The ride to the Royal Palace passed in comfortable silence. Angela couldn’t help but gawk at the extraordinary architecture and all the lights and colors illuminating Trufora. Exalon kept hold of her hand, gently brushing his thumb back and forth across her knuckles. Angela felt the limo begin to accelerate as they reached a step incline, then she gasped in wonder.
“The Royal Palace,” Exalon said rather redundantly. “You can trace Axion history through this building, starting with the first royals.”
“Your house, Trufora?” Angela asked, not breaking her gaze with the Palace.
“Yes, although we weren’t called that back then. Axions started as tribes and when we started building towns, communities, leaders naturally took over to keep the peace and keep their tribes safe. House Trufora just happens to be the family that led the tribe that eventually conquered all of Axion.”
Exalon glanced at Angela and smiled, knowing she was listening, but also too engrossed with the Palace to look at him.
“Every generation or so, new parts are added onto the Palace. There’s this silly rumor that it would take two full lifetimes to actually traverse the entire place.”
Angela was speechless as she stared at the Palace, more of it revealing itself the longer they drove. It wasn’t the tallest building she’d seen here, although the various towers made from a variety of building materials certainly gave that illusion, but it was more magnificent than anything she’d ever laid her eyes on. Precious gems and metals were set in gorgeous frescoes on the outer walls, throwing off brilliant sparks of color. She could see different architectural styles bleeding through all of the Palace and many types of stone and other materials had been used to create the building. It should have looked chaotic, but due to the sympathetic nature of one type of architecture flowing into another, it was breathtaking.
“It’s amazing, Exalon,” Angela finally said, stunned.
“You’re amazing,” Exalon said, brushing a kiss onto the back of Angela’s hand. “This is simply an elaborate building.” She blushed and smiled at him.
“Are you ready?”
“Do I have a choice?” Angela asked sarcastically, making Exalon chuckle.
“No, I suppose not. Now, I can guarantee there will be other titled in the Palace, but you don’t have to do or say anything tonight. Just try to ignore them.”
Angela shook her head, smiling slightly, as the chauffeur opened the door. Exalon stepped out and offered Angela his hand, which she took, adjusting the fall of her dress and robe as she stood. She took in a deep breath as she stared at the Palace, then took Exalon’s proffered arm, letting him lead her inside.
There were security guards at the doors, who quickly opened them, then bowed to Exalon. Angela couldn’t hold in her gasp when she saw the entrance hall of the Palace. Enormous black and white panels, buffed to a glossy shine, covered the walls, with beautiful artwork, including paintings and sculptures, adorning the hall. The floor was a shimmery gold with black flakes embedded in the material. Hundreds of glowing crystals seemed to hang in the air near the ceiling, which was at least two stories high. The crystals were all different colors and would shoot out random bursts of light, illuminating the hall.
Angela noticed the servants first, who bowed deeply, then scurried away. She then started to notice the Axion titled, who kept a respectful distance and bowed to Exalon, but pretended Angela wasn’t even there as their eyes slid past her.
“Wow. I had no idea people could be unbearably snotty without even speaking,” Angela whispered to Exalon, causing him to laugh. Almost every titled head swung in their direction, then just as quickly looked away, as if by not acknowledging Angela’s presence, it meant she wasn’t really there. She already saw groups gathering together to gossip and had a feeling everyone’s ocular implants were filming her to share with the other titled.
“Are they not allowed to approach you first?” Angela whispered again. She realized she desperately needed more lessons on Axion high society, since she didn’t know the subtle clues every gesture or comment could mean.
“If we were at a public function, or at a gala or ball, approaching me would be fine,” Exalon whispered back. “Even here at the Palace, the titled can speak to the Royals. However, we’re here for a private, family function, which means everyone must maintain their distance unless approached first.”
“Normally, I’d say that’s ridiculous, but right now, I’m really glad no one’s going to try and talk to us.”
Exalon smiled and laid his hand over the one Angela was currently resting on his arm. He gave it a reassuring squeeze, but didn’t let go, continuing down the entrance hall with his hand covering hers.
“We’ll be meeting my little sister first,” Exalon murmured. “She’s been calling me all day, she’s so excited. I just know you two will get along.”
Exalon led Angela through a number of elaborately decorated rooms before ending in a living space that actually looked like people used it. The furniture was comfortable, not ornate, and there were pieces of entertainment tech scattered throughout the room.
Suddenly, the far door opened and a young woman came running out, dressed in a pale blue robe and white gown. Her hair was a shade lighter than Exalon’s golden strands, but it was obvious they were related with their similar eyes and full lips. She threw herself into Exalon’s arms, making him laugh and hug her back.
“Honestly, Maya, haven’t we taught you any manners?” Exalon teased. The young woman just rolled her eyes.
“Manners are for the elite-holes, not family,” she said, then turned to Angela, who began to curtsy before being pulled into a hug by the girl.
“Your Royal Highness,” Angela said after she was released.
“Oh, please, it’s Maya,” she said, smiling. “Well, for tonight it should probably be Mayala, just to appease my mother, but any other time, it’s Maya. And you’re…”.
“You are beautiful!” Maya exclaimed. “Isn’t she beautiful, Ex?”
“I certainly think so,” Exalon said with a slight growl, making Maya fake gag. Angela blushed, unused to people complimenting her.
“Oh, none of that!” Maya carelessly waved her hand at Angela’s blush. “Believe me, people won’t stop telling you how ‘interesting’ and ‘exotic’ you look.”
“Meaning ‘wrong’ and ‘unworthy’,” Angela said dryly. Maya let out a delighted laugh, clasping Angela’s hand.
“Oh, it is good you can already parse out backhanded compliments. You’re going to be showered with them in the coming weeks.” Maya turned her focus to Exalon, still holding on to Angela’s hand. “Oh, Ex, is it really true we’re going to have a Royal Ball to present Angela?”
“It’s true,” Exalon confirmed, causing Maya to give a little hop of glee. “Mother is fighting it, but after this dinner, she’ll acquiesce. She won’t have a choice.” Maya looked between Angela and Exalon, her expression discerning.
“You’ve got a secret, haven’t you?”
Exalon playfully booped Maya’s nose, causing her to stick out her tongue at him.
“You’ll just have to wait until dinner,” Exalon said, smiling.
“You’re no fun at all,” Maya fake pouted, then quickly became cheerful again. “Oh, Angela, I heard Harrison dressed you. Isn’t he just the best?”
“He is wonderful,” Angela concurred. “I feel like I can learn a lot from him on how to navigate this whole…well, this whole world.”
“Oh, I’d love to help too!” Maya said, bouncing on the balls of her feet. “Can I come by the apartment tomorrow? Harrison’s schedule has the whole day blocked off for you and then we can both help you.”
“Maya, I’d love that,” Angela said sincerely, already fond of Exalon’s cheerful teenage sister. “Thank you.”
Maya grinned happily as a smartly dressed servant entered the room. He rang a bell three times, then retreated.
“Dinner’s ready,” Exalon said, the mood of the room seeming to plummet at the thought of dinner with the Queen. Angela watched the servant leave with a frown.
“Seriously, do none of your servants talk?” she asked. “It’s so weird.”
“Tell me about it,” Maya said. “I remember when I was little-”.
“Maya.” Exalon gently cut his sister off. “It’s probably not a good idea to keep Mother waiting. I’m sure you and Angela will have plenty of time to swap stories.”
“I know, I know, you’re right,” Maya said apologetically. “Time to enter The Dragon’s lair. Don’t let her intimidate you, Angela.
“Uh,” Angela paused, wide eyed. “Just the fact that you refer to your mom as ‘The Dragon’ is pretty intimidating.”
“Well, I wasn’t the one who came up with it!” Both Angela and Maya turned to Exalon, who at least had the decency to look embarrassed.
“Sadly, the name fits. Ready, my love?”
Maya squealed at the term of endearment, then took her place in the entrance line behind Exalon.
“As I’ll ever be,” Angela answered. With encouraging smiles from both Exalon and Maya, Angela followed them to the door, already afraid of what might be waiting on the other side.