"Well, don't you look dashing," one of the squires said, teasing. Once of the novelty of Link's selection by the Master Sword had worn off, and no Calamity had appeared, he'd simply gone back to being Squire Link, a young man on the brink of true responsibility, like all of them.
Link didn't reply, peering at himself in the mirror placidly.
"Watch out, lads," Squire Dunson said, lounging on his bunk. "Now that he's about to be knighted, Link has no time to speak with us lowly squires."
Link rolled his eyes, but he couldn't say anything before Squire Herschel seized his helm from the bed and held it aloft. "Oh, great Squire Link―"
"Sir! He's a knight!" One of the boys called out.
"Sir Link," Squire Herschel amended, "When will you introduce us lowly peasants to the gracious company of our beloved princess?"
"She doesn't want to see you, Herschel," another boy called out, and the gathering laughed.
"Of course she doesn't," Squire Groose said, as the laughter died down. "After all, why would any woman care about us miserable folks when there's a true knight about? A knight of such fortune and― oh," here, Groose interrupted himself. "What was your title, again, Link?"
"Stop it," Link said, gritting his teeth.
Most of the Squires were born to nobility, and many more, at least, to great fortunes. Link had only managed his appointment thanks to the distinguished service of his father, and while martial achievements were appreciated in the army, they meant little in the eyes of these boys.
Boys. It was all they were. Naïve. Ignorant. Unaware.
"I hear the princess hasn't awakened her power yet," Squire Herschel said, giving Link his helm back, by way of soothing the nerves Groose had grated on.
"So calling her the incarnation of the Goddess might be premature," Squire Groose said.
"I bet she's going to work it all out," Squire Dunson generously admonished. "She has to, right?"
Squire Groose snorted. "Just like Link had to achieve all these feats of strength to earn the Master Sword. Oh, no, wait. He just pulled it out and did nothing for it."
"That must make the princess mad," Squire Pipit said, from the bottom bunk where he was resting. "Mother says she goes out to the fountains or Goddess shrines every day to pray."
Link tuned them out. If he listened to them, he might get even more nervous. Already the weight of the world seemed to rest on his shoulders, made heavier from the knowledge that he was the only one with the barest of aptitude to show in the challenges to come. The Champions still struggled to control their Divine Beasts and Princess Zelda―
"The truth is," Squire Groose continued, "that though our Link has done little to deserve his post, the princess has done even less."
That did grate on Link's ears. He bristled, about to turn and reply, when Pipit cut in.
"You can't command the gods," Pipit said, frowning. "And I doubt any of us would have half the determination and perseverance the princess does if we'd seen no results after over a decade."
"Thank you," a soft voice said.
Link would have recognized the aristocratic lilt anywhere. His stomach dropped.
She was here, in the doorjamb to the barracks, dressed in a regal dark blue dress, a cross of his own Champion-blue and black― some sort of mourning, perhaps. Link could sympathize. In the weeks since that day in the Royal Lab, Link had struggled with mixing in with his fellow squires, too burdened by the horrible truth to focus.
She seemed tired, as though sleep had been as difficult for her to find as it had been for him.
And yet, she was beautiful.
Around him, the squires fell to their knees, an automatic response, and silence fell over the barracks where they usually were full of boisterous laughter, mocking and youthful exuberance.
Turning away from the rest of the squires, Link's gaze met Princess Zelda's, and he, too, fell to one knee, bowing his head.
"It is time," the princess said.
Link seized his helm, a confection of metal and red feathers with engravings of the Hyrulean phoenix. His armour, over his Champion's shirt, was silvery bright, polished to a mirror shine, and the tabard of Hyrule, in white, red and blue, fit snugly over it. He looked like a knight, though he didn't feel like one.
He followed the princess out in the silence.
"Please don't listen to them," Link finally said, softly, when they were out of hearing range. They were striding out into the Guards' Chamber, where more guards and squires kneeled, heads bowed, and ascended the steps to the corridor that connected back to the main hallway. As they walked in the red carpeted halls, courtiers nodded and bowed, but all maintained their distance.
"There is nothing they can say that I have not already been told in far crueller terms," Princess Zelda said, without glancing at him.
"They have no tact."
"A common trait," Zelda said, and now she did look back at him, and Link could have sworn he saw the barest hint of a smile.
It lasted less than a second, but it felt almost like… kindness. Link felt warmth fill his belly, and suddenly the ordeal before him seemed somewhat less terrifying.
"My father has decided that your constant presence would be a more steadfast reminder of my own duty," Princess Zelda said, softly, as they entered the central hall and ascended the steps towards the throne room. "Seeing as the days pass and still nothing has happened."
She meant her power, which had yet to manifest. "I won't impede you," Link vowed, though it seemed like a small promise to make.
"You will be dreadfully bored," she sighed. "But at least it will be good for you to be knighted. It will give you more freedom, such as it is."
"If the ceremony, after, is too much―"
"No," Zelda said. "Daruk is right. It may be good for us six to have a formal ceremony in the Sacred Grove." She glanced back at him. "Thank you for your consideration."
Link said nothing. A flash of the threat that loomed over them passed in his mind.
Princess Zelda did not push further, but what lingering sentiments remained were now gone, the reminder of their fate too heavy to bear.
The throne room was vast, the largest room in the Castle by far, octagonal, with draperies and tall windows. It was a place of dancing and honour, a place of grandeur and regality. Link never got used to it.
They entered it from the large double doors, after walking outside, and Link found that half the realm had apparently assembled to watch his dubbing. None of his fellow squires, of course. They were not yet titled enough to compete with this lot.
In fact, Link knew he was the lowest ranked of them all. Suddenly he remembered the princess' words. A lowly squire, she'd called him.
Suddenly her meager smile, earlier, seemed almost mocking to him. She had made clear what she thought of him, of his standing, of his selection by the Sword. She didn't care what he thought. He was a tool, at best, and a fool, at worst.
He forced himself to focus. Impa had kept repeating the tenets of knighthood for months now. Kindness. Courage. Patience. The three virtues. And then there were the three actions. Protect the innocent, first. Uphold the law, second. Obey your ruler, third. The order was important, and Link hoped he never had to sort through those priorities.
But there were additional requirements for a wielder of the Master Sword, requirements that superseded the tenets of knighthood, if it came to it. Destroy Ganon, above all else. Protect the incarnation of the Goddess. Combat any and all agents of the Calamity. These were straightforward, almost uncomfortably simple, and, Impa had reminded him, they had no chance of contradicting one another.
Unless Zelda was the Calamity, Link thought, dryly. She certainly had a destructive effect on him.
"Come forward," King Rhoam commanded, and Link snapped back to reality.
"O King of Hyrule," Princess Zelda intoned, curtsying before her father. Link merely kneeled, bowing his head, below the balcony where King Rhoam sat in his throne.
"Today we mark the knighthood of Link, son of Raven," Master Impa said, her voice commanding the attention of all assembled. "The Master Sword does not choose a hero lightly. His selection is proof of his courage and valour, a testament of deeds yet to come."
Link felt the princess stiffen next to him, but he could say nothing. Besides, it felt wrong. A hero, they called him. But he had done nothing yet to prove himself, save some victories on the tourney grounds and a few skirmishes in the field, in attempts to clear out wandering packs of Bokoblins. There was nothing to support these claims of valour.
Here, as he listened to Master Impa speak of his upcoming duties, of the vows and oaths he was taking by the sword, Link realized that the eyes of the kingdom were on him, on them. Admittedly, he had done nothing yet to deserve their faith. But that didn't mean he couldn't do his part from now on.
He glanced sideways at Princess Zelda, but she was staring stonily ahead. She really was pretty, Link considered. It was a shame she was so wound up. Not her fault, perhaps, but unfortunate all the same.
Despite himself, he found himself withdrawing to the Mind of the Crane, a state of quiet awareness Impa had taught him about, his ears fully open to all that surrounded him, his mind completely still, as though waiting for ripples on a lake. It was restful, here. He could receive and react, but there was no past here, no future.
As Impa asked him to accept his responsibilities ― protect the land, shield the innocent, offer his faith to the goddesses, on and on― Link merely found himself acquiescing, focusing only on the words as they came, and letting them be free when he was done speaking them.
"Then come forward," King Rhoam suddenly said, and now Link was back in the throne room, with a thousand eyes upon him, and the fate of the world on his shoulders.
He pushed himself to his feet, trying not to wobble dizzily. The king stood from his throne, and the entire room fell to its knees.
In the long silence, Link let himself be guided to one of the long winding staircases, ascending to stand before his king, in a place much higher than a commoner could ever hope to be.
Out of the king's scabbard came a ceremonial sword, ornate in gold and amethysts, and the King looked down on Link, his sword raised.
"Squire Link, kneel before your king." Link kneeled again on the steps, hearing the blood rushing in his ears.
"By the grace of Farore," King Rhoam said, touching the blade to Link's right shoulder, "and Nayru," the other shoulder, "and Din…" The blade kissed Link's bowed head, lightly. "You knelt a squire, but you rise a knight. Rise, Sir Link, knight of Hyrule, wielder of the Master Sword, Champion of the realm."
A chorus of clapping rose as Link did, and Link couldn't help but smile a little. For years he'd been waiting on this day, and though he had hoped it would occur at the side of his friends and fellow trainees, at least he could finally say he'd made it.
He stood as tall as he could as the King stepped down from his throne and gave him the requisite accolade. It was an honour to be knighted by the King. Most of his fellow squires could hope for Chancellor Cole, or High Priest Auru, and some would have to contend with a senior knight.
If only his father had been alive, Link thought. Would he have been proud to see his son join the ranks of the Royal Guard, as he had? Or would he feel as Link did, that the honours were yet undeserved?
Link quashed the feeling down as much as he could. Too late now. The deed was done. He was a knight.
He caught Princess Zelda's gaze as he turned to take his place on the dais, next to the other Champions. Her expression was inscrutable, but there was a slight vulnerability there that made him feel strange.
After all, hadn't she called him a lowly squire? Even as a knight, he remained the lowest among them. He was no threat, even if she felt he marred the good name of the order.
So why did she look so… defeated?
"Gee, this is uplifting… She's making it sound like we already lost."
"Wasn't this your idea?"
"Oh, give it a rest…"