Link crossed paths with Master Kohga in the hallway that led to the Sheikah sanctuary, in the bowels of Hyrule Castle. Master Impa's right hand had a much prouder gait than the leader herself, but Link had never known any reason to actively dislike him. In fact, of all the Sheikah, Master Kohga seemed to be the only approachable one. Most of the others either ignored him or seemed to espy him perpetually, as though they sought a weakness in him.
Master Kohga never did. He evidently was too strong to care about small fry like Link, Master Sword or not. Somehow, that made him far more likeable, even if he cared so very much about being shown respect.
By comparison to Revali, Master Kohga's prevalent need to be respected and admired was easy to dismiss. He did have talents, especially in the art of magnetism and levitation, where Master Impa mostly specialized in weaponry and subtlety ― or threats and blackmail, if one listened to the rumours― and as such had always impressed the trainees from the moment they became squires.
It was Master Kohga, many said, who ought to be leader of the Sheikah. This opinion was carefully kept secret, as none dared to voice it to either Master Impa or Master Kohga. The Sheikah were good at making people disappear, they said. Never let them hear you speak ill of one of their own.
Even the location of the Sheikah sanctuary, in the bowels of the Castle, opposite the dungeons, spoke of their rank. A secretive people, a warrior people, feared and mysterious they were. Link's first entrance into that reclusive sanctuary had been nerve-wracking.
The Sheikah had a reputation.
"Chosen One," Master Kohga greeted, with a hint of irony. It made Link want to smile. Months of being the Chosen One had done little to ease the strangeness. Master Kohga's humour was welcome.
"Master Kohga," Link said, nodding sharply. At least Master Kohga was affable. Master Impa, on the other hand, didn't seem to know how to smile.
"Let me know if you ever grow tired of the Singing Lotus pose," the Sheikah master said, a glint in his eye. "I could teach you more."
Link snorted, but they did not pause to chat any further. He was already late. Besides, Link had not been assigned to Master Kohga to train. He was trained by Master Impa herself... unfortunately.
The past few months, since he'd been chosen by the Master Sword, had gone by in a predictable, if irritating fashion.
He would awaken in the morning and train with the other squires and knights before breakfast, as he always had. The knight commander had allowed him to move away from short-sword and spear training and focus on mastering the longer arming sword he now was tasked with using, which Link had taken to with some aplomb.
This part of the day, in the early dawn, his feet sliding through dewy glass as he focused only on his movements and the stretch of his muscles, was almost meditative. It was all downhill from there.
Breakfast was hearty and filling, as he'd always enjoyed it, but it usually heralded the beginning of a long day of obligations. Before the Master Sword, he'd have occupied his time in martial training, managing the diminutive family estate, or running errands for the more senior knights. Now, he had to present himself for training under Master Impa of the Sheikah, who usually devised different tortures to make the time seemingly slow to a crawl. When he wasn't practicing annoyingly complex poses ― the Sheikah method of training, with names like the Eagle, the Lizard, or the Still Pond, amongst other deceptively friendly monikers ― she was drilling him with history lessons, asking him to read in old Hylian, or having him practice his oaths.
The exercises, Link felt, were mostly there to test him. He didn't feel himself emboldened, trained or improved by the experience. The oaths, it seemed, were the most important. He was to pledge fealty to Hyrule, and to the incarnation of the Goddess above all. He was to shield her from harm, he was to guard her with his life, he was to be the blade of her justice.
Link would not have minded, really, as he'd been ready to say similar oaths to King Rhoam when the time came, but knowing what came at lunchtime had made him ask, on more than one occasion, why he even bothered.
He didn't ask anymore. Master Impa had a fierce way of suddenly whacking him with a wooden switch, and the bruises always smarted for days.
Still, the question remained. Why bother? Because at lunch time, he had to present himself to the small dining hall, where he had to dine with the princess. And the princess, evidently, had expressed no interest in him, his achievements, or his role in what was to come. She rarely looked up from her books, and would often depart without exchanging a single word with Link.
Link had quickly understood that she apparently did not like him, and her distance and disinterest were rapidly making the feeling somewhat mutual. His early attempts at conversation had been met with the barest of acknowledgements, and so he'd fallen into sullen silence, scarfing down his food as fast as he could, if only to be excused and move on to the next part of his day.
He kept telling himself that if Princess Zelda at least attempted to seem cordial rather than distantly polite, he might have forgiven the obvious stress of her situation. But seeing her day after day and getting nowhere was making this difficult. Even beauty could only get her so far, he considered.
The afternoon was a mix. Sometimes, he had to put up with tedious lessons in decorum and protocol, and sometimes he was assigned to the king's personal guard, following him around in silence, or standing by the door. In those moments, at least, he could drift off in thought. Sometimes he had to attend events and ceremonies, and sometimes, once in a red moon, he even had the afternoon off.
Today, he was to meet the Champions.
It felt silly. They'd already arrived in Hyrule Castle, summoned the moment he had drawn the Master Sword and become the herald of doom. What's more, he was already well acquainted with Mipha and Daruk, had the misfortune of knowing Revali, and had at least nodded to Urbosa in passing.
But today was the formal introduction. The king was to give them all a token of companionship, apparently. They were all to swear an oath of fealty to Princess Zelda. In so doing, the Champions made a lesser oath of obedience to Link, too.
It made him deeply uncomfortable.
He was still ruminating that thought when he was shown into the dining room, and found the princess already seated.
She had no book with her today, and had apparently waited for his arrival to begin eating.
Link had never been late before. "I'm sorry. I― I got here as fast I could."
Princess Zelda looked at him, mulled over her reply, then said, "No, I understand. Please, be seated."
She was being kind. That was new. Link cautiously sat in his designated chair, and they began to eat in silence.
After a few bites, the princess placed her fork down and said, "We will have the official meeting of the Champions this afternoon."
Link wasn't sure what to think. She was talking to him. Of her own volition. "Yes, your Highness. I, er… Master Impa has drilled the oaths into my memory." Painfully.
"And into mine," Princess Zelda said, wryly. "I wish we could skip it entirely."
Link felt the corner of his lip lift up. She could say that again. "At least it won't be a full-day devotional."
The princess rolled her eyes. "Oh, devotionals." And her tone said enough of what she thought of those.
This was more than he'd ever gotten out of her, and Link was loath to let the silence fall once more. "Yesterday, you were reading a book on the Ancient Sheikah?"
Princess Zelda picked up her fork again. "Yes, for all the good that does me." She was choosing her words. Then, glancing up at him, she added, "I trust you've seen at least some of the strange structures that dot the kingdom."
Link had, though his interest in them had faded rapidly enough when it had become apparent no one would ever successfully interact with them. There were more interesting things to do, as far as he and his fellow squires were concerned, than investigate buildings that were in all likelihood mere echoes of an ancient civilization, utterly worthless outside of a scholar's study.
"Master Impa believes, as do most of our researchers, that the structures are Sheikah in origin."
Link tried not to make a face. If that was the case, then the Sheikah were scarier than he thought.
"You don't like the Sheikah," Princess Zelda said. It wasn't a question.
Link shrugged. "They make me uneasy, I suppose." It was the most diplomatic answer he could give. No one liked the Sheikah.
The princess didn't dignify that with a reply. "In any case, how those structures or their use could have been forgotten is beyond me."
"They mustn't have been very useful," Link said.
He realized too late that was the wrong thing to say. The princess' green eyes flashed with sudden irritation, and she speared a carrot with more vigour than was strictly called for. Apparently, Link had used up the last drop of her good will. Rigidly, she said, "And you would know all about being useful."
"I only meant that, sometimes, things fall by the wayside and leave their place to better methods―"
"If that were true," Princess Zelda said, "then you could handle this damned prophecy yourself, and I wouldn't have to hear anyone harp on and on about how little I have accomplished." She didn't even raise her carrot to her lips. "They all go on about how fortunate we are that you are here, at least. At least one of us is on track."
"I didn't mean―"
"Do you know why you are made to dine here, with me, every single day?" Zelda said, with asperity. "You are the reminder. You are meant to remind me of my daily inadequacy."
"Obviously, that isn't what I meant."
She was glaring at him, the fork in her hand trembling slightly. Her eyes darted from his face to the Sword at his side, with an emotion he might have thought to be resentment. "You're just a soldier," she said, finally, as though the assessment had been a long time coming. "A boy, barely fit to wield any sword, let alone that one." She put her fork down. It clanged against the porcelain of her plate. "And I will care about your opinions on my books, my studies or my pursuits the day you prove you aren't the completely ignorant, lowly squire you seem to be."
She stood. Link knew he was gaping, but he couldn't seem to muster the strength to shut his mouth. A boy? What about her? She was even younger than he was. The nerve!
So instead he said, "I hadn't realized you wanted me to be silent. I'll make a note of that."
It was difficult to keep the irony out of his voice, and she scowled at him.
"What could you have to say that is worth hearing, anyway?"
That stung, surprisingly. "It would be easier for me to eat with my friends, you know. They're nothing but lowly squires, but at least they don't snap at me when I try to make conversation. If you want this to stop, just tell your father."
"I keep asking, and he keeps saying no."
Somehow, that stung even more. Link lowered his gaze to his plate, and tried to prevent the heat of anger from rising in his blood. Or maybe it was humiliation.
Fine. He'd stop trying.
She slammed the door behind her. Link sulkily returned to his plate, taking his sweet time to finish eating. If she couldn't be rid of him, then he'd make sure she knew it.
Later, when he stood before her again, they couldn't even look at one another. King Rhoam had given all four Champions a drape of pure sky blue, and Link had been given a tunic of the same colour, in a ceremony meant to unite them as a single force.
Link had never felt more alien to a group. Mipha had shot him a shy smile, and Daruk had patted his shoulder, but there was still a distance between them. Here, Mipha and Daruk were representatives of their people, born of great legacies and heirs to titles Link would never attain.
Revali and Urbosa had bothered to give him a condescending look and a polite nod, respectively. There was no friendship to be found here.
Least of all within Princess Zelda, whose cool green gaze reminded Link of jade. Cold, lifeless. She had welcomed her Champions with a smile that had not reached her eyes, and though she currently wore a dress in the same sky blue as the rest of them, a gap remained among them, filled with impatience, anger, and disappointed hopes.
It was Urbosa's oath that came first, and the great beautiful Gerudo kneeled before the princess, her armour golden in the sunlight that filtered into the sanctum's high windows. Under the approving gaze of King Rhoam Bosphoramus, she met Princess Zelda's gaze and said, her deep voice carrying with it all the warmth of the desert she hailed from, "To thee, I swear: upon the blood of my mothers, by the grace of spirit, I shall bear thy burdens with devotion and valour, until victory is certain, or I die with honour."
She bowed her head, and the princess thanked her softly, and then it was Daruk's turn.
The great lumbering Goron kneeled, a feat in and of itself, though even on one knee he towered above the princess. His gravelly voice managed the oath with only a moment of hesitation, to gather his thoughts. "To thee I swear: upon the blood of my fathers, by the rage of fire, I shall open thy path, with devotion and valour, until victory is certain, or I die with honour."
Revali's oath came first with a flourish, as the Rito came forward in a gust of wind, the result of grand wing motions. Link was fairly sure the Rito Champion eyed him with some disdain, but it was a mere flicker of a glance, and it ended before he could be sure. In the high elegant voice of nobility, the words came out clear and proud. "To thee I swear: upon the blood of my kin, by the relentless wind, I shall strike true in thy name, with devotion and valour, until victory is certain, or I die with honour."
Princess Zelda thanked him, as she had the other two Champions. Mipha of the Zora brushed past Link in that moment, and suddenly Link felt a soft warmth against his arm. Mipha had a gift of healing, and she had sensed his unease. He shot her a grateful smile, which she echoed briefly, before ascending to where the princess stood.
Link wasn't disappointed to see the mild confusion on the princess' face as she observed their exchange, but she refocused on Mipha as the small Zora girl ― Link's age, but still a child by the standards of her people ― kneeled before her and said, in her gentle voice, "To thee I swear: upon the blood of my elders, by the depth of water, I shall mend thy wounds, with devotion and valour, until victory is certain, or I die with honour."
Princess Zelda thanked her curtly, and Mipha rose to join the other Champions, who were now looking upon him with open interest.
Heart thumping, blood boiling, Link went to one knee before his princess, feeling the weight of the Sword on his back, or perhaps the gazes of both Master Impa and King Rhoam, as well as a cohort of courtiers. He had practised the oath for months and could recite it in his sleep, but here and now, in the light of the sanctum, on the marble floor, all he could think about was how little he wanted any of it.
Still, the words came out, hoarsely at first, then more fluidly: "To thee, I swear." Here, he collected himself, and he could almost feel Zelda fidget above him. "I shall shield thee from evil and despair." Although he was fairly sure that the greatest bedevilment in the princess' life, at the moment, was him. Still, he pressed on. "And should thou come to harm, neither time, distance or darkness shall weaken my arm..." The next words were painful to utter, because he wasn't sure how he would ever manage to uphold them, "and my soul shall not rest, my blood not cool, my heart not soar, until I find thee, to make this land whole again."
There. Not so bad. He was fairly certain Princess Zelda had disliked every second almost as much as he did, but they would be the only ones to know.
She managed to thank him, though from the way she uttered it, she might as well have wished him a long, torturous death, and Link was finally allowed to join the ranks of Hyrule's Champions.
There was pause, then, and it occurred to Link that both Master Impa and King Rhoam were waiting for something. But Zelda turned to them and whispered, "Nothing. Nothing is happening. We can move on."
Had they expected something like this to awaken Princess Zelda's power? If so, it was misguided, at best. The princess seemed about as receptive to a goddess' touch as Squire Dunson at the end of a night of drinking, only she was angry, not drunk.
Link actually found himself wondering what Zelda would be like when drunk. There was no doubt she would mellow out. She might even be adorable, cheeks pink and gaze soft. The thought brought a mild smile to his lips.
"Din, Nayru, Farore, Hylia," Master Impa intoned, with great pomp, dragging him out of his imagination, "By your light, on this day of Summertide, we beg you to bless our efforts―"
Summertide? A heavy weight dropped into Link's stomach, and his eyes darted to King Rhoam, then to Princess Zelda, who was staring blankly at the far wall. But neither of them noticed his gaze.
Mipha shot him a curious glance, but Link shook his head.
How had he forgotten? Summertide was the day of Zelda's true birthday. All the preparations were being made for tomorrow, on Nayru's Day, the first day of autumn, as the season of Nayru stretched from the beginning of autumn to the middle of winter, where Nayrusfall gave way to Farore's Day. Today was the day they had chosen for the ceremony― and nothing had happened.
And Link had been so cruel, at dinner. On her sixteenth birthday. He wanted to groan, the regret and embarrassment great enough to make him wish the floor would open up and swallow him whole.
He was so preoccupied with his guilt that he did not notice when the ceremony ended, only that Master Impa was suddenly before him as the group and courtiers dispersed, and she looked angry with him.
"An hour of Thousand Knives pose," Master Impa said, and Link knew, with a sinking feeling, she had been apprised of his exchange with Zelda at dinner.
"I didn't realize―"
"Kindness," she merely said, interrupting him. "Kindness. Courage. Patience. These are the traits of what...?"
Link felt all the fight drain out of him, resignation taking its place. Sighing, he droned, "... A true hero."
He heard a gentle giggle from across the room. Princess Zelda was walking out with Urbosa, and the mirth in her eyes was like a ray of sunshine brighter than the very real daylight around her.
Their eyes met, like lightning, and for a moment Link's chest tightened. Regret, perhaps? Disappointment? Embarrassment?
The princess looked away, visibly uncomfortable.
Praying to his patron goddess Farore, Link let his Sheikah Master drag him back to the torture room that was her training chamber, deciding that it was better not to have any hope about Zelda smiling at him in that bright, carefree way, ever.
Perhaps a hero must be patient, but Link was fairly sure waiting on miracles was not was Master Impa meant.