A Battle of Equals
Sixteen Years Later
Princess Zelda leaned out her tower window, idly watching the large, yellow moon rising in the east, waiting for a little more time to pass. She had an appointment to keep. With herself.
From the moment her chambermaids woke her in the morning—cheerfully greeting her and throwing open the curtains to let in the early sunlight—her time was not her own. Even her person was really not her own. She was a princess, and that meant everyone had a claim on her.
She spent all of her mornings studying under her tutor, Master Ryu. He was patient and kind and sometimes he looked at her almost as if he pitied her. It was said that he was the best astrologer in the kingdom and that he could foretell men's deaths. Zelda wondered if he knew when and how she would die—if that's why he looked at her the way he did—but she was never brave enough to ask. Certainly the star chart she had been given years ago didn't say anything about her death. It only said that she would be one of the greatest rulers Hyrule had ever known and that she would marry a noble man.
She still remembered the day Ryu gave her the star chart.
"This is for you," he said. "You won't understand all of it now, but in time it will make sense to you. But you must keep it secret. Let no one see it—least of all your father."
She wasn't sure why her father wasn't allowed to see it—especially since he undoubtedly had it commissioned when she was born—but maybe Ryu was afraid her father would be offended by the prediction that his daughter would be a greater ruler than him.
Regardless of Ryu's motives, she kept the chart secret, as he asked. It was rolled up tightly and hidden in a hollow chamber in her hunting bow. She thought herself rather clever for coming up with the hiding place; no one would ever think to look inside a bow for something. And she derived a certain sense of satisfaction knowing that every time she gripped her bow in practice, she was holding her destiny in her hands.
Which—as was previously mentioned—was more than she could say for her time.
Her classes ended at noon. If there were any visiting royals or emissaries or representatives present, she was expected to join her father in one of the small, intimate banquet rooms where they could all pretend to pleasantly chat while secretly sizing one another up. Her father liked to call those seemingly-endless luncheons a lesson in "statecraft."
They were only slightly worse than the alternative, which, when there was no one of importance around to entertain or impress, was to eat lunch alone in her room, attended only by her chambermaids. And while they were in a hurry to wake her up with their chatter first thing in the morning, they stood silent at meal times, as if they were nothing more than pieces of furniture. They only came alive when she asked for something or finished her meal, and even then they said no more than was necessary.
After her solitary lunch, she was expected to spend her afternoon being diplomatic via correspondence. Her father never had much tact for such things, and as soon as she was old enough to write legibly, her father insisted that Ryu teach her how to write letters of sympathy and congratulations, in addition to a steady stream of correspondence to the various royals of the world. She had to be polite and pleasant and make conversation about nothing important, lest she give away some secret. That, her father said, was true statecraft: to speak and be entertaining, but never say anything at all.
She knew her mother had held the position before her, and she tried to brace her spirits with the knowledge that she was following in her mother's footsteps and that her mother might be proud of her, but in truth, Zelda had her father's impatience with trivial things. But her impatience stemmed from a different reason: highly intelligent and quick to understand, she was easily bored.
But despite being bored by the endless letter writing, she was smart enough to know that someone had to do it, and it certainly wouldn't be (and shouldn't be) her father. So she sighed and dipped her quill into her bottle of ink and continued to write.
At least she had one pen-friend that she could be a little more honest with: her cousin, Rayliss. Rayliss lived in Erenrue and was the eldest daughter of the heir-apparent, Prince Zayde. Prince Zayde and Zelda's mother had been siblings.
Rayliss, like Zelda, was an heir to the throne of her kingdom (although she was third in line; their grandfather, King Ranis, was still alive), and she too was being raised to one day be a queen. But, because she was further removed from the throne, she wasn't pushed as much as Zelda; the advisers in the court of Erenrue thought she had plenty of time yet to learn to be queen.
Zelda could pour her heart out to Rayliss and speak honestly about how much she hated state luncheons and writing letters to everyone (except Rayliss) and being alone with no other young people her age to be with. And she could complain about having to have an escort every time she went into the city and how she never had a moment's private time.
Rayliss always wrote sympathetic letters in return, having experienced most of the same things herself (she did have two younger brothers, but she assured Zelda that being around them was worse than being alone). And Ryaliss felt comfortable complaining in return about her lessons and how she despaired of ever understanding anything (Zelda had figured out some years before that Rayliss was not the keenest knife in the drawer), and how she had made her flute tutor cry, she was so terrible. Zelda was always soothing and sympathetic in return and tried to give her what tips she could to help with the lessons.
But Zelda never told Rayliss about what she did at night. She didn't dare write it down, lest someone other than Rayliss read the letter. And even if she could talk Rayliss in person, she didn't think she could trust the other girl with her secret. Rayliss wasn't smart enough to know that such a thing had to be kept secret at all costs; she would only understand that what Zelda was doing was dangerous and that she should stop.
But Zelda was never going to stop. Even if she was locked in her room, she would find a way to escape and flee to the plains that surrounded the city where she could run free and be alone and have nothing at all to do for hours at a time.
She giggled, thinking about Ryu and how he always fussed about her being so drowsy most mornings when she was at her lessons. If he only knew why….
Zelda checked the moon again and decided it was late enough. She slipped out of her white silk dress and pulled out the shirt and breeches she kept hidden behind some heavy old books on the highest, most inaccessible shelf in her bookcase. She got into the clothes quickly, then took her boots out of a chest beneath one window and sat down to put them on. She was allowed to wear boots while she was riding, so she didn't have to hide them.
She slung her quiver across her back, then strapped a small sword across her hips. She took her bow and arrows to play with, if she felt like it, but she took her sword for protection. Even she was not so stupid as to go unarmed at night; there were still large predators roaming the wild places, even if they were not nearly as numerous as they had been generations ago.
She fastened her plainest dark cloak around her shoulders, covering everything up. She pulled up the hood, so her face was hidden in the shadows, then grabbed her bow and headed for the door.
She listened with her sensitive ears close to the door, but she heard nothing outside. Dear old Horace; he had been her guard ever since she had been an infant in the cradle. But he wasn't so young anymore, and he could always be counted on to be asleep at his post.
Zelda carefully opened the door—she made sure that the staff kept it well-oiled and silent—and quietly slipped out of her room. Horace, as always, was leaning against the right-hand wall, his head drooping down to his chest. There was no one else in sight.
She was making like a cat down the hallway—the deep-pile wool carpet making no noise under her feet—when suddenly the guard moved, causing her to jump with fright.
"Going somewhere, Your Highness?"
The voice behind the helmet's visor didn't belong to Horace at all. It was young and rather mocking.
She drew herself up taller. "That is no concern of yours," she said in her best imitation of her father. She had been caught roaming the palace in the dead of night a couple of times before, but always by young guards who were easily intimidated. She was always gone before they realized that she had never actually said why she had been out at such a god-forsaken hour.
"Oh, but it is my concern," the young guard replied. "You see, you are my concern."
"Where is Horace?" she demanded. "I don't know you."
"No, we've never been introduced, but I know you. I have watched you for a long time."
Zelda felt a chill go down her spine. Nothing good came of being secretly watched.
She unsheathed her sword. "Who are you and what have you done with Horace?"
The man laughed. "I have done nothing with him, Princess."
"I demand to know where he is."
"He is at home with his wife and family."
His answer brought Zelda up short. But she quickly dismissed her uncertainty; if the man posing as a guard was an assassin, as she suspected, then he would tell her any lie to gain her trust.
"I don't believe you," she said, going on guard again.
"But it's true," the man replied casually, as if he was not the least bit disturbed by Zelda's ready sword. "A certain someone knows that Horace has been sleeping on the job for quite some time and that you've been taking advantage of this and sneaking out of the palace at night. So, I am here to replace him. If I can prove myself, then Horace will be retired by a grateful royal family and given a generous pension that will keep him the rest of his days."
Zelda felt unsure again. What he said didn't sound like a lie—it was too detailed and smooth to have been made up on the spot—but maybe he had rehearsed it? But then, how had he known that Horace slept at his post and that she had been sneaking out?
The next thing she knew, his sword was crossed on top of hers, pinning it to the floor. "Please, Your Highness, go back to bed. This is my first real job and I would hate to lose it on my first day."
There was something arrogant and conceited in his voice; he thought she was beneath him. Beneath him!
It made her blood hot and her father's famous temper boiled to the surface.
She spun around, freeing her sword from him, and faced him again with her sword held at the ready. "You're going to have to earn your job," she hissed at him.
"I don't want to play this game," he said, a note of actual worry in his voice. "I don't want you to get hurt by accident."
By the gods! He really was an arrogant beast!
She gave him her answer with a quick thrust of her sword tip to the poorly-protected area where his arm harness didn't quite meet up with his body armor.
"Ow!" he said, reeling back.
She threw back the hood of her cloak and sneered at him. "You won't find me easy to wound."
"Very well, Your Highness," he said, slowly moving back into position. "As it pleases you…." And the next moment he was on the attack, thrusting and slicing.
Zelda was surprised; he was holding nothing back. It was everything she could do to keep up her defense. She feared that if she slipped for just a moment, he might really harm her.
That wasn't at all the way the other men of the guard fought with her; they were so careful of her, she was able to defeat them rather easily.
She had never been in a real sword fight with someone before. And even while it frightened her, it exhilarated her like nothing ever had before. This was far more dangerous than sneaking out of the palace at night. This was truly life or death.
She quickly realized that the young man's aggressive forward movements were driving her back toward her bedroom door. No doubt he thought to get her back inside and then lock her in. But it was everything she could do to defend herself; she wasn't in a position to be offensive.
That called for something drastic.
She blocked a high blow from him and then dropped like a lead weight, rolling forward and past him. She was on her feet again in an instant, and she swung at his head, but he just barely managed to duck.
Her sword grazed the top of his helmet and struck the socket where a gold horsehair plume plugged into place. The force of her blow broke his chin strap and the helmet went tumbling wildly across the carpet runner and then onto the stone floor. It clanged noisily against the wall before coming to a stop.
It was so loud and unexpected, it stunned Zelda for a moment. And that was all the time the guard needed. The next thing Zelda knew, she was pinned up against the wall, the guard's sword across her neck. She could feel the cold, sharp edge against her throat, and she gasped. Maybe he was an assassin after all.
She looked up at him, though, and her eyes widened.
He was quite handsome; somehow, she thought that someone who was so arrogant must be ugly, or at least have his face marred by a permanent scowl. But the boy's face was smooth and fair, and his blue eyes were actually kind and intelligent. His sandy-blond hair fell in disarray nearly to his shoulders. And, like her, he bore the long, pointed ears of a Hylian.
He noticed her looking at him. "It would seem that we both have our secrets, Your Highness," he panted; even if she had lost the fight, she had clearly made him work for his victory. "No one here knows what I am," he added.
"What are you?" she whispered, her breathing as heavy and ragged as his.
"I'm a Hylian… like yourself. That's something I've taken great pains to conceal. In fact, there is only one person outside of my family who knows."
"Why do you conceal it?"
"It… would be dangerous for me if it was known," he replied enigmatically.
"Why?" she pressed. "Is there someone who doesn't like Hylians?"
"No, just someone who doesn't like me. And, you must admit, the ears do make me rather recognizable."
She couldn't help herself; she smiled a little.
"I'll keep your secret if you keep mine," he said quietly, lowering his sword.
"Are you wanted for something? For some crime?"
"No. I was just born with a destiny that someone didn't find acceptable, so he attempted to rewrite it for me."
"Who?" she asked, dying of curiosity about the strange young man.
"I… don't think I should say."
"I can command you to do it," she said, but there was no threat in her voice.
"There's a difference between telling me to do something and actually making me do it," he replied with a smirk. "You may command me all day long, but I will only obey when I feel like it."
"How did you come to be a guard here?" she demanded, feeling a bit cross again. "You don't seem to understand that my will is to be obeyed, not yours."
"And you don't seem to understand that you don't have to demand anything of me; I would willingly give you anything you want on bended knee, if you just ask the right way."
He was leaning in closer to her. She found it hard to breathe. She thought he might kiss her. She wanted him to kiss her. And yet, she had no idea why she wanted such a thing; she couldn't even figure out if she liked him or hated him.
"And what's the right way to ask?" she said breathlessly, wanting to kick herself for sounding so enraptured by him.
"It's not that simple," he whispered, leaning ever closer. "You have to figure it out for yourself."
She held her breath, waiting for his lips to touch hers.
Suddenly, she heard the distant sound of armor clanking.
"Someone's coming," she and the boy said at the same time. Then they glanced at one another and shared a knowing smile. No one could hear like Hylians.
The boy stepped away and bent down to retrieve his helmet. "Back to your room, Your Highness," he said urgently. "We will have to practice our swordplay some other time."
Zelda picked up her bow, which she had discarded early in the confrontation, and hurried back into her room, closing the door behind her. But she knelt at the keyhole, trying to look out. She couldn't see the young man, or hear him retake his place. A moment later, a small unit of six guards came trotting up the stairs and down the hallway.
"What was that noise?" the lead soldier asked.
"What noise?" the boy replied. Zelda moved a little, trying to see him, but the angle wasn't good; he must have gone back to his position near the door. He could apparently move as quietly as Zelda, despite his bulky, rattling armor.
"The loud noise that came from up here," the soldier replied, sounding aggravated. "It sounded like fighting and things being thrown. And I heard voices."
"I'm sorry," the boy replied, genuinely sounding confused, "but I didn't hear a thing. And I have pretty good hearing."
Zelda stifled a giggle.
"Hmpf," the soldier replied. He glanced around, but apparently didn't see anything out of the ordinary. "How is the princess?" he demanded.
"Fine," the boy said smoothly. "She's sound asleep. …At least I assume she is. Do you want to check?"
Zelda caught her breath, afraid she was going to have to make a run and dive into bed, but the soldier didn't budge.
"No, that's fine; I wouldn't want to risk disturbing her."
The soldier squinted behind his helmet. "You're new here, aren't you?"
"New to this position, sir. I've been working and training here since I was eleven."
Since he was eleven! How had she failed to notice him? But, if he had been keeping his ears covered—and he was right, they really were the most conspicuous thing about him—then she would have never had any real cause to notice him; there were pages and errand boys and stable boys by the dozens constantly scurrying around the palace.
"This is a very important position for someone who is new," the old soldier replied warily.
"I'm just filling in for Horace while he takes a vacation."
"Well… just see to it that nothing happens on your watch."
"It wouldn't do for you to let someone get into the Princess's room… or to let her get out," he added as an afterthought.
"Oh, I'm sure the Princess wouldn't ever try to sneak out of her room. She would know she couldn't ever get past one of us. She would have to go out the window to have any chance of escaping unnoticed." He laughed as if this idea was ridiculous.
Zelda, on the other hand, gasped in surprise. It had never occurred to her to go out the window. It was more dangerous than sneaking past a sleeping Horace, but it was certainly doable; most of the tower was covered with old ivy that was deeply embedded in the mortar around the stonework. When she was younger, she had been known to climb on it when no one was looking, but she always climbed from the bottom up, never from the top down.
"Is that blood on your arm?" the soldier asked, leaning closer to look at the guard.
Zelda's eyes widened; she hadn't realized she had actually wounded him. He had never said a thing about it.
"Oh, I think it is," the boy replied, sounding completely unconcerned. "My armor gave me a hard pinch earlier, when I was putting it on; I didn't realize it had actually cut me."
"Do you need to get it taken care of?"
"No, it's nothing. I'll clean it up later."
The soldier and his investigative party were soon satisfied that everything was as it ought to be, and they went back from wherever they came.
Zelda hurried to the large window that faced due-east, and opened it, looking down to make sure the coast was clear.
Drat it! The same group of meddlesome guards was marching through the courtyard, heading straight for her position. Did they take the boy's words as a warning to guard the outside of the tower? And here she thought the boy had dropped the hint for her benefit.
"We were slow to respond to a potential threat and sloppy in our execution," the lead guard said, speaking loudly to the group who was with him. "We need to drill tonight."
There were groans and a general chorus of bellyaching.
"Shut your traps!" the old soldier snarled. "Let's get a move on it!"
Zelda pulled back inside, shutting the window and locking it again. Apparently they weren't outside on her account. Which meant she could still get out by the window some other night.
She took off her breeches and shirt—carefully returning them to their hiding place—then she slipped into her nightgown and got into bed.
It was only as she was starting to fall asleep that she realized she had never asked the boy's name. The boy who had almost kissed her….