Awful. Just awful. That was my first two weeks of living in the castle. I was so naive to think that all my chaperoning would be like the first experience. I don't know why I thought I was so unique to be able to withstand Zelda's icy gaze. Turns out plenty of properly motivated guys can do it, plenty of guys who were charming and handsome and well-bred and awful, just awful.
I had to stand there silently while they were witty and flirty and bold. Even if it were more acceptable for me to speak, I doubt I would have said much. So many of these men could work their words with more skill than I could work my sword. I felt like my tongue was lead, like I was so stupid and uneducated in comparison.
To be fair, not every meeting was terrible; Zelda still managed to scare off some guys which was always fun, and there was this one guy who seemed far more interested in me than Zelda. She found that absolutely hilarious for whatever reason, but her laughter was infectious, so I actually enjoyed that one. But mostly, it sucked.
There were two bright spots to my stay. Training was a huge stress relief; I could work out all my frustrations. And my trainees all respected me so much. Not that Zelda's guard didn't show me respect, but a lot of them were older than me, and I think some of them resented that they had to listen to someone so young tell them how to do their jobs. These soldiers though, they were all pretty young, and a bunch of them told me that I was their inspiration for wanting to join the military. It was really nice to feel that kind of respect in contrast to how I felt chaperoning.
My time alone with Zelda was the other thing keeping me sane. We met on the roof a few times each week, and she started slipping me notes with details on where to meet when she had a couple spare minutes. It was still less time with her than I'd like, but it really helped. When we were alone, I didn't feel stupid or of a lower status. She made me feel like I was so important, like we were equals, even if that was so far from the truth. I forgot any resentment or jealousy when it was just the two of us.
But I was jealous. Extremely so. And that realization made me finally admit what I had been trying to deny for so long. I had feelings for Zelda, feelings that ran far deeper than friendship. Not that I could do anything about it, of course. That's why I had tried to hold those feelings at bay for so long. I had never resented who I was in the past: I loved being a goat herder from Ordon. But now I cursed my birth. Because of who my parents had been, I wasn't even allowed to compete for the woman I held in higher esteem than any other. I couldn't even try.
I snapped to attention. Zelda and I were on the roof, and I was squandering our time, getting lost in thought, lost in my own pettiness. It was like I couldn't help it now that I accepted how I felt. Which is why I shouldn't have been surprised that I blurted out, "Do you ever wish you didn't have to jump through all of these hoops? That you could get married because you were in love?"
Zelda's breath hitched slightly in surprise, but she recovered quickly. "From a very young age, I learned it best not to dwell upon things over which I have no control. It's a nice thought, but to me, love is more like a fairy tale than anything else. Given everything life has given me, it seems only fair that I be denied this one thing."
I shook my head. "It's a pretty big thing though, isn't it? I mean, you have to marry whoever you and your council agree on, right? That's a pretty significant part of your life you have to spend with the guy."
"It's the life I was born into, one that has many duties. I do not begrudge my service to Hyrule."
I looked away, not knowing how to reply. Personally, I thought that was political speak: an unpleasant truth dressed up to look like it was fine. She had to hate it, she just had to. I don't know why she wouldn't admit that to me.
"What about you?" Zelda asked. "Do you believe in fairy tales, Link?" Her tone was self-deprecating, so I knew she wasn't making fun of love so much as herself.
"I do. I've always wanted that for myself."
"Really?" Her eyebrows drew together in confusion.
"Why is that such a surprise?" To me that seemed a normal enough desire.
"I suppose I would have thought if you felt that way, you would already be with someone. You haven't exactly been limited in choices. You could already be living your fairy tale."
I took a moment to think of how to explain without revealing the complications of my feelings. "You know my parents died before I was old enough to remember, right?"
"Pretty much my entire village raised me, but there was one guy in particular I looked up to. Rusl taught me so many things over the years: how to fish and fight, how to work hard, basically how to be a man. I tried to be like him in every way I could. But the one part of his life I've wanted to emulate the most is his relationship with his wife, Uli. He is so in love with her, and he shows it every chance he gets. He's not really a grand gesture kind of guy, but he really comes through on the small things. If you could see the way he looks at her, you'd understand what I'm talking about. He's always trying to lighten her load, both literally and figuratively, and his hand finds hers as if they were magnetized. Small things, but those steady, small gestures make her happier than any extravagant romantic expression I can imagine."
I laughed a little to myself. "Rusl's a pretty mellow guy, but the one time I ever remember him just losing it was when his son Colin, in a very rare act of rebellion, talked back to his mother to seem cool in front of the other kids. Rusl just went off on him, explicitly forbidding him from ever disrespecting his mother like that again. Honestly, I was a little terrified of him, and his anger wasn't even directed my way. That anger was directed towards his own son. I can't imagine what he'd do if a stranger snapped at Uli.
"I've always wanted that kind of relationship. To be that in love and have that much respect for another person seems so incredible to me, but I don't think I could have that kind of respect for any of the girls who fall all over themselves because of who I am. I know it probably sounds dumb to you since marriage has to be a political move for you, but I do believe in fairy tales. I grew up witnessing one."
Zelda was smiling softly. "I don't think it's dumb Link. Hearing you describe it, it sounds really nice. I hope you find that."
I tried to hide my frustration. Couldn't she see I already had? Even if it was an impossible outcome, I had fallen for her. My stupid, scumbag of a heart decided to devote itself to the one girl I couldn't ever have. I understood now why I didn't like when she talked about me finding a girl; the only girl I wanted was her.
"So you never explained the whole Auru thing," I said not wanting to dwell upon marriage anymore.
"Yes, of course. I don't know if Auru ever told you, but he's an old family friend. Actually, he was one of my father's most trusted advisors. When my father died, Auru took it pretty hard and decided he couldn't stand being around the castle anymore. He did a lot of traveling after that, including some journeying into the desert. Now that he's back, he has taken a position on my council."
Some comments he had previously made about Zelda's youth made a little more sense now, but that still didn't explain the way he had acted towards me. "Isn't that good?"
"It's very good. In council meetings I have exactly one other ally, General Morris, who's not even technically on my council. But while being blunt and outspoken works for him because of his position, Auru has to tread more delicately. Therefore, when I asked him to join my council, we decided on a different approach."
"What approach?" I asked. "That he developed amnesia?"
"Not exactly. We thought he could do the most good if the rest of the council didn't think the two of us were allies. He pretends that he thinks I'm naive and in over my head around the other council members; they believe he is on their side. He can more easily influence them that way, and he can warn me of anything they're planning."
It figured. Even one of her few allies couldn't support her in public. Her whole life was like this intricate act designed to keep her isolated. I hated it. She shouldn't have to be that alone. I knew we couldn't be together, but I wish she could be with someone who was on her side in public and private. I clenched my fists and forced my mind from that train of thought.
"That still doesn't explain why Auru acted like he didn't even know me."
"Auru's very good at playing his part. He didn't want anyone at the ball to think that the two of you were friends."
"I don't understand."
Zelda looked slightly uncomfortable, but she tried her best to answer anyway. "Ever since you traveled all over the provinces to help me, it's fairly obvious to most that we're allies. If Auru's friends with you, his allegiance might be called into question. That might not make a lot of sense to you, but given all you've done for me, it's natural that in the mind of my court, you're linked to me."
"No, I'm Link to everyone."
Zelda's right eyebrow shot up at my corny joke, but she couldn't quite help the reluctant smile that crossed her face. "I hope you're embarrassed at having said that."
Bad as it might have been, I wasn't embarrassed in the least bit. I had gotten her to smile, which was reward enough for me.
After packing up to leave for Ordon for the weekend with only a week left of chaperoning/training, I wasn't sure if I was happy or sad my time at Zelda's castle was coming to a close. I still loathed watching guys hit on her, but I felt like Zelda and I were closer than ever, so it was a mixed bag.
One thing that had improved during my stay was the castle hallways. At first the long tunnels of gray stone seemed so cold and uninviting and the people in them were aloof and unfamiliar. Now they were beginning to feel a little more like home, or at the very least, they felt more comfortable.
As more people around the hallways began to smile at me, or stop me to chat for a moment, I realized I had been holding them to a different standard than common people. When a regular person darted their eyes away from me, I figured they were intimidated because of my reputation, but when someone from court did it, I had labeled them as haughty or dismissive. But as they became more familiar, I realized they weren't so different, and suddenly my trips down the hall didn't feel so cold.
"Link!" a harsh voice yelled behind me.
I turned to see Torrin standing next to the foreign prince I had embarrassed at Zelda's ball and a bunch of guards. Through a chaperoning session, I had come to learn the prince's name was Stephen.
"I thought we had an agreement," I said, glowering at Torrin. In fact, my attention was so consumed by him that I didn't have adequate time to react when one of the guards ripped my bag from my shoulder. I acted to grab it back, but another guard held me.
"What is the meaning of this?" I asked, barely keeping control.
"I think you know," Prince Stephen said accusingly as the guard rifled through my pack.
"This it?" the guard asked as he pulled out a ruby encrusted bracelet. I recognized the piece as the garish one Stephen had been wearing while I chaperoned. I had no idea how it had gotten in my bag. My eyes settled on Torrin. What was I thinking? Of course I knew how the bracelet found its way to my pack.
That control I had? Yeah, I completely lost it as I lunged at Torrin. "Seize him," the snake ordered and two guards sprang in front of him. I tried to push them away, but I was stopped by a blow to my lower back. I went to draw my sword, but the guard at my side had already slit the belt it rested on. The irony that I had taught him that move hit me with the same force as the fist that suddenly slammed into my face. I stumbled back a step but recovered quickly enough to duck under the next punch. I swept out my leg, taking the guard to my side to the floor. I dodged another swipe, grabbed the outstretched arm and flipped him on top of the other guard.
My defiance ended suddenly when I felt the cool steel of the blades of the two guards in front me forming an X across my neck.
"Haven't you disgraced yourself enough?" Torrin asked.
The two guards I had taken to the floor were up now, and they wrenched my arms behind my back. In revenge, one of the guards pushed me forward to make it look like I was still struggling. This caused me to press against the swords at my throat just hard enough to break skin and allowed the guard reason to smash the hilt of his sword against the side of my face. The other guard holding me settled for a quick, but very effective shot to the ribs.
I thought about denying it, about pleading my case, but I knew I would find no fair jury here, so why waste the painful breaths? Instead I remained silent, glaring at Torrin with all the hate I could manage.
"Why did you do it Link?" The smirk evident on his face drove me crazy. He was barely making an effort to conceal his satisfaction. That smirk disappeared instantly, however, when the most wonderful voice I knew sounded from down the hall.
My heart drew tight as I saw Link's current condition. Blood trickled from cuts on his forehead, neck, and lip. His breathing was labored like it hurt just to inhale, and his eye was already starting to swell. However, far worse than his physical condition was the sight of my guards treating him like he was a common criminal.
Upon hearing my voice, they all started and hurriedly bowed the best they could in their given positions. As people had bowed to me my whole life, I usually barely even noticed it, but in this instance, it made me sick. They should be bowing to Link, at his feet, begging for his forgiveness.
"Queen Zelda," Torrin said with surprise, "I thought you had a meeting with Prince Ralis."
Of course he did. He never would have made a move like this if he thought I could run interference. He was right about the meeting, but Auru had warned me about Torrin's plans just in time. Through some rather roundabout methods, I was able to get Prince Ralis to cancel the meeting himself. It was essential that Torrin thought I was here by chance instead of suspecting there was a spy in his midst.
My lack of an immediate response prompted my accompanying lady-in-waiting, Maren, to answer. "Prince Rallis was met with a crisis that demanded he reschedule. The queen and I were on our way to change her dress." Our shorthand had become very useful. If I knew Maren had the answer and I wanted to exert my authority, staring stonily at the person while not even expending the effort of a few words was a simple but effective method.
"I hope it's nothing too serious. Give the young prince my best when you see him."
I nodded my head once to acknowledge the pleasantry, though my mind was screaming at me for wasting time on something so trivial while Link had two swords at his throat. But this is how I had to play the game. It was immediately clear to me that Torrin had two reasons for setting up Link. The first was that our reputations were linked now, which was great for me unless Link's reputation were to take a huge hit like it would if he were convicted as a thief.
The second reason was that Torrin was convinced I cared deeply about Link. He saw Link's hand light up and, as I had recently learned from Auru, he also saw us on the balcony that night. Combine those two pieces of information with his own encounters with Link where he had so valiantly defended me, and it was obvious that at the very least Link felt strongly towards me.
The task in front of me was to convince Torrin that those feelings only extended one direction while also clearing Link of this farce. Difficult a proposition as it was, I knew I could succeed, but not without a terrible yet necessary cost. In the aftermath, Link was going to hate me.
My eyes wandered back to Link, and I acted surprised, like I had forgotten about him already. I looked back towards Torrin and raised an eyebrow in question.
"Hyrule's precious hero stole from me," Prince Stephen blurted. Torrin gave him a dirty look to cut him off. Torrin preferred to handle speaking, which was smart in this instance. Stephen wanted so desperately to be clever, but even more he wanted to be better than Link. However, instead of pushing himself to surpass Link's standard, he was taking the shortcut of trying to tear Link down. It was cowardly and I saw right through him.
"I understand any attachment you might have to Link, given his deeds in the name of Hyrule, but we found him with Prince Stephen's very valuable bracelet hidden away in his bag. Your Majesty's wisdom is storied throughout the land, but I am afraid in this instance, you might allow mercy to rob justice."
Torrin was very proud of his speech. I could tell by the way his chest puffed out and the slight upward curve of his mouth. We had an audience at this point, which I'm sure was his original intention. However, he had not intended I be here, and I was about to reaffirm why.
"I appreciate your concern for justice, but you need not worry. As you yourself know Lord Torrin, I believe that past actions do not justify present behavior. If Link stole Prince Stephen's jewelry, he will face the harsh consequences befitting a person who would disgrace Hyrule by stealing from one of our invited guests."
Torrin let out a big sigh, like he was so distraught about what he had to say next. "Unfortunately, this is exactly what I meant. There is no 'if' about it. He had the bracelet in his bag. There are several witnesses to this fact. Once again, I understand your reluctance-"
"I have no reluctance." My tone was harsh, as if I were scolding a child. As good as Torrin was at keeping his composure, even he flinched. "Link has my gratitude, but as the queen of Hyrule, I have no use for thieves. I am Hyrule's first representative, and I will not sully my reputation for anyone." I saw a spark in Torrin's eye, and I willed him to connect the dots, to come to the realization that I cared for Link only as much as he served my purposes. Torrin's character served my purpose in this particular instance. He used people so easily; it wasn't hard for him to believe I could behave similarly.
"However, I will not let fear of my reputation rob justice either. The reason I am not rushing to judgment given the evidence is because I am struggling to find a motive."
Torrin was wary; he knew I had to have some sort of information hidden away. Unfortunately for him, Prince Stephen did not share his caution. "From what I hear, he's a goat farmer. Isn't it obvious that he's tired of his humble circumstances?"
Poor Prince Stephen. He was the product of a codling father. I wondered what that was like. "I see how you could think that. However, if money is what Link desired, I have a hard time imagining he wouldn't come to me. You see, after the war, I offered Link a substantial reward, substantial enough to make even your lavish bracelet seem paltry in comparison. He refused, but I made it clear that the offer was still available if he ever decided to claim it."
Torrin was smart enough to understand that I had just won. He knew without motive, it looked like Link had been setup. Instead of tearing the hero down, he had just made Link look sympathetic. In a last ditch hope to discredit me at least a little, he said, "I didn't know you offered him money from the treasury."
"Everything I offered was from my personal funds."
His eyes shaded with regret. He had to know that was a risky question, one that I normally wouldn't think he'd ask. It was a move of desperation. He breathed in as he prepared for the killing stroke.
"The more I consider the situation, the more I can't help but think Link was set up. Who or why eludes me, but I suppose that's what a specialized investigative task force is for. You're the first person that comes to mind to head such a force, Lord Torrin, but I know how busy you've been."
"I can find the time," he said hurriedly. I allowed myself a slight smile. I figured he would. "Consider it my apology and retribution for jumping to conclusions." In other words, he knew his ploy failed and was going to deliver some patsy of his to take the fall. That was fine by me.
I looked over at Prince Stephen. I thought about ripping into him, making him apologize for his part, but his eyes were locked onto the ground. He realized he had just ruined whatever chances he had at becoming the king of Hyrule. There was no need for me to say anything else regarding him.
Then came the part I had been dreading. I had to address Link. I had avoided looking at him for as long as possible, and when my eyes met his, I remembered exactly why. Those piercing blue eyes were brimming with confusion and betrayal. I wanted to rush over to him, hold him tight to my body, and tell him that I was doing this all for his sake. Instead, I remained where I was and kept my face the mask I had maintained so desperately through this whole encounter.
At my signal, the guards released him, but his look remained. It was time for my last performance. "Link, I would like to personally apologize for the treatment you received here today. I assure you that Lord Torrin will expend every effort to find the responsible party." Link's jaw tightened at the continuation of what he and I both knew to be a farce.
"However, I would also like to impart a bit of caution. Have you ever heard the phrase, 'Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me?'"
His head dipped in the slightest nod, though his intense eyes never strayed from my own.
"I would take care to watch yourself in the future. One incident like this can easily be passed off as a setup. Another will raise far more doubts and suspicion. You'd do well to protect yourself from a repeated incident no matter the circumstances." My cold tone made it sound as if I were reprimanding him. I certainly didn't blame him for what had happened, but sounding like I did would aide the perception I was pushing of our relationship being shallow.
However, the other consequence of my words was seeing the hurt they caused Link. My heart ached in my chest, but my face remained passive. He too soon covered his emotions, though not as expertly as I was able.
"My queen," he said with a bow. Flecks of blood expelled from his mouth as he said those two words, and he winced slightly as he bent his body. Both served as reminders of what had befallen him because of our friendship. After straightening, he slowly walked away, accompanied by the stares of sympathy from the people surrounding us.
He was so much better than those of us staring after him. He wasn't dishonest or manipulative like we were. He wasn't selfish or vain. He deserved so much better. As much as it would hurt, I was going to ensure he received it. He would no longer suffer for our friendship.
I gracefully excused Maren and myself from the crowd. I needed some time alone to prepare for my next conversation with Link. I can't remember the last time I dreaded something so fully.
A/N: Hey sorry about the delay. I had some family issues pop up that took precedence over writing. I thought about uploading a couple days ago without Zelda's part, but I didn't want to leave you guys hanging like that. Because of that, this chapter is my longest by far. Hopefully that makes up in part for the wait.
I'm incredibly interested in hearing your thoughts and reactions since this is one of the more dramatic chapters I've posted. Anyone hate Zelda now? Thanks so much for reading, and as always, your feedback is very much appreciated.