With a frustrated grunt, Zelda unwound her hair for the fifth time.
“All right,” she huffed, combing snarls out of the silken strands with her fingers. “This time.”
She began again, squinting at the faded scrap of parchment clipped to the side of her vanity mirror. Twist, pin, loop, tuck, pin. Grandma Impa used to make this look so easy. It would help if she could read the instructions.
At least her makeup looked nice. She had a natural painter’s eye, and hours of practice on her friends had perfected her art. Truth be told, she rarely put so much thought into her own appearance. But all eyes would be on her family tonight.
The bun flopped over again, and so did she, forehead dropping to the tabletop.
I give up.
Would any of her serving-maids know how to do a traditional hairstyle? But then she’d have to admit she, the Sheikah princess, couldn’t manage it herself. (Only one-fourth, a voice whispered in the back of her mind.)
Maybe she could ask her mother for help, if the queen could spare a moment from the festival preparations. New Year’s Eve in the capitol was always a spectacle, and this year would be the grandest since before the Calamity. For the first time in nearly two decades, the Temple of Time was to be opened again. As part of the celebration, her parents were dedicating a new plaza and three smaller temples to the Golden Goddesses of old. A grandiose display of prosperity, meant to assure the people that yes, they had recovered.
She swiped one of the glowing runes at the corner of the mirror, pulling up the weather report. Clear skies and a light breeze. She smiled. The fireworks had been rained out three years running now. They were overdue for a little good luck.
“Button your shirt collar,” Ganondorf’s mother admonished for the fifth time.
“When we arrive. It’s too tight and it itches.”
“We have arrived.”
He glanced at the map on his slate. “It’ll be twenty minutes at least yet.”
She tossed an embroidered sash at him; he caught it one-handed and tucked the end into the book he was reading before stowing it under his seat. Her glare told him that was not the use she’d intended, but if there was one thing he was best at, it was knowing exactly how much he could get away with. He leaned out the carriage window, taking in the view with an awed expression.
Hyrule’s famous Bridge of Light was a work of art and a wonder of engineering. Two miles high and wide enough for a dozen horses to pass side by side, lined with hundreds of glowing lanterns, it arched from the base of the Great Plateau to the Forest of Spirits above, where it eventually became the road that lead to Hyrule Castle. (One of them. The royal family had at least three, not counting the North Castle or Akkala Citadel.) The whole thing was shaped from some kind of translucent crystal, and when the sun was at just the right angle it lit up with rainbows. Built by flying robots, his history books said, which on the surface seemed nonsensical. Couldn’t they just fly people up to the plateau? And indeed some had tried, in the early days, to repurpose the Skymechs as transports, but they were expensive, requiring a number of exotic materials which Hyrule just didn’t have the infrastructure to produce at any kind of scale. Then there was the issue of programmers, and regular maintenance. The Sheikah who came through the portal two hundred years ago had found it difficult to pass on their knowledge to a mostly-agrarian society that still regarded printed books and indoor plumbing as luxuries—being leveled by a demon lord every few centuries tended to have a chilling effect on technological development. In the end the military got the flying robots, and the common people got a nice bit of trivia for tourists. The handful of prototypes they did make ended up rotting away in a garage in Kakariko, because people were too afraid to use them.
Not me, he thought. I’d be the first in line. He craned his neck to catch one last glimpse as the carriage rumbled around the bend into the woods.
“Ganondorf. Shirt. Now,” barked his mother. One-word sentences meant she was nearing the end of her patience.
“All right, all right.”
“Pack up your books. Do you have your wallet? Good. Nabooru wants to know where you put Homam’s new bridle. They couldn’t find it in the wagon.”
“I didn’t bring it. He hates that thing. All those tassels and bells make him feel stupid.”
She pinched the bridge of her nose. “Unbelievable. Or it would be, if I didn’t know my son. We’ll borrow one from one of the guards, and you will use it.”
“Mother, please. Relax.”
That was the wrong thing to say. His mother flung up her hands with a wordless scream. “Relax? You want me to relax?” She stormed across the cabin (as much as one could storm, over two and a half steps) and poked him in the chest. “Then take your duties more seriously!”
He set his jaw in a way that might have been intimidating if he were older; on his sixteen year old face it was merely a pout. She crossed her arms. He mirrored the gesture. The staring contest went on for a good minute before she let out a weary sigh.
“Why must you fight me on every trivial matter?”
“If it’s trivial, why bother? All this pandering wearies me.” He rolled his shoulders, feeling the tug of the fitted shirt. The pattern was traditional, but the cut was decidedly modern—where “modern” of course meant “Hylian,” and that was the part that annoyed him most.
“In case you’ve forgotten, I’m going to introduce you to the king and queen tonight.”
Very slowly, he licked his finger and plastered a stray lock of hair to his forehead. “Better?”
“Yes, I know. We need to create a good impression,” he recited, avoiding her eyes because he knew she was right.
“Like it or not, our people’s livelihood depends largely on our trade relations with the Hylians and our ability to move freely through their lands.”
“What influence do I have over such things? I can’t become chief.”
Softening, she moved to sit beside him, gently cupped his cheek. “You are the hundred-year blessing, my son. Our guardian and guide. Yours is a higher calling than the path of a politician.”
For a brief moment he allowed himself to lean into her hand. Then he straightened his back and looked her in the eye, solemn and dignified.
“I will make us proud.”
The queen hummed a three-note lullaby as she slipped the last few pins into Zelda’s hair.
“There we are,” she said, gently tucking a pale blond strand behind her ear. “Now, why don’t you choose a comb?”
Zelda knew just the one. She dug in her drawer and found it, simple lacquered wood carved in the shape of an apple blossom. The queen fixed it in place and leaned down beside her to smile at their reflections. Zelda smiled back. Everyone said she was the splitting image of her mother, except with green eyes and hair two shades darker.
“By the way, I talked to Henya and we worked out the Goron banquet dilemma. Rather than have one long buffet, we’re going to break it into stations and set up the rock table right in the center. They’ll still have a chance to mingle, and we won’t have some duke breaking his teeth on what he thinks is a truffle.” Really, they should have thought of that sooner, but a generation had passed since last time any Gorons had been invited to dine at the castle. Maybe some good had come out of the Calamity.
“Thank you, dear. That’s one less thing on my plate.”
“Oh, and the steward at the docks asked me to tell you he received the last load of fireworks. They shorted us one crate of purple, but I didn’t think one out of a thousand was worth making a fuss, so I told him to ask for a credit toward our next order—your and Father’s anniversary is coming up, after all. But then, the show is very precisely choreographed, so I was thinking I would go down to the market and pick up some replacements.”
“Yourself?” the queen asked with a knowing look.
A sheepish smile. “I would very much like to explore the booths in the marketplace. And Ilia said there’s a juggling act down by the abbey road that’s really something.”
“Yesss!” Zelda grabbed her plainest coat and vaulted over the bed in one motion. “Thanks, Mom! See you at the ceremony!”
“Just make sure you’re at the plaza by nightfall. And Zelda? Take a couple of guards with you this ti—”
The slamming door cut her off.
Zelda dodged the patrol at the drawbridge and managed to blend into the constant stream of messengers and couriers moving up and down the castle road. Just before the temple plaza checkpoint she ducked between two buildings, climbed up a stack of old crates on what was technically private property, and dropped over the wall into the square. She looked around to see if her stunt had drawn any attention, but all the tourists were too busy gawking at the architecture or snapping selfies, and the gate guards weren’t particularly looking for anyone trying to sneak out of the castle. She relaxed at last, congratulating herself on a clean getaway.
In a few hours the crowds would be packed in here shoulder to shoulder for the dedication ceremony, but right now, with most people still down at the market, it was navigable. The breeze was pleasantly crisp, and scented with the chickaloo smoke the townspeople were using to purify their homes. She practically skipped through the plaza, dizzy with the thrill of freedom. Her parents were sure to lecture her about this later, but for just a couple hours, she wanted to have some fun without a chaperone.
Passing through the Temple of Time’s long shadow, she felt a slight chill. She paused to admire the Gothic stonework, imposing and solid against the evening sky. They had built it back exactly the same.
Come to think of it, this scenery would make a lovely painting, with the slanting light and the trees just beginning to show their autumn color. She made a rectangle with her hands, framing the composition, backed up a few steps to get a better angle. Right into someone.
“Oh! I beg your pardon… sir?” Her voice rose in a squeak on the last word as her eyes came to rest on the stranger’s face. Brown skin, long red hair, aquiline nose, decidedly boyish features. “You-you’re…”
“Indeed,” he said with a hint of amusement that suggested he was used to such reactions. He rested a hand on his chest and inclined his head slightly; even that simple gesture was so polished and regal that it made him seem like a character from a fairy tale. “I am Rij Ganondorf, Prince of the Gerudo.”
Of course she knew that, but she caught herself flinching nonetheless.
His smile bared a few too many teeth. “It’s not a very nice name, is it? But it doesn’t mean what you think.”
She dropped into a curtsy to save face. “Princess Zelda Celedasen Hyrule, the fifty-seventh.” Give or take.
His eyebrows shot up. So he hadn’t recognized her. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Your Highness.”
“Likewise,” she replied quickly. “I hope you’re enjoying the festivities.”
“I’m certain I will, but I haven’t seen much of them yet. It seemed fitting to come here first.” She followed his gaze back to the temple. For one strange moment it seemed to loom rather than shelter. “They say this is where the Hero awakened in the beginning, when the Calamity first appeared.”
“That seems doubtful,” said Zelda, eager to steer the conversation away from the unfortunate connection between Ganon and their people’s troubled history. “The Temple of Time has been moved more times than anyone can count. Most Faroners claim the original was torn down in a civil war. The Tabanthi say it was lost at the bottom of the ocean. And the Ancients believe it was way out in the desert somewhere, but they also say the Hero of Time died fighting—”
So much for that.
Ganondorf’s voice was low, full of unreadable emotion. “He was weak. People with power should try to change their fate.”
She cleared her throat. “I’m sorry. This is an intense conversation to be having with a stranger.”
“Are we strangers?” he asked with a frown, and Zelda felt her anxiety rising as she considered every possible meaning of that question.
“We know each other’s names.”
“I’m not sure that makes us much more than strangers,” she said, willing her heart to resume its normal pace.
“Very well, then.” In a blink he was all suave refinement again. “Let’s see… my favorite color is yellow. I’m a voracious reader, mostly nonfiction, although I am currently engrossed in the epic poems of the great Rito writer Kassiali. And I consider myself a cat person, although horses are a very close second. Your turn.”
“Blue, I prefer novels, I like cats and dogs equally well; and horses best of all. I believe this is what’s known as small talk?”
“It’s a start.”
In all fairness, my parents know about as much after fifteen years of marriage, Zelda thought.
“Ah, you really should visit the marketplace, though! I’m going to head down there myself, after I run a quick errand.” Her eyes flickered toward the temple, and the sinking sun behind it ticking down her hours of freedom. Something sparked in her, part denial and part defiance. “Would you like to meet up?”
He shrugged. “If it’s all the same, may I accompany you? There’s nothing better than the insight of a local when exploring a city.” He paused. “I hope it’s not terribly insolent of me to ask the princess of Hyrule to play tour guide.”
In spite of his overt humility, she got the sense he did not expect to be refused. She found herself less wary than she probably ought to be.
“Right this way!” she chirruped, setting off at a brisk pace. “Directly ahead, you will see a fabulously ugly statue donated by the illustrious Sir Jovani. Please ignore it; it’s an embarrassment to all of us. And now, if you’ll look further down the road…”
Zelda continued her tongue-in-cheek commentary until they reached the market. She found a merchant near the abbey, had her fireworks (read: excuse) delivered to the castle, then hurried down to where the jugglers were supposed to be. To her disappointment, they had missed the show, but there would be another tomorrow after the Naydra Plunge.
“What’s that?” Ganondorf asked.
“Something you’ll only see in Castle Town! At first light on New Year’s day, a big group climbs up Mount Hylia and jumps in the frozen river.”
“Quite a unique tradition,” was all he could manage with a straight face.
She laughed. “Since we’re here, would you like to have our fortunes told? It’s a Sheikah custom—well, I’m sure you know that.”
They made their way to the back corner of the abbey, past clusters of sight-seers and peddlers selling silver arrow talismans or toy hookshots, and joined the line. Royal prerogative would have permitted either of them to jump to the front, but she didn’t like to use her status that way. Besides, she was trying to stay inconspicuous. She wondered briefly if he was allowed to be wandering around without an escort.
“That’s a traditional hairstyle isn’t it?” he observed as they stood waiting.
She beamed. “Yes! My grandmother taught me how.” Or tried to, anyway.
“Ah, yes, the famous Queen Impa. We in the west speak with great admiration of Daphnes the Sixth and his scandalous marriage. A king need not let polite society with all its made-up rules stop him from doing as he pleases.”
She hesitated. He shifted, looking like he might be regretting his words.
“In a perfect world, kings would never be tempted to put their own interests ahead of the greater good,” she said evenly, aware that she was straying into dangerous territory. “Do you know why every daughter born to the royal family is named Zelda?”
“Why?” he asked with curiosity that sounded genuine.
“We once had a prince who put his sister into an enchanted coma because she wouldn’t tell him the secret of the Goddess’s power. When he came to his senses, he found, to his horror, that he couldn’t break the spell. So he made a decree, and from that day on every one of us bears her name, so we will never forget the dangers of unchecked power.”
“I didn’t know that.” He seemed dissatisfied.
“I wish—” She swallowed hard. “I wish to avoid such prideful errors when I am queen. Which is why, for all I’d like be rid of them, rules have their place.”
A grin tugged at the corner of his mouth. “You mean like the one that says the princess must not leave the castle unaccompanied?”
She tossed her head. “I said they have their place.”
“Heh.” He leaned back on his heels and stuck his hands in his pockets. It was starting to get cold. The wind picked up, making people tug their coats shut and couples huddle closer together.
“Still,” he said after a thoughtful silence. “People who are in love should be able to follow their hearts.”
“That would be a perfect world indeed.”
Another long pause. He glanced sideways at her. “This is an intense conversation to be having with a stranger.”
She laughed through her nose, and didn’t answer.
They had reached the front of the line. She dropped a blue rupee in the box, then shook the canister of Deku twigs the priest handed her until one fell out. A little clay robot scuttled forward on its spider legs to take it from her.
“Thanks!” Zelda chirruped as it scanned the number on her stick. It made a soft twittering sound in reply, then went to retrieve the corresponding fortune from a nearby rack. She waited while Ganondorf got his, and they unrolled them at the same time.
“Ha! ‘Great blessing!’” he read with a satisfied expression.
“You’re not supposed to gloat,” she muttered.
“It says I should definitely travel, I’ll be slightly unlucky in love, and my lucky color is…” He glanced at her briefly. “Blue. Let’s see yours, Your Highness.”
She made a sour face. “I got ‘future curse.’ Romantic misfortune, business and family troubles, and I won’t find my lost item for a while. Though I don’t know of anything I’ve lost.”
“Maybe you won’t lose it for a while, and then you’ll find it right away.”
“Aren’t you the optimist?”
“Out of curiosity, what was your lucky color?”
“At this point I’m not sure it matters.”
He flicked his paper at her with two fingers. “Here, trade me. I’m immune to bad luck.”
“You can’t trade.”
“Oh? There are rules for these things too?”
“Yes. If you get a bad one, you do this.” Zelda tied her fortune to a string hanging from a nearby apple tree. “Apples are sacred to the Goddess Hylia. It’s said her blessings can ward off evil. I suppose you probably already knew that as well.”
“But why apples?”
“I don’t know. It’s just what we do,” she said, more sharply than she’d meant to.
He grinned suddenly and tucked his fortune into his pocket. “Actually, I’m part Sheikah too.”
“Oh? I didn’t… that’s nice.” She reddened, feeling for some reason like she’d been caught in a lie.
He leaned a bit closer, and whispered… something. Her heart sank. An uncomfortable silence followed.
“Yadeh?” he asked.
“I, um, maybe?”
He backed off hastily, clearing his throat, and seemed to retreat into himself, becoming once again the aloof, perfect prince she had encountered at the temple. Which oddly, seemed like a very long time ago.
“My deepest apologies, Your Highness. I forgot myself.”
“What? Ah, no!” she exclaimed, waving her hands in protest. “It’s just that, well,” Her eyes dropped to her feet. There was no avoiding it. “The truth is, I don’t speak Sheikah,” she mumbled.
“Oh, is that all?” His grin returned full-force.
“I mean, Grandma taught me a few words here and there, but she passed away when I was four, and my mother doesn’t know much either. For political reasons, you understand, my grandparents decided it would be best if her first language were Hylian. She never had a chance to learn, with… everything that happened.” She cursed inwardly. They were toy boats circling a whirlpool; no matter how they tried to steer the conversation, the past was determined to drag them down.
“I can recommend an excellent tutor,” he offered, his voice a bit too loud, too quick.
“Thank you, but I’m sure I can find a textbook or three in our libraries. It’s just a matter of finding the time to study.”
“Books can’t compare to learning from a native speaker.”
A noncommittal shrug. “I’ll look into it.”
“Well, now you have extra motivation.”
She raised an eyebrow. “And what’s that?”
“If you don’t learn, you’ll be wondering forever what I just said.”
On the way back to the marketplace, they passed a merchant with a portable grill fixed up to look like a gigantic red serpent. Fire flickered behind its eyes and smoke poured from its nostrils. The savory aroma would have been enough to turn Ganondorf’s head even without the fancy display. The front counter was lined with skewers wrapped in some kind of leaf and tied off with twine.
“Hm. Are those…” On a whim, Ganondorf veered toward the cart. “Ah, yes! Volvagias!”
“Like the legendary dragon?”
“Yes! In a way. They’re mochi.”
Zelda tilted her head, puzzled.
“They’re hugely popular right now,” the chef piped up, eager to make a sale. “Accidentally invented by a farmer in Faron who was trying to develop a humidity-tolerant strain of bomb flower. That part was a miserable failure, but one day he happened to use some of the leaves to wrap up his lunch.” She picked up one of the skewers and grasped the twine, motioning for them to step back. “Later on, when he unwrapped it… fwoom!”
She ripped the wrap open, and a plume of fire engulfed the skewer. Zelda yelped.
“Tada! Instant toasted goodness, hot whenever you want it. It’s the perfect portable snack!” said the chef, beaming.
“It’s some sort of chemical reaction with the residue on the leaves,” Ganondorf explained, realizing belatedly that she had not jumped back from the flames. Rather, she had thrown herself in front of him, one arm raised like a shield.
Zelda frowned intently. “That seems very dangerous.”
“You want one?”
“I’ve also got takoyaki, chicken, even marshmallows if you prefer. But the mochi really are the best, if you ask me,” said the chef, basting a fresh batch with soy sauce as she talked.
“How much?” Ganondorf asked.
“Twenty-four rupees. Right there in the box, if you please, thank you kindly. Here you go!” She handed them a pair of Volvagias with one eye still on the grill.
He passed one to Zelda. “So, is this sufficient to make us not strangers?”
At that moment the chef got a good look at her customer for the first time, and let out a soft gasp. “Oh my heavens, you’re the king of the Gerudo.”
“So I am.” Technically they didn’t have kings anymore, but it was close enough.
The woman’s eyes grew, if possible, even wider. “Princess Zelda?” She tried to bow in the middle of flipping a skewer.
“Thank you and goodbye!” Zelda said sweetly, practically dragging him down the road.
In the central square, a cacophony of joyous shouts and music made conversation difficult. They stuck close together, bumping and jostling their way through the crowd. Ganondorf’s head swiveled, trying to look every direction at once. Shopkeepers hosting games of chance or skill vied for their attention. Other stalls had goods for sale from all corners of the globe: ocarinas, kites shaped like monsters, Sheikah slate covers, clothes and shoes, more allegedly lucky charms, and every kind of junk food from Goron-spiced jerky to Kakariko pumpkin pie on a stick.
He was contemplating how exactly pumpkin pie could be put on a stick when a snaggle-toothed merchant in a red robe accosted him, jangling a sack full of rupees. “Hey there, handsome fellow! Let’s play a money making game!”
“That’s a racket,” Zelda whispered. “Keep walking.”
Eventually they found their way to a less crowded side street. “Do you want to eat these now?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Let’s wait until it’s completely dark. Oh!”
He looked where she was pointing, a stall on the street corner under a glowing sign shaped like a carp. A large wooden tub sat out front, with dozens of tiny nets and buckets strung overhead.
“I used to love this game as a kid.”
The stall owner, a skinny, curly-haired man in a strange hat, smiled at her in a familiar way that made him suspect the “used to as a kid” part was a fib.
“One round, for old times’ sake?” he suggested.
“Looks like we have two very special guests this time,” the owner whispered as they stepped up to the counter. He must be accustomed to her sneaking around, and fully complicit. Ganondorf liked him immediately.
“Try your luck? Ten rupees for one minute, all you can catch!”
“My treat,” said Zelda, handing over a red. “You bought the Volvagias.”
The owner paused to itch his side, then handed them a pair of nets and buckets. There were only a few other patrons, so they didn’t have to wait. Ganondorf looked down at the swirling cloud of tiny goldfish in the tub. His eyes gleamed with mischief.
A bell rang, and they plunged their nets into the tub.
An armored figure crouched in the shadows at the far side of the road, eyes trained on the pair at the goldfish stand. A smile touched his lips as the princess leaned over the tub, holding her net with the intensity and precision of a surgeon.
The prince, on the other hand, he regarded with cool wariness. He was younger than they usually were. If there was hurt and anger in him—and there always was, if the legends were to be believed—it had not yet sharpened into hatred. It seemed uncharitable to suspect him.
One hand fingered the blade at his back. It wasn’t his place to intervene. Not yet. But if that young man made one wrong move… He would not make allowances for charity where she was involved. If that made him a monster, well, he wouldn’t be the first. If the legends were to be believed.
This was all happening again too soon. No rest for the wicked, he thought, shoving the blade back into its sheath as hard as he could.
The bell rang again, and Zelda let out a self-deprecating laugh. She handed back their nets, thanking the shopkeeper. “I only got three,” she sighed as they started up the road again. “How did you do?”
Ganondorf tilted the bucket to show her his catch. She goggled. “How in Din’s name… there are at least forty in there!”
“It’s all in the wrist,” he deadpanned.
Zelda stopped in her tracks. Her eyes narrowed. It was a look he’d seen many a time on his mother’s face, and some unconscious reflex made him gulp.
He drew himself up to full height, glowering over-dramatically. “How dare you insinuate such a thing?”
“I’m not insinuating.”
“On what basis do you accuse me?”
“You caught forty goldfish in one minute.”
“Forty two, actually.”
“You’re not helping your case.”
“I am a man of honor. You insult me by suggesting I would take advantage of a hardworking business owner just trying to make a living,” he said, but he couldn't keep up the charade anymore. His face cracked into a grin.
She rolled her eyes. “What did you do?”
He touched the tip of her nose, channeled just a pinch of magic into a tiny electric spark. She let out a squeak and jumped back, clutching her face.
“It’s a weak thunder spell. Those nets are made of metal wire. I send a little jolt into the water, it stuns them just long enough for me to scoop them up.”
Zelda stared. For a moment he thought she might be appreciating his creativity. Then she pointed toward the stall.
“Put them back,” she said—commanded. In that moment she was imperious as a queen. Four hours ago it would have been exactly how he expected the princess of Hyrule to act, and it caught him off guard.
“He said all you can catch. He didn’t specify how,” Ganondorf tried to rationalize. “It’s only a children’s game, anyway.”
Zelda was having none of it. “It’s cheating and you know it. Put them back. What are you going to do with forty goldfish?”
“I don’t care!” She was trying to scream quietly, to his amusement. “The owner’s a friend of mine and he is, as you’ve observed, working hard to make a living.”
“There were more than enough,” he scoffed. “It’s not as if he can keep them past the end of the night. They don’t survive very long in close quarters like that, and do you think he’s going to pay for food?”
Slowly, Zelda’s arm lowered. “I hadn’t thought of that.”
“The ones that don’t get caught will probably end up being dumped down a sewer if they aren’t lucky enough to be fed to his cat.”
Zelda was quiet for a minute or two. She looked back at the stall. Then at him.
Ten minutes later, Ganondorf was following the princess to the bridge over the small lake behind the temple, an extra-large bucket of wriggling goldfish in each hand.
“Maybe we shouldn’t have cleaned him out,” Zelda said with a hint of remorse. (Though they hadn’t, not completely. In the end they had to leave a few behind because they just wouldn’t fit. By then the stall owner was starting to give them the stink eye, royalty or not.)
“I’m not going back again.”
“Are we bad people?”
He grunted in reply. For a few minutes the only sound was water sloshing in the buckets and the distant roar of the festival. Perhaps they were learning to be comfortable with these awkward pauses.
They stopped at the foot of the bridge. She tested the water with her finger. “It’s pretty cold. Let’s let them acclimate so they don’t go into shock.”
He nestled the buckets between some rocks in the shallows. She sat down in the grass, hugging her knees. Was she expecting him to sit next to her? He wasn’t sure, but the setting seemed just a bit too intimate, so he folded his arms and leaned against the side of the bridge.
“The moon’s lovely tonight. Look how big it is.” From this angle, the fat silvery crescent was rising behind the Temple of Time, framing the belltower like a halo.
“It’s not actually changing in size, you know.”
“You don’t say.”
“Well, yes, of course you knew that, but do you know what causes it? It’s—”
“An optical illusion, possibly the result of atmospheric refraction.” She looked up at him, doe-eyed. “I’m very smart, you know.”
He coughed into his fist. “And I suppose this is the part where Nabooru would say something or other about how men always think they can impress you by explaining things you already know.”
She snickered. “Who is Nabooru?”
“A childhood friend, and more recently the head of my personal guard. She likes to explain things to me.”
“I like her already. But… you don’t have to try so hard to impress me.”
I do, though, he thought. Like his mother said, so much of their future depended on maintaining good relations. He couldn’t let his people down again. Again? Why did I think that? I’m not him!
Zelda interrupted his thoughts, holding up the Volvagias. “It’s dark now. Shall we?”
Elsewhere, the moonlight glowed silver on the latticed walls of the queen’s private garden. Fireflies winked in the grass, and high above a tree frog trilled. Morning glories and tuberoses were just beginning to fill the air with their perfume when Chief Jolena entered. She followed the river-stone pathway to a little pond in the center of the courtyard, and found the queen beneath a massive weeping cherry tree, gazing blankly into the water. Her face was pale and lined with exhaustion, but she brightened when she saw her.
“Your Grace.” Jolena dipped her head slightly. One sovereign to another.
“Come, my friend, there’s no need to be formal in private.”
Jolena needed no further invitation. She clasped her shoulders in a light embrace. “It’s been far too long.”
“That it has. We’re both so busy. I don’t think I’ve seen you more than twice since my coronation.” Which really meant since her wedding.
Jolena’s mouth twitched, but she kept her voice light. “I’m afraid we’ve become old and responsible at last.”
The queen laughed, and she realized how much she’d missed the sound. They ambled down the walkway, past sculpted trees and stone lanterns, comfortable in the silence.
“This is your son’s first trip to the capital, isn’t it? Is he excited?”
“He jumped out of the carriage while it was still moving, if that gives you an idea. Poor Nabooru has her hands full keeping track of him.” She paused with a worried grimace. “She’d better be keeping track of him this time.”
“Sounds familiar,” her friend muttered.
“I fear I’m too lenient with him. The boy can be quite charming when he wishes,” she said with a wistful sigh.
“Blessed are the times when we can afford to be a bit lenient. I look forward to meeting him.”
“Actually, that brings me to the other reason for my visit.” Jolena looked her in the eye. “It has occurred to me that my son and your daughter will reach marriageable age at roughly the same time, which might lead to certain, how shall I put this? Speculations. I wanted to make one thing perfectly clear. The Gerudo do not choose spouses for our children.”
She nodded slowly. “Is that why you asked to see me alone?”
“Your ways are your ways,” Jolena said softly. “But I thought you would understand best.”
“All right. I’ll make sure my husband doesn’t get any ideas.” The queen paused to catch a firefly in her palm, watched as it crawled up to her fingertip and flew away. “However we may differ on this subject, you know I wish for Zelda’s happiness.”
“As I’m sure your parents wished for yours.” She wondered if it sounded cruel. But cruelty was the reality of it, and her pointing it out had never made much of a difference one way or another.
“Their wisdom gave us a stable foundation upon which to rebuild. I can’t be anything but grateful for that.”
The path curved back toward the garden gate. Both of them slowed instinctively as they neared the end.
“It’s getting late. I regret that I must cut our visit short, but there are a few last-minute details to be taken care of.”
“And I should find Ganondorf.” Hopefully he was still presentable. Giving her friend’s hand a light squeeze, she took her leave.
The queen’s voice stopped her at the gate. “Jolena?”
She glanced back over her shoulder.
“I am grateful for your words back then, though I did not heed them. I hope… I hope you don’t resent me.”
She turned away for a moment, pushed through the gate, drew a deep breath. Faced her again with a careworn smile. “I could never.”
The door swung shut between them.
“Whenever you are, Your Highness.”
Zelda hesitated, hand on the twine. “Are these really dangerous?”
“I got a ‘future curse’ fortune.”
“There’s no such thing as luck, you know.”
She gripped the skewer. “All right!”
She should have been more careful where she aimed it.
Fire erupted from the Volvagia, hitting Ganondorf in the face with a cloud of embers and smoke. The wrapper of his ignited, and moments later it exploded too. He cried out and dropped it, blowing on his hand. Zelda staggered back, coughing.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
He blinked through the smoke, vaguely aware of a peculiar smell and a crackling sound in his ears. “Yes, I think so. Are y—”
“Eek! Your hair’s on fire!”
Ganondorf bellowed and frantically beat at the flames, then remembered that he was next to a lake. He tried to dunk his head. Half-blind again and dizzy from his panicked flailing, he ran face-first into the bridge instead. He dropped to one knee, dazed. And, oh yes, still on fire.
The next thing he knew, a splash of water hit him in the face. At first, he was nothing but grateful. Then he felt the wriggling.
Zelda had dumped one of the fish buckets on his head.
“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean…” She sucked in a sharp breath. “Oh no!”
And then the princess of Hyrule was scrambling in the dirt, grabbing fistfuls of goldfish and throwing them into the lake.
How they must look right now: both covered in soot, him dripping wet with a lump growing on his forehead, her alternately apologizing and swearing under her breath, fish flopping on the ground in every direction. A tremor started deep in his belly. Rose through his chest and made his shoulders twitch. He pressed a hand to his face, trying to stay calm. She was mortified already.
But he couldn’t help himself. He burst out laughing, pounding his fist against the ground. Laughed until his sides hurt and he was gasping for breath. Laughed like he hadn’t in years.
“In the right hands, perhaps they are dangerous after all,” he teased when he finally managed to open his eyes. His face fell. “Your Highness?”
She was gone.
He felt a twinge of disappointment. Not to worry, though. He would be seeing her again soon. Still chuckling, he cupped his hands around a fish she’d missed and tossed it into the water.
Zelda ran aimlessly through the streets, leaving a trail of muddy footprints. Hot tears blurred her vision. How could she have been so clumsy? He must hate her now. She felt like a coward for leaving without so much as a word, but when she saw him shaking with anger, not even able to look at her, she hadn’t dared stay.
And she was going to have to see him again tonight. The thought made her ill.
She looked around and realized for the first time that she had no idea where she was. It was a residential district, rows of tall, narrow houses, foundation walls of the same stone as the street and upper stories built with wood and plaster. Clotheslines zigzagged between the tile rooftops, all the same shade of blue; here and there vines trailed from window planters, all the same species. Like much of the area surrounding the temple, this neighborhood had been completely rebuilt in the aftermath of the Calamity.
As she searched for landmarks, a familiar voice made her jump. “Mercy, you’re fast! About had to pop an elixir just to keep up with you.”
She looked up. Blue armor, strawberry blond ponytail, easy grin. Thank Hylia.
“Sir Link.” It came out as a sob. As the rush of adrenaline faded, she was overcome by weariness and caught his arm for support. He knelt to look her in the eye, strong hands on her shoulders to steady her.
“Are you all right?”
She swallowed her tears and nodded. “Just feeling like a fool.”
“Don’t. Could’ve happened to anybody. I remember the first time I opened a Volvagia. Darn near lost my eyebrows!”
She started to laugh, then realized what he’d said. “Wait a minute. You saw that?”
He rubbed the back of his neck. “Your mother asked me to look after you, since you ran off by yourself.”
Zelda tried to sniff haughtily. It ended up sounding more like a hiccup. “I don’t need an escort. This city’s perfectly safe.”
“There are a lot of strangers in town for the festival,” he reminded her. “Much as I’d like to think they’re all just here to have a good time… Goddess forbid anything should happen to you. And as the Goddess has indeed forbidden it, here I am.”
It was impossible to stay cross with him when he smiled like that. “Fine, fine. Have you by chance got a towel?”
He dug a small rag out of his pocked, but hesitated. “It’s pretty dirty.”
“I could care less at this point.” She took it and scrubbed her face. (So much for makeup.)
“Come on, let’s go back to the castle and get you cleaned up. Wouldn’t want to be late for the ceremony.” He winked at her. “And don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone you two stole all the goldfish.”
She felt her cheeks grow hot. “Just how long were you following us?!”
“Let go of my scarf. You’ll tear it,” said Ganondorf.
Nabooru yanked harder. “So? You told me it was ugly.”
“Indeed, but Mother wants me to wear it tonight.”
“Oh, so now you care what she thinks! I swear, one more adolescent stunt like this, and I’ll…” She couldn’t think of anything off the top of her head. “Just hurry up, okay? We’re going to be late.”
“We’re the same age.”
“You’re just as adolescent as I am.”
“No, see, I have a sense of responsibility.”
“Mmhm. That’s why you lost the prince you were supposed to be guarding.”
“Listen, do you understand that I’m going to lose my job if anybody finds out—” She cut off with a gulp as they turned down the street where their inn was and nearly ran into the chief. She released the prince and whipped her hands behind her back, standing tall.
“Hello, mother,” he said with an infuriatingly angelic smile. “Nabooru and I just had a most pleasant tour of the city. Didn’t we?”
“Yes! It was great. We saw… all kinds of things. Together.”
Lucky for her Jolena was too distracted by her son to care much about her obvious lie.
“You’ve got a bruise on your head.” She tried to get a closer look, which he tolerated for about as long as any teenage boy would his mother’s fussing. “What happened? And why are your clothes wet? Is that—were you on fire?”
“It’s quite a story,” said Ganondorf. “If you really want to know, Nabooru can tell you all about it while I’m changing.” With that, he disappeared into the inn.
When he least expects it, I will stuff his boots with Boko dung, Nabooru vowed.
Jolena ran her fingers along the ridge of her brow. “I don’t have time,” she said, to Nabooru’s relief. “Have our horses ready and meet us at the gate in twenty.”
“Zelda! There you are!” Her mother gripped her by the arms, seemingly unable to decide whether to hug her or shake some sense into her.
Her father was less ambivalent. “Absolutely disgraceful. First you disobey your mother and run off on a day when she already has more than enough to worry about, and then you come back looking like…” His sharp blue eyes swept her from head to foot and found plenty to disapprove of. “How did you manage this in just a few hours?”
“Psh. That ain’t nothing,” Link whispered out of the corner of his mouth. Her father must have heard, because he shot him a stern glare.
It baffled her, the way her parents treated the hero who had done so much to protect them from the Calamity. In her memory he had never been anything but kind to her family, a perfect gentleman in public, and behind closed doors never disrespectful beyond the harmless sort of irreverence he’d displayed just now. All things considered, she thought he’d earned that much. Yet the king’s contempt for him was poorly concealed, and as for the queen, she seemed to find it difficult to speak to him at all. She hoped they weren’t somehow blaming him for her foolishness.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured, lowering her head. And she was, though probably not for the reasons they wanted.
“What’s done is done,” her mother sighed. “We’ll talk about appropriate discipline later.”
“Fine.” He snapped his fingers at a servant to take Zelda to her room, but the queen stopped him.
“I’ll take her myself, dear. We’ll meet you in the foyer.” She stood on her toes to peck him on the cheek.
He nodded. With one last sharp glance at Link and a swish of his cape, he was gone.
Her mother took her by the arm and led her up the castle steps. She didn’t look at Link as she passed, but slowed just enough to whisper, “Thank you.”
The knight only bowed and clasped a hand over his chest.
“Breathe, darling,” said the queen, even as she tugged at Zelda’s elbow to urge her to move faster. She talked all the way upstairs, in that bright, rapid singsong that meant she was trying to keep her own mind occupied. “I have your dress laid out. No time to fuss over jewelry, not that you ever do. We only have a few minutes before we’re supposed to meet Chief Jolena and her son. You two will get along well, I think…”
Zelda felt like crying.
Something about being inside a stable made Nabooru feel at home no matter where she went. True, back home there were more windows, and she was used to the warm flickering of oil lanterns rather than the twitchy, buzzing blue of Ancient energy lamps. But the soft whickering of their horses remained constant, the rustle of straw beneath her feet, the scents of dust and leather, the tickle of Enif’s nose seeking another apple from her pocket.
“Uh-uh, girl. That one’s for the prince’s horse.”
She would not trust Homam’s care to anyone else. He could be as particular as his rider. She hummed a little tune to herself as she worked. The door creaked open as she was checking him over one last time. She glanced up and was surprised to see the prince himself leaning against the frame, looking as if he’d practiced the pose. (This too was a constant.)
She didn’t comment on his new haircut. He’d been forced to take off quite a bit to remove the burnt parts, and though he’d done a fairly good job of braiding it to hide the damage, it was still obvious to anyone who had seen him this morning. Ganondorf did not generally appreciate changes to his routine or dress that were not his idea. It astounded her that he was still in such a good mood.
“I just sent the others on ahead. We thought we were meeting you.”
“I came to see if you needed help with that one. He doesn’t behave for anyone but me.”
Nabooru stepped back to reveal Homam, curried and brushed, hooves trimmed and polished, mane braided, saddled and ready.
“Hm,” he said, with a surprised frown that meant he was genuinely impressed. “Perhaps he does know how to behave once in a while.”
Also like his rider.
Homam nuzzled her pocket. “All right. As promised,” she said, acting put upon as she dug out the apple. It was gone in two swift bites. “Glutton,” she muttered, stroking his nose.
Ganondorf’s brow creased as he got a closer look at the bridle. “Wait. Is that his new one?”
“Yeah, I brought it,” she said with a half grin. “I just told your mother we couldn’t find it because I was busy cutting all those stupid bells and tassels off. You’re welcome.”
When he smiled at her, she remembered exactly why he never got in trouble for anything. “You’re the best, Nabs.”
She shrugged. “I know.”
They met at the foot of the grand staircase in the front hall of Hyrule Castle. Zelda clasped her hands in front of her skirt and waited, glad the light was low enough to hide her flushed face. (There were no Ancient lamps in here; hundreds of beeswax candles lining a half-dozen golden chandeliers were more appealing to traditional upper-class sensibilities.) Her mother and Chief Jolena greeted one another with earnest warmth. Her father was cordial. Ganondorf was… a stone wall. She told herself it could be worse. At least he had the dignity not to let his loathing show.
On second thought, that was worse.
He made his introduction as before, the picture of elegance. A fairy tale prince. Zelda had read enough fairy tales to know that princes kept company with two varieties of young lady: equally brilliant and beautiful princesses, or golden-hearted commoners who proved their worth through earnest hard work. Not high-born, low-mannered hypocrites. Not Sheikah who couldn’t speak Sheikah. Certainly not snobs who acted smart and too good for them and then set their hair on fire.
They were looking at her. Oh. She was supposed to speak now. She went through the motions, trying not to let her voice waver.
The prince’s face was dispassionate. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Your Highness.”
She offered a hand stiffly, wanting to disappear. He bowed over it. Then looked up at her with a smile that was not at all polished or regal.
The moment stretched long. She stared. Inhaled.
“Your hair smells like fish,” she said.
Her mother blanched, and her father hissed a rebuke. Their horror turned to bewilderment when they realized Ganondorf was not at all offended, that in fact they were smirking at one another the way only co-conspirators can.
“Ah. You two have met,” observed Chief Jolena.
Zelda nodded, still looking at him. “We are not strangers.”
An hour later, upon returning from his dinner break, the owner of the goldfish stall found a good-sized bag full of purple rupees and a handwritten note.
This should more than cover your losses. Thanks for entertaining the princess.
The conversation started innocently enough.
They were following their parents, arm in arm, through the gate into the temple plaza. Warm and full after the banquet, they were all in good spirits, though her mother was a bit red-faced from one too many glasses of Chateau Romani. Along both sides of the road onlookers pointed and whispered, or tried to sneak photos of the royals, but for once, Zelda was barely aware of them.
“Would you like to watch the fireworks together?” asked Ganondorf.
“Oh, yes! You won’t want to miss them.”
“So long as they miss me.”
She made an exasperated sound. “Look. I’m sorry. Will you let it go?”
“Of course not. I never let anything go.”
She knew he’d meant it as a joke, but along came history with all its implications. Her smile fell flat. He sobered too, when he realized it.
They faced each other in the middle of the square, in the shadow of the temple. The look that passed between them was a bit too guarded to be longing, and she wondered how many others like them had stood in this place, trying to solve fate’s impossible equations. But here of course history was silent, because it recorded wrongs and not the reasons, remembered wars and forgot love.
“Your family’s naming custom bothers me,” he said abruptly.
Her jaw clenched. She was no great fan of it herself.
“For one, it was a man’s crime. So why is it the women who are marked?”
“That’s… hm.” She chewed on her lip. In truth she’d always thought her frustrations a bit selfish. What did it matter if she sometimes felt more like an icon than a person? She was Hyrule’s princess; it was her duty to stand for their ideals.
“Don’t you ever hate being Zelda?”
A long pause. Her own heartbeat was deafening. “Yes,” she admitted in a low voice.
“Saddled with this ancient name that will never really be yours, your entire life mapped out for you. Maybe you wonder who you could have been, if you hadn’t been born into this.”
That was going too far. “No. I am who I am. I may not always enjoy living under so many expectations, but I’m proud of her—our legacy.”
“Of course you are.” His eyes flashed, the mask of decorum falling away at last. “When all is said and done, you get to wear your name like a crown. The victor, the heroine, the maiden carrying the blood of the goddess destined to overthrow the demon king. I suppose history’s less of a burden when you get to write it.”
“I didn’t ask to be—”
“It doesn’t matter!” He turned aside, ran a hand across his forehead, and she wondered how this could have gone so wrong so quickly. But of course, she knew. “Truth or legend, it all belongs to you. You claimed it. It’s yours now. Why have regrets? There’s no going back.”
“Are you talking to me, or yourself?”
“Don’t you dare,” he hissed, really furious now, but she could see the shadow of her own fear in his eyes. “I’ve never done anything to you. It’s not my fault I have his name. I didn’t ask… to be…” He faltered.
Zelda crossed her arms, feeling vindicated.
“No,” he said, in a low, steady voice that cut through the din of the crowd. “No, no. He was one man out of all my people, but that’s enough, apparently, to fear and loathe us all. And we’re supposed to be ashamed. Nobody ever asks what your side might have done.” He held up the back of his right hand, wild-eyed. “Do you see a mark on me? Because I see it on you. And there, and there…” He jabbed his finger at her tabard, the insignia over the temple doors, the pennants flying overhead. “Everywhere I go that damn thing follows me! You’re the ones who insist on it!”
His shoulders heaved, his hands trembled. Zelda caught herself shrinking from him, and hated herself for it.
“I’m sorry,” she began, meaning to say that she was sorry he was facing such a struggle, that of course she would never fear or loathe him, and that she would do best to set the record straight when she was queen. He cut her off.
“I don’t want you to be sorry!” His voice grated, the words caught in his teeth. For a second she was afraid he might cry. He didn’t, of course, because unlike some people he had some dignity.
“What do you want?” she asked softly.
“The impossible.” Suddenly he looked very tired. “A perfect world, I suppose.”
She didn’t reply at first, and he grew pensive, perhaps realizing just how far beyond the pale he’d strayed. Her parents were on the temple porch, shaking hands with dignitaries, and she prayed her father couldn’t hear them.
“I was the one who said people should try to change their fate,” he muttered.
“Fate is given to us. As for destiny…” She fingered the golden insignia on her dress. “I want to say that if I had the power, I’d fix it. But maybe it’s not power that I’m lacking. I don’t have all the answers,” she admitted, meeting his eyes again at last.
“Of course you don’t. We don’t. Maybe there aren’t any.” (That didn’t sound like any Ganondorf from the history books.) He swallowed hard, went on in a rush, “but the legends must have their villain, and it seems I fit the bill.”
“Not you,” Zelda said softly.
His scowl deepened. “Maybe not yet.”
A long pause. She sat down on the temple stairs, patted the spot beside her. “Forget the legends for a minute. Will you tell me a new story?”
“What kind?” he asked, wary, like he thought she might be making a joke at his expense.
“One where you decide what it means. Maybe I’ll be the villain.”
He pondered that briefly, then shook his head. “Not you.”
He sat down beside her.
He shared stories that weren’t in her history books: maps redrawn, names altered or erased, heroes forgotten, treaties more unequal than she thought. Not all of it sounded right to her, but she filed those thoughts away. He meandered, interrupted himself, sometimes shook his head and asked her to forget what he’d said. After a while his stories grew more personal—things people said or did to him that might seem inconsequential to an outside observer, but each was another twist in an ever-tightening cord. Some things that should seem outrageous to anyone. It amazed her that he could speak so calmly, when just hearing about it made her want to scream. She wished she could take it from him. She would take it all if she could.
“You’re not my savior,” he scoffed, and she reddened, embarrassed at how easily he’d read her. “Spare me your pity. How old are you? Thirteen?”
“My point stands. Take the world off your shoulders. It was broken before we got here.”
She nodded slowly. That was a bit hard to swallow, but she had promised to listen, and when it came to promises she could be quite stubborn.
“But,” he sighed, leaning back on his elbows to gaze up at the stars, “am I talking to you, or myself?”
In the minutes before midnight they fell silent, conscious of their own smallness, and the temple above did not loom or shelter, only bore witness.
A cold gust whistled through the square, sending dry leaves skittering over the cobblestones. She clutched her shoulders, wishing she hadn’t forgotten her shawl in the mad scramble before the ceremony. Before she knew what was happening, he had whisked off his coat and wrapped it around her.
Her body greedily accepted the warmth. When her mind caught up, she tried to push it back into his hands. “Oh, don’t! You’ll catch a chill.”
“I’ll manage. Nights in the desert are much colder than this.”
“We’re the idiots who jump into a frozen river for fun!”
He smiled then, like first light after a storm, and placed the coat firmly around her shoulders once more. Her agitated nerves failed her at last. She shuddered and covered her face, trying not to break down entirely.
“What’s wrong?” he asked in a halting voice.
She flicked a tear away from her cheek and thumped her chest to make herself stop sniffling. “Nothing. I’m sorry.”
“Stop apologizing,” he grumbled, looking not at all irritated.
“It’s just that I thought, for a moment I thought you were going to despise me forever, and it’s such a relief to see you smile again.” She cleared her throat, growled in annoyance at her own fragility.
“That’s a terribly melodramatic thing to say to a person you only met this evening.”
She fluttered her lashes in mock astonishment. “You talk as if we’re strangers.”
A look passed between them and she knew, the moment he opened his mouth, exactly what he would say.
“Your favorite color is blue.”
“Yours is yellow.”
“You like novels.”
“You prefer nonfiction, with the exception of one epic poet who I’m afraid I must tell you is a bit overrated.”
He shrugged that off. “You like horses best.”
“You consider yourself a cat person.”
“Someday, I hope I may consider myself your friend.”
“I’d like that.”
“In a perfect world?”
“In a better world.”
Overhead, the great bell began to ring. She rose and held out a hand. Offering, asking. It wasn’t an attempt to bury the past. It wasn’t forgiveness for someone else’s sins. It was a promise that this time, however it ended, the story would belong to both of them.
He looked at her hand, looked at her, considered.
He placed his palm in hers.
Zelda stood on the porch next to her parents, looking out at the sea of people. Link had the place of second-highest honor at her father’s left, with the champions and their families lined up on either side of them: Chief Jolena and Ganondorf, Komak and young Ralis, Patriarch Darosso, Prince Miphos and his seven sisters. (Queen Zora didn’t fit on the narrow staircase, so she was watching from the front row, thoroughly embarrassing her son by waving and pointing him out to anyone who would listen.)
The last stroke of the bell signaled the close of the old year, and a reverent hush fell over the crowd. The king stepped out on the porch, arms spread wide to receive their awe and bestow his benevolence in return.
There was no one better than her father at making speeches. Before a crowd of thousands he found all the wit and eloquence that seemed to elude him at the breakfast table. The dedication he gave was brief but poignant. He acknowledged the past with appropriate gravitas, but didn’t linger over sorrows or regrets, as her mother might have, nor was he tempted by the sort of dark humor that sometimes made Sir Link offensive to more sensitive minds. It was exactly what people needed to hear right now, which was why they were content to let him take center stage for the temple’s dedication, even though it was because of them that it stood at all.
“And so,” the king concluded, bringing his hands together, “let us open not only a new year, but a new era of peace and unity. May this Temple of Time stand for all Hyrule’s people as testament to our unbreakable spirit. Gods bless us all.”
He turned to face the temple. It was part of the message, making him seem for a moment like a fellow citizen rather than a ruler—albeit one who stood a couple steps higher. His family and the champions turned with him, on cue. That was also part of the message.
Applause and cheers began, built to a thundering roar. Prayers were whispered. Some wept. At exactly the right moment, fireworks blossomed in the sky.
The queen and Link exchanged a long glance, nodding slightly to one another with the solemn pride of fellow warriors. It was almost strange to think that her quiet, even-tempered mother was the woman who killed the Calamity. Link and the other champions fought valiantly to weaken the beast, but it would all have been for nothing without her sacred power.
Gentle is not the opposite of strong, Grandma Impa had told her once. For all she’d forgotten, Zelda remembered those words.
All across the Great Plateau, voices rang out as one. “Ten thousand years! Ten thousand years! May peace last for ten thousand years!”
“I had heard a great deal about Hyrule’s famous fireworks, and I must say, they did not disappoint,” Jolena remarked as they stumbled, yawning, through the misty orchard. All along the plateau wall, people were gathering to watch the year’s first sunrise. She wouldn’t call herself a morning person, but Ganondorf had popped up at the crack of dawn to “take part in this important cultural observance,” and once his rustling around woke her she had thought it would be nice to see the queen one more time. Ralis and the royal Zora siblings were all going, he said, and oh yes, Zelda would be there too. She was pleased by his newfound enthusiasm, even if she suspected he was really more interested in Hyrule’s princess than its traditions.
“If you enjoy them so much, you must come back for our anniversary celebration next month,” said the king. This was mostly politeness; he must know they couldn’t make the trip again so soon. But that was something, from him, so she thanked him and tried not to let herself think it was an attempt to rub her nose in the fact that they were (still) married.
Perhaps it was time to let bygones be bygones. It had never been her strong suit.
Speaking of which.
“Your Highness, thank you for showing my son around yesterday,” she said during a rare brief lull in his and Zelda’s chatter. “He was so full of interesting stories.”
Zelda beamed. “It was fun! I, ah… what sort of stories?”
“How you got fortunes from the abbey, visited the market, went down to the lake behind the temple, this and that. It sounds like you two had a lovely evening.”
Zelda was nodding, half-listening to her while Ganondorf whispered something in her ear. Jolena noted her small sigh of relief. “Yes! Yes, it was.”
“What a coincidence, Ganondorf, that in this whole great city, you happened to meet the princess by chance. Remarkable!”
“Indeed,” he said, walking faster, but he had sensed the danger too late. Her eyes fixed on him like a hawk on a mouse.
“Funny that Nabooru didn’t mention it,” she drawled, enjoying the way his shoulders stiffened.
“You know,” said Ganondorf, “one of my favorite things about this season is the opportunity to forget past offenses and start with a clean slate.”
She was not convinced.
Zelda caught his arm. “Look! I bet we’d have a nice view from up there.” She pointed at a crooked tree arching over one of the small ponds that dotted the orchard, just wide enough for two teenagers and not their parents.
“Excellent idea!” He waved at her and jogged after Zelda.
She let him go, for now. After all, she had a four day carriage ride to scold him. She made sure he could feel her glaring at the back of his head until he was up the tree. Only then did she allow herself a fond smile.
Shoulder to shoulder on the branch, Zelda and Ganondorf watched the eastern sky brighten from dusty pink to glowing orange. The king and queen spread out a blanket on the grass and sat, poised and proper, but after a few minutes she dozed off, and he shifted so her head could rest on his shoulder. Jolena lounged nearby, murmuring appreciatively when Miphos’ youngest sister showed her flowers or bugs she’d caught. Sir Link was perched atop one of the towers along the plateau wall, vigilant even at rest. Once in a while she got the feeling he was watching her, though his head was always turned when she looked.
“Do you think it was fate that we met?” Zelda asked out of the blue. “I know, melodramatic,” she added, waving aside the snide remark before he could make it. “But the legends always tell of chosen ones drawn together by the Golden Power. I wonder though, was it really fate, or were they just in the right place at the wrong time? If nobody ever told them they were chosen ones, would they have walked the same path?”
He nodded thoughtfully. “Golden Power, goldfish… yes, I believe I can feel the cold and slimy hand of fate at work in this.”
She snorted at his absurdity. “You really are never going to let me hear the end of that, are you?”
“I will be telling that story to my grandchildren.” She was glad to hear him say it. It meant he planned on growing old.
“Seems you’re not immune to bad luck after all.”
“I don’t know about that.”
Light broke the horizon just as he turned to smile at her, and she felt something strange and warm and fluttering in the pit of her stomach.
His grin turned impish. “I’d say this new year is going… swimmingly.”
She pushed him into the pond.