All the Beauty in the Kingdom
Prince Zeyde personally escorted Link and Zelda through the castle.
"Rayliss will be very happy to see you again," he told Zelda. "I wish the two of you had been able to see each other more often. She is lonely without another girl her age; I can only imagine how much worse it was for you having no one at all."
After several long hallways and three flights of stairs, Zeyde at last stopped in front of a door and opened it.
On the other side of the door there was a flurry of activity; half a dozen women or more were preparing a large bedroom. Overseeing the operation was a tall, dark-haired woman. Zelda thought, at first, that it must be her aunt, but when the woman turned around, she could see that it was Rayliss. She had grown taller, but she still had the same round, happy face that she had had as a child.
"Zelda!" she squealed with delight, rushing to embrace her cousin.
Zelda—whose exhaustion and sleep-deprivation was becoming very evident as her temper cooled—was slow to respond, but she finally managed to return Rayliss's hug.
Rayliss stepped back to look at her, her brow furrowing in concern. "Zelda, you look terrible. When was the last time you had a bath?"
Zeyde cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Rayliss…" he warned.
"Oh, well, never mind," Rayliss said, looking a little embarrassed at her gaffe. "I'm having a bath made up for you right now."
She started to drag Zelda off, but Zeyde put his hand out to stop them. He stepped into the room and shut the door behind him. "What hospitality are we to offer Link?" he asked Zelda in a low voice.
Zelda knew what he was really asking: were they supposed to treat Link like a noble guest or quarter him with the other servants.
She stood up taller. "He is my knight and my advisor," she said imperially. "I expect him to be treated as such."
Zeyde nodded. "I will see that it's done," he replied, before slipping back outside.
Rayliss took Zelda by the hand and led her over to a corner of the room that was curtained-off. Behind it was a marble tub sunken into the floor. Female servants were coming and going in a steady stream, each carrying two buckets of steaming-hot water.
"Tell me what happened to you," Rayliss said, pulling Zelda down beside her on an upholstered couch next to the bath. There was a low table in front of it, spread with sweets and delicacies.
"I've only heard rumors—crazy things," Rayliss continued. "When I heard there was a messenger here from Hyrule, I tried to go to the hall with Father, but he said I couldn't come. I didn't even know you were here until he sent word to get a room ready for you."
Zelda couldn't reply for a moment. She looked around at the white jacquard hangings, the marble tub, and the table filled with food—none of which appeared to be smoked fish. The line of maids—each dressed in blue with starched white aprons and linen caps covering their hair—was especially mesmerizing. It felt strange to see so much excess—to have so many people to fulfill her every need. Link had certainly done his best to take care of her and do for her, but that was nothing like having a full staff.
"Zelda?" Rayliss asked, looking at her in concern. "Are you alright?"
Zelda shook her head a little, trying to clear it. "Yeah, I'm just… I'm trying to adjust."
"What do you mean?"
Zelda proceeded to relate her entire story to Rayliss—beginning with meeting Link. By the time she was done, her bath was ready. The steaming water was milky-white with cream—added to keep the skin soft—and scattered with pink rose petals, which made a sweet perfume. It was a proper bath for a princess.
"I think I want you to burn these clothes," Zelda said, taking off her worn shirt and pants and boots. "I used to love them, but after living in them for a month, I hope I never see them again."
She stepped down into the tub, sucking air in between her teeth as the hot water burned her skin. "This is hot!" she declared. But she stayed in it and her body soon adjusted.
"After spending four days in the ocean, I thought I would never want to get in the water again," Zelda said, "but then, after nearly two weeks of being outdoors constantly and sleeping on the ground, I'm feeling rather partial to bath water."
Rayliss shook her head a little, still looking stunned by everything Zelda had told her. "I can't even imagine."
"No, you can't. Until you have been through it, you can't imagine it. It's like living in a different world—one you never knew existed."
She gestured to Rayliss. "Can you put the food down here where I can get to it? I'm starving."
Rayliss moved all of the food over to the side of the tub, then she sat on the edge, letting her feet dangle into the water. "Why did you never tell me about sneaking out? And especially about this boy?" She sounded a little hurt at being left out.
"I couldn't risk anyone reading the letters," Zelda said between bites of food. "Gods, but this is good! I hope I never see another smoked fish for the rest of my life."
"What's wrong with smoked fish? I like it."
"You wouldn't if that was the only thing you had eaten for the last two weeks," Zelda contradicted.
Rayliss lay down on her side, propping her head up on her hand. "So, tell me all about this Link."
"I already have," Zelda replied.
Rayliss snorted in disbelief. "No, you haven't. I mean, what's he really like? What do you think of him? Is he handsome? You haven't even told me what he looks like."
Zelda couldn't meet Rayliss's eyes. "He's handsome, I think."
"Details!" Rayliss demanded.
Reluctantly, Zelda describe Link's features. Slowly, as the food disappeared from the silver serving trays and the bath water cooled, Rayliss dragged all of the details out of Zelda.
Rayliss rolled onto her back with a wistful sigh. "He sounds so heroic and dashing! To think of him rescuing you from the water and taking care of you when you were near death!"
"It's a lot less romantic when you're throwing up on him," Zelda said rather sourly.
Rayliss wasn't to be deterred in her romantic dreaming. "Why can't I have some handsome stranger whisk me off on some great adventure?"
"Rayliss, you're not being realistic," Zelda fussed. "It's not a fun adventure out of some book; it's a matter of life and death. I can't explain to you how scary it is to know that you're being hunted—either by people or animals or demons; or what it's like to see someone you care about get wounded trying to help you; or what it's like to be alone and hungry and thirsty, thinking you are going to die…."
Rayliss looked at her. Zelda could see that she was honestly trying to understand, but she had never been the brightest candle in the chandelier to begin with, and talking about something well outside her experience was not helping.
"So… you you care about him?" Rayliss asked, latching onto the one thing she could comprehend.
Zelda sighed. She was fighting a losing battle. "Yes, I do," she admitted.
"Even though he's common?" Rayliss asked with wide eyes.
"What's it like to love someone who is common?"
"It's not like he's a cow," Zelda said, laughing in disbelief. "He is a person; he has thoughts and feelings the same as any man."
"Yes, but he's illiterate isn't he? What could you have to talk about with him?"
"Actually, he's not illiterate," Zelda said, a touch offended. "In fact, he's quite well-educated." He's smarter than you, she thought to herself, but she didn't say it aloud. Instead she said, "We find plenty to talk about. He's well-versed in philosophy and politics and history. He also plays the flute."
"Oh, I have a flute! I never did very well with it, though. When my flute teacher quit, Father had me switch over to the harp. I'm a little better with that." She made a face. "Grandfather said if it wouldn't be so shameful, he would give me a drum to play—like those girls with the traveling shows. He said there was only one thing to do with it, so I couldn't possibly make too big a mess out of it."
Zelda had to hold in a laugh because she could see that the comment was a sore point with Rayliss.
"So, what do you want to do today?" Rayliss asked, clearly eager to spend time with Zelda.
Zelda felt bad. "Actually, I'd like to sleep. Link and I got into the habit of sleeping during the day and traveling at night because the demons seemed to attack at night."
"Why would you move when they were out?" Rayliss asked, confused. "I would want to hide."
"Well, there wasn't any place to hide. Besides, which sounds better: sleeping when they're not around or sleeping when they might sneak up on you?"
"Sleeping when they're not around."
"Now you know why we slept during the day and moved at night," Zelda said practically.
Rayliss gave Zelda one of her nightgowns. It was a soft, brushed linen with heavy frills of lace around the neck and cuffs. Zelda felt a bit strange wearing something so elaborate.
The bed in the bedroom was huge—even by castle standards.
"Who all is supposed to sleep in this bed?" Zelda complained, crawling into one side. She felt as if a small county separated her from the other side.
Rayliss laughed. "No one, silly."
"Then why is it so big?"
Rayliss shrugged. "I don't know. They're all like that." She looked at Zelda. "Do you want me to wake you for dinner?"
"Yes, you probably ought to."
Rayliss had some of the maids close the curtains over the tall windows and blow out the candles, then they all left. Zelda was asleep within seconds.
Zelda slept soundly until Rayliss gently shook her awake.
"Dinner is in an hour."
Zelda yawned, then slowly sat up.
"Feeling better?" Rayliss asked hopefully.
"A little. I still need a full night's sleep. Then maybe I'll be back on a normal schedule."
Zelda got up and Rayliss had the maids parade an endless variety of dresses before them. It was clear that Rayliss was eager to play dress up… with Zelda as her doll.
"Eww, no," Rayliss said, shaking her head as she looked Zelda over in one of their selections. "White looks absolutely horrid on you; you look like you're dead; you have no color."
Rayliss went down the line of maids and selected a pink silk dress. "Here, try this one. I don't look good in pink, so maybe it's your color."
Zelda changed into the pink dress. It was fitted—luckily she and Rayliss were about the same size—and the sleeves were tight to the wrist but had wide cuffs of thick white fox fur that came halfway over her hands. The skirt was full and was trimmed all around the hem with a thick border of the white fur. The neckline was deep and wide and also trimmed in fur.
"Oh, that looks perfect on you!" Rayliss said, clapping her hands in joy. She dragged Zelda before a huge mirror in one corner of the room. Zelda hardly recognized herself in the beautiful dress.
"It feels like forever since I dressed up," Zelda said quietly.
"Oh, let's do your hair next," Rayliss said, ushering her to a dressing table. Zelda sat down and watched in the mirror as two maids braided her hair in elaborate loops that crisscrossed over her head.
While they were working, Rayliss dug through several boxes of jewelry. "Hmm… what to go with this..?" she muttered to herself as she poked through the jewels with her finger.
She finally settled on simple string of pearls with a gold locket and a pair of earrings with a pearl dangling from a fine gold chain.
The last thing she took out of a box was a wide gold circlet, set with pearls and rubies.
"I don't like this one very much," Rayliss said. "I hardly ever wear gold. But I think it will look good on you."
She handed the circlet to one of the maids and she placed it on Zelda's head, rearranging her braids as necessary.
"Oh, it's perfect!" Rayliss said happily. "I'll have to ask Father if you can have it; it looks so much better on you than me."
A knock on the door interrupted them.
"See who it is," Rayliss said, sending one of the maids to answer it.
A moment later the girl turned around and curtsied. "His Highness wants to know if you are ready for dinner."
"Yes, we're ready," Rayliss said. She was already arrayed in a midnight-blue silk dress with wide bell sleeves. It was trimmed in black fur. A small section of Rayliss's long black hair had been pulled up, while the remainder was curled and left to cascade down her back. She had on a silver circlet with sapphires and little diamonds. Rayliss reminded Zelda of the night that she and Link had watched the sky deepen into blue, then black, and then stars had come out and twinkled silver.
Zelda had noticed that all of the dresses that had been offered to her were very fine. She wondered if they were dressing for a special dinner—since it was her first night there—or if all of Rayliss's dresses were that nice. Zelda only wore such formal dresses on state occasions.
When they stepped outside, Zelda noticed that her uncle was splendid as well; he was wearing a fitted, black velvet cote with silver buttons and a high collar. His pants were white and he was wearing fashionable knee-high boots with silver decorative buckles. He was also wearing a silver collar of estate and a full crown of silver with pearls set in it.
Zelda concluded everyone must be dressing nice because it was her first night there; surely they didn't dress that way every day.
Zeyde smiled when he saw them and gave them a small bow. "What a pleasure to escort two beautiful young ladies to dinner."
Rayliss and Zelda both smiled.
"Where's Mother?" Rayliss asked, looking around.
Zeyde's smile faded. "She is not feeling very well."
"Oh, that's too bad," Rayliss said with disappointment. "Mother gets bad headaches," she explained to Zelda. "She has to stay in the dark and not move for days. Even talking to her makes her head hurt."
"Yes, it's best to just leave her alone until it passes," Zeyde said sadly. Zelda felt sorry for him; it was clear he missed his wife. She knew from Rayliss's letters that Princess Austina was frequently ill. Many of her duties as the first lady of the royal family fell on Rayliss instead.
A moment later, someone rounded the corner and walked down the hallway towards them. It wasn't until Rayliss gave her a knowing nudge in the ribs that Zelda realized that it was Link.
He was dressed in a fitted cote of deep emerald-green silk. It had been woven with black warp threads so that when the fabric moved, it seemed to change colors from green to black, back to green in a flash. It was long—to his knees—but had slits front and back. It was buttoned with gold buttons and there was wide gold embroidery in ornate paisley patterns along the bottom hem and from the cuffs nearly to the elbows.
He and Zelda stared at one another for a long moment—each in disbelief that the other could look so fine. Then Link bowed low.
"Your Highness, you look beautiful—like the last snow of winter on the first pink rose of spring."
Zelda tried not to blush, but it was hard; she was pleased.
Then Rayliss elbowed her again.
"Thank you, Link," she said, trying to remember her manners. "May I introduce you to my cousin, Rayliss?"
Rayliss thrust out her hand eagerly, smiling widely at him.
Link returned the smile and bent over Rayliss's hand, lightly kissing it. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Your Highness. I've heard a lot about you—although, if I may be so bold to say so, I had not heard how beautiful you are."
This sent Rayliss into a flutter. She couldn't speak for a minute and her face was as pink as Zelda's dress.
"It's… it's nice to meet you," she finally managed to get out, all the while grinning from ear to ear. "I've heard a lot about you, too."
"I'm afraid to ask if it was good or not."
"Oh, it was all good."
"Thank you for the flattery, but I know it can't be all good," Link said with a smile. "I know I annoyed Her Highness to no end when I first began my guard duty."
Prince Zeyde stepped in before his daughter could tell all of Zelda's secrets. "Are you ready for dinner, ladies? We can talk more once we're there."
"I'm ready," Zelda said.
Prince Zeyde offered his arm and it took Zelda a moment to realize that he was offering to escort them to dinner. It was a very formal gesture and not usually done except on state occasions.
A part of Zelda wished they weren't treating her like a visiting royal; she would have preferred to have dinner with the only family she had left. Instead, she was having dinner with the King of Erenrue and his heirs.
Rayliss was looking at her expectantly—even eagerly—and it dawned on Zelda that the choice of escorts was hers… and that Rayliss was hopeful to have Link to herself for a few minutes.
Her old feelings of possessiveness surfaced again and she held out her hand to Link. He quickly stepped up beside her and slipped her arm around his without missing a beat.
With a little frown of disappointment, Rayliss took her father's arm.
Zeyde gave Zelda a knowing look—a hint of a smile on his lips—then he led them down the dim hallway towards the dining room.