Ex Sanguis Version 2.0 chapter changes: the usual + complete scene revamp. Do not skip.

Chapter 9: Bonds Tested

Days passed quickly for Harry after the initial excitement of his transformation wore off. He was called in for two more tailoring and crown-fitting sessions, though clothes began to show up in his wardrobe the day after the first one. For the most part however, his lessons occupied much of his time. Despite that he had come to the conclusion that some lessons (like magic, or sword fighting) were vital to his future plans to stand against Voldemort, others he decided were positively useless. And then there was politics – an entirely different kettle of fish.

The moment he crossed the threshold of Past and Present Politics, he knew it was going to be a chore. The elf who stood between two large bookshelves was positively ancient. This was the first time Harry could honestly say he'd seen an old elf. He shuddered to think how many centuries those eyes had witnessed. The elf's silver hair reached his waist, combed into a meticulous ponytail that draped down his back. He wore light, flowing robes of a kind Harry had never seen before, and that reminded him more of wizarding attire than the most prevalent elvin fashions. The strangest thing by far was his face, lined deeply with age and sporting a beard that could rival Dumbledore's. Harry tried to recall if he'd ever seen any other elf with facial hair and drew a shocking blank.

He felt like he was facing an ancient relic of times past. He slowly took a seat in the only chair available, eyes darting down to glimpse the scrolls scattered across the large wooden table. Some of them looked very official, and all of them were crammed with small, tight handwriting - Hermione's wet dream, Harry and Ron's nightmare. He gulped.

"Your Royal Highness," the venerable elf greeted in a soft, whispery voice, only performing a simple bow of greeting, much to Harry's surprise, "I am called Larithár. I taught your illustrious grandmother when she was but a child and your honoured mother but a few centuries ago. Now, much sooner than I had expected, the time has come to instruct you as well. Politics is the single most important instruction you will learn. I will start with our past politics and the deeper we navigate its tricky corridors the more you will become involved in present day affairs. Do not look so alarmed, it will take us many years." The old elf finally advanced with surprisingly quick steps and a fluid grace that would never have been present in a human of his equivalent age. He seated himself opposite Harry and clasped his hands together. Harry stared with expectant eyes, anticipating him to simply disintegrate - he honestly looked like a strong wind would just pull him apart. The way he moved suggested he was more air than matter.

Larithár unrolled a single scroll across the length of the table. With a flick of his fingers it kept unrolling itself until it lay flat. He gestured for Harry to look at it. "This is a copy of First King Caladharan's declaration to take the many, shall we say, 'tribes' of Elwý and bring them together into a single nation. Please familiarise yourself with it, then we shall discuss the underlying reasons behind the decisions Your Esteemed Ancestor made and how he was able to unite the different factions of our people during such a trying time."

Harry swallowed heavily. Oh sweet Merlin, this was going to suck.

To Harry's everlasting relief, he discovered one very unexpected perk to being Elwý: memory retention. Suddenly, he could see how Hermione managed to be a human dictionary - how she constantly knew every little random fact or could remember exactly which page held the reference she was looking for. He could see how one might even find studying easy when one was capable of remembering near everything one read just once. Eidetic memory - or so claimed Quenah. All Elwý were blessed, for the most part, with very intense, vivid recall. Of course, having the ability to easily retain information didn't automatically mean they were any better at parsing it. Some things were just plain confusing no matter how well you recalled them.

Of course, Harry wasn't stupid. He just couldn't be bothered with bookwork or memorising long strings of facts. Or essay writing. Or anything that involved heavy research and hours of his time with his head buried in musty pages. He was a man of action - practical knowledge and execution were his forte. And some things just came naturally, like flying and Defense. But now...with the ability to remember what he'd read, instead of having to page back through books to find references, well, writing essays became a breeze. He blew through all his summer assignments in mere days. And that was on top of being routinely exhausted by Melcacrist's sadistic (but useful he had to keep reminding himself)practices.

Unfortunately, despite the new ease with which he found he could learn, it didn't really make the study of such things as politics (which was basically How to be a Slytherin 101), dance (no amount of natural grace was ever going to endear him to embarrassing himself in front of an audience), and music any less difficult. Especially music. Harry had the musical talent of a flobberworm. He couldn't carry a tune if his life depended on it. And even if he could memorise which holes to cover on the flute to make whichever note, that didn't mean he was any less tone deaf or capable of stringing them together into anything remotely melodious. He also found the study of music to be completely ridiculous (what, was he going to serenade Voldemort to his defeat? Or dance him to death? Hardly.)

His lessons only seemed to get more and more convoluted as time passed. His tutors had started off with the basics and begun to pick up the pace once Harry had proven he wasn't a complete idiot - stuffing his brain so full of knowledge he was afraid his head would explode. He felt that even Hermione would have run herself ragged trying to keep up. And when he wasn't being instructed in how to best negotiate a peace treaty or how to decide when to declare war, he was being instructed how to act.

He hated etiquette the most. Time did not endear him to the Demon-Witch from Hell. In fact, time made her less tolerable. Despite numerous protests about his comportment being perfectly normal thank-you-very-much, the lessons were filled with phrases like: "No, no, Your Royal Highness is doing it wrong again!" or: "As hard as it for Your Esteemed Highness to understand, it simply must be done this way." Oftentimes when he knew she thought he wasn't listening, he heard her bemoaning the fate of the kingdom when Harry became king.

Sometimes he thought that the first thing he ought to do as king was completely ignore every etiquette lesson ever imparted upon him. Then he would remember his discussions about politics with Larithár and know it was only a pipe dream. And he knew the Demon-Witch was aware of the fact that he wasn't unintelligent. So he chalked it up to her propensity to overreact and treat him like an unruly child.

He doubted they would ever get along.

At least on the other end of the spectrum, his 'physical' education had become less of a chore and more of an adventure. Not only did his new physique and instincts allow him to progress in leaps and bounds, but it meant he came away from lessons feeling, if not rejuvenated, at least not pulverised. He also discovered he actually could hit a moving target with an arrow if he focused hard enough. Melcacrist was ecstatic.

One thing that shouldn't have surprised him was that he quickly came to enjoy horse riding…once he managed to figure out how to steer the large animals. In a way it was like flying, and it reminded him an awful lot of riding on Buckbeak when his horse broke into a canter. The wind whipping past his face and the smooth, steady gait of a tonne of finely honed muscle beneath him was the closest he could come to flying in this place, so he grasped every opportunity to egg the beast into a sprint. With an improved sense of balance, and no longer falling out of the saddle whenever his horse bucked or jumped, he didn't have to worry about melon-sized bruises and could concentrate on the sheer speed.

Harry had taken a liking to one of the horses at the stables (or perhaps the horse had taken a liking to him). The beast was frisky, temperamental, and had a habit of running off with Harry clutching on for dear life...which was brilliant. He was such a beautiful glossy black, with a proud bearing and eyes that always seemed far too intelligent. Whenever he saw Harry, his ears would prick forward and he'd whinny a greeting.

In a way, the horse reminded him of Hedwig, who Harry hoped was being taken care of at the Burrow. Since Hedwig wasn't around to cluck her beak at him and snatch food off his plate, he offered up snacks every time he came, which the horse seemed to appreciate.

One day, approximately a week after the removal of his skin (Harry was finding it hard to keep track of the days), Melcacrist made a comment about his bond with the horse.

"You have ridden this one exclusively ever since the change, Your Highness," said the sword-master with a ghost of a smile. "Are you perhaps trying to hint at something?"

Harry stopped stroking the long, silky neck as he puzzled over that comment. "I don't understand."

"We must all pick a steed, my prince," Melcacrist replied, voice slipping into his gruff, lecturing tone. "A horse and its rider must have an understanding - a bond if you will - between them so that they may work together as one. You have not been riding long, but already I see a bond forming between you and this animal. He is a fine horse and is available for claiming, if you wish it." He waited for Harry to say something to this, but Harry remained silent, thinking. Melcacrist continued, "We always have a few horses that are of good breed and trained by the best available trainers for members of the Upper House. If you wish to keep him, he is yours, and I will focus on helping you develop a better bond."

Harry reached up and placed a hand on the nose of his preferred steed. Keep him? For his own? He stared at the horse's deep brown eyes and addressed him directly, as he often did to Hedwig. "Well, boy? What do you say to that?" He had to admit, the thought was tempting.

The horse whickered and blew in his face, pushing his nose so that it hovered right next to Harry's own. Harry grinned and quickly placed his cheek against the soft, silky flesh before stepping back. He turned to Melcacrist. "Okay," he decided. "I want him."

Melcacrist nodded calmly. "Very well. He will need a name. I will have him moved to the Royal Stables immediately after our lesson."

With that, Melcacrist left them both and Harry remained, mind racing. A name? He'd have to think about that one carefully. Such a magnificent creature needed an equally magnificent name!

His lesson that day could have gone better, but Harry was determined to pick a good name before the day was up and remained somewhat distracted.

As Melcacrist shouted something about foolish princes with their heads in the clouds, he finally settled on Ardú. It meant 'royal night'.

"I've decided on a name," he announced as he was fumbling an arrow onto his bow and drawing back to release. The fact that he was sitting on the newly named Ardú didn't help his coordination.

Melcacrist stared at him incredulously. "Would you bloody well focus!" he snapped.

Harry nearly grinned, but forced his lips not to respond. It wouldn't do for Melcacrist to think Harry no longer found him intimidating. He was just like Hagrid in that way. He seemed scary on the outside, but wasn't so bad once you got to know him. Plus, he'd given Harry a horse.

He did actually focus when he aimed and released the arrow towards the stationary target while Ardú continued at a sedate walk. When he hit the ground behind the target, he sighed in frustration.

"Perhaps if you focused…" Melcacrist growled threateningly.

"I am," Harry complained, pulling another arrow from the quiver on his back and stringing it with only minimal difficulty. His eyes drifted from the target, which Melcacrist turned to keep in Harry's sights.

Melcacrist caught his gaze."FOCUS!" bellowed the sword-master.

Harry nearly fell from the saddle when Ardú did a quick skip-hop to the left. Only his superior balance kept him in the seat. Ardú whickered and Harry patted his neck reassuringly. "Yeah, scared me too," he whispered. In the centre of the ring, Melcacrist's eyebrow and remaining ear twitched violently.

Every other morning, Harry had his most interesting lesson of all: magic. Elvin magic was unlike anything he'd ever experienced before. While witches and wizards used wands and carefully enunciated incantations, elves used runes, symbols and their own two hands to cast spells. They relied heavily on the symbology of circularity and the ability to imbue magic into runes. Intent and focus also played a huge role in whether or not the spell succeeded, but that was nothing new. Fortunately, elvin potions weren't a whole lot different than wizarding potions. Harry relished the time he spent with his new potions tutor as the elf could actually teach. Unlike Snape, Harry's new teacher actually explained why you had to add ingredients in a certain order or why such and such potion needed to be brewed in a gold caldron versus a silver one.

This year, Snape wasn't going to know what hit him when Harry returned. That was assuming he'd made it into Snape's NEWT class though, of which he had his doubts. He wished Auror training didn't require a Potions NEWT, but the satisfaction of watching Snape stew in rage over Harry's newfound academic ease would be well worth the effort.

Potions and spells aside, there was another aspect of elvin magic that Harry found extremely useful: element manipulation. More specifically, the manipulation of air without the use of runes, potions, or spells. It was like having another limb – Harry could reach out and tell the air around him to do something and it would. This was, he realized, why he had never seen a single elf with so much as a hair out of place, and why their clothes seemed to drape and fold against the laws of physics. More importantly, it explained how Harry had unconsciously gouged a line through the dirt during his duel with Meldir.

The ability to do things like levitation and manipulating wind and air currents was going to come in handy. Voldemort and his Death Eaters wouldn't know what hit them.

Harry practiced this all the time, with small, every day things, in the hopes that one day he'd be able to wrench the wands from his enemies' hands without so much as an incantation.

When he started his sixth year he was going to be ready. He was going to be strong, and he was going to know how to fight. He'd teach his friends how to fight as well and they'd all be ready. He just hoped they weren't panicking over his disappearance...but hadn't Aunt Petunia said she would explain? But explain what, exactly?

Harry had searched through his history books, but he never saw mention of any kind of people remotely resembling his family, so did the Wizarding World not know? He could only assume that Aunt Petunia would come up with an explanation that would work. Harry didn't much fancy having to explain things himself.

Quenah, when Harry asked his opinion, merely informed him that things had been 'taken care of', but that was a non-answer if Harry ever heard one, so the questions remained.

It was thoughts like these which niggled at the back of his mind, even as he learned his forms, practiced his potions, or discussed past political manoeuvres. At the back of his mind he worried that perhaps the Order didn't know what had happened to him and they thought Voldemort had kidnapped er, killed him? He worried that all his friends thought he was in trouble. He worried that Voldemort might be gaining an advantage or had done something horrible while he was tucked safely away in another dimension.

He thought about sending a message, but he couldn't figure out how to do so. And when he brought that up with Quenah, the older elf gave him one of those patently indulgent looks he got from pretty much everyone around and told him, "Do not worry. I assure you it's been taken care of."

But even had he wanted to spend all his time fretting, there was no way the worries could occupy his full attention. There was always something to do. Always classes to attend, formalities to uphold...and rumours to chuckle over. The one about the human who had been seen from time to time and then vanished as mysteriously as he had appeared was always good for a laugh. Both Meldir and Taswa, when he'd found the time to stop by for a chat, had both had some wild theories on the topic, and Harry had had entirely too much fun listening to them to even consider telling them the truth. Besides, then he'd have to explain why he'd been in the human realm, and he wasn't about to touch that particular can of flobberworms with a ten-foot pole.

However, all thoughts pertaining to lessons, rumours and worries were promptly discarded when he found out about the ball.

It had been two weeks after he'd taken the skin removal potion and he had been so busy every day, he fell into an exhausted, deep, dreamless sleep each night. He was becoming tired and frustrated, and really wanted a break. Working this hard was just unnatural! Especially because he knew the others his age weren't in lessons every hour of the day, every day of the week.

Harry had never been held accountable for his academic performance before. Aunt Petunia had never cared about his grades, and only Hermione ever nagged him to do better at Hogwarts. Harry did decently because he had wanted to, but if he had to choose between an essay and Quidditch, his priorities had always fallen on the fun side of life. Now he had two austere grandparents breathing down his neck…he kind of understood where Neville and Ron were coming from when they moaned about their marks.

So Harry indulged in a little bit of well-earned moaning himself as he made his way back to the Royal Tower. He really, really hated politics. It could perhaps have been interesting, had his teacher not been hell-bent on sucking any fun out of it. It reminded him rather a lot of Binns' classes, and reckoned it must have something to do with the fact that Binns was dead and his politics teacher had one foot in the grave as well.

Besides, he'd never been particularly brilliant at chess, and some of the more 'modern' politics that had been brought up reminded him of exactly that. Harry had learned quite early on that you couldn't play a decent game of chess without choosing to sacrifice some of your pieces, and that comparison always left him feeling hollow.

When he got to his rooms, he threw himself down on a nearby chair with a groan.

"Just one break…Merlin, I'd even take a half-day off," he grumbled at the ceiling.

Suddenly, he sat up straighter and looked around, the emptiness of his rooms and the lack of response to his complaint finally registering. That was strange. Usually Quenah would be in his rooms, waiting with lunch. Despite no longer needing language lessons so desperately, Quenah still subsidised his etiquette lessons with 'speech' lessons. They usually did this over lunch, which was his grandparents' way of trying to cram yet more work into the limited timeframe of a day. He also suspected that they did this to avoid too many 'family' meals.

It hurt, that they only saw him as a tool. He understood what Aunt Petunia had been talking about now. The part of him – that small lonely child from the cupboard under the stairs – who valued family above all else still insisted that he should be more grateful, but it was just too hard. The king and queen were always so intimidating that he felt like he was on trial every time he even spoke to them. Naturally that only led to animosity as he tried to keep his temper under control. He wouldn't have dared tell the Queen of England to 'piss off', so no matter how much his grandmother got under his skin, he at least tried to remain respectful.

What he really wanted was familial camaraderie - what he got were minders. He wanted to be able to go to them after an exhausting day and simply talk, but instead he had to stand to attention and relate every success and failure and then wait for the verdict like a criminal. And sometimes, when the king and queen were disappointed, they would look at him in such a way that he wanted the ground to open up and swallow him whole , because clearly his best just wasn't good enough.

There was still that little boy buried deep inside that wanted to please them so badly, so that they would praise him and tell him how much they loved him, but for the most part it was overshadowed by his stubborn pride. Sometimes there was a burning feeling in his gut that smacked an awful lot of hate and resentment.

Harry's mixed emotions exhausted him, and so he had devised the simplest way of dealing with his grandparents – don't. Rather, he avoided them like the plague unless he was specifically summoned.

And so far, it seemed to be working. For the moment.

At least after summer was over he'd have a break when Hogwarts classes started. Harry chuckled to himself - who would have thought he'd ever refer to the school term as a 'break'?

Shaking his head at imagining Ron and Neville's horrified reactions to that, he sprawled himself over his chair and eyed the tiny crystal bell perched on a nearby shelf. He would wait a few more minutes to see if Quenah was just running late before he called for a servant.

Just then something at eye-level drew his attention. It was a rolled piece of vellum tied with a gold and silver ribbon sitting innocently on the low table. He reached for it, picking it up and turning it over in his hands until he found where it was tied.

The inside was covered in green ink and had gold edging. Harry raised an eyebrow as he scanned it, the flowing script momentarily throwing him off. He hadn't yet reached the point where just glancing at a word in Elwýntencelle was instantly recognisable to him. So, starting from the top, he focused and read it slowly.

"Araëmel-aryón, son of Indilaira-aránelle, of the House of Caladharan,

'Tar'Thalyón and Tar'Allàwhta request your presence for the crowning of the heir to the throne of Elwýn on the following Moonsday. A celebratory ball will follow, including a banquet in honour of our prince. On this joyous day, we welcome back our lost prince and celebrate the return of our future king.

This invitation is to be presented on arrival for admittance to the main throne room, and consequently, the main ballroom.'

Grandson, the invitation above has been sent to all those invited to your celebratory ball. Preparations for the ceremony are underway and almost complete. After tomorrow, you will be excused from lessons in order to practice and learn your vows. Make sure you are prepared and do not disappoint us.

Tar'Thalyón and Tar'Allàwhta"

Harry re-read it again, just to be sure he hadn't accidentally misread it, but no, the whole thing was perfectly clear. Obviously his grandparents had been too busy to inform him in person, or even send Quenah to do it, and so they'd written him a letter and had had it delivered. But the whole thing was absurd. The crowning of the heir to the throne of Elwý? A ball? A banquet?

He read the last few lines again, just to be sure.

"Do not disappoint us?" he read out loud, slowly. "Vows!?" Vows? In front of the entire Court? A crowning? Like with an actual crown and all the fanfare and pomp?

Harry realised his fists were clenched so hard he was creasing the vellum and slowly let the digits unfold. This was unbelievable. Of all the worst things that they could have done, they'd gone and done all three, and without even telling him!

He threw the parchment on the table and glared at it angrily. This was bloody rich. Too busy to even mention in passing at the breakfast or dinner table that 'Oh, by the way, we're having a ball in about a week, do try to brush up on your dancing skills, won't you?'

Was it too much to bleeding ask?

"Well you can sod off!" he announced to the empty room, wishing he could say it directly to their faces.

He paced back and forth angrily for the next couple of minutes, occasionally inflicting harm upon the innocent furniture. He ended up doing more harm to himself in the end. But the utter gall! It wasn't enough they had to brow-beat him into exhaustive lessons day in and day out and heap expectation upon expectation on his already weighted shoulders…Oh no, now they had to take that to a whole new level by throwing a bloody ball!

A knock on the door startled him out of his looping thoughts. Quenah had arrived. Harry prepared himself to jump down his mentor's throat - had he known about the ball? And if he had, why hadn't he said anything?

Drawing himself up with righteous anger, he grabbed the stupid letter and marched to the door. He'd begun speaking even before it opened fully. "A ball? Celebration? What in Merlin's name is going on!? And you better hope you had no idea, because apparently this has been going on for awhile now. They sent the invitations already!" He waved the parchment in front of Quenah's startled eyes.

"Ah, Your Highness...what…?"

"This!" Harry snapped, shoving the paper against Quenah's chest with a bit more force than necessary.

It took Quenah a moment to compose himself. His clothes smoothed out with a soft whisper of air and he unfolded the vellum with quick, irritated movements. Not that his annoyance was betrayed on his face; that remained stoic.

"Ah," he said again, after he'd finished reading it. "You are referring to the ball then, Araëmel?"

Harry threw up his hands. "Of course I'm bloody referring to the bloody ball! How can they…! UGH!" He took a deep breath and smoothed back his hair. It was growing out a bit and falling into his eyes now, which was annoying. "Look, where do they get off just dumping this on me? I don't want to do some dumb ball."

"I'm afraid Your Highness has no choice," Quenah chided him gently.

Harry narrowed his eyes. There it was again, that thrice-damned obsession with obeying everything that came out of Her bloody Royalness's mouth. He honestly wouldn't be surprised that if his grandmother ordered a mass suicide, they'd all attend happily. It was ridiculous - a line should be drawn, somewhere! He wasn't going to spend the rest of his summer holiday pandering to all these ridiculous demands. "There's always a choice. I could choose not to go. Or to leave. Go back to Earth, even."

Quenah's expression opened in alarm. He glanced over his shoulder and quickly shut the door. Looked around again, just to be certain, he bent over Harry and whispered furiously, "Do not ever insinuate such things, Araëmel! That is treason! Their Majesties must be obeyed in all things, even by you. I thought you understood that now?"

Harry backed out from under Quenah's long, thin nose and sweeping silver hair. He crossed his arms stubbornly. "Oh, I get it. And I think it's stupid. I deserve to have some say in my own life, thank you very much."

Quenah's ears quivered as his jaw worked back and forth. "Your Highness…" Then he sighed. "Your Highness really is a child…"

Harry's eyes narrowed again and his jaw clenched. "Child this, child that! I get that you all see me as some naive little boy, but I've lived my own life up until now and I've been doing just fine on my own. I'm sixteen for Merlin's sake!"

Quenah's brow furrowed in confusion. "Exactly."

Harry got the feeling one of them was missing the point here. He turned away, stalking over to the couch and flinging himself down with an angry thud. One ear cocked back to listen to the sound of Quenah's movements as he seated himself much more primly. "Your Highness," he tried again, soothingly, like he was talking to a wounded animal. "Araëmel. This ceremony is important. Their Majesties need to reassure the people that you have been found and are safe, and that the kingdom does indeed have an heir of the blood. It will be a simple matter, and you will need to become accustomed to such festivities eventually. It is better to start when you are young." His tone turned chiding, again. "And you do not wish to make Their Majesties angry with your childish display of refusal. They have ways of making such displays of behaviour very uncomfortable for you. It is also unbefitting of a prince. A prince must be gracious and accepting of these kinds of duties."

Harry felt appropriately chastened, but that didn't lessen the anger still bubbling away in his chest at the way his life had been turned upside-down. His grandparents had marched into his life and had ordered him to do this and that and he had agreed because he wanted this to work, because he felt he would benefit from the training and honestly, anything was better than a summer with the Dursleys…but now they were throwing ridiculous ceremonies in his face? He felt he must have finally reached his limit. Besides, he had never asked to be Prince. His parents hadn't wanted this life for him and he'd been shoved into it anyway. He'd make a terrible King...couldn't his grandparents just have another kid and fob all the responsibilities off on them? They were certainly young enough. Why were they trying to put the burden on his shoulders?

Harry wasn't done yet, but Quenah seemed to think the matter closed and Harry, tired of arguing with one of the few people he could count on in this place, decided to leave the matter be for the moment. He'd bring it up with his grandparents later, the queen's scary temper be damned. Nothing could be worse than Snape on a bad day anyway. And while he was at it, he was going to ask for a way to send a letter back to Ron and Hermione – his grandparents owed him that much at least.

Apparently no one had informed Their Esteemed Majesties that they owed their grandson anything. Harry tried to see them that evening, then the next morning, but all he could manage was a brief greeting over breakfast before the queen swept off to go deal with something or other and Harry was left with his grandfather. It was the first time he'd ever been alone in a room with just one of his grandparents, so he eyed the older elf warily, munching on a piece of sweetened bread so his hands were occupied and wouldn't run nervously through his hair and make it stick up like a bird's nest

"You have something to say," his grandfather observed calmly, selecting something new for his plate. He tweaked his fingers towards his empty goblet and a

buimúl servant immediately stepped forward to refill it.

Harry pulled himself up to sit straight. Damn right he had something to say...but first things first, before he could put the king in a bad mood, it would be a good idea to make his request. "Yeah, I mean, yes, I do. I'd like to send a letter to my friends."

"Friends?" his grandfather inquired pleasantly, with that hint of condescension that was beginning to really tick Harry off. Every damn 'adult' did it. Couldn't they stop viewing him as some kind of child long enough to have a serious conversation with him without sounding like they were just humouring him? He wasn't five!

"Yes," he managed to get out, despite gritted teeth. He relaxed his jaw. "My friends, back in the human realm. I'm sure they're worried about me."

The king slowly put down his food and focused all his attention on Harry, no longer humouring him. "You wish to assuage the worries of human children?" There was that tell-tale sneer of disgust at the word 'human'.

Harry bristled. "They're my friends!"

"Mind your tone!"

Harry took a deep breath. "They're my friends," he repeated more calmly, politely. "They've been through a lot with me. Saved my life, even. And I want to write to them. Please."

The king stared at him for the longest time, like one would stare at a particularly puzzling Arthimancy problem. "I will think about it," he said at long last. He took a sip from his sweet-water. "In the meantime, consider your preparations for the ceremony. There cannot be any mistakes."

Harry held his tongue, predicting where this was going. 'I'll think about it' really meant, 'It depends on your behaviour'. He'd seen the tactic before, with Mrs. Weasley and the twins. It never ended well when the twins tried to circumvent the stipulation. Hiding his scowl, he nodded. "Yes, sir."

The king's eyebrow twitched.

"Your Majesty," Harry quickly corrected.

His grandfather smiled. It was a much softer smile than the queen's, but still no less stern. The king stood to leave. As he passed Harry, he brushed a hand over his hair, a soft, gentle touch that left Harry stunned. He didn't think anyone besides Sirius had ever touched him like that. He turned to watch his grandfather's green clothed back exit the breakfast room with consideration.

Well, at least he knew which of his grandparents to go to with iffy requests. That was something, at least. He honestly doubted the queen would have given him the time of day.

He turned back around to finish his breakfast.

Harry felt like he couldn't breathe. From the left, from the right, from everywhere around him he was fenced in. He was suffocating under the immense pressure of the past couple of days: the vows, the preparations, the practice, the clothes. If he wasn't being poked and prodded by a multitude of tailors, the goldsmiths were hounding him. Or if he wasn't being forced to recite vows again and again, he was being made to walk down the centre of the empty throne room like he was practicing to get married - if even a single step was wrong, he had to start all over again.

It was just one thing after another, and it had all happened so fast Harry had hardly had time to think on it - he just did it. But the stress of the past few days was catching up to him, and he needed to escape, or suffer a mental breakdown. So, with that in mind, he sneaked out.

When he was finally left to his own devices for five minutes, Harry quickly pocketed the overly creased piece of vellum containing the vows he had to memorise, and tiptoed out of his room and down the hall. When no one seemed to be coming, he made a dash for the doors and cracked them open.

The guards on the other side turned to stare at him.

Harry raised a finger to his lips and looked at them beseechingly. Exchanging glances, they slowly turned their heads back to face the front, and Harry slipped out the doors and made a dash for the end of the long hall. If he could manage to get as far as possible from the tower before his next torturer showed up, then he might be able to snatch a few hours for himself.

He wasn't a moment too soon. He'd just leapt off the last stair and dashed into a side-hall when the royal tailor and her group of underlings rounded a different corner and headed for the stairs.

Harry waited for them to pass, and then continued on his way. There was one place he could go where he knew no one would look for him - Meldir's apartments.

Harry hadn't seen Meldir, nor Taswa, for a good week now; he'd simply been too busy. The last few times he'd manage to track them down before this mess, he'd been eager to implement his new social skills. It was startling the difference it made. He received far less suspicious looks and Taswa didn't spend every other sentence reprimanding him for his bad decorum.

He didn't know if Taswa would be around, but at least he could go chat with Meldir for an hour to two - he desperately needed the mental break. More than that, he really just needed to be around someone with whom he didn't have to keep up all these airs. What he wouldn't give for Ron and Hermione at the moment!

It took him well over an hour to get down to the third section of the palace because as soon as Harry had been discovered MIA, every royal guard had been deployed to find him and bring him back. No doubt his grandparents would be furious with him, but Harry was beyond caring by this point. He'd had quite enough of their silly, stuffy formalities, and it's not like it would kill them to let him off for a few hours. He had his vows down pat, his clothes were ready (it was only the tailor's obsession with perfection that made her keep coming back to alter them), and he was also pretty sure that by this point he could navigate the throne room in his sleep.

After having successfully managed to find his way there after a few wrong turns, Harry found himself knocking softly on Meldir's apartment door.

Eruahna opened the door.

"Araëmel!" she beamed in surprise. She quickly dipped a curtsy and greeted him warmly. Harry, smug in his new ability to interact socially without drawing ten kinds of weird stares, replied in kind, using the bow for Upper House children to elders of lower rank which he'd bullied out of his etiquette teacher a few weeks ago. Then he added, "Is Meldir in?"

Eruahna laughed, glancing over her shoulder and opening the door wider. "Yes, yes he is. Please come in."

Harry stepped in with a blossoming sense of relief. All the tension seemed to evaporate only moments after the door was shut behind him. He was safe now - the guards wouldn't think to look for him in an apartment belonging to the lower echelons of the Houses.

"Please be seated," murmured Eruahna, motioning forward a lurking buimúl servant, "I'll go fetch my brother."

Harry nodded and collapsed gratefully onto their couch. Eruahna disappeared though an open arch and he eventually heard her footsteps go up what sounded like stairs before disappearing. He'd never been past the receiving room so he honestly didn't know how big the apartment was, or how many levels it had. It could be like his tower, with multiple dining rooms, bedrooms, and floors. He nodded at the servant as she brought him refreshments and then retreated.

It didn't take long before he heard two sets of footsteps growing closer, and Harry twisted his head, ears cocked, just in time to watch Meldir and his sister come back into the main sitting room.

"Araëmel," greeted Meldir cheerfully, only dipping into the standard greeting bow when his sister glared at him sternly. When she wasn't looking, he rolled his eyes at Harry, who fought to hide his grin. It spread across his face anyway. Reasonable company, finally!

Eruahna hovered over the two of them for a moment. Her eyes flickered over Harry a few times and Harry notice with exasperation that there was a steadily growing look of confusion on her face. What had he done wrong this time?

"Sis," Meldir complained at her hovering.

Eruahna cuffed the back of his head lightly at his rudeness, shot Harry yet another strange look, then quietly retreated.

"She was looking at me like I'd grown horns," Harry said as soon as he thought she was out of earshot.

Meldir shrugged. "Hm. Don't see why." But his eyes scanned Harry anyway, and Harry caught a brief flash of confusion before Meldir appeared to dismiss it and went back to grinning. "Nah, it was nothing."

Harry was beginning to think he had done something (again), but if Meldir didn't think it was important, he wouldn't worry about it. He turned his attention to more interesting things, like talking about everything and nothing with Meldir. He complained about his grandparents, his tutors, and the expectations, and listened in turn as Meldir complained about his own lessons. The topic eventually wound round to classmates, and Meldir grew even more excited. He leaned forward, as if imparting a great secret. "You should have been there yesterday! You'll never believe what we learned...okay, well, maybe you will, being Upper House and everything."

Harry had a niggling feeling he knew where this was going. "Okay, what?"

"The prince!" Meldir exclaimed. "There's to be a ceremony! Apparently Mother and Father received the invitation a few days ago, but Eruahna didn't tell me because they were still deciding whether or not to let me go! But all the other House children were bragging about going in class yesterday, so you can imagine how stupid I felt being the only one not knowing what it was about." Harry made a noise of sympathy. "Anyway, so I told Eurahna that I'm old enough to know how to behave at a ball, and she said she'd talk to Mother and Father, so I think I'm going! Are you going?"

Harry rolled his eyes skyward. "Oh, I'll be there, alright." In fact, he was beginning to wonder if he ought to maybe tell Meldir and Taswa who he was. He didn't want it to come as a shock during the ball. He didn't want them to think he'd been using them or lying to them because he was looking down on them. He worried his lip, thinking.

The whole situation was complete bollocks. He resented being forced to reveal himself in the first place. He'd hoped to have a simple acquaintance free of any expectations or social obligations. Now he was being put in a position where it was inevitable that they find out and he didn't want them treating him any differently because of it. He didn't want this to be another 'Boy-Who-Lived' scenario - he got enough of that in the wizarding world.

"Do you know where Taswa is?" he finally asked.

"Practicing, no doubt."


"At the training grounds...why?"

Harry dithered for a while longer. Tell them now…or…

They'd find out anyway, he realised. There was no avoiding it. Meldir would see him at the ball and tell Taswa. With Harry's luck they'd never speak to him again. They weren't his best friends – he'd only known them barely a month – but they were decent and friendly company, and if Harry were being honest, the only friendly company. All the others his age seemed like stuck-up brats, and was it really worth jeopardising this growing friendship over something that wasn't even really a secret to begin with?

Mind made up, Harry stood. "Come on, let's go." Then he paused. "But, uh, we're going to have to be sneaky about it, alright?"

Meldir's face creased in suspicion and his ears went up. "What? Why?"

"Um...well...I might have snuck out of a lesson, so my grandparents will have sent people looking for me, and I want to avoid being seen…" Okay, so that sounded as bad as it was. Fortunately, Meldir wasn't a stranger to disobedience or adventure. His eyes sparkled and a sly grin pulled his lips up into a smirk. "Seriously? You snuck out? That's… pretty bold."

Harry smirked back. "Well, they were smothering me. A guy's got to have some free time, right?"

"From what you've told me, definitely," Meldir sympathised. He periodically liked to express his astonishment at the amount of pressure Harry was under. He often commented that Harry was 'only sixteen' and that having to do that much work at 'only sixteen' was criminal. From what Harry understood, elvin society put a lot less pressure on teens to figure out what they wanted to do with their lives than they did in the human world. Then again, with centuries to live, he supposed they could take their time deciding.

Which was why he figured an afternoon to himself wasn't too much to ask.

Harry and Meldir made good time sneaking down to the training grounds. Meldir was invaluable as a look-out, able to scout the hall for anyone suspicious before Harry emerged from his various hiding places around corners and doorways. It reminded Harry a little wistfully of sneaking around Hogwarts during curfew, but this time he didn't have his invisibility cloak to rely on. They were spotted a few times, but none of the guards saw them. Harry half expected Meldir to suddenly stop and demand to know why Harry kept ducking out of sight at the approach of Royal Guards – or even what Royal Guards were doing in the lower palace in the first place – but strangely he said nothing.

Taswa could indeed be found hacking away at a passable imitation for a humanoid body. She was in one of the smaller training fields, ones Harry had never had cause to enter before, and was dressed in her usual beige-toned tunic and slacks. Her blonde hair clung to her neck and cheeks and her face was red from exertion. Meldir called out a quick greeting and then exclaimed, "Come rest awhile, you look like you've been at that all morning!"

"I have," Taswa responded shortly after her own, deeper bow of greeting to Harry and Mel. When she straightened, wiping sweat from her brow, she peered at Harry more closely and...for Merlin's sake this was the third time today!

"What?" he finally snapped. "Why does everyone keep staring at me like that?"

Taswa set her practice sword to the side and approached slowly. She ran her eyes up Harry, frowned, squinted at him, then shook her head, flinging bits of blonde hair to the wind. "Its...well, just...I could swear that's…" She suddenly laughed, nervously. "No, never mind. I'm just being silly."

"Silly about what?" Harry demanded. What new social faux pas had he committed this time? It was frustrating knowing he was making a mistake, but not how to fix it.

Taswa hesitated. Next to him, Meldir fidgeted. Harry leaned against a nearby wooden post and waited. One of them would crack eventually. Probably Meldir, but maybe Taswa would feel obligated to inform him of what he'd done wrong. He was frankly surprised she hadn't reprimanded him already. She was fond of mother-henning.

Finally, Taswa squared her shoulders and marched over. She gestured to, well, all of him, and said, "It's your dress. You've worn different colours every time we've seen you and now you...I must be mistaken but that green is very similar to the Royal green. But I am mistaken."

Oh. Harry could have smacked himself. Of course! He knew about House colours. Every House, Upper and Lower, had their own personal colours. All their formal dress incorporated these colours, and it was the reason his room was full of greens. The House of Noiar's colours were a pale, sky blue and light beige. And the Royal colours...well, there was a reason the king and queen tended to wear that particular shade of green, ornamented with gold and silver. Green was a colour permitted only to the highest ranked Houses, or those with personal ties to the Royal Family, so there were very few individuals who could get away with wearing it so openly. Especially specific shades, though if you had asked Harry which shades belonged to whom, he couldn't have said.

He actually hadn't been considering what he was wearing when he'd left the tower. Every other time he'd gone to meet up with Meldir and Taswa, he'd dressed more casually in an attempt to make them feel more at ease, but he'd never once thought about the significance of the colours. Of course most of his more formal attire would be in that particular shade of green – the one that basically put a giant neon sign above his head that screamed, 'I am related to royalty'!

This revelation made the situation both harder and more difficult. He knew he'd dragged Meldir down here with the intention of gently breaking the news to them both that, well, 'by the way, I'm the prince. Hi.' but he hadn't yet worked out how to do so. This might be a good conversation starter.

"That's...well, I guess that's what I'd like to talk to you about. My, um, House. I think, before this whole ceremony thing kind of reveals everything, you guys really ought to know the truth. I mean, you've been pretty decent, letting me hang out with you, so it's only fair I tell you before you find out in a couple days…" He ran a hand through his hair and finished with a shrugged. "So…yeah."

To fend off the questions and exclamations ready to spout from their mouths, Harry quickly suggested they head into the forest to find some privacy. He was also wary of being spotted out in the open. The guards would look for him outside eventually, so he'd rather be somewhere less conspicuous, out of sight, lest he be frog-marched back to the tower.

They entered the cool dappled shade of the forest on silent feet. Harry took the lead, stepping nimbly over upturned roots and scattered flora. When the trees began to grow closer together he finally stumbled across a fallen tree trunk and seated himself on its mossy back. Taswa chose to lean against another tree trunk a few metres away, and Meldir plopped down on a thick tree root and stretched his legs out. He looked up at Harry expectantly.

Taswa was suspicious of all the secrecy. "May I ask why we are doing this? Why have you kept this so secret? I cannot fathom the reason."

Harry tugged at some moss self-consciously. Really, he needed to be delicate about this, but he was struggling to come up with a way that wouldn't just slam them with the truth like a bludger to the face. "Look," he began, keeping his voice neutral and his speech casual, "I didn't want you to treat me differently if you knew who I was. I like the anonymity. So please, can you promise not to freak out?"

Taswa's brows drew together sharply. Her eyes darted to his clothes, his face, then down to the ground. She frowned at the forest floor.

"You know, we already know you're from an Upper House. I just haven't been able to figure out which one," Meldir pointed out. His ears suddenly stiffened in revelation. "Oh! Is it secret? Or was there some scandal...wait, no, I'm sure we would have heard something…"

"Meldirlion!" Taswa snapped. "Don't be crass."

Meldir mumbled an apology, but Harry flashed him a reassuring look. He didn't mind the speculation, but there was no point trying to argue Taswa out of her sensibilities. And honestly, with the pressure she was under, he could understand her reticence. He hoped that one day she'd feel safe enough to completely relax in the presence of friends, and not constantly have to worry about putting a toe out of line. Which is why this conversation needed to be handled delicately, as Hermione would say.

Harry shifted thoughtfully. Maybe if he eased them into it, started with something a bit more simple...like...like maybe how he wasn't always Prince Araëmel, but Just Harry getting by day by day at the hell-hole called the Dursleys...maybe they would understand.

"Okay...so...it is kind of a secret. Well, it was a secret that even I didn't know about. I've kind of been living with my aunt most of my life, after my parents died, and she never told me anything, so until my grandparents came and carted me off this summer, I didn't know."

He received a couple of blank looks, which slowly morphed to horror.

"Your parents died?" whispered Taswa, looking positively stricken. She appeared as if she were about to step forward and hug him, but remembered herself at the last moment. "Oh." That 'oh' was significant somehow. She sounded as if that one revelation had solved all the mysteries surrounding Harry in one fell swoop.

"That's awful!" Meldir exclaimed, looking uncomfortable.

Harry didn't want their pity. "It's fine," he interrupted quickly, "They died a long time ago, I only remember them a little. I was only one."

"So your aunt raised you," Taswa finished.

Harry nodded. "Yes. But apparently she kept my existence secret from my grandparents. They thought I'd died with my parents, but I hadn't. They found out this summer and brought me back, and they've been going kind of nuts ever since."

"That's why you're so busy," Meldir realised. "They've been trying to teach you all the things you should have known. But what about your aunt? Why didn't she raise you properly?"

Taswa nodded emphatically. She cut a sharp gesture with her hand. "Yes. It seems absurd that she wouldn't. It would only be proper for her to hire all the best tutors regardless."

"But she was hiding him," Meldir pointed out.

Taswa's expression soured. That didn't sit well with her. "That's simply not right."

Harry's lips twitched in amusement. Meldir and Taswa were really rather amusing sometimes. They always had these kinds of social arguments. He interrupted before they could really get into it and Meldir wound Taswa up tighter than a bowstring. "Meldir's right. She was trying to keep it all secret. She didn't want me to have to be subjected to all the pomp and circumstance of my...um, position, I guess. Plus, she's not particularly fond of me. She spoils my cousin rotten though." He made a face. Perhaps if Dudley weren't usually attempting to emulate a pig ready for slaughter, it might be more believable that he had elvish blood. His hair was certainly a very pure shade of blonde, like Aunt Petunia's. And his eyes were quite bright, despite their piggish folds. And really, now he was picturing Dudley the Whale with long pointy ears and glowing skin and...ugh.

"Where did you grow up, if I might ask?" Taswa interrupted Harry's down-spiralling thoughts, rather fortuitously, he decided.

"Okay, so this is part of the 'please don't freak out' part."

"This ought to be good," Meldir muttered.

"My aunt...well, my parents were living in the human world when I was born. Oh, great, no, will you please stop freaking out?" Harry groaned and pulled up a whole handful of moss. Letting it fall, he scrubbed at his face and sighed. He waited for Taswa to stop exclaiming and Meldir to stop babbling.

"This is not a good joke!" Taswa accused, "I do not appreciate being tricked!"

"Humans! Like, humans humans? Stars above, was it horrible? Did they try to eat you? Did you have to disguise yourself? Was it awful? I'm so glad your grandparents rescued you! What about your aunt? Don't tell me she's still there? Why would she be there? Why would anyone want to go there? Humans are awful! They killed the princess, you know! Did your parents know the princess? Wait, do you know the prince? Is he okay? Was he really there? Can you tell me-"

"Enough, Mel! Get a grip! It's not true...It cannot be true. There is no conceivable way that Their Majesties would have allowed any House member to go to the human world, not after the princess-"


"Hold on!" Harry shouted as Taswa and Meldir looked about ready to take their shouting to the next level. "I can explain!"

Taswa gave him one of her sternest looks. She stood there, the epitome of disgruntlement and steely disapproval, and Harry was reminded of Percy Weasley. He shook his head to dislodge the disquieting thought.

"Please, I would appreciate an honest explanation. This is really not the time for jokes in bad taste."

Harry sighed and ran a hand through his hair, making it stick up. Taswa's hand jerked a little, fingers twitching, like she wanted to smooth it down. Meldir didn't even notice, too busy hovering over his previous seat, shifting from foot to foot in excitement. His face was expectant.

"I'm not lying. This isn't a joke. Why else would we come out here to talk about it? I...grew up there, with humans. I thought I was human until this summer." He gestured around him. "All of this...this is my first time here. It's all new to me. Elwýn, the Houses, everything. All this etiquette too...I know I make mistakes, but cut me some slack. I'm still trying to figure this all out."

Taswa slowly slumped in disbelief, sagging against the tree trunk. She stared at him with new eyes. "You...you're not joking."

Harry shook his head.

"This is like the books," Meldir breathed in awe. "I can't believe you're a real-life adventurer! What was it like? Was it dangerous? Is that why you're so good at everything, because you've been running from humans all your life?"

Harry really had to question exactly what they were teaching young elves if they all thought humans were savages with spears who hunted down all non-humans. Okay, well, so maybe it was partially correct. Humans could be awful, but then Elwý couldn't talk. Their society was pretty stagnant and biased as well. Look at the servants who might as well be slaves. And that whole business with kicking the other species out of Elwýn after arriving in this realm hadn't sat quite right with him. And they wanted to talk about human cruelty?

"Okay, first of all, humans aren't all bad. I've got plenty of good friends. I'm sure you'd like them if you met them. Taswa, you'd probably get along with Hermione like a house on fire. Mel, I bet you'd like the twins, Fred and George. They're always looking for fun."

Both Meldir and Taswa gave him looks like he'd been hit one too many times on the head as a child.

"I don't want to discuss the humans, I want to know how such a terrible travesty could even occur!" Taswa exclaimed.

"And what about the prince?" Meldir added stubbornly, clearly fixated on the idea of harrowing adventure and daring rescue.

"Well…" Harry trailed off. This was the hard part. How did he introduce the idea that maybe those two concepts were related without having them panic even more? "That's kind of...related." Or he could just blurt it out. That worked. Kind of.

Taswa's eyes travelled to his clothes and stopped. Harry could see her mind working, coming to the right conclusion but discarding it again and again in denial, or because she simply couldn't wrap her mind around the idea that Harry could be the prince. He had the feeling they wouldn't be able to realise the truth until he spelled it out, because they would both try to rationalise it away, time and again.

Or maybe they would reach the right conclusion. Meldir stared at him with a look torn between hero worship and sickly terror. He shook his head, once, twice, then mumbled, "No way. No way, no way, no way!"

Harry picked at the moss again. He spoke to the air between them, rather than risk watching their facial expressions. "I'm told my mother wanted to experience the human world, learn human magic and science, that's why she went. And my father followed her. And so did my aunt, to get away from the Court. And...there was a war, between a dark wizard called Voldemort-" for once no one flinched at the name "-and the rest, and my parents got involved and refused to return here, to safety. I...I remember a little bit, and I remember she said she preferred living in the human world, because she could be free of all the social obligations she had here. So they stayed, and they fought, but Voldemort found them and he killed them, and he tried to kill me too, but something my mother must have done saved me, so I lived." His explanation sped up. He was trying to get it all out in one go, so he wouldn't have to think about it. It was weird, explaining his life, when for so long everyone else had known more about it than him. "I got sent to live with my aunt…I guess you know she was exiled or something for marrying a human. I kind of admit he's really an awful example of a human. And my cousin's just as…" he wrinkled his nose, searching for the right word, "...piggish. Anyway, she - my aunt - never told me and I went to school there like my parents and I thought that was it until the Royal Guard showed up in my aunt's living room one morning, saw me, and dragged me back here. My grandparents have been going crazy ever since. And that's the truth." He paused, daring himself to look at them.

Taswa...Taswa was on the ground in probably the most undignified position he'd ever seen her in. Her legs were limp and she leaned against the tree, staring at the ground with a vacant, mournful expression. As Harry watched, she squeezed her eyes shut and hid her face in her hands. There was something awful about her posture – it was like looking at someone who'd lost all hope.

Harry swallowed, mouth dry – what the hell kind of reaction was that? He swept his gaze over Meldir, hoping for something better. The other elf's mouth was open, jaw working but no sound emerging. He was looking at Harry, and when their eyes locked, he ducked his head, staring furiously at the ground with the most serious, thoughtful expression he'd ever displayed.

He licked his lips."Look, I didn't mean to lie to you, but I didn't want you to treat me any differently just because I was the…" He couldn't say it.

Taswa finished for him, voice muffled. "Prince. The prince." Her hand slowly fell and her eyes flickered to his for the briefest instant. Then, stiffly, she rose to her feet and stumbled forward in front of Harry. Just as stiffly she sank to the ground on both knees, bent, and placed her forehead straight on the ground. "This unworthy one has committed treason and begs whatever punishment is seen fit."

Harry paled. He shot to his feet, noting out of the corner of his eye that Meldir had scrambled to follow Taswa's example. "Wait a minute!" he exclaimed, "You didn't do anything wrong!"

Merlin's underpants! It's not that big a deal! he gaped.

Taswa gulped audibly, let out a hissed breath, but otherwise said nothing. Meldir tried to peek up at him, but thought better of it. He looked nauseous and confused.

"I'm serious!" Harry shouted, gesturing wildly. Of course, neither of the two saw because they were too busy pressing their noses into the dirt, so he ran a hand roughly through his hair and tugged at the ends. "Bloody Hell. This is ridiculous! Tell me what you think you've done so I can assure you you're wrong."

Taswa finally rose to a more standard kneel, but kept her head down. Meldir imitated her quickly. When she spoke, it was with the utmost deference and Harry had a hard time following. "This lowly Unnamed has dared to give orders to Your Royal Highness, chastened Your Royal Highness, addressed Your Royal Highness as an equal, touched Your Royal Highness, insulted Their Esteemed Majesties, subverted Their will-"

"Enough!" Harry held up a hand, disbelieving. She was serious. He knew Taswa was a stickler for rules but...but rules like that shouldn't apply to children, or friendships, for that matter. "Stop," he reiterated softly, "You didn't know. I purposefully didn't tell you, so you can't be held accountable for that, either of you."

Taswa was silent. She looked badly like she wanted to disagree, but didn't dare contradict Harry. Meldir had no such compunctions. He looked up worriedly. "Eruahna's going to kill me, regardless."

Harry could well imagine. "Um, I'll explain it to her. I'm sure you'll be fine. We're pretty much friends and those sorts of rules shouldn't apply."

Meldir looked both elated and terrified at the prospect. "B-but I'm just a Lower House member... I'm nobody! …Your Highness!"

Taswa elbowed him sharply and hissed out of the corner of her mouth, "Do not talk back to His Royal Highness, Meldir!" When she realised Harry was right there, definitely close enough to hear, she went red and her ears dipped violently in embarrassment.

Meldir sealed his mouth. Harry came to the conclusion if he was going to have any hope of keeping this…whatever it was…intact, he would have to convince Taswa first. She was the one, he knew, who was most uncertain about her position. The one who lived in constant fear that one day she'd be chucked out of the palace and her life's dreams would crumble into dust. This was going to have to be a very delicate operation – he'd need to employ every ounce of tact Aunt Petunia had scolded into him.

He paced towards her and promptly crouched down to her level, so he could see her eyes. The action surprised her so much she looked up, just briefly, but it was enough for him to seize her gaze and hold it.

"I told you I'm not good with all this etiquette nonsense. My friends back home wouldn't give a soggy rat's behind whether or not I was some elvin prince, cause I'd still be Harry. I mean, Araëmel. That's my human name," he explained when he saw the question lurking in her gaze. He sat back on his heels, trying to get comfortable. He doubted she could be very comfortable kneeling like that. "The point is, I would never expect you to treat me like that. And I promise I'd never get you in trouble for just being a friend. That's not how friendships work."

Taswa considered this. Her gaze dropped again, and Harry thought he'd lost her, but she looked up, expression back to being stern. "Your Highness, it is simply not right."

Well, it was progress, at least. She was being assertive again. "Don't you think I should have the right to dictate who I want to be friends with? It's my life."

"Your Royal Highness is the prince," she replied firmly.

Harry rolled his eyes. "Okay," he agreed, "So I'm the prince. But that's not all I am. I'm also just me. The same me you've been getting to know this whole time. I think it's only fair that you give me a chance."

"Your Highness I'm Unnamed," she stressed, voice hitching.

"So?" Harry countered quickly. "I don't care, honest."

Taswa's brow drew together in confusion. "It's not…" she trailed off. "Their Majesties won't…" She suddenly stopped and clamped her mouth shut.

Ah. And it was back to this again. Harry glanced over at Meldir, who was watching the exchange with wide eyes. When Harry caught his gaze, he flushed. He looked down shyly. "I like Your Highness very much," he mumbled, "but we'd be in so much trouble. Eruahna's really going to kill me." He seemed more afraid of his sister's reaction to his bad manners than he did of the king and queen's. Eruahna's displeasure probably seemed like a more immediate threat. Harry was sure as soon as he reassured Meldir that Eruahna was not, in fact, going to kill him, Mel would loosen up.

"You know, there are perks to being my friend," Harry offered enticingly. "Like, I bet you wouldn't have to worry about being kicked out of Melcacrist's class. If anyone complained I'm sure I could tell them to leave you alone."

Taswa choked. She glanced across at him mournfully. "Your Royal Highness is kind, but Their Majesties'…."

Harry got it, he did. He knew how rigid his grandparents could be, and the threat of their displeasure was likely far more terrifying than Harry's. But surely...surely they couldn't do anything terrible just for being friends? And surely, if he asked, they would leave anyone he called a friend alone. He could probably barter with them, if worst came to worst. Offer to take his etiquette more seriously, stop complaining about the workload. Offer to take additional lessons - something. If that failed, he could always threaten to do something drastic. And besides, at the end of the day, weren't they going to hand over the throne to him? So shouldn't he be allowed to make some decisions like this for himself?

"I can deal with my grandparents. I promise you won't get in trouble. I'm going to be frank, there's really no one else to talk to around here. All the others are way too stuck up."

Taswa groaned and pressed her head back into the dirt. He heard her mumble, "Why me?" He doubted he was supposed to hear it.

"Your Highness promises?" Meldir piped up hopefully.

Harry shot him a reassuring grin. "Yeah. 'Course. I think I have the right to choose my friends, and if they complain I'll think of something to distract them with. I don't want you to get in trouble for my sake...but honestly? I think they have more important things to be worrying about than who I hang out with." He rolled his eyes. "This stupid ball, for one. They're going nuts over it. I've been measured and poked so many times by now I'm surprised I'm not a pincushion." He hoped throwing a joke or two into the mix might put them at ease. Unfortunately it backfired, because Taswa went rigid and Meldir merely goggled.

Harry finally folded himself down on the ground. He wasn't going to keep crouching there and he had a feeling this would take longer than expected. Meldir promptly did the same, sitting still and keeping his head down, occasionally peeking through his hair to judge the atmosphere.

"Taswa, get up," said Harry, hoping to have the remainder of the conversation in a civilised manner. Taswa raised her head - a start - but refused to stop kneeling.

"Sit," Harry prompted.

Taswa hesitated – clearly conflicted.

"That's an order," Harry added.

Taswa's fingers clenched over her knee. She fought between the need to obey an order from her prince and the need to remain proper. Fortunately, for Harry's sake, the order won out in the end and she sat, slowly, whole body tensed like a deer ready to bolt at the slightest movement. It made Harry want to treat her like a frightened animal.

"Good," he soothed. "That's progress at least."

Taswa's lips twisted momentarily. Harry grinned. "Admit it, you want to scold me for being improper. You can, you know. I know it makes you feel better." He'd endured enough of Hermione's rants about homework that one of Taswa's scoldings was nothing in comparison.

"This unworthy one would not dare."

"I hate that register. That whole speaking up or down to someone. Everyone should be equal."

Taswa actually broke her staring contest with the ground long enough to look up in shock. "What?" she gasped. Then she slammed her lips closed and ducked her head.

"I know that's not how things work here, but in the human world, they do. Everyone's equal, or at least they're supposed to be, in theory. But no person's life is ever worth less than another's."

Both Taswa and Meldir adopted looks of befuddlement, the concept clearly completely alien to them. "Excepting Your Highness, though, right?" Meldir added, voice rising in obvious confusion.

"Nope. Even my life's not worth the lives of the rest of my peers. That's my mindset, the kind of mindset I grew up in. I know it's hard to understand but I don't see either of you as being beneath me. When I say we're friends, I mean as equals." He'd take this patiently and slowly and hopefully he'd get through years of social conditioning. He could tell they both wanted to be his friend, so that wasn't the problem. They liked Araëmel the No-Name, but feared Araëmel the Prince. So he just had to get them to overlook that.

Part of him wondered if all this fuss was even worth it, then he remembered that the only other people he could talk to around here were Quenah and his grandparents. Harry steeled himself for the battle ahead.

"It's not right," Taswa mumbled, more to herself than anything. "It's wrong…"

Harry reached out a hand and hesitantly grasped her shoulder. She went still as stone, eyes impossibly wide. "Shouldn't that be for me to decide?"

"Y-your Highness is...is…"

Harry let go of her shoulder. "I touched you, and look, neither of us were struck by lightning."

There was a moment of confused silence. Meldir asked, "Why would anyone be struck by lightning?"

Harry waved off the reference. Right, of course they wouldn't know what that meant. "Never mind, point is, I'm asking you, as a friend," he emphasised, "to give me a chance."

Taswa chewed her lip. Meldir trembled where he sat...from excitement. "I want to, Your Highness! Please! I swear I shall be the best Royal Guard and I will guard Your Highness with my life and I will keep Your Highness safe from the humans and-" He cut off as Taswa elbowed him again. "Apologies."

Ducking her head again, Taswa ventured a question. "If Your Highness may permit me a question?"

Harry barely held in his sigh. "Go ahead."

"Your Highness uses the common language." It was a statement, not a question, but Harry received the message loud and clear: why?

"Because I can't stand the stuffiness. And because there's no way for me to express myself properly if I use all that posh nonsense. How can I say 'please' or 'thank you' or 'sorry' if I'm talking down to someone?"

Taswa looked positively horrified at the prospect. "But you are the prince!" she burst out. "You must nev-" she cut herself off right then and there, even more horrified that she'd dared reprimand him in her usual manner. Harry grinned.

"Yeah, yeah, I've heard it all before. My language tutor, Quenah, gets all huffy about it too. You'd like him, probably."

"Eruahna's the same," agreed Meldir cheerfully. He relaxed a little into his seat and appeared perfectly content with the situation. He kept staring at Harry though, making him a little nervous. The stare reminded him of Colin Creevey with his camera.

"Because it's improper!" Taswa snapped at her friend. Meldir pulled a face.

Harry tried a different tactic. "Perhaps," he agreed. Taswa looked at him in surprise. "But not all the time. I'd never have any friends if I had to speak like that to everyone I met. And let me tell you, not having friends is miserable."

And it was like finally, finally, something shifted in Taswa's expression. She looked at him, really looked at him, and a slow sadness crept across her face. She gazed off to the side, and forgetting herself completely, agreed. "Yes. It is. I understand. Your Highness has been alone. Your...The prince and princess tragically...tragically…" She couldn't bring herself to say it to Harry's face. For a moment Harry felt a spike of irritation at her pity, but looking more deeply into her words and her expression, he realised she was reminiscing and it occurred to him that perhaps she and Meldir had not always been friends. She looked at him again. "For Your Highness's sake, this unworthy one will try." She bowed once, then straightened again, chin tilted proudly.

It was a start, Harry decided.

"This is amazing," Meldir gushed, "You're the prince!"

Harry rolled his eyes.

So, has it really been two years? Wow. Well, I won't bore you all with the details of my life, you can read about that in my profile, as I do still keep that updated...every once in a while. It's how you know I'm not dead. Seriously.

This chapter gave me a lot of trouble. I needed to get some filler bg in, but I hated the way I did it the first time around. At the same time, I didn't want to drag it out any longer than it was already. So I just revised some of the syntax/style, threw in a few extra scenes, etc...but the bit that really killed me was the scene with Meldir and Taswa and trying to keep it a) in character and b) in keeping with the social rules of Elwyn. I rewrote it several times and in the end I've just decided to hell with it, Harry may be a little OOC, but I'm not going to rewrite it again. At least not at the moment. I'd appreciate feedback nonetheless. Besides, I figure you'd all prefer a subpar chapter over no chapter at all, yes?

On a brighter note, I think I'm going to post a poll on my profile about expanding fandoms. Anyone who's interested please take a gander. I've got a lot of fics I work on when I get stuck on my other writing in a LOT of fandoms and I'm curious to know how many of you would be interested in some of the other fandoms I've written for.

Although I promise I won't post anything that doesn't have a decent buffer...

I'm going to try to get the next chapter out sooner than last time. Um. Yes. So...don't give up on me?

Cheers all,


Posted: 10 April 2014
Edited: 10 April 2014