A Royal Reception
Link and Zelda moved down the quiet, dim corridors—empty save the occasional guard, who stood as silent and immovable as an empty suit of armor.
They were almost to the ballroom when Zelda stopped and looked at Link. "Link," she whispered, afraid of being overheard, "I want you to know that… whatever I say or do tonight… that's… that's not me…."
"I understand, Your Highness. Remember, I'm the one who told you that you need to put on a show."
"Yes, but…." Zelda wasn't sure how to tell him not to worry—that she had no intention of anyone winning her heart. She didn't want him to be hurting on the inside while he smiled and acted as if nothing was wrong.
"Shh," he said, lightly touching her lips with his finger. "When we're alone, we can be ourselves, but now you have to put on your mask and be the Queen of Hyrule. And the Queen of Hyrule has more important things to worry about than a single man. You have a duty to thousands."
She looked at him sorrowfully.
"You forget that this is a role I chose for myself," he said. "I know what that entails."
He put his finger under her chin, as Zeyde had done, and lifted it slightly. "Now, make them worship you," he said with a smile.
They resumed their journey. When they turned the final corner, the guards standing outside the ballroom doors gaped a little as they came down the hallway. At the last moment, the guards remembered themselves and hurried to open the doors to the ballroom.
Link and Zelda paused on the threshold of the room. People nearby turned to look and a hush suddenly passed up the hall like a wave.
A moment later there was a loud fanfare. The court herald—splendid in blue silk livery with the kingdom's arms in glittering silver embroidery—loudly addressed the crowd as soon as the trumpets were still.
"Sire, Your Highnesses, my lords and ladies: may I present to you Her Most Serene Royal Highness and Sole Heir to the Kingdom of Hyrule, Princess Zelda."
Zelda felt Link slip his arm from hers and he bowed low as he backed away from her, disappearing into the shadows.
Alone, Zelda stepped over the threshold. She could feel the weight of hundreds of eyes on her, but she kept her head up, walking slowly along the red silk runner like the queen she was born to be.
On either side, people began to sink into bows and curtsies—much lower than was technically required for a visiting monarch. But she paid no attention to them, turning her head neither left nor right. She kept her eyes on the low dais at the other end of the hall. King Ranis sat in his throne on one side, and Zeyde, Austina, and Rayliss sat to the left.
Rayliss was looking at her in open-mouthed wonder. Zeyde and Austina both smiled at her in encouragement. But there was a hard smile on Ranis's lips. It was clear that he was pleased with Zelda's appearance and bearing and he was already calculating the potential of it.
Zelda stopped just in front of the dais and bowed her head slightly—not as a princess or granddaughter, but as one monarch to another.
Ranis gestured to her. "Princess Zelda, on behalf of my nobles and my people, let me formally welcome you to the Kingdom of Erenrue."
"Thank you, Your Majesty. Your hospitality is famed throughout the world and I have found, firsthand, that it is a reputation that is well-deserved. Although, I must say, no rumors of the richness of your court could adequately prepare me for it. It is more than could be expected."
There were murmurs of approval from the people around her. Ranis's smile became more genuine.
"Thank you. And I must say your reputation for beauty likewise cannot compare to you in the flesh, but…" he glanced at Zeyde and the others, "I would like to think that you inherit that from our side of the family."
There was good-natured laughter and even Zelda had to smile. It was true that she resembled Zeyde—even more than Rayliss did—and there was no denying that he was a very handsome man.
The king stood and approached her. "Here, now, let's have no more formality between family. You are my granddaughter, the same as Rayliss."
He bent down and kissed her on either cheek, then he took her hand in his. "Let me introduce you to a few people before dinner."
That was everyone's cue to resume their conversations and socializing—although they did so while keeping one eye on Zelda the entire time.
The king gestured to a stocky-built man dressed all in black velvet. His cote was decorated with nothing but gold buttons, but he was wearing a half-cape thrown jauntily over one shoulder and it was heavily embroidered with gold thread and smooth gold beads. He wore a matching black velvet porkpie hat with a long, sleek, gold-colored feather.
The man looked to be in his mid-to-late-thirties. His hair and beard were both black, but there was an occasional silver hair peeking out.
He looked at Zelda with an enigmatic half-smile, but his gray eyes were as hard and calculating as Ranis's. Zelda knew, even before he was introduced, that he was a relation.
"Princess Zelda," King Ranis began, "may I introduce my nephew, Clark, the Duke of Erenmoor."
Clark doffed his hat in a practiced manner and bent low over Zelda's proffered hand. His lips pressed a little harder and lingered a little longer than was appropriate for a courtly gesture.
"The pleasure is all mine," he said, looking up at Zelda with a mixture of genuine appreciation and greed.
Her grandfather certainly believed in starting with the most dangerous man first.
"The Duke has made a fine reputation for himself as a warrior," Ranis hinted.
"Against beasts and bandits," Clark said dismissively. "I will not be satisfied until I see a real field of battle; only then can a man truly be tested." He smiled at Zelda. "Perhaps I shall see one in the not-too-distant future."
"Rumors!" Ranis said with false nonchalance. "Nothing has been decided yet."
Clark laughed. It was a deep laugh that held a hint of danger within it. "Uncle, you forget who you're speaking to. I know you; everything is already planned—as always."
"Shh," Ranis said, putting his finger to his lips, but smiling conspiratorially.
"Well, even if I weren't interested in personal glory, how could I fail to come to the aid of such a lovely damsel in distress?" the duke said, turning back to Zelda. He still had not relinquished her hand.
"I know not what the future holds," Zelda replied, "but if you were ever to come to my aid, I would be eternally grateful… cousin." She put just a little bit of emphasis on the word to perhaps give him pause, but either that didn't bother him or he actually found it encouraging that she acknowledged their especial bond, because he smiled more broadly. Zelda hurried to turn away from him and move on to the next introduction; the duke's eyes held a hunger that scared her.
Her grandfather led her to another familiar-looking face. The man favored Ranis so much—complete with untamable gray hair—that she knew he must be a brother.
"Princess Zelda, this is my younger brother, Reginald, Duke of Yarlsmont," Ranis confirmed.
Reginald smiled broadly—it was terribly infectious—and lightly kissed her hand. "My dear, what a pleasure it is to meet you!" he said, looking as if he was truly pleased. If Ranis had inherited all of the guile in the family, his brother had obviously inherited all of the pleasantness. He looked like a man who was perpetually happy.
"Please, let me introduce you to my wife," Reginald said, gesturing to a handsome woman who was easily twenty years his junior. "This is Filippa. And this…" he reached out for a bashful-looking young man and dragged him closer. "This is our son, Nicoli."
The blond-haired boy stole a glance at Zelda, then looked down at the floor again. His face was beet-red.
"I-it's a p-pleasure to m-meet you, Y-your Highness," he stuttered.
She offered him her hand. "The pleasure is all mine, Lord Nicoli."
If possible, he turned even redder. But despite his shyness, he bowed over her hand and kissed it with grace.
"Nicoli just turned sixteen two weeks ago," Reginald said with obvious pride.
"This is his first reception," his mother added.
"Happy belated birthday," Zelda said. "I hope you enjoy yourself this evening."
"I already am—en-enjoying m-myself, that is," he said with a smile, before looking at the floor again.
They were interrupted by an announcement from the herald. "Please, may I have your attention! Dinner is now served. Please make your way to the dining room."
Zelda glanced around, but noticed her grandfather had disappeared. As everyone headed for the two exits, it was hard to pick out anyone she recognized in the press of people.
Duke Reginald gave his son a little nudge with his elbow.
"Oh, um, m-may I escort y-you to d-dinner?" Nicoli asked with a bow.
"Yes, I would like that," she said, smiling at him. He beamed at her—his smile as brilliant and infectious as his father's. It was hard not to like the awkward young man. She could remember when she had been bashful, too.
Nicoli offered his arm to her and she took it; his father and mother fell in behind them.
As Zelda approached the queue, though, people melted out of her way, allowing her and Nicoli to pass through first.
Nicoli glanced around in wonder. "Wow," he whispered to Zelda, "I've n-never w-walked with a qu-queen b-before. People t-treat you d-different."
"I'm not a queen," Zelda gently corrected. "But you are right."
"You're p-practically a qu-queen," he contradicted.
They walked into the dining hall ahead of most people. "Oh, look," Nicoli said, nodding at the tables. "There are n-name c-cards. I-I wonder w-where we-we're sitting?"
"I'm sitting up there," Zelda said, gesturing to the right-hand side of the table, near the head. Part of their morning chores had been putting out the name cards according to Rayliss's elaborate seating chart. Zelda had taken care to remember where her place was.
Nicoli escorted her to her seat and pulled out the chair for her. He wasn't sitting next to her, so he had to take his leave.
"M-may I have a d-dance later?" he asked with pleading eyes.
"Of course. I'd be offended if you didn't ask me for one."
He grinned from ear to ear, then kissed her hand and floated out of sight.
The dining room quickly filled. Zelda noticed that she wasn't sitting beside or across from anyone she knew. King Ranis was sitting at the head of the table, but the rest of the royal family was scattered randomly throughout the dining room. In fact, men and women alternated seats; there were men on either side of Zelda and one across from her.
She quickly realized that the purpose of such an unconventional seating arrangement was to allow individuals to meet and talk to new people.
She also realized that her table partners hadn't been chosen by accident.
To her right was a handsome young man with curly brown hair who introduced himself as Errol, the son of the Count of Medford. To her left was an equally handsome blond-haired man who was a little older—perhaps in his mid- to late-twenties—who introduced himself as Zavier, Baron of Westwood. Across the table was Sir Heinrich, the youngest man ever to be knighted in Erenrue. He had been seventeen at the time, but was nineteen now.
Huge vases of flowers set on the table allowed Zelda to have an unimpeded view of Sir Heinrich, but they generally made conversation with the ladies diagonal from her impossible. Which was, no doubt, the point.
All three men vied to have her complete and total attention. By the second course, Zelda felt a newfound respect for jugglers; keeping the attention of all three men at the same time—never letting one feel neglected or slighted—was like trying to keep three balls in the air at once.
She hardly had time to think about anything else, but just before the dessert course—when conversation slowed because everyone was feeling full—she glanced down the table and, between two flower vases, she saw Link on the opposite side of the table. He had a blonde girl on one side and on the other was a girl with curling red hair of such brilliance, it looked as if her head was on fire. Zelda had never see such a color before and she stared at the girl for a several minutes.
Both the blonde girl and the red-head seemed to be hanging on Link's every word. In typical fashion, he had waved away the servants and was pouring drinks and dishing up the food for each woman. While he did so, he was animatedly telling them some story, and after a minute, he obviously reached the conclusion because they all erupted in laughter.
Zelda wasn't sure if she was more jealous of the girls getting Link's attention, or the effortless way Link kept them entertained. She just felt drained and exhausted by her dinner companions.
"Who do you look at, Your Highness?" Errol asked her, looking down the table, trying to determine where she was gazing.
Zelda felt a little embarrassed; she shouldn't be caught looking at Link. "A girl down there with red hair," she said, only lying a tiny bit. "I've never seen hair that color before."
"She must be some of those Redwood people in the mountains to the east. They have red hair, so I've heard."
He looked around Zelda at Zavier. "They're some of your people, aren't they, Westwood?"
"Yes, there's a whole clan of them with red hair up in the glens. Goat and sheep farmers, most of them. During the last war with Shi-Ha, one of the men distinguished himself on the battlefield and King Ranis knighted him. I think that's his daughter. Or maybe it's his granddaughter. I don't know."
He sniffed just a little. "They're not really noble; they still herd goats."
If Zelda had been actually shopping for a husband, Baron Westwood would have just been crossed off her list.
"Well, I think her hair is beautiful," Zelda said, showing as much of her displeasure as she dared.
"I think so, too," Errol said, hurrying to show her whose side he was on.
She would have marked him off her list, too.
Luckily, before either man could get up after dinner, another one came along and asked Zelda if he could escort her to the ballroom. She happily accepted—to the obvious disappointment of a dinner companions.
"How do you find Erenrue, Your Highness?" her escort asked. Zelda noticed that although he was young—probably not more than twenty-five—he walked with a slight limp in his left leg. His face—cheerful and pleasant, if not conventionally handsome—was marred with a ragged-looking scar that cut from his forehead down to his chin and clipped a little bit of his neck above his shirt collar.
"I haven't seen much of the kingdom—save the western lands to the ocean—but Pallis is quite beautiful," Zelda replied.
"Ugh, the western lands," he said with a grimace. "There's a reason why no one lives there. We tried some years ago to set up a fishing village, but it didn't survive. No one wanted to live there any length of time. It's like a cursed land."
"I must admit, the barrenness was rather surreal. I wouldn't want to live there, either."
They slowly moved out of the dining room and headed for the ballroom. Others were trickling out of the dining room as they finished their meal and conversations, so there was no rush of people, as before.
"Forgive me for being slow," Zelda's companion said. "My left leg only moves so fast."
"There is nothing to forgive," Zelda replied. "I am in no hurry."
"I took a wound in it a few years ago and it never healed correctly," he explained.
Zelda sensed that he wanted to tell her what happened. So she gave him the opportunity. "What happened to you, if I may ask?"
"I went out with a small party to take out some bandits that were living in the mountains east of here and raiding some of our shepherds and wool merchants. But they knew—or at least suspected—that we were coming, and they set an ambush for us.
"I took a bad hit in the thigh and another one here," he said, indicating the scar on his face. "Most of my men were killed. I think I was only spared because they thought I was already dead.
"And maybe I was flitting between this world and the next, because as I was lying there, I saw the strangest thing."
"What?" Zelda asked, hanging on his story.
"Tigers. White tigers."
It took Zelda a moment to comprehend what he had said. "Tigers? In the mountains of Erenrue?"
"Yes, it sounds ludicrous, doesn't it? But just as the bandits were finishing off my men, four or five big white tigers came bounding over a hill and they started to kill the bandits.
"It just took a minute, and then it was all over. A couple of them started to sniff around the men on the ground and one came over to me. He sniffed my face, but I don't know what happened after that; I blacked out either from fear or blood loss.
"The next thing I knew, someone was splashing water in my face. It was several hours later and a shepherd out looking for a stray sheep had come across all of us. Only one other man from my party survived, but he had been knocked out early and said he never saw any tigers."
"How strange!" Zelda said.
"There have been rumors since forever that there were tigers in the mountains, but I always thought they were a legend. And maybe they're not real; maybe they're the spirits of the mountain. But whatever they were, I think they saved my life."
They walked into the ballroom. The thrones on the dais had been replaced by two harps and the servants were making the final preparations for the concert.
"I saw you and Princess Rayliss practicing in the courtyard the other day," the young man said. "I look forward to hearing you play again."
"You saw us?" Zelda asked, looking at him with surprise. "Are you staying here at the castle?"
The man suddenly blushed. "Oh, forgive me, Your Highness, I completely forgot to introduce myself. How rude!"
He turned and bowed to her. "I am Sir Elgon, the Captain of the Guard."
"Oh, well, that makes sense now," Zelda said, chuckling.
He shook his head a little. "I'd like to blame my denseness on the blow I took to my head, but I'm afraid I've never been the brightest person."
"I think it's more like we were getting on so well, it was hard to remember we hadn't been properly introduced," Zelda said with a smile. Elgon grinned widely in return.
It wasn't an effort to be pleasant to Elgon; he was rather likeable by nature.
"I have been seeing you around the castle for a week now," he said, "and I know who you are; it was easy for me to forget that you don't know who I am."
"Well, I'm glad I have made your acquaintance now."
They idly waited while people began to fill the hall again and a couple of the court musicians tuned the harps.
"Is the flute player going to be playing with you as well?" Elgon asked, nodding to the stool that was placed between the two harps.
"His name is Link, isn't it? He's your knight?"
"He doesn't trust my guard."
Zelda looked at him. "Why? What has he said to you?"
"Oh, nothing. But I know he's been keeping guard outside your room every night. That means he doesn't trust my men."
"I don't think he means to imply that..." she started to say.
"I think he does," Elgon said, cutting her off. "And if you were my monarch, and we had powerful enemies, and were in a foreign land, I would absolutely do the same.
"I hand-pick every man who serves on my guard, but the servants are a different matter entirely. They're picked based on their skills or who is owed a favor—not on their trustworthiness. I mean, I would hope they're all trustworthy, but would I bet your life on it? No. Loyalty owed to the royal family doesn't necessarily extend to you."
Zelda glanced around the room. It was full of people chatting and laughing happily. It felt surreal to be in such a place and speaking about an imminent threat to her safety.
"Link said something similar," Zelda said in a low voice. "He worried that someone might come into my room when I was asleep—someone that no one would suspect."
"That proves he's no idiot. If you want to be a good guard, you have to think like a criminal. That's what I tell all of my men when I train them: look for ways to sneak in here, then figure out a way to keep that very thing from happening. Because if you thought of it, someone else has, too."
Elgon glanced around, then stepped closer to Zelda, whispering to her. "Tell Sir Link that I have my best men on your hallway, and at night, no one goes down that hallway but him or you or the royal family—no servants—not without an escort.
"The maids that you do have serving you belong to either Princess Rayliss or Princess Austina; they have been handpicked to serve them, so they can be trusted. No one else goes into your room but them."
Zelda was surprised. "No one told us this before."
"Well, I will be totally honest with you: I didn't take the situation seriously enough until I heard that Link was stationing himself outside your door every night. That's when I asked myself why he didn't trust us and I examined the situation from his point of view. When I began to see where we had gaps, I started to make corrections."
"Thank you for looking out for me. Maybe Link can sleep easier."
Elgon leaned in closer, so that he was whispering directly into her ear. "No one is to go to your room uninvited, either. So you need not worry about someone walking in on you in the mornings."
Zelda glanced at him, wondering if he was saying what she thought he was saying. He perked a brow and then she was certain: he knew that Link had spent the night in her room.
Her face felt like it was on fire. Even though she knew that everything had been innocent, it was as Link and her grandfather had warned: people would come to the wrong conclusion and talk of it would spread all over the castle.
Zelda couldn't even look him in the eye, she was so mortified. "How did you know?" she whispered.
"His Majesty told me… and no other. He wanted to make sure that such knowledge stays quiet in the future, too. That's why I changed things around a bit—all in the name of your safety. If you want help dressing or something of that sort, there's a bell in your room that you can ring to call for a maid. Otherwise, none will disturb you."
Zelda didn't know what to say. She was so flushed that she wished she could teleport to the balcony to cool off and hide her red face.
"I'm sorry, I've overstepped my bounds," Elgon said, looking at her with concern. "I didn't mean to embarrass you. I only meant to tell you that you need not fear embarrassment."
"You… you mustn't think… that I… that we…."
"Of course not! Your Highness, please forgive me," he said, humbly bowing, "I did not mean to imply that I thought you or Sir Link to be dishonorable in any way. I would never think that of either of you. Forgive me. I only meant to give you peace of mind."
He leaned in close again. "Trust me, if I had one precious treasure—the only one of its kind—I would keep it with me at all times—even when I slept—to make sure no one stole it. That's not wrong; that's being smart. And if I were in his shoes, I would continue to do the same."