Captain Vatorsa found Link in the setting sun, by the awning of his tent, skewering a desert rat.
A mere fifty paces away, the tall, smooth sandstone walls of Gerudo Town rose in the waning sunlight, white and bright, offset by a veritable rainbow of tents and pavilions planted in the sand all around it. The Forbidden City was closed to men, but this did not prevent commerce with all merchants from flourishing outside of its walls, under watch and authority of the Gerudo Guard.
It was in this secondary city of tents that Link had managed to find accommodation. It was a miserable abode, though, and not nearly so comfortable as the inn in Kara Kara Bazaar would have been, but it couldn't be helped. He had a point to make.
"Sav'aaq," the Gerudo captain said, leaning against one of the nearby tentpoles.
Link grunted in greeting. His skewer had hit bone and was being difficult.
"I was wondering what you ate out here," Vatorsa said. She saluted a passing Gerudo guard with a quick, absent nod. "Now I know."
"I caught it myself," Link said, giving a quick shove and finally piercing the rat's behind with his metal skewer. "Vendor Purlo says it's a rare delicacy."
Vatorsa snorted. "Hm, I know Purlo. He keeps trying to sell me pyrite by telling me it's gold."
Link glanced up from his work and squinted at the captain. "So the man doesn't know his minerals. He might still have working taste buds."
Vatorsa laughed, a throaty sound that had the ability to make men's heads turn. The Gerudo had those to spare. "Fair enough," she said, giving up. "I've been sent to ask again." She looked irritated. Link had it on good authority that she was eager to get back to the Gerudo Highlands and away from town business.
Link ignored that, poking at his cookfire. "I'm hesitating on the spices. Spicy? Chilly? Mighty?" He waggled his brows. "Sneaky?"
The captain rolled her eyes. "No, sneaky isn't your forte."
Link scowled. So what if he'd been caught eight times already trying to sneak into town? Judging by the extreme attentiveness of the guards, trying to sneak in was one of the city's main attractions. It was almost tradition for men to try. "Fine," he said, grabbing a pinch of salt and Eldin herbs, "Spicy it is."
"It's really impressive to me," Vatorsa continued, clearly uninterested by his selection, "how easily you waste conversation." She mused, looking up at the cloudless sky with a pout. "The princess complains that when you talk, you don't speak your mind."
Link tried not to jump at the bait. So what if he wanted news of the princess? He wasn't going to give her the satisfaction. No doubt Captain Vatorsa reported his every word back to Chieftain Urbosa, and the princess by extension.
"It's not my fault," Link said, finally sitting back and looking up at her. His rat was beginning to cook on the fire. "I hate repeating myself."
The Gerudo snorted. "Is that it? So I take it your answer remains the same: you will not return to Kara Kara, let alone Hyrule proper."
Link gave her a perfunctory smile.
"Sands," the captain said, with disgust, "you're as stubborn as she is." He wasn't sure, but he thought this amused her.
"She could come out to ask for herself, you know," Link said.
Vatorsa shut her eyes, as though mustering her patience. "So I should ask her to do that, then? Again?"
Link shrugged. "Or you could let me into town."
"I'll ask her again," the captain said. "In the meantime, I have been asked to find out whether there is anything else you need, aside from the key to the city?"
"Nope," Link replied, turning the skewer and checking the state of his rat. "All good."
Captain Vatorsa observed him for a moment, concluded there was nothing more to say, then turned on her heel and walked away, greeting one of the guards as she went. He let her go.
Around him, the other men watched him with open, avid curiosity.
Link tried not to pay attention to the stares, poking at his skewer to make sure the cooking was progressing well. This was becoming habit, the messengers, the status quo, the looks.
Eighteen days he'd spent outside the walls, grateful that winter made the desert's heat bearable. The nights, he could handle with blankets and a fire. The weather was tolerable. It was the wait that was slowly draining his patience, like the slowest of tortures, tugging at his sanity, plucking at it one strand at a time, until he felt frayed and irritable.
By the second day, the visit of the Chieftain's messenger to his modest abode had sparked interest among the men of the camp. By the third, he had the attention of all the women in the city, too. No other commoner ― all men were commoners in the desert, titled or no ― commanded such regular attention from the Chieftain. Some of the men in the camp had sworn they had never seen her. Some claimed they had waited on a private audience for months.
Yet Link had her ear every day, without fail, because of the princess.
As far as Link was concerned, the entire ordeal would have been easy to avoid if Chieftain Urbosa had simply allowed him into the city.
"Is she gone?"
Link looked up. Vendor Purlo was carrying an armful of display boxes, evidently distraught.
"You just missed her," Link replied.
The handsome vendor let out a gargle of frustration. "Every time. It's like she has a sixth sense for avoiding me."
Vendor Purlo, Link had quickly concluded, was desperately courting Captain Vatorsa's coin purse.
"Is that pyrite?" Link asked, with mild interest.
The vendor looked indignant. "It's gold," he insisted. "Gold, damn it."
"I'll buy a piece," Link said, reaching into his pocket. "Twenty rupees?"
"You don't have to," Vendor Purlo said, defeated, putting his cases down anyway and pulling out his shiniest piece of pyrite. "It's the Gerudo who are missing out on a golden opportunity." He grinned at his joke, looking at Link expectantly.
Link handed over a red rupee. "Hah," he said, to avoid confrontation.
"I don't understand," Vendor Purlo commented, handing over Link's purchase and pocketing Link's twenty rupees before the knight could change his mind. "If you're the princess' appointed knight, why does the princess hate you?"
Link shrugged, if only to ignore the stab of annoyance ― or pain, whichever― that inevitably cut to the quick. Vendor Purlo was friendly, but he had a knack for choosing the worst possible topics of conversation.
"And if she hates you, why are you so loyal to her?" The young merchant leaned forward, smiling slyly. "Because the men have been talking. There are women coming out of that city at night just to talk to you."
Link shifted uncomfortably, watching the fat dribble off his rat and sizzle in the fire. He didn't like to talk about it.
"It makes no sense, being loyal to her," Vendor Purlo concluded, decisively.
Link ignored that. His general silence never seemed to deter the merchant. Good for him.
"Do you think they'll be back tonight?" Purlo asked, changing topics.
Link shrugged. "I don't know."
About four days in, Sapphia had found him and introduced him to some of her young Gerudo friends. And then the word had spread: a knight of Hyrule, young and handsome, with some hunting skill, was camping outside the city.
Since then, the Gerudo women had made a point of coming out of the city every evening to attempt conversation. Some were awkward, many charming, others forward, and most of them came with friends, turning the nightly visits into improvised celebrations for the men of the camp.
Link, for his part, had discovered that repeatedly saying no to women, especially women whose survival depended on advantageous matches, was a lot more exhausting than he had expected. The Gerudo were determined and they were not used to being denied. Sapphia had assured him that he was considered a catch, but this had not seemed like a blessing to Link.
He was certainly building a reputation as fearsome as the princess', a reputation of stubbornness and determination that made the Gerudo wild and most merchants keep at a distance. The savvy ones, at least. The younger ones, like Purlo, were less clever about it, eager to discover why Link's general silence and obvious lack of interest were so damned magnetic, with a hope to coast on Link's popularity with the fairer sex.
Frustratingly, it seemed that most of the city emptied to visit him in the evenings, but the only woman he actually wanted to speak to never deigned to speak to him directly.
"Gods, if I were in your shoes," Purlo continued, wistfully, "I would have given up. Have you thought about giving up?" He snorted in disbelief. "I mean, if a woman doesn't want me, it's time to move on, you know?" He spotted Sapphia and her friends approaching. They were already giggling with good humour, clearly in high spirits. "Oh," he said, licking his lips with nervous excitement, "here they come."
The sun had just set behind the Gerudo Highlands, the sky orange and the air a greenish haze that felt muggy, and to the distant east a scattering of stars was blinking to life.
What did Zelda and Urbosa talk about, in the evening, when she retreated to the city with her Champion and left him outside? Did the princess pace and complain? Did she attempt to preserve her dignity and command by never mentioning him?
He had tried to accompany her during her daily expeditions, but had been utterly superfluous, and the derision of his uselessness had shown in the eyes of the Gerudo guards that followed the princess as she explored. He had tried to follow his princess through the sands too, watching her make notes about the rare flora of the region, observing her efforts with the ancient Sheikah structures that dotted the area, climbed Vah Naboris behind her, and he had ignored the squeeze of his gut every time she glared his way. When she did speak to him, it was to berate him, her anger growing with every day that he did not leave.
After a single week, the arguments of the princess and her knight were discussed in whispers over cook fires and ice-cold drinks, their daily tribulations as exciting to observe as a sand seal race. Speculation abounded on the reasons Link had yet to leave. The older women thought it was stupidity, but the younger thought it was romantic.
In the end, he had decided to leave his duties to Urbosa. Of the four Champions, he knew she was the most capable of protecting the princess. The distance was driving him insane, though. He'd wake in the morning from nightmares of unseeing eyes peering up at him from a well, certain that he was leaving his princess to the wolves, and it always took him several minutes to control his urge to join her again. Pride and worry warred in his conscience, a whirlwind of torment, frustrating because he was trying so hard not to feel either. He clung desperately to his oaths and duty, pretending that his concern was nothing else.
Did Zelda feel none of it? Did she sleep soundly, in those luxurious Gerudo halls? Did she not toss and turn, lying awake, sleep elusive, wondering about him?
"Sav'saaba," Sapphia greeted, smiling at the young men that began to gather round. Her eyes fell on Link, though. "We just saw Captain Vatorsa. She didn't look very happy."
"Even a prickly cactus has a soft centre," young Aveil said, snorting. "It must be wearing her down, this constant back and forth." She knelt in the sand next to Link, who was stubbornly focused on his skewered rat, and ran her finger up his arm teasingly. "If one of you were to bend, finally, I bet that would make a lot of people happy."
Link let her tease him because shrugging her off would be rude, but also because he had learned that any reaction was considered encouragement.
As far as he was concerned, night was his time to dodge advances. Many of the Gerudo had made a mission of distracting Link from his unrelenting duty, but no woman had earned herself the pleasure of his intimate company yet.
Link, for his part, wasn't sure why he resisted. His oaths to the princess had nothing to do with love. Only duty. He tried to ignore the longing within, the strange pull he felt to make her laugh by the fire, the urge to fight, the urge to apologize.
Around him, the men were bringing out their meals and the Gerudo shared their own fare, a mix of vegetable and hearty soups, glazed meats and vegetables, fried bananas and crepes, washed down with various specialty alcohols. But Link refused to partake to excess. He kept busy by hunting what he could, and he wasn't going to waste any of it.
"I hear someone told her about these," Sapphia said, motioning to the cheerful gathering around them. Link tried not to listen, but couldn't help himself. "And when she heard about the wager―"
"Ah, don't," Aveil said, shooting the men around them a nervous look.
"Wager?" Vendor Purlo asked, between gluttonous mouthfuls of food. "What wager?"
"There is a wager in town," pretty Yarna said, draping herself on Link's shoulder lazily, her heart-shaped lips brushing against his ear as she leaned in, teasingly, "that whichever one of us gets Sir Link first wins the pot." She turned to Sapphia, who was rolling her eyes, and asked, "How much money is there now?"
"Three thousand―" Aveil thought aloud, "Um, eight hundred…? I lost track of the rest."
"It's not just about the money," young Sapphia said, leaning in, as though to reassure Link, though Link was very carefully not reacting to the Gerudo on either side of him. She looked concerned for his feelings, which was a kind sentiment. "The truth is that you're a good party for any Gerudo worth her glass, and it was just done in good fun."
The men in the assembly bore expressions that went from utter dejection to mirthful amusement. Amidst scattered chuckles, one of them managed a frustrated 'Ah, that's just not fair'.
Link was inclined to agree. He had heard about it a week earlier, blurted out by a young Gerudo under the influence of wine, and it still made him profoundly uncomfortable.
He removed his skewer from the cooking fire, which shook off both Aveil and Yarna, "Again, I'm flattered, but you could all do much better."
Vendor Purlo looked disgusted as he chewed on a fried banana. "Such a waste." Most of the men around him agreed solemnly. He motioned to his cases of pyrite. "He's just a knight. I sell the finest quality nuggets of gold―" This earned him a few heartfelt chuckles from the Gerudo, which he ignored, "―but does any beautiful woman throw herself at me? No."
"Oh, don't be jealous," Yarna said, extending a slim brown leg to poke Purlo with a painted toe, her golden anklets tinkling and shining in the fading light, "I'm sure you'll find your one true love."
"It's not true love I'm looking for," Purlo said, flirtatiously, as he threatened to tickle the Gerudo's foot. She recoiled, giggling, wrapping herself around Link's arm with feigned innocence.
Link was getting really good at reading the genuine from the fake. Yarna was one of his most determined admirers, and the light of greed mixed with what was possibly genuine lust in her eyes. He was especially wary about her. She was relentless.
Aveil, for her part, seemed less motivated by money and more by pride, having already attempted to slip into his tent once. He had politely refused and she had taken this rejection with grace, but Link had been careful not to give her any sign of encouragement, lest she try again.
Sapphia had a more delicate approach, and Link found it especially difficult to turn her down― she liked him genuinely, it seemed, with the naïve hope that seemed to live in young girls everywhere. She was young, though, and he had reminded her of this often, explaining that she would get over it soon.
Even Ruvara had casually offered herself, but only once, and she had taken his refusal with good humour, explaining that, with the money at stake, it would be foolish not to try.
Most of the others had adopted this approach, it seemed, asking without much expectation, and taking their rejection with raised glasses and good-natured laughter. Those, at least, Link could deal with relatively comfortably.
"Anyway," Sapphia continued, for the benefit of Birida, a quiet warsister who sat next to her, "apparently the princess wasn't happy."
Yarna burst out laughing, and Link felt her squeeze his arm into her breast. Not to be outdone, Aveil scooted in closer, and soon he was stuck between them again, trying to eat his roasted rat as cleanly as he could.
"Now that is the day's greatest understatement," said Yarna in her throaty voice. "She picked up one of the Chieftain's vases and threw it at the wall! I know, because I was the one who had to clean it all up." She smiled at Link. "I suppose it's not enough to treat you poorly, she also wants you to be miserable. You should show her." She said this from below her lashes, in that universal way that implied… Well, everything.
He clearly wasn't the only one bothered by this. "Could you be any more transparent?" Birida asked, rolling her eyes. "I think he knows you're interested."
"I don't think he does," Aveil said, sarcastically, reaching for a spoonful of glazed vegetables. "I think you should take your clothes off."
The men agreed with this loudly, but Link raised his hand to politely speak against that suggestion. Yarna, though, had taken Aveil's challenge to heart, and she pushed herself to her knees. "Well, it's not like I have anything to be ashamed of," she said, venomously, and she reached for a clasp at her shoulder.
It was at that exact moment that Princess Zelda, daughter of King Rhoam Bosphoramus, heir to the kingdom of Hyrule, walked into the circle of firelight.
The clamour of jeering and cheering died off almost instantly, matching the sudden dread that suffused Link.
The princess eyed him, then Yarna's attempt at disrobing to his left, and Aveil, who was trying to meld into his right side, and the avid gazes of the others ― Sapphia, Birida, and several of those whose names he had not learned.
The Gerudo were pretty, Link knew. Objectively, they were each attractive in their own way, and here in the dusk and the glow of the cookfire, they seemed perfectly at home, brown and tanned, red and gold. Next to them, the princess seemed pale, a spattering of freckles and a modest Gerudo silk dress lending her an almost girlish look completely removed from the heat and sensuality the women around her exuded.
Link knew this. And yet he drank in the sight of her as a parched man plunges into a well. He hadn't seen her in almost two weeks. It made his heart clench painfully in his chest, a heady madness that seemed to overtake his senses. Everything about her was perfect, from the careful styling of her hair to the bare sliver of midriff her dress exposed, and even the curled shoes she had been gifted.
"Sir Link," she finally said.
He pushed himself to his feet, disentangling himself from both Aveil and Yarna, moved as though his body was not his own. She spoke, and he obeyed. It was― It was―
Like a starving man whose stomach aches from a new meal, the relief of seeing her came with a sudden spike of frustration. At first Link wasn't sure what it was that suffused him. It felt cold, yet it left a trail in its wake that was restless and burning.
She stepped away, and he followed through the crowd, aware of every silent stare, conscious of the open curiosity that he and his princess evoked. The more he walked, his feet digging into the sand, the more he felt the cold spread, igniting something inside of him that was almost savage, something that felt like cold fury.
He felt the warmth of his fire fade, replaced with the hard chill of the desert's night. Her back was exposed, and in the half-light of dusk he saw a shiver run from the bottom of her spine to her nape. If she stayed out long, she'd get sick. From talking to him.
He was angry, he realized. Stupidly angry.
His anger actually surprised him a little. He hadn't noticed it rising, bubbling over. He hadn't allowed himself to acknowledge it. Blinking expressionlessly, he knew every passive moment, every silence of his mind since leaving Hyrule Castle, had been a desperate bid to keep calm.
In truth, he realized now, the anger had been building inside him the whole time. It had given him the determination to sleep in the desert cold on a terribly thin mat in a tent. It had made him want to scale the city walls. It made him dream of shaking his princess, shaking her until she came to her senses.
It made him want to reach out and touch her― gods, he could almost feel it under the pads of his fingers. They twitched, and he curled them into fists to avoid following his mind down that path.
He tried to unclench his jaw, to no avail. The princess seemed oblivious to this. Instead, she stood up straight, and Link ignored the dip of her navel and the lines of her waist, barely hinted under the thin fabric of her dress.
"Why are you still here, Link?" She asked.
It was on the tip of his tongue to be crude. It would have been easy to remind her that she had led him here, to a land of women, to a land where he was considered a catch. But the words stayed in his throat.
Realizing that he wasn't going to reply, her eyes darted to the distant firelight, to the gathering that had remained quiet since his departure, as though her presence had stolen all the good cheer out of the crowd. Perhaps he didn't have to say it. She seemed to conclude the same thing.
She shook her head. "Well, it seems no one has claimed the pot yet. You haven't chosen any of them." Then, coolly, she said, "I'd pick Sapphia. At least she actually likes you."
Link managed to loosen his jaw. "She's a good person."
The princess' green eyes narrowed. "And I'm not?"
Link shifted his weight as a cold finger of rage curled up inside his stomach. Well, she had asked. "I was unaware you were among my options."
It was impudent. He knew it. She knew it. And she tensed, the implication so brazen she was actually shocked into speechlessness for a moment. But she recovered and hissed, "Now I see it."
"See what?" The words came out calmly, but Link was already beginning to lose any sense of control.
"You are here," she said, stepping forward, "because you are trying to make my life difficult." She was flushed, the righteous indignation making her voice rise an octave.
Something inside Link snapped.
"Difficult?" He echoed, quietly.
She let out a frustrated sound, her eyes rising to the starry heavens. "I have given you orders on multiple occasions. I told you to go home. I commanded you to go home. I am safe here, and you've admitted it." She motioned to the high walls of Gerudo Town. "I have a tribe of warriors and the Gerudo Champion to keep watch on me. The only reason you are still here," she said, and her eyes flickered over to the fire, and the women that sat by it, and she hesitated, "... is―is that you are stubborn."
Link was drifting now. It took every ounce of his self-control to bite out, "I am doing my duty."
"Your duty," she repeated, scoffing. "Oh, that is rich."
She gasped. "Princess," she corrected him with a hiss. "Do not forget who I am."
How could he? Within him, Link felt a war brewing, a battle for the supremacy of his attention, a war between anger and want, of blood boiling intensity, a loss of control, a failure of sanity.
"Who you are?" Link said, and he heard himself almost snarl.
He saw her eyes flicker to the Master Sword, and he knew she knew what he meant, what he was going to say.
Her eyes widened, and she took an instinctive step backward. "Link. Don't."
"Sir Link," he corrected, stepping forward to close the distance once again. "Your Grace."
"Highness," she said, but her breathing was shallow. "My title―"
"Your Grace," Link insisted, heedless, his voice still rising, inching forward. "Daughter of Din."
"Stop," she said, her voice trembling. "Stop it."
"Daughter of Farore," Link said, the venom in his voice too intoxicating for him to stop. "Daughter of Nayru."
She was speechless, eyes bright, and in the back of Link's mind a distant voice echoed, as from within, as from a dream, that begged him to stop. But he couldn't. He felt the keen unfairness like an open wound in his soul. He felt the void within, the incompleteness, and he wanted her to feel it too, just once.
So he leaned in, and forged onward. "Beloved Hylia."
He expected a slap.
It would have been deserved. He had certainly chased after one.
Instead, her fingers reached out, touched his chest. It stopped his very breath. She ran her hand over the strap of the Master Sword, her expression hard, angry. Her eyes were bright, and they landed on the sword's pommel over his shoulder.
"Damn you," she said, her voice hoarse. Link's stomach clenched, the pain sharp. Then, she turned to look directly into his eyes, and he saw she was on the verge of tears. "Do you think you're clever? Do you think I could forget my own failings?"
She ran her hand down his chest along the line of the strap. Now she was looking up at him, so close he could have embraced her… or kissed her. Yet when she peered up at him that way, it seemed the whole world stood between them.
"You can stay," she said, stepping back. "Or you can go. Have all the women you want. Be Sir Link, Hylian Champion. Bask in your glory. I don't care anymore."
She turned to go. Link hesitated. Was that it? Had he won?
Had he lost?
Foolishly, he called out to her: "Alright, then. You can stop sending Captain Vatorsa as messenger. She hates it."
She stiffened, but didn't turn.
"And―" He grappled for words, "and don't expect me to take any of your anger anymore. I swore to protect you, not to handle your tantrums." It sounded petulant to his ears, and he didn't doubt it was. But he was so tired...
She said it lightly, as though she was finally free of concern. It made him uneasy. He had expected fury, violence, a storm of fists.
But when she inhaled deeply, he saw nothing in her eyes. Her expression was carefully neutral now, distant. And before Link could think of anything to say that would be a fitting apology, she turned on her heel and left.
The Gerudo guards at the gate let her through, and he was left alone in the growing cold.
The silence that followed stretched on for a long time. Link could feel a hundred eyes upon him. He was growing familiar with the staring.
But in that moment, all he wanted to do was scream at them to let him be.
The party dispersed rather quickly after this, his mood too stormy for good humour or flirtation. Sleep came fitfully, his dreams turning to nightmares, his waking moments filled with loathing for himself and for his circumstances.
Pathetically, what bothered him the most was that if she had stopped caring then, it meant she had cared before. And he had squandered it. Could anything have been nurtured? Could anything have grown?
The following evening, for once, the Gerudo women gave him a wider berth. Link didn't doubt they would be back at it soon, but he was grateful for the respite anyway.
Vendor Purlo, though, had not been gracious enough do the same.
"Are you sure you don't want to walk away?" He asked.
Link had obviously considered it, especially in the long hours of the night before. It was probably the right thing to do. Purlo had belabored the point almost every day since his arrival, and it was beginning to make sense.
"I can't," Link replied, clinging to his oath, but he was less sure now than he had been yesterday, and Purlo clapped his shoulder sympathetically.
"Women," he said, eloquently. "Troublesome creatures."
Link couldn't bring himself to respond. It seemed to him that the real troublemaker was the thumping thing inside his own chest; it made him do things, say things, that could only lead to misfortune.
In the fire before him, a twig snapped with a sharp crack, and a little volute of embers fluttered up.
Vendor Purlo was about to speak when Captain Vatorsa stepped into the circle of firelight. Link looked up, half-heartedly. He had assumed Zelda, in her new detachment, would have stopped sending any messengers through Urbosa to request his departure, and somehow, that prospect had not made him feel any better.
But Vatorsa had not come on behalf of the princess. She bore the seal of the Gerudo instead of Hylia.
"Chieftain Urbosa sends for you. She waits in Vah Naboris. Follow me."
Vendor Purlo sputtered. "What? At this hour?" He scoffed, looking to Link for agreement. "What did I say, huh? Women." This earned him a glare from Captain Vatorsa that he didn't notice.
But Link was already pushing himself to his feet.
"Come on, now," Vendor Purlo said, in his most reasonable tone. He motioned to the platter he was preparing. "I was just about to grill some of my very finest bananas. Stay, friend."
Link observed the hungry gaze of his companion of misfortune, feeling an inkling of discomfort. "Enjoy your meal."
Clearly aware that he was defeated, Vendor Purlo shrugged, shooting him a bit of a scowl. "Suit yourself. More for me."
And Link, unable to explain why he felt any sort of relief, trudged after the Gerudo captain, following her into the sands of the desert.
"Ah… Well you certainly got here fast…"