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A sharp intake of breath from the comets and asteroids stops Mars in mid-flow. A flurry of excitement ripples through the solar system as Saturn floats into the chamber. Even Sol flickers with admiration. With effortless grace, Saturn eases herself in the sixth chair, her beautiful rings arranged around her like a marriage gown by a multitude of attentive moons. Blood red Titan, largest and only moon with a dense atmosphere, much to Mar's displeasure, carefully watches over the proceedings like a proud father at his daughters wedding. Now settled and her rocky blouse draped over the table like a robe, the satellites assume their position according to their size and station and Saturn turns and smiles beatifically at all. She winks at Sol who pretends not to notice, despite the eruption of a sizable solar flare which dissolves a comet and causes Mercury to grimace in pain.

"As I was saying," continues Mars, huffily and trying not to crimson further, "It has come to my attention that the recent outbreak of life on Earth has caused…"

"Oh shit. I forgot."

Mars looks up from his prepared script to see Sol staring into the distance with foreboding. Mars follows Sol's gaze and all fury freezes in his mouth. Jupiter.

"For gods sake nobody mention his spot," whispers Sol.

"What?" asks Mars, as he watches as Jupiter's colossal bulk is squeezed into his chair by his four faithful Galilean moons, two on each side. Volcanic Io, spewing lava and flux like an irritated adolescent and frigid Europa, all ice and lament, to the left, serene Callisto and proud Ganymede, aristocrat of the moons, on the right.

"Don't mention his.."

"It's ok my lord," roars Jupiter. "I wear my disfigurements with pride."

"Ah, well, that's ok then," replies Sol, uncertainly.

As Jupiter's gigantic red spot swirls into view, Mars opens his mouth to say something spiteful but is cut short by Mercury, as swift as a biting snake. "Now that," he says in awe, "Is what I call a spot."

"Indeed," growls Jupiter with pride. "Three hundred years and counting. And you'll never hear me complain."

"Yes, yes, it's very impressive," says Sol, attempting to recover some of his authority. He surveys the chamber. "Who's still to arrive?"

Jupiter leans closer to Saturn and whispers; "I even had a comet collide with me the other eon." Saturn, like the most important host of an important revelry, beams regally.

Mars sinks into his chair, upstaged and humiliated. "Venus, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto and the guest of honour herself."

"Ah," says Sol, thoughtfully.

As Jupiter nods regally at Saturn and receives a blush in return, giving the other planets little more than cursory acknowledgement, Halley creeps fearfully past a thoroughly depressed Mars and whispers into Sol's ear.

"Good god," screams Sol after a moment. "Hide the sherry!"

Mars lifts his head and brightens a little. "Ah, the happy couple."

"Sire," says Halley as formal introduction. "Uranus and Neptune."

Uranus, tilted almost ninety degrees on her axis, drunkenly rolls into the chamber, followed by a harassed and embarrassed looking Neptune. Uranus staggers blindly for Earth's chair, and is discretely ushered to her own, the seventh, by her husband and soul partner, the ever patient Neptune.

"Sorry about all this guys," he says, as he attempts, unsuccessfully, to keep Uranus's head from banging onto the table. "But you know how she is."

"Yes, we do. Thank god some things never change," giggles Mercury.

Mars sneers. "It's a disgrace. One of the gas giants acting like that."

"It's not her fault," retorts Neptune, while his gigantic moon Triton, gawping at Mar's peevishness, settles into his uniquely retrograde orbit. "She's always been like this."

"Never mind dear," says Saturn, smoothing out Uranus's deep blue dress, speckled with clouds of churning white satin. "Ignore them."

Free now of Uranus's gravitational pull, her moons rattle across the table like marbles. Neptune looks up helplessly at Sol, fear and shame on his face. With a slight shake of his magnificent head, Sol beckons to Ceres, mightiest of the asteroids and chief chambermaid, and instructs her to collect Uranus's moons before they float off into the unknowable universe. Ceres hounds the moons across the starlit floor as they scatter in all directions like ants fleeing a fire.

"It's alright," reassures Sol, returning to Neptune. "No harm done. Take your seat."

Neptune almost faints with relief and gratitude and collapses into his chair, the eighth or ninth, depending on Pluto. But we'll get to that later.

"Has someone lost a moon?"

The planets turn their heads to find Venus making his way across the chamber to the second seat with a perplexed look on his face, clutching a struggling Oberon - one of Uranus's larger moons, in his hand.

"Anyone?" he asks. "Because if not…"

"Just give it to Ceres," says Sol soothingly, but with the influence of a hostage negotiator, knowing Venus's lust for moons since he has none of his own.

>to be continued....
 
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