By the time guests began filing into the throne room the following evening, there was a thick carpet of snow on the ground and icing the roofs of all the houses in Pallis. Fat flakes were still lazily falling, but the snowfall wasn't so heavy that it made travel difficult.
"What a perfect day for a coronation," Sir Elgon said, when he came to see Link shortly before the service.
"If you say so," Link said less enthusiastically. He had put on two linen shirts under his silk and velvet cote. Despite that—and the fact that he was wearing velvet hosen, too—he still felt chilled.
Sir Elgon simply laughed. "Snow is considered fortunate for us—like rain for your farmers. We get little rain in the summer; it's the winter snows and the runoff from the summer melts that provide us and our grain fields with water year-round."
"Even though we appreciate rain, that doesn't mean we want it to be raining on special occasions," Link argued.
Elgon only laughed again. "Snow isn't just important for water; it's part of our heraldry—and our identity. We are a winter kingdom—just as Hyrule is a summer kingdom. For us, snow is a good omen. Besides," he added, "it's pretty."
Link couldn't argue with that; the view from every window in the castle was picturesque.
Elgon left to see to the final arrangements and Link went to Zelda's room.
"How's it going?" he asked. Zelda was sitting at the dressing table while a servant girl fixed her hair. She was already dressed in Rayliss's pink gown that was trimmed in white fox fur.
"I'll be ready in a minute," she replied.
He came to stand closer, so he could fully look her over. "I do like that dress," he said.
She smiled. "That was one of the reasons why Rayliss wanted to give it to me—she remembered that you liked it."
"What about that dress that you wore to the party? That silver one. Do you get to take that home?" he asked with a grin.
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
"I'd love it."
"You better beg Aunt Austina for it, then, because it was hers. …Although I don't know if you could beg hard enough to get me into it again."
"Oh, I bet I could," he said with his old cocky grin.
The serving girl placed Zelda's crown on her head a moment later and pronounced herself done.
Zelda looked in the mirror. Some of the hair forward of her ears had been pulled up, but a little hank had been left hanging down in front of her ears on both side. This had been looped into a somewhat elaborate knot in the middle. The rest of her hair hung down straight in the back.
It was a simple hairstyle—one that didn't detract from Zelda's dress—but it seemed to emphasize her ears.
"I like it," Zelda pronounced.
"Do you require anything else, Your Majesty?"
"No, thank you."
The girl bowed, then hurried out of the room, on to her next chore.
"She asked me if I wanted to hide my ears," Zelda said, as she admired herself in the mirror for another moment.
Zelda laughed and turned to look at him. "This from the man who used to keep his covered all the time."
"Yes, and you haven't seen me do it since I was discovered, have you? I never did it out of shame—only to avoid being killed."
She held out her hand and he took it and helped her to her feet. "Shall we go to the hall?"
"I'm ready if you are."
They started towards the door, but Link suddenly stopped partway there. "Oh, I almost forgot. Did you bring your sword with you?"
"Yes, of course," she said, as if he was silly to even ask.
"May I borrow it?"
She shrugged. "Sure. It really is yours, after all."
She pointed it out to him; it was propped up, half-hidden, between the nightstand and the bed. He quickly strapped the belt around his waist and resumed his place at her side. "I thought it would be fitting to wear it here," he explained.
"Definitely. …Provided they will let you wear arms in the Queen's Presence. Remember everyone was scandalized that I let you do it."
"I said something to that effect to Elgon, but he said here it would be odd for a knight or nobleman not to be armed."
"That doesn't surprise me in the least."
When they stepped out of the room, they found the family wing of the castle quiet and deserted, but the hustle and bustle grew as they neared the throne room.
Rayliss's High Chamberlain was there, trying to organize the mob outside the door. He had a long, curling piece of parchment and he was walking through the crowd, calling out names. Whenever he found the person he was looking for, he lined them up outside the door in what was obviously a very specific order.
Just inside the open doors of the throne room, a herald was loudly announcing each person as they entered.
"They sure like being formal around here," Link said, standing up on his tiptoes to try to see over the crowd.
"I had noticed," Zelda replied. "It seems sort of odd."
"I guess they don't have anything better to do when it's cold and the days are short and the nights long," Link whispered.
"I hadn't thought about it that way, but you may be right."
As the crowd of nobles in the foyer gradually thinned, Link noticed that almost no one had a title—just the designation of "Lord" or "Lady"—which meant they were born noble, but didn't have a title of their own and hadn't been set to automatically inherit one—just as Braddock had been Lord Braddock until Zelda gave him the title of both "Baron" and "Duke." He had been the last living descendant of his father and grandfather, but because he had not been the heir presumptive, he couldn't automatically adopt the titles of either when they died. Absent a will that laid out a chain of inheritance beyond the heir presumptive, only the monarch could determine who was next in line to inherit—if anyone.
Link also noticed that there were precious few "Lords" at all. Most of the nobles being presented were ladies—usually sans husband. Several gentlemen—Sir Elgon included—were making a circuit through the hall, escorting a lady from the door to her seat, then coming back around to the door to await the next lady. They were moving so continuously, they looked like machine works.
The harried Chamberlain finally got the remaining people formed into a line, then he hurried over to Link and Zelda. "Your Majesty, you will go last—just before Princess Austina. There is a chair for you in the front row with the other members of the royal family—you'll see your name on the seat."
The Chamberlain looked at Link. "You will be escorting Her Majesty?"
"Once she is seated, come down the side aisle and back here for Queen Rayliss."
Zelda looked at Link as the Chamberlain hurried away to deal with some last-minute arrivals who were throwing his organization off. "You're escorting Rayliss?" she asked with surprise.
"No, not really. I'm to be part of a vanguard of knights processing before her and standing guard at the steps while she is being crowned. Sir Elgon asked me to participate—I guess because Rayliss told him I'm an honorary knight of Erenrue."
"I'm still surprised that they would ask you over some of their own people. It would be a great honor to do it—and an insult to be passed over, especially by a foreigner."
"True… if they even had enough knights left who could do it."
Zelda looked at him in shock. "How many are going to be in the procession?"
"Six, including me."
Her eyes got wider. "There aren't even six knights left in the kingdom?"
"Not who are capable of processing while bearing arms."
Zelda shook her head sadly. Link could only feel the same. Erenrue had its men—especially its young noblemen—stolen from it the way Hyrule had its wealth taken from it. But Link decided that Hyrule had fared better in the exchange. Wealth could be reacquired with enough hard work and some luck; people could never be replaced.
Link was so lost in the memory of the long-ago party full of bright, joyful young men—all gone now—that he almost didn't notice the white figure standing at the back of the ever-shortening line of people waiting to process into the throne room.
"Lord Long Fang!" Link exclaimed when he finally noticed the white tiger.
Long Fang stood up on his hind legs and smiled at them. "Hello, my friends."
Link and Zelda hurried over to shake his paw. "I didn't expect to see you here," Link said.
"Shared misery makes strange bedfellows," he said. "Not that I necessary stand with Shi-Ha or their policies," he added. "My streak is its own independent entity and we will align—or not—with whomever we wish.
"I grew to like Princess Rayliss and Sir Elgon during our trip back here, and when she invited me to her coronation, I saw no reason not to come—no reason why we should not be friendly with our neighbors on the other side of the mountain."
"I'm glad to hear that," Zelda said.
"I would like to see us be more in the world instead of hiding in the shadows," Long Fang continued. "I think it would add some stability to our streak—help discourage violent extremists like Tarsus."
"I think that's very wise."
Link looked around. "Did Growder and Anne-Marie not come with you?"
"No. Anne-Marie is with cub. She can't travel and I told Growder that he shouldn't either—not that he didn't offer to come with me."
Link was startled. "She's pregnant?"
"Yes. Maybe we will have a new litter next month. The first litter usually takes longer—maybe four months—but later litters usually come after three." He threw his head back and laughed. "Growder did not waste any time when he got home, eh?"
"I'm very happy for both of them," Link said.
"Yes, it is good," Long Fang agreed. "It is good to have new life after many difficulties and dark days; it gives hope.
"That, and I do not foresee myself ever having cubs," he continued. "So I have been thinking about trying to pass my mantle to Growder. He will still have to fight for it, as is our way, but I think my blessing will lessen the contenders. And with him having cubs of his own, maybe he will be able to hand rule down to one of them. The hope is that we can be more like humans and have a monarchy by right of birth. It is not a system without flaws, but it is generally less bloody than our way and it is more stable."
A moment later, they were interrupted by the Chamberlain. "Lord Long Fang," he said anxiously.
They all turned to see that the line had been whittled down until the last person remaining was standing in the doorway, being announced.
"We will visit again before I leave," Long Fang said with a bow of his head. Then he dropped to all fours and padded over to the door. He was announced and there was a collective gasp from the audience as he glided down the carpet with all the feline grace he could muster. His head was up and looking straight ahead—like any other great and noble leader.
The Chamberlain hurriedly gestured for Link and Zelda to step forward. Zelda slipped her arm in Link's and they took their place at the door. Already there were people seated in the back of the hall who were turning to look at them curiously.
Link noticed, as he looked out across the hall, that there was no skimping on lights today. The early-onset darkness caused by the snow was beaten back with every available chandelier, candelabra, and torch. The polished marble floor and walls gleamed under all the lights, and the people—dressed in their very best—glittered like a multitude of colorful gems.
Rayliss certainly knew how to throw a party—even when she had little to work with. The scene was impressive, and if Link hadn't known better, he would have never guessed that there was any shortage or hardship at all in Erenrue.
As soon as Long Fang had taken his place at the front of the hall, the Chamberlain cued the heralds. The two trumpeters on either side of the door blew a loud fanfare before the herald introduced them.
"Now presenting the Saviors of Erenrue and Defeaters of the Dark Lord: Sir Link, Lord High Chancellor of Hyrule, Knight of Hyrule, heir to the Viscounty of Western Kakariko, and honorary knight of Erenrue, and her Most Royal Majesty, Queen Zelda of Hyrule, granddaughter of King Ranis of Erenrue, and fourth heir to the throne of Erenrue. Do you now rise as she comes into your presence."
There was a loud rustling and scraping noise as hundreds of people rose from their chairs in unison.
As soon as they were all on their feet and silently waiting, the Chamberlain whispered, "Now."
Link and Zelda slowly processed in as every eye fell on them. At the far end of the rows, some people threw away all dignity and stood up on their chairs so they could peer over the crowd and catch a glimpse of the legendary Link and Zelda.
"They're pretty serious about those titles," Link whispered out of the corner of his mouth.
"Their idea, not mine," Zelda whispered back. "Not that I disapprove; it does make you sound quite impressive, and that's what we're going for—even if we're in a foreign kingdom."
At the front of the hall, on the left-hand side, they found four empty, short-backed thrones. There were another couple of empty seats beside those, then Lord Long Fang, who sat at the end of the row.
"This one is mine," Zelda said, pulling the little folded card off the first chair.
Link held her hand while she sat down—as a monarch in her own right, she was not required to rise when the rest of the royal family entered—then he bowed a little and pressed his lips to the back of her knuckles. "May I take my leave?" he asked quietly.
"Yes… if you must," she said with a mock sniff. "Serving a foreign queen…." She tutted with disapproval.
"Only to be charitable," he replied. Then he leaned in closer. "There's only one queen in my heart," he whispered close to her ear.
She grinned, then gently pushed him away. He could see that her cheeks were as pink as her dress. "Go on, you big flirt. You're holding up the ceremony—which is holding up my dinner."
He smiled as he bowed deeply to her, then he hurried around the outer aisle and circled back around to the door. As he was heading back, the fanfare blew and the herald announced Prince Castor and Princess Austina. They were processing up the aisle as Link slipped out the now-closed door. Princess Rayliss—holding onto her brother's arm—Sir Elgon, and four other knights were already waiting in the foyer.
"Ready?" Sir Elgon asked Link.
Sir Elgon unsheathed his sword and held it up, so that the crosspiece was at eye level. "Carry it like this," he instructed Link.
Link nodded and pulled out his Erenrue sword. The Chamberlain pushed and pulled them into formation—Link and Sir Elgon in front, followed by the other two pairs of knights, then followed by Philippe escorting his sister.
"Now, gentlemen," the Chamberlain said, gesturing to them.
Elgon and the others all lifted their swords up and held the position as two servants threw open the doors and the heralds began to blow a long, elaborate fanfare.
"You do know I have a bad shoulder, right Elgon?" Link whispered out of the corner of his mouth as the music dragged on.
"You'll get no sympathy from me," he whispered back. "I've been running loops around and around the hall all afternoon. My bad leg is killing me."
"Quiet down up there, grandpas," the young knight behind them teased.
Elgon threw a glance over his shoulder. "Quiet down yourself. I have arthritis that's older than you, boy."
Luckily the loudest—and, thankfully, final—blast of the trumpets covered the sound of laughter coming from everyone in the party. So it was with smiles that they all processed in while Rayliss's numerous titles—and they had created a lot for her—were read off.
It wasn't clear if it was intentional or not, but the reading of Rayliss's titles lasted until she reached the front of the hall, where her mother and State Advisor were waiting for her. She stopped at the foot of the steps and Philippe left her to go sit beside Zelda and Castor. Link and the others solemnly climbed the steps, forming two parallel rows with a little passageway between them. The last pair in line stopped on the second-to-bottom stair. The next pair stopped close to the middle. Link and Elgon stopped two stairs shy of the top. All of the men turned around, so they were facing the crowd. Then, at a small noise from Elgon, they flipped their swords around, so they were point down, then they quickly lowered them so that the point rested on the floor.
Princess Austina took the crown of state—in all its glittering glory—from the State Advisor, then began the ceremony. Although her voice was normally soft—a habit created by years of blinding headaches—she spoke clearly enough that Link could hear her where he stood.
Rayliss's investiture wasn't much different from Zelda's; all the same regalia was present and presented in the same order. A short time later, Austina and the State Advisor were helping Rayliss to her feet while the herald pronounced her "Queen of all of Erenrue, both above and below the earth"—an apparent reference to the high mountaintops and the depths of the earth where they mined.
Thankfully, the herald didn't see a need to repeat all of her other titles.
Rayliss proceeded alone up the stairs—in between the two rows of knights—and sat down in the throne that had once belonged to her grandfather.
"Do you now give homage to Her Majesty," the court herald commanded, his voice echoing across the marble room.
Everyone—save Zelda and Long Fang—rose to their feet and bowed to their new queen.
Rayliss lifted her hand after a moment. "Please be seated," she said.
The herald called up Princess Austina first. Link was pleased to see—as she passed by him—that she was looking better than he had ever seen her. She had color in her cheeks and didn't look so painfully thin. Apparently there had been one positive outcome to her demonic possession: it seemed to have lessened the frequency and severity of her headaches.
Rayliss bestowed on her mother the title of "Queen Mother" with the honorific of "Your Majesty," even though she had never actually been a queen. Then Rayliss invited her mother to sit in the throne beside her—the one Zeyde had once occupied.
Then the herald called for Zelda.
Zelda looked surprised, but rose to her feet and gracefully ascended the stairs.
Rayliss smiled at her. "Thank you for coming, Cousin."
"Will you sit with us?" Rayliss asked, gesturing to the smaller throne to her left.
"Certainly," Zelda said, still looking a little surprised. But she took her seat beside Rayliss without question.
The herald was handed a roll of parchment by one of the servants on the dais. He unfurled it and began to read the proclamation. "Her Royal Majesty wishes to announce, at this time, her succession. Should she not have issue, then her brother, Prince Philippe, and any heirs of his body, shall be heirs to her throne. Should he predecease her or have no issue, then her brother, Prince Castor, and any heirs of his body shall be heirs to her throne.
"Should both of the princes predecease Her Royal Majesty, or fail to have issue, then Queen Zelda of Hyrule, and any heirs of her body, shall be heir to her throne."
"Should the heir be in his or her minority upon inheritance, then Her Majesty, Austina, the Queen Mother, shall serve as regent until he or she comes of age. If Her Majesty is unable to perform this duty, then a suitable guardian, as elected by the Queen's Council, shall be appointed, or the Council shall rule jointly in the heir's name until he or she comes of age."
The herald rolled up the piece of parchment and exchanged it with the servant for the next piece of business.
Rayliss looked down at the knights on the stairs and she nodded at them. "Thank you for your service. You may take your seats."
All of them turned towards her and bowed—although Link was careful not to bow as deeply, since he couldn't show as much deference to a foreign monarch as he did to his own.
For a moment, he was looking up at the three queens together, and he took time to admire the scene. Zelda, with her straight, platinum-blonde hair and pointed ears, looked out of place at first glance, but if you took the time to look at her face, you could see the similarity between her and Rayliss—who had taken after Zeyde almost as much as Zelda had. But Rayliss had her mother's coloring and build, so she favored her as well. It became clear, upon inspection, that all three women were related.
King Ranis was right when he said his side of the family was responsible for Zelda's beauty; the royal family of Erenrue seemed to have more beauty than any single family ought to be allowed.
The other four knights headed down the stairs and to their seats in the audience, but Elgon caught Link's eye and inclined his head towards the women. Without a word, he and Link climbed the remaining steps and took up positions just to the right of their respective queens' thrones, standing at attention.
As the Court Herald began to call forth various lords and ladies to receive new titles, Zelda glanced over her shoulder at Link and smiled at him.
He knew she liked having him close at hand, and that Elgon inviting him to be there—as Rayliss had invited Zelda to sit beside her—was a very high honor.
They still didn't know what kind of reception they would get from their own people in Hyrule, but the people of Erenrue certainly knew how to make them feel welcome.