model Watcher avoided if at all possible... but then again, it wasn’t like Feng could be reprimanded for failing to do bad. After all, the Empress herself chose the longma stallion to represent the Dragon Kingdom, and who in their right mind would embarrass their Imperial Sovereign by deliberately performing poorly? Regardless, Feng Yinhaitao was set to be viewed by the Watch’s leadership with doubt and suspicion for a good while longer.


At least for now though, Empres Yuè could satisfy herself with the sight of her Champion strutting his way towards the Dragon Throne. Were Feng anybody else, the Empress might have labeled him as an arrogant showoff with ulterior motives. Of course, the royal qilin knew who the true Feng really was: a philosophical warrior with a fiery heart of passion and absolute loyalty. Thing was, in a dog-eat-dog environment like the Imperial Palace where servants were expected to know their station, Feng’s devotion could very well one day prove to be his undoing.


So was for that reason that Empress Yuè sent Feng away to Ponyville; that, and to remove him as a mental distraction for a while. Thus it was an even greater irony that her actions had the opposite effect, as the Empress’s thoughts started dwelling on Feng and his well being at a more frequent rate than before. The qilin mare lacked an answer for why she was afflicted so; it wasn’t like something as silly as love could be involved, as Love was the province of those privileged with the luxury of opening their hearts. No; the Empress was sure to find a more probable answer through meditation, no matter how long it took!


Yet it was rather difficult to deny Feng’s allure when adorned with golden medals, wasn’t it?


If Empress Yuè’s emotions were in turmoil, none of it showed whatsoever as she addressed Feng and Yanhua with the utmost professional confidence; “The champions of the Long Sun before us today have brought great honor to the Dragon Nation! Although only one of them could earn the coveted title of Iron Pony, we would be remiss not to acknowledge the achievements of our very own palace chef, Yanhua, who earned the top prizes in the contests of Cupcake Eating and Rock Climbing! Please come forward to be acknowledged!”


As Yanhua obeyed the command, she asked an almost non-sequitur question for this occasion... almost. “Yes we are,” the Empress answered nonchalantly; “It seems word of the Peryton delegation is spreading far and wide. As a matter of fact Yanhua, you shall be meeting with them at tonight’s banquet... to make arrangements for produce shipments from the Velvet Strand to the Palace Cellars. We trust you can carry out this task?”

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As requested, Yanhua came forward to be acknowledged. Anxiety spiked as she worried why she had been called forward when Feng's successes surely overshadowed her own. 

 

The empress' response to her question soon seemed to put her at ease. Thanks goodness Yue came to a more mundane explanation then "the cook can smell new arrivals". Arranging shipments to the palace? Seemed like a simple enough job to take up. Yanhua had taken on such duties in the past when she ran her restaurant in the capital. Acquiring ingredients from sources was definitely something that couldn't go wrong in any sort of way whatsoever.  After clearing her throat, Yanhua bowed her head in the affirmative. 

"It will be done, Empress... But... May I ask a chance to speak to you before the beginning of the banquet?" She glanced back to Feng behind her and then back to her empress, "Nothing serious, simply questions about this delegation for the meal preparation. Questions that I wish not to bore the court with." Yanhua had been thinking about this for a while now. If she announced her true nature in front of the court it would cause no end of trouble for Feng, Yue, and herself... but if she could admit this quietly to the empress then there was a chance that she could keep her position and possibly reach some sort of understanding as to her intention. 

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Yanhua’s question gave Empress Yuè some pause. It wasn’t so much what the palace chef actually asked, but rather how it came with a slight hint of hesitation, along with a peek in Feng’s direction. And maybe... it WAS definitely because of what Yanhua asked of her Empress, because no servant in the Imperial Household’s employ would need to request ahead of time to seek the Empress’s input on mundane matters. Empress Yuè was highly trained and practiced in the art of reading others, and she sensed Yanhua’s true concerns did not revolve around the menu for tonight’s banquet.


As it was however, it was highly improper to unexpectedly put somebody on the spot in front of such a huge gathering, especially if they were all there to honor that said somebody. Empress Yuè could also spot signs of agitation starting to appear on many of her assembled courtiers; nobody was here to witness the discussion dinner arrangements. Therefore, after a slight pause of contemplation, the royal qilin simply moved things along in her expected assertive manner; “.....But of course. I will send for you later when the proper time comes.”


With one gesture, Empress Yuè summoned forth one of her attendants, who presented Yanhua with an ornate case. The servant proceeded to open the case, revealing to the palace chef... a sparkling feather marked with many colors of the rainbow! “This is the feather of the fenghuang, the rainbow phoenix,” the Empress elaborated; “Sages say that a Long Sun who holds a rainbow feather in their hoof can rejuvenate the embers of Hope, Vitality, and Wonder in their hearts.” The wise royal knew that befriending a fenghuang was even more of a blessing than possessing a single feather, but she had the personal experience of both monastery tutelage and a disastrous Grand Galloping Gala to grasp how hard such a feat was.


The Empress’s features subtly softened as a sign of appreciation for Yanhua; “It is hard to think of anyone else more deserving of this rare gift... than one who has tirelessly toiled in service of her Empress with complete dedication, faithfulness, and honesty.....”

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To hear praise and acknowledgement from the Empress' own lips was like the sweetest of Yanhua's steam buns to Feng; it could fill his entire body with the feeling of light and airy bliss for the better part of a week.  And to be so able to share the moment with his good friend Yanhua?  That was like two whole steam buns!  He'd be on something like a sugar buzz for the forseeable future.  

 

That said, an Imperial Watcher grinning like the village troublemaker and vibrating like the wings of a bumblebee would have been... inappropriate in the presence of all the illustrious figures of the Dragon Court.  As much of a loose cannon as his superiors thought him now, Feng devoted no small part of his considerable will and energy into binding himself into the disciplinary framework of the Watch.  That raised the disturbing specter of what the longma would become if he felt that he no longer had anything to lose by letting himself go...

 

But when or if that day would ever come, it certainly wasn't today.  Thus, he took the welcome respite from Yue's attention as she congratulated her chef on her own gold medals to keep his face from splitting in half and his hooves from dancing in delight.  By the time the two of them had agreed on a private meeting, he'd managed to straighten out to the point where he was merely smiling, rather than grinning outright.  That said, he also caught all the implications of what that 'private conversation' was likely to consist of.  The trip they'd taken to Equestria had revealed to Feng Yanhua's true identity, though thankfully not in a way to disturb their friendship!  It was just that, well, she wasn't truly a qilin...

 

Thus it was that he sucked in a breath at the sight and implications of the Fenghuang feather.  Like most of the court, he found the beauty dazzling; he'd been fortunate himself to befriend one of these magnificent phoenixes by saving one from foreign poachers while on recovery.  That had been a harrowing little incident, having to rely almost solely on a bluff to see the lot of them off.

He shook off reminisces.  This was a delicate situation, one which could turn disastrous if not handled well.  He had to interject, but could not supersede Yanhua's decision in the matter.  Public confession of her true identity might not be the best tactic here and now, but given how he'd found out about it back in Ponyville, it was unlikely to stay a secret forever.  Best the Empress heard it from Yanhua herself rather than a foreign newspaper, or worse, an intelligence briefing...

 

"Knowing Yanhua as well I have come to over my time at the Palace, and the opportunities I have had to observe her over the course of our journey to and from the west, I can absolutely vouch for her worth of character and service."  He allowed himself to grin.  "I will give my testimony officially if called for!"  Though it seemed no more than a manifestation of his normal flippancy towards officiality, in truth it was a bit of theater deliberately engaged in.  He wanted to communicate his true confidence in his friend, in a professional as well as personal capacity, without alerting the onlookers that anything was actually amiss with Yanhua, should she choose to remain silent now.  They already thought him odd, best let them keep thinking that.  Contrary to common misconception about the Watch, it wasn't about being inconspicuous, but simply keeping what didn't need to be known unknown.

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