Harry was caged.
He stared angrily through the slats of the cage he had been herded into like cattle. His head was swimming with the smell of so many unwashed bodies pressed closely together in the rising sun, uncomfortable pressure on his sides and back where his fellow convicts were pushing into him. There were too many of them for such a small enclosure, but the guards hadn’t cared when they drove them in there, swearing and hitting those that had been a little too slow.
That had been a long time ago now, when the sky was only just beginning to lighten with the coming of dawn. They had all stumbled, awakened from anxious and fitful sleep, not quite realising where they were going until it was too late and they were all in the cage. It had been cooler then, too.
Now however the sun was high in the sky and they still hadn’t moved, even though the heat was getting unbearable in the close confines. Harry knew, from the mumbles of his fellows, that some of the men stuck in the middle had actually passed out, but no one offered them any help, any water.
No one cared for criminals.
Some part of Harry knew that this delay was accidental. He had after all overheard the guards grumpily talk about the acquisition of all the horses by the aurors for something or other, bad mouthing the pretentious upstarts who thought they could get away with anything, just because they were the royal guards.
But another part of Harry, the illogical, emotional part, felt that this delay had been planned. It was even more humiliating than the trip to the cells in the first place. Then he had to deal with the angry, mocking jeers of the common folk. Now he had to deal with the indifferent, arrogant stares of the nobility.
The place where their cage had been placed was in one of the courtyards leading off the main gateway to the palace grounds. It wasn’t slap bang in the centre of the palace, but it was a common enough haunt that soon after the sun had risen it had been frequented by well dressed, superior men and women, all pausing to glance at the cart.
And they all, every single one of them, wore the same kind of expression.
Harry glared at them, fury building minute by minute. He knew what they were thinking, knew how they saw him and the other convicts. It was the same way the Dursleys always looked at him. They looked upon them as though they were something nasty but insignificant, like a slug, that wasn’t human, wasn’t sentient, couldn’t feel. They were just things that were casting a mar on their nice, beautiful castle.
A small part of Harry had wanted, when they first appeared, to call out to them, to plead with them. He was not a criminal – he was not even a commoner – but one of them. They should get someone, anyone, and he would prove it to them. He was an Earl, a noble, and they just couldn’t sell him off like this.
But since the first well-clad, beautifully made up and heavily bejewelled courtier turned that look on him Harry realised that they would never believe him. And you know what? He didn’t want them to.
He had not spoken to any of his fellow inmates, keeping himself to his own miserable thoughts. The only real contact he had with them was at meal times and that was physical, as they were shoving and pushing each other to get to the trough.
But that didn’t mean he couldn’t listen. Once the frantic scurry over meal times was over, some of the older men would talk. Once the extra convicts had arrived then there was hardly room to sit, let alone brawl. Besides, what good would brawling do? They were already in the palace gaol, already sentenced to a life in a world far from their own.
So they had talked.
And Harry had listened.
Most of the men had nothing and were born with nothing. They were abandoned at a young age, left to try and make their ways on the streets, begging and thieving simply to eat enough to survive the day. Who would take them on? Who would extend a helping hand to a dirty, filthy street rat? And when they tried to clean up, who would believe them? Most merchants and nobles believed their servants were thieves anyway and called the red guards at the slightest hint.
What shocked Harry, though, was how many of them had been sold by their masters, like him, to pay off debts. He had always believed that most nobles were good and fair – like his mum and dad – and cared for their servants, gave them the proper respect and trust that they were due. Now, it seemed, that Lily and James were your a-typical nobles and that the Dursleys were the most common.
Harry shuddered. What an awful world that was.
So instead of cajoling for help now all Harry wanted from the indifferent passer-bys was for them to take notice of him and the others. Just for one – just one – to acknowledge they were human. He wanted to scream and yell, curse and shout, but instead had to content himself with glaring forcefully at every single one. He didn’t need the headache a blow on the head from the guards would cause after all.
One of the things that angered him the most, though, was that none of the other convicts seemed to be angry. Instead they looked resigned and upset, a few of them gazing wistfully around the palace as though they knew they would never see something as grand again in their lives.
“Stop thinking about the stupid palace!” Harry wanted to yell at them. “Don’t you understand what’s going on here – fight back!”
But they did understand and better than Harry, too. They had been resigned from the moment the irons were clapped on. It was only Harry that was still trying to fight, in his own little way. One of the men caught his angry gaze and chuckled sadly. “Give it up, lad,” he told him, blue eyes watering with either the sun or tears. “There’s no going back now.”
Before Harry could think of a reply there was a sudden murmur from the rest of them and Harry twisted his head round, feeling his stomach drop.
Led by a rather red faced man in a gold-embossed purple tunic, were two horses, pulling slightly at their halter. They were here to pull the cart, to take them to the port and the Americas, away from their friends and family. And Harry knew then that, all along, he had been hoping for a rescue.
A rescue that was never going to come.
“Took your bloody time,” the guard driving the cart snapped, glaring at the purple guard.
The purple guard stopped and stared at him, expression biting. The guard wilted. “Perhaps you could issue that complaint to the King and Queen,” he said, cool tone at contrast with his flushed face.
“No, sir, sorry,” the guard said quickly, taking the halters from the purple guard without looking at him.
The purple guard paused for a moment before adding, “I thought not” and walking away.
Reprimanded or not, their guard didn’t hesitate to make a rude gesture at the retreating man’s back. “Bloody aurors,” he mumbled, “think they’re oh so wonderful because they’re the royal guard. Well,” he added, volume rising as he turned to glare at the convicts watching him with a smirk, “I’d let to see ‘em get their fingers dirty with the likes of you criminal bastards!” And he whacked out at the nearest criminals with the horse whip, causing a few yells.
Harry turned back, leaning his head against the bars, not caring as they burned him. He didn’t want to see this. He didn’t want to see the careful not-seeing eyes of the nobility, nor the jeering calls of the townspeople. He shut his eyes. He didn’t even open them as the cart started moving, the movement jostling the already cramped men into one another. He just wanted to shut his eyes and wake up when it was all over.
“Stop! I wish to address the issue of this gentleman!”
Hermione hurried along to the palace,
her beautiful dress swishing as she went.
In her hand the bag of galleons thudded and clanged, with each step
reminding her of what she had to do and why.
Not that Hermione was likely to forget anyway, in her current get up.
Hermione felt like a completely different person. Arabella had attacked Hermione’s long, bushy hair with brush, comb, lotions, potions, pins, clips, nets and even some spells (provided by an increasingly amused Sirius as Arabella was a squib) to get into something resembling order. Hermione’s scalp felt very sore and some pins were still lodged uncomfortably in her hair, but she took one look in the mirror and knew it was all worth it.
She looked beautiful.
Gone was the awkwardness she had felt before upon seeing her reflection. She marvelled at the new person she had seen in the mirror, who looked back at her just as astonished. Her hair had somehow – miraculously – been tamed and Arabella had smoothed it back to be pulled into an elegant bun, secured by a net adorned with real pearls. Part of her hair had also been plaited and twisted around the bun delicately.
In addition, Arabella had enhanced her face with the smallest amount of makeup – notably a little red on her lips and some blush on the cheeks (privately Hermione didn’t think she would need blusher if she hadn’t been so pale before). All in all, it meant Hermione-the-servant had disappeared.
Hermione, the noble, had taken her place.
There it was: the palace. Hermione slowed down, suddenly nervous again. Her whole look was that of a noble, beautiful and confident, but... what if it fooled them? She suddenly felt the irresistible urge to look down at her boot clad feet to see if they were showing. Why, oh why, had she refused the proper shoes?
But the guards overseeing the bridge over the moat didn’t seem to think anything was amiss. They were holding back the rabble of beggars that hounded the palace gates with well-practiced ease, whilst questioning the merchants and tradesmen that may have business in the palace. As soon as they caught sight of Hermione making her way towards them, they immediately swept the others to one side, calling “Make way for my Lady.”
As Hermione made her way between them and over the bridge they even bowed to her.
It was the strangest moment of her life. Ever since she was little, Hermione had been used to following others, doing what ordered and showing deference to the nobility, even when she wanted to curse them and beat them relentlessly with a blunt instrument (note: Dursleys). Now to be given that automatic show of respect, to know that others would follow her orders... well, it was unnerving.
What surprised her, though, was the sudden surge of adrenaline and feeling of empowerment that accompanied it. Finally, for the first time in her life, she was taking control.
She walked forward purposefully or tried to appear purposeful. In truth she was not quite sure where she was headed, but it would not do to dawdle. Instead, she found her head flitting all around her, taking in the wondrous sights of the royal palace.
It was not possible to live in the town surrounding the palace and not be familiar with the imposing sight. The turrets and towers rose far higher than anything in the vicinity and its shape was as familiar to Hermione as the mountains that had surrounded Malfoy Manor or the forest around Godric’s Hollow. It was just a part of the scenery.
This close to it, however, she could see details that were missed in the faintness of distance; the immaculate, minute carving on the wooden doors; the stone dragons curved around the stone wall acting as water drains; the statues of past Kings and Queens smiling benignly from small arched recesses; the fountains tinkling in the beautiful flower gardens just off to one side...
And then there were the nobles. Hermione had thought that she knew what grandness was: the Malfoys were one of the oldest noble families in the land and liked to regularly boast about the fact, with grand balls and dinner parties for other families that were almost as old as them, but not quite.
But the Malfoys had nothing on the palace, for the sheer scale and variety of courtiers present. There were dresses of every colour, tunics of every style, headdresses, canes, cloaks, veils, swords, fans... The world was a whirl of colour and finery and Hermione found she was overwhelmed by it all. She tried her best to maintain a purposeful, determined air, but every time she caught sight of something new her expressions slipped into one of delight.
‘I must look as obvious as a sparrow among peacocks.’
As she twisted her head this way and that, it was only sheer luck that had caused Hermione to take notice of the cart in the corner of her eye and, when she did, it took her a few seconds to realise why the head with the sticky-up black hair looked so familiar.
‘Oh, bloody Merlin,’ she realised, with dawning horror, all delight and fascination draining away. ‘Harry isn’t sitting in a cell, waiting to be sentenced. He’s being deported right now!’
She had thought that she would have to petition someone to buy ‘her’ servant back, possibly undergo a lengthy amount of paperwork and discussions before he would be released, but the reality was now staring her in the face. She was going to have to go and buy him back straight from the guard right now.
In front of everyone.
Hermione only hesitated for a second. Yes, she might embarrass herself, but this was Harry. He was her first proper friend, her best friend, and he wouldn’t hesitate to do the same for her. Besides, when was she ever going to have to see these people again?
The sound of horses snorting brought her back to herself and she realised, with a start, that the guard was hitching up the horses... that they were leaving!
“Merlin give me strength,” she whispered to herself, feeling breathless, before she was running again, not caring if she looked ungraceful or unfeminine. A few nobles glanced her way curiously as she flew by them, but she paid them no mind. She had to get to that cart!
By the time she got to them, the cart was already pulling away. “Stop! I wish to address the issue of this gentleman,” she proclaimed as she came to a halt, grabbing the halter of the lead horse to stop it moving forward. In the corner of her eye she saw Harry’s head twist round sharply, but she made herself keep eye contact with the guard. All the same she felt once more the upsurge of hope. She could do this. “He is my servant,” she continued, voice getting stronger as she gained confidence, “and I am here to pay the debt against him.”
“You’re too late,” the guard said, scowling at her, “he’s bought and paid for.”
Hermione held up her small bag of galleons, which chinked very nicely. “I can pay you 30 galleons,” she said, watching his face.
The guard rolled his eyes. “You can have me for thirty galleons,” he said dismissively, before cracking his whip at the horses. “Drive on!”
Hermione made a desperate lunge for the horse’s lead again as the horse started trotting forward. This wasn’t working... but they were so close! “I demand that you release him at once,” she ordered, despairing. He wasn’t going for it... it wasn’t working... Time, Hermione thought, for a bluff. “Or I’ll take this matter to the King!”
He outright laughed at that one. “The King’s the one that sold him!” he scoffed, looking annoyed now. “He’s now the property of Cartier.”
“He is not property at all, how dare you!” Hermione snapped, feeling anger quickly move in. How many times in her life had she been treated like a piece of furniture, or something without feelings or sentience? How many of her fellow servants had been sold by the Dursleys, like they were possessions to be used, to people like him? “Do you honestly think it right to chain people up like animals and shove them in a tiny cage like this? I demand you release him at once!”
“Get out of my WAY!”
“You dare to yell at a Lady, sir?”
The new voice, male, cultured and quietly angry, cut across the courtyard like a knife. Hermione froze. She hadn’t realised that she had gained quite an audience in her quarrel with the guard, but it seemed that one of her spectators had decided to speak out on her behalf. And if the way everyone was bobbing was an indication...
‘Please don’t be the King, please don’t be the King...’
It was worse than the King.
The male that had spoken was one of the royal Princes, red hair and golden crown making it look as though his head was on fire as he stared at her from atop his horse. She wasn’t sure which Prince he was – there were six of them, after all – but he looked about her age, so she would guess either Prince Ronald or one of the twin Princes, Frederick or George.
Prince Ronald/Frederick/George was taller than her and somewhat gangly, with freckles and startling blue eyes set in a face that looked as though it both laughed a lot and scowled a lot. And he was scowling now, though not at her. His indignant expression was saved for the guard, who went as red as his uniform.
The Prince, however, wasn’t what got Hermione so horrified. It was the fact that, on a horse next to him, somewhat damp but no less recognisable, was Princess Ginevra.
Or, to be more precise, the Princess that Hermione had attacked just a few hours earlier.
“Your Highnesses,” Hermione mumbled, doing the short curtsey that was required from the nobility, even though she quite felt as though the standard practice of flinging oneself to the floor like a commoner would offer her quite a nice bit of anonymity right now.
To her relief, Princess Ginevra didn’t seem to recognise her. She did frown at her, but just in a vague way, that led Hermione to believe that she was familiar but she couldn’t place from where. She had only caught a glimpse of her face before, after all, and hopefully she would assume that she had just seen Hermione somewhere at court before.
“Y-your Highness,” the guard was saying, with a slightly forced chuckle, “f-forgive me, Sire. Princess,” he added, with a bow at Ginevra, who just frowned at him. “I meant no disrespect. It’s just, er... I’m following orders. It’s my job to take these thieves to the coast.”
‘Why is he staring at me so?’ Hermione wondered uncomfortably. The Prince’s gaze had only flickered over to the guard once, even though he was the one talking. ‘He can’t tell, can he? That I’m just a commoner...’ But his gaze didn’t look angry or suspicious. Instead he looked... surprised?
Her gaze flicked over to the Princess who was looking at the guard. She obviously didn’t remember Hermione, which was a relief. The Prince’s other companion, a pleasant faced, dark haired noble, was also looking at the guard, though his eyes did flick to hers when she looked at him.
As for the other girl with them... Hermione wasn’t sure if she was standing with them on purpose or had just accidentally managed to position her horse right next to them, or if she was even a noble, with the yellow robes she was wearing. She wasn’t even looking at Hermione or the guard, just staring off into space somewhere to the side of them.
The last sentence the guard had spoken suddenly penetrated her nervous thoughts and her anger, dissipated by the sudden arrival of the royals, suddenly came back full force.
“A servant is not a thief, your Highness,” she said, angrily, “and those that are can’t help themselves.”
“Really?” the Prince said, disbelievingly, eliciting a bit of a chuckle from the crowd around them. Hermione fought the urge to glare at them. “You realise that’s ridiculous.”
The crowd laughed louder at that and Hermione glanced at them, anger beginning to get replaced by nervousness. Was she seriously going to lecture a Prince – a Prince! – about how he treated his people? She looked back and caught sight of Harry, eyes wide and staring at her in astonishment and admiration and she squared her shoulders.
Yes, she bloody well was.
“You provide no education for your people, Your Highness, no way for the lower classes to better themselves through education or learn the difference between right and wrong,” she started, trying not to sound as angry as she felt. “All commoners can learn of their role in life is how they are looked at and treated by the nobility and if all they learn is that they are lazy and criminals… what else is to be concluded, Sire, but that first you make thieves and then punish them?”
There was a resounding silence in the court. Hermione wasn’t sure that the Prince had understood her argument; he looked a bit bewildered and uncomfortable. The same too with the other noble, but the Princess was looking at her thoughtfully (Hermione hoped that was to do with her words and not because she had suddenly remembered who she was). The blonde lady was still staring off into space, although Hermione thought she caught a quick smile shot at her.
“Well, there you have it,” the Prince said and Hermione looked back at him. He still looked a bit uncertain, but straightened his expression and looked over at the guard (who was just staring at Hermione, bewildered). “Release him.”
Hermione only just stopped her jaw dropping. The guard certainly didn’t manage the same. “But – but Sire!”
“I said... release him,” the Prince ordered loudly, giving him a glare.
“Y-yes, Sire,” the guard grunted eventually, and clambered off the driving seat awkwardly, keys clanging noticeably, as he made his way to the back of the cage.
Hermione thought she was about to burst, she felt so happy. A relieved smile lit up her face as she turned, half running, to help Harry out.
As the guard unlocked the door, Harry stumbled out, tripping at the last second. Hermione caught him, feeling tears well up in her eyes as she saw his astounded look of admiration and relief. “I didn’t think you would...” he whispered as she gave him a big hug. She didn’t care what the crowd thought.
“Well, then, you’re an idiot,” she hissed back, and pressing a wand into his hand. “It’s Sirius’ wand,” she explained as she pulled out of the embrace. “Just in case. Meet me by the bridge,” she added before loudly proclaiming, “Prepare the horses! We shall leave at once!”
As she turned back from Harry, still smiling, she thought she heard Harry whisper, “I’m sorry,” but by the time she could turn around to ask him what on earth he had to be sorry for he was already hurrying away. Well, no matter – she had done it! She had rescued her best friend and, even better, her purse of coins still jingled happily in her hand. They were going to need that in the months ahead.
“I thank you, Your Highness,” Hermione said as she came to the Prince, and curtsied, positively beaming at him, before going on her happy way. She had done it! Harry was once more a free man and her family was back together, without anyone being caught or thrown in prison. She just had the last few feet to walk and then it would all be over!
She should have known it wouldn’t be that easy.
The Prince was following her.
The castle gates dawned ahead and Ron
felt a sense of immense relief. ‘Finally.’
The trip back to the castle had been... interesting, Ron decided, was probably the best way to put it. It was certainly the politest way to put it. Eccentric, bizarre and utterly insane could also apply, but the Prince in Ron had decided on ‘interesting’.
Luna – whose surname, it turned out, was Lovegood and was a noble Lady – was responsible for most of the insani – er, uniqueness about their journey. She had a certain way of viewing life that was somewhat skewiff and to the sides of how other people perceived it and seemed to do most things as though by accident.
Ron thought how she steered her horse was one such example. She rode side saddle, like most noble ladies (not Ginny, though. Ginny and their mother had been in a constant argument about that since she was five. Surprisingly, it was one of the few arguments that Ginny had won), but, instead of facing forward to steer, she actually sat sideways.
It was most disconcerting to see her, sitting on her horse as though it were a simple seat, pointing and dreamily observing the wildlife as it went past, all the time somehow managing to get her horse to go where she wanted it to without actually directing it.
Neville, Ron was amused to see, had nearly walked his horse head first into a tree three times so far because he had been so busy staring at her.
Ginny had been quite taciturn at the beginning of the journey back, no doubt dreading the infamous lecture she would get from the Queen. Apparently, however, that was not what was on her mind, as she eventually started engaging Kingsley in conversation about the Death Eaters.
Kingsley looked quite uncomfortable. No doubt he knew that the King and Queen wouldn’t be too happy about him informing Ginny, but as they had given no direct orders about it he had to obey a Royal command. Besides, he probably knew as well as Ron did, that if he didn’t tell Ginny then she would just go haring off by herself – again – and get herself into trouble.
Ron himself tuned it out. What did he care about the Death Eaters’ motivations behind their attacks? They were attacking people and that was that. The law was the law and they would have to pay.
When he had pointed that out to them, both had looked at him as though he said something stupid, although Kingsley did bow in his direction as acknowledgement. Ginny just rolled her eyes.
So, in the end, it had been Ron that had sulked and brooded his way back the castle, rather than Ginny.
‘Home... food... sleep,’ Ron thought wistfully as he directed his steed over the gates, the guards parting and bowing as he passed. It wasn’t even that late yet, the sun still high in the sky, but horse journeys were always tiring and add to that the fact that he had been dragged out of bed a good few hours before he’d have liked...
“What’s going on over there?”
Ginny’s voice made him jump and he looked over at her, only to scowl as she nudged her way off course, heading towards the edge of the castle courtyard. ‘Probably just trying to delay meeting with Mum and Dad,’ he thought, wearily, and made to follow her.
“Don’t worry, Kingsley,” he said to the auror, as he made to follow the Princess. “I’ll take her to their Majesties. Please escort Ollivander and Lady Luna to them now.”
“Your Highness,” Kingsley nodded, and barked an order to his men. Most of them turned to the right, heading towards the main stables. They made an impressive sight, embossed gold on their purple uniforms glinting in the sun. A small group, headed by Kingsley and including Ollivander, headed straight on to the palace proper.
Luna, however, seemed to have decided to stay with them. “Er, if you follow Kingsley, my Lady,” Ron said, probably not quite as subtly as he would like, “he will escort your to the King and Queen.”
“That’s quite alright, Ronald,” Luna said, horse already beginning to move after Ginny. In anyone else, Ron would have been offended at the insinuation of such familiarity, but he had already decided that Luna was quite, quite mad. So he let it go. She was still sitting completely sideways on the horse, hands now playing with her cork necklace. Titters were already beginning to follow her
Ron sighed and looked at Neville, who looked faintly amused. “Nice try, mate.”
“Come on,” he said, wearily, and set his horse going again. By the time he had caught up with Ginny and Luna he could better see the crowd that had caught his sister’s attention. And he could also hear the argument that had drawn it.
“.... property of Cartier,” came a rough male voice, annoyance resonating.
“He is not property at all, how dare you!” The angry reply was female, youngish and sounded educated – most likely a courtier. As he drew alongside Ginny he could see the participants and they certainly surprised him. The male voice belonged to a guard – not a member of the aurors, but a standard guard, denoted by his red uniform. He was currently in command of a group of ragged, dirty convicts, caged and ready to be transported, but was being obstructed by a young Lady in a yellow, cream and green dress.
It was the presence of the lady that surprised Ron. What was she dealing with the likes of a prison guard for? She currently had her back to them and had missed their arrival, being too busy berating the guard. “Do you honestly think it right to chain people up like animals and shove them in a tiny cage like this? I demand you release him at once!”
“Get out of my WAY!” the guard finally snapped, yelling at the lady.
That, Ron decided, was too much.
“You dare yell at a Lady, sir?” he asked, voice cold. It would be bad enough if such a commoner had shouted at a nobleman but a woman?
He frowned at the guard, who went red under his gaze and began to stutter an explanation.
“Y-your Highness,” he said, with an uncomfortable chuckle, “f-forgive me Sire. Princess,” he added, “I meant no disrespect. It’s just, er... I’m following orders. It’s my job to take these thieves to the coast.”
Whilst he was speaking, Ron looked over at the Lady, curious as to what sort of noblewoman would go head to head with someone as common as a prison guard.
She was young, about his age, with carefully coiled, shiny brown hair, pale brown skin and a small figure shown off by her simple yellow dress. But it was her eyes that captivated him. Although they flitted to the others before coming back to him, when they did he could see the fierceness that was imbedded there. She wasn’t the sort of lady to simper and mince. He could almost taste the passion in her and it made him stare rather more rudely than he should.
He was making her uncomfortable, but she quickly shrugged that off, glancing behind her before looking back at him once more. This time there was anger in her eyes.
“A servant is not a thief, your Highness,” she said, angrily, “and those that are cannot help themselves.”
“Really?” he drawled, disbelievingly. She really was a very strange noble, full of strange ideals. Not quite as strange as Luna, who seemed to be staring off into the middle distance, but strange nonetheless. “You realise that’s totally ridiculous.”
The crowd did laugh at that and he could see she was trying very hard not to glare at him. ‘That probably wasn’t the most polite thing to say, Ron,’ he told himself guiltily. However, he was still a Prince so he tried not to look too apologetic.
He needn’t have bothered; seemed as though the Lady had no qualms about making him feel as equally embarrassed.
“You provide no education for your people, Your Highness, no way for the lower classes to better themselves through education or learn the difference between right and wrong,” she said, in a restrained way. “All commoners can learn of their role in life is how they are looked at and treated by the nobility and if all they learn is that they are lazy and criminals… what else is to be concluded, Sire, but that first you make thieves and then punish them?”
Ron was staring at her again, taken by surprise. He had not read too many books over his years, but he did recognise where the essence of that speech had come from. It was Utopia, one of the most boring books he had ever read in his life. At the time he had marvelled that anyone could enjoy that book, let alone it be considered a classic, but here this Lady was, paraphrasing it with passion he had hardly ever seen before.
And certainly not for a book.
Ron gave himself a little shake, suddenly realising that he’d just been staring at her fierce, passionate face for several seconds and that she – and the crowd – were waiting for a response.
He looked over at the guard, who looked more than a little confused. “Well, there you have it. Release him.”
The guard looked astounded. “But – but Sire!”
“I said... release him!” Ron glared at the guard. He might be the youngest Prince, but he was a Prince nonetheless and he didn’t appreciate his orders being ignored.
The Lady broke into a large smile and Ron felt his breath catch. He had been thinking of her as quite pretty up until then. When she smiled it transformed her face so that it was beautiful.
Then he realised what he was thinking and shook his head.
All the same, he couldn’t help but ask his sister. “Ginny, do you know her?” he asked, as the Lady disappeared round the back of the cage.
His sister frowned thoughtfully, still staring absently where she had last stood. “No, I don’t, although her voice is slightly familiar.” She shrugged. “I must have seen or heard her around court before. She definitely didn’t go to Beauxbatons, though. I would have remembered someone like her.”
Ron frowned at her. “What do you mean?” he asked, a little bit hurt, although he wasn’t sure why.
Ginny grinned at him in amusement. “Oh, dear, Ronald,” she said, laughing a bit. “You got it quick.”
“What?” Ron spluttered, indignant, although he felt his face go bright red. Traitor.
Ginny took pity on him and simply explained, “All I meant was all the girls at Beauxbatons were the simpering, squealing type. She seems to actually have a personality.”
“Prepare the horses, we shall leave at once!”
The subject of their conversation came back into view, this time beaming so happily Ron had trouble not smiling in response. She paused by his horse and curtsied, saying, “I thank you, Your Highness,” before walking on by.
Ron stared mutely after her, astonished. Was that it? Was that honestly all she was going to say?!
Ron turned to glare at Ginny, who had elbowed him in the ribs. “Well, don’t just sit there, you idiot,” she said, when he opened his mouth to snap at her, “go and talk to her.”
Behind her Neville, although trying not to laugh, gave him an enthusiastic jerk of his head, that Ron supposed meant ‘go after her’. He glanced without knowing why at Luna, who didn’t look at him but said, quite clearly, “Beware of nargles.”
Ron pretended he didn’t hear that bit, although he could feel the tell-tale burning of his ears.
Sliding off his horse, Ron turned to walk after the quickly vanishing Lady. He was surprised at how fast she was walking. “My Lady!” he called out, trying to stop her.
It certainly didn’t work. She did slow down slightly, but not completely. “Your Highness?” she said, politely, twisting to look back at him.
Ron almost stopped walking. Was this actually happening? He had never, never, encountered a young noblewoman that didn’t grasp at the chance to talk to him (Ginny did not count) – he was a Prince, after all – but this Lady couldn’t seem to get out of his presence fast enough.
Ron sped up and cut in front of her, purposefully stopping her. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced, my Lady,” he said, bowing slightly to her. “I am Prince Ronald.”
“Your Highness,” the Lady said, curtseying appropriately. But then, amazingly, she went around him and carried on walking, leaving Ron, for the second time, gaping after her. He quickly hurried to catch up, but, unfortunately, the peculiar behaviour had so caught Ron off guard that he seemed to be lost for anything to say. So he said the first thing that came into his mind. Which, being Ron, was rather stupid.
“Have we met?”
Still walking, the Lady turned around and looked at him, a bit nervous. “I don’t think so, Your Highness,” she said.
“You know I thought I knew every courtier at court,” Ron said. It wasn’t quite true, but he had made a point of knowing the names of all the noblewomen around his age in the surrounding vicinity of the castle. Mainly so he could avoid the most desperate, annoying, clingy ones. Ron had now caught up enough to walk side by side with the Lady. He saw her look at him a bit uneasily out of the corner of his eye but ignored it.
“Well.. I am visiting a cousin.”
“Who?” Ron pressed.
“My cousin,” the Lady said, determinedly not looking at him.
“Er, yes, I got that,” Ron said, staring at her in bemusement. “Which one?”
The Lady turned and looked at him then, putting on a perfect display of innocent confusion. “The only one I have, Sire.”
Ron didn’t know whether to hit her or laugh at her. No one, no one, had ever treated him like this before. He was a Prince, for Merlin’s sake! “Let me get this straight,” he asked, disbelieving, “are you honestly refusing to tell me your name?”
“No!” the Lady said, pausing to look at him, before going red. “And yes.” And she was off again.
Any other nobleman – or, indeed, man – would probably have taken the hint and given up by now. But Ron wasn’t just any man. He was a Prince, true, but before all that he was a Weasley. And Weasleys were stubborn as hell.
The Lady didn’t get too far ahead this time before Ron had sped in front and was walking backwards in front of her. “How about you tell me your cousin’s name, then, and I can ask her who you are?” She ignored him and carried on walking, but inspiration had just hit Ron about the one thing to say that would guarantee to make her stop. “After all, it’s not every day that you meet someone who can quote Thomas More,” he added, a bit desperately.
And stop she did.
The Lady turned round slowly, looking both surprised and pleased. “You’ve read Utopia?” she asked and he was pleased to see that passion light up in those brown eyes, a smile slowly growing on her face.
Ron shrugged. “It was mushy and dull,” he said. “The difficulties faced by a commoner… well, it’s boring, isn’t it?”
Her face fell and she looked at him carefully. “I take it,” she said slowly, “that you don’t talk to many peasants.”
Ron actually laughed at that. “Bloody hell, no!” he said, amused. She seemed to be forgetting who – or, rather, what – he was. He was a Prince. Why on earth would he talk to peasants? “Naturally.”
He knew at once that that was the wrong thing to say for, not only did she look disappointed at him, but she began to walk away.
“Excuse me, Sire, but there is nothing natural about it,” she said as she strode away. Her voice sounded harsh, even... angry? “Our country is made up of commoners; they are what gives our country its character, far more than the nobility. Not to mention they’re the legs we all stand on. The deserve respect, not you mocking and – ”
“Am I to understand,” Ron asked, suddenly, cutting her off before she got too into her rant (something he had learnt when dealing with his mother), “that you think I’m arrogant?”
She looked at him, considering. She may be angry, that fire burning in her brown eyes, but she was still in control. She bit her lip and said, “Well, you gave one man back his life, but did you even spare glance for the others?”
Ron stared at her. And the worst part about it was she was right. He hadn’t looked at the others. They were, after all, just peasants. He felt uncomfortable about that. Not too long ago, when he was very little, his family had not been royalty. They were in the line for succession, but far out on the fringes, with very little money to be spared for seven children.
His memories of those times were fuzzy and unclear. He had been just 4 years old, Ginny 3, when his mother had become Queen and they moved into Royal Palaces, money troubles forgotten. But back then they hadn’t been so far apart from the commoners that lived in the nearby village. They would gather together on feast days for a local gala and his father in particular had always been ready to help out whatever worker or farmer had a particularly tricky problem.
Suddenly Ron realised that his mysterious Lady had, once again, walked off whilst he was lost in his thoughts. Luckily she hadn’t gone too far and Ron cut in front of her, one last time.
“Please,” he said, a lot gentler than before, “Give me a name. Any name.”
She looked at him one last time, that sad, penetrating gaze. She was judging him then, he knew, judging whether under all his bluster and arrogance he was a good man. He swallowed and stared at her, willing her to see Ron, not Prince Ronald. He could be a good man, if only she would trust him. He had never known anyone like her before, and he didn’t think he ever would again. Deep down he had a sneaking suspicion that if she just left without giving him anything, he would never see her again.
And he wasn’t sure he could handle that.
“I fear,” she said, uncertainly, and Ron felt his heart sink, “that... the only name to leave you with is Countess Lily Ravenclaw.”
Countess Lily Ravenclaw. It sounded wonderful. She looked down, as though uncertain that she had done the right thing in giving him her name, but he felt enriched and a thrill of excitement run through him. She went away as he was processing the implications of that thought and he couldn’t resist one, last call.
“There now,” he teased, smiling. “That wasn’t so hard.”
She smiled at him, a little uncertainly and looked as though she were about to say something, before...
Ron twisted over his shoulder to see, with a groan, his least favourite brother beckoning at him imperiously.
“Come on, Ronald, their majesties wish to speak to you and Ginevra,” Percy called, Ginny already looking mutinous by his side. No doubt she had already had a lecture from Percy about running away in a warm up to the much worse one they were about to get from their mother. Neville, wisely, seemed to have fled for the much safer confines of the stables. Luna, however, was standing next to Ginny as well, looking as though it were purely accidental.
“In a moment, Perce!” Ron shouted back, annoyed. Percy was usually so oblivious to everything, it was a wonder that he had ever gotten anyone to marry him. He certainly didn’t seem to have noticed that he was currently talking to a lady.
Countess Lily Ravenclaw, he reminded himself happily.
He turned back to talk to Countess Lily, an invite on the tip of his tongue... only to find no one there.
She was gone.