The junior ambassador from Termina was lost. Again.
After two months of wandering through the castle grounds he thought that he would have learned his way around. But honestly, who in their right mind would build a hedge maze this confusing? What was the purpose of a hedge maze anyway?
And why did he continue to enter the gardens when he had not once managed to traverse them alone?
The answer to that was pretty simple. It was because he was an idiot.
"Great job, Chrisven," he muttered. "You can spend the time it takes you to get out to think up yet another way to embarrass yourself today. If you just put your mind to it you could top your performance this morning."
He sighed and ran a frustrated hand through his hair to finally destroy the little that remained of the styling. His mentor, the senior ambassador, had spent a full, tedious half hour with a fine toothed comb and a jar of pomade to make him look just so, just right, just the man the princess would want to see. The picture of perfection had been so fleeting that Chrisven hadn't even made it to his audience with Zelda before he began to revert to his previous state.
Like a carriage turning back into a pumpkin.
The memory made his face flush and he wished that there was a wall nearby so he could bang his head against it until he suffered minor brain damage and forgot most of the things he had done over the last several weeks. But alas, this brought him back to his current problem where he could see nothing but hedges.
Zelda had told him after rescuing him from one of his previous adventures into the maze that if he put his hand on the hedge to his right and kept walking, following the wall around corners, without removing his hand, no matter what, he would eventually come to an exit. So he stuck out his hand and started to walk, his palm brushing over prickling greenery, his mind days away.
He had often met the princess here. It was always completely by accident. At least that's what he told himself. He liked to walk while he thought, and she liked to walk while she thought, and they both liked to think a fair bit. So they would find each other in the gardens and do their walking and thinking together.
It was completely on accident, but lately those accidents had become more and more frequent and more and more regular. Just like his thoughts of her.
He had gotten lost in the maze on his second day in Hyrule and had been drawn from his increasingly frenzied escape attempts by her call.
He turned to see her standing in all her perfect glory, and he was struck stupid by the fact that Princess Zelda of Hyrule was the most magnificently beautiful creature he had ever seen. He had, of course, heard stories and rumors and reports about her. He had even seen a few pictographs. But he had found himself wholly unprepared for the genuine interest and intelligence in her eyes and the gentle kindness in her smile. Her face was so lovely and pale that her features seemed almost blurred, as though the goddesses had created her in their own image.
"Are you lost?"
She smiled at him and approached.
"Would you like a tour?"
"I… yes, but… I'm sure you're very busy."
"Oh, yes. I am quite occupied welcoming our foreign guests and ensuring that they do not succumb to starvation because our dining hall is so difficult to locate."
He blinked at her. "You're making fun of me."
"Only a little." They fell into step side by side, and she led him through the maze as easily as breathing.
He followed her with the ease of a man born to track her footsteps.
"You put up with my teasing well," she said.
"I'm used to people teasing me."
"Really? No. You must be exaggerating."
"I'm not. But it's nice of you to assume that."
She had smiled at him, slipped her hand into the crock of his arm, and he felt a warmth spread within his chest.
The wolf following them had growled.
The wolf was just as striking as the princess, but in an entirely different way. It was by far the most terrifying beast Chrisven had ever laid eyes upon, its paws as wide as his outstretched hand, its black fur raised in angry hackles along its back. Its startling blue eyes held an obvious threat as they stared him down, clawing into his soul. Its sneering lip and wrinkled nose framed its horrible teeth, and a low growl echoed through its deep chest.
These two images – the ethereal young woman and the monster ripped from the jaws of hell - were both so monumental and yet so opposed that when they would appear simultaneously Chrisven's brain could not determine to which he should give his attention. He could only stare, wide eyed and confused. He would open his mouth to speak, only to find that his lips were too dry and his throat too constricted to form words.
This seemed an appropriate response to both of the unearthly creatures, and they both looked slightly pleased with his reactions.
The wolf was always by her side. It lay at her feet when she worked at her desk. It sat at her side at meetings and glared at the attending nobles. It followed at her heel wherever she tread.
And it did not like Chrisven.
Not that it liked anyone really. But Chrisven felt that the wolf held a particular distaste for him.
"You're being paranoid," the senior ambassador chided. "I'm sure that the guards stationed in every hallway are much more efficient at gutting you than that guard dog. Man up, boy."
So he tried to find his courage, and he attempted to ignore the wolf whenever he possibly could. Which wasn't very often. As much as he tried to shrug it off, the way the wolf's eyes never seemed to move from his jugular made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. It was like he was being hunted.
"I've no idea how he got onto the castle grounds, but one day we just found him standing there, right in the middle of the garden."
The guard seemed delighted to tell Chrisven everything he knew about the wolf. It was as though he'd been pinning away for someone to ask. He'd been waiting for someone who hadn't already heard his story four times over, and he'd embarked on the tale enthusiastically over a pint of stale ale.
"He was mangy looking. His fur all matted with mud and blood and filth. Sweet Nayru, the smell! Like wet dog and rotten meat. He was damned skinny. Could see his ribs and everything. And he was hurt pretty bad. Had some rough times I guess. It was the winter after the Twilight had lifted, and – I don't know if you remember – but it was one of the coldest, bleakest winters I've lived through.
"I was one of the guards that got to him first. He was growling and snarling. Foaming at the mouth. He leaps up at me and knocks me to the ground and snaps my spear in half and then he jumped at Burton and disarmed him and clawed him up something fierce. He fought like a rabid monster – ready to kill every one of us - but we got him surrounded. We got him pinned. And I was just about to charge him when the Princess runs up yelling.
"She's shouting 'Stand down! Stop all this nonsense! For heaven sakes stand down!' And I'm not gonna lie, we all thought she was crazy. But she pushes past me and walks right up to him, kinda slow like, saying, 'Shhh, it's all right. You're safe.' Like I said, we thought she was nuts and I just knew that any minute he was going to jump at her and rip out her throat, and you know all the blame for that would be on my head. But he just looks at her with those odd blue eyes, and then he stops his growling, drops his tail between his legs, and collapses. Right there in the middle of the court yard.
"The story is that she was so beautiful that it tamed him right then and there. Love at first sight or something. But I think it's more likely that she used her magic to put him to sleep and brain wash him. And then I think it's even more likely that he was so injured and hungry and cold that he just couldn't stand up any more and it was just coincidence that that's the moment she showed up.
"So the Princess, she starts ordering us to bring her bandages and hot water and such, and she kneels down next to him and starts petting him. Petting him! Like he's a dog. Well, we brought her everything she asked for and she cleaned him up and brushed him and fed him all herself. She nursed him back to health the same way my mum used to do. And I guess he felt grateful or something – I don't know – because he never left and now he follows her around acting like her own personal guard.
"It's weird. Unnatural. When she first started talking to him like a person, well we all thought she was cracking up. But now I know better. He understands. I've seen it with my own two eyes. He follows her orders to the letter unless he improves on whatever it was she told him to do. And sometimes when she asks him things, my hand to Naryu, he answers her."
There was something eerie about it. The more Chrisven thought about it, the more he suspected that it was true. The wolf could understand him. And the wolf didn't like what it heard.
The senior ambassador had snorted and declared that the whole story was a "load of old washing." But Chrisven wasn't sure.
Over the last week, the thought of being murdered in his sleep by a great, hairy dog was pushed aside by something even more nagging: being murdered in his sleep by a man.
Most monsters look like men.
The first inkling of doubt had crawled into his head the day Zelda had led him to see the blooming cherry blossoms.
"Aren't they lovely?" she sighed.
The response of "not as lovely as you," rolled to the tip of his tongue before he realized how stupid it sounded and stopped himself by having a coughing fit. He selected a blossom with great care, then gently plucked it down, and placed it in Zelda's cupped hand. When his fingers brushed hers and her eyes met his and they were so full of joy that time seemed to stand still, he decided that speaking would only ruin the moment.
Instead, the moment was ruined by a deep bark from behind them to announce the arrival of the minister of finance. Zelda turned away, and Chrisven took a quick step back, shoving his hands in his pockets.
The wolf produced the most disapproving look that a canine could muster.
When the princess excused herself to deal with the minister, Chrisven was left alone to circle the cherry blossoms, keeping the portico within sight. Soon he decided that he really shouldn't press his luck and headed back towards the castle.
That's when he heard them.
The man's voice was low and gravely. It sounded dangerous. It sounded dark. It sounded as if it hadn't been used in years.
"What is that?"
"What?" Zelda asked.
"It's a cherry blossom." Maybe it was his imagination, but her voice sounded as though she was smiling when she answered.
The man snorted. "Did Termina Jr. give it to you?"
Chrisven bristled. How dare this stranger talk about him like that! It was an outrage.
"Ambassador Dotour gave it to me. Yes."
"If he writes you a sonnet I'm going to vomit on him."
The princess sounded unconcerned. "Threats of embarrassment rather than dismemberment? You're either growing up or spending far too much time eating grass."
"I don't want to upset you with all the gore that'd be involved in dismemberment."
"I think you'd like him if you gave him a chance."
"No way in hell, princess."
"How can you be so irritable on such a beautiful day?"
"Don't make me vomit on you too."
She laughed and headed out of the portico, back towards the flowering trees, followed closely by the wolf.
The encounter in itself wasn't that strange, but when he heard the man again yesterday evening it truly bothered him.
He'd been feeling anxious, and the senior ambassador was being terribly unhelpful. So he had gone to see Zelda in her sitting room.
He was brought up short by the sound of that same mysterious man's voice from within.
"– and you bat your eyelashes and giggle like a school girl. I didn't think you had it in you. Are you feeling ill?"
"Jealousy doesn't become you," she said. Chrisven had never heard the princess' voice hold so much venom. It took him by surprise nearly as much as the man's blatant hatred.
"Jealous?" The man snorted. "You flatter yourself, princess. I'm just disgusted that you would be impressed with such juvenile attentions."
Who was this man to treat the princess with such little respect? And how dare he speak so unkindly about him! They had never even met! And what was he doing alone in the princess's chambers? Chrisven was indignant, and didn't even consider the fact that he had intended to visit the princess's chambers himself.
He was suddenly glad that the wolf was with her to protect her from this wretched man.
"He picked you a flower from your own garden! He didn't even go out and get you something unusual. I would have fought through a mess of bulblins and then brought you an orchid everyone thought was extinct."
"Everything comes down to fighting monsters with you, doesn't it?"
"Yes. And most monsters look like men. I don't like him."
"You don't like anyone."
"He's not good enough for you."
"I think that's my decision."
The man growled in exasperation.
"You had better get used to the idea," she said. "You'll be seeing an awful lot of him."
"I'm not going to hang around here and have my stomach turned by your disgusting displays of inane affection."
"Oh really?" She gave a mirthless laugh, one that chilled Chrisven to the core. "Where will you go? Back to hunting rabbits in the woods? Back to herding goats?"
"It's easier to herd goats than keep tabs on your idiot suitors."
"Maybe I will!"
A heavy silence covered the room. Chrisven barely dared to breathe.
The man finally spoke in what sounded almost like a plea. "He can't protect you."
"He doesn't have to."
"Right. Because that's my job, isn't it? Follow you around like some lost puppy and obey your every whim while you ignore my advice and treat me like some kind of pet."
"That's not true."
"It will be. I can feel it coming."
The princess took a deep breath. "I remind you that you chose this life. You chose to embrace your base instincts to escape the memories that haunt you, to escape your loneliness. You are free to change your mind at any time."
The man scoffed.
"I also remind you that you came here because I am the only one who understands you, as you are the only one who truly knows how I feel. I need you, not just as my loyal follower... And you need me."
"But I don't need this."
Heavy footsteps stalked toward the door.
Not wanting to be caught eavesdropping, Chrisven quickly knocked.
The footsteps stopped.
"Who is it?" the princess asked.
"Lord Dotour, your majesty."
The door opened and the wolf slid out as soon as he could fit his head through the opening. The creature slunk past Chrisven and down the stairs, probably to attend to its personal needs in the garden.
The princess greeted him with a brilliant smile, her face and voice revealing no trace of her recent argument.
"Lord Dotour, it is a pleasure. Won't you come in?"
He was surprised to find no sign of the mysterious man. He looked around carefully in an attempt to find him hiding behind a piece of furniture or drapery. But then again, the doors to the balcony were open and the man could have escaped that way, or he could be behind the closed doors to the princess's bed chambers. This idea filled Chrisven with indignant anger.
"Are you alright, your majesty? I heard raised voices."
She laughed. "Oh that. It's actually a bit embarrassing. I was practicing a speech I must give in three days time."
Chrisven decided he didn't like how easily she lied, but he didn't press the subject as she gestured to an arm chair and draped herself across a sofa. Her skirts fell as if they'd been arranged by three hand maids, her cheek resting easily in her hand, her face so tranquil as she smiled at him that he thought he must be going mad.
"Are you anxious about your presentation tomorrow?"
He swallowed, feeling the tips of his ears turn red. "I- well-"
She leaned forward ever so slightly, her smile growing into something mischievous if not still quiet and subtle. "If I were you, I believe I'd be mortified. However, I am not you, and am therefore immensely excited."
"You- What? Really?" His head was spinning far too fast. The man and the princess and the horrible trial ahead of him. He wasn't ready for any of it.
She laughed, a soft thing that he now suspected might be rehearsed. Or did her mood change just from his company?
He felt ill.
"Ambassador, you look green with worry. Let me distract you for a time so you won't have to think about it."
His shoulders sagged. Maybe she had a point. Conspiracy theories and worse case scenarios would drain him to the point of exhaustion.
So they talked for a time. Mostly she spoke, tales of life in the castle and life after the Twilight, and he listened, searching for the streak of malice he knew she possessed, searching for a sign that she despised him in every gesture of her wrist.
Eventually the wolf slipped in again, slinking as much as such a great, barreling beast could slink. It avoided her eyes as it sat in front of the princess, its head bowed and shoulders slumped.
She considered it a moment, before reaching out to scratch behind the wolf's ears, her thin, practiced fingers running through his fur. The beast huffed, like a wet, stinking sigh, and flopped to the floor in front of her, exhausted.
Chrisven took his leave then, knowing she was safe in the company of her guard. Somehow that knowledge did not completely put his mind at ease.
"Good luck tomorrow, Chrisven," she murmured, leaning in slightly to press her lips to his cheek. They were cold like someone who had known Twilight, and made his chest simultaneously fly and twist.
He glanced back at the wolf as he left. It didn't bother to growl at him, and seemed to sink further into the floor. As if defeated.
He took that as a very bad sign indeed.
He went to bed, praying to the goddesses for the beast to keep her safe and well, thanking them for the wolf's presence at her side. If she was in trouble, if she was being manipulated or threatened, the wolf could surely – surely - set it right. If she was in danger, it could protect her.
And sometime in his restless night, thoughts rose from the fog of half dreams, thoughts that whispered and wondered if the beast could protect the princess from herself. If it would protect others against her, should she ever lose her way.
Would it protect Chrisven, alone and confused in a foreign land?
Was there really a need, or was this a fever dream borne of stress?
He remembered her soft smile, the way she saved him from the hedge maze, the way she joked quietly, the way he loved her, how happy they had both been when his simple trade negotiations turn to something more, when his stay in Hyrule was extended. And with such images as company, he fell into an uneasy sleep.
He fumbled through his presentation about the many benefits of an alliance between their countries, moving his hand to run it through his hair, then remembering half way through the motion that he would only mess it up. He bumped into the table and once went so far as to mispronounce the name of his homeland. The senior ambassador cringed through the entire presentation, nodding his head enthusiastically, as if that could encourage his protege to find his feet and collect the pieces of his deteriorating speech.
Zelda watched him from her throne, the smallest of statuesque smiles on her face. Chrisven couldn't tell if she was laughing at his incompetence or if she found his misfortunes endearing.
He pushed on, awkwardly presenting her with the gift they had rushed from Termina to give to her, an offering of peace, support, and unity. A sun mask that his great grandfather had crafted. Looking at it in the moment, it seemed a very meager gift. Maybe they should have offered an army as well.
Then he'd asked her to marry him.
It came out sounding simple and pathetic. He should have thought of something better, something grander. Something heroic.
But that was the best he had, and now he was once again lost in the hedge maze as the princess and her council made their decision.
His hand grew numb from its constant brushing against the hedges, sharp leaves biting into his palm. Left turn. Right turn. Right turn. How had he gotten in so far over his head?
He made the corner and stopped, staring at the wolf that sat in the middle of the path, staring. It seemed to be waiting for him, but its sustained boredom at his arrival did not support that theory. Everyone said that the wolf could smell fear. Chrisven certainly believed it, and even if it couldn't, the man's fear was prominent enough from other signs.
At the moment the wolf didn't seem to care, and stood without preamble to turn and lope away. Breathing a half curse under his breath, Chrisven hurried after it, nearly jogging to keep up through turn after turn after twist after turn.
The wolf sped further and further ahead, never looking as though it was exerting itself, just disappearing behind the next hedge as Chrisven turned the corner in some attempt to lose the man in the hedge maze forever or some kind of passive aggressive show of irritation.
And then he turned a corner and the wolf was gone. A row bounded by greenery faced him without any sign of life or movement, without any sign that the wolf had ever been there or he was anywhere near the castle. Panic crept up into his chest and he dashed forward, frantic to catch sight of his guide, causing the bushes to shake and leaves to fall as he brushed them with his shoulder, dashing around corners.
And the maze opened. Appearing from no where, the side facade of the castle greeted him in all its unchanged glory. The wolf sat on the steps of the portico, waiting once again, its fur now tinged a sickly green in the sunlight. It showed no signs of strain even as Chrisven huffed and stalked forward.
"Did she send you to find me?"
The wolf did not respond.
He sighed, running a hand over his face and into his hair. "I wasn't very impressive this morning," he admitted.
The wolf agreed with him by not being impressed with him in the moment either.
"Yeah. And I guess I'll be leaving soon. You'll like that, won't you?"
It didn't seem to care one way or another.
Chrisven nodded, then exhaled, letting out all the fears and stress and nagging suspicions that had built within him, replacing it all with acceptance of the inevitable and trust in the goddesses' plan.
"When I leave you'll keep looking after her. Won't you? You'll keep her safe? I- I care about her, and if I can't be here..."
The wolf's eyes narrowed slightly, it's ears twitching as if it was listening. No. It was listening. It was interested.
"She deserves better than me," he admitted, letting his shoulders slump. "I know that. Look at me. I'm just a minor diplomat from a tiny country. I don't deserve someone like the princess. I just thought... maybe I could help her for a while. You know?"
The wolf blinked at him, tilting its head slightly to the side in inspection, judging if the man was lying. Ever so slowly the beast rose, moving forward with nearly as much hesitancy as Chrisven felt himself.
He held still, fighting back the urge to jump away, to protect himself. He swallowed down the fear as the wolf eased its nose into his hand.
For a second they stared at one another, then with a bravery greater than he had ever known, Chrisven dragged his hand forward to stroke the beast's forehead, slowly digging his fingers into the thick fur between its ears.
"Good boy," he murmured. "Good dog."
In a painful leap of faith in the goddesses' plan, faith in Zelda's decisions, the wolf closed his eyes, surrendered to his fate, and bowed his head to the next king of Hyrule.