King Ranis stood on the study's balcony, looking down into the courtyard. It was a warm spring day and the air was fresh and the sun cheery. It felt good to stand outside after spending most of the winter indoors.
Link, Zelda, and Rayliss also seemed to feel so, because they were in the courtyard practicing as an ensemble. The party was the following evening.
"I can't believe Rayliss volunteered to play for the reception," the king said over his shoulder. Prince Zeyde was sitting at a table just inside the door, going over receipts for the party and approving expenditures.
"That's because she knew we would make her do it," Zeyde said without looking up.
"Since when has that stopped her from trying to weasel out of it?"
Ranis turned back to look at the three young people. Link seemed to be coordinating the music; he kept giving Rayliss—and occasionally Zelda—instructions. Once the two girls were playing together, he would join in on the flute. It was a very enjoyable sound—wholly appropriate to a pretty spring day.
"Rayliss seems to have this reception in hand," the king continued. "Maybe she's just a late bloomer who is finally coming into her own."
"She's a heavy spender is what she is," Zeyde fussed. "You ought to see these bills."
The king laughed and walked back into the study. He took a seat at the table, relaxing back in his chair. "It's a special occasion; let her spend some money."
"Just so long as she knows not every occasion is a special occasion. She'll bankrupt us if she makes a habit of this."
"This from the man who has… how many outfits is it now?"
A pink tinge crossed Zeyde's pale cheeks. "I will admit to having a weakness for fashion," he admitted, "but I'd never bankrupt the treasury for it."
"I also seem to recall you have a weakness for books," the king corrected.
Ranis laughed again. He was in an unusually good mood—partly because of the weather and partly because he could smell battle on the air like a hound catching the scent of a fox. He tried to avoid war for the sake of his people, but he would be the first to admit that he secretly enjoyed it. For him, battlefield strategy was like working a puzzle—it was something that engaged his busy, intellectual mind. And nothing could replace the rush of adrenaline and thrill of fighting for one's life and living to tell the tale.
"Well, we'll work with her on that," the king promised."But, for now, I'm just glad she's managing to coordinate everything. If she pulls this off, then we'll work on budgeting."
Almost as an afterthought, he leaned forward and picked up the bill for the flowers. His eyes went wide. "Good gods!"
"I told you."
He laughed again, then threw the bill back on the table. "Well, it won't be said that we're stingy when it comes to entertaining our guests. Only the best for Zelda's marriage-quest."
"Are you still on about that?"
The king leaned back again and waved his hand. "No, I suppose not. It seems she and Link have made up."
"Good," Zeyde said firmly. He picked up a quill, dipped it in a pot of ink, and began to sign his name to the bills, authorizing payment from the royal treasury.
"Do you know that he sits outside of her room every night?" the king said, sounding a bit incredulous.
Zeyde looked up from his writing. "For what purpose?"
"To guard her, apparently."
"When does he sleep?"
"I don't know."
Zeyde went back to signing bills. "He's a boy after your own heart, then."
The king chuckled. "True enough."
The king was famous for wandering the castle at all hours of the night. It wasn't that he had insomnia so much as he just didn't need but a few hours of sleep; he spent the rest of his time thinking and planning. It was one of the reasons why he didn't need to rely on advisors too much; he did more for himself than any normal monarch would be expected to do.
"It's a strange thing," the king mused—"although I know Link's common, I often forget it. I suppose there's something to that old saying that a few yards of silk will make a commoner noble."
Zeyde looked up at him. "That's not it at all."
"I think he has something within him that's noble and would manifest regardless of the situation. You would think the same of him if he was wearing rags."
"Hmm… an interesting proposition."
"Seeing if I think as well of him if he's in rags."
Zeyde sighed wearily. "Father, you wear me out with your scheming."
"What?" he asked, feigning innocence. "I'm just passing my time with intellectual questions. You do the same."
"Yes, but I keep my questions theoretical; you like to test your suppositions—no matter how many crushed feelings and shattered egos it causes."
"That's because there's only room in Court for one ego: mine. The sooner people learn that, the better off they are. So, really, I'm just helping them adapt." He smiled magnanimously.
Zeyde just shook his head.
The lack of sleep was beginning to catch up to Link. He had managed to put aside his sleepiness through sheer force of will and concentrate on putting the finishing touches on their performance pieces, but when he had followed the princesses back into the castle to get ready for dinner, he had been sorely tempted to beg off and go take a nap instead. But he worried that would make for awkward questions at dinner—questions that might raise Zelda's temper again—plus make her feel bad for being the cause of his sleepiness in the first place. So, he toughed it out and tried not to yawn behind his napkin too often.
After supper, he changed into his Hylian clothing—he found it more comfortable than his borrowed formalwear—and took his place in the chair beside Zelda's door. He put his head back against the wall and quickly went to sleep.
It wasn't a restful sleep because his head would fall over to one side or the other and wake him up—else he would start snoring and wake himself up—but he was so tired, it was better than nothing.
He was in the middle of a strange, disjointed dream about floating meat pies—which no one found surprising, save him—when a scraping noise startled him awake. His hand was on his sword hilt before he even opened his eyes.
Zelda—in her long, white nightgown trimmed in lace—was standing beside him. "Link, it's me," she said, reaching out with a steadying hand.
Link—half-poised to jump from his chair—relaxed. "What do you need, Your Highness?"
She looked down, seeming embarrassed. "I can't sleep. I'm tired, and I know I need to sleep well before the party tomorrow, but… I can't.
"It's this room," she complained. "It's too big. I feel too alone."
He sympathized with her insomnia. "Is there something I can do to help you?"
"W-will you stay with me?"
"You know I can't do that, Your Highness," he said softly. "Palaces have ears—as you well know. Someone will find out and it will be a terrible scandal."
"So? We're not in Hyrule."
He looked at her incredulously. "And you think it won't get back? Or that your grandfather won't have a problem with it?"
She held her hand out to him. "Please, Link. I want to sleep, but I'm scared to. But I'm never scared when you're with me."
The last of Link's willpower—and, admittedly, he never had much when it came to telling Zelda "no"—melted away. Besides, the thought of lying down in a bed to sleep was a siren's call to him.
He glanced around, but saw no one in the corridor. Reluctantly, he took her hand and stood up. He followed her into the bedroom and quietly shut the door behind him.
Zelda was right: the room was far too big. For that matter, so was the bed; six people could sleep in it and never touch each other all night. Link wasn't surprised that Zelda felt too exposed to sleep.
Link sat down on the edge of the bed and took off his boots, followed by his sword belt and over-tunic.
"I have to be out of here before someone comes to wake you up in the morning," Link warned, climbing into bed beside Zelda. "A scandal is the least of my worries; I could lose my head for this. Your grandfather would be well within his right to execute me for compromising your honor right under his nose."
"Didn't you tell me just the other day that you belong to me, not my grandfather?"
"Then you will follow my orders—no one else's."
He smiled in the darkness as Zelda curled up in front of him, and he put his arm around her. "Yes, ma'am."
As usual, the King had too much on his mind for sleep. In the wee hours before the dawn, he took a walk around the palace. He liked the quiet and stillness of the hallways that were normally a hive of activity; it seemed like a different place when everyone—save the occasional night guard—was asleep.
He had a lot on his mind, but Link and Zelda took up most of his thoughts.
If Zelda had been his daughter, not his granddaughter, would he have reacted the same if he had been informed that she needed to marry the son of a fisherman? Although it was hard for him to see Link as a commoner, he might have felt quite differently if he hadn't known anything about him.
Of course, he had let Zeyde marry Austina. She wasn't common, but she was the daughter of a knight, which was the bottom-rung of nobility. She had often been at the castle while her father was performing some duty, so she and Zeyde had been companions from childhood. Even then she had gotten terrible, incapacitating headaches and Zeyde took care of her, although he was just a child himself.
When Zeyde confessed his love for her and desire to marry her, Ranis had warned him that she would make a poor queen, simply because of her health problems. Zeyde—in his usual cool, intellectual style—had retorted that she would be no worse than no queen at all—a jab at his father, who had never remarried after his own beloved wife had died giving birth to what would have been their third child.
Despite his misgivings, Ranis had allowed the wedding to proceed. And it was true that Austina was an absent princess and that many of her duties had fallen to Rayliss at a young age. But Zeyde loved his wife with a quiet devotion and never once complained or hinted that he had any regrets. So, Ranis supposed it was for the best; Zeyde might have married a better queen but gotten a worse wife. And it could be reasonably argued that it was better for Zeyde to be happy than helped.
Which led to the question: what about Zelda's happiness? Ranis was certain that Link would make a good king, and, if he was judging correctly, Zelda would be happy with him, but what would the people and nobles of Hyrule say to their queen marrying a commoner? That was a big—nearly insurmountable—hurdle. Would she give up her happiness for the sake of political peace?
Without consciously thinking about, the king's feet wandered down the hall where Zelda was staying. He was so lost in thought, he almost failed to notice that the chair outside her bedroom was empty.
His first thought was that Link must have finally given up and gone to bed—which was a shame, because he wanted to talk to him alone. But then a suspicion began to form in his mind.
Ever so quietly, he opened the bedroom door.
Moonlight was falling softly through the large windows—which were open to the warm spring night—and it illuminated the two figures in the bed. The King moved closer and found Link and Zelda curled up together, sound asleep.
For a moment, he didn't even recognize them. When awake, they both carried themselves with a dignity and gravitas reserved for adults; they made Rayliss—who was between them in age—seem like a child. But in the too-large bed, curled around each other and holding on like they might be torn apart, they looked everything in the world like two orphaned children.
For a moment, Ranis was struck with a feeling he didn't often experience: pity.
But, just as quickly as it came, it left—replaced with the pleasing thought that he could finally test Link and see if it was true that he was inherently noble, or if it was just a show he managed to put on.
The King poked Link rather sharply in the hip a couple of times.
Link jerked awake and looked behind him. It took a moment for him to recognize who was standing over him, but when he did, he jumped in alarm and, in his haste to scramble out of the bed, he fell onto the floor.
The King had to repress a laugh. The normally self-confident young man looked everything in the world like a boy who had gotten caught stealing eggs from the henhouse. But Link quickly recovered himself and knelt in the floor with his head bowed.
"I could have you executed for this," the King said.
"Yes, Your Majesty," Link said demurely. He offered no excuse. He did not beg. Ranis liked that.
Zelda, on the other hand, was antagonistic. "You will do no such thing!" she said, sitting up and throwing the covers back.
"I am King here," he told his granddaughter. "I will do what I please in my own castle."
"But Link belongs to me. He is mine. And you will not touch him!"
The King was rather surprised by the venom in her voice. He had suspected that she might have feelings for Link, but apparently they ran deeper than he thought. He decided to press her further.
"He has dishonored my granddaughter under my very roof," he replied. "I don't care if he's your retainer; when you're in my kingdom, you live under my laws. Mine, not yours."
Zelda lunged for her bow and arrows, which she kept stashed beside the bed. In the blink of an eye, she was on her feet with an arrow nocked and pointed directly at her grandfather. "You touch him and I will kill you," she said coldly.
Link was on his feet in an instant, standing between her and the king. She slacked off on the bowstring so she didn't accidentally shoot him, but she didn't put the bow down.
Link held his hands up pleadingly. "Please, Your Highness," he begged in a low voice.
He looked at her silently for a minute, and the king watched as the expression on Zelda's face changed from cold anger to unhappy reluctance. He concluded they were communicating with each other telepathically. What a gift! They could speak freely and plan all they wanted without ever worrying about being overheard. What he wouldn't give to have such a talent….
"Trust me," Link said quietly to Zelda.
Zelda finally relented and lowered her bow. But she wasn't done arguing.
"Link has not dishonored me," she said irritably. "I wasn't able to sleep—and haven't been able to sleep well for several nights—so I asked him to stay with me. I feel safer when he's around and I sleep better."
They obviously had a strong bond between them if she felt that much safer for having him around. There was a lot of trust there.
"That is all that happened," she added. "That's all that's ever happened. What sort of people do you take us for?" she accused.
"So his being here is innocent," the king argued. "That's not what it looks like. What if someone else had found the two of you together? Do you know what a scandal that would have caused?"
"I tried to tell her that, Your Majesty," Link said with sad resignation.
"And yet you still came to her bed."
"She's not the only one who can't sleep," Link said simply.
"Well, now it's my turn not to sleep." He gestured to Link. "Since I'm up, come with me."
Before Link could move, Zelda reached for a robe that was lying nearby, as if she meant to dress and go with them.
"I did not invite you," the king told Zelda coolly.
"I don't care," she snapped, slipping on the robe. "You're not taking him out of my sight."
"You are very arrogant for someone who is here by my mercy. And you forget yourself; I am monarch here, not you. If you want to rule in your own right, then you can return to your own kingdom."
"Your Highness," Link said in a low, pleading voice. When she looked at him, he shook his head slightly. But she was not to be controlled by either man.
"Give me your word that you are not going to take him off and execute him," she demanded. "Swear to the gods that you won't harm him, or order anyone else to harm him, or stand by and allow someone to harm him."
Ranis paused to consider her demand—weighing whether he should simply ignore her—as was his right—or humor her. He knew he was playing with fire, but he always liked a challenge—be it physical or mental. If he refused her oath, would she attack him, and if so, would he be able to overcome it? Link had taken his side once, but if he threatened Zelda in any way, it wouldn't be hard to guess what way Link's loyalty would go. If Link couldn't stop a fight, he would back Zelda.
But he really wasn't interested in getting hurt—nor in harming either of them. So he took the high road.
"I swear before the gods that I shall not harm Link," he finally said. "Nor will I order anyone to harm him, nor shall I stand idly by while someone harms him. If I break my oath, then may I and my entire house be cursed for it."
Zelda sat down on the bed again, looking grumpy. "Alright," she said.
Link hesitated a moment, as if unsure if Zelda could be entirely trusted, then he reached for his tunic.
"Leave it," Ranis commanded, before sweeping out of the room. Barefoot, and in only his worn pants and loose undershirt, Link followed him obediently.
They walked down the deserted corridor silently—Link walking beside the king, but a half-step behind him, as was appropriate.
The king glanced at him a few times. Half-dressed and shoeless, Link was all but in rags. And yet he still walked with his back straight and his head held high. There was not a trace of fear or self-consciousness about him.
He walked like a king.
"You seem to have no fear of me—or of where I'm taking you," Ranis said.
"No, Your Majesty."
"You know, if I wanted you dead, no oath would hold me."
"Begging your pardon, Your Majesty, but if you wanted me dead, you would not have sworn it."
"No, because that would have been a lie, and you are no liar. If you wanted me dead, you would have feigned defeat, left the room, and returned with guards enough to subdue us—not that you would have found us there. We would have been gone before you returned; I would have made sure of it."
The king looked at him in amazement, then suddenly laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. "You know, Link, I must admit that since I met you, I've been trying to figure you out. But it seems you have figured me out first."
"Don't be insulted, Your Majesty," Link said with a smile. "You're hardly the first monarch who has wanted to kill me. I'm rather practiced at avoiding it."
The king led him to the family dining room. "Have breakfast with me," he said.
"Thank you," Link said, bowing his head graciously. Ranis noticed, though, that Link did not take a seat until he had first taken his.
It took a little longer than usual to rouse the servants—it was still before dawn—but within half an hour, a fine meal was set before them. King Ranis spoke of his kingdom and asked Link questions about Hyrule, but he didn't discuss anything of importance until the last dish was on the table.
"You may go," he said, dismissing the bleary-eyed servants with a wave of his hand. He started to reach for the frosty pitcher of juice to serve himself, but Link was quick to take it first.
"If I may…?" Link asked.
Ranis nodded his assent and Link stood and poured the king's cup full. He stayed on his feet, personally serving the king until his plate was full. Only then did he sit down and serve himself.
Ranis watched him with an appraising eye. He had had a nagging feeling about Link ever since he met him, but he couldn't articulate why; that was why he had been so intent to test him—and, by extension, Zelda. Now it occurred to him that Link reminded him of something—or someone—he had known long ago, but he couldn't recall what or who. It was like a puzzle that was only slowly yielding its picture.
One thing was for certain, though: when he invited his advisors to dine with him, they did not treat him with as much quiet devotion as this boy from another kingdom.
He was beginning to see why Zelda had become so attached to him.
"It seems to me that you have feelings for my granddaughter—feelings which are beyond those normally expressed by a personal guard," Ranis said as he tore off a bit of bread—carefully watching Link's face to glean any feelings he left unstated.
But Link was no weak-willed man controlled by his passions and easily controlled through them. He knew the game the king was playing and he looked back at him levelly with a pleasant half-smile that was wholly unreadable.
"I will not lie," Link said, "I am devoted to Her Highness. She is the center of my world."
Interesting. Did he feel that way because she was his destiny, because Ryu had raised him to feel that way, or had he simply come by those feelings all on his own?
"Are you sure those feelings are not misplaced?" Ranis asked. "Zelda is a strong-willed, temperamental girl; she might be more trouble than she's worth."
Link smiled more genuinely. "I like her just the way she is." Then he chuckled. "Besides, I need someone to keep me in line. I can be rather full of myself."
The king laughed. "It happens to the best of us."
Ranis ate a little of his breakfast, then looked at Link again. "Why are you so devoted to your princess?"
"Because she's my princess," Link replied, as if that was the most obvious thing in the world. "It is both my duty and my destiny to guard her."
"I daresay it was many men's duty to guard her. Yet I see only you here with her."
"Some men's loyalty runs deeper than others'," Link replied.
"I know she doesn't have anything with which to pay you," Ranis pressed. "And if she doesn't regain her throne, she will not be able to reward you with title or land. Are you gambling everything on a chance at the throne?"
Link's face grew dark and angry; Ranis had finally elicited emotion from him. "I have no such aspirations," he said coldly.
"But what's in it for you? What do you get in exchange for risking your life?"
"No man risks his life for nothing," the king argued.
"I risk my life for my monarch because it is my duty to do so—not because there's a reward at the end of the day. Pride and honor and a debt owed to those who came before me are what motivate me."
"Who came before you?" the king asked.
The king was confused; what debt could Link owe his fishermen forefathers?
Seeing his confusion, Link elaborated. "I am a descendant of the Knights of Hyrule," he explained.
Ranis was momentarily stunned. Even in Erenrue they knew the history of the Knights of Hyrule—the most elite soldiers the world had ever known. They had even trained soldiers in other kingdoms—including Erenrue.
Suddenly, the king remembered what he had been trying to recall. When he had been a very small boy—not more than about four years old—his grandfather had still been on the throne and he had one elderly guard who accompanied him everywhere. The man personally served the king at every meal, and when the king was ill and on his deathbed, the man never left his side. When the king died, the man calmly rose, bowed, and went out the door.
Ranis's father picked him up and took him to the balcony which overlooked the courtyard. The man appeared there a short time later, dressed in a splendid harness of armor, flashing silver in the sunlight. He took out his sword, carefully placed it between two pieces of plate, and then fell forward onto it.
"You will never see his like again," Ranis's father had whispered, as they watched the man fall to the ground. People rushed over to help, but it was clear from the sword piercing his back that he would not survive.
"He was a knight of the old ways—like the Knights of Hyrule," his father explained. "He lived for the king, and now he will go with the king to the Other World and care for him there."
Ranis had assumed his father had been correct; he had never again seen a man who had that bearing, that level of utter devotion. Until now.
The King leaned back in his chair and popped a strawberry into his mouth, chewing thoughtfully. "I think I understand you now," he said after a moment. "You and I can get along."