So Link had made a fool of himself. He could live with that. His pride was nothing. At least the princess lived. At least there was that. But the expedition's events had unsettled him. There was no safety in Hyrule anymore, and clearly none to be found in Hyrule Castle.
He had paced back and forth for most of the night, leaping to check in the hallway at every imagined sound. Outside, the snowstorm had worsened, lining his windowsill with ice and snow, the wind howling. He couldn't find sleep. His pride was hurt, his worry piqued, and he kept rehashing the moment of his humiliation in the library.
When he entered the Sheikah sanctuary that morning, he was bleary-eyed and exhausted. Even the Sheikah sparring partners who typically teased him for every weakness looked at him with what could have been either concern or confusion.
Master Impa was at her own training, her strong movements sharp and precise, each motion exactly as strong as it needed to be, with not a single hint of wobble or overextension. It was a marvel to behold, and a far greater achievement than Link could ever hope to manage, and he admitted it despite all the reservations he still had about her.
When she noticed him, she finished her set of strikes, then completed the final salute, a symbolic gesture that helped put the mind back into reality after the ardent concentration of practice.
"You have not slept," she said, reaching for a cloth to mop her brow.
"Oh?" Link said. "I hadn't noticed." Even the sarcasm wilted midway through his sentence, and he deflated.
Master Impa peered at him, her expression unreadable. "You have something on your mind." She noticed the curious looks of the other Sheikah and motioned for Link to follow her.
He followed, dragging his feet and stifling a yawn. They entered Master Impa's quarters, a simple and unadorned set of rooms adjoining the training hall. They fulfilled their basic functionality and little else. She motioned for him to sit on the floor, by her low table, and she retrieved a bottle of water from her shelf after closing the door behind them, pouring them both a glass.
"You returned early from the expedition yesterday," she observed. "None of the others have come back."
Link didn't reply, stifling a yawn. He had prepared himself for this conversation all night, and he was going to wait for the right moment to air his grievances.
Master Impa studied his face, noting his unusually sullen silence and rightly concluding that he was not happy. "And you don't trust me, it seems, judging by that oaf of a squire." The accusation was less a question than a statement. Good. At least they were going to be direct this time. Master Impa kneeled across from him, her red eyes sharp and perceptive. "I told you I would watch over the princess."
Link's vague smile didn't reach his eyes, and he knew she saw it. "Well, I don't trust anyone lately. Don't take it personally."
Impa shook her head. "I cannot blame you for that," she admitted. "I might have done the same. But with all due respect, if I had wanted the princess dead, she would be dead."
Link's fingers twitched, and she noticed. Her eyes narrowed.
"I serve the Royal Family," she said, each syllable as sharp as a knife.
Link pursed his lips, then said, "Does that mean we do not talk about the treasury, then? That doesn't seem like fealty."
Master Impa looked down, a bare flicker of her gaze that told Link everything he needed to know.
"You know," he continued, "for all that we share responsibility for protecting the princess, it seems there is a lot we don't talk about."
Master Impa sighed, a sign of defeat he did not expect. "You are a smart young man," she said. "You know leading the Sheikah requires… subtlety."
Link shrugged. "As far as I'm concerned, you can't be a loyal servant of the Royal Family while harbouring a sapphire thief."
"I have already assured his Majesty the King that I intend to recover his family's stolen treasures and punish the one responsible. You need not fear on that count."
"One of your own," Link mused, coldly. "That must be a real pain in the hide. And what with the Yiga infiltration, I imagine you must be scrambling for a solid foothold."
Master Impa's gaze sharpened, and the air in the room suddenly felt crushing. Link was actually startled by the shift ― the lanterns seemed to dim, the dust seemed to thicken, and the shadows seemed to deepen. Shadow magic? In his chest, his heart leapt with urgency and a primal voice inside him insisted that he was not safe.
When Master Impa spoke, her voice was different, a deeper tone that carried with it the grave implication that lying would be unwelcome, that it would end badly.
"Yiga infiltration?" She asked.
Link squinted at her. In his pocket, the two metal shards almost burned him through his clothes. "Did you not know?"
She said nothing, her eyes narrowing. Link inhaled deeply, trying to make himself feel comfortable, but every passing second made the air feel ever more crushing.
"What did you see on your expedition?" Master Impa finally asked, as the cogs in Link's mind spun wildly.
"Castle-forged Yiga weapons," Link finally said, coming to a decision. He motioned to a sickle on the wall. "One of those, actually."
The curvature of the weapon formed a nearly perfect circle, the sharpness of the blade catching the light hungrily. It was dark steel as the Royal Guard's, but the Sheikah eye was right-side up, its tear moving down. Master Impa's eye darted to it, but then returned to him as Link rifled into his pocket to retrieve the fragments of metal.
As he placed them before Master Impa, Link recounted, briefly, how and where he had found them. For a second, he was certain he saw a flicker of pain in her red eyes, especially as he told of the murders and their viciousness. Her bandaged fingers reached out to turn the Yiga-marked fragment over.
"It is as I feared," she finally said, after Link fell silent once more. "Though I did not think you would find proof so far from Hyrule Castle." She pulled her hand away, and the air in the room lightened, and Link could at last breathe better.
"Did you really not know?" Link asked.
"I suspected," Master Impa said, "but I had no evidence." She looked up into his blue eyes. "Who else have you shown these to?"
Link shook his head. "It was Lady Ashei who found that piece," he said, designating the Yiga-marked fragment. "I only found the other."
"And she gave it to you," Master Impa said, woodenly. "I do not suspect she intended for the Sheikah to be apprised of its existence. Lady Ashei is a noble knight, but she dislikes my people, as most Hylians do."
"As I did too," Link said. "And I can't blame her." He pulled his hand over his eyes, trying to rub the fatigue out of them and failing. "Master Impa, you have a sizeable problem looming on the horizon that I don't think you are sufficiently concerned about."
"Oh?" Master Impa said, glaring. "Do I look nonchalant about traitorous thieves and Yiga murderers? That is not the impression I mean to give."
Link glared back. "Those are not the problems I am talking about," he snapped. "The Sheikah as a whole are facing mounting mistrust and dislike. Your skulking and arrogance are creating a situation where, even if most Sheikah are innocent of wrongdoing, this entire Yiga situation will drive your people out of Hyrule Castle."
To his surprise, Master Impa did not snap back. So, she knew. Link sighed.
"I have a suggestion," he said, trying to soften his voice. "But your people will not like it."
She said nothing, which he accepted as an invitation to continue.
"The princess needs a Royal Guard that I trust completely," Link said. "And that will henceforth include knights of my choosing only. And Sheikah shadows."
Master Impa squinted at him. "I already have a protective detail for her."
"Of my choosing," Link repeated. "And from this point forward, they will pool their resources and information. This new Royal Guard will be under my command, not yours and mine, nor yours and the king's. Mine. Those Sheikah I select must be of unquestioned loyalty and absolute devotion to the crown."
"The Sheikah obey me," Master Impa said. "They will not listen to a green knight, promising and talented though he may be."
Link didn't even blink at this. He had mused on the matter all night and had concluded this was the only way. "If they do not learn to work with the order of the knights," he continued, as though Master Impa had said nothing, "the growing mistrust between Hylians and Sheikah will escalate. If the king finds himself forced to choose between your people and his…" He shrugged. "You do not have the luxury of saying no to this proposal. It will be a show of good faith and a task honourable enough that Hylian knights of great standing and influence will be reluctant to refuse. They will be forced to work with your people. If your shadows learn to play nice, you could at least protect your own interests while you sort out the rest."
Master Impa peered at him with a look that Link couldn't decipher. Then, finally, the light in her eyes changed, brightened, and she seemed to be on the edge of a smile that never truly manifested. "A green knight," she repeated, "promising and talented."
To Link, that sounded like agreement. He deflated in relief. "Because," he explained, "if I go another sleepless night, I will go mad."
She frowned, pushing the metal fragments back his way in a show of trust. "Was it worry that kept you up?"
Master Impa saw right through that, and proceeded with her interrogation. "If you were so worried, how did you convince yourself to leave your post and come here this morning?"
Link averted his gaze, which was apparently all the answer Impa needed.
"Well," she said, rolling her eyes, "if that giant red squire is going to keep protecting her while you're away, I suppose it's only right we knight him and make him one of the first in this new Royal Guard of yours."
"I will be taking on young knights and experienced ones, yes," Link agreed. "But if you could provide your best Sheikah… Master Kohga would be a good bridge. He is likeable enough."
And it would allow Link to keep an eye on him, to prevent him from revealing anything untoward.
Because even though Link knew Master Kohga was only doing what all Sheikah did, which was collect information and use it, the knowledge made him uneasy. Master Impa was holding on to the many times Link had thought he'd stolen fruitcake unseen from the kitchens. And Purah knew he was the one who had accidentally knocked over one of the princess' experiments, rendering it useless. Even Robbie held on to some secrets of his own, most notably how he'd caught Link staring at the princess' lovely behind. They all knew things about him that could ruin his day.
Only Master Kohga held on to secrets that could ruin his life.
"Hm," Master Impa said, turning away to rifle through a few of her belongings in search of a quill and parchment. "Perhaps. Perhaps not. I have some tasks I prefer to assign to my second. But I will give you a list of names I trust."
Link pretended nonchalance. "As you wish."
"I am pleased," Master Impa said, returning to the table and beginning to scratch at the parchment, "that you returned with this news so quickly." Her red eyes, sharp and perceptive, lifted from the table to meet his. "Although I suspect you did not act out of love for my people."
Link shifted his weight. "I had this feeling." A feeling he couldn't describe aloud even if he tried, a feeling that perhaps he had lost it. The concern had grown from deep within his gut, rising up like steam and filling him with the inexplicable certainty that the princess was in immediate danger and that only he could protect her. And under that absolute knowledge lay a darker layer of terror, a terror primal and deep he didn't recognize and likened to standing upon the edge of precipice and knowing that he would lose his footing, knowing that failure meant a loss too terrible to envision, too painful to acknowledge. "This feeling that I shouldn't have stepped away from her."
Master Impa said nothing, and when Link looked up to find out why, he merely saw a serene expression on her face.
"Good," she said.
Their meeting ended soon after, Link departing with the promise that Master Impa would select her most trustworthy shadows and broach the topic to the king. Link had already determined to ask a few castle knights to join the new Order of the Guard, but not before he could be sure that Squire Groose could be knighted for the purpose.
It took about two days for the rumours to find their way into the barracks and guardhouses. Link knew by the way the older knights, the younger squires and the more experienced guards suddenly began to treat him with more deference. Some even said hello in the hallways, which was a marked change.
Instead of feeding the rumours, Link stayed as stoic as he could. He was still puzzling over how to explain this new development to the princess. She would not be happy. She would most likely balk at the notion of having a full contingent around her.
In fact, she would most likely be very angry with him. That would be unfortunate, because she disliked him enough already.
She had said nothing about the cool safflina, his hasty return to the castle or his obvious exhaustion. In fact, she seemed content to avoid him. When he did find her now, she was in the company of servants or the damned Sheikah bard Misko.
If she noticed the new respect his fellow guardsmen demonstrated, she said nothing of it either. Whenever they did happen to be alone together, or as alone as two persons could be in a castle, she'd pretend he wasn't there as long as she could. It ought to have hurt, but Link found some measure of relief in it. These days every time she spoke, he found his focus shifting to her inexorably, attending to her every movement and word with decidedly embarrassing interest.
It was better, safer, if she ignored him.
And then, one morning, she was gone.
The sleep was still clinging to him when Groose barged into his room to shake him awake. Link actually tumbled out of bed and into the cold, shaking off the remnants of a dream of her that had made him ache with longing he wasn't particularly interested in thinking about, then he collected himself.
"I'm sorry," he said, blinking, as Groose paced back and forth in obvious dismay, a cloud of white steam forming in front of his mouth, "what?"
"She's gone," Groose repeated. A knighting ceremony was being prepared for him, at Link's request, and Groose had utterly changed in his anticipation and gratitude. "Took her horse and some food and warm clothes, and poof."
"Poof?" Link echoed raspily, a rising panic clambering into his gut. Outside, the sky was clear and blue, but that usually meant cold weather.
"She left this," Groose said. "Found it with some stupid bard. He didn't want to leave it to me, on account of wanting to give it to the king himself, so I punched him."
Link ignored the jolt of genuine appreciation for Groose and held out his hand. A letter, never sealed. "How did the bard take it?" Link asked, to distract from the way his fingers shook.
"Nasally," Groose replied.
Link glared up at Groose. "That's not what I meant. Maybe don't hurt the Sheikah next time."
Groose shrugged. "He's arrogant and stuffy. Anyway, he's just a Sheikah."
"We're trying to make friends with them," Link reminded him. "You'll be working alongside them sooner than you think."
Groose shrugged again, and Link turned his attention to the letter in his hands. It was addressed to King Rhoam.
'Father,' it read, 'By the time you read this I will be far away. Lady Urbosa has agreed to host me for the winter. Hopefully, you will see I do not need guards of any description, let alone a full contingent of them.'
"She's heard about the Order of Guards?" Link asked, frowning.
"Yesterday. King Rhoam took credit. They had a fight."
Link wanted to rub his eyes and curl up in bed, go back to sleep. In a way, it was good that King Rhoam had claimed responsibility for the idea. It diverted the anger away from Link himself. On the other hand, now they had a royal runaway to manage.
'They say that summer still clings to Tabantha's highlands and Gerudo's lowlands, and I want to see it with my own eyes. Do not worry about me. I can take care of myself. Love, your thrice-damned daughter.'
"Prepare my horse," Link commanded.
"Not your squire for much longer," Groose grumbled.
"Fine," Link said, "I'll prepare my horse, and you can tell Master Impa that I'll find the princess, and then you can tell the king that she's missing."
"I'll prepare your horse," Groose said, walking out.
By the time Link was out of Hyrule Castle Town, it was mid-morning, and the entire castle was on alert. Many had been scolded, and many more were loudly proclaiming their determination to save the young princess, but Link was already gone.
In another life, perhaps, he would not have felt the same urgency. In another life he might have considered her a fool, a hapless accident waiting to happen. But it was guilt he felt now, guilt that he hadn't seen it coming, that perhaps he had precipitated events by leaving the news of her new guards travel as gossip and rumours before he even broached it with her. Guilt, too, because he had not revealed what had happened on that expedition, and now she was walking out into a dangerous world with full confidence of her safety.
If anything happened to her, Link knew, it would be his fault.
How had she managed, anyway? He wondered as his horse trudged through the white fields. The snow had compacted a little, which meant he progressed faster than in freshly fallen powder, but it was still rather slow going, and he only knew what direction she'd taken because her tracks remained, as evenly spaced as the ones he and his horse were making.
The Yiga could find her like this, Link knew, angry that he'd allowed himself a moment of rest. He shouldn't have left her to her own devices, not even for a moment.
Hours of hard riding in the biting cold eventually led him to the Hyrule Ridge, where winter had arrived but not settled as well as it had in the plains, and over the Tanagar Canyon, where he finally could remove his cloak.
Tanagar seemed to mark a division in the air. A strong, hot wind blew through it, its warmth inexplicable. Across the bridge, Link saw that there were still green grasses blowing, even some late autumn flowers. He followed directions, tracking the princess and her distinctively white horse. Many travelers had seen her, or had at least some recollection of the horse, and all agreed she had been headed west, to the Rayne Highlands south of a winter-locked Tabantha. Soon, though, they warned, the hot seasonal winds of Tanagar would cease to blow, and winter would finally come down from Hebra to trap all of Hyrule into winter. They would not want to be there when the weather turned.
But as far as Link was concerned, the warmth was welcome. There was a chill in the air, to be sure, but even his horse welcomed the respite. The sun's mid-afternoon slant didn't herald any dangerous omens and the grass underfoot had only just begun to turn yellowish.
He was climbing up to the Rayne Highland ruins when he finally saw her horse.