To Bend the Knee
Rayliss kept everyone hopping all afternoon. She put Link and Zelda in charge of supervising smaller parts of the party preparation while she managed the overall picture.
The banquet hall had too few tables and chairs in it, so some had to be brought out of storage. But before that could happen, the tables and chairs in it had to be moved out of the way so that the chandeliers could be lowered, cleaned of wax, polished, and fitted with fresh candles.
Decorations began arriving and had to be unpacked and put out of the way while the ball room was dusted and couches and chairs were brought in to line the walls.
"What do you think?" Rayliss asked Link and Zelda as she contemplated whether to bring in candle stands or not. "Should we go with a lot of light or dim lights?"
Link considered the question a moment. "I think you should have most of your light up high so it's not too dark for people to see one another, but otherwise it should be like dusk. That's more intimate. It also makes things like color and flashes of gold or silver or jewels stand out more."
Rayliss clapped her hands. "That's a wonderful idea!" She smiled at Link. "You're good at this."
A call to dinner finally halted their work for the day.
"Grandfather will probably make me play my harp," Rayliss said unhappily as they left the ballroom. "I always get so nervous because I know I'm not very good."
"Why don't you play a duet with Princess Zelda?" Link offered. "You'll be less nervous if you're not alone and mistakes aren't as obvious when there are two instruments."
Rayliss looked at Zelda pleadingly. "Oh, Zelda, will you play with me? Please?"
Zelda looked at Link and noticed he was smiling. She knew immediately that he hadn't made the offer for Rayliss's benefit; he had done it so that Zelda would be forced to perform before all of her would-be suitors.
He was just as bad as her father.
"Link plays the flute," Zelda countered. "He could play a duet with you. He's done one with me before." She looked back at him in triumph.
"Unfortunately, my flute is still in Hyrule," he quickly countered, smiling even wider.
"I have a flute," Rayliss eagerly offered. "You can use it. I'm horrible at it. I made my flute teacher cry, and then he quit."
Link had to laugh. "Why don't we all three perform a few pieces, then?"
"That would be lovely," Rayliss said happily.
Zelda looked away, silently fuming that he had managed to outwit her. But he and Rayliss paid no attention to her, chatting companionably about what pieces they might play.
Rayliss took them to her room and rifled through a trunk until she found her long-forgotten flute. She offered it to Link.
"This is beautiful," he said, as he gently took the flute from her. It was made out of some sort of rose-colored wood that had been polished to a soft, satin-smooth finish and inlaid with fine filigrees of gold.
He wet his lips, then put it to his mouth. The sound was deep and soothing and beautiful—prettier than any flute Zelda had ever heard before—but she was surprised when Link made several mistakes.
He finally stopped playing. "Oh, she's finicky," he said, looking down at the flute with interest. "Beautiful, but finicky."
He looked up at Rayliss. "Is this what you were learning on?"
"Who gave it to you?"
"I don't know. It was probably a gift from someone."
Link shook his head. "You should have never started out with this. This flute is far too particular for a beginner; it needs someone with a lot of experience. If you had learned on an easier instrument, you probably would have had more success."
Rayliss looked like she had just been given the best present of her life. "You mean I'm not slow-witted?"
"No, Your Highness. And if your flute teacher had been any sort of teacher, he would have realized that this wasn't the flute for you the first time he tried to play it."
He glanced at Zelda. "I wonder if he was the brother of your harp teacher? They sound like they are cut from the same cloth."
"Oh, Link," Rayliss said, grabbing his hand. "You must tell Father and Grandfather that so they know it's not that I'm stupid; it's the flute's fault."
"I will do that, Your Highness."
She looked over the moon. "This is so great!"
"I will have to practice with this, though," he warned. "I can't promise that I'll be able to play with you two next week. This flute might be beyond me."
And, just like that, Link weaseled his way out of performing. Game, set, match.
Zelda was exhausted by the time she finally crawled into bed around midnight. It turned out that the king and everyone else hadn't dressed up just for her first night there; apparently they were always formal when it came to dinner. That meant Zelda had to change clothes and get made-up before going to dinner. When her uncle had come knocking, she took his arm instead of Link's. That thrilled Rayliss—who chatted about the party with Link the entire time they were walking to the dining room; Zeyde just looked at Zelda curiously and said nothing.
Dinner had been a multi-course affair that dragged on for hours—hence the late hour in which she got into bed. But despite being so weary, Zelda couldn't go to sleep. She tossed and turned in her huge, empty bed playing everything that she had said and done that day over and over again in her mind.
She had said she didn't treat Link well at the beginning of their relationship, but the truth was she still didn't treat him well. She used him as her own personal whipping boy—venting her spleen on him whenever she felt like it. Normally he took the abuse with quiet acceptance, but obviously his patience wasn't endless; today, she had crossed the line.
The more she thought about it, the more obvious the solution became: she had to apologize. And not just a regular, "I'm sorry," sort of apology, but a really deep one. She needed to bend her knee.
The thought of doing that made her toss and turn again. She wasn't sure she could stand the shame. But, as the hours slipped by and her guilty conscience wouldn't let her sleep, she steeled herself to do it.
Having learned her lesson earlier about speaking where others could overhear, she decided to go find Link right then, while everyone else was asleep. That way she could at least spare herself some humiliation by apologizing in private.
She threw back the covers and went to the closet where Rayliss had left a selection of her clothes. She found a robe and slippers and, after donning them, she headed for the door.
She quietly opened the door and poked her head out, looking to the left and right. She almost jumped out of her slippers when she saw Link sitting in a chair beside her door, his head resting against the wall, his eyes closed.
"What is it with you and sneaking out?" he said without opening his eyes. "Is there something about castles that brings that out in you, or is it something else?"
He finally turned to look at her, a smile on his face.
"What are you doing here?" she demanded.
"The same thing I was doing outside your door the first time we met."
"Were… were you out here last night?" she asked in confusion.
"When do you sleep?"
"I can sleep a little bit right here. And I was planning on taking a nap this afternoon, but your cousin's plans kind of squashed that idea."
He shrugged as if it was no big deal.
"Why are you doing this?" she asked quietly.
"What? Helping your cousin with her party?"
"No, sleeping in a chair outside my door."
"I thought I had explained that: I'm guarding you."
"There are guards aplenty here."
"And who do they answer to?"
She felt a little confused. "The king."
"And who do I answer to?"
"Me?" she asked hesitantly, wondering if this was a trick question.
"Exactly. Everyone here serves the royal family first—as they should; that's their duty. But if something were to happen—if we were attacked, or something of that nature—the king and his family would be everyone's first priority. You would be a secondary concern."
"I don't think we need to worry about that—" she started to say.
"Don't be lulled into a false sense of security, Your Highness," Link interrupted. "We don't know what spies Nagadii may have or where they may be placed. I think he has been planning the overthrow of Hyrule for some time; he could have people everywhere."
"What if someone here works for him? Would a guard stop a servant he knew from going into your room on some legitimate-sounding pretext? You could be dead before anyone ever figured out the betrayal.
"And don't forget that Nagadii is a magician," he added. "He doesn't necessarily need people to spy for him; he can scry. He may be watching us now."
Zelda shivered and crossed her arms, as if she could close herself off and keep Nagadii from seeing her.
"I've answered your question," Link said. "Are you going to tell me why you were sneaking out?"
She blushed a little. "Actually, I was coming to find you."
"What do you need?"
Even though she had vowed to apologize, she found swallowing her pride choked her to the point she couldn't speak.
She finally tried to get at it from a roundabout way. "Link, how do you do it?"
He looked confused. "Do what, Your Highness?"
"Get down on your knees and apologize—or ask for something. How do you do it? You aren't lacking in pride, but when you do it, you look so effortless—as if it's not mortifying at all."
His look of confusion slowly changed to thoughtfulness, then he smiled softly at her.
"Your Highness, it's not mortifying or shameful."
"But it is," she insisted. "It's very humiliating to get down on your knees and beg. It makes you so low."
He shook his head a little. "Your Highness, you're looking at it from the wrong angle. If I were to bend my knee to someone like Nagadii—not that I ever would—that would be humiliating beyond endurance because he is not my equal—much less my superior. To put someone unworthy above yourself will always grate.
"But when you respect someone to the point you feel they are your superior, then it is not humiliating. I'm happy to show that I respect you and hold you in high esteem; I want to demonstrate my devotion.
"Make no mistake; my knee doesn't bend for just anyone. But when it does, I am not ashamed to do it."
She looked at him sadly. "What have I ever done to make you feel that I am superior to you? I have treated you unjustly. I have expected you to do everything while I do nothing. I have insulted your honor. I have not been grateful for all the sacrifices you make for me."
Suddenly, she found it easy to kneel on the floor next to Link's chair. He was right: it wasn't hard to do when you respected someone and wanted to show it.
"I am not worthy of your respect," she whispered, looking up at him.
He looked horrified and tried to pull her to her feet. "Your Highness, please, get up," he said in a low voice, looking around to see if there was anyone nearby.
"Not until you give me your forgiveness for what I said this morning," she argued. "And… forgive me for not trusting your motives. I trust you most of the time, and if someone sprang up right this minute to kill me, I trust that you would save me. But… sometimes I don't trust you. I don't know why; you have certainly done nothing to make me feel that way. It's some flaw within me."
He looked at her kindly. "Your Highness, you grew up in a royal family; I'm not surprised you don't trust anyone completely. I'm not saying that your father didn't love you, but his love was always tempered with politics. While I don't think he would have ever married you to someone who would have been repellent to you, neither was he open to marrying you to someone who had no political advantage, either. Hence his problem with me.
"You are used to getting only part of someone's love. And you are used to people intriguing and spying and backbiting to curry favor. I don't fault you for not being able to understand someone who doesn't play those games—someone who loves you without reservation—someone who gives to you with no strings attached."
Tears welled up in Zelda's eyes. She had never thought about it like that, but Link had hit the nail on the head: she had grown up knowing she was a pawn—that others held her fate in their hands. Being around her grandfather had only brought those feelings of helplessness and forced obedience back to the surface—not to mention the knowledge that any affection he had for her was, as Link said, mixed with her usefulness to his political ends.
Link gently took her face in his hands and looked her in the eyes. "Your Highness, you are my monarch and I serve you. I think this party will be helpful to your cause, but if you can't abide the thought of it, then I will support you in calling it off. But, know this: no one controls you. No one will marry you off against your will—not even your grandfather. You are your own person. You are a queen."
What Link said caused a flash of insight. He was right; no one controlled her anymore. She could play whatever political games needed to be played all day long, but at the end of the day her person—and her heart—were her own.
"I will do the party," she said with resolve.
He smiled at her and tried again to pull her to her feet. But she didn't budge.
"Accept my apology," she demanded.
"This is payback, isn't it?"
"Yes. …But it's also something I need to do. I need to learn a lesson about watching what I say… and why I'm saying it and to whom."
"I will forgive you on one condition," Link offered.
"Promise me that you won't doubt my loyalty again." He looked at her pleadingly. "I can forgive the hurt—because I know that you weren't raised to trust—but more than feelings are at stake. We are caught in a life-or-death struggle. We may be enjoying a reprieve now, but at some point we'll have to march on Hyrule. And that means war—and death.
"I trust you; when you lead, I follow you without reservation. But you must do the same when I'm in the lead because it only takes one second—one second of hesitation or doubt—to get you killed."
"And that goes for here as well as on the battlefield. We are strangers here—even if the king and prince are your family—and you're a foreign monarch and therefore a threat as much as an ally. If we present a united front, we'll be able to speak and present ourselves from a position of power. If we're arguing about how to do things, though, we'll seem even weaker than we are.
"And, trust me, King Ranis and Nagadii both will find a way to exploit that. We may or may not be able to tolerate whatever your grandfather plans, but Nagadii will utterly destroy us both.
"Do you understand?" he asked, looking at her earnestly. "I don't ask this for myself, but because I want you to stay safe. If you're angry and want to take it out on me, then do so—just don't doubt my motivation.
"Because, I swear to you, on my blood, your safety and happiness is the only motivation I have."
Zelda hurried to put her hand over his hand before he could pull out his sword and cut himself again; she really didn't need a second blood oath from him.
"I believe you," she said.
"Then I accept your apology."
He helped her to her feet, but, at the last minute, he caught her hand in his and slowly kissed the back of it.
It wasn't the light, courtly kiss that he normally gave her. It was full of love and longing and all sorts of things he normally kept repressed.
She shivered a little.
"Goodnight," he said, looking up at her.
"If I order you to go to bed, you won't, will you?"
"No, Your Highness."
"You really are stubborn, you know."
"Yes, Your Highness," he said without a bit of shame. Then he smiled up at her. "You are too, you know."
"Yes, I know," she admitted with no more shame than him. "It's a wonder we can stand one another."
"It's all a matter of knowing when to fight and when to yield," he said wisely.