Angela and Exalon were rushed from the limousine into the Palace, with bodyguards surrounding them. Maya and Gander quickly followed, and as soon as they were all indoors, Maya skipped over to Angela and took her hand.
“Don’t be nervous,” Maya said firmly. “I know it’s a ridiculous thing to say, but when you step into that room tonight, you outrank everyone except Ex and Mother. None of them can treat you as inferior.”
“Even though they'll all be thinking it?” Angela retorted, then grimaced. “Sorry, Maya, that was rude and all you’re trying to do is help.”
“You’re nervous, Angela. Honestly, if you weren’t, I’d be a little worried. And not everyone in there will be thinking you’re inferior. Things are changing and I have a feeling you’re going to be the catalyst the pushes not just Axion, but all of the GU, in a better direction.”
“So no pressure?” Angela retorted as Exalon laughed and Maya grinned. A quiet cough had them all looking back at Gander as they walked through the empty Palace hallways that clearly weren’t normally used.
“I thought we might very quickly go through the entrance protocol once more?” said Gander.
“Excellent idea, Gander,” Exalon said.
“Her Imperial Majesty is announced and enters first, then His Royal Highness and Her Royal Sonsara are announced and enter, followed by Her Royal Highness. Your Royal Sonsara, for this particular event, you will be announced as ‘Miss Angela Winslow’ as your Sonsara status hasn’t officially been approved by the Priestess of the Fates. However, as you are wearing the Crown Prince’s Sonsara Pendant, you will still enter together.”
Angela nodded, becoming more nervous with each step.
“And then what happens?” Angela asked. “I mean, everyone keeps going on about the Priestesses, but no one has actually explained what will happen.”
“To be honest, none of us know,” said Exalon. “Records of Priestesses of the Fates recognizing and blessing Royal Sonsaras don’t exist. Well, technically, they might exist, we just don’t have access to them.”
“You’re the Royal Family, don’t you have access to everything?” asked Angela.
“Not the records belonging to the Temple of the Fates,” answered Maya. “Those belong to the Priestesses.”
“Great,” Angela said in annoyance, “so we go in, something mystical will happen, and then your mom will either refuse our match or benevolently support us. This is going to be fun.”
“I highly doubt that,” a cold voice retorted.
Angela gave a slight jump as Queen Axala rounded the corner, her mouth pinched together in disapproval. The group all bowed to her. The Queen was dressed very traditionally in a pale blue dress and shimmering golden robe, with a blue belt. A golden crown was woven through her hair, glittering with precious jewels. The Queen frowned at the Pendant on Angela’s head, then it deepened as she ran her discerning eye over Angela and Maya’s outfits.
“What are you wearing?” Queen Axala snapped. “Honestly, Mayala, you look ridiculous.”
“I think I look wonderful,” Maya said with an overly sweet smile. “And I think Angela looks simply stunning.”
Queen Axala sniffed, then turned, leading their procession to two giant, solid black doors at least two stories high.
“Gander,” she said, and Gander rushed forward, bowing.
“Your Imperial Majesty.”
“Enter through the side door and prepare for our entrance. It’s in three minutes.”
Gander bowed and walked over to a normal door set next to the enormous, black ones. He turned back to give Angela an encouraging smile, then slipped through the door into the ballroom.
“I assume you know how we’re entering?” Queen Axala was clearly directing her question to Angela, but was staring directly above her head instead of looking at her. Angela felt Exalon tense and she stroked her hand down his arm as she gave the Queen a slight head bow.
“Yes, Your Imperial Majesty. Gander was quite thorough and your children have been most helpful.”
The Queen sniffed again, but couldn’t seem to find any fault in Angela’s statement.
“After the entrance, you and the Crown Prince will go to the dais where the throne usually sits. It has been temporarily removed at the request of the Priestess of the Fates. I’m afraid she wasn’t very helpful in articulating what will happen during this ceremony, only that we would all know whether you two are Sonsaras or not rather quickly. You and Exalon will stay on the dais after the ceremony is over and I will either give my blessing to this arrangement or I will inform everyone the Crown Prince is abandoning his duties and refusing the crown.”
“Must you phrase it like that, Mother?” Exalon asked, already sounding exasperated.
“As it is what you are doing, how else am I to phrase it?” Queen Axala retorted in annoyance. “You are the one being a stubborn, blind fool. If you insist on staying with your human, then so be it. But do not ask me to be happy about it and do not expect me to ensure you a continuing place in this family.”
Queen Axala turned toward the doors and Angela glanced up at Exalon. His jaw was tight, but he smiled when he looked down at her.
“Don’t worry, my love,” Exalon whispered. “No matter what happens, we’re a team.” Angela couldn’t help but smile at that.
“Damn straight,” she whispered back, making Exalon grin. Angela suddenly heard what sounded like a gong in the ballroom and the enormous black doors began to slowly open. As they did, Angela suddenly felt very small and very alone, despite Exalon’s reassurance. Perhaps sensing how anxious she was becoming, Exalon gently turned Angela so she was facing him, and lifted her chin so she would meet his eyes.
“You’re already ten times the person anyone in that room is,” he whispered fiercely. “And you were before we even met. Don’t let any of them get to you.”
Angela smiled in gratitude and mouthed “thank you” to Exalon as Gander had begun speaking.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the titled classes, presenting Her Imperial Majesty, Queen Axala of the Royal House Trufora.”
Queen Axala seemed to almost glide into the room, and with the brief glimpse inside Angela had, she could see everyone bowing deeply. The Queen walked the entire length of the ballroom, stopping at the foot of an ornate dais that stretched across the middle half of the wall, with multiple doors on either sides at ground level. She stood next to a small set of stairs placed directly in the middle of the platform. People began whispering quietly, letting Angela know this was a breach from traditional protocol.
“Presenting His Royal Highness, Crown Prince Exalon of the Royal House Trufora and Miss Angela Winslow of Triford and Earth,” Gander announced.
If the whispers had been quiet before, they became loud mutterings when Angela’s name was announced with Exalon’s. Angela took a deep breath, made sure her drape was situated properly, and moved some of her hair over her shoulder to accentuate the length of it. Then, she and Exalon walked inside.
The mutterings of before turned into full out gasps when everyone saw the Sonsara Pendant on Angela. As one, the crowd seemed to pause, like Angela, Maya, and Harrison had the first time they had seen the Pendant and were assaulted with a memory. Angela quickly glanced around, noticing tears in the eyes of some, while smiles covered other faces. Just as suddenly, the audience seemed to snap out of their memory and everyone burst out talking all at once.
Angela could tell from people jockeying for a position that they were all trying to take pictures and videos with their ocular implants. She kept her eyes straight ahead, reminding herself to keep a calm, serene look on her face, as if she didn’t even notice the commotion. Exalon kept glancing at her out of the corner of his eye until Angela squeezed his arm, letting him know she was all right.
When they finally crossed the ballroom, Exalon bowed and Angela curtsied deeply to the Queen, who gave them a slight head nod of acknowledgment. Then, Exalon led Angela to the front of the stairs and they turned to face the ballroom, whose crowd seemed to be getting louder and angrier. Before anything happened, a commanding voice cut right through the growing noise.
“Presenting Her Royal Highness, Princess Mayala of the Royal House Trufora,” Gander announced.
Maya waltzed in, looking lovely, with a ready made smile on her face. She completely ignored everyone in the room, even though it was obvious people were documenting her every move, probably for the many fashion sites that covered her. Maya stopped in front of her mother and gave her a brief curtsy, who again gave out what seemed to be her signature brief nod of acknowledgment. Maya then turned and curtsied to Exalon, who smiled at her. Before joining her mother beside the staircase, however, Maya pointedly curtsied to Angela, causing even more chatter to erupt.
Queen Axala didn’t visibly react when her daughter curtsied to Angela, but she didn’t acknowledge Maya when she came to stand next to her either. Maya acted as if nothing strange had happened, her practiced smile still firmly on her face. The voices in the ballroom were starting to get even louder when, yet again, Gander managed to silence them all.
“The High Priestess of the Temple of the Fates,” he announced. Silence quickly enveloped the ballroom as a tall, slender, elderly woman ascended one of the side staircases and began to make her way across the dais. She was wearing white robes that covered her from her hair to her feet, with golden embroidery on the sleeves and at the hem. She walked to the center of the dais and stopped in front of the middle stairs where Exalon and Angela were waiting. Everyone in the room bowed deeply to her, including the Queen, all of them waiting to see what would happen next.