That night, Link arrived at Queen Zelda's suites to escort her down to dinner. He performed the service for her every single day, and gladly too, but that night's dinner was going to be an extremely important one, as he understood it as Zelda was going to be making an announcement of some consequence. He was wearing his best shirt for the occasion, a deep green doublet without any of the frills most of the men at court tended to wear. It would be ridiculous to see the Hero of Twilight and an established military officer wearing something so frivolous, he'd decided, and even a plain silk tunic like his already felt much too fine for a humble goat herder to be wearing.
One of the guards stationed outside the door to the Queen's suites gave him a suspicious glance when he approached. Link ignored it. While he and Zelda both considered each other close personal friends, for some people, the relationship between himself and the Queen of Hyrule was entirely too familiar for their delicate sensibilities. On occasion, a rumour would even reach his ears that the two of them were deeply intertwined in a passionate love affair. There was absolutely no truth in it, of course, although Link wished that there was because he was madly, desperately in love with her. He didn't think anyone needed to know that. Not the guards, not Zelda's gossipy ladies-in-waiting and definitely not Zelda.
Especially not Zelda.
"You won't find the Queen here, Sir," one of the guards told him.
"What?" Link said, surprised. At this rate they would be late for dinner and Zelda could never stand to be late, especially for dinner, nor did she ever deviate from her schedule. "Where is she then?"
"A very important Council meeting has gone on longer than expected," the same guard said gruffly, "and she's been roaming the castle grounds ever since. Her Majesty will get here in due time."
"Hey, you know what I heard?" the other guard said.
"No one cares, Matthew. Stop mouthing off," the first guard grumbled.
His remark went entirely unheeded by Matthew the Guard, who seemed to sense that he had Link's full attention. "I heard that the Council has been pressuring her to get married for ages now," he finished proudly.
Link's blood ran cold at that. It was true that Zelda had been seeing a non-stop stream of suitors for the past few months but she had told him in confidence that she didn't care for any of them. Prince Aleksandar from the neighbouring country of Labrynna had about as much backbone as worm as well as an unattractive, wispy moustache. He was also incredibly boring since the only thing he could find to talk about was key-making, his favourite pastime.
Prince Louis, the last son of the King of the Emerald Isles, which were no more than a few bits of rock in the middle of the ocean had been handsome enough, having that rugged, swashbuckling look about him that only came from years at sea and had once been a serious contender, much to Link's displeasure. Luckily, he'd turned out to be a philanderer and a drunkard and Zelda had lost interest in him. She'd also had him carried away when he'd come to meet her, totally drunk, and proceeded to take a piss right in front of her in one corner of the room. Link could have sent someone else to do Zelda's bidding, he imagined, but he'd taken great pleasure in escorting the man away himself.
There had been others, of course, but Zelda had deemed them all too uninteresting, too boorish, too timid or too power-hungry and one time she had even said, "He just looked like the sort of person who picks his nose and then eats it. I couldn't live with someone like that." He'd expected that he would have enough time to work out a plan with Shad, who was a peer of the realm, and Ashei, who simply liked to attend their impromptu meetings for "moral support" and to get free beers, that would land him on the Queen's list of suitors. It had never occurred to him that the Council would force her into marriage.
"Is that so?" Link said at last, trying to keep his voice even. He thought he was doing remarkably well at it too considering that he had just received news that the love of his life was going to be wed to a drunken philanderer who was obsessed with keys.
"Yeah!" Matthew the Guard said excitedly, obviously enthused about having someone to gossip with. "In fact I heard from a guy who knows a guy that she has to announce her choice tonight or they'll choose for her."
Link jaw twitched. He'd never fainted before in his life, but he felt like he was about ready to start. "Tonight?" he said in a quiet voice. "They can't do that can they? She's the Queen, it should be her choice!"
"That may be true," the first guard said, "but the future of Hyrule is everyone's concern. What she ought to be doing now is focusing on finding the person who'll father the Hyrule's heir."
"Here she comes now," Matthew the Guard observed.
"Talk some sense into her," the first guard muttered before the two of them snapped to attention and Link couldn't get another word out of them.
He turned just as Zelda approached the doors, looking more tired than he had ever seen her but she perked up slightly when she saw him standing at her door. "Oh, Sir Link," she said, referring to him by his title for the benefit of the two guards. "I'm so sorry! I entirely forgot that you were waiting here for me!"
Link refrained from commenting on her appearance or mentioning that she rarely forgot anything and instead dropped into a deep bow that seemed to amuse her. "Of course, Your Majesty, it's quite alright. I live to serve," he said in an overly officious voice.
Zelda quirked the barest of smiles at him. "Please give me a moment to freshen up, good sir. I'll be with you presently," she said, pushing open the door and disappearing into the darkness beyond.
The ill-humoured guard gave Link another one of his looks which Link studiously ignored. He was relieved when Zelda finally re-emerged from the cavernous room looking stunning in a dress of white and blue silk. Although the dress itself was quite simple Link always thought that Zelda looked beautiful in anything. And of course it showed of an astonishing amount of her décolletage, which Link kept finding his eyes drawn to despite his best efforts.
"Thank you for waiting," she said graciously, offering him a small smile.
"It's my pleasure, Majesty," Link replied, extending his arm to her.
Zelda took it, winding her arm around his and setting off down the hall at a brisk trot. Link spared a last look for the two guards, both of whom were shooting him meaningful looks, before they turned the corner and vanished from sight. Zelda didn't speak a word to him on the way to the dining room, which Link found disconcerting since their nightly walks through the labyrinthine halls of the castle were usually their only time to speak together in private.
"Something on your mind?" he asked and then immediately after he mentally kicked himself. Idiot, the thought, annoyed at his own inconsiderateness. She obviously has something on her mind. She probably just doesn't want to think about it!
"Oh, it's nothing I'm just thinking about what we'll have for dinner tonight," Zelda replied airily, leaving Link feeling both relieved and disappointed. "I heard in passing that we'll be having mushroom-stuffed quail. You know how much I love that."
Link nodded and allowed himself to be lost in thought as a new silence settled over them. He wanted more than anything to confess his feelings to Zelda, to beg her not to marry Prince Louis or Prince Aleksandar or any of the others and to marry him instead although deep down he knew he couldn't. She had no idea how he felt about her because he'd never bothered to stake a claim and it would be terribly unfair of him to complicate matters and make things even worse by suddenly confessing that he was in love with her especially since there was no way that could ever marry. Hero of Twilight or not he was still a goat herder with no wealth and no name who wasn't even from Hyrule proper. The nobles would never accept the union.
Just as he had finally resigned himself to a night of getting himself extremely drunk, after which he would try his best to move on, Zelda turned to him and tightened her grip on his arm. "Link, can I ask you a question?" she said quietly.
"Sounds like you just did," Link answered teasingly, knowing how much she hated that reply.
Zelda elbowed him in the ribs. "Be serious," she said, although there was a smile playing at the corners of her mouth.
"Alright, alright," Link acquiesced. "Ask away."
"How do you feel about me?" she asked.
Link struggled to swallow the lump that had formed in his throat and he turned to look Zelda in the eye, which required that he tilt his head since she was quite a bit taller than he was. "Truly?" he asked nervously.
"Truly," Zelda replied.
Oh brother. "We're friends," Link said after a long pause, although just saying it hurt his heart.
"Only friends?" Zelda replied, a little teasingly.
"Best friends," Link said as sincerely as possible. "I'd give my life for you."
Zelda immediately sobered up. "That's good to know," she said, with equal sincerity.
Link nodded and immediately picked up the pace, nearly dragging Zelda along after him. Zelda let out a little indignant noise but otherwise refrained from commenting on it and they both approached the huge double doors to the dining room in silence. Two of the four liveried guards at the door stepped forward and pushed the doors open wide to admit them. Link blinked rapidly, near blinded by the bright light refracted throughout the room by the massive tiered chandelier that hung in the centre of the room, iron arms reaching out in all directions like a giant metal octopus.
As usual, they were the last to arrive and everyone was already seated, making light conversation over their glasses of water. Link gaped at the sheer number of people in attendance. The normal assemblage of courtiers were all in attendance, seated appropriately according to their rank, as well as a collection of foreign ambassadors and ministers and every single one of Zelda's suitors, excepting the ones who had stormed out in disgrace.
It was at that point that Zelda had to take her leave of Link. As Queen, she sat alone at the head of the table while he sat further down the table at his own set place. He resisted the urge to hold onto her when she extricated herself from his grasp. After tonight, he realised, Zelda would be spoken for, an engaged woman. Escorting her to dinner would soon become her husband's job and they would lose what little time they had together as friends and, eventually she would forget about him and their friendship would deteriorate into the same sort of cordial-yet-business-like relationship as the one she shared with her maids. But he let her go, letting her take her seat at the table, knowing that after that night he would probably never touch her again.
He kept his eyes pointed at the wall as he made her way to his own seat, where a number of fine paintings by the master artists of different ages hung in gilded frames. One, he noticed, was of him in profile looking resplendent atop a rearing Epona against a backdrop of Twilight. Link blushed and looked away from it. Although the likeness was uncanny he didn't remember ever posing for that one; Zelda must have gone and commissioned it behind his back.
The meal had already begun by the time he at last found his seat. Incidentally, when he had first been offered a position in the Queen's court there had been a huge kerfuffle regarding what rank being the legendary Hero afforded him and whether his function was military or religious. To complicate matters both the Church and the army insisted that he, by rights, was one of them and refused to relinquish their hold on him. In the end, Zelda reasoned that the Church and the army could both have him if they wanted him so much but at the end of the day he was only beholden to the Crown. After that, the order of seating at the table had been rearranged so that Link found himself seated between the High Priest and the General of Hyrule's military. That always made for some interesting dinner conversations since the two men held a deep hatred for one another and made potshots at each other at every available opportunity.
He looked wistfully at the head of the table, where Zelda was taking little dainty sips from her glass. Further down, all her suitors sat together in a group and although most of them didn't seem too interested in the queen at the moment, the rest of them were looking her with poorly disguised lust and/or longing that made Link's blood boil although he was acutely aware that he was doing exactly the same thing.
Soon enough, the servers arrived with the soup. For some reason, in Hyrule Castle just eating one's food altogether and going to bed wasn't 'fancy' enough and the servers would instead bring in several courses of food, each of which could be considered a meal unto itself. Normally, they only brought four but if this dinner was as important as Link suspected it was it was going to be one of those ten-course days. Or worse. Try as he might, Link could never stomach more than a few courses and had to pick and choose which food he wanted to eat every night. Deciding he would save his appetite for the mushroom-stuffed quail that Zelda loved, he waved away the server when he came to fill his bowl with a delicious-smelling soup.
"Just wine, please," he asked the confused-looking server.
"Sir Link, do you really think it's proper to be drinking wine at this point?" the High Priest said in a tortured voice.
Link gave the High Priest a stormy look. What he actually meant was that he didn't approve of Link drinking at all, although he was far too polite to say so. Usually, Link respected the High Priest's wishes especially since he wasn't exactly a 'drinker' to begin with but that particular night he really couldn't care less. He wanted a drink and by the goddesses he was going to have it.
He stopped the server again before he could disappear. "Sorry, can I get something stronger instead?" he asked. The General burst out laughing, much to the annoyance of both Link and the High Priest. "Much stronger," he added tiredly.
The server nodded and sent word to the kitchen for something strong Link to drink. A serving boy returned with an empty glass and a strangely shaped glass container of wine, which he poured for Link in a long, elegant stream.
"Thanks," Link said, picking up the glass and taking a sip from it. He made a face immediately after. "Don't you have anything harder than this?" he asked.
"Er…no sir," the serving boy replied.
"I see," Link said, plucking the oddly-shaped bottle from the serving boy's hand, much to the High Priest's displeasure. "Better leave this then."
By the time Zelda began to tap her wine glass to get everyone's attention Link was drunker than he had ever been in his life. Everyone turned to look at her curiously as she stood and stoically surveyed the assembled guests. Link's gut churned with a mixture of anxiousness, distress and heartbreak. He downed his entire drink and asked for another.
"Don't you think you've had enough, Sir Hero?" the General said. Even he was sounding concerned now.
Link scowled at him and repeated his request to the server, who scurried away to fetch him another drink. The General thankfully backed off and the server returned with the drink just in time for Zelda's address.
"Good evening, my most esteemed guests," Zelda said with a small smile. "Thank you all for appearing in my home tonight. However, this night I haven't summoned you all here only to enjoy good food and wine, and for the pleasure of your company." Everyone laughed at that and Zelda fell silent while she waited for them to quiet down. "No, I have called you all here to make a very important announcement," she said. "For many months now the Lords of the High Council have been encouraging me to marry so that I may find solace in companionship as well as someone who will make a good father to Hyrule's heir, who will carry on the Harkinian legacy after I am gone. As a result I have been seeing several suitors over the course of the past few weeks in the hopes of finding a man who could be worthy of such an important responsibility. I have called you all here tonight to inform you that I believe I have at last found such a man."
There was a murmur throughout the hall all the assembled began to make guesses. The suitors rubbed their hands together and preened, each sure that they would be the lucky man who would become the Queen's betrothed. Link made a show of not paying attention and began pushing his food around the plate.
"The man I've decided to entrust my life, and the life of Hyrule's future heir is very special to me. Never before in my life have I come across such a kind and honourable soul," she said, biting her lip as her eyes swept over the assembled peerage, "Venerated guests, the man who I've chosen to marry, who will help me to usher in a new era of prosperity in Hyrule is none other than my protector and esteemed friend, the Hero of Twilight."