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will not be denied

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It only takes two months after his coronation—his second coronation, with his brother and friends by his side and without the fear of war pressing down on his shoulders—for Lady Justice to visit him in a dream. Ezran has to have a new crown remodelled, the first lost alongside Viren (and so many needlessly wasted lives in the dark mage's conquest, of his fear-mongering; as a distraction). He dons the same cape as before and Callum gives him a bemused, rather teary smile.

"I am so proud of you," he says, throat thick with all the things Ezran knows his brother isn't saying. You look so much like and you look nothing like Dad at the same time; I'm sorry you have to grow up so fast; and You're going to be an amazing king.

These are all things Ezran knows, because he's seen them every time he's looked at himself in the mirror since his father died—except perhaps for the last one. That took a little longer to believe. Nor is his second coronation much different than his first. Just fancier and longer and with a kingdom wide celebration also anointed with the revelry that can come only in times of new peace.

But his family—Callum, Rayla, Bait, Soren, and Opeli, Corvus, and Barius—stand next to him. Zym and their link lingers in the back of his mind, his brother and friend on either side of him, Soren at his back, Corvus to his crownguard's right. Opeli smiles as she lowers the crown onto the head and Ezran walks to the edge of the balcony and waves down at the cheering crowds.

What follows is two months of days so long, Ezran slumps over in bed and falls asleep almost immediately. Often times, Rayla or Soren will carry him up to his room at the end of a weary, over-paced day. Days full of letters and legislature, negotiations and needling advisors. There's peace treaties to draft, trade agreements to oversee, documents to sign, new armies to form and train in spite of peace. A reminder of how fragile it all really is Peace among the Pentarchy is hard won, with its monarchies so shaken up. King Ahling still can't look Queen Aanya in the eye, no matter how many summit meetings they hold. Peace with Xadia is harder still, somehow. Lux Aurea safeguards the border and Queen Zubeia's reach is far and strong, but even the Sunfire elves have factions amongst themselves, and the elven Earthblood lords are as stubborn as they are stuck up.

Eventually, though, Opeli shoos him off to bed early one night. "You must pace yourself," she tells him. "You are not a dragon. Eventually your fire will burn out otherwise."

So Ezran trudges to bed with Bait in his arms after one late, last night jelly tart before he falls asleep. And then he dreams.

He recognizes Her from his father's stories, from when he was young (well, younger) and would sit on his father's knee. Luminous, flowing robes, hair cropped short to her head. Dark skin and white, glowing eyes, only the faintest trace of light showing underneath her blindfold. Ezran wonders if they're secretly stars underneath. (From what Callum's research into Startouch elves has yielded, it's not outside of the realm of possibility, even if Lady Justice's ears are rounded and very human.)

Lady Justice does not have to move her mouth to speak, a sword at her hip and scales in one hand. She waves her free one and a table takes place in the sea of darkness, the only light where they stand. Objects appear beforehand, objects Ezran knows his father pondered well that mimic the ones Lady Justice holds. A set of perfectly balanced scales. A long, sharp sword. A blind fold of white wrappings sitting in between.

"Choose," she commands, sounding not unlike Opeli, but unearthly and less comforting.

Instinctively, Ezran turns away from the sword at the end of the table. He's seen enough of war, of fighting, of violence. Sometimes he wakes up to the sound of a sword ripping through Viren's chest. Sometimes, he remembers what Rayla's swords were intended for, for killing instead of protection. Even though the sword is at his back now, and this is a dream and not reality, it makes him shudder.

"Careful," Lady Justice says, in that unmoving way of hers. Her mouth stays sealed shut. The light behind her blindfold never blinks. "Your father oft picked up the sword too readily, but that does not mean vengeance is all it is good for. The sword is a tool of defense—of morals, of kingdom, of peace—as much as it is a tool of execution. You have already wielded it well."

Ezran's gaze refuses to stray, even if her aim has laid true. As much as he wants peace to hold, as much as he believes that it will... Life is full of as much uncertainty as war. He cannot ignore it entirely.

Still, "I want to consider my other choices," he insists and Lady Justice says nothing as he moves down the table.

Ezran knew from the second the dream began that he would be most tempted by the blindfold. It's his father's choice, and a good one. To not value the lives of one kingdom more than another—or of humans or elves over the other. To see, perhaps ironically, the big picture. To extend the same opportunities and compassion to all, as much as possible.

But he also knows Harrow wore it a little too well, and blinded him to his own worst tendencies, and yet somehow not well enough. A shortcut with Viren's creative solutions. Grief after his partner's death that was transformed into revenge so horrible it went against everything Sarai had stood for. Incalculable loss. Ezran couldn't afford the same sort of lack in self awareness that his father had only reached far too late.

No, the blindfold is tempting, and Ezran's hands linger, but he moves to the end of the table where the scales lay erect. They're golden and pristine, with only a little rust at the handle. He imagines grasping it, the weight. The care it would take to keep the scales perfectly balanced. It's tempting, too. The desire to have every wrong be righted in a way that is fair and true... and perhaps far too optimistic. This is his next choice, to choose what sort of king he wants to be.

What was Viren's mindset if not perfectly weighted scales? An eye for an eye. A self imposed blindness. A widespread cruelty.

"I have to choose?" Ezran says, glancing back up at Lady Justice.

She gives the smallest of nods, like motion is a betrayal of herself. Justice, Ezran supposes, is not something that changes, which is what makes it so hard to determine. Humans and elves are adaptable, able to warp and twist... Able to right and redeem. To see new possibilities.

He glances along the table and sees his three choices, and then strides to the end and picks up the sword.

The hilt shines in his hand and Lady Justice looks up, head raised. She seems to survey him, almost surprised, although she does not say anything, as he lifts the sword and then swings it to his side—into a willed sheath in Katolis red-and-gold. If this is his dream—his dream to defend, too—then he will act accordingly. He will wear the sword, but will not draw it hastily.

He moves to the middle of the table next, and wraps the blindfold carefully over his eyes. It's tricky to tie it at the back of his head, but he manages. Once it's snug, Ezran shifts it up, so one blue eye still pierces through, uncovered, and Lady Justice's mouth opens in a tiny 'o' of shock.

Finally, he lifts the scales in one hand, already lopsided, but he knew that going in, his final hand dropping to the hilt of his sheathed sword. When he looks up at Lady Justice again, he gives her a boyish smile.

"You never said I only had to choose one," he reminds her, proud of his loophole. Prouder of the way he mirrors her now.

The very corner of her lips twitch upwards. "It is a heavy burden," she warns. "It will be difficult."

"It would have been no matter what I choose," Ezran says. But at the very least, now, he can forge a new path. He will be his own type of king. This is his first real step.

Lady Justice bows her head and the dream fizzes out at the edges. "You have chosen well, King Ezran. May peace live among your wisdom."

Ezran blinks and then wakes up in the dark of his bed, the light of a full moon streaming in from his balcony window. His throat is dry and thick. His hip and the hand that had held the scales feels heavy. It's a struggle to open his eyes, but he breathes.

He is a boy, whose death would have been seen as justice. He is a king who survived, who will now become justice itself.

He will not be denied.