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"... Don't you see― there's nothing more I can do! My hope… My hope is that you… That you'll allow me to contribute here, in whatever way I can."

"No more excuses, Zelda! Stop running away from your duty. As the king, I forbid you to have anything to do with these machines from this moment on, and command you to focus on your training. Do you know how the gossip mongers refer to you? They are out there at this moment, whispering amongst themselves… That you are the heir to a throne of nothing, nothing but failure."


 

Link slammed the door to the Guard's Study shut, relishing the way the displaced air blew parchments off his desk, sending them fluttering about the room.

Groose looked up from his conversation with Daka Au, one of the Sheikah assigned to the Order of the Guard. He seemed less than impressed. "Good afternoon, commander."

Link ignored that, striding over to his desk to retrieve the short stack of books he had kept there. A thin film of dust had settled upon the top cover, and he ignored the pang of guilt.

"Has the princess been flirting with the bard again?" Daka Au asked, his pale eyebrow rising.

Link turned on him with a glare. "Do not speak of her that way. We are sworn to her." He inhaled deeply, forcing himself to regain his calm. Then, with a more measured look at the Sheikah, he said, "And no. This foul mood is entirely of my own making."

"Well," Sir Groose said, stretching out his arms with a wince, "you're not about to feel better."

Link paused. He looked at the grim expression on Groose's face, and set the books down once more on the corner of his desk, focusing on them fully. His errand could wait. "Why?"

Daka stood at ease, in the stance used to report to superiors. He was a slim Sheikah, silver-haired and red-eyed, like all the others, but genial and firmly loyal, and he had not taken Link's reprimand to heart. "It happened while you were away, sir."

Link approached, and though Groose stood to give him the commander's chair, Link motioned for him to remain seated. The responsibility of command was better suited to Groose, who could take Link's ideas and actually convey them to the Guards in a clear and enthusiastic way. Link, for his part, felt better suited to one on one conversations and occasionally bringing down the disciplinary hammer. Besides, he was more often at the princess' side than in these offices. So rather than take the seat that was really his, Link came to lean against the long commander's desk. "I'm listening."

"The treasury was raided again. A large uncut topaz ― the king had intended for it to be made into a new crown for the princess ― and several opals. Not to mention a few collector armour items."

"And the amber," Groose added. "A full box of raw amber shards."

Link rubbed at the bridge of his nose. "Well. That isn't good. But it falls outside of our responsibilities."

"I said as much to Master Impa," Daka Au pointed out. "But she wanted me to let you know all the same."

"Thank you, Daka," Link said. "Is that all?"

"All for now," Sir Groose said. He nodded at Daka with a smile. "Dismissed."

The Sheikah saluted sharply, bending slightly at the waist in the way of his people, then left the study. He shut the door behind him, leaving Link and Groose alone in the large room. In the evenings, many of the Guard would congregate here around the hearth to read or talk, but in daytime they were more likely to be out and about, at arms practice or seeing to their duties.

When he was satisfied they would not be overheard, Link turned back to Groose. "Why did Impa want us to know about the theft?"

Groose slicked his hair back carefully, as he did when he was busy thinking. "Well, she has been investigating every possible Yiga lead she can these past few months." At Link's frown, he motioned tiredly. "Don't worry if you hadn't noticed. She has rightly been keeping this as quiet as possible, and you've been away quite a lot."

"Well, this robbery makes her look very bad. A guard posted by the treasury could make it all stop," Link grumbled. "I'm surprised she hasn't caught the culprit yet. Why'd she have Daka tell me? Does she want us to do something about it?"

"Well, clearly this Yiga investigation takes up all of her focus. Besides, it could be that she's just displaying good will, sharing information with you even if it isn't relevant to your duties."

Link blinked, then peered down at Groose in surprise. He opened his mouth, shut it, then said, "Oh. I hadn't thought―"

"What?" Groose said, grinning. "That you got through to her?" He laughed, the sound as boisterous as the rest of him. "You can't be so blinded by the princess that you didn't notice how well the Sheikah and the Hylians have begun to get along."

"I had noticed," Link said, defensively. "But I thought they were just… Playing nice."

"You thought they were putting on a show," Groose scoffed. "Well, that would be a feat. Even I like them now. With some exceptions." Misko, no doubt. The bard still managed to be insufferable. Few of the princess' guards enjoyed having the bard butt in and impede their duties.

Link was surprised to find himself in agreement: the Sheikah were likeable, given a chance to fit in with the rest of them. "Well, at least it won't all be for nothing, then," he muttered.

"What do you mean?"

The weight of the Master Sword on his back. The pounding in his head. Link pulled a chair and let himself fall into it. "Sir Groose, I am tired."

Groose leafed through a ledger, reaching the daily taskings. "I can have Sir Pipit take over until the night. He won't mind. You can take the next few hours off."

Link peered at him in silence, contemplating the bullish man, impressed with the change that had come over him in mere months. "No," he managed. "Not physically tired." He chewed at his cheek, then said, "It's not treason to disagree with the king, is it?"

Sir Groose's red eyebrows rose high towards his hairline. "Disagreement is fine. Disobedience, though―"

"I won't disobey him," Link grumbled, looking away. The sun's rays slanted through the window, lighting a column of dust motes, and his mood was still foul. "I just…" He rubbed at his eyes, sighing. It was no good, though. He could still see Zelda, standing still as a marble statue, clenching her fists helplessly, and he could still feel the frustrated, choked anger within. "Sometimes doing nothing is the hardest. Did Master Impa ever give you that lesson?"

Groose frowned with mild disgust... or was it disdain? "No. I did not have the privilege of lessons with the Sheikah Master."

"Well, she gave me that lesson once. I thought I knew what it meant." He hadn't though. Today was the proof of that. His voice deflated, weakened. "He cut her off from her studies."

Groose blinked. "What? Who?"

"King Rhoam," Link clarified. "Today. He told the princess she cannot study anymore. Not until her power awakens."

It was a testament to Groose's loyalty to their charge that the giant red knight's expression changed, filling with sorrow. "Oh."

"I had to kneel there," Link recounted, reliving the moment, "and say nothing. I can't even defend her from her own father." He turned his full attention back on his second. "She is doing everything, Groose. Everything she can. I've never seen a girl ―anyone― push so hard at something, all without help. She has kept hope for years." He swallowed, the pit in his stomach growing. "And I can't even do anything while her own father berates her. He has no idea the struggle she is going through. He just…" Link trailed off, unwilling to finish the sentence aloud.

He just cut off her wings. Link clenched his fists against the armrests of his chair. He could still see the princess, defeated, a mere haunted shell of her former self, as she collected her books and artefacts, intent on returning them to the library, as ordered. She was broken, and he was helpless. It was the worst feeling he'd ever known.

Having watched Link trail off, Groose ventured, "What will she do?"

"We're leaving for Akkala tomorrow," Link said. "To visit the Spring of Power."

"Tomorrow is Din's Day," Groose said. "A day of prayer― a feast―"

"And she will pray," Link replied. "I'll make sure of it, as I always do. Morning and night, prayers without cease, without any reply. But if you think I will keep her here, forced to dance with the man who hurt her, watch her plaster on a smile to comfort the masses―"

"Alright, alright," Groose said, raising his hands in appeasement. He shot Link a look that Link wasn't sure he could decipher. "Settle down, there. I was only asking."

Link ran a hand through his hair. "Sorry." He exhaled slowly. "I know he's doing what he thinks is best. He thinks she doesn't take her duty seriously. But she does."

"I know," Groose said, sadly. "I've accompanied her to the prayers too." He leaned back in his chair. "But what if… What if prayer isn't the key?"

Link frowned. "Everyone says prayer is the key."

"But the previous Queen ― my mother says she never prayed at all. Or, rather, no more than any of us. And she had power."

"Well," Link bitterly said, "I won't be the one to bring that up to the king."

"I know," Groose said. "But still." He snorted. "Maybe Chancellor Cole has it right, and prayer is a complete waste of time."

"What do you mean?" Link asked.

Groose grimaced. "Nothing to worry about. Nothing as big as the hunt for the Yiga. It's just, for the past couple of weeks Chancellor Cole and the High Priest have been arguing about Chancellor Cole's refusal to even mutter a closing mantra during the consecration of food. Usually, Cole says worshipping the goddesses is a waste of time and energy. The High Priest disagrees. Then great discomfort ensues in the Sanctum." He lifted a great big shoulder in half a shrug. "Some of the Sheikah think it's a power struggle for the King's attention. Nothing useful for us."

Link barely hummed a reply, a myriad thoughts oozing through his mind. Then, at length, he said, "When did it all become such a mess?"

Groose snorted, lifting the quill from the inkwell and beginning to prepare next week's assignments. "It was always a mess. You just didn't notice until you were assigned to the princess."

There were a lot of things Link hadn't noticed before being assigned to Zelda. The way she curled up to read when no one was watching. The way she frowned when she wrote.

And other things, too: the smarminess of courtiers desperate to ingratiate themselves, the cool disdain of those whose station would not be questioned, the tension between factions at court, the subtle trading of diplomatic blows and counters, the ever-so-delicate balance of courtesy. He'd once asked Impa to explain how to navigate such a battlefield, and she'd laughed at his request.

Observe, she'd shrugged. Observe and know there will always be someone sharper, someone smarter, and be sure not to get in their way unduly.

The princess had helped a little: the high court was a market. A market of favours, of threats, of promises, a market of station and power. The greatest mark of respect one could show was to defer to another's ambitions.

It was a subtle game, a game of whispers and insinuations. He would never grasp a tenth of it. But he was beginning to understand how the forces came together, clashed, resolved their disagreements, made the kingdom function. He would never be a skilled diplomat, but at least he could handle open negotiation.

Except when the other party was the king. There was no way Link would ever be in a position to sway the king's opinion, to convince him to give his own daughter a chance at escapism.

"At least when she had her books she had something to look forward to," he said.

Groose was still watching him, the look in his golden eyes strangely difficult to identify.

"What?" Link asked, irritated. He had always prided himself on being able to decipher his second in command before. "Go on, speak your mind."

"I don't want to overstep, but… has it occurred to you that you might be falling in love with her?" Sir Groose carefully asked, frowning the way Zelda did when she studied insects under those magnifying scopes.

Link glared, and ignored the terror that suddenly made his heart begin to pound. "Don't be ridiculous."

"No, it's not ridiculous," Groose slowly continued, like a man on a tightrope. "You spend every day with her, you travel with her, you watch over her, and she is a beautiful, bright girl― who wouldn't? Surely there are worse things than falling in love with the woman you're dedicated to protecting"

"Are you sure you're not speaking for yourself?" Link asked, forcing a smile.

"Suit yourself," Groose said, with a tinge of annoyance. "But I've never seen you in such a foul mood, not even after hearing just what the whole Calamity Ganon thing was."

And that was another thing. Link was beginning to have nightmares. The Goddess version of Zelda was beginning to visit his dreams more often, especially since their return to the castle. In those feverish nights, she was alternately cajoling and sweet, or horrified and in agony. The sight of her blue eyes ― the wrong colour, but still Zelda ― was a torment and the touch of her lips, like the sweet kiss of sunlight, and waking always came with breathless relief, trapped as he was between desperate longing and terror.

And sometimes, he dreamed of Zelda, just Zelda, the Zelda he knew, the Zelda that was his, not another's. Those dreams weren't ominous, though. Waking from them was always a bit more difficult.

"Calamity Ganon," Link sighed, at last. "What if it's all a misunderstanding? What if she's doing all this for nothing?"

Groose shrugged. "We poor mortals can't begin to guess at it." He perked up. "What if we kidnapped her and ran away, far away, to another land, for a few months?"

Link pushed himself out of the chair, shaking his head. "If I make the mistake of admitting out loud to thinking about it myself, be sure to have me removed for treason."

"Well," Groose said, with a hint of understanding in his eyes, "I still bet that if you need a subtle way out of the castle, Master Impa might be of use."

"Of course," Link replied, sarcastically. "Of course the Sheikah Master would help the princess run away from everything, from her kingdom and her duty."

"It doesn't need to be so difficult," Sir Groose said, not unkindly.

But it was, Link reflected. The longing was bad enough in his dreams. It couldn't be allowed to take over his waking days.

He collected the books once more from his desk. They were a selection of treatises on Sheikah history, a compendium of Hylian and Sheikah bloodlines and ancient rules, a tome on mechanical engineering and even a small beginner's book on the power of lightning and its possible practical uses. He had intended to offer them to Zelda after finding them in the market from a wandering merchant, and found himself sneaking glances through them, desperate to understand their appeal and uncover their mysteries, if only to keep up with her.

And there were the other books ― the books he had taken almost with shame ― the books on diplomacy and law, the books on long dead kings good and bad, and even a few philosophical works on the nature of a ruler's duty to its people. He knew why he had taken those, and he wasn't about to admit any of it to himself, let alone out loud. Not with how closely Groose was watching, and how much he'd already noted.

What would he do with these now? Gifting Zelda with the first set would now be open disobedience. And keeping the second set was romantic delusion.

"I'm sure you could donate those to the library," Sir Groose said, as though he could read Link's thoughts. The books had sat on the desk for weeks, and more than one knight had already expressed interest in the titles carved and gilded on their spines.

"I guess," Link said, feeling drained of all feeling.

"Or you could tell her you're keeping them for later?" Groose asked, raising his brows significantly.

Link paused, blinked, turned. Suddenly imbued with a gentle sense of bittersweet sadness, he said, "I suppose I could."

"Well, then," Sir Groose said, with finality. He retrieved his quill and made a vague shooing motion. "Don't let me keep you, Sir."

Rather than point out that he was commander, and thus could not be so summarily dismissed from his own assigned post, Link rearranged the books under his arm and gave his second-in-command the barest of acknowledgements as he left.

Groose was right, though, big and brutish though he might have seemed. Zelda would one day awaken her powers. She had to. And when she did, no one would begrudge her going back to her studies and interests.

And until she did, he would make sure the library's collection only grew bigger for her perusal.

He entered the library as a small set of scholars exited, deep in discussion about getting a mid-afternoon snack, and nearly ran into Master Kohga.

Unusually, Master Impa's second-in-command seemed preoccupied. His red eyes were unfocused, lost in the depths of his thoughts, and his handsome mouth was pulled into a faint scowl.

"Master Kohga," Link said, too close to avoid the salutation altogether.

The Sheikah Master looked up, apparently surprised by Link's approach. Strange. It was usually nigh impossible to surprise a Sheikah, let alone to approach one this much without being noticed. And Master Kohga was quite literally a master of his arts.

"Sir Link," Master Kohga said, his expression melting into a pleasant smile that felt somewhat strained. "I'm afraid I didn't see you coming."

Or hear me, Link mentally added. "Is something the matter?"

Master Kohga blinked. "Oh," and he laughed genially. "No, of course not. Sheikah troubles. Nothing to concern yourself with."

Link took a step closer, his voice barely above a murmur. "Yiga?"

Master Kohga seemed startled. Afraid, even. "What?"

"Are you having any problems with the Yiga?" Link asked. "Because if you are, you need only say the word…"

The relief on Master Kohga's face utterly transformed him. "Oh!" He managed a weak laugh. "No. No, no." He reached out and placed a firm hand on Link's shoulder. "Bless you, boy, but we will handle those damned Yiga, no matter how threatening."

And yet only a few months ago, he'd been so sure the Yiga were no threat at all, Link observed. He kept this to himself, though. A change in posture on the matter was no small thing, but he'd be of no use pointing it out. "Should I drop by the Sheikah Sanctuary later? Maybe a new report might be in order. I was away in Lanayru, then Faron―"

"I meant it," Master Kohga said, pleasantly. "You should forget all about the Yiga. You'll never have to deal with them."

"But―"

"Honestly, boy," Master Kohga said, in a tone that, though pleasant, was beginning to sound slightly condescending, "you should focus your attention on any strange men intent on keeping the princess away from her prayers."

The attack was meant to prod Link away, and Link had read enough about diplomacy to recognize the warning for what it was. A sensitive topic, then, those Yiga. Link couldn't blame Kohga for feeling that way. But using a months-old threat ―of revealing Link's inappropriate interaction with Zelda that night, so many months ago now― seemed an extreme escalation.

Taken aback, Link forced a smile. "Duly noted," he said, peaceably, hoping to soothe Kohga's irritability. "I believe I will."

Master Kohga was back to his usual pleasant self, all trace of irritation gone so smoothly that Link wondered if he hadn't imagined it after all. "I hope she appreciates you as much as you deserve," he said, teasing. "I'm told keeping sole watch on the road can take its toll."

Link frowned. "Well, I won't be alone when we depart tomorrow― six of her guards will be coming with me."

Master Kohga's expression was undecipherable, the small smile not reaching his eyes. "Good. Very good." Then he excused himself, pleading a headache.

As Link stepped aside to watch the Sheikah Master leave the library, a strange sensation came over him, a discomfort, old and familiar, that spoke of something ancient, something evil.

Blinking at the feeling within, Link shook himself back to reality. Evil? Honestly? Master Kohga was odd, but he'd ever been loyal to Hyrule, just like Master Impa. Still, as Link turned on his heel to continue on his way, the sensation would not leave him. Unshakeable, distant, like the strange feeling of a full moon's light, like the discomfort of being watched by a wild animal in the woods, something within him ― that felt unsettlingly like a wolf ― warned of danger.

Shaking it off as much as he could, he stopped and glanced up, to the gallery lined with even more books, and found Chancellor Cole and High Priest Auru arguing again. No doubt about the Chancellor's refusal to pray. Faroresfall was upon them, and it would be followed on the morrow by Din's Day. Two holy days. Even Link and his men, on the road, would take the requisite time to bathe and make the appropriate venerations.

Judging by the animation on their faces, there was no doubt their disagreement was as fierce as Din's own fire. Link didn't envy High Priest Auru. Keeping the nobility in line was undoubtedly the least rewarding responsibility he had, but the court had to lead by example.

Chancellor Cole, short though he was, still turned away, leaning on the balustrade, as though disgusted by something High Priest Auru had said.

His eyes met Link's, and Link was surprised to see hate in them. Could it be hate? Surely not. Link had never shown anything but deference… It seemed to be a day of strange behavior. First Master Kohga, now Chancellor Cole. Maybe the fight between the king and the princess had unsettled Link more than he―

"Sir Link?"

Pulling away from the unsettling sight of Chancellor Cole's expression, Link turned to the princess. The sight of her strengthened him as surely and faithfully as a plant was nourished by the sun.

"Princess," he acknowledged, trying to will away his distraction and focus on her.

"Are those―" She motioned to the books in his hands. "Are those from my own collection?"

She was carrying her own books, evidently with the intent to return them to the library's shelves, and Link's heart sank. She seemed small, a shadow of her real self.

"No," he replied, uncomfortable. "I― These are mine." He shifted their weight in his arms, glancing briefly up at the gallery to see the Chancellor still glaring down at him, at them. He focused on the princess again. "Well, actually, I had intended them for you."

Her green eyes were limpid, and he was gratified to see a flush of mild gratitude suffuse her cheeks. "Oh." She swallowed. "I don't recall―"

"You never asked," Link smiled, sheepish. "I just… I thought you might like them. But now…" He sighed. "Well."

"Indeed," she said. Even her voice was small.

Link straightened. "But you can come to the library any time you like once your powers awaken," he reminded her. "And they will be right here, waiting for you."

She looked up at him, and once again Link worried at his inability to properly decipher expressions today. It might have been sorrow or gratitude, self-pity or… There was a name for the look in her eyes, Link just knew it. There had to be. There was no way his entire chest could feel so tight, his breath so constrained, from a look without a name.

"Thank you," she said.

"And if you have any recommendations of books for me to borrow ahead of our pilgrimage to Akkala," Link added, hoping she grasped his intent, "I would welcome them."

Now he was almost positive she looked grateful. It was enough to warm him to his toes, to make him feel the heat of summer even in such a cool, drafty room. And more gratifying still, she finally mustered a smile that reached her eyes for the briefest of moments, their shared friendship bringing light on a day of difficult blows.

He followed her to the head librarian's desk, setting his books down. As the aged librarian went to his stacks in order to retrieve his records, she picked up the treatise on the philosophy of ruling, a single blonde brow rising to her hairline, shooting him a look of amusement, and in that moment Link was confident she would make it through.

" 'A ruler must be kind," she read out loud, picking from a page at random, " 'as well as generous and honest, for it is in the service of the people that rulers are appointed and honoured.' " She shut the book, peering up at him. "Are you trying to send me a message, Sir Link?"

"I wrote you a letter on page ninety-one," he said, as deadpan as possible. "A Treatise on Terrible Poets and their Advances."

She flushed to her ears, eyes wide as she glanced around, worried he had been overheard, and her voice was barely a murmur as the librarian returned. "Honestly, Link."

His lips quirked up, pleased to hear his simple name on her lips. "Don't worry. I bought the book for myself. I was curious."

"Curious?" She asked. "What? On The Philosophy of Governance?"

"Why not?" There was no need to tell her the truth on that matter, no need to explain he dreamed of things a simple knight had no business dreaming about. "I have a command now. No one prepared me for it. I need to catch up."

"Oh," she said. There was something to that little sound, the inflection of it, that made him glance at her. She was running her fingers over the gilded lettering of the cover, and he watched her finger trace the engraved spine. "I almost thought…" She stopped herself, snorted, and tossed her hair over her shoulder. "Well, I'm not at my brightest today." Then, glancing over her shoulder, she said, "I should actually return to Misko, terrible poet though you claim he is. He promised to cheer me up."

"Cheer you up?" Link asked, trying desperately to keep his voice level, to seem only mildly invested. The bard was indeed there, and Link didn't miss the glare the Sheikah prick sent his way. Well, good. He could interpret that without too much of a struggle, and returned it fiercely.

"Hm, he composed a song for me."

"Oh," Link said, snorting. "Nothing less."

"Don't be like that," she said, primly. "He's quite good. It will be a waste if he doesn't get an apprentice one day."

Briefly, Link wondered if he was too young yet to get a squire. Probably. Maybe... Probably.

"I should…" She ran her hands longingly over the books, clearly hesitant to leave. "I should go."

"Give the bard my regards," Link said, still perfectly aware of Misko's glare. He glanced back at the gallery and found that Chancellor Cole and High Priest Auru were gone, as was, mercifully, the disquieting sensation of being in the presence of evil.

There was really something to be said for the princess' presence, he considered. She managed to make him both strong and weak at once, and she could erase unease even when she was sad. She even made him feel triumphant for every second she spent in his presence rather than the damn silver bard's.

Princess Zelda was looking at him strangely again, and he shot her a quizzical look. Then, mysteriously, her cheeks flushed and she excused herself.

As she rejoined the Sheikah bard, Link fought against the sudden disappointment of her absence. He made a fist to keep his twitching fingers from reaching out. That would be dangerous.

I should have kept her here. Made something up.

But that wasn't the protector in him speaking. It was the man.

His eyes fell to The Philosophy of Governance, and a surge of shame washed over him. He glanced back at his princess ― his princess, golden and fair, bright and good ― with that other man, silver-haired, silver-tongued and blue-blooded, and he felt a wave of crushing defeat come upon him.

Who was he kidding?

Plucking a book at random from the pile ―A Study of Sheikah Lineages, of all things―, he placed it on top of The Philosophy of Governance.

Misko's harp began to play, the tune elegant and light, a song that belied love and admiration, and even Link was stunned to hear the feeling in it. It was full of hope and longing, a sentiment Link knew all too well, and for a moment he found himself not actively hating the bard.

Which was preposterous, and clearly a sign someone had poisoned his porridge this morning.

Because if he found himself empathizing with Misko, of all people...

Shuddering in horror, Link left the library, desperate to whack a few training dummies to the ground.