Zelda was in a temper the following morning when Rayliss dragged her and Link—along with two maids and the household chatelaine—to the market in search of the necessary ingredients for a spectacular party. It was clear that Rayliss was in her element.
"First, we need a theme," Rayliss said, as she fairly skipped down the front steps of the castle, everyone else following behind her more soberly. She was wearing a sky-blue wool dress with white embroidery that perfectly matched the cloudless blue sky bordered by the snow-covered mountain peaks around them. "Every good party has a theme," she added.
"How about the 'Zelda's not getting married on a bet' party?" Zelda snapped. "Or maybe a 'I'm not for sale' theme?"
Rayliss stopped, turned around, and looked at her severely. "Why are you bent on destroying my party idea? This is the first time anyone has ever listened to any idea I've ever had, and you're trying to ruin it." Rayliss stamped her foot in disgust.
"Oh, it's easy for you to throw a party and have a good time," Zelda said acidly. "You're not the one who's going to be paraded around like a prize brood mare that's going to the highest bidder!"
"Your Highness, please—" Link began to say. But Zelda cut him off, turning her vitriol on him.
"And you! You're supposed to be my knight. My champion. The boy who is so desperately in love with me, he'd fall on his own sword if I ordered it. And what did you say to this hair-brained idea? You approved of it!" She crossed her arms and turned her back on him. "Some love. Pfft. I see how convenient it is for you to drop it when there's power at stake."
Link's cheeks turned pink in shame, but his blue eyes flashed with anger. "Your Highness," he said, in a carefully-controlled, low voice, "if you truly think that I have agreed to this in order to get power for myself—or that anything I have done for you has been an attempt to gain something for myself—then tell me openly and I really will fall on my own sword, because I can't stand to live with the shame of such accusations."
Zelda glanced back at him and was startled to see the hard way he looked at her. She had obviously insulted him.
"Then why did you agree to this party?" she asked, trying to soften her voice a little so he would know she might be willing to be appeased.
"Because your grandfather's argument in favor of it is sound. No one will support a war to give you back your throne when there's nothing in it for Erenrue or her nobility. But if there's a possibility that you would make someone your king as a result, then every young man will be eager to fight. Suddenly it's a cause worth fighting for."
"But what of your idea that everyone needs to fight in order to save the world? I liked that motivation much better."
"Yes, but you and I don't know the nobility of this kingdom; the king does. He knows what will motivate them. Besides, it's hard to believe the world is coming to an end when the sun is shining and the snow is melting and the flowers are blooming. The king can see what's coming down the road. You and I can see it, too. But most people will have a hard time believing it.
"Human nature is habit; we don't like to change unless we're forced to. If we could show the noblemen and soldiers the demons, then they probably would be motivated to fight to save themselves and their families and the world. But until everyone sees the darkness for themselves, I think His Majesty's idea makes more sense."
Zelda hesitated, wavering.
"Besides, Your Highness," Link continued, "the king already has suspicions. That's why he said what he said to me; he was trying to get a response out of me."
"Suspicions about what?" Zelda asked, confused; she had no idea what he was talking about.
Link glanced back at the chatelaine and maids who were listening with rapt attention, looking equal parts scandalized by the royal tiff going on right in the front courtyard and delighted to hear such juicy gossip.
Link took Zelda by the elbow and led her a few steps away. "He suspects my feelings for you," he whispered.
"How do you know?" Zelda whispered back.
"By the things he says—and doesn't say. And by the way he looks at me. He plays with people in order to find out their strengths and weaknesses. That was why he told you to grovel before him. He had already made up his mind to help you; he just wanted to see what you would—or would not—do. Are you weak? Do you pretend to be weak but are, in fact, cunning? Or do you have your father's pride and temper?" He perked a brow. "I think we know how that question was answered."
"I think you're reading too much into him," Zelda said, although not firmly. She had glimpsed a little of what Link was talking about, but was not certain that he had come to the right conclusion.
"And I think you're underestimating him," Link countered. "He is a cunning man and brilliant tactician. He knows how to lure people out into the open, where he is then free to do what he wants with them.
"That's why I didn't react to him. That's what he wanted: he wanted some confirmation of my feelings for you. And, more importantly, he wanted to know how I would act on those feelings and what motivates me. Am I after you for power or political favor? Would I put my interests ahead of yours? Am I the jealous type? Those are the things he wants to know. While this party idea has very practical, national purposes, it also allows him to test me and see what I'm made of—just as he tested you yesterday in court."
Link let go of her elbow and stood up a little straighter. "You accuse me of using this as a way to get power, but in reality, I stand to lose more in this gamble than anyone. I have to fear that there will be some nobleman of Erenrue who will win your heart. I am, after all, deficient in many things deemed necessary for a suitor of a lady such as yourself—as your father was quick to point out.
"But this isn't about me and what I want; it's about righting a wrong—a wrong done against you. It's about putting you on your throne, where you belong. What I do, I do for your interests—not mine. If I had my way, of course I would have vehemently vetoed this idea. But that's not what's best for you. So I will stand aside and watch as others try to win for themselves the only thing I have ever wanted, and I will smile and I will be gracious. That's because it's my duty—just as it is your duty to use every means available to free your people of the tyranny and horrors unleashed by Nagadii."
Link turned away from her and approached Rayliss—who was suddenly trying not to look like she had been eavesdropping.
"So, Your Highness," Link said, sounding perfectly chipper—as if he hadn't just chastised Zelda to the point she felt like crawling into a hole and dying of shame—"I had an idea for your party theme."
"Oh?" she asked, clearly looking like she relished the change of a touchy subject.
"What about a rose in winter?"
She considered it for a moment. "That's… an unusual theme," she said delicately. "I mean, usually they're things that are… bigger—like the sea or fairies or something like that."
"Is this to be a masked ball?"
"I hadn't thought about it, but I suppose not. It is, after all, supposed to be a reception; I suppose it's better if people can see one another."
"Then there's less need for costumes, don't you think? Perhaps a decorative theme will be enough—pink and white and gray."
"Alright," she said, still not sounding sure, but agreeing to it anyways because she didn't have anything better in mind—or else she didn't want Link to upbraid her as he had Zelda.
He offered her his arm. "Let's see about ordering what we need."
Rayliss glanced at Zelda, as if afraid she would protest. But Zelda was still too shocked by Link's words to object, so Rayliss slipped her arm in Link's and they proceeded to the gate—Zelda and the maids trailing behind them.
King Ranis and Prince Zeyde were sitting in a sunny study in one of the towers that overlooked the city and the Erenrue Plain to the south. Prince Zeyde was drinking tea and reading the morning's paper and the king was revising Isui's proposed invitation, but the news from the breathless chatelaine interrupted their morning routine.
When she finished relating everything that she had heard in the courtyard, the king dismissed her with instructions to catch up with Rayliss and the others and carefully monitor the situation.
As soon as the door shut behind her, the king slammed his fist down on the table in triumph. "I knew it!"
"Knew what?" Zeyde asked his father.
"I knew that boy had affections for her. I told you so," he said, waggling his finger at Zeyde with glee. "And it sounds like she feels something for him in return—why else would she be so averse to looking for a husband and expect him to save her from the enterprise?"
"I don't know why you seem so surprised," Zeyde replied, calmly sipping his tea. "After all, their stars ordain them to be together and that's what Ryu was working towards their entire lives."
"But in their pasts they have not ended up together. Worked together, yes, but never married. That may not happen in this lifetime, either.
He smiled as his mind raced with possibilities. "If their little lover's quarrel becomes a war, we could be well positioned to arrange a marriage for Zelda and align our nobility with Hyrule. And if Zelda doesn't want Link, there's always Rayliss. Gods know she's not the wisest person; we have to be careful no one seizes control through her. A truly good man, who has no interest in feathering his own nest, but is wise enough to help her govern, would be an ideal husband for Rayliss…." His voice trailed away as he plotted multiple options for the future.
Zeyde set down his cup and looked at his father sternly. "Father, you said yourself that Marcus was a fool to mess with the gods' plans, and here you are doing it yourself."
"I'm not messing with anything," Ranis defended himself. "I'm just saying if things fall apart, I'm willing to pick up the pieces."
"I think your time would be better spent making sure nothing falls apart," Zeyde warned, before returning to his paper.