As usual, the princess said nothing of the night's events the next morning. Even Link thought that they seemed like some sort of fever dream, had it not been for the traitorous hint of a sniffle in the princess' voice when she greeted Master Impa on the way to breakfast, and the haughty way she ignored his presence.
She's coming down with a cold, he thought to himself, wondering why he felt both sorry and smug about it. She had a way to bring out the full spectrum of emotion in him. And the full spectrum of want.
Mostly the anger, he reminded himself. Hate. Mutual, all-encompassing hate. Yep.
He watched her slip into the dining hall, remembering the feeling of her body cradled in his arms.
No. Mind of the Crane. She is just a girl who happens to be a princess. Nothing to lose one's head over. Or any body part over.
And she doesn't even like me. Because she hates me. She. Hates. Me.
That was the worst and most important part, Link thought, up until the moment pain pinched the tip of his ear and he yelped, instantly drawn back to reality.
Master Impa dragged him away from the doors and hissed, "What have you done to her?"
"Done to her?" Link echoed, incredulously. They stood in a narrow alcove, and passing servants peered at them curiously until Master Impa's glare made them scurry away faster. "I haven't done anything to her." Sadly.
Besides, why was he the culprit? Did no one care what she was doing to him?
Gods. Castle life would kill him.
"She won't even look in your direction," Impa accused him.
Link blinked, then feigned shock. It was difficult to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. "Is that…? Is that somehow a new development?" Then, before the Sheikah Master could reply, he added, "She never looks at me, ever, if she can avoid it."
Master Impa ran a hand over her face, evidently exhausted by something. "Oh, shadows, I can't decide which of the two of you is the most difficult. Or the densest."
Densest? Link wasn't sure what she meant. "It's not me," he said, crossing his arms. "I am the very picture of calm and poise. Have you noticed how she isn't dead? You're welcome."
Master Impa clearly gave up at that point, and she took a deep breath. She was entering her own Mind of the Crane, so Link waited patiently. He had no idea why she was so upset. He'd done his job, and the princess had clearly decided to handle the event as she did all such events: by completely ignoring any good he did.
Well, that was fine with him. He didn't care. The disdain was mutual. Supremely mutual.
"I am going to send you," Master Impa said, "on an expedition."
Link frowned. "What? With Zelda?"
"Princess Zelda," Master Impa corrected him. "And no. You will be accompanying some of the other guardsmen and knights."
Link had spent so much time bored and twiddling his thumbs lately that he instantly perked up. Finally! Something to do. "Where are we going?"
Master Impa's traits seemed drawn. For the first time, Link noticed the tense set of her shoulders. It was subtle, but this was not the Mind of the Crane. It was the Mind of the Wolf ― alert, ready to bite. That made him uneasy.
"There have been reports of Yiga attacks," she said, at length. "Out in the fields, on the roads. Robberies, vandalism. A contingent is going out to find what it can."
Link nodded. It didn't explain why she was so nervous, though.
But she continued.
"You know by now," she said, "that the Yiga are a rogue offshoot of my tribe." She glared at a servant who strayed just a bit too close, and she watched him scurry away in fear. She really had a way with scary looks. Link envied that. "And I fear―" She interrupted herself, debating something within that she did not care to share with him. Link had never seen her hesitate before, which made him nervous, too. Impa shook her head, and continued, but the veil in her gaze hinted that she had changed her mind on what she meant to say. "I fear that perhaps they are agents of Calamity Ganon… hell bent on stopping the princess from awakening her power."
Link frowned. "She doesn't have power."
"Yet," Impa corrected him. "She doesn't have power yet. But with the Yiga―" she sighed, and suddenly seemed far older than she truly was, and Link realized what it must have meant, being the leader of a tribe as ancient and secretive as hers, now divided and at odds, "I think the Yiga plan to eliminate any such possibility."
An image of Zelda, green eyes staring unseeing in death, flashed across his mind, accompanied by a jolt of something painful that he didn't want to identify. Link's jaw clenched. "Not if I have my say in it."
This was it. His chance to tan some Yiga hides. He was already antsy to go. He hadn't had any opportunity for a good fight in months.
"The Master Sword does not choose her Champions idly," Master Impa continued. "I must believe you mean to protect her as you say, and this is one way to do it."
"I will," Link said, frowning. "But what about you? Do you want to protect her?"
Master Impa pinched him, hard, and Link bit down a yelp. "I'm trying to help, you foolish boy."
Link rubbed his arm where she had pinched him, glaring at her mutinously. "Well, how am I to know? Someone needs to keep an eye on Zelda while I'm away."
"Princess Zelda," Master Impa corrected him again, wearily. "I will keep a close eye on her, never you fear. May the gods strike me down if anything happens to the girl."
There was a hardness in her red eyes that made Link wince for any Yiga who made the mistake of going up against her. He pressed his lips together. "Fine. I'll go." He set his jaw, and met the older woman's eyes. "But― Master Impa, if anything happens to her―" He interrupted himself, suddenly afraid of the unnameable feeling in his gut. Afraid he might have threatened his terrifying Sheikah mentor and meant it. Then, pressing his lips into a thin line, he swallowed. "I mean to hold to my oath."
The pointed look he gave her made Master Impa blink in surprise. Then, she collected herself.
"Good," she said, coolly. "That is all I have ever wanted. Now go."
Link nodded and hurried to the kitchens to grab a quick bite. He had a lot to do before he was ready to go.
But first, just in case the Sheikah really were the untrustworthy folk everyone said they were, he had to cover his arse.
It was early morning, and in other circumstances, Squire Groose would have been at his training already. But the Knight Commander was preparing for the expedition, and Groose was sleeping in rather than pitching in at his family's Castle Town mansion. That was common enough ― escaping familial duty by claiming military duty.
Groose rolled over, his red hair messier than usual. He might have been out the night before. Hard to say.
Link reached in and pinched both of the massive young man's nostrils shut. The red giant was up instantly, punching and kicking. Then, realizing that he was safe, he blinked at Link blearily and, defensively, rubbed his nose. "Link. What do you want?"
He was supposed to say Sir Link, but Link let it slide. "I have a job for you."
Squire Groose's golden eyes narrowed in anger. "I may not be a knight yet, but I am not yours to boss around."
"I need you to watch over the Princess while I'm away."
Groose's expression changed, the tension in his shoulders shifting. "Is this a joke?"
Link shook his head. "I have to be out of the Castle today. I know you don't like me, but I've seen you fight and I trust you. It would make me feel a lot better if the Princess wasn't surrounded only by Sheikah shadows, but also by at least one good Hylian knight."
Groose agreed, Link knew. He shared every Hylian's general mistrust of the Sheikah. "I'm not a knight," Groose said, leaning back against his pillows, but he looked supremely pleased with himself.
"Help me today. It will help to prove that you're ready."
Groose's eyes betrayed his eagerness.
It was almost too easy. Link ought to have felt guilty. He wasn't being upfront about his motives. Technically, the Princess didn't need a knight every step of the way, especially here in the Castle.
But it never hurt to be careful. Master Impa might have professed her trust in him, but he would be a fool to put his wholehearted trust in her just yet. It didn't feel good. In a way, he did like the woman. He definitely respected her, even if he wasn't ready to leave the princess in her exclusive care.
"This will be an interesting day," Lady Ashei said, in her usual drawl, much later, when Link exited the stables with his horse in tow.
She was a knight native of Hebra, far to the northwest, and seemed to thrive in the colder months. She was dressed with a thick white fur coat, her polished armour peeking out under it. Her horse was the same: strong, a little wild, and armoured.
"I do not understand," Sir Linebeck said, shivering miserably in his three layers of woolen coats, "why we have to go out. It was cold yesterday and it'll be colder today."
"Stop your whining," Sir Osfala said, his noble tone marking him as their better in every way, just in case his clothes and overcoat didn't. "We have to go before the big storm arrives. It will break soon."
"Today," Ashei said, peering up at the sky. It was thickly clouded, a deep grey that announced snow.
When Link joined them, they peered at him with varying expressions of disinterest. He was young, though not much younger than they were, but he was also mostly unblooded, and not of drinking age. A child.
It was the hilt of the Master Sword on his shoulder that drew their attention the most.
"Well," Sir Osfala said, "it appears we have been joined by the Chosen One."
There was no mistaking the hint of irony in his voice. Link shot him a polite smile, aware that this silent acquiescence was the most likely to infuriate the noble knight. And it did, judging by the irritated glare he received in response.
Link was getting very good at keeping quiet when he wanted to be.
"I remember trying to pull that sword," Ashei said, in what Link assumed was her friendliest deadpan. "It never budged."
"I hoped it wouldn't budge," Sir Linebeck said. "I'd be a terrible Chosen One."
"Because you're a coward and a drunk," Osfala reminded him, still irritated. "And you still owe too many gambling debts." He pulled himself into his luxurious saddle and scratched the neck of his regal steed as a long whistle sounded in the crowded courtyard. It was almost time to go. Everywhere around them, men, women and horses were milling about, organizing into their patrol groups.
"Well, at least I'm old enough to have flaws," Linebeck said, as he climbed atop his dappled old horse, a creature that looked both bored and dumb, if that was possible. "Unlike young mister prodigy over here."
Link ignored that. He was getting used to it. Besides, the words only seemed to hurt now if they were said by Zelda.
Princess. Princess Zelda. He looked up at the battlements, and tried to convince himself that he wasn't worried. She would be fine. The Yiga were outside, not here.
"I don't see Master Kohga," Sir Linebeck observed. "Wasn't he supposed to come with us?"
"Who cares?" Sir Osfala scoffed. "We don't need the Sheikah."
Link was climbing into his saddle when Master Kohga came out into the courtyard, his large horse in tow, joking with a few of the other Sheikah. The sight of them caused Link a small measure of relief. In a way, the more Sheikah he could keep an eye on out there, the less there were in the Castle.
He was alone in his relief. The arrival of the Sheikah plunged the assembly of Hylian knights into unease. Even Lady Ashei and Sir Linebeck seemed to grow quiet.
"It doesn't seem right," Sir Linebeck said, under his breath, "that those shadows would investigate their own. How can we trust them?"
Master Kohga had climbed into the saddle, and his gaze met Link's across the courtyard. He waved, cheerfully. Link waved back, entirely aware that his patrol companions had noticed the exchange. Along with most of the other knights.
"Well, he seems awfully cheerful," Lady Ashei noted, one of her dark brows rising. She didn't say anything to Link, though, merely shooting him an inscrutable look. "Maybe we're all worrying about nothing."
Her tone implied the opposite. Sir Osfala snorted, but did not reply. He gently kicked, and his horse began to walk off, so they all followed after him.
Sir Linebeck had been right to complain. The wind, as soon as they exited the castle gate, began to whip at them mercilessly. Link was glad, in that moment, to have his warmest doublet and his fur-lined hood, including warm boots and gloves. For a moment he wished that Daruk had also given him a gift of ruby, but that was a greedy hope. He'd made it through harsh winters with worse clothing before.
The company of knights and Sheikah trailed through the half-deserted city, their numbers attracting the curious gaze of townsfolk and children. Link nodded to those he recognized, but did not stop to chat. His heart was full of worry he couldn't channel.
A short briefing had been presented earlier by Knight Commander Eagus, who had explained where and how they would proceed, and Link intended to follow orders. Orders were good. They felt safe. They organized his life, prevented too much thinking. He found he had missed the military rigidity, the protocol of command. It was one of Princess Zelda's greatest criticisms ― that he was just a peon, an unthinking body, good to be ordered around and little else.
Link stifled a snort. Well, she had tried to order him around, to little avail.
"You seem cheerful," Master Kohga said as his horse caught up with Link once they were out the gates.
The comment brought Link out of his thoughts. He noticed the rest of his patrol had dutifully given him and the Sheikah Master more space to talk. Perhaps it was disgust, though. Hylians knights generally distrusted Sheikah as a matter of principle, and the entire Yiga ordeal had soured Hylian-Sheikah relations to a frigid degree. Link couldn't blame them. He himself still disliked the Sheikah, too. He just disliked Master Kohga a little less, that was all. And Purah, sometimes. And maybe Master Impa.
"I was thinking," Link said. He hesitated to be as friendly with Master Kohga here as he was when they trained in the Sheikah Sanctuary in the bowels of Hyrule Castle. He was already alienated enough from his own fellow knights because of the Master Sword. He didn't want to be the Sheikah trainee, Master Impa's pet, on top of it.
But Master Kohga ignored his reticence, which Link appreciated somewhat. "I hear you and the princess have grown… close?" The smile on the friendly Sheikah's face betrayed great amusement at his own joke.
Great. The princess. Another topic that would draw a deeper line between Link and the others. Link caught the darting glances from nearby riders. He smiled, perfunctorily, and said, "We have differences of opinion." When he was allowed to express it.
Master Kohga let out a loud laugh that startled birds out of nearby trees. "Now there's the understatement of the year. Are you sure you've never considered putting that Sword back into its pedestal and running away?"
Link glanced at the Sheikah Master. It wasn't the first time he made the joke, and even now the crinkling at the corner of his eyes betrayed his continued mirth. "I made an oath," Link said, softly.
Master Kohga saw the seriousness in Link's face and scoffed. "Oh," he said, smiling genially, "lighten up. No one is really asking you to give up on the princess." He clicked his tongue at his horse, a black mare of excellent upbringing, if her gait was any indication. The Sheikah didn't usually ride, but Master Kohga had a vast array of skills. "I confess I'm glad to be out of the Castle."
Link exhaled. "Me too."
"Hm," Master Kohga nodded, glad to finally have someone in agreement. "The atmosphere back there," he said, jutting a thumb over his shoulder, "is nothing short of crushing."
"I can't blame Master Impa," Link said. "I'd be on edge too. Are they your cousins, the Yiga?" He asked, and he heard the knights stifle chuckles behind him.
Master Kohga heard them too, and he rolled his eyes. He was handsome enough for a Sheikah, with the sort of long lashes and silver hair that made women fawn over him. He'd even had a son last year, who he'd sent off to be raised in Kakariko Village. The Sheikah typically waited much longer to have children, but Kohga was a charmer, and it had surprised no one that he'd become a father so young. "Master Impa," he said, with a smile, "is too easily frightened."
"If you think the Yiga aren't a threat," Link said, with some asperity, "why are you here? Master." The title was an afterthought.
Master Kohga shook his head. "Oh, the Yiga are a threat," he said, emphatically. "But I haven't lost sleep over them."
Link didn't reply. Shockingly, he tended to side with Impa on the matter ― better to make sure.
"At any rate," Master Kohga continued, "there is nothing to be worried about. What can a few rogue assassins do against the might of Hyrule and the wielder of the Master Sword?" He smiled conspiratorially.
Link could feel the gaze of his fellow knights on his back, the mutinous sentiment boring a hole into his skull. He knew that he'd think the same in their place. Fraternizing with the shadow folk was not a good idea, every good Hylian knight knew it. They had ways of learning secrets. The purpose of the Sheikah was to find actionable intelligence, so they cultivated techniques to extract information out of people before their subject even noticed. It was underhanded, everyone knew that.
"So," Link said, casually, turning the question around to avoid answering to anything, "in your opinion, there are no suspicious events to report in the Castle? Nothing to worry about?"
"Suspicious?" Master Kohga echoed, amused. His voice dropped. "I don't think so. Unless we count a barechested knight carrying a soaked maiden back to her quarters in the dead of night."
Link's blood ran cold, and it took all he had to maintain an unaffected air. He glanced at Kohga. "Nothing happened."
"Of course not," Master Kohga said, winking. Link felt the urge to sink his fist into that smile, and the sudden violence of that emotion was unexpected. He reined it in forcefully, surprised at the animosity.
Instead, he said, "So, have you reported this incident?"
Master Kohga looked almost offended. "Of course not. You just told me nothing happened. Why would I report anything?"
It's our secret, Link realized. He will hold on to this until he wants something from me. It was one of the things Sheikah tended to do, one of the reasons Hylians generally disliked them so much. Impa and Purah both had their own such little secrets held over him, which was highly annoying, but nothing of this magnitude.
Link had always somewhat feared the Sheikah, but never Master Kohga personally. Now, he had reason to. A word in the wrong ear, and Link would lose everything. Interrupting the princess at prayers, touching her so familiarly, entering her chambers without a chaperone, both of them being in an uncomfortable state of undress― it was damning, even if nothing had happened. The princess would escape unscathed, but he had no titles to hide behind other than the ones bestowed upon him.
"When you ask for your favour," Link said, sourly, defeated, "remember I have nothing."
Master Kohga looked abashed. "Come now, it was simply an observation. Do you think I am as Sheikah as that?" He smiled. "You have nothing to fear from me, friend."
Friend. Link forced himself to stay calm. Right. Master Kohga had never acted out of turn. He was as Hylian as a Sheikah could get, actually. Maybe he was right, and Link was letting his prejudice get away from him. Besides, they were on the same side. They didn't have to be best chums to help each other. What good would Master Kohga achieve by revealing Link's mistake? Separating the princess from the wielder of the Master Sword would be counterproductive.
"Anyway," Link said, softly, "it won't happen again."
Master Kohga's smile was earnest. "I trust your word on that. You are an annoyingly honourable young man," he teased. "And your devotion to the princess is commendable." He nodded. "I know you will do what is right."
Link smiled nervously in thanks. Good. As long as Link maintained Master Kohga's good opinion, he surely had nothing to fear.
The column of knights followed the road south, led by Knight Commander Eagus and Chancellor Cole himself, a diminutive man whose affection for green overcoats and heat-storing rubies made him stand out among the conservatively armoured men and women. They rode past the Sacred Grove and along the hills, passing what most Hylians called the Passeri Greenbelt ―now more a scattering of leafless trees than its namesake would have anyone believe― sometime before noon. Overhead, the sky was growing ever darker, lower.
Master Kohga, thankfully, didn't try to keep the conversation going, leaving Link to reflect in silence.
Eventually, the country route joined up with one of the more important roads, a paved connection that ran across the Hyrule plains from the northeast to the southwest. Mabe Village and his own family land lay at eastern end of this stretch, where the road then continued east among the hills through the Applean Forest and onward to Rebonae Bridge and the Lanayru wetlands.
But it was not to the east that Commander Eagus led them. Instead, they took the right and continued southward and westward. The crossing was busy with carts and traders eager to net a few last coins before being forced to retire to their respective farmsteads for the season. To either side of the road, rolling hills of dying green and tilled earth testified to the end of the harvest. Trails of ice lined the bare furrows, but winter had yet to coat the earth with white.
The wind whipped at Link's hood, its icy fingers grasping at what exposed skin it could find ―his face, his ears, his collar. He found himself wishing he could experience the hot westerly winds that would keep the Rayne Highlands and the Lowlands of Gerudo warm for another few weeks at least. He'd heard of high plateaus that defied winter in the west, sometimes all the way to Nayru's Fall, before finally getting their own snowbanks. Some said that even when Hyrule was entrenched in ice and snow, the Rayne Highlands still bloomed.
It was preposterous. In Hyrule proper, the cold winds came down from the north, cruel and biting, just as they were now.
So he was relieved when, as the company followed a turn in the road, he suddenly spotted Hyrule Garrison and its glowing braziers.