The blindfold came off Link's eyes with a sudden tug, and he blinked in the torch light. As his eyes adjusted, he focused on the room around him. It was plain, a typical Gerudo structure of sandstone and painted glass, and dimly lit because it lacked windows. There was nothing particularly distinctive about its architecture.
But it was significant, Link knew, because he was inside now.
"Is this it?" He asked, glancing over his shoulder at Ruvara. The Gerudo warrior nodded. "Was the blindfold necessary?"
"Wouldn't want you getting a glimpse of the vai," Sapphia said, pushing herself up to sit on a nearby table. She kicked her feet in the air, clearly excited. "We haven't allowed a voe inside the city walls in ages."
In fact, Link had been informed, aeons was more like it. One man had been allowed to slip in, back in the days of the Evil King. But those accounts were scratchings on crumbling parchment now, and many doubted their accuracy.
Nevertheless, Link nodded, turning away. He had made requests, had expected them to be refused again, but they hadn't. He had no idea what had changed.
Except everything, a small voice whispered in the back of his mind. Something like a key in a lock, twisting until he came undone.
He ignored it.
"You asked to see him," Captain Vatorsa said, motioning to a long box that rested on another table.
Link focused on the room's contents. It was a chirurgeon's office, with a whole wall covered in medical instruments that looked ominous at best, and long tables for the sick to lie upon. And it smelled faintly of blood and vinegar.
The box was made of pliant palm wood, dried out in the desert sun, lightweight but sturdy. Bracing himself, he pushed its cover open and peered in.
The Yiga mask lay upon the dead man's chest, harmless now that it was off, and it was splattered with blood. His doing, Link knew. He hadn't seen clearly, had struck in wild rage, had made a single slash that might have cut a row of bamboo stalks in two. In this case, it had ripped a massive deadly tear into the Yiga assailant's flank, like a cleaver, all the way into the liver.
In death, Purlo's face was almost unrecognizable. Gone was the genial humour, the scheming merchant tactics, the excited fawning. In this box, he was just a Yiga, just another dead threat. It was alien, really.
Beside the man, the Yiga sickle shone darkly, unblooded. Castle-forged steel.
Link waited to feel something, but nothing seemed to come. He felt vaguely repulsed with himself. Killing in the line of duty did something to the mind, made one feel… vindicated. But looking into the coffin now, Link could only think one thing: that this was the first man he'd ever killed.
"He waited for me to leave before springing the attack, didn't he?" Link asked impassively as he looked straight into Purlo's unseeing eyes. He was trying desperately to feel something ― remorse, perhaps? Hadn't Purlo been a companion? A would-be friend?
Had he always been a traitor?
"He wasn't the leader," Captain Vatorsa said, "as far as we can tell. But he was assigned to watch you."
Link tried to relive the moment of Purlo's death, struggled to recover the fragments of that particular memory. But all that came to mind with any consistency was Zelda. Zelda, helpless, out of breath, terrified, Zelda closing her eyes against the coming blow, Zelda, Zelda, Zelda―
He would have cut his way through an army of Yiga, Link considered as his hand tightened on the coffin lid. Certainly the force of his cut had contained the rage of a hundred blows, had killed almost instantly, cutting from the gut all the way across to the neck. It had been an ugly death, but Link hadn't cared.
He didn't like the primal violence of his actions, but the dislike was less imposing to his mind than the blind and furious knowledge that he would do it a thousand times again if he had to. He hated how sure he was about it.
Sapphia sighed, drawing him out of his thoughts. "I bet the pool will go up another thousand rupees or so," she said, to Ruvara. "Imagine that."
Before Ruvara could reply, the door inched open and Toruma leaned her head in. "She is coming," she said, to Captain Vatorsa.
"Right," the captain said. "Out." She motioned for Sapphia to descend from the examination table and they left Link alone with the corpse. He tried to calm himself, to school his breathing into a steady pattern.
Chieftain Urbosa walked in.
"Chieftain," Link said, kneeling. He had been warned by Captain Vatorsa that, given the Chieftain's great generosity in smuggling him into her city, the least he could do was show her the proper deference. Especially since they had parted on unpleasant terms.
Urbosa observed him in supercilious silence before her expression cracked and relief showed on her face. "Thank you," she said. Link briefly wondered whether she was thanking him for Zelda's rescue, or for kneeling. She sounded tired, as though every spark of energy had been drained out of her. "I don't know what we would have done without your intervention."
A royal funeral, Link thought darkly as he stood. "What happened?"
"We had a disagreement," the Gerudo Champion said, coming to look down into Purlo's coffin. She wrinkled her nose at the large gash in his chest, but did not comment on it. "By the time I woke the next morning she was gone."
"A disagreement," Link echoed.
"About you," the Chieftain said. "I'm sure you can figure out the essential arguments." She sighed. "I warned her that she would not be visiting any other Sheikah monuments until she agreed to cool down and speak to you calmly. She decided to go with or without my help."
Link snorted, and Urbosa shot him a deadpan look.
"Oh, don't gloat," she warned, "you were hardly better behaved."
"I was the picture of patience for months," Link said. "Months."
"Indeed," Urbosa said dryly. "To think: all the Yiga had to do was wait."
Link sobered up. She was right. He had not lived up to the virtues of a knight. Kindness. Courage. Patience. His father had been tested time and time again too, sometimes coming home in sullen anger and retiring to his silences, but he had never been curt with Link, had never been anything but the perfect image of a knight, as far as Link could tell.
Link's kindness had run out a few months in, his patience had been worn thin by a single teenage girl, and his courage had failed him when he had to muster the humility to return to his post.
Undone by a single girl. The Calamity would make short work of him.
"You think I owe her an apology," he said, pulling the casket's lid closed, if only to avoid looking at Purlo's dead and clammy-looking skin any more.
"I wash my hands of it," Urbosa said. "Do with each other as you wish. I live in a city entirely comprised of vai, and despite that I have yet to encounter a more volatile duo."
Link was sure he ought to feel sheepish. Instead, all he felt was mute discomfort. If he were honest with himself, he would have preferred Urbosa's help to approach the princess once more. All he felt now was mute anxiety, and beneath... a current of vindication.
As though sensing the direction of his thoughts, Chieftain Urbosa retrieved the blindfold and motioned for him to turn around.
"It's time you saw her," she said. "She has requested that you not leave before speaking with her."
Link didn't reply, turning around to let the Gerudo Chieftain cover his eyes. He wondered whether the princess even had to make it a request. She had dismissed him, but she was still the royal heir and the future leader of his entire people. He was in no position to disobey her.
And, if he was honest with himself, he didn't really want to. Perhaps perversely, he wanted to see what would happen. Would she get under his skin again? Would he lose his temper?
He hoped not. He was tired of that. Tired of feeling like he was walking a tightrope. He had saved her life ― would that be enough? Would she forgive his trespasses and atone for her own? It seemed so unlikely. Their relationship, such as it was, felt desperately beyond repair.
Still, Link considered, he had obtained an entry into the city. And she had asked to speak with him. Surely…?
He quashed the niggling hope that threatened to suffuse him. Better to stay detached, he decided as the light vanished beyond his eyelids. Better to prepare for the worst. He always seemed to get it.
"Now follow me, and watch your step," the Chieftain said, taking hold of his sleeve.
He followed her, stumbling, ignoring passing whispers. They did not exit into daylight, he knew, because the brightness would have been unmistakeable even with a blindfold. Instead, he followed along into winding corridors and up a short flight of steps. If the Gerudo were affronted by his presence, blindfolded or not, they were kind not to say so within his hearing range.
The more he walked, the more his steps seemed to fumble. He could feel the seconds ticking by, the beat of his pulse, the rush of blood in his ears. He was getting close to her, he knew, closer by the moment, and he hadn't yet decided what he would say to her. He didn't know how to apologize, but he didn't want to leave.
It was the worst sort of maze.
At last, the Chieftain paused.
"Here we are," she said, softly. "As soon as you hear me close the door behind you, you can remove your blindfold." A beat passed. Then, startling Link, the Gerudo woman took his chin between her thumb and forefinger. She smelled of heat and oils, and her fingers were callused. "Try to forgive her," she said, whispering. "Please." Her hand dropped away, and before Link could reply, she swung open a door and pushed him in.
He stumbled a little, catching himself just in time to hear the door click shut behind him. Slowly, he removed the blindfold, blinking again in the torchlight. Forgive her? His mind reeled. Would that she wanted me to in the first place...
The princess was sitting on a low cushion, dressed in a flowing Gerudo robe. She did not turn to him when he entered.
"Link," she said.
"Princess," he replied, still a little unsteady from the blind walk. Then, remembering his manners, he bent to kneel.
"Don't," she said, turning to look at him.
Pausing in a half-hunch, Link glanced up at her in confusion. "Huh?"
She pushed herself to her feet. Her knees were bruised, he saw through the veil of her skirts, and her elbows and hands too. A part of him, deep within, that he ignored, growled possessively at the sight. But in this moment, with the half light and flowing robes, the golden sheen of her hair, she looked like a lesser deity, proud and resolute, and Link felt like a fumbling fool, uncertain, dirtied by the death of a man.
"Do not kneel before me," she said.
Link straightened, suddenly uncomfortable.
"Be silent," she said. Then, she took a shaky breath. "Please."
Link pressed his lips together, confused. She always insisted on protocol. She hated when he ignored it. And now that he was trying to make that one concession, she was refusing it. Could their conversation, such as it were, already be taking such a terrible turn? He'd hardly said a thing.
Just as Link was dealing with his mental scramble, the princess seemed to war with herself. She opened and closed her mouth and inhaled to speak but said no words.
Finally, her composure melted, and she looked like a girl again, pretty and approachable and vulnerable, which did not make him feel much better. "I have a lot to say," she finally blurted. "And I fear it may not all come out quite as I intended. I would appreciate if you let me say my piece first."
Link wanted to argue, but he owed her a moment of speech at least. He nodded, placing his hands behind his back, standing at ease.
When she was sure she had his attention, she clasped her hands together. She was nervous, but when the words came out, they were steady enough.
"Thank you," she said. "For saving my life. And…" She inhaled deeply, wringing her hands, "I'm sorry."
Link waited, but she seemed to be tongue-tied. Finally, when he wasn't sure she was going to say anything more, he risked a gentle, "Is… Is that it?"
She seemed puzzled, the expression drawing her brows together. He had always liked the little crease that formed there. "I… Yes. I think. I…" She exhaled with a nervous little laugh. "It felt much bigger when it was in my head."
The admission caught Link by surprise, and he felt a twitch in his lips, a quirk that wanted to become a smile. Was she kidding? Had she meant to sound so… sincere?
Despite his best efforts, despite the warning of his logic, the vise that had seemed to crush his chest for months relaxed, ever so slightly. He found himself smiling at her in what he hoped was encouragement. He could handle this awkward girl. He could even learn to like her. He might one day hope to befriend her, if she stayed long enough.
Noticing his reaction, the princess managed a sheepish little smile, and a weak chuckle bubbled out of Link.
"You're laughing at me," she said, smiling despite her accusation.
"I…" Link shook his head. "I don't mean to. It's just…" He outstretched his hand in a vague motion, eventually dropping it back to his side helplessly, "I've been trying to work up the courage to say the same thing, and I agree, it's just… it feels…"
"Insurmountable," the princess said, solemnly.
"Impossible," Link agreed.
"Completely unthinkable," she continued.
"Absolutely unjustified," Link nodded, trying not to smile.
She chewed on the inside of her cheek, looking every bit like an ordinary girl instead of the future queen of the land. "I cannot blame you for feeling that way," she said. "I was too focused on my own indignation to think of what I was doing to you. Urbosa and I… We fought about it. She said I was ruining your life and reputation."
That much was true, Link considered. But he had been too proud to acknowledge it, too proud to keep from insulting her when the chance had come. He had dived headlong into his own dismissal, really. No patience, kindness or courage from him. If anything, as they stood before one another now, in this windowless room so far from home, he felt as though they had been stripped of everything, diminished down to their essential selves.
His essential self felt guilt and shame, and longed for friendship, longed for peace. He had done nothing to achieve it.
She was still speaking. "I was blinded by my…" She curled up her fingers into fists, then released. "I know you are right, that I am completely powerless, and that I should have no right to be angry with you because you are ready when I am not."
"I shouldn't have said the things I said," Link blurted out, almost desperately, before she could slip back to unfriendly waters.
He could make this right. They were both trying to make this right, he knew. He just knew it. It was in the way she wrung her fingers together, the way she looked concerned, shy, unsteady. He knew those things, because he felt them himself. He had to seize this chance―
He took a step forward, bowing his head. "I was out of line," he said, to precede her.
The relief of his admission showed on her face, and she said, with the same uncomfortable honesty, "I shouldn't have dismissed you for any of it. Impa keeps admonishing that I should be the very picture of grace, wisdom and generosity."
Kindness, courage, patience. Link wanted to reach out and squeeze her hand. "I haven't lived up to Impa's standards either," he said, and rejoiced when he saw the little quirk of her lips. Instead of touching her, because that would require crossing the room and feeling the way her hand would fit in his, he cleared his throat and added, firmly, "If I could take it all back, I would."
"As would I," she vowed.
They were silent a moment, and Link finally ventured, "Perhaps a truce?"
She shook her head. "No," she said, and Link deflated, his hopes crushed. "That will not suffice."
"Suffice?" Link echoed, weakly.
She approached him, and for a moment Link saw a glimpse of the Queen she would be someday, if destiny was kind, a regal sort of decisiveness that straightened her spine and gave her cheeks a flush of passion. "I want to start anew," she said.
She was looking up at him, and Link was suddenly painfully aware of their isolation, of how easy it would be to slide his fingers through her hair.
Strange, how that worked. Yesterday he had been sure she was the vilest creature alive. Yesterday he had been certain all past signs of kindness on her part had been imagined.
"I was ready to die," she said, and her voice was soft. Her eyes looked like emeralds in the torchlight, and her lips were petal pink, but the words that came out of them made Link's gut clench. "I fell into the dust," she said, and he noticed her hands go to her elbows, rubbing at the bruises there absently, "and I thought perhaps it was for the best."
She had seemed terrified, Link thought. He hadn't seen that resolution in her at all. But she seemed earnest now, and he was afraid to believe her.
"As I waited for the Yiga to close in, all the things I had failed to do raced through my mind," she explained, and now her hand moved from her bruises to his arm, and her brow quirked in remembered agony. "I thought of all the things I had said and done, and the sum total of those actions led me to nothing at all." Various expressions came upon her as the memory replayed in her mind. "I was so sure you were long gone. It never occurred to me you could save me. Or even that you would, after all." Her lip trembled, but her eyes were far away, and Link held his breath as her fingers traced his arm, his chest. Then, her voice cracked: "But Gods, I still wanted you at my side with such… such…" Her fingers closed on the fabric of his tunic, and her eyes refocused on him. They were bright, wild, beautiful, and she was whispering now, as though possessed of some fierce determination. "I begged the Goddess for help, and suddenly, you were there."
Link hadn't heard the call of any gods. All he'd heard was the pounding of his heart. His vision had gone red, his entire focus shifting to murder. There had been nothing holy or righteous about it. The primal call in his gut had been voiceless, something that came from deeper, something that growled and ran with wolves, that shouted a single concept: mine. She is mine. None shall touch her.
He couldn't bring himself to say any of it. He hadn't mentioned it to Chieftain Urbosa, nor to any of the others. He had buried it deep within himself, where it belonged, and pretended that his knightly duties were the sole reason for his intervention.
In truth, the violence of that remembered feeling worried him.
"I shouldn't have left," he finally said. She was still clinging to him, and by seas, skies, stones and sands he wasn't going to stop her. "And I should have been… better."
She scoffed, releasing him, and she took a few steps away. "Don't be ridiculous. I gravely misused you," she admitted. "I rejoiced in your frustration, celebrated your isolation. I was so sure you deserved it. I made such rational contortions to convince myself… I thought…" She frowned, and she crossed her arms over herself, bracing. "I thought you already hated me."
Link felt his brows draw together. He hated seeing her like this, vulnerable and small, where he was concerned. "Why?"
"Because I would," she said, simply, with a bitter laugh. "And why wouldn't you? You fulfilled your destiny without a hitch, and I can't seem to get it right, though I've been trying for years." She exhaled, and her arms fell away from her chest in an exasperated swing. "It was so easy to hate you," she said, once again so akin to an ordinary girl that Link couldn't help the way the corners of his lips pulled upwards. "You were so damned perfect."
"Perfect?" He echoed, and his brow raised in amusement. He opened his mouth to continue, but she narrowed her eyes at him.
"Don't start," she warned him, lifting a finger. "It is infuriating."
"I shall endeavour to be a greater failure," Link said, as soberly as he could. "Your highness."
"Oh, you are insufferable," she groaned, but she said it with an unmistakable hint of fondness that made Link feel like she didn't really mean it. "Now, as I said, I would much rather begin anew. I wish I could just… erase all of it, everything I've done. Pretend it never happened."
She seemed sad, all of a sudden, forlorn. No, he wanted to say, don't look sad. We were doing so well!
"I am very... forgetful," he said. Hopefully. Desperately.
"Well," she said, "I am not. Which, while terribly irritating for me, is fortunate for you, because it means I shall have to learn from my mistakes." She straightened, bringing her hands together primly, regally. "Sir Link."
"Princess," Link said, preparing to kneel.
"No, no, no," she said, with great annoyance, "don't kneel. I told you not to kneel. You saved my life. Now stop interrupting."
She was bullying him, Link knew. And for the first time, it didn't feel cruel. In fact, he tried not to give her a cheeky grin. He didn't want it to end. He wanted to see her like this, alive, vivacious, decisive, until the end of time. In fact, he hoped he would. He hoped he'd stay at her side to see it all, forever.
He swallowed hard as that fleeting thought sank in. His smile wilted. Stay at her side forever? Oh. That…
That hope was probably not good. Not good at all.
"I was going to say," she continued, apparently oblivious to the terrifying realization that was coming over him, "that I know I dismissed you. And I do not think I am worthy of your service. So I will not be taking you back."
Link frowned, pulled back to the moment. "What? Why?"
A hundred questions flew through his mind. Had he not made a sufficient apology? What was he going to do? He was so sure they were finally putting their fights behind them―
"I want to deserve it," she said, breaking through the haze of confusion. The way she looked at him then made him feel warm. The heat suffused his entire face, and he could feel it course through his body, all the way to his fingers and toes.
When she looked at him that way, when she said things like that...
I am lost, Link realized, with a sinking feeling. She will devour all that I am, and not even know it.
"I want you to swear your oath to me again, someday," she said. "But it will be on your terms, and only when you deem that I have earned it." Her lovely face broke into a sheepish smile. "Although I would appreciate your protection until then."
"You have it," Link said, hoarsely. Was there any point in pretending otherwise?
She looked delighted. "Right," she said clearly relieved, clapping her hands together, like a girl instead of a queen. "Thank you!"
She looked attainable, Link reflected. Real. Possible. At his side, his disobedient fingers twitched in temptation.
But she wasn't paying attention to any of that. She was talking to herself again, evidently pleased with their agreement. "...that way no one in Hyrule Castle needs to know," she concluded, once Link refocused. Decisively, she added, "It will be our secret."
The cautious relief he felt was like wine, suffusing his body with a terrible mix of relief and worried anticipation. This was new territory. The pitfalls ahead would be difficult to predict. He was a fool to be so happy about it.
It was masterful, Link knew. In one simple request she had secured his service, his respect and his long-term commitment again. In so doing, she had also protected his reputation from judgement, while ensuring he would have no choice but to follow along, if he cared for his reputation at all.
She would be a fearsome queen, one day.
As the princess brushed past him to call out to Champion Urbosa, sending a warm shiver down his spine, Link wondered whether he had what it took to survive a friendship with her without needing more.
Judging by the way his heart was still racing from her smile and the way his skin tingled through his clothes where she had touched him, he probably didn't. In fact, the Calamity might prove easier.
Great, Link concluded to himself with giddy irritation.