The Golden Grove. When Leon heard those words, he’d initially assumed that it would be something akin to the Heartwood Grove back in the Forest of Black and White; some kind of relatively insulated part of the city where huge golden trees—possibly even Heartwoods—had been set aside for the use of the Imperial family. Given what he already knew of the Sacred Golden Empire’s architecture, he easily imagined some giant golden tree serving as the main centerpiece of such a place.
There was only one problem: he could see just about all of Evergold with his magic senses, and nowhere did he see any golden trees. He could see many trees of varying colors, but as a whole, Evergold wasn’t nearly as colorful as the Forest of Black and White had been.
However, near the center of the city, he could see several square miles of land on a shallow hill, protected on all sides by magical canals, where there was a huge, dense cluster of palace-trees. Their branches intertwined so intricately that he could barely focus on it, and making things more complicated, many of those branches were moving with what could only be directed purpose. These, he knew, were essentially raised walkways to other palace-trees, but they moved with an ease and grace that if he hadn’t taken some time to watch this area, he might’ve guessed that they were natural.
Unfortunately, his magic senses couldn’t penetrate too deeply into this area, for the whole area was heavily warded not only against magic senses, but against just about any other kind of magic he could think of. This grove could only be the capitol of the Sacred Golden Empire, where the Imperial family resided.
‘And where Cassandra lives…’ Leon had thought to himself during his observations, the Imperial Princess’ ruby eyes flashing through his mind again, and her parting words to try and win back her mask from him at some point in the future ringing in his ears.
He’d accepted the invitation to the Golden Grove—though refusal wasn’t ever on the table when apparently several members of the Imperial family were involved in sending him the invitation. Especially not when an eighth-tier mage was the one relaying the invitation. The messenger didn’t stay long, thankfully, and Leon spent as much of the time remaining between then and the feast to try and get a feel for Sacred Golden Empire politics. In service of that, he enlisted Elise, Helen, Anna, and Talal to give him as much of a crash course in the subject as they could fit into a single day.
Fortunately, there wasn’t much that Leon specifically needed to know.
The most important things were, as it so happened, that which was most immediately relevant to him: the politics of the ruling family.
At the very top was the Grand Druid, the Sacred Golden Empire’s only tenth-tier mage. As far as anyone could say, she was more than eight hundred years old, and had been in her position for at least two centuries. As the Grand Druid, her role was remarkably similar to that of Anastasios’, Leon realized, being almost more of a god than a ruler. She was in charge of the spiritual well-being of the Empire, making sure their ‘gods’—more like nature spirits, Anna told Leon, that went without name—were happy and supportive, and that the people didn’t lose sight of their spiritual and cultural roots. She also technically outranked the Empress, though the Empress was the one who exercised her political power on a regular basis.
The current Empress, Joanna, was the current Grand Druid’s daughter by a male concubine—one of many the Grand Druid had taken, or so Leon had been told. She wasn’t the Grand Druid’s only child, but she was the only one that was politically relevant in Evergold, Talal assured him. The Grand Druid only had four other children, who were mostly filling various roles in the government, while also being kept well away from the capital and any ‘real’ power. When it came to political power in the Sacred Golden Empire, it mostly rested with the Empress rather than the Grand Druid—convening and adjourning their Circle of Druids, enforcing the laws, commanding the army, and fulfilling the role of Head of State were all duties assigned to the Empress.
The Empress herself had a fairly sizable harem, Elise made sure to point out, giving Leon a rather pointed gaze that he didn’t want to dig into too deeply. Empress Joanna had at least ten husbands and as many concubines, but being a woman of the ninth-tier, and thus having slower reproductive functions than mortal women, she’d only had three children in her several centuries of life. Of them, only Princess Cassandra had achieved anything noteworthy, having ascended to the eighth-tier before the age of thirty.
Once more, Leon’s mind turned to the purple-haired Princess, and his heart rate slightly accelerated.
From what Talal knew, Cassandra didn’t have any political positions, though her older brother and sister were druids—magistrates—of major cities further along the Neilos River. However, her magical power evidently made her more than powerful enough to have great standing with the Imperial court despite her lack of title other than Princess, enough so that she was able to represent her people in the wyvern hunt.
Other than the members of the Imperial family, there were also a host of other officials in the capital, as Leon expected, but his eyes glazed over partway through and by the time he, Elise, Maia, and Valeria left the guest house, he’d almost entirely forgotten most of them.
Much like the Ilian Empire, the Sacred Golden Empire had their own strange vehicles, only instead of wheelless and horseless carriages, they used small boats to ferry people along the canals, seemingly reserving carriages for those rare times when they left the extensive canal network—though from what Leon could see of their canal network, it extended at least in part all the way out into the fertile fields surrounding the massive city, rather limiting the need for carriages.
These boats came in all different sizes, and were largely self-propelled, using advanced water enchantments to carry them onward. Leon was familiar with such enchantments, but he’d never seen them used in such great numbers, or so efficiently before. From the moment he set foot in the boat that would take them to the Imperial Grove, he was captivated by what he could sense—or rather, what he couldn’t, speaking volumes to how efficiently the enchantments were transferring power—that they arrived at the Imperial harbor before he’d even realized it.
When he looked up, he found himself and his party shielded from the red evening sun by the thick canopy of the gigantic palace-trees at the center of Evergold, thousands of feet above them. Many of the leaves were multicolored, making it look like the leafy canopy glimmered with all the colors of the rainbow from down below.
“Hey, you with us?” Valeria asked, pulling Leon’s attention to her.
“Hm?” he responded with some confusion, noticing that Elise, Maia, and the rest of their party, amounting to about a dozen local Heaven’s Eye officials, were staring at him. “What was that?”
“We’ve arrived, husband,” Elise said as she slid in to take his left arm.
“That means time to get up!” Valeria added as she took Leon’s right arm, and together, she and Elise pulled him out of his seat.
Leon playfully groaned and said, “If I must!” He then pulled his arms out of their grips, took their hands, and led them off the boat to meet with the large Imperial welcoming party. Maia followed immediately after him, hurrying forward as she did to take Elise’s free hand, while behind her came the rest of their party.
They were warmly welcomed, and after some introductions and exchanged pleasantries, an escort was provided that led Leon’s party further into the Imperial Grove. They entered the nearest palace-tree, and Leon took in the same details that he had in Cassandra’s palace-tree back in the Scorched Fields. Flowing, organic lines not only decorated the interior walls, but were also characteristic of the architectural style. If it hadn’t been so perfectly tailored to the needs of a large human number of inhabitants, Leon almost could’ve believed that the tree had simply been naturally hollow, rather than magically designed to be, itself, a palace filled with light and magic.
Through brightly lit hallways they moved, and through large atriums, up and down stairs, and through the twisting branches that connected the many palace-trees of the Imperial Grove together. As they went, Leon noticed that not only was the guard detail growing heavier, but the population of working bureaucrats and druids thinned out. It was obvious that they were heading further into the more private sections of the grove set aside for the Imperial family rather than the Imperial government.
Leon’s wonder was eventually tempered when the branch-hallway opened into a similar chamber as the one that he’d met Cassandra in back at the Scorched Fields—a large dome-like structure formed by a thick leafy canopy and walled by thicker tree limbs. When they emerged, they found themselves on a stone pathway flanked by light-emitting flowers that reached Leon’s waist in height. The path forked in two directions, forward and to the right, while to the left was a small courtyard with a statue as a centerpiece and a number of stone benches encircling it.
The statue depicted one of the Brilliant Eleven—or so Leon presumed—with her boot on the chest of a fallen bird-headed figure, her spear brandished at the figure’s neck.
Leon hadn’t seen any art depicting and glorifying the fall of his Clan until this point, and he almost froze in surprise at being so suddenly confronted by the statue. Had his hands not been tightly held by Elise and Valeria, he might’ve actually stopped in his tracks, but his ladies kept pulling him onward. Elise even squeezed his hand in support while Valeria flashed him a smile and Maia sent a pulse of affection through their connection.
Thusly boosted, Leon kept his head on straight as they proceeded onward, passing through various other halls and leaf-shrouded courtyards, eventually reaching something that Leon thought was the ‘Golden Grove’.
It was yet another covered chamber, only this one was immense and located about as close to the top of the sprawling palace-tree complex as it could be. Shining down through the leaves above was the light of the sun, though some magic was at play that caused all of that sunlight to turn gold as it passed through the leaves. The entire chamber was submerged in this warm golden light, with this light seeming to gather around the trees, and it grew more intense further in.
They walked down another stone path into what seemed to be a forest up in this chamber, past gold-cloaked trees and into a huge stone courtyard populated by at least a hundred people. On the far end was a small stream of water that Leon could feel had been heavily enchanted with defensive wards that separated it quite effectively from the rest of the courtyard, while on the other side of that stream was a stone staircase about twenty feet high. At the top of the stairs was a throne roughly carved of dull granite, looking about as far from regal and imperious as Leon could imagine. But sitting in that throne was who he could only assume was the Empress herself.
She was beautiful, if showing some signs of age in the shallow lines on her face. Her hair was long and as golden as her Empire, while her eyes were blood red that glowed with an inner light. She wore a long gold sleeveless dress, her arms gleamed with gold rings studded with glittering gems of all colors, and on her brow rested a thin golden circlet from which golden flowers seemed to spring like a laurel crown. Around her upper body was a thin diaphanous robe that did absolutely nothing to hide her clothes beneath, but instead seemed to almost act as a visible aura around the Empress.
Her aura was robust, powerful, and weighty, but Leon’s attention was taken more by the figure who sat on the stairs, leaning back with a casual, almost provocative smile: Cassandra. She looked a little different, her purple hair having been swapped out for a golden blond that matched her mother, but she was instantly recognizable from her attitude alone. She wasn’t wearing armor, but rather what passed for casual wear in the Sacred Golden Empire: an armless dress with long slits up both sides of her legs, but not a lot of jewelry.
As soon as the Princess saw Leon, she smirked and tossed her long ponytail over her shoulder as if she were throwing something away, making eye contact with Leon as she did. He wasn’t sure what that meant, but he responded with a challenging smile of his own, silently daring her to make good on her promise to try and win back her mask.
Leon did his best to pay attention to the next quarter hour or so of pleasantries, but at this point, he’d been formally introduced to so many places and people that it was all kind of a blur. He was far more concerned with Cassandra, who stared at him the entire time the courtyard’s crier was introducing their party.
Finally, though, it was over, and after a polite exchange with the Empress, Leon and his party were allowed to back away and start mingling with the other guests.
“So,” Leon whispered to Elise as they shuffled off, “who should we be speaking with first?” He glanced around, roughly counting more than a hundred others in the courtyard.
“I don’t think that’s a decision for me to make,” Elise said, nodding back toward the throne, and when he glanced back, Leon saw the Empress descending the stairs and Cassandra leaping to her feet and falling in beside her mother once the Empress reached the floor. Together, the two started walking toward the stream, Cassandra shooting Leon a pointed look as she did, making at least her destination clear.
When the two Imperials reached the stream, the water parted around them, as if afraid to even touch their feet. Without a single drop landing upon them, the Empress and Princess reached the other side, and both started walking in Leon’s direction.
“Leon Raime,” the Empress said, her voice low and sultry though retaining a certain dignified air, “Now that we’re acquainted, I have to say that you’re a little more than I expected…” She glanced down at Leon’s hands, both still entwined with Elise and Valeria’s, and Elise’s other hand with Maia’s. “My daughter’s recounting of your meeting during the wyvern hunt didn’t indicate such proclivities…”
Unashamed, Leon cocked an eyebrow at Cassandra, then replied to the Empress, “You’ve heard of me, then?” Inside, he was all-but certain that both already knew that he was of the Thunderbird Clan, but he wasn’t going to bring that up on his own.
“A few things,” Empress Joanna admitted. “I have to say, I’m rather intrigued… A man from the distant northern Kingdoms, now here in the most civilized part of the world. ‘What must be his impression of us?’ I had to wonder. ‘What can he say about our people that we can’t see for ourselves?’”
“Well, yours is a beautiful land,” Leon vaguely replied. “This is my first time within your Empire, and I’m quite impressed. I haven’t had much time to really form an opinion of your people yet, I’m afraid, having spent most of my time in this city just preparing for this feast.”
“Then you absolutely must stay for a while,” the Empress implored, though without insisting. “My Empire is the very best for raising a family and living a long, healthy, and safe life! So many dangers around Aeterna, but we’ve achieved such peace here… Werewolves have been eradicated, we’re far from the Sky Devils, and vampirism is exterminated wherever it’s found!”
Leon’s smile thinned as suspicions about the Empress’ intentions entered his mind. “All great accomplishments, you have my congratulations.”
“Please, make yourselves at home, then,” the Empress responded as if she didn’t hear the chill in Leon’s tone. “Stay as long as you like! And I hope you avail yourselves of my hospitality in the future!” She gave Leon a long look and a smile that he utterly refused to analyze, and then turned and walked off, leaving Cassandra with Leon’s group.
The five stood there a little awkwardly with Cassandra’s eyes slowly roaming Leon’s body. At first, he thought she might be checking him out, and he was about to consider being flattered when she said, “You wore that when we met, didn’t you? And to my party after the hunt?”
Leon cocked his head in surprise, but she was right, he was wearing the black and silver suit that Elise had bought him in the Bull Kingdom so long ago, and had worn it for nearly all formal occasions ever since.
“Someone had to stay consistent,” Leon replied. “You changed your hair.”
Cassandra shrugged. “I spent a couple months with purple hair, had my fill. Wanted to return to my natural color. What do you think?” She ran her fingers through the now neck-length hair on the sides of her head, then tossed her much longer ponytail around with a shake of her head.
Before he could respond, Valeria said, “Your hair looks fine.”
Cassandra’s eyes finally flitted over to Valeria, and her silver blond hair mostly pulled back into an elegant braid, though leaving enough loose to frame her face quite attractively—at least, in Leon’s opinion. The Princess thinly smiled and said, “And your name is? I don’t believe we’ve spoken before…”
“Ah. Valeria. And you just look lovely today, don’t you? I love that necklace you have; we haven’t worn something like that in ages and it’s always fun to have a little throwback, don’t you think?”
Valeria’s free hand went up to her invisibility amulet, and her eyes narrowed in quiet fury.
Leon blinked in surprise, recognizing the tone and the traces of killing intent both ladies were giving off and knowing that, though their words absent context were pleasant, there was a lot more being said between the lines. Making it even clearer was how tightly Valeria began squeezing his hand, though he wasn’t sure if she realized it.
Interrupting them before either of them could speak, Elise hurriedly said, “You both look fantastic! Why don’t you tell us about some of the more scenic places to see while we’re here, Your Highness?”
Cassandra glared at Valeria for a long moment before turning her attention to Elise. Leon tuned her out as she started giving a few directions to his wife in favor of glancing at Valeria with a questioning look on his face.
The silver-haired woman just shrugged, shot another glare at Cassandra, then squeezed his hand again, leaving Leon to tune back into Elise’s exchange just as it seemed to be ending.
“… so we’ll definitely make some time before we head out!” Elise said.
“See that you do,” Cassandra responded almost commandingly. “I’d hate for your little vacation to be ruined by visiting all the wrong places.”
“We’ll see what we can do,” Leon responded, his tone a little colder now after Cassandra’s brief spat with Valeria. “We’re here to relax a bit, and to take care of some business, and then we’re out. Kind of a coincidence that we caught you in time for a celebration…” Leon quickly glanced around, but noticed that no one else had shown up after them, and neither were there anything resembling decorations aside from the general natural opulence of the place. Food hadn’t even been brought out yet, despite this being called a ‘feast’ in the invitation.
“It’s actually not that lucky that you caught us in this,” Cassandra explained. “We have a spiritual festival here every two weeks. It’s nothing special, but since you were in the area, it felt strange not to send you an invitation, you know? But why don’t you tell me more about this business you have? What does Heaven’s Eye want with my Empire?”
“I couldn’t tell you as we’re not here for Heaven’s Eye,” Leon said.
Cassandra’s eyebrows shot up for a moment as Valeria squeezed Leon’s hand again in warning, though he didn’t think he needed one. He didn’t mind talking with the Princess a little bit, but he wasn’t going to just reveal what they were here for—not that he thought the Empire would have much trouble following them after they left, or that they’d find it hard to learn that they weren’t here on official Heaven’s Eye business.
“I’d ask what you meant,” Cassandra said as a number of trumpets sounded off, “but my grandmother is here. I’ll be right back; don’t go anywhere, Leon!” Cassandra winked at him, then turned on her heel and marched off back toward the stream, pausing only to glare at Valeria one last time for the briefest of moments.
“What was that?” Elise hissed at Valeria, sounding rather stressed, though not angry.
“Bitch was ignoring us completely,” Valeria whispered back with a shrug and wry smile. “Kind of rude, actually.”
Elise was about to respond when trumpets sounded again, and she fell silent as the Grand Druid’s entrance was announced.