"Are you sure about this?" Mipha asked as she followed Link and Zelda down the steps towards the Great Zora Bridge. A crowd of the water-dwellers had gathered to see the Hylian princess and her knight off, and though Mipha looked outwardly serene, Link detected her concern by the slight furrow of her brow.
"I must," Zelda said, with a deep exhale. She was carrying her saddlebags and Link carried his own. She had never shied away from hefting her own possessions around. She placed the bags down at her feet and turned fully to the Zora princess. "My father expects me to begin my pilgrimage in earnest, and soon."
Mipha's golden eyes flickered with natural sympathy. Her small hands reached out to take Zelda's in her own, red scales against pink skin. "I will be present for the last spring, as tradition requires." She lowered her voice and leaned in with a smile that hid her worry: "But I do wish you had more guards with you."
"Nonsense," Zelda said, lightly, though that came with a shuddering breath. "Link is more than capable."
Link ignored that, pretending to check the clasps on his bags.
"The world is no longer as safe as it once was," Mipha said, squeezing Zelda's hands. "I will always worry."
Zelda smiled warmly and leaned in to place a sisterly kiss on her fellow princess' pale cheek. "Thank you, Mipha."
"If you need me," Mipha said, sincerely, "I will hasten to your side." She glanced at Link, then averted her eyes. "Do not be afraid to ask for me."
"We won't," Zelda promised. She turned to King Dorephan who was standing further back, beaming proudly. "Your Grace." She bowed her head in proper deference. "Thank you for having us."
"Thank you for gracing us with your presence," King Dorephan warmly said. "Let it be known Hylians shall be ever welcome in Zora's Domain."
Pleased, Zelda bent down to retrieve her bags. Link, for his part, bowed low to the King, who smiled upon him benevolently.
"And Link, my boy, be not afraid to return to us."
Link smiled, wondering if he'd ever have the opportunity. He turned away, finding Mipha waiting expectantly.
"Princess Mipha," he said, warmly, as he approached his friend. "Thank you for your hospitality. And your care." He flexed his arm at his side, but otherwise added nothing. His arm was strong once more, and Mipha's simple glance down indicated she knew what he meant.
"It is the least I could do," she said, smiling. She reached out for his hand, and squeezed it as she had Zelda's. "Link…" She hesitated, glancing at Zelda who was busy securing her bags, then looked back up at him. "Do you…"
He blinked. "Do I what?"
She chewed her lip, then finally seemed to steel herself with some resolve, and before Link could ask her again, she pushed herself up on her toes and kissed him gently on the lips.
Link froze. It was brief, ever so fleeting, and he worried at the longing he could feel in her, the hope and the heartfelt sentiment. His lips fell open as she pulled away, and he heard the Zoras around them cheer and tease. Blinking dumbly in the sunlight, he gaped down at the small princess, completely at a loss for words.
"It's alright," she said, softly, with a smile. Mipha's smile was always a little sad, but now he could see the sorrow plainly.
"Don't," she bravely said. "Don't worry."
She looked back at Zelda, and Link followed her gaze, and found himself mirroring the Hylian princess' expression of mute astonishment. He turned back to Mipha, stammering.
She pulled away, taking a step back, and she straightened with a smile that felt somewhat strained. "I just wondered, that's all."
Link let out a nervous laugh. "Wondered?"
She shrugged, her golden eyes not quite meeting his, darting over other features of his face. "What a Hylian kiss felt like."
Good, proper Mipha. It was by far the most adventurous thing she'd ever done. Link found himself chuckling, rubbing his nape in embarrassment. "You caught me by surprise, that's all."
She laughed sincerely. "Good." She hesitated, glancing down at his bags, then said, "Well, then, off with you."
"Yes, ma'am," Link said, warmly, smiling down at his friend. "I would hate to disobey a princess."
Her teeth were pointed like a shark's, but she still managed to look gentle and sweet. "Be safe," she whispered. "Both of you."
He nodded, hoping she could see his earnest determination without having to give voice to it. A week with her and it seemed as though they were back to the sort of friendship they'd once had in his childhood, a friendship of silent understanding and quiet kindness. One could never accuse Mipha of being overly passionate or making the blood race, but there was a stillness to her that brought him great inner peace, and he knew he would miss her.
Retrieving his bags, he waved goodbye to dark-scaled Rivan, tall Bazz, and soft Gaddison, and Kayden and Kodah― and once he was sure they were satisfied with his salutations, he joined Zelda, who had already begun to walk down the Great Zora Bridge out of the Domain.
She was walking at a brisk pace, and Link jogged somewhat to catch up.
"There's no rush," he said with a smile, "we need only make it down to Goponga Village today."
She hummed in reply, barely even glancing at him.
"That is," Link continued, "if we take off running, we'll be exhausted. We do have at least four days of travel ahead of us to make it down to Faron."
"I'm not running," she said, though she did not slow.
Link frowned. She still wasn't looking at him. "Princess?" He asked, moments later, once they reached the end of the bridge, and she began to ascend the hill that would lead to the descending, twisting road along the Zora River. "Is everything alright?"
"Yes," she said, lightly.
But she wasn't smiling, frowning instead at the ground moving under her feet. Link frowned too, confused. She had been all smiles only moments earlier.
"Did something happen?" He asked.
She carefully began picking her way down the gravelly dirt road. "What do you mean?"
He hesitated, confused. "What do you mean, what do I mean? You're―"
"I'm fine," she said, still in that strange, light tone that Link now realized was pure artifice. But at least she paused and looked up at him, her green eyes unreadable, and she added, "Don't worry about me, Sir Link."
It was as direct an answer as he would get, but somehow it made him uncomfortable.
Still, he did not argue again, confused. Absently, his hand went up to his lips, still strangely tingling from Mipha's kiss, and he rubbed them gently, hoping to make the sensation fade. It didn't feel right, somehow, to speak to his princess with the feel of another woman's lips on his own.
Not that he was going to follow that winding thought through to its inevitable conclusion.
They descended the long and twisting road, making their way to the Lanayru wetlands and its rice fields and thin birch trees.
Goponga Village was built on one of the few raised areas of dry land in the wetlands, its abodes thickly walled, with peat roofs and muddy streets. The Stillwater Inn welcomed them warmly that evening, offering the princess one of their best beds and feeding Link large seasoned rice balls wrapped in paper thin leaves of nori.
But even over their copious meal, the princess still seemed distant. She gave only perfunctory answers, humming rather than replying, and she buried herself into her personal journal rather than make conversation.
She is dreading the pilgrimage, Link realized. What else could it be? He had thought not returning to Hyrule Castle would alleviate her worries ― she was never quite as free in the castle as she was on the road ― but apparently he would have no such luck.
"Faron will come first," he said, in his most comforting tone, after washing down his meal with a long mouthful of weak rice wine. "And while we are still before Faroresfall, too." He shot her his most optimistic smile. "Combining those two things, I'm sure Farore will grant you her boon of courage."
She looked at him over the pages of her journal, lifting her quill off the paper to keep the ink from blotting it, blinking in surprise. Then, she saw his smile, and she managed a weak one in return. "Your confidence is heartening," she said, though Link could feel her heart was not in it.
"You shouldn't fear the future," Link said. "You were Chosen, as I was. Your power will awaken."
She said nothing for a long moment, her green eyes reflecting the candlelight. They were alone in the hall of the inn, by the crackling fire, and for a moment Link did not blame Mipha for her curiosity― for wondering what it would feel like―
She frowned. "Did she―" She stopped herself and a flash of irritation passed over her features, though Link couldn't tell whether her irritation was at herself or not.
"She?" He prompted. "Farore?"
Her eyes dropped to the page before her, and Link leaned low over the table, as in confession.
"I cannot speak for Farore, though she is my patron goddess," he said, "but if any goddess has an open and kind heart, surely she does."
She sighed, exasperation evident on her face. "Theology isn't what I―" Her knuckles grew white around the shaft of her quill. "Never mind."
"You've been upset all day," Link said, earnestly. "I'm just saying ― maybe this pilgrimage is exactly what you need to do. You shouldn't worry too much until we get there." He flexed, hoping she'd laugh at him the way she tended to when he made a fool of himself. "I'm no wimp. I can get you there safely."
She wasn't happy, though, and she didn't laugh. "What happens afterwards?" She asked, her eyes searching.
"Afterwards?" Link echoed, confused. His arms came down. "Well, I suppose when Din's Day comes around, we make our way to Akkala, and the Spring of Power―"
"Not after Faron," she said. "I mean― I mean after the Calamity."
Link blinked. She had never brought the topic up. The concept of vanquishing the Calamity was, for now, a far fetched hope, and they had until now adopted the view that not speaking of it was the best way to handle everything. It was sometimes unpleasant ― a Vah Ruta in the room ― but it prevented them both from crumbling into shivering little balls of terror. "After the Calamity?" That was even more preposterous a notion.
"When ― if ― we win." She placed her quill delicately between her pages, sitting up straight. "What will you do?"
Link pursed his lips in thought, thoroughly uncomfortable. "Er… I don't know. Celebrate?" He wondered if that was the right answer.
"But…" She looked away, peered at the fire, then looked back at him. "Where would you go?"
"Go?" He echoed.
"Would you go back to Zora's Domain?" She asked, placing her cheek into her palm, and resting upon her elbow. She seemed to be making conversation, which was better than the silence she had affected all day, but Link saw a look in her eye he did not recognize.
He shrugged. "I don't know." He mused. "Maybe. Or I could become a sellsword." He shrugged. "Wherever I'm needed, I suppose." As they were now, he had no expectation that they would win anyway. Thinking of events after the Calamity was pointless. He swallowed hard. "Or I suppose I would stay in your service if the Crown will have me." He had never dared to ask what he would be granted in gratitude, should they win. He hoped for a lordship, maybe― something to make his holdings easier to fund, and to make his mother proud.
But the prospect was far away, and tied to something unthinkable.
She said nothing, her eyes distant. Then, she retrieved her quill and said, "I envy you."
He was surprised by this, leaning back against his chair. It creaked, and he wondered if he ought to stop with the rice wine. "Me?" He frowned. "Because…" He lowered his voice, hesitated. "Because of the Master Sword?"
She had scrawled a few more words on the page, but now she smiled. "For one. But no. Not at this moment." She looked up, and though the light was dim, he could see a measure of warmth in her eyes. "But your dreams… They're… small. Accessible."
"That's me," Link said, deadpan, "small minded."
She allowed a small laugh. "You know that's not what I meant. It's just… if I were to dream the same things, it would be much more difficult. That's all."
He sighed. "I understand." He made the wine swish in the bottom of his cup and scowled at it. "But if all goes well," he added with a hint of irony, "we won't live long enough to worry about it."
She shot him a mild glare, then reached across the table and plucked his cup out of his hand. "And that's enough wine for you, then."
He made to protest, but she merely brought the cup to her lips and downed what remained in one long gulp.
Then, breaking for air, she began to cough, her eyes watering.
"Oh," she rasped, "that…" She glanced around themselves, making sure the innkeep wasn't within hearing range, then she managed, "... that is foul."
"It's not that strong," Link said, smirking. "Lightweight, your highness?"
"And proudly so," she croaked, putting the cup down firmly. "Father says spirits will dull my ability to commune with the gods."
"You drink at banquets," Link pointed out.
"Two glasses of the finest Necluda wines do not a drunk make," she said, resting her temple against her fist. "Besides, I have to stay relatively sober to manage the opening dances." She shuddered. "I hate those. The eyes of the world on me and the risk of tripping on the hems of my dresses― give me slacks any day of the week."
"You hide it well," Link said. "When we danced it seemed as though you had not a care."
She flushed a little, and Link wondered if the rice wine hadn't finally reached her face. "Well," she mumbled, "I had you as a partner." She closed her eyes and buried her face in her arms. "I was so relieved you said yes. I feared you'd run the other way, screaming. I would not have blamed you."
"The thought crossed my mind," Link admitted ruefully. "But I mustered what little courage I had." He furrowed a brow and studied her, pleased at the honesty of their conversation. "If I may, what would you have done if I'd declined?"
She lifted off the table and fell back against her chair. "Oh," she exhaled, eyes lost in the rafters. "I'm not quite sure. I might have asked Revali. Or Misko."
Link's gut twisted. He'd suspected as much. "They would have said yes without hesitation. Why risk it on me?"
She didn't look down from the ceiling, but Link did see her cheeks flushing deeper pink. "I suppose I wanted us to begin the year on the right foot."
"Literally," Link said, grinning.
"Literally," she smiled, still refusing to look down and face him.
"Well," Link carefully began, "for the record, I approve of Revali as my second. Misko, for his part―"
She did look at him then, straightening, and seemed amused. "You don't like him."
"I don't like Revali either," Link clarified, and she snorted, "but of the two evils―"
"Oh, evils," she mocked, eyes filling with mirth. "They're in love, I think. The two of them. They mean me no harm."
Link's stomach rebelled against the idea. When he spoke, he found his voice was somewhat uncertain: "In love. You mean… with you?" He frowned. "And you know this? Did they― did they reveal themselves to you?"
She smiled, the fatigue of a long day of walking coming through. "No, Sir Link. They have said nothing." She shrugged a single slender shoulder. "But they are transparent." She scowled at him. "Unlike you, I might add. In any case, they will not hurt me. Do not worry your protective guard's mind."
He wasn't worried. What he felt was more insidious, more slithering, something green and ugly that had no place in a good knight's mind.
"Isn't Misko some sort of Sheikah prince?" Link asked, to ignore the twisting of his thoughts.
She smiled ruefully. "A poor one, but yes. His blood lineage is all that is respectable. If I survive the Calamity, I'm sure he will present himself as one of my possible suitors."
Her expression was opaque, her words light. Link found himself fighting the urge to argue. Stupidly.
"But," she added, perking up with a rueful smile, "if all goes well, we won't live long enough to worry about it."
She was throwing his own words back at him. Link laughed and ignored the way his heart seemed to fracture in his chest. It wasn't a pleasant feeling. Too many bad ideas mingled together all at once ― her tears at a silent altar of prayers, her lifeless eyes staring back at him as the Calamity consumed them both, or worse still, a silver-haired king whisking her up in his arms on her wedding day.
Not that her marrying Misko was worse than her dying. He just struggled to decide which morbid possibility caused him the most pain.
If she saw the change in his mood, she did not comment on it.
"I should…" She pushed herself out of her chair. "I should go to bed." She hesitated, glanced back at him. "Will you be staying up?"
"Probably not," Link replied, woodenly. "We have a long day tomorrow."
"Right," she smiled. "And you must, after all, see me safely to the Spring of Courage." She came around the table, collecting her diary and stoppering her inkwell. "You will need your rest."
He stretched, yawning. "Right." Besides, he had to be up early to run his practice drills. He had begun to incorporate a few of the techniques he'd gleaned from the book on heroes she had offered him for his birthday, and they were grueling. "I won't tarry."
"Please don't," she smiled.
"Your concern is touching," he said, with a smile.
He wasn't sure whether the smile she returned to him was actually sad, or if he was imagining it.
"Don't dream of your Zora princess too much," she teased and before he could reply, she was already making her way up the stairs.
There was no expressing what he really thought, no voice to describe― he rubbed his fingers over his eyes, exhaling.
He felt unsettled. What did he want? If they lived, she'd asked, if the Calamity fell― what then? Would he roam the kingdom? Settle down in Mabe Village with Ilia, as his mother wanted? Would he stay at her side, content with a few new honorifics, as she married someone? Someone else, that was ― Misko, if fate was cruel? The thought sent a new curl of misery through his stomach.
Habit had him forming the syllables of her name softly, like a prayer. It wasn't right, saying her name with any familiarity, and he'd trespassed many times already. But he couldn't help himself. The very feeling of her name on his lips felt better than…
Well, better than even Princess Mipha's kiss.
When he dragged himself out of bed the next morning, the day was overcast, dawn somewhere beyond the cloud cover, and he knew a rainstorm was on the way.
"That does not bode well," Zelda remarked when she joined him, later, and noticed the same weather conditions. "Should we revise our plans?"
"I don't think so," Link said, wiping the sweat from his brow. He had just finished his drills. "Spring storms sometimes last several days. We can weather through." He turned to her, and noted she was observing him coolly. "Unless you don't feel up to it."
She smiled, but it was perfunctory at best. "I can take it."
He nodded. "You won't have much walking to do today, anyhow." He sheathed his sword and strode up to her. "We need only climb the hillside out of the wetlands to the Hylia River. I've arranged for the innkeep's cousin to rent us his boat."
Zelda's eyes crinkled in amusement. "How very chivalrous of you."
He shrugged. "It's a more straightforward path south than the roads, and the nearest stable is even farther. You don't get nauseous on boats, do you?"
"Not at all," she said. "But I hope you remember that the Hylia River joins Lake Hylia by falling off a cliff…?"
Link smiled. "Expedient, right?" He took a long swill of fresh water from his waterskin. "I'm told there is a little dock near Deya Village where we can tie off and continue on foot."
"Oh, and here I thought we would live adventurously," she joked. "I will retrieve my bags."
They found the boat already covered in anticipation of the rain, a thick leather tarp pulled under the boom. Good. The princess would have a place to keep dry.
Overhead, the skies loomed low, thick and pregnant with rain. A weak wind was rising, and the waters of the swift-flowing river were steely gray.
They were sailing with the current, though. Happily, that made for very little effort on Link's part, and the wind in the narrow sail helped them along.
"Where did you learn to sail?" Zelda asked, from below the tarp. The wind was whipping at her hair and she was using her free hand to hold her journal open.
"Are we back to the questions?" Link asked.
"Maybe," she said, placing the tip of her quill against the page and looked up at him expectantly. "Well?"
He hesitated, glanced down at her, then returned his attention downriver. "Actually, I learned yesterday, when I asked the innkeep for advice."
Zelda paled, tensing. "You're lying. Tell the truth."
"Cross my heart," Link said. He smiled down at her. "Going downriver is easy. I'm hopeless if we have to go the other way."
The princess braced herself against the sides of the boat, suddenly looking queasy. "You might have mentioned that earlier."
"Come now, princess, where is your sense of adventure?" He teased.
"Misplaced," she managed, closing her eyes as if in prayer. "Sorely misplaced."
They made it to Deya Village, though, without even a scratch. Even the princess gave him her grudging approval.
It was late afternoon. As they emerged from the Deya Inn after a quick meal, the world was quiet, the wind having died down.
"Any minute now," Link commented. He turned to the princess. She was contemplating the skies overhead, thinking. "We can stay here," he said, offering her one last chance. "Wait it out."
"No," she said. She was changed, now, her resolve strangely mixed with sorrow. "Din's Day approaches. I would much prefer to reach the Spring of Courage before Farore's season is over, as you said." She inhaled deeply. "To put all my chances on my side." Her eyes met his with sad determination. "Let's not waste too much time. We can wait out the worst, but we shouldn't stop moving."
Link did not argue. She had to be right, of course, but he was somehow sad at the idea of her trudging through the mud and the muck.
They had only just climbed up to Deya Village's tree of spirits, on its western hill, when the heavens opened. Down the rain came, thick and cold, as only spring rainstorms could be. Of common accord, they sought shelter beneath its boughs, Zelda finding a seat by the spirit statues, putting her bag down at her side. The entire world seemed to begin to shine bright green under the rain, and thick droplets pooled on the leaves overhead, dripping down on them wetly.
They waited, but the rain only intensified.
Zelda shivered. He glanced down at her, but she only shook her head. What thoughts was she fighting now? What fears?
Link glanced down south, where Lake Hylia and the edge of Faron's thick jungle awaited. What horrors would she be forced to face in that Spring of Courage? Or worse, what silences?
"You've been practicing new drills," she said.
Link drew his focus back to her. She was looking up at him with a smile that didn't quite reach her eyes.
"I have," he said. "From the book you gave me."
"Will you show me?" She asked. It was as polite a request as a crown princess could make it.
He nodded, removing his bag from his shoulder and unsheathing the Master Sword. It was becoming second nature now, the sword as natural to him as any of the short swords he'd once been so adept with.
The water pouring down was refreshing, in a way. He let the sword hang from his hand, at his side, inhaling deeply.
The Mind of the Wolf, Impa had insisted. Alert, dangerous, prudent. He felt himself sink into it with the familiarity of practice, and his arm came up of its own accord, a smooth movement, economical and strong.
As his eyes opened, he found Zelda's attention focused on him. She nodded in encouragement.
He began his practice dance.
"What if… one day… You realized that you just weren't meant to be a fighter? Yet the only thing people ever said was that you were born into a family of the royal guard, and so no matter what you thought, you had to become a knight. If that was the only thing you were ever told… I wonder, then, would you have chosen a different path?"