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The first time Link sees Princess Zelda, he's six years old.

He's in a crowd of bent heads, and his aunt has her hand on the back of his neck, and his cousin, towering beside him in her best dress, is wiping tears. Even though they aren't that far back, he can't see anything but legs and backsides in the press of the crowd.

He tugs on his cousin's skirt. “Pick me up. I want to see Dad.”

“Quiet,” she hisses through her tears. “It's disrespectful.”

“I want to see,” he says, more quietly.

“Let him see, sweetheart,” his aunt says, sniffling.

His cousin grunts when she stoops to lift him, but her voice is kind when she says, “You're getting too big for this.” Link is pretty sure that isn't true. Everyone's always telling him how small he is.

With all her complaining, she lifts him high, so that his head rises above hers. Finally. He doesn't have to search long to find Father – he's right there, in his old dress uniform, part of the escort lined up next to the lady. He looks old next to the other guards. They called him back specially for this.

Even from here, Link can see how sad he is. Link is sad, too. Father doesn't know it, but Link saw him cry when they brought him the news. Not like the way he did with Mother, but still. Father crying.

Link looks around. Most people here are crying. Some are trying to hide it. Others aren't.

There's a voice coming from up front, and the crowd lifts their bent heads. Another escort of guards is coming forward. There's his uncle, and his oldest cousin. When the guards part, he sees a large man with a white beard, wearing a crown on his head, and a young girl. He's met one of them before. The other, he hasn't.

“Poor little thing,” he hears his aunt whisper.

Link stares at the girl. And stares.

The voice starts talking again, but Link isn't listening. He's staring at the girl. She's wearing a dark blue dress, and her folded hands are in white gloves. Her hair shines in the sun. She wears no veil.

Link remembers the ladies wearing veils that day, his aunt and his cousin, and his other aunt and grandmother that they don't see anymore. They brought their handkerchiefs up under the veils and wiped their tears. There weren't any other children there, though. Just him. So he doesn't know if little girls are supposed to wear veils like ladies do.

No one has to tell Link who the girl is. He knows. He knows who the lady is, too, and why there are tears on the king's face.

The princess has no tears on hers.

 


 

The first time Link speaks of Princess Zelda, he's nine years old.

He's sitting outside on his front steps with Marietta, eating one of the little cakes she's brought. She stares at him while he eats it. He doesn't care. She can stare at him all she wants, as long as she keeps bringing him cake.

“Aww, look, it's the two lovebirds.”

Marietta flinches. Link looks up, sees Nate and Rian, and stuffs the rest of the cake in his mouth. “What's going on?” he says around his mouthful.

“We were gonna go down to the river,” Nate says. “Wanna come?”

“Can't,” Link says, still chewing. “I have lessons in an hour.”

Rian makes a tsk-ing noise of disbelief. “After archery all morning? I bet you just want to sit here with your girlfriend and eat cake.”

Link shrugs, and starts on another one.

“Hey, can I get one of those?” says Nate, peering into the box in Link's lap. Link starts to hold the box out to him, but when he does, Marietta jumps up. She scowls at Link, face flushing red, and though Link calls out for her to wait – with his mouth full – she stomps off.

“What was that about?” Rian says, as Nate plops down on the step in Marietta's place and helps himself to a cake. Rian takes one, too.

Link shrugs again. “I don't know. I guess she didn't want me to share them.” He'll apologize to her tomorrow. “She's been kind of weird, lately.”

“That's 'cause she loves you,” Rian says. He stretches the word out. L-o-o-o-oves.

“Nah,” Link says. “She just likes watching me eat for some reason. Anyway, you guys should lay off her. She's nice.”

“First comes love, then comes marriage.” Nate sprays crumbs while he says it. “Then comes Marietta with a baby carriage.”

“Pft,” Link says, fishing another cake out of the box. “Can't marry her.”

“You're so full of it,” Nate says. He starts to reach for the last cream cake, but Rian gets it first. He takes a carrot cake instead.

“You are gonna marry her,” Rian says. “Forget being a knight. You're gonna marry her and take over her dad's shop and eat cake every day till you puke.”

“Never puked in my life,” Link says, chewing. “And I'm gonna marry Princess Zelda.”

As he's saying it, the door behind him opens.

The boys look up, Link and Nate twisting around on the step. It's his aunt, wearing an apron and a stern expression. “What on earth are you doing? Where did you get that?”

“Marietta brought them.”

“That girl...” She jerks her head toward the inside. “Get in here. You boys run along. Link has to help me with lunch before the master comes by for his lessons. Go on, now.”

Nate and Rian grumble, but do as she says. The boys all wave to each other before Link goes inside.

“Honestly, eating half a box of cake before lunch...” she takes the box from him and sets it aside. “Just for that, you're chopping the onions.”

The joke's on her. He likes chopping onions.

He eats lunch, and then it's lessons from noon until four, and then he's helping his aunt with supper. By the time Father gets home from his visit to the castle, Link's forgotten all about the conversation. They all sit down to eat, and Father says it's to be another escort mission to Zora's Domain, and then to the Gerudo Desert after that. Link's never been to the desert. He's excited to see it, and to start training to fight on sand, and to see Mipha and Bazz again.

That evening, after his aunt has gone home, Father sits him down at the kitchen table and looks him right in the eye. “Now,” he says. “What's this I hear about your marrying the princess?”

Link has never puked in his life, but he suddenly feels like he's about to.

“It was a joke, Dad,” he says. “My friends were teasing me about Marietta. I just said that to shut them up.”

His father looks at him for a long moment.

“Really, Dad, I – ”

Link.”

At the sound of the Voice, Link snaps to attention in his chair. “Yes, sir.”

“This is not a joke, son,” Father says in his regular voice. “You are not to speak of such things again, in jest or otherwise. You are not even to think them.”

Link nods. He's still sitting at attention. His heart is beating so fast that he thinks he should feel hot, but he feels cold.

Father sighs. He suddenly looks very old. The lines around his eyes seem deep as trenches, and his beard looks very gray. “Don't misunderstand me. I know you meant no harm. But this is what it means to be a knight. This is what it means to serve. Especially on the Guard. We must be trusted in all things, and to be trusted, one must demonstrate that one is trustworthy. We must carry ourselves always with the proper mindset and the proper decorum. You say you wish to follow in my footsteps – well, this is the price. Mistakes such as these will guarantee that all your career ambitions will come to naught. If there were the slightest sign, even the tiniest suspicion, that you had designs on Hyrule's daughter, they'd stick you out at the farthest outpost on the farthest watchtower and have you on permanent night duty. You'd never catch a glimpse of the royal family, let alone guard them. Is that what you want?”

Link shakes his head.

Father nods. “All right, then.” He slaps his hands to his thighs and stands up. “Now,” he says, “as we've already polished off those cakes, why don't we see what else we can whip up?”

“That's okay, Dad,” Link says. “I'm just gonna go to bed.”

He can feel Father's eyes following him as he heads for the stairs.

When Link gets to his room, he closes the door and sits down on his bed. He doesn't cry. She didn't cry, so he won't either.

He knew it all already, anyway. He knew the second those words were out of his mouth that they were a mistake. He knows he can't marry the princess, or even think about it. At least he only messed up in front of his friends.

It doesn't matter, anyway. He'll still be a knight, and he'll still fight for her one day, when he finds that thing he needs to find. Whatever it is. If this is what it means to be a knight, then this is what it means. He just has to be strong in mind as well as body, like Father always says.

He just has to make sure he never slips again.

 


 

The first time Link notices a girl that way, he's twelve years old.

He's walking with Father through Central Square on the way to the bake shop. It's early morning, and the streets are still dim and quiet. “You're getting shaggy again,” Father says, putting a hand to his head. “I swear I've never seen a boy's hair grow so fast.”

Link wishes the rest of him would grow as fast as his hair. Father has two feet in height on him and a foot in width.

“I'll have your aunt take the shears to you next time she comes by,” Father says, as they enter the shop.

Marietta is behind the counter. She looks... different. She's wearing a purple dress with a white apron over it, and a purple ribbon in her dark hair. Marietta's father, on the other side of a rack of baking trays, spies Link's father and hails him. The two men step off to the side and clasp hands.

Link steps up to the counter to talk to Marietta. She's taller than he is, now. Well, she is a year older.

“Hi,” he says.

“Hi.”

Link stares at her. And stares.

“Haven't seen you in a while,” she says.

“Yeah,” he says. “I have archery every day now. On horseback, too. And I'm training in other weapons in addition to the sword. We've started going out and hunting real monsters, so I can get some experience with it. I asked Dad if I could just skip my lessons to get more training time, but he won't let me. He says a stupid knight is worse than a weak one.”

Link says all of this directly to Marietta's chest. Because Marietta has a bosom now.

“That sounds exhausting,” Marietta says. “When do you sleep?”

“Uh-huh,” he says.

“Um... so... did you want to... buy something?”

“Uh-huh.” His face is hot. His face is hot and he can't stop staring.

Link!

Link's gaze pulls up as he snaps to attention. “Yes, sir.”

“I'm sorry, Roland,” he hears Father say, and then the next thing Link knows, Father has a fistful of the back of his collar and he's being half-dragged, half-shoved out of the bakery door. Father releases him once they're outside. Link stumbles for a moment before finding his footing on the pavement.

“What was that for?” Link says, putting a hand to the back of his neck.

“You know what it was for,” Father says.

Link feels himself blush to the roots of his hair. Did that mean Marietta noticed, too? Or her father?

Father shakes his head. “Come on,” he says, putting a hand to Link's shoulder and starting to guide him back up the street toward home.

“But, the bread – ” Link says.

“Never mind the bread. This is something I have to explain to you. I should have done so before today. By Din's own fire, you're growing up fast.”

Link twists about, making sure no one else is in earshot. There are a few people around, so he lowers his voice as they walk. “Dad – you don't – look, I know all about that stuff, okay?”

“Well, I should hope so,” Father says. “You're twelve, for Hylia's sake. No, I'm speaking of how one behaves around girls, Link. In the proper fashion. For example, not holding entire conversations while staring directly at their chests.”

“I didn't mean to,” Link says, his face flaming. He wishes the ground would swallow him up. “I won't do it again.”

“Easy to say,” Father says. “Not so easy to do. Chances are you won't mean it the next time, either. Or the next. Or the next.”

Link covers his face with one hand. “Look, I won't, okay? Could we just – ”

Listen,” Father says, shaking his shoulder, though he doesn't use the Voice. “This is important. Consider it another aspect of your training – because it is. Mastery of oneself is every bit as essential to knighthood as mastery of a blade. You must be disciplined and respectful. You don't want the ones who should feel safe around you to feel afraid.”

Afraid? But – but I didn't – ”

“I know that, son, but that's not the point. Our intentions can't always be read by others. You're a strong boy, armed and skilled in combat. Most seasoned knights aren't a match for you at this point. That means it's that much more important for you to conduct yourself properly and prove you can be trusted. And that will go double inside the castle. You'll be around dignified people in dignified places, and you'll be expected to comport yourself in a dignified manner. Ogling noblewomen is a surefire way to get yourself dumped unceremoniously out the front gate.”

Link hangs his head.

“All right,” Father says, nudging him. He stretches a hand out in front of them. “Imagine there's a lady walking in front of us.”

“Like when you'd guard the queen?”

“Yes, but – anyone. Just picture a pretty girl.”

There's only one girl Link wants to picture. He saw her again just the other day, in procession on the street past his house, hair shining in the sun. He made sure she didn't see him. He's not ready, and he doesn't have the thing.

“Okay,” Link says, picturing her.

“Now,” Father says. “Where do you look?”

“I don't know. At her back, I guess.”

“And where do you want to look?”

“I don't know.” Her hair shines in the sun. “Her back, I guess.”

“You sure?” Father says. “Think about it.”

Link thinks about it. Then he covers his face again. Maybe he'll step into a hole or something.

“That place where you want to look? Front or back? Think of that as the horizon. You keep your eyes above. No matter what's going on, no matter how tempted you are. Just make it a habit. Eyes above the horizon. Understand?”

Link understands.

Father goes on for a while longer, about how it's not polite to stare, and when it's okay to look directly at nobles and when it isn't, and how to maintain awareness of one's surroundings while keeping an eye on one's charge, and how never to touch a lady without her leave. He's heard some of it before. “But these things bear repeating,” Father says, “and it's important that you don't slip again.”

 


 

The first time Link kisses a girl, he's thirteen.

He's in the Gerudo desert at the Kara Kara Bazaar, wandering through the stalls. He feels a tap on his shoulder, and turns. It's Samira.

“Hi.” He has to look up. Samira is his age, but she has four inches on him. Well, she is a Gerudo. “What are you doing out here? I thought you had to work.”

“Mom gave me a break,” she says. “Where's your dad? He still working?”

Link points over toward the pavilion where the Emissary is sitting with the Lady Urbosa, deep in conversation. Father stands nearby, facing outward in guard position, alongside Lady Urbosa's guards. Next to them, he looks short and pale, even though he's neither.

“I still can't believe that's your dad,” Samira says. “He looks like a grandpa.”

Link bristles. “He's not a grandpa. He's the greatest knight in Hyrule. And how do you even know what a grandpa is? You've never even met your dad.”

She shrugs. “We see plenty of voe here at the inn. And knights can be grandpas.”

“Well, he's not.”

“Fine, fine. I'm sorry. So what were you just looking at?”

Link gives a half-shrug. “I don't know, just wandering around. It's boring here.” It isn't, but he feels like saying it.

“You think everything's boring that doesn't involve swords.”

The corner of his mouth twitches. “And you don't?”

“Course not,” she says, indicating the stall in front of them. “I also love jewelry.”

She does love jewelry. She wears a lot of it. It looks good on her. Everything looks good on her. Link remembers to keep his eyes pointed up.

They go over to the jewelry stand. Samira starts ooh-ing and ahh-ing. Link feels his eyes start to glaze. He turns his head and cranes his neck to get another glimpse of the pavilion, wondering what's taking so long. Father's supposed to have the afternoon off.

“How about those?” Samira says, jostling his arm.

Link turns back. She's pointing to a pair of hoop earrings, made of some kind of blue enamel. “I don't know,” he says, looking at the earrings, then at her. She's wearing big gold ones. “They're kind of small and plain, aren't they?”

“Not for me, dummy,” she says. “For you.”

“For me?”

“Sure. Voe get their ears pierced all the time.”

“No, they don't.”

“Here in Gerudo, they do. Some of the husbands wear them.”

“What's that got to do with me?”

“Nothing,” she says, with a shrug, “if you're scared.”

Link rolls his eyes.

“If you do it, I'll give you something.”

“I don't want anything.”

“You don't know what it is, yet.” She leans closer to him. “But you'll like it.”

Something about the way she says it makes his face feel hot, and the next thing he knows he's handing rupees over to the jewelry vendor and hopping up onto her chair, and some weird-smelling stuff is being wiped onto his ears. “Don't flinch,” the vendor says to him, and he doesn't.

“Wow,” Samira says afterward, when he's looking in the glass the vendor hands him. “I really have an eye for these things.”

Link has to admit they look good. They seem right, somehow. “So what do I get?” he says.

“It's behind the inn,” she says. “I'll show you.”

He's sitting out by the oasis, his head still spinning, when Father comes to find him. Father takes one look at him and bursts out laughing. “She kissed you, didn't she?”

Link wonders if a face can actually catch fire. “How'd you know?” he says.

Father crouches next to him. “Mine healed up a long time ago,” he says, tugging on an ear.

Link's jaw drops. He's seen the tiny pinpricks in Father's ears, but never gave them much thought. After a moment he rallies. “So – I can keep them, then?”

“For now. They'll make you take them out when you enlist. Not part of the dress code.” Father studies him for a moment. “So. That your first?”

Suddenly Link wishes he were at the bottom of the oasis instead of next to it. “Dad...”

“Well, I suppose you're getting to that age. This sort of thing was bound to start happening, with all these girls always hanging about.”

Link frowns. It's not that many girls. Just Samira, and Marietta, and Mipha, and Kodah, and Gaddison, and –

“You take care with them from here on out,” Father is saying. “They like you, but don't use that as an opportunity to take advantage. Take care not to play with their hearts.”

“I wasn't – ”

“I know, son. Just be careful.” He stands and nudges Link with the toe of his boot. “Come on, now – enough mooning. We have work to do.”

“I wasn't mooning,” Link says as he hops to his feet. Not over Samira, anyway. Though he does like Samira, and he liked the kiss a lot. He's just wishing it could have felt less like a lie.

They head out toward the deep sands near the oasis. Link looks up at his father and tries not to think about how, though he still looks like a knight, he does kind of look like a grandpa, too. “Hey, um – Dad?”

“Hm?”

“What if... what if I like a girl, and then I find out she likes me back? Do I still have to be careful, then?”

“That, son,” Father says, signaling for him to take up his stance, “is when you have to be extra careful.”

 


 

The first time Link leaves his home forever, he's fourteen.

He doesn't pack much. Doesn't need to. He knows how to fish and hunt, how to tell which plants are safe to eat, and how to find dry kindling after it rains. He packs a day's supply of food and two changes of clothes, but five pairs of socks, remembering Father's words: Wet feet are the scourge of every traveler. He checks the fletching on his arrows and the bowstrings in their case. He makes sure he has Father's belt knife, Father's broadsword in its scabbard on his shoulder belt, and Father's tinderbox with the precious charcloth folded inside. He pries up the floorboard in Father's room and takes out the bag of rupees. He empties a third of them into a smaller bag, and leaves the rest for his family.

Then he climbs into bed, pulls the covers over himself, and waits.

Some time after his family gets back, his aunt knocks on the door to his room, as she's done every evening this week. She comes in and leaves a tray for him, strokes his short hair, and leaves.

Link waits, and thinks of the pillar that's fallen. He thinks of the one that still stands.

One by one, they go to bed; his aunt, and the others who are staying with him to help. His uncle. His cousin. His cousin's husband and sons. The house has never been more crowded, and Link has never been more alone.

When they've all settled down, he waits another hour. Then he gets up.

He's been debating whether or not to take the rings. One is too large for his fingers, the other too small. If he uses a chain, or keeps them in a pouch, there will always be that fear of losing them.

In the end, he leaves them, overlapping one upon the other, on his untouched tray for his aunt to find.

He doesn't leave a note.

 


 

The first time Link claims a legendary sword, he's almost sixteen.

He's wandering in a place of fear and fog, but he's not afraid. He's close.

The shores of Necluda. The jungles of Faron. The cliffs of the Tabantha frontier. The fires of Eldin. The snows of Hebra. Akkala with its valleys and hills.

Whispers of forests.

He's replaced his clothing two times. His boots, three. His father's broadsword, long broken, replaced and replaced. He still has his father's knife, and the little metal tinderbox, now full of punk wood from forest floors. He still has his father's wisdom, and his teachings, and his words.

The fog lifts and he walks into a grove and finds the second most beautiful thing he's ever seen. He knows, the second he sees it, that it's what he's been looking for, and that it's meant for him.

A massive tree spreads its branches out over the grove, so large that the space the tree takes up could hold a grove itself. Its voice is earth and eons. I have watched over Hyrule since time immemorial, it says, and Link believes it.

Link puts his hands on the hilt of the sword and hears it sing. Everything comes together. Everything clicks. He knows who he is. He knows.

He feels the weight of it but does not bend. He bent once before, so far he thought he was broken. Maybe he was. But he's been remade. He can do it, now. He can be a pillar, too.

It's time, the sword says. Go and seek her out.

He doesn't need to be told who she is.

 


 

The first time Link stands before Princess Zelda, he's sixteen.

He's walking a corridor of honor guards in a cavernous hall, and as his boots ring on the marble, he can't help thinking how glad he is that they've been cleaned.

It's quiet, except for his boots. Not the quiet he was expecting. He was expecting servants' entrances and shadowed corridors. Offices and desks. Plans and maps and ancient books. Not quiet fanfare. Not all these eyes.

He stops in the center of an emblem and kneels as Father taught him. He kneels before a king, a princess, and a kingdom. He kneels, but he does not bend.

I'm here, he wants to say, and I'm ready, and, I'll fight for you, and, don't die.

That last one is the thought of a child who ran from home. A child he thought he'd left behind.

“Rise,” the king says, and when Link rises, the king gestures to the princess. The princess holds up a hand.

“Courageous one,” she begins.

Link meets her eyes, and the princess stops.

Everything stops.

His father's words are all he has, but they fail him now. For what good does it do to keep your eyes above the horizon, if it means staring directly at the sun?

 

Chapter Text

Zelda opens her eyes to the crackle of static. Clinging in her nightdress, zinging on her skin. The charge of a storm.

A bad one, she thinks, sitting up. Or a good one. The worst ones are always the best.

It's still bright within the closed bedcurtains. When she draws them back and looks out the windows, she sees only clear, unbroken blue. Must be a thunderhead coming in from the east, not yet darkening the visible sky on this side.

Or perhaps I was dreaming. Was that it?

From the other side of the curtain come the familiar sounds of her handmaids bustling about; a poker stirring the fire, water being poured into a basin. A moment later, the scraping of brass rings on wrought iron as the curtain is drawn. Myrtle is tying back the ends, an unusual efficiency to her movements.

Myrtle says something, but Zelda is lost in thought, staring out the window. The curtains are all tied back before the words penetrate her addled mind.

“My father?” Zelda says, suddenly alert.

“Yes, Princess,” Myrtle says. “It seems to be a matter of some importance.”

A chill goes through Zelda. “Let me guess. He wants me there half an hour ago.”

“Half an hour from now, Princess,” Myrtle says, stepping back and inclining her head. At the far wall, before the hearth, Ivy is straightening up, wiping off her hands.

“Well,” Zelda says, throwing back the covers, “at least that's within the realm of possibility.”

Full regalia, this morning, if she's to see her father. Behind the changing screen, fresh undergarments are laid out for her: chemise, drawers, and petticoat. She puts them on, and returns to her maids so that they can help her dress. They work as a team, hooking the garters that hold her stockings in place, pulling tight the high-necked halter with its stiff embroidered stays, fastening the deep blue bodice, affixing the collar piece. Positioning the layered skirts and heavy ornamental belts, gathering up the long, open gloves.

Zelda looks toward the window as they work, waiting for the sky to darken. There's not a cloud to be seen. The crackling is gone, too, the last of the thrilling energy that roused her.

Myrtle brushes her hair, while Ivy helps with the gloves, holding up each in turn so that Zelda can thread her fingers through.

When Ivy takes her right hand, to fix the ring and bracelet that hold the glove in place, a jolt goes through Zelda as a shadow of memory returns. Gooseflesh rises on her arms beneath the gloves.

“Are you all right, Princess?” Ivy asks, pausing in her work.

She was dreaming. There was someone with her, and whoever it was took her hand in that same way. It wasn't Ivy, though. Nor Myrtle. Someone else. Mother, maybe?

“Princess?”

No, not Mother. Zelda concentrates, trying to recall, but it's grasping at smoke.

“Princess?”

She blinks. Myrtle has come around, and both she and Ivy are frowning at her. Zelda straightens her shoulders. “I'm fine. A bit of sleep still lingering, that's all.”

The pair exchange a look, but say nothing further, and hurry to finish up.

 


 

Zelda peers into the Sanctum from the northern antechamber beneath the thrones, watching the honor guard lining up. “Utterly pointless,” she mutters.

“I wouldn't go quite that far, Princess.”

Zelda gives a small start, but manages to preserve most of her dignity. She turns her head and acknowledges the man beside her. “My apologies, Minister.”

“I do understand your reservations, Princess,” he says. “And I don't entirely disagree. If it comforts you, my sources tell me that word has spread as far out as Mabe Village, and into every part of the castle down to the darkest mine shafts. Therefore, whatever happens today will be in the public eye in some form. At least this way, we can maintain control of the room, so to speak. There is power in ceremony.”

No part of that comforts her, but she smiles at him anyway. In truth, she feels a bit sorry for him. His face is bound to be red later, when this all turns out to be no more than a baseless rumor.

Father sits in a chair in the center of the room, flanked by four guards in ceremonial dress. His eyes are closed. His posture is held in serene regality, as though he's in some state of deep communion, but Zelda suspects he's only trying to calm his nerves. For heaven's sake, she thinks. Let's get this done and over, so we can all get back to doing something useful with our time.

As though he's heard her plea, Father opens his eyes and stands. She watches everyone scramble in response, getting into position.

Then they're filing into the Sanctum.

In the center of the floor is the great emblem: three triangles that form the symbol of their kingdom and the power of this land, enclosed within an ornate circular border. It is on this border that she and Father stand, side by side. Honor guards form a corridor running from the other side of the border, almost all the way to the massive double doors of the main entrance.

Enclosed within its own innermost circle, the emblem of the triangles stands empty. That is where this supposed “hero” will stand before them.

Father's bright idea.

The boy Link is known to me. His lineage is beyond question. His reputation precedes him. He may carry the sword, the true sword, as the rumors say. But you are right, my daughter. Until we look upon him for ourselves, we will not have the full measure of him. Therefore it is only fitting that we not look down on him from the thrones above, but instead meet him on level ground.

Father seems to consider it a form of compromise, merging the two opposing ideas of ceremonial and private meetings. She supposes it is a compromise, as it combines the worst aspects of both.

It's a good thing, really, she tells herself. Once this disaster is over with, they'll be a bit more prudent the next time around. Though such prudence is not likely to be necessary, once her power manifests.

Her pulse pays no heed to her attempts to reassure herself, beating staccato in her neck beneath her standing collar. Rumors, even ones as outlandish as this, don't spring up from nowhere. To her reckoning, there are two distinct possibilities: this is an outright hoax, or it's someone who's had the real sword entrusted to their care, bringing word of the Hero—a friend, or a relative. The latter possibility fills her with dread. The idea that the sword has been found, the Hero chosen, before she—

No. It's not worth even considering.

Zelda lifts her chin and composes her face.

A figure has come into view at the far end of the throne room, framed in the massive doorway. The herald is making the formal announcements. Signals are passing between her father and the captain of his guard, and between the captain and the herald. The honor guards, in unison, each take a step backward, widening the corridor, giving the figure leave to approach.

Zelda's first thought is that she was expecting someone taller.

 


 

Deep in the heart of Hyrule Castle, within the Temple of Hylia, before the great statue of the Goddess, Princess Zelda prays.

Or tries to.

She kneels upon an emblem etched into the stone, like that of the throne room in miniature, and dips her hands into the clear, cool water. The sacred font, recessed into the stone floor, is fed from the same underground source that feeds the waterfalls flowing throughout the castle grounds.

“Goddess Hylia,” she says. “I offer you my devotion. I offer you my service. I offer myself, that I be cleansed in your name.”

Raising her hands from the font, she clasps them before her, fingers woven together in the sign of supplication. Water runs down her forearms to soak the sleeves of her prayer robes. She closes her eyes.

And sees him.

She grits her teeth, opening her eyes and unclasping her hands. For the fourth time, she dips them back into the water.

“Goddess Hylia,” she begins—for the fourth time—“I offer you my devotion. I offer you my service. I offer myself, that I be cleansed in your name.”

Again, she clasps her hands. Her robes are getting soaked along the front as well. She closes her eyes, concentrating.

And sees him.

From deep within herself, she curses. She lets out a disgusted sound and shakes off her hands. This is useless.

“Help me,” she says, without the water, without the sign of supplication. “If it's time, then help me. Show me what to do. Please.”

Nothing. As always.

“Is it supposed to happen this way? He is meant to be my counterpart. Has this power just been waiting for him to arrive?” All those stories...

“But Mother didn't have a counterpart,” she says, more to herself than to the Goddess. “Nor did Grandmother. Nor did Grandmother's mother, or her mother, or her mother's mother. So that can't be it.” That's some small comfort, anyway. Imagine trying and failing all these years only to find it was down to him, waltzing in and drawing a sword.

The sword. The hilt gleaming over his shoulder. The sight of it like a thunderclap. The charge of a storm.

And the sight of him...

Her mind, an unspeakable traitor, brings her back again and again. To his solemn face, to his straight-backed stance, to his gloved hand reverent on the flat of the sacred blade.

To his eyes.

Finally, it says.

She tells it to go hang, and then sticks her tongue out at it for good measure.

The way father fawned over him. She feels her eyes prickle at the memory. She doesn't quite believe father meant to spite her, but neither does she believe the comparison went entirely uninvited. Disarming grown men at the age of four. Nascent access to his divine power at the age of four.

Well, she can make comparisons, too. An elite knight for a father, who stepped down from his storied career to devote the remainder of his life to his son's instruction. A boy destined to wield a sword, who was taught, probably from the time he could walk, to wield a sword. Amazing how that worked.

She shakes herself, shaking more water off her hands. It's been years since she's cried over mother, and she cannot start now. If she starts now, she'll never stop. She doesn't know how much time they have, but it's clear that events are in motion. She has to focus. She has to find this thing inside her. She can do it. She will.

As for the boy—he'll have to wait, for the time being. It's that simple. She won't see him, speak to him, or be reminded of his existence in any way. Not until she can meet him on level ground.

She draws herself up, dips her hands back into the water, and begins again.

 


 

She manages to go almost an entire week without seeing him. This is a terrible breach of etiquette on her part and there is absolutely no excuse for it. She knows this because her father tells her.

“There is absolutely no excuse for this, Zelda,” Father says. He has a way with words. “What has gotten into you? I've never known you to forget your courtesy with even the most minor of dignitaries. Now, when the chosen of Hylia comes calling, you ignore him for a week?”

Zelda is ready for this. “He's not a dignitary, Father,” she says, dabbing the corners of her mouth with her napkin, “and I have not been ignoring him. I have taken his arrival as a sign that I must renew my dedication to my task, and have been devoting myself to prayer nearly every waking hour.” Father seems mollified by this. “Further, it has been my understanding that he has been quartered with the knights in anticipation of his initiation tomorrow, and has been quite busy with training and acclimating himself to the castle. I thought it best not to overwhelm him.” There. That sounded almost plausible.

“I understand.” Father eyes her across the table as he plucks a pastry from the silver tray between them. “I imagine, then, that you shall be delighted to learn that both of your schedules this afternoon are completely clear.”

“Father? Forgive me, I—”

“Given that I have just cleared them.” He bites into the pastry.

Zelda looks down at her tea. It ripples, catching the early light from the window. She wishes she could dive into it and swim away somewhere.

“No more pretenses, Zelda. I understand that this must cause you some discomfort, but if you are truly dedicated to your task, then you must be willing to endure.”

You understand nothing, she thinks, still staring at her tea.

“The two of you share a divine purpose. Are you not the slightest bit curious to hear what he has to say on the matter? Has it not occurred to you that his counsel might provide some insight into where you're going wrong?”

Zelda is silent. What can she say?

“There is also the matter of the sword. I once again questioned him myself, yesterday, and he will still say nothing of how he came to obtain it. One might think that a young man in such a position would be boastful, eager to tell his tales, but Link has proven quite the opposite... In any case, given the nature of this information, I cannot compel him to reveal it. But perhaps he will see fit to share it with you.”

“By all accounts, he has been less than forthcoming to everyone, on every subject,” she says. “I cannot imagine it will be any different with me.”

“Nevertheless. You are to invite him to luncheon this afternoon. You are to write a formal invitation in your hand. You have much to discuss with him—whether he will discuss it or not—and it is time you stopped shirking your duty.”

“I... ” She straightens in her chair. “Of course, Father. I'll do so as soon as I get back to my rooms.”

The fastest way to her rooms from her father's parlor is to make a right at the end of the hall, go up a flight of stairs, then left and down another hallway. A four, maybe five-minute walk at most.

Which is why she doesn't take that route. When she gets to the end of the first hallway, she turns left. There's the dim awareness of one of her guards following some distance behind.

It's a lovely morning, sunny and breezy, with a fine fresh snap to the air. She breathes it in as she walks out onto the ramparts. She's not defying her father. She's not procrastinating. She just thinks it will do her good to take the air after breakfast. It seems ages since she's done so.

It does do her good. She walks and enjoys the sunshine and nods to those she passes, and absolutely does not consider the task that awaits her when she gets back to her rooms.

Zelda sighs. She can't even bring herself to be upset with Father. How can she expect him to understand if she doesn't explain it to him? If she barely understands, herself?

Avoiding the boy has proven of limited use, anyway. Yes, she's managed to avoid seeing him and speaking to him—but as for being reminded of his existence?

The Divine Beasts are impressive, indeed, but they are as nothing compared to the machine that turns the wheels of the castle gossip mill. In every part of the castle, in every part of the town, from the towers to the docks, from the Reservoir to the Hylia River, nearly all talk has been of him. From nearly everyone. The guards. The servants. The porters. The messengers. Her maids. Sweet Goddess, her maids.

Can you believe it?

Just like in the stories!

Isn't he dashing?

Have you seen his ears? They're pierced!

Wait, they are?

You didn't notice?

I was too busy looking at the rest of him!

He's a bit young for my fancy, though. And short.

So what? His sword's big enough! An explosion of giggles.

And the guards. Like city wives on laundry day. Particularly the older guards, who once served with his father. She recalls scraps of conversations from earlier in the week, the last time she ventured out on a walk.

Would that he were here to see it. Orvel, the captain of her guard, speaking to a perimeter sergeant. His young lad, the hero of legend.

It just seems right, it does, that it would be his son. A boon to the Knights of Hyrule.

Orvel nodding in turn. The Goddess knows what she's about. And the sword does, too.

Increasing the pace of her steps until their voices faded behind her, only to come upon a younger pair of guards, chatting away:

Unbelievable. What did he have to say for himself?

Not a thing, as I heard it. Won't tell anyone where he went or what he was doing, or how he got the sword.

No explanation after a year and a half? Not even to his family?

Doesn't seem he's the type to explain anything to anybody. Guess you don't have to when you can knock three knights on their asses without breaking a sweat.

Ha! I heard about that! Did you see it?

I saw it from my ass, if that's what you mean. Barely knew what hit me.

Stopping her morning walks proved no help, with talk of him everywhere; sometimes addressed to her directly, more often, not. And not all of it approving—gossip cuts both ways, as Zelda knows from bitter experience. She catches the grumbles in between the praise, whispers of upstart and show-off and, have you tried talking to him? Like a brick wall.

Is he really the Hero? some wonder. Or just a lad who stumbled across a sword?

Hero or no, say others. Who's to say he ought to be knighted first he steps into the gate, young lad like him? Shouldn't he have to pay his dues first?

A young lad, yes, but trained by the best, still others say, in all the knightly combat and conduct. His father had a sword in that boy's hand since he could walk. Don't you remember that story?

That story.

The one that has her pricking up her ears every time she hears mention of it. The only one she doesn't do everything in her power to ignore.

Was it mere luck? Was the sun in their eyes? Were they just pretending to fight out of fondness for the boy? Were they so raw and unskilled—sons of wainwrights and swineherds who never so much as picked up practice swords before that morning—that any small child with a little training could have bested them?

Or was it, in fact—

From below, shouts catch Zelda's attention.

The practice yard. The other reason she's been forgoing her morning walks.

She knows she shouldn't look. She's gone without sunshine or fresh air for days, just to make sure she doesn't look.

More shouts. The crack of wood. The clanging of metal. Scuffle of footsteps; a crash.

“Blast it all,” she says under her breath, and strides to the edge of the rampart, looking below.

Sure enough.

His back is to her. He wears a novice's uniform of dark trousers, mail shirt, and a white surcoat that looks as though he's spent the morning rolling in dirt. No plate or helmet, which alone would make him the most distinctive figure in the yard, particularly as no one's seen fit to have him cut his hair, or take those ridiculous hoops from his ears. Can't have him thinking he's just another ordinary novice.

That would make him the most distinctive figure in the yard, but for the ornate sheath upon his back, and the dark hilt of the sacred sword gleaming above it. The sword lies dormant, for now, while in his hand is a blunted practice sword of dull gray steel. On his left arm, a reinforced wooden shield.

He faces off against five knights in plate armor.

No novices, these men. She recognizes a few beneath their helms. One is on the ground, in the process of picking himself up, and another stepping forward in his place.

The boy can hold against five. Not always win, but he can hold. Against six, he's overrun. She's heard about this, too.

So is this their new test? Keeping him against five, swapping fresh opponents in as they're bested, and seeing how long he endures? Seems a bit excessive. And why isn't he wearing plate?

Something shifts in his stance. He turns his head so that she sees his face in profile. She tenses, ready to step back, lest he see her—but no, it's an opponent circling, drawing his attention to his left flank.

The opponent strikes.

He reacts with a blur of motion, an explosive arc of his left arm swinging out his shield, meeting the blow of his opponent's sword with a loud crack. As his opponent stumbles, he follows through, bringing his right arm down, smashing his sword against his opponent's armored shoulder. Before Zelda's eyes he then spins, in the opposite direction, the sword striking upward and to the right, catching his opponent's sword, spinning it away to land in the dirt. The shield comes out again in a quick bash, knocking his opponent to the ground.

If she'd blinked, she'd have missed it.

He dodges as another sword swings at him, letting the motion carry him through around his opponent's flank, and brings his sword down hard on the man's armored back. The opponent goes right down.

He pivots, following through to the next strike, a mighty blow against the next opponent's shield. His practice sword shatters, pieces flying in all directions, the opponent's shield holding fast. Zelda's hand flies to her mouth.

His opponent grins beneath the helm, sword coming down—but again, out swings his shield in that explosive arc, catching the gauntleted hand, the sword flying from its grip. With a forward lunge, he snatches the dropped sword from the air and brings it up, smashing his opponent on the breastplate, toppling him backward into the dirt.

Two more, coming at him from behind, their guards up. He does not turn. He shifts his stance and tenses, sword held out at his side. His opponents lower their shields to strike.

Their mistakes.

In another blur he spins in place, bringing a savage blow across both opponents at once, the first against a breastplate, the second a vambrace. His opponents, stumbled, are then easy prey. Two lighting strikes—one low, sweeping the legs, the other an upward strike to the flank. Down, and down.

And apparently, that's that. The men are picking themselves up from the ground, one by one, making no further moves to attack. Whatever manner of test this was, he seems to have passed.

None of them touched him. Not so much as a glancing blow.

He isn't smiling, though. Still in his fighting stance, his face is as solemn as it was that day in the Sanctum. Then his posture relaxes, arms dropping to his sides—and before she can think, before she can breathe, his head lifts and his eyes find hers. The angle of the sun sets his dusty hair alight, a golden halo. Or a crown of victory. Gooseflesh rises on her arms. She's seen such an image before. Somewhere.

One, two, three beats of her heart, and then she's turning, lifting her skirts, moving off across the ramparts as fast as she can while still preserving her dignity. What's left of it.

“Show-off,” she mutters to herself.

Chapter Text

Zelda fiddles with the arrangement of flowers in the center of the table. Rose, andromeda, and clematis, as Mother preferred for her teas. It looks friendly and inviting. She wants to pick it up, bring it over to the window, and toss it out. Or perhaps bring in yet more flowers, some nice long stems of delphinium and safflina, piled up high so she won't have to look at his face.

She sees that face again as she saw it outside, tilted up to her with the sun in his hair. Meeting her eyes, bold as brass. No accident. Knowing the whole time that she was standing there, and wanting her to know he knew. She finds herself crushing one of the blossoms in her fist, and makes a halfhearted attempt to smooth it back open again.

The parlor that once belonged to mother—the Queen's Room, as it's still known—is still full of all the delicate furnishings and elegant touches that Mother once favored. How many breakfasts and luncheons and teas did Zelda attend in this room, sitting at Mother's side while she entertained her guests? In spite of her mood, Zelda smiles, remembering the earliest ones when Mother would lift her up and place her onto her chair atop thick velvet cushions, always doing it herself, rather than leaving it to the servants. Mother so loved to entertain, and it was important to her to begin Zelda's instruction early.

If only Mother thought to begin all of her instruction early. If only it was prayer instead of poise, power instead of parties. If only she'd managed to absorb even half of Mother's charm and grace from the instruction she had gotten. If only—

Behind her, the door opens and shuts. Familiar footsteps approach. Mother, she thinks, please lend me your strength. As though Mother wouldn't be terribly disappointed in her at the moment.

“Master Link has arrived, Princess. Shall I show him in?”

She turns away from the table, straightening her back and folding her hands in front of her. “Yes, please. Thank you, Bertram. You remember what we discussed?”

“Of course, Princess.” Her master steward, ever the embodiment of patience, inclines his head in assent, then once more before withdrawing to retrieve her guest. Is it her imagination, or has he gone a bit more gray at the temples these past few hours?

Her guest enters on Bertram's heels and moves to stand before her, presenting himself with a courteous bow. Zelda blinks her surprise, and realizes that, against all logic and reason, she was expecting him as fixed in her mind from several hours earlier: sweaty, disheveled, covered in dust, morning sunlight in his hair.

His hair still shines, but not in sunlight. The dust is gone, and the dirt and sweat, replaced by clean clothes, bright mail, and a fresh white surcoat. The scent of soap clings to him. You polished your boots, Zelda almost says, but stops herself just in time.

He seems a bit taller than she remembers, as well— just about her own height. He stands the same way he did before, in that straight-backed stance, and he can't have grown in a week. Perhaps there are lifts in those polished boots of his. Or he just looks taller, away from the company of burly soldiers and honor guards.

And of course, there's the sword. Can't forget that. If what she's heard is true, he wears it everywhere, even to bed. She tells herself that this behavior is natural, that it's a holy artifact entrusted to his care, and it's his duty to safeguard it. That its presence is absolutely not an affront to her.

Between them, Bertram clears his throat. Zelda realizes that he's made his announcement and that they're both awaiting her acknowledgment.

Somehow, she unclenches her jaw and softens her expression to something she hopes might pass for regal. She nods to Bertram, and then to her guest. “Welcome. Please, make yourself comfortable.” She gestures toward the round table, set with flowers and fine linen and Mother's porcelain.

Yes, Mother would be disappointed, indeed.

Father said luncheon, specifically. He no doubt had good reason. His intention was for this to be, among other things, a drawn-out discussion in which his failure of a daughter might glean something, anything, to help her attain the purpose for which she was born. Well, there are limits. If she has to debase herself, she can do so on her own terms.

Tea will be good enough.

She waits for her guest to seat himself before taking her own seat, and so she sees how he has to shift and position himself in the high-backed chair to accommodate the sword. The movements are practiced, without a trace of awkwardness. She supposes if he can manage sleeping with the thing, a chair shouldn't present much of a challenge.

Not wanting to go any further down that line of thought, she takes her seat across from him, and signals for service to begin.

She unfolds her napkin and places it in her lap, watching her guest follow her example a moment later, as Bertram pours tea and sets out the first small platters of savories and sweets. Not too much food. And it's not to go on for too long; an hour at most. I have much to attend to this afternoon. Mother would be appalled.

At a nod from Zelda, Bertram bows and withdraws, closing the doors behind him.

“We have much to discuss,” Zelda says without preamble, adding a spoonful of sugar to her tea. “Though we both have many demands on our time, I thought it best that we meet, however briefly, to address the situation as it currently stands, and the next steps which must be taken.”

She stirs her tea, waiting. When he does not reply, she looks up.

He's looking at her, just looking, his face attentive, but otherwise unreadable. As though he's waiting for something. Likely for her to fall all over herself telling him how wonderful he is and how happy she is that he's arrived. Well, he'd best settle in. That wait will be a long one.

His eyes are, unfortunately, as blue as she remembers. She takes a breath, refusing to look away. “Tomorrow you are to be knighted, and our plans for the battle with Calamity Ganon will begin in earnest. How much do you know about what we are to face? About the great battle fought ten thousand years ago, the last time our enemy showed itself?”

He turns his gaze to his tea, adds a spoon of sugar, and stirs. “I know some, Princess,” he says. Zelda frowns. Not at his answer, but at the tea. Does he normally take it that way? Or is he imitating her, unsure of what's proper? He should be unsure. Even the courtliest of knights are rarely at home amongst delicate teacups and dainty food. Which is rather the point. Yet he won't do her the courtesy of looking the least bit flustered.

When he doesn't elaborate, she continues. “The ones who fought in that battle were not the first to face Ganon. But their victory was the greatest, standing for a hundred centuries, even to this very day. Our records of the distant past are far from complete, but we know that previous encounters with Ganon, in various forms, were far more frequent. Therefore, it is the consensus of my father, myself, and those we have taken into confidence, that we should seek to emulate the tactics and strategy of that last battle as closely as we possibly can.”

He's stirring his tea in what she interprets as a thoughtful manner. She waits. He sets the spoon down. “The Divine Beasts,” he says.

“You know of them, then.”

“Yes, Princess. I've seen the one excavated from Zora's Domain.”

Of course. She's heard he's spent a good amount of time there, and is acquainted with their royal family. “That would be Vah Ruta. The other three have also been found and excavated. Despite their great age, they remain in excellent condition, and our researchers are in the process of restoring them to full working order.”

He doesn't react as she expected, which is to say, he doesn't react at all. Just looks at her with that same unreadable expression.

“And once that is accomplished,” she says, managing to keep her voice level, “we will need our Champions. Four warriors of exceptional worth, possessed of great spiritual power, chosen to take control of the Divine Beasts and add their strength to yours. One each from the peoples of Zora, Goron, Gerudo, and Rito. You, as the sword's chosen, will be named Hylian Champion.” She takes a sip of tea to wash down the words. “I am given to understand that you have spent some time amongst the Zora, the Gorons, and the Gerudo.”

He nods.

“While we are certain of whom we shall approach amongst the Gerudo, we are still in discussions over the former two. My father is curious to know whether you might have any input. Do you know of anyone in particular who might possess these qualities?”

He seems to hesitate, wrapping a hand around his cup and looking into it. He does not drink. “Princess,” he says after a moment. “Is it certain—”

She waits, fighting the urge to tap a fingernail against her teacup.

“Is it certain that the researchers will succeed?” he continues. “As I understand it, little is known about the ancient relics and how they work. Do we know for certain that we'll be able to rely upon them?”

Zelda sets down her cup with enough force to make an audible clack. At the sound, he looks up. His eyes widen.

“So little in life is certain,” she says, smiling with all the warmth she feels, which is absolutely none. “That is, apparently, unless one is chosen by a legendary sword to be a legendary hero. I suppose such a one might have every reason to believe he can beat back the Calamity all on his own. Or is it that you have every reason to believe you might have to?”

When he doesn't respond, she goes on, “To answer your question, Hero, our researchers, who have devoted more years to their studies than either of us have been alive, have every confidence they will be able to harness this technology. I myself have been involved in the process, and can attest to the progress they are making.” She lifts her chin, daring him to contradict her, daring him to mention the glaring lack of the most crucial weapon of all: the weapon that, once beasts and machines and swords do their work, is to deliver the final blow.

He does not dare.

“Now it is my turn to ask a question,” she finds herself saying. “What exactly happened here twelve years ago, when you sparred with those novices in the yard?”

He blinks.

What is this? What is she doing? They have far more timely matters to consider, the sword chief among them. And yet— “This castle is rife with gossip, as you are no doubt aware, and from the youngest messenger boy, to my father the king, it seems everyone in the castle has a different version of one particular tale. The tale of a four-year-old boy who bested three novice knights in the practice yard, at one time, without assistance. That boy, I am told, is you, and I am also told that the one thing on which everyone agrees is that you've thus far been silent on the matter. So, tell me now. Set the record straight. What happened?”

“I—” He shakes his head. “It was a long time ago, Princess.”

“Indeed. Twelve years, if my understanding is correct.”

“Yes, Princess. I was... quite young.”

“Four years old, as I believe I've mentioned. Which is what makes the tale so remarkable.”

A tiny crease appears between his brows, and his mouth tightens.

“Why do you hesitate? Surely four years of age is not too young to remember.”

“I remember, Princess,” he says.

“I suppose you don't want to disappoint, then? By revealing that you did not, in fact, turn in midair over the head of a grown man and strike him on the helmet?”

“Ah—” his eyes cut to the side. “Well, there were crates, Princess. In the yard. I climbed one of them.”

“You... climbed a crate. Then leaped over the head of a grown man.”

“I was small, Princess. I was taught to use the terrain.”

He's telling the truth. She knows it. She sits back in her chair, cursing her heart for its pounding, and has to swallow before she can speak. “That was when you knew. Wasn't it?”

The hint of a frown.

“That was when you knew. Who you were. What you were to become. That was the moment you came into your power. At age four.”

His lips part, and for a moment a faraway look comes over his face. Then his gaze returns to her. “No, Princess.”

No? Was there a more impressive feat even earlier, then, which the castle rumor mill has yet to unearth?”

He doesn't answer.

“Then when was it? Another fight? Did you hear a voice? Or see a vision? Did the Goddess tell you in a dream that this was your destiny?” She leans towards him. “How did it happen? How did you know?”

His face is fathomless. Eyes like still water. “I cannot say, Princess. Forgive me.”

He cannot say.

When she speaks, her voice is calm and quiet. “Cannot say, as in, you do not know? Or as in, you do not wish to say?”

He doesn't answer.

In one motion, she whisks the napkin from her lap, places it on the table, and stands. He stands as well, nearly knocking his chair backward in his haste, napkin clinging to the front of his trousers before sliding to the floor. “Thank you for accepting my invitation,” she says, for all that she never actually wrote out that formal invite as father had commanded, instead sending a runner with a verbal message. “I won't take up any more of your time this afternoon. I trust that you can see yourself out?”

For a moment it looks as though he wishes to speak. Then, taking her words as the dismissal they are, he walks around the table, bows to her, and takes his leave.

Zelda remains where she is, between her chair and the table, listening to the sounds of his footsteps, then the doors, then the doors a second time as Bertram enters the room. “Princess?” comes his voice from behind her. “Is everything all right?”

A fair question, considering her exhaustive instructions on how to pace the service so as to move it along, only for her guest to leave after a quarter of an hour. She looks at the table, at the spoon he used to stir his tea. Neither he nor she touched a morsel of food. Somewhere, at this very moment, Mother must be shaking her head.

That evening, a message arrives for her. It's a small, plain envelope, bearing a seal she recognizes as one used by the clerical offices of the Knights of Hyrule. Inside is a short note in careful script:

Unto Her Royal Highness, Princess Zelda:

In regards to those possessed of the skill and spiritual power needed to fill the role of Champion, I offer two names: Mipha, Princess of the Zora, and Daruk, the Goron Chief.

Ever in service of Hyrule and the Royal Family,

Link

Zelda reads it once, then a second time, eyes lingering over the closing and signature. Then she strides to the hearth and tosses it into the fire.

 


 

In her mind's eye, Zelda can still see the paper curling to ash, the wax of the seal burning away, as she says, “Mipha, the Zora Princess, and Daruk, the Goron Chief.” The breakfast table, set with covered platters and silver tea service for two, stands untouched, a strange reminder of yesterday's farce.

Father stands before the wide stone hearth, hands behind his back, looking up at the portrait above the mantle. He nods, not taking his eyes from it.

“It is as I anticipated,” he says. “We are all in agreement. I see no cause for further delay. Write your missives, and dispatch the envoys to each of our chosen in advance of your arrival. You shall depart for Rito Village in two weeks' time, in the company of the Emissary and a royal retinue.”

Zelda's heart leaps. She's really to go, then? She, herself, in person?

“I still do not relish the idea of sending you off to the far reaches of the kingdom, nor of your dedicating weeks to travel and diplomacy when your most important task remains unfulfilled. But this task is near to equal in its importance. We must have our Champions if we are to prevail against this threat, and you must be the one to bring them into the fold. Things must be done in their proper fashion, and, as the Minister is fond of saying, there is power in ceremony. No missive or envoy can convey the gravity of our situation as fully as your presence, my daughter.”

Her presence, she notes. Her royal person. Not what she'll say or what she'll do. Still, it is Father placing his trust in her. Not to mention the opportunity to visit Zora's Domain and Gerudo Town again after so long, and to finally see Rito Village and Goron City—

Father turns, looking at her for the first time since she entered his parlor. “This is a heavy burden to place upon your shoulders, but no more than you were meant to bear. You must go to them, Zelda. You must make them see. Then, you must lead them. Will you accept this task?”

When Zelda was a very young girl, perhaps a year before Mother passed, her father took them on a hunt on the Great Plateau. He had hunted often in his youth, so she'd been told, the royal portraiture from those long-ago days depicting a man of athletic proportions, broad and blond-bearded, outfitted with bow and spear.

On this hunt, while Zelda and her mother stayed behind in their lavish pavilion, attended by servants and retainers, her father shot a boar and cleaned it of its innards with his own hands. Then he felled a young tree and lashed the carcass to it with rope, and, with the assistance of his burliest guard, carried it back to their encampment himself.

That afternoon, her father, the King of Hyrule, prepared the most prized cuts of meat for their supper. He let her help, setting before her the mortar and pestle full of curry spices. She worked at it with all the strength of her five-year-old arms, switching hands when one got tired, tongue poking out of her mouth in concentration, until they were fine as powder. Father pronounced them the most perfectly-ground spices in all the land, and Mother clapped her hands together and laughed.

When Zelda still wanted to help, Father set the bowl of meat before her, and though she wrinkled her nose at the feeling of the cubes of raw meat between her fingers, she followed her father's instructions, plunging her hands in and mixing them up with the spices she'd ground. I don't see why she can't just use a spoon, came Mother's voice, full of amusement.

All things, came Father's reply, must be done in their proper fashion. Here, I shall provide another example. And before Zelda knew what was happening, she was being swept up in Father's arms, an enormous wet kiss planted on her cheek, Father's white beard tickling her face. She still remembers how she giggled and squealed, how she flailed her dirty hands out to the sides, and how Father dusted off his hands with satisfaction as he set her on her feet again, while she ran for the bucket to wash.

On their return to the castle, they sat for a family portrait, father, mother, and daughter, the last one painted while Mother still lived. Though they did their posing in father's drawing room, the artist painted their likenesses among the mossy earth and tall trees of the Forest of Spirits.

Zelda looks up at the portrait now, above the great stone mantle.

It's no more than she was anticipating. It's no more than they had already discussed. It's what the ancient princess did, ten thousand years ago. It's not truly even her father's task to give.

And yet her eyes prickle, and her hands ball into fists, and her voice is half-choked as she says, “I accept, Father.”

Chapter Text

Zelda smooths the front of her gown as she walks. A simple one today, unornamented, in a pale blue-green. No need for regalia, when she'll just be sitting all day in the sewing room.

Ten days to go until the Champions' ceremony. Ten more days to go with little other than eating, sleeping, weaving, and sewing. Fortunately, those latter two at least involve prayer, or she'd have no time for the former two at all.

The garments must be crafted by the Princess herself. Father's face, oddly soft as he said it. By her own hands, woven with her blessings and prayers. I have heard only praise in regards to your skill, so you should be well prepared for this task. These garments will represent, not just the Champions themselves, but our family, our kingdom, and our commitment to protect our people from the doom that threatens them. Do us proud.

Two and a half months, to create five garments from nothing but spun thread. A tall order. With a month of that time spent traveling back and forth on her envoy missions, it became an even taller order. Without at least some assistance, it would have been impossible. Having the weaving master to set the loom and draft the patterns saved her a week's time at least—and she can hardly forget that little task she's passed along to her dressmaker. Even now, she feels a stab of guilt whenever she thinks about that, but it isn't technically part of the Champions' garb, and anyway, she has her hands more than full with the other five pieces. As it is, at her current rate, she'll just barely complete the last in time.

Yet while the end of each day finds her with eyes and hands fatigued and a persistent knot between her shoulder blades, it finds her most of all with an abiding joy in her heart. Each day is filled with a repeated sense of accomplishment; of designs forming in the weave—white on blue—of fabric being cut, of edges finished, of seams aligned just so. Every flash of the needle, every pass of the shuttle: progress, progress, progress.

She can see it now, how it's worn her down over the years—how so many of her endeavors involve so much effort with so little discernible reward. To the point where it's pathetically gratifying to be able to hold up a finished article of clothing and say, I made this.

And not for just anyone. For the Champions. Her Champions. Even now, she smiles whenever she thinks of that. She managed to do something right, for once. Succeeding in convincing even the holdouts—the proud and vain Revali, for one, and Mipha's father's, King Dorephan, for another. Dorephan had been the hardest. So reluctant to allow his daughter to take on such a dangerous task that he was willing to turn a blind eye to its importance—until Zelda wrote to him after her visit.

Now, she just has to make sure she does right by them.

Three garments are now fully completed. Revali's scarf the first, being the simplest—but no less striking for that, in Zelda's opinion. Then Urbosa's skirt, and Mipha's sash with its complex folding and draping. Now she's in the process of finishing Daruk's. And that will leave only—

Zelda sighs. She can't put off finishing the tunic any longer. And she can't just hand it off to Loma to do, either.

Well, nothing like a deadline to motivate a person, as the Minister always says.

She pushes open the door to the sewing room, and stops.

The hero of legend—the boy chosen by the sword, the youngest knight to join the order in two hundred years—is standing in the center of the room, hands held up beside his ears. He raises his head, meeting her eyes, and only then does she realize that she meant to look away. A shock races across her skin, like the charge before lightning, reminding her of that dream she couldn't remember the morning he arrived.

Loma, her dressmaker, is at his side, holding cream-colored fabric in place with one hand, reaching for a pin at her cuff with the other. “Oh, good morning, Princess,” she says. “Forgive me, I shan't be much longer. I did mean to have this finished by now, but I suppose time got away from me. Lower your arms, dear.”

That last is addressed to him. He does so, but doesn't take his eyes from Zelda's, nor she from his.

Her first sight of him in almost two months. The last, a chance meeting upon her return from Rito Village; riding into the courtyard with her retinue, only to find him having just returned from his own leave to Zora's Domain. With so many witnesses, there was no choice but to greet him cordially, though between her other trips and her work on the garments, she managed to avoid him thereafter.

Until, apparently, now.

He should be extending some courtesy to acknowledge her. She should be doing the same. They shouldn't just be standing here gaping at each other while Loma fusses with his hem.

His eyes are still as blue as she remembers. In the sunlit room, they're bright as day. Stop it, Zelda tells herself. Acknowledge him or ignore him, but either way, just go about your business. She doesn't move.

Loma is inserting more pins, pulling the hem just so, then stepping back and examining it. At least, that's what it seems she's doing, out of the corner of Zelda's eye. “Much better,” she's saying. “You want the fit nice and close, or it'll choke up under the outer garment. But not so tight as to restrict movement.” She makes another adjustment to his left sleeve, humming to herself.

“All right, dear.” Loma pats him and motions to the screen in the corner of the room. “Go ahead and change. Be sure to mind the pins.”

He nods, but doesn't break his gaze, taking a step backward, then another. His cheeks are flushed. He takes another step. Look away, Zelda tells herself, but she does not.

When he finally turns, he does so with a peculiar jerk of his head, as though physically tearing away from something. He heads for the screen with quick steps.

Zelda's eyes follow, taking in the garment pinned to fit his body, the contour of his back tapering from shoulders to waist. Another shock, this time of scandal, as though he were going about without any clothes at all—

The sword. He isn't wearing the sword.

She blinks when he disappears behind the screen. She's still standing in the doorway. Loma is looking at her, eyebrows raised.

Zelda lifts her chin and strides into the room. She goes to the large sewing table and brings out her basket, checking over her supplies. Project, shears, thread, needles, sense of dignity—oh, look, fresh out of that last.

Silence stretches in the room, save for the rustle of cloth behind the screen. Zelda can feel her face flaming, and wishes Ivy hadn't braided the front of her hair back earlier. Loma comes up behind her, heels clicking, and places a hand on the basket. “May I?” Zelda nods, happy to pretend she doesn't hear the sounds of chain mail clinking in the corner. Loma reaches in and lifts out Daruk's sash. “Oh, my,” she says, a smile lighting her face. “Princess. This is coming along so beautifully. Such clean lines. This cut here on the bias will drape just right. You always were my best student.”

Zelda smiles, feeling slightly less mortified. “Wasn't I your only student?”

“There were a few others. None worth mentioning.” Loma tucks the sash away as he emerges from behind the screen. The sword is back, as is the mail, and the surcoat emblazoned with the device of the Knights of Hyrule. “All right, dear,” Loma says, heading over to him with a shooing gesture. “You'll have to clear out, now. Can't go spoiling things before it's time.”

He nods, then moves to stand before Zelda, face still flushed, looking somewhere over her left shoulder as he bows, the way he should have when she first entered the room. It's only when Loma shows him out that Zelda realizes she didn't acknowledge him in turn.

“Such a nice boy,” Loma says as she closes the door. “Did I ever tell you how he helped me? It was a few days after he first arrived. I'd tripped on the stairs out by the gatehouse and dropped my basket. Well, I must have gone up those same stairs a thousand times without a problem, but of course on that day I happened to be carrying a box of solid gold buttons to bring to your father's tailor. The thing burst open, a king's ransom's worth of buttons scattering everywhere. He saw the whole thing. Spent two hours helping me find them all. Every last one. Even dove into the moat.”

Zelda sighs.

“The silver lining was, I got to tell him all about how I'd known his mother. I told you about her, didn't I? From back when I ran my sewing circle? Petite little thing, always having to take up her hemlines.” She shakes her head. “Poor dear. Such a shame about her.”

Loma has not, in fact, told Zelda a thing about his mother, but she seems to be under the impression that she has. Zelda feels no need to correct her.

“Well,” Zelda says, clapping her hands in a businesslike manner, “it's only ten more days until the ceremony, and after this, I still have the rest of the tunic's fabric to weave.”

“Oh! Yes, of course, Princess. Forgive me for prattling on.” Loma goes over to the corner, behind the screen, and retrieves the shirt. “What do you think?” she asks, holding it up. “I followed your design exactly.”

“It's beautiful,” Zelda says, relieved at the steadiness in her voice.

“Isn't it? I'm so pleased with how it turned out. I should have it finished up today. Then I'll get started on the spares. Send for me if you need anything, all right?”

Zelda nods. When the door is shut, she collects her basket and situates herself in the chair near the window, Daruk's sash in her lap. She stares down at the blue cloth.

Bright as day.

 


 

“I'm a little nervous,” Mipha is saying, reaching up and adjusting her headdress. “I'm not sure why.”

“It's a big day.” Urbosa smiles at her, then at Zelda in turn. Then she sighs, throwing up her hands. “I don't know what he expects to prove by making us wait. Other than his own rudeness.”

Zelda knows exactly what he expects to prove, and she also knows that he's proving it. “It's quite all right. The ceremony isn't to begin until noon. We have hours yet.”

“Well, if he thinks I'm going to stand around waiting that long, he's going to find me proving that his feathers make excellent fletching.”

Daruk chortles at that.

“I'm sure he just lost track of time,” Mipha says. “He'll be here any moment.”

“How is the research going?” Urbosa asks Zelda.

Zelda shakes her head. “It isn't, lately. I've been occupied with preparations for the ceremony. However, I plan to resume shortly thereafter, as soon as father makes the final decision regarding my appointed knight. There will be much to do regarding the Divine Beasts.”

“Yeah, um...” Daruk says, scratching his head. “I've been meaning to ask. How is all that Divine Beast stuff supposed to work, anyway?”

“We're all going to have to figure that out,” Zelda says with a smile. “Together.”

“Together,” Mipha says, with a firm nod. “I'm sure we can do it. This may sound a bit silly of me, and of course I'm taking it quite seriously, but I can't help thinking that it will be fun. Perhaps because I used to watch the excavators when I was younger, and wonder what it would be like to pilot a Divine Beast.” She looks up at the silent figure next to her. “Do you remember, Link?”

In reply to Mipha, he does something that Zelda has not yet seen him do. He smiles.

Thankfully, at that moment, she hears Urbosa's voice call, “Nice of you to show up.”

Revali breezes in from the antechamber. “Please pardon my lateness,” he drawls. “I'm afraid I lost track of time.”

Urbosa rolls her eyes. Mipha gives Urbosa a look that says, See? and makes an ushering gesture, inviting Revali to come stand next to them. Revali does so, making such a show of looking bored and unimpressed that Zelda wonders if he might not be a bit nervous as well.

Zelda bites back her smile and clears her throat as she moves to stand before a side table, on which has been placed a small, ornately carved wooden chest. She turns to address the group.

“Now that we're all gathered together,” she begins, “I'd like to thank you for meeting with me before the ceremony. As you know, the order of Champions is an ancient one, formed only once in all of history as far as we are aware, and for one purpose. That purpose unites us now.”

She looks at each of them in turn, and as one they look back, all traces of laughter, annoyance, and boredom replaced by calm resolve. “Ancient as it is,” she continues, “we do know some of the traditions and heraldry associated with this order, and it is in light of this that we have chosen to bestow upon each of you a signifier of your bonds, both with the royal family, and with one another.”

The room is so silent that when she opens the chest, she can hear the soft creak of the oiled hinges.

Stacked inside are the garments, each carefully folded and tied across with golden ribbon. She draws out the topmost, holding it with both palms upright, and turns to the group.

“These garments are unique in all the land. The thread woven into this cloth was specially commissioned by the King of Hyrule from our spinning masters, made of the finest materials our kingdom has to offer. The color is representative of the royal family's unsurpassed esteem; the dye a secret recipe passed down over thousands of years. I myself worked the loom that wove this fabric, and sewed each garment from start to finish. They have been consecrated in the sacred font in the Temple of Hylia, in the heart of this castle, and they carry with them my prayers for protection, my hopes for the future, and my dedication to this task. Please accept them on behalf of myself and my father, and wear them with the highest honor.”

She moves to stand before Revali, extending her arms, holding out the small parcel. “Revali of the people of Rito,” she says, “I offer you this sacred garment as a signifier of your role as Champion. Do you accept?”

Revali's face is as solemn as she's ever seen it. “I accept, Princess,” he says, taking the parcel in both hands, inclining his head in a way that's almost, but not quite, a bow.

The others take their cue from him. Urbosa, Mipha, and Daruk, each in turn, respond as Revali, with his not-quite-a-bow, and his solemn, “I accept, Princess.”

One last.

Zelda looks down into the chest, at the tunic in its golden ribbon.

She thinks back to the morning before last, standing in the sewing room, before the wooden form carved to the measurements of his body. On it, the cream shirt and blue tunic, the fit as perfect as can be determined on a form.

Standing there, assessing the work she had done. The shirt of her design, executed by Loma's hand, to complement the colors of the traditional bracers worn by Hylian archers.

The tunic, hers alone. Every stitch in it hers. Every warp and every weft. Every thought for his safety and strength, every prayer for protection, every hope for the future, hers alone. Standing there, reaching out and placing her hand on the chest of the form, where his heart would be, she found herself saying aloud—perhaps to the Goddess, perhaps to herself—My blessings go with you, Hero. Such as they are.

She stands before him now, extending her hands holding the parcel, the shirt and tunic tied in golden ribbon. She does not meet his eyes.

“Hero chosen by the sword,” she says, for she will not say his name. “I offer you this sacred garment as a signifier of your role as Champion. Do you accept?”

He lifts the parcel from her hands, inclining his head lower than the others. “I accept, Princess,” he says.

That's it, then. Zelda blows out a breath and takes a step back, folding her hands. “Thank you, all of you, truly. Now I must take my leave of you until the ceremony, as I have a few final preparations to undergo.”

“Um...” Mipha says. She's pointing to her parcel. “Is it all right... if we...”

Zelda's hand goes to her mouth. “Ah, Mipha—my apologies. Yes, of course. By all means.”

Almost as one, the five pull the ties on their ribbons, reminding Zelda of nothing so much as a group of children opening their birthday presents. Swathes of blue are unfurled.

Oh,” Mipha breathes, holding hers up. “It's lovely. This color. And look!” She points to the focal point of the design, bearing the depiction of her Divine Beast. “It's Ruta!”

“Fantastic,” says Urbosa, running her fingers over the cloth. She throws a look across her shoulder at Zelda. “You wove all of these? At a loom?”

“I always wondered why Father insisted that I learn,” Zelda says, smiling.

“Well, your hard work paid off.” Urbosa drapes the skirt over the one she's wearing, twisting to get a view of it across her legs.

“Gotta say, this is pretty snazzy,” says Daruk, throwing one end of the sash over his shoulder and holding it across his chest. “Beats the old chain any day of the week.”

“Not bad,” Revali says. “Not bad at all.”

Link,” comes Mipha's voice, again in that breathy tone. Zelda looks over to where he stands.

Unlike the others, he's said nothing. He has the shirt draped over one shoulder—of course he's already seen it—and is holding the tunic in both hands, just looking at it. His lips are parted as if to draw breath, but it almost appears as though he's forgotten how.

“It's—why, it's—” Mipha is staring up at him, shaking her head. She drapes her sash over her own shoulder and holds her hands out for the tunic. He hands it to her, frowning, and she holds it up before him. “Look at it. It's like it was made for you. Well, of course it was made for you, but—the color.”

“I see what she means,” Urbosa says. “That is doing some serious stuff to your eyes, kid.”

“What stuff?” says Daruk.

“Ugh,” says Revali.

That last sums it up as far as Zelda is concerned. “It's possible some small adjustments to the garments might be needed,” Zelda says, taking the excuse to move things along, “as I couldn't fit them to you in person. The royal tailor and dressmaker are in the next room waiting to assist you, and will help you get everything situated. And now I really do have to be going. I'll see all of you at the ceremony.”

Among a chorus of thank yous and see you laters, Zelda takes her leave, imagining a world in which, if this princess thing doesn't work out, she can always consider a career as a clothier.

 

Chapter Text

After all the pomp and pageantry of the day before—and with yet another banquet to come this evening—Zelda finds a simple lunch with her favorite Champion to be a very welcome respite.

“I wish you didn't have to leave, tomorrow,” she says, between bites of roast duck. “Surely Urvani can keep things running smoothly for a few more days in your absence.”

At this, Urbosa appears to choke on her mouthful of potatoes, and Zelda is halfway out of her chair before she realizes it's only laughter. She sits back down as Urbosa swallows with some difficulty.

“You beat me to it,” Urbosa says, after a sip from her goblet. “I was just getting ready to tell you about her.”

“Oh, no. What's she done, now?”

“What she's done,” Urbosa says, “is run off and get married. To some voe she met two months ago at the bazaar, hailing from Hateno Village.”

Zelda puts her fork down, gaping across the table. “She didn't.”

Urbosa looks off toward the window with an airy expression. “Ah, yes. I hear that a lot in response to the things my sister does.”

“But—but when? When were you going to tell me?”

“I'm telling you right now. I got her letter a few days before I departed, and I thought I might as well see the shock on your face in person.” Urbosa leans back in her chair, gesturing toward Zelda, her gold rings and enameled fingernails glinting in the light. “You did not disappoint.”

“But I don't understand. She's sister of the chief. She's of the royal line. She's your heir. How can she just—oh, Urbosa, I'm sorry, I hope I'm not upsetting you. I just can't believe it.”

Urbosa waves this away. “You're not saying anything I haven't thought already. But you know Urvani. I suppose I should count myself fortunate. Historical accounts are filled with royal siblings who fight one another over thrones. Then there's mine, who's thankful every day she was born the younger, so she can leave all the responsibility to me. Though I will have the last laugh once she starts breeding. That's one responsibility she can take off my hands.”

Zelda half-sprays, half-spits her sip of cider back into her goblet. “Urbosa!” she chides, wiping her mouth to Urbosa's unapologetic laugh.

“I speak only truth,” Urbosa says. “It's far past time at least one of us married. Of course, I would have preferred to have given her my blessing and held a proper wedding for her. I would have preferred to have met the voe marrying my royal sister. But if it had to happen this way, so be it. I just hope she finds some happiness for a time.”

“So... how long will she be away with her new husband?”

Urbosa sighs. “She's planning to take the traditional year. After that, who knows?”

A whole year. And in Hateno, clear on the other side of the continent. Zelda reaches across the table and gives Urbosa's hand a squeeze. “I'm so sorry, I truly am. I know how much you'll miss her.”

“Yes, well.” Urbosa shrugs. “I doubt I'll have the time to be too lonely, now that I'm officially a Champion. And, naturally, I'll expect my esteemed commander to pay me a visit or two.”

“Can we start now? I'd depart with you tomorrow if Father would allow it.”

“Now that you're no longer chained to a loom, I don't see why not.”

“If only.” Zelda shakes her head. “I'll need to resume my daily rituals for a while, first, and give you all some time to familiarize yourselves with your Divine Beasts. And of course, there's the matter of—” She stops, her hands moving to twist the napkin in her lap.

“Your father and this appointed knight.”

Zelda tries to suppress her grimace. “It's a good thing. Really, it is. It will make everything much more efficient. Traveling with a retinue is slow and ponderous... those envoy missions took an entire month, when they might have taken half that... being able to move about more freely will be essential to performing my duties as leader, while still having enough time for prayer.”

Urbosa raises an eyebrow. “And yet...”

Zelda looks off toward the window, and sighs.

“Ah. So the choice has already been made.”

“It isn't definite, yet,” Zelda protests. “There's still the captain of my guard to consider, and a few other contenders.”

“Have you made your feelings known to your father?”

“For all the good it did me,” Zelda says, picking up her fork and prodding at the vegetables on her plate. “I put forth Captain Orvel as my top choice. But Father only said, 'I'll bear that in mind,' in this way that made it clear he knew I was really saying, 'anyone but the boy chosen by the sword.'”

“All right,” Urbosa says. “But if it is Link, would that really be so terrible? You know, his father was captain of your mother's—”

“Guard,” Zelda finishes. “Yes, I know. I'm sorry, but I'd really rather not talk about him any longer, if you don't mind. I hear quite enough about him as it is. Three months he's been here, but still hardly a day goes by that I don't hear about the hero or that sword or his paragon of a father—when I'm not hearing about who got caught in the undercroft with the butcher's daughter, or which of the stablehands was dismissed for shoveling horse dung into the path of the head groom, or which duchess made the unforgivable mistake of calling the Minister's second wife by his first wife's name.

“And that is, of course, when they aren't clucking their tongues over their poor dear princess and whatever could be wrong with her, why, we just don't understand it, she spends all that time in prayer, and her royal mother was simply overflowing with the Goddess's light, rest her sweet soul, and how can it be that the hero's claimed the sword but the princess still fails to—” She blinks to see Urbosa watching her with a concerned expression. Her cheeks prickle. “Sorry,” she says.

“No need to apologize to me,” Urbosa says, reaching across the table. “I just wish there were some way to make all of this easier for you.”

Zelda smiles, and takes her hand. “You're doing so, right now. Besides, I don't need things to be easy. I just need them to work.”

“Speaking of which,” Urbosa says, releasing her and picking up her goblet, “I hear the researchers are conducting some sort of test this afternoon?”

Now this is a topic on which she'd gladly converse for hours.

A short while later, after Urbosa has departed for her meeting with the Gerudo ambassador, Zelda walks with Purah along the ramparts, discussing the Sheikah slate.

“So when you say, 'get the image off of here,' you mean onto some sort of canvas? Like a painting?”

“You got it,” Purah says, sliding her finger along the face of the slate as they walk, searching through the gallery of images. “Wow, you really like taking pictures of flowers, don't you... ah, here we go!” She pulls up the image of Zelda and the other Champions, taken after the ceremony the day before.

Zelda takes the slate from Purah, wrinkling her nose at the image. Part of her isn't sure she even wants it. But it does commemorate an important occasion, and it is amusing in its way, with Daruk's enormous grin behind their startled faces, and certain other parties thrown just that little bit off balance.

“How would you do it?”

“Not sure yet,” Purah says. “We'll have to find a way to transfer the image to the Guidance Stone and work it out from there. Come with me to the lab tomorrow and we'll see what we can come up with.”

We. Zelda could kiss her. “I'll ask Father later today,” she says. “Actually, I'm much more excited about the potential beyond this one picture. The space on the slate is so limited, and it would be incredibly useful to be able to archive older images while freeing space for new ones. Still, I know if nothing else, Mipha would be pleased to have it. She's the one who wanted a picture in the first place.”

Purah chuckles. “I know. You really have to hand it to her. Honestly, I thought she might be over it by now, but it seems she's got it as bad as ever.”

Zelda frowns at her. “Has what as bad as ever?”

“Um...” Purah gives her a sidelong glance. “Her... love of Ruta. She was always so fascinated by it, saying how cute its nose was, wondering how one person was supposed to move something that big all by themselves... and she'd... always make it a point to take Link to the excavation site, when he'd come visit...”

Probably had to drag him by one of his earrings, Zelda thinks to herself, wondering why Purah's looking at her like that. Is she missing something? She'd just caught sight of him with Mipha on the way here, in one of the courtyards below, and they seemed to get along fine.

“Anyway, never mind that,” Purah says. “Robbie should be almost finished setting up by now.”

The test. If Zelda weren't on the ramparts in plain sight of half the castle, she'd be jumping up and down right now. “Won't you give me a hint?” she says, clasping her hands, as though she hasn't any idea what it could be.

“Sure. It involves testing.”

Zelda gives her a look, and Purah laughs. “Come on, we'll go right now. He's set up in the practice yard.”

As they pass by the yard on the rampart above, Zelda looks down and finds it vacant of the usual novices and sparring soldiers, cleared of all except a perimeter guard of knights and Sheikah warriors. All of that is secondary, though, to the sight of the large mechanical figure towering in the center, a giant upended urn from a forgotten age, resting dormant on six sinuous legs.

“I thought so,” Zelda breathes.

“Well, it's not like we could get a Divine Beast here without your knowing it,” Purah says, smiling. “Not that I wouldn't like to give it a try.”

Zelda's head swivels as she walks past, unable to look away from the sight of a Guardian just sitting in the middle of the practice yard.

“This particular one is Robbie's baby,” Purah says, as they descend the stairs. “He won't let anyone else near it, not even me. He was driving the moving team so crazy earlier that I finally had to walk away and leave him to it. I do agree with him, though, that it's best to do it here.”

As they enter the yard, she gestures to the high stone walls surrounding them all sides. “See? It's the most contained outdoor space here in the castle, and there are all those knights in the guardhouse if something goes wrong.” Two of the walls are featureless. The third wall makes up the face of one of the guardhouses, sheer except for its door and two windows. The fourth wall features a large iron gate, now closed, through which the Guardian would have been moved.

“Do you expect something to go wrong?”

“Always a chance of something going wrong. They are weapons, after—shit!” Purah stumbles, and follows that last word with a much filthier one, kicking at something on the ground. “Stupid soldiers leaving their garbage everywhere—I almost broke my neck!” The offending item is a lid from one of the outdoor cookpots the soldiers use. It rolls a short distance away and topples back onto the dirt.

“Someone ought to teach them a lesson,” Zelda says, her face mostly straight.

“Sorry about that, Princess. I probably should stop swearing like a drunken teamster in front of you.”

“Why, should you swear like a different kind of teamster?”

“I might,” Purah says, “if there were any other kinds to choose from.”

“Good morning, Princess,” Robbie says as they approach, pausing just long enough to give a perfunctory bow before returning to scribbling in his notebook.

“It's afternoon,” Purah says.

“Morning, afternoon...” says Robbie, still scribbling. “What is time of day when dealing with the stuff of eons?”

“Oh, save us, here we go,” Purah says.

Zelda is barely listening. She's looking up at the Guardian.

She's seen a few before, of course. Half-buried, or covered in grime, or the occasional far sighting of a team of Sheikah excavators rolling one along on a trolley.

But like this? Up close, all polished to a high shine, feet planted firmly on the ground, looking almost alive...

It's dormant, of course, as they all were up until a few short weeks ago. Zelda remembers the thrill on receiving word from the Royal Lab that they finally managed to activate one, albeit for only a few seconds.

“Impressive, isn't it?” comes a voice at her side.

Zelda turns to find Impa there, smiling at her. Her heart lifts at the sight. Since Impa's started dividing her time between Kakariko and the castle, Zelda doesn't see nearly enough of her.

“I can still hardly believe they're real,” Zelda says.

“Real as we are,” Purah chimes in, attempting to read Robbie's writing over his shoulder. He turns to the side to shake her off, but she persists. “What does Cherry have to do with anything?”

“Everything,” Robbie says. “The fight against evil is the pursuit of life. And the pursuit of life is the pursuit of love. What is one without the other?”

“Seriously, get a diary,” Purah says. “Leave the research journals for actual research.”

Sometimes Zelda has to remind herself that the researchers are nearly twice her age—and that Purah is Impa's elder sister.

Robbie closes the notebook in one hand with a slap and brandishes his pencil. “Today,” he says, to no one in particular, “we make history.”

“We're not actually making any history,” Purah says in a stage whisper. “We're just testing the activation parameters.”

“Ah, but that's where you're wrong,” Robbie says, jabbing the pencil in her direction. He then turns to Zelda. “I trust Purah has informed you of the precautions we've taken, Princess?” When Zelda nods, he continues, “It is true that we've been studying the activation parameters over the past several weeks. We've now gotten to the point where we can activate some Guardians for as long as an hour before they return to their dormant state. However, there is still the matter of getting them to do anything. They'll be active, but they'll just sort of stand there. Couldn't figure out how to give them any commands.”

“Until three days ago,” Purah drawls under her breath.

“Until three days—” Robbie frowns at her. “Do you mind?”

Purah makes a let's move this along gesture with her hand.

“Ahem. Anyway, three days ago, we finally cracked one of the commands. We believe they're actually overrides, meant to complement the Guardians' autonomous functionality. The Guardians are meant to fight on their own, you see. Point them at the Calamity and watch them go. But, no Calamity, nothing to do. They just wait for commands until they eventually shut down, presumably to conserve energy.”

“I see,” Zelda says.

“Wait,” Impa says. “Are you saying you intend to use one of these commands here? In the castle? This early in the initial testing phase?”

“There's only one command,” Purah says. “He got it to spin its head around. But yeah, this is news to me, too.”

Robbie shrugs. “The king wants to see it.” He points with his pencil to a spot behind them and above their heads. Purah looks up, and Zelda and Impa turn to see none other than King Rhoam himself standing on the ramparts above the guardhouse, flanked by four of his guards.

Next to her, Impa bows. Swallowing, Zelda lifts a hand and waves to her father. It's hard to tell from this distance, but it seems as though he nods.

“I still question the wisdom of this,” Impa says. “Not to impugn your father's judgment, Princess.”

Robbie nods. “We all agree that there's some degree of risk—hence the precautions.”

“Well, are we just going to stand around talking about it, or are we going to do it, already?” Purah says.

“An excellent question,” says Robbie. “Princess? We'll begin by your leave.”

“Whenever you're ready,” Zelda says, trying not to shiver with excitement. It is what Father wants, after all. “Just tell me where I should stand.”

“Here, let's all of us get out of his way,” Purah says. “Right over here. Oh, stop making that face, Impa. You're going to give yourself wrinkles.”

Impa shoots her a look, but soon the attention of all three of them is on Robbie, now approaching the Guardian holding a pair of pronged metal tools.

“Our hypothesis is that there was originally some sort of controlling device,” Purah explains, “similar to the Sheikah slate. But until we find one, or figure out how to make one, we have to activate them manually.”

Robbie steps up onto the lower half of the Guardian and reaches up, inserting the tools into the groove that forms its neck. He pushes with one hand, twists with the other, and with a flicker and a stuttering sound, the Guardian comes to life, blue and yellow lights glowing from the swirls and grooves carved into its body.

Zelda's fingers come up to cover her mouth.

Robbie hops off the Guardian and steps back, surveying it with hands on hips. “Ah, she's a beauty, isn't she?”

She?” Purah says. “You're not gonna name her Cherry, are you?”

Robbie ignores this, setting down the tools and retrieving the notebook, jotting something down.

“I can't believe it,” Zelda whispers through her hands. Even knowing about it for weeks, it's something else entirely to see it before her eyes. “You did it. You got them to work. They actually work.” She reaches out and clutches at Purah's hand, then Impa's. “This is going to work, isn't it?” she says to them, having to force the words past the lump in her throat. “We can really do this. We can really make this work!”

Impa and Purah smile at each other, then at her. “That's the plan,” Purah says.

The sound of Robbie clearing his throat brings their attention back to him and the Guardian. “Now, watch carefully.” He raises a hand to eye level and makes a peculiar gesture with his fingers.

The Guardian's head spins around. Zelda lets out a gleeful laugh.

Robbie does it again, and the head spins again. Then he does it a third time.

And all havoc breaks loose.

It happens before Zelda has a chance to take it in. There's a bright blue flash, a screeching sound—and then a beam of light bursts from the Guardian's head. It slams into the wall across from them with the force of a cannonball, dust and rubble spraying from the archway surrounding the iron gate.

There are shouts. People running. Another blast, going past her to the wall behind. More shouts. Cries of, “The princess!”

There are hands tugging at her, but she's frozen, rooted to the spot. The Guardian's head spins. Blasts again.

A booming shout is coming from above that she recognizes as her father's. And then she's surrounded, her vision obscured by armor and white surcoats. Two knights have grabbed hold of her upper arms and are pulling her into a run toward the guardhouse, two more at her flank with shields raised.

Once they're inside, it's as though a spell has been broken. Zelda blinks and shakes herself, then dashes up the stairs to the second floor and over to the window. Two of the knights follow. “Princess,” calls one of them. “Get away from there!”

Another blast. And another. The knights try to move her from the window, but she wrenches from their grasp and scans the yard below. It's wreathed in smoke and littered in rubble, but there are no bodies she can see. Where are Robbie and Purah and Impa? Are they hurt? Why aren't they stopping it? Can they stop it?

A shout from below. The Guardian spins its head again, and now Zelda can see its eye, round and glowing and untroubled, aiming in the direction of the voice. There's that flash of light once more, and then—

The head explodes.

Or rather, seems to explode. After a moment passes, Zelda can see it's still intact. But smoke is erupting from the Guardian, its lights flickering, its legs faltering. With a sputter and a whirring sound, it sits low on its legs, spins its head half a turn, and shuts down.

Zelda grips the windowsill, trying to get a grip on herself. All of this has happened in the space of a minute. “Princess,” says one of the knights at her elbow. “Let us take you to your father.”

She whirls from the window and flies down the stairs, holding fistfuls of her skirts. The lower floor is packed with those taking shelter, including, to her unending relief, all three researchers. But she has to see. Has to see what happened. She pushes her way through the crowd, slipping past those who try to stop her, and has to shout at the guard twice before he opens the door.

There are two figures in the yard.

One is the Guardian, smoking and dormant, hunched on its crooked legs.

The other is—

He turns to her, clad in blue, in the tunic made by her hands, with all her prayers for protection and hopes for the future.

On his arm is a pot lid.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Princess Zelda walks the corridors with a smile fixed to her face. A royal smile. A dignified smile.

The events of the past two days have meant a flurry of activity in the corridors, beyond even the usual. Everywhere are guards on patrol, maids and stewards seeing to various needs, couriers delivering messages, and noble guests milling about with their attendants. All pause to acknowledge her royal presence as she passes. All eyes pretend they aren't following her. All whispers start up again in her wake.

She walks with graceful steps and a smile on her face, and does not scowl and stomp her way down the corridors to her father's chambers. Because she is dignified. Poised. In control.

A princess.

But inside her head, where no one else can hear, her every step pounds her frustrations out on the carpet running along the flagstones. No one ever asked if I wanted to be a princess. No one asked if I wanted to be the chosen vessel for the sacred power. No one asked if I want the blasted chosen hero tailing my every blasted step.

And she knows that's what's coming. There's only one reason Father would be summoning her to his chambers this close to the evening's festivities. Father is not what one would call subtle. At least he's doing her the courtesy of breaking the news to her first, before he makes the inevitable announcement at the banquet.

Zelda stifles a groan. The banquet. Perhaps she might arrange to find herself with a dreadful, incapacitating illness that lasts precisely four hours long.

But, no. While inside her mind she might indulge in the occasional bout of self-pity, duty is still duty. Her only option is to take this one last opportunity to talk some sense into Father.

As she nears the doors to Father's chambers, she finds the Minister taking his leave. There are deep furrows wrinkling his broad brow, and his jowls sag more than usual. It's a look he often wears when he's been attempting to talk sense into Father.

Not a good sign.

“I assure you, Zelda, I am very much aware of the knights who saw to your safety earlier,” Father says a short while later, as he stands with arms crossed in front of the hearth. At least he's facing her this time. “Emory has seen fit to spend the past hour informing me of them. In addition to reiterating his opinion regarding the appointment of, as he puts it, 'a sixteen-year-old boy to guard my sixteen-year-old daughter.' As I recall, the phrase, 'lost your mind,' was uttered more than once.”

Zelda makes a mental note to send the Minister a fruit basket. Or possibly a chest of jewels.

“To which I countered,” Father continues, “that if he could produce another candidate of any age endowed with divine proof of character, I would be delighted to consider them.”

Zelda deflates. No fruit basket, then.

“He is not unwise, but there is something that he fails to understand. As fine as those knights are—as are all the candidates—they are still but ordinary. Were these ordinary times, I could perhaps entrust your life to an ordinary man. But these are not ordinary times, my daughter, as well you know.”

Fair enough. She thinks back to the chaos earlier, in the wake of the Guardian's malfunction. Robbie rushing out into the yard, crying, Cherry! Purah and Impa throwing their arms around Zelda, sobbing apologies. Knights and Sheikah warriors brandishing their weapons, on watch against the Guardian's reactivation. Officers taking stock of the damage in the yard, and giving orders to clear away those who had come to gawk. Mipha, healing wounds sustained by flying fragments of stone.

And amidst it all, calm and resplendent in Champion's blue, the Hero.

Half of her furious at him for damaging a priceless ancient relic. The other half furious at him for taking so long.

She felt sorriest for Robbie. He blamed himself for all of it. He tried, she found out later, to shut down the Guardian, but it aimed a blast right at the cart where he set his equipment, scattering it everywhere. He was scrabbling in the dirt for his tools when he was picked up off the ground by two Sheikah warriors and half-carried into the guardhouse, kicking and screaming. Purah and Impa, after their aborted attempts at getting Zelda to safety, were similarly evacuated.

It was thus agreed that, until such time as it had sufficiently advanced, practical research on Guardians would be confined to the Royal Ancient Tech Lab.

“Which brings me to the reason I summoned you here,” Father says with a sigh, sinking into one of the plush armchairs by the hearth. With the approach of evening, the fire has been stoked, bringing warmth to the drafty parlor. “There is something that you do not know, and, given your feelings on this matter, it is my hope that it might bring you some perspective. It is a secret so closely guarded that, other than myself, there are but five still living who know of it.”

He motions for Zelda to sit in the chair across from him. She does, her posture erect, hands folded in her lap. Bracing herself.

“Do you know why it is that you are alive today?” Father says.

Zelda blinks. “I... beg your pardon, father?”

“The reason that you are alive. In spite of the plot to end your life before you were even a babe in arms.”

Her mouth opens as if to answer him, but she finds she had no words.

“There was an attempt on the life of your mother, a mere month or so before you were born. We believe, given the circumstances and portents at the time, that the target was not, in fact, your mother, but the child she carried in her womb; the girl child foretold to be the bane of the evil which would soon descend upon our land. We came to determine, with the help of our closest Sheikah retainers, that a clan known as the Yiga, foul servants of the Calamity Ganon, were behind it.”

“I know of the Yiga, Father,” Zelda says, trying to keep the impatience from her voice. “They use a corrupt and arcane magic that doesn't work here. The sacred waters protect us.”

“My daughter, arcane magic is hardly the only way one can attempt assassination. And these assassins were most clever. They bore no identifying markings or accoutrements, and presented themselves as castle staff. By all accounts, at the time they put their plan into action, they had been working in the kitchens for a month.”

Ice water trickles down her spine.

“One night, your mother, her condition being what it was, wished for some food. As she often did, so as not to disturb my rest, she had her maid accompany her to her parlor, and had her ring for the steward. She ordered a meal brought up—liver and onions; she ate almost nothing else for that entire month past—and the maid went to fetch her tea while she waited.

“Naturally, in her delicate condition, she was under guard day and night. Four royal guards were posted outside the parlor, two at each of the doors. None noticed anything amiss.

“Another guard, however,” Father continues, “had just been relieved of his watch. He happened to have been passing the kitchens en route to the stables, on his way home for the night, when he caught the scent of liver and onions. Knowing the queen's habits as he did, he thought to take a moment to jest with the cook, for his own wife had borne him a son not long since, and she had partaken of similar late-night fare.”

Zelda listens, imagining her mother then; what she felt, what she ate.

“However, when he entered the kitchens, he saw neither the usual night cook, nor the usual night stewards preparing the tray. Now, this would not have been all that remarkable, as schedules are known to change. But as he told it later, something, which he could not quite define, seemed amiss. Something about the way one steward's jacket was a hair too short, while the other's trousers were a bit loose. Something about the way the cook would not look directly at him. He dismissed it, anxious to get home to his wife and newborn son, but it continued to gnaw at him all the way to the stables.

“His horse had been brought around, and he had one foot in the stirrup before it came to him: that the cook and the stewards' faces, which had been known to him, were not the faces of a cook and stewards, but the faces of the three new scullions.

“The guard must have run like a madman all the way from the stables to the parlor, and mind you, he was not young. Accounts later told of his knocking messengers aside in his haste and taking stairs three at a time. When he reached the corridor outside the parlor, he found two guards on the floor in pools of blood, and the door of the parlor just closing.”

Her father pauses, shaking his head. “And then?” Zelda prompts. “What happened?”

“Luck, or fate, or the Goddess, was with us. He forced the door open as one of the assassins was attempting to secure it. The other was bringing his tray over to your mother, who, still attended by her maid, had not yet realized her peril. Their plan, such as we pieced it together afterwards, was to subdue the women before they could scream, dispatch them quickly, then, if possible, escape via the window, over the ramparts.”

Dispatch them. Her mother. Zelda covers her mouth, eyes prickling with unshed tears, as though Mother has not already been gone from her these past ten years.

“I know, my dear,” Father says, his voice gentle. “It is a horror to contemplate. Nothing similar has transpired during my lifetime.”

“So,” Zelda asks, composing herself, “what happened? When the guard broke into the room?”

“The assassin by the door took a blow to the face, and was stunned,” Father said. “When the other saw what was happening, he threw the tray aside and lunged for your mother. Fortunately, the guard managed to intercept him. Your poor mother took a fright, but she was unharmed. She was quite put off of liver and onions after that, as I recall.” A faraway look comes into his eyes for a moment, a hint of a fond smile on his face. Then he turns his attention back to Zelda. “He attempted to take them alive for questioning. But as he told it, the one he fought was too skilled and too vicious, and he was pressed to go for the kill. By that time, the guards at the other door had heard the commotion, and the first assassin found himself surrounded. Seeing that his fellow had been slain, he slit his own throat.”

“Coward,” Zelda hisses.

“Perhaps,” Father says. “Many men would prefer death to being captured in an attempt to murder a queen and her unborn child. However, we have reason to believe that this was not an act of cowardice, but fanaticism, a willingness to take their secrets to the grave. We believe that they would have attempted escape if circumstances allowed, but that they undertook the mission knowing they were likely to die. It was this, in addition to other signs, that led us to identify them as Yiga.

“Now, Zelda,” he says, fixing her with a shrewd look, “have you guessed at the identity of this guard?”

“I—” So caught up in the story, in the idea of her mother being the target of such an evil plot, she wasn't giving it a bit of thought. But now, considering how smug Father looks, the answer is obvious. “None but the hero's own father, I take it,” she says, lifting her chin.

“None other.”

“Well, there you have it,” Zelda says. “He was a royal guard, and proved to be quite competent. Therefore, there is no reason to believe his fellow guards would not do just as well.”

“Save for the guards whose throats were cut at your mother's door.”

Zelda opens her mouth to speak, but Father raises a hand, and she quiets. “Do not misunderstand me,” he says. “They were fine men. One does not attain the position of royal guard without proving oneself many times over. They were taken by surprise. They had no reason to suspect the stewards, any more than your mother had, or her maid, or any of the dozens of others that may have encountered them that night. No more reason than that guard had. Do you understand?”

She purses her lips.

“He paid attention,” Father says, stressing the last two words with two strikes of his fist on the arm of the chair. “He knew the queen's routine, inside and out. He knew the castle staff. He knew the flow of the schedules. He knew who was supposed to be where, and why. He noted small details, those that others would easily overlook. He had instincts, and the ability to act upon them without a moment's hesitation. These are the qualities that set him apart. These are the qualities that can make a single man a more effective guard than an entire retinue. And these are the qualities he has passed to his son.

“What happened out there today was neither luck nor coincidence. Facing down a rogue Guardian with the lid of a cook pot! How many fighting men, not just in this castle, but in the entire kingdom, do you think might have been capable of such a feat? Requiring not just courage, not just skill, but an instant assessment of the threat and the resources at hand? Do you not see how invaluable these things are in a guard? Do you not see why I would trust him with your life?”

He sits back in his chair. “You intend to proceed with your research. Inasmuch as it will be directly related to your position of command of the Champions, I shall allow it. But as times grow more dangerous, I cannot allow you to gallivant across Hyrule without the best protection available. Extraordinary protection.”

“But Father, I—”

Again, he raises a hand to silence her. “Enough. It could not be more clear that this is fate. The boy's father saved your mother's life, and yours. The torch has been passed. Link has proven his worth beyond all doubt. My word on this is final, Zelda. Make your peace with it.”

 


 

Upon arriving in the antechamber adjoining the throne room, she finds herself accosted by four of her Champions. The fifth is conspicuously absent, and Zelda is certain it's because he's even now meeting with her royal father.

“Is it true?” Mipha's words seem to burst from her against her will. “Has Link been really chosen as your appointed knight?”

“Ah.” Zelda smooths her hands over her skirt. She can't even be surprised. “Word travels fast, I see.”

“I suppose every so often, the rumor mill gets it right,” Urbosa says. “Though we didn't want to assume until we spoke to you directly. I can't say I'm all that surprised, given what happened earlier.”

“Can't believe I missed it!” Daruk exclaims, pounding one great fist into his other hand. “Whole castle's talking about it. A pot lid! That was some true Goron spirit, right there. You'll be in good hands, Princess, you can count on it.”

“Yes, I'm sure the hordes of monsters roaming the land will be equally impressed,” says Revali. “The very sight of this pot lid will have them fleeing back to their lairs and cooking up stew.”

“Mipha, are you all right?” Urbosa says, bending to get a better look at her.

“Fine,” Mipha says, a hand partially obscuring her face. “Just a headache.”

“Well, I think it's great,” Daruk says. “So what's the plan? When's the ceremony?”

“Ceremony?” Zelda says.

“The ceremony! For your appointed knight! I know we were all planning to leave tomorrow, but we can stay a little longer if we have to, can't we, guys?” He looks around to the others for confirmation.

“There is no ceremony,” Zelda says. “He's a Knight of Hyrule, sworn to serve his king in whatever way he is commanded. I'm headed to the research lab with Purah and Robbie tomorrow, and he is to be officially assigned the day after.” She'd asked Father for just one more day, a stay of execution. To her surprise, Father granted it, on the stipulation that there was to be no research involving Guardians.

“No ceremony?” Daruk says, scrunching up his enormous brow. “That's impossible! You Hylians have ceremonies for everything! You practically have a ceremony every time someone sneezes! Now, for a huge deal like this, nothing?”

Revali looks askance at him. “Weren't you the one saying how these 'formal shindigs' take it out of you? And now you want another one?”

“Well, want is a strong word,” Daruk says. “I just think we should have one, you know? Doesn't seem right not to. Impa,” he calls. “Back me up on this one.”

They all turn to find Impa entering the chamber, depositing a stack of books on a side table. “You'll have to be more specific than that, Daruk,” she says as she approaches.

“Don't mind him, Lady Impa,” says Revali. “He's got rocks in his head.”

“You said it, brother. Which is why I know what I'm talking about. Impa, you know all about that ancient lore stuff, right? Shouldn't there be some kind of ceremony for the Princess and her appointed knight?”

Don't, Zelda thinks, widening her eyes at Impa, hoping she can somehow read her thoughts. Please don't.

Impa, apparently more in the loop than any of the rest of them, doesn't miss a beat. She looks at Daruk and says, “Well, it's funny you should ask. In preparation for that great battle ten thousand years ago, the ancient hero was designated as appointed knight to the princess. And there was a ceremony, witnessed by the four Champions. Some of the text has actually survived in the royal archives.”

Zelda's shoulders slump.

“I knew it!” Daruk says, making a fist in the air. Revali turns aside from the group, scoffing.

Impa, taking note of Zelda's reaction, now speaks quickly. “It hardly seems necessary, however. Link takes his duties quite seriously, and is already sworn as a knight. I don't imagine there's a need for yet another oath.”

“Oath?” Mipha asks. She still has a hand to her head.

“Are you well, Mipha? You seem ill.”

“Headache,” Mipha says, with a note of impatience. “What's this about an oath?”

“It's a swearing ceremony,” Impa says, still looking concerned. “The princess performs a blessing, and then the knight swears himself to her service. To her specifically, in addition to his knightly oath to the realm and the king.”

Zelda's stomach clenches, but she affects a lighthearted tone. “That seems a bit excessive, doesn't it? Another oath? Another ceremony?” She turns to face the group. “Besides, I couldn't possibly steal away any more of your time. You've already been here for three days... we'd have to get him to agree, and then study up on the ceremony, and—”

“Are you kidding?” Daruk throws his arms wide, nearly smacking Urbosa, who dodges at the last second. “He'll be happy to do it! And hey, what's another couple days for a brother? And sister?” Again, he looks around to the others.

“It sounds lovely,” Mipha says, dropping her hand and standing up straighter. “Of course I'll stay.”

Revali snorts. “Fine.”

Urbosa gives Zelda a tentative look. “Well, if this is happening anyway... I suppose one more ceremony never hurt anybody.”

Zelda feels Impa's hand come to rest on her shoulder.

“That settles it, then,” says Daruk. “Now, what's taking the king so long? I'm starving!”

“When are you not starving?” says Revali.

“Right after eat. If I'm lucky.”

 


 

The following night, when Zelda returns from her visit to the lab, she sits at her desk and opens the envelope Impa left for her. Inside are several pages of notes with all available information on the ancient ceremony, transcribed from the books and scrolls in the archives. Impa must have stayed up all night to take care of it for her before departing for her visit to Kakariko.

Sighing, Zelda skims through the text, turning pages until she comes to the script of the ceremony itself:

Hero of Hyrule, chosen by the sword that seals the darkness, you have shown unflinching bravery and skill in the face of darkness and adversity, and have proven yourself worthy of the blessings of the Goddess Hylia.

Zelda sets her elbows on the desk, and her head in her hands.

“I can't do this,” she says aloud. “I can't.” How can she do this? How can she stand there—in front of the other four Champions, no less—and say these words to him? There's only so much humiliation even she can take.

How is any of this supposed to work? She can barely stand being in the same room with him, and now he's going to be in charge of her personal protection? By her side nearly every waking hour? With her on her research excursions, on her surveys, on her—her trips to the sacred springs—

She will not cry. She will not. He will not have her tears.

Straightening in her chair, she sets the notes aside and retrieves her diary. She doesn't have the strength for much—just a quick entry, mostly involving the day's failure at the lab. No surprise there. Then, if for no other reason than to account for what is bound to be an overall trend in her mood, she adds a quick postscript:

P.S. Tomorrow my father is assigning HIM as my appointed knight...

 


 

Her appointed knight and she are the first to arrive, two hours after sunup. They stand next to one another, not talking.

This is probably for the best.

She recalls the day before, when he was summoned to Father's office to receive his official appointment. She recalls the sound of his boots and thinking that surely there would come a time when she would grow accustomed to his walking into a room; some point at which the sight of him would not make a storm.

Sometime soon, she hopes.

His face, as always, was the opposite of a storm. Not one trace of emotion. No trepidation, no excitement, no annoyance, no pride. A placid sky. A mirror lake. Calm composure and a deferential bow.

The first thing Zelda said to him afterward was, I suppose you're feeling rather pleased with yourself about the Guardian, given your thoughts on the ancient relics.

This was also the only thing she said to him. It remains their only exchange since the appointment, even now.

Now, when he is to swear himself to her.

Revali arrives first, to Zelda's surprise, though he of course has the fastest method of travel at his disposal. He lights upon the ground with a smart little flourish. “Good morning, all. Lovely day for a flight, isn't it?”

“We'll have to take your word on that,” Zelda says, nodding her greeting.

The other three arrive together, via the road from Castle Town.

Zelda finds that she doesn't need a call to order. After the initial greetings, the four Champions simply line up, waiting for them to begin.

Her knight takes this as his cue. Facing north, toward the castle, he walks to the emblem at the very center of the grounds, carved into the white stone beneath their feet. Three triangles in their circular border.

When she moves into position before him, he bows his head and kneels, closing his eyes. She raises her hand and begins to speak.

There is a quality to the Sacred Grounds, an air of solemnity that pervades the stone and water, that lends itself to observance and quiet reflection. This quality is apparently lost on their companions, lined up to her right, who, in a shocking display of insouciance, begin talking halfway through. About the two of them. As though they're not ten feet away, each with two perfectly good ears. The word failures in Urbosa's voice stops Zelda almost in mid-sentence, her outstretched hand faltering.

Fortunately, Zelda has lots of practice being mortified. Also fortunately, her part is finished. She blows out a breath.

She looks down at him, at his reverent posture, at the smooth serenity on his face. If he's heard their companions' commentary, he gives no sign.

Always so composed. Always so assured. And why not? He has no reason to doubt.

He seems in deep concentration. The wind plays with his hair, the sun throwing shadows across his lashes.

When at last he raises his head and unsheaths the sword, a hush falls over their companions, and within Zelda herself. The Master Sword, blade of evil's bane, shines with holy splendor, almost as if lit from within.

Still kneeling, he holds it before him in both hands, point up, as in benediction. He takes a breath.

“Princess of Hyrule,” he says, “blood of the Goddess, you are the hope that shines in the darkness, the light that drives the shadow from this land. Whether skyward bound, adrift in time, or steeped in the glowing embers of twilight, the sacred blade is forever bound to the soul of the Hero, and the Hero forever to your service.”

Do these words have any actual meaning for him, or is he just reciting them by rote? Does he know the legends as she does?

“On this blade, before the Goddess and the Champions of Hyrule, I swear my service to you. I swear you my sword and my strength, my vigilance and my protection, my loyalty and my honor. I swear you my life. All that the Goddess may grant me, I swear to you, with my whole heart and without reservation, from this day forward.”

Zelda's heart gives a stutter. That's not the line. It's supposed to be: All of these things, I swear to you, without reservation, for as long as they shall be required. Why the change? Is that supposed to make it more convincing? Then:

“While I live, no harm will come to you.”

Now that's made up from whole cloth. She pauses in the act of raising her hand. Are you quite finished? she wants to say.

He is. He lowers the sword, laying it across his knee, one hand on the hilt, the other holding the flat of the blade in the upturned palm of his gloved hand. Waiting.

One, two, three beats of her heart, and she raises her hand again.

“Hero of Hyrule,” she says, “beloved of the Goddess Hylia, your oath is accepted. Rise, and take my hand.”

He rises, sheathing the sword, and she shifts the position of her hand in offering.

The moment his fingers come into contact with hers, a shock passes through her, gooseflesh erupting on her arms, as memory returns.

This is the dream.

The dream she had the morning he arrived. A figure, clad in blue, taking her hand on the Sacred Grounds. Indistinct in face and clothing, a corona of light about his head. Hands ungloved. Over his shoulder, darkly gleaming, the hilt of a sword.

Before her, in the bright morning light, the images of her sight and of her mind converge to one. She knew that morning. She knew. Then, when she saw him in the throne room, she knew again. How? How did she know?

She stares at him. She can't help it. There's something in his face as he looks back at her, no longer calm, no longer placid—hard and incandescent, blazing without heat, shining without light. There is power in ceremony, she thinks, through her haze. There's power in oath. There's power in ritual, and in purpose, and in conviction.

Their eyes lock and lock, as they did that morning in the sewing room. He still holds her by her uncovered fingers in that genteel manner, as one might greet a lady at court, or help her put on a glove. His fingers, also uncovered, are tough-skinned and very warm. It's the first time the two of them have ever touched.

It will be the last.

Her heart is pounding. There are words she's supposed to be saying, words to close the ceremony. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees the Champions looking at each other, then at her.

As she had to do in the Sanctum on the day of his arrival, she reaches for the far corner of herself that is still capable of speech, and finds it. “Go now in my service, and the service of this land. In the name of the Goddess Hylia, my blessings go with you.”

Such as they are.

He bows over her hand, and releases it. Over his shoulder, the sacred sword gleams.

The sight of it makes a storm.

 

Chapter Text

There's always so much more blood in the dream.

The maid carries the basket and the blood spills out, dripping onto the floor and leaving dark stains on the bright red carpet. Spilling and spilling as the maid walks, leaving a trail down the hall, and Zelda follows it, stepping in it, feeling it squelch under her bare feet...

In her bed, in darkest night, Zelda sits up amongst the bed curtains fluttering in the breeze from the window. As she always does, she pulls back the covers and, in the dark, examines her feet. They're clean and dry.

The dream always goes that way. She doesn't know why. Why, at the end, instead of a basket of bloodstained sheets, it's a basket of blood. Why she treads in it with bare feet, feeling the squelch. Sometimes she feels as though there's a little corner of her mind that hates her. Or just likes to wallow.

There's no use lying back down.

Zelda strikes one of the sulfur matches on the bedside table, lights the lantern, and carries it over to her desk. There, as she left them before turning in, are the notes on Divine Beast Vah Medoh.

It will be today. Her first research venture as commander of the Champions of Hyrule.

With a determination born of long practice, she shoves her grief and melancholy into a corner of her mind, and shuts the door. That ghastly dream will just have to find another morning to spoil.

This is hers. This project is hers. All the other research she's ever gotten to do has consisted of tagging along and observing while others break new ground. This time it will be she and her Champions breaking the ground. It will be she who gathers data, she who works with input from her team to solve problems, she who makes a lasting contribution to the body of human knowledge—and to the preservation of her kingdom.

She who does something important, for once. Something that matters.

Purah and Robbie understood, that day at the Royal Lab. After hours of fruitless experimenting with the Guidance Stone and the images on the slate, she was set to depart for the castle with her guards. The pair bid her farewell, wishing her luck on her work with the Divine Beasts, and Robbie said: They're yours now, Princess. You take good care of them. To which Purah added: We're here any time for a consult!

The end of that day had found her full of dread and disappointment, focusing only on the lack of progress, wondering how on earth she was to handle the world's greatest mechanical wonders when she couldn't even get a simple picture off the Sheikah slate. But now she feels differently. None of the other researchers made progress overnight, either. They had to start somewhere, too. They had to take things up from where someone else left off, and pave the way for others yet to come.

Now it will be her turn.

She sits down at her desk, paging through the notes, but finds herself too excited to read. Instead she ends up fiddling with the slate, erasing some of her flower pictures to make room for the ones she'll want to take of Medoh. They're all pictures that she's sketched already, but it still hurts to get rid of them. At least Purah seems confident that they'll figure out that transfer function.

The clock on the slate, keeping accurate time in five-minute intervals, reads 3:15 AM.

She makes it another five minutes before she's poking her head out of her bedroom door.

Caleb and Barrett are on duty; two of the knights transferred to her personal guard after the incident with the Guardian. She's not sure if they consider this a boon or a curse, especially when they have to stand outside her door all night, but what Father wants, Father gets.

“Good morning, Princess,” they say almost in unison, inclining their heads.

“Good morning,” she says, careful to keep the rest of herself hidden, as she's still in her nightdress. “If you would be so kind, I need messages run downstairs. First to your captain; have him awakened and informed that he is to be at the stables in one hour. Second, to the stables, to have the groom ready our horses.”

“Yes, Princess,” says Caleb. “We'll send a runner right away. Shall we send for your maids as well?”

“No need,” she says. “Thank you.”

Her new riding attire doesn't require her maids' assistance. She could kiss Loma for that. The style, debuted on her missions to the Champions several months earlier, is similar to her old riding attire, but more ornate, incorporating the signature blue. The belt even has a hook for the slate, and a pouch in the style worn by adventurers the world over.

“Important to look the part,” she says aloud, as she examines herself in the mirror. Especially now.

Zelda hums to herself as she brushes her hair and fixes the front into two braids that wrap around her hairline. It amuses her to recall her handmaids' faces when she asked them to teach her how to do it. Really, it would be far more practical to braid all of it up, but she hates the way that feels, as though she's walking about unclothed.

The corridor is silent at this hour, save for two sets of footsteps on carpeted stone; her own, and those of the guard following to escort her. She checks her small pack of personal belongings to ensure that she has her notes and journals, and then double-checks the slate at her hip. Everything is set. Her knight is to take care of all the other supplies.

Her knight.

The Silent Swordsman. The Blue Shadow. The price she has to pay for her freedom.

From the moment you exit the castle gates, until the moment you return, you are to remain in his presence. No exceptions.

And when I must answer the call of nature, Father? Should I remain in his presence then, as well?

Don't be vulgar, Zelda. Of course you will maintain your modesty and propriety. You are not to sleep while in the same room with him, either, unless necessitated by circumstance. He has received meticulous instruction in how to handle these matters, and will be expected to comport himself in a manner befitting his role as your sworn protector. You will, of course, inform me of the slightest indication of the contrary.

No small amount of trust to be placed in a lone boy with a sword, sacred or otherwise. Yet somehow, until Father stressed the importance of her knight behaving appropriately, it had never occurred to Zelda that he might do otherwise.

This plague of trust seems to spread to nearly everyone who comes in contact with him, as evidenced by the complete lack of outcry at his appointment. Even when, in accordance with custom, his new position rendered him a de facto royal guard, and captain of her personal guard. One might have expected this to ruffle a few feathers, if only those of her former captain.

I assure you, Princess, I carry no grievance. His appointment was not unexpected. Captain Orvel, tall and broad, gray encroaching in his red beard, had commanded her personal guard since she was old enough to have one.

I will speak to Father. It is a king's prerogative to sidestep custom if he so wishes.

You do me great honor, Princess, but I pray that you reconsider. Orvel's hand over his heart. It is a custom soundly rooted, in both tradition and in reason. My rank will be retained, and I'll be assisting Captain Link in his new role. It will be my privilege to continue in your service as second in command.

Zelda remembers wanting to shout at him, to stamp her foot and ask what was wrong with him. To ask why he wasn't furious at having a position that he'd worked for, that he'd earned, that he'd held in faithful service for fourteen years, given over to a boy whom he'd then have to train.

She'd considered the possibility that Orvel was furious, but just too dutiful to show it. Yet it doesn't seem that way. No, like everyone else around this place, he seems to think it all very fitting.

While she's considered these past two weeks with her new captain to be the longest of her life.

There have always been guards surrounding Zelda, for as long as she can remember. She's so accustomed to them that, most of the time, their presence simply fades into the background. Restrictive at times, reassuring at others, but for the most part, unobtrusive.

Which is not to say that he's obtrusive, exactly. Certainly not in any overt manner. He speaks not a word. He keeps the appropriate distance, moves in the appropriate ways, and responds to her comings and goings as would any other guard in primary position. By the book in every respect.

Save for one.

He doesn't fade.

She's aware of him all the time. Every moment. A constant drumbeat. A low and ceaseless hum.

His tireless focus doesn't help. All guards, no matter how disciplined, eventually grow at least somewhat lax and let their eyes and minds wander on occasion. But if he's done so, she's yet to catch him at it. When she's in his charge, he's on alert. More than once, walking the ramparts with him trailing behind, she's wondered whether he expects some winged nightmare from a fairy tale to swoop out of the sky and try to snatch her in its talons. More than once, she's thought the talons might be preferable.

Then there's night duty outside her chambers.

With three points of entry to her room—the upper walkway leading to her study, the door to the outer stairs, and the door to the inner corridor—six guards are needed, two at each point, to cover on a rotating basis. The captain rotates through like everyone else.

She remembers that first night, starting down the corridor to her room and spotting him. Turning right back around and going to the Temple, deciding she would just pray all night instead of sleeping. Praying and praying, unable to change into her prayer robes without her maids, soaking the front and sleeves of her gown. Ivy and Myrtle eventually arriving to fetch her.

Strict orders from your father, Princess. Myrtle's apologetic curtsy. We're not to let you exhaust yourself.

Back down the hall, with her maids, to her room, to see him standing there. Ten feet from her door. Passing him and the other guard without a word or glance, face burning.

Her maids bustling about her room, stoking the fire, getting a kettle of water on for washing up, turning back the covers. Making to undress her for bed.

Zelda's frantic mind casting about for a pretext. I think we should all play a game. How does Rummy sound, or Old Maid, or Spoil Five? How long has it been since we all talked? Ivy, is that cooper from Castle Town still courting you? Myrtle, are you still keeping up with your drawings?

She remembers looking at the sleepy faces of her maids, feeling the sticking discomfort of her soaked-through gown, feeling him out there—and then, finally, deciding she would not be cowed in her own bedroom.

Telling herself, Don't think about it, as they pushed aside her hair and started on the buttons beneath her high collar. Don't think about it, as she went behind her changing screen, taking off her shift and petticoat, gooseflesh raising on her bare skin as she fumbled with her nightdress. Don't think about it, after her maids withdrew, as she put out the lantern at her bedside and climbed into bed.

Don't think about it. Easy enough to say here in the castle, where he leads a unit twenty strong, rotating in and out to sleep, eat, train, and perform other duties. Easy to say, when she herself spends a good part of each day sequestered in the Temple, alone with the effigy of the Goddess, in ever more desperate prayer.

But outside these castle walls, he'll be a unit of one, and she'll have little escape outside of sleep.

Zelda squares her shoulders as she descends the steps leading down to the stables. “So be it,” she says aloud. If that's the price, it's the price. Her research, and whatever contribution she might make in the defense against the coming onslaught, will be worth it. She'll see to that.

At least it hasn't dampened her eagerness to set off. A little stab of guilt pierces her at having him woken two hours early out of excitement to get on the road, but he seems energetic enough to handle it. She checks the clock on the slate. It reads 4:10. Another twenty minutes or so to prepare herself. Good. It wouldn't hurt to have little bonding time with Argent.

Her hopes are dashed when the night groom leads her around to the large stall where Argent is housed. There, of course, is her knight, his back to her, sacred sword gleaming in the light of the lanterns, checking the girth that holds the saddle in place. He turns at her approach, inclining his head in polite greeting.

Kindly unhand my horse, she nearly says. But no—now that they'll be traveling together, she's determined to start things off on a pleasant note. “Good morning,” she says instead. “I trust you are well?”

He nods, his face a flat calm.

“Is all ready for our departure?”

Another nod. It's soon clear that this will be the extent of their conversation.

She recalls their tea that first week of his arrival, when it had been like the pulling of teeth to get a few words out of him. Not that she'd been overly pleased with the words she'd gotten.

Little had she known he'd been positively chatty.

His silence never seems to bother anyone else. Most seem to accept it, even admire him for it. The nastier castle gossip has long since died down, to be replaced with: Straight as an arrow, that lad. Doesn't muck about. Keeps his eyes and ears open, and his mouth shut.

Revali, his fellow Champion, remains one of the few exceptions. Why do people like him so? Revali had complained to her, on one occasion when they'd chanced to find themselves alone. While Zelda would never allow herself to do so within the hearing of others, in private she had admitted to him that it was an excellent question.

She supposes it must be easy enough, for those who don't have to spend day after day with those eyes and ears trained on them. Eyes and ears that take in everything, but give nothing in return.

At least the past two weeks have finally acclimated her to the sight of him, and the low constant drumbeat of his presence. He's just a person, she reminds herself. One who did not choose this any more than you did.

A soft nicker takes her out of her reverie, and she flushes as she realizes she's still looking at her knight, and he's still looking back. Quickly she moves to stroke Argent's muzzle, pleased to find him in calm spirits. “And good morning to you,” she says, her voice warming. “We have an adventure ahead of us, haven't we?”

Not that it isn't always an adventure with Argent. She remembers when Father presented him to her in preparation for her missions to the Champions. She'd been made to endure a long lecture from the Master of Horse on the royal breeding program that produced him. The jewel in their crown: a swift, strong, sure-footed stallion, magnificent to behold, with a pure white coat and golden mane.

As opposed to Aubrey, her faithful, piebald gelding, who was apparently no longer considered regal enough to bear her royal backside on her royal missions. Zelda had almost stopped the grooms when they'd brought out the gear for her first ride, the royal bridle, breastplate and breeching in ornate purple and gold. That's Aubrey's gear, she'd wanted to say. But of course it wasn't. It was the gear for the royal steed, and that was Argent now, by Father's decree, no matter that he was a stranger to her, and as yet unproven.

In the end, she'd relented. And on that first ride, discovered that he was, indeed, as swift and strong as he was beautiful. She'd also discovered which trait had fallen somewhat lower on the breeders' priority list: temperament.

Apparently it's no great matter if a princess almost breaks her neck, as long as the horse that throws her looks impressive enough.

Fortunately, she's gotten him well in hand since then. He's still rather spirited, but at this point, nothing she can't handle. Most of the time.

He's still no Aubrey, though.

Her knight—also no Aubrey—retrieves his bay stallion loaded with their supplies, and they lead the horses out to the courtyard. At this hour, the grounds are quiet, devoid of the usual shouts and bustle of activity. Guards watch from their posts on the ramparts above, clearly happy to have something to look at other than the stars.

As Zelda readies to mount, she's startled to find her knight moving to stand close beside her, at her horse's shoulder. He takes hold of the bridle with his left hand and stoops, holding his right hand at knee height, palm up. She blinks at the hand, not comprehending, until she remembers that's where she's supposed to place her foot. It's true that most ladies do need assistance, and that he would be expected to provide it...

“There's no need for that,” she says, composing herself. “I can manage just fine on my own.” When he steps back, she steadies Argent and places her foot in the stirrup, knee to her chest. In one hand she gathers the reins and grasps Argent's mane at the base of his neck; in the other she grasps the saddle's pommel. Then she propels herself upward, swinging her leg out and over. She looks down at her knight as she settles into the seat. “I've been riding since I was a girl.”

Some subtlety of expression emerges on his face as he looks up at her; it's only an instant, but she'd almost call it approval. She narrows her eyes. Keep your condescension to yourself, she wants to say, or you'll find both yourself and that hinny of yours eating my dust. He seems to get the message, for he moves off to mount his own horse with no further delay.

The night captain greets them at the gates. “You're departing early, Princess,” he says. “Anxious to be off?”

“I am indeed, Captain. No time like the present, as they say.”

“Aye, that they do, Princess,” he says with a smile, signaling for his men to open the gates. “Should be a good day for it; word from the weather master is it's holding clear out west. Safe journey to you, Princess, and to you, Captain.”

And then they're off, out through the gates, along the road through West Castle Town. The twilight sky is a deep azure, lightening toward the east, a scattering of stars still visible to the west.

Butterflies ascend in her stomach. This is really happening, she thinks.

 


 

Hours later, on the road south of the Scablands, she has the same thought again: this is really happening. Though this time it's under somewhat different circumstances.

They'd crossed through the Breach of Demise without a single encounter. Known as a favored nesting place for monsters, it's cleared out regularly by the Hyrulean infantry, to prevent encroachment on the neighboring quarry and settlement, and to keep the road clear to the Royal Lab to the north.

Here in the wilds of the Ridge is another story.

“Get behind me,” her knight calls as he nudges his horse past hers, the first words she's heard him utter in two weeks' time. “Stay at a canter. Keep a firm rein, and don't panic.” From the scabbard on his saddle he's pulled a recurve bow; as he speaks he nocks an arrow and draws. It's only then that she sees.

Don't panic. She may have bristled at the words, but she has to admit there's a certain wisdom to them when a horde of Bokoblins is coming down off a hillside.

The first arrow he looses strikes true, lodging in the chest of a red Bokoblin. The next strikes a blue between the eyes. Another right in its bulging eye, accompanied by a shriek. Another and another. Zelda has not the presence of mind to count. She grips the reins and watches the blur of her knight's arm as the arrows fly. Another lodges in a monster's neck. One misses, flying past a blue's head; the second gets it high on its forehead.

The last he shoots in the back, as it tries to clamber back up into the hills.

Zelda twists in her saddle, gawking at the carnage as they ride past. When they get a bit farther down the road, he pulls up, patting his horse's neck. She pulls up next to him.

“Are you well, Princess?” he asks, returning to his proper form of polite address.

She draws herself up. As in, can I handle riding past a few monsters that you already so kindly slaughtered? “Yes, I am quite well.”

He's searching her face, and it occurs to her that he must be waiting for thanks—and perhaps a bit of praise for his archery, which, to be fair, was impressive. She raises her eyebrows at him, and nudges Argent into a walk. “I'd rather not dawdle. At this rate, we should reach Great Bridge before noon. We'll get some food and rest the horses there.” With a press of her knees, she speeds up, transitioning back into a canter, and hears him fall in, taking his customary place behind and to her right.

Really, Zelda thinks, this whole travel situation can be managed easily enough on horseback. There aren't that many monsters, and most of the ones she's come across have been like these, ragtag bands with rough-hewn weapons, more pitiful than anything else. True, the band they just encountered was the largest she's seen thus far, and on foot they might have posed a problem. But they aren't on foot, and it would have been easy enough to ride right past the hillside and leave the beasts screeching after them in frustration. With a mount as strong as Argent, she's fairly confident that she could make it all the way to Rito Village on her own.

In light of that, her knight's little archery exhibition seems little more than an attempt to prove she needs his protection. Or a chance to show off his archery, as he'd shown off his swordsmanship for her months ago.

The swordsmanship had been impressive, too. Armed with a practice sword against five knights in plate, besting them handily, while a far more fearsome weapon lay dormant on his back.

A weapon that, by all reliable accounts, he never wields.

She's heard it said time and again, from knights, soldiers, guards, and runners; from stablehands and stewards; from the Minister, the Chancellor, and even the royal physician: He carries it around like a talisman everywhere he goes, but never uses the thing.

Of course, one might consider the other sorts of accounts:

You say what you will, but I had it from Roddy, who had it from Grig, who had it from Delred, who's lifted a cup or two with the sergeant who led the patrol. Cut a Moblin's head clean in two! Brains everywhere! Or as much as you're like to find in the head of a Moblin...

Some are given with a fair amount of slurring. So what's he do? Strolls ri—hic!—right up to the Hinox, casual as you please, draws the sword, and chops its great stinking foot off!

Still others are patently ridiculous: I heard the one time he drew it battle, it burned with a light so bright it pierced the eyes of the hordes to bleeding, and they all fled so fast in their terror that he didn't have to fight a one of them!

She has an inkling of just how reliable those are.

But where does that leave them? If he doesn't use the sword, or doesn't use it enough? Surely its use isn't to be taken lightly, but would it not still be wise to train with it? She's no expert in knightly combat, but she does know enough to understand that different weapons have different weights and balances, and handle differently. Yet there's the distinct possibility that he's spent the past three months mucking about with nearly every weapon inside the castle walls except the one on his own back. What if, when the time comes, he finds there's a crucial difference?

Not that she can bring this up to him. She scoffs to herself, imagining how that might go.

Pray, Hero of Hyrule, chosen by the sword that seals the darkness, but it occurs to me that your training regimen might be lacking in some important aspects.

I thank you, Princess of Hyrule, for bringing that to my attention. I will be sure to take it under advisement, just as soon as you get on with the business of awakening your alleged sealing power.

And that's if he answers at all.

About another hour down the road, as it begins to turn north, another hapless band of Bokoblins makes the mistake of showing itself. This time, her knight doesn't bother barking orders at her. He simply pulls ahead, readies his bow, puts an arrow into every last one of them—six; she makes it a point to count—and then stows it away again without breaking stride. By the time they ride past the bodies, he's already falling back into position behind her.

When he does, she can feel his eyes on her, just as she's felt them at the castle. It occurs to her that this feeling has been absent for most of the day. Has she been so distracted by the ride and her various thoughts that she's been blissfully unaware? Or is it that he's had his focus on the road instead of her?

Either way, she can feel him now, boring holes into the back of her head. Likely he's annoyed with her. Likely he thinks her spoiled and an ingrate. Likely he thinks her useless, and a failure, and a fraud.

It doesn't matter, she tells herself. Don't think about it. Focus on Medoh. She sees it in the distance, now, hovering in the sky as a great bird in flight, and something inside her eases. Focus on your research. It's worth it.

It's worth it, it's worth it, it's worth it.

 

Chapter Text

Zelda and her knight are not the only ones willing to brave the roads. Great Bridge is just as lively as when she was here last.

It's a bit of an unusual settlement, in that it was never supposed to be a settlement at all. It started with an inn, built with the discovery of groundwater on the eastern side of the Tabantha Great Bridge. The man who built it saw it as an opportunity, with no other waystop to be found between Tabantha to the north, Gerudo to the south, and Central Hyrule to the east. Travelers who had once been forced to spend the night on hard ground now found a place for hospitality, a good bed, and a hot meal. They flocked to the place, and where travelers meet, trade soon follows. As the inn grew, a marketplace grew up alongside it, and with that came traveling merchants and all their tents and temporary structures.

Now it's a hub of trade to rival Kara Kara Bazaar, and, for travelers from the south and east, it's also the most accessible point from which to view Tanagar Canyon, which has made it something of a tourist attraction.

On her visits here, Zelda finds herself to be a bit of an attraction as well.

“The princess!” come the cries from the watchmen on the outskirts of the settlement. “The princess approaches! Hail, Princess Zelda!”

Zelda pastes the royal smile on her face and braces herself. Not because she's loathe to greet her people, but because she's hungry. Breakfast had been only a few bites of cold roast beef and flatbread, consumed hours earlier when they'd stopped at the quarry settlement. She should have eaten more, but her stomach had been too fluttery with excitement, and she'd been too caught up in the lovely chat she was having with the site director about the igneous deposits on Death Mountain. All while her knight stood off to the side, chewing, scanning their surroundings, and casting her the occasional sidelong glance.

All she wants is a brief rest and a hot meal—but she's the princess, and the niceties must be observed, even on a painfully empty stomach.

By the time Zelda's been greeted by the watchmen, the captain of the watchmen, the constable, the market overseer, the settlement's overseer-in-chief, the proprietor's sons, and finally Erdo, the inn's proprietor himself—it's well after noon. She smiles and nods to travelers, nomads, merchants, and staff, drawing wide stares, hasty bows, and excited whispers from all directions:

Even lovelier than I imagined...

I saw her last time! She had a bunch of people with her, then...

Who is that with her? Is that her guard? He's so young...

Wait, I heard something about this... isn't he supposed to be some kind of hero?

That's that champion fellow of hers, isn't it? Where do you suppose they're going?

Do you think she's out here looking for that power of hers?

Her knight draws his own share of stares, particularly from the young women, who clasp their hands and clutch their baskets and look past their princess to follow him with their eyes. From what Zelda can tell, he seems to pay it no heed. But then, he never seems to pay much heed to anything.

At long last—possibly in response to an embarrassingly audible growl from her stomach, Erdo says, “If you would favor me, Princess, I was just about to sit down to my midday meal. I should be honored to host you at my private table. Your knight, as well.”

Zelda looks to her knight, but he's already holding up a hand and inclining his head in polite refusal.

“He means no insult, Erdo,” she says, speaking for him. “His duty compels him to decline.” Even though her whole party of retainers, including her guards, sat down with her on her last trip through here. Well, he can suit himself.

“Of course, of course. I've heard tales of you, young man. Your dedication is most admirable.”

 Erdo sets a superb table, and neither the food nor the conversation are unwelcome. “This plum sauce is outstanding,” Zelda says of the pork. “Most of the time I find it rather bland.”

“It's the plum wine, Princess,” Erdo says. “And a touch of ginger to balance the sweetness. Or so I've been told. I'm all but useless in the kitchen, myself.”

“Your cook is a treasure. Mind you treat her well, lest you find the royal household coming to woo her away.”

Erdo gives a hearty laugh. “Not if I woo her first, Princess!”

There are dumplings with a filling of tangy vegetables, eggplant in a spicy, garlicky sauce, crisp green beans with shallots and sesame seeds, and a delightful salad of carrot, red cabbage, and sweet pepper.

“Please,” she says, holding up a hand as Erdo offers her more of the pork. “Another bite and I shall be unable to sit my horse.” As it is, it will be a near thing.

Pleasant as it all is, she's just as glad when the fruit and tea are brought out. It's getting late, and she's anxious to get back on the road.

“Did you try this on your last time through, Princess?” Erdo indicates a pot of sweetened cherries in a thick syrup. “It's the custom up in northern Tabantha to sweeten one's tea.”

She's tried it. “Plain sugar will suffice for me, thank you,” she says, stirring a single spoon of it into her cup.

“Ah, yes, that's right. You know, I don't believe I've seen anyone else take their tea quite that way. Ah, but that sounded dreadfully impolite, did it not? I assure you I meant it as a compliment.”

“No cause to worry, Erdo. You're hardly the first to take notice.” Or to scrutinize even the smallest things I do. She finds herself looking over to where her knight stands, five feet from the table. She's reminded once again of that disastrous tea several months ago, when he added one spoon of sugar, no milk, just as she did. Again, she wonders if that was out of imitation.

Father would be quite pleased with her knight at the moment. Maintaining his customary state of readiness throughout his own meal of cheese, bread, and dried fruit from their travel rations. Erdo's guardsman seems to have taken notice of this, too, sizing him up with a narrow-eyed glare.

“This has all been lovely, Erdo, thank you,” Zelda says, as she sets down her empty cup. “But I'm afraid I really must be going. It is my hope to make it to Lake Totori before sunset.”

“Of course, of course,” he says, taking her offered hand as they both rise. “It's been an honor and a delight, Princess, as always. I'll have your horses brought around. Safe journey to you both.”

Even with her full stomach, it's all Zelda can do to keep her horse at a trot as they start across the bridge, wanting nothing more than to urge him to a full gallop. It's already well past two, the afternoon flying far faster than she had anticipated, even with the early start. From here it will be at least five or six more hours to Lake Totori, with the appropriate slowdowns and stops to rest the horses.

She was expecting to save more time traveling with a single companion, as opposed to traveling with a retinue. And, while it is indeed faster, she did still fail to account for her obligations as the princess.

“I wonder if I ought to rethink my approach to travel,” she says, partly to herself. “It would probably save a lot of time if we were to disguise ourselves... dress as common people, so as to avoid all the attention and necessary courtesies. But I don't know. Something about that doesn't sit right with me. It seems... almost dishonest. As though I have something to hide, or as though I want to hide. And I don't. I want to know my people, and I want them to know me. I want them to see us out here, and to know that we're doing everything we can for them... even if they don't quite understand what it is that we're doing. Even if I don't quite understand.” She blinks, realizing she's going on at length, and twists about to look at her knight, riding slightly behind and to her right. He's looking at her, in a way that makes it clear he's heard all she's said. She waits, but nothing seems forthcoming.

“Well, I suppose I've just asked myself a question, and answered it,” she murmurs, turning back around. “At least I can mark it down as some sort of accomplishment for the day.”

 


 

They reach the Totori Inn at dusk.

Zelda dismounts her horse with a groan. Everything aches. The slower pace of her previous trips was apparently much easier on the body. Poor Argent is looking tired as well. He should be content with the full day's rest he has ahead of him.

Her knight, on the other hand, hops down off his horse looking as fresh as he did early this morning. Curse him. She indulges herself in a brief little fantasy of him tripping over a rock.

“This is as far as we can take the horses,” she says to him. “The Rito don't want them fouling the path along the lake. There are a series of islands, connected by bridges, that lead to the village in the center of the lake... see it there, like a perch for a gigantic bird? Unfortunately, it's still several hours' walk from here.” She points at the road leading east, at an angle from their northwestern approach. “That's the road leading to Tabantha Village. And that one,” she says, pointing due south, “leads all the way around the lake, turning west and then north, to Dronoc's Pass and the archery range.”

He's looking at her, his expression unchanged.

“But you know all this already,” she says with a sigh. “You've been here before.”

He nods.

“Well, you might have said something. At any rate, I had not planned on stopping here for the night. But I must admit I am rather tired, and it is getting late. It would be quite rude of us to arrive in the village like thieves in the night, without greeting the elder, and even more so to roust him out of bed. So it would appear we have little choice in the matter.

“Very well, then,” she continues. “Might as well make the best of it. Get the horses stabled, and I'll see about rooms and a hot meal.”

“Only one is needed, Princess,” he says.

She's already started toward the inn, but that brings her up short. He hasn't spoken a single word since their morning encounter with the Bokoblins. She turns. “I beg your pardon?”

“I don't require quarters, Princess. Nor a meal. I am to guard you.”

She opens her mouth to object, but closes it again. Her guards did take rooms on her previous trips, but there were several, and they took duty in shifts. Were they in Rito Village proper, it would be one thing, but out here on the road...

“Very well,” she says again, nodding.

Her knight's idea of getting the horses stabled consists of flagging down a groom, giving him a few quick words and something that flashes silver, and then following her directly into the inn. This surprises her, after months of hearing the castle grooms speak of his love for horses, until she imagines the lecture he must have gotten from her father on never letting her out of his sight. Zelda imagines a horde of brigands ambushing her in the thirty-second walk across the innyard, and rolls her eyes for her own benefit.

The proprietor greets her with the customary enthusiasm, but fortunately, thanks to the late hour, she's able to claim exhaustion and have a meal sent to her room. “Whatever you have ready. Please don't prepare anything special. We are departing quite early in the morning, and I must rest.”

It's a modest sort of place, but that's all right. In fact, it's rather nice. It would hardly feel like much of an adventure with all her nights spent in luxury—there's plenty of that back home. A modicum of comfort, however, is still preferable. She imagines she could tolerate sleeping on the ground, if it were absolutely necessary, but she doesn't imagine she'd enjoy it.

Supper, when it comes, is a pie of venison and vegetables, as modest and functional as the room itself. A bit salty, she thinks as she takes a bite. Could use some livelier seasoning. But it will certainly do. She sits at the small dining table, a set of diagrams of Medoh at her elbow, but finds herself looking over at the door, instead.

Undoubtedly her knight is on the other side, having a far more utilitarian supper of dry sausage and canteen water. Likely while standing up. He does take this guard business seriously, she has to give him that.

Even so, there's no real reason why they couldn't have sat down together in the common room. Perhaps it isn't strictly proper, but isn't strictly improper, either, and such customs are generally relaxed in situations such as these. Yet he refused outright, even when she made it clear that she expected him to join her.

Of course, after being on the road with her all day, he's likely anxious for a break. The feeling is more than mutual. She wouldn't deny him a hot meal over it, but if he insists on denying himself, she isn't about to argue.

At least on the second half of their journey, they encountered fewer monsters. Two lone Bokoblins: that red, shortly after crossing the bridge, and the blue, attacking that woodcarver.

Zelda picks at her food, her appetite fading. The woodcarver. He was so grateful. As though his rescuer did something much more heroic than simply drawing his arm back and loosing an arrow. Granted, it was a fine shot, right in the back of the monster's head. But to go on and on about it the way he did—I thought that was the end of me, sir, I swear, I saw my life flashing before my eyes. Whole childhood and everything. Can't thank you enough, sir, I surely can't.

That's the way of it, though, isn't it? Small things from herself and from her knight are much larger things to her people. They can't defend themselves effectively against these monsters, at least not alone and on foot. Something as simple as a horse would have made the matter trivial, but he had only an enormous rucksack, making his way on foot to the market at Great Bridge to sell his wares.

This is why what they're doing is so important. This is why they have to use every possible means to oppose Calamity Ganon, and win at all costs. If a single Bokoblin proves too much for the average citizen to handle, how would they fare with the entire world covered in the malevolence of a primal evil? As for the woodcarver, it was a stroke of pure luck to come upon him as they did. How many other travelers, on foot, unarmed and alone, are out there right now, who won't be so lucky?

She recalls how she felt as she stood there, watching the man rifle through his sack, saying, Hold on... hold on, now. Don't you go anywhere. As he pulled out a bundle, unwrapping first the twine, then the cloth, revealing an object made of wood. A carving of a bear, up on its hind legs, mouth open in a hungry snarl, with individual teeth and claws, and finely etched features on its face. In some places, where light reflected on the lacquered surface, even individual hairs could be seen.

Please, sir. He was a youngish man, no older than twenty, who didn't seem to have a clue who they were. This here's one of my best. I'd like you to have it. They're considered good luck up north. Can't say as I can argue, considering. To her surprise, her knight accepted it with grace, even smiling at the man, and shaking his hand when it was offered.

She approved of him accepting the carving, even though he likely had no need of it, even though it might have brought the poor carver a good price at the market. It was right for him to accept it—not because he was within rights to claim a reward, but because the carver needed to give it to him.

We must show kindness to others, her mother would say. But sometimes the greater kindness is to accept a kindness from another. If you refuse always the graces of others, you refuse also their goodwill.

Zelda spears a pea on a tine of her fork and stares at it. Well, it's in him to be kind, when he so wishes. That's good to know.

A short while later, when she settling into bed, she again finds herself looking at the door, that low thrum of awareness as present as ever. She remembers again that first night when he stood outside her room—how her heart raced when she climbed into bed, how long it took her to fall asleep. Even with five other guards surrounding her room along with him. Now—

Don't think about it, she tells herself, and closes her eyes, grateful to be so exhausted.

 


 

It's close in the tent, and the ground is cold and hard. Zelda sits up, the top of her head brushing the canvas. A rough night on the ground, but she'll make do. They're on an adventure.

She pulls back the tent flap. He sits in front of it, cross-legged on the ground, his back to her. He wears the cream-colored shirt, its sides pinned to fit his form. In his hair is a coronet of twisting vines.

“I have to pray,” she says.

He turns, planting one naked hand behind him on the grass, unwinding his legs, draping his other arm across his knee. He smiles.

“Where can I go?”

He tilts his head, as though he knows a secret. Then he stands and starts off, to where the clearing ends and the forest begins.

She stands and follows, with her feet and with her eyes. Something is missing from his back, from the contour that narrows from shoulders to waist. She thinks to herself that he's not wearing enough clothing, and that he's wearing far too much.

The ground is cold against her bare feet. She looks down, and sees that she's naked.

 


 

Zelda opens her eyes in the dark.

She's somewhere with a cold draft coming from a shuttered window. It feels as though she's encased in a block of ice. Her neck is so stiff it refuses to turn as she looks left, then right.

In bed, in the Totori inn, a few hours' walk from Rito Village.

She sits up, sore and stiff, nearly falling off the bed in her efforts to retrieve the blankets. She hauls them back onto the bed and huddles under them, curling in onto herself, shivering.

The cold, she tells herself. That's what it was. I threw off the covers, got cold, and then dreamed I was naked. As for the rest of it, she can only conclude that, based on all gathered evidence, there really does seem to be a part of her mind that hates her.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Zelda hefts the heavy pack onto one aching shoulder, takes a deep, steadying breath, and opens the door.

On the other side is just what she expected: her knight standing with his back to her, three feet from the threshold, sacred sword gleaming in the dim light from the sconces. He turns to her, inclines his head in greeting, and steps aside, holding out a hand for the pack. At the sight of his silent, expressionless face, the polite good morning dies in her throat.

Instead she finds herself saying, “I'd like to get on the road right away, to regain some lost time. We'll breakfast as we walk.”

It's not quite daybreak, and a damp chill hangs heavy in the innyard. Zelda suppresses a shiver and thinks wistfully of her warm clothing, currently buried in the pack on her knight's shoulders. Even as this thought is forming in her mind, she hears his footsteps come to a halt behind her, and turns to find him setting down the pack and opening it. A moment later, he produces her overcoat—a beautiful garment of pure white, trimmed in gold—and holds it up in both hands, as a maid or steward might, to assist her with it.

She has to quell a sudden flash of irritation. He's your attendant out here, as well as your knight, she reminds herself. You'll simply have to get used to the idea of him doing things for you. She draws the line at letting him dress her, however.

“Thank you,” she says, taking the coat from him and pulling it on without assistance. “I'd suggest you do the same. It's only going to get chillier as we move upwards.”

He makes no move to heed this advice, closing up the pack and shrugging it on without a word. Yes, of course, she thinks. You're so very tough. Well, have it your own way.

Lake Totori is a place of stunning natural beauty, and Zelda finds that this beauty is only enhanced by the craft of the Rito who dwell above its heart. Elegant wooden bridges connect the islands that form the long walkway to the village, and as one proceeds across, moving ever upward among the yellow cliffs, sparkling pools, and soaring conifers, the bridges seem almost to lead into another world.

Zelda does her best to focus on this—and her growing anticipation of today's research—rather than on her aching body, her ridiculous dreams, and the Silent Swordsman following along behind. His relentless gaze is already starting to wear on her, and the day has only begun.

The food, once they bring it out, helps a great deal. Fine aged cheese, spiced sausage, and delicious red-skinned pears—all from Erdo's private stores—accompanied by fresh flatbread from the Totori Inn. The mountain air is stimulating to the appetite, and Zelda eats plenty, knowing that she'll probably be too busy to take another meal until late in the evening.

Afterward, with her stomach full and her body aches subsiding with the walk, her enthusiasm is back in full force. So much so that she forgets herself, and makes the mistake of talking as though she's in the company of someone who might hold an actual conversation.

“Vah Medoh is really quite fascinating,” she begins, “in that, unlike the other Divine Beasts, it's built specifically to fly. From what we can tell, it seems all the Divine Beasts have some limited flying ability... but Medoh can hover in the air indefinitely, at least as far as we've seen. Now, it might be tempting to think, well, it's in the form of a bird, so of course it can fly... but that's not how it works at all, is it? Merely building something in the shape of a bird does not magically confer it with flight, especially not something as huge and heavy as a Divine Beast. And even now, after years of studying the mechanisms, how it works remains a mystery. Still, it stands to reason that, if the ancients were able to get something the size of Medoh off the ground, they likely had other machines that could fly as well. Wouldn't that be exciting?”

Footsteps behind her, and nothing else.

“We actually do have pictorial references to flying Guardians, though we've yet to uncover any in our excavations. So that's two types of flying machines that we know about. Impa thinks there's an excellent chance that there was some sort of passenger craft that could fly... as in, designed for the sole purpose of carrying people from one place to another. Mind you, it's only a hypothesis right now, but she's currently on the lookout for any possible evidence. Can you imagine what that might be like? Do you think that you'd ever ride in one, given the chance?”

Footsteps behind her, and... nothing else. None of this matters at all, you know, he's probably thinking. You're just fooling yourself into thinking these Divine Beasts are important, so you have something to cling to in the absence of your power. Rather sad, really.

“Of course,” she says, pressing on, “we won't have to imagine for much longer, what it would be like to ride in a flying machine. I have to admit I'm a little nervous about going up into Medoh... but I don't think I could possibly pass up the opportunity, even if it weren't necessary for my research.” She slows, looking over her shoulder at him. “I assume you have no trouble with heights? If you do, now would be the time to say so.”

His expression doesn't change, but he gives a shake of his head, confirming that his ears are in fact working. Flying, not flying, doesn't matter. I'm just along for the ride until it's time to draw the sword. Which, by the way, is the only thing we've got so far that's sure to make a difference in this fight.

She turns back around, huffing. It's no use talking to him, clearly.

As they draw closer to the village, they encounter a Rito warrior on ground patrol, who seems to recognize her knight even before herself, though he greets her first. “Welcome, your Highness,” he says with a bow. “And welcome, Hero. We have been eagerly anticipating your return.” Zelda is unsure to whom he's specifically referring, but she thanks him all the same.

Further along, they encounter a pair of Hylians, who greet them with smiles and waves. “Always great to see more adventurers about!” says the woman. “And what a pretty outfit! It won't be quite enough if you're planning to head into those mountains, though.”

The man's eyes grow wide. “Clara,” he hisses, poking her. “That's the Royal emblem. She's the princess.” Then, with an awkward bow, he says, “Greetings, your Highness. Please accept our apologies for our forwardness.”

Clara shoots him a look, then seems to remember herself and makes a curtsy-like motion, lowering her head. “My apologies, your Highness. I didn't realize.”

“It's quite all right,” Zelda says with a smile. “My thanks for the compliment, and the warning. Safe travels to you both.”

When they finally reach the entrance to the village, she’s surprised to find none other than Champion Revali waiting to greet them, cutting a striking figure in his plumage and blue scarf. “Greetings to you, Princess. I am pleased that you've arrived here safely.”

“My thanks, Revali. I’m pleased to see you looking so well.”

“Why shouldn't I be well?” Revali ushers them into the village with a sweeping gesture. Zelda falls into step beside him, taking note of the fact that he's spared not a glance for his fellow Champion, who follows behind. “As I said in my letter, everything is going quite smoothly. Even I am surprised at how quickly I am gaining proficiency at the controls. It would seem I have an affinity for this particular Divine Beast, even beyond my natural skill.”

“I would expect nothing less from you, Champion Revali. Your great spiritual power has marked your potential for this task, and your hard work and training have fulfilled that potential.”

Revali smiles, lifting his beak. “This is the part where I'm supposed to demur, and insist that you are too kind. But as you know, I see no point to false modesty. You speak truly, Princess, though I would be remiss if I did not express my appreciation.”

Zelda indulges him with a solemn nod, recalling Urbosa's words to her in private after meeting him for the first time: It's almost endearing, really, the way he fluffs his feathers up and struts about. Now, I don't doubt his skill, or his power. But wouldn't you say it's interesting, how he's already marked our quiet swordsman as a rival?

“I am most anxious to see your progress for myself, and to finally explore Medoh.” As they walk, she nods to the villagers they pass, who are speaking amongst themselves in excited whispers. Many of their glances are directed behind her. “There is much potential there, for what might be learned. But first, I must meet with your elder. Privately,” she adds, with a glance over her shoulder. “We have several official matters to discuss.”

“Of course. I shall be more than happy to entertain my fellow Champion in the interim. Perhaps we shall adjourn to the flight deck, where I can give him a proper introduction. I'm almost envious, really,” Revali says, at last acknowledging the presence of her knight with a turn of his head, “of his chance to experience such a wonder for the first time.”

 


 

It was apparently quite an experience, for after Zelda finishes her meeting, changes into the rest of her warm clothing, and returns to the flight deck, she sees that her knight has an actual expression on his face. He looks annoyed.

“What's the matter?” she asks without thinking. “Did Revali say something to you?”

His eyes widen just a fraction before the annoyance vanishes and his composure returns. He doesn't answer.

Interesting, she thinks. She looks around. “Where is he, anyway? He was supposed to wait for me, so that he could take us up there.”

In response, her knight looks up at Medoh. His meaning is clear.

“Ah. Apparently he couldn't wait.” Or, apparently, something did transpire between the two.

It's remedied easily enough. A request to the elder soon produces two warriors, Parth and Wick, who volunteer to take them up. “Least we can do for the Princess of Hyrule, not to mention the Hylian Champion,” Wick says, giving her knight a pat on the shoulder as though they're old friends. Then: “Can't believe it took you this long to come back. Everyone still talks about you, you know.”

Zelda prays that this is one of those things everyone assumes she already knows.

The Rito, while not making it a general practice to fly Hylians around on their backs, do occasionally find the need to do so, and have developed a harness of a particular design. It reminds her of the tandem harness she used with Urbosa on sand seal when she was too young to ride alone. The difference being that, should one of those harnesses fail, it would result in no more than a few scrapes and some embarrassment. Despite her excitement, Zelda finds her hands sweating inside her gloves as Melli, Parth's wife, gets her situated.

“You'll unhook the straps here, at your waist, and behind your legs, when you're ready to climb off,” Melli says. “Mind you keep a firm grip on the holds until then. And don't go flailing about or making any sudden moves.” She comes around to Zelda's side and pats her on the back with a feathered hand, giving her a reassuring smile. “Worry not, Highness. You're a little thing, and my husband is as sure a flyer as they come.”

Zelda swallows and gives a firm nod.

“That strap?” comes her knight's voice, from close behind her. “Does that connect to anything?” He's insisting on scrutinizing every step of this process himself, and while Zelda finds this irritating in principle, she can't quite bring herself to turn down a second pair of eyes checking everything over. But does he have to stand so close? Does he have to keep reaching out that way, as though compelled to test the connections at her thighs and waist, only to stop at the last moment and have Melli pull at them instead? Are her hands not sweating enough?

Fortunately, Melli and her husband are showing extraordinary patience with him and his terse questions. “All is as it should be,” says Melli, and Zelda can hear the smile in her voice. “That's just extra length to accommodate a larger rider. Now, you go get your overcoat on, and get yourself strapped in. You're burning daylight up fast.”

“We'll come back for you at sunset,” Parth says. “Unless Revali's planning on taking you back down.”

“That doesn't seem too likely, does it?” says Melli. “You must forgive him his thoughtlessness, Highness. He's really a fine fellow. He simply gets entirely too focused on any challenges at hand.” With that, she removes the block on which Zelda is standing, gives her husband two quick pats on the arm, and takes a step back.

“Ready, your Highness?” Parth says.

Zelda squeezes her eyes shut, realigning her grip on the handholds across his chest. “Ready.”

Parth takes a running start toward the edge of the platform, makes a great leap with his powerful legs—and then his enormous wings are beating the air, the muscles of his back shifting and bunching as he propels them upward and upward. She feels as though her stomach has been left back on the ground, feels the rush of ducking into the howling headwind of a violent summer storm—

And then she's flying. She's flying.

She opens her eyes, heedless of the stinging wind, and lets out a whoop of pure joy. Sky is all around her. They're untethered from the earth, climbing and climbing, Parth catching the drafts and pushing against them, beating his wings, circling up and up. She looks down—she's heard and read so many times to never look down, but she's not about to miss this—and her heart almost stops at the beauty of it, at the majesty of cliffs and water and elegant bridges surrounded by a bright morning sky. The world stretches vast and huge, widening further still as they gain height—while the village itself grows small, its lowest levels shrinking to a perfectly crafted model of exquisite detail. When she tears her eyes away to look up, she finds the figure of Divine Beast Vah Medoh flashing in the morning light, seeming almost alive, larger and more majestic with each passing moment.

Then they’re rising above the deck, and circling down, and Parth’s landing is so smooth that for a moment, Zelda can’t believe it’s already over. Her mind and heart and stomach are still soaring, even as the motion of her body finally comes to a stop.

Never once did she ever imagine she might find herself disappointed to land upon on the deck of a Divine Beast.

Parth crouches so her feet come in contact with the floor, and she sets about detaching herself. Her hands are numb and shaking as she fumbles with the connections, but at last she gets them open and stands on her own two shaking legs. She entertains a brief fantasy of hurling herself from the deck so that he'll be forced to dive after her and fly her back up again.

“Thank you,” she says. “Thank you so much. That was—possibly the most remarkable experience of my entire life.”

Parth gives a delighted laugh. “The pleasure was mine, Highness. Not for the honor of transporting royalty, but for bringing the joy of flight to a Hylian such as yourself. Few of your kind take to it quite so well.”

“Thank you,” she says again, at a loss for further words.

He sweeps her a bow. “Good luck on your research, Highness. My wife and I shall return at sunset.” With a flourish, he dives from the platform, spreading his wings wide to catch the draft, angling them to ride it back down. Zelda watches with a pang of indescribable envy.

And then she's alone, legs still shaking, on the deck of Vah Medoh, the vast morning sky in front of her, the entrance behind.

Vah Medoh. Zelda comes back to herself with a start. She's here. She's finally here. And she has, what? Eight or nine hours until sunset? No more dallying. She'll find Revali, consult with him for a while, and then begin exploring this place.

Just then, she hears a shout carried on the wind from below. She freezes. She completely forgot about her knight.

Without knowing why, she dashes inside the entrance, ducks around a corner, and peeks back out at the deck, just as he lands with his Rito escort.

Her mouth drops open.

That sound carried on the wind—that hadn't been a shout, but a laugh.

He's laughing. Head thrown back, eyes shut, right from his belly. He's saying something, too, but she can't hear it for the wind. She moves her head further out and inches a bit closer, catching only part of it—“off the edge—fly down after—back up?” If I dive off the edge, would you fly down after and bring me back up?

He's still laughing, fumbling with the catches. The wind is whipping at his hair. Wick is laughing, too, saying something she can't hear. And then he's free, taking a stumbling step back, and holding out his arms and whirling around. He says something else she can't hear, making a zooming gesture with his hand. Wick gives another hearty laugh, waving a feathered hand as if to say, it was nothing.

“Great,” she hears him say, “really great,” and then he's shaking Wick's hand in both of his, and waving him off as he departs.

Zelda watches him as he stands on the deck, his back to her, looking out over the endless vista. He's donned his overcoat—dove gray, bearing the device of the Knights of Hyrule—and his sword and belts are buckled over it, cinching it at the torso. The lower half flares out in the wind. She watches his shoulders rise and fall as he takes a huge breath in, then releases it.

Then he turns, and is the Swordsman again.

She's lingered too long, and now it's too late to duck behind the wall without being seen, so she lifts her chin and marches out onto the deck as though she's been headed that way in the first place.

“I was wondering what happened to you,” she lies. Then she hesitates. She wants to ask him about his flight, to see what he'll say. But what good will come of that? He'll either look at her with that impassive face and give a noncommittal answer, if he answers at all—or he'll smile and laugh, and tell her how incredible it was—how his heart nearly stopped when he looked down, and how it soared when he looked up, and how he can't wait to fly back down again when the time comes.

One is dread, the other hope, but she doesn't know which is which.

He's looking at her in that attentive way of his. She wishes he'd stop it. His cheeks and ears are flushed from the cold, and the wind tousles his hair. The gray is awful on him, though. That helps a bit.

“I'm going to be quite busy,” she says, “so see that you don't get in my way.”

Chapter Text

The Divine Beast Vah Medoh seems to have an effect on people. Now it's Revali who's laughing.

He's standing before the main control unit, on the upper deck that spans across Medoh's vast stone wings, plumage ruffling in the wind. The scarf around his neck is like a slice of sky, one end trailing out like a banner behind. The sight brings to mind all those hours spent at the loom, in repetitive motion and repetitive prayer, beseeching the Goddess to cloak her Champions in the blue of the heavens, and to bring them under the mantle of her protection.

As Zelda watches, Revali moves one wide feathered hand, and, in response, the floor beneath them tilts to the left. She plants her feet and holds her arms out for balance as, on its great stone wings, the Divine Beast turns through the sky in a gentle arc. A short distance away, she sees her knight do the same, his alert gaze moving to her as though expecting her to topple over at any moment. Terribly sorry to disappoint you, she wants to say, but I am, in fact, perfectly capable of standing on my own two feet.

Revali, still chuckling, gives a satisfied nod as Medoh rights itself and continues on its course.

“So you control it entirely by gesture?” Zelda asks, once her footing is solid again. Cold wind stings her cheeks as she peers at the control unit, unhooking the Sheikah slate from her belt. “I was given to understand that these terminals would also be involved in some way.”

“It's something I cannot adequately explain, Princess,” Revali says, “but after the first few days, they no longer proved necessary. Further, I have the distinct sense that it's not the gesturing itself, but my intent to which Medoh responds. I can best describe it as—a communion of sorts, that grows stronger as I refine my technique. It would appear as though this is the way it's meant to be controlled by its Champion, whereas the terminal controls are meant to be complementary, or perhaps some manner of backup. Though, and pardon me for saying so, that does seem a bit redundant.”

“Redundancy is an important principal of any well-designed system, Revali. I imagine the ancients were as aware of this as we are. And I would presume it to be especially important when that system involves flight.”

“All too true,” Revali says, the characteristic arrogance vanishing from his face, if not entirely from his voice. “Naturally, I would be able to escape any catastrophic malfunctions through the power of my own flight, but to lose Medoh—” He shakes his head. “That would be devastating, indeed.”

Zelda blinks up at him, the realization coming all at once. You love it, don't you? she almost says aloud. This beast of yours. Vah Medoh. Not in the way that she herself loves it, or Purah or Impa or the researchers love it. But in a deeper way. Communion, he called it a moment ago. The forming of a bond.

The implications race within her mind. She's known, as they all have, that the Divine Beasts are more than just machines, that there's some manner of spiritual element to them that can sense, select, demand, and guide. But could they also be, in some sense, alive? Did they love their pilots back? Did they hate the ancient enemy? Did they retain memories of their first pilots? Of the people who built them? Did they remember the great battle fought ten thousand years before?

So many questions. Perhaps, with the Champions hard at work communing, they may soon find some answers.

Zelda looks down at the slate in her hands. Yet another form of redundancy. She recalls how she'd nearly dropped the thing in surprise on retrieving it from the Guidance Stone pedestal, finding it containing a host of new functions related to Medoh: maps, diagrams, displays of information, even control functions. Far more than can be properly tested and verified in a single day. Time has always been her enemy, but she feels it now more than ever, slipping past her like the wind through her hair.

I know you, Zelda. Father's words to her, the evening before departing from the castle. I know how tempting it will be to get lost in your research—to let one day become two, and three, and four, and then a week. I must insist that you adhere to your itinerary in spite of this temptation. Unite and guide your Champions, and learn what you can, but do not forget your true objective, and what is the most critical of all your duties.

She can hardly forget. But what would be the harm in one more day? It would be in direct defiance of Father's orders, yes, but surely he'll see the sense in it, once she explains how much there is to do, and how it makes more sense to do it now, rather than travel back and forth again later. They need not even impose on their Rito hosts for a second night, for they can simply depart for the Totori Inn tomorrow evening, and spend the night there.

It makes her stomach clench to think of the wealth of information that exists here, if they could only find how to interpret it. So much knowledge has been lost that they can't even be certain of what they don't know. Somewhere in this place, and in the other Divine Beasts, might be the key to understanding all the mysteries that plague them—and the mysteries that plague her, as well.

She glances up. From where he stands beside a stone pillar, her knight is trying to pretend he isn't looking at her, directing his gaze slightly above her and to her left. It's never fooled her before, and it doesn't now. She can feel his eyes, even when they aren't pointed directly at her.

He's under orders from her father, too. For all those pretty words on the Sacred Grounds, for all that he raised a sacred sword and swore his life to her, it's still his king that he must ultimately obey—just as she must. And, while he can't exactly prevent her from staying, it wouldn't surprise her to learn that he's been ordered to report her moves as well as shadow them. So, even if she were so inclined as to lie to her father, and make up some tale about a delay on the road, her so-called sworn protector would surely give him the truth of it.

Well, she's never been any good at lying to Father, anyway.

“I could not agree more, Revali,” she finally says. “Which is why I mean to learn all I possibly can.”

 


 

The slate's capacity for pictures was filled hours ago, and so Zelda is left taking down her images the old-fashioned way, with notebook, pencil, and that most precious resource, time. Fortunately, she's learned to be quick.

Finishing a rough sketch of one of the turbines mounted on the track overhead, she jots down a note next to it: Appear to be a way to operate nearby mechanism when turned. But how to turn it? And what sort of mechanism might it operate?

“Could it be a locking mechanism of sorts?” she wonders aloud, looking up into the stone slots just beyond the track. “A way to lower these gates?”

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees her shadow turn to look at her. Again. She ignores him, trusting that he'll once again get the message that she isn't talking to him. After a moment, he goes back to looking out one of the large circular windows.

There's a control terminal in a nearby recess. She wonders if the turbine might have something to do with that. “I have to think like they did,” she says, more quietly this time. “Not just in the little things, like this mechanism, but in the greater things, the reasons they had for building this way. Until we figure out the why, we'll never truly understand the what.”

For example, why were the Divine Beasts built as large as palaces, when they were meant to target their foe and unleash their power from afar? What would be the advantage of their size and elaborate construction? An attempt to frighten the enemy, perhaps? Assert the superiority of the Sheikah? Hearten the people of Hyrule?

“No, there must have been a more tangible reason... the material resources alone, as well as the labor and the power, would have to have been justified. Perhaps they were used to carry great hosts from one place to another... or perhaps there's something in the nature of the technology itself, that requires building to such a large scale...” She realizes she's speaking aloud again, and looks over toward the windows.

Her knight isn't looking back at her this time, though. He's stepped up onto a raised platform nearby and is examining an object. A crystal, taller than he is, shaped roughly like an obelisk, pulsing with a deep yellow glow. He's peering into it, his sharp eyes seeming to penetrate deep into its heart.

So now he's curious, all of a sudden?

Leave him be, she tells herself. Take this as an opportunity to continue your studies in peace.

“There are two of those crystals here on Medoh, and one on Rudania as well,” she finds herself saying, walking over to give it a closer look. “We don't yet know their significance. Our current hypothesis is that they're some manner of auxiliary power sources for the surrounding mechanisms.”

She's unsure as to whether or not he's listening. He hasn't taken his eyes from the crystal, and now, as she watches, he turns a slow circle around it on the platform, first one way and then the other, that wretched gray overcoat swishing about his legs. On his face is a mien of intense concentration, the look of someone bending their mind to a riddle, or the recollection of some elusive detail...

What is he playing at?

For a brief moment, she considers asking him, but can't bring herself to give him the satisfaction. “The locations of the main power sources are still unknown,” she says instead, continuing on as though his behavior is perfectly normal. “We've figured out how to adjust their output with the controls, but...” She trails off as his right hand moves up to grasp the hilt of his sword.

Her heart skips a beat.

He wouldn't, would he? Why would he draw the sword here? Now? She's only ever seen him do so twice—both times in ceremony, both times when she was expecting it. But there's no ceremony here, and certainly no enemies to fight—

His eyes are on the crystal. Her eyes are on him. The sword whispers from its sheath. Golden light from the window glimmers along its edge. He holds it out to the side, his whole body gone still as stone, gaze locked onto the object as though in thrall.

Then he draws back to strike.

“Wait!” she shouts, finding her voice.

Just in time. He stops just short of it, the edge of the blade a handspan from his target. He blinks as though coming out of a trance, and looks at her.

“What are you doing?”

He falters, lowering his sword arm to his side, eyes moving back to the glowing crystal. It appears that he isn't quite sure, himself.

“Just...” She makes a shooing motion with her hands. “Stop it. Get away from there.” She points off to her left. “Go stand over there, at the end of the hall. Put that sword away. Don't touch anything, and don't hit anything, for pity's sake.” He has the grace to look abashed. With a backward glance—first at the object, then at her—he does as she commands. “Honestly,” she says, as he steps down off the platform. “Show some respect.”

Zelda waits until he's a sufficient distance down the hall before approaching the object herself. What on earth was he thinking, just now? Why would he do such a thing?

She scoffs to herself. Boys and their swords. It figures that striking an object would be his preferred method of testing.

Still... he's no fool. It would be easy to dismiss him as such, with his reticent manner and long stretches of total silence. But lack of speech isn't lack of thought, and it's evident in his every glance and every move that his mind is keen and on constant alert. He hears and sees much more than he reveals, of that she is quite sure.

So what did he see, just now?

She can feel him watching her from the end of the hall where he stands. Waiting for her to ask. Waiting to reply with, I cannot say, Princess, as he did months ago at the tea, the last time she went to him as a beggar, desperate for the answer to an important question. She'd have better luck talking to the crystal.

She takes a deep breath, letting it out slowly through her nose. He'll not see her angered. He'll not see her defeated. He'll not see her break.

Outside the large circular windows, sunset is close at hand. Study of the controls had taken so much time that it left her little with which to explore the rest of the place. Soon, their Rito escorts would arrive, and it would be back down to earth for them.

Thinking about how productive just a few more hours would be—and thinking about being flown back up here tomorrow—she finds her decision already made. One more day. Even though it means spending it with him.

Everything at a price.

 


 

That evening, her knight and she, as well as Revali, dine as the elder's honored guests.

Were they in Hyrule Castle, they would be made to endure an elaborate banquet, complete with multiple courses, scores of guests, toasts, speeches, and all manner of inexhaustible pomp. Here, in Rito Village, the elder's wife and daughter prepare supper with their own hands, and a party of six gathers around a table set up under the stars. Lanterns around the platform enclose them in a circle of golden light, and Zelda feels quite warmly received despite the chilly temperature.

Eating in her overcoat proves a bit awkward at first, but she's more than happy to manage. True, she's famished after a long day's work, but the meal is excellent in its own right; coldwater fish with leek and fennel in a delicate sauce, buttery mashed parsnips, a sauté of peppery greens and toasted pine nuts, heart of thistle in white wine and garlic, delightfully crusty bread hot from the oven.

“Everything is wonderful, Alba,” Zelda says, when she manages to come up for air. “The fish absolutely melts in one's mouth.”

“You've my daughter to thank for that,” says Alba, the elder's wife. “I've always been rather lackadaisical when it comes to such things. Now, desserts, on the other hand—well, wait until you sample my tart.”

“I shall be sure to save room,” Zelda says. “I still fantasize about that trifle you served on my last visit.”

“Indeed, Princess,” says Revali, “as I recall, your exact words were, 'I should harvest by hand every wildberry in Hebra if you were to give my cook the recipe.' ”

“And I plan on holding you to it, Princess,” says Alba, to much laughter.

Her knight doesn't laugh, nor does he smile, nor does he speak a single word. He sits opposite her, eating every bite set before him in his customary silence, with only his attentive eyes and an occasional incline of his head to indicate his engagement with the rest of them. Just as when dining in her father's hall.

“I cannot adequately express my appreciation, Elder Treneli,” Zelda says, as Alba and her daughter clear the table and bring out the dessert, “for everything you and your people have done, and continue to do, to ensure the continued safety and prosperity of this land.”

“Thanks are entirely unnecessary,” Treneli says with a wave. “Though some might see us as aloof, roosting up on our high perches, we know all too well that, just as any other, our fates are tied to the good of this land. And to the water,” he adds with a smile, “as your Champion here can attest.”

Zelda looks to her knight. He acknowledges the elder's words with a nod, but says nothing.

“The water?” she says, before she can stop herself. She's still wondering about the almost fond greeting the elder gave him on their return from Medoh—Ah, young hero, so it is you, just as I have heard—just as she's still wondering about the fact that the elder knows him at all.

“Have you not heard the tale, Princess?” says Trenora, the elder's daughter, as she takes her seat. All eyes turn to Zelda—except her knight's, which turn to the slice of pear and berry tart that's been placed before him.

“Of course she's heard it,” Revali says, in a pointed enough manner to draw Zelda's attention. “Do you not recall, Princess? The beast of Lake Totori? Why, we were discussing it only weeks ago, during my visit to the castle. Remember?” He tilts his head forward and raises his brows at her.

“Ah,” Zelda says, wondering if Revali might have use for a chest of jewels. “Yes, of course... I do recall it, now. I believe I was simply too caught up in anticipation of this tart. It looks mouthwatering, Alba.” It does, at that—a perfect little triangular slice of heaven, dusted with powdered sugar.

“We still don't know how the creature could have gotten there,” says Trenora. “The lake is completely landlocked, and we'd never seen anything in there larger than a sturgeon.”

“Dark sorcery,” Treneli says, with a sage nod. “There can be no doubt. A herald of the evil attempting to manifest back into our world, as is the appearance of so many of these other monsters.”

“You ought to have seen it, Princess,” Trenora says. “A terrible thing it was. Thirty feet long, at least, with a hide as rock made flesh, and sharp, razor-like fins that sliced up anything that came near it.”

“That sounds fearsome, indeed,” Zelda says, wondering how she might move the subject away from Tales of the Hero. “How fortunate that your people are able to fly.”

Trenora, who had just picked up her fork, sets it down and glares across the table at Revali. “What exactly did you tell her, Champion Revali? It doesn't sound as though you've done the tale any justice at all.”

“I quite agree,” Alba chimes in. “I believe a proper retelling is in order for our princess, if you're willing, my dear.”

Revali gives Zelda a look that says, Nice going.

“Well,” Trenora begins, clasping her feathered hands. Zelda gets the distinct feeling she's 'done this tale justice' before. “As you so wisely observed, Princess, ours is a people of the sky, and you are correct in that the creature posed little threat to us in terms of bodily harm. However, it posed a great threat to us by making it near impossible to fish our lake. It sliced up our nets, disrupted almost every attempt to catch by line or dive, and consumed vast quantities of fish in its own right.

“Naturally, as we Rito can no more do battle in the water than a Zora can fly, we attempted to dispatch the creature from the air. We rained volley after volley of arrows upon it, dove upon it with sword and with spear, but its vast bulk lay beneath the surface, and its hide was so tough that nothing would penetrate. Arrows enchanted with ice, fire, lighting, and even explosives only succeeded in killing yet more of our fish, and of course netting was useless against it. The only one who managed to even wound the creature was our very own Revali—putting out both of its eyes in the two most spectacular shots I've ever seen.”

Here she looks to Revali with an admiring smile. Revali appears unmoved. “That did slow it, somewhat,” she continues. “But it still lived, fought viciously when anything came near, and day after day consumed more of our fish, until it threatened to depopulate the lake entirely.”

Zelda realizes that her fork is still poised two inches above her uneaten tart. She sets it down, bracing herself for where she knows this is going.

“We considered sending an emissary to plead with the Zora,” Trenora is saying, “hoping that their warriors, so adept at aquatic combat, might be our salvation. But there's no waterway connecting their rivers to our lake, and so we knew that, even if they did agree to help, it would be a while before any assistance could arrive.” This would be true enough. Zora don't ride horses, and would have to travel by wagon—and while a strong Rito can bear a tandem rider for a short while, it's hardly a viable way to travel long distances.

“Our only chance was to send to your royal father for aid—and we were preparing to do just that, when a young Hylian turned up in our village on his travels from afar.” At these words, all turn to look toward her knight. He looks up, and where anyone else in his place might show embarrassment, or pride, or bravado, or even self-effacing humor, he displays none of these. His sober gaze comes to rest upon the storyteller.

“He never spoke his name,” Trenora continues, “referring to himself only as a wanderer. He did not carry the blade of legend as he carries now. But he did carry both sword and spear, and pledged to do what he could. Before the eyes of every warrior in our village, he dove fearlessly into the lake. The beast, blind though it was, went right for the attack, buffeting him with powerful waves, slashing at him with its razor fins. And when it opened its dark jaws to attempt to devour him—what did this little Hylian do, but thrust his spear right into the roof of its mouth!”

“I heard its bellow from all the way up here,” Alba says.

“Courageous a move as that was, though, the beast was still only wounded—and now it was furious. We thought for certain that this would be the end of the young Hylian, especially when he disappeared beneath the churning surface.

“Overhead, we took our chance, and loosed our arrows upon its now-open mouth. Some of them struck true, wounding the beast further, but it still wasn't enough, and we did not dare use our more powerful arrows while there was a chance the Hylian still lived. Seconds went by as hours as we debated what to do, watching the surface for any signs of him, when suddenly darkness bloomed in the blue water, as though someone had opened up a vat of ink—the monster's black blood. The warrior had found a spot soft enough to open with his blade.

“Moments later, he emerged, coughing and gasping, and brave Wick—you met him today, I believe—heedless of the monster still thrashing in its rage, swooped down and caught up the Hylian and, in a desperate beating of his wings, got him safely to land. The boy's entire right side was stained black as pitch, and we discovered later that he had not simply pierced the creature with his blade, but had driven it inside all the way to his shoulder, so as to ensure that the blow would be mortal.

“And mortal it was. With the hide so breached, we found we were now able to use our shock arrows to some small effect, and Revali, with his most deadly aim, sent explosive arrows to its open mouth. The creature breathed its last soon after.”

With this, Trenora picks up her fork and takes a bite of her tart. “Oh, Mother, you've outdone yourself once again.”

When it becomes apparent that his daughter is now occupied with her dessert, Treneli finishes the tale.

“The boy was bruised, bedraggled, covered in scratches where the monster's stony hide had scraped him, but, miraculously, had taken no serious harm. He slept many hours in one of our feather beds, but refused all offers of reward, until my wife insisted he must have a set of Rito-made clothing, to make up for his clothes that were ruined. These he accepted, and, with Rito down upon his back and with our heartfelt thanks, he departed up into the mountains of Hebra.

“And that was the last we saw of him, until today. When we heard of the young hero who had found his way to Hyrule Castle in possession of the legendary sword, we knew it could be no other. It heartens me to know that he will fight alongside our own fearsome Champion in the battle that is to come.”

Revali is clearly on his best behavior in front of his village elder. In what must be, to him, an act of boundless generosity, he acknowledges his fellow Champion with a nod. Zelda watches as the nod is returned. She remembers, all those months ago, entreating Revali in the snows by the archery range; how he'd referred to the hero as, that little knight with the darkness-sealing sword. As though he'd encountered him before.

Outdone on his own turf, twice now.

You ought not to blame him, Revali, she thinks to him. He cannot help being so much better than everyone else. He cannot help but use these gifts that he's been given. It's not his fault that he's surrounded by mere mortals, who must struggle in the vain hope of catching up.

Throughout all of this, the hero has kept his hand on the fork next to his plate. Now, at a gesture from the elder, he finally picks it up, which seems to be the signal for everyone else—aside from Trenora—to dig in. At his first taste, his eyebrows lift, the first change in his expression all evening, and when Alba offers him a second slice, he doesn't hesitate.

The tart is, as promised, delectable. The pears are tender and rich, the berries bright and fresh, the crust a buttery shortbread with hints of citrus and vanilla. There's a floral note to it, almost a perfume, that Zelda can't quite place.

She finds it to be small consolation.

There is a respite to be had, however. The elder assigns two warriors to guard her chambers that night, so that the hero, as an honored guest, might get some sleep. The hero does attempt to object, until the elder informs him that if he, an honored guest, stays awake, then the entire village will be obligated to stay awake along with him.

So that's all it takes for him to see reason, Zelda thinks. The threat of an entire village staying awake. Still, if the result is a night without him looming outside her door, she has little cause for complaint.

Or so she thinks, until she finds herself lying in her feather bed, half-numb with exhaustion, her treacherous mind assaulting her with question after question after question.

How soon did he come here after leaving his home? What had he hoped to find? Was he seeking out his destiny, or did he already know of it? Did the Goddess speak to him and send him here? Was it some manner of trial, or test?

Was Hebra where he found the sword?

Does the sword speak to him, as the legends say?

Could the sword have told him to strike that crystal?

All right, now you're just being ridiculous, she tells herself. Go to sleep. And for the love of the Goddess, please dream about anything but him.

For once, her mind obliges her. She dreams she's flying in her white dress, beating her wings against the sky, searching for a place where she can pray.

 

Chapter Text

 

Zelda had asked her Rito guards to wake her at first light, hoping she might have a short while to herself without the Silent Shadow at her heels. But on dressing and leaving her guest quarters, she finds him standing alone in their place, inclining his head in silent greeting.

“I told you I'd not have need of you so early,” she says. “You had no rest the night before last, and will have none tonight.” And I shall have no rest from you, she doesn't add.

He says nothing, but gives a slight bow, which she interprets as something along the lines of, I thank you for your concern. It takes everything in her power to suppress her sigh. Fine, then. Let him suffer if he so wishes. Perhaps a reduced need for sleep is one of his many divine gifts. It would be a nice one to have, she must admit. It would mean more time for everything else.

“Well, come along then, if you must. We'll breakfast with the elder before departing for Medoh, but there's something else I must do first.”

The ancient shrine sits at the edge of a cliff, just past a scrupulously-maintained wooden bridge at one of the highest points in the village, next to the platform where they'd dined the night before. It looks identical, as far as she can tell, to the other shrine structures she's seen, with the possible exception of the glyphs that run across its face.

Opening her notebook, she steps up onto the shrine's platform and squints at the glyphs in the pale predawn light, copying them as faithfully as she can. She recognizes most, but knows few of their meanings. Yet another thing she'd learn, if only there were time, but she'll have to rely upon Impa's translations instead.

“According to ancient records, these structures are not the shrines themselves, but the doorways to them, though no mention has yet been found of what their purpose is, or how to enter.” Again, she has no idea why she's bothering, but the words come out all the same. “Our excavators have tried everything imaginable to get inside, including digging deep into the ground beneath. Invariably they find only more of this ancient material in their path, which has proven impenetrable by every means at our disposal. Which, I imagine, is why these relics have lasted ten thousand years in the first place.”

Zelda turns to find him watching her with that attentive look, but it seems that's all he has to contribute. No surprise there. More irritating is the fact that, though the morning air up here is chill enough to flush their cheeks, he wears no overcoat. Instead he stands as a reflection of the lightening sky: blue cloth made by her hands, enamel gleaming at his ears, and his clear, sharp, scrutinizing eyes.

It occurs to her that his lack of warm clothing might not be a show of toughness or stubbornness at all, but simple vanity.

Leave him to it, then, she orders herself, and pulls the collar of her own coat more tightly about her neck as she turns back to the shrine. On it is the pedestal, etched with the ancient eye of the Sheikah, same as all the others. Unhooking the slate from her belt, she tries holding it to the face of the pedestal, as she's done with others in the past. It's been Purah's hypothesis, ever since they found the slate in the Shrine of Resurrection, that these pedestals, like the ones found with the Guidance Stones, are meant to be operated with the slate.

“Nothing,” she observes. That's no surprise, either. So far not a single one has responded to the slate, or to anything else they've tried. Of course, none of us have tried hitting them with swords. Clearly that's where we're going wrong. She shakes her head, reminding herself to keep him well away from those crystals today, and anything else that seems breakable.

She has been thinking, though. Of another method that might work on these shrines, a method that, to her knowledge, no one has yet tried. It's not so outlandish, considering the strong spiritual underpinning to the ancient relics, and the fact that they're referred to as shrines in the first place.

Prayer.

Not a method that's ever accomplished much for her before, and just as likely to fail as all her other efforts. Still, no conceivable option should go unexplored, and there's certainly no harm in trying.

No harm, except—

She can feel him behind her. Watching.

Bad enough he's had to witness her trying the slate and failing. Bad enough that the Goddess must witness her efforts and judge them unworthy. But the thought of him standing there with those eyes and that sword, full of a light she can't see, while she kneels in darkness and shouts into an uncaring void—

She'd sooner cut her hair and parade naked through the streets of Castle Town.

Perhaps she can attempt to reason with him. Convince him that she'll be perfectly safe if left alone in a peaceful village for an hour or two... but given his actions, both inside and outside the castle, that doesn't seem likely. She could make up some ruse about meeting with the elder again, and slip back here without his knowing... or persuade Revali to keep him distracted for a while...

But, no. He might still come upon her by chance, and it will take too much time in any case. Medoh must be the day's priority. Father may excuse one extra day, but any more than that will anger him for certain.

There will be other days, and other shrines. She hopes.

Sighing, she leads her shadow back across the bridge toward the elder's hut, wondering when there might be other guards—or none at all.

 


 

Part of Zelda is glad to see the castle's stables again. After days of early rising, endless work, and hard travel, a hot bath and her own bed will be welcome. It's something of a relief to hand Argent's reins over to the groom, and even more of a relief to leave her knight behind as she ascends the stairs to the upper levels, where sanctuary awaits.

Yet when she finds the two envelopes awaiting her, one bearing the wax seal of the Royal Ancient Tech Lab, the other the sigil of the Gorons in rust-colored ink, her exhaustion evaporates. Still in her dusty riding attire, smelling of horse, she dismisses her maids and is already tearing at Purah's seal before the door to her room is shut.

Letting out a small giggle, she plops into the chair at her desk and begins to read:

 

Unto Her Royal Highness, Princess Zelda:

Well, now that the formalities are out of the way, I have news of a big discovery.

It seems that our excavation team on the Plateau has unearthed another Guidance Stone, complete with pedestal. Now, I know what you're thinking, because it was my first thought, as well—did this pedestal contain another Sheikah Slate?

Unfortunately, it did not. But our team is on the lookout, and even without another slate, the importance of this discovery is undeniable.

Given your role as leader of the Champions, and the slate in your possession, it is the belief of Impa, Robbie and myself that you should visit the site with us in person. Impa has already written to your father, and he is in agreement. We are planning a trip there in a week's time. Robbie and I will travel from here to the castle, then head south, while Impa will head straight to the Plateau from Kakariko.

So, are you in? Do I even need to ask?

Ever in service of Hyrule and the Royal Family,

Doctor Purah

 

The second letter, from Daruk, details his struggles with getting Vah Rudania under control, and asks whether she can give him any pointers that might help.

Well, naturally, this is the sort of thing best handled in person as well.

In the privacy of her own bedroom, Zelda doesn't have to be dignified. She leaps from her chair and jumps up and down, clutching the letters to her chest.

Once she's finished with that, she sweeps an armful of clutter to one side of her desk, unrolls a stack of maps, and begins to plan.

 


 

“I find this most concerning, Zelda,” Father says over breakfast the next morning.

What Zelda finds concerning is the amount of butter her father is slathering on his bread, but thinks it best not to mention it. “I know it will be a long journey,” she says, stirring a spoon of sugar into her tea. “But it will be more efficient this way. You said yourself that I should visit the Plateau, and I must help Daruk with his Divine Beast. I will need to check in on Mipha at some point, as well. I looked over the maps last night. By combining the three trips, I'll save at least three days of travel time, and of course avoid any issues that may arise from further delay.”

She had been certain that Father would be pleased with her efforts to make up for lost time, but when she looks up, his eyes are hard green agates beneath his drawn white brows. A sudden tightness constricts her chest.

“Interesting,” he says, “that you would claim to prioritize efficiency, when you have just spent twice the allotted time on your most recent expedition.”

“It was more efficient than making a second trip,” Zelda says, ignoring the heat creeping up her neck, “which would have been my only alternative. There was simply too much to be done. Even with all of my preparations, I did not fully grasp the scope and complexity of the Divine Beasts, and I did not anticipate the new functions that would be added to the slate. Not a moment of time was wasted, I assure you... I worked from early morning until dusk, taking neither food, nor rest... you've seen my notes for yourself. But even with all I've accomplished, I've still only scratched the surface. I might spend a week, a month, a year, and not learn all there is to be learned... In light of that, I consider two days a bargain.”

“Yes.” Father gives her a shrewd look. “Of that last, I have no doubt. And what of these 'preparations' done beforehand?”

“I—There were notes and diagrams to review, from the researchers—”

“I imagine there were. Doubtless that is why you were seen, in the days leading up to your departure, spending your time in the library, in the archives, in your personal study—everywhere, it seems, but in the Temple at your prayers.”

Zelda stares at the eggs congealing on her plate. “It is my duty to lead the Champions and assist them in their training—”

“I am aware of that. A duty which I bestowed upon you, in accordance with ancient lore and precedent. Is it your wish to give me cause to regret that decision?”

A lump rises in Zelda's throat. She swallows it down.

“You are a dutiful girl, Zelda. I do not claim otherwise. But you are not above picking and choosing which of those duties you might favor over others. I have seen this behavior from you before. The more time you spend playing at being a scholar, the more you allow your ritual training to slip into neglect. This cannot continue. Your role as commander of our Champions is important, but is ever secondary to your primary role, your true role, as the vessel of the holy powers that will seal the ancient evil away.”

All I'm meant to be, she thinks. A vessel. And what is a vessel, with nothing to hold?

“Moreover,” Father says, his tone softening. “I worry for your safety, and comfort, on a journey of this length. It was enough of a worry for me when you spent that week on the Plateau a year ago, and when you made your envoys to your Champions. Much can happen out in the wide world, even with the sword's chosen at your side.”

He heaves a deep sigh. “Still... you will not be a child for much longer. In a half year's time you will turn seventeen... it is important, too, for you to see and experience this kingdom you fight for. That which you will someday rule.”

Zelda raises her eyes, hardly daring to hope.

“Yet for a kingdom to be ruled, it must first survive. That is why you must make your training a priority, Zelda. Your first priority. If that means your Champions must handle certain things on their own at times, so be it. They have their own responsibilities, as you have yours.”

It isn't Father's fault. He's right.

If only she knew what to do about it.

When her fourteenth birthday had come and gone, and found her still shouting into that void, she had decided that if the Goddess didn't think her dedicated enough, she would just have to stay in the temple until her powers awakened. For three full days she'd stayed there, taking no food, drinking water from the font, curling up on the bare stone floor when exhaustion took her. Nearly every moment not sleeping, or filling her empty belly with water, or tending to the lamps and braziers for heat and light, was spent in prayer.

Her maids had wrung their hands and pleaded with her to eat, to sleep in her own bed, to at least take some blankets or change her wet robes. Her guards had grumbled outside the doors, speaking in whispers that they thought she couldn't hear, about what to do, about whether to tell the king. But none had gone so far as to interfere. Perhaps they were afraid of angering the Goddess, or were hoping, as she was, that these efforts might succeed where others had failed.

On the fourth day, someone must have broken, for word finally reached her father. She remembers looking up from where she'd been sitting at her prayers—too cramped and chilled to kneel—and seeing Father's boots, then his belt, then his eyes under their white brows.

Seeing the disappointment on his face.

Zelda, he'd said. This is madness. You must not destroy yourself.

And she remembers thinking, as he'd helped her to her feet, Are you disappointed that I would go to such extremes? Or that they didn't work?

“You are not to dally,” Father is saying, “or find excuses to indulge your curiosities. You are to do what's necessary, stick to your planned itinerary, and spend whatever time you can in prayer, even on the road.”

It's a victory. Of sorts. She bows her head.

“Yes, Father,” she says. “There are none who understand the importance of this better than I. There are none more devoted to this cause or to the Goddess herself. I shall dedicate every moment not spent in necessary tasks, or life's own functions, to see to it that I fulfill my destiny.”

“For all of our sakes, my daughter,” he says, “see that you do.” And with that, he takes an enormous bite of bread and butter, and follows it with an even bigger bite of egg.

Zelda manages a few sips of tea.

When she's finally allowed to take her leave, it's a quick trip back to her room to drop off her papers, then to the temple, to pray. And pray.

And pray.

That night, she has the dream again, of Mother and the basket of blood.

 


 

The morning of the trip finds her in much better spirits. Eleven days outside the castle. Outside the temple. Eleven whole days doing what she loves most, at what she feels she does best.

Or, more accurately, three or four days doing what she loves most, and the rest of the time traveling to get there.

If only she could have a full week to spend on the Plateau, as she had on her first site visit with the researchers. Even now, a year later, she still recalls the thrill she felt when the last of the rubble around that entrance was cleared away, and she and the researchers descended downward, through a passage in the rock, straight into another world. The place that they now refer to as the Shrine of Resurrection.

But the travel part is exciting, too. Father is right about it being important to see her kingdom. Perhaps this is even what the Goddess wishes of her. Perhaps her powers won't come because she lacks wisdom and experience. Perhaps there's something out there that she might find, that will give her some sort of clue as to what she's been missing.

She pauses outside the entrance to the stables, hearing voices. Apparently she's the last to arrive, though it's not yet six.

“No hard feelings, Link,” Robbie is saying. “About the Guardian. You did what you had to do. It was entirely my fault for agreeing to hold that test here in the castle. Though there is a silver lining, as I am learning a great deal in performing the repairs.”

“He sings to it at night, when he thinks I'm not listening,” comes Purah's voice.

“Nonsense,” says Robbie. “Can't be around someone as nosy as you without knowing you're always listening.”

“You're smarter than you look,” Purah says. “By the way, Link, we never got a chance to congratulate you on being appointed to the Princess. I hear you're the youngest ever to be named as a royal guard, and captain of a royal's personal guard. That's a serious accomplishment. I can just imagine what your father would say. He'd be over the moon.”

“Yes, yes,” Robbie says. “Good man. We were sorry to hear of his loss.”

“You probably don't remember us from back then, couple of stuffy old researchers,” Purah says. “When we were overseeing the excavation of Vah Ruta? You were all of eleven or twelve at the time, running all over the place—anyway, your dad would talk with us sometimes, when he wasn't on duty. We all liked him a lot. He'd talk about you to anyone who'd listen—”

“Good morning, all,” Zelda announces, when her approaching footsteps still haven’t done the trick. “I apologize for having kept you waiting.”

Purah clucks her tongue. “Always forgetting that you're a princess... and that whenever you arrive is exactly the right time.”

“We were a tad early, ourselves, Princess,” Robbie adds. “Excited to get out onto the road, you know.”

“It's what happens when you spend so much time cooped up in a lab,” Purah says. “You actually look forward to a grueling day of travel.”

Zelda smiles. “I can relate.” Though if she'd been cooped up in an actual lab instead of a temple, she might feel differently.

“All right.” Robbie plants his fists on his hips. “This is all very pleasant, but we'd best get moving. We got word this morning that we can't ride all the way to the Plateau, as the encampment at the elevator site has been disbanded. Can't very well leave the horses there if we expect to find them again, and I'm not about to attempt to take them up. We'll have to stable them at Aquame Village, northwest of Lake Kolomo, and proceed to the wall on foot.”

“What?” says Purah. “Can't we just ride to Gatepost?”

“We'd just have to double back, and it's nearly as much walking.”

“Princess?” says Purah, turning to her.

“Aquame, I think,” Zelda says, recalling her study of the map. The road leads right through the village, extending south almost all the way to the elevator site. “No need to put extra work on the horses if it won't save time. It shouldn't be more than three hours' walk.”

“Sounds like a plan, then,” Purah says. “All right, troops—let's move out.”

 


 

“Ugh.” Purah holds a fist to her mouth as she walks. “I'm going to be belching fish pie for a week and a half.”

Zelda stifles a laugh, but has to agree. The pie was rather pungent.

They're heading south along the road, past Aquame Lake and the Coliseum beyond. It feels good to stretch her legs after hours of riding, and better still to have Purah and Robbie to talk to as she does. She feels a bit bad about the fact that she's the only one not carrying supplies, but it's only to be expected.

To their left, far in the distance, Zelda can make out the Dueling Peaks through the trees surrounding Lake Kolomo. There are some good specimens of fauna at the lake; perhaps she'll take a little detour there on her return.

“Should have gotten the porridge.” Robbie is walking in front of them, patting his stomach. “Much easier on the digestion.”

Purah wrinkles her nose. “Who eats porridge for lunch?”

“Anyone fearful of the more dubious cuisine on offer at a small village inn.”

“Well, that's no way to go through life. Fortune favors the bold.” Purah turns and speaks over her shoulder. “Wouldn't you say, Hero?”

The hero in question walks on behind them, not answering. He had, of course, eaten everything on his plate without a word, of complaint or otherwise.

“See?” she says. “The hero agrees with me.”

“The hero is sixteen, undoubtedly with a cast iron stomach. I'd be shocked if he didn't.”

A subject change is in order. “What else have you heard about the stone?” Zelda asks. “Have they seen any signs of a power source in proximity, like an ancient furnace?”

“Not that I heard,” Purah says. “But they're looking. There's got to be something, considering that shrine. They did find another cache of records, though. Impa's going to take them back with her to the castle and get started on the translations. We're hoping they might clue us in.”

“Maybe they'll reference the shrine, as well. Imagine if it really is what we think? A facility with the power to heal?” Zelda unhooks the slate from her belt and holds it in her hands. “And to think, this little thing might be the key to it all.” She bites her lip. “Purah...”

“Yeah?”

“Do you think—that is, what if this new Guidance Stone does restore functionality to the Sheikah Slate, or vice versa? Do you think, perhaps, it might be time to hand it over to you, for further study?” The thought ties a knot in her stomach.

“Sheikah Slate?” Robbie says, looking over his shoulder at Purah. “Are we still calling it that?”

“We never stopped,” Purah tells him. “And let's see what happens, first,” she says to Zelda. “Impa wants you to hold onto it, and she has good instincts about this sort of thing. Besides, without it, you won't be able to do as much with the Divine Beasts.”

Of course. The Divine Beasts. Still, the idea that the researchers are merely indulging her, hampering their important work just to let a spoiled princess have her toy... but no. The researchers aren't sycophants. They'll be frank with her if something needs to be done.

“Where are they?” Zelda says, half to herself. “Where are the other devices?”

“Where are the blasted power sources?” Purah says.

“You're both missing the most pertinent question of all,” Robbie says, “which is, where are the rest of the Guardians?”

“One track mind,” Purah says to Zelda. “Anyway, we've got all of tonight and tomorrow to ponder this stuff. Why don't you catch me up on some of the castle gossip? I hear a fellow Sheikah was just appointed court poet. What's his name again?”

Zelda tells her.

“Right, right. Speaking of accomplishments for one so young... he's what? Eighteen?”

“It was that song he performed at the Champions' Banquet,” Zelda says. “It moved Father near to tears.”

“I was quite moved, myself,” Robbie says. “There are a great many love songs, but I've never before heard anyone sing of the bonds of friendship with such profound emotion—ah, here I go, getting all misty-eyed again.”

“It was lovely,” Zelda says. “He plays as though the harp is a part of himself, and has a gift of a voice. He was quite fascinating as well, when I spoke to him... It turns out that particular ballad was of his own composition, but he has made a study of all manner of traditional and ancient song.”

They chat on in this way as the Great Plateau looms gradually larger before them, and it seems no time at all before they're standing at its base, the sheer face of the wall rising over a hundred and fifty feet to the isolated landmass above. Around them are the signs of the recently abandoned encampment; packed dirt where tents once stood, wooden pickets for horses, and scattered remnants of refuse and equipment.

There are two elevators. One is a large, open wooden platform, designed for freight and draft animals. The other, meant for passengers, is smaller in dimension. It consists of a wooden platform, about six feet square, enclosed within an iron cage, suspended on a thick cable. This is surrounded by an iron framework that extends up the face of the wall.

“At least they lowered it down for us, already,” Robbie says as they approach. “Have you ever been up on the Plateau, Link?”

He nods. Of course he has.

“Oh, good,” Purah says. “Then you're familiar with the elevator.”

He shakes his head.

Purah squints at him, adjusting her spectacles. “Okay...”

“It's simple, really,” Robbie says. “It's just a hoist and pulley system with a counterweight. It's designed to operate with low force and high travel. That means the rope is easy to pull, but you have to keep pulling and pulling, hundreds of yards worth of rope. It converts this work to high force and low travel, which means it will lift our weight, but very slowly. Takes about half an hour to get up there.”

Her knight nods again, seeming to understand, but this doesn't stop him from spending the next several minutes inspecting the elevator. Zelda crosses her arms and huffs as he rattles the outer bars, then steps inside to stomp a foot repeatedly down on the wooden platform. I hardly think it will be safer if you break the thing before we climb into it, she wants to say.

Purah, to Zelda's annoyance, seems to find this incredibly amusing. “Look at this guy, here, going the extra mile! Now that's what you want in a protector.” To him, she says, “I promise, the thing's perfectly safe. Even if the very worst were to happen, and the cable were to fail, a braking mechanism would engage, stopping the cage from falling. Those wacky engineers think of everything.”

“It does get tiring pulling the rope after a while, though,” Robbie says, “so we'll alternate.”

“Right.” Purah rolls her eyes. “Alternate. You would never think to prevail upon our hero here to pull our lazy asses all the way up the cliff.”

Robbie gestures for them all to get in. “I was thinking nothing of the sort. Though if you're up to it, young man, I'm all for giving these shoulders of mine a break. Just consult Dr. Purah here if you need any assistance.”

“Thanks a lot.” Purah closes the cage behind them and latches it shut. With sighs of relief, she and Robbie shrug off their packs and place them on the floor.

It's a bit close inside for four people, though not uncomfortable. Zelda imagines that if she were to extend her arms out fully, her fingertips would not quite brush the bars of the cage on either side.

Her knight stands beneath several ropes in the rear of the cage, examining them. “That one,” Purah says, pointing it out. He takes hold of the rope and begins pulling, hand over hand, and the cage begins to ascend. “That's perfect. Now we just enjoy the view. Some of us more than others, I guess.”

“It's the lot of those who are strong to bear heavy burdens, is it not?” Robbie says. “I believe everyone here in this cage can attest to that.”

Zelda looks to Purah, expecting a sly retort, but finds her face thoughtful instead.

“Hold on a minute,” Purah says, holding up a finger and shaking it. “Link. I just remembered something about you.” She turns to Robbie. “Do you remember? Back at the Domain? How he'd climb absolutely everything? That's why he's never used the elevator.”

Zelda looks to her knight. His face is visible to her in profile, but his back is turned to the researchers. He continues to pull, saying nothing. She frowns. What Purah is saying doesn't seem likely. Yes, he's strong, but—

“I remember his father saying the funniest thing,” Purah continues. She looks at Zelda. “He was one of the guards traveling with the Emissary—you know, when they'd check in with us, and inspect the sites? So this was around four years ago. We're standing around talking—I think it was about the water pumps—when all of a sudden he points upward, and there's Link, twelve years old, shimmying straight up a tree, leaping from there onto one of those sheer cliff faces, and climbing up as easily as you'd crawl across a floor. And his father, completely deadpan, says, 'There goes my son, the future knight. Half mountain goat, half squirrel.'”

Purah and Robbie burst into laughter. Robbie slaps his thigh. “I'd forgotten about that!”

Her knight continues to pull, saying nothing. His expression doesn't change.

Purah and Robbie move on to reminisce about the excavation. At any other time, Zelda would be hanging on their every word, hungry for every detail. Yet she finds their voices fading into background as she studies the face before her, visible in profile. On which there are no signs of embarrassment, or irritation, or anger, or grief, or happiness, or amusement, or nostalgia. On which there are no signs of anything at all.

It's clear from his actions that he's not unfeeling. That he's not uncaring or unkind. That he's not ignorant or simpleminded, and certainly not oblivious.

So what does he think when he hears such things? What does he think about Robbie and Purah casually laughing about a memory from his youth, involving his father who is now deceased? Is it a good memory, or a painful one? What happened afterward, when he and his father were alone? Did his father laugh and tousle his hair? Or scold him, despite the public show of good humor?

Enough, she tells herself. She doesn't want to think about it. She doesn't want to think about whether he cares, or doesn't, or what his thoughts might be. And she certainly doesn't want to think about his father—the paragon who saved her mother's life and her own, who left a coveted position in order to raise his son and make him strong, who the Goddess saw fit to put on this earth just to prepare her precious hero and give him every advantage. Attempting to dodge talk of the man is sometimes akin to going out in a blizzard and attempting to dodge flakes of snow.

The hero continues to pull, pack still slung across his shoulders, showing no signs of slowing or fatigue—or of feeling put upon—and the elevator continues to ascend.

"Wow, you are really dedicated to this no-talking thing," Purah is saying to him.

How does he do it? How does he hold his cards so close to his chest, that half the time, it seems he isn't holding any cards at all?

 

Chapter Text

When they finally reach the top of the wall and file out of the cage, they're greeted by a squat Sheikah watchman in blue and gray warrior's garb, armed with a wicked-looking bow.

“Had to put an arrow in the shoulder of a Boko not two hours ago,” he says in a grim tone. “Stupid thing was starting to sniff around the elevators... ran off quick enough when I stuck it, but there are bound to be others.”

Robbie shakes his head. “They are getting bolder, if not smarter. Doesn't do for anyone to travel alone these days, especially on foot.”

Purah peers down over the edge. “You'd better bring the freight elevator up if you're not expecting anyone, and coil up the ropes while you're at it. They're still smart enough to use fire.” It's a legitimate concern; since the entrance near Gatepost Town was blocked by a cave-in, the elevators have been the only way on and off the Plateau. Other than climbing, apparently.

“What happened to the crew that was camped down there?” Zelda asks.

“They had to be reassigned, Princess,” the warrior says. “Signs of a shrine structure were spotted west of the Coliseum, and another in the canyon pass... we have standing orders to excavate and catalog any new ones that are found. With our people spread out the way they are, they were the only ones we could spare. We've got a request in to the Garrison for some soldiers to take up the post.”

Not for the first time, Zelda almost laughs at the irony. The way Father could sit across from her and tell her that prayer must be her first priority, while he continues, a decade on, to push the very limits of the kingdom's resources in pursuit of the ancient relics. With so much still to be done, with so many answers still to be found, with both time and resources running out.

How many years had it taken just to find and unearth the Divine Beasts? Eight? Nine? She had been a child that long ago evening, seated on Father's lap in his chair by the hearth, as he'd talked of the cliffside in the Gerudo highlands that had broken away, revealing the first glimpse of an enormous ancient wonder. She can still recall grabbing Father's sleeve and pelting him with questions—What does it look like? How big is it? What does it do? Can we go see?—and Mother's laughing voice across from them, saying, It would appear we have ourselves a budding researcher.

Now that the beasts are in the hands of their Champions, the bulk of the labor has been turned toward the Guardians and the long-neglected shrines scattered across the land. Some partially buried, some completely buried, many still undiscovered. And for all that, she's certain Father would accuse her of 'wasting her time' if she were to dare to devote any amount of study to them. No matter how vital they might turn out to be.

Only fruitless efforts for her, apparently.

These bitter thoughts continue to occupy Zelda through their short meal break, but by the time they're on their feet again, her companions shouldering their packs, she's chiding herself. Focus on what you can do, not what you can't. You'll just have to make the most of the time you have.

It's almost sundown by the time they reach the excavators' encampment on the eastern side of the Plateau, northwest of the abbey. As they approach, the crew hails them from a distance with a chorus of boisterous calls and waves, which Zelda, Robbie and Purah return, Purah seeming in danger of dislocating her arm.

The calls draw Impa out from one of the pavilions. When she spies their party, a smile breaks over her face, and she jogs over to meet them, laughing aloud when Purah meets her halfway and catches her in a fierce hug. The sisters exchange a few moments of enthusiastic conversation before Purah trots off with Robbie to join the men.

“Princess,” Impa greets her, extending her hands. Zelda takes them, fighting the overwhelming urge to hug her as her sister had done. “It is wonderful to see you here. I'm so glad you were able to make it.”

“Have you been to see the stone, yet?” Zelda asks.

“Not yet. I only arrived this afternoon, myself, and decided I might as well wait for the rest of you while I went over the site reports. I'm told it's not far—only about a quarter hour's walk that way, to the northeast. We'll head over first thing tomorrow morning.”

There's that urge to jump up and down again.

“And Link, you are looking well,” Impa says, turning to him. “I must once again commend you on your appointment to the princess. Perhaps I am overly biased by my study of the legends and histories, but I am tempted to believe that it must be fate. Though one must, of course, take care in making such assumptions.”

He inclines his head, his face solemn.

Zelda sighs inwardly. Even Impa is not immune—though given her field of study, she has a better excuse than most.

“Now, then,” Impa continues, clasping her hands. “You must be tired from your day's travels. Come and sit. There was a successful hunt early this morning, and supper is nearly ready.”

Though the camp is in a different location than it had been a year ago, it's much as Zelda remembers. Tall sleeping tents and wide pavilions; a fire pit and campfire surrounded by low wooden benches; lanterns mounted on stakes; stockpiles of barrels and equipment. At the outskirts, two large wagons, and a number of horses and mules.

Most familiar of all are the men themselves. An excavation crew of ten, led by their foreman, in addition to four warriors, a quartermaster, and Arvis, the site director. Twelve white-haired Sheikah in pale jackets and trousers, four in muted blue warriors' garb. There are new faces among them, and old faces missing, but she recognizes most, and, as she did the last time, finds herself drawn into their easy camaraderie almost at once. “Did you miss us, Princess?” says the foreman, with an expansive gesture.

“Every day,” she replies, with absolute truth, and is met with cheers.

As the stars emerge in the darkening sky, everyone gathers—excavators, warriors, researchers, and royalty—as bowls are passed from hand to hand. Zelda brings her bowl to her face and inhales; a rich hunter's stew of wild boar, foraged mushrooms, and root vegetables from Kakariko, fragrant with onion, herbs, and wine. Despite their break hours earlier, she finds herself eating as though it's her first meal in days, accepting another ladleful from the delighted quartermaster when he catches her stealing glances at the cauldron.

“And how are your Champions faring?” Impa asks, as she scrapes the bottom of her own bowl.

“They seem to be coming along, for the most part,” Zelda says. “Daruk is having a bit of trouble, but Revali showed great capability on my visit to Medoh.” She explains the spiritual connection between Revali and his Divine Beast, and Impa and Purah listen with fascination.

“We knew there would be something of that nature, but I wasn't expecting anything so profound,” Purah says.

“I have a much better understanding of the controls now,” Zelda says, “and I was actually able to fine-tune a bit to complement his progress. I should be able to use what I've learned to help Daruk. Urbosa reports that things are progressing nicely for her, and Mipha... well, it's quite interesting, really. Mipha reports that she has already achieved full mastery of Vah Ruta.”

Her knight had seemed too absorbed in his second bowl of stew to be listening, but at the mention of Mipha's name, he looks up.

“Not surprised to hear it,” Purah says. “Don't let the whole sweet and demure thing fool you. She's a sharp one.”

“Indeed,” Impa says. “She was the first that came to my mind as the potential pilot back when we were excavating, even as young as she appeared.”

“Poor little thing,” Purah says. “I've never seen a Zora so anxious for her growth spurt. Remember how she'd scramble after the bigger ones on her short little legs? Once she got so frustrated, I actually heard her scold her friend Link here for slowing down for her—ha! Look at his face! He remembers that, all right!”

Zelda's head turns in time to witness his attempt to hide his smile—and it's definitely a smile—with a large spoonful of stew.

Impa is laughing fondly. “It was quite a different matter in the water, though, wasn't it? And she did get him out of his fair share of scrapes.”

Despite his apparent efforts and mouthful of food, Zelda can still see the softening around his eyes and brow, reminding her of the smile he'd given Mipha on the day of the ceremony. She finds herself trying to picture him as that spirited twelve-year-old, swimming, climbing trees, and running with his friends, but gets only as far as him laughing on the deck of Vah Medoh, making zooming gestures with his hands. She shifts on the bench, wondering how she might go about politely extricating herself. The stew and the fire are starting to make her uncomfortably warm.

“I bet you could tell us some stories,” Purah is saying, pointing her spoon at him. “If we pried them out with a crowbar—or a few cups of sake.”

“Don't even think about it, Doctor,” Impa says. “We're getting an early start tomorrow.”

“Excuse me, weren't you the one who came up with that trick of drinking extra liquid, so your bladder would wake you early?”

“That was water,” Impa says.

“Water, sake... both clear liquids.”

The sisters continue with their good-natured bickering, but Zelda is no longer paying close attention, far too intrigued by the idea of this water-drinking trick. How much water did one have to drink? How soon before bed? How long did it take to work? She'd have to find the nerve to speak to Impa about it later. Perhaps devise some sort of controlled experiment...

Thoughts of how one might go about scientifically measuring the capacity of the human bladder are running through her head, when a sudden presence materializes before her, yanking her from her biological musings with a guilty start. She looks up, face flushing, to see her knight, half-shadowed by the fire behind him, sinking to one knee and extending a hand.

She can only stare for several moments before the details register—the empty bowl cradled in his other hand, the activity all about them of the group disbanding, the men setting about their tasks of readying the camp for the night. My empty bowl, she realizes. She hands it to him, murmuring her thanks, grateful for the low light obscuring her face. He straightens and gives that slight almost-bow before moving off to where the quartermaster is washing up.

“You must be exhausted, Princess,” comes Impa's voice at her side. “Come on... I'll show you to the tent.”

The sleeping arrangements are also much the same as Zelda remembers. The tents are tall enough to stand inside, large enough to sleep six with plenty of room—and as the only three ladies present, Impa, Purah and Zelda have one to themselves. The camp beds are comfortable for what they are; simple frames, onto which are placed thick padded futons from Kakariko.

“I reminded the men that you didn't want any special treatment,” Impa says. “Though they fought me on it, as they did last time. They adore you, you know. While most in your place would understand the importance of what they do, few would share their passion for it. It's a great honor for them.”

“The honor is mine,” Zelda says, humbled.

“They're pleased to have Link here as well. A few of them still remember him from those excavations in his youth, and all manner of tales have been filtering in from the castle... they're out there calling him 'Young Captain' and slapping him on the back. I just hope they haven't taken Purah's suggestion of sake to heart.”

“It's no concern of mine what he drinks, so long as he doesn't attempt to stand guard all night. Even he cannot go eleven consecutive days without rest, despite what he may believe.”

“The camp already keeps two on watch at all times. Since the cave-in, there's been little in the way of monsters up here, and even less in the way of tourists... we can all sleep soundly, Link included.” Impa pauses, giving her a thoughtful look. “Are things really as bad as all that?”

Zelda folds her arms, huffing. “You don't know the half of it. He has an awful stubborn streak, always trying to prove how tough he is... refusing to sleep, refusing to sit and eat, refusing to wear an overcoat when it's near to freezing... and let's not forget, refusing to speak. As though anyone is like to be impressed.”

“He sat and ate with us, just now,” Impa says.

“Well—well, yes, but—” Zelda feels her cheeks start to prickle. “But it's different up here. On site, you know. More relaxed. In a general sense, I mean.”

Impa nods, her dark eyes wide, her face solemn.

“You're mocking me,” Zelda says.

“Never,” Impa says. “Perhaps I should clarify... when I asked how bad things were, I was not referring to the hero's more vexing habits... but you answered my question, all the same.”

Zelda drops her gaze, toying with the cuff of her sleeve. A moment later, she feels Impa's hand settle on her shoulder.

“Forgive me, Princess. I know that you were... not the happiest about this arrangement. It was my hope that once the two of you started working together in earnest, you would find something in the way of common ground.”

It's only her deep respect for Impa that keeps Zelda from rolling her eyes. “And what ground might that be? Other than our common enemy, and the fact that we've had our fates decided for us by everyone but ourselves?”

“Well, I should think that alone might make a start. That, and the burden which you share.”

But we don't share it, Zelda wants to say. He barely seems to notice its weight, while I push with all my might and can't so much as budge it.

Instead, she says, “The real burden is this whole appointed knight business. I don't see why a single knight must be assigned to watch over me wherever I go... I've had guards my entire life, and they've always varied. Not to mention that I'm nearly grown, now, and there are times I simply don't need such careful protection, like when I'm inside the castle, for example. It just seems it's all for the sake of ceremony and aggrandizement, and in light of the gravity of our situation, I find it distasteful.” She fidgets under Impa's gaze.

“I see,” Impa says after a moment. “And you'd feel the same if it were, say, Captain Orvel in his place?”

Zelda tugs at the button on her cuff, opening it, then closing it again. “At least he would have been my choice.”

“Well, there is that. For what it's worth, your father did consider it. If you'll recall, he delayed his decision for three months, despite favoring Link from the beginning.”

“It was the Minister's opinion he was considering, not mine,” Zelda says, trying to keep the petulance from her voice.

“The Minister's arguments were sound,” Impa says, “but when has that ever mattered to your father when he's set his mind? No, it was your discomfort that gave him pause... he confided to me that he did not wish to see you unhappy, and wondered if he should not appoint Orvel after all. Then the Guardian incident occurred, and he decided that, with all of the unexpected dangers you were bound to face, Link would be the only one with a chance of ensuring your safety.”

“And you?” Zelda asks, finally looking up to meet Impa's eyes again. “Did you agree with him?”

Impa sighs. “I won't lie to you. I did agree. I still do. I never gave such counsel to your father directly, knowing your wishes on the matter... when he would ask me, I'd advise him to wait and see, in the hope that you'd come around on your own. It was I who suggested that he tell you of the attempt on your mother all those years ago, so that you might better understand.”

“You? But...” Five still living who know of it, Father had said. “But you would have been a child when it happened.”

“Twelve, or thereabouts... but you have the right of it. My predecessor informed me only last year, shortly before his passing. Knowing the ways and history of the Yiga, I should not have been surprised, and yet it still came as a shock. I can only imagine how it was for you.”

Zelda shakes her head, not wanting to think about it. “I still don't see what any of it has to do with him. Even if he is his father all over again, I've spent the past sixteen years without him, or an appointed knight, and as you can clearly see, I've lived to tell the tale.”

“And we intend to keep it that way.” Impa's mouth quirks. “Why, the loss to the research community alone...”

Zelda can't help smiling at that, but Impa's expression quickly sobers again.

“You know what you are to this world, and why you must remain under guard. Why you've never gone an hour of your life without some form of protection close at hand. The Yiga may not be particularly bold, nor their numbers great, but true to their Sheikah roots, they are patient, cleaving always to the shadows and waiting for opportunities to strike. Despite what you say, I don't think it will surprise you to hear that there have been other attempts, though none have come nearly as close. A lot of things changed after that first incident... the vetting and hiring of staff, the selection of guards, training in spotting suspicious behaviors... a contingent of Sheikah warriors patrols always within those shadows, watching for hidden threats. Our best weapon against them is vigilance, and vigilant we must be.”

“Well, fine, but—” Zelda draws herself up, her hands balling into fists. “But where does it end? Those guards outside my mother's door—should they have been in the room with her, instead? Is that where this is headed? Am I not to have a breath of freedom at all? Am I that fragile, that I should spend my days cowering in fear, waiting for assassins to appear around every—” Her voice breaks, as if a hand has just closed around her throat.

“Hush,” Impa is saying, holding her arms out, “hush, now,” and then Zelda is pressing her face to Impa's shoulder, eyes squeezed shut, the inside of her nose stinging with unshed tears. Impa's arms come around her, one hand patting her back over her hair.

Stop, Zelda commands herself. Stop it right now. You are not going to cry. You are not.

The last time anyone had hugged her had been when Urbosa had visited for the ceremony. The time before that... had been the previous time Urbosa had visited. You are not going to cry.

“Forgive me,” Impa says, stroking her hair. “I spoke in haste. I did not mean to imply that you were helpless, or better off being afraid. Of course you're not. Your courage is one of the things that serves you best, and I would not see it crushed, nor you cowed... I only meant for you to see the wisdom in having dedicated protection. Not because you are weak, but because you are vulnerable—in the same way I am vulnerable, in the same way Purah and Robbie are vulnerable. We are not warriors. That is not our task. No one can be all things to all people... In your lifetime of sixteen years you have devoted nearly every waking moment to your spiritual training, studies, and your duties as Hyrule's princess. And so you must trust in others to defend you. What more might you ask of yourself? What more might anyone ask of you?”

Zelda's laugh is half a sob, muffled against the cloth of Impa's jacket, but the tears stay back. “I see you haven't been talking to my father. Or the Goddess.”

“Your father does have certain ideas about things... but you must never doubt that he wants what's best for you. He knows the burden you bear, and how well you're bearing up under it.”

“But I'm not.” She turns her head, resting her cheek against Impa's shoulder. “I'm not bearing up. I'm not getting anywhere. I can't hear anything, I can't feel anything... I'm no closer than I was when I stepped into my first sacred spring. I don't know what to do... I don't know what else I can do.”

“Hush,” Impa says, patting her. “You're already doing it.”

“How can you know that? Shouldn't I have gotten somewhere by now? Mother had her power from when she was a child—and Grandmother—”

“They were not destined to confront an ancient evil. You are. You've studied the legends and histories, yourself. You've stood witness to your Champions. There are trials. There are always trials. This is yours. Granted, the nature of it remains a mystery, and what you must do to conquer it, I can't begin to say. But I believe, with all of my heart, that the Goddess will give you no challenge you cannot overcome.”

Something eases inside Zelda at those words. “You think so?” she asks in a small voice.

“Well, it would be rather counterproductive otherwise, wouldn't you say?”

For just a moment, Zelda allows herself to believe it. To believe that these nine years have not been a waste, that she isn't a miserable, worthless wretch whose every effort to attain her purpose has come to nothing. No, she's simply being tested.

For nine years.

And failing, says a voice inside herself.

“I'm sorry,” she says, pulling back from Impa with a shaky smile. She should be angry with herself for having said all these things, for embarrassing herself this way. After all, nothing has changed, or been resolved... yet she feels just the tiniest bit lighter, and for that, she can't regret it. “I shouldn't have—I don't know what came over me.”

“None of that, now. It's all right.” Impa puts her hands to the sides of Zelda's face, thumbs sweeping from the center of her forehead to her temples in that odd Sheikah blessing. “I clearly haven't spent enough time at the castle of late. It might be time to give your royal father a talking-to.”

Just then, they hear commotion outside the tent, and Purah's laughing voice. A moment later, Purah sweeps into the tent with a flourish. “I told them that they'd better save their heavy drinking for tomorrow night,” she announces. “If I have to wait to have my fun, so do they.”

As they bed down for the night, talking of the next day's excursion, Zelda wonders if this is what it would have been like to have a sister. To have someone to hug when you felt like crying; to put out your lantern at night and hear giggles; to speak in the dark in hushed, excited voices of adventures to come. Probably not that last part, she thinks. We wouldn't have shared a room.

 


 

At the Grounds, she'll pray.

She walks, bare feet in the moss, stepping silent among the roots of the forest. Night breezes flutter in her white dress.

The Grounds, the Grounds, to pray. She has to pray.

White stone glows in the moonlight. She ascends the steps, to the center, where lies the emblem, the three triangles that are the power of this land.

There, he stands, clad in blue, his face in profile. Shining at his edges, as a glowing on stone. He looks down upon the body on the bier.

“I have to pray,” she says.

He does not answer. He looks down upon the bier, upon the body of a man, beneath a dark shroud.

“I was not there,” she says. “I'd gone to pray.”

He does not answer. He looks down upon the body on the bier. She looks again. The shroud is white, and beneath it lies the body of a woman. The middle is stained red.

“I have to pray,” she says.

He shines at his edges, as a glowing on stone. He looks down upon the body on the bier, and holds his hand out to her.

“I was not there,” she says, and takes it.

 


 

Zelda opens her eyes to lantern light, and the sounds of activity outside the tent.

“Hey, sleepyhead,” Purah says. “We were just about to wake you. It's after sunup.”

Zelda turns over into her pillow. She was just dreaming. What was she dreaming? Something about praying, and the Sacred Grounds... it's already slipping away. Her head feels heavy and muddled, as though she'd nodded off only moments ago. Then all confusion and fatigue evaporate as she remembers where she is, and why. She picks up her head and blinks. “The stone!”

Purah laughs. “That's just what I said when I woke up.”

The sky is bright behind the mountains in the east by the time she's readied herself. Outside the tent, it seems as though the men have been up for hours. What remains of a cauldron of porridge sits over the coals in the fire pit, and the crew is bustling about, packing up equipment to be moved.

Among the white-haired, pale-garbed Sheikah, one lone figure stands out; clad in blue, golden as sunrise, lifting bright red barrels and loading them onto the back of a wagon. The barrels are chest-high and near as wide as they are tall, and from the markings on them, Zelda knows that they're full to the brim with black powder, the kind that detonates on ignition. She watches as the figure stoops, hoists a barrel onto one shoulder as a man might lift a sack of grain, and steps up onto the wagon bed.

“Half the crew is headed for the abbey grounds, today,” Purah explains. “Still looking for that power source. The abbot probably won't be too happy when he sees a wagonload of explosives coming his way, but it's your father's orders. Arvis and the rest are with us. And of course, our hero, there.” She peers over at him, adjusting her spectacles as he hefts another barrel, then opens the book she's carrying and starts scribbling.

“It's so easy to forget how strong that boy is,” Robbie says, coming up beside them. “Shouldn't even be possible for someone of his stature.”

“Some of the past heroes were like that, too, according to the legends,” Purah says, still jotting down notes. “At least one was a boy of nine or ten. Impa's theory is that the Hero is meant to appear relatively nonthreatening, so his foes will underestimate him.”

Robbie scratches at his chin. “Well, there's strong for one's size, and then there's that. Look at him, hopping up there with those barrels... how much do you think he could lift? At maximum?”

“You tell me,” Purah says. “You're the engineer.”

“Judging by his perceived exertion, and the hopping, I'd say three times his own weight. At least.”

“That much?”

“Well, assuming he weighs, I don't know, a hundred and thirty pounds, give or take? The barrels are around twice that... I wonder if he'd consent to being studied once this is all over...”

Zelda leaves them to their discussion about the Hero's vast and stupendous gifts, and heads over to the cauldron, ladling up most of what remains of the thick porridge. She sits on one of the low benches with the bowl in her lap, forcing herself to eat, knowing she'll regret it if she doesn't.

As she eats, she tries to revisit the dream that faded upon waking, but all she can recall are the Grounds, moonlight, and looking to pray. Prayer is featuring much in her dreams of late, and her dreaming is growing more and more vivid. She wonders if it's a sign she might be getting somewhere. Grandmother used to talk about her dreams, and some of the princesses of the past were known to have dreams of a prophetic nature. Even she herself may have had one. That dream she'd had of the Hero—clad in blue, taking her hand on the Sacred Grounds—the morning he'd arrived at the castle.

Of course, there's no way to know for sure. They'd been hearing rumors of him for weeks. She'd grown up with the tales and legends. She was more than familiar with that shade of blue, and she'd read about the ancient ceremony. It's possible, even likely, that it was nothing more than her mind putting together things she already knew.

But now, this morning, dreaming of the Grounds once again... could there be some significance? Is the Goddess attempting to speak to her, if only she might hear?

Perhaps it's a sign that she should make the pilgrimage to the Temple of Time, several hours' walk from here. She'd done so on her last visit to the Plateau, performing her rituals before the great Goddess statue, so much like the ones found at the sacred springs, though without water. She should go, even if it means staying here on the Plateau an extra day. Father would certainly approve.

There's just one problem.

Lost in her thoughts, she doesn't hear the footsteps coming toward her until they're quite close. She looks up to find him—the problem— approaching the cauldron. The sight of his face in profile gives her an odd sensation, as of something half-remembered. As she watches, he takes a bowl, and she hears the scrape of the ladle as he works off the last of the porridge crusted to the bottom, flopping it into his bowl in browned chunks. He inclines his head to her and then stands to one side, tucking into his second-rate fare.

“Did you not eat with the others?” she asks after a moment. Had she known...

“He just did the work of three men, Princess,” comes a jovial voice—Arvis, who claps her knight on the shoulder. “I'd say a third bowl of porridge is in order. Now, we should be set to depart in a quarter hours' time, if that's all right with you.”

“I'll be ready, Arvis. Thank you.”

Zelda toys with the spoon in her bowl as her knight continues to eat. The short hair at the back of his neck is damp with sweat. If he's working hard enough to need that much food, why won't he just sit? He'd sat with the group last night. Did he sit with the men, earlier this morning? Or did he stand apart, as he does now?

He pauses, as though sensing something, and then turns his head, meeting her eyes. It takes her a moment to realize that she's scowling at him. She looks away with a jerk of her head. Why can't he just go off with the demolition crew for the day and leave her in peace?

Perhaps she should tell him to do just that. Perhaps she should look him straight in the eye again and say, I will not be needing your services today, Captain. Kindly accompany the crew to the abbey and assist them in whatever way they require.

She tries to picture how that might go. She tries to imagine Father's face when word gets back to him that his daughter ordered her appointed knight to move barrels and shift rocks instead of guarding her.

It's a moot point, anyway. Impa would never let her get away with it after that conversation they'd had last night. The Plateau is about as safe a place as could be outside the castle, and she'll have six burly men and three researchers with her—but no, the Hero Chosen by the Sword is apparently all that stands between herself and gruesome death.

Her bowl is still half-full, but her appetite is gone. Giving it up as a bad job, she leaves it with the rest of the dirty bowls and heads back to the tent.

Fortunately, a short while later, knights and fathers and woes seem far less important. There's an air of excitement as they set off on the short walk to the site, which, from a distance, looks like a large, nondescript mound of rock with a fissure at the center.

When they're perhaps thirty paces away, Impa suddenly stops, halting the party. “Wait,” she says, a breathlessness to her voice. She points upward, to the top of the mound. “What is that?”

They all look up. Just visible, protruding several inches from the rock, is what appears to be a metal spike.

Purah gasps. “No. It can't be.”

Zelda looks to Arvis and Robbie, who both shrug. “What is it?” she says.

By way of answer, Purah and Impa look at each other, then take off at a run. The rest of the party stands watching them, momentarily stunned, but then Zelda takes off after them, the rest jogging behind her to catch up.

The structure is still in the process of being excavated, so there's only a small gap in the rock. Zelda squeezes through, emerging into a small, oblong chamber hollowed out inside, light filtering in through several gaps above. There, as promised, are the Guidance Stone and pedestal. Her footsteps ring on the floor with the same distinctive sound as in all the other ancient structures.

“Look,” Purah's saying, pointing beneath them. On the floor is a familiar circular pattern, less elaborate than those found inside the Divine Beasts, nearly identical to those found outside the ancient shrines.

“I don't understand,” Zelda says. “Is this a shrine?”

Purah shakes her head. “Better.”

“It's a tower,” Impa says. “One of the fifteen towers of legend, said to have been built by the Sheikah alongside all the other ancient wonders.”

Zelda gapes at her. “Are you sure?”

“It has all the signs.” Impa puts her hand to the single vertical beam exposed within the rock, and Zelda does the same. Smooth, skillfully wrought, showing shockingly little wear after thousands of years—that same mysterious material used in all the ancient structures, presumed to be a fusion of metal and stone.

Purah pokes her head outside the fissure, addressing the rest of the party clustered around outside. “This is a big find,” she says. “Divine Beast-big.”

“Well, move aside, I want to see,” says Robbie, elbowing his way past Purah amid Arvis's calls to be careful. The four of them crowd around the pedestal. It's much like the pedestal inside Medoh, with the same indentation to fit the Sheikah Slate, but unlike that one, it's dull and dormant.

“This is what the pedestals looked like inside the Divine Beasts, before we first used the slate on them,” Purah says to her. “And I still get peeved when I think how your father wouldn't let you go with us back then. You're the one who got the slate working in the first place.”

Father had said that she'd taken long enough on her excursion to the Plateau, and that traversing the countryside for weeks to visit every Divine Beast was out of the question. The moment when she'd handed the slate over to Purah had been the closest she'd come to crying in a very long while. The news that the slate had in fact been the key, and had brought the Divine Beasts to life after their long sleep, had been decidedly bittersweet.

“I wish I could have seen it,” she says, looking down at the device in her hands. “And I was sure I'd never see this little thing again. I'm still not sure that I'm the best one to keep it.”

“It's yours, Princess,” Impa says. “That's all there is to it.”

“Now quit keeping us in suspense, and do the honors,” Purah says.

They all lean in, holding their collective breath as Zelda holds the slate over the pedestal, lines it up, and fits it into the indentation.

Nothing happens.

“Come on,” Purah says, shaking her fists. “Don't do this to us.”

Nothing continues to happen.

“No power,” Robbie says, to their chorus of sighs. “Just like the blasted shrines.”

Purah utters her filthiest swear word and gives the pedestal a kick.

“That," Zelda says, "is an excellent way to put it.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Excitement and disappointment often go hand-in-hand when it comes to these discoveries, and it isn't long before their little research team is making the best of it. The rest of the morning finds them clambering about on rocks, trying different things with the slate, taking notes, sketching what's visible of the inner structure, and engaging in animated discussion.

“Okay, hear me out,” Purah says. “What if we blast out the side of the Plateau? We could uncover the whole tower down to the base, and see if there are any power sources or mechanisms that we can activate. For all we know, there's an ancient furnace down there that just needs a light.”

Robbie gives Impa a long-suffering look. “Why wait for Calamity Ganon to lay waste to the countryside, when we can just get a head start on it ourselves?”

“They'd be controlled blasts, Robbie.” Purah looks up at the rock formation she's sketching, then down at her book, moving her pencil against the page in quick strokes. “Unlike those of a certain Guardian I could name.”

“You leave Cherry out of this,” Robbie says, leveling his pencil at her.

Arvis clears his throat. “While there's nothing I'd love more than to blast every secret I can out of this place, all this excavating has rendered this side of the Plateau unstable as it is. We can't even clear the rubble from the main gate without risk of another cave-in. If we attempt any kind of demolition on that scale, we'll end up bringing half the Plateau down... and I don't think we want any kind of explosives near that Guidance Stone in any case.”

Purah huffs at this completely reasonable assessment.

“Don't forget that, according to the information we have, the towers are meant to excavate themselves when the right conditions are met,” Impa says. “We only need to be patient.”

“I know, I know.” Purah rolls her eyes. “Your answer to everything... 'Wait and see.'”

The sun is high in the east when Zelda closes her field notebook and squints up at the spike protruding from the top of the rock, shading her eyes with one hand. She's still trying to wrap her head around the fact that there's a tower buried here in the Plateau, and that it's been here, right under their noses, for centuries beyond count. Not for the first time, the fateful words of Father's fortune teller resound within her mind: The signs of a resurrection of Calamity Ganon are clear, and the power to oppose it lies dormant beneath the ground.

Four Divine Beasts, fifteen towers, and an untold number of Guardians and shrines. An ancient arsenal that's already once proven itself against the evil they're meant to face.

But what is an arsenal, without the skill or knowledge to wield it?

As Zelda reflects on this, a figure in blue presents itself in her peripheral vision. Absorbed in her work, she'd all but forgotten him. He's holding her canteen, proffering it to her. She'd forgotten about that, too, and only now realizes how parched she is.

“Thank you,” she says, accepting it. He inclines his head and steps back from her as she drinks.

The three researchers, as they catch sight of her, each take out their own canteens, and Zelda has to suppress a smile. No one understands better than they do—how easy it is to lose oneself in pursuit of study, to forget the need for food and drink and shelter, to forget the need for anything beyond the quest for answers.

Yet, for all that, the body still needs sustenance, and her stomach is now taking the opportunity to remind her that she'd left half of her breakfast with the washing-up all those hours ago. She hands the empty canteen back to her knight, wondering how much longer it will be before they break for lunch.

“Do you require food as well, Princess?” he asks.

The question is so unexpected, and the phrasing so strange and overly formal after the easy chatter of her other companions, that for a moment she can only blink at him. When was the last she'd heard him speak? Was it on their journey to Rito Village? No... that was the last he'd spoken to her. The last she'd heard of his voice had been his laughter on the deck of Vah Medoh.

“I beg your pardon?” she finds herself saying.

He opens his mouth again as if to answer, but then an odd expression comes over his face—so subtle and fleeting that it's almost no expression at all, yet Zelda has the distinct impression that he's reconsidering something. Then it's gone, his face composed back into polite attentiveness. He doesn't repeat himself.

Zelda's nails dig into her palm. This is just the sort of thing she was trying to explain to Impa last night.

He does mean well, she reminds herself. He would have noticed that she hadn't eaten much. And what sort of knight would let his fragile little princess faint away from hunger?

Before she can insist that she's perfectly fine to wait for the others, Purah's voice calls out from nearby. “Hey, I'm with him,” she says. “Let's all just eat and head over to the shrine. We're not going to make any more progress here today, unless someone's willing to reconsider my suggestion.” She sends a pointed glare over toward Arvis, who just as pointedly ignores it.

This seems to placate her knight, who takes his leave and moves off to a place at the outer edges of the gathering as everyone prepares to eat. He'd done her the courtesy of staying out of her way all morning, she now realizes, making it that much easier for her to forget his presence. Perhaps, if he continues to keep such a distance, that presence might almost come to be tolerable. Not as tolerable as if he were all the way back at Hyrule Castle, but at this point she'll take what she can get.

Determined to forget about him once again, Zelda shifts her focus to the meal and her companions' conversation. The meal is a simple one, cold vegetable skewers and rice balls stuffed with smoked fish, but sitting on the rocks, among friends, in the shade of an ancient relic, it tastes better than any banquet in her father's hall.

“Shrine of Resurrection,” Robbie is saying, giving Purah a wry look. “I'll bet you're responsible for that name, as well.”

Impa chuckles. “I tried to tell her... the word can be translated as 'resurrection,' but the usage is almost exclusively in the metaphorical sense. In context, it would likely be more accurate to say, 'resuscitation,' or, 'regeneration.'”

“Huh. Well, I will admit that 'Shrine of Resuscitation' doesn't have quite the same ring to it.”

“Thank you, Robbie,” Purah says, giving him a satisfied nod. “And now the place had better live up to its name, and resurrect. Because if the princess puts the slate into that pedestal, and that shrine doesn't light up like a midsummer festival, I'm washing my hands of ancient technology, going back to Kakariko Village, and becoming a pumpkin farmer.”

“How frightening for the pumpkins,” Impa says.

“I suppose it's unwise to get our hopes up again,” Zelda says, coming up for air, “but I can't help it, either. Ever since we first got the slate working, I've been wondering what might happen if we return it to the place where we found it. What if activating that first shrine is the key to opening all the other ones, as well?”

A short while later, Purah crams the last of a rice ball into her mouth and jumps to her feet. “All right, come on, people,” she says, spraying bits of rice. She swallows and claps her hands. “Let's go, let's go! We're burning daylight!”

“May we finish eating, please?” Robbie says. “We've been climbing rocks all morning.”

“Finish on the walk back to camp,” Purah says.

Nobody moves until Zelda, equally eager to set off, hops to her feet as well. She tries to feel more guilty as Impa, Arvis, and Robbie reluctantly stand, but she doesn't quite have it in her. A quarter hours' walk back to camp, an hour or two on horseback to the shrine, and then...

She puts her hand to the slate at her hip, a flutter of nerves starting up in her stomach.

And then they would finally see.

 


 

It isn't quite a midsummer festival, but Purah's shriek fills the chamber anyway.

Zelda steps back from the pedestal as the slate spins in its recess, as the concentric pattern of curves and lines blazes into bright orange light. Her heart beats double time, triple, as the lights turn blue, and the chamber itself, around the light of their lanterns, comes alive in a soft blue glow.

Purah launches herself at her sister, and the two embrace, laughing, rocking back and forth. “I knew it!” Purah's voice is slightly muffled in Impa's long hair. “I knew it!”

Robbie watches them with his fists on his hips, grinning from ear to ear. “Looks like the pumpkins are safe for now.” He glances over at Zelda, jerking a thumb toward the pedestal. “Nothing quite like witnessing it with your own eyes, is there?”

Zelda can't answer, because then the sisters are taking her hands, and Purah has an arm around her. “You did this,” she's saying to Zelda, giving her a shake for emphasis. “You did. The Divine Beasts, too. You're responsible for all of it.”

“I didn't do anything,” Zelda says, her voice weak. Those two tiny holes in the side of the slate. No one else had noticed them. She'd tried her sewing needles, and when they'd been too large, she'd thought to try a bit of wire. She'd had no real idea that it would work—“It was only an experiment, a wild guess—”

“Those are the best kind,” Purah says, and squeezes her hand.

The slate is spinning again, the workings of the pedestal lifting it out of the recess, prompting them to take it back. At Purah's insistence, Zelda reaches for it with shaking hands.

They all crowd around as Zelda taps at the face of the slate, searching for new functions. “There,” Impa says, as Zelda comes across something unfamiliar. A page that's completely blank.

A sound starts up behind them, the soft whirring of machinery. “Look,” Arvis calls, and they all turn to find him gesturing toward the large urn-like structure dominating the back of the chamber, which appears to be the source of the glow. Blue light flares from its swirls and grooves, much like those of the Guardians, from the base of the structure to the upper branches which suspend it from the ceiling.

The structure is beginning to ascend.

They all watch, transfixed, as the upper urn lifts from the base of the structure, revealing a flat, oblong receptacle, looking to Zelda like nothing so much as a cross between a bed and a bathtub. There's a grinding sound, a small shock of settling stone, as the urn locks into its raised position. Zelda lets out a breath she didn't know she was holding, and hears Purah and Impa do the same.

“Perhaps it really is a Shrine of Resurrection,” Impa says, once the silence has stretched to breaking. “And if so, I think we may have found our tomb.”

 


 

At camp that evening, after supper, Zelda sits alone in the tent with her notebook, jotting down a few more thoughts. Her mind is still buzzing with the events of the day, of what they'd found, of what she'd seen. She knows it's only a taste of what it would have been like to see the Divine Beasts first come to life, but still, it was something. Something big. And she'd been part of it.

Before today, they'd had a hypothesis based solely on the shrine's name. A name that could mean resuscitation, regeneration, or resurrection. They had conceived of a place of healing; a place that could bring one back from the brink of death—or possibly, from death itself. But a name alone is never the whole story, and there were any number of other things it could have meant. It could have been a reference to a specific person, or to a legend, or even to work that was never successfully completed.

Now, they have a little more to go on. Not much more, but enough to tell them that, if their hypotheses have missed the mark, they haven't missed it by much.

If only she could stay here for just one more day...

“No,” she says aloud to herself. “Don't even consider it.” She had promised Father, and promised herself. Besides, Daruk needs her, too, and even this shrine could not possibly prove as important as a Divine Beast. The others will keep working at it. Arvis and the crew will keep searching for more records. If there are answers to be found, they'll find them.

Of course, that doesn't make it any less painful to walk away.

“Focus on what you can do,” she reminds herself, and when she finishes with her notes, she departs the tent in search of the other researchers. Thinking of Daruk has reminded her that she'd like a bit of input on making those adjustments. There's a guard posted outside the tent—one of Impa's escorts from Kakariko—and Zelda is grateful when he doesn't follow.

It seems she's among the last still focusing on work this evening. She spots Purah and Robbie among the excavation crew gathered around the campfire, faces animated in raucous laughter. One of the men is pouring liquid from an earthenware vessel, and as Zelda watches, they all lift their cups in a toast. From the unsteady movements of some of them, it seems this isn't the first toast of the evening. Zelda suddenly recalls certain sake-related threats and finds herself scanning the group, searching for the telltale sheen of blue cloth...

And finds it. Though not where she'd expected.

He's not sitting at the campfire with the group, but a short distance beyond, on the bench by the fire pit where the quartermaster does the cooking. The coals below are flecked with embers, and his eyes are flecked with light from the fire nearby; his elbows rest on his knees, his chin on his clasped hands, in a posture of listening. His face is painted in warm and flickering hues.

Across from him sits Impa.

From the angle of Zelda's view, she sees only the back of Impa's head, but from that particular motion of her shoulders and hands, she can tell that Impa is speaking earnestly. You're wasting your breath, Zelda thinks out of habit, but as she looks again at that firelit face, she sees it isn't true.

Zelda recalls earlier in the day, in the Shrine of Resurrection, when she'd been examining the inscriptions on the side of the oblong receptacle. She'd been crouching for a while, her legs getting tired, and she'd straightened up to get the blood flowing back to them. And there had been her knight, standing across from her on the other side, looking down into the receptacle—into that bed, or bathtub, or tomb.

Just looking. No expression on his face, of wonder, or curiosity, or boredom, or disdain. No cards at all.

What do you think? she'd asked. It had just come out of her. At the moment, there had been no one else nearby.

He'd looked up. She'd met his eyes. Eyes flecked with ancient light, blue-on-blue.

In that brief moment, she'd been sure he'd tell her. She recalls how she'd held her breath, waiting for him to speak, just as she'd held her breath waiting for the urn to ascend. But when she'd finally let out that breath, it was to silence, the same silence that had followed the settling stone. And in that moment, she'd felt an utter fool.

Now she watches the shift of his face in firelight, the drawing of his brow, the opening of his mouth. The formation on his lips, of words.

She can't hear them, of course. Even had the group not been there, and not been so obnoxiously loud, she would be standing too far away. But it seems to her, from the way he leans in, from the way his hands move to wrap around his middle, that he's asking a question. An important one.

The leather of Zelda's notebook creaks as she grips it. A shiver races up her covered arms, from wrists to neck.

She's moving before she can think, back and around, through the shadows, past sleeping tents and pavilions and stacks of crates. She trips over a shovel that's been left on the ground and almost goes sprawling, but manages to catch herself. On through the shadows she goes, until she circles all the way around, to the place behind the quartermaster's tent. She crouches down.

The chatter from the crew makes it a bit difficult, but Impa herself has to speak loud enough to be heard above the din, and after a moment of concentration, Zelda is able to pick her words from the rest.

“—time out of mind. But a true historian knows that these are only accounts of the past, not the past itself, and that much has been lost to us that we will never know. Who can say, with certainty, what is legend and what is history? What is embellishment and what is truth? There are ways to verify, and corroborate, but there is always some degree of speculation involved, no matter how credible and numerous the sources. We must learn from the past where we can, however we can. Yet the past does not determine what will be. It is only a guide—”

“I swear, Impa, sometimes you talk like you're ten thousand years old.” Purah, with a loose, breezy quality to her voice—not quite slurring her words, but not quite not slurring them, either. “Shove over.”

There's a shuffle and a grunt, and then Purah is saying, “Listen, Hero. Whatever she's telling you, don't worry about it. Here's what you do. You get out there, and you go get 'em. You don't let anyone tell you any different. You get out there, and you do your thing, and let the princess do her thing, and everything'll be okay. You get me? You tell the princess that, too. That everything'll be okay. Tell her I said so. And that she should listen to me, because I'm very, very, very smart.” There's a pause. “What happened to the rest of this?”

“You drank it,” Impa says.

“Oh.” Another pause. “What was I saying?”

“You were leaving.”

“Right. I was saying that I'm very smart. And you're very smart. And Linky here is—well, I guess he's pretty smart. And the princess is so smart I'd keep her at my lab, and send Robbie to the castle in a blond wig.”

“I heard that,” calls Robbie. Laughter from the men.

“Least she thinks you're pretty,” adds one of them.

The exchanges devolve from there.

Zelda crouches in the shadows, cursing inwardly. Cursing the sake, cursing Purah, cursing the men, cursing herself. What is she doing here, anyway? What had she meant to accomplish by this? What does it matter what they were saying? What he was saying?

Still, Zelda waits, through the cackling shouts, through Impa's sighs turning to chuckles, through the clink of cups as yet another round is poured, until she's sure there'll be nothing more to hear. You're better than this, she tells herself as she finally creeps back toward the tent. Despite all evidence to the contrary.

 


 

His face is lit by firelight.

He sits, cross-legged on the ground. He wears the cream-colored shirt, its sides pinned to fit his form, and in his hair is a coronet of twisting vines.

“We have to pray,” she tells him.

He looks up at her. Fire lights his face, and his golden hair. Flecks of fire are in his eyes. In his naked hands he holds a carving of a bear, up on its hind legs, mouth open in a hungry snarl.

“We have to pray,” she says. “Where can we go?”

He smiles, as though he knows a secret. He stands, and offers her his hand. She takes it, letting him lead her, up the stairs and up, through the ruins of the ancient temple. The stone is cold against her bare feet, her white dress soft against her legs. She walks with him, in firelight, letting him lead her, holding his hand.

“We have to pray,” she says.

Something is missing from his shoulder. She cannot think what. She decides she likes it, that it's missing. She likes that he's not wearing enough clothing, though it's actually far too much.

In the deepest part of the Temple complex, the statue rises. Tall, many stories tall, lit by firelight. On its head is a coronet of flowering vines. They walk past it.

“Not there,” she says. That's not the type of praying that they mean to do.

 


 

Zelda glowers into her porridge bowl. She hates just about everything on the face of the earth, herself most of all.

Well, let's be fair, she says to herself. It ought to be Calamity Ganon most of all. Were it not for Calamity Ganon, many of the things she hates about herself would not matter. Some would not even exist. I'm still a close second, though, she insists.

She supposes she doesn't hate the porridge. It's even better than yesterday's, rich with goat's milk from the Abbey, flavored with apples, currants, and honey. She eats another halfhearted spoonful.

“Are you feeling all right, Princess?” Impa says, sitting down next to her. “You've hardly said a word this morning.”

“I'm well, thank you,” she says, not looking up. “Just tired.”

“I know you wish you could stay. If it's any consolation, we all wish you could. I promise you'll be the first to know if we discover anything further.”

That brings a smile to Zelda's face, despite her mood. “I'll hold you to that.”

“Let me go and see if Purah's awake,” Impa says. “I know she'll want to see you off.”

“Did she not... get in a bit late, last night? Perhaps you should let her sleep.”

“And pass up the chance to teach her a lesson? That wouldn't be very sisterly of me.”

Zelda has to admit that, once she gets a look at Purah, she no longer feels quite so awful herself. Sometimes it takes the face of true suffering to put it all into perspective. Despite it all, though, Purah smiles as she takes Zelda's hand in both of hers. “Take care, Princess,” she says. “Be safe out there. And tell your father he needs to let you have more fun with us. Excavating fun, not wake-up-in-the-morning-with-a-massive-headache fun.”

“I'll be sure to pass that along,” Zelda says, “though it seems they go together more often than not.”

“Only for some,” Impa says, smirking.

Purah ignores that. “And you, Hero,” she says, pointing a finger at him, “are a terrible disappointment. Do you know we never got a single word out of him? Or a single drink into him.”

“Smart lad,” Impa says. “On both counts.”

A short while later, amid goodbyes and well-wishes and promises to write, they set off. Zelda takes a breath, savoring the sweet morning air and the sun on her face. She is not going to think about the dream anymore, and that's that. Three hours' walk to the wall, then the elevator down, then a quick detour to the lake, then to Aquame. From there, on horseback to Mabe Village. It will do her a world of good, and she refuses to even consider the possibility otherwise.

 


 

By the time they reach the elevator, she's reconsidering a lot of things.

She'd tried to talk to him once during their walk, with the predictable results. She'd known better, but her head is just so full of things right now, and talking about certain things makes it easier to think about those things, and to not think about certain other things.

That, and clearly these last two days have spoiled her in her expectations of her travel companions.

Now, at the northern edge of the Great Plateau, with its breathtaking view of Hyrule Field, the castle, and the mountains beyond, she's faced with something she hasn't given any thought to at all.

The elevator.

She has to get into the elevator. She has to get into the elevator, into that little iron cage, and stand in there for half an hour. Alone. With him. She resists the urge to put her head in her hands.

The watchman greets them, the same one who'd been on duty two days earlier. “Fine day for travel, Princess,” he says. “You can see for miles in every direction.” Indeed they could, the clear midmorning skies surrounding everything in unbroken blue.

There's a rustling next to her. Her knight has set down the pack and is starting to pull out some food. As, of course, would be expected. They've walked for hours. They'd stopped for a meal break in this same spot the last time. It's convenient, safe, and has a lovely view. And if she has to sit here for even one minute with that elevator staring her in the face, she's going to scream.

“No,” she says. “Let's press on for a while longer.”

He looks up at her with a slight frown. She doesn't blame him. To him, it won't make a bit of sense. But without a hint of complaint he puts everything back, shoulders the pack again, and goes over to the elevator. He unlatches the door, opens it, and gestures for her to enter.

The watchman looks a bit crestfallen, obviously having relished the idea of some company to break up a long and monotonous day. “Thank you,” she says, reaching out to pat his hand.

“Princess?” he says, his brow wrinkling.

“For your service,” she says. “I know it can't be easy, standing out here alone all day.... know that your efforts do not go unappreciated.”

The warrior's eyes widen, and above the mask concealing the lower part of his face, Zelda thinks she sees the hint of a flush. “You—you honor me, Princess,” he says, and bows deeply.

That said, Zelda squares her shoulders and marches to the elevator, stepping inside and moving all the way in, to the latching door on the opposite side. This won't be so bad, she tells herself. At least it's not a solid door. I'll simply make it a point to become fascinated with the scenery.

Zelda looks out through the bars and keeps her breathing steady through all of it: the vibration of his footsteps, the sound of the latch being thrown, the soft squeaking of the pulleys, the elevator beginning its slow descent.

She's not going to think about it. She's not. She's not going to think about him standing there, little more than an arm's length from her, locked with her in an iron cage. She's not going to think about what happened when they walked past the Goddess statue to the doorway beyond.

Stop it, she commands herself.

She's not going to think about the elevator. Of all the myriad ways in which the mechanisms could fail, rendering them temporarily stuck. She's not going to think about the gears shearing off teeth, or wet leaves sticking to the tracks, or the ropes fraying and getting caught in the pulleys. She's not going to imagine unnoticed defects in the cable reaching their limits at that very moment—the cable snapping, sending the cage plummeting for a full second of freefall before the emergency locks engage, halting the fall and saving their lives, but leaving them stranded and immobile.

The watchman would run to get help, but it would be hours before that help would arrive. Hours and hours in this cage, with him, without even the ropes to occupy him, or the slow hypnotic descent to occupy herself. And what if, before help could arrive, the emergency locks started to fail? What if they hadn't been adequately tested, and can't hold the weight of the cage for that long? What then?

They'd have to climb down the ropes. They'd have no choice. But she's never climbed down ropes, and though her legs are quite strong, and she can manage the occasional tree if the branches are sturdy and close together, her upper body and grip strength are laughable. A stubborn attempt to climb down on her own would likely result in her untimely death—and her life, as she is constantly reminded, is not her own to throw away.

So he'd have to help her. She'd have to hold onto him as he climbed—wrap her arms and legs around him, possibly tie herself to him in a fashion similar to a tandem harness—and she'd have the whole trip down to decide which was more humiliating: needing his help in the first place, or needing help which involved—

Zelda blinks. She's looking out of the door of the cage, through the bars, to the slowly descending view of Hyrule Field. There's a soft squeak of turning pulleys, and just the hint of vibration under her feet.

You, she informs herself, are completely, patently, and utterly ridiculous.

She doesn't have time for this, anyway. They'll be at Goron City in a few days, and there's still much to consider about Rudania. She'd gone over a few ideas with Impa and Robbie after breakfast, but hadn't gotten the chance to write them down, which is what she should be doing right now, instead of picturing nonsensical worst-case scenarios.

Now, where is her notebook?

… In the pack. On his shoulders. Of course.

Zelda draws herself up. This is ridiculous. She will not be cowed—not by him, and certainly not by her own mind. She turns.

“May I have the pack, please?”

The elevator halts as he takes his hands from the rope and shrugs off the pack. He holds it out one-handed, and when he lets go she nearly staggers under its weight.

“Thank you,” she says.

She turns back as the elevator begins moving again. There, you see? she tells herself, rummaging through for her book and pencil.

Before long, she becomes completely absorbed in her note-taking. First, jotting down the researchers' ideas while they're still fresh, then following with some thoughts of her own. By the time the elevator settles to a halt at the base of the wall, she feels like a new person. She closes the book with a snap, unlatches the door, grabs the pack, and marches out into the late morning sunlight.

“I'll hold onto this for now,” she says to him, stowing her book and pencil in the pack. “I think we should eat as we walk. I'd like to make a detour over to Lake Kolomo before we head to Aquame, so it's best that we keep moving. Unless, of course, you are in need of rest.”

Unsurprisingly, he is not, and so they set off north on the road, turning east at the intersection toward the lake. “Leave it,” she tells him, as she sets down the pack at the end of the road. It's getting heavy and she needs a break, but she feels better carrying it, and intends to do so until they reach Aquame.

Lake Kolomo is a lovely spot, with its grove of white birches, sparkling water, and view of the magnificent Dueling Peaks rising in the distance. That is not, however, why she's here. On her last visit, she'd tried in vain to sketch the local fauna, unable to get close to anything for long enough. Now, with the Sheikah slate, she can capture perfect images instantly, and sketch them later at her leisure.

The next hour is spent in careful approach of dragonflies, herons, and, with the slate's incredible ability to adjust its view closer to its subject, a doe. She also manages to capture a very lucky shot of a fish in mid-jump from the lake.

Satisfied, she starts back along toward the road, admiring her pictures as she goes, her knight following behind. “From here, we'll make our way to Goron City,” she says. She did send him a map with her planned itinerary a few days before their departure, but never actually discussed it with him. “Then, we'll need some adjustments on that Divine Beast so Daruk can manage it as easily as possible. He's figured out how to get it to move... however, it's apparent that we still have much more to learn.”

“But to think, that Divine Beast was actually built by people,” she continues. Robbie had raised the same idea earlier this morning, as she herself had during her time on Vah Medoh—that the Divine Beasts had not sprung up out of nowhere, and that there would have been reasoning behind everything that was done. “That means we should be able to understand how it works and how to use it to our advantage. These Divine Beasts... so much we don't know. But if we want to turn back Calamity Ganon, they're our best hope.”

She says that last without thinking, and finds herself brought up short. She slows to a stop. Behind her, she hears her knight's footsteps stop in turn.

The Divine Beasts are not meant to be their best hope. Nor are the Guardians. They're meant to be support.

With perfect clarity, she again hears the questions he voiced at the tea months ago, regarding the Divine Beasts. Is it certain that they will succeed, Princess? Do we know for certain that we'll be able to rely upon them?

And what had she said in reply? I suppose the sword's chosen might have every reason to believe he can beat back the Calamity all on his own. Or that he might have to.

How furious she'd been, at the implication that the research into the ancient relics was a waste of time, and that she, by extension, was wasting hers. She's still furious. But is that fury justified? Does he not have a point? The very same point that her father has made to her, over and over again?

It's she who's meant to be their best hope. She and the Hero, with the power of the Champions and the ancient weapons at their backs, to ensure they can break through to the enemy to accomplish their task. The task that, in the end, is solely theirs. Even the Champions know it. It's what so provokes Revali's ire, the knowledge of his role as subordinate to that of the Hero.

The Hero has accomplished his first task, the claiming of the sword. He has the favor of the Goddess. He's been gifted with extraordinary strength and skill, even from childhood, and at some point between then and now, has been set along the path to his destiny.

Zelda feels her face heating. What right has he to stand in judgment of her, when things have been so easy for him? So she's not yet passed her test. So she can't yet feel the presence of the Goddess, nor wield her power, nor hear her voice. Has he not more to do as well? What about that sword? There's still no indication that he's even tried to use it, other than that strange incident on Vah Medoh.

“Tell me the truth,” she says, knowing she shouldn't, remembering how it went the last time she'd asked him such a question. “How proficient are you right now, wielding that sword on your back? Legend says that an ancient voice resonates inside it. Can you hear it yet, Hero?”

He doesn't answer.

He isn't deaf. Looking over her shoulder, she can tell from his posture, and the way his eyes never leave her, that he's heard the question perfectly well.

“What do you know of those legends? What do you know of the sword, and whence it came?”

He doesn't answer.

I cannot say, Princess. I cannot say.

She lifts her chin, takes a deep breath through her nose, and walks on.

It must be nice, she thinks, to walk around with a shining talisman on your back and the strength of several men, so assured in your place and your purpose that words are unnecessary. To have to explain yourself to no one. To understand, without vanity or conceit, that all the rest of our efforts, particularly the research of the ancient relics, are secondary in importance, at best.

His eyes are locked on her now, she can tell. This is a quiet stretch of road, this time of day, as most of the local activity will be taking place between Aquame and the Exchange to the northeast. Little to look at, nothing to do, but to walk and feel his eyes.

I ought to make you walk in front for a little while, she thinks. See how you like it.

But that, of course, only reminds her of the dream.

 


 

That evening, at the writing desk in her room at the Weathercock Inn, Zelda puts the finishing touches on her sketch of a blue-winged heron. Though not quite as good as sketching from life, the picture on the slate still proves an excellent reference. “If only I could keep them all,” she murmurs to herself as she discards the image, and several others that she's already sketched. She does keep the landscape she took of the lake; she doesn't have much patience for sketching landscapes, and it's too pretty to erase.

Looking through the remaining images, she comes upon the one of the Champions that Purah had taken on the day of the ceremony. It makes her smile, thinking of Mipha's elation at the idea of having it on canvas, as if the Champions were her own family. Zelda cannot bear to disappoint her, and had promised in her last letter to make another trip to the Royal Lab to try again.

After putting away the slate and her field notebook, Zelda brings out her diary. She glances over at the door, where she knows a certain someone stands in vigil on the other side, reminds herself she will not be cowed, and begins to write.

I set out for Goron City today to make some adjustments to Divine Beast Vah Rudania. I still recall feeling his eyes on me as I walked ahead. The feeling stayed with me so long, I grew anxious and weary. It is the same feeling I've felt before in his company... And still, not a word passes his lips.

Not a word, and not a thought. Even when he speaks, he's silent.

I never know what he's thinking! It makes my imagination run wild, guessing at what he is thinking but will not say. What does the boy chosen by the sword that seals the darkness think of me? Will I ever truly know? Then, I suppose it's simple. A daughter of Hyrule's royal family yet unable to use sealing magic...

Does he know the legends? He said the words at the ceremony, calling her Blood of the Goddess. Does he know the legends that name her ancestor the Goddess in mortal form? The legends that speak of a voice within the sword, and of the Hero as the Goddess' beloved? Was that what Impa had been discussing with him the night before, with her talk of history and speculation?

And if he knows the legends—which she supposes, by now, he must—does he believe them? Had he expected a goddess incarnate, only to be saddled with a weak, ineffectual girl?

She doesn't know. She doesn't know what she herself believes, much of the time. Perhaps the legends are true. Perhaps they aren't.

But, whatever the truth, one thing is plain...

He must despise me.

She sets down her fountain pen and stares at the words.

How can he help it? What cause would he have to feel differently about her than she feels about herself? The sealing magic is not just a weapon, after all—not just something to be used. It's supposed to be what she is. The light in the darkness, the land's best hope, the earthly vessel for the divine.

Without it, what is she?

The Goddess statue in her dream looms in her mind's eye. She remembers it perfectly, as she remembers every other aspect of the dream. Enormous, much taller than the real statue at the Temple of Time, crowned with flowers. Lit with unseen fire. Beyond it, a stone doorway, with a forest beyond, neither of which exist in the real world at all.

Stop it, she orders herself. Just stop.

She remembers what they were looking for—a place where they could go. To pray, she said, but the meaning of the word was changed. The place was somewhere through the door, in that forest beyond. But they were unable to wait. In the doorway past the Goddess statue, he pressed her against the stone, gripping her naked arms. In firelight, against the stone—

Zelda sits back in her chair.

There are two kinds of nightmares.

There's the terrible kind, the kind most people think of as nightmares, full of disaster and despair. Blood drips onto the floor. Your father disowns you. The world is eaten alive by Malice.

Then there's the other kind. Where your mother is still alive, and your father hugs you, and you seal the evil away for good. And then... you wake up.

Which kind is this?

“It doesn't matter,” she whispers. It does not matter what she dreams, or whether she believes the legends, or what they think of one another. All that matters is that, when the time comes, they'll be able to fight and win. Nothing else.

She closes the book, feeling a hundred and thirty pounds of weight settle on her chest.