"And then what happened?"
Zelda cradled her teacup between her hands, feeling the heat leach into her fingers. She glanced up at Paya and studied the way the Sheikah girl's expression conveyed genuine concern. She admired her for it. Sometimes Zelda felt she had lost her ability to experience feelings the way normal people did. When she wasn't caught up in a veritable storm of emotion, she felt numb, distant, much like a third-party observer to her own life.
But Paya was still waiting for a response, so Zelda inhaled and said, "And then that was it. The story was over. Link thanked me and walked away."
Paya's pale brow furrowed in sympathy. "It's a lot to handle. I'm sure he just needs time to... accept it."
No doubt. But Zelda had seen more in Link's eyes, a sorrow without words. His gaze had darted up to look at her, uncertain, and he had seemed on the verge of saying something. But he'd said nothing, in the end. His gratitude had been distant, faint. One did not often hear tell of the day one died, or near enough.
What hope she'd had, Zelda remembered, her hero's broken body in her arms, and that faint ember of conviction that he could yet live. What faith she'd entrusted in the Sheikah ― Purah and Robbie swearing to take him safely to the Shrine of Resurrection, and her left with the Master Sword, trembling and afraid, suddenly aware of the enormity of her task.
They'd borne her heart away with them, and her courage too.
Even now, awash in the memory of those dark days, Zelda could feel the nearness of her sorrow. She had returned to Hyrule Castle from the Great Hyrule Forest a changed woman, stripped of all ties but one, faintly bolstered by the merest encouragement from the ancient Tree, with no hopes or ambitions, no life remaining for her to salvage.
She'd climbed the Hill once more, had nursed the new, tender glow within as one stokes a fire, all trace of hunger and discomfort now a distant reality rather than an urgent need.
And then the Calamity had engulfed her, and her long battle and imprisonment had begun.
Zelda forced herself to take a sip of tea. It burned on the way down her throat, but it helped to push away the recollection. The memory of the Calamity diving to capture her, with its festering rage and mad triumph, still caused her heart to seize, her breath to grow shallow. She focused on the burning.
What terrible things the Calamity had shouted at her ― in those early days every horror was new, every attack unexpected. From all sides, Ganon had gladly poked and prodded, tormented and mocked. And Zelda had pushed back, afraid, feeding its rage with her fear.
It had taken a few months for her to understand how to hide her reactions, and a decade to learn Ganon's methods. Not that it always helped, but…
They'd been each others' prisoner. The hate and the love it had taken from her to remain, to remember why she was doing it― her only tethers had been tested, her only alcoves of sanity assaulted endlessly. In those darkest of days, she'd almost learned to love Ganon. It was a monster and full of hate, but she had seen the way it reacted when she expressed pity, had sensed the torment within that mirrored her own.
In that age of battle and mingled existence, Zelda had become a force of nature to rival Ganon, in her own right, had allowed herself to be as unrelenting, as viciously brilliant as her enemy, had shielded herself in a golden glow, had plunged her mind into the safety of memory.
Even now, as she focused numbly on the burning of her tea, Zelda could bring to mind, with nary a moment's thought, the memory of Link's smiles, of Urbosa's warm embrace. She could recall Revali's devotion, Mipha's gentle touch, Daruk's booming laughter. And her father ― distant but well-intentioned ― and the way his eyes crinkled with love when she climbed into his lap. What shields they had been, even in death, summoned with growing ease when she needed them.
She had seized the opportunity to help Link remember, because memories had been her only salvation for a century.
Yet he had remembered everything already. The mystery of his lie didn't hurt ― it confused. He hadn't needed her help, but he'd pretended. And she'd obliged, through the pain and the embarrassment, the sadness and the nostalgia. It had been almost easy. Memories were her protection. She knew them well, better than anything else. One by one she had exposed every link in her chainmail, had lovingly caressed them as though they were properly tangible. And Link had indulged her, had listened attentively, had encouraged her.
It had been a long, slow process, and now that it was over Zelda felt… numb, all feeling completely drained out of her.
Link still had questions. She was almost certain of it. But she dreaded answering them. Now that the past had been laid bare, it seemed all of her secrets were plain to see, all the little remaining obfuscations standing out in stark relief. And she feared Link would waste no time picking at them, until everything that she was became starkly visible, in its raw, mortal, fallible glory.
Perhaps that was why he'd retreated yesterday, once she had finished speaking. Perhaps he had some decency, would allow her to keep what secrets she'd clung to.
And somehow, ironically, the thought of it scared her. It was easier to focus on the burning than it was to fear he might never ask anything of her again.
"I have faith," Impa said. She hadn't spoken in a long while. "He will mull it over and return to us refreshed."
Link. Link. Link. He'd absconded early that morning, saddling his horse and riding out of Kakariko with the dawn. Zelda had been advised of it only moments ago, over breakfast, when Paya had asked whether something had happened between them.
He would return, Zelda insisted to herself. He had responsibilities now. But he was allowed to escape the crowds ― skies knew Zelda would have wanted to do the same after the tale.
She shifted her position, untucking her feet from under her to stretch her legs. She still marveled at the feeling of stretching. "I know he will return," she said, softly, as Paya and Impa continued to nibble at their meals. "But I would not blame him for needing to grieve in peace."
"If he already remembered," Paya said, frowning, "then surely he already has grieved. Why should he do so again?"
Impa's wrinkled face stretched into a sad smile. "Grief comes and goes, child, as you well know." Her pointed look turned to her, and Paya's red eyes softened with distant sadness. She had lost both her parents, and Impa had lost her own child, so that now the two women clung to one another.
Zelda was sad she'd never known Paya's parents, for the grief in the house sometimes still lingered like dust suspended in the air.
"Grief is healing," Zelda said, softly. "It is the only way to accept what cannot be changed."
Impa's gaze was sharp on her face. "Indeed." She put down her chopsticks and studied her intently. "Such wisdom from such a young face."
Zelda's brow furrowed. Impa's tone remained gentle, but there was underlying asperity in it. "Master Impa?"
"We speak of Link endlessly," Impa said. "Of his deeds and his courage and his sorrow. But he was not the only one suspended for a hundred years, was he?"
Zelda's smile was lopsided and less than heartfelt. She reached for a rice ball and placed it in her plate. "I could be content to never be mentioned again, frankly. I would wish for the entire ordeal to disappear completely from history, to be nothing but a footnote, if it meant people would stop looking at me as though I am still the incarnation of some divine power."
"Aren't you?" Paya asked.
It was a fair question. But Zelda tried not to flinch.
She hadn't felt the power in a while. It was still there, if she delved deep within herself. But it was fading, less like a dying ember and rather like a ghost, present one moment and fleeting the next. She knew it was fading because she had begun to feel hunger again, and exhaustion again, and vulnerable again, with the same unrelenting constancy as any other mortal person. Gone the suspension of time. She would age again. She would begin to change again. It was terrifying. It was… liberating.
"Hylia's power is leaving me," she said, in reply. She whispered it almost, for fear it could be overheard. "Soon it will be gone. Maybe in a month. Maybe in a year. Soon there will be nothing left in me other than me."
"You're worried Hyrule's people will no longer want you," Impa guessed.
But Zelda smiled sadly. "On the contrary, Master Impa. I'm worried Hyrule's people will need me." She pushed her rice ball around her plate idly. "If need should come, I will be utterly useless. It's an uncomfortably familiar feeling." As Impa knew only too well.
"You don't have to," Paya said, with more force than either Zelda or Impa would have expected. The girl realized her outburst and flushed. "I'm sorry," she gasped. "It's just…" She lowered her gaze. "It's just that Master Link, and everyone else, have worked very hard to ensure you had a choice."
A choice? Zelda blinked at the girl, as through a cloud of cotton. "I'm sorry, Paya, I don't understand."
"We offered you the crown," Paya said. She cast a quick look at Impa, then amended, "I mean, the council. It was a gift. But you…" She hesitated. She evidently had not thought it all through. Her face was bright red. "You left the meeting. It wasn't what we wanted. We didn't want to make you afraid."
Zelda could still imagine the weight of that crown on her head, the responsibility. "I know, Paya."
"But that's what you don't understand," Paya insisted. "It is a choice. Everything is a choice. Your place in Hyrule, the role you will play in it ― you can choose."
Zelda smiled, but she knew it was a hollow expression. "Thank you, Paya. I appreciate the gesture."
Master Impa snorted. "You still don't understand. It's not a gesture. It is a genuine expression of respect. She isn't kidding, you know. Link has worked tirelessly to ensure Hyrule can continue on with or without your help. Every single one of us has agreed you deserve to choose, for once in your life."
"But you don't expect me to walk away," Zelda said, reasonably. "The only path for me is the path that honours my birth."
Master Impa shook her head. "If you decided to walk away, the council is entirely equipped to function. That is its very purpose." She looked at Zelda pointedly. "And for what it's worth, you have honoured your birth. More than anyone ever could. Your duty is discharged. Your future can now be entirely decided by the whims of your heart."
Her heart. Skies.
Somehow that was more daunting than anything else.
If you really think what you did that night was wrong…
Her thoughts, and any reply she may have formulated, were interrupted by a gentle knock at the door.
"Enter," Master Impa said, lifting another rice ball to her mouth.
The panel slid open, and Zelda found herself greeting Elders Uma and Rozel, as well as Masters Tasseren and Hudson. The four Hylian leaders filed in, and Master Impa invited them to eat, if they were hungry.
"No," Elder Uma kindly said. "That will not be necessary, thank you." But they sat nonetheless, out of politeness.
"We will not be keeping you for long, Elder," Tasseren said, to Impa. "In fact, we have come to consult with Princess Zelda. We looked for Councillor Link, but were told he had taken leave of Kakariko this morning."
"He will no doubt return ere long," Master Impa reassuringly said.
"If these are Hylian matters," Paya said, softly, "would you like us to give you a moment?"
"Absolutely not," Elder Rozel said, indignantly. "And deprive you of breakfast in your own home? I'd never."
"We won't be but a moment," Tasseren insisted.
"Very well," Zelda said, primly. "How may I be of assistance?"
"Here are the facts," Elder Uma said, gently. "Hyrule's initial matters are resolved. Indeed, I think there are very few items that still need discussion by council. Nayru's Day approaches quickly, and with it the inevitable end of summer and the dissolution of this summit, so that every race may return home in time for the autumn harvests."
Zelda nodded, unsure of the issue at hand.
"But there are still smaller matters," Elder Uma continued, "that need to be addressed. Not the least of which is a memorial."
"A memorial?" Zelda echoed, confused.
"To the fallen," Elder Rozel clarified.
It was strange, but Zelda's mind seemed to blank. She watched the Hylian leaders, blinking, feeling the workings of her mind crawl to a slow, muddied stop. "A memorial to the fallen?"
Hudson was carrying a rolled up parchment. As Paya cleared a spot on the table, he unfurled it gently so that Zelda could better understand what he was talking about.
It was a statue, quite large, and though Hudson gave the impression of a burly, unrefined man, the marks on the parchment were elegant, precise, and demonstrated an artistic comprehension worthy of a master's.
"It would be quite tall," Elder Uma said, as Zelda leaned over the proposed plan. "And we would need skilled carvers and models to render proper likenesses of each character represented."
The monument was a touching composition ― warriors of each race were prostrate before the Triforce amidst sculpted rubble. They were in the throes of death, yet their hands reached up with hope, supporting the Triforce as one.
The Hylian knight could have been Sir Groose. Or Sir Osfala. Or any one of the hundreds of knights who had pledged themselves to her protection.
"We would carve a plaque, as well," Tasseren said. He unfolded a smaller scrap of parchment he'd kept in his vest and handed it to Zelda.
She licked her lips, her eyes landing on the words.
In memory of the lost and the fallen, dead to the great Calamity
In the reign of High King Rhoam Bosphoramus of Hyrule,
Your passing can never be undone,
Your deeds will pass into legend,
Your memory shall never be forgotten.
A drop of water landed on the parchment, and Zelda studied it confusedly.
And then another fell on her hand, and she realized her hand was trembling.
She could not find her voice. It was gone, and she could no more summon words than summon magic from prayer. She peered up at the Hylian representatives, through a blurry veil, and nodded.
"Excellent," Tasseren said, as Elder Uma patted her hand kindly. Hudson rolled up the plans and pushed himself to his feet.
"I'm glad you approve," Elder Rozel said, and Zelda merely looked at him, numbly, in a way that made him smile at her sadly.
They excused themselves, and neither Impa nor Paya held them back. They were looking at Zelda as one studies a fire lizard.
There was something in the hollow of her chest. It writhed and twisted, and each wring made new tears rise in her eyes, so that they were soon pearling down her cheeks one by one.
But Zelda was numb. Even while that tortured little thing in her chest continued to curl and ache, she had become transfixed, as still as the monument she'd just approved.
She'd spent ages rehashing the past. She'd walked those pathways as one walks through a familiar garden. And Link had forced her to walk through once again, had forced her to tell the truth.
The unchanging, unalterable truth.
Your passing can never be undone.
The tears were hot in her eyes. Her throat was dry.
Her hands were clenched in her lap, firmly, but she could feel the tremor in them all the same.
The tears were different when they came. They came like the dust before a rockslide, like the silence before the wall of clouds.
Your passing can never be undone.
When the sobs began to wrack her entire body, she had no strength to fight them. From within herself, she heard herself wail, breathlessly, and soon she abandoned herself utterly to the inevitable.
So when Master Impa reached over and touched her shoulder, she crumpled.
The grief possessed her entire body, moving through her like a storm, overpowering, unstoppable. She had felt sorrow before, but she'd always been in control. This, however, was beyond her ability. It stole what breath she could gasp, what strength she could harness, what composure she'd once mustered.
The hollow was suddenly full to the brim, and that tortured thing in her chest was her heart, squeezing, pulsing, writhing with agony.
There were a hundred lonelinesses assaulting her. What words she had not said, what embraces she had not given ― what gifts she'd willingly give to unmake the past.
Your passing can never be undone.
The tears were endless on her face. They flowed and flowed and flowed, and she cried earnestly, burying her face into Impa's lap, her whole body quaking so hard she feared she would hurt the elderly Sheikah.
But Impa's hand was firm on her back, caressing. And Paya's hand ran through her hair. They were talking to her, their voices as soothing as they could make them, but through the haze of her sorrow Zelda heard nothing.
"It's not fair!" She gasped, between sobs. "It's not fair!"
She'd been imbued by divine power. She had fought a demon for a century. Even now, as her power faded, she clung to it desperately. What good could come of such strength now? What was the point? She'd saved Hyrule, but that Hyrule was empty to her.
Your deeds will pass into legend.
They would, she swore to herself, through the rage of her tears. She had clung to her story, but it was the story of countless others, too. She gasped for breath as the fury of injustice made her teeth clench against the sobs.
The howl came from within, primal and angry and broken, and she buried it into Impa's lap, gripping the Sheikah's clothes so hard her knuckles were white.
Your deeds will pass into legend.
She had won, in the end. The Calamity and all its horrors hadn't triumphed. No matter that they whispered in the night, no matter that their memory would haunt her forever. She had won. She had waited it out, as one hunts a prey with persistence, as one loses the battles to win the war.
She had trampled her dignity, had quashed her pride. She had endured, as surely as time itself. She had outlasted even her Castle of stone and mortar, whose crumbling ruin had been the tomb of so many.
She had held fast, because no one else could. It had taken everything and everyone from her.
But she had lived to see the end of the Calamity. She'd had her vengeance. For her father, and Urbosa and Mipha. For Daruk and Revali, and Sir Groose and the Order of the Guard. For the citizens of Castleton and the many, too many peoples of Hyrule who had been in the path of destruction. For Link, and Mabe Village.
For herself, and a life of pointless guilt.
Your memory shall never be forgotten.
The tears were still hot on her cheeks, but her sobs were subsiding. Her breath came hard, her body was exhausted.
And yet in that place that had only moments ago been hollow, then filled with a tide of grief, the waters were growing still.
The stillness was unfamiliar. It was made of pain and loss, and yet it felt solid, like an anchor. It weighed within her like a ballast, heavy and unyielding, and it came to rest in that place she had refused to fill, that place where her love had once rested before loss had ripped it out of her. She had never wanted to touch it again, the hollow, the emptiness like a gaping wound that proved they had all once existed.
Now the calm settled into that wound, filling it with all the memories and regrets, all the embraces and the laughter, all the tears and the distance, raw and painful, yet quiet and true.
Your memory shall never be forgotten.
The stillness contained all that she felt. And yet, somehow, she knew that one day, this still part of her would be filled with a mosaic of recollections, joy and pain, gain and loss, justice and vengeance, life and death, a picture of love so poignant and honest that no words existed to speak it aloud. Someday, the grief wouldn't cut like a knife anymore. Its jagged edges would smooth with time. Already, she realized, it was happening. The grief was engulfing her… but it didn't hurt as badly. Her tears flowed hot, but her breath was calming. Her body was weakening, surrendering to the stillness as one surrenders to sleep.
When many long, silent moments later she pulled away from Impa, she was numb once more.
But for the first time in an age, she wasn't hollow. Now it seemed the world was right on its axis, and she felt like all the walls were gone. And somehow, shedding them made her feel lighter.
Impa handed her a cloth to wipe her face, and Zelda accepted it, blowing her nose loudly.
The silence stretched, as though in response to a powerful gong. Bracing herself, she looked up.
Paya's eyes were tearful, Zelda realized, and her heart softened to think of the sympathy needed to feel so genuinely. Such a precious ability. She shot her a small smile, and Paya returned it.
Even Impa, Zelda noticed, when she finally managed to look at her, seemed weakened by emotion.
Taking a deep breath, the old Sheikah said, "I'm sorry for your pain. But I'm glad it's come out."
Zelda inhaled deeply. She hesitated, and new tears flowed, feeling blessedly comforting. "I thought I had mourned them already." Her lip trembled, but she managed to continue. "I don't think I had fully accepted their absence."
"As long as you couldn't accept it, you couldn't put them to rest."
Of course. She had thought a hundred years would put enough distance between her and the pain. But the pain had to be felt before it could heal.
"They deserve rest," Zelda agreed, almost in a whisper. She forced herself to smile, and was surprised, for the briefest instant, that it required less effort than she had thought. After a long moment of ponderous exhaustion, she said, in a lighter tone than before, "What a lovely thought, that monument."
"It truly is," Master Impa said. "One couldn't imagine a better way to honour the dead."
They settled into a pensive silence. Hesitantly, Paya resumed eating, once her stomach began to growl.
And then Zelda felt the pit in her own stomach. Suddenly aware of the food before her, she realized how hungry she really was. She reached for her abandoned rice ball and plopped it into her mouth all in one go, chewing slowly, as though she had once again trudged through rain and mud for days.
A low laugh came from Impa.
"That's the spirit," she chuckled. "Nothing like food to put one back on one's feet."
Zelda managed a lopsided smile, embarrassed. "I'm ravenous," she admitted, mouth full.
"Crying is exhausting," Impa shrugged. "But make sure you chew. Link tends to forget. It's a right mess when he's in a hurry."
Zelda snorted, though she didn't reply before shoveling another rice ball into her mouth. "I know. I'll have to teach him table manners again."
"If he lets you," Impa said.
Zelda finished her bite, and washed it down with tea. It had cooled down considerably and burned a lot less on the way down. And for once, Zelda was glad of it. "He won't have a choice if he wants me around," she said.
"Is that so?"
Zelda lifted her gaze to look at Impa. The elderly Sheikah was watching her with a light in her eye that Zelda recognized only too well. She straightened.
So. Link had orchestrated choices for her. He'd gone out of his way to ensure Hyrule would survive no matter what. He'd arranged for her to regain control of her life, in whatever method she wished.
In rehashing their past, he'd set the stage for her to accept her losses. And he had worked on himself, too, had inquired and prodded, had sought answers.
He still had questions ― she thought she could guess which. And though the pain was still near, she felt she could, one day, work her way to answering them.
Of course, she didn't have it all figured out. Not yet. But there was one element of her future that she was no longer willing to go without.
So when Paya and Impa studied her with that obvious look of cheeky curiosity, she thought she owed them some cheekiness right back.
"Well," Zelda said, primly, "I suppose we shall have to find out when he returns."
It was gratifying, she decided, to see the two Sheikah exchange smiles, for once.