"But you have to go!"
"I sure as hell do not!"
"You do have to, as my sworn guard!"
Zelda stamped one foot and glared at Link. He glared back; it was a good thing they were somewhere private where they could argue in peace. He'd surely get in trouble for breaking protocol by shouting back and forth with her. Privately he enjoyed it, and he suspected she did, too.
Zelda folded her arms and pouted. "You knew that being my sworn protector would mean you would have to accompany me everywhere appropriate!"
Link frowned and looked away. He'd only taken the oath but two months hence, not long after they passed Link's eighteenth birthday; of course he remembered what he swore to do, and he'd done all of it. Except for this part. "I'm just… I'm not very comfortable goin' to such an event like that."
"Well, you absolutely must. A princess of marrying age is not to be going to a ball on her own! It's inappropriate! Not to mention that you're the closest knight to my age."
Link groaned and twisted his neck. What a dreadful inconvenience!
"Please?" Zelda asked nicely, folding her hands together. She smiled and looked at him sappily. He wondered if she knew how stupid it looked.
She smiled brightly. "Wonderful! As if you had a choice, though. We need to pick out a dress for the occasion, you know."
"I have to wear a dress?" Now he was doing it on purpose.
"Oh yes, a big frilly pink dress with high heel slippers and a white wig four feet high." She rolled her eyes at him. "Honestly, you're such an odd fish."
Link'd dubbed the day he'd returned to his ten-year-old self his birthday, as a way of being reborn to the proper path of Hyrule's timeline. The seven years he'd slept away, he explored them with a new fascination, literally. He did not return to Hyrule until after the seven years had ended, and the year leading up to his eighteenth birthday, he lived in the castle marketplace, keeping quiet in a tavern and doing small repairs around the place in exchange for room and board.
Zelda had largely stayed under her father's wing, starting her official studies of the court ways. But as her eighteenth birthday approached, only a few months before the day Link declared as his birthday, she started to worry who her father would select for a guard. Though the princess helped to look over the eligible men (essentially any man over his eighteenth year, preferably betrothed so that he would not be tempted into seducing the princess), it was ultimately the king's decision. She watched the official documents, of which hundreds were to be produced and deployed around the country, being hand-lettered by the kindly nuns that cared for one of the many temples. They did beautiful work, but all the same her heart twitched in worry; suppose her father picked some doddering old fool with blind eyes and a bad leg? Or what if he picked a naïve boy, only a man because of his age, with an eye for bedding royalty?
The line of men claiming eligibility stretched forever. In the actual hall, the line was bunched and curved, divided by satin woven ropes strung across poles, but still they stretched out the door. The king had worked on a list of hurdles for the men to jump, and he shouted them at twenty-minute intervals, one after the other.
"Men who are not of noble birth are not to be eligible!"
Very few left, as very few men of common birth could actually read the declarations.
"Men who are not of eighteen years of age are not to be eligible!"
This caused a wider disparity.
"Men who are fathers or soon to be are not to be eligible!"
An even wider one now; the king had little respect for any man who tried to abandon his family for a position inside the royal family, especially with children on the way. It was a secret sore spot of his, as wars had kept him from his darling daughter for much of her childhood.
By the time Link actually got into the door, he should have been disqualified several times over, the rules shouted into the castle market by the town criers. He dressed in the very best clothes he could get on loan from the tavern; they were ill-fitting, the pants too long and the coat too wide. But he did the best he could with the aid of belts and knee-high boots, and took care to scrub his skin clean, shave his chin (though a few bites from the blade peppered his jaw) and comb his hair.
There were still hundreds of men, but the king had many more stipulations. Link failed many more of them, but he stayed where he was. It was a stupid choice, he knew, but he was foolishly brave. A scribe, hovering at the elbow of the king, wrote down each man's name, title, age, and birth date. Their numbers would be crossed against Zelda's own, to ensure a good fit on the number chart.
She hid a yawn behind her fan as the endless parade of men walked up to the stairs leading to the throne, bowed, and gave the requested information. Old men, cocky young men who winked at her (them she 'smiled' at, but it was an act of baring teeth, a threat, something they did not recognize), and a few children who joined the line out of innocence. They were met with warm smiles and treated as equals, but their numbers were not written down, so as to dispel later confusion.
When Link stepped up, Zelda's breath caught in her throat. "You," she whispered. She hadn't heard from him again, not so much as a letter. She figured he'd left Hyrule for good. But she knew him instantly. Link locked eyes with Zelda before the king, his hands respectfully behind his back, and he nodded once in her direction.
"Your name," the king asked.
Link started. "Uhhh…"
The scribe sighed. Great, another lovestruck worshipper of Zelda's beauty. There were a few of them in the line, and each time they launched into a lengthy diatribe about how they were perfect for Zelda because of their utter love and devotion to her, until they were finally dragged out by a guard.
"It's Link, Your Majesty." There, he remembered.
Well damn it all, another hurdle to jump. "Link… Tolrose. Of… Northern Hyrule."
The majesty raised his eyes. "Tolrose? I have not heard that surname before."
Probably because Link had made it up entirely on the spot.
"We are a small family, sir, no more than a… uh…" Link's eyes flickered to Zelda, and she raised her eyebrows. How the hell was she to help him? It was his story he was making up. "A small viscounty, owned by my father."
The king nodded. "And you are of eighteen years of age?"
"Yes, Your Majesty." A lie.
"No, Your Majesty." The truth. The king frowned some, but having an unpromised guard to the future queen had been tolerated before with no problems.
"When is your birthdate?"
He told them, and it was written down quickly. The date made Zelda's ears ring, and she locked eyes again with Link. They knew the significance of that day.
"Very well," the king gestured with one hand, and Link bowed, walking away, his heart pounding. Zelda had… grown a great deal. He'd already seen her as an adult, so to see her now should not have surprised him. But mayhap those seven years of wandering had dulled his memories of her, so that he could not recall her exact shape.
Zelda stared after Link, her heart having skipped every time when they locked eyes in recognition. "Father," she spoke softly, hoping to not be overheard, "I've chosen him."
The king looked round at his daughter. "Oh? Well, we'll put a note by his name. Keep in mind he is not the final decision, dear daughter."
"Yes, yes, I know." She was a bit impertinent with him, but he assumed it was her agitation at the long line, and she did not notice her rudeness, distracted.
The weeding took two months to complete. In that time, Zelda had turned eighteen, and now it was coming down to the wire. They had narrowed it down to ten men, and Zelda had used all of her resources (as in, an extensive knowledge of court gossip through her ladies-in-waiting and the maids around the castle) to shoot down every choice but Link. She would win this one, no matter the cost.
Link's numbers when run against hers lined up almost perfectly for a good match. But he wasn't the only one with that 'birth' date. However, he was one of the few whose name made an excellent match as well. He was surprised when he received the castle summons to return for the final decision, and the lady who ran the tavern pouted and hugged him tight, declaring she would miss him terribly. Link would not miss mending the waste pit door.
Zelda employed every rumor she had against the men. Each name her father brought up, to see what she thought of them, she replied with scuttlebutt.
"I heard he has a mistress who he impregnated and refuses to marry."
"He is thought to not care much for women."
"There is a rumor he cannot hold his alcohol very well, and imbibes incessantly."
And so on. She felt dirty doing it, but she was in a frenzy to have Link close again, someone she could recognize and relate to.
The king sighed and looked at her over his glasses. "And this… Link Tolrose."
Zelda thought for a few minutes, biting her lower lip. "To be honest, I have not heard much of him. He is soft-spoken, to be sure, but… his family is a new money situation; they're very small yet. But he has a few older brothers, so it is not as if he will be missed from their lineage."
She would have to tell him this all at some point later, to keep up the lie.
The king shook his head; Zelda had gotten her way, as was expected. "I suppose that leaves me with only one decision."
Link's mouth gaped open when he was announced as her guard. He didn't actually expect for his plan to work; and that it had was a blessing. He closed it right quick again, catching Zelda's eye. She smiled.
In a fortnight, he was moved into the castle (what belongings?) and he took the oath to protect the princess in her entirety from all manner of swords (it was an ancient oath, wrapped in flowery language, but the undertones of protecting her virtue were not unknown). He was given clothes of such finery that he did not even know that such fabrics existed; thickly woven satins, light airy cotton shirts, heavy leather boots and belts. It was beyond the best clothes he'd ever had.
The guards taught him some of the basics of sword-fighting, not that he cared, as he had it all down pat. It was not like his travels were spent floating around at the beach near Lake Hylia; he actually learned some things, too.
But someone forgot to mention that balls were a required part of a princess' heritage. Link could not dance.
He followed Zelda around the racks of bolts of fine cloth, heavy damask silks hand-embroidered with intricate patterns of gold against cream, shades of blue, rose and pink, even a few odd ones like mint with pink or yellow with brown. His feet were already sore, and she'd been waffling for over an hour about whether or not the red would bring out her pink undertones more, or the blue would be better for her eyes.
Though he'd thought about storming off once or twice, Link was still under very strict observation, and would be for another four or so months. Even now, he could sense the guards watching him around the walls of the massive fabric shop. He was just to guard Zelda, they were just to guard him. She stopped in front of a deep purple brocade with a biased weave, creating a swirling filigree pattern through the fabric. Link thought it was hideous, and shuddered when he remembered he'd have to wear a matching outfit.
"Zelda," he whispered, leaning close.
"You have to call me 'Your Highness', Link," she replied in just as low of a whisper.
"Your Highness," he whispered, a little louder. "That purple is the ugliest damned thing I've ever seen."
Zelda giggled and put one hand to her mouth, trying to hide from the curious and worried fabricians. "It is pretty bad, isn't it," she murmured back to him.
"I liked the green," he added. "The dark one with the gold trim."
"You always wear green."
"It's my favorite color."
"Well it's not mine."
They looked around and stepped apart a little, as the guards were becoming very interested in their argument. After all, what good was a guard for the princess if they couldn't even talk?
Link sighed and looked around, spying another one he thought was nice. "What about the blue?"
She turned and looked as well. "It's a wintery blue."
"But you were thinking about blue."
"Yes, but the blue I'm thinking about is a light, spring blue. That is an ice blue."
Link raised an eyebrow. What the hell was the difference?
He wandered, but not too far, barely a meter away from her. She was chewing her thumbnail as she walked along the rows. The entire shop was dead silent, the fabricians holding their breath. Though Zelda and her father were known for their benevolence, they worried all the same about appeasing the royalty.
Link closed his eyes and grabbed a bolt at random. The fabric was silky and rough under his hand, and when he opened them again he found he'd grabbed a deep blue brocade, with an alternating weave creating a subtle pattern of thin stripes. "Hey Z… uh, Your Highness, what do you think of this fabric?"
She turned and looked it over. "Ooh." Right away, as she got close, he could see how it brought out her eyes. "It's a little dark, but muted against a cream with a similar pattern might not be too bad…" She turned to seek out one of the fabricians.
One rushed over when she noticed, bowing. "Have you found a style that appeals to you?"
"Yes, this blue. Do you have a cream with a similar…?"
"Yes, Your Highness." The fabrician took the bolt from her hands and bowed.
A second one approached them, wearing a flexible measuring tape around her shoulders. "Please, come with me for the fitting."
Link watched as the collection of guards around them followed along, like an entourage. Zelda was led first behind a curtain into a large room.
"Are those the underpinnings you will be wearing?" the measuring woman asked.
"Yes," Zelda replied. There was the rustle of fabric, Link standing with his back to the cloth partition, the other guards standing in a half circle around it.
One of them smirked at Link. "You're not gonna go in there with her?"
The others made quiet snickering noises.
"It's inappropriate, ain't it?" Link shifted nervously. Was he supposed to go in there with her? He knew he wasn't supposed to be in her chambers or to follow her into the washroom, but this was sort of in between, wasn't it?
The guards shrugged, grinning at each other. "You took the oath, not us."
Link hesitated, though he did shift nervously from foot to foot, weighing it out. If he didn't go in, he would defend himself that he was unsure if it was appropriate. But finally, Zelda emerged from the back room, dressed again.
"It's your turn, sir," the measuring woman spoke, tugging on Link's sleeve. Link followed her in. The room had a wide, open space with a small pedestal, just big enough to stand on. Around the edges was a collection of dress mannequins and half-used bolts of fabric with labels written on yellowed paper, names and dates and sizes and styles.
The woman measured him quickly over his clothes, around the waist and chest, down the outside of his leg, his arms, his shoulders, around his neck, even his inseam, giving him a little bump and muttering, with a blush, "excuse me, sir!"
She shooed him off as quickly as she'd measured, and Link nearly bumped into Zelda as he pulled aside the curtain and walked out. "Agh, sorry." He stepped to one side, gesturing for her to move on ahead, careful not to touch her. He didn't want it to seem like they were… intimate. Connected, somehow (even though they were, in ways that the guards wouldn't understand and write off as religious haberdashery).
Zelda smiled quickly at Link and looked around at the guards, who tried to keep a semi-serious disposition. "Well, gentlemen, shall we return to the castle?" They snapped to attention behind the princess and her escort, the fabricians thanking her profusely for her visit to their shop and bowing.
Zelda tilted her head close to Link, muttering to him under her breath. "I want to lose the puppets, don't you?"
"Yes," was his eager reply. He was sick of having to hold himself so tense every second around Zelda, and they hadn't had a chance to talk about the last seven or so years once.
She smiled. "We'll think of something." Zelda added a wink, and for a solitary second, Link thought of grabbing her and kissing her. He moved away a half-step to the side, and kept his hands behind his back, his sword clanking at his hip. Being her guard would be more trouble than he thought.
Link looked around as they sat down to dinner. Even though they'd been dining in the same place for a few months, it still gave him the chills to look around it, to still see it as a ruin of charred stone and demonic creatures prowling around. He looked at Zelda and wondered how she could stand it; maybe because she had stronger memories of the proper castle interior, having lived here for so long. His place was on Zelda's right side, but because of the limited space he sat at the corner, so he wasn't right next to her. But at least this way, he could see her face easier without having to be right next to her. The king sat on the other side of Zelda, and Link could see his face just as easily. He contented himself by spooning up some of the soup, the first course set before them.
"So now, Guard Tolrose." Link stared when he realized the king was talking to him, having forgotten, for a minute, his 'last name'.
"Ah, yes, Your Majesty?"
"How did your father become a viscount?"
Oh shit. Link glanced quickly at Zelda, his soup spoon frozen an inch above the bowl. "Uh, well, he worked very hard, Your Majesty, saving up the money over some time to buy an estate. Along with that and uh, my… grandfather's death, he collected a great sum of money, and he was able to purchase a small area of land and build a house upon it."
"And you have how many brothers?"
Link looked again at Zelda; the king was not looking at him, but at his bowl of soup, still able to listen as he ate. Zelda surreptitiously lifted three of the fingers around her soup spoon, careful not to drop it.
"I have three, Your Majesty. All married, of which I am the youngest. My oldest brother has already been selected to take over the viscounty."
The king nodded. "Very good." He seemed satisfied with this shortened interrogation, and Link resumed eating, Zelda having nodded and smiled at him.
The worst part about court life, he was finding, was keeping up with the lies he made up; even though they weren't a stretch. People always looked at him funny; no one had heard of a Viscount Tolrose. But at the same time, they were almost as low as society could go, as well as new money; so what did they mind? The family would take time to come to court. Women expressed interest in him with their eyes; he was fresh blood in the court. Link chattered with them only a little, he was uncomfortable around them. There was an undertone to their conversation that wasn't entirely innocent.
As he was constantly at Zelda's side, she was privy to all the same conversations. She kept up laughter with the not so innocent questions, feigning complete lack of interest in what or who Link did once she was married off. But in the end, she cut the conversations short with a dismissive turn of her head, walking away to join another discussion, between older men of the court, retired war generals, who spoke of the glory days of their command. Link never really noticed how cold this was; he figured that was how conversation went.
As the ball drew closer, Link found they were left with fewer guards, until there was only one. The one guard was bored, and frequently ignored them to read a book; a smutty sex book tucked carefully inside of a historical study of war strategem. He followed them at a lacksidasical rate as they spent one day wandering the maze-like gardens around the castle.
Zelda looked back, walking only a few steps ahead of Link. They'd rounded a corner, and it seemed that their chaperone had no great interest in following. Zelda put a finger to her lips to keep Link quiet and ducked down, pulling him with her by the hand and tugging him along, creeping through the maze to the next clearing.
It was a wide circular space, with radial paths off into the maze surrounding them. They settled down on one of the hard stone benches set in a circle in the center of the space. "Finally!" she sighed with relief. "Now; I haven't seen you in over seven years. Tell me what has happened to you in that time." Zelda combed some of her hair out of her face and smiled at Link, eager to listen.
Link scooted back a little ways to look into her face, trying to think of where he should begin. "Well… I explored outside of Hyrule, mostly. Termina and such. I headed further south to the other countries for a year, um…" The version of his stories he gave her were sanitized; the real accounts of slaying enormous beasts trying to ruin entire countries were the sort he kept around for free drinks at the local bars. As long as someone was buying, he had a story to tell, and it always worked.
"But you, what about you?"
Zelda tilted her head to one side. "Well, here at the castle, it was as if Ganondorf suddenly went missing. He could not be found. After a month he was finally declared legally deceased, and Father had to choose a new ambassador. He actually ended up selecting Nabooru, which I think was something she was very proud of. And it has worked out remarkably well. I am very comforted by the sight of my people having good lives, and never knowing of the horrors that almost befell them." She grew stoic, thinking about it, and Link thought of leaning forward and kissing her mouth, to see what she would do.
Instead, he looked back and saw their chaperone huffing his way towards them, having suddenly realized the two had snuck off. He looked much relieved to find that they were sitting some distance apart and still fully clothed. Zelda stood abruptly from the bench, forcing Link to stand as well. "I think it is time for tea, don't you, gentlemen?"
"Yes, Your Highness," they both answered, a beat slow. Zelda led them back into the castle, her nose in the air.
Link would take his tea in his own rooms, as a break from being around the princess for so long. He wanted to think, anyway. Gain better control over himself; he just missed her, was all. He was just glad to see someone that he knew. Any action he took would be inappropriate.
Zelda sat with the windows wide open to her tower room, sipping her tea a little at a time, staring out into the blue sky. Never had she been so happy that she was relatively spoiled by her father; she knew she was going to have Link back at her side the second she saw him. Just knowing that he was still out there, that he was back, safe and sound inside of the castle, made her rest easier at night. At night…
Well. He wasn't permitted into her rooms. But he was the one who walked her to her rooms at the end of the night, bowing to her stiffly and wishing her a good rest. And a few times, she'd caught an unfamiliar gaze in his eyes, a look of longing. She abruptly clanked her teacup down, breathing in sharply.
Link was becoming affectionate of her! She was sure of it! She blushed, feeling flattered, but then the reality of the situation swung in. If he was caught trying to make a move on her, he could lose his position, and even his head, depending on how misinterpreted it was. She gathered paper and a quill from her writing desk, quickly scratching out a note to be sent to him.
It was a simple note, a notice that she wished to take lunch outside in the gardens tomorrow, and would he be so kind as to attend to her? She folded it up and sealed it, writing his name in a flowing script on the opposite side. After a moment's hesitation, she added his 'last name'. They had better start acting as if it was real.