Summertide dawned grey and rainy.
Between the cobblestones, puddles were forming, rippling under fat raindrops that soaked wood and thatch, glistening on tile and glass.
At the head of his Order of Guard, Link stood at attention, feeling the water drenching him through to his underclothes, plastering his hair to his forehead. And he ignored the misery his men and women radiated behind him.
Next to him, Sir Groose stood just as still, his expression grave.
On his other side, close enough for him to protect her bodily, Zelda wore a deep blue dress, which in the rain had become so sodden it seemed almost black. Her hair was matted and heavy with water, but she, too, stood silent and dignified. A flicker of her glance was all the acknowledgement he would get of his look.
In the middle of the courtyard, standing amidst brand new wood chips, a tall scaffold had been erected. The construction had happened overnight ― the urge to avoid building gallows on Dinsfall, the day before, too great an imperative to ignore.
When its dirty job was done, Link knew, the gibbet would be torn down, burned in the Castle's many fireplaces, to be forgotten before the arrival of Nayru's Day tomorrow. Hopefully it wouldn't smoke too much, and would not last until morning.
Summertide really was the perfect time for an execution.
On his high chair, King Rhoam wore the black robes of Hyrule's high judge. He had demanded that Hyrule Castle's bells ring a knell of warning in the early hours, so Link had awakened to the dreadful sound of half-muffled ringing. And he'd immediately understood, as all of the Castle and surrounding town's inhabitants had, what it meant.
Master Kohga would hang today.
Standing at attention as he did, Link still couldn't believe King Rhoam had dared it. Indignation lanced within Link with every repetitive dull gong, the muffled clappers no longer producing the high clear sounds of joy and celebration but rather the dampened mournful echo of death.
On Zelda's birthday.
Stealing a glance at the king, Link tried not to glare. Next to Rhoam, Chancellor Cole looked utterly bored. High Priest Auru, for his part, was wringing his hands, but did not seem inclined to discourage the king. It was reasoned that there was no better day to handle such unpleasant business than on the one day a year where no Goddess was worshipped.
Other lords and nobles stood behind them, each more preoccupied with their position relative to the king's throne than with the reason for their presence in the rain. And Link hated them a little for it.
On the princess' other side, the rest of court stood still ― his fellow Champions, Misko the silver bard, and the rest of the Sheikah ― as well as the lesser folk further on, the guards, the squires, the scullery maids, the cooks, the stablehands.
And across the courtyard, by the Castle gates, a cordoned-off area had been prepared for townsfolk to enter the Castle grounds and bear witness. Many had come despite the rain, standing still and loyal to their king, hushed and intimidated.
How many of them were there? Link wondered. The entire Castle had emptied, it seemed, and several hundred men, women and children stood here in the rain, waiting.
After what seemed like too long, the bells stopped ringing, the last echo fading into the din of rainfall.
And King Rhoam raised his hand, motioning for the condemned prisoner to come forward.
Master Kohga had been scrubbed clean, Link noted when the prison guards brought him out. He had been divested of his traditional Sheikah attire and put into simple trousers and a white shirt, and his hair had been untied. It fell in wet, white tendrils around his handsome face.
But he walked tall, proud, despite the hissing and shouting from the crowd.
And though Link despised the man who had tried to kill his princess, he found himself angrier still at the indignity of watching him die this way, under the hateful cries of the masses, and on this day, of all days. Master Kohga had been a calculating, manipulative bastard, but he had also been a friend in his own way, had taught him to appreciate the Sheikah when the Sheikah themselves had failed, and had inspired many of his fellow squires to make themselves impressive.
He had to die, of course... But not like this. Surely there must have been a better way.
Master Kohga, though, did not seem to hear any of the insults screamed his way. He climbed the scaffold with as much dignity as could be had while gagged and bound at the hands.
When Link had enquired about the man's family ― his woman and his boy ― Daka Au had whispered that Master Impa, who was conspicuously absent today, had gone to Kakariko to try and save them from the rage of the other Sheikah. The crimes of the father, after all, were not the crimes of the son.
And hopefully, he'd been told, the son would be entrusted to the care of distant relatives, and would never know the horror his father had tried to visit upon Hyrule. If all went well, the line of the Yiga would fade and die out with Kohga.
Still, watching Master Kohga climb the steps to his noose, Link found himself wishing Master Impa were there. She would be back in a few days, he had been promised, but that did little to help. In her absence, the Sheikah watched him ―Impa's pupil and the leader of so many of the Castle's shadow folk― for guidance.
He had no guidance to give. All he felt was numb anger.
As Master Kohga reached the top of the steps, King Rhoam stood. A new hush fell upon the assembly, broken only by the downpour from the heavens. Raising his hand in salutation to his people, the king's powerful voice boomed through the drumming rain. "People of Hyrule." He lowered his hand, but his voice did not falter. "You stand witness today to the hanging of convicted traitor Kohga of the Yiga." He turned to the Master who watched him placidly, and said, with a barely concealed snarl, "Kohga, you have been found guilty of treason for attempting murder against the heir to the throne of Hyrule, plotting to overthrow the royal family, and warmongering."
Kohga, to his credit, did not react. He had likely guessed his fate at the same time as the rest of them, when the first bell had rung in the grey dawn.
"Having been offered a last meal and final cleansing," King Rhoam continued, "you will now be hanged by the neck until death ensues. You have been asked to write your last will, which I hold here."
The King lifted a single folded sheet of parchment. It was quickly growing wet in the rain, and Rhoam put it away.
"It shall be honoured," he announced, perfunctorily. Then, his speech complete, he turned to the on-duty hangman, whose identity had been masked with a thick hood.
There were four possible executioners at any given time in the Castle, Link knew, and they always performed their duties under the protection of a mask to prevent targeted reprisals.
"Master executioner," the king said, officiously, "please discharge your sad duty with honour and expediency."
Link had been impressed by Master Kohga's composure until then, but it cracked when the noose went around his neck. Though he could not speak or gesture, the handsome Sheikah ― Yiga ― flinched, becoming rigid, and his eyes visibly watered.
Link clenched his jaw. His gut was full of lead, but he had to watch. Looking away would be a sign of weakness. Worse, in cases of treason, shows of sympathy could be damaging.
It was as he was forcing himself to focus, to think not of his emotions, to enter the Mind of the Crane, that he felt a small, cold hand touch his, the fingers achingly familiar.
It was a single moment, fleeting and barely noticeable whilst all eyes were on Kohga, but Link nevertheless glanced at Zelda, next to him, and saw she was peering at him with an expression that was carefully empty. Her green eyes were full of water ― rain, he decided ― and she seemed to beg strength from him, to demand his courage.
So he straightened imperceptibly, returning the look with fierce bravery, and together they turned back to the gallows, jaws clenched, fists closed, indignation in their hearts.
Master Kohga was standing as tall as he could, but Link could see the quaking of his shoulders, the weakness of his confidence.
There was a moment of silence as the hangman checked the knots and catches, then made a single mudra of godly devotion. It was time.
The entire courtyard had fallen silent, the only noise now the thick patter of rain and the creaking of wood as the executioner stepped back.
Link inhaled. Exhaled. Mind of the Sage. Calm. Quiet. Distant.
To his credit, Master Kohga did not make a single sound when the hangman pulled the lever and sent him dropping to his death.
Next to Link, though, Zelda made a tiny, choked sound. A cheer rose from the townsfolk as Kohga hung at the end of his rope, swaying back and forth, no sound erupting from the gag. Mercifully, Link thought, feeling sick to his stomach.
It was several minutes of waiting, and then it began to happen― the man's body began to ripple, the reflexes of strangulation beginning their work. The convulsions were weak, though, and Link forced himself to breathe. It would be another few minutes before he was still and the hangman could begin to check for a pulse. Link just had to hold out until then. And then, when the King left, they would all be dismissed for the day, and he could go be sick behind the barracks.
Eventually, the cheering began to die out, the victory short-lived, replaced with the base horror of death.
It took another few minutes for the King to request a check of the pulse. The hangman, who had come down the steps of the scaffold, reached for Kohga's swaying ankle and stood still, silently counting, feeling, palpating.
"Come on, man, just call it," Sir Groose, next to Link, mumbled under his breath, the discomfort as intense for him as it was for any trained warrior taught to fight and die in the field of battle.
After a full minute of waiting, the executioner stepped away from Kohga's limp body and turned to the King, bowing. His duty was complete.
King Rhoam nodded, and he began to clap, his appraisal of the hangman's professionalism creating a ripple of half-hearted claps from the assembly. Link and his guards did not clap. Neither did Zelda.
It was then that King Rhoam came down from his elevated throne, eager to get out of the rain. Overhead, the death knell resumed, more insistent and cacophonic than its previously measured, slow beating. A happy funeral, Link thought to himself with disgust. There was no qualifying the swirl of emotions within: relief, perhaps, but sadness, too, and a twinge of disgust at himself for that sadness.
With the King's departure, they were all dismissed and free to go about their business. The body would be ushered away by the coffin-makers for measurement, and the scaffold would be destroyed for firewood.
When Link turned to look at Zelda, he was surprised to see she was already almost gone from the courtyard, her hasty escape slowed by courtiers and slippery cobblestones. All it took was a glare from him and the sycophants left her alone. She escaped to the Castle's dry interior, which was still mercifully empty for now, collecting the thick mane of her hair and squeezing out the water onto the carpet with no care for any who might be watching. Her stride did not break. Link glanced back at Groose, who motioned for him to go on. The Order of the Guard would be well in his care.
He did not miss the looks of the other Champions either ― Revali's glare, Mipha's sadness, Urbosa's deadened eyes, Daruk's concern.
He hastened after Zelda.
He found her in her quarters, fighting with her drenched overcoat. She was pulling at the sleeve ineffectually, clearly running out of patience.
She turned to him suddenly, as though ready to scream at the intruder to leave, when she recognized him. Deflating, she said, "Oh, good. Your help. Appreciated."
Shutting the door behind him, he approached her quietly, seizing the soaking wet trim of her overcoat sleeve and holding firm. With a few frustrated tugs, she finally wrenched free, then managed to squeeze out of the other sleeve.
Stumbling away with the force of her struggle, she caught herself on an armchair. For a moment, she stood there, frozen, with her back to him. Then it seemed the morning caught up to her and she slowly crumpled, her hair covering her face in a matted curtain.
Dropping the soaked overcoat to the tiled floor, Link strode forward, pushing his own wet hair out of his face. Wordlessly, he pulled her into the circle of his arms. She let him, hiding into the crook of his shoulder and heaving with sobs.
They fell to the floor in a tangled, soaked mess, and Link felt her deflate in shuddering breaths, his heart aching. Firmly, he tucked her head under his chin, feeling his rage at the king and his selfish delight at their proximity combine into a storm of misery not unlike hers. She smelled of rain and incense, of ink and something that was strictly Zelda, indescribable and comforting, and he tried to memorize it, aware that this moment was fleeting.
Eventually, she caught her breath and began to quiet down. With a bitter smile, she croaked, "Happy birthday, Zelda," to his elbow.
He merely held her closer, relishing the feeling of her small frame in his arms. It was wrong, he knew. But it was right, too, if he told no one.
After a moment, she pulled away without a word, unable to look at him, and he let her go. It was time for both of them to change into dry clothes. She would need a maid's help. And he would tell no one of this moment of weakness on both their parts.
She did not say anything when he excused himself, did not remark on his return an hour later. She had changed into a dry day dress and was pulling a brush through her freshly cleaned but tangled hair with great frustration. Her maid had clearly given up on trying to help her with it, and turned to Link with a look that begged for his assistance. But he shook his head and wordlessly stepped aside to show her the door.
When the relieved maid was gone, he shut the door again and stood at ease, silent. Outside, the rain continued to hammer against the windows.
"You know," Zelda said in the resulting silence, "you're the only one of my male guards to stand guard inside my room."
Link caught her gaze in the reflection of her mirror. "I can leave, if you like."
She shook her head. "No, please stay," she said, deadened.
A new silence fell over them, punctuated only by the scratching of the princess' brush in her golden hair. This, Link knew, was a daily struggle for her. She often braided her hair for exactly this reason, to avoid the mess and the annoyance.
"I had a nightmare last night," Zelda said.
So had Link. He'd dreamed that she was angry with him, that she had turned to Misko for protection. He could still see her in the bard's arms, smiling lovingly, could still feel the fracture in his heart. The bard had transformed into a storm of smoke tendrils, twisted and mottled, but Zelda had seen none of it, had smiled at her beloved with tenderness that had been like a knife to the gut.
Just a dream.
"I saw a woman in white," Zelda continued, when he didn't reply. She knew his silences were often invitations. "She wanted to tell me something, but I… I couldn't understand her. No matter how I tried. I prayed and prayed and prayed, but still her voice did not come to me." The brush dropped away from her hair, and Zelda looked at her reflection in the mirror, then at his. "Not a surprising dream, all things told."
"Dreams are just dreams," Link said, though he remembered the pain and fear of his own.
Zelda nodded, but he could tell she wasn't convinced. Then, rather than look at his reflection, she swiveled in her chair and turned to look at him directly. "I hate hangings," she declared, voice weak.
Link removed the Master Sword from his shoulder and brought the scabbard down to rest, point first, on the floor. "So do I, Princess."
"Especially birthday hangings," she whispered, turning back to her vanity.
It was uncouth to speak his mind about the king's decision, so Link said nothing. Instead, he tried to change the subject to happier matters. "So. You're seventeen today," he said. He forced himself to smile. "May I be the first to make my best wishes?"
She groaned in embarrassment. "Please don't be so formal. You sound like Misko. He missed his chance to dance with me on Farore's Day, and again on Din's Day, so he tried to catch me before the hanging to ask for my first dance tomorrow." She sighed. "He's a good man, but I swear… 'O most beautiful of divinities, please grant me the indescribable honour…' " Her eyes went to her lap. "I don't think I have a birthday celebration in me, let alone a holy day's prayers. I'm glad we're leaving for Lanayru tomorrow morning."
Link was glad too, if only because it would once again deny Misko a dance. It was an ugly thought, though, and he did not share it out loud.
"I wonder," Zelda said, wistfully, "if I will be allowed to properly celebrate my birthday on Summertide one day." She leaned against her vanity and sighed. "Maybe when my powers awaken... I could stop hiding the truth."
"What would you do for your birthday?" Link asked, seizing the opportunity to be positive.
She smiled at him, but there was an edge of tiredness to it. "Would it be silly if I said I want cake? And a ball. A proper ball. Not a Nayru's Day celebration, where the first dance goes to a priest. I want handsome men to beg for my favour," she added, when Link couldn't help but chuckle. "And a beautiful dress." She trailed off, putting her chin into the palm of her hand as she leaned on the vanity. "And friends to laugh with. And my father." Her voice cracked, and she wasn't smiling anymore.
Link's own heart cracked to see it.
"He'll come to his senses," he said, hoping it was true. "He just needs time."
She didn't reply immediately. Then, after a moment, she quietly said, "I'm sure you're right."
She turned back to her mirror, and resumed brushing her hair in silence. Outside, the rain still poured.
"It's almost noon," Link said. "Should I ask the kitchen to send your meal here? I have to step out and handle a few matters for the Order, but I can assign a guard of your choice in the meantime."
She nodded. "If you don't mind― I don't think I can handle any gossip right now, so a private meal sounds wonderful. And give the guards a day off. I'm sure the other Champions will be happy to join me." She forced a smile. "We can begin discussing tomorrow's journey."
Yes, Link thought. That was a good plan, keeping her out of the public eye when she was vulnerable. And the other Champions would understand her melancholy, unlike anyone else. He half-bowed to excuse himself.
A few hours later, the rain still hadn't stopped. He found himself frowning at the scrawlings on the parchment in front of him. Somehow, in the course of Impa's absence, confused Sheikah had decided to start sending him updates on their peoples' affairs, including their investigations into the treasury thefts. Still no leads, the update said.
Link found himself rubbing the bridge of his nose. He kept forgetting about the treasury. He'd been so sure the Yiga had been responsible, though. But apparently a few more items had been found missing, no matter how many new locks were being put on the door. No sum of great consequence, which was the only reason the treasurers were not complaining to the king, but still an insult to Hyrule.
As Link released the bottom of the parchment, it furled again over his fingers and he watched the roll oscillate on the desk, his mood sour.
Next to him, Groose was discussing siege weapons with a few other knights, and a group of Sheikah guards who weren't on duty were quietly playing a game of chess.
There was no apparent reason to feel as he did, but still… When had things all gotten so muddled? Impa gone, Kohga dead, Link in charge of the rank-and-file, and the morning's execution hanging over the castle like an ill cloud. Something didn't feel right.
Leaning back in his seat, Link forced himself to find the Mind of the Crane. It was habit now to recede here, to seek his center. From here he could think on the outer world as much as his inner world, could try to pinpoint where the unease originated.
The castle had been in upheaval ever since Kohga's arrest. But even now that the man was dead, disquiet had settled around Link like a cold fog. Though the mood in the castle was subdued - from the execution and the rain, and the conflict between the Sheikah and the Yiga, and even from the strained relationship between the princess and the king - Link's instincts were prickling.
The beast within him was restless. Pacing. But why? The problem with that part of him, though, was that it expressed feelings more than rational thoughts, impressions rather than solid conclusions.
Something was wrong. Something that gave Zelda nightmares. Something that gave him nightmares. It couldn't be Kohga's phantom. The man had been alive until this morning. So what was wrong? And more importantly, how could he fix it?
As any good warrior should, he focused on his options, which were few.
For one, he could ignore it.
For two, he could attempt to right all the wrongs he perceived in hopes that it would make the problematic sensation go away, including mend Zelda's relationship with her father, find the treasury thief, put the bard Misko in his place, unite the Sheikah under a proud standard once again, force Hyrule's court to finally behave with honour, convince Zelda to marry him, rule until his death with a gentle and just hand, and defeat the Calamity if it arose.
Or, for three, he could just take Zelda to Lanayru and hope it was all fixed by the time they returned.
Groose pulled him out of his thoughts by leaning in and clearing his throat.
"Yes," Link said, blinking back to the moment. "I'm listening."
Now that he was done chatting with the men, Sir Groose had approached him alone, his helm under his arm. He was on his way to the parade grounds to ask the trainers when they could reserve some practice time in the yards. "A quick question," he said, his big chest puffed as he stood at attention. "It's the princess' birthday tomorrow."
It was on the tip of Link's tongue to correct him, but he instead said nothing and motioned for Groose to continue.
"And some of the knights and shadows wanted to know if it would be inappropriate to offer her a birthday gift before she leaves for the Spring of Wisdom."
"A gift?" Link echoed. He couldn't help a bemused smile. "Whose idea was it?"
Sir Groose rubbed at the back of his neck. "Well, several people came to me about it, and I was already thinking about it myself." He sighed heavily. "But we didn't want to give anything that would be… unacceptable."
Link was about to ask what he meant when his second-in-command pulled out a small rectangular box from his pocket. It was covered in deep pink velvet ― not an expensive colour, but close enough to the royal family's costly rich blues and purples to pass ― and when Groose pried it open, the box revealed a set of elegant earrings in sapphires and gold.
It was a spectacular gift. Far better than what Link had planned, and far more expensive than he could have afforded, even with a guard commander's pay. He looked up at Groose with surprise.
"How did you manage to afford this?"
Groose smiled. "We all pitched in. The jeweller swore it was a unique design, and begged us to give the princess his finest compliments. We were thinking of offering this on behalf of the Order."
"All of us," one of the Sheikah chess players clarified, having looked up from the game to watch.
Link shook his head slowly, impressed, though he was worried he hadn't thought of it himself. "I have no objection, and neither will she, I'm sure. She'll probably be happy you did anything at all."
"We could also wait until after her return," Groose said. "I know you're planning an early departure tomorrow morning."
That was true. It might be better to keep any formal gifts on hold until they knew the results of Zelda's prayers at the Spring. He'd be able to gauge whether she was in the mood for niceties.
There was, of course, a bit of selfishness involved: Link's gift, for all the effort involved, was far less impressive. Knowing now what he was up against, it was better to give it early and have some effect than to give it late and seem… rustic.
"Right," Link said. "That sounds like the right way to go."
And after that, he wanted to swear himself to her once more, to add to his otherwise small gift.
Thinking of that gift now, sitting hidden away in the corner of his room, Link felt a sense of trepidation. He wanted to give it today, but he feared Zelda's sadness would make her less receptive.
Well, he had to try.
"I'll be up early tomorrow," Link said, to Groose, who had tucked the box away, satisfied with the plan. "So I may miss you on my way out. You have the noon shift and onward, right?"
Sir Groose squinted in thought, then nodded slowly. "If I recall correctly."
"Right," Link said, stacking all the parchments on his desk into neat piles ― documents to archive, items to action, papers for consideration. "I've left only a few documents that can wait," he said, looking over his notes. "And I've done the schedule for the next five days so you can focus on the rest. Squire Herschel is sick again, so he won't be accompanying Sir Linebeck on duty this week. If you could give the opportunity to another squire, I'm sure the Guard Captain would appreciate the gesture." At Groose's nod, he continued, "And as far as the treasury goes, it will have to wait for Master Impa's return. I'll ask her about it after tomorrow ― we're stopping in Kakariko for one night before climbing Mount Lanayru."
Sir Groose nodded, relief evident on his face. "Have you had time to look over the applications from other knights?"
Link had. And he'd approved none. It was a good thing none of his Guards had turned out to be Yiga, but he would now wait for the Yiga threat to be formally done with before he ever took on any newcomers. "We'll have to see about it when I return," he said, noncommittally.
Sir Groose seemed to understand. "Yes, sir."
"I think that's it," Link said, standing and stretching his back. "You've handled my absences before, so do as usual."
His second snorted. "Yes, sir."
As Sir Groose took his leave, Link stopped by the other knights and shadows to wish them well while he was gone, just in case they didn't cross paths before the morning, then returned to his quarters.
He found his gift in the corner, right where he'd left it. Looking down at it seemed to turn his insides to jelly.
In the princess' quarters, next door, the Champions were still chatting, entertaining her as well as they could.
And Link realized he'd be unable to give Zelda her gift if there was an audience. He didn't want to risk teasing.
So he picked up his practice gear and made his way down to the barracks. He could hit a few dummies or other knights. Work up his courage. Pray the other Champions would be gone when he returned…
He returned to his quarters after the evening meal bell, having bathed and wiped off the grime of practice with no improvement for his frayed nerves.
He sat on his bed, looking at his innocuous gift, noticing that the rain outside had finally begun to fade into a light drizzle. That was a comfort. Hopefully they wouldn't depart in the rain tomorrow morning.
Still, the anxiety inside did not wane. He would have to forge ahead the old fashioned way: with terror.
He was surprised out of his thoughts by an unfamiliar knock at the door, and opened it to find a scullery maid bobbing a curtsy.
"Sir Link," she said, blushing. "Her highness was hoping you'd join her for a late supper, if you're not too busy."
Busy. Link tried not to laugh, or turn to Zelda's door, where the princess was most likely listening, when he articulated, "Thank you, I will be there shortly."
The maid didn't even bother to relay his message. Link chuckled and shut the door, ignoring the ball of nerves in his stomach.
Busy! The princess of Hyrule asking if he was too busy for her! That was rich. There was very little he wouldn't have dropped in a second for her, and once this was all over, he would have to make sure she knew it.
He was gratified, when he knocked at her door, to see that the Champions had excused themselves sometime during his absence. She sat at her private dinner table, drinking some more of Urbosa's voltfruit wine. There was an additional place setting, so he assumed it was for him. He placed his wrapped gift carefully on the edge of the table, and did not miss the surprised lifting of her eyebrow.
"Did you… bring me something?" She asked, suspiciously.
"Of course not," Link said. "I just like to gift wrap my cold cuts."
This did bring out a laugh. Her mood seemed slightly better than it had been earlier, possibly due to the cheerful company she'd had, or due to the wine. Probably both.
She confirmed this when she raised her glass and said, "I should warn you I have a head start."
"Are you sure you don't want the others here?" Link asked in spite of himself, accepting her invitation to begin eating ― it was a plate of fried vegetables and meats, seasoned just like Link enjoyed them.
"I told them to prepare for tomorrow. Besides, I can talk to them on the road. They insisted I have a guard with me, and I thought I should have a friend. Welcome, Sir Compromise."
Link mulled this over for a moment, then shrugged in acceptance. He oughtn't have liked the warm way her calling him a friend made him feel, but there it was. No use fighting it.
"Last year," she observed, "we fought on my birthday. And then I had supper with my father. This year," she continued, clearly in the throes of wine, "it's my father I'm no longer on speaking terms with, and you that I will have for supper. Over for supper," she corrected, hastily, before Link could even notice her mistake.
Somehow, her rectification only made Link hold in a smile. A slip of the tongue, less inappropriate than it was painful, really. And the possibilities it evoked made him glad he was sitting down.
He'd have loved to be Zelda's supper.
No. Focus. Spear the carrot, eat the carrot. Pick the lettuce, eat the lettuce.
"I, uh, have tried to read another collection of odes," Zelda continued, desperate to change the subject. Her cheeks were flushed, perhaps in part due to the wine. "But I think if I read another poem describing the delicate elegance of spring, I will throw myself out the window." It was her turn to poke at a carrot. "I miss my proper books."
"Are poems the only thing you're still allowed to read?" Link asked, frowning. "Really?"
"The only thing I dare to read," Zelda said. "I don't know if the librarians report my choices to my father, but at the very least I get quizzed by every noble and courtier I come across. Especially Chancellor Cole. That little imp has been insufferable lately. When he saw my selection, he implied I should have picked a prayer book instead. The nerve of him." She narrowed her gaze and chewed. "The hypocrisy."
Link had to agree. It was presumptuous for anyone to counsel the princess on her powers unsolicited, let alone the least devout person in the kingdom.
"But enough of my griping," Zelda said, interrupting his thoughts. "Please, tell me about your day."
So Link took his time. He explained what he'd done that afternoon, and told her who he'd scheduled where ― even in Zelda's absence, the Order of the Guard helped out with the rest of the Castle's watch. He described his uncertainty about taking on any new guards for now. He told her about the treasury, and how Impa had been evidently too busy to handle the matter, even if it was very likely that the perpetrator was Sheikah.
They discussed the value of unique, ancient clothes, as well as the market value of precious stones. She explained how gems were appraised in detail, and Link found himself asking about lightning, explaining the book he'd read on the matter. Did she think lightning could be harnessed?
This topic had filled her with joy. She had pulled her chair closer to his in order to speak in low tones ― the better, she explained, to avoid being overheard talking about her research. She had described the sheer power of the heavens, the very real and painful effect of electric shocks, the multitude of possible uses it could have if only, she mourned, there was a way to store the power generated.
They talked for a long time, and Zelda's mood improved more when the rain finally stopped and a few lingering rays of sunset broke through the thick clouds. When the maids came to clear away their meals, she resumed talk about books ― only this time she discussed legends and songs, the kind that told ancient stories.
They talked about their favourite childhood fairytales, whereupon Link swore he had believed in fairies for the longest time, and Zelda confessed she had dreamed of being swept off her feet by a prince.
"But that's actually… possible for you," Link said, squinting at her in confusion.
She blushed. "Well, yes, but my expectations have adjusted."
"Why should they need to?" Link had asked, prodding despite himself, his amusement at her line of thinking too great to ignore.
She took a long sip of voltfruit wine, then promptly changed the subject to the matter of martial skills. Link described his latest training routine, and she confessed the only proper exercise she got was horse riding, walking and dancing, the latter of which was less and less appealing with every passing day without her powers.
"Because your partners keep pestering you?" Link asked.
"But you like dancing," Link continued, "right?"
"I do," she admitted, and her face broke into a shy smile that made her look uncomfortably pretty. "But we can't dance today," she added, and the smile vanished like the sun over the horizon. "Because it's Summertide, and music is frowned upon on Summertide."
It was probably the wine, Link reflected, but in that moment he felt strangely comfortable. Comfortable enough, at least, to allow the words out of his mouth without trying to stop them: "We don't need music."
She looked at him with indulgent amusement. "Of course we do. Dancing and music go together."
Link pushed back his chair. "Well, I don't need music, at least."
She watched him stand, and her smile changed into a look of confused amazement. "You want… to dance? With me? Without music?"
He strode over to her side, bowing with the obnoxious flourish of so many courtiers, a movement so unlike him she actually grimaced. "Oh, Light of this Court," he said, "it would be the greatest of all honours if you would grant me the tremendous gift of your generous presence."
She made a gagging noise, but when Link straightened, she was observing him, clearly torn.
And then she gently slipped her hand into his. A shock ran up his arm that he tried to suppress.
Suddenly quiet and solemn, she stood, following him as he backed up into the cleared out floor between her work corner and the fireplace. Something like wonder began to unfurl inside him, filling him with sincere emotion that she had accepted his offer.
The mood had changed, the silence somehow more dangerous than the most passionate music. He could hear every one of her soft breaths, every rustle of fabric, every step. He feared she could hear his very heartbeat.
She allowed him to reach for her waist, and she straightened, as any good dancer would, their chests coming so close they brushed ever so slightly when they inhaled at the same time.
And though Link was focusing on his posture, when he looked up into her green eyes, all rational thought was gone.
From up close, she was vulnerable, real. He could see tiny flecks of darker green in her eyes, and could see the tiny creases in her pink lips, he could see the faintest smattering of freckles across her cheekbones, the impossible length of her lashes. He could trace the contour of her cheekbones down to her chin, see the rosy tint of her skin, notice the stray strands of golden hair that had fallen out of her braided crown.
Swallowing hard, he tried to force himself to commit every sensation, every observation to memory. What else could he do? Would he ever have another moment like this one? She was a grown woman now, fit for marriage if she chose. Perhaps the next man to see her like this would be her husband.
Lucky cursed bastard, whoever that would be.
Her eyes flickered between his, and her lips quivered before she pressed them together into a smile.
"Well," she whispered, her breath fanning against his jawline, "I believe you must lead, Sir Link."
In the silence, he took a step. She followed, her eyes on his, intent on dancing to the best of her ability. It was the same dance as the one they'd performed on Farore's Day, but without an audience the experience was less transcendent and far more… mortal. Knee-weakening. Captivating.
She followed him with her usual, natural ease, and he led with the same meticulous effort. They turned on the carpet, then stepped back to the flagstone floor, moving along the room in the simple silence of rustling movement, moving to a pace and a tune that Link was sure he could hear, if he listened closely enough.
And she was soon smiling, breathless with the delight of moving, absorbed by the moment as much as he was. It was such a lovely sight he caught himself returning the smile, unable to help himself.
She tapped his shoulder once, so he allowed her to move out of his embrace, turning under his arm, extending into the middle of the room, before gently returning to the cradle of his elbow, and he leaned her back, holding her firm, so that she could extend her hand backward over her head and touch the floor, laughing breathlessly.
She had never been more beautiful than she was in that exact moment.
When he pulled her up and her eyes met his once more, her smile faded slightly, replaced with a look of vulnerable confusion.
They weren't moving anymore. All Link could hear now was the deafening rumble of blood in his ears, the deep pounding of his heart, the rush of air in his lungs.
And that desperate, hopeless emotion he kept pushing away was everywhere, running through every fiber of his being.
Her hand moved on his back, her lips parted, the confusion on her face mesmerizing.
Suddenly, her lashes fluttered. She looked away. He allowed her to pull out of his arms. She braced a single hand on the back of an armchair, exhaling shakily. And she glanced back at him, and her chest heaved like she wanted to say something, and then she let out a nervous breath, and Link knew that she was thinking what he was desperately trying to remember: princesses need princes, not knights.
"Um," she finally managed, as jovially as possible, even as Link struggled to find his own voice again, "I― uh― I didn't think dancing without music was possible."
"Just…" He was breathing hard, as though he'd been running. "Uh… Just testing the hypothesis."
"Right," she let out a breathy laugh. "It's mere scientific procedure." She wrung her shaking hands together. "And I think the results are… er… conclusive."
Skies above, seas below, he wanted to kiss her. He desperately wanted to kiss her. He had never wanted anything this desperately in his entire life.
He needed to get out of this room and her apartments. He needed to dunk himself in the moat. He needed, more than anything, to get out of her immediate vicinity.
Mercifully, she seemed to decide that lingering on the moment was dangerous, because she brought her hands together and forced some cheer into her voice. "Well, Sir Link, I notice you still haven't unwrapped your cold cuts."
Her eyes were sparkling with humour and hope he would follow her lead, and the need Link felt faded somewhat, replaced with pained but fond amusement. "Because I lied. Those aren't cold cuts."
She feigned shock, raising a hand to her chest. "No."
Link strode over, ignoring the way her proximity made him feel warm, and plucked the small gift off the table. "I know. Knights should never lie." He held the box in his hands now, wondering why he hadn't settled for some pretty jewellery too. "I should be cast out."
She scoffed. "Don't be ridiculous. How would we defeat Calamity Ganon without you?" She raised the back of her hand delicately to her forehead, and added, "I fear we shall have to put up with you for a while yet."
Link managed a nervous laugh, but it lacked sincerity. It seemed not a day went by without one of them mentioning the Calamity. It hung over them like the veil of Summertide itself, all year long, dampening their joys, deepening their sorrows.
If the very nature of the Calamity was simply to ruin their day, Link considered venomously, it was succeeding. He could never think of it without a pit of panic in his gut, nor without imagining Zelda in its grasp, helpless, and him too weak to save her.
Blinking, he looked up at his princess. She had caught his train of thought by the look on his face and now mirrored his grim expression, the moment of humour completely gone.
"I apologize for bringing the matter back to the table," she said. "I just… I seem to think of little else lately."
He thought of little else too, when other matters didn't take over his focus. "That makes two of us," he breathed. In his hands, the wrapped box was growing heavy, and he shifted his weight. "But," he continued, hesitantly, "we don't have to let it ruin your day." He extended his gift to her with his heart pounding in his ears.
She accepted the box with a gentle smile. "Thank you." She traced the paper and added, "I hope you know this wasn't necessary."
Link was too tongue-tied to reply. It was, in his humble opinion, absolutely necessary.
She gently unwrapped the box on the edge of her dining table, revealing the box within and the small note of address, which she plucked off.
"To a friend," she read, "from a friend." Her eyes lifted from the card and met his, with a strange emotion in them that he didn't recognize, and she gave him a brief, shy smile before returning her attention to the box.
She lifted the cover, and Link shifted his weight nervously. She then retrieved the object within with both hands, raising it out of the box and looking at it with growing confusion.
"A pot of dirt," she said, now eminently baffled. She turned the pot delicately on itself to study the patterns on the clay. Now her eyes jumped to his with dancing amusement. "A pot of dirt, Sir Link?"
He couldn't help but chuckle, too. He had known it would look silly at first glance.
"It's not just a pot of dirt," he explained, and she placed it on the table with a look of keen entertainment. "It's… it's a gift of hope."
Her eyebrows went up to her hairline, and she stifled a laugh. "Indeed?" She asked, and he found himself smiling in return.
"I turned the clay myself," he explained, and now her smile faded, and she looked at the pot with a new expression that might have been surprise… or admiration. "From clay Urbosa gathered in Gerudo desert. The dirt itself," he added, "is from the finest fields of Tabantha, courtesy of Revali. I mixed in some of Daruk's Death Mountain ash, for fertilizer, and watered it with Mipha's pure Zora's Domain springwater."
Her smile was completely gone now, a strange new emotion on her face that made her eyes glisten. "And―" she started, but her voice cracked and she took a moment to compose herself. "And," she reprised, "what should I expect it to grow?"
Link licked his lips, feeling both proud and foolish at once. "Well," he said, embarrassed, "I, uh, I went out to the field and collected a few bulbs―" He cleared his throat. "And I hope I did it right― I asked the gardeners for help, so if it doesn't work you can blame me for not following their instructions properly― but with time, if I did everything right, then maybe we'll see it grow a Silent Princess or two." He pursed his lips, rocked on his heels back and forth, and added a nervous, "Hopefully."
Her eyes went to the innocuous-looking dirt, her expression unreadable. Instantly, Link felt ridiculously embarrassed. He really ought to have brought jewellery. This had been a bad idea.
But when she looked back at him, she looked utterly vulnerable. "A gift of hope," she repeated.
"Right," Link said, seizing on the desperate idea that she wasn't completely appalled. He strode forward and motioned vaguely to the pot. "I know it's never been cultivated before," he said. "And I know you said that no one has managed it yet. But…" He was struggling with his words, his tongue tripping over itself. "But," he continued, firmly, "just because it hasn't happened yet―" He looked her in the eyes, and now he saw the warm green of fields, and her lips parted. "―Just because it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean it will never happen."
He fell silent, peering at her with the burning hope that she would understand his meaning.
She did. Her eyes watered, and one of her hands went to her mouth, and she inhaled with a shudder. Her gaze fell to the pot on the table, and she was silent for a long moment.
Then, eventually recovering her ability to speak, she said, "I… There's a shelf in my laboratory―" She motioned to the tower outside, and the parapet that lead to it. "It sits under the window that looks west, and grows warm from the afternoon sun." She pressed her lips together, then relaxed and gave him a warm, grateful smile. "I think that is where it will fare best."
He was tongue-tied. Somehow, they were close once again. She was looking at him with sincere appreciation, a look that he wanted to remember forever.
He wanted to kiss her. He wanted to reach for her and pull her in and kiss those lips and run his hands through her hair… He wanted to hold her, to feel her on him, to know what she looked like waking up in the morning. He wanted to discover her, learn every part of her, every thought. He wanted to touch, just touch, just gently―
It was fortunate that at this moment one of his Sheikah knocked at the door, ready to take up the evening guard.
"Reporting for duty, your highness," Shae's cheery voice called out.
Duty. Gods damn it all to the darkest, deepest circles of the dark realm―
No, he reminded himself. Good knights did not think this way. He needed to get out.
"I―" He straightened, clearing his throat. "I, uh, I've held you up. I should―" He looked away, trying to still the racing pulse in his veins. "I should finish preparing my saddle bags for the trip tomorrow." He didn't know where to put his hands, so he gestured lamely. "I'm... glad you like my gift."
"I do," she said, her smile growing fixed, nervous.
"Good," he said, backing up, striding to the door, and twisting the doorknob. He paused, looking back at her. "Uh― Happy birthday, Princess."
She shot him a small, genuine, sad smile that turned his insides to jelly, so he turned on his heel and escaped, startling Shae, who had been leaning against the door. With an embarrassed nod, he acknowledged the Sheikah guard and strode away firmly. It didn't help that he noticed a tiny smirk on her face as soon as she recovered.
He needed to down a hearty tankard of hard ale.
After all, what else could a good, proper knight do?