Exalon smiled at Angela, still holding onto her hand, as he led her to one of the sofas.
“Um, uh,” he stuttered, still off-balance. “Please, sit. I know you’re probably confused about what’s happening.” Angela sat down, with Exalon sitting right beside her, refusing to release her hand. Angela tried to calm her racing heart, but it seemed an impossible task with Exalon sitting so close.
“I’m not sure what exactly Gander told you, but-”.
“He was very discreet, don’t worry,” Angela laughed, cutting Exalon off. “I might have figured out that I’m being used as a convenient placeholder for the trial period and that you have no intention of actually going through with the match.”
“Ah.” Exalon looked away, blushing. He rubbed the back off his neck with his free hand, looking slightly ashamed. “I admit, I went into this intending to use the six months to get some lower class rights passed through the GU. I figured no one would question my sincerity if I asked to be matched with a human. I also, um…”. Exalon trailed off, looking ashamed, staring out the window for a moment. “I might be using this match to get out of an already arranged marriage.”
Angela withdrew her hand from his, feeling inexplicably hurt. While it wasn’t her business that Exalon was engaged, or even his fault, she felt a sense of betrayal and sadness she couldn’t explain.
“You’re already matched with someone?” Angela asked quietly.
“Since I was five and she was one,” Exalon said, sighing. “We’ve only met in person twice and our virtual communications are more perfunctory than anything else. She’s…she’s a pleasant girl, I suppose. Very powerful family. But I’ve never been interested in dynasty building and that’s all our marriage would do.”
Exalon paused, staring down at his large hands.
“I’ve always wanted…more,” he said sincerely, looking up at Angela with complete vulnerability. “Not a marriage like my parents, or most titled, have, where they come together to strengthen their families, but an actual partnership. I realize I’m not in the position to wish for such things. I have responsibilities that far outweigh my personal happiness. But I just couldn’t imagine joining my family with this woman’s. They’re strict traditionalists and have fought every change I’ve tried to make through the GU.”
Angela absorbed this information, realizing she had greatly misjudged Exalon. Yes, he was titled and powerful, but he truly cared about those people most titled believed were beneath them. She tentatively put her hand back in his, and Exalon looked up at her, smiling, and giving her small hand a reassuring squeeze.
“When my mother was alive, I always thought I would have a love match,” Angela said. “My family was well off, happy on Triford. I should have had this great future. But when she was killed in the factory fires, everything changed.”
“Your father’s gambling?” Exalon asked gently. Angela stared at him in shock before shaking her head ruefully.
“Of course you know about that. You would have done a thorough background check before asking for me through the ABA.”
“It’s standard, I’m afraid,” Exalon explained.
“It wasn’t just the gambling,” Angela said with a sigh. “He became erratic. Alcohol, drugs, strangers in the house all the time. I knew my father loved me, but he loved my mother with his entire being. He lost a part of himself when she died. When I saw how he was suffering, love became almost terrifying. I never wanted my happiness to depend on a single person I could lose. I’m sure you know I didn’t want to join the ABA, but the one upside was that I wouldn’t be searching for love. Just companionship and safety.”
“I’m sorry you had to experience all of that,” Exalon sighed, running his thumb over the back of Angela’s hand. She just shrugged.
“Many people have it much worse than I ever did. Losing my mother hurt terribly and watching my father slowly slip away from me was awful. But I survived. And somehow ended up here.” Angela looked around the elegant study, giving a sad chuckle. She then turned back to Exalon.
“So what’s the plan?” Angela asked, suddenly all business. “I’m assuming you need people to know I’m here, but I’m also assuming I’m not going to be attending parties or dinners or anything like that with you. So what do you need from me?”
Exalon frowned, looking down at their clasped hands. He had kept running his thumb back and forth across Angela’s knuckles without realizing it.
“Well, originally, the plan was to get you set up in a suite of rooms here. You’d need to meet my mother and sister, and Gander and I determined that it would make sense to be seen out publicly once a week. Nights out at some of my family’s restaurants, accompanying me to dinner parties or the occasional gala.”
“Occasional gala?” Angela repeated, slightly stunned. “How many galas do you have?”
“The titled families usually throw a gala every week,” Exalon said with a slight grimace. “I can’t attend them all, obviously, and you were never expected to attend more than two or three. They are technically fundraisers, helping the miners and their families, but mostly they’re used as an excuse to see and be seen, with debauchery taking place behind closed doors. Usually the galas end up costing more than the money raised for the various charities, but no one ever seems to care.”
“Except you,” Angela pointed out. Exalon glanced at her, surprise showing on his handsome face.
“You’re…quite astute, Angela. I wasn’t expecting that.” Angela just laughed, giving him a slight nudge with her shoulder.
“Yes, I believe I was supposed to be ‘passive and pliable’. I think those were the words.”
“Gander,” Exalon said, blushing and shaking his head in resignation.
“Don’t blame him,” Angela said gently. “I, uh, I might have stopped obeying my Axion society rules once I realized my match had no intention of keeping me.”
“No, no, that’s not-”. Exalon took in a deep breath, then stared intently into Angela’s eyes. “I admit, originally I had planned to end the match after the trail period. We’d already had paperwork drawn up to grant you Axion citizenship.”
“What?” Angela was shocked. People weren’t just given Axion citizenship, and no human had ever been granted it. To be a citizen meant she would automatically be granted a title, lands, and a vast fortune. Angela would have been completely protected the rest of her life and, if she ever had children, they would inherit her citizenship and title.
“I…”, Exalon sighed. “I felt quite guilty, knowing I was going into this match with the sole intention of using you for my political benefit. It would have been utterly horrendous of me to just toss you aside afterwards. I’m not sure how much you know about Axion politics or culture, other than the quick orientation the ABA would have given you, but Axion families rarely have more than one child. Titles and lands lay vacant for years until our miners reach their fifth generation, sogranting you citizenship wouldn’t have been a challenge.”
“What about the miners and the mines on those lands?” Angela asked. “I thought it was the titled families responsibility to care for them?”
“It is. And the money from those mines go to the titled families who oversee them,” Exalon explained. “When lands lay vacant, it is the Crown’s responsibility to see to the miners and the money is divided between the titled families, depending on their order of importance.”
“How much do the miners get paid?” Angela asked, frowning.
“Barely anything. We’re basically bribing generations of families to work for free with the promise that their descendants will be taken care of. It’s a horrible system.”
“Why not change it?”
“Because every titled Axion would be calling for my head,” Exalon said with a bleak laugh. “The natural born think they deserve their titles and the titled miners believe that if their family had to suffer to reap these rewards, everyone else should too.”
“That’s a ridiculous way to look at it,” Angela exclaimed. “I’m sure the miners outnumber the titled on this planet ten to one.”
“More like fifty to one,” Exalon corrected.
“Then refusing to take care of them is asking for trouble! Maybe not tomorrow, or next year, or even the next decade, but eventually, they will get fed up with their working conditions. Honestly, hearing this, I’m surprised miners haven’t risen up against the titled before.”
“Oh, they have,” Exalon said. “Rebellions are ruthlessly crushed. Thousands are executed as a warning to the rest. The natural born titled refer to it as ‘The Great Culling’. Third or fourth generation miners are killed and new miners are brought in, starting the cycle all over again without ever needing to grant titles to the miners.”
Angela’s mouth hung open in horror and Exalon gently rubbed the back of her hand with his thumb.
“It’s barbaric, I know,” he said. “I’ve been subtly trying to change things as much as I can, but as long as my mother is Queen and only a few titled families openly follow me, there’s not much I can do.”
“You could send the titled down into their own mines for a day. Let them see what it’s like to actually work for a living,” Angela huffed out, annoyed. Exalon looked at her, then burst out laughing.
“You know,” he said, smiling, “I’m already quite certain you and I will make a perfect match.”