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i've got issues, but you've got them too

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A lot of stuff isn't going good.

 

Being King is hard. He never realized how much work and effort it requires. There's so much planning and talk of war- he's trying to promote peace, thank you very much, but everyone makes it so hard- and people follow him around like lost puppies and there's so much to keep track of, and he can't tell who's genuinely on his side or trying to suck up to him. He has to manage the economy and keep public opinion in his favor and help everyone, and don't even get him started on interacting with the other kingdoms.

 

He misses his dad. He just wants someone to hold him and tell him everything will be okay like his dad used to or stay with him and make jokes to lighten the mood like Callum did. When he finally has downtime, he sits with Bait in his lap and thinks about Callum and Rayla and Zym and tries to see through his eyes, but he can only ever do that when the baby dragon is in danger, so his only connection to his brother is cut off too. He wants his dad to be back so he can tell Ezran what to do and give all his wisdom, god, Ezran just wants someone to tell him what to do, but he's supposed to be the one giving orders to everyone else. He wonders how his dad ever kept up with it all.

 

Corvus is at his side; Ezran makes sure he is. He's the only one Ezran knows he can trust for sure, Corvus has proven it over and over again, but Corvus serves aun- sorry- General Amaya, and that comes first. Opeli is always nearby, keeping tabs on his "kingly" behaviors, but she feels more like a strict aunt than a close advisor. General Amaya and Commander Gren visit sometimes, but they never stay too long. There's too much at stake at the Border, and while Ezran is trying to be peaceful, he knows they can't afford to lose what ground they have there. 

 

Most of the other advisors and council members grate on his nerves. All they talk about is war this, war that, and Ezran does try to encourage peace, he really does, but they're not having it. They tell him to strike first before Xadia has a chance to, wait until they attack so it's only self defense, send more forces to the breech, send forces actually into Xadia, and Ezran looks over his shoulder for someone to give him advice about the varying demands, but no ones there. He reserved that spot for Callum, but he's still on his journey with Rayla and Zym. 

 

The other advisors talk about Rayla and Callum and the elf that kidnapped the princes- no matter how often Ezran tells them they went by choice and Callum is safe with her- and how the assassin in their dungeon has gone missing. There's too many mysteries and no one will tell him anything- he's only ten, they argue, but he's still their King now- and he feels like he doesn't know anything. He doesn't like not knowing anything.

 

But there are good things too, great things. Once they get past the whole 'we're teetering on the brink of war and there's a lot of tensions between us,' some of the advisors are more open-minded about peace, maybe because they're scared of war, and many civilians, while terrifed, are also intrigued by the elves and their four fingers and pointed ears and horns. He thinks that maybe once Zym is returned, promoting peace within citizens' daily lives will be easier than he thought.

 

And the other kings and queens are amazing. They have a celebration for his swearing into Katolis, and he invites the other rulers. There's dancing and wine- neither of which he partakes in, but it's still part of the atmosphere- and one by one, the kings and queens come up to him. 

 

He and King Florian of Del Bar are quick to bond over nature and the outdoors. He shares stories of the banthers and deer and other strange animals he's encountered, and Ezran tells about the one time he snuck off during a meeting and followed raccoons and ended up falling into a river in his robes.

 

Queen Fareeda of Evenere approaches him next. He thanks her for coming; the journey is long, even by boat. She seems almost like a mother to him, caring and sweet, and she wishes him the best of luck. She clinks her glass of alcohol against his glass of water, and they go their separate ways.

 

King Ahling of Neolandia and him don't have much to bond over, so their conversation is brief, but Ezran decides he likes him. He's cheery and fun and makes stupid jokes- but he doesn't say that and instead tries to laugh- and Ezran thinks it'll be nice to have him on his side.

 

He never talks to one of the queens. It's strange knowing there's a powerful ruler who was once in his situation, and he finds himself feeling a little shy; he's never been the best at making friends with other kids his age. They exchange glances over the course of the evening; Ezran does his best to smile, and while she never smiles back, there's a lightness behind her eyes that makes him think she would if they weren't at a formal event. Overall, he thinks he's made a good first impression and built up trust.

 

Lord Viren ruins it all. 

 

He never really liked Viren, even before he became King; he made him uncomfortable, and finding out he'd stolen the egg only added to it. When he returns, he finds Viren locked in a cell for a reason nobody will tell him. He doesn't think much of it, but it stays in the back of his mind, a question left unanswered.

 

Then the first letter comes from Del Bar, telling stories of a shadow terrorizing the streets and their civilians. Ezran is concerned but there's not much he can do for the kingdom. He writes back and send a few soldiers with his reply to hopefully quell the assailant.

 

But then he gets another letter, this time from Neolandia, telling eerily similar stories. He thinks there's a connection between the two but he's not sure what it is, and he leaves the problem to the council to fix since damage control is their job.

 

A third letter arrives from Evenere about a week later considering it had to travel by boat, telling him the exact same tales with even less details.  At this point, he can see it's clearly a reoccurring problem, but until it strikes Katolis, he's powerless to stop it. He needs more information, and he writes back telling her that, but she won't obtain the letter for another week if that.

 

Ezran talks to the council about it but they can't reach a solution; nothing in their kingdom or the others could cause such a situation. They don't have enough information to discuss who the perpetrator is and the proper action to take, so Ezran decides to wait until he gets a response from Queen Fareeda in a couple weeks.

 

Then he receives a fourth letter from Duren.

 

When he retrieves it from the Crowmaster, he figures it'll be yet another letter from another kingdom telling of the same stories he's heard three times and asking for assistance he can't provide. But when he opens the letter, that's not the case.

 

He has to stretch his arms as wide as they can go to hold the entire letter. There's information in it he didn't even think he would need and detailed explanations of what has been happening in the kingdom and even a couple rough sketches, and Ezran can't help but smile because now he's been provided with the intel he needs to solve the mystery.

 

He brings it to the next council meeting and they analyze it together, sifting through the paragraphs of detailed accounts and comparing them to the ones from other kingdoms, and he finally feels like a King, and god, he feels powerful, and when one of the advisors provides the answer, his heart sinks into his stomach.

 

An elf. An elven assassin no less. Xadia had sent an elf to attack the kingdoms.

 

The other advisors scram to make war plans and find someone to blame, and Ezran stares blankly at the court table and wonders where he went wrong and hopes that Callum and Rayla can fix what he can't. There are council members in his ear telling him to attack Xadia, rage war with the elves, and something feels off to Ezran but he can't place it. Finally, someone tells him to talk to the other kings and queens, and he arranges a meeting with the Pentarchy against his better judgement.

 

Saying it doesn't go well is an understatement. 

 

They're okay at first; everyone greets each other good-naturedly and it's calm. Peaceful. Ezran takes a deep breath and brings up the topic of discussion, and then it starts going downhill.

 

The other leaders are apprehensive to approach the topic of war, after all, a war against a land with magic on its side seems impossible. But they gradually get more and more angry, and Ezran still thinks something feels off, wrong even, like they're looking in the incorrect place. Like the whole situation is a red herring of sorts. Maybe he's biased because of his positive experience with an elf, but a voice in the back of his head nags at him.

 

Then the queen of Duren stands, and she politely says, "The elf is made of smoke. If that is the case, then has Xadia sent an elf after our kingdoms, or is there something else afoot?"

 

Ezran thinks. The elf is made of smoke, meaning that they're not a real person. Magic is most likely at play, but that doesn't make sense. There's no reason for Xadia to send elves made of magic to attack them, it would cost less to send a living person. There's a connection there, some piece he's missing, and the solution feels barely out of his grasp.

 

Queen Fareeda speaks next. "As much as I hate to make accusations, isn't Katolis the only kingdom that has not been attacked?"

 

The rulers turn to him with varying looks on their faces. Ezran thinks more. She's correct, they haven't been attacked, and it's been a while since the elves appeared. But even if they did originate from Katolis, that would be impossible. They cannot perform magic, and they have no elves.

 

Unless...

 

It hits Ezran like a train.

 

He stands abruptly. "Lord Viren. He must have done this with dark magic before I returned. That's the only explanation."

 

The other kings and queens are quiet for a moment. Then all hell breaks loose. He wishes he could repress memories.

 

They end the meeting with Ezran's promise to speak with Viren and find a solution, and he can't help but feel he's messed everything up. He has a huge problem he can't even begin to fix on his hands and he's been King for not even a month. He wasn't meant to be King. He shouldn't have returned.

 

He sits on the steps outside the throne room and puts his head in his hands. God, he's messed up bad, and it's not even his fault. Why couldn't things go back to how they used to be, where his biggest issue was who stole the last jelly tart and he could make Callum perform the Jerkface Dance to solve all his problems? Why couldn't Callum come back? Ezran couldn't do it by himself. He couldn't handle all of this on his own, it was too much for his shoulders to bear, he needs someone else, he's always worked better with other people, even if those 'people' were actually animals. He didn't want to be alone.

 

"I'm sorry."

 

He turns his head and finds the one person he hasn't spoken to yet, Queen Aanya of Duren. She stands on the highest step with her hands folded neatly in front of her lap. 

 

"What do you mean?" he asks, because it's not her fault, it couldn't be her fault, they already determined the problem to be from Katolis.

 

She slowly steps down the stairs to reside at the one behind him. "Being a king is difficult," she responds, looking down at him, and he knows what she means. She became queen when she was merely a child, even more of a child than him, and she's faced so much discrimination and hatred. She's had so much residing on her shoulders with no one to guide her, just as he does now.

 

Ezran nods. She looks hesitantly at the step he's sat on, and she places her feet on the same level and moves to lean down, but she stops herself. Breaking their gaze, she says, "You do not have to face this alone. Give them time to see reason. The other kingdoms will support you."

 

Ezran gazes up at her again and asks, "Will you?"

 

She stares out at the sunset for a moment, and then she peers down at him. With the slightest glint in her eyes, she whispers, "Of course."

 

He watches as she walks away, feeling just a little less alone.

 

***

 

Ezran said he wouldn't run from his problems any longer, and yet, here he is running now.

 

He hasn't been able to see through Zym in a while, which was fine with him; the less he can see, the safer Zym is, since their connection only works when the baby dragon is in danger. He misses Rayla and Callum, of course he does, and he doesn't like being out of the loop and not knowing what's going on, but he has enough on his plate as it is with the trouble Viren caused.

 

Then he gets a letter.

 

It's from Xadia, which is exciting; he's absolutely ecstatic when he receives it. It tells the tale of how his brother and Rayla had brought the Dragon Prince to the queen, and he blinks back happy tears as he reads about how Callum talked about him and the queen wanted to meet him some day. He laughs as he hears of how Callum had apparently yelled at the Dragon Queen for being hesitant about peace, because Callum wouldn't but he also would, and the Dragon Queen is willing to make peace. She's willing to make peace!

 

There's a note on the bottom, one from Callum himself. It even has a little doodle of Rayla and Zym. Ezran can't help but smile as he reads it. Callum wrote of how different Xadia is and how there's so much magic. He also spoke of how much he misses Ezran, of course.

 

He reads the last sentences, and his heart sinks into his stomach.

 

And now he's run into the forest, having left his crown on the throne but still feeling the burdens of royalty. Viren's plot has wrecked whatever positive relationship he could have had with the other kingdoms, and when questioned, Viren refuses to give any information on how to stop the assassins. Luckily, no harm has come to any civilians, but there's no telling how far Viren will go. 

 

If he's going to be honest, he's scared. Terrified, even. The elves aren't attacking Katolis, but that doesn't mean they're not in danger. If he's not careful, the possibility of war with Xadia won't be the only war he'll have to worry about.

 

He's never felt more alone. He's surrounded by adults and old advisors who are helpful and great, he's not saying they aren't, but he misses having someone younger. Someone around his age.

 

He misses Callum, but Callum isn't coming back.

 

Ezran is glad for him, he is; as his brother, all he wants is for him to be happy, and if he's happy, Ezran is happy. But he just wishes Callum could be happy in Katolis. He wishes everything could go back to how it was before, when Callum and him banded together against their dad in sledding races at the Banther Lodge, or when Callum would find Ezran almost immediately in hide and seek because of Bait. 

 

But Ezran is in Katolis, and Callum is in Xadia. Indefinitely.

 

And so he runs into the forest, far away from his problems but they still follow him anyways. Can he catch a break? Royal life is stressful, being a king sucks, and the only thing he had been looking forward to was Callum's return. 

 

He runs. He's always ran; isn't that what returning was for? Reclaiming his throne and choosing to come back to Katolis was supposed to keep him from running. He's still a coward, though. He's a coward, isn't he? A stupid kid with no idea what he's doing, having no place ruling a kingdom, having no one around to tell him what to do. 

 

He's a horrible brother too. He's supposed to be happy for Callum, who's chasing him dreams. He knows his brother would do anything for him, even at the expense of his own wishes, so him following his heart should make him proud. He tries to be proud, he really does try. But he can't force happiness.

 

He doesn't notice the root by his foot, and he catches on it and stumbles, crashing into the ground. Opeli will scold him later for ruining his robes and rooting around in the mud. He's supposed to be a perfect, dignified leader and here he is, covered in dirt and muck, legs aching from dashing without a destination, battered and broken and tired, oh so tired.

 

He should get up. He should stand. He's king now, and that's what kings do. When they fall, they get back up again.

 

But he can't bring himself to do it. He won't stand- no, he can't stand. And his lips quiver and his eyes water as tears streak down his cheeks and he shakes and pulls his legs close and wraps his arms around them and curls into a ball, sobbing because he's so alone.

 

Somehow, he hears a twig snap, and that shuts him up. He wipes his cheeks with his sleeve and props himself up onto his elbows, sniffling and trying to look presentable. Leaves crunch under the mystery person's feet, and he sits up fully and tries to rub his face but probably just ends up smearing mud. Panic bubbles in his throat as he realizes he could be in danger. He's a weak king who can't defend himself, what if this is a predator, like a bear, bears never listen to him, or even a huntsman--

 

Out steps one of the last people he expects to see.

 

She's still dressed in royal clothing, a nice white dress with blue accents, her kingdoms signature colors. Despite trekking through the forest, there are no splotches on her dress. Sandals are laced up to her ankles, and her arms are covered by black and blue gauntlets. Her hair is tied up and held back by her crown. In her hands, he notices she holds his crown, the one with the uneven towers.

 

The other kings and queens have been visiting while they sort out the Viren crisis, though it's mainly been his advisors talking to them. He hadn't had the chance to see any of the other rulers, let alone speak with them. And it's even more unlikely one would actively seek him out, much less with his crown.

 

"There you are," Queen Aanya says, stepping closer to him and ducking under a branch. If she notices his unkept appearance, she doesn't say anything. She stands directly in front of him and peers down. "Your royal court is looking for you."

 

Ezran chuckles sadly, it almost sounds like he's choking back the rest of his tears, because honestly returning to the court is the last thing he wants to do, much less be reminded of. "They can keep searching."

 

She raises an eyebrow, and he draws lines in the mud absently. "I don't really feel like being a king right now."

 

She nods and looks down at the ground, and she watches him trace a few more circles in the dirt. "Being a king is difficult," she states, like she did before that evening after the Pentarchy summit. "There are constant meetings with adults telling you what to do, what action to take. Then there's public opinion and relations with the other kingdoms and everything with Xadia." 

 

She shakes her head. "I can't even imagine what it must be like for you, being in charge of the kingdom closest to the Border."

 

She eyes the ground, and looks at him while he stares at the dirt, blinking back tears. She slowly crouches, kneeling in front of him. "You are the ruler because you were born into it. But you stay the ruler because you are a good one."

 

Queen Aanya holds out the crown in both her hands. "They need their King. They need you, King Ezran."

 

Their kingdom needs a leader, a strong leader, one who can make the right decisions and say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done. They need someone who will represent them, fight for them, rule them. They need a King.

 

He looks up at her, her eyes asking him to take it, and it's his choice to make. He could stay, sat in the dirt, running away from his problems, sad and pathetic. He could curl up into a ball and keep crying and crying like that will change anything. 

 

And he realizes that he doesn't always have to be strong to be a king. He's allowed to break down. He's allowed to want to quit. He's allowed to be weak sometimes. He's not going to be perfect. That doesn't mean he's weak all together, in fact, it only makes him stronger.

 

He reaches for the crown and takes it out of her hands, and then he places it atop his head.

 

He doesn't need to be strong. He just needs to be human.

 

***

 

Ezran hates meetings.

 

They tire him out. Often times he finds himself zoning out as the advisors drone on and on, their voices mixing together, and later, Opeli has to give him the run down of everything he tuned out. Sometimes it's more interesting, like when they were discussing a festival to invite elves to, but most of the time they talk about boring things, like trade routes and businesses.

 

He's not sure whether to be grateful or not. Before, the meetings were always stressful and had him on the edge of his seat, bouncing his leg under the table. Now that the Viren crisis has been taken care of- they managed to quell the smoky assassins with Claudia's help once she and Soren returned, and they even found Viren had a hidden mirror- the meetings have him trying not to yawn in front of the council.

 

This meeting, he perks up when they bring up that some elven advisors are going to be visiting to discuss details about the festival. He catches something about fruits and a earthblood and sunfire elf, but his brain is too tired to listen to the rest. Opeli will have to fill him in later.

 

He leaves feeling like he needs a nap, but now he has to make his way to one of his lessons. He may be king, but he does still have a lot to learn, and ever since he's gotten new inspiration about a month ago, he's been more determined than ever to be the best ruler he can be. Which unfortunately means sitting through tutors quizzing him on important dates and memorizing maps and cities and rivers and reading books on topics he could care less about.

 

"Your majesty?" he hears someone call behind him, and he turns and finds one of his advisors, Chief Airdan. He's the representative of one of Katolis's cities. A little on the older side, he has a beard, and he can see gray strands in his hair. He adorns red robes with gold lining, the colors of Katolis.

 

He kindly approaches the king, hands folded neatly in front of him. He bows when he stands in front of him. "May I have a moment of your time?"

 

He tries to make sure his tone isn't harsh as he says, "I have to get to a lesson, so make it quick." It sounds snappy to him, but Opeli has scolded him many times for being 'too nice.' He adds a small smile to convey that he doesn't mean to be rude.

 

Chief Airdan nods. "If I may, are you sure that inviting the elves to the festival is the best decision?"

 

Ezran blinks, a bit surprised at his bluntness, and almost crosses his arms, but he remembers that kings aren't supposed to do that. "What do you mean?"

 

The chief looks away, seemingly searching for the right words. "Tensions are still high with Xadia, and although returning the Dragon Prince was a kind gesture, it doesn't erase centuries of war. How can we be sure they won't... try anything?"

 

"You think they're going to attack us."

 

He fumbles with his words. "Not necessarily. I just believe that maybe we should let things cool down before we jump to hold a festival with them."

 

"We're not 'holding a festival with them,'" Ezran corrects, straightening his back. "We're inviting them. Even if they don't attend, the gesture is there."

 

"Yes," the chief replies, "but we do not know their intentions. We haven't even spoken directly to any of their advisors yet. Who knows what they are planning."

 

Ezran grinds his teeth. As much as he wants to be angry with him, he does have a point. They haven't spoken to any elven advisors in person, and peace has only just began. They may be moving too quickly. "We could push the festival back by a week so it occurs after the advisors arrive. I can have Opeli speak with the court about it."

 

Chief Airdan nods. "Do you believe the public will accept this? There is still much outrage over even having peace, will civilians even be willing to prepare for a festival?"

 

"I have thought about this from every angle," Ezran lies. He actually hadn't thought of that, but there's no way he's giving the chief that satisfaction. 

 

"What if a vendor sells food poisonous to elves without knowing it? Xadia could blame us for that."

 

"Like I said, I've thought long and hard about this--"

 

"What if a fight breaks out? Or they bring a creature that spreads a disease? Or they--"

 

"Chief Airdan?" a new voice cuts in, and Ezran looks over the chief's shoulder to see Queen Aanya rounding the corner. While Duren and Katolis have been close allies for a while, it was still to his surprise when she had volunteered her kingdom's supplies to aid the festival. Out of all the other rulers, she has always been the most open-minded. Since then, she has been in the area to help with preparations. 

 

She strides forwards, hands clasped behind her back, standing confidently even though the chief towers over her. "If I may," she mocks, "not only will the festival promote peace, if elves do attend, then they will be seen in a better light by the public. Seeing the elves in a way similar to our own will allow them to be viewed less as emotionless monsters, but as people. Is that not what we want?"

 

"Of course it is, your majesty," Chief Airdan agrees. "However, there is still much that could go wrong."

 

"Many of the occurrences you listed are far fetched and unlikely," she says, voice sharp. "We will do extensive planning and research to be sure that no harm will come to elves, and we will have to trust that they do the same."

 

"Trust them? Your majesty, we must be prepared in the event that--"

 

She holds up a hand and steps to be at Ezran's side. "We will be prepared by meeting with the elves and discussing it with them. There is no need for you to worry."

 

"Plus," Ezran adds, "we've already been speaking to them about trade. We know foods they cannot have, and we gain more knowledge of their customs everyday! If we be sure to include their culture in our festival, they will have no reason to oppose it."

 

Chief Airdan looks between the two of them and then nods. "Yes, your majesties. I was never against the idea of the festival, I simply wanted to express my worries."

 

Ezran grins at him, and then waves his hand. "You are dismissed."

 

Chief Airdan bows and murmurs, "Thank you for your time," before turning on his heel and walking away. His steps slowly fade until they can't hear them anymore.

 

Queen Aanya turns to him. "You have a lesson to get to, correct?"

 

"Ah!" Ezran exclaims, quickly glancing at the clock on the wall, reading five minutes past three. He's five minutes tardy! 

 

He looks back to the queen and bows his head. "Thank you for your help," he says, and then he turns and dashes away, leaving the queen to watch as he goes. 

 

If he had glanced back, he would've seen her small smile.

 

***

 

He presses his hands on the bubble, making it pop and roll the dice. It lands on a three. He reaches for his pawn and moves it into the first slot of his home base.

 

She rolls the dice next. It lands on a four, and she moves enough spaces to reach a shortcut. She takes it and moves her pawn so it's only a few spaces from her base.

 

"What do you think of Master Folluin and Lord Ailre?" he asks as he rolls the dice. It lands on a two and he sighs. He needs either a one or a six to be able to put his next pawn into play.

 

"I think Lord Ailre is kind," she replies, moving her pawn into her home base. "She seems very open-minded."

 

Ezran hums, taking his next turn. "What about Master Folluin?"

 

Queen Aanya is silent for a moment, contemplating the right words. Eventually, she shrugs and states, "I find him annoying. He needs to calm down."

 

Ezran fails to stifle his laughter as she moves her last pawn. She looks away from the board and up at him. "It's the truth. You asked what I think of him, and there you have it."

 

"I wasn't expecting something so..." he waves his hands, "upfront."

 

She shrugs again. The earthblood and sunfire elf advisors, Master Folluin and Lord Ailre respectively, had arrived in Katolis the other day to negotiate treaties and peace. Ezran hadn't been present for most of it, and by that he means he had been there, he just hadn't cared enough to listen. His advisors took care of it for the most part. They had later gathered with Queen Aanya and one of her advisors to discuss the festival. After that, both him and the queen had wanted a get-away, and they wound up playing a board game Ezran had found.

 

Their dynamic is... weird. They have only interacted a few times, never for longer than five minutes, and Ezran isn't sure what she she is to him. An ally? An acquaintance? 

 

Would he go as far as to say they're friends?

 

And yet, here they sit, never having had a conversation that wasn't about anything other than royalty, and they were playing a board game. Like they have some unspoken alliance to act like friends even though he doesn't know the first thing about her and vise versa.

 

She is a formidable opponent however, and he notices she only has half the board left to cover before she wins. Not that there's much strategy to their game; all they do is roll the dice and hope. But it keeps him on the edge of his seat regardless.

 

"Do you truly believe the festival will work out?" Queen Aanya asks. It catches him off guard for a second. He thinks about how to reply.

 

"I don't know," he answers honestly. "I'm not even sure any elves will attend."

 

She nods and rolls again. "I think they'll find the sentiment nice regardless."

 

"Yeah," he agrees. They fall into silence after that, the only sound being the pop of the bubble as they roll the dice and the chink of their pawns hitting the board. He does eventually get his last pawn into play, and she misses the shortcut by one space, and they play their game without speaking.

 

Finally, as both of them approach their home bases with their last pawns, she asks, "What are we, King Ezran?"

 

He looks up at her as she stares at the board, hands folded in her lap, pointedly ignoring his gaze. He's been wanting to ask the same question for a while, to be honest. He doesn't know how friends work; the only ones he's had have either betrayed him, been his brother, or been years older than him. Half the time he panics over what to say to the queen because he doesn't want to mess up his one shot at having a ally not only his age, but also a child ruler as well.

 

But allies don't sit on carpeted floors and play board games. Allies don't remind each other that they're late for lessons. Allies don't search for each other in the woods to bring them their crowns. Allies don't give advice and support like they do.

 

Finally, he thinks he finds the right word.

 

"Friends," he says, and she brings her gaze up to meet his eyes. "I think we're friends."

 

She smiles slightly, and he notes that it's the first time he's seen her smile, and it lights up her entire face and makes her eyes crinkle and she looks so much happier. And then she moves her pawn into her home base without breaking their gaze. "I win."

 

"What?!" Ezran exclaims, looking down and seeing she rolled a three, the perfect number she needed to move her pawn. "No!" he whines, throwing his head back and covering his face with his hands. "I was so close!"

 

He peeks through the gaps in his fingers and watches her smirk and bring her hand up to cover her mouth. He finds himself smiling as well, because despite the fact that he lost the game, he gained a friend, and that's more important.

 

***

 

Ezran lays backwards on the edge of his bed, letting his head roll off the side. He swings his arms and watches the queen fiddle with the puzzle in his desk chair, and Bait croaks beside him. The two rulers had been hanging out more since his declaration of friendship, both for festival preparations and because apparently friends hang out. They wouldn't know; neither of them had many in the past.

 

He likes being friends with her. He finds that she's surprisingly timid for someone so confident and she keeps to herself a lot, but she has bursts of energy sometimes and can be almost as upbeat as him. Although she's a powerful queen, she's still a kid just like him. She's also a remarkably interesting individual. She has many stories of Duren and what life was like for her growing up as a child ruler, and she gives great advice. He's learned that he can be both a ruler and himself, and he's felt less awkward as a King. She's honestly made him both a better ruler and a better person.

 

The only downside of her friendship is that he has an infinite supply of energy- unless he's in meetings- and she takes a lot of time to relax and unwind, typically by herself. She has no problem eyeing him from the sidelines, but he wants to do things with her, not with her just watching.

 

"I'm bored," he complains, twiddling his fingers together. He has been watching her try to solve the puzzle that has stumped him for ages, and she seems to be getting it quicker than him.

 

"Then find something to do," she quips, simple and straight to the point. 

 

"There's nothing to do this late at night," Ezran says, starting to feel light headed. Most of his advisors are either asleep or preparing for bed, and it's not like there's any other kids around, other than Soren- who's not even a kid, though he acts like one so much Ezran forgets- and Claudia, who he's still trying to trust again. He tries to brainstorm. What are things he used to do in the dead of night, other than watch Callum draw because he's not here?

 

Then an idea pops into his brain, and he sits up. "I know what we can do!"

 

Queen Aanya hums, and he takes that as an invitation. He scoots to the edge of the bed, stands, and wanders over to her. "I think it's probably better to just show you."

 

She gazes up at him, deadpanned, and without breaking their gaze she places the puzzle on his desk. He offers his hand and she takes it. Pulling her to her feet, he tells Bait to stay there and leads her out of the room. 

 

"Where are we going, King Ezran?" she questions as they wander through the castle halls. 

 

He turns back to her and puts a finger to his lips and shushes. "We have to be quiet."

 

She raises an eyebrow, and he continues leading her through the halls. There are a few guards around, but none of them say anything to them.  His bedtime is technically now, at least, according to Opeli, but he's also the king and no one can tell him what to do. 

 

Eventually, he finds what he's been looking for. It's a section of a wall that, with the right code, opens to a secret passage.

 

He turns to Queen Aanya, who looks at the seemingly ordinary wall with a suspicious glare. "Now, if I show you what's through here, you must swear to never tell anyone what you see."

 

She regards him curiously. "King Ezran, it's a wall."

 

He holds up a finger. "Oh, but it's not just a wall, m'lady." He stretches his arms wide with a grin. "It's a..." he leans forward, cups his hands around his mouth, and lowers his voice, "secret passage."

 

She raises an eyebrow again- how many times has she done that now?- and with a flourish, he turns back to the wall and presses three specific stones. The wall rumbles and splits to reveal a small opening, just large enough for both of them to squeeze through.

 

"Ta da!" he exclaims. She seems a bit more intrigued now. "Don't worry, it widens out once we get inside."

 

"You go first," she says, inspecting the opening with a hint of disgust. 

 

He shrugs in agreement and sidesteps through the gap. It's a bit of a tighter squeeze than he remembers it being, but he is a little older now and a little taller. Once he's passed the entryway, the passage is easily big enough for the two of them and another person to fit it. "It's safe!"

 

He can't see her through the gap, so he waits while she figures out how to get inside. Eventually, he sees her squeeze through the opening. She steps inside the hall, and he presses a stone to close the doorway behind them. What happens in the passage stays in the passage.

 

"What is this?" she questions, surveying the dimly lit area.

 

"I found these secret tunnels a while ago," he replies, walking through the passage. She follows behind him. "No one else seems to know they're here."

 

"Then what are we doing here?" she asks.

 

He spins on his foot to walk backwards. "As you know, I may have a tiny obsession with jelly tarts."

 

She smirks. "A tiny obsession?"

 

"Okay, a big obsession." They had talked about this kind of thing before only a couple days ago; after his pledge of friendship, he'd suggested they play twenty questions to get to know each other like people usually do. He's learned her favorite color is gold and she's only a year older than him and she used to have long hair but she chopped it because it was annoying, and she knows he's terrified of thunderstorms and can talk to animals- though she didn't believe it at first- and he absolutely loves jelly tarts.

 

"Well, I happen to know that the baker has made a huge batch for the festival," he says. Which is true, he specifically requested for lots and lots of jelly tarts as soon as he found out elves like them too.

 

"Okay..."

 

"When I was younger, I used to sneak into the bakery with Bait and take some from the baker on what I call 'jelly tart heists,'" Ezran explains. "He used to hate me for it, but I was having too much fun to care."

 

"So you want to sneak into the bakery and steal jelly tarts," she concludes.

 

"Yeah, pretty much."

 

"First of all, you're the king now, can't you just ask for jelly tarts rather than go on a stealth mission?" she questions.

 

"But the sneaking part is half the fun!"

 

"Fair," she agrees with a nod. "Second of all, where do I fit into this?"

 

"You distract the baker while I grab as many as I can carry," he says.

 

"That's your grand plan?"

 

"Any other ideas?"

 

"Well, no," she admits. "What happens if you get caught?"

 

"We run."

 

She looks at the ground, contemplating. Eventually, she shrugs. "Okay."

 

Ezran beams at her. "Good, because we're here."

 

The entrance to the bakery looks like a small vent from the outside, but it's more than big enough for the both of them. The baker isn't even in the room. Ezran smiles and pries the vent open, celebrating how it still hasn't been sealed shut with the amount of times he's used it. He crawls out first, Queen Aanya following behind him.

 

He gestures for her to follow with his hands. They creep over to the plates of jelly tarts, him exaggerated on his tip-toes, her casually walking. He's tall enough to peek over the counter now, and he reaches for one of the tarts. It feels too easy.

 

Just then, the baker barges back into the room. "Oi, just what do you think you're doing, your majesties?!"

 

Ezran stops in place. "Uh..."

 

He looks to Queen Aanya, who looks at him, and together they look at the plate of jelly tarts. "Run!" Ezran yells.

 

He scrambles to grab jelly tarts, and the baker shouts in anger and starts rushing over. Thinking fast, Queen Aanya grabs the entire tray and runs with it, leaving Ezran to follow behind. One of the tarts falls out of his arms, and he starts to go back for it, but Queen Aanya yells at him to let it go, and they dash to the other side of the room.

 

The baker follows as they rush out the door and into the castle halls, Ezran balancing about seven jelly tarts in his arms, her trying to run quietly with the tray in her hands. "Come back here!" the baker calls.

 

"Just keep running!" Ezran shouts as the baker starts chasing them. He and Queen Aanya have a good head start, but the baker will catch up soon enough. Looking around, Ezran tries to look for a getaway. He recognizes the hallway, and there's a secret passage opening around the corner. "Aanya, go left!"

 

They round the corner, and Ezran pushes over an unlit candle on a shelf, and the area beneath it opens. "Go, go, go!"

 

She slides the tray through first and then crawls through after it. Ezran anxiously watches the hallway, just waiting for the baker to round the corner. His footsteps and cries get louder and louder, and Ezran clutches his jelly tarts closer in preparation to run to another opening.

 

"Get in!" Aanya instructs, and he crouches down. Throwing the jelly tarts in his arms onto the tray, he slips inside the opening and hits a stone to close it behind them just as the baker turns the corner.

 

They stay seated on the stone floor, panting after the almost disastrous endeavor. The sleeves of Ezran's robes are covered in jelly, and Anaya's dress is splotched with dust from the floor, but the two of them remain undiscovered, and the baker's steps fade into the distance.

 

Ezran hears a snort, and he turns his head to see Aanya trying not to laugh. A giggle bubbles in his throat, and he finds himself laughing as well. The adrenaline fades, and the whole thing seems silly now. Aanya starts laughing as well, and her smile is so wide and pretty and he likes seeing her happy, and she brings her hand up to cover her mouth.

 

Without thinking, Ezran says with a grin, "Aanya, your smile is wonderful, why do you hide it?"

 

Her laughter dies down. She glances at him and slowly removes her hand, letting it fall by her side. He realizes with a start what he said. He's not embarrassed about the compliment, because he only speaks the truth, but he addressed her without her title, and as far as he's concerned, she never gave him permission to do that. That's a big no in royal customs, and the pounding in his heart kickstarts again.

 

She gives him a small smile. "Thank you, Ezran."

 

It's a silent offer, an unspoken permission, and he finds himself laughing again. This time, when she laughs too, she laughs freely and lets him see her smile.

 

She stands first and dusts off her dress. "We should return to your room, unless you want to eat these in this dirty corridor."

 

He later finds out that she doesn't like the taste of jelly tarts, which he argues with her on but eventually decides that means more for him. She goes back to her puzzle as he munches happily on the treats. His stomach will hurt later, she warns him of that, but he can't help but feel like he's accomplished something.

 

While the stash of jelly tarts is nice, the biggest win of the night is seeing Aanya smile.

 

***

 

It looks amazing.

 

There's not magic in Katolis, but he thinks this is something close to it. There are streamers and fairy lights lining the night streets, vendors with treats and goodies, and people happily wander around and marvel at the sights. His suit is tight and stiff and his hair will never be tamed, but he still has fun all the same, even if he's only sitting on the steps of the palace.

 

"It looks great, doesn't it?" Aanya asks from behind him. He turns to look at her. Not much about her appearance has changed, except her usual ponytail has been braided and her simple dress has been replaced with something a little fancier, but she still looks like her.

 

"I know. Everyone has put in so much hard work and it's turned out," he gestures to the festival and breathes, "amazing!"

 

She walks down the stairs to reside on his level, and she sits on the step next to him. "And you planned it."

 

He rubs the back of his neck sheepishly. "You helped too, and my advisors did most of the work."

 

She turns to him, her golden eyes gleaming a little more in the light, and she softly says, "But you came up with the idea. This is your festival, Ezran. Be proud."

 

And he is. He's never seen Katolis more lively, even when his dad held a celebration for his birthday one time and everyone pitched in to bring food for a feast. Pillars are lit with fire, families are outside with their children and pets, and there's an air of togetherness that makes him smile.

 

"We should go greet the other rulers," Aanya suggests, standing and offering her hand to Ezran. He takes it, and she pulls him to his feet.

 

He had sent invitations to the other four kingdoms as an apology for what happened with Viren. He already knew Aanya would attend, but he hadn't heard back from the other rulers until a few days before the event. Queen Fareeda couldn't make it, as the journey from Evenere to Katolis would take too long, but she sent her thanks for the invite. The other kings could and were planning on attending, however.

 

He had sent an invite to Xadia as well, saying anyone who wanted to come was welcome to, even if they just passed by, but he hadn't heard anything back, so he wasn't sure they would attend.

 

King Ahling of Neolandia and King Florian of Del Bar are chatting by the castle. When they see the child rulers approach, they bow respectively. Ezran does the same, and Aanya curtsies politely. 

 

"The festival looks lovely," King Ahling compliments. 

 

Ezran replies, "Thank you."

 

"Incorporating elven culture into the festivities is a kind gesture," King Florian says. "Do you believe any elves will attend?"

 

"It's too early to say," Aanya answers. "We will have to wait and see."

 

The rest of their conversation is mainly small talk, chatter about the festival, and Ezran gets bored quickly. He nods along with their comments, but at the first chance, he grabs Anaya's wrist and slips away.

 

They walk through the streets, nodding to adults who bow, and Ezran feels weird seeing children his age bow or curtsy to him. They stop to play with a couple young children who fuss over Aanya's dress, jokingly ask if they're going to get married- to which Ezran exclaims in surprise and Aanya kindly replies no, they're not- and then they go on their merry way. Ezran feels a little awkward after the exchange, but Aanya brushes it off and he decides that he should as well.

 

They see Soren, Claudia, and Corvus by one of the games near the entrance. Soren sits in a wheelchair now, which Ezran has made nods to but never outright asked about, and Claudia has a white streak in her hair, but neither of them brought it up so he doesn't either. He's a bit surprised to see Corvus chatting with them, but he doesn't question it.

 

Corvus is still dressed in light armor, but he wears a dress shirt and bow tie. Soren has a red suit jacket with golden lining, the Katolis colors, and a gold tie with a black dress shirt and black pants. Claudia wears a dress similar to the one she usually does, except it flows out more towards the bottom. Her hair is tied into a bun and accented with a flower.

 

He approaches them with Aanya, and Corvus bows and Claudia curtsies, and Soren bows his head. He chuckles. "You know, you don't have to bow. You guys are my friends!"

 

Claudia's mouth shapes like an o, like she's surprised at having his friendship, but then it fades into a happy smile. "The two of you look great."

 

"Thank you," Aanya says.

 

"The festival is awesome too, even if I can't really participate in much of it," Soren compliments, flipping his wrists in a shrug. 

 

Guilt floods through Ezran. "I'm sorry, I didn't even think about that. Next time, we'll have to make it more wheelchair accessible."

 

Soren waves him off. "Thanks, but it's far from boring. I can eat a bunch of food and mock Claudia and Corvus from the sidelines."

 

"I'm guessing you designed the games, Ezran?" Claudia asks. He nods. He was the only one who could; most of his advisors are old and don't know how modern entertainment works, so he took it upon himself to plan the games with some of Aanya's input as well.

 

"Speaking of the games, your majesty," Corvus says, "General Amaya and Commander Gren are playing one of the mini-games over there."

 

Ezran turns, and they are. The two haven't changed much about their clothes and are still dressed in their armor, but the smiles on their faces make up for it.

 

"I'm going to go speak with them," Ezran announces, and he wanders over to them. Aanya stays behind to speak with the trio.

 

Commander Gren taps Aunt Amaya's shoulder when he sees him approach. She turns around and a grin breaks out on her face. She leans down and wraps him in one of her signature bear hugs, which makes his ribs feel like they're being crushed with her love.

 

She releases him and begins signing, and Commander Gren translates, "You are so grown up now." 

 

Ezran laughs. "Yeah, being a child king does that."

 

She smiles softly. "You're doing a wonderful job."

 

He signs thank you, it's one of the only signs he knows as of the moment, and Aunt Amaya touches her hand to his shoulder and wraps him up in another hug, this time less tight. He holds onto her, one of his only family members left, and he tries to keep from crying. The festival is so amazing, and honestly, there's only one thing that could make it any better.

 

"Ezran!"

 

He looks past his aunt once she lets him go, and the widest smile makes its way onto his face. 

 

Callum hasn't changed much, he still looks the same as ever, happy and carefree. His signature scarf is still wrapped around his neck, but his jacket has been replaced by a navy cloak that goes down to the top of his boots. Underneath, he wears the red shirt and pants he was wearing before. He waves with a smile.

 

Ezran rushes over and if he wasn't crying before, he is now, and he throws his arms around Callum's neck when he leans down. Callum embraces him as well, holding him close. He buries his face in Callum's scarf, so much love and happiness flooding his chest it's almost overwhelming. He's back, he's finally back!

 

He doesn't want to separate, he could stay there forever, but he pulls away from his brother and looks at him. "You came back!"

 

Callum rubs the back of his neck. "Unfortunately, it's only for the night, but yeah!" Excitedly, his eyes sparkle. "We heard about the festival and had to come back for it, though it took a lot of arguing with my professor."

 

Ezran's smile morphs to confusion. "We?"

 

"Yes, we" a Scottish accent says, and he turns his head to see Rayla standing over by the entrance. Her usually outfit has been changed out for a simple blue dress that ruffles above her knees. She wears the same boots she was before, and a white tailcoat with purple trim is added to her uniform.

 

"Rayla!" Ezran exclaims, and he runs from Callum over to her and wraps his arms around her torso. She laughs a little and returns his hug. Callum wanders over, yelling something about a group hug, and then he puts one arm around Rayla and one around him.

 

"You guys," Ezran says, wiping tears from the corners of his eyes. He sniffles. "I'm so happy to see you again!"

 

"We're happy to see you too," Rayla replies, putting her hand on his shoulder. "Callum couldn't stop babbling about how excited he was on the way here."

 

Callum makes a noise of indigence. "You're the one who spent ten minutes trying to choose a dress to wear."

 

"Ten minutes well spent if you ask me. I look good."

 

"I mean, yeah," Callum agrees. "But come on, ten minutes?"

 

"At least I tried, unlike you, Mr. I'll-just-wear-my-training-garb."

 

"Hey!" Callum exclaims, and he reaches for her coat and holds the end of it up. "This is your uniform!"

 

"Well--"

 

"Guys!" Ezran interrupts, and the two of them face him sheepishly. "As glad as I am to see you again, I am not about to be a third wheel."

 

Rayla raises an eyebrow and Callum's face goes bright red, making Ezran laugh a little. He's certainly going to ask him about this later.

 

Aanya walks over to be at his side. "Welcome back, Prince Callum, Lady Rayla," she greets.

 

Callum shakes off his blush and bows a little. "Thank you, Queen Aanya."

 

"The city looks nice," Rayla says, observing the lights and the vendors and the games.

 

"Doesn't it! I've never seen Katolis more happy," Ezran replies.

 

"You invited the elves right?"

 

"Yeah," Ezran answers. "But honestly Rayla, you're the only elf I've seen. In fact, you guys are the only people who came from Xadia I've seen."

 

"Will you two be at the dance later tonight?" Aanya asks, looking at his brother and Rayla.

 

Callum nods and reaches for Rayla's hand. "Yep. Hopefully a human and elf dancing together will show anybody against the festival that peace is possible."

 

Rayla raises an eyebrow and smirks at him. "Is this your way of asking me to dance?"

 

"Perhaps."

 

Ezran shakes his head at their antics. He's glad the two of them have returned and he's happy they've grown to be close, but their flirting and banter is already annoying him. Luckily, Callum turns back to him. "If you don't mind, I'm gonna show Rayla around. We'll catch up with you later?"

 

"Yeah," Ezran agrees, and they two of them walk off, hand in hand with a wave. He watches as they go.

 

Aanya watches them as well. "They're together, aren't they?"

 

"Oh yeah, absolutely."

 

After that, Ezran and Aanya wander around the festival, sampling food and playing games as they go. Aanya beats him at most of them because of course she does, and he sighs defeatedly but can't help but smile anyways. It's not about victory, it's about the experience, and Aanya gives him most of the prizes anyways, so it's a win in his book.

 

He practically punches Aanya's arm in excitement when he sees two Earthblood elves walking around, and he drags her over to the couple to say hi. Their conversation is brief, but they thank him for his invite and give the rulers their best wishes.

 

After a while of strolling around, they run into Corvus, Soren, Claudia, Aunt Amaya and Commander Gren again, and the seven of them play golf against each other. They're able to angle Soren's wheelchair so he can use the gold club. Aunt Amaya ends up creaming them all, which to be honest, they all expected, and the group heads back to the castle for the dance.

 

Now, this is the part Ezran is dreading, not because he thinks it will go horribly wrong, but because he has to be social with nobles. It's one thing to speak to people he cares about, but he gets bored of the preppy, uptight high class quickly. At least he doesn't have to dance, at least, not yet; ballroom dancing lessons start at thirteen years old, and that's when he's expected to dance at balls. Though he does have to give a speech, unfortunately there's no age restrictions on that.

 

He and Aanya separate from the group because they're royalty and have to speak to the higher ups. Luckily, she does most of the talking, so all he has to do is nod occasionally and look like he's paying attention. They bounce around, and Opeli scolds him for hanging out with his friend so much because he's supposed to talk to a multitude of people, so they reluctantly go their separate ways.

 

He sneaks off to the snack table in hopes of raiding it and being too preoccupied to speak with nobles until Aanya returns. There's food like bread rolls, strawberries, even moonberries he had a couple advisors specifically acquire. But he gravitates towards the treats. Lined on plates and trays are cinnamon buns, cookies, even a chocolate fountain, but he's looking for the jelly tarts. He picks one up because Opeli yelled at him for grabbing five and dashing away one time, so he decides to at least look like he's pacing himself and slowly chew his way through ten or so.

 

"Hey," he hears Rayla say, and he jumps and whips around to see her. She leans against the snack table casually and with a smirk.

 

He places a hand on his heart dramatically. "You nearly gave me a heart attack!"

 

"It's not my fault you humans can't hear," she replies with a shrug. She looks at the tart in his hand. "Didn't you have one of those when we met?"

 

He nods and smiles fondly. "Yeah. I even offered you one before I snuck off with Callum."

 

"Speaking of which," he says, leaning against the table and taking a bite of the treat. "You and Callum, huh?" She raises an eyebrow. "You guys are, you know, together?"

 

"Oh," she replies. "I guess? I don't really know the human terms for it. Elves don't have labels for this stuff."

 

Ezran hums. "What have the two of you been up to, anyways?"

 

"Well, I know Callum is learning magic," she answers, scanning the crowd for the mage. She spots him talking with Claudia and Soren, albeit a bit apprehensively. "He had to bug his professor for hours just to get today and tomorrow off to come here."

 

His heart swells. "He did all that just to come to the festival?"

 

"Yep," Rayla says, grinning down at him. 

 

"I hope you didn't have to give anything up for this."

 

"Not really. I make my own training schedule."

 

"Training?"

 

She nods and takes a deep breath. "Yeah, I joined the Dragon Guard. Or at least, joined the training regime for it."

 

"That's cool!" Ezran praises. "You get to guard the dragons!"

 

"I suppose that's one way to put it," she says. "The dragons are pretty cool. You'll have to come meet them someday."

 

A silence comes between the two, both of them not really having much else to say. He takes a bite of the jelly tart, and then an idea hits him. He feels for the plate behind him. "You should try one of these, they're really good."

 

Rayla shrugs and he hands her a jelly tart. "This isn't poisoned, right?"

 

Ezran looks at her curiously, a little hurt that she would think that. She laughs. "I'm just messing with you." Then she takes a bite.

 

He watches her chew, anxiously awaiting her review. "It's okay," she says at last.

 

"Okay?" Ezran exclaims. "That's it?"

 

"They don't compare to moonberries," she replies, smug. He gasps in exaggerated offense and finishes the rest of his own tart while staring her down to assert his opinion as both the superior and correct one.

 

She smiles. Changing the subject, she glances around the party. "I'm gonna go look for Callum. Wanna come?"

 

"Nah," he says. "I'd rather not intrude on you guys. I'll talk with you later."

 

"See ya," she says, waving goodbye as she walks away. He watches her stride over to Callum, Soren, and Claudia and join the conversation. He smiles a little as Callum noticeably brightens when he sees her. And he watches as Callum pecks her cheek, making them tinge pink, and he intertwines his hand with hers. It's so soft it makes Ezran's heart swell for them. Oh, he's definitely going to tease them for that later.

 

He spots the earthblood elf couple he and Aanya spoke to earlier and decides to head over to them, squeezing through the crowd and saying quick hellos as he goes. He reaches them and offers them a bow of his head. "Are you enjoying the festival?"

 

"Yes," one of the girls says. "It's lovely, you can see the time and energy put into it."

 

He nods. "Well, I'm glad you're having fun. I know it's probably a little intimidating to be surrounded by so many humans."

 

The other girl bobs her head. "For the most part, everyone has been very kind. It's surprising, actually."

 

"For the most part?" he questions. 

 

"Some people were side-eyeing us," the first girl replies. "But that's to be expected."

 

"If anyone gives you trouble, let us know," he says. "This is a peaceful festival, and I'll have words with anyone who tries to disrupt it."

 

They thank him and he wanders off when he sees Opeli gesturing for him to come to the stage. Because he's king and it's his festival, he had to prepare a speech. Now, he has no problem speaking in front of people, he just wants the speech to be perfect and he fears he may mess it up. He spent hours memorizing it and rewriting and trying five different tones for each sentence. Aanya had watched him and critiqued his speech, and Opeli had helped him when he couldn't come up with a formal word for things.

 

Aanya is over by Opeli as well, who clinks her glass to get the room's attention. Aanya puts her hand on his shoulder and whispers, "Good luck," and he takes to the podium.

 

"Good evening," he greets, and he hears a few scattered hellos in the audience. "Welcome to Katolis! I hope you have enjoyed the festival. We worked very hard to prepare it, and I'm so glad to see the final product."

 

He gestures to Aanya, who raises an eyebrow. "This festival wouldn't be possible without the help of Queen Aanya of Duren, so give it up for her." 

 

She ascends the steps to the stage while the attendees and him clap for her. She curtsies politely and stands next to him. "And thank you to any elves who have attended. I know it's difficult to be surrounded by humans, and we welcome you with open arms."

 

"As per tradition, we will now commence the first dance of the night. You are all welcome to join. Thank you and good night."

 

He and Aanya step down, and he wrings his hands. The slow song begins playing, and he watches as nobles move to find partners. The king is supposed to dance first, but seeing how Ezran is too young, it's up to either the prince or the other royalty. Ezran watches as Callum dramatically bows in front of Rayla, who rolls her eyes and takes his hand, despite the gasps of the crowd. He leads her to the center of the floor and places her hands where they're supposed to be. He tries to ignore the whispers from the crowd because if they can't see how clearly in love with each other they are, then they're trying to find a reason to be hateful.

 

They let them dance through a couple steps before the others begin joining in. The floor gradually begins filling up with people dancing. Aunt Amaya and Gren dance along the edge more casually, and he sees Soren moving his head and Claudia and Corvus jokingly bopping along.

 

He starts swaying to the beat, and he looks at Aanya with a smile as he bumps into her. She playfully nudges him, and he laughs a little. They start swaying in sync, and eventually they're doing it so exaggeratedly he can see people stare, but he pays them no mind. He's having too much fun to care anyways.

 

He never used to have friends, he didn't think he needed them. But he thinks having a best friend is nice. And having Aanya as his best friend is even better.

 

***

 

It's been a while.

 

Ezran is twelve now, and honestly, not much has changed. He's learned more about kingdom management and can run it smoothly, he doesn't need as much assistance from his advisors anymore, and he and Aanya are still best friends. He doesn't get to see her often since they both have kingdoms to rule, but he visits her in Duren sometimes and vise versa, and they send letters. 

 

He and Claudia and Soren are good friends now. Soren gets to shout at the new Crownguard trainees and Claudia was gifted another sky primal stone. They're his main friends in Katolis. Corvus cancels out Opeli with her constant critiques and him being more relaxed, and Aunt Amaya and Commander Gren come and go. He almost never gets to see Callum or Rayla but they visit occasionally, bringing gifts from the many places in Xadia they've been to. When they do stop in Katolis, he never sees them apart; wherever there's Callum, there's Rayla, and vise versa.

 

It's a normal day in Katolis. He sits at his desk and fills out paperwork, which is quite boring, but he has Bait for company. Birds chirp outside, and he tunes out their conversation as his quill scratches on the paper. He still can talk to animals, even if he doesn't get to do it as often.

 

He hears knocking, and assuming it's coming from his door, he calls, "Come in!" 

 

But no one does, and the knocking persists, only getting louder. He sets the quill down and looks around the room. Bait grumbles something about a window, and he peeks over at his and sees a rock hitting the glass.

 

He raises his eyebrows and stands, making his way over. Another pebble hits the window, making a sound similar to a knock. He opens his window and sticks his head out, looking down at the ground.

 

To his surprise, he sees Aanya on the ground, waving at him with a pile of rocks in her hands. Not much about her has changed during the years other than her looking a bit older. "What are you doing here?" he shouts.

 

She drops the rocks and cups her hands around her mouth. "Thought I'd come visit!"

 

"You could've," he gestured vaguely to the inside, "come through the door!"

 

She shrugs. "Will you come down?"

 

He looks back at his desk. He's been putting off the work for hours, but he can't just leave his best friend. She doesn't come by often, and he rarely gets to see her anymore. He turns back to her. "Sure, just give me a second!"

 

He shuts the window with practiced composure, but as soon as he's out of view, he throws open the door and sprints through the halls. Guards look at him strangely as he darts past, but he can't keep his friend waiting now can he? A giddy smile reaches his face at the thought of hanging out again like they used to. They don't really get to anymore, so whenever they do, it feels special.

 

He reaches the courtyard soon enough, passes Soren yelling at the Crownsguard trainees, gives a quick wave to him and Corvus, who's helping out with the training, and he swiftly makes his way over to where his bedroom window would be.

 

Aanya is waiting for him when he arrives, fiddling with a rock in her hands. He walks over to her side and watches her spin it like a top in her palm. "Wow!" he exclaims.

 

She catches it in her hand and closes her fingers around it. "Hello to you too."

 

They're quiet for a bit, Aanya playing with the rock, Ezran watching her, trying to figure out what to say. Eventually, he exclaims, "Wanna go in the forest?"

 

She looks at him, a bit surprised by his random and impulsive outburst, but she replies, "Sure."

 

She leaves the rocks, and the two of them venture into the forest by the castle. They've been there before, Ezran going loads of times both as a prince to explore and as King to get away, and she had returned his crown to him that one day in the same forest. He doesn't wear his crown around her now, though. He doesn't need to.

 

Ezran has an idea of something they can do. He's been wanting to try it for a while once he found the river, but it wouldn't be as fun alone. While they walk, he explains his grand plan to Aanya.

 

"You know," Aanya says, moving a tree branch out of her way, "I'm perfectly content with watching you do your dumb ideas, but going along with them is on a whole other level."

 

"You went along with the jelly tart heist, and that was fun!" Ezran argues, already down by the river stepping into the boat that someone had left there. Nobody lives in the forest, so he assumes it must belong to the royal court. If it doesn't, oh well. They'll never know.

 

Aanya looks at the boat hesitantly, crossing her arms. Ezran readies the ores. Finally, she relents with a sigh. "Fine. But if we drown, I blame you."

 

He beams at her and offers his hand. She takes it, and he helps her step into the boat, which rocks while they move. Once she's inside, he unties the boat from the peg nearby, and they start drifting through the river.

 

"Do you know how to steer this?" She asks, sitting in the back.

 

He watches the river ahead of them. "Nope. But I watched Callum do it one time and it doesn't look that hard."

 

She raises an eyebrow. "Do you even know where this river leads?"

 

"Nope."

 

"So there's a chance we could fall off a waterfall or something?"

 

"Yep," he says, a bit too casually. "But I did that once and I'm still here, aren't I?"

 

"Yea-- wait what?"

 

He smiles cheekily at her and leans on the side of the boat, watching little fish scurry past. For the most part, they're repeating "hurry, hurry, hurry" as they pass. Aanya relaxes as well, keeping an eye on what's in front of them, but otherwise letting the stream take them where they need to go. He puts his hand in the water and watches the little fish part around him, not slowing their speed. The rush of water is calming, and birds chirp and the sun shines down, and Ezran wishes he could come into the forest more often.

 

"Ezran?"

 

"Yeah?" he lazily replies, observing the fish with a dopey smile.

 

"Remember what I said about the waterfall?"

 

"Yeah?"

 

"You might want to look ahead of us."

 

Ezran whips his head around the the front of the boat where low and behold, there's a drop steadily approaching. Forgetting about the fish, he grimaces and darts for the ores, but it's too late to stop the boat. He scrambles to the back to sit next to Aanya and yells, "Hold on!"

 

The feeling of his stomach dropping as they go over the waterfall is familiar, as is the rush of adrenaline. Beside him, Aanya's screams mix with his own, and she grabs his arm and unintentionally digs her nails into his skin, which doesn't really bother him because they've got bigger problems to worry about, them being the multitude of rocks in the river below.

 

The fall is over all too quickly, and they go airborne as the boat hits the water, the sudden jolt sending a spike of pain up his spine. Aanya clings onto him more and he does the same as they rush through the river, approaching the sharp rocks ready to tear them apart. 

 

He scrambles for the ores and pulls them up in a random attempt to save them, but he has no idea what he's doing. Aanya grabs one and he focuses on the other. They narrowly miss one rock, and before he has a chance to sigh in relief, they bounce off another, making him crash into the queen next to him.

 

She wraps both hands around the ore on her side and pulls, making them just barely scrap past another rock. They're thrown to the other side, and Ezran looks up in fear and sees the biggest rock in the river directly in front of them. He reaches for the ore at the same time as Aanya, and they both yank it as hard as they can, sending them sprawling to the other side. He falls and bangs his head against the side of the boat, and Aanya catches herself on the side, but they miss the rock. The boat tilts and Aanya throws herself to the other side to keep it from capsizing.

 

They drift again, the rush dying down and their speed beginning to slow. The river's current grows calmer, and Ezran and Aanya pant, out of breath from the near disaster. He rubs his head, which stings, but he didn't hit it that hard so he's probably fine. Aanya looks at the bottom the boat.

 

"Ezran, the boat is leaking."

 

"We're ok-- wait what."

 

"The boat is leaking!" She repeats, scrambling to her feet. There's a crack along her side of the boat, spanning from the top to the bottom. Water pours in from the gap. 

 

Ezran stands too, and under their combined weight, the boat starts sinking. He looks around for a way off. The river has narrowed, so they might be able to jump for it. "Can you swim?"

 

"Not really. There aren't many beaches near the capital of Duren."

 

He looks off his side of the boat, and he makes an impulsive decision and jumps off the side. Aanya calls his name, and he shreds water and swims to the bank. The current isn't that bad and he makes it with a bit of effort. The boat travels further down, and he climbs onto shore and runs after it, shouting for Aanya to just jump. The boat is already halfway underwater, so they don't really have another choice.

 

She does as she's told, and the broken boat continues downstream in ruins. She tries to swim for the side, but her clothes wear her down and she's not able to move. Luckily, she can stay afloat for long enough to breathe. Ezran gets on his knees and reaches out a hand. She takes it, and he does his best to pull her ashore. Combined with her mediocre swimming skills, she's somehow able to get to land, and Ezran helps haul her up to sit on the grass.

 

They finally have a chance to catch their breath. They sit for a moment, just taking in the fact that they're still alive somehow, so much about that could've gone so wrong, Aanya had been right about the drowning thing, and fear strikes Ezran as he realizes she's probably one second away from yelling at him. He feels horrible now; not only did his dumb idea end in more danger than fun, it nearly costed both of them their lives.

 

To his surprise, she starts laughing.

 

He's stunned for a second, but then a giggle bubbles out of his throat, and suddenly they're laughing at the whole thing as if it didn't nearly kill them. Ezran supposes it was still fun looking back on it, even if in the moment he had been petrified. The boat is wrecked and his robes are soaked and ruined, but he honestly doesn't care. Not while they sit beside the river, shaking not only from the chill of the water, but from the rush of the whole experience, laughing their hearts out.

 

Strands of water stick to Aanya's face and somehow, she still looks as regal as she always does. She beams at him, so carefree, so happy, the happiest he's ever seen her really, and he reaches up a hand and brushes her hair out of her eyes. She lets him, her cheek soft against his fingers, and she chuckles as she ruffles his own hair, which is still poofy despite the water. 

 

Ezran can't believe he ever thought he didn't need friends. He can't believe he ever thought they didn't need to be friends. In front of him, despite the soaked clothes and wet hair and messed up appearance, his best friend is still positively radiant, her smile brighter than the sun, and Ezran feels so, so happy.

 

She stands first, dusting off dust that isn't there. Her robes are unfortunately most likely ruined. "When my advisors ask what happened, I'm blaming you."

 

"Okay," he says, still processing a bit too slowly. She peers down at him and offers her hand.

 

He can't believe there was ever a time when they weren't friends. He can't believe he would've survived without her. She's been there when he was just becoming a king and had no clue what to do. She's been there when he was overwhelmed with all the struggles of royal life. She's been there to see him smile, to see him struggle, and he's seen the same of her.

 

He takes her hand, and she pulls him to his feet. "Come on," she says with a grin. "Everyone is going to be wondering where we are."

 

He nods, and he wraps his arm around her shoulders as they begin walking. She leans into the hug, and the two of them begin to wander back through the forest.

 

Having friends is so, so great. And when his best friend is Aanya, it's even greater.