Link and Zelda made it out of the woods without any trouble. They ate lunch, then turned their cart to the west. From the Lost Woods, it was a straight shot, due west, to Hyrule.
"So, what kind of wedding do you want to have?" Link asked as the mule plodded through the snow.
Zelda brightened up; Link had never offered to talk about their actual wedding—as if talking about it might bring them bad luck. It was probably more that he didn't want to get his hopes up should Zelda's plan fail, but from the looks of their reception at Erenrue, her plan was working quite well; they really shouldn't expect to meet any resistance in Hyrule.
"I want it as quickly as possible—in the spring," she replied. Then she laughed. "After all, my Council wanted a spring wedding."
"Can we arrange one that quickly, though? There's a lot of planning that goes into a wedding—a lot of stuff that has to be bought and made."
"True, but we don't exactly have a lot of money, so we'll have to make do with what we have, in large part. That cuts down on time.
"There are still a lot of Mother's gowns that I haven't worn yet," she continued. "I can pick out the nicest of those to wear as my wedding dress. And gods know that Aunt Austina gave you enough clothes; you won't lack for something to wear."
"You can even wear one of Zeyde's crowns, so we don't have to worry about making you a new one."
"Are you still planning on crowning me?"
"Yes. But I'm not going to tell anyone in advance, so they won't have a chance to tell me no."
He looked at her in alarm. "Do you really think that's a good idea? Advisors don't like to be taken by surprise like that."
"They ought to expect that I'll give you some sort of title, at least. So while it might be a bit of a shock that I'm making you my co-ruler, it's not like it will be a panic-inducing, heart-stopping shock."
"I hope you're right," he said, sounding less convinced.
"What are they going to do about it?" she asked. "Resign in protest? While I would prefer to have their experience with economics and government function, they're not indispensable, you know. I'm sure I could find some scholars to replace them, and I have plenty of new nobles as well.
"I want advice," she continued; "I don't want people who tell me how to live my life. They need to remember that I'm queen and they're not; I may listen to them, but ultimately all decisions are my own."
Link chuckled. "Maybe the better question isn't whether or not your advisors will allow me to rule, but if you will allow it."
"I don't have a problem with you being in charge of things," she said. "Gods know I've followed you and your plans often enough—and with much worse consequences if you turned out to be wrong."
"I think we'll get along as co-rulers as well as we get along with everything else."
He grinned at her. "I'm not sure if that's a rousing endorsement or not."
That evening, they made camp as usual. They had cleared the Lost Woods and had angled a bit to the south to try and pick up the road that ran from the southern border of the forest back to Hyrule. Link thought they were pretty close to the road, but they lost their light before he could find it. Once they were on the actual road, they would be able to travel much faster and it would be easier on the old mule; cutting across country and pulling a wagon over the rough grass buried under the snow wasn't fast or easy.
In the middle of the night, something woke Link up. It wasn't a gradual waking, either; it was sudden, as if something was very wrong.
He held his breath, listening.
There was nothing for a minute—and he had almost convinced himself that some sort of nightmare had woken him—then he heard the mule make a grunt, followed what sounded like someone shushing it.
Link elbowed Zelda awake. I think there's someone outside, he warned her before she could speak.
She sat bolt upright, then held still, listening as intently as Link.
There was a rustling that sounded like the mule moving around, then another sound. This time, it was unmistakably a whispered voice.
Link pushed back the heavy covers and grabbed his sword. He pulled it from the scabbard, then dashed out of the tent.
"What are you doing with my animal?" Zelda heard him shout in a menacing voice.
A moment later, there was the sound of hooves pounding away.
"Zelda!" Link shouted.
Zelda didn't have to be told what Link had planned or what he wanted to do; she understood his purpose as well as if it had been her own.
She hopped to her feet and dove out the tent flap, transforming as she went. Without missing a beat, Link grabbed a handful of her mane and launched himself onto her back effortlessly.
Not fifty yards away from their encampment, she found the hard, compacted soil of the main road. With firm ground underfoot, she was able to gallop all-out and she quickly gained on the old mule.
Come up on his right, Link instructed, as he readied his sword. As Zelda pulled alongside the thief, Link raised his sword to strike. But the man seemed to sense danger behind him; he looked over his shoulder, squeaked in alarm, then jerked hard on the mule's reins.
The mule locked up its front legs and sat down on its haunches, skidding to a stop.
Link and Zelda blew past it.
Zelda tried to stop and turn around at the same time, but had to check her movements, lest she sling Link off. Even so, she felt him fall onto her neck and hold on for dear life.
As soon as she could get her footing in the slick snow, she bounded forward in pursuit again, but—oddly—the thief didn't try to get away. In fact, he hopped off the mule and fell to his knees in the snow.
Confused—and more than a bit wary—Zelda slowed as she approached, then stopped a safe distance away.
"Please, m'lord, mercy," the thief begged, his hands clasped in front of him in supplication.
Zelda looked back over her shoulder, but found that Link looked just as confused.
"Mercy for a thief?" Link asked.
"I'm no thief, m'lord."
"I agree," he said to her. Then he looked up at the thief. "So, are you alleging that our mule ran away on its own, and you were just trying to return it to us by riding it in the exact opposite direction?"
"No, m'lord. I mean… I mean…." He covered his face with his hands. "I have never done anything like this before. I have never taken anything from anyone. But… I've been out here two days, trying to find something to eat… anything to eat. My family has nothing. My children… my children are crying with hunger."
He began to break down and cry himself.
"And I can't find anything," he continued. "I've tried hunting, but there's so little available and I'm not a very good archer. I tried hunting for late-season berries or even some green herbs, but I can't find anything in the snow."
He looked up at Link with an anguished face. "I… I saw your old mule and… and I thought… I don't know what I was thinking, m'lord. Just that… it was so old and probably not much use anyway. And you're close enough to town, you could get help, if you needed it. It just… looked like something that could last us a long while—a long while that we wouldn't have to worry about being hungry."
Are you believing any of this? Link asked Zelda.
I'm not sure. He seems genuine, but did he really want to eat our mule? That seems a bit far-fetched.
I've seen people who are really hungry, though, Link said. Starvation can make people irrational. If it gets bad enough, they'll resort to cannibalism—which makes eating a mule look pretty reasonable.
"Why are you so hungry?" Link asked the man. "I know there's fish, at the very least, circulating. It may not be a lot, but you should get enough that you don't become this desperate."
"There's only fish if you can afford it, m'lord."
"The price of fish hasn't changed," Link said. "My family has made it a point not to raise prices."
"Yes, m'lord, but I don't have any money at all; I can't buy fish at any price."
"Have you no work?"
"No, m'lord. I used to be a wheelwright, but Nagadii taxed me out of my store and my tools. Now, I have no way to making a living. I've been to the other wheelwrights around the kingdom, but none need help; no one is making carts right now, and if people break a wheel, they try to patch it themselves first.
"I've tried doing something else—anything else—but no one is hiring any help. I even went to the coast, because I heard that there was work to be had with the fishing, but no one had need for another person—especially someone who had no experience."
"Why didn't you stay there and fish for yourself?" Link asked. "Even if you don't have nets, the tidal pools are full of shrimp and seaweed and mussels—enough to feed a family, at least."
The man looked surprised. "That land belongs to the Viscountess, does it not?"
"Yes… more or less. She's in charge of it, anyway."
"I couldn't take anything from her land. That would be stealing."
He seemed to suddenly grasp the absurdness of what he had just said, given his current situation, and he closed his mouth, looking awkward.
"There is no prohibition against fishing or beachcombing," Link informed him. "I think every family in Kakariko Village and the outlying farmsteads spends at least part of their week fishing from the beach."
The man's eyes went wide. "I… didn't know that. Yes, I would have stayed and tried to hunt for food there, if I had known."
He bowed his head. "Please, m'lord, mercy. If you let me go, I will go back to Kakariko and hunt for food there. And I promise I will never do anything like this again."
"That's not my call to make," Link said, sliding off Zelda's back. A moment later, she changed.
She had to clench her teeth to keep from shouting when her bare feet sank ankle-deep into the cold snow.
The man's eyes grew wider until it looked like they were going to pop out of his head. Then he bowed all the way to the ground, his face practically in the snow. "Y-Your M-Majesty," he said in a trembling voice. In fact, his entire body was trembling, although it wasn't clear if that was from the cold or fear. Probably both.
"Well, I see I'm known," Zelda said, more to Link than the man. That surprised her a bit, seeing how it was dark and she was wearing nothing but men's underwear—hardly the regalia of a queen.
"I have heard all the stories, Your Majesty," the man explained, his face still to the ground. "I know you can travel as a horse." He dared to glance up, then quickly hid his face again. "And that must be His Lordship, Sir Link," he said with a moan, trembling even more as the full weight of what he had done struck him. He had thought he was taking an old mule from a traveling merchant, then he realized, upon seeing Link with a sword, that he had stolen from a nobleman. But now, it was even worse than that: he had stolen from the queen and the Lord High Chancellor.
"Yes, this is Link," Zelda replied. "We are on our way back from my cousin's coronation in Erenrue, and we stopped today to return the Master Sword to its rightful place in the Lost Woods.
"This old mule is a very valuable commodity in a kingdom—in two kingdoms—who are alarmingly low on horseflesh. We certainly can't afford to eat any of our beasts of burden—at least not while they're capable of working."
"F-forgive me!" he wailed. "Forgive me."
"What is your name?"
"Tamor, Your Majesty."
"Tamor, are you truly willing to work to earn your bread honestly?"
"Yes, Your Majesty!"
"Then go north to Erenrue. Queen Rayliss has issued a proclamation—which I will make public as soon as I return home—offering jobs in their mines to anyone who will come and work. We will see that your family has food to eat until you can either send for them, or, preferably, send your wages back to them. In the spring, when it's time to harvest, perhaps you will have better luck finding work as a wheelwright again."
"Oh, thank you! Thank you!" he said, managing to grovel even lower.
Link and Zelda took him back to their encampment. Link built up the fire again and they fed him from their supplies. The way that he wolfed down food—more animal than man—lent credence to his story.
They had more food than they needed—Rayliss's people had packed them plenty since no one was really sure how long they might be on the road—so they gave Tamor enough to get him to Pallis, and they promised to send food to his family as soon as they got back to Hyrule.
He kissed their hands and cried and thanked them profusely. It was some time before they could get back to bed. But despite the fact that it was the wee hours of the morning—and despite the fact that Link and Zelda had offered him the use of their fire—Tamor set off immediately for Erenrue.
"I think he really is an honest fellow," Link said, as he and Zelda got under the covers. Their little nest had grown cold in their absence and it took them a couple of minutes to get it warm again.
"I think so, too," she replied. "That's why I couldn't bring myself to punish him in any way. Even if we hadn't caught him until after he had eaten our mule, I don't think I could have punished him—except maybe to make him carry all of these boxes of clothes back to town."
"I couldn't help but think about that time we crossed the mountains from Erenrue to Shi-Ha," Zelda continued, seriously. "We were cold all the time, there was nothing to hunt, and we eventually ran out of what little food we had.
"With you dying, I might have been desperate enough to steal—if there had been anything around to steal. I think I would have begged first, but if I didn't think I would get help—or I was rebuffed—I might have resorted to stealing."
Link was thoughtful for a moment. "I wonder if there are other people in town that are that desperate?"
"Possibly—although I hadn't heard that it's gotten so bad."
"Maybe we need to make an offer to go along with Rayliss's proclamation: two weeks of food—enough to feed a family of four—if you sign up to go to Erenrue, but leave your family behind. That's enough food to keep a small family going for the week it will take the man to walk to Erenrue and the first week he has to work to earn wages."
"Shouldn't we make it three weeks' worth, since it will take close to a week for his wages to make it back down here?"
"I hadn't thought about that; you're probably right."
"Although two weeks or three weeks doesn't really matter when I don't know how I'll afford to pay for even one. If it was just a few people going, it wouldn't be a problem, but it might be a lot."
Link considered the problem for a minute. "Father's ship will be finished soon—sooner, if we could afford to hire a few more carpenters. That will increase our hauls and should bring Uncle Alfon back up to full production capacity—which will give us some fish to spare. I'm sure you could work out an exchange with Father—lend him money to hurry the ship's construction, then buy a cut of the fish on credit, which you can then turn around and give to the families of the people who leave to mine. The miners will send money back, which will allow their families to buy food and support themselves, and once the spring harvest is in and you can collect taxes, then you can pay Father back, less the money you fronted for the carpenters."
"And people thought you'd not make a good Chancellor," Zelda said. "Surely even my Tax Advisor would be impressed by the way you can shuffle money around."
Link laughed. "I'm not sure that's a compliment. I don't like being a bureaucrat; I don't like thinking up overly-complicated ways of doing things."
"I know," she said soothingly. "Hopefully, though, if we can just make things work until spring, we'll have a good harvest, food will be plentiful again, money will be circulating normally, and we can step back and let commerce run its natural course."
After the night's excitement, Link and Zelda slept in the following morning. The sun was up—shining brightly after more than a week's absence—by the time they finally broke camp and started moving again. The cold had broken sometime in the night and, although the morning was frosty, the temperature promised to warm to something more moderate. Already, the sun's light was beginning to melt the snow, leaving bare patches.
The sun was beginning to slide down towards the western horizon when Link, shielding his eyes with his hand and squinting against the glare, made a pronouncement. "I think there's someone up ahead on horseback. Looks like… looks like he's just standing in the middle of the road."
Zelda thought she knew why the person was waiting in the road, but after last night's adventure, it would be wisest not to assume.
"I'm going to get a closer look," Link said, pulling the mule to a stop and handing the reins off to Zelda. "Stay here."
Link transformed and flew towards the figure up ahead. Zelda shielded her eyes and tried to make out what was happening. It appeared that Link circled the person once, then dropped down to the ground and transformed. Zelda waited a few anxious moments before Link transformed again and headed back her way.
He dropped to the seat beside her and resumed his human form. "It's Braddock," he said, taking the reins back. "He said he was waiting for you, but wouldn't tell me why."
Zelda chuckled as Link slapped the mule on the back with the reins, urging it into a trot. "I wrote to him while we were in Erenrue," she explained, "and told him that we were going to the Lost Woods, and to have someone meet us outside of town, but I didn't mean for him to personally wait for us."
"Well, I'm glad he's here to see you the rest of the way back," Link said. "I can just fly home from here."
"You're not going back home," she said.
He looked at her. "I'm not?"
"But… it's not been quite three months yet. We have nearly three weeks to go."
Link looked at her curiously, but didn't ask any further questions.
Braddock met them halfway. Zelda saw, as he drew closer, that he was riding a horse and had one to spare. Both were the pure-white horses of the Royal Stables. There weren't many of them left, but luckily there were enough to meet Zelda's needs.
"I didn't mean for you to wait out here for us," Zelda said, as Braddock joined them.
"Well, actually, I've been sending a boy out here to keep watch," he admitted, "but this morning I woke up thinking that today would be the day you came back, so I came out instead. I was beginning to feel rather silly, but it looks like my psychic abilities have paid off after all," he said with a laugh.
"So, are you two going to tell me on what's going on?" Link finally asked.
"I'm moving up our final plans," Zelda explained. "The fact that stories of you—of us—have been so well-received in Erenrue made me decide to go ahead and execute the second part of my plan."
Link sighed wearily. Zelda had warned him that they would have to make a big fuss over him when he came back from "exile," but it was clear he wasn't looking forward to it all the same.
…Which is exactly why Zelda had not told him that she had sent a letter to Braddock to begin preparations. Why make him anxious in advance and potentially ruin their otherwise fun trip?
"The other advisors know I've been working on something for you," Braddock said, "but I'm pretty sure they don't know what."
"We will see tomorrow who is right—me or them," Zelda said with vicious glee, convinced that her plan would work.
"So you want to do it tomorrow?"
"Yes. How long do you think it will take us to get there?"
Braddock looked up at the sky, then looked down the road. "Depends on how far you plan on traveling this evening."
"Another hour, I suppose?" she asked, looking at Link. He nodded his head.
"Then I would think you could make the city by mid-morning tomorrow, if you get up at dawn."
"That sounds great," Zelda said, for once not balking at rising early. She was about to take down her last "enemy"—those who stood in the way of her marriage to Link—and she had no problem rising early to do it.
Braddock rode with them until sunset, filling them in on what had transpired since Zelda left. They told him of their uneventful trip to the Lost Woods, followed by their excitement the night before.
"You are very generous," Braddock said, after Zelda recounted what she had said to Tamor. "And merciful. I'm not sure I could have let him go with no punishment at all."
"If you saw him eat, you would have felt pity for him," Zelda said. "He was like a starving dog."
"Do you think that's a widespread problem?" Link asked.
Braddock considered the question for a moment. "I think there are a lot of people who aren't eating as they're accustomed to eating; some may not be eating as much as needed to really fill them up. I don't think, though, that there's a lot of problem with true starvation. But certainly times are lean."
They stopped to set up camp before it became completely dark. After much discussion, it was decided that Braddock would take the cart back to Hyrule immediately so he could put out the word that the parade would be the next day and make the final preparations. Link and Zelda would follow in the morning, riding the much more dignified-looking royal horses.
That was the easy part. Setting aside enough firewood and food for their supper and breakfast, while leaving the rest on the cart to go back with Braddock was also easy. What wasn't so easy was deciding what Link was going to wear for his triumphant return.
"Don't you think that's a little overboard?" he asked, as Zelda held up a white silk jacquard cote. "That looks like something a prince or a king would wear."
"Oddly enough, it was."
"I think you need to tone it down," he insisted. "Remember, I'm still a knight—not a king."
"You're the Lord High Chancellor, second in the kingdom after me," she argued back.
"That makes me powerful. It doesn't make me royalty."
"I'm publicly announcing our engagement tomorrow. You need to look the part of a consort of the queen."
They went around and around with their arguments, all the while digging through the numerous trunks of clothes and examining alternatives, until Zelda finally wore Link down and he, at last, agreed to wear the white cote.
She couldn't keep the smug grin off her face as she happily repacked the clothes they had pulled out.
"I don't mean to be nosy… but are the two of you always like this?" Braddock asked, looking between them, bewildered.
Link and Zelda both laughed. "Sometimes," Link admitted. "We're both very stubborn people."
"How do you ever manage to get along?"
"The trick is knowing when to give in," Link said.
Once everything was repacked, and Link and Zelda had everything they needed to get them through the night, Braddock left. As Zelda had anticipated, news of the impending parade left Link tense and unable to sleep.
"Quit worrying about it," she told him as he lay next to her, staring at the tent above them.
"But this is it," he replied. "If the people don't accept me, then that's it. This is like being down to your last arrow; you hope your shot is good."
"Everything will be fine."
"I wish I had your confidence."
"Look how popular you were in Erenrue."
"Yes, but we've already discussed the fact that the people in Erenrue have a culture that's quite different from that in Hyrule. They prize martial prowess and courage on the battlefield above all else."
"I think our people will appreciate it, too—in light of what's recently happened," she added.
He didn't say anything, but even in the dim light, she could see he was still worried.
"Put it another way," she said; "what would you do if they didn't accept you? That's the worst thing that can happen, right?"
"What would you do if that happened?"
"I… don't know," he said slowly. "But I'd find some other way to marry you. I can't not do it at this point. It would destroy me."
"So, either way, you'll end up married to me, right?"
"So there's nothing to worry about."
"Except the second way is a lot more trouble. And I have no idea what it would mean for you."
"Let me worry about that. You just concern yourself with acting like you were born to be a king. If you act like a king, then the people will accept you as one."
The next morning, as soon as there was enough light to see by, they ate a quick breakfast, then broke camp. They left the tent poles behind, but folded and rolled up the tent tightly and tied it onto the back of one of the horse's saddles. Once all the dirty work was done, they changed into their formal clothes. Their traveling clothes were bundled up and strapped to the back of the other saddle.
Zelda was wearing the pink dress with white fun that Rayliss had given to her. She combed her hair, but left it down, and put on her crown—which she had not bothered to wear since they left Pallis.
Link put on the white silk jacquard cote that Zelda had picked out. It had probably come to mid-thigh on Zeyde, but on Link—who was shorter—it came to the knees. It buttoned with black velvet buttons to just below the waist, then hung open below that. It had a matching vent in the back and two on the sides. He wore his black velvet hosen underneath it and a pair of black ankle boots that were rather plain, save for two silver buckles on the sides. They were the ones that had been made for him the first time he went to Erenrue; Prince Zeyde's shoes had all been too big for him, so Sir Elgon had received them instead.
Completing the outfit was the silver collar of estate; a black velvet cloak lined in black satin, which attached at the shoulders with large silver brooches set with mother-of-pearl; and a black velvet porkpie hat with a long black quail feather.
"I still say this is a bit much," Link complained, once he was dressed.
"And I say it's a perfect outfit to get engaged in—especially when your intended is a queen," she said, as she reached up to adjust his hat so it sat on his head at a jaunty angle.
Link helped Zelda mount, then he got onto the other horse. "Well, let's go get engaged… officially," he said with a smile.
Zelda grinned in return. In fact, she found herself grinning like a besotted fool most of the way to the city. For a year or more, she had been in love with Link, and now she could finally be completely open about her feelings. No more hiding. No more sneaking around and hoping they didn't get caught. No more looks or touches that had to be stopped, lest they go too far.
Today was going to be her day of triumph—when she finally got her reward for all the hardship and deprivation and pain she had suffered for the sake of others. Today was for her.
They could barely see the gate towers on the horizon when they began to hear a great fanfare wafting thinly through the cool winter air.
As they drew closer, the music grew louder and soon the bells in the town were ringing.
Link looked at Zelda. "Think you overdid it a bit?"
"Nope." Of course she hadn't overdone it. Link thought the parade was about him—and the thought of so many people making a fuss over what, for him, was an obvious duty, embarrassed him—but, in reality, the parade was about Zelda. It was a celebration of her triumph—even if people didn't know yet what she had won. It was her day to show off Link—her prize—and have them rejoice with her.
There was no such thing as too much celebration of that.
They passed by the monastery—where the bells were ringing, too—and saw the Abbot and the other brothers standing outside, watching them go past.
Link and Zelda waved a greeting, but continued on, without stop, for the city.
The gates were flung wide open, and they found Braddock sitting on a black horse just outside.
"Right on time," he said as they approached, having to practically shout over the noise of the crowds in the street behind him.
"Everything going alright?" Zelda asked, pulling to a stop.
"Perfect. I don't think anyone slept a wink last night after the word got out." He smiled at her. "I think everyone's expecting an announcement."
"The rest of the Council?"
Braddock threw his head back and laughed. "Blindsided! You should have seen their faces yesterday when they found out there was going to be a parade. I think they honestly thought you had given up on Sir Link. I don't think they have any idea that you're the one who planted the stories. I'm not even sure if they've heard the stories."
"So much for having the pulse of the people," Zelda said with a satisfied smirk. She'd show those old codgers, once and for all, who knew the people best.
"I didn't tell them that there would be an announcement later; I daresay they'll find that even more surprising," he said, laughing again.
"They shouldn't. They were there when I proposed, and I told them that Link was coming back in a few months. So all this is perfectly expected… unless you've convinced yourself the opposite is true."
"I do think they've done that."
"Well, then, let's disabuse them of their false notions."
"We're ready whenever you are."
"Lead the way," she said with a wave.
Braddock went through the gate and Link and Zelda—riding side by side—followed.
Just inside the gate, a small retinue was waiting. Braddock had managed to reassemble half a dozen of the old palace guards—including Horace—and four of them were carrying banners bearing the royal arms of Hyrule.
Braddock quickly arranged the participants, then went ahead to shoo people out of the street. Following a little way behind him was a quartet of trumpet players marching abreast. Two guards came after them, followed by two more carrying banners. Link and Zelda fell in behind them, with the final two banner-guards bringing up the rear.
The sidewalks were crowded with people, spilling onto the streets. Above, people leaned out windows to watch. All clapped and cheered and waved as Link and Zelda passed.
It was the welcome they should have gotten when Zelda announced that Nagadii was dead and she had come back to reclaim her throne. But the assassination attempt by Nagadii's henchmen, and the general wariness of a people long-abused, snuffed out any hope of a joyful celebration at that time.
But now, a few months later, the bad times were beginning to be replaced by hope. Times were still hard and lean, but the spring promised a return to prosperity again. Zelda had proven her commitment to the people by dealing harshly with the mercenaries, giving fair trials to those citizens accused of being traitors, and suspending taxes until spring. And it had not gone unnoticed that Link and his family had been working hard to keep the kingdom—and especially the capital city—supplied with food.
In short, they had proven they were committed to returning Hyrule to the way it had been, and for that they had earned the trust and admiration of the people.
The cheering and whistles suddenly grew louder and Zelda turned to see Link showing off by making his horse perform a piaffe. The horse's head was pulled in, so its neck was beautifully arched, and it was prancing in place.
Growing up, Zelda had often watched from her window as some of the palace guard trained and practiced on the royal horses. Whenever there was a procession, the riders would ride ahead, delighting the crowds with their horsemanship and adding to the general pomp and circumstance.
Zelda had no idea that Link knew how to ride like that. Then she was suddenly struck by the idea that Link may have been riding in processions for a long time—she may have even watched him from her tower window as he practiced—and she never knew it. He had loved her from afar from the very beginning, but she had not even been aware of his presence until the night that Master Ryu had arranged to have him stationed outside her door.
"I can't believe the man who was worrying about being too showy is now showing off," she said with a mock scold. "You're a ham. Admit it."
He just laughed. "I admit nothing," he said. Then his horse began to bounce on its front legs, half-way to rearing with each bounce, then suddenly it leapt forward, with all four feet off the ground, and it kicked out with both rear feet before landing. The crowd oohed and aahed.
"Big deal," she said with a sniff. "I could do that, too."
"Let's see it," he said, pulling his horse back into a normal walk.
"I meant as a horse, I could do that."
"Somehow, I don't think people would be quite as delighted to see their queen acting like a well-trained horse."
She knew he was right—not that she really wanted to transform and show off; she was just saying it to give him a hard time. But he curtailed his equine acrobatics and kept his horse to a walk thereafter.
They wound through the major streets of the city and eventually ended their procession at the large square in front of the castle's main gate.
Link threw his leg over the pommel of the saddle and lightly dropped to his feet, then he hurried over to Zelda's horse and helped her down.
Two of the guards led the horses away while Zelda and Link followed the trumpeters up the spiraling steps to the balcony over the gate. The crowd buzzed louder as they realized that the rumors of an announcement were obviously true.
Downstairs, the royal advisors hurried out of the gate and turned to look up at Zelda, still bearing—as promised—looks of shock and consternation.
At a signal from Zelda, the trumpeters blew a loud fanfare. It took all of Zelda's self-disciple to stand there and smile and not put her fingers in her ears. She could see from the wince on Link's face that he was likewise pained by the loud noise in the small space. But it was over in a few moments and Zelda took a few additional moments to allow the ringing in her ears to die down while the crowd likewise grew quieter.
She stepped forward to the front of the balcony and raised her hands. "People of Hyrule and Castle Town, thank you for your warm reception of me and His Lordship, Sir Link. We have just returned from Erenrue, and I am pleased to announce that my cousin is now Her Royal Majesty, Queen Rayliss of Erenrue. And her mother has been elevated to the title of Her Majesty, Austina, the Queen Mother."
There was polite applause.
"I also bear a proclamation from Queen Rayliss, which I have agreed to post throughout my kingdom."
She took out a folded piece of parchment that she had tucked up her sleeve earlier in the day. She carefully unfolded it, then held it up so everyone could see it while she read it aloud.
"'To the good people of Hyrule, greetings from Her Royal Majesty, Queen Rayliss of Erenrue. Her Royal Majesty would like it to be known that any able-bodied person of Hyrule, male or female, who comes north to Erenrue seeking employment will be guaranteed three months of employment in the Royal mines at current wages. All employment will be by contract, with the possibility of renewal of said contract at the end of three months. As part of individual wage compensation, housing will be provided for the duration.
"'All interested applicants should present themselves to the guard at the main southern gate of Pallis; further instructions and details will be forthcoming.
"'So says Her Royal Majesty, Queen Rayliss, this day, being the fourteenth day after the winter solstice and the one-hundred-and-eleventh day since the Liberation of Erenrue.'"
Zelda refolded the proclamation. Below, there was an excited buzz as everyone began to speculate on whether they would take up the offer or not. Zelda held up her hand to quieten everyone, but the noise barely decreased any. She had to get one of the trumpeters to give a short blast to get everyone's attention.
Once some semblance of quiet had been restored, Zelda continued. "This proclamation is part of an agreement hammered out between me and Queen Rayliss for the mutual benefit of our kingdoms. Erenrue has rich mines, but few men left to work them. We have a surplus of labor, but no coinage. The hope is that people here, who are otherwise unemployed, will go to Erenrue and work there until the spring and send the bulk of their wages back to their families here in Hyrule. In that way, we will get coinage circulating through our kingdom again and Erenrue will have the resources it needs to buy food from us—which will further help our economy.
"I understand that some families will have a difficult time making ends meet while the their bread-winner is traveling to Erenrue to secure employment. That is why I plan to offer three weeks' worth of food to any family who is sending one or more of its members north to work. That should be enough food to keep a family going until the worker's wages are returned."
There was applause. Many people in the crowd could be seen nodding their heads and telling their neighbors and family members that they would be taking up the offer.
Zelda raised her hand again. This time, the noise died down quickly. "I haven't yet made the final arrangements for this offer, but I will post the details as soon as they are made available. If your family is not in dire need of food, please consider going to Erenrue as soon as possible. The sooner we have money flowing through our economy again, the better things will be for everyone."
Zelda shifted gears from business to her real announcement. "After attending Queen Rayliss's coronation, Sir Link and I traveled to the Lost Woods to return the Master Sword to its permanent resting place. I pray to the gods that it will never be needed again and that our quest, at last, has ended."
There was applause again.
When it died down, Zelda continued. "As you all are probably aware, Sir Link and I traveled the width and breadth of the world during our quest. Sir Link even went as far as the Western Lands which lie on the other side of the Endless Ocean. We suffered great hardships during our journey—wounds, torture, poisoning, and a lack of food, water, and sleep. We witnessed the kidnapping of our families and we watched some of them die to save us."
Her voice choked a little as she thought of Nicoli and Zeyde. She had to swallow back her tears before she could go on. Below, there was perfect silence as every person in the square hung on her every word, pleased to know that the stories they had heard were all true, and hoping that her words might be leading towards something else.
Zelda continued. "Together, Sir Link and I fought against the demon-lords who were trying to take over our world and fill it with evil. We fought against Nagadii and the Dark Lord, Ganondorf. And, together, we took care of one another. He protected me when I was hunted in my own kingdom, and I cared for him when he was wounded.
"There exists between us a bond that can only exist when two people face death together and overcome it—when they take care of one another through all illnesses and injury—when they support each other through their mutual grief and mental anguish.
"For nearly a year, Link has been my constant and sole companion. And even though our trials are over, I have found that I cannot bear to be parted from him. And it is for that reason that I now announce our engagement, with our wedding to follow in the spring, after the harvest."
The shout from below was nearly as deafening as the trumpets had been. Everywhere people were throwing their hats into the air. Wives and husbands and sweethearts shared a hug or a kiss, people hurried to tell their neighbor I-told-you-so, and children and dogs ran in circles, laughing and barking and making noise just because everyone else was.
Zelda looked at Link and saw he was smiling at her. "You can say it," she said to him over the noise.
"I am a genius."
He laughed. "I never doubted that you were. I only worried that other people might not be smart enough to see that you were right."
Then he lifted her hand to his lips, and—with his blue eyes smoldering—he slowly kissed her hand.
That made the crowd go wild again, but Zelda barely noticed; her heart was beating so fast and loud in her ears, she could hardly hear them. How was it that, after a year of living with Link, and after going through hell and back together, and having no secrets between them, that he could still make her feel as giddy and light-headed as that night that he kissed her under the old tree for the first time?
He lowered her hand, but she tightened her fingers around his. "We don't let go," she whispered to him. "Not anymore. Not ever again."
He squeezed her hand. "Never again," he agreed.