Sorry for the delay. After rereading what I had originally written I decided to give it some serious editing and ended up adding a whole section that affected everything after that.
I made a few small edits to previous chapters and added a large section in Chapter 1 you might want to take a look at. It's the intro to Ashei's book and I was greatly amused writing it. It adds some background to Link and Zelda's relationship, something I think was needed. Might still need more, but we'll see.
I'm hoping the next chapter won't take too long, but I may end up spending a fair bit of editing time on it. I will not confirm or deny the reason for that...
Fighting a darknut was dangerous. Facing off against a cornered mother badger was tempting fate. Dueling an annoyed Queen of Hyrule was downright suicidal. Despite being outmatched in physical strength, skill, and power her magical knowledge and speed were deadly. She fought like a hellion, a hundred and twenty pounds of agility and quickness that was constantly thrusting at the smallest of openings with her slender blade even as she kept him off balance with magical attacks and summoned walls to box him in.
"What's gotten into you?" Link demanded as he rolled under a swipe of her sword. "What is this all about?"
Ashei, who stood on the sidelines watching with Rusl, whispered to her companion. "I think it's called foreplay." She yelped when a magical bolt struck between her feet and glared at the flushed queen but Zelda had already turned her attention back to Link, backing him up toward the wall of the courtyard.
"This is about you being insufferable!" He ducked a vicious slice. "Indiscreet!" Steel rang with a last-second parry. "Being friends with that damn bulblin and that stupid yeti!"
Link slid her blade up high and spun around behind her, escaping the latest trap. Zelda whirled around, her long brown braid whipping furiously, fixing him with a glare that left Ashei glancing at her sword again to make sure it was the dull practice blade. It was. Not that she felt much better.
"It's not my fault!" Link protested, swiping an errant lock of hair out of his eyes. "They don't know the meaning of tact! And neither does Ashei! Can't we just agree to blame her?"
"Hey!" she protested, holding up her hands. "It's not my fault!"
The fierce look she received from Zelda's cold blue eyes left her backing up a step. "Oh, this is entirely your fault, but we will be discussing that – and whatever it is you are writing – later. Count on it."
Ashei swallowed. So much for wild success. Utter disaster it was. At least for today. Well, there was always tomorrow.
Six weeks earlier...
Zelda met with her council three times a week. It was a vast improvement over the five it had been when she began her rule as a princess mired in guilt for surrendering her kingdom. The support of Link and the Resistance had helped her move past that and to truly believe herself the rightful sovereign. Though she had reigned in the few among the council's number that had begun to take liberties with their positions and reduced the number of meetings, they still always seemed to run late and leave her head aching. For the hundredth time she wondered why she hadn't decreed that the council would not meet first thing in the morning. True, it would be a rather autocratic thing to do when the council was supposed to form consensus, but she was the sovereign ruler of Hyrule. That much was obvious when everyone she passed in the castle's corridors bowed, curtsied, or saluted. Except one. The one who had left her in a state of confused discomfort at her door the previous night. The one she had a dream about that involved –
"No! Not that one!"
The queen entered the main foyer of the castle just in time for the alarmed shout of Hyrule's hero to break her from her irritated thoughts. She and her companion stopped and began looking around the many balconies of the round chamber but an ear-splitting screech left them wincing and staring in shock as one of the massive chandeliers began to fall. The one right above their heads. "Oh, naturally," she muttered, throwing up an arm to summon a protective shield. Fortunately the chandelier came to a jerking stop only feet above the shimmering blue dome. Blinking her eyes, she looked above it to take in the surprising sight of a green-clad Link suspended in midair between two taut chains connected to his clawshots. Noticing them, he flashed a tiny grin.
"Good morning Your Majesty, Lady Parulla," he greeted them with a strained voice.
"G-good morning," her companion and council member stammered out. "What... what just happened?"
"It... it was my fault!" a small voice called out from above them. Zelda looked up to see young Colin peering over the railing of a balcony with red cheeks and downcast blue eyes. "I'm sorry, Your Majesty! I loosened the wrong rope."
The queen let her shield fall. Her lips quirked up into an amused smile when she took in the sight of Link suspended from one chandelier and holding the full weight of another, the tension evident on his features. No doubt he wished to slowly release the chandelier to the ground but their presence beneath it made that impossible. Zelda couldn't pass up the opportunity, especially with him so vulnerable. Even if he looked quite powerful and impressive holding up the chandelier like that.
"Why Link," she cooed, "what ever are you doing stuck in such a precarious position?" She remained in place even as Parulla scurried out from under the chandelier.
Link shot her a glare. "The usual, milady. Repairing your kingdom one small task at a time. Oh, and trying desperately to keep my shoulders from dislocating, so if you would be so kind as to move aside?" His face scrunched into a wince as the chandelier jerked an inch.
Zelda feigned surprise, looking up at the chandelier. "Oh, yes. That does appear to be rather heavy." She took a step but stopped and looked back up at him. "Were you not supposed to be in Kakariko helping with some repairs?"
"That's... later," Link uttered through gritted teeth.
"I see. Well, I shall not keep you." Smiling, Zelda walked off alongside Parulla, calling back over her shoulder. "Keep up the good work, hero."
A moment later she heard the heavy tinkling thud of the chandelier touching down on the stone followed by a groan from Link. She allowed herself a tiny smirk.
"What was that all about?" Parulla asked, her face even paler than usual beneath her wavy brown hair.
"Oh... nothing," Zelda answered, her amusement fading. Why was she so annoyed with him?
"You seem anxious, Link."
Renado always had been a perceptive man. Sometimes too perceptive. Of course, he could never hold that against the man who had protected the children from Ordon and helped restore the memory of his oldest friend.
Looking up from his mug, Link arched a brow at the Kakariko shaman. "I do?" Well, he was probably right. In twenty-six hours he had an appointment of a rather scandalous nature, an appointment he found himself anticipating more strongly since Zelda had nearly allowed his arms to tear out of their sockets. The queen was an infuriating woman, especially with that teasing smile and those twinkling blue eyes... Bah. Link took a drink of his ale and pushed the image out of his head.
"You do," Rusl agreed with a chuckle from his place across Link at the table in Kakariko's Elde Inn, now owned by Telma. "It reminds me a bit of the night before my wedding to Uli."
Well... Link curled his lips into a smirk. "You were nervous about marrying Uli? You should be flogged for that, Rusl. For shame."
"Watch it, boy." Rusl pointed a finger at him and feigned a glare. "Don't even think about moving in on my lady."
"I'm not that brave," Link replied, smiling crookedly and adjusting his legs in the empty chair at the table. When his mentor smiled in self-satisfaction he stuck the knife in. "Colin would thrash me."
Renado laughed, a rare sound from the somber shaman. The deflated look on Rusl's face was hard to resist and Link found himself laughing as well.
"What are you boys laughing about?" Link glanced up and smiled at Ashei, moving to stand, but she grabbed his shoulder and pushed him back into his seat with a roll of her eyes. She had never appreciated chivalric gestures. He therefore had made it a point to make them.
"Link here was implying – very subtly, mind you – that Rusl's son is a more formidable protector of the lovely Lady Uli's honor than her own husband." Renado had a few drinks, which always seemed to turn him into a smooth talker. Small wonder Telma bought the inn, now that he thought about it. And the drinks did seem a little stronger than usual. Devious woman.
"Yeah?" Ashei moved to pull the empty seat out but Link growled at her and kept it pinned with the toe of his boot. "What was Colin defending her from?" Smirking down at him, Ashei shrugged and dropped heavily to a seat on his lap, finding his elbow with her stomach. Link grunted and glared up at her but she ignored him. Make that two infuriating women.
Rusl arched a brow at the sight of Ashei perched sideways on Link's legs but she was supporting herself with an armored elbow on the young man's shoulder and judging by his wince, it wasn't exactly comfortable. The pair had one odd relationship.
"Rusl feels threatened by me," Link said nonchalantly. "I can't blame him, really. Master Sword, Triforce, Zant, Ganondorf... oh, and I rode a dragon." Link grinned wide at his mentor. Rusl rolled his eyes while Ashei and Renado laughed.
"So." Ashei turned to her cushion, digging her elbow in just a little harder with a smirk. "Ready for tomorrow?"
Catching Rusl and Renado's interested glances, Link glared at her. "Yes. You, on the other hand, won't live to see tomorrow if you don't get off me. You may not have an ounce of fat but muscle isn't exactly light, you damn yeti."
"You'll live." Ashei smiled saucily and turned back to the others, stealing a sip from Link's mug.
"What happens tomorrow?" Rusl asked. "Don't tell me you are planning to invade another kingdom or some other equally insane idea I have come to expect from the two of you."
"Oh, no," Ashei answered. "Nothing like that."
"What, then?" Renado asked with unusual curiosity, lifting his mug to his lips. Idly, Link wondered if Telma had the bartenders pour the shaman's drinks from a special barrel with double the alcohol content.
Link snatched his mug back and took a sip, waiting a moment to reply. Wait for it... "We're getting married." The timing was perfect. He ducked behind Ashei when ale shot out of the two older men's mouths in a ferocious spray. Ashei cursed and wiped her wet face.
"Damn it, Link!" She punched his thigh. "That was not funny!"
"I thought it was hilarious," Link contested, his grin wide despite the pain. While she never put as much force into her punches as she needed to truly damage someone who had blocked Ganondorf's powerful strikes, they always managed to sting. When she tried again he grabbed her wrist and twisted it behind her back, turning to Rusl. "Don't be so nosy." As Ashei started to struggle he laughed and let her go, pushing her up onto her feet. "Go get another chair. My feet are comfortable." She walked off with a cold stare but he ignored it, yawning. It had been a long day of working and grooming Epona.
"So you are not getting married?" Renado asked hesitantly. The thought of the two of them spawning little hybrid copies of themselves was terrifying. One could only imagine the chaos that would ensue and leave all of Hyrule boarded up in their homes in terror.
"You must be drunk," Link said while Ashei was still out of earshot. As she neared he raised his voice. "Though I suppose I could do worse."
"Damn right," she muttered, dropping down her chair and falling into it. "No, the hero here has an appointment with a lady."
The older men's brows shot up. "Really?" Rusl asked. "You're courting? Who?"
Link folded his arms and gave Ashei a cool smile. "Yes, Ashei. Who?"
She smirked right back at him from behind her mug of ale. "Drop it, Link. I'm not telling. And if you keep pushing I'll tell her you once proposed to and got turned down by a Malo Mart groupie."
"Ouch. Point taken."
Rusl looked puzzled. "You don't know who she is?"
"I do," Ashei answered. "He doesn't. More fun that way. All he needs to know is that she outweighs him by fifty pounds and has half his number of teeth."
"Really?" Link smiled wide. "Well, never mind what I said, boys. If I'd known I was going out with you, Ashei, I would have bought a new tunic and wedding bands."
He ducked the punch that was thrown at his forehead.
When Link and Ashei departed shortly thereafter, allegedly so he could give her a loan to buy a new sword from a traveling Goron smith, Rusl and Renado watched them go with interest.
"What do you think?" the swordsman asked. "Something is going on."
"I agree." The shaman hummed quietly. "I believe that girl is up to something. It would not surprise me if Link and the queen are involved." He hiccuped loudly, drawing amused gazes from the other patrons.
"I wouldn't bet against you," Rusl conceded. While Link and Ashei had a strange relationship that seemed to bounce between an odd friendship and sibling rivalry, what was between the hero and the queen was something far more complicated and electric. And it frequently left him lying awake at night worrying about the young man he saw as a nephew. "Whatever it is, I just hope it doesn't blow up in their faces."
Renado's eyes gleamed. "If it does, we will simply blame it on Barnes. Things explode in his face with alarming regularity."
"So you and Zelda ran into each other outside of the Resistance suites last night?" Ashei asked as they departed the new Goron blacksmith shop at the end of the Kakariko canyon. She looked a bit troubled by that.
"Yeah." Link yawned and finished adjusting the attachment on her new scabbard. She actually had practically robbed him, but the sword was a beautiful piece of Goron craftsmanship and well worth emptying his wallet in a loan. "We were both awake and restless and you're good a putting us to sleep." She smirked. "I carried her back to her room and told her to go to bed."
Ashei's black brows shot up. "You carried her back to her room?" She broke out laughing. "Wow. What, um... what did the guards have to say about that?"
Link started walking back toward the inn, shrugging. "They're used to it. One time I fell asleep waiting for her on her rug and she didn't notice me until she was coming out of the bath with wet hair and little more than a robe on. She screeched loud enough to wake the dead. And then she chased me around the royal quarters shooting magical bolts at me."
Ashei shook her head. How the two of them could remain so oblivious to each other when they had a relationship that covered the gamut from silly fun to longing gazes was beyond her. "Wait a minute. You were asleep on her rug... and she didn't notice you?"
Link shrugged again. "I was in wolf form. It was cold that day."
She started cackling at the image. "So you had the queen running after a giant wolf in a robe trying to zap it? Oh, goddesses." She wiped at her eyes.
"Yeah, but she was laughing as she did it. That was a fun day." Link smiled at the memory. "She had been stressed while we were waiting for the crop figures to come in for the final harvest before the winter. That helped break the tension, along with a round of sparring and the shoulder rub she guilt tripped me into giving her after she overdid it."
Oh, yeah. Definitely oblivious. The queen wouldn't let anyone else touch her with such familiarity. "You spoil that woman," Ashei said with a smile, suddenly hopeful about the outcome of her devious little plan. "I'll make sure she doesn't forget it."
"She never does." Link's face fell into a frown. "Things have been a little strained between us since last night and she was acting oddly."
Small wonder. Ashei hid a grimace. "I'm sure it's just stress. You know how the councilors always get about trying to find her a suitor whenever there are balls on the horizon."
"True." His frown deepened. She doubted he even noticed that he hated hearing talk of suitors. "Well, I should test her tomorrow, see if you actually managed to teach her anything in my absence."
"Funny," Ashei said dryly as they ascended the ramp to the inn entrance. "But no. Leave her be tomorrow."
"Because you might pull a muscle or something," Ashei responded, smirking. "Imagine how disappointing that would be."
Link stopped by the door and rolled his eyes. "Very well, spoilsport."
Ashei looked around and grabbed his baldric when he moved to open the door. "All right, listen. Ten after ten, remember? Not ten, not a minute before ten, not nine minutes after ten. Ten after. Got it?"
"I don't want to peek, Ashei," he responded, folding his arms. Actually, he did. But he didn't. Much as he wasn't sure whether he should be calling off the whole thing or throwing himself into it wholeheartedly. "I've become really very fond of your idea." Well, that was true. He just didn't mention the apprehension he had in equal measure. "Just... please make sure Shad or... someone else doesn't show up and barge in."
She rolled her eyes. "Have a little faith. You know I-"
The blaring sound of a horn echoed through the canyon loud enough to leave her wincing. Baffled, she looked at Link for an answer but he was sighing, his eyes cast skyward.
"Oh, not again."
"Not what?" Feeling an odd rumble beneath her feet, Ashei frowned and looked around. When she looked back toward the spring her eyes flew wide open and she drew her sword. Link, oddly, just stood there rubbing his temples. "It's that big green bastard!"
"I can see that," Link replied wearily, watching the immense King Bulblin approach on his snorting mount, Lord Bullbo, sending citizens scattering and shrieking.
"Don't just stand there!" she yelled at him. "Draw your sword!" What was his problem?
Link shook his head and vaulted the railing, dropping to the ground. "I don't want to scare him. Not yet, at least."
Her jaw dropped. "Scare him?" Ashei could only stare in confusion as Link folded his arms and moved to stand in the middle of the road right in the path of the charging bullbo. What was going through that thick head of his? Surely he had some sort of plan that involved dodging and yanking the king off his mount with a clawshot... right?
She was about to yell at him to dodge when the boar skidded to a stop in a huge plume of dust, rearing up with a squealing roar. When it landed its snout was only a few inches from Link's chest. The beady red eyes of the king and his mount were staring at the hero, who was... calmly gazing back.
"I still have two more inches here," Link said, quirking a brow. "Would you care to try again?"
To Ashei's shock, the huge green bulblin... grinned. And then it sprang off its mount with surprising grace, landing with a thud hard enough to rattle the inn doors where Rusl and Renado were staring out and gaping.
"Another time," King Bulblin said in a booming wet voice that sounded as if he had half a gallon of phlegm in his throat and sinuses. Wait, he could speak?
Link smirked. "You do realize you terrified half the town with that entrance, don't you?"
The king shrugged his sickly green shoulders. "They are weak. They should fear me."
"Fear your breath, maybe," Link said, wrinkling his nose and waving a hand in front of his face. "Did I not I tell you to chew on a mint leaf before you approached one of my people if you wanted to keep your horns?"
Ashei gaped at his boldness, watching and waiting for the king to... flinch? "I... forgot. Forgive me." Digging into his belt he pulled out a limp green wad, popping it into his hideous maw and chewing for a few moments. She knew the bulblin king had ceased his attacks on Hyrule after being soundly defeated by Link on more than one occasion, but...
"Did Link really just make him...?" The pale Rusl couldn't finish the sentence.
"Uh huh," Ashei muttered, dumbstruck at the sight of the ugly creature chewing noisily on leaves.
"Better." Link arched a brow, regarding his former enemy with an imperious expression that surprised her. "Now, why are you passing through my town without my permission?"
The king's beady little red eyes brightened and he grinned wide. "Your queen offered us fresh lumber to kill the beasts multiplying in this province. My soldiers wait for me by the bridge but I smelled your horse."
Link's brow inched higher. "So this is... a social call?"
Bulblin shrugged. "I heard you were on a... diplomatic mission." He spat the words distastefully. "I had to see if you had grown fat and weak since last we met but it seems you have grown taller."
"I have, and if you are here to test my strength I hope your men brought a few dozen jars of chu jelly to patch the holes you will have when I have finished with you." Her friend's sharp blue eyes flashed and Ashei couldn't help but grin. It was a shame Zelda wasn't there to witness the hero behaving as the alpha male. That always got her attention no matter how she tried to deny it.
The king stared at him a few moments in silence, his red eyes flaring. Ashei noticed Rusl's hand inching toward his sword and took a tighter grip on her own. The tension suddenly broke with a booming belly laugh from the huge green bulblin that left her cringing.
"Ha ha! Well spoken. It seems you have not withered away as I feared... and hoped."
Link smiled wryly. "No, I am afraid you will be disappointed and in my service for many years to come."
"Hmph. You speak as your queen does. She implied it would be very foolish to refuse her offer. A strong woman." Bulblin folded his meaty arms across his chest. "A worthy adversary. How could I not wonder if you had grown weak?"
Link's calm expression faded, replaced by puzzlement. "What? What does the queen have to do with anything?"
Bulblin made a wet scoffing sound in his throat. "You bested me. You bested my master and his master. All your opponents fell before your power but you continue to serve. Why have you not taken the queen as your mate and claimed the throne?"
Kakariko fell into utter silence. And Link's mouth fell open, along with that of everyone who was watching. Witnessing her friend's cheeks color and his mouth open and shut like a fish out of water, Ashei had to fight valiantly to suppress a snicker. It seemed even the green monster was on her side... in his own strange way.
"What are you talking about?" Link finally managed to blurt out. "I'm not a damn bulblin. We don't do things like... And I don't even... Besides, she..." His jaw clamped shut, the muscles at his neck standing out. "I'm not talking about this." Glowering at the much larger figure with his wolf's eyes, Link took a step to the side and pointed at the canyon. "Go get to work or I'll leave you in pieces for your men to feed to their bullbos!" Ashei shivered. Zelda didn't know what she was missing. Except for the whole stammering bit.
The king growled but mounted his boar, shaking his head. "Hylians. I cannot believe I was bested by such a foolish boy."
Link shot him a murderous glare and backhanded Lord Bullbo's flank with a flash of golden light. The war pig squealed and reared, nearly throwing its rider before charging off, leaving the king clutching desperately at the reins. When it was out of sight Link slowly turned, taking in the sight of all the villagers who had stepped outside to watch and who were now staring at him with wide eyes.
"Oh, goddesses," Link muttered. "I'm never going to hear the end of this."
"Nope," Ashei replied, grinning wide. "Don't worry, I won't tell Zelda." Her friend exhaled a relieved breath and gave her a weak smile.
"Thanks." He turned toward the spring where Epona waited and began walking.
She stuck the knife in. "Someone else will beat me to it, I'm sure."
His step faltered but Link squared his shoulders and kept walking, summoning his pride.
When he was out of earshot Ashei erupted in laughter, mystifying poor Rusl and spurring the tipsy shaman to break into a fit of silly chortles as well. It was really a shame she couldn't tell them why she found it so utterly hilarious, but she would be sure to inform Telma. Along with a little tidbit regarding the barrel under the bar labeled 'Renado' that worked like a charm.
Zelda awoke with a soft, lengthy moan, lifting her arms and stretching out in her bed. She could tell it was nice and dark in her bedroom with barely a crack of her eyelid, and slightly chilly that she could better enjoy the warm blankets. Perfect. Sighing contentedly, she pulled the covers tighter over herself to enjoy the bliss of being half awake and half asleep, where consciously formed thoughts became something akin to dreams in which her large bed wasn't nearly so empty.
A warm hand slid slowly around her waist, running onto her flat belly and rising higher. She licked her lips, urging it onward with a soft encouraging moan. Her breath caught in anticipation until it cupped the round shape of her breast and rubbed a hardening nipple with a thumb. She whimpered with delight, a shiver running down her spine beneath the soft sheets. Arching back against the warm male form behind her, she gasped when his hand moved down to grip her thigh and lift it back over his own. Their bodies came into closer contact, heated flesh-
The queen gasped and bolted upright, raising a glowing fist against the intruder who dared shout at her in her own bedroom. But the golden light illuminated only Ashei kneeling in front of her bed, not Zant or Ganondorf or some other monster intent on eating her alive. Swallowing heavily and panting, she lowered her hand. "Ashei. Wh-what are you doing here?"
"Waking you from either a nightmare or the hottest dream on record," Ashei said wryly. Zelda glanced down at the purple silk nightgown that was clinging damply to her flushed chest, blushing but making no effort to cover up. She would be damned if she would behave like an embarrassed school girl around the tough warrior woman. "So?" Ashei asked, grabbing a glass of water from a tray on her nightstand and passing it over. "Details?" She waggled her brows.
Zelda rolled her eyes. Her friend was incorrigible. Draining the glass in a long pull, she licked her lips. "I am afraid I cannot recall." Actually, she could recall quite a bit, including the piercing blue eyes and brown hair of the man in her bed, details she tried hard to put out of her mind. The glare she received thankfully brightened her spirits and left a grin on her lips. Having one up on Ashei was a rare treat. "Wait, I remember now. Every detail." Brown eyes lit up. "...But I am not sharing. Now answer my question. What are you doing here?"
Ashei sighed and stood. "I'm attending you today. I gave your maids the day off with some excuse that I have a personal problem and need to talk to you about it in private." She pointed a finger at her queen. "So just remember, you owe me not only for arranging tonight but having to deal with all this wardrobe mess."
Smirking, Zelda slid out of bed and padded toward the washroom. "So I will not need to explain my non-standard hair, scent, clothing or jewelry? All of which would have waited until the maids had already retired for the evening?"
"Whoops. Now hurry up so we can go stretch."
Zelda sighed and closed the door. Stretching in the afternoon before a spar was normal. In the morning it was sacrilege. But given the stakes...
Despite the title, everyone expected the Hero of Twilight to love sunshine and abhor the dark, just like every other cliched hero in the stories. And while twilight and dawn were both wondrous, the glaring light of day meant he was visible to enemies. And fans. Like those three evil girls outside the STAR game. No, daytime in Hyrule was something better avoided. It was a different story in Ordon or Lake Hylia or any number of other quiet, beautiful places. But he was in Castle Town. In the castle. And sunlight was peeking through a narrow gap in the thick curtains over the window.
Link sighed and sat up. Once he saw daylight it was all over. There was no escaping it or pretending he had seen nothing. Now all that was left to do was endure it and count down the hours until nightfall. After a minute spent rubbing his eyes and staring blankly at the floor he suddenly remembered what day it was, perking and feeling his heart anxiously pound in equal measure. Rising, he headed for the closet. The day never felt truly started without expending some energy with a blade in hand, though he wouldn't push himself too hard.
Then he recalled the events of the previous evening. Groaning, he buried his head in his hands. Suddenly he doubted whether he would even survive to nightfall, and the dreams he'd had of ivory skin and sparkling blue eyes turned into images of an angry flush and an icy glare.
Ashei kept a gentle pressure on the back of Zelda's shoulders while the queen leaned forward and uttered a quiet growling sound. Her legs were stretched out in front of her in snug trousers, scandalous by the standards royalty were held to, but Ashei had grown up free of societal restrictions and judgments and didn't much give a damn about how they applied to Zelda. At least, not when she was training her friend's body and combat skills. Too many of the queen's line had died from weak constitutions, whether in childbirth or illness, and a few more to assassination. She had no intentions of letting her monarch fall early if it could be prevented by a little physical conditioning. Catching a flicker of movement she glanced up, and a tiny smile curled one side of her mouth. Besides, Link never knew what to do with himself when he caught sight of Zelda flushed and damp with perspiration, stretched out before him.
"Have I ever mentioned that I hate you, Ashei?" Zelda muttered.
"You shouldn't." Her student's back was deeply arched, that delicate regal nose almost pressed to her knees. "You've never been in better shape and your knowledge of swordsmanship was pathetic compared to what Link and I taught you." She glanced up at the man who was gazing rather intently at Zelda. And her snug, sleeveless tunic, no doubt. Though judging by the paleness of his face, perhaps he was wondering whether he was about to be eviscerated by an angry queen. "Right, Link?"
Zelda tensed at the sound of his name. Link cleared his throat, turning away from the queen and pulling his sword from its scabbard. "Right," he said stiffly, "Rusl would be hard pressed to defeat her now, I'm sure. Good morning, my lady." He began his daily routine, swinging his sword in fluid circles to loosen up. Ashei felt leaner muscles stiffen harder beneath her hands and grinned. The queen no doubt appreciated the sight of her hero similarly attired, arms bared and tanned, muscles rippling with his movements. "What are you two doing here so early? I usually have this courtyard to myself."
"Ashei has a prior engagement at our usual time," Zelda answered quickly and smoothly. She really was a good liar but she needed to work on the blushing. Ashei let her sit up and moved her into position to arch her body upward, noting the queen's pale blue eyes flash over to where Link was performing his own upper body stretches. It was so obvious she could laugh.
"Yes, she has seemed preoccupied lately," Link responded. He pulled his arms behind himself, giving a good view of his rippling chest under the snug tan tunic while he smirked at the warrior woman. "Between your friends and your duties now you know how it feels to be one of us. Never a moment's rest."
Ashei smirked and pushed a little harder up on Zelda's arched back to deepen her stretch despite the quiet groan of protest. "Except I don't get the adulation of the public for being the queen or the hero," she countered, restraining a laugh when she saw Link's eyes flash to Zelda's own pronounced chest. "Or free drinks from Telma... at either of her establishments." She couldn't resist the jab, grinning when he flinched.
Link smirked and sat to perform his own leg stretches, apparently summoning his courage. "Telma doesn't give you free drinks because of that botched matchmaking attempt you tried to pull." Ashei mentally sighed. While her attempt to get the moping bartender and the stoic shaman together hadn't been successful, it had at least led to a rather frank conversation between the two people who became good friends after a month or so of acrimony. Besides, she had helped Telma formulate a new and improved plan. "Whereas Zelda receives free drinks not because she's the queen, but because she's a kind and beautiful woman." Ashei arched a brow. His tone sounded apologetic. And Zelda's twitch suggested she was surprised and flattered.
"Thank you, Link," Zelda said softly, sitting up under the guidance of Ashei's friends and smiling at her friend. "I would say you receive free drinks because you're Hyrule's bravest and most handsome hero, but I fear what sort of ego trip that would lead you on." Her eyes twinkled merrily and Ashei couldn't help but grin. The two of them had banter perfected to an art form, whether teasing or flirtatious, unlike the snarky back-and-forth she and Link practiced.
"As if my ego needed any nourishing," Link said dryly, swinging his heavy practice sword at a straw dummy. "Did you really have to commission a painting of me facing Ganondorf and slap it up on the wall beside the one of the Hero of Time?"
"Yes," Zelda sang merrily, to Link's obvious annoyance. "And I'm sure our ancestor would be pleased to have you immortalized beside him."
Learning that Link and Zelda shared a common ancestor in the Hero of Time had been a little odd for all of them until they realized their bloodlines had been separated by a thousand years, forty generations, and a lot of Terminian blood. The history was spotty but it hinted that the hero had a wife and a child before he had married the princess of Hyrule, a wife who had died in an act of vengeance from a nearly extinct Terminian race he had once angered. That firstborn son had left Hyrule as an adult for his mother's homeland after a falling out with his father, leaving behind a half-sister and royal heritage.
Ashei guided Zelda into a position on the grass with her legs spread wide, pleased to see she could nearly let her entire weight down. She had become quite flexible, a fact that Zelda tried unsuccessfully to hide her pride in... and Link his interest, as he glanced over and swallowed before replying. She smiled tightly to herself, wondering if the two of them would make good use of Zelda's flexibility later.
"He actually feels unworthy of it all," Link said thoughtfully. "He blamed himself for what happened to his family, and for exiling the Sheikah for what he saw as a failure to protect his queen."
Zelda's eyes opened wide. "How do you know that? Have you spoken to him again?"
He shook his head. "No, I discovered one of his journals when I was in Labrynna. It's a long story and I'm still translating it. He wrote it in an old Terminian dialect."
"Fascinating," Zelda murmured, grunting when Ashei pushed her down a little farther and giving her a glare over a shoulder. "Do you know if he is at peace now?"
The hero smiled sadly, wiping his brow with the back of his hand. "In a way. He told me months ago it was time for him to move on from our realm but he had to wait before crossing into the Sacred Realm. I'm not sure what he meant and he wouldn't tell me, but he seemed content with that."
"Hmm." Zelda nodded slowly. "His life seems like such a sad series of events. I hope he finds peace." She gave the hero a little smirk. "And don't you dare follow in his footsteps of tragedy and heartbreak. I will have you flogged if you go to your grave as an old man with that many regrets."
Link smiled. "Just so long as you're still alive to have me flogged, I can live with that."
The gaze that passed between them was long and warm, ending abruptly when one of Zelda's handmaidens entered the courtyard in a flurry of swishing skirts. Elura was familiar with her queen's companions and unusual recreational activities, so Ashei was puzzled by the way she flushed upon catching sight of Link. "G-good morning, my lady," she greeted the queen, curtsying.
"Good morning Elura," Zelda replied, adopting her smooth regal voice as she curled her legs under her and folded her hands on her lap. "You are up early. Is something the matter?" The handmaiden's eyes twitched over to Link, who was standing quietly. Stiffly, actually. Ashei suppressed a grin. She had a good idea what this was about.
"I... am not certain. Lord Gallo asked to brief you regarding the, ah, bulblin matter."
"Oh, goddesses," Link muttered, drawing the gazes of all three women. Ashei hid her smirk behind her palm. As if mentioning the bulblins wasn't bad enough. Link hated Gallo, ostensibly for his pacifistic naivete and love for frilly clothing, but she knew it had more to do with the young noble's frequent – and practiced – flattery of the queen.
"Are you aware of what Elura is referring to, Master Link?" Zelda asked. Ashei had to admit, even damp with perspiration and dressed in trousers her friend was the very picture of elegance and royalty.
Gritting his teeth, Link nodded. "Yes, I am. So is Ashei. We can tell you about it. There's no need to bother with that ma... ah, the briefing."
Zelda's lips almost twitched into a smile. Though she would deny it if asked, Ashei was well aware her queen enjoyed Link's distaste for the flirt. "Please inform Lord Gallo I will meet with him in one hour." His face tightened into a scowl.
Elura curtsied. "Yes, my lady." She turned and departed quickly but not after one more quick glance at Link. Zelda's eyes narrowed, lingering on her handmaiden's back before they flicked over to her friend.
"Is there some personal matter between you and my handmaiden I should be aware of, Link?" Zelda asked coolly.
The hero's brow furrowed. "What? No! Why would you... oh." His voice fell to a mutter. "No, that's not it." Sighing, he sheathed his sword and dropped to a seat on the grass. "I guess I had better tell it before Ashei turns it into some sort of ridiculous fairy tale."
She snickered but simply took a seat between the two of them, leaning back on her hands to enjoy the spectacle. "No, I think you should definitely be the one to tell Her Majesty about this."
"One of you certainly will, preferably before I lose my patience." Zelda pulled her long brown hair over her shoulder and began working it free of its braid, arching a brow in Link's direction. "Well?"
Sighing, he ran his hands back through his damp brown hair. "How do I get myself into these situations?"
"Link," Zelda warned.
"King Bulblin came riding through Kakariko yesterday evening," he said, staring down at the grass. "He told me about your little lumber for slaughter deal."
"Lumber for slaughter?" she echoed dryly. "Oh, how clever."
Link shifted uncomfortably, crossing his arms. "He said he wanted to see whether I had grown weak after hearing about my diplomatic trip to Labrynna."
Zelda's blue eyes sparkled. "A wise bulblin, that one." Ashei snickered.
He cast the queen an annoyed look. "Do you want to mock me or hear the story?"
"I wish to mock you," Zelda replied sweetly. "But I do have a meeting to attend, so please continue."
Rubbing the back of his neck, Link looked once more at the grass. "He was impressed that you threatened him."
"Implicitly threatened." Zelda's sudden burst of sass left Ashei grinning.
"Implicitly threatened, then," Link muttered. "Then he, uh... well, he..."
"Come on, spit it out, you cucco," Ashei said brightly. The hero shot her a glare that could have melted Snowpeak. Meanwhile Zelda looked on with curled pink lips, amused. Well, that wouldn't last.
Link sighed. "Well, you have to understand the bulblins. They're warriors. The strongest earn their positions by displays of strength or domination, by winning battles, conquering-"
"Yes, Link, I am familiar with them," Zelda interrupted, still smiling. "You did write the reports yourself. Fluently, to my shock."
"Right," he muttered, either ignoring or missing the barb and cracking his knuckles. "Well, you see, he was fine with losing to me because I was stronger, and we even became friends – of a sort – but he's become annoyed because by their standards I should have, um..."
The temptation to blurt out the rest of the thought was strong enough to leave her lips twitching, but Ashei forced herself to remain silent and enjoy the sight of Ganondorf's slayer stammering like a school boy.
"Should have... ?" Zelda's brows arched expectantly.
His jaw twitched. Ashei braced herself for another round of hesitation. Instead, it all poured out in a rush of words. "By bulblin standards I should have basically thrown you over my shoulder and hauled you back to my cave as my mate, then taken your throne."
Watching the blood drain from Zelda's face, Ashei had to slam her palm over her mouth to fight an attack of the giggles. The queen was pale and stricken, the hero was red and squirming, and the day had barely started. What a morning.
After a minute or so, Zelda cleared her throat, struggling to maintain her composure. "I see. Ah... yes, I can see why – by their standards, of course – he would be annoyed with you. But... why does Lord Gallo feel the need to brief me about this?"
Link glanced her direction but immediately stared back down at the grass. "Ah... most likely because half of Kakariko was watching... and listening."
Ashei hadn't thought it possible, but Zelda paled even further. "Oh, merciful Nayru," she breathed, dropping her face into her palm.
"Yeah." After a moment's awkward silence Link jumped to his feet. "I need to, uh..."
"Yes, of course," Zelda said hurriedly. "And I must go, ah..."
"Bathe," Ashei said helpfully as Link departed faster than the postman running behind schedule. "Want me to go give Lord Frilly – er, Gallo, that you've already been briefed on this and you send your regrets blah blah?"
"Please," Zelda whispered fiercely.
She hopped to her feet and brushed off her backside. "I'll be up getting a bath running." The queen nodded silently. Ashei set off, allowing herself a grin once she was turned away. She had resolved that, one way or another, the two stubborn people would figure it out, even if it required the help of the rest of the Resistance and the pair's patron goddesses themselves. She had never even considered the bulblins. Perhaps she was overlooking other sources of help... or at the very least, amusement. Before she stepped into the castle she heard Zelda muttering vehemently to herself.
"Wise indeed. Nayru save me from stupid bulblins and the fool Hylians who call them their friends."
Ashei finally allowed herself to snicker.
Zelda took a deep breath as she gazed upon herself in the mirror. The deep purple silk hugged her body down to her hips, the strapless construction baring her shoulders and arms down to where her gloves ended a few inches below the elbow. Laces kept the corset snug, exposing a wide strip of skin up her back where they crossed and tied in a bow between her shoulder blades. It was elegant but sensuous, even seductive, and certainly not regal.
It had been a blessing that her schedule was light and without a session with the council, for her concentration was badly damaged after the events of the morning. Shad and Auru had both noticed her unease but had been courteous enough to only politely inquire about her well-being. She had been sorely tempted to tell them that no, she was not all right, that she was strongly considering incinerating their friend the hero for convincing her to let him establish relations with the bulblins. And while the thought of being carried off had a certain appeal for a few moments, dismay and anger had been quick to replace fantasy. It had been bad enough at the beginning of her reign when the populace respected the hero more than the princess who had surrendered the kingdom, but to have a bulblin of all people suggest in public that he should take her throne?
Zelda reached behind her back with rising frustration, tugging the bow of her laces loose and pulling them tighter.
"I think it's tight enough already," Ashei observed. The annoyed queen met her eyes in the mirror, expecting to find amusement on her friend's face but finding only calm. "Are you still bothered by what happened in Kakariko?" She took over from Zelda, loosening the laces and ending the protest from her ribs.
"Of course I am," Zelda replied, frowning. "It took me months to earn the trust of the people and to lose the scorn of everyone from the army to the council. To be undermined in public by a green pig and Link of all people?"
"Oh, come off it," Ashei said as she retied the laces. "Link threatened to cut him into pieces. Don't take out your irritation on him."
Zelda shook her head. "He faced down Ganondorf without flinching and negotiated a trade agreement with a foreign chancellor. Surely he could have done more than stammer like a fool."
"Such as saying a few words expressing his confidence in his queen?" Zelda said in exasperation. "Surely that would not have been too much for him."
"Uh huh," Ashei said, eying her skeptically in the mirror with folded arms. "Pretend you're a former goat herder, a commoner from a remote province, and some immense pig you fought as a novice warrior that now listens to you when you tell him to freshen his breath tells you to take the beautiful, untouchable queen you admire to your bed and start ruling a kingdom. Are you telling me you're not going to be stunned?"
Zelda glared but couldn't summon the will to stay angry. Sighing, she shook her head. "I do so hate it when you make the rare valid point."
"I know." Ashei grinned at her. "But you already knew that. So what's really bothering you?"
Nibbling her lip, the queen turned and walked slowly out of the washroom and into the dimly lit bedroom to stare out the window at the stars. "I don't know. I'm just tired of always being on edge." Indulging herself for once, she let the words spill out. "I was tutored from childhood on how to rule a kingdom but I always knew the expectation was that I would not rule alone. It bothers me that it is more difficult than I imagined it would be. And I resent the endless suggestions that someone else is needed to help or to take over for the poor, weak little girl."
When Ashei laughed Zelda turned her gaze on her in surprise, seeing the grin returned to her face. "I thought you stopped putting any stock in what the addled old traditionalist fools in the court have to say. Auru has forty years of experience on you and he could rule the kingdom but I guarantee you he'd be as stressed and exhausted as you are." The vote of confidence put a small smile on the queen's lips. "But seriously, everyone who knows you – you, Zelda, not just the queen – has faith in you. You're just stressed and you need a break."
Glancing over at the bed in the corner of the room she chuckled softly. "So we're back to this, I see."
"Yep," Ashei replied cheerfully. "But seriously, we've been over this."
"I know, I know." Zelda smiled wryly. "I am not required to 'pounce him like a wolfos on a cucco', as you so eloquently put it."
Ashei grinned wide. "Well, it helps for the stress release part, but yeah, that."
She couldn't help but laugh, shaking her head. Her friend really was too much. Looking back at the bed, then at the wine glasses by the window, she nibbled thoughtfully on her lip. Her morning schedule had been cleared, it was a beautiful and cool spring night, she had a couple of enchantments to disguise their voices and leave them in shadow, and it wasn't exactly possible for an ordinary man to keep the bearer of a piece of the Triforce locked up in a room if she decided to leave. Besides, the idea was no less intriguing than it had been when Ashei described the man she had in mind. And it wasn't as if anyone else was planning on carrying her off to his lair... metaphorically speaking. At the very least, perhaps they would end up speaking over a game of chess. Or perhaps share a kiss or two. Or...
"Oh, why not?" Zelda murmured, suddenly feeling impulsive and alive.
"Okay, out I go before you change your mind," Ashei teased. "You're cutting it close as it is. Five minutes."
When she heard the door shut behind her, Zelda became aware of the heavy beating of her heart in her chest. Taking a breath, she set about casting the enchantments.
Link stepped into the main living room of the suite and closed the door behind him quietly after one last check of the hallway. He had taken a secret passage into the guest wing but was taking no chances, especially not when Shad had a habit of appearing out of nowhere and immediately falling into babble about ancient trivia.
Ashei's voice startled him. "Not bad. You're almost worthy of the lady waiting for you."
He turned with a quiet laugh, a nervous sound even to his own ears. The midnight blue tunic and black trousers he wore were one of his finer outfits even if his companion for the evening wouldn't really be seeing them. Still, his boots and belt were polished to a gleam. He had some nervous energy to burn off after his only meeting of the day with Auru regarding the Labrynnan trade agreement. "Well, like I told the men in the frilly outfits at the protocol ministry, I don't wear ruffles so stop trying."
Ashei laughed, rising from her chair by the fireplace and looking him over with a satisfied nod. "I know, and it's a good thing. You look decent in fine clothing but the fluffy stuff would look ridiculous on Hyrule's hero." She turned toward the closed door. "She's inside and she's nervous, so don't go stumbling over your own feet. You know, try that whole gentle, heroic confident thing you have going, yeah?"
Despite her irreverent nature, Ashei knew when to use her own particular brand of humor to ease the tension. He smiled gratefully. "I'll try. I mean, I won't ask the Triforce to give me a hand but I'm sure I can manage."
Ashei grinned, but it faded quickly and she gave him a serious gaze. "I haven't seen you all day. You okay?"
He grimaced at the reminder. Though Bulblin's words wouldn't really do more than cause some amused gossip, the tension he'd felt when passing Zelda in the hall had bothered him deeply. Sometimes it seemed a week couldn't go by without something causing a rift between them. "Fine, I suppose. I was just hoping for a quiet week after a month of headaches."
Brown eyes twinkled. "You give me headaches every day but I'm still here. Get used to it."
Link smirked. "So why haven't you taken your own medicine?"
Ashei grinned. "Who says I'll be sitting here all night reading a book?"
He couldn't resist. "Oh, you're spending the night across the hall with Shad?" His reflexes saved him once more from bruises on his forehead. They shared a challenging smirk but it was his eyes that drifted away first. "I suppose I feel a bit torn."
Shrugging, he rubbed at his freshly shaven jaw. "I don't know."
"Liar." Looking up, he saw her giving him a wry smile. "I think I only need one guess and it spends a lot of time sitting on a throne."
The twitch of his ears betrayed him. "I should have known better than to spill my guts to you."
"Eh." Ashei shrugged. "You've theoretically spilled my guts enough times in practice." Her brown eyes narrowed and regarded him intently. "So, what His Horrid Breathness said. Do you intend on carrying a queen off to your lair?"
"I don't have a lair." The attempted humor felt weak even to him. Link shrugged and shook his head. "But no. Even if she wasn't a queen we seem to end up having days like today at least once a week. And like Bo said when I moved to the castle, there's a reason wolfos and cuccos don't live together." He wasn't certain he entirely believed it, but the man was much older and wiser than he. When in doubt, trust someone you respect. Perhaps that meant he should have spoken to Rusl, but he could never manage to bring it up.
Ashei's lips twitched into an odd grin. "He really said that?"
"I think he had his heart broken by a countess or something when he was younger." Link smiled. "Or maybe he was trying to encourage me to stay in Ordon and marry Ilia and take over as mayor. He's a strange man."
"Definitely." Ashei laughed. "No offense to Ordon or Ilia, but you're not the small town type anymore. You need a little bit of everything." A grin slowly curled her lips. "Which brings me to that door over there."
"Now why didn't I see that coming?" he joked, glancing over at it while contemplating it one last time. "You really think this is a good idea?"
Ashei rolled her eyes. "I thought we'd been over this. And like I've already told both of you, if you want to spend a couple of hours stargazing over a glass of wine talking about wolves and cuccos and goats and eagles or whatever, go right ahead. It'd be a tragic waste of a gorgeous dress and a big soft bed, but hey, whatever does it for you small town types. Just make up your mind so I can take a nap."
Laughing, Link shook his head. She had a point. "All right, all right. Tell Shad I said hello." Dodging the punch aimed at his shoulder, he walked over to the door. Wrapping his fingers around the handle, he took a breath and opened it.
"What is that?" Farore sniffed at the air from her place sitting by the pond, her tongue flicking out over her lips.
"Some concoction an alchemist in Termina came up with," Din replied, approaching with a large bowl filled with some odd fluffy cream-colored shapes. "He accidentally dropped corn kernels in oil and created a snack worthy of the Sacred Realm." Popping one into her mouth she crunched down with a blissful sigh. "It is to die for." The goddess grinned. "And actually... he did. He really should have known better than to mix up butter and yellow chu jelly."
The Hero's Shade sighed and gazed down at his skeletal form. Though eating was a pointless – and messy – exercise, the goddesses had seen fit to leave him with a sense of smell, damn them. He needed to be away from the bowl before he ended up begging them to give him his body back. And in truth, he expected they were having a little fun at his expense by tempting him so, the demons. "If the three of you insist on watching this whole sordid affair, I will take my leave. I will be in the Lost Woods behaving myself with more decorum."
Nayru took an experimental bite of the snack, moaning joyously. She waved a dismissive hand over her shoulder. "Fine, fine. Have fun."
Shaking his head, the Shade walked off, dropping his face once more into his palm.
"It is truly a sad day when the only sanity in the domain of the goddesses is found in a skeleton who passed up paradise with his family in order to guide his descendant... and who finds himself subjected to this."
Behind him the goddesses snickered and bit down with a trio of crunches.