Ralph led us out of the living room, across the hallway and up the grand staircase opposite the oak double doors we had entered through. The stairs were made of white marble and the banister was made of some polished, light-coloured wood (I didn't really know a lot about materials). He jogged ahead of us and stopped at the top, threw his arms out and said, "This is the finest palace in the world ... if you like being drowned in stupid rules."
Emrald and I couldn't help but laugh. Ralph seemed so carefree. Was it because he'd been lonely and needed someone he could talk to and relate to? I hoped he didn't think Emrald was staying after the first year.
The palace was full of rooms with rich, deep carpets that were so soft that all sound was muffled, walls covered with wallpaper in dark green, indigo and violet (my three favourite colours incidentally) and chandeliers hanging from every ceiling. The bedrooms contained four posters with thick drapes, massive wardrobes and ensuite bathrooms - there were about a dozen (some for Ralph's family and some for guests) - and window seats looking out onto the magnificent gardens or the bustling city where there were market stalls on all of the cobbled streets. Ralph informed us that everybody was having dinner at this moment which was why the palace was so empty and quiet (though his voice echoed around the corridors loudly) and after showing us the attic (with its wooden floorboards, skylight and boxes of old toys from his childhood), he took us to a bedroom we'd not seen before.
In here, the carpet was teal and the wallpaper a forest green. The bed was made but there was nothing else in sight (no dressing table as in the ladies' bedrooms, no possessions such as riding gear or rifles, trophies, fishing rods or boots).
"This," Ralph said quietly, "is your bedroom, Indico."
He seemed to have lost all his energy and charisma. He looked at Emrald searchingly yet also almost imploringly, wanting to make a good first impression so he would be encouraged to keep his promise about becoming king.
There was a slight vulnerability in his eyes that made him look like a young child, waiting for his Daddy's opinion on his new model or musical composition.
Emrald looked at me and sighed as if half hoping I would tell him to take back his promise and half wishing he hadn't had to make this decision.
He looked at Ralph."It's nice. I can't say I'll love staying here but it's a nice room. Pleasant atmosphere though that will be tainted by my feelings."
Ralph looked hopeful. "But you could grow to like it more?"
Emrald shook his head. "Not until I'm allowed to see Anna and invite her to stay here. In fact, not even then. Never probably because at that point I'll be going home."
Ralph's face fell. "Oh." He sighed. "Well, I guess I'll leave you to get used to your surroundings. Maybe you will like it someday. Maybe you'll stay longer." He turned to me. "Come on Anna. Let's find you somewhere to stay."
"Now?" Emrald asked, looking horrified.
"Well, you're not supposed to have guests until you've told someone."
"I'm going to be king!"
"You still have to tell my mum - your aunt. You're not an adult yet."
Ralph left Emrald spluttering. I followed him hesitantly. He didn't speak as we left the palace. He looked disheartened.
"So where am I staying?" I asked as we exited through the front doors.
"I'll arrange for the Palace to pay for you to stay at a local hotel."
"Really?" I asked, surprised. "You'd do that for me?"
"You're my cousin's girlfriend. Who knows, one day we might be related."
"I think I'd like that," I said, smiling.
Ralph snorted. "I should hope you would."
"No, I meant I'd like being related to you."
Ralph looked at me. "Really?"
"You don't seem too bad a person, even if you did make a ridiculous suggestion."
Ralph smiled. "Thanks Anna."
"You're welcome," I replied.
We stopped walking. We were outside a thatched roof building. The wooden sign read 'Ye Olde Inn'.
"Well, here we are. I'll have a chat with the owner."
"Wait. Neither Emrald nor I have brought any belongings."
"I'm quite good friends with the local Tailor's son. I'll sort it out that you're given an appointment and I'll pay for everything."
"Thank you," I murmured sincerely as I followed him inside the inn to a bar (the owner was apparently the bartender).
When everything was sorted out, Ralph returned to the palace. He was wearing a warm smile as he went and he'd told me to not hesitate to ask anything (telling me that if, when I knocked on the doors of the palace, asked for him, I'd be led straight to his chambers).
I think we'll be quite good friends one day, I thought to myself. He seems a very friendly guy.