Zelda allowed the ocarina to fall to the floor between the library bookshelves, not caring if it broke. She dashed to the window looking out over the garden. The sky was a pale powdery blue, and the outer wall of the castle was only barely visible over the tops of the trees. The reflection mirrored on the window glass was unmistakably that of her own face.
She sighed with relief. Thanks to the grace of the goddess, she had been able to make it back to her own time.
When she ordered that the Demon King be killed, he had roared like an erupting volcano, and she immediately understood why he allowed himself to walk into her castle unarmed. He was possessed of a power whose like she had never seen, and he needed no weapon.
He swept his hand in front of him, and an immense shockwave exploded outward, knocking over the soldiers who surrounded him as easily as if they had been nothing more than straw-filled training dummies. Those standing closest to him took the full brunt of the force of his magic, their limbs flying from their bodies in a hideous spray of blood. Zelda could hear the young knight standing at her side draw his sword, and then she was running, rushing to get away from the carnage as swiftly as she could. She had dashed to the library and grabbed the ocarina from the shelf where she'd left it before thrusting it to her mouth and playing the song that brought her to this era as if her life depended on it.
Now that the frantic beating of her heart was beginning to slow, Zelda felt that she could process what had happened to her. Had she experienced nothing more than a vision, or had she somehow managed to travel through time? Had her mind been sent into the body of her ancestor? She had felt no other presence guiding her actions, and she'd been sitting in the exact same position on the library floor when she returned to her own time. It seemed that she had somehow replaced the former queen in her own body, but there had been no exchange of their spirits.
Zelda's finger throbbed, and she stretched out her hands in front of her. A long splinter of wood was still lodged in her flesh. She braced herself and removed it with her nails, scanning the surface of the library table for any indication that she had touched it two hundred years ago. There were none, of course. How could there be?
May the Goddess grant me wisdom, Zelda prayed.
In any case, she would need to retrieve the ocarina from where she dropped it. Something so powerful should not be left lying around. In the legend about the fabled instrument, the hero used it to move bodily through time, sending his entire person into the past or future, whether it was a span of years or just a few days. Or was that really how it worked? Had the hero only been able to shift his consciousness from one point in time to another? Zelda cursed herself for not having questioned the details of the story more thoroughly. She knew that magic was real, as she had seen its effects with her own eyes and could even command a bit of it herself. If nothing else, her dreams and visions had always been clear and true. Regardless, magic was something she was happy to leave to Impa, who had been trained according to Sheikah traditions and had a small foundation of knowledge on the subject, which was more than Zelda could say of her own understanding.
Zelda picked up the ocarina from where she'd left it on the library floor and tucked it carefully into her satchel. She would have to talk with Impa, and soon. The angle of the light streaming through the library windows indicated that she was already late to her morning briefing, and her chief secretary had more than likely already sent a courier to fetch her. If she wanted to speak with Impa, she would have to cancel one of the afternoon's audiences, but surely this turn of events was important enough to warrant the rearrangement of her schedule. Even a year ago she would have felt anxiety about the inconvenience to her staff, but she was learning that this was only what was expected of her – to give orders, and to be obeyed. She must be flexible, but only she could control the direction of her will. If she did not exercise her right to dictate her own priorities, the strength of her commands would atrophy as those around her gradually lost their respect for her time and patience.
In the hallway outside the library, Zelda stood in front of the portrait of her ancestor. The former queen's face was wise, but strained and severe. Had Zelda witnessed the war she'd supposedly won? How could she have possibly triumphed over the man who looked like Ganondorf, who had destroyed rows of heavily armed soldiers with a mere sweep of his hand? He did not seem to want to be the queen's enemy. How had the war started, then? It now seemed strange to Zelda that she knew so little about this conflict. She could recite the queen's lineage from memory, as well as the titles and stipulations of dozens of laws that had been enacted during her reign. Why did she not know more details concerning the war her ancestor had presided over when the woman was scarcely older than she was now?
Hyrule will burn. Ganondorf's words from the previous evening still lingered in her ears, and she could still feel the touch of his breath on her neck. Zelda caught herself pressing her fingers to the spot on her face where his skin had briefly brushed against hers, and she quickly lowered her hand. She didn't know whether Ganondorf was capable of starting a war, or even whether that was his intention, but she understood that she could never again stand on the castle ramparts and relive the horror she had just experienced. She may not have the spiritual strength of her ancestor, but she promised herself that she would find a better way.
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"The war two hundred years ago?" Impa asked, raising her eyebrows. "Out of the two of us, you're the historian. What could I possibly tell you that you don't already know?"
Zelda studied Impa's face, but it was as smooth as a mask and betrayed no emotion. Impa had taught her how to achieve this same neutrality of expression years ago. She knew Impa was hiding something, but she supposed this was only natural. If she wanted Impa's honesty, she would have to be honest herself.
And so she told Impa everything. She'd only managed to free an hour of her schedule, so she spoke as concisely and with as much precision as she could manage. Impa listened without interrupting, her face becoming progressively more serious. When Zelda reached the end of her story, Impa nodded.
"It's finally started, then," she said, crossing her arms over her chest.
Zelda was irritated. She had expected concern, or perhaps even gentle teasing, and Impa's attitude of knowing resignation came as an unpleasant surprise.
"What's finally started?" Zelda raised her voice. "If you know something, I want you to tell me."
Impa smirked, her face bitter. "There are legends about the Zeldas. Did you think you were exempt?"
Zelda bit her lip to silence a retort but then spoke her mind anyway. "Don't give me any of this 'mystical Sheikah wisdom' nonsense. I just came into possession of a legendary artifact of staggering potential and saw a vision of a war, and this is right after the leader of the Gerudo all but promised that something terrible is going to happen to my kingdom. If you were waiting until my coronation to induct me into some sort of esoteric mystery, I urge you to – "
Zelda suddenly became aware that she had begun to channel the speech and bearing of the former queen whose body she had so recently inhabited. She sighed and let her shoulders drop. "...I'd like you to please reconsider," she finished in a softer voice.
Impa seemed to have paid her outburst no mind, however. "I was warned this might happen," she said, tapping the fingers of her right hand against her arm, "but I didn't think it actually would."
She shook her head and met Zelda's eyes. "There's not much to tell, except that all of the legends about the princesses and their heroes are true. The specifics may have been changed over time, but the foundation remains solid. Every one of those princesses existed in this world, as did every demon they fought."
"But that makes no sense," Zelda objected. "There are far too many legends for them all to be true. And if they were, we would have historical records of at least some of them. I was taught that the last Queen Zelda oversaw a war surrounding a border conflict, not the invasion of a Gerudo warlord."
Impa shook her head. "Blessed Nayru, where do I even begin. I thought His Majesty would have told you something about this. I'm assuming he didn't?"
"I honestly have no idea what you're talking about, Impa. If it's not a matter of historical record, then I haven't read it."
"You haven't... read it. Of course. This is why we Sheikah don't write things down. Books can be burned, and records can be altered or lost altogether."
"So you have an oral tradition, I understand that." Zelda made an impatient gesture. "But something this big, a man with enough power to destroy an entire army all on his own... Hyrule should have its own oral record of something like that. If such a person actually existed, don't you think people would tell stories about him? There's no way he wouldn't have become the subject of all manner of rumors. Especially since..."
Especially since he was so young and attractive, Zelda started to say, but she caught herself.
Impa frowned and looked away. "I'm going to say something that I probably shouldn't. The Sheikah are supposed to serve the royal family, not criticize it, but this has always bothered me..."
"Go on," Zelda prompted, intrigued.
"You're thinking about this like a princess, not a politician. Let me ask you, what purpose does it serve for the royal family to allow people to know that their monarchy was almost brought to its knees by the actions of one man? If the throne is so weak that it can be seized by an outsider, and a Gerudo outsider at that, then what's to stop anyone else from claiming it? If your family's control over this kingdom isn't absolute, then what's to stop any disgruntled farmhand with delusions of grandeur from becoming the seed that grows into the next uprising?"
Zelda immediately saw Impa's point. "And so an invasion becomes a 'border skirmish.'"
"And a man becomes a monster, a monster that was defeated because of the noble efforts of the princess and her hero. It's hitting two birds with one stone, really."
"Of course. The risk of political dissent is minimized, while patriotism and loyalty are encouraged."
Impa's face remained grim as she uncrossed her arms and cracked her knuckles, a gesture that Zelda knew indicated she was upset about something.
"You've always been a quick study when it comes to logic," Impa said, "but politics aren't the only forces at play here. What you need to understand is that, while the demons of legend are ideological constructs, they are also literal monsters."
"Impa, that's..." Zelda searched for the right words to respond to Impa's unfortunate phrasing, which was uncharacteristic of her friend, who usually had no patience for unjustified prejudice. "...extremely unkind," she finally said. "The Darknuts used to be considered monsters, as did the Bokoblins, and you know that even now..."
"They are discriminated against, of course. That's not what I mean by 'monster.' What I mean is that there are forces in Hyrule that we don't fully understand, just as we don't fully understand the nature of the goddess that your line claims as its ancestor. But that doesn't mean that they don't exist. It's just like how we accept the existence of magic, even if most of us don’t believe it has any bearing on our own lives. When it's wielded by the royal family in the service of the people of Hyrule, we consider magic to be good. But there is some magic that can twist people's hearts and minds, including those of the Darknuts and Bokoblins that attacked this kingdom during the reign of the last Zelda. This is how monsters are created. These monsters are not the demonization of a rebellion, but akin to natural disasters in the destruction they bring."
Zelda's mind raced as she struggled to process what Impa was telling her. "But the hero always wins," she pointed out. "So why haven't these monsters been defeated already?"
"As a member of the royal family, you've been trained to understand time as being teleological, progressing in a straight line from one point to another toward the greater glory of your kingdom. But we Sheikah..."
Impa held her hands in front of her chest, her palms facing each other. "We Sheikah see time as cyclical. History does not progress; it repeats itself." She flipped the position of her hands as if she were turning over an hourglass. "And the time has come around once again for the princess to face a great evil."
"And you think this princess is me? So tell me, what's the great evil I'm supposed to face?"
"It's too soon to be certain, but the Gerudo emissary seems to be up to something."
"Be that as it may, I don't want to fight a war. I can't fight a war. Impa, you know that."
"And that's where we Sheikah come in," Impa said, her eyes cold. "You don't always need a hero to defeat a monster. Sometimes all you need is another monster."
You're not a monster, Zelda wanted to say, but the truth was that she knew better. Like all Sheikah warriors, Impa had been trained as an assassin. As Impa's apprentice, she was no stranger to this training herself. She would need time to consider the implications of what Impa had told her, but time was the one thing she didn't have. If nothing else, she had to resume her afternoon audiences. She could already hear the undersecretary sent to retrieve her outside the door of the small chamber adjoining the stateroom.
"Thank you for speaking freely to me. I apologize for springing this on you so suddenly. Let's discuss this later," she said, turning away from Impa. And we'll see if I become a monster myself, she wanted to add, but this time she held her tongue. Before she was a Sheikah apprentice, and before she was a politician, she was a princess, and a princess must be graceful and composed.