A Dance to Destiny
As if on cue, Link walked into the room with Rayliss on his arm. They were laughing about something, but as soon as Rayliss looked at the harps on the stage, her smile faltered.
Link spotted Zelda standing nearby and made a beeline for her. Elgon noticed his approach, and before Zelda could say anything, he bowed low and melted into the crowd.
"Everything alright?" Link asked, looking at her strangely. She wondered if she was still red-faced.
"Yes, fine," she lied, trying to compose herself.
"It looks like they may be ready for us," Link said with a nod to the dais.
"I think so," Zelda said. "Why don't we go up?" She had grown up hating performing almost as much as Rayliss, but at the moment it was a welcome distraction; she didn't want Link asking her any more questions.
Link offered her his other arm and he escorted both princesses to the stage.
Rayliss and Zelda each took a seat on the low stools behind the harps. Rayliss was almost as pale as her white gown.
Link turned his back to the audience, pretending to be doing something with his flute. "Do you feel everyone looking at us?" he whispered to the girls.
Rayliss numbly nodded; she looked like she might be sick.
"All of the men are looking at me up here with both of you," he whispered, "and they're thinking, 'Lucky bastard.'"
Rayliss suddenly laughed and color began to reappear in her face. Link grinned at her and gave her a saucy wink.
Rather than feel jealous, Zelda felt a wave of affection and gratitude to Link for putting Rayliss at ease. Her stage fright was rather pitiful to see.
Zelda turned to her harp—intending to check it and make sure it had been properly tuned—when she suddenly came to a horrifying realization.
"I can't play," she whispered to Rayliss.
Link, who was softly playing a few notes on his flute to warm up, heard her. "What's wrong?" he asked, bending down close to her.
She felt a little embarrassed to say; she hoped he knew she hadn't dressed herself. "I can't play in this dress," she said.
In order to play the harp, she had to put it between her knees and lean it back against her shoulder. In a normal dress, that was no problem, but in the gown she was wearing—split up the front as it was—she risked revealing a little too much of herself to the audience.
"You can't abandon me!" Rayliss pleaded, looking close to tears. "I can't play your part. And it will sound stupid if I just play my part."
"I can't sit with my legs apart, Rayliss," Zelda hissed back at her. "This dress will pull open and everyone will be looking up it."
"Why did you wear it then?" Rayliss demanded.
"Your father made me!"
"Ladies," Link said, putting up his hand and stopping them before their argument grew too noticeable. "Give me a minute."
He turned and flagged down a server, whispering in the man's ear. The man nodded, then hurried out of the room at a trot.
Link took a moment to pretend to inspect Zelda's harp, as if there was something wrong with it. A moment later, the server returned with two folded pieces of white cloth. They looked suspiciously like tablecloths.
Link took them from the man, then walked over to Rayliss and handed her one. He bent down to say something to her, but Zelda couldn't hear what he said.
He came to her side a moment later. "Drape this over your lap," he said, handing her the other cloth.
She did as he said. She glanced at Rayliss and noticed that she had done the same. With both of them covering their laps, it made it look as if they didn't want the harps to dirty their fine dresses, rather than it looking like Zelda had dressed too immodestly for the occasion.
She happened to glance out into the audience and she noticed Zeyde sitting on a nearby couch beside his wife. He placed his hands together, as if in prayer, and mouthed the words "thank you" to Link. He had obviously not missed the problem inherent in his choice of wardrobe.
Link was grinning when he turned around to look at Rayliss and Zelda. "Ready, ladies?" he whispered.
Zelda settled her harp against her shoulder and nodded. Rayliss nodded as well.
Link turned to address the audience.
"My lords and ladies, on behalf of Her Royal Highness, Princess Rayliss, I would like to welcome you to tonight's ball."
There was polite applause.
"Despite short notice, she put together tonight's dinner and festivities, and I think she has done a wonderful job," he said, gesturing to her.
There was another round of applause—more hearty this time. Rayliss smiled and blushed.
Link addressed the crowd again. "She informed us that she likes to play for her guests, and she thoughtfully invited both myself and Her Highness," he gestured to Zelda, "to play with her."
It was Zelda's turn to smile—mostly because she found it humorous that Link was as good at telling white lies as she was.
"So, without further ado…." He bowed to the audience a little, then turned to face Zelda and Rayliss. He softly counted out a beat, pointing to Rayliss with his flute when it was time for her to come in.
She began to play a slow tune. Zelda could feel the floor of the makeshift dais vibrate as Rayliss struck the bass strings of her large harp.
Link counted the beat, but he merely glanced at Zelda when it was her turn to come in; he trusted she knew what to do.
She began to play the second part, which was higher and more complicated. It was no accident that when Link rewrote the music for three parts, he gave Rayliss the more repetitive background part.
He turned to face the audience, and when it was his turn, he joined in as well.
Their first piece was slow and haunting—a good warm-up piece. When they were finished, they received strong applause. They followed it up with a second piece that was more upbeat. For their finale, however, they played a complicated piece meant to tell the story of two lovers quarreling, then making up.
Link turned to face Zelda and they put on quite a show—and given their sometimes stubborn disagreements in real life, it wasn't hard to act—with Zelda playing one piece, Link answering it, and the two of them going back and forth—sometimes separately, sometimes together in an angry dissonance—until, at the end, they began to tone down their calls and replies until they joined together in harmony.
When they were through, Link bent down and took Zelda's hand in his, kissing it with a smile. Then he pulled her to her feet and let her curtsey to the audience—who was clapping wildly.
He turned and did the same for Rayliss, carefully positioning her so that she was equal with Zelda. Then he took a step back, so that he was behind both of them, before taking a brief bow.
They were all swarmed as they tried to step off the dais; everyone wanted to congratulate them and praise them on an excellent performance. Rayliss seemed to be tickled pink; she could have never hoped to play such pieces of music by herself, but she shared equally in the glory with Link and Zelda.
After a few minutes, the court musicians began to tune up their instruments, signaling the beginning of the ball. Zelda found herself completely encircled by men, all of whom wanted the first dance. Even she—normally skilled at matters of state and protocol—found herself overwhelmed; she couldn't figure out who she should give her favor to first. She didn't want to show any of them too much favor, but likewise she didn't want to insult the higher-ranked nobles by choosing a man of too little rank.
A moment later, the crowd around her began to part and bow and Zelda saw her grandfather striding forward. "Look at you young rascals!" the king teased. "Are you so besotted with my granddaughter that you forget it's my prerogative to get the first dance?"
There were some embarrassed chuckles, then the crowd began to fall away as the men looked for other partners.
Zelda had never truly felt grateful to her grandfather until that moment.
He led her to the center of the dance floor and held her rather stiffly at arm's length; it was clear he didn't care for dancing, but he did it because it was expected.
The musicians—seeing the king was ready—began to play a waltz. Thanks to the court magician, a soft snow began to fall from the rafters—to the delight of the spectators. But unlike real snow, it wasn't wet; in fact, it disappeared into thin air when it touched anything.
"Well, Zelda," King Ranis said in a low voice, under the cover of the music, "I must say that I have been impressed by you. You are the talk of the evening. Of course, that was the intention, but even I'm surprised by the response. You would think that this kingdom was completely bereft of women, the way my nobles are falling all over you. I've had several already make inquiries into who holds more sway in your marriage decision—you, me, or your own people. A couple of married men have even hinted they would not be adverse to putting aside their wives for you."
Zelda was horrified by such a thought and it must have shown on her face, because King Ranis laughed. "Don't worry; I would never condone you marrying such scoundrels. But it does, I think, speak to your charms."
"It does nothing of the sort." Zelda said testily. "They just want a throne—my throne."
He looked at her carefully. "Assuming you don't choose to remain a virgin queen, what will you do about your future husband? Will you share your power, give it up completely, or refuse to crown him king and keep it all for yourself?"
"I don't know. I suppose it depends on the man. …But I doubt seriously that I will give it up completely. I have been raised to be queen, and even though that's not a task I would have ever accepted if I had had the choice, it's the one that has been given to me, so I feel obligated to do it. To give away the responsibility would not only be contrary my destiny, but also to my people, who expect me to be their ruler—not some man they don't know."
"Well spoken," he said with a little smile.
When the dance was finished, he gave her a little bow of the head, then disappeared. He was quickly replaced by another man, eager to claim Zelda's attention before someone else.
And so it went for hours. She only got a break from dancing when the musicians took a break, and when she sat down to rest, she found herself wedged between two men and surrounded by more.
While she recognized a few who danced with her—including Nicoli and Duke Clark—most of the faces began to blur into sameness and she quit trying to keep up with names and ranks; she just mindlessly danced and tried to smile and make engaging small talk.
"Your Highness, may I speak to you regarding my daughter?"
Zelda startled out of her stupor. Everyone had been talking about her or themselves for hours; she was caught off guard by a question about someone else for a change.
"Certainly," she said, curious as to why her dance partner wanted to talk about his daughter.
"My daughter, Leisbet, is quite taken with that young man—Sir Link. He is your retainer, is he not?"
Zelda was so floored, she couldn't answer the man. It was only when he began to look confused by her reaction that she managed to find her voice.
"Um, yes. Yes, he is."
"I don't know how you do things in your kingdom: do you control your nobles' marriages, or are they free?"
Zelda stared at him blankly for a minute. "I… don't understand."
"We are interested in exploring marriage arrangements with Sir Link," he said more simply. "I didn't know if I should do that through you or deal with him directly."
Zelda felt as if the room was spinning. Here Link had worried that he would have to watch while other men vied for her hand, when in reality there were women who wanted him.
The man looked at her expectantly, so she tried to plaster on the same fake smile Link used to mask his pain in such situations. "Um… he's free to do as he chooses."
"Excellent. I have heard good things about him through the rumor mill, but do you vouch for his honor?"
"I know no one more honorable," she said honestly.
She did briefly consider telling the man that Link actually wasn't noble—just to put the man off the idea of marrying Link into the family—but she knew that would be jealous and petty, so as much as it burned inside, she held her tongue.
"Ah, here's the gentleman now!" her partner said, just as the music ended.
Zelda turned around to see Link approaching them. He looked concerned.
"Sir Link, I have some business that I would like to discuss with you," the man said.
"Certainly," Link replied. "May I attend you shortly?"
"Yes, please do." The man walked off, looking pleased.
"What's wrong?" Link asked Zelda in a low voice.
"You look ill," he pressed. "Do you need to rest? I don't think anyone expects you to dance with every man in Erenrue."
"No, I'm fine," she insisted.
He looked as if he didn't believe her, but he let the matter drop. "In that case, may I have the next dance?"
She nodded numbly.
When he took her into his arms, everything changed. She felt a wave of peace come over her and her troubles seemed to recede into the background. He didn't hold her stiffly or awkwardly like some of the younger, self-conscious men, and he didn't hold her at arm's length, as was appropriate for strangers or more casual acquaintances; he held her so close their bodies touched, and instead of his hand being on her upper back, it was around her waist.
He held her like a lover.
The music began and he took the lead, waltzing them confidently around the room.
"I wish you would tell me what's wrong," he said, looking at her with a worried frown.
"That man wanted to marry you to his daughter."
Link glanced around him. "What man?"
"The one I was dancing with before you."
"He wanted to arrange a marriage between me and his daughter?" Link asked incredulously.
Link looked thoughtful for a moment, as if he had never considered the idea that he might marry. "Which one was she?"
"I don't know. I didn't ask."
"Well, don't you think that's kind of important? I mean, if I'm going to marry someone, shouldn't I at least know who she is first?"
If anything, Zelda felt a little sicker. It took a minute before she realized Link was trying not to smile.
"You're terrible to tease me like that," she said, looking away with a fake pout. "It's a wonder I have anything to do with you. I should marry you off to some Erenrue girl, just to be rid of you."
"It's not that easy to get rid of me," he said with a smile. Then he leaned in closer.
Zelda found her breath catching her chest as she thought he was about to kiss her right there in front of everyone.
But, instead, he whispered in her ear. "Your Highness, I would rather die a bachelor and end my family's line than give myself in marriage to a woman I did not love with my whole heart. And there is only one woman who has it."
He pulled back slowly, letting his cheek lightly brush hers, like a kiss.
She looked at him, feeling her old burning desire to be kissed by him. She didn't care if there was a room full of people watching her every move; she wanted it more than she wanted anything else in the world.
Her longing was mirrored in his eyes. "If I could stop time," he whispered, "I would freeze it now and live in this moment forever."
For a moment, it seemed to Zelda that he had gotten his wish. Time seemed to slow down and the room full of people faded into the background. In the dim candlelight and softly falling snow, there was only Link—the glint of his silver collar and buttons; the shimmering blue silk in his cote; the strength and safety in his arms; the warmth of his body; his tousled, sandy-blonde hair; the look of utter adoration in his eyes—adoration not for her beauty or her title, but for who she really was. He had seen her at her worst: when she was feverish and throwing up and ranting at him; when she was being rude and temperamental; when she was wearing ratty clothes and hadn't had a bath in weeks; when she had been stripped of everything and left hiding in fear for her life.
He had seen it all—lived it all—and despite everything, he still worshiped the ground she walked on.
Before she could find words to express what she was feeling, his face changed. His eyes grew more distant and his brow furrowed in confusion. His footsteps faltered and they came to a halt on the dance floor.
"Link, what's wrong?" Zelda asked.
He held up his finger asking her for a moment. She stood in confusion and watched as his own confusion gave way to a look of horror. She began to feel a cold fear rising inside her.
After a minute, his eyes came back into focus, but it took him a few more seconds to reorient himself; he looked like he had just woken up from a dream and didn't know where he was.
"Link, what's wrong?" Zelda asked anxiously.
"Where's the king and Prince Zeyde?" he asked, looking around.
"I don't know. What's wrong?" she asked again.
"We need to find them," he said, taking her by the hand and leading her through the crowd. People looked at them curiously as they passed by.
They found both men standing on the far side of the room, watching the dancers and talking quietly. They quickly turned their attention to Link and Zelda, though, when they came hurrying up.
"Your Majesty, I need to speak to you," Link said, somewhat breathlessly. "Privately," he added.
The king glanced behind him, at the balcony. He stepped outside and shooed the people standing there back inside. Then he gestured for Link and Zelda to join him.
"I think you need to hear this, too, Your Highness," Link said to Zeyde.
Zeyde followed him and Zelda onto the balcony, then shut the doors behind them. He casually leaned back against them to make sure they stayed closed.
"What's the matter?" the king asked.
"We're going to need your army sooner, rather than later, Your Majesty," Link said. "Nagadii is marching here."
The king didn't move for a moment; it looked like he didn't understand what Link had just said. For that matter, Zelda wasn't sure she had heard him correctly.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
Link looked at her. "Nagadii has drafted every man in Hyrule between the ages of sixteen and forty and pressed them into service—military service. He is marching his army here as we speak. They'll be here in a week or so."
"Wait, how do you know this?" King Ranis asked, looking more perplexed than ever.
Link turned to him. "You remember that I told you Zelda and I can speak telepathically because we're Hylians?"
"Well, I have that ability with someone else—someone who died."
King Ranis looked floored. His mouth actually fell open. "What?" he finally gasped.
"I can speak to Master Gardamon. He was a great scholar and magician back when Master Ryu was just a boy. Because he's in the Other World, he can see things that we cannot, and he can pass that information on to me telepathically.
"Apparently Nagadii has some sort of magic spell on Hyrule which blocks Master Gardamon's ability to see, but tonight the army marched out of Castle Town and away from the spell's protection. As soon as Master Gardamon figured out what was happening, he told me."
"How many men?" Prince Zeyde hurried to ask.
"I don't know; Master Gardamon said they were still filing out of the city. But if he's right—if Nagadii has pressed every man in Hyrule into service—then it will be a very large army—much larger than what you normally field."
King Ranis looked down at the ground, obviously deep in thought. After a couple of minutes, he looked up. There was a steely resolve in his gray eyes. "Even if they bring more men, they will be inexperienced. And no conscript ever fights as well as a volunteer—and that will go double for men who are fighting against their lawful monarch. That should balance the numbers—if not sway the engagement in our favor. I've seen green troops run before; they got tangled up with their regulars and caused the entire line to collapse. So sometimes they harm their own side more than they help."
He suddenly threw his head back and laughed. Zelda didn't see what was funny at all. The only thing worse than thinking about going to war, was fighting—and killing—her own people.
"So Nagadii thinks he is powerful enough to fight me here?" the king asked. "We shall see how well he beards the Lion of Erenrue in his own den!"
He marched past an astonished Link and Zelda; Zeyde had to hurry to get out of his way.
Ranis threw open the glass doors, and people all over the hall turned to look at him in curiosity and wonder. The musicians stopped playing mid-song.
"I have just received word that the king-slayer Nagadii is marching an army on Erenrue," the king announced. "Perhaps he means to kill me and take my throne. Perhaps he means to put the royal family into flight. Or maybe he means to exterminate, one-by-one, the nobility of Erenrue who are a threat to him and enslave everyone else.
"Is there any among you who would allow such a thing to happen while you draw breath?!" he demanded.
"NO!" was the universal reply.
King Ranis pointed to Elgon, who had hobbled to the front of the crowd. "Sir Elgon, put out the call: the army is to muster in one week's time!"
A deafening shout went up in the hall.