VI.

Dances with Swords

They circled. He bowed, she curtsied, and they both laughed at the ritual. He slashed the foil a few times to get back into the feel of the light blade and saw her do the same, hoped he wouldn't be too mesmerized by her weightless footwork to put up a decent fight.

She didn't give him time to stare before moving in gracefully; there was a slash, which he turned away, a parry, a thrust and a feint and a sudden lunge, and then he was on the ground –

Marth blinked. What was he doing on the ground?

Zelda's grinning face hovered into his view, silhouetted against the blue sky. Her thick braid swung down and tickled his nose. He felt a sneeze coming on, brushed feebly at the frayed golden hair, still quite unable to process the fact that he had just been knocked on his ass without even realizing it, and she giggled. "I love it when boys aren't afraid to lose."

"What are you talking about?" he retorted, feeling his face getting hot and wondering if it was normal to be this happy after being embarrassed in a swordfight. "… I tripped."

"Mm."

He took her hand with a grin and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. He glanced at her arms; they were small, lean-muscled. Elegant. Hell, it might have even made him feel better to see them thick and sinewy, to find out that Princess Hyrule was secretly a bodybuilder and he just hadn't noticed – but apparently she was just a lot stronger than she looked. Where did she keep it?

She skipped back into her corner of the makeshift ring, braid swinging briskly, and spun on her heel to face him.

"Aw, does your bum hurt?" she teased, sweet smile gleaming as she squinted against the sunlight. Her skin was rosy and glowing around the blinding grin, and Marth had to fight not to stare, had to reteach himself how to look away.

"Yours is going to hurt a lot more, princess, don't make me come over there," he threatened, and loved every second of her raucous laughter.

The face was the same but this was a different person. He'd met a girl on the balcony of Harkinnian's castle, but her voice had been dull with misery; she'd looked like her crown was the heaviest thing in the world and dangled her wine glass like she'd wanted to smash it. She'd been thinly smiling, trussed up in a tiny pink dress, a china doll on display… this girl was different, completely free, a force of nature. On that balcony, the life had been sucked out of her, like the slightest movement would break her. Here, it seemed like the sheer force of her spirit might bowl him over.

She moved first. He was ready this time. He swung his shoulders to the side, and with a whoosh that made his hair flutter in front of his eyes, the fine tip of Zelda's rapier grazed by his nose – he grapevined one foot behind the other, put his sword hand behind his back, shifted his weight to the balls of his feet and slammed his right shoulder forward.

The impact was dull and solid, and Zelda was down instantly. She looked up at him in surprise, and he extended a hand, unable not to smirk.

"Now I've underestimated you, and you've underestimated me. Shall we begin?"

She grinned and blew the stray stands from where they dangled in her face. She didn't take his offered hand, which he expected. Instead she stood up effortlessly without using her hands, which he did not expect, and before he could react, her blade was flickering towards his abdomen.

He barely had time to remove his sword hand from behind his back to parry the lightning thrust; stepping away, he kept back with his guard foot forward, a purely defensive position. His mind had to advance through years of training to finally catch up to the level of Zelda's swordwork. The small things in her movements told him how intimately she knew the sport: the way she wrapped her fingers around the hilt, the balanced sway of the blade's tip, the tilt of her shoulders and the slant of her chest. Her stance was perfect. She had a style that was rough and instinctive, not like his straight-backed swagger – it was like she had picked it up naturally, or learned from someone who fought with raw body instead of rules.

She lunged, and he didn't see an opening; he flicked his wrist and struck the foil downwards, stepping to the right and mentally working out his advance. The disengage and winning thrust played out in his head, but Zelda suddenly moved forward, gliding her foil along his, and he had to think fast to bend his knee and allow the tip to pass harmlessly over the back of his calf.

Her left side was open now; with a few adjustments, he could still use the same advance and disengage, but again before he could begin the advance, Zelda moved. He was astounded by his own stupidity. An Altean sparring partner would have given a two-second grace period before beginning the next round of attack, but Zelda was already in position, and she was clearly not playing by the rules. She jabbed her right foot into the crook of his bent leg, and he was on his knees.

He couldn't remember the last time his mind had worked this fast and still lost. Fighting her was like fighting the war. Sudden and unexpected.

He angled his blade sharply upward, knocking hers out of the way, and got to his feet. To his surprise, she didn't just punch him in the face, like he was certain her lawless style would have demanded, and instead backed away, her legs bent lower than usual.

"Something wrong?" he asked, and she lowered the stance further. It became tenser, more defensive. She waited a few moments, as if waiting to see if something would happen.

Finally, she wrinkled her nose. "I want you to stop grinning."

"Huh?"

She waved the tip of her foil at him. "I said stop grinning. I just knocked you down and we're clearly on equal footing."

He chuckled. "So I am… I'm going to say this, Zelda: no one, except me, is ever going to beat you in a fencing match."

Her cheeks glowed rosily. "Psh! Except you, is it? Come on. I'll even give you a free shot."

He made no effort to make his offensive grin go away. Hell if he would fight on her charity. He wasted his 'free shot' with an open, obvious lunge, an obnoxious swing that made Zelda roll her eyes. She did the only thing that made sense: pursed her lips in exasperation and stepped aside. He let his reflexes take over as she jerked her wrist up; her quick stab, which would have hit him had he still been thinking about Altean rules of engagement, glossed harmlessly across his turned chest, and he ducked under her arm and came up behind her as she caught her balance. One step more and he was far enough to lay the point of his blade on the back of her neck.

"Wha – " came her breathless reply, and she spun around, clashing foils and throwing his aside.

He imagined he was looking rather more pleased with himself than was polite. Zelda blew a strand of hair out of her face – her braid was not doing well – and clicked her tongue. "I see how it is. One for one? Then it's my turn."

"I think the word you're looking for is 'touché'."

"What's that?" She let loose a giggle that could belong to the devil, and advanced with what he had come to expect as no warning whatsoever.

Rounds flashed by, sudden spikes in exhilarating movement. His blood raced – from the sport? He didn't know. The adapter in him, the quick learner, absorbed her little quirks, memorized a certain twisting move of hers that always seemed to leave her defenseless and him watching like a fool with his mouth open. An instinct like this one, maybe less easily-distracted, had helped him survive the war. Zelda was learning too, but more slowly; as long as he made himself unpredictable, she came short of striking him.

That one maneuver came again, and he saw it begin as he had before. Her entire right side was utterly open, shamelessly, ridiculously open. And he could win this round, he really could, if he could just tear his eyes away from the wrong parts of her, if he could just goddamn look away

His body went to ridiculous lengths to get him out of the way. Steel flashed over his head and he went down, gracelessly, very much like a sack of bricks. Zelda came down with him, which he didn't understand until he realized she'd thought she had hurt him.

She stared down at him unblinking and pursed her lip, which was not enough to conceal the worry. "Goddess, that was a fall fit for… not a king. I hope your shin bones survived. Did they survive?"

His foil flashed from the ground to her sternum, and hers made an identical movement only a moment slower. The sun, directly overhead, framed her smile in a golden wispy spray as she knelt over him with her sword at his throat. "Twenty minutes ago, you never would have pulled a sneaky move like that! I am so proud."

He could barely formulate a response, floored by both her sword and the pressure of trying not to notice how easy it would be just to tilt his body and crane his neck up and –

"So am I," he said, squinting up into her face, proud of how steady and non-lecherous his voice sounded. "There are two ways this could have gone: either you could have followed my rules, or I could have followed yours… and since rules apparently don't exist where you come from – " She punctuated him with another demonic giggle that was in no way sympathetic, and he gave a disapproving sigh. "My teacher would roll in his grave if he saw me now… have I mentioned how there are no rules?"

"Rules aren't worth it." Zelda withdrew her sword and settled back on her heels, extending a hand to pull him up. The gap widened, and Marth's breath returned; they remained sitting, both still panting slightly. "They mean nothing… might even be handicaps."

She looked shrewdly into his eyes, as if peering at him over severe glasses, the wiry sinew of her fighting stance still relaxing back into her muscles. "For example… war. No rules there, are there?"

She was right – although it showed, probably more clearly than she'd intended, the attachment she still had to those seven years of her life. There was strategy in conflict, cunning and wisdom, but no rules to speak of. He'd already noticed it: how, when confronted with her fighting style, his body had thrown back three years, adopted the strategies of kill-or-be-killed that had kept him alive through the battlefields that had once been Altea's countryside. In those days he'd learned that the only way to get through it was to close your eyes and forget that the world you lived in had once been filled with civilized people, commanded by laws not to slaughter each other for power or control.

Not that fighting Zelda had been exactly like that. It was more like going wild in a market after forgetting that stealing was illegal.

"True enough," he said. "Rules make things predictable. I suppose the one who wins is the one who takes the other by surprise."

"Only reason I'm still sitting here," Zelda said with a sardonic chuckle.

"But Zel," Marth said, "the way I see it, that's exactly why we need them now, when there is no war." Zelda cocked her head, and he took it as an invitation. "On a battlefield, you're like an animal – and you have to be. Why would anyone choose to be predictable when it can get you killed? To follow rules of battle, engagement, whatever?"

"Still with you there."

"But what about when it's over?"

Her eyebrows went up in surprise. "What about it? Why go back to rules when the lack of them is the only thing that's ever done you any good?"

"Because they make war different from peace. Maybe not in such clear terms, but… to me, that feeling of lawlessness is something that happens when civilization fails. And when civilization succeeds, when people aren't killing each other for stupid reasons… rules are the only things that keep it that way." His eyes drifted to the belltowers of Altea in the distance. "It's probably why my people demanded a Parliament after the reconstruction. Laws provide stability after war takes it away."

He turned and smiled at her, hoping that looking at her would not, as it had been doing for the past day and a half, make him completely lose what he was about to say. "And I don't care if it sounds sad and pathetic. But it can help people like us forget the feeling of fighting. The… barbarism."

Zelda's pensive face burst into a very sad, but very understanding, smile, and she sat forwards with her knees drawn up, putting herself much, much closer and scrambling Marth's brains – probably unintentionally. "You know, I think I finally know where the difference is."

"What's that?"

"You want, one-hundred percent, to forget."

The surprise came too quickly for Marth to master it, so it showed fully on his face. Somehow, unnoticed amidst all the movement, his hand was on top of hers. "Yeah, I should think… a war is a war. People die, and it hurts."

"I want to forget too," she said softly, and Marth suddenly felt like an ass. "It was seven years of watching people I loved getting hurt, watching the place I swore to protect slowly being destroyed. I'd give anything for it to have never happened."

She looked down, her arms linked under her legs, drawing them up closer to herself in the involuntary gesture of a veteran remembering the ache of war. Marth's conscience began to hammer at his chest; if she was in pain remembering something she didn't want to remember, it told him, then it was his fault for bringing it up and he should be stabbed twice for every bad memory she experienced.

"War isn't just for suffering," Zelda said, and Marth managed to lift himself out of guilt long enough to match her gaze. She was looking at him with intensity now, her eyes bright with the calm after the storm. "It's a process. There are lessons in it. Just like it taught me to trust my instincts, and not the rules. It needed to teach Hyrule…" She searched in frustration for the words. "I don't know. Solidarity. What it's like to be Hyrulian, not just a bunch of people killing their neighbors for the land."

She was suddenly on her feet, her foil forgotten on the ground. Marth allowed her to pull him to his feet, letting his own weapon clatter to rest beside hers. "Remember last night, in town?" she asked quietly, her hands on his shoulders as she faced him towards the belltower they'd climbed yesterday. "I couldn't even describe what I felt, but… I ended up calling it connectedness, which is probably the closest the English language can get to it…"

She released his shoulders, coming up beside him and looking out towards the gentle slope of all Altea's buildings and towers. "Your entire country remembers what it was like to stand together. Even if they all try to forget the pain, they'll remember it anyway. They'll remember what it means to be countrymen."

This Zelda, Marth thought in wonder, was not world-weary Zelda, not bright and chipper Zelda who liked to talk trash, or Zelda glowing by candlelight. This was Zelda with ideals and expectations; she was romantic and passionate and utterly swept up in her ideas. Hearing her made him feel like a scholar, a student, a lover, all at once. This was the future queen of Hyrule, and he wondered if she knew it.

"That's a lesson my people need to learn," she murmured. "Without it, they'll forget that there are things bigger than Hyrule out there, and they'll start looking inwards for things to covet, for things to want and fight over. Remembering the Temporal War is the only thing that might be able to keep them together."

She looked down. "So I've got to think… when my entire country is in danger of forgetting it, doesn't it become my responsibility to remember?"

Confronted with the knowledge that all of Hyrule was apparently feverish and prone to amnesia, Marth opened and closed his mouth three times before finally deciding what question he wanted to ask. "Forgetting? Did I hear that right?"

Zelda's next look in his direction was devious and smiling with only traces of sadness, which sent relief through his gut. "You did."

He frowned. "I know you said it yesterday too, that no one in Hyrule actually remembers the war, but… I'm getting the feeling there's a lot I don't understand about this Temporal War."

Zelda threw back her head and laughed as if the thought of his head spinning trying to understand something called the 'Temporal War' was the funniest thing in the world. "Oh, Marth, don't think yourself in circles. It takes people a few weeks of solid reading on the subject to make sense of the whole ordeal… I'll give you a history lesson some time. After all, I am kind of a walking primary document."

"Can we wait till I have a pen and paper? I think a timeline might be beneficial. Visual learner, you know."

"Hope you know your timeline is going to look like a spiderweb," she grinned.

Zelda doubled back to face Altea castle, gazing up at its massive towers with a sigh as she laced her fingers, straight-armed behind her back. Keeping his eyes firmly on her face as she stretched and refusing to let them wander, Marth suspected that his peripheral vision was getting a lot of practice today.

"I wonder if I'll think differently once I have six-hundred-seventy-four-thousand square kilometers of my very own country to look after," she mused. "Maybe it's like having a baby, yeah? View's different from the other side of the rulership."

"I don't know about that… some days I still have fantasies of leaving my kingdom on some stranger's doorstep and just getting it over with."

Zelda's laugh was musical again, light and easy again, and she looked at him biting her lower lip, her eyes twinkling. Finally, she said, "This started out as us talking about fencing, didn't it?"

"Even better. This started out as us actually fencing."

"Oh yeah," she said with a grin, swooping down to pick up both foils and skirting out of reach before he could so much as squawk his protest. "Rules suck."

She swiped at him when he dove to retrieve his sword, and after repulsing him with a few double-handed slashes, spun on her heel and danced away. He realized a second later that her feet were close together, her body was at a jaunty angle and she had absolutely no interest in further sparring – or maybe she was just taking this no-rules thing to a whole new level. He couldn't afford to be tricked again.

"You know, I didn't hold back at all," she grinned, "not like with my nursemaid back home. And I figure you didn't either. So… thanks."

He found that the shyness of her smile, framed by the wispy remains of what had once been a smart-looking braid, suddenly meant something completely different to him. There was a certain magic in the moments between strangers at the beginning of a friendship, but it was nothing compared to feeling that perhaps he knew Zelda Harkinnian a tiny bit better than he had an hour ago.

"Holding back is for people I know I can beat. People clearly not you." He braced his back foot against the floor and saw her react immediately, tensing her arms and lowering her torso slightly. A moment sooner than he'd planned, he moved, reaching over her and towards the bellguard of his foil. She spun almost fully around and loosed an earsplitting shriek, tangling their arms in an effort to protect her property; they both dissolved into giggles long before she let him pry the weapon back from her.

Marth airslashed with his rescued weapon, only partly to show off the fact that he had finally gotten it back. "I still can't believe I shot my mouth off and told you I was going to beat you."

"Oh, there's still time," she teased. "I could be your nemesis, locked in stalemate till fortune favors the luckier… or, you know, the one who practices harder."

"You know, that may not be a bad idea, Zel. Once upon a time my nemesis was a giant black lizard who told me he lived in the evil place in my heart, but I think the position's open now."

"Well, I plan to live in the good place in your heart. Means I'll live longer."

Two more very short rounds whistled by, one point to each, before Zelda was willing to admit she was getting hungry. The sun had just fallen out of its late-afternoon position when Marth finally slid his foil into its sheathing belt, mopping his face with his sleeve and finger-combing his hair back from where it was beginning to stick to his face. "Kain's probably made up a list of errands as long as my leg by now."

"Ooh, my redheaded friend. What errands are those?"

"Letters, requests, whatever comes in," Marth explained. "He usually saves them for me when I'm off doing unkingly things. It's not his job, but he gets antsy when there's no information flow."

"Tell him he should look into hacking."

Marth turned towards the spires of the castle and cupped his hands over his mouth, calling into the wide expanse of shrubbery and marble walls that separated them from the castle grounds; the distant granite made it echo back to them. "Kain! I know you're there!"

Fastening her sheathing belt around her waist, Zelda looked first at the castle, and then back at Marth. It wasn't until she'd redone the laces on her boots that a returning call floated waveringly over the grounds. "Coming," it said.

Zelda's eyes widened. "Wow… he really was there. How did you know?"

"I didn't. I just do it anyway. If he's not there, then I feel silly for a few seconds, but if he is, then it looks like I'm psychic."

Kain's face resembled the color of his hair by the time they met him halfway. He bowed, which Marth found unsettling until he remembered that Zelda was a Hyrulian princess and Kain harbored a crippling fear of foreign royalty.

"Milord," he said, and Marth noted with pleasure that he obviously still hadn't figured out how his prince could somehow always sense his presence. He might have felt bad if he hadn't been quite so convinced that Kain had been crouching behind that shrubbery for the past hour to spy on him. "Milord, would you like the briefing now or at a later time?"

Looking sympathetically at the weird, stiff posture of his closest retainer, Marth decided it would be too complicated to just tell Kain right now that Zelda was the last person for whom he should try to dress up his speech. "Anything pressing?"

"Actually, Milord, you have a caller waiting back at the castle. A traveler arrived a half hour ago asking for an audience. I put him in the drawing room and told him you would return within the hour."

Zelda raised her eyebrows. "Seems like Altea castle is a popular stop for the weary wayfarer. People do this often?"

"Actually, they don't." Marth was having a hard time concealing his own puzzlement. Until Zelda had shown up so miraculously the day before, Altea castle had remained relatively bereft of impromptu visitors. Those who wished for an audience usually sent envoys in advance, arranged meetings in secrecy, sent carrier birds – any number of measures to avoid surprises. "Kain, did you ask what he wanted?"

He swore Kain's eyes flickered to Zelda for a split second before returning to him. His reply was guarded in a way that Marth hoped only he could recognize as subtly mistrustful. "He hails from the Kingdom of Hyrule. He claimed envoyship of King Harkinnian – not quite in those words, or at all as eloquently, but I managed to grasp his meaning. Eventually. He also recognized the crest on the bridle of Princess Hyrule's mount as I took him round to the stableboy entrance."

Marth could see the surprise turn to dread on Zelda's face. Her fears danced plainly over her eyes: here was a soldier sent to take her away, an agent of her father commanded to escort her back to Hyrule. He knew she was here, he'd seen Zelda's horse grazing in Altean stables, so she couldn't hide. It was painfully obvious now – he'd been so happy to see her that he hadn't questioned the legality of the sole Hyrulian heir appearing so suddenly, so alone. She would be punished for leaving the country without the permission of the King. Locked away in a tower, never to emerge again. Except into King Harkinnian's torturous social gatherings, which would realistically allow him to see her again, at least, once every two years –

"Marth," she said, her voice knotted with worry as she tried to smile. "I want you to know that if you're charged with kidnapping… I am going to be extremely torn up about it."

The joke only seemed to make her more nervous. Wars had been started over smaller things.

"Thanks for the charity, Zel," he said, unsure how well he was hiding it himself. "I guess we'd better go see what he wants. Lead the way, Kain."

...

A/N: Touchy-feely philosophical conjecturing 'R Us... less of that in the future. Also, to anyone coming here from an alert: the prior chapters have been modestly improved/rewritten. Also, give me a holler so I can apologize personally for being such a flake and never writing this story ever ^.^'