Great news, I managed to get my laptop working again. Short version is I got tired of waiting around, and as a last ditch effort to counter anything short of an actual hardware failure, I went into Safe Mode and started a factory reset. And so far, it's working. So, everyone can relax, I'm not going to open up anything for donations for a replacement, it won't be needed, at least not yet. I wanted to get a new chapter up as soon as Monday came around to make sure everyone with alerts could know. I'm going to do my best to be ready for when this thing finally does give up the ghost, but depending on how long that takes, I could still be a long way from it on my own. I want everyone to know, though, that I am very thankful to see so many positive messages about the situation as I received, and it does wonders for my morale.

Anyway, I know the chapter isn't much longer than it was in the unfinished state I originally put it up in, but this one can literally be seen as the calm before the storm, and I decided I'd rather work some more through the remaining subplots without jumping into what's coming next in the same chapter. We'll be rejoining Link, Midna, and Kilishandra at the start of 134, and I can honestly say that is when the end will begin. I'm not going to make a real estimate of how many chapters remain, given my past history in that regard, but I think I won't be reaching 140.

Chapter 133: To Lake Hylia

"Look at that," Link said, drawing his horse to a stop, "That's a sight I'll never get tired of."

Kilishandra pulled the massive black stallion to a stop beside him. They were in the middle of the great bridge west of the capital that spanned the massive canyon in wester Hyrule, and looking over the side, they could see the colossal Lake Hylia, and at its far side, the waterfall that poured into the lake from Zora's Domain.

Even just the short trip from the west gate, Kilishandra was seeing such a variety of terrain, and Hyrule featured such wild shifts in elevation. The sinking sun in the afternoon sky cast a beautiful orange glow across the surface of the water below, along with the reflections of the surrounding canyon walls.

"Hyrule is a rugged, yet beautiful land," Kilishandra said, leaning on the front her saddle, and glancing back the other way, toward the capital, the unfinished towers of the castle still visible on the horizon, "It reminds me a great deal of my own home."

"You mean the city you built with Ganondorf?" Link asked.

"No, I mean the village I was born in," Kilishandra said, "The surrounding area... You know what, nevermind, it's not important."

"I really don't mind," Link said, "It's going to be a another hour before we reach the other end of the bridge, and path leading down into the canyon."

Link clicked his tongue and urged Epona to start moving again, and Kilishandra made Ebony follow. "I just think we should stay focused," Kilishandra said, "We don't have much time left."

"How long do we have until this magic night?" Link asked.

"The new moon," Kilishandra said, "When it is completely invisible, that is the night of the event."

"So..." Link said, looking up and thinking back to the moon on the previous night, "Three days."

"Is that all..." Kilishandra muttered as they urged the horses into a trot.

"You feeling the weight of the world pressing down again?" Link asked.

"I wish I could put it from my mind as easily as you seem to," Kilishandra said.

"If that's what you think, you haven't learned a thing about me," Link said quietly, turning to look back down at the lake.

Now might be the time, Kilishandra thought. It had been over an hour since she had seen or heard from Midna, and the Twili was likely napping in Link's shadow, and this was as close to alone with Link as she was likely to get.

As they had made ready to leave the city, Ganondorf had spoken to her again at the gate, in quiet, hushed tones, as though he didn't want Link or anyone else to hear, while Link and Midna spoke with Zelda about the planned route to and around the lake.

Ganondorf had asked her how much she had heard regarding the ritual the three of them had performed in the courtyard, and when she told him only the fact the princess and Link were not happy about it, he quickly explained that it could be the solution to all their problems. Kill the enemy, fix the damage, make everything better. The power was so great, with time, they may even be able to bring back the dead and reshape the world.

"Think about it," Ganondorf had said to her, "All the sins of this horrific war, erased, made right again. And then we can go even further back. You should know what that means, better than anyone. But I cannot do it without those two. I can talk to the princess, or rather, the soon to be queen. She might put on a strong face, but she'll listen to me. She'll come around, when she sees sense. Link on the other hand, his emotions rule him. His misplaced sense of right and wrong. He'll only listen to someone he trusts."

"Look, he might seem like my friend, but I have serious doubts he trusts me," Kilishandra had said

"He does," Ganondorf said, "More than you think. You're in a better position to convince him than anyone else. Just take it slowly. If you make it obvious that I asked you to talk to him, he'll close you out and refuse to listen."

"If this is such a good thing, why are the two of them against it?" Kilishandra asked.

"Because they're ignorant," Ganondorf said, "They have no knowledge of what this is or means, so they're afraid of it. The only ways to fight ignorance are education, which we don't have time for, or faith. They need to believe and trust, to have faith. That's all."

Now as they rode, Kilishandra found the subject difficult to broach. How do you open a conversation about a power capable of reshaping the world? It was a though of desperation, just to get near the subject, when she asked, "How did you get the Triforce piece you have?"

Link glanced over at her. Even that question came out of the blue, from his perspective. "Why?" he asked.

"You wanted to fill the air," Kilishandra said, "And I'm curious. I heard my father's story of how he fought through the guardians and claimed his piece so many times. Did you do something similar?"

Link shrugged and said, "No, actually, nothing nearly as spectacular. I've always had it, for as long as I can remember. I didn't even know it was anything more than a birthmark until a couple years ago."

"So, you didn't seek it out, then?" Kilishandra asked, "And here I thought it was something you left out when you told me of the Twilight Invasion."

"No, I didn't leave anything out," Link said, "I never asked for this thing, never wanted it, and yet I have it. The Gods apparently have a twisted sense of humor."

Kilishandra didn't respond immediately, trying to think of a way to turn the conversation toward the power Ganondorf had told her to ask about, but decided instead to not push the subject so quickly, and instead make him feel more comfortable.

"Honestly, I think someone like you would be much more responsible with it than a person who fought and killed for it," she said. As she said it, she realized it wasn't simply buttering him up, either, but she could actually believe it.

"Maybe," Link said, not giving any more of a response, turning away to look off the bridge at the lake below.

Oh crap... Kilishandra thought. She'd pushed too hard, and he'd shut her out.

"Did he put you up to this?" Link suddenly asked, turning back to her, his expression deadly serious, then before she could answer, turned away again, "Of course he did, you're not the type.

"Let me tell you something. I get it, you call him 'father,' and that's not going to change. But when the three of us were linked like that, I actually don't know what he felt. Maybe it's because I haven't been using the Triforce as long as him. But the way he was acting... He was practically drooling as he talked about it. The power to remake the world. I'm sure Zelda saw it too. He wasn't interested in anything we could actually do.

"He has a lust for power. That's all. Think of what he is capable of, and the fact he still wants more. Where will it end? Where is the line that he won't cross? Could you honestly trust him with a power like that?"

He suddenly held up his hand as she started to respond. "Better yet," he added, "Could you trust yourself? Think very carefully about this."

Kilishandra nearly rolled her eyes. She was capable of razing a city, and he was asking if she could trust herself with power over the world. Exactly what point was he trying to make?

And that was exactly the point, she realized. The destruction she had wrought in Mystara, the sheer number of deaths by her hand. If she had the kind of power Ganondorf was speaking of, what would she have done? She had put the dark thoughts from her mind as best she could, and now they came rushing back.

And Hyrule, in such a short time, had become a shining beacon in her eyes, a promise of a better future. What lengths would she go to in order to defend it? And with that kind of power...

With that kind of power, she could build the world she dreamed of. A world free of petty hatreds and ignorance, free of racial divisions, and oh, gods, free of war and violence.

Free... of people like her...

And even then, what would that say about her? Using a power like that to change the world, it would effectively be forcing her will on others. It wasn't building a world through understanding, it was forcing her beliefs on others regardless of their outlooks. She wouldn't be a savior like that, but a tyrant.

She had seen firsthand the conquest of an entire world, and Ganondorf's method of bringing disparate peoples together. It hadn't been through oppression, through sudden new laws forcing them to change their ways of life, but through careful planning and appeasement. It was manipulation, of a sense, but the people were less likely to resist the new regime when one of their own was appointed as a governor, and when they were allowed to retain their own culture.

Zelda had said Hyrule was united through war. The first king of Hyrule, first uniting the separate groups, or tribes, of Hylians, then the Gorons and the Zora. Tensions were high following that war, yet now they were a single nation. She had even seen children playing in the streets in the capital, Hylian and Goron children, and at least one Zora. It was a remarkable sight, considering in her own homeland, she'd never have seen human children with a dark elf child.

And odd tangential thought, but perhaps children didn't even see other races, not until they were taught to.

But, as she thought of all this, she returned to the original question. Could she even trust herself with the kind of power that could remake the world? Would she only use it wisely and with careful temperance?

"No," she said at last, "I don't think I could."

"Then you understand my outlook," Link said, "Believe me, there are times I have to remind myself that I already have everything I want in life. And that's why I'm here. Because I'm a terrible, selfish person, and I will not let anyone take it away from me. Not again."

And Link found himself suddenly conscious of the fact he had said that in front of someone who had recently lost nearly everything and everyone she knew.

"You're still very young, though," Kilishandra said, "You really have everything you want?"

Link couldn't help but smile a bit. "I suppose not," he said, "I do think I'd want to have kids of my own someday. Not immediately, but in five or ten years, I could see it happening."

Kilishandra wasn't even thinking about her previous efforts to insert herself between Link and Midna, and yet said it before she even realized what it meant. "Are you sure that you and Midna can even have children? That the two races aren't too different?"

The glance he shot at her was frightening, as she realized what she had just said. She tried to repair the perceived damage. "I'm sorry," she said, "That was too personal..."

"It's all right," Link said, "I honestly don't know. I do remember reading something at one point, there'd been a study of the different Hyrulean races, that basically confirmed the three races can't interbreed. Given the fact Zora lay eggs, I'm not even surprised. And Midna... Well, we've found the Twili aren't even simply a different race, they're from a completely different world.

"But then again, so are you."

"I suppose you have a point, there," Kilishandra said, "But then again, I remember reading that far back, humans and elves have a common ancestor. And the humans and elves of our worlds are already so similar in size, voice, and appearance..."

"And many of the Twili are radically different in size an appearance, even from each other," Link said, "The fact is, we simply don't know. It's a hurdle we'll deal with when we get there.

"Now come on, Epona's got a good breath back, let's see if that monster can keep up," he finished, urging Epona into a gallop.

Kilishandra flicked the reigns and pushed Ebony hard. Snorting fire, the black stallion leaped forward, rapidly closing the distance between the two. The difference was obvious, at least until Link gave Epona more reign, and she started pulling ahead again. Kilishandra found herself smiling as she let Ebony go even faster. There might not have been a living horse that could truly equal Ebony, but watching Link ride, there was no doubt Epona was certainly a magnificent animal, and the mare's sheer size definitely caused one to underestimate her speed.

The great columns lining either side of the great bridge whipped past them as they raced toward the end.

Contrary to Kilishandra's guess, however, Midna had been listening to the entire conversation. The Twili had first been silently proud of Link putting the half-elf in her place, but then the conversation had drifted to more personal matter. Midna had nearly interrupted, stopping only at Link's comment about children.

And the fact was, they didn't know if it was even possible. She had thought about it before, but had never been sure Link even wanted children. And now that she knew he did, the thought was depressing that she might not be able to give them to him.

Midna had not been worried about Kilishandra before. She was so certain of Link's feelings. She still was, but the truth was, she was more worried about herself than him.

It was even strange to think Link could even be so calm and relaxed in the presence of Ganondorf's daughter. Midna could certainly never forgive the man for what he had done, and was looking forward to the day she could scalp the bastard.

A witch was in the castle. That was a statement Zelda never dreamed she'd make. Sibette had effectively taken over what would be the royal dining hall, once it was furnished, and in just a few short hours, transformed it into the stuff of nightmares.

Zelda had heard the stories, of course, of what witches did. Thanks to Ganondorf's memories now lodged in her head, she had a much more detailed knowledge of them than she'd ever wanted to know. A lot of people had heard the stories of course, and most didn't want to believe they were true, and Zelda had no doubt at all now that most of them were.

From those very memories, she already knew why the witch appeared a girl barely in her teens, and wished she didn't. The witch had fed recently, on a young girl, effectively draining the life from the child to regain her own youth. Just being in the same room with her sent trembles down Zelda's spine, and the fact Sibette spoke in such an easy-going, friendly manner, made it all the worse.

The dining hall's windows were all covered, blocking out any and all natural light possible, and the braziers were all extinguished, and the only sources of light in the massive room were hundreds of wax candles, all burning and melting directly onto the stone floor. The flickering lights created barely enough light to see at all by, and lent to an oppressive, gloomy atmosphere.

In the center of the hall, Sibette created her witch's circle. It was like a magic circle, as far as Zelda could tell, and at least the lines were drawn in a fine white sand, rather than blood as Zelda had expected, and then at each point of the start within the circle, a candle was placed in the sand. Not wax candles like the others, but made of animal fat.

Or at least Zelda prayed it was animal fat.

And then came the other adornments. Skulls, shrunken heads, crow feathers, a vial of something Zelda was certain was poisonous, and more.

Finally unable to stand it, Zelda had excused herself, going outside for some fresh air. Ganondorf wasn't letting the witch out of his sight, but wanting more assurance, Zelda quickly set up shifts of guards and ninja, under orders to watch but not interfere, and if the witch tried to leave alone, to not try to stop her, and bring word to Zelda, and the ninja were to follow and watch her.

Zelda just hoped they understood how dangerous that girl was.

The sun was welcome after being in that darkness for several hours. She hoped it was worth it. Sibette promised that the instant the other witch tried to practice her own magic, they'd have her. Zelda had asked if the other witch would be able to sense this effort somehow, and Sibette had simply responded, "If she can figure out I'm listening in, she deserves to get away."

Zelda didn't agree with the sentiment.

Off to her left, the refugee camp was waiting patiently, though she could plenty of movement within. Her hope for some fresh air and clearing her head was suddenly pushed back by the reminder that something more permanent needed to be done for them. If only there was time to put up a new barracks or something, to at least get them out of the weather. She had thought about the empty space in the castle, but given how many areas still had incomplete roofs and walls, it might actually be worse than the tents, and then they wouldn't be able to have the open cooking fires.

And then there was a report Zelda had received this very morning. Well, she had to tell Sheila sooner or later. With Vargus following close behind, Zelda walked toward the camp, and the area she knew Sheila would be.

As it was, she nearly missed the elf as she and Ilia were leaving the camp, toward the courtyard gate leading into the city. When Zelda called out to them, Sheila turned and waved, while Ilia hastily lifted her skirt and managed a respectful curtsy, which Sheila duplicated a second later after remembering where she was.

"Where are you two off to?" Zelda asked as she approached them.

"Ilia is taking me to an apothecary," Sheila said, and added, "Bit of an upset stomach this morning."

"Do you need any money?" Zelda asked.

"I think I've got enough," Sheila said, "But thank you. Were you looking for us?"

"For you, but this does concern everyone in the camp," Zelda said, glancing at Ilia, who was remaining respectfully silent, then turned back to Sheila, "Maylow was found dead this morning. He was murdered last night in an alley off the main square."

"Oh gods," Ilia whispered, reflexively lifting one hand over her mouth in surprise, then hurridly asked, "What happened? I saw him just last night."

"The city guard are still investigating," Zelda said, "The report I read said he'd been stabbed in the chest, apparently with his own knife. His pockets had been emptied, so right now the theory is that someone tried to rob him, and it went bad."

"Maylow was a trained swordsman," Sheila said, "No thug would get the better of him."

"Unless they managed to get his knife first," Zelda said, and turned to Ilia, "But you saw him last night. Did he tell you what he was doing?"

Ilia sighed. "Not exactly. Link was there, and we were talking about a few things. Kilishandra came up, and Maylow's temper got up, and he stormed off. Link and I both thought he was just going somewhere to cool off."

"Maybe he was," Zelda said, "I wish I could say the city was safe at night, but he chose the wrong place to cool off. When the investigation is complete, I can let you know what was found."

"Please," Sheila said.

"I won't keep you from your business," Zelda said, then asked, "One thing, have you seen Arthur this morning?"

"Oh, he's over at the archery range," Ilia said.

"Archery range?" Zelda asked, then smiled as she realized what must be happening.

"Oh, don't tell me someone's fallen for that so-called ladies' man," Sheila said.

"I think it's more correct to say he's fallen for me," Zelda said, "Though he does give the best massage I've ever had."

"Ooh, can I borrow him, then?" Sheila asked.

"Go get your stomach fixed before I break something else," Zelda replied with a smile.

It was with a laugh, but Sheila and Ilia excused themselves, resuming their walk toward the city.

"She's not sick," Vargus said when they were out of earshot.

"I know," Zelda said, "People can't lie to me, remember? What she is after, though, I don't know."

"Should I have them followed?" Vargus asked.

"No," Zelda said, and started walking toward the eastern training field, "Most likely she had a one night stand last night and is after something to prevent a pregnancy. All I'll say is good for her. She's not nearly as depressed today as she has been since the destruction of Darimar."

"She's not the type I'd expect to do that sort of thing," Vargus said.

"It wouldn't surprise me to find out it was one of your ninja," Zelda said, "Some of them are getting rather notorious around the taverns."

"I made it very clear they were to stay within the realm of both good taste and the law," Vargus said, "Most of the infamy they've gained is from the amount of money they've won at dart games."

"So long as it stays that way," Zelda said.

The training field was a whirlwind of activity, as usual. The various squads of recruits were being put through their paces, from the freshest faces simply running laps and the most out of shape ones unable to keep the pace, or even running to the point they were doubled over and redepositing their breakfasts on the ground, to the more advanced trainees who were capable of covering miles without even breaking a sweat. Clashing metal was ringing loudly from the training rings where other sparred in full metal.

The archery range had fifty straw targets set up against the outer wall, though only a few were in use at this time. Zelda spotted Arthur near the target closest to the refugee camp and as she expected, the boy with him. The youth was holding a small bow, not even a short bow, but something made for his size.

As she moved closer, she heard the advice Arthur was giving the boy. "You can't tense up like that, it just make your hands shake worse. Relax, aim carefully, take a deep breath…"

The boy loosed the arrow, which whistled through the air, past the target and splintering the shaft as it struck the stone wall. Eric groaned and stomped his foot in frustration.

"You're getting closer," Arthur said.

"The boy's shooting with the wrong hand," Vargus said to Zelda.

"How can you tell?" Zelda asked.

"The way he was holding his head," Vargus said, "He's leaning over, trying to aim with his left eye, and it's putting his face too close to the string."

"Try shooting it left-handed," Zelda said, coming to a stop a short ways behind them.

Arthur glanced back at her. "But he's right-handed…" he started to protest.

"Just try it once," Zelda said to Eric when he looked back.

The boy shrugged and pass the bow shaft to his right hand, nocking another arrow and taking aim. It took him a moment to steady his draw, unused to using his left hand in such a way, but he listend to Arthur's coaching, taking his time, and when the arrow was loosed, it whistled across to the target, striking into the straw-man's throat.

"I hit it!" Eric shouted, suddenly a huge smile on his face.

"So why does that work?" Zelda asked, looking back at Vargus.

"He may be right-handed, but his left eye is the stronger, to the point he is naturally trying to use it to aim," Vargus said, "I've seen it before. It's rare, but not unique. He's going to shoot left-handed, whether it's a bow, crossbow, or whatever."

Eric fired another arrow, this time hitting the dummy in the lower torso. Still off the painted target on the chest, but already far better than he had been. Arthur stepped back, letting the boy keep shooting as Zelda moved up beside him.

"This is the boy you were telling me about last night," Zelda said.

"That's right," Arthur said, "And there's a bit more to the story now."

He told what Eric had said to him earlier, about the boy's mother not returning home the previous night, and the fact Eric had nothing at home to feed himself.

"So what do we do about this?" Arthur asked when he finished.

"You've really taken a shine to the boy, haven't you?" Zelda asked.

"I guess I have," Arthur said.

"Well, maybe I can think of something," Zelda said, "This evening I'll draft something up… Not sure exactly what yet. If you can get his mother to sign a paper saying she's relinquishing her parental rights, we can decide where to go from there."

"I don't want to just have him end up in an orphanage," Arthur said.

"In Hyrule, adoption is as good as blood," Zelda said, and leaned a bit closer to him, "Just so you know, I'm planning to keep you around the castle, and it's not like there won't be enough room for a child, should you happen to have one."

Arthur chuckled, putting an arm around Zelda's shoulders. "Be a shock to his system, becoming a prince that fast."

"I didn't say that," Zelda said, "You're the one who started this, so if this does go through, you're going to be the one who adopts him. Beyond that… Well, let's not get too far ahead of ourselves."

Eric stopped shooting when he reached for his quiver and found it empty. The straw man target resembled a pin-cushion everywhere except the painted target on its chest. But by the smile on Eric's face, it was clear he felt as good as if he'd single-handedly saved the kingdom from an invading army, at least until he turned and saw the woman he had previously heard speak dressed in such a regal gown, royal purple in color, and the gold circlet visible on her forehead, and his expression turned to one of utter terror.

"I told you that you'd meet her," Arthur said to the boy.

Eric only then noticed Arthur's arm around Zelda's shoulders. "No way!" he said, a smile appearing on his face, "You're plonking the princess!"

Arthur turned his head, looking at Zelda. "Plonking?" he asked.

"That's a new one on me," she said, "It's definitely not appropriate for polite company, however."

Her tone immediately cowed the boy, and by his expression, she may as well have just ordered his head to be cut off. He started trying to apologize, but only stuttered.

Zelda slipped away from Arthur's arm, stepping toward Eric, then carefully leaned down to one knee, carefully arranging her skirt as best as possible to keep it out of the dirt. "It's all right, Eric," she said, now at eye-level with the boy, "Arthur has told me about your situation. About your mother."

"Do you want me to leave?" Eric asked, "I know I shouldn't be here…"

"It's all right," Zelda said, "The castle has always been an open forum. That hasn't changed, we're just very busy right now."

"Yeah, I heard your announcement," Eric said, "I don't really understand what it meant, though. Are we being invaded?"

Zelda wasn't exactly sure how to explain this to a child his age, but decided a soft hand would be better in this case. "If we are, I'm going to take care of it," she said, "That's my job, keeping everyone safe. And all the men and women you see here on the training field, everyone in the guard and all the knights, their job is to help me do mine. You don't have anything to worry about."

"I wish I was older," Eric said, "Then I could be a knight, and I could protect people too."

Zelda found herself smiling. "We can always use more brave knights. You just keep practicing with that bow, and in eight or ten years, you'll already be ahead of your class."

"We've still got time," Arthur said, "Go get the arrows that are still in one piece and we can go again."

"Okay!" Eric said, turning and dashing to the straw man, and started pulling the arrows from it.

Zelda stood up, brushing off her skirt as she did so. Arthur stepped up beside her. "Call me crazy, but I think you've got a way with kids," he said.

"Dealing with people is part of my job," Zelda said, "A child is easy compared to handling arguing nobles. Anyway, stop by my office in a few hours and I'll have something written up for you to get his mother to sign, and some orders for the guard to help you find her."

"Actually, rather than have a couple armored guards following me around, give me a few days to look for her on my own," Arthur said, "I think it'll give a better impression on her if I'm by myself."

"Maybe you're right," Zelda said, "But Eric can stay in the castle until things are sorted out. At least he won't go hungry around here."

"Actually, I'm suddenly thinking, when you mentioned me adopting him, and I said something about him becoming a prince…" Arthur looked down at her, "Were you saying what I think you were? I'm not looking to settle for concubine, you know."

"Well, if you come by my room again tonight, I might give you a chance to state your case," Zelda said.

"And you were so nervous last night," Arthur said with a chuckle.

"Oh, this is half because I want to kick as much dirt as possible at the advisors who insisted I remain chaste as long as possible," Zelda said, then shot him a smile, "The other half is because I think you've finally won me over."

"To think a man like me came so far," Arthur said, putting his arm around her shoulders again, "Never even thought I could fall in love, much less with a woman like you."

"It's because I saw through your act," Zelda said, "I wouldn't settle for anything less than real, and the real you is good man."

"I hope that wherever my father is now, he heard that," Arthur said.

Alex groaned, his eyes slowly opening as the afternoon sun entered the bedroom window. The bed was a tangled mess, and two weapons of clothing and weapons were scattered across the floor. The warm Hyrulean Springtime air had the room at a comfortable temperature even though all the blankets were on the floor and the windows had yet to have glass installed.

Alex had a suddenly bad sense of déjà vu, remembering what happened the last time he woke in these conditions. It was an instant relief when he rolled over, though, because while last time there had been a blonde he couldn't even remember, he had been so drunk that night, and this time he instead saw the ivory haired and ebony skinned beauty he had fallen so hard for.

He suddenly wished he was an artist, rather than a swordsman. Silviana still slept, but just looking at her naked form as she lay there, he felt the sight was begging to be immortalized as a work of art. She was a far cry from the immaculately perfect beauty described in romance novels or depicted in most works of art, so many scars were visible on her arms and legs, ranging from simple scratches to several bite marks from canines of one form or another, and a long slash scar along the right side of her abdomen. The most prominent was the brand scar on her right shoulder, the mark of a slave, from a time long before he'd even been born. Whoever had given her the brand had known what he was doing. Even centuries later, it was plainly visible, much more so than much newer marks.

Alex couldn't claim to be any less scarred, though, and he'd collected quite a few new ones on the recent trip west, and the fierce battle he'd fought against the bladed golems. He reached one hand to her shoulder, gently laying it on her arm and slowly rubbing his thumb across the brand. Silviana sighed at the touch, her eyes slowly opening.

"Good afternoon," Alex said as she blinked the sleep from her eyes and yawned. She barely finished the yawn before Alex leaned in to kiss her. She chuckled as he did, putting her arms around his neck and running her fingers slowly down his spine.

"So how do you feel?" Silviana asked as he pulled back from the kiss a moment later.

"Hungry," he replied, "I've never spent eighteen hours in bed with someone before."

Silviana had been right, though. Her preferred approach to lovemaking was very slow, and like nothing he'd ever experienced before. It brought about a level of intimacy he had been completely unfamiliar with. They hadn't gone to sleep until nearly dawn, but it was definitely worth every minute.

"We're going to have to do that again," Alex said.

"Don't worry, I'm sure we will," Silviana said, "It's just too bad we're so far from the forest now, so there aren't any decent secluded places outside…"

Alex raised his eyebrows. "You have a thing for outdoor lovemaking?"

Silviana smiled and said, "Come on, let's get something to eat."

"Leaving your shift early?"

Vargus turned at the voice. It was Arin, the young guard, waiting by the courtyard gate. The sun was low in the sky, but daylight still remained, at least for another few hours.

"Orders, actually," Vargus said, "The princess insists I should acquaint myself with the city by day as well. And you?"

This was addressed to the fact, instead of his guard uniform or the armor he wore on duty, Arin was wearing a fine matching red tunic and trousers, with gold lacings and a crest on the left breast depicting a bird of prey with a rose clutched in its talons. A family crest, likely.

"Off-day," Arin said, "Which of course means I had to get dressed up and see my parents. And meant listening to my mother complaining about the fact I'm nearly twenty-five and not married yet."

"That's right, I remember you mentioning you live in the barracks," Vargus said, motioning for Arin to walk with him as he passed by and out the gate, "Is she the reason?"

"Part of it," Arin said, "She never liked me joining the guard, either. Swore I'd be dead within the year. Well, four years later, I've seen a bit, and I'm still fine. Which reminds me, this morning, I didn't see it myself, but I heard the report about the church. Seems there was a massacre there last night."

"Well, if you already know, there was, though the culprits seem to have escaped the city for now," Vargus said.

"It made me think," Arin said, "What you were doing two days ago, following that man into the alleys… It seems mighty suspicious now…"

"The slaughter was not me or my men," Vargus said, "We were watching the church under orders, and the man I was following… He's one of the escaped killers. More than that, I'm afraid I can't say. Royal confidentiality."

"I was kind of expecting something like that," Arin said, "As close as you are to the princess, you probably overhear a lot of things the common folk don't need to know. Or at least shouldn't."

"True enough," Vargus said, "Go to any country in the world, and every ruler you encounter will have secrets. Things that could damage them or their allies. Things that other kingdoms would start wars over. This means if I have someone to come home to in the evenings and they ask how my day went, I'll say 'Fine,' and it will have to be dropped there."

"Well, it's not like the guard doesn't information that has to be kept from the public, as least until it's no longer vitally important," Arin said, "But you'd probably be privy to all that, too, wouldn't you?"

"Maybe not much longer," Vargus said, "Once things settle down, the princess wants to open up training for more ninja, chosen from Hylians and Zora. I'd give the Gorons a chance, too, but unfortunately they're not exactly built for the job. I think once we're able to do that, that's what I'll be doing. Training others, I mean."

"Just opening it up? That's a little surprising," Arin said.

"Not exactly," Vargus said, "The dark elves, we're a dying breed. Less than a hundred of us remain, and we're all men. As a species, we're doomed. But the princess and I agree that culturally, and in terms of our skill-set, we can survive through the rest of Hyrule."

"That's kind of depressing," Arin said, "To think of an entire race just disappearing."

"The elves of this world faced a similar fate," Vargus said, "Though I don't think they just died off. I think the Hylians of this nation are the descendents of the humans and elves of long ago, the two races simply became one. And given how enamored some of my men have become with women they've met in just a few weeks, I think that will be our eventual fate as well.

"But enough worrying about that," he declared, "Since you've time, maybe you won't mind walking me around the city and showing me the sights of interest, since I must acquaint myself with them all."

"You mean the bars other than the Drunken Monkey?" Arin asked.

"No, let's skip the bars for now," Vargus said, "Just anywhere you think is interesting. And we'll talk along the way and see where we end up. In fact, maybe the first stop should be a tailor, I could use a few changes of clothes for when I'm off duty."

"Well, the only tailor I know is the one my parents prefer," Arin said, "He's expensive, though."

Vargus picked up the purse from his belt holding his first real pay for the job. It was actually quite a bit than most soldiers earned, but he found himself wondering if he'd have enough. "Let's see, I need to pay my tab at the bar, and after that…"

"Tell you what, we'll just have the bill sent to my parents, and say the clothes were for me," Arin said.

"I wouldn't feel right about that," Vargus said.

"It'll be fine," Arin said, "I've neglected to mention it, but my father is George Ligald, and the second wealthiest merchant in the country. I don't like to go crazy with his money, I'd rather get by on my own, but for some clothing, it's not an issue."

"Well, maybe just this once," Vargus said, and laughed, "You realize this means you've started buying me things."

Arin's face instantly turned red as he realized the insinuations, and he started to respond, stammering and then choking, which only made Vargus laugh harder.

"Gods, calm down, boy," Vargus said, patting Arin on the back as he was apparently trying to cough up at least one of his lungs, "I've just having fun with you."

"I don't know what I'm doing here," Arin said once he was able to breathe again, "Look, even the fact I've kind of decided to give this a try, and see what happens is kind of freaking me out. I've never even been in a real relationship with a woman for any length of time before. I have no clue what I'm supposed to do."

"You're supposed to relax, walk with me, and show me around," Vargus said, "Just be yourself, and we'll worry about what comes later, later. Look, I was plenty terrified the first time I was with another man. Society doesn't train us for this sort of thing. Quite the opposite in fact. Not lying, but I'm still not entirely convinced you're like me, either. But the only one who can figure it out for certain is you. And if you do decide this isn't for you, well, all I'll ask is to try to keep an open mind for those of us who are, and don't be a bigot."

"Well, I guess I can at least try," Arin said, then grabbed Vargus' arm and pulled him to a stop, pointing down the street to their right, "The tailor's this way."

And the two of them went on their way, and would be oblivious until the next morning that about that time a soldier arrived in the city by the north gate, his horse dead from exhaustion a few miles back, and he himself barely able to stand after running the remaining distance to the city, bearing dire news of what was approaching the city from the north.