"Merry Farore's Day!"
The pillow was whipped into Link's face, startling him into indignant consciousness. He flailed, but the pillow lifted once more and struck him again rather hard, then again and again. The attacks did not let up, so Link gave up until the pillow finally landed on his face and settled there. When he was fairly sure the attacks had ceased, he lifted it off and blinked blearily up at Groose, whose face was screwed up in a desperate bid not to break into a childish grin.
"They say becoming a knight makes men of boys," Link grumbled.
"They're wrong," Groose said, giddily. "It's Farore's Day! Get up, the snowball fight is about to begin and we have to get there before the squires' stashes get too large to defeat."
Link groaned, turning over. "No," he mumbled. "M'not." It didn't matter that so many courtiers, squires, knights and other folk had massed at the Castle, after days of trudging through the snow, just for the midwinter celebration. They could begin their day without Link.
"Where is your feast spirit?" Groose insisted, pulling at Link's blankets. He had been growing antsy in the absence of his usual number of friends, and had been looking forward to the feast for a whole week. "We have to show those squires that knights can still aim! I have a few knights to fight with us, and I know I'll convince a few of the Sheikah guards to tag along too."
Link squinted at him, peering over his shoulder, though he was still stubbornly clinging to his blankets. "You made this an Order of the Guard thing?"
"No," Groose said, too quickly to sound honest. "Squire Dunson insulted our honour," he continued, ignoring Link's glare. "He said that knights were too old to have proper fun."
"I'm younger than Squire Dunson," Link said. By a few months, but still. "He is an idiot."
"Exactly, let's smash his teeth in!" Groose exclaimed, smiling broadly. He paused, his face screwed up in thought, before conceding: "Well, I guess honour says we can't maim him, but we can grab him and shove snow down his collar! That's still fair game."
"I can't," Link said. "I have to show the proper decorum."
"Psh," a woman's voice scoffed outside his door. It was still ajar, and it occurred to Link that anyone from the Royal Quarters could have been listening in. "Sir Groose, please tell him if he continues to resist, I shall have to command him."
Link froze, and his eyes met Groose's. The giant red knight shrugged, and mouthed 'Her idea', with an apologetic grin.
"Princess," Link said, to the open door, self-consciously pulling the blanket over his bare shoulders, very aware of her squirming the last time he hadn't been properly dressed, "the squires fight dirty. There will be nosebleeds and black eyes."
She sounded thoughtful, "Indeed. It would be such a shame if something were to happen to me because my devoted guard decided to sleep in."
That's cheating, Link considered. She is cheating. And yet he couldn't shake off the sudden burst of giddy, childish excitement in his chest. "Fine," he finally relented. "I'll get dressed."
Groose pumped his fist, peering out the door, presumably at the princess. "He said yes!"
"So I hear," she said. "Now onward, Sir Groose. We of the higher rungs shall not allow mere trainees to outclass us, and they have a head start."
"Yes, your highness," Sir Groose said, with the appropriate gravity.
"Groose," Link hissed, grabbing his second by the sleeve as he reached for an undershirt with his other hand, "if Squire Dunson uses icicles in his snowballs against her, you dunk him in the moat."
"I broke a hole in the ice just for that!" Groose concurred cheerfully as he left the room, chattering at the princess amiably.
She seemed to tolerate Groose's chatting with patience, Link reflected. But Link himself still hesitated to speak out of turn, too worried about their fledgling truce to test its limits just yet.
She hadn't gone back on her word, though. They had returned from Gerudo under heavy escort two weeks ago, through thick blizzards, trekking much of the time with snowshoes and sleds, an arduous journey that could have tested anyone, and they were still on cautiously friendly terms. The relief was palpable, and the butterflies in Link's stomach too. Their truce felt like a silk thread, a delicate bulb of glass ― fragile, precious.
By Farore, he wasn't going to ruin it. He wasn't.
As Link pulled his tunic over his head, Lady Ashei knocked at his door and peeked in.
"She is going to participate in the snowball fight. You're aware, yeah?"
"I am," Link breathed, stumbling to pull his socks on and hopping on one foot clumsily. "I'm going as fast as I can."
"Good," Ashei said. "Because a certain Squire Pipit insulted my honour by implying my snowball aim has gotten lax since I left Hebra. This demands reparation."
"We can't open war on a couple of squires just because their bark is meaner than their bite," Link admonished, falling back on his bed as he tried to pull his boots on backwards.
"Don't be ridiculous," Ashei said, her eyes sparkling with mischief in an otherwise serious face. "It's Farore's Day."
Then, without a further word of explanation, she saluted at him and disappeared from sight.
Exhaling as he finally succeeded in pulling his boots on, Link flopped onto his back and mentally prepared for the day to come. A small smile pulled at his lips. Farore's Day. The shortest day of the year, but the official herald of a coming spring. Now the nights would grow shorter, in time the days would grow warmer, and soon the snow would vanish, replaced by tentative buds and blossoms. The roads would become freely passable again, and he'd be able to visit his mother. Rito-borne letters just didn't have the same familial warmth as a smile.
The season of Farore, his patron goddess, was also his own, which meant good luck for the next few months, until Din's Day announced summer.
Judging by the way he and the princess were now finally beginning to get along, it seemed his luck had come early.
Yes, Link reflected. Luck was on his side. Their return to Hyrule Castle had marked a change in their relationship, and others had noticed it. Courtiers no longer outright ignored him, often asking for his opinion on martial matters, fellow knights no longer dismissed him as a child, and the servant staff would frequently show him unusual deference.
His Order of the Guard had been welcomed with lukewarm attention, which was a sight better than the frosty ignorance Link had expected. Master Impa, true to her word, had proposed a few Sheikah shadows for his consideration, and Link had accepted them readily. He still had to sift through the list of Master Kohga's suggestions, which Master Impa hadn't yet approved, but there was no rush. His Order was steadily filling with Sheikah loyal to the crown and knights of all ranks and backgrounds. Link had sworn to himself that none would be turned away due to their lack of nobility. Nobility was in the heart, Link knew with absolute certainty, not in the name.
At first, cooperation between the two factions tended to friction, but once Princess Zelda had accepted their watch, Link had found making them work together was infinitely easier. There was something about the future Queen of Hyrule, Link knew, that encouraged those around her to bend the knee and put aside their quarrels. Was it her work? Was it her title?
Whatever the case, Zelda now tolerated the Order, and this made Link's efforts to promote it feel less futile. Lady Ashei, Sir Osfala and Sir Linebeck had even consented to lending a hand, provided other matters did not call them away from the castle. And Groose, now Sir Groose, was a surprisingly apt second-in-command, able to muster both loyalty and light-hearted good humour from the men and women in the Order. Link had yet to master that particular skill, but it didn't matter.
Yes, his luck had turned to the better. For the first time in months, Link felt that he was once again in a friendly place. Maybe he was getting used to his new station.
"Wouldn't that be grand?" He absently whispered to his reflection in the miniature mirror that lay on his bedside table. In a movement he had repeated for years and that was now mere muscle memory, he tied his hair up as neatly as he could.
Outside the window, the air looked crisp and cold, but the sky was a pale blue spotted with fluffy white clouds. The sight of them made Link smile ― they heralded a rise in temperature that he welcomed wholeheartedly. And the snow would be perfect for a snowball fight.
He grabbed his coat and gloves, as well as his pointy woolen hat, a thick fur-lined confection his mother had made for him a few years ago. She had even dyed the fabric green, to match his soldier's overcoat.
He strode out of his room as he fastened the buttons on his lapel, and nearly ran into King Rhoam Bosphoramus.
The king towered above him, as intimidating as his daughter had been. He wore a thick surcoat, but was not dressed for the outdoors, and when he noticed Link's obvious intention to go out his lips pursed a little.
"I take it my daughter has gone to join in the commotion."
"Commotion?" Link echoed, before he remembered himself. "I'm sorry, Your Grace, I don't understand."
"The ridiculous snowball fight the squires organize every year." The King's expression soured. "It is no place for a princess. She should be in the Goddess Shrine, begging Farore's blessing."
Link's heart squeezed with dread. Don't order me to do it, he mentally pleaded. Things were only just improving between them― if he once again became the princess' gaoler― "Your Grace," Link said instead, as reasonably as possible, "Farore's Day is a day of exuberance and childish wonder. Just as quiet contemplation and kindness is right for Nayru's Day and proud celebration and excess is fare for Din's Day." At the King's raised brow, he added, with a wavering smile, "Perhaps there is no better way to celebrate the spirit of Farore's Day than partaking in this snowball fight?"
The King peered down at Link like he was trying to decide whether Hyrule's Champion had spoken out of turn. Then, in the spirit of Farore, no doubt, he exhaled in annoyance and said, "At least make sure she does the bare minimum before the evening's ball."
Link bowed at the waist, as low as he could, his deference hasty and grateful. There was no avoiding today's prayers, he knew, but they would be easier to get through if the princess was winded with excitement and pink-cheeked with good humour.
As the King continued on his way, Link tried hard not to grin from ear-to-ear. Luck was definitely on his side today. He could hardly keep from hopping gleefully. It was unsightly, he knew, and inappropriate for a grown man, a knight, but sometimes he still felt like a child, and it bubbled up within him despite himself.
Smiling broadly, he hurried down the hallways to the yards instead, racing down the stairs impatiently.
The squires' snowball fight was a tradition that seemed to go as far back as knightly oaths and rye bread. In the days of his father, when Link had been merely a page and too little to play with the larger boys, his father's friends had fashioned Link a large wooden shield so that he could be part of the melée without risking severe injury. It was a secret, Sir Raven had said in good humour. If Link's mother heard of it, he had sworn, there would be nothing but a little puddle of knight left where his father had once stood. 'Do not tell her I let you be here for this.'
And then, hefting the largest snowball Link had ever seen, one that had been dangerously spiked with ice chips, Sir Raven, knight of the Royal Guard, experienced warrior, father of Link the page, had let out a warcry that had trembled down into Link's fur-lined boots and thrown his snowball with every ounce of strength he could muster.
'Another!' He had commanded, and Link had dutifully pulled a heavy snowball from the pile and handed it to him, heart racing with excitement.
It was one of Link's fondest memories, a day engraved in his mind as so quintessentially fatherly, so childishly pure, that even to this day he turned to it when darker memories of his father's death came to haunt him.
"Link!" Squire Cawlin called out when he arrived into the courtyard, where the battle was already raging, "I have a snowball marked just for you! Dunked it in the water overnight!"
Link began to jog. "I have one minute of grace, treasonous squire!" He laughed. Squire Cawlin began to count out loud, and Link began to run. Snowballs dunked in ice water were simply balls of hard ice, and they hurt.
I should have prepared, Link considered, ducking as he escaped through the battle.
To his right, the other Champions were present ― Revali merely observed with a mix of annoyance and amusement, Daruk was packing snow to reinforce the forts, Mipha was tending to a bleeding squire, and Urbosa was in command of her very own fort, though there was no telling whose side she was fighting for.
They were here for tonight's feast and ball, Link knew, but everyone in the Castle had gathered here to watch the fight or participate. There was nothing better to do before midday, anyhow. As he moved, he spotted Master Impa and Master Kohga standing off to the side, and Chancellor Cole, and even High Priest Auru. Courtiers and staff alike lined the walls, cheering or whooping.
"Sir Link!" A voice rang out clearly across the courtyard.
He turned, avoiding a disintegrating snowball.
The princess was peeking up over a snow fort's wall. Sir Groose and Lady Ashei were at her side, evidently focused on crafting more snowballs, the task as vital, it seemed, as real battle. Zelda motioned wildly, and Link changed course.
He ducked and rolled, avoiding the hard crash of two particularly vicious looking ice balls, then came to cover next to Groose.
"About time," his fellow knight said. "We don't have enough throwing arms. The squires came prepared. I guess they learned from last year. Wish we'd done the same."
Link picked up a heavy snowball. "What's in this? Lead?"
"Just a large chunk of ice," Lady Ashei said. "Makes them fly further."
"You Hebrans are vicious," Link said, but he peered over the wall, spotted the backside of Squire Strich, and swung. The squire yelped, turning around as he rubbed his arse. There was no doubt he'd be bruised in the morning.
"That's right, Strich, that one is for throwing my underwear in the moat last year!"
Groose handed him another snowball. "Oh, no, that was me," he corrected, absently. "I did that."
Link blinked at his teammate, then winced and called out, "Sorry, Strich. My mistake." Then, he turned to Groose and said, "You realize you're in trouble now, right?"
"Don't fall for it! This is what they want," Groose said, gesturing to the other side. "To divide us!"
"You're the one who just said―"
"Sir Link," Princess Zelda said, firmly, "we have a system. Either get throwing or get out of Fort Bosphoramus."
Link turned to her, surprised by the asperity in her tone. But she wasn't focused on him. She was packing more snowballs. She was joking, he realized, and the realization filled him with warmth.
"Yes, your highness," Link replied dutifully, and he lobbed his snowball as far as he could.
It was then that Sir Linebeck came sliding into the fort. His nose was bleeding and he had clearly suffered a few severe bruises, judging by the way he was nursing his arm. "Commander, a message."
Link turned, about to reply, when Princess Zelda pushed past him. "Yes, soldier," she said, gravely.
"Fort Osfala intends to lead a charge, your highness," Sir Linebeck said. "We have begun to build a stockpile of snowballs for the attack. Hopefully Fort Gerudo will follow."
Urbosa was currently ordering Daruk to lob a massive chunk of snow at an indiscriminate melée of knights and squires in the middle of the field. She was apparently intent on fighting autonomously. Sir Linebeck seemed to doubt she would even notice any strategic movement. It made Link want to snort. Urbosa had a warrior's mind― she knew what she was doing, and right now it was whatever she wanted.
"We are very pressed for resources," Zelda said, trying to keep her expression as serious as possible. "I'll see what I can do."
"When you are ready," Sir Linebeck said, "we shall flank them from the right."
Then, before Link could say anything, Sir Linebeck ran back out of the fort.
Link peeked over the wall. Across the courtyard, the squires and guards had built one large fort that stretched low and long, while on this end of the courtyard the knights and kitchen staff had made several high forts separated by open terrain.
"They have a terrible defensive position," Link said. Much like last year. Only this year he wasn't on that side.
"Hence the charge, I think," Zelda said, rolling as many tightly packed snowballs as she could. She was flushed with exertion and her eyes were bright. Link had no doubt her mittens were already soaked through, and the notion made him want to smile. "Now stop gawping," she said, glancing up at him, and he flushed, "and make sure to use suppressive throws. The last thing we need is to lose our own defensive position."
"Yes, your highness," Link said, obeying by hitting Squire Pipit right in the face with a soft snowball that made him splutter. "That's a ten-pointer, I know it."
She peered at him inscrutably, and her ears grew even pinker in the winter air. Then, firmly, she pointed to the other side: "I have identified Squire Niko as the head of the enemy's operations."
"That's fortunate," Link replied, surprised she even knew Niko's name. "He's dumb as a bucket of rocks." Next to him, Groose nodded emphatically.
"Good. Now here," she said thrusting a large icy snowball into his gloved hands, "knock him out."
"You want me to―"
But before Link could reply, a great cry rose over the battlefield, and both sides ran out of their respective forts to pummel each other with snow and ice. As fragments of ammunition exploded on bruising bodies, splinters of ice flew in all directions.
One struck Link in the face, and he flinched, ducking.
The princess had already had the wherewithal to do the same and her eyes widened when she saw his face. "You're bleeding."
Link reached up and saw the blood on the tips of his gloved fingers. "It's a scratch," he said, satisfied that it wasn't too bad. "Looks worse than it really is." He peered up at Groose, eager to change the subject because the way she was looking at him made him deeply uncomfortable. "What is going on?"
"Oh," Groose said, looking over the wall, "the horror, the horror." A burst of snow landed near him and he spluttered.
"Who's winning?" Zelda asked, loudly, over the sound of the great battle.
"Hard to say," Lady Ashei replied. "It seems Squire Cawlin has died." She tisked, then added, "Training standards aren't what they used to be."
"I think Sir Osfala has broken through their lines," Groose announced.
"Well, then," Link said, solemnly, as he sat up, "that can only mean one thing." He loaded his coat pockets and his arms with all the snowballs he could get. "Lady Ashei," he said, "you have the guard. Sir Groose, let us join the charge."
"Go forth and claim Squireland in the name of Fort Bosphoramus," Zelda primly demanded.
"As my lady commands!" Groose cried out, lunging over the wall. Link vaulted over the wall mere seconds later, and together the two of them howled out a war cry, running through the battlefield with their arms full of ammunition.
Less than ten minutes later, the battle was over. Squires moaned in defeat, some cradling their noses and skulls. A few were lying in the snow, making a great show of their glorious death. Standing over them, Link and Groose were aching and bruised, out of breath, and they were laughing like children.
"Well done," Sir Osfala said as he joined them. His temple was bleeding. "Defeat would have been highly embarrassing." Off to the side, Urbosa was still offering resistance to a small number of allied squires and knights, but the battle promised to be short-lived.
"No casualties to report, sir," one of the Sheikah shadows said, grinning broadly. "But there are a few cuts and bruises."
"Excellent," Groose replied, puffing his chest theatrically. "That will help to build their character, mark my words."
"Thank you," Link said, to the Sheikah messenger, who, in his participation, looked both winded and happy. It seemed to completely transform the Sheikah; where before they had been surly and reclusive, they now looked open and bright-eyed. And Link was glad Groose had invited them after all.
Link turned to Princess Mipha of the Zora, who was peering up at him with some concern. She was warmly dressed in a thick Zoran overcoat, with woolen mittens and a large scarf she had surely borrowed from a courtier. The Zoras tolerated cold water, but frigid air was a more difficult matter to handle.
Mipha was looking at his cheekbone, frowning. "You're hurt."
Now that he paid attention to it, Link could feel the stinging and the slight burn of his blood against the cold air. "Oh, it's nothing at all."
Mipha ignored that, her mitten-clad hand reaching up. A soft warm glow began to spread through Link's cheek, and he knew she was healing him.
"You don't have to," he said, embarrassed. There were plenty of others with worse cuts and bruises.
When the cut was healed, Mipha's hand moved away and she said, softly, "It makes me happy to help you."
He knew that. Mipha had always been ready to heal him, especially given how often he'd injured himself during his time in Zora's Domain. His father had been sent to train her with the spear, and Link had tagged along, ready to go on plenty of adventures. Painful, bruising adventures. "Thanks," he said, sheepishly.
She smiled gently. She was always gentle.
"Ugh," Urbosa said, striding over to them with her thick fur boots and long colourful coat. She was absolutely covered in snow and her hair was a mess. "You Hylians fight like wolves." She dusted some snow off herself. "Absolutely merciless."
As Mipha offered to relieve some of Urbosa's pains, Link glanced back to the snow fort where he'd left Princess Zelda. She was chatting excitedly with Daruk and Revali. Good, he thought. She ought to have friends around her.
Of course, there was Misko, too, congratulating her on a battle well-fought.
Why did watching her smile up at Misko feel so…
"Will you be wearing a new dress tonight?" Urbosa asked Mipha.
"I am," Mipha replied. "In green."
"Isn't Link's soldier's uniform green?" Urbosa asked, slyly, and Link turned back to her upon hearing his name.
"What?" He asked, dumbly.
"It's nothing," Princess Mipha stammered, healing one of the Gerudo Champion's bruises. "She's trying to tease me." Then, for good measure, she flicked at the Gerudo's ear, and the tall woman winced. Soft-spoken Mipha might have been, but she was no pushover.
Across the courtyard, High Priest Auru was commending all those who would listen for their efforts in celebrating the true spirit of Farore's Day, reminding them that a brief visit in the Goddess Shrine would also be appropriate.
Habit prevailed. Link turned to Urbosa and Mipha to excuse himself, then strode off towards the princess.
She watched him approach with a smile that seemed to dim. She knew why he was joining her. Prayers. She hated prayers.
"Princess," Link asked, before the smile vanished entirely from her face, "may I join you in your devotionals today?"
It was formal, he knew, and completely unlike their more... frank past conversations, but he wanted Misko to stop looking at him with such arrogance, and he desperately wanted to show all other courtiers that he was worthy of being her knight.
She seemed surprised by his question. "Oh," she said. "Of course." And her smile seemed more genuine now. "I forgot your patron goddess was Farore."
She hadn't, Link knew. She seldom forgot anything. She was putting on a show for the courtiers too. A show of graciousness. Master Impa would have approved.
"Do not let me keep you," Bard Misko said, bowing low, his silver hair falling into his eyes in that way that made the court ladies all a-titter. "I shall think of no one else until I see you again."
Arrogant bugger. Even Revali rolled his eyes. Link shifted his weight, trying to hide his impatience. Really, without his finery and good looks, the bard would have little to recommend him. Even his romantic promises felt vain and empty of substance.
Princess Zelda thanked him for the sentiment all the same. Did she know? Link wondered. She could be bright, perceptive. Surely she saw what Link did, that the bard was a waste of her attentions?
As the princess made her excuses to the other Champions, the bard glanced at Link, a sidelong glance that spoke volumes about his disdain. Link smiled dumbly back.
"That bard is a test of patience," Revali said as Misko walked away, smiling at a group of simpering ladies.
Link was so startled he was short of words for a brief moment. Revali had never deliberately opened a conversation with him. Not in many years. "I― yeah. But Master Impa says he's harmless."
"Is he?" Revali asked, darkly, in a way that made Link fear him a little.
The Rito warrior's mood did not improve as the day wore on, and Link sympathized. It seemed Misko the bard was everywhere. From the moment Link had risen from his prostrate prayer to offer the princess a hand up, the bard had swept in all over again, promising her a ballad, or an ode, begging for her favour at the feast. For once, Link was glad that he had mastered a few Sheikah meditation techniques. Revali, who hadn't, seemed on the edge of a silent conniption.
"Breathe," Princess Mipha softly urged the Rito Champion. "There is no reason to be upset."
"That bard," Revali said, as the five Champions stood in a small antechamber adjoining the Sanctum, much later that day, "is an eyesore."
Urbosa snorted. "Speak for yourself." She was wearing a long Gerudo dress, one that was far more ornate than anything she typically wore when she was in her home region. She had done something with her hair, braiding it elaborately, though Link couldn't quite make sense of it. She looked like a true warrior-princess, a lady of refinement and bloodthirst, and though Link now knew her better, he remembered why the sight of her had been so intimidating to him and his fellow squires.
"Yes, Bard Misko is descended from ancient Sheikah bloodlines, and he is a favourite of the court," Mipha admonished. "It will not do for us to speak ill of him today." She had donned a diaphanous Zora dress in a seafoam green that complemented the redder tones of her skin, and elaborate jewellery adorned her head and every visible part of her wrists and ankles. Sapphires glittered next to emeralds, and the silver casings caught the candlelight.
Princess Mipha, Link knew, was the heart and pride of the Zora people, and they did not hesitate to gift her with delicate extravagances.
"I don't mind the man," Daruk commented. "He plays the harp rather well." Gorons did not typically have evening wear, Link knew, but Daruk had wrapped himself in a colourful toga and scrubbed himself with sand, giving him a brushed look that exuded power and simplicity. "Besides, it's not for you to decide."
Revali did not reply, choosing to sulk instead. He was wearing Rito clothes that seemed simply cut at first glance. It was only on closer examination that one noticed the embroideries, the subtle patterns and the precise excellence of the tailoring. These were fineries that only the very best Rito could make, and they were worthy of a prince.
Next to all of them, Link felt distinctly inadequate. Protocol had dictated his clothing for the feast and the ball, and as a result he'd donned his soldier's garb, as would all the knights attending. It was a pristine green uniform that had the benefit of making his shoulders look nice and square, that was fairly comfortable and that made him look quasi-respectable. Sometimes, it even caught the eye of a few less-scrupulous maidens.
But it was a far cry from a prince's tunic or a king's doublet. He would look plain next to the other Champions. Plain and out of place. Because he was.
"Is everyone ready?" Princess Zelda asked as she finally joined them in the antechamber.
Link turned and froze, feeling like someone had punched him in the gut.
"Oh," Urbosa said, smiling. "You look lovely."
Link almost wanted to laugh. Lovely didn't begin to describe it. He had limited knowledge of tailoring, but whoever had managed this deserved an immediate and permanent posting to the princess' household.
Fittingly, she looked like spring in pale blue and white, and her skirts moved around her lightly, almost as though they were made of air. She had pulled her golden hair away from her face, tying it back into a loose style that framed her face, bringing out the spring green of her eyes, and white opals and pearls rested at her collarbone, on her ears, in her hair―
Link swallowed hard, averted his eyes. It was no good, staring at her like this. He had to think of something else, and he automatically turned to his usual meditations. In his mind's eye, he focused on a quiet ripple on the surface of a pond, the way light would play on the water, a little like it had in the moonlight when she had prayed in the Goddess shrine, that night he'd touched her, carried her back to her room. She had been so pliant.
… No. Bad Link.
His fingers twitched at his side, so he flexed them nervously. Meditation wasn't working.
"Come," Zelda said, reaching for Daruk's arm with a smile, and the massive Goron grinned down at her. "We all have to be seated by the time my father makes his entrance."
"As you wish, princess," Daruk gallantly said, bowing low, and she smiled at him. Then, he escorted her out into the great Sanctum, where courtiers were amassing and servants were beginning to pile the tables high with food. The feast of Farore was about to begin, so the Goron Champion led the princess to the high table.
Left behind in the antechamber, Link felt strangely bereft.
"Come," Mipha said, linking her arm into his. "There is no reason to be nervous. You have earned your place here, among us."
"He certainly has," Urbosa said. "The princess owes him her life."
Link didn't want to think about that, either. It always brought back memories of killing, a thing he'd do again in a heartbeat for her. He did not want to revisit any of those notions, nor the primal, possessive rage that always seemed to lie below the act.
Up on the dais, Master Impa was already seated at the high table. Master Kohga was among his Sheikah for now, standing by the long table setup for them in the hall. Link saw the bard Misko peer at the princess avidly, his throat bobbing. For a second, he seemed unsure, a simple man in front of a beautiful woman. In that, at least, Link sympathized.
"The bard needs to go," Revali said, softly.
Link didn't reply. He didn't want to agree, didn't want to call any attention to his thoughts. The whole world seemed to be staring at them, and he wasn't sure he'd be able to keep up a conversation. The smells of food and perfumes wafted, mingled together, and ahead of him the princess looked like a vision, a young Nayru, almost. The sight of her did things to him. He wanted to gently push Daruk out of the way, to take her hand in his, to pull her chin up and… and…
He snapped back to reality. The concern in Mipha's voice was all he had needed. Revali had moved on, clearly irritated with his silence.
"We're almost there," she said in barely a whisper. "They'll stop staring when we sit down."
Mipha. Link would have embraced her. She was kind, and a good friend, and he did not deserve her kindness at the moment. "Thank you," he managed.
"I forget how uncomfortable crowds and staring make you," Urbosa said, though not unkindly. "It's a shame your duty comes with this lot."
"I'm getting better," Link said, his throat dry. Daruk had pulled Zelda's chair back, inviting her to sit, which she accepted graciously. "I can handle it."
Urbosa and Mipha exchanged a look, but didn't reply. Link's place was at the high table, apparently between Master Kohga and Princess Mipha, close enough to the princess to intervene if anything happened, but not anywhere near her side. The King had that honour, and Daruk.
At one of the lower tables, the squires, and many knights, and a few Sheikah from his Order of the Guard were seated, drinking. Their celebrations had scarcely been interrupted today, and many appeared to be already slightly sloshed. It was good to see them acting friendly. Even the Sheikah seemed to be having fun.
"I see your Order of the Guard has proved itself," Master Kohga said. The eyes of the court were on that table, many openly amazed at the friendly and open exchanges between Hylians and Sheikah. "It was a smart initiative."
"Thank you," Link said, curtly. "That means a lot coming from you, Master Kohga."
"Thanks to you, my son may yet be accepted by Hylians," Master Kohga said, raising his wineglass slightly in a toast. "When the news reaches Kakariko, the rest of my people will be glad."
Link smiled, looking away from his Order. They were merrymaking, and for a brief moment Link found himself wishing he were still an ordinary squire so that he could sit among them as he had his whole life. "It has proven beneficial for Hylians too."
"Indeed," Master Kohga said, and Link knew, watching the direction of his gaze, that he was looking at Zelda. "One wouldn't want anything to happen to our sweet princess."
"My father wished to extend his warmest greetings to our neighbours the Sheikah," Mipha suddenly said, leaning forward to look across Link at the Sheikah Master. "Winter has made communication rather more… difficult."
"I shall convey his feelings in my next letter to Kakariko," Master Kohga said, politely, but Link saw that his expression had shuttered, as though he had been forced away from a topic he much preferred.
Was he attracted to the princess too? Link wondered. It made him uncomfortable. Master Kohga was twice the princess' age. Or was it something else?
"I don't see why that's any of your business," Chancellor Cole said as he walked behind Link. He was speaking to High Priest Auru and seemed in a foul mood. "It is not mandatory that I should pray."
"Even so," the High Priest replied, evidently surprised by the Chancellor's obvious irritation, "prayer on the day of Farore is the very least…"
Their conversation was lost as they left Link's hearing range. They found their way to their places near the King's seat, and Link focused once again on his glass of wine. It had been filled and caught the light in a way that cast a red shadow on the white tablecloth.
Had he seen Chancellor Cole at prayers? His recollection was uncertain at best. He'd never felt any particular affinity for the man, who always struck him as a little ungracious and otherwise ill-tempered. Besides, his focus that afternoon had been on Zelda. She had been devoutly focused on her prayers, her pink lips moving to words only she could hear, and Link had struggled to think of his own devotions. The words of his own prayer had come out in a confused jumble, too distracted by the princess' proximity, where she kneeled at his side as though they were friends.
In the end, he had eschewed traditional formulas and opted for a more direct approach. He'd prayed for sunshine, peace and health for himself and those he loved. The Goddess Farore had always struck him as the most likely, of the pantheon, to appreciate simple appeals.
And please, he'd added, when the princess shifted next to him and he smelled the warm perfume of her hair, give her your blessing. I would be your servant forever if you made her smile.
But as usual, there was no reply from the skies.
"All stand to honour your king!"
Link snapped back to reality, to the feast and the banquet hall, and to the sound of a hundred chairs and benches scraping backwards to allow all the king's guests to rise. The tables before them had been laden with food― large platters of roast duck and heron, dried and boiled sausages, an array of potatoes, carrots, turnips, every winter vegetable there was, and bowls of soups and sauces, and fruit jellies, apples, jams, freshly baked breads― so that under the low murmur of excitement one could almost discern the universal grumbling of bellies.
King Rhoam Bosphoramus made his entrance in his most kingly attire, and all his guests bowed at the waist or curtsied. He strode towards the dais and its high table, urging everyone in a jovial tone to wait not on him but to dig in.
Link could only remember the frown on the king's face when he'd asked about his daughter that morning. This, too, was an act, much like Zelda's graciousness. If anyone else knew, no one gave any indication. The king's urging gave way to a merry cheer, and revelers all sat as soon as the king passed them to begin eating.
Link, however, did not move. Mipha, at his side, was doing the same, blinking placidly. She was used to this, Link realized. She knew the procedure. The high table would wait. The king might have played kindly, but it still did not do for his immediate household to dare eat before him.
King Rhoam finally found his high chair, kissing his daughter on the cheek. She smiled at him warmly, and he returned the expression, and Link wondered if they were genuine.
The King raised his glass, looking left at all those seated at his table, then right, and his eyes glanced over Link but thankfully did not stop upon him, then he simply and gingerly brought the wine to his lips and drank.
As one, all those seated at the high table did the same, then they all sat.
"Finally," Master Kohga said under his breath, shooting Link a playful look inviting him to commiserate. "I was starving," he mumbled, comically.
Link managed a thin smile, still feeling completely out of his element, then he reached for a thick slice of warm bread, appreciating the way it tore and melted on his tongue. Hm. Food.
"The princess will ask you to be her partner for the opening dance," Mipha said, softly, as she lifted a slice of duck breast to her mouth.
The piece of bread lodged itself in Link's throat, and he coughed as softly as he could, slamming at his own chest in a panic.
Mipha glanced at him with concern, and Link finally managed to swallow properly. Then he downed a long swill of wine, and ignored Master Kohga's amused glance.
"How do you know?" He asked Mipha hoarsely.
"She said so," Mipha said, peering at him oddly. She seemed about to add something, but instead she switched to another topic. "I told her she should stick to the simpler steps."
"Thanks," Link said, miserably.
Now his hands felt clammy with anxiety.
"Why is she doing that, anyway? Asking me?" Link asked, his question barely audible to Mipha.
The Zora princess smiled softly, and for a second she almost looked coy. "Perhaps she doesn't like the bard Misko as much as Revali thinks."
Link's throat was dry. He knew Mipha was making a joke, and he ought to have laughed, but the idea of dancing with Zelda seemed to take up all of his mind's focus. Why was she doing it? Was she trying to prove to Master Impa, to her father, that she and Link were no longer at odds? If so, it was a strange way of showing it. There was every possibility that Link would embarrass them all, that he would be a terrible dancer.
Well, he wasn't, not exactly. He was average at best, and what few steps he knew, he owed to his mother's tireless patience. But it was still a poor idea, showcasing his limited repertoire to the assembly of Hyrule's most important people.
Not to mention the first dance was always a valse, and that would mean holding her waist, pulling her close...
Link groaned miserably.
"Has she truly been that terrible?" Mipha asked, with concern.
"No," Link confessed. "That is, she was. But she isn't now." In fact, Zelda was actually a lot less terrible. Dangerously unterrible. She had a keen mind and a playful nature when she was allowed to show it. And she seemed fearless, even though Link knew she wasn't. She was easy to like, now that she wasn't trying her darndest to be awful.
And spending every day with her, listening to her chatter and her absent-minded notetaking, her muttered comments and her exasperated oaths... it was beginning to have an effect on him.
"You can get through one dance with her," Mipha assured him, softly. "I will rescue you at the end, if you like."
Hence his problem. Link didn't want to be rescued.
The feast was loud and Link's ears were ringing. When the musicians entered the Sanctum, he felt his gut twist into a knot. He could excuse himself, he knew. Then she'd be forced to pick someone else. She could choose Revali, or… or…
He put his fork down and pursed his lips. Or Misko.
Link snorted softly.
The musicians began to tune their instruments, and Zelda rose from her chair. The ball was about to begin, and it seemed the clamour of the hall was quieting down ever so slightly.
Link sat rigidly. It seemed like his every sense was focused on Zelda, on the way her skirts fluttered about her, on the way her gloved hands clutched at them with a slightly greater force than necessary, and the way she was watching her every step. She came down from the dais and the revelers all sat down, eager to see who she would select for her first partner.
On Din's Day, when power was to be celebrated, the princess would always ask her father the king. On Nayru's Day, she had to ask a wise man, usually High Priest Auru or one of the senior knights or scholars.
On Farore's Day, she could ask whomever she chose, provided her selected partner had demonstrated some sort of courage recently. A demonstration of courage could be anything really, big or small, and this usually enabled her to select her partner from among the masses of knights, squires or even servants, if she wished.
As she came to stand in the middle of the cleared out hall, her eyes swept over the assembly, and many raised their glasses in a toast. She was smiling serenely, but Link could almost see her white knuckles through her gloves.
At one of the Sheikah tables, the bard Misko was brushing crumbs off himself, arranging his silver hair in the reflection of a polished copper plate, and adjusting his doublet. Then, he shot the princess a charming smile.
Her eyes swept over the bard unseeingly, and they came to rest upon Link.
"Sir Link," her clear voice said.
How did she do it? Even though the entire room seemed to turn to him, for a moment it seemed that time itself slowed to a crawl, that the world dimmed until there was only her in it, and Link felt he stood at the edge of the light, eager to join her.
"Will you celebrate Farore's Day with me?" She asked, formally.
It was then that Link realized he'd been holding his breath. Releasing in a slow exhale, he stood, his heart pounding in his chest. Countless eyes were upon him, watching his every move.
"Good luck," Mipha whispered, giving his hand a little jolt of healing warmth, as though to comfort him.
He didn't need comforting. He needed courage.
The walk down from the dais seemed to last an eternity, but it probably only lasted a few seconds. By the time he joined her on the open floor, he noticed she was standing rigidly, the tension almost invisible, perceptible only in the line of her shoulders, the angle of her chin.
"Princess," Link said, bowing.
She curtsied, and as the silks of her skirt whispered around her, he heard a barely audible 'thank you'.
Had she really thought he would refuse?
His chest felt like it was glowing. He stretched out his hand, and she took it, and he gave it the barest of squeezes, almost afraid that even this would be too much familiarity. Still: you are welcome.
She wore gloves, but even through them Link could feel her hands were cold. Fleetingly, he hoped she hadn't caught anything that morning from the snowball fight. He would feel guilty if she did, even though it wasn't his fault. Could he have prevented it? Probably not. But he'd be miserable if she were sick.
The small orchestra was done tuning, and the conductor's baton clicked at the pages of his music sheets. One, two, three.
"Deep breaths," Zelda said, though Link wasn't sure whether she was speaking to him or to herself.
"Small steps," Link replied, all the same, under his breath.
The gentle notes of flutes began, one two, one two, rising, falling, and behind them the violins and violas began a slow crescendo, but Link was already too busy to think on them. His arm reached around Zelda's waist, the world small and shrunken around them, and he cradled her hand gently.
She looked up at him calmly, her green eyes catching the candlelight, and Link felt his throat close up. The moment would come in a second, he knew, where the musical introduction would give way to sweeping strings and upbeat winds, and then he would have to move.
As the music wrapped itself around him, Link made the first step, and she followed instantly, responding with an instinct born of years and years of proper training. It was almost effortless, the way she danced, stepping backwards lightly and sprightly, as though she could read his mind even before his own body.
The violins were joyful, a tune that was older than time itself, and as he led her in the requisite circle, one, two, three, she carried herself with such dignity and grace that Link felt a small wave of awe. When he extended his arm, she twirled, all control and elegance, and her skirts brushed against his legs before she returned safely to the crook of his arm to continue. One, two, three, one, two, three, and still she moved in his grasp as though she had always danced with him, as though this were their hundredth dance and not their first.
They turned and turned, one, two, three, and his senses were overwhelmed, the sight and smell and feel of her mingling with the music and the taste of wine on his tongue, and Link wondered why he did not feel dizzier, when it felt as though he was drunk.
Her cheeks were flushed pink, her eyes were bright, her golden hair shone in the evening candlelight and she was growing warmer, closer.
Was it her heart racing, or his? With their hands and breasts together, he could hardly tell anymore. Did it matter?
And then the music lifted, and Link realized that at some point in the waltz other couples had joined them on the floor, crowding around them, until he was alone in the crush with her, and they all twirled and turned about them.
She hesitated, and Link slowed to a stop. The music ended on a sweeping, happy note, and the dancers stopped to clap in gratitude. Suddenly, the princess' eyes widened, and she pulled away, turning to the orchestra to clap. Link, too, managed a few half-hearted claps, though he would have preferred to curse the musicians for stopping. His heart was pounding, his breath was short, and he felt energized, hot, as though he'd run a hundred miles.
What was wrong with him?
"May I have the next dance, princess?"
Zelda turned to Misko, and though she hid it well, Link noted she seemed startled. "Oh," she said, "of course." And she gave him a smile that Link would have wanted for himself.
"Link," Mipha's soft voice said, next to him, and he turned to the Zora girl, trying not to feel so distracted.
"Mipha," he smiled, wanly. "I suppose that went well." He was trying not to sound affected, but wasn't sure it worked. Around them, the music was beginning again and the couples were taking their places.
"It did," she said, placing her hand in his gently. She was smiling, but there was something in her eyes that Link couldn't decipher. "It appears you did not need rescuing after all."
"Yes, thank Farore," Link said, laughing in stunned relief. "You're right."
She smiled her usual Mipha smile, an expression that had always seemed to mix sadness and kindness to Link's unpracticed eye. "I'm glad," she said, as he began to lead her through a minuet.
"Yes," Link said, reflecting that perhaps this would truly be his lucky season. He hadn't made a fool of himself, and he was finally beginning to fit into his new station. Recovering from his contemplation, he smiled down at Mipha. She merely gazed up at him pensively, a small frown puckering her brow, so Link squeezed her hands reassuringly. "So am I."
So am I.