Chapter 1: I - Tea with Gan
"Master Sheik, your presence is requested in the tea room at your earliest convenience."
Sheik looked up from his meditative pose on the floor, a little miffed at the interruption. The servant bowed and quickly left the small room, his job finished, at which point Sheik let out a loud groan of frustration.
He'd just managed to clear his mind of the recurring images of a certain prince, which had taken a lot longer than it should have. Just when he'd thought he'd gotten Atiya's stupid, brilliant smile out, it zoomed back in with even greater force, twice as clear and radiant. It was the same smile he'd worn upon being informed that Sheik would temporarily be reassigned to the Gerudo prince's guard retinue for the duration of his and Ganondorf's visit to Hyrule, along with a member of Princess Zelda's own Royal Guards. In the interest of harmonious cooperation, ostensibly.
A load of shit concocted in Atiya's head, no doubt, but Zelda had been all for it. Impa hadn't been quite as keen, understandably, but her protests had been shut down with claims of how much good it would do for Hyrulian-Gerudo relations.
Zelda had no idea that she and Atiya were very likely talking about different relations entirely (and Sheik had no intention of letting her find out).
Impa had relented eventually, but Sheik had a feeling she was keeping an eye on things from a distance. It was folly to think she didn't have one or two spies among the servants of their current lodging.
However, in all of this, Atiya hadn't taken into the account the usual temperature of the relationship between Sheikah and the average Hylian: Ice cold.
Sheik and the Hylian guardsman had, so far, in the first six days of their assignment, only spoken twice. The first time, they had to agree upon a schedule. Neither of them could be on duty at the same time, lest they make the prince's Gerudo bodyguards nervous and accidentally start something. The second time had been when Atiya had asked the two of them if something was wrong; why they were so tense around each other.
It had been tempting to do a little character assassination, but Sheik couldn't bear to let Atiya down, not when he was looking at him with the air of a wounded puppy, worried that his plan wasn't going so well. Evidently, the guardsman wasn't immune to that look either, and so the two had shared a Conversation, during which they spoke only of things the other could not argue with.
"I see you are currently in the vertical position. It is quite useful for getting a good view of the room."
"Indeed—that is not to say that the horizontal position does not have its benefits. Like, say, for sleeping."
It had been the longest five minutes of Sheik's life, and he'd felt a strong urge to sock the guardsman in the mouth afterwards. The guardsman had been of a similar disposition, and they'd settled it in the training yard later that night (in Sheik's favour, naturally), but at the time they were both willing to set their mutual dislike aside, if only so they could bask in the radiant smile of the prince.
That same smile that wouldn't leave his mind's eye, no matter what. It was always there, no matter what Sheik was doing at the time. Eating, sleeping, sparring, speaking to the prince...really, the time he spent with Atiya was especially unfair because he was suddenly assaulted by that smile both in his mind and in the real world! And he wasn't sure if Atiya was even aware of what he was doing to his temporary bodyguard, acting as he did.
The most frustrating part of it all was that he never got what he truly wanted—Atiya, alone, so they could talk. Atiya was accompanied by his Gerudo guards at all times, all of them so suspicious of Sheik and the guardsman (which was fair enough, he supposed), and he had a feeling this wasn't quite what the prince had had in mind when he made the request of Zelda.
So, there he was, stuck in a bodyguard position to the person he'd met, fought with, slept with, kidnapped, released, and then confessed to (all in the span of forty-eight hours, no less) six months earlier, and not a single opportunity to...reconnect, as it were.
If he was hoping for a repeat of certain events...well, he was only so strong.
At least Ganondorf wasn't added to the mix. He spent most of his time in meetings and conversation with the various lords and ladies whose lands they were visiting, discussing trade and other diplomatic matters. Sheik wasn't sure if he could take being in the same room as the Gerudo king and his little brother at the same time, for different reasons. Every time the king looked at him, Sheik could swear he was being studied, analysed, judged...and he had no idea if he was found wanting or not. Being the subject of that intense, golden gaze was a harrowing experience.
Not a single word had been exchanged between them so far. Sheik wasn't sure if he should feel relieved or panicked about that.
Atiya had no apparent interest in the diplomatic talks, preferring to roam the extensive grounds of their hosts, speaking to commoners and employees, being a general nuisance in their kitchens (he had something of an interest in cooking, it seemed), and generally just exploring. It was all new to him, after all. He kept complaining about the temperature, however, claiming it was far too cold, forcing him to wrap himself up in those thick robes of his. Blue was a lovely colour on him, no doubt, but they did not do a good job of showing off his physique...
...Goddesses, it seemed a different head was doing all the thinking today.
He took a moment to stretch, getting all the kinks out of his muscles. His knee still ached sometimes from an old injury he'd received a few years before during training. It was a miracle he could still walk and run, the doctor claimed, so he did a couple of one-legged squats, just to warm that joint up. Wouldn't do to limp in front of Atiya, after all. Afterwards, he reached for his sword and tied it to his belt, the handle resting at his hip.
Passing a mirror, he failed to resist the urge to take one last look at himself, making sure he was properly presentable. He'd looked a right mess in the desert, probably, so he tried to at least appear to have it all together outwardly.
The tea room was located on the second floor of the mansion, with a magnificent view of the extensive gardens. The interior decorations were all garish—gold and marble and deep red satin on dark wood—all at the height of fashion about five decades ago.
As he approached the door, he was surprised to see a pair of the Gerudo Honour Guards standing outside the room, still wearing full plate. That was unusual—Atiya's guards had quickly shed their heavy armours after the tour commenced, reverting to lightweight leather or scale armour that was far more practical than intimidating.
Both guards watched him carefully as he approached them, dipping his head slightly in respect.
"My presence was requested in the tea room?" he said.
It was the guardsman's shift at the moment, which was why the request was odd in the first place, but this really was starting to stink. Were they planning to attack him, or something? Lull him into a false sense of security before making their move? Gerudo had more reasons than most to hate Sheikah, so it wouldn't surprise him if some of Atiya's people were unable to let go of old grudges.
Goddesses, he hoped they weren't about to ruin a peace they'd worked so hard for just for the sake of revenge.
The guards exchanged a look, their helmets preventing Sheik from reading their faces. Their body languages were tense, resolute...but not threatening, not prepared to attack. Defend, certainly, but not attack.
"Go on in," a guard said, her voice reverberating within her helmet. "He's expecting you."
...Atiya was usually the one who found Sheik, rather than wait for the Sheikah.
Sheik suddenly had a very bad feeling about this.
He gestured to the sword in his belt. "Should I disarm?" he asked.
Another look was shared by the guards, then both shook their heads.
"You'd have no time to use it," the first one said, nodding to the door.
Oh, no, no, no...please don't be...
The door swung open, and Sheik nearly turned on his heels and ran in the opposite direction when, instead of Atiya, he found King Ganondorf inside the tea room, sitting at a table and gingerly sipping at a cup that looked several sizes too small. Honestly, the whole room seemed a little too small for the male Gerudo, who looked so much bigger than he had before. How much of it was projecting, Sheik had no idea, but he knew exactly how much of a chance he'd have if he was going up against Ganondorf in a fight: none whatsoever.
Unfortunately, his upbringing, training, and basic etiquette prevented him from just running away, so he steeled himself, drew a deep breath, and stepped inside the tea room. The doors closing behind reminded him of the sound of Sheikah tombs being sealed.
He waited for a moment, suddenly unsure if he should announce himself or wait until he was acknowledged. With Zelda, it was enough to simply state he was there. Atiya always knew he was there and never needed a cue. He had no idea how Ganondorf preferred it...or whether a mistake here would mean a swift death and war with the Gerudo once more.
Probably not—the Gerudo king seemed remarkably patient and tolerant of mistakes made in his presence. The sheer amount of faux pas the Hylian nobles had made during their visits were staggering, but Ganondorf had smiled good-naturedly despite it all...but that was all in panic. What was Ganondorf—or Gan, as Atiya called him—like in private, behind closed doors?
Well, I'm about to find out, aren't I?
"How long are you planning to stand there, Master Sheik? You look decidedly uncomfortable," the deep baritone of the Gerudo king spoke after a few minutes of awkward silence, golden orbs observing him closely through half-lidded eyes. He gestured to the only other chair at the small, round table, which was laden with a tea set and several small trays of pastries and fruit. "Please, join me."
"My apologies, Your Majesty," Sheik said, dipping into a bow. "I was unsure of the protocol." He stepped forward and, spotting the King's personal weapon—a simple steel scimitar, unadorned and undecorated—leaning against his chair, untied his own sword from his belt and leaned it against his chair in the same way.
It was bad form to bring weapons to the table, regardless of the meeting's purpose.
"You have manners," Ganondorf drawled. "Good boy." He set the comparatively tiny cup on its saucer, and waited until Sheik was properly seated before picking up the teapot, which was covered in a floral design—lilacs, possibly?—and pouring a cup for Sheik as well.
This left Sheik with a dilemma. His mask was in the way, making it impossible to drink the tea. Removing it was a possibility, but it was quite against protocol for a Sheikah to reveal their face while on duty (barring emergencies), and Sheik wasn't fond of showing his face to people in general. Something about it just made him uncomfortable...and doing it in front of Ganondorf was even worse.
"Would you please remove your mask?" Ganondorf asked suddenly, seeing the conflict in him. "It is going to make it very difficult to enjoy the tea...and I would like to see the face of the man they have chosen to protect my little brother. Surely that is not too big of a request?"
Phrased like that, Sheik found no reason not to remove his mask, so he nodded slowly.
"My apologies," he repeated, flushing a little when he realised his only words to Ganondorf so far had been...well, apologies. He reached up and pulled his mask down, revealing his face. "The need to conceal our faces is quite ingrained in us," he offered.
"Of this, I am aware," Ganondorf said, that horrible, calculating gaze now firmly set on Sheik's unprotected visage, slowly watching and memorising every inch of it. "I can count the number of Sheikah faces I have seen on one hand—and that includes yours. Please, have some tea. It is quite good...for Hylian standards."
Sheik did as he was told, every nerve in his body screaming at him to get the hell out of the room, to run away as fast as he possibly could with his tail tucked between his legs, because the giant on the other side of the table was going to destroy him! He barely tasted the tea—he'd never cared for the stuff. It was...tea. Brown, bitter, and with an aftertaste he'd be suffering for hours afterwards.
Realising it was time to actually say something other than muttered apologies and fetishising his face, Sheik cleared his throat, not quite able to meet the king's eyes with his own, his gaze ending up on Ganondorf's enormous shoulder.
"Your Majesty, I thank you for the invitation," he said. "However, I feel I should ask if there is a purpose to this meeting?"
Ganondorf helped himself to a tiny cake (which looked even tinier in his hand) and took his time enjoying it, smiling a little, before looking at Sheik again, the smile dropping.
"I would simply like to get to know you a little better, Master Sheik," he said. "We will be spending a lot of time together on this tour, and there is a certain...unease in the atmosphere between us, particularly between you and my guards. It is only to be expected, of course, given our troubled past, but the first step to healing such fractures is to get to know the individuals we once considered enemies. So...tell me about yourself."
Sheik fought the urge to gape at the king. He'd been called in here for this? Surely some other Sheikah—an important one, like, say, Impa—would be a far better choice for a conversation like this?!
"That is," Ganondorf continued, "something I haven't already heard from Atiya."
The king's face twitched minutely after saying that, and Sheik felt like he'd just been caught committing some great crime. Which, in all honestly, he probably had. He didn't know the minute details of the Gerudo criminal system, but he highly doubted just any old commoner or enemy could kidnap and have sex with the tribe's crown prince and get away with it, regardless of which order in which those things happened.
Okay, calm down, he thought, keeping his face calm and unreadable like stone. He doesn't know every single detail, surely? Atiya only told him the essentials...right?
"Yes," Ganondorf hummed. "I suppose you could say your cover has been blown—Atiya was never a good liar, which comes in handy for, say, the times he returns home long overdue, with a pack carrying your people's signature stitching." The bastard looked amused as he leaned back in his seat, studying Sheik closely for any sort of reaction. "It did not take long for him to crack."
"I suppose it would be too much to hope that he said he found the pack abandoned in the desert and met no people of any interest whatsoever?" Sheik's mouth spoke, to his horror.
He always knew it would get him killed one day, but he'd hoped for that day to come just a little later...while not drinking awful tea from a cup decorated with lilacs. It just wasn't the warrior's death he'd hoped for.
Ganondorf's eyes narrowed for a moment, before the corner of his mouth lifted in a terrifying smile, a deep chuckle reverberating in the large man's chest before reaching Sheik's ears.
"He said you were an amusing one," the king said. "Big-mouthed, but amusing."
This was like swimming in an ocean filled with sharks—and no Zora to assist. Sheik wondered if his chances of survival would rise if he took off and threw himself out the window and into the gardens below. Probably not. The king was in a good position to simply cleave him in half with his scimitar as Sheik passed him by.
"I have to say, I was quite angry when I discovered that my little brother had not only encountered Sheikah deep in our territory during a ceasefire, but been captured and nearly delivered across the border," the king said. The smile was gone now. Sheik wasn't sure if he preferred it that way or not.
"I can explain—"Sheik tried, but the king cut him off with a glare.
"Indeed, I was very close to breaking the ceasefire and launching an all-out invasion of Hyrule," Ganondorf said, picking up his cup and studying its floral patterns with the air of a predator. "It very likely would have led to the destruction of my people, but a good portion of Hyrule would have been burned before we were stopped. Such is the love I have for my little brother, Master Sheik. There is nothing I would not do to avenge him, or punish those who have even looked upon him without the respect he deserves."
This is like torture, Sheik thought, hand straying towards his sword. How long will this go on before he attacks?
"Luckily for us all, Atiya is a...persuasive individual, and managed to talk me down from making such a mistake, reminding me that, in the end, you also released him...albeit uncomfortably close to the border. Was it guilt, I wonder, that made you commit treason against your own people, against your princess, for his sake?"
No, Sheik thought. And I didn't do it alone.
"They showed him kindness, and repented for their previous actions, Atiya told me," the king said. "All in the interest of keeping the fragile peace we were working towards. A worthy goal, I agreed, and so I let the matter go...and I shall not let it tarnish our future relationship with Hyrule...or the Sheikah." He fixed Sheik with his terrifying stare again. "Even though I could do quite a bit of damage with Mistress Impa's nephew in my hands."
Swallowing heavily, Sheik steeled himself, aware he couldn't just sit here and take it—his people's pride was at stake. He just had to limit the damage to himself, rather than Hyrule as a whole.
"You'd spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder, Your Grace, if you were to do anything to me," he said, surprised at how steady his voice was in the face of the Gerudo king. "Sheikah do not forget, and we do not forgive. And I would certainly not make it easy for you in the first place."
Ganondorf held his gaze for a long moment before chuckling again. "At least you have some backbone, boy," he said, nodding. "That is good. I would not have my brother protected by a spineless coward without a good head on his shoulders. I must admit, I am impressed by your desire to protect peace over gaining personal glory. Frankly, with Atiya in your possession, you could have dictated whatever terms to us, and we'd be forced to accept them, leaving my people in a far worse position than ever."
"It wouldn't have been right," Sheik said, fairly sure he was about to pass out from how quickly this conversation swerved from side to side, and the king's capricious behaviour. Was it all a test? "Peace should benefit both sides."
"An admirable attitude," the king said with approval. "Utter twaddle, of course, but I appreciate your ability to tell a good lie—makes me feel a little better about Atiya falling into Sheikah hands. I swear, the boy has shortened my lifespan by decades with how much he makes me worry."
"I will not allow any harm to come to him, Your Grace," Sheik said, truly meaning it. Atiya would not get hurt. "Of that, I can assure you."
Once more the king held his gaze, clearly searching for any falsehood in his eyes...and finding none, as he nodded. "I believe you, Master Sheik. I feel confident in leaving my brother's safety to you. A bond has formed between you—I saw as much when Atiya told me the story, to what lengths you were willing to go. I believe he is in good hands."
Was this...approval? The emphasis on the last word was quite strange, but it was basically a nice thing to say, right?
Sheik wasn't sure how to react. Cheer? Scream and run away? Kneel and kiss the man's hand? Feeling awkward, he settled with bowing his head.
"I appreciate your trust in me and my abilities, Your Grace," he said.
"As you should," Ganondorf said. "I do not give it easily." He leaned forwards, letting his hand dance over the handle of his scimitar. The atmosphere in the room grew freezing, as his grin twisted into something ugly and monstrous—the visage of the demon he became on the battlefield.
"Of course, I also feel obligated to inform you of this: if you ever hurt him in any way, be it physically, emotionally, psychologically...I will take your head and send it to your aunt, diplomacy be damned. Is that understood?"
"O-Of course, Your Grace," Sheik said, bowing again and again, several times in quick succession. "I would not dream of—"
The door opened with such force it slammed into the wall with a loud bang, revealing a fuming Gerudo prince, his shoulders rising and falling. Atiya quickly took in the room, his gaze lingering on Sheik for a moment before turning into a full glare upon finding Ganondorf.
"Gan," he growled. "What is the meaning of this?"
From a distance, the king looked quite unconcerned, but Sheik could see a brief flash of fear in his eyes before it was glossed over, giving Atiya a calm smile.
"I am simply getting to know your bodyguard, al'akhu al'asghar," the king replied, his voice oddly stilted.
"Don't you little brother me, Gan! You already know who he is, and I know you're just trying to intimidate him!" Atiya stomped over to stand directly in front of his brother, as if shielding Sheik from him. "I told you not to do this!"
"If you think I will leave the matter of your safety to the same man who captured you without ensuring he will not turn on you again—"Ganondorf began, but Atiya crossing his arms in a deliberate fashion shut him up.
"He never turned on me in the first place," Atiya practically hissed. "My capture was a result of my own stupidity, and the rest of Sheik's team showing up. He was going to let me go before they appeared—and fought against it the entire time!"
He pointed at Sheik, still sitting helplessly with a teacup in his hand, looking between the two of them with wide eyes and a heart that had either stopped, or was beating so fast the individual beats couldn't be distinguished.
Am I dead? Sheik wondered. Is this my personal hell?
"How are we supposed to build bridges when you won't trust the very person who ensured my release and saved the peace process?" Atiya challenged. "He is the one person you can trust in these lands!"
Well...technically, it was Kafei and Paya who organised the release, I was just the catalyst, Sheik thought, but wisely kept it to himself. He doubted the brothers were interested in technicalities right now.
They seemed to be at a standstill, glaring at each other for a long, long, long moment before Ganondorf looked away, breathing through his nose.
"I have already given him my approval, Iya," he said demurely. "I was about to offer him some more tea."
"As you damn well should," Atiya said, nodding and turning to Sheik, all smiles again.
Sheik fought the urge to shrink back. Atiya was fucking terrifying when he wanted to be.
"Another cup, Sheik?" the prince asked sweetly.
"He does not appear fond of it," Ganondorf supplied helpfully, giving Sheik an evil look over Atiya's shoulder. "Perhaps something else would be preferable?"
"Good idea!" Atiya said brightly, grabbing Sheik's arm and dragging him out his chair, making him stumble. "I'm sure we can find something more palatable in the kitchens! Come along, Sheik!"
Sheik could do little but let himself be pulled along by the force of nature that was Atiya when he was annoyed, barely able to grab his sword on the way to the door.
"And you two!" Atiya said, pointing at the Gerudo guards that were always with him, "you can stay here and make sure my brother does his paperwork! He's already behind on it!"
"Iya, I—"Ganondorf began.
The doors slammed shut, leaving Sheik and Atiya alone in the corridor, which was conspicuously empty. Even the armoured Honour Guards were gone. Had Atiya sent them away? Or had they just fled when they saw the prince approaching with an annoyed expression? Sheik certainly would have, in their position.
Atiya pulled Sheik along the winding corridors of the manor until they reached a door, which the prince opened and unceremoniously shoved Sheik through, following close on his heels and closing it behind them.
It was dark, but with his superior night vision Sheik could see that the room was small and...lined with shelves? Candles, sheets, and other supplies occupied said shelves.
A linen closet?
"This isn't the kitche—mph!"
That was all he managed to say until he was pushed back against the nearest shelf, Atiya's lips descending on his with hungry abandon, tongue almost immediately begging for entrance...which Sheik was far too weak to deny, groaning when the prince immediately began exploring his mouth, teeth nipping at his lips every now and then. The heat immediately blossomed in the pit of his stomach, travelling through him and to the tips of his fingers and toes.
Only once when oxygen became a problem did Atiya disengage the kiss, giving Sheik's already swelling bottom lip and apologetic lick.
"Finally," Atiya said quietly, his sigh washing hot over Sheik's face. "I've been wanting to do that since I saw you at the ceremony, and these past few days have been torture, with you so close..." He leaned down until his forehead was resting against Sheik's, their breaths intermingling. "I missed you so much..."
Sheik flushed, but found himself grinning like a maniac. So, he wasn't the only one. "I missed you too," he confessed, reaching out to pull the prince closer. "Haven't been able to get you out of my head..."
Atiya laughed, the sound causing butterflies to flutter in Sheik's stomach. "Glad to know it was mutual...I was so worried I'd just imagined it all..."
"Not at all," Sheik assured him, placing a chaste kiss on the prince's lips. "Your brother's terrifying, by the way," he said seriously.
Atiya giggled (Goddesses, even that was adorable!). "Gan's a big pushover once you figure out his weaknesses," he said. "He's a bit of a sadist, though. He didn't...say or do anything inappropriate, did he?"
"Just asked a few questions," Sheik said. "How much does he know? About...you know...us, I mean?"
"Nothing," Atiya said, his hand finding Sheik's uncovered cheek, caressing it gently. "All I told him was that we'd taken shelter together, and tried to part the next day. I said nothing of what happened in the meantime."
"Oh...that's good," Sheik said, immeasurable relief filling him. For a moment, he'd been worried the king had found out about just how badly Sheik had corrupted his little brother. He could easily have imagined a scimitar in his immediate future if Ganondorf learned the truth.
"I wouldn't let anything happen even if he did," Atiya assured him, kissing Sheik again, his other hand roaming, slowly travelling south until he could squeeze Sheik's buttock...which made the Sheikah utter a very undignified squeak. "So cute," Atiya said happily.
I'll show you cute, Sheik thought, about to reverse their positions so Atiya was the one against the wall, but was interrupted by someone knocking gently on the door.
"I hate to interrupt," Ganondorf's voice spoke through the barrier, his tone somewhere between amused and murderous, "but Lord Rinir has just asked us to have an early supper with him and his daughter. Please make yourselves presentable and join us in the dining room."
"Y-Yes, Gan," Atiya said, his voice strangled. Sheik's heart had exploded at some point.
"Oh, and do keep the bite marks to a minimum in the future, please," the king added, before his footsteps faded away.
"He knows," Sheik hissed, sagging against Atiya, whose hold on him tightened.
"I'm going to kill him," Atiya swore. "I knew that grin of his meant nothing good!"
"Is this the point where I kill myself before he can get his hands on me?" Sheik asked miserably, wishing the prince was a better liar. Evidently, nothing got past Ganondorf when Atiya was involved.
"Absolutely not," Atiya said firmly, pulling Sheik as close as he possibly could...to the point of smothering him. "He'll have to go through me first."
"I suppose we should go," Sheik said, aware he'd never be able to face the Gerudo king again...or the other guards. If Ganondorf knew, it was likely the entire Honour Guard did as well. He made for the door, but Atiya kept him in place.
"Not yet," Atiya said, pulling Sheik's mask even further down, exposing his neck.
"What are you—ah!"
Atiya's warm breath washed over his neck before his wet tongue lapped the junction of skin where Sheik's neck met his shoulder...and then he bit down—just hard enough to leave a mark without breaking the skin. Then the tongue was there again, licking it in apology for the pain.
Sheik wasn't complaining—it was a good kind of pain.
"He did say a minimum," Atiya explained, grinning. "He didn't say none."
Sheik couldn't help but grin, already leaning forward to nuzzle against Atiya's neck. "I suppose we don't have a choice, then," he whispered.
What was pissing off a king, really, compared to having a prince to himself in a closet?
Chapter 2: II - The Accidental Gift
Night had fallen by the time they rode through the main gates of the fortress, a long, clear note from the lookout's horns signalling the entry of friendly forces. The large, wooden slabs swung aside, groaning and creaking, allowing the tattered group of scouts entry to the Gerudo's inner sanctum, the absolute last line of defence. Given the time of day, there was no activity in the large courtyard, save for the small group of stable hands swarming to take the scouts' mounts for them.
Nabooru steeled herself as she slowly climbed down from her saddle, careful not to upset the small bundle she held cradled to her chest. Her feet hit the cobbled ground, and she had to hold her breath to keep from screaming as the pain in her side flared up at the jostling movement. If she ever got the chance, she'd personally eviscerate that bastard Hylian with the mace, who'd paid her passenger no heed as he'd swung for her—it was only luck that let her twist away in time so that she was the one that took the hit, not her passenger.
"Ru, are you all right?" Aver asked, giving her leader a nervous look, wringing her hands anxiously.
Nabooru nodded. "I'm fine—nothing a little rest won't fix." She looked behind Aver, to where they were helping Aloni down from her mount. The girl held her side gingerly, the bandages on her leg darkened from bloodstains. The yellow torchlight gave it a ghastly colour. "Get Aloni to the healers, all right? I need to report this to the king." She indicated the bundle against her chest.
Aver saluted, a little smile playing on her lips as she watched Nabooru's little passenger squirming in their sleep. "Got it."
Nabooru watched them for a minute, making sure the others were all right. They all had minor scrapes and bruises from the skirmishes, but only Aloni had been seriously hurt, luckily.
She sighed, wincing when her side started burning again, and reached into her saddlebag, retrieving one of the few intact items they'd managed to recover from the burned remains of the caravan: the manifest. A list of the goods that had been stolen or burned didn't do them much good, but it also contained a list of passengers, and their names.
She was not looking forward to giving this report. Bad enough that Gan was being a temperamental jackass these days; this was just going to make things even worse.
Realising she'd delayed it long enough, Nabooru entered the fortress and quickly navigated the maze-like interior until she reached the central staircase, which led her up and into the hollowed-out passages of the mountain itself.
The caves stretched on for miles, and only a fraction of them had ever been fully explored and mapped. The remains of an ancient Wyrm's hive, or so the legends spoke. It certainly would explain the wavy patterns on the stone walls, eerily reminiscent of the segments that made up a Wyrm's body.
Nabooru followed the torches and signs until she reached a large stone door decorated with old drawings and ancient writing. To her surprise, she found Urbosa loitering outside, looking troubled.
"You're back," the larger Gerudo said.
Nabooru nodded, trying not to slouch too badly, but it was already too late.
Urbosa knew. She always did.
"You're hurt," the warrior said, stepping forward, eyes narrowed. "What happened?"
"Minor skirmish, nothing major," Nabooru said. "Only one casualty, and I think she'll pull through all right—though she might be a little skittish around spears for a while."
Urbosa didn't pay her words any mind, reaching out to pull at Nabooru's robes until she could roll it up, exposing her side, which was blackened by bruising.
"Nothing major?" she asked in a drawl. "Your ribs are broken—"
"Bruised, or I wouldn't be able to breathe—"
"Nevertheless, you should see a healer," Urbosa said, her tone firm. Some habits die hard; she still couldn't bear to see her students (current or former) in pain. "To make sure."
"After my report—"
"The report can wait; the king is in a foul mood tonight-"
"When isn't he?" Nabooru said sarcastically. "I haven't seen him crack a smile in months."
Urbosa shook her head. "It has been some time since he received good news."
The bundle in Nabooru's arms shifted and squirmed again, and the older woman's eyes were immediately drawn to it. "What is that?" she asked, her studious gaze taking in the stitching of the light-blue fabric.
"What I have to report," Nabooru said, offering no resistance as Urbosa pulled some of the fabric aside, revealing what she'd taken a mace blow to the side for. "There was a caravan...burned by bandits."
"...and what do you intend for him to do with this?" Urbosa asked doubtfully, though Nabooru could already see the seemingly stern woman melting on the inside. Her weakness was all too obvious.
"I don't intend anything," Nabooru said, shrugging (carefully). "It is for the king to decide."
"His decision might not be favourable," Urbosa said carefully. "Perhaps it would be best to bring h—"
"I already tried." Nabooru nodded to her injured side. "It's how I got this. Hyrule was not willing to talk, so..."
"Very well," Urbosa said, sighing as she pointed to the door. "He is inside—if he goes for a scimitar, run for it."
"Like he'd have the guts to hurt me," Nabooru said as she strode through the door.
"It's not you I'm worried about," Urbosa muttered.
The throne room was cold and dark. The fire pit had burned out hours ago and not been relit, and what little light there was came from a single torch by the door, and a few candles by the throne...which was empty. Not surprising. Ganondorf spent as little time as possible in it, preferring to be out and about among his people instead of directing them from a chair that (according to him) made his ass numb.
The king himself was kneeling in front of the fire pit, eyes closed. He'd shed his robes, leaving only his vest and sirwal, his feet bare. He almost looked peaceful, if it hadn't been for the grimace twisting his face into something ugly. He'd attempted to meditate, Nabooru guessed, but failed to find the inner peace he sought.
"I hope this is important," Ganondorf said without opening his eyes. His voice was rough—from fatigue, possibly? "Or I will be very cross."
Nabooru couldn't keep in the snort. "Cross is more or less your default state of being these days, isn't it?" she said, striding forward until she was standing on the opposite side of the fire pit. "Besides, I've seen you at your worst—I can handle it."
Ganondorf sighed. "This really isn't a good time, Ru," he said. "There's been a worrying development on the front, and now I've received reports of bandits crossing our borders in droves. At this rate, I will have to choose whether to keep the pressure on Hyrule, or withdraw troops to secure our own lands...which shouldn't be necessary in the first place!"
He opened his eyes and looked at her, his sclera red from lack of sleep. He looked pale and sullen, bags beneath his eyes.
"How long has it been since you slept?" Nabooru asked, momentarily distracted from her report and passenger. "You look awful."
The Gerudo king, a boy of seventeen whose age was painfully obvious at the moment, groaned as he stood up, stretching tired and sore muscles. "I have no time for sleep," he said, voice despondent. "There is too much to do."
"Delegate it to someone else," Nabooru snapped, big sister instincts kicking in immediately upon seeing his current state. "Kotake and Koume can handle some of the administrative things, while Urbosa can handle the military side of it. You need to sleep, Gan, or your judgement will be compromised."
"We're at war, Ru," Ganondorf said, none of the usual fire in his bark. "People are dying. I cannot afford to slack off—"
"Eugh, you haven't changed at all," she interrupted, striding around the pit to poke him in the middle of his forehead...which was a bit of a struggle since he was so much taller than her now...and his growth spurt didn't show any signs of stopping. She forgot her injury, and gave a small cry of pain when the motion pulled at her side.
His eyes widened. "You're hurt!" He reached out to her, but she spun out of the way, accidentally jostling the bundle...which woke up the occupant. She glanced down, a sinking feeling settling in her stomach when she saw the warning signs: the quivering lips, the eyes tearing up...
Oh no, she thought. You were so good the whole way here—please, not now!
But when a baby has decided to cry, it will cry, and there is no stopping it from happening. All Nabooru could do was sigh and hold the child a little tighter as the shrill cries began to echo in the throne room, her coos and swaying doing little to appease the little bundle.
Ganondorf looked completely lost as the sounds of a crying child filled his ears, his outstretched hand dropping slowly as he watched the blue-wrapped bundle with the nervousness one usually reserved for looking at weapons of mass destruction with hair triggers. Nabooru fought the urge to laugh at her little brother's misery, the very picture of teenaged awkwardness around children, nearly failing.
"Oh good," the king said in a dry tone, "you've brought a child."
"What gave it away?" Nabooru replied in the same fashion.
Stepping back and covering his eyes with his hand, the king groaned. Nabooru almost did the same—there really was something about the sound of a crying child that really cut through bone and marrow.
"Why?" Ganondorf asked despairingly.
"He's part of my report," she replied, watching carefully to see how long it took for her little brother to catch on.
About seven seconds or so, by her count. He must have been exhausted; Ganondorf was usually much quicker on the uptake.
"He?" the king asked.
"Take a look," she offered, unwrapping some of the cloth to reveal the red-faced source of the screaming, pointed ears almost comically big, an utterly inconsolable look in his eyes as big, fat tears rolled down his cheeks. "I know, I know, everything is terrible," she cooed, gently wiping the tears away.
Ganondorf looked frozen, somewhere between horrified and panicked. "Please," he said slowly, "for the love of all that is holy, tell me that you did not steal a Hylian child!"
"Of course I didn't," she retorted, trying to keep her face pleasant so as to not scare the tiny thing. "We found him in a wrecked caravan near the south-eastern border—no other survivors."
"And you didn't return him?!"
Nabooru knew her little brother well enough to pinpoint the exact where his thoughts would be right about now: wondering what the political ramifications of this would be, and what sort of reputation the Gerudo would develop as a result. Child-stealers, snatchers. His mind would be racing at a million miles a minute, trying to account and plan for everything.
On one hand, it made him a good king because he never made a decision without carefully weighting his options, but it also made him somewhat ineffective...not to mention he regularly upset himself by worrying about trivial matters.
Not that the boy in her arms was a trivial matter, but Nabooru hardly saw the need for the utter panic she could see slowly overtaking Ganondorf. This wasn't really how she'd planned for this conversation to go. At this rate, she could easily see Ganondorf working himself into a stress-induced breakdown over this, the little Hylian being the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back.
So, she decided to lie.
"I tried," she said. "They wouldn't take him."
It wasn't that much of a lie. She really had tried to return the boy, but every Hyrulian outpost or camp had attacked her and her scouting team before they could get a word in edgewise. Not even the Sheikah had been willing to listen, warning them off with a not-so-friendly rain of arrows. What was a woman to do, in the face of such hostility when simply trying to return a lost child?
She explained as much to the king, who listened with remarkable patience given the sheer volume at which the boy continued to wail. By the end of her story, in which she left out the mace that had tried to get to know her bones a little too well, Ganondorf had begun to pace around the room, muttering, only pausing to give her a despairing look.
"Is Aloni well?" he asked.
"She'll live, but it was a close call," she replied. "I decided to abort the mission after she got hurt."
"Just as well, and...and...could you please make him shut up?"
"Wish I knew how," she said, trying to make silly faces (it had always worked on Ganondorf when they were little), but it didn't seem very effective. "What's the matter, little one?" she asked, taking a cursory sniff. No accidents or anything that needed tending to. "Maybe he's hungry?" she suggested, running her fingers carefully through the golden strands of hair on his head.
"Are you asking me?" he said incredulously.
"I seem to recall Kotake saying you were absolutely ravenous at his age," she said, grinning when the king's face flushed a delicious red she saw all too rarely. Embarrassing him was a pleasure she would never grow tired of. "I'll go check the nursery; hopefully they'll have something for him."
Ganondorf looked relieved. An evil idea struck her then, and she stepped forward, catching the brief flash of panic on his face as she more or less thrust the screaming bundle into his arms before heading for the door.
"Ru, what're you—"he began, eyes wide and holding the boy at arm's length.
"I can't very well carry him all the way through the fortress, waking everyone up, can I?" she said, grinning widely. "I'll be back in a moment."
Or two, she added to herself, trying not to grimace as every step made her ribs ache. Maybe I'll see a healer first.
The door slammed shut, and Ganondorf, King of the Gerudo, felt like he was about to cry, joining in on the misery that the Hylian boy in his arms was currently experiencing. Nabooru was an evil, evil woman, and not worthy of the title of sister. Frankly, after what must have been hours (or days, she hadn't said when she'd picked up the child) spent in her company, it was no wonder the child was so miserable.
"Please come back," he whispered as the boy began to kick wildly in his arms, almost making him drop him, leaving Ganondorf no choice but to bring the boy closer, resting him awkwardly against his chest as he'd seen Nabooru do.
He had no idea how to handle a child, much less a crying one. He even felt awkward around apprentices, and they were ten! It had reached the point where he scheduled his visits to the nurseries to the times he knew the young ones would be asleep, ensuring he wouldn't have to interact with them. Nabooru mocked him mercilessly for it, and he couldn't help but feel that this was just another stunt of hers to torture him, in the spirit of big sisterhood.
Still...he had to try to do something, or the little Hylian was liable to make him deaf. Ganondorf liked being able to hear. Now...what was it he'd seen the mothers in the nurseries do?
He tightened his hold on the boy and rocked him from side to side a little, humming the melody of an old song he knew probably wasn't appropriate for the occasion—there was a lot of blood and death in the lyrics, but the music was nice, at least. It didn't have the drastic effect he'd hoped for, but the boy did quiet down a little, as if torn between continuing being a noise generator and listening to the song.
"That's better," Ganondorf muttered, continuing to hum as he made his way to his throne, sitting down. The candlelight gave him a better look at the boy, who to his immense disappointment was still a Hylian. He'd hoped Nabooru was screwing with him, somehow, and not actually dumping a political headache into his lap, but there it was.
Big, blue eyes still brimming with tears gazed up at him, taking in the sight of the Gerudo king, acne and all, with something akin to curiosity.
At least he'd stopped crying.
"I'm going to be honest, little one," Ganondorf told the boy, "you could not have arrived at a worse time."
The war with Hyrule was not going well, and the only thing stopping the Hylians from overrunning the Gerudo was King Rhoam's reluctance to launch an invasion of the Gerudo Desert, an environment in which his armies would suffer dearly for their victory. Ganondorf had managed to hold his borders until now, but the recent arrival of a fresh, rested battalion of Hylian soldiers at the most stressed front did not help matters.
And now, apparently, bandits and other scum were running rampant through his lands, harassing civilians? Unacceptable...but he had no idea where to go from here.
"And now I suppose we're going to be accused of being slavers too, unless we find a way to return you to your people without them attacking us," he said, looking down at the child. "What do you think? Any bright ideas?"
He'd half-expected the boy to start crying again, to signal his immense dislike of the entire situation, but instead the boy...smiled. It was big, and missing several teeth, but undeniably a smile. And what a smile it was—it caused the entire child's face to light up, his eyes sparkling like sapphires in the candlelight.
Something in Ganondorf's chest went gloop, and he found it impossible not to smile a little back, still feeling horribly awkward and like he was about to drop the damn thing by accident.
"Hmph, at least you've learned when to be quiet," he said, reaching out to wipe some stray tears from the boy's cheeks.
He paused as a tiny hand was raised, and the impossibly small fingers wrapped around his thumb, squeezing.
"A strong grip," Ganondorf muttered. "A warrior, then?" He leaned back in his seat, watching as the child explored his hand thoroughly, making excited sounds, like it was a new favourite toy.
Goddess, he was tired. The brief time he'd spent meditating had done little to alleviate the fatigue he was feeling, and Nabooru's arrival had only further sapped him of strength. His eyelids were getting heavier.
"Eugh, can't sleep. No time," he muttered, readjusting the child's weight so he was leaning against Ganondorf. "Too much to do..."
The boy replied with more gibberish that, to Ganondorf's sleep-deprived mind, sounded exactly like Nabooru when she was nagging him to get more rest.
"Haven't known her for a week, and already you take after her," he said. "Evil woman, I tell you..."
He must have fallen asleep, because he was suddenly aware that he was lying on his side on a soft surface, rather than sitting on the hard seat of his throne. The morning sun was shining through the solitary window of his bedchambers, meaning he must have slept through the night...and lost so much time! He would have sat up abruptly, but a soft weight pressed against his chest made him stop and look down.
The Hylian boy's face was peaceful as he snoozed, his beck pressed against Ganondorf's chest, with the king's arm curled protectively around him. How he'd ended up in this position (or even gotten to bed) was a damn mystery, but...this was kind of...nice? Must have been the rest, making him feel all giddy.
A familiar giggle to his left signalled the end of the brief moment of peace he'd just had, and he turned his head to glare up at Nabooru, who was sitting at his bedside. Her side was bandaged, which had him relieved. At least she'd sought medical attention after making a nuisance of herself. There was a book in her lap, covered in what seemed to be burn marks.
Behind her, Urbosa stood with her arms crossed, looking just as amused as the younger Gerudo.
"You fell asleep on your throne," Nabooru whispered as she reached out, presumably to take the child from him. "I got Bosa to carry you to bed."
"And the boy?" Ganondorf whispered back, surprisingly reluctant to let her.
"He looked comfortable where he was," Urbosa answered matter-of-factly.
"Anyway," Nabooru said, still reaching out despite Ganondorf turning slightly away, "we've come up with a new way to give him back, so...uh, Gan, I kind of need him for that."
Nabooru paused. "No?" she asked.
The boy had awoken during their conversation, and was now staring at Ganondorf with those big eyes of his again. There was no hesitation or fear—just curiosity and joy. An unreasonable amount of protectiveness filled him at the sight of it, and all he knew was that the Hylians would get the boy back over Ganondorf's dead body.
"The Hylians don't want him," Ganondorf said slowly, letting the boy grab his thumb again, causing the child to giggle. "So we will take him instead."
"Well, technically," Nabooru said slowly, exchanging a confused look with Urbosa, "I never really got to announce my intentions to the camps we approached. All I managed to say was hey, and the arrows came flying. Granted, that was probably my fault, coming at them with a full group...even though I did wave a white flag! Well, I say white flag, but it was actually Risa's smallclothes...which she was surprisingly eager to volunteer—"
It was an answer, as well as an attempt to get his sister to stop rambling. Ganondorf did not want to know about Risa's...unmentionables.
"Again with the monosyllabic responses," Nabooru said with a sigh, leaning back, watching him. "Gan, this is kidnapping—"
"You rescued him from certain death," Ganondorf said, carefully sitting up until the boy was perched on his lap, surprisingly calm since he was surrounded by strangers. "Hardly a kidnapping, I'd say. And if our enemies won't even show us the courtesy of speaking with us when approaching with a white...er...white...that, then I see no reason for any further attempts to deliver him back into their hands."
He tried to go for a regal bearing as he said this...though it was marred when the boy grabbed his thumb again and stuck in his mouth, sucking on it like his life was at risk.
"He must be hungry," Urbosa said, reaching down to pluck him out of Ganondorf's hands. The king had never really learned how to say no to his master-at-arms and war council member. Presumably because she could still easily lift him up and break his back over her knee. "I'll get him fed—you two sort this out."
It was impossible not to see the fond smile on the great warrior's lips as she left the room. Always had a soft spot for the little ones, she did.
"I won't lie," Nabooru said, slumping in her seat. "I'm not overly keen on approaching Hyrulian positions again—it was only luck that allowed us to escape with our lives this time. But, Gan...are you sure about this? This could have consequences beyond anything we can imagine—if the Hylians find out—"
"They won't," Ganondorf assured her, swinging his legs over the side of his bed so they were facing each other properly. "Because his presence here will be kept a secret."
She gave him a deadpan look. "You really think we'll be able to keep a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Hylian boy running around the fortress a secret? I know you can be optimistic sometimes, Gan, but this is overkill even for you."
"We'll raise him as one of us," he said. "And we do not allow him to be spoken of near outsiders."
She bit her lip. "Gan, what's brought this on?"
"I don't know," he said, sighing. "There's just...something about him. He's special, though I don't know why. The idea of giving him up feels wrong, and I feel like I'd be making a huge mistake if I did. Can't you see it?"
She rolled her eyes. "Every child is special, Gan."
"You realise I am your king, do you not?"
"I do, which is why I want to make sure you are absolutely certain of what you are doing." She patted the book in her lap and handed it to him. "This is the manifest listing the passengers on the caravan we found. The boy is listed along with his mother and father. The father was speared through, the mother had her throat slit. Commoners, from the looks of their names. He could have family, Gan."
"We'll be his family," Ganondorf said stubbornly, reading the lines of rough Hylian script on the pages, the writer clearly not much for order or delicate lines. He paused on the boy's name. "Link..."
"Some of the others might not accept him," she warned. "It took quite some time before many of the older Gerudo warmed up to you, remember?"
"They will accept him—anyone who doesn't is free to discuss the matter with me."
Nabooru held his gaze for a while. He stared back, refusing to break. He had made many mistakes in his relatively short life so far, and would likely make many more, but this wasn't going to be one of them. He was sure of it. He would raise the boy, and make him strong, and wise.
Nabooru nodded. "Fine, but don't come crying to me if this all blows up in your face. And if the Gerudo are going to raise him, we'll do it the same way we raise all our children—together. That is my condition—understood?"
"Understood," he said, allowing her to dictate the terms. He trusted Nabooru over anyone else, and knew she'd keep him in line...even if he felt like all they did sometimes was squabble like they had as children.
Urbosa chose that moment to return, carefully carrying the boy as he had his way with a bottle. The blue fabric he'd been swaddled in had been exchanged with a deep purple blanket.
"Ravenous one, isn't he?" Urbosa said fondly. "Pretty sure he melted Riya's heart a little."
Ganondorf tried not to imagine the sight of Riya—the single scariest woman he'd ever met—melting in the face of a child. It was just too unlikely an image to exist.
"So?" Urbosa said, looking at them. "Have you made a decision? Are we sending him back?"
"The boy stays," Ganondorf said firmly. "He is one of us, now." He glanced down at the book again. "Link, is his name."
"Link," Urbosa said, looking down at the purple bundle. "Hm..."
"What is it?"
"If you intend to raise him as one of us, then he should have one of our names," the warrior said, carefully handing him to Ganondorf.
Nabooru's grin turned wicked, and he knew she was going to mock him relentlessly for bonding with the little one so quickly, when his usual reaction to children was to flee in the opposite direction. He glared at her, face softening when he looked down at Link, whose interest in the bottle was gone now that he was once more in the king's lap.
"I suppose you're right," Ganondorf said. "But which one?"
"Gah!" the boy said, the sudden noise so loud it startled the king.
He became aware that Nabooru had started to chuckle under her breath, and even though he knew better than to ask what was so funny, he still did.
"Nothing, nothing," she said innocently (blatant lies). "It's just...the look on your face just now...reminded me of the time Koume brought you that kitten as a gift when you were seven, and the first thing it did was claw at you—same panic."
"Does anything of worth run through that broken mind of yours?" he asked, snorting. Then it struck him. "Hm, gift, you say...?" He studied Link, pleased when the boy easily met his gaze with steely (for a child) determination. "Yes, that is what you are: a gift. Atiya."
"Atiya?" Urbosa asked, looking thoughtful. "Hm, a fine name."
"Atiya," Nabooru repeated. "Heh, sounds good to me."
The three of them nodded to each other, and Ganondorf lifted the boy until they were face-to-face. The child squirmed, but did not seem displeased with the closeness. Ganondorf smiled.
"Welcome to the tribe, Atiya."
Chapter 3: III - Losing Teeth: How to Gain a Gerudo Girlfriend
Kafei couldn't help but feel a little trepidation as they passed through the stone arches the Gerudo City, which the inhabitants called Manzil, the meaning of which he wasn't entirely certain. His ability with the language was far from that of a master, only able to use stock phrases and questions that, in all honesty, rarely came in use on a battlefield, where it was more appropriate to...well, scream bloody murder and impale the nearest enemy with extreme prejudice.
Kafei glanced at his cousin, whose eyes were wide and darting back and forth, devouring the scenery of their former enemy's home, committing every detail to memory. Had it been anyone else, Kafei would have assumed he was doing it in order to compile the details in a report later, but Sheik...well, Kafei could tell Sheik was just eager to see as much of it as he possibly could, the part of his face hidden by his mask surely the very picture of childish glee.
Heart-warming, really, to see that peace had come before Kafei's dearest cousin could have his spirit and enthusiasm crushed by war. Frankly, the fact that his only encounter with the enemy (if it could even technically be called that) was with Atiya was a godsdamned miracle Kafei would never stop thanking the powers that be for, whether it was Hylia, the Three Sisters, or the enigmatic Desert Goddess the Gerudo put their faith in. He'd pray to all of them, as thanks.
And Sheik was right. It was bright. The streets were cobbled with red stone, cut into irregular patterns save for the occasional mosaic image, mirroring the equally red roof tiles. The buildings themselves were covered in shiny, white plaster, which probably did wonders to ward off the desert heat, reflecting it away. Some buildings were covered in more mosaic, depicting various scenes like a caravan travelling across the dunes, or a long-forgotten battle, or just children playing.
There were fountains everywhere, natural places for the population to congregate during the hot days, gathering to talk and catch up on the latest gossip.
And there was so much green! Whether it was palm trees growing from a carefully maintained garden patch, or hanging greenery from delicate, beautifully painted pots, Kafei couldn't turn his head without spotting plant life of some sort.
So much for the barren wasteland and dead city the Hylian generals described the place as. He'd definitely be describing what he saw in vivid detail in his report to Impa, maybe even add a few sketches, if only to prove the know-it-alls wrong. That'd put a smile on his aunt's face, and no mistake about it. A cruel, scary smile, true, but a smile nonetheless. He was just glad he wouldn't have to be in the room when she sat down with the Hyrulian High Command to...elaborate on just how faulty their intel was.
Their escort, six of the meanest-looking Gerudo warriors Kafei had ever seen, rode in a tight formation around them, forcing them straight ahead and preventing them from getting too close to any of the civilians roaming the streets, many of whom were giving the pair of Sheikah a mixed bag of intrigued, frightened, and disgusted looks.
Well, Kafei thought, we have been at war on and off again for the past century. It's only fair to react that way when the former enemy finally sets foot in their sanctuary.
Truth be told, the peace wasn't sitting well with Kafei either. He wasn't proud of it, but seven years of fighting...seven years of bloodshed, screaming, and familiar faces disappearing one by one isn't easily forgotten or ignored, no matter how many balls or parties the nobles throw.
Atiya had done a remarkable job in establishing a connection with the Hylians, no doubt, but Kafei doubted he'd see a complete normalisation of the Gerudo-Hyrule relations within his lifetime.
...gods, when had he become such a cynical bastard?
Oh right, when I realised my cousin had bloody slept with the enemy prince and I had to betray everything I stood for to keep them both out of trouble, he reminded himself. That'll topple anyone's worldview, I'm sure.
Their escort seemed intent on getting them to the fortress as quickly as possible, taking the less scenic route in an effort to do so. It was a pity, really—Kafei had heard some interesting things about the marketplace, with its bazaars and exotic fabrics. Perhaps they'd be lucky, and someone would show them around the city itself, rather than just the fortress? Atiya didn't seem the sort content to let his guests roam around the drab stone halls of a fort. Surely he'd want to show them the best his people had to offer?
...that is, if Kafei would even get to see Atiya at all for the duration of this research trip, as it was called. Kafei would gladly admit to not knowing about a lot of things—hell, sometimes he strongly considered calling himself downright stupid—but he knew exactly what his cousin and the prince would be up to the moment they were left alone.
Kafei was almost tempted to make himself a nuisance, pretending not to realise they wanted to get, eugh, intimate. A sort of pre-payback for the fact that Kafei would be spending most of his time alone on this trip, while the two of them got busy trying to break every bed in the fortress.
If they even bothered with beds, that is.
...and that was a lot more speculation about Sheik's sex life than Kafei had ever wanted to do.
"What're you grimacing for?"
The object of his unwanted speculation was giving him a look, red eyes narrowed in a squint. Of course Sheik chose that single moment to stop gawking at everything around him and look at Kafei, catching sight of the minimal twitching of the facial muscles around his mask.
He was almost tempted to reveal the reason, but he didn't want to risk pissing off their escort, who would surely not take kindly to a Sheikah interloper corrupting their precious prince. They'd never leave the city alive if they found out.
"Saddle-sore," he replied, meeting Sheik's narrowed gaze with one of his own. "Like you will be."
Kafei had never claimed to be mature in any way. The visible blush creeping over Sheik's mask was more than worth it.
Official protocol stated that they were to be escorted through the city, into the fortress, and then taken directly to Ganondorf's throne room, where they would be officially received as guests of the Gerudo. The first step to lasting peace, to mending the burned bridges between the Sheikah and Gerudo peoples.
For the sake of Impa's sanity, Kafei would go along with the humongous lie that it was. Kafei and Sheik and had already shaved decades off her life with the first Atiya incident—her nerves couldn't take any more of these shenanigans.
Of course, official protocol meant absolutely squat in the face of a love-struck teenager finally getting to see his beloved again after...oh, gods above, several months at the least. Frankly, it was amazing the Gerudo prince hadn't met them at the city gates.
Or the border, at that.
Kafei supposed he should feel lucky that Atiya settled with waiting for them at the entrance to the fortress itself, practically squirming as they passed through the gates, their escort finally breaking the tight formation around them and dispersing. The prince's excitement only grew when he spotted Sheik, and Kafei had a feeling it was only Urbosa's firm hand on his shoulder that kept the prince from hurling himself at his lover. Based on the long-suffering look on Urbosa's face, it was a practiced move at this point.
Glancing at his cousin, Kafei suppressed a sigh. Sheik had eyes for nothing but the prince, which wasn't surprising in the least, but was it really too much to ask for some decorum? At this rate, they'd risk offending the entire Gerudo population by blatantly parading the relationship around.
That said, Kafei could see why Sheik was so entranced. Atiya had shed the usual robes he'd worn during his diplomatic visit to Hyrule, and was instead wearing a light, breathy outfit with a midriff-exposing top that accentuated his well-sculpted abdominal muscles, gold bangles and a slightly transparent veil that only partially hid the lower half of his face from view. His red hair was, surprisingly enough, tied up in a bun and kept in place with sticks, which was a style commonly seen among the Sheikah and...well, there were no prizes for guessing why he'd chosen that style...or from whom he'd learned it.
A lovely sight, definitely.
"Not a subtle bone in either of you, is there?" Kafei muttered under his breath as a pair of stable hands came forward to take their mounts, and they climbed out of their saddles.
What little patience Atiya had seemed to snap, and he tore out of Urbosa's grip, practically leaping down the stairs and running straight at them. He seemed to remember what he was supposed to be doing at the last minute, coming to screeching halt a few steps away, blue eyes wide and excited.
"Welcome!" he shouted.
It was probably meant for the both of them, but Atiya had directed it towards Sheik, whose mind had probably ground to a halt. After a few seconds of awkward silence, Kafei cleared his throat and bumped his shoulder into Sheik's.
"Ah...thank you, At—Prince Atiya!"
Why are you shouting at him? Kafei wondered, wishing there was a hole nearby he could throw himself into. Catching up to her prince, Urbosa seemed to have similar thoughts.
More silence. Kafei supposed he had to take charge.
"I would like to thank you for the most gracious invitation, on behalf of both ourselves and the rest of our people, Prince Atiya," he said smoothly, bringing the prince's attention to himself. "We understand and appreciate the trust you are placing in us by allowing us inside your city." He finished with a gracious bow, which Impa had made him practice for hours on end until he had it down perfectly.
"Ah, Master Kafei," Atiya said, inclining his head in a practiced manner that surely someone'd had him practicing for hours. "It is a pleasure to see you again. I trust you have been well?"
Impa's only tried to kill me once or twice, so...pretty much, yeah, he thought. "Very well, your grace, thank you," he replied. "Paya sends her regards."
Atiya paused, and the line of his lips behind the veil twitched upwards in a secret smile. "I hope you will give her mine in return, along with my thanks."
It was hard, acknowledging the fact that the prince had been his prisoner without giving it away to everyone around them. At least Atiya didn't just blurt it out.
Urbosa cleared her throat, and Atiya winced. "I...regret to inform you that the official ceremony to welcome you will have to be postponed for a few hours," he said, shoulders hunched. "My foolish...er...honourable brother's council meeting has hit upon a rather controversial matter, and he will be busy for a while yet." His fists clenched. "Stupid Gan," he muttered under his breath.
"My Prince," Urbosa said sharply.
"A-Anyway," Atiya said, straightening up. "I am certain we will be able to find some way to pass the time until then!" His eyes kept straying to Sheik, an apologetic shine to them.
"Well," Kafei said, clearing his throat, "as I recall, your grace and my cousin had a rather...stimulating discussion regarding our people's relations when your visit to Hyrule ended. I am sure you would like to reach a satisfying conclusion to said discussion, and I would not dare to dream interrupting it. Please, do not mind me."
If looks could kill, the glare Sheik was giving him would have carbonised Kafei's feeble form and scattered him to the winds. Urbosa's was quite similar, but aimed at Sheik.
Atiya just looked sheepish, but not at all repentant, scratching his neck awkwardly.
"Well, I would certainly be happy to finish what we started, Master Sheik, if you are willing...?" the prince said.
"I...er...yes," Sheik choked out.
"Ah, but that would be quite rude of me, wouldn't it, to steal your cousin away and leaving you alone?" Atiya asked, though his tone was clearly pleading for Kafei to disagree.
For a moment, Kafei considered agreeing just to torture Sheik for a bit, but his damn bleeding heart just wouldn't allow him, so he shook his head. "Not at all," he said. "I'm certain I can find some way to entertain myself for a while."
"That would be...most agreeable," Atiya said, now turning those doe-like eyes onto Urbosa, begging for some sort of intervention. The large warrior stood resolute in the face of them, which was damned impressive.
Realising his tactic wasn't working, Atiya changed tactics. The pleading was quickly abandoned and replaced with a calculating expression.
"Urbosa, I'm sure, is willing to show you around. She has so many secrets—I mean secret spots known only to us. It would be an honour for an outsider to see them."
An almost imperceptible change came over the warrior then, a slight widening of her golden eyes. He may have lacked subtlety, but Prince Atiya was clearly a terrifying force to be reckoned with regardless, his implied threat striking something within her.
"I...suppose I could give him a tour," Urbosa said slowly. "But, my prince, perhaps it is better for them both to see our fair—"
Atiya's expression went from menacing to beaming in a heartbeat.
"Excellent!" He interrupted her, more or less seized Sheik's arm and began pulling him towards the fortress entrance, his cousin giving Kafei a helpless look. "Your luggage will be seen to, Master Kafei-Urbosa, I leave him in your care!"
"Yes, my prince," Urbosa said with a sigh.
And then they were gone, leaving Kafei and Urbosa standing awkwardly together in the middle of the fortress courtyard. Around them, the guards and stable hands busied themselves, clearly pretending not to have been eavesdropping on and watching the exchange. By now, Kafei was regretting his goading of the prince. He hadn't meant for poor Urbosa to get dragged into his petty revenge on his cousin.
Especially since it put him on the firing line. There was no question as to Urbosa's physical prowess (one did not rise to her position without it), but here, standing next to her, Kafei realised he'd have no chance whatsoever to escape or fight back successfully if she decided to take her frustrations out on him.
Standing in someone's shadow, quite literally in this case, tended to knock that one's head.
For goodness' sake, her biceps are larger than my head!
"For what it's worth," he said, awkwardly scratching his arm, "I am sorry for this."
"As am I," Urbosa replied. "Prince Atiya is...a wilful individual. Once he has his sights set on something, he does not stop until he has it."
"That is not always a bad thing, though," Kafei said carefully.
"In this case, however..." Urbosa began, trailing off.
"Diplomatic disaster, I know," Kafei said in agreement. He shook his head. Best to just move past this horridness and get on with it. "I believe we haven't been formally introduced," he said, bowing again. "I am Kafei of the Sheikah."
"Sheik's cousin," Urbosa said, nodding. "I've heard your name before—several of my warriors have spoken of crossing blades with you. I am Urbosa, commander of the Gerudo military forces."
They were both lying through their teeth. All in the interest of peace.
Sheik would pay for this!
Frankly, the tour was a disaster. Urbosa did her best to show Kafei the sights around the city, but her demeanour was awkward and stilted, and that seemed to make tensions among the civilian population run high. They weren't outright rude, but Kafei could tell that he wasn't really welcome wherever he went. Not even removing his mask helped, and all that really accomplished was making him uncomfortable, unused to having so many people see his face, which in turn made his interactions with the people even more awkward.
He'd expected this, but it still made him feel bad. Not just for himself, but for the Gerudo as well. They were having their day ruined by a Sheikah intruder, the sort they'd been telling each other to be wary of for years, to avoid at all costs at the risk of death.
He told Urbosa as much as they took a break at midday, sitting on the lip of a fountain, enjoying the cold, wet breeze the wind blowing through it created. He kept a smile on his face as he spoke, trying not to pay too much attention to the way the people kept a large amount of space between them at all times, careful not to get too close to the interloper.
"It is hard to forget the hardships of centuries, even when it is all behind us," Urbosa said, not unkindly. "The war lasted for a long time, Master Kafei, and we have lost much to Hyrule. You are aware, I'm sure, of your people's role in all this."
"Surgical strikes and sabotage," Kafei said. "The knife in the dark. The bogeyman waiting to take them at their most vulnerable."
"Indeed, and we learned very quickly that no matter what we did, no matter what precautions were taken, you always found a way to get to us. I will admit that, during campaigns in enemy territory, I was wary of going to sleep at night, in case I woke to find a Sheikah standing over my bedroll, blade at my throat." She grimaced. "Sometimes, I still am."
"We never struck the city, though. And we never targeted civilians." Kafei shifted uncomfortably. It felt strange, having this conversation out in the open, but perhaps that was Urbosa's goal, to demystify the former enemy, now ally, for the people. He felt the need to point that out, though, both for his own sake and that of the those listening...
"Which was appreciated," Urbosa said, "but a Gerudo's status tends to be rather...fluid. We're all taught to fight and defend ourselves at an early age, and during wartime there are rotations in what duties we are required to perform. We have professional soldiers, of course, but in times of great need or shortage of manpower, every Gerudo is expected to volunteer for duty in some capacity. And as such...when the Sheikah targets military personnel, they could be targeting anyone unlucky enough to be on rotation that day."
And therefore, we were also targeting civilians, in our ignorance, Kafei thought.
"Well, don't I feel like an utter arse," he said, scratching his cheek.
"I'm surprised you didn't know," Urbosa said. "Our spies' greatest fears were always that the Sheikah knew everything about us, including a way inside our city and fortress, and were just waiting for the right moment to strike."
"We didn't, and we don't," he said, shaking his head. "Not for the lack of trying, though. We never were able to find a way inside this place, so we had no idea what was going on, or how your society truly looked like from the inside." He caught the gaze of a merchant nearby, and her expression was one of wariness. "That, ostensibly, is part of the reason we're here...or I'm here, at least."
"I do believe the prince is genuine in wanting to build bridges, but he can be easily distracted," Urbosa said, frowning. "I can only hope he will find his focus again after the initial..."
She waved a hand distractedly, clearly uncomfortable with even suggesting what the prince was up to with Sheik while she and Kafei were walking around the city.
"If not, I'll give my cousin a talking-to for neglecting his duties," Kafei said. "Though I hope to Hylia that I won't have to. It was awkward enough when I first found out. Nearly had a heart attack."
"I have no doubt," Urbosa said, chuckling a little. "I will admit, I was not particularly happy when I found out myself, but I also knew that I had no say in the matter, so I held my tongue. Nabooru and the king did not."
"Oh dear," Kafei said, grinning. "And how did that go?"
"About as well as can be expected when Atiya is involved. Loud, explosive, and then quiet as he...asserted himself."
"He has a way of doing that," Kafei said, remembering the way he'd convinced Urbosa to take him on the tour. "Got dirt on you, has he?" he asked, perhaps a bit too cheekily. The Gerudo didn't seem to mind, though, but her face did twist into another grimace.
"He has dirt on everyone," she said sourly. "I wouldn't be surprised if he's got enough material on your Hylian lords to blackmail them into oblivion by now, if he so desired."
"How?" Kafei asked.
"Goddess knows," she said with a shrug. "He has a way of acquiring information, sucking it up like a sponge. He always did." Her grimace fell into a fond smile. "Once, when he was seven, he slipped away from the girl who was looking after him at the time, sneaking out of the fortress and into the city. We panicked, of course, and sent out patrol after patrol to retrieve him. The king hadn't officially announced his presence in the city at the time, and we had no idea how some of the more...volatile segments of the population would react to the sudden appearance of a Hylian in their midst, even one as young as him.
"Turns out we needn't have worried. After wandering around for a bit, he ended up in one of the tailors' shops, and quickly made friends with the seamstresses there. He walked away with three new outfits, and the latest gossip on damn near half the city. The girls had absolutely fallen for him, and it was that meeting that convinced the king to make the announcement to everyone."
Kafei smiled. "That does sound like him, yeah. I have a feeling he would have made for an excellent spy or information broker, if he chose to go in that direction." He tugged at the collar of his suit, the heat of the day making him uncomfortable.
"I have no doubt," Urbosa said, standing up. "I think we should head inside, for now. The heat's only going to get worse for the next hour or so, and I don't think you'll be very comfortable."
He nodded, realising there was a distinct lack of activity around them as most of the people milling about in the streets were all heading inside. "Where to?" he asked.
"I figured you would like to see one of our barracks?" Urbosa suggested. "See how we train, and the like."
He had to admit, that was one of the things he'd hoped to see during his visit to the Gerudo city, though he hadn't expected for his host to actually offer. At worst, he'd have to sneak a peek under the cover of night. He wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth, however.
"I'd love to," he said genuinely. "Is that all right, though? Surely that's classified information—"
"The prince, as well as the king, insisted on full transparency," Urbosa explained. "And I don't think there's all that much valuable intelligence to be gained from watching a group of our warriors beating the snot out of each other, do you?"
Valuable intelligence? Probably not. A great deal of personal satisfaction? Very much so.
Kafei had nothing but the greatest respect for the Gerudo's warriors, and their skills at wielding their heavy-looking scimitars with the same grace the Sheikah did their slimmer blades Perhaps a bit too much, even.
More than once he'd caught himself getting distracted on the battlefield by a particularly skilled golden-eyed warrior cleaving her way through the enemy ranks. Paya had ribbed him mercilessly for it over the years, but who was she to talk with how over the moon she was for Princess Zelda?
All right, perhaps Kafei's fascination wasn't entirely with the martial skills of their enemies, but it was definitely part of that fascination. That said enemies happened to be very attractive was just a bonus.
"Probably not, but I would still like to see it," he said, trying not to seem too excited. "I've always wondered how a Gerudo sparring session goes."
"Then please follow me, Master Kafei, and you shall find out," Urbosa said, leading on.
While the biggest Gerudo military presence was obviously found in their fortress, there were also several smaller barracks in strategic locations around the city, so the response could be quick no matter where in the city something happened. There was no police force as such—the soldiers fulfilled that role as well. Apparently, crime was almost unheard of in Gerudo society...which, for a people whose most well-known trait was that of being great thieves, Kafei found strange.
Then again, they probably don't steal from each other, he thought. And really, Hylians do tend to exaggerate a lot when describing other races.
The particular barrack Urbosa took him to was located near the fortress. It was a nondescript, unassuming building, nearly identical to bright, white-painted ones around it. The only thing separating it from the neighbourhood around it were the tall fences around the training yard, which was empty at this time of day, the soldiers having sought refuge from the hellish temperature inside.
A single guard, carrying a wicked-looking glaive, stood at attention when Urbosa entered the archway. "Commander, welcome..." she trailed off when she saw Kafei following her, eyes narrowing, her veil likely hiding a scowl. "Commander?" she asked, the wooden staff of her glaive creaking as her grip tightened.
"This is Master Kafei, of the Sheikah," Urbosa said. "He is our guest today. I have invited him to observe one of our sparring sessions."
Kafei bowed at his introduction. He wasn't sure what to say, so he gave the guard the most pleasant smile he could. It did nothing to soften the glare she aimed at him.
"He is a guest, at the personal request of Prince Atiya," Urbosa repeated more firmly. "And is not to be bothered. Is that clear?"
"Yes, commander," the guard said, nodding. "My apologies."
"Come on," Urbosa said, continuing into the building. To his surprise, the temperature inside was far cooler than he expected, almost making him shiver. "There is a complicated set of ducts and vents that make the air inside constantly circulate," she explained, "and that keeps the temperature down."
"Ingenious," Kafei commented. "Definitely something we could use for hot summers back home."
The Shadow Temple did get quite stifling. Kafei doubted he'd manage to convince the clan elders or Impa to make changes to the old structure, though, especially not the crypts. Tradition, above all, was what the elders valued, and Impa had the unfortunate position of making sure the boat wasn't rocked too badly. Hylia knew how they'd react to finding out what Sheik was up to with the enemy.
Oh, how Kafei wished he'd be there to see their faces if they ever found out.
"Good luck getting our engineers to share the designs with you," Urbosa said lightly. "They are notoriously tight-lipped about their work, even around other Gerudo."
"Oh, I'm sure Prince Atiya has some dirt on them I can exploit."
Urbosa paused, turning to stare at him for a long, uncomfortably silent moment...and then she laughed. "Please let me know if he does; I could use an edge during council meetings."
At the end of the long hallway, behind a heavy-looking door, he could hear the familiar signs of clashing wood and strained shouts and grunts. Already he could feel his heart thumping with excitement. Urbosa opened the door and strode through it with confidence, and the sounds immediately fell silent.
"Commander, welcome!" one voice shouted.
"Welcome!" an entire chorus said right after.
"At ease, girls," Urbosa said, waving Sheik through the door. "As you were. We're just here to observe the session."
Kafei walked through the door and found a large room lined with weapons, both real and wooden practice ones, of every sort. One end of the room was covered in carpets and comfortable-looking pillows, while the other had a slight depression and only the stone surface. This spot was occupied by several Gerudo warriors, dressed in tight-fitting sparring uniforms. They appeared to be paired off, practicing attacking and being attacked with wooden weaponry. A few were giving him confused glances, though the majority was glaring.
Would be nice not to be mentally run through every time I enter a room in this city, he thought, giving them another Pleasant smile (with a capital P).
"A pleasure to meet you," he said, "My name is Kafei."
It did not have the desired effect. He could feel the temperature in the room dropping by the second, and not just because of the air vents. One soldier in particular looked just about ready to take a swing at him, eyes locking with his, her face twisting in a nasty grimace.
"Didn't your mothers teach you manners?!" Urbosa barked.
There was a (quieter) chorus of chastened hellos and pleased to meet yous, none of them particularly warm, but Kafei would take what he could get.
"Good, now get back to work!" the commander barked once more.
The soldiers were quick to return to their drills, the previous awkwardness soon forgotten as they were absorbed by their training. Except the girl who'd glared at him so fiercely. She kept glancing at him when she could, which often ended with her taking a hit or messing up a move. Her partner kept yelling at her for it, but she didn't seem too concerned.
"We usually start with group sparring like this before moving on to individual bouts. The one-on-one practice helps us find flaws in each soldier's technique," Urbosa explained quietly next to him.
They were sitting on pillows on a carpet at the end of the room, giving them a good view of the fighters. The commander offered Kafei a cup of cold water, which did wonders for his throat.
"And they're all trained with the same weapons?" he asked.
"The scimitar, spear, and glaive are standard-issue, but if a soldier proves to have affinity and skill with a different type of weapon, we try to accommodate them, provided we can find someone to tutor them in that particular art. Prince Atiya, for example, has proven quite capable with the longswords used by Hylian knights, though he eschews them in favour of our traditional armaments."
"I suppose he feels more comfortable using the weapons of the culture he grew up in?" Kafei suggested.
"Perhaps," Urbosa said, nodding. "Or maybe he simply doesn't want to be mistaken for a Hylian."
There was a challenge there, and Kafei had no intention of meeting it, nodding instead. "That is his business, not mine."
And here I thought we were getting along, he thought sourly, sipping at his water.
He looked up, and found the girl who'd been glaring at him from before lying on the floor, glaring and shouting at her partner in their language, too fast for Kafei to understand it. Her partner was shouting back, their instructor adding a third voice to the mix.
Next to him, Urbosa was rubbing the bridge of her nose impatiently, muttering under her breath.
"This happen often?" he asked.
"More than I'd like," she replied, gracefully rising from her seat on the floor and stalking towards them, her voice a lot louder than the rest.
The argument lasted for a while, and Kafei couldn't help but notice that the girl who'd ended up on the floor kept pointing and gesturing at him, like he was at fault. Urbosa kept shaking her head, Atiya's name and the Gerudo word for guest coming up quite a lot. The girl didn't seem to take no for an answer, however, and kept pointing.
"You!" she finally shouted at him. "I want to fight you!"
He blinked. "Pardon?" he asked.
"Fight me, Sheikah!"
Urbosa sighed. "Apologies, Master Kafei, but my subordinate here appears to have been raised by wild animals. Please, do not be offended—"
"Why do you want to fight me?" he asked, standing up. His fingers were itching to grip the sword on his belt, already feeling the electricity of an upcoming battle in the air.
"To test myself!"
"That's enough!" Urbosa shouted. "Master Kafei is our guest—"
"I'll fight you," Kafei found himself saying without really thinking about it. The girl seemed more excited than anything, her glares striking him as more of a challenge than something derisive. He undid his sword belt and gently placed the weapon on the floor, glancing at the racks around him. "Just for practice, yes?"
"It had better be," Urbosa said darkly.
He found a wooden sword that was roughly shaped like his own weapon, though the balance and length were a bit off. He swung it around for a bit, getting used to the weight. The stares and glares had been getting to him for a while now, and he'd love an opportunity to let off some steam. The girl seemed just as excited, eagerly shoving her fellow soldiers away to make space for Kafei in the circle.
"What's your name?" Kafei asked, rolling his shoulders to loosen up the muscles.
"What's it to you?" she said, golden eyes studying him from top to toe, trying to find weakness to exploit. She'd find none.
"I'd like to know what to call the person I'm about to wipe the floor with," he replied, giving her a grin.
"Beat me, and I'll tell you," she offered.
"Fine by me," he said, finishing his warmup and falling into the traditional starting position, his sword held in both hands at his hip, blade pointing backwards. "Ready when you are."
The girl looked to Urbosa, grinning. "Commander?" she asked.
Urbosa gave another heavy sigh, holding up her arm, then quickly dropping it. "Begin!"
The girl wasted no time, immediately throwing herself forward with a battle cry, swinging her wooden scimitar at him with an overhead stroke, which he met with his own sword in a parry. The weapons met with a sound not unlike a tree trunk splitting in half, and set Kafei's whole body shaking when absorbing the impact.
She's strong, he thought, pushing her away and countering with a basic combo of three quick slashes (all of which she parried expertly), ending with a thrust. She stepped out of the wooden point's way with ease, whirling around and aiming a wide slash that would have opened his stomach, had it been a real weapon. He ducked under it and kicked at her leg, aiming to sweep them from under her, but she was too quick and stepped out of his reach.
The combatants withdrew from each other and began circling, their attentions focused solely on the other. Kafei's mind raced, analysing what he'd learned about his opponent from the brief clash.
Deceptively strong, faster than she appeared to be during her sparring, he thought. Familiar enough with Sheikah to anticipate the leg sweep.
It was one of the most basic moves in a Sheikah's repertoire, one that normal fighters, who usually clung to rigid routines that left no room for improvisation, never saw coming as they always expected the fight to be settled with their blades alone, rather than every dirty trick in the book. There was honour in the sword, no doubt, but when push came to shove, a Sheikah would much rather walk away from the fight without it. Honour can be regained; a life not so much.
He found himself grinning, relieved that he wasn't fighting a complete newbie. He'd rather not humiliate her in front of her friends by winning too easily, especially not after her posturing.
"What're you smiling about?" she asked, rolling her Rs behind her gritted teeth.
"Oh, nothing in particular," he said, launching his attack just as he finished the sentence. Her eyes widened momentarily, but she met him head-on, rather than flinching or backing away defensively.
No fear, he thought, aiming a high slash at her throat. She knocked it aside and turned the scimitar's trajectory into a rising, diagonal stroke. He turned aside, felt the air at the tip of his nose being disturbed as the wooden blade rushed by, spinning and using his momentum to smash the end of his sword's hilt into her side.
Or so he planned to, but the girl was already gone, having jumped away the moment she realised what he was doing...and had her next attack ready before his was even finished, her knee rising to greet his gut. He only barely avoided it by throwing himself aside, rolling to his knees just in time to block another overhead stroke that he seriously feared would break his sword from the sheer weight she put behind the impact. He managed to knock it aside, but the Gerudo gave him no time to recover, keeping him down by striking again and again, clearly trying to push past his defence by exhausting him.
Dangerous, he thought. A double-edged sword; she'll be just as exhausted as me.
A war of attrition, of sorts.
Luckily, he had a way out. He just needed to wait for the right moment...and there!
Just as she raised her scimitar for another devastating overhead blow, he ducked forward and into her reach, his face inches from hers. His sword was in a position that he couldn't manipulate fast enough to get her, but that wasn't his goal in this.
Their eyes met, breaths mingling with each other for but a moment, and then Kafei reached up, hooking his free arm around one of hers while at the same time turning and shoving his shoulder into her chest, bending sideways and using her own momentum against her. Realisation dawned on her face, but by then it was too late, and she was tumbling through the air, tossed over his shoulder like a rag doll.
She landed on the floor with a gasp and a groan, perhaps a bit harder than Kafei had intended. Granted, she'd contributed most of the speed herself–he'd merely adjusted the trajectory a bit. Generally, such an impact tended to knock the air out of one's lungs, leaving the opponent wide open to be finished off, and that was what he expected here.
But the girl was clearly a monster. Before he could react, she'd already rolled onto her front and struck up with her scimitar in a stroke that would, had these been real weapons, taken a good chunk out of his ankle (or severed it entirely), or at the very least taken off several of his toes, depending on his speed.
Luckily, the wooden blade merely bounced off the tip of Kafei's boot as he desperately jumped out of the way.
"First blood!" Urbosa called from the side-lines, sounding far more excited than she had before. Maybe the idea of watching one of her warriors beating a Sheikah in the ring was putting her in a better mood?
Music to her ears, clearly, if the girl's wide grin on her face was anything to judge by. In a display of pure speed, she was back on her feet in less than a second. "Not so smug now, are you?" she asked.
Smug? Me? Kafei thought, clenching his jaw. Perish the thought.
"Not bad," he said. "But I'm afraid playtime is over."
"Oh no, whatever will I do?" she asked drily.
"Just don't hate me when you lose," he said, reversing his sword grip. Impa hated it when he did that—it was far from one of the approved styles taught by the Sheikah, but he realised by now that this girl wouldn't fall so easily for his usual tricks.
Her eyes narrowed when he did so, expecting shenanigans. She was right to. He charged directly at her in a manner that could only be described as suicidal, swinging his sword wildly. To an unpractised eye it would look chaotic and random, with no rhyme or reason to it. It always put the opponent on the defensive, forcing them to focus on parrying or avoiding the blows, which would come faster and faster, with no room to breathe between. It had saved his life more than once on the battlefield.
It worked here, too, although just barely. The girl was clearly a step above the normal grunts that made up the Gerudo fighting force. Where a typical soldier would try to block or parry every blow, she only blocked a few of them, choosing to duck or dodge away from most of his seemingly wild strikes. It was reckless. His blade caught the ponytail her hair was in more than once, but it was conserving energy and sparing her arms the continuous shocks and impacts that tended to numb them when blocking.
Then, his grand finale. An abrupt stop, and a thrust. The opponent always anticipated another slash, and the tip of his blade would penetrate their defence like it was nothing, his sword biting deep into their stomach or chest, depending on his angle.
Except...she wasn't there.
She'd sidestepped the entire flurry, having veered to the side in the middle of it all...and he was wide-open, his sword cutting through nothing but air. Once more that dreaded overhead blow came down...and struck the back of his sword, knocking it out of his hand. A mercy, that she hadn't aimed for his hand or wrist—something would definitely have broken. Disarmed, Kafei could do little but wait for her next move, which came a split-second later as she whirled around with a curving slash aimed at his back.
Do or die, he thought, turning to meet her blade with his front. He could see her mouth opening in surprise at his suicidal move, but that was because she anticipated something else entirely. Instead, he caught her hands with his and pulled her to the right. It wasn't enough to absorb the momentum of her blade entirely, but it took enough off the edge for him to move out of its trajectory, all the while bending her wrists to an uncomfortable angle.
Painful enough to make her lose her grip, and the scimitar fall to the floor.
Now neither of them was armed.
Not that it stopped her. She was on him immediately, fists flying. He ducked and weaved, trying to find an opening to either hit back or disable her (breaking an opponent's wrist usually put an end to any fistfight), but this Gerudo was clearly no stranger to a brawl. She even tried to knee him right in the jewels, but he luckily managed to turn away from that in time for her to strike the outside of his thigh instead...and bloody hell did it hurt! He returned the favour by pushing away and giving her a spinning kick to the side, the flat of his foot connecting directly with her ribs, causing her to gasp.
They continued this for what felt like an eternity, neither of them gaining nor losing ground, only a few lucky attacks getting through and leaving no lasting or decisive damage.
Enough of this, Kafei thought, realising he was getting quite winded, never having had a fight going on for so long. It was time for yet another manoeuvre Impa hated, due to its high risk. He lowered his hands briefly, leaving himself open to tempt the Gerudo into coming closer. She swallowed the bait, and struck out with a right jab, which he stepped into and twisted to the side just enough to trap her arm under his, holding it against his side. Her panicked left jab met with the same fate, bringing them standing almost chest to chest, just in range for...
He pulled his head back and thrust it forward, aiming the top of his brow for the bridge of her nose. The thickest part of his skull versus the least solid part of her face. It was perfect.
Or would have been, if she hadn't pulled her own head back just in time to avoid his. And then mirrored his attack.
He swore he saw stars exploding in his vision as her brow collided with his forehead, causing him to stumble back, briefly blacking out before opening his eyes, just in time to see her fist come flying through the air and called with his bottom jaw, pain exploding and the taste of blood filling his mouth. The one-two blow was too much, and he found himself on his back on the floor, staring at the ceiling, the red whirlwind of a Gerudo already descending on him. He felt his hand reaching for his belt, on pure instinct.
Something cold and sharp was suddenly at his throat, poking it gently, but hard enough to make him realise it was a very real knife.
"I win," she panted, her face once more inches from his, a triumphant expression on her face. Her face was soaked with sweat, a wild look in her eyes. Her mouth was twisted into a grin that almost appeared murderous. "Do you yield?" she asked, hot breath washing over his face.
Blood was filling his mouth, and he had to swallow it (spitting it in her face just wasn't appropriate). "No," he managed to gasp, realising one of his molars had come loose—a tentative nudge at it with his tongue had it fall out entirely, and he felt a sudden urge to throw up, but reined himself in.
"I've a knife at your throat, Sheikah," she said. "How is this not a win?"
"Because," he said, swallowing more blood, "I've got one on you too."
She blinked, and then looked down. He'd drawn one of the daggers he kept in the holster of his belt, and was lightly touching the tip to her side, poised to slide between her ribs and into her heart.
"Fuck," she breathed.
"Call it even?" he asked, wishing very much not to be on his back much longer on account of the life fluid steadily pouring into the back of his mouth. Plus, having a piece of his own cranium loose and tumbling around in his mouth was a decidedly unpleasant sensation.
"No," the girl said, growling.
"Then I will," Urbosa said, standing above them. "Both of you are poised to deliver fatal wounds to the other—with real weapons, I might add—and so I declare the fight a draw!"
Letting out a frustrated sound, the girl drew knife away from Kafei's throat, and he returned the favour by dropping his own, and she climbed off him, having straddled him at some point.
With relief, he sat up and spat out the mouthful blood that had accumulated. The molar came with it, a piece of white bone in a puddle of red. There were a few gasps from the other warriors, and Urbosa positively furious...but her look wasn't aimed at him.
She spoke to the girl in a rapid stream of words in the Gerudo tongue he had no hope of understanding, but the general tone was a universal one: she was definitely in trouble for permanently injuring a guest.
He tongued the spot the tooth had been in his jaw, now a gaping hole. The pain wasn't as bad as he imagined it'd be, but he was probably high on adrenaline right now—he'd definitely feel it later. Second molar from the back. That was going to make eating difficult for a few days.
"Master Kafei, I apologise profusely for her indiscretion," Urbosa said, suddenly addressing. "I shall summon a medic immediately, perhaps there is something we can—"
He waved her off. "Not much to do about that," he said, words slurred slightly by the now slightly unfamiliar layout of his mouth, pointing at the molar on the floor. It looked grotesque now that it was no longer a part of him. "I'd appreciate a towel or something, though."
"Of course," Urbosa said, turning away and barking another order at someone or other. Kafei found he couldn't tear his gaze away from that which had once been attached to his jaw. But it wasn't actually the tooth he was thinking about. It was the fight. And the girl.
Her speed, her movements, her skill, her strength...all of it combined into one fearsome warrior who refused to give up, and knew enough dirty tricks to counter his own, or at the very least anticipate them. And she seemed to be his age, even. If all Gerudo warriors fought like her...well, the war with Hyrule might have gone very differently.
A wet cloth was thrust in front of his face, held by a hand with scuffed knuckles. He looked up, finding the warrior glaring down at him.
"Well?" she asked. "You going to take it, or what?"
He did so, nodding his head. "Thank you," he said, wiping his face to get rid of the blood that surely stained it, and then gently wiped the new gap between his teeth, hoping to get rid of any potential fragments before they caused an infection.
"Here," Urbosa's voice said from his other side. "Wash out your mouth with this—should prevent infection."
She handed him a skin filled with what appeared to be alcohol, far stronger than wine judging by the way his nose burned when he sniffed the contents. He took a sip and rinsed his mouth, ignoring the pain that flared up in the open wound. He swallowed the liquid, figuring it was just as well since the alcohol was sterile anyway.
"Elia," Urbosa barked in what Kafei had come to identify as her Commander Voice. "I believe some laps around the fortress would be in order."
"Yes, commander!" the instructor, Elia apparently, said, to a general chorus of groans and complaints, but Urbosa would have none of it.
"It will be the perfect way for certain hotheads to get it out of their systems," the commander said, glaring at the girl, who simply looked at her innocently, as if wondering what she'd done wrong.
Nothing, Kafei's mind told him. She only did what she thought necessary to win the fight.
And she nearly had.
The warriors all lined up and began to march out of the sparring room...except for the girl, who remained behind for a moment, looking down at him with narrowed eyes.
"Huh?" he said intelligently, looking up at her, surprised to find a small smile on her lips.
"My name," she supplied. "It's Elenwe."
"K-Kafei," he offered in return.
"I know," she said, turning to join her comrades. "See you later, Kafei," she offered in parting.
"That's Master Kafei to you!" Urbosa called after her, to no avail. "Again, I must apologise profusely, Master Kafei, but I tried to warn you. Elenwe is—"
"A fine warrior," he said, taking another sip from the skin. It hurt, but also made him feel nice and fuzzy on the inside. He held out a hand. "Give us a hand?" he asked.
Urbosa helped him up. "I think it's best we see a medic, just to make sure you're all right," she said. It wasn't really a request—the tone was one reserved for orders.
"Lead the way," he said.
He felt a little bad for the poor medic who had to examine him. Kafei had never been comfortable around medical personnel of any sort, especially not when his mouth was involved. He'd been examined by one of those new-fangled dentists once (imagine, a doctor just for one's teeth), and the experience had left him traumatised. What good had poking his gums with a fucking needle done anyway?
The result had been him flinching away whenever the medic had tried to poke and prod at the hole where his tooth had been to remove any potential fragments that could cause infections or other fun conditions later.
It didn't help that he found himself unable to concentrate entirely on the situation at hand, his mind occupied by Elenwe and that infuriatingly bewitching smile of hers. He'd been smiled at before, by men and women, by lovers and friends, but not quite like that. There'd been all sorts of...undercurrents to it. Friendly. Teasing. Inviting.
...or he was just loopy from having taken two blows to the head in rapid succession. That was also an option.
Very likely, actually.
Plus, he'd kept nipping at the alcohol-filled skin from Urbosa the entire time, and he felt a little lightheaded. That was probably contributing a little to the strange thought process.
Still, the smile was intriguing, and had been burned into his retinae. He couldn't stop thinking about it.
The medic looked just about ready to smack him one by the time she was finished, but at least he got a clean bill of health...if a somewhat swollen jaw and strict orders not to eat anything solid until he'd healed.
"I hope Elenwe's...overzealousness won't affect your report back to Hyrule," Urbosa said as they headed back to the fortress. She looked a little tense, but the awkwardness from before was gone. Watching Kafei get the shit kicked out of him was probably a key to that change. Perhaps he'd be able to establish a better rapport with the commander from now on.
"Not at all," he assured her, finding that he had to concentrate a little more than usual on his words. Not that he was drunk. Not at all. "I knew what I was asking for, going in. Granted, didn't expect things to turn so...sporting, but that's always a risk when entering the ring, sparring or not."
Urbosa nodded. "That is a relief to hear, I'll admit. Others might not have been so...forgiving."
"Others probably wouldn't be stupid enough to accept a challenge like that," he countered, smiling. It probably didn't have the desired effect with the way his face looked at the moment, but still, it was worth a shot. "I probably won't even mention it in the report at all—technically it happened on my free time."
"And your superiors will just...accept that?" the commander asked dubiously.
"As long as the rest of the visit goes off without a hitch, I don't see why not," he said, shrugging. "I wouldn't mind a rematch, though. Perhaps you could convey that to her?"
"I highly doubt you'll be seeing her again before you leave," Urbosa said. "Her unit is heading out on patrol soon and won't be back for a week at the least."
He tried not to feel too disappointed by that, but failed miserably.
"I'm sure you will have other opportunities to challenge her again, in the future."
Urbosa chuckled. "You are that eager to throw yourself back into the ring with her?"
"Of course," he said. "Our fight ended in a draw—it's not settled by any means. I imagine she feels much the same."
Or so I hope, at least, he thought.
The Terrible Two (as Kafei had come to dub Sheik and Atiya in his mind) were waiting for them in the fortress' entrance hall, playing a game of chess. Atiya appeared to be winning, which explained why his cousin looked so annoyed.
"Ah, there you are," Atiya said, noticing their arrival. "I was worried you'd gotten...lost..."
He trailed off, and Kafei only barely managed not to wince. He hadn't thought the swelling in his jaw was that bad, but evidently, he was wrong.
"Urbosa, what happened?!" the prince demanded, the chess game forgotten immediately.
"Kafei, what the hell?!" Sheik said almost at the same time, forgoing all social propriety. He, too, stood up and came closer...with a barely noticeable limp that had most definitely not been there that morning.
"Just a minor incident in the training ring," Kafei said quickly, hoping to prevent any further incident. "I accepted a challenge and underestimated my opponent, no harm done."
"Doesn't look like no harm done," Atiya said, glaring at him and then at Urbosa. "A word?" he asked her.
He pulled her into a side room, the door slamming shut behind them, leaving Kafei to face the merciless glare of his cousin alone. Kafei's cousin was a sweet and adorable boy...but fucking scarywhenever he channelled Impa at her most annoyed.
"What happened?" Sheik hissed, reaching out to touch Kafei's jaw, grimacing when the older Sheikah recoiled with a hiss. "You've been bleeding!"
"Generally happens when you lose a tooth," Kafei replied.
"Look, it's not important," Kafei said. "A Gerudo challenged me to a fight, I accepted, and things got a bit out of hand." He paused, grinning a little, his stomach filling with butterflies as he recalled her smile. "She kicked my arse!"
One of Sheik's eyebrows slowly lifted. "And you're grinning because...?" he asked slowly.
"It was amazing," Kafei said, his mouth moving faster than his brain, words spilling out with no filter whatsoever. "She was so fast, and so strong! You've no idea! And so smart! She saw through every one of my tricks and had counters for all of them! I haven't had a challenge like her in years! And that punch! Sheik, I saw stars! Knocked a molar right out of my mouth! And she was still ready to go even when it all ended in a draw! My heart starts pounding just thinking about it!"
"I see," Sheik said, backing away a little. "You enjoyed the fight, then?"
"And the Gerudo?"
"Her name is Elenwe, and she is fantastic! Sheik, I'm in love!"
That's it, isn't it? That fluttering in my stomach and tightness in my chest?
He hadn't felt anything like it before. He'd heard other Sheikah describe it, that whole love at first sight crap he'd never really believed in.
To his credit, Sheik took this little piece of insanity in stride, nodding and giving his cousin a smile beneath his mask...albeit a slightly twitchy one. "That is...good for you, Kaf. I'm...happy for you?"
"Damn right you are," he said, grinning (and probably displaying a horrific, bloodstained row of teeth while at it). "I may also be slightly drunk!"
He'd had a little too much of the medicinal alcohol, it seemed. The room seemed to be swaying—he hadn't noticed that when he'd been walking with Urbosa.
"Well, that explains a few things," Sheik said, carefully taking his cousin by the arm. "Come on, Atiya showed me our rooms. There's still a little time until the ceremony is ready, so...hopefully you'll sober up by then."
Kafei sighed, leaning against the wall and sipping at the cup of fruit juice cradled in his hand. Sheik had forbidden him from drinking anything else for the day, after Kafei had barely sobered up by the time the welcoming ceremony had started. It hadn't even lasted that long (less than thirty minutes, by his count), but tradition was tradition, and so was the party that immediately followed it.
Just as well, really. Getting drunk(er) right now was the last thing he wanted.
While Kafei could handle being surrounded by enemy troops who were all hell-bent on killing him just fine, he found himself utterly panicking at the thought of dealing with all the Gerudo nobles and other dignitaries who were crowding the throne room. Some were friendly enough, surprisingly eager to speak to their Sheikah guests, while others were standoffish and downright rude. He'd tried to be pleasant and friendly through it all, but his patience was set to snap after an hour of fake pleasantries and terrible small talk.
And that was why he'd secluded himself to a corner of the throne room, watching the proceedings from a distance, slightly hidden by a convenient draping on the wall. He kept a watchful on his cousin, as Atiya pulled Sheik around the room to introduce him to the various women who kept the Gerudo city running. Across the room, Kafei could see Ganondorf doing the same, his golden eyes keeping a careful watch on Atiya, a slight frown on his face.
Sheik had told Kafei about the closet incident during Atiya's first visit to Hyrule, and Kafei could only imagine how it felt to be on Ganondorf's list of mortal enemies. On the other hand, it was a bit of a relief, because no matter what trouble Kafei might accidentally cause during his visit to the Gerudo city, none of it would ever compare to the crime of corrupting his precious little brother.
Look at me, using my adorable cousin as a meat shield, he thought, sipping at his juice. And I could not feel less guilty about it.
After all, it was about time Sheik's little indiscretion back then paid off somehow, if only for the people around him. Kafei's only regret was that he couldn't relentlessly mock Sheik for the limp he'd somehow acquired during the day, which was only getting more and more pronounced the longer Atiya kept him on his feet. Once they retired for the night, however, Kafei would be merciless.
"Master Kafei," a demure voice asked, startling him out of his thoughts. One of the guards, dressed in royal purple for the occasion and face hidden by a veil much like Atiya's, was standing a respectful distance away, her back straight. "Forgive me for disturbing you, but there is someone who would like to speak to you."
"Ah...thank you," he said, a little embarrassed to have been caught so off-guard. At least the swelling in his jaw had gone down enough for him to speak properly. "Where—"
"Follow me, please," she said, turning and heading for one of the side doors of the throne room.
"I should probably tell my—"
"It won't take long, sir," she assured him.
Well, either someone wants me for a romantic tête-à-tâte, or they're going to try and kill me, he thought, following her.
Frankly, either option was preferable to the party. Still, going without anyone knowing was probably...unwise. Luckily, he caught Atiya's eye just as he was heading through the door, and he pointed in the guard's direction. Atiya nodded, and even gave him a wink, the little shit!
The side door led into a small sitting room covered in pillows and those strange pipes he'd seen several Gerudo in the city smoking. The smell of them had been somewhat fruity, with different undertones. Clearly not just normal tobacco. However, the room was empty; no was one waiting there. The guard had just stopped in the middle of the room her back turned to him.
"All right, what is this?" Kafei asked, hand straying to his belt. He didn't have his sword with him, or any other visible weapons, but good old Sheikah paranoia had made him tuck a small stiletto into the waistband of his trousers.
Just in case.
"You said someone wanted to speak to me," he said continued. "Who?"
"Me," the guard said, turning around and lifting her veil. Elenwe grinned. "Surprised?"
He really should have seen it coming. Elenwe struck him as exactly the sort of person who would sneak into a party she wasn't invited to (as Urbosa had explained to him when he'd asked), just to...well, he had no idea why she was here.
"Kind of?" he said, automatically stepping backwards a little when she stepped forward. He couldn't help it—this woman had beaten the crap out of him...which had also made him feel strange things, and frankly it was all a bit confusing. She noticed, but clearly didn't let that stop her. He only stopped when his back hit the door they'd come through. Her grin only grew. "Look, if you want that rematch, I'm more than glad to take you on, but perhaps at a later time?"
"Urbosa told me you were interested in that," the Gerudo said, stepping closer until she was but a pace away. "And believe me, I'm more than happy to meet you in the ring once more...but tonight..." she trailed off, taking that final step so she had him trapped against the door. They were about the same height, he noticed.
"Tonight?" he asked.
"Tonight," she continued, "I had a different sort of rematch in mind."
Her lips met his with the same sort of energy she'd displayed in the ring. Fierce and powerful. The kiss was hungry, demanding, unrelenting. A warmth blossomed in the pit of his stomach and spread outwards, and it'd be easier to stop the sun from rising in the sky than to force himself to stop kissing her back, relishing in the feel of the soft feel of her lips.
They parted, both gasping for her, and she pressed herself against him, her body incredibly hot to the touch.
...when had he pulled her so close? His hands were on the small of her back, touching the dark skin laid bare by her outfit.
"Ooh, that looks painful," she said, gently touching his jaw.
"I've had worse," he said, already missing her.
"Still, I'm sorry about your tooth."
He stared at her. "You didn't seem sorry at the time," he noted.
"I was still happy about beating you—"
"It was a draw—"
"Shit on that, I had you!"
"And I you—"
This kiss was even more aggressive, and it bloody hurt when she cradled his face in her hands, but he didn't care. He dared to open his mouth slightly and touch his tongue to her lips, and she let him in without a moment's hesitation. It was hot, and wet, and...and...he had no words for it. Amazing. Fantastic. Indescribable. The heat in his gut only grew hotter, his hands roaming her back, tempted to slide them both up and down, but he had no idea how far she wanted this to go—
Her hand slid beneath his shirt, nails raking across his skin, not hard enough to break it, but enough to make it hurt just a little. Just enough to tantalise.
"Do you want this?" she whispered against his lips.
"A bit late to ask, isn't it?" he said.
"Couldn't help it," she replied. "You looked too ravishing."
"I thought I was supposed to say that?"
She laughed. "Oh, you poor innocent, you clearly haven't spent a lot of time with Gerudo."
"I've fought them, mostly, but—"
She certainly enjoyed shutting him up, but he had no problem with her method. He gasped a little when she was suddenly pulling him forwards, away from the door, placing her hands on his shoulders, and jumped, leaving him little choice but catch her as she wrapped her legs around him. He turned around and pressed her against the door, for balance.
She broke the kiss and grinned down at him. "We take what we want, don't you know?" she said teasingly. "Isn't that what the Hylians say about us?"
"I thought that was just on the...material side of things," he said, awfully distracted by her chest, which was now at eye-level. She seemed to enjoy that, judging by the way she brought her hands to the back of his head and pulled it forward, so his face rested against her bosom.
"In all things," she said. "And you're going to give me what I want, aren't you?"
Even if he'd wanted to, he'd find it impossible to say no. His response was merely roll his hips against hers, and lose himself to the pleasure of it all.
It was late by the time he stumbled into the guest chambers he shared with Sheik. He was surprised to actually find his cousin there, having expected Atiya to find a convenient reason to have the Sheikah stay in his royal bedchambers. For security, or something similar. No better way to ensure there were no assassins nearby, after all.
But no, Sheik was there, and apparently waiting for him, passing the time by reading. One of Impa's history books, from the look of it. It was immediately forgotten, however, once Kafei entered the room...and gave his older cousin the smuggest looks he'd ever seen.
"There you are," Sheik said, shutting the book with a loud clap. "I was worried you'd been kidnapped."
"I got lost," Kafei tried, realising as he said it just how bad of an excuse it was.
"Lost, eh?" Sheik said. "Are you sure? As I recall, the room you went into with that girl wasn't particularly big."
"I...wasn't aware you saw that."
Sheik snorted. "I didn't, but Atiya took a great deal of pleasure in telling me about it. Told me who she was. It's why I didn't come looking for you."
How the hell did he know...ah, right. The little blackmailer. Should have figured. Probably had a hand in getting her inside the party, even.
"So...had a fun evening, did we?" Sheik asked innocently.
"Shut up, you," Kafei groaned, climbing into his bed and burying himself beneath the covers. There were a lot of things he was prepared to suffer through, but his baby cousin's smugness was not one of them. How he wished he could get away strangling the little shit! "How many people noticed your limp tonight, d'you think?" he countered feebly.
"That...that...screw you!" Sheik sputtered.
"No, that was what Atiya did to you, remember?"
They argued like this for hours.
Kafei watched the small procession of Gerudo soldiers riding out of the fortress from the balcony, fully decked out with weapons and armour to last them a week or more in the field. Regular patrols like these had to be undertaken in order to keep their lands peaceful, to ward off bandits and other filth that liked hiding in the many caves and other hideaways in the Gerudo Desert. He couldn't spot Elenwe due to their completely identical and face-covering outfits, and they all carried scimitars.
He'd woken late, feeling bone-tired but immensely satisfied at the same time, and had missed his chance to wish her luck, as he'd promised to do. Granted, he'd made that promise in the middle of things, and she probably didn't remember, but still he felt guilty for breaking it.
At least this visit would last for another week and a half, meaning he'd likely still be here by the time she got back. He had no idea what they were to each other-one night of passion didn't really mean much in the grand scheme of things, but he'd certainly like to...talk about it. Or just have a repeat of the passion. With a side of other things.
Oh Hylia, I've got it bad, don't I? he thought. I haven't even known her for a full day, for goodness' sake!
"You're looking glum."
He started, realising Prince Atiya had sidled up to him in complete silence while he'd watched the soldiers. He was wearing robes today, though not the same dour-coloured ones as Ganondorf. The ones he wore today were a deep forest green, which normally would have clashed horribly with his red hair, but the prince still pulled it off quite nicely. Kafei decided not to comment on the prominent hickeys on the prince's neck, silently wishing his cousin would learn where not to leave marks on his lover.
"Your grace," Kafei said, beginning to bow, but the sound of Atiya hissing stopped him. Looking up, he saw the prince regarding him with a frown.
"I think we're far past the point of that, don't you?" Atiya asked. "I mean, I was your prisoner for a while."
Kafei grimaced. Just what he wanted to be reminded of. "My apo—"
"I never really thanked you for that, did I?" the prince continued, ignoring his attempt at apologising. "For letting me go, I mean. So, thank you."
Shit, no one's supposed to know that!
"I have no idea what you're talking ab—"
"Sheik told me."
"That little shit!"
He couldn't help the outburst, and he blushed when Atiya simply giggled. "He can be one, can't he?" Atiya said. "It's one of those qualities of his that shouldn't be endearing, but still is. A bit like his belligerence, but I find that only makes things more exciting when we're—"
"Please do not finish that sentence!" Kafei exclaimed, ready to clap his hands over his ears just in case. "I do not wish to know the details of what you and my cousin get up to when you're alone, with all due respect!"
"Tch, you're no fun," the prince said, leaning on the railing beside him. The tail-end of the procession of Gerudo soldiers was just disappearing through the gate, and Kafei found himself unable to tear his gaze from it. "Sad to see her go, eh?" Atiya asked.
"It's all right, Kafei," Atiya said, smiling at him. "I mean, I did go through the trouble of sneaking her into the party last night just so she could see you, so it's not like I'm going to be offended that you miss her."
I knew it! Kafei thought. This kid is the worst!
"And why would you go through that trouble on my account?" he asked carefully.
"Oh, a variety of reasons," Atiya said, waving his hand. "Sheik told me about the sparring session—sorry about your tooth, by the way—and the way you'd...well, acted afterwards. He found it rather strange, but then I realised Urbosa must have offered you a bit of her medicinal, which is strong enough to strip paint off limestone. That, coupled with what Urbosa told me later and how eager Elenwe was for a rematch, and I figured I could...facilitate something. Elenwe being Elenwe, things turned out a little different, but still quite agreeable, no?"
Kafei really wished he hadn't left his mask back in the guest chambers. Atiya's pleased expression only grew at the sight of his blush.
"I guess that's something you and your cousin have in common, huh?" the little bastard of a prince said innocently.
What are the penalties of throwing a Gerudo prince off a balcony? he wondered, looking over the railing, judging the height to be less than two stories. It wouldn't even hurt him. Much.
"Anyway, you've no need to worry," Atiya said, patting his shoulder. "Things have been quite calm in our lands lately, and even if they weren't, she'll still be perfectly safe."
"I have no doubt," Kafei said, reaching up to touch his jaw. It still smarted, but at least the swelling had gone down a bit. "She's more than capable of handling herself."
"Well, that wasn't quite what I meant, but yes, that too," Atiya said, laughing. "Now, I recognise when I'm encroaching, so I'll leave the two of you alone."
He felt a bit faint when he turned around, and spotted Elenwe standing just behind them, still wearing a purple guard's uniform like the night before. Even under a veil he could tell she had a smug look on her face.
"That's the second time I catch you off-guard, Sheikah," she said. "I'm starting to think the rumours about you are all a bunch of lies."
"Hey," Atiya said warningly as he passed her, swatting at her arm, "play nice."
"I will make no such promises, my prince," she said, smacking his buttock in a way that, had this been Hyrule, would likely have resulted in an outrage and public execution that would be talked about for decades. Atiya simply laughed and went back inside the fortress. Because of course he did. "Good thing Urbosa or Nabooru aren't around," Elenwe said. "I'd probably lose a hand if they knew how familiar I am with him." She paused. "You going to talk at some point, or...?"
He tried to do so, and only failed a little. "I...er...I thought that you were..." he pointed helplessly towards the gates, where the procession had gone.
"I was supposed to be," she said, shrugging and coming to stand closer. Almost uncomfortably so, leaving mere inches between them. "The prince pulled some strings, though. Sergeant wasn't too happy, but she can go suck a lemon."
"Er...why?" he asked.
"Isn't it obvious?" she said, placing her hand on his chest, just over his heart. "I don't know anything about Sheikah courtship, but I'd hoped some things were universal—"
"This counts as courtship?!" Kafei sputtered. "Beating the shit out of someone in the sparring ring and then one night of...of...of that, and then just asking?"
"Yes?" she said, cocking her head slightly. "Well, my version of it, anyway. I know what I like, and I know what I want; and while you seem content to run around like a cuccoo with its head cut off, I'd rather not waste any time. So, what do you say?"
She rolled her eyes, closing the distance until they were pressed flush against each other. He found he did not mind that at all.
"A little thick, aren't you?" she said, chuckling. "Do you want this? With me?"
Well, it technically was, wasn't it? His mind had certainly gone to such places just a few minutes before, but he didn't expect it to go so...fast. He'd have at least a week to think about it, to consider the idea. But...what sort of arrangement did she have in mind?
"D'you mean...just now, or...?"
"No, you idiot," she huffed, poking him. "I don't know what sort of impression you have of me, but I'm not really the casual sort. You go with me, you go steady. Got it?"
Oh, if only Impa could see him now. She'd probably make the rest of the clan wear chastity belts if she knew how susceptible they all were to seduction by Gerudo. At least the members of her own family. It almost made him wonder if she herself had ever...
No! No no no! Don't even think about it!
He valued his sanity far too much for that.
Does this all make me a hypocrite?
Yes, yes it did.
Well, at least there are limits to how much I can fuck up with this—she's not a princess, thankfully.
On the other hand, with his luck, that'd be just the thing she'd reveal after a while, that she was Ganondorf's other, secret heir or something similar. Unlike Sheik, Kafei didn't really want to accidentally start a war by pissing off his paramour.
"Yes," he found himself saying in midst of his minor mental breakdown, surprised when a pit didn't open up beneath him. "I...I do want this. With you." He paused. "I'm not sure how it'll work, though...I mean...we're soldiers, not really important enough to be granted leeway—"
She shushed him. "Has anyone ever told you that you think too much, Kafei?"
"It...has come up," he admitted.
"Well, I'm just going to have to fix that, won't I?" she asked, pulling up her veil and kissing him.
"I don't know," he said helplessly afterwards, "it's pretty ingrained in me."
"In that case," she said, "I'll just have to be very thorough."
From behind the door, Atiya leaned back and gave Sheik a smug look. "Told you I could make it happen," he said. "Took me less than a day, even."
Sheik sighed. "I don't recall ever saying I doubted you. This was a self-imposed challenge."
"You're just a sore loser," the prince said, holding out his hand. "Pay up."
Sheik gave his lover a long-suffering look before placing rough-cut, blue rupee in Atiya's hand. "I wonder how Kafei would react if I told him you consider the relationship you just engineered worth only five rupees."
"Please, to me it is priceless way to foster a better relationship between our peoples," Atiya said in mock offence. "It is beating you I value at five."
"I feel so special," the Sheikah muttered.
"Aw, come on, ya amar, you know I didn't mean it like that," Atiya cooed, pulling him forward into an embrace. "You know I love you, right?"
"I know," Sheik said, voice muffled against the prince's neck.
"And even if you don't believe me," Atiya said, his voice taking on a leering tone, "I'll just have to show you again...and again...and again."
"Please don't?" Sheik said. "Walking is still a literal pain in my—"
They stood like that for a moment, just enjoying each other's touch, before Atiya cleared his throat.
"Speaking of cousins," he said, "is Paya seeing anyone?"
Chapter 4: IV - An Average Game of Cards
Sheik kept his head down, eyes firmly fixed on the paper cards arranged in piles on the table in front of him, willing the correct faces and symbols to appear, though he'd had no luck so far. A displeased frown tugged at his mouth beneath his mask. How hard was it to win a damn game of solitaire, anyway? Impossible, judging by his lack of success so far. This was his tenth game, and so far he'd only succeeded once.
Granted, it wasn't particularly easy to focus on account of the sheer noise and bustle around him, but this particular card game wasn't exactly known for being very hard on the brain of the player. He still had no problem blaming his lack of victory on the drunken antics of the other occupants of the canteen—and their loud singing in particular.
Really, he should have known better than to expect peace and quiet in the Castle Guard canteen on the night of a major festival, but he'd had a faint hope that the off-duty soldiers would take their revelry to the streets and taverns of Castle Town, but a great number of them had chosen to remain in the barracks...and subsequently ruin Sheik's evening.
He grimaced. That wasn't really fair. Technically, he was the intruder here, being a temporary guest at the castle and housed in the barracks. Usually, he'd stay in the guest quarters of the nearby Sheikah safe house, but those were full on account of the tightened security for the festival, so he'd been relocated to one of the smaller rooms usually reserved for officers in the barracks. For the most part the arrangement had worked well so far, save for a few ugly looks from those segments of the guards who did not...well, they fucking hated Sheikah. There was no other word for it, really.
Sheik suspected someone higher up on the food chain had made some very effective threats to muzzle those individuals, however, as none of them had made the usual comments whenever Sheik was around, not even under their breaths. The looks were still there, of course, but he'd long since learned to ignore those. The last time he'd been bothered by the Hylians' general disdain for the Sheikah was when he was six years old. After that, one usually grew thick skin.
Even now he could feel the slight pin-pricks of unkind gazes being directed at him, but he easily brushed them off. Had he been in a prickly mood, he would have raised his head and met those gazes with a glare of his own until they backed down (most people usually did—one of the positives of having such distinctive eyes), but really all he wanted was for time to pass a little quicker.
A wave of cold air washed over him—a sign that the double doors to the canteen had been opened—and the complete lack of greeting cheers made Sheik smile a little under his mask. That could only mean one thing.
"All right, all right!" Kafei's voice called out, audible even over the din of the canteen. "A blood-eye just entered your holy sanctum, get over it! Said blood-eye also happens to be fucking starving, and will eat the next person who gets in his way! Thank you, thank you!"
Sheik chuckled to himself as he watched his purple-haired nuisance of a cousin navigate his way through the crowds and easily hop over the counter separating the kitchen from the rest of the canteen, immediately beginning to raid the cabinets and cold-boxes behind it. There were some displeased mutterings among the soldiers, but Kafei took it in stride—that is, he gave them all a rude finger-gesture from beneath the counter.
"Ah-hah!" Kafei shouted triumphantly. "I'm having the porridge!"
Sheik wondered for a moment why that was something that needed to be announced to the world like he'd just slain a dragon, and intended to ask Kafei just that...and then his cousin slammed the whole pot down on the table surface with a bang, which sent Sheik's card scattering every which way.
"Oh," Sheik said, staring at Kafei as the elder Sheikah brandished a wooden spoon. "You're having the porridge. All of it."
"All of it," Kafei confirmed, making sure his back was firmly turned to the rest of the room and any prying eyes before pulling down his mask and starting to eat. It was...an unpleasant sight. Really, Kafei eating in general was not a nice thing to behold, but this was on a completely different level. Surely a normal stomach was not made to accommodate such a large volume of semi-liquid sustenance?
"It's cold," Sheik pointed out.
"Don't care," Kafei said between mouthfuls. "And I'll tell you why—"
What he said next was lost to the sounds of his eating, and Sheik was fairly certain his own appetite would have died a premature death in the face of such an onslaught.
"Long day, I take it?" Sheik asked once Kafei's pace slowed down a little. Not that it helped him have a conversation, though.
"Mhm!" Kafei said with his mouth full, nodding, and then launched into a summary of said day that Sheik had no chance in hell of understanding, but he nodded along amicably anyway.
It wasn't often he got to see Kafei so...improper? It reminded him of their younger days, before the purple-haired Sheikah had entered active duty and...well, changed. His irreverence had slowly been replaced by the sort of professionalism Impa had always tried to instil in them (without luck so far when it came to Sheik). He'd continued being somewhat laid-back while off-duty, but not nearly as relaxed as he'd once been.
Like he was now.
Kafei was staring at him now, spoon in hand, and chewing like his life depended on it.
Sheik mentally thanked Hylia for Elenwe being so determined to reverse the change Kafei had gone through, and for the Atyia incident as a whole, because it had put the first chip in Kafei's façade.
"Was that a word?" Sheik asked, grinning when his cousin scowled...which only looked ridiculous considering how Kafei's cheeks were bulging out from the gorging he was currently engaged in.
It took a monumental effort, but Kafei managed to swallow the porridge, glowering at him all the while. "Obviously," he said. "I said 'what'."
"What what?" Sheik said.
"Don't get smart with me, boy," Kafei growled, brandishing the spoon like a weapon. "You were staring. Why?"
"Just wondering what Impa would say if she saw her favourite operative stuffing his face in such an undignified manner," Sheik said. "This goes against all the table manners we've been taught."
"Favourite, hah!" Kafei snorted. "She has a funny way of showing it, then. Know what she had me do all day? Shadow her. That's all. Through endless meetings with Lord This And That, and Lady Snooty, and one particularly boring merchant whose name escapes me but I've taken to calling Bob in my head! Then a brief luncheon with the princess, but I wasn't allowed to talk to Paya, and then yet another meeting with one of the Hylian generals, who spoke with the urgency of a snail! And then, when supper time came, I figured maybe Impa would call it a day, enjoy herself at the festival...but no! She insisted on overseeing the security operations herself, just...just lingering in the background while Mana and the others got on with things, and me just watching her watching them!" He sighed, looking ready to slam his forehead into the table. "The most exciting thing I've done today is take notes! It's only just now that I was dismissed for the night...and I strongly suspect tomorrow will be the same thing all over again!"
Sheik listened to the rant, all the while wondering how his cousin, who was otherwise a fairly intelligent and astute individual, could fail to see why Impa was having him do these things. It had been going on for weeks at this point, apparently, and he'd been assigned to more and more administrative tasks...and Kafei was convinced it was because he'd been reduced to the stage of a whipping boy. As if he hadn't been on the receiving end of Impa's wrath before and knew exactly what it was like when she was exacting her vengeance on him.
And this wasn't it.
And Kafei didn't see it, the poor bastard. Sheik would laugh in his face if he didn't know how oblivious Kafei could be about some things.
"You're looking at me like that again," Kafei said.
"Like what?" Sheik asked.
"Like you know something I don't, and are feeling insufferably smug about it," the elder Sheikah said, glaring at him. "It's the same face you had after I met...er...met..."
Sheik snorted. "You can't even say her name, can you?"
"Not where anyone could be listening, no," Kafei said. Sheik couldn't help but notice the seemingly unconscious way Kafei reached up to touch the gold ring in his ear, gifted to him by Elenwe. Just one of the many tokens the pair of them kept trading back and forth whenever they had a chance to meet. It was nauseatingly adorable. "Now shut up and tell me what you're being so annoying about this time."
"I can do one, but not both," Sheik said, knowingly just poking the bear now. It was impossible to resist. Kafei's reactions were just too good.
"Goddessess, you are such a little shit sometimes," Kafei hissed. "Look, tell me, or I'll let you-know-who know about a certain belt incident."
Sheik's eyes widened. "You wouldn't!" he hissed.
"Am I in the habit of making idle threats, dearest cousin?"
Based on experience, not at all. And the last thing Sheik wanted was for Atiya to find out about the most mortifying experience of his life.
"Fine, but if I tell you, you will forget the belt incident ever happened, got it?"
"May my liver shrivel up and die were I not to," Kafei swore.
Sheik rolled his eyes. "That's going to happen anyway—I've seen the way you and...the other you-know-who hit the bottles. Swear on something better."
Kafei glared. "What she and I do on our free time is no one's business, but fine...er...may all my hair fall out?"
"Better," Sheik said, nodding. "Though that may also happen sooner than you think."
He tried not to take too much pleasure in the brief moment of panic in Kafei's eyes. Though not a particularly vain man by nature, Kafei took an inordinate amount of pride in his hair. Much entertainment could be had by implying there was a bald spot somewhere on his head, and then watching the ensuing and escalating panic as Kafei tried to find a mirror, his voice rising in pitch the longer it took.
"Very funny," Kafei said after realising his chain was being yanked around by his adorable and absolutely precious baby cousin, who was actually a demon in disguise. "I swear, all right? No belt incident for His Manipulativeness...though I strongly suspect he will find out one way or another anyway."
"So do I," Sheik agreed, dearly wishing that wasn't true. It was frightening, really, just how easily Atiya managed to dig up information and dirt on just about anyone with the bare minimum—if any at all—of effort. He could only hope the prince would never unleash those powers on him. "But not from you," he finished.
"Not from me," Kafei confirmed. "So, for what super-obvious reason does Impa not let me out of her sight? Is it punishment for something I absolutely did not do?"
"There is always something you've done, Kaf," Sheik deadpanned.
Kafei gasped. "Lies and slander!"
"Fine," Sheik agreed, "let me rephrase that: someone you've done—"
"Shut up, you horrible little man!"
"I thought you wanted me to talk—"
There was a loud slam as Kafei's forehead hit the table surface, a frustrated cry being muffled by the wood.
"Why, oh why was I cursed with such an irritating little bastard for a cousin?" he asked no one in particular.
Sheik laughed. "I believe you mean blessed," he said.
"No, no, it is definitely cursed," Kafei grumbled, looking up at Sheik with an annoyed expression that soon turned worried. "You don't think she knows, do you? She wouldn't punish me for it?"
Sheik briefly considered giving him the funny but not actually true answer, but he decided he'd been messing with Kafei enough for tonight...at least about this. "I don't think she knows," he said. "And even if she did...well, I can't see her going out of her way to punish you for it...unless you were about to commit treason, that is."
"Already did that," Kafei muttered.
Sheik pretended he didn't hear it. "I still wouldn't go around flaunting it, though, just to be safe."
"I'm not flaunting anything," Kafei said.
"Well, there was that one time—"
"I thought we agreed not to talk about that!"
"But then how would I embarrass you?" Sheik asked innocently. "Oh, wait, it's you, there's plenty of other ammunition for that."
Kafei's face looked quite close to collapsing into despair. "Sheik..." he said pleadingly.
"Oh, all right," Sheik said, gathering up his cards from the disarray Kafei had put them in, and began to shuffle them. "Impa is obviously preparing you for command. She's probably going to give you a quadrant or two to oversee, but wants you to learn the politics of it all before she throws you into it."
Kafei snorted. "Pull the other one," he said.
"I mean, it's pretty overdue at this point," Sheik continued. "You've been in the field for, what, eight years now? And you were made a team leader five years ago. It's about damn time you climb the ranks a little."
"Not really?" Kafei said. "Sounds pretty standard to me. Jhaan's pretty much followed the exact same path, and she's not being given these shit assignments."
Sheik gave Kafei a flat look.
"Jhaan's a maniac," he said as an image of the spiky-haired Sheikah flashed before his mind's eye.
He didn't have a bad word to say about Jhaan's prowess in combat—she absolutely thrived on the battlefield—but her leadership skills did not seem suitable for anything above squad level, being far too impulsive. Not that being impulsive was a bad thing in itself, but it was not a desirable quality in positions where being able to think about the long-term was key. And she seemed perfectly happy with that, eagerly leading her team of like-minded individuals into the fiercest of the fighting and causing sheer havoc.
Kafei nodded. "No argument there," he said. He'd know better than most. They were the same age and had trained together. "Technically, though, she has more experience than I do. If anyone were up for promotion, it'd be her."
Sheik sighed and started up another game of solitaire. "I give up. If you can't figure out why Impa has taken an Interest—with a capital I—in you, then that's your problem."
"I just don't see why she would promote me, of all people."
Sheik didn't dignify that with an answer. How blind could someone be? Kafei was a disaster in many aspects of life, but not in this. He'd do brilliantly, no matter what position Impa had in mind for him.
The canteen had grown even more crowded and stifling during the exchange, but Sheik was amused to note an obvious gulf of clear floor space between his and Kafei's table and the rest of the occupants. It was almost as if the soldiers believed even breathing the same air as the Sheikah would somehow...contaminate them? Corrupt them? Hilarious, really. Frankly, it was a good thing in this case. It gave them space, and lessened the chance of having ale spilled all over them.
Kafei took the lull in their conversation as an opportunity to finish off the porridge, and Sheik was actually impressed to see his cousin consume the entire pot and not look ready to throw up afterwards. If anything, he looked ready for seconds.
"Where is Paya, anyway?" Sheik asked after looking at the clock above the canteen doors. It was almost midnight. "She was supposed to be here an hour ago."
"Probably busy mooning after the third you-know-who," Kafei said, snickering.
"Still?" Sheik asked. "I thought she'd gotten over it..."
"I think being assigned to her guard detail made it come back with a vengeance," Kafei said. "She looked pretty damn smitten during the luncheon, at least. I felt a little bad for her, honestly."
Sheik sighed. "Figures," he said. "Still, though, her shift ended at ten, didn't it?"
"Probably took a little longer to finish on account of the festival," Kafei said. "Nothing to worry about, I think."
"I'm not worried," Sheik said. The last thing he'd do is worry about something happening to Paya—she was more than capable of handling herself. "Not about...that, at least. I just..."
"Hey," Kafei said, realising where Sheik's thoughts were straying. "Don't worry, we're not leaving without playing, okay?"
Sheik's cheeks grew a little warm, and he was—as always—glad for his mask. It was a stupid thing to worry about at his age, but it had been so long since he'd been able to spend time with Kafei and Paya in a relaxed, off-duty setting, and longer still since their last card game. It had been a nightly thing when they were younger, but as time passed it became every other night, then weekly, then monthly. Now it'd been three months since their last game, and Sheik had to admit he was a little anxious they wouldn't be able to play tonight.
"I'm not worried," he muttered.
"I know," Kafei said, playing along. "But just to be sure, I can go check—"
"No need," Sheik said, as Paya suddenly appeared from among the press of bodies near the bar. "She's here."
"Sorry I'm late!" she said, panting as she threw herself into the chair next to Kafei's, her face red and sweaty. Her hair was dishevelled, her braids threatening to come undone at any moment. "Shift change took forever!"
"We figured as much," Kafei said easily, pushing the pot and wooden spoon away, looking her up and down. "You run here?"
"Yeah," she said. "All the way from the royal apartments."
"Why?" he asked.
"Your shift doesn't end in the royal apartments," Kafei said slowly. "Remember? It ends in the briefing room."
"Ah, well, we had to rush the princess to the apartments because of the alert," she said. "And I remained there until Kiro and his team came to relieve us."
"Alert?" Sheik asked. "What alert? We didn't hear anything..."
"A false one," Paya said, shaking her head with a sigh. "One of our men thought he saw a pair of suspicious-looking types in the stables, and cried assassin. Turns out it was just a pair of stable boys canoodling in the corner, but you know standard procedure is to lock the princess down until we're absolutely certain there's no danger."
"Must have been fun for those boys," Kafei said, chuckling.
"One of them cried," Paya said, pulling her mask down, frowning. "It was awful. I gave Luta an earful for it."
"Luta was the one who sounded the alarm?" Kafei asked. Paya nodded. "I'll have a talk with him later, then. Hopefully before Impa skewers him."
"A little too late for that," she said. "Impa was the first to respond."
"Ah...well, then I'll definitely have a talk with him about it later," Kafei said.
"You're going to gloat about it, you mean," Sheik said.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Kafei said innocently, confirming that he was, in fact, going to do just that.
The dislike between Kafei and Luta had started early, for reasons Kafei could not remember (probably petty ones, as such things usually are), but it had persisted well into adulthood, and now Kafei was always on the lookout for a reason or other to make Luta's life miserable...and Luta did much the same. The difference was that, unlike Luta, Kafei wasn't a complete fuck-up. Now there was an operative that wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.
Sheik shook his head and turned to Paya. "Are they okay? The boys, I mean."
"They were mostly shaken up, I think," Paya said, nodding. "The princess is sending some things to their families to apologise for our mistake."
"Anyway, like I said, I'm sorry I'm late," she said, smiling apologetically. "I hope you didn't wait for too long."
"Not at all," Sheik lied. "Just got here myself." He shot a pre-emptive warning look in Kafei's direction when the purple-haired fool opened his mouth to deny that. He didn't want to make her feel bad when it wasn't even her fault she'd been late. He owed her far too much for that for the Atiya incident.
Of course, Paya being Paya, she was far too observant to let such an obvious exchange go unnoticed, and patted Sheik's arm. "I'll make it up to you, I swear."
"You've done more than enough, Paya, don't worry," Sheik said. "Nothing to make up for."
"I went back on a promise," she said firmly, her eyes meeting his, filled with regret. "I'm sorry."
"All right, I guess that's enough apologies for the next five years on your account, Paya," Kafei said. "Are we gonna play, or what?"
"You're right, I do have some cousins to fleece," she said, a different look entirely crossing her face, this one predatory.
Both Sheik and Kafei gulped nervously.
The game went as it usually did: Paya absolutely wiping the floor with both of them.
An unfortunate part of being a Sheikah is that one learns to read body language really well at an early age, which makes playing this particular card game against one impossible since they can so easily identify the minute twitches and movements that gave someone away when they were lying.
It made the three of them playing this game against each other traditionally completely pointless, so they'd made their own version of it, where they tried to cover up their real tells with fake ones, with points being awarded for the subtlety and complexity of said tells...and in being able to spot them.
The card game itself was mostly a background event at this point, more of a cover to hide their real game than anything else, because three Sheikah making what appeared to be stone faces at each other, only interrupted when one of them jumped up, pointed at one of the others and shouted, "That's too obvious!" was just...weird.
The weirdest thing about it, in Sheik's opinion, was the fact that Paya, who normally couldn't tell a convincing lie to save her life, was so good at hiding both her real tells and coming up with new ones that could just as easily be part of her normal body language. She wasn't half-bad at spotting the fake ones either.
A key component to the game was the penalties levied on the person who guessed wrong, which was usually just a rupee or two. However, given the pace of it all, one loss could easily turn into many in a row, and a decisively lighter money pouch by the end of the evening.
Not that Paya ever experienced that, the...the gambler!
"Sheik, come on, that twitch is the fakest one I've ever seen," she said, looking at him over her cards. "I can see you thinking about making it."
"Fucking shit," Sheik groaned, dropping his hand and tossing her another green rupee. "How are you so good at this?"
"I've known you too long, Sheiky," Paya said, grinning and flipping the rough gemstone in her hand. "Plus, I've seen you fake that one before."
He tried to think of a time he'd done this particular twitch before, but his memory wasn't good enough to recall. Clearly, hers was, and it annoyed him greatly.
"Just give it up, cousin," Kafei said, chuckling. "She's practically unbeatable at this point. I don't know why we keep inviting her."
"Because you'd miss me," she said. "Plus, if I found out that you were playing without me, I'd make you regret it dearly." Her face went carefully blank for a single second, which only made the threat scarier, before her easy smile returned.
"Because you enjoy it so much, or...?" Sheik asked.
"No, because I need the money," she said. "Robbing you two is my biggest source of income, don't you know?"
"Heartless," Kafei said. "Just...just heartless."
"You have to be if you want to get ahead in this world."
"I hear you saying that," Sheik said, "and yet, you had no problems doing what you did back in the desert." He glanced at her. "Or was that just a calculated risk on your part, hoping it would pay off in the end?"
"Everything that involves you is a calculated risk, Sheiky," Paya said, grinning, "but no, that was just an exception. What happened back there probably only had something like a ten-percent chance of actually paying off, so..."
"Aw, so you did it for the sake of love?" Kafei asked sweetly. "I'm touched."
"No, that's what you did," Paya retorted. "Because you're the biggest sap in the world."
"Oh, really?" Sheik said, looking at him. "I thought you were doing it for the political benefits. That's what you said, at least."
"Shut up," Kafei said, ducking behind his cards. "I did it for both. Are we playing, or what?"
Paya and Sheik shared a grin.
There was a collective whoop from one of the many clusters of guards as they celebrated...something. Sheik couldn't help but shoot an annoyed look in their direction, and happened to catch the eye of one. He gave Sheik a leery look that immediately had him look away, wishing he hadn't removed his mask in order to play the game.
"Just ignore them," Paya said. "Pretty sure they'll start dropping like flies in the next half hour, if they've been drinking for as long as I suspect."
"Hm," Sheik hummed, noticing in the corner of his eye that the soldier from before kept pointing their direction. "One of them has taken an interest," he said.
"Yeah, well, he'd better keep it to himself," Kafei growled. "Or I'll show him my interest."
"I hope you're referring to the dagger in your belt," Paya said.
"Oh, it's a dagger, all right."
"See, when you say things like that, I have no idea if you're joking or not." She gave him a look of disgust.
"And yet a minuscule, invisible twitch of the muscles in the lower right corner of my eye is enough to give me away when we're playing?" Kafei asked dryly. "Your perception is strangely selective."
Paya opened her mouth to retort, but another whoop issued from the drunken idiots, some of them starting to sing the Hyrulian national anthem...and forgetting half the words (and most of the melody, for that matter).
"A toast!" one drunk in particular called out in a loud voice, making himself heard over the delightful singing around him. "For our beloved princess! Long may she live!"
"To Princess Zelda!" was the resounding cheer in response.
"Funny how patriotic people become when drunk," Kafei said, shaking his head in dismay.
"Better than rebellious," Paya said with a shrug.
"Or rebelliously patriotic," Sheik added.
"What does that even mean?" Kafei asked.
"Patriotic for some illegitimate heir, rebellious towards the current monarch?" Sheik suggested.
"Why are you asking us? It was your suggestion," Paya said.
"I was just trying to participate!" Sheik said, realising he'd lost sight of the soldier from before. Just as well, really. Bastard was probably passed out somewhere by now.
"No prize for you," Kafei said, laughing as Sheik groaned and stared down at his cards, trying to think of a new, fake tell he could show off when he noticed someone approaching them.
"Ah, but if there's anyone committed to the princess living a long, happy life, it's our dear friends here!" the drunken soldier who'd eyed Sheik like a piece of meat said, coming to stand just behind Paya, flanked by two others. All three of them looked unsteady and glassy-eyed, clearly teetering on the edge of oblivion. "Isn't that right, shadows?"
Sheik tensed up, and noticed Paya and Kafei doing the same, though their faces remained calm and amicable.
"Well, that goes without saying," Kafei said brightly. "My cousin here is even one of Princess Zelda's personal guards. Doesn't get more committed to her safety than that!"
"Oh-ho, now that is interesting!" the man said, elbowing his friends, who responded with chuckles and more leery eyes, both at Paya and Sheik. "You must be a formidable one indeed to be appointed to such a position!"
"She is," Sheik confirmed, looking at Paya, who hadn't turned her head to address them at all.
"Well, I would certainly like to hear more about that," the man said, putting a hand on her shoulder. "I'm sure there is so much you can...tell us about your job. So many things to teach. How about we buy a drink?" He looked at Sheik again. "You can come too," he added.
"I'm a boy," Sheik said, glaring at him, which only seemed to amuse the fucker.
"Pretty enough," one of the others murmured with a chuckle.
"Ain't a problem for me," the other intoned. "Hear he likes it up the arse anyways. They all do."
Sheik's hand twitched towards his knife.
"Come on," the man said. "I'm sure we can teach you both a few things, too. Things you don't learn from those instructors of yours." He gripped Paya's shoulder a little harder. "Things you can teach the princess, if you should—agh!"
Faster than he could react, Paya had reached up to grab his hand and twisted the wrist just so, causing him to cry out.
"I'm assuming this is because you boys have been drinking all evening, so I won't cut off that hand," Paya said as she slowly turned to face them. "But I highly suggest you turn around and go back to your friends, before I cut off not only your hands, but also the shrivelled little things you call manhoods in your trousers. I am the princess' bodyguard for a reason, and you do not want to find out why." She gave his wrist another twist, forcing another cry out of his mouth, before letting go and pushing him away.
The other two looked ready to throttle her, but the first one stopped them. "Fucking blood-eyes!" he spat, dragging them away into the crowd, who didn't seem to have noticed the altercation. "You'll pay for that!"
"Oooh, I'm so scared," Paya said in a dull tone.
"Terrified," Kafei agreed, all the while giving Sheik a look that said, in no uncertain terms, that he'd be sleeping in Kafei's room that night. It was annoying and touching at the same time...though probably for the best. There was no telling what kind of stupid ideas for revenge the soldiers might come up with during the night, especially with one Sheikah sleeping in the same building as them, just a few rooms away.
Paya was grumbling under her breath as she turned back to them. It was hard to tell what she was saying, but he definitely caught the last thing she said...and it made his breath catch in his throat.
"...teach...hah...like she needs teaching."
Judging from the way Kafei's mouth fell open, he heard it too. "Come again?" he asked.
Paya blinked, and then her eyes widened to the size of saucers. "What?" she asked.
"What was that about...her not needing...to be taught?" Sheik said, lowering his voice, so only they could hear it.
"I said something?" In the span of seconds, the perfect control Paya'd had of her face during the game unravelled, her cheeks reddening until it resembled a ripe tomato, her fingers twitching on the table top. "I...I didn't...say anything..."
There was that expert lying of hers, back in full force. Sheik would feel sorry for her if what she'd accidentally let slip wasn't so intriguing.
"Yeah, I call bullshit on that," Kafei said, leaning forward and pulling the other two with them, so they were semi-huddling against each other over the table. It was immensely uncomfortable. "Do go on, dearest cousin," he said, switching to the Sheikah tongue. "You have some explaining to do."
"There's nothing to say," Paya tried to claim, but it was clear she knew the jig was up. Caught out like this, she had no chance of possibly recovering her composure enough to convince them that there really was nothing. "Really..."
"You said something about not needing to teach someone," Sheik said helpfully. "A her of some sort? But who?" He rubbed his jaw in mock-contemplation, his heart practically jumping out of his chest in anticipation of finding out whether his suspicion was correct or not. Because if it were...then things were just absolutely perfect in life.
"Who indeed?" Kafei asked, joining in. "Who could our dear Paya be involved with, when we know that she only has eyes for one individual...one she believes to be unattainable at that?"
Paya made a frustrated noise, hiding her face in her hands. "You two are the worst," she said, voice muffled. "It's her, okay?"
Sheik and Kafei looked at each other, taking a moment to digest what she'd just said. Then, Sheik said, "No way."
"Really?!" Kafei said.
"Yes!" she exclaimed, glaring at them. "It's her! The her! All right?! Is that what you wanted to hear?!"
"Pretty much," Kafei said, grinning at her. "Now this is a story I gotta hear."
Sheik looked up, realising their shouting had drawn more attention than they probably would have liked. "Maybe not in here, though?" he suggested. "Is there somewhere we can talk in private?"
"I'd very much like that," Paya said, face still blazing. "How about my quarters? The other should be out for the festival..."
"Sounds good to me," Kafei said. "Let's move on."
On their way out, Sheik happened to spot the soldier from before. He was surrounded by his friends, surely telling the story of his wrist had been broken by the red-eyed savage, cradling said limb tenderly. His eyes happened to meet Sheik's, and Sheik couldn't resist giving the man a two-fingered salute.
He didn't know just how badly that would come back to haunt him later.
Paya was right. The quarters she shared with three of the other Sheikah that made up Princess Zelda's bodyguard unit were empty, and more importantly far away from prying eyes and listening ears...other than those of her cousins, that is.
The quarters reserved for the bodyguards were sparse and austere, with little room for personalisation on account of how often their duties were rotated. Each guard barely spent more than a month at the princess' side before being shifted to other positions, so all they had were simple beds, small chests for personal items at the foot of said beds, and basins for washing. Pretty much all one needed for the monthly rotation. The only exception to this so far had been Paya, whose rotation had been extended twice at this point, and...and...
Oh Hylia, what kind of an idiot am I? Sheik thought as he took a seat on one of the beds next to Paya. It was so obvious!
Kafei was leaning against the wall, fidgeting in anticipation. "Well?" he said. "Come on, out with it."
"There really isn't much to tell," Paya said, brushing a hand through her hair nervously, finally undoing a few of the braids that had been coming loose, to Sheik's relief. They'd really been bothering him for the past few hours. "I have... I mean, sheand I...we...we have been..."
"Just to get this right," Kafei interrupted, "when you say she, you are talking about a certain princess, right? You're not being intentionally misleading just for the hell of it?"
"Of course not!" she exclaimed. "Why would I lie about this?!"
"Well, you wouldn't be able to, for one," Sheik said. "You're the worst liar I know."
"Oh yeah?" she asked. "Then how come I've managed to keep this secret for the last y...er...that is..."
Kafei stared at her. "I'm sorry, I must have misheard," he said. "I could swear you were about to say year. Seriously, P?"
Sheik groaned, falling back on the mattress...which was so hard he could practically feel his vertebrae shattering against it. "We've been had, Kaf!"
"A whole year...wow, that is...that is a long time to go without saying anything, P," Kafei said, looking both impressed, annoyed, and amused at the same time. "I'm almost hurt you didn't tell anyone—me, most of all!"
"Well, it's not exactly something I could announce to the four winds, is it?!" she hissed. "A blood-eye and their precious princess? Can you imagine the outrage if the Hylians find out? There'll be riots in the streets!"
"Like in the sheets?" Kafei asked, unable to contain the shit-eating grin gracing his face.
Sheik groaned. It was physically painful, hearing that one. "Shut the fuck up, Kaf!" he half-shouted.
"Oh come on, that one was gold," the purple-haired prick said.
"So how did it even happen?" Sheik asked, sitting up to look at her. "I mean...there's got to be a story behind it, right?"
"Not much of one," she said, easing herself into a relaxed lotus position, calming down a little now that they were in private, even though her shoulders still carried a little tension...probably caused by Kafei, the arsehole. "Not nearly as romantic as yours," she added, shooting Sheik a look that had him blushing. "Or as insane as yours," she shot towards Kafei, who didn't even have the decency to disagree.
"No one outdoes our crazy," he said proudly.
"That's not something to brag about," Sheik said. "You fell in love with a girl who knocked out your tooth on your first meeting!"
"Look, I can't help but like what I like," Kafei said, shaking his head. "But we're digressing. Spit it out, P, give us all the sordid little details."
Sheik wanted to tell him to knock it off...but truth be told, he wanted to know too. If only so he'd have something to hold over her head the same way she held Atiya over his. Not in a malicious way, of course. No, just for the friendly, semi-hateful-but-really-from-a-place-of-love way all cousins did.
Or was it just them? Honestly, he didn't want to know at this point.
"She noticed, all right?" Paya said, drumming the palms of her hands on her thighs. "I wasn't subtle enough, apparently, and she decided to...do something about it." She blushed again.
"I sense something juicy," Kafei said, practically giggling at this point. "What was that something?"
"Yes?" he asked, leaning forward.
"She...started giving me looks. Long ones. Lingering ones. The sort you can't really misinterpret, you know? I thought I was, of course, but...yeah, no. She made her intentions very clear, one day." She fidgeted. "I was guarding her during breakfast, one morning, and she asked me to try some jam. Special type from the south somewhere, apparently."
"And?" Sheik said, also leaning forward.
"I did," Paya continued. "Try it, I mean. And it was...sweet. I told her so. She said she wanted to do a comparison and...and..." It was a wonder her head didn't explode from the sheer amount of blood collecting in it at this point.
"She...?" Sheik said.
Kafei made some sort of noise. That was the only way to describe the sound coming from between his clenched jaws, his eyes all lit up, like a cat who'd just found a giant vat of cream.
"She pulled down my mask and kissed me," Paya said. "Thoroughly. And then...then she pulled away, and said...not as sweet as you."
Sheik stared at her. "Well, that's just about the most disgustingly cute thing I've ever heard in my life," he said, sitting up and bumping his shoulder against hers. "Good for you, P."
She smiled through the force of her blush. "Thank you," she said.
"Yeah, P, that was...that was just great," Kafei said, his face apparently in spasms. "And, uh...the relationship just blossomed there, did it?"
"She wouldn't have it any other way," Paya said. "She's very...assertive."
"Yeah, no kidding," Kafei said. "I can't even imagine the argument she must have had with Impa to convince her to shift your schedule around...which I should have seen right through. Holy hell, am I that oblivious?!"
"I missed it too," Sheik said.
"And you claim I'm up for promotion," the eldest Sheikah said, clucking his tongue at him. "If we missed something like this, I strongly suspect we'll be stuck doing grunt work for the rest of our lives, cousin."
"As long as I don't have to do it with you, I'm fine with that," Sheik replied.
"Aw, that hurts," Kafei said. "Though I guess you could just ask Atiya to make you his consort already and just live in the lap of luxury for the rest of your life—"
"Stop talking!" Sheik growled, launching himself at Kafei with the intent of shutting him up once and for all, mortified that his cousin would say it so brazenly. "Stop talking now!"
Unfortunately, Paya held him back. "Easy, he's just joking!"
Sheik paused, looking at her. "Hang on...when you were late for the game, your face was all red...were you...?"
Her averted eyes told him more than words ever could.
"She...wanted to say good night," Paya admitted with a mumble.
"And the false alarm?"
"That happened! Just...a little earlier than I may have implied..."
"Oh my!" Kafei exclaimed. "Is there no limit to your depravity, P?! Lying to your poor, impressionable baby cousin to hide your own canoodling! What would the elders think?"
Paya let go of Sheik, her hand straying to her belt, where a small array of daggers coated with various poisons were sheathed.
"On second thought, Sheik, why don't you hold him down, and I'll make sure he never talks again?" she said dangerously.
"Sounds good to me," Sheik said as they both stood up and approached Kafei slowly, who realised he'd backed himself into a corner. "Maybe cut out his tongue, for good measure?"
"Oh, come on, guys," Kafei said nervously. "El's shown a lot of appreciation for that part of me, surely you don't want to make her sad?"
"She'll find another way, I'm sure," Paya said. "You yourself keep saying how adventurous she is. Now she'll finally get a real challenge!"
Apparently realising his doom had finally caught up with him, Kafei did what any idiot would do in such a situation...and went all in.
"Is the princess adventurous as well?" he asked. "I mean, I know the prince is, if what I've learned about him is true, but I can't help but wonder if all royalty likes to indulge in a little...a little...Paya, please put down that knife, you're going to hurt som—argh!"
Sheik would look back on this moment of cooperation between him and Paya and consider it, even with the visit to the medic and subsequent tongue-lashing from Impa, all worth it, and the without a doubt the best card game night of all time.
Chapter 5: A Message - Part I
This takes place a short time after the card game between Sheik, Kafei, and Paya.
This story is quite a bit darker than the others, and features physical torture.
It was inevitable, really. He should have seen it coming a mile away, but he'd been...confident. Confident in the peace process leading to better moods and relations, to understanding and unification. A centuries-long conflict finally buried; who wouldn't be elated in the face of such a historic milestone? In the face of finally being able to bury the hatchet and move on, to put the past behind, where it belonged?
Hate doesn't see all that. It is blinded by its own righteousness, by the utter confidence it has in the validity of its own view, by the complete belief that those who have been branded as others and outsiders are and always will be in the wrong, will always be enemies, will always put a knife in your back as soon as you turn it towards them.
And that meant you had to stab first.
The Sheikah knew this. They had felt that blade slide between their ribs too many times to ever feel safe turning their back on anyone, sometimes even themselves. A paranoia developed and nursed throughout the ages, given nourishment by the suspicious looks and hateful words thrown their way, despite what the Sheikah had done for them.
Fought for them, bled for them, died for them.
So, they remained vigilant, even as Hyrule appeared to enter into a new era of peace, as the hatchet was finally buried between its two dominant cultures. Hylians and Gerudo finally met without hostility, and while it would still take some time for the two races to call each other friend, at least it was no longer enemy.
All thanks to a chance meeting of a Gerudo prince and a Sheikah operative in the middle of a desert, an event that could not be spoken for fear of the possible ramifications it would have on the peace process itself.
The Sheikah remained vigilant, kept a close eye on the visiting dignitaries, on the proceedings, endless meetings and debates, on the banquets and drunken ramblings, quietly stepping in to calm down certain arguments before brawls could begin.
It was a hectic time. Resources were stretched thin, manpower was low, the operatives were run ragged as they were kept busy.
So busy, in fact, with keeping an eye on the politicians and foreigners, that they forgot to keep an eye on the people at their backs, who were supposed to be their support if things went out of hand.
They forgot the hatred.
They forgot the knife.
And Sheik would pay the price.
Another trade agreement, another festival. Honestly, these days it seemed that the people of Hyrule didn't really need a good reason to throw a party. They'd take any excuse, no matter how small or insignificant, and use it to put on a celebration of sorts. The bigger, the better, and if it could be expanded into a city-wide affair...well, it was just a good way to get to know the neighbours, wasn't it? Especially their beloved sisters of the west, the Gerudo, who were finally being introduced to what the Hylians called civilisation.
A certain type of civilisation, at least.
And so, the Great Celebration in Honour of the Successful Signing of the Agreement to a Five Percent Tariff Increase to the Gerudo Guest Workers was held.
It was a bit of a mouthful, but then by the hour of eight in the evening no one would remember why they were celebrating in the first place, only that they wanted to keep the ale and wine flowing...and occasionally start a fight for the fun of it.
For the beleaguered security forces of Castle Town, the Watch, it was a recipe for disaster. Tensions might not run as high between the resident Hylians and visiting Gerudo as they once did, but introduce alcohol the mix and old animosities would quickly rise to the surface.
Coupled with the fact that the party had pretty much spread all over the city, the Watch quickly found themselves overwhelmed by the sheer amount of, as they called it, heated situations that arose. It was chaos, sheer and utter chaos.
And that was how Sheik found himself standing in the briefing room, surrounded by fellow Sheikah operatives and, for the first time, about forty regular watchmen, all dressed in full gear. Distrustful looks were cast between the two groups, but the presence of Impa and the Commander of the Watch, Kato, kept things from turning unpleasant.
"...and that is the situation as of fifteen minutes past eight," Impa concluded as she straightened her back, folding her arms across the chest. "The party is in danger of turning into an outright riot, which is why Commander Kato has requested our assistance." She nodded to Kato, who cleared his throat.
"Thank you, Mistress Impa," he said, bowing his head respectfully before turning to the gathered operatives and watchmen. "A record number of visitors to the city, as well as an unprecedented period of prolonged festivals and other celebrations, has taken its toll on the city guardsmen. Injuries and illness have put a great number of them on the side-lines, and I am ashamed to say that the guardsmen who remain are stretched thin." He let his eyes roam across the gathered men and women slowly. "In order to alleviate this issue until we have completed training our new recruits and allowed the injured to recover, I have requested the assistance of the honourable Sheikah in maintaining order and stability in the city."
"What good is our presence on the streets going to do?" Kafei asked after raising his hand, but not waiting for permission to speak. "Things are already tense because of the Gerudo—do you really think groups of armed Sheikah wandering around is going to go over well with the populace?"
From across the table, Sheik could see Impa's eye twitch with annoyance at the breach of protocol. Different branches of security or not, Kato was still Kafei's superior officer.
"A very good question," Kato acknowledged with a nod. "Indeed, the animosity between our peoples cannot be ignored, and, as you say, groups of armed Sheikah is bound to make people nervous."
Sheik fought down a grimace, knowing Impa would be able to spot it even when it was hidden by his mask.
When had the Sheikah ever raised arms against the Hylians other than in self-defence? It was always them who started the fights, forcing the red-eyed warriors to either endure them until the proper authorities could put an end to it, or make themselves appear violent and untrustworthy, even when only disarming their attackers.
"That is why I brought some of my own guardsmen with me." He gestured to the gathered watchmen, who all seemed to stand up a little straighter at the attention. "I have discussed it with Mistress Impa, and she agrees that organising you into mixed groups of Sheikah and Hylians, showing the civilians that we are all working together, will ease the tension."
"Provided we don't end up fighting each other," Sheik heard a Sheikah behind him say under her breath. "Never trust a Hylian."
A few of the others agreed under their breaths. Sheik shook his head. That was not good. What progress could they possibly hope to achieve if they didn't open the door of diplomacy even a crack?
"Any objections?" Impa asked, addressing her clansmen. There was none to be had. You did not disagree with the clan elder in public. It would make them all look bad and present their failure to agree as a weakness to be exploited. "Good," she said. "Because of the time-sensitive nature of the situation, as well as the sheer amount of manpower needed to cover the needed ground, you will be divided into two-man teams. One Sheikah, one guardsman. You will be partners for the night, so do try to get along."
A pair of lines formed, and the teams seemed to be randomly chosen. Kafei was sent off with a dour-looking man in his forties with a missing eye, and Paya went with a bubbly-looking woman who must have been a recruit up until recently based on her age.
As Kato slowly approached him for his assignment, Sheik briefly wondered what kind of person he would be partnered with...until he felt a hand grip his shoulder and pull him firmly towards the back of the line.
"Special assignment for you, nephew," Impa said, releasing his arm in front of a female guardsman who didn't look particularly happy with the situation, if the scowl on her face was any indication. "This is Constable Calli—she will be your partner for the night."
"A pleasure, I'm sure," Sheik said drily.
"Behave," Impa reminded him under her breath. "Constable, I leave my nephew in your hands. Please return him in good condition."
"Yes, Mistress," Calli said, her eyes refusing to meet Sheik's, the rest of her face mostly hidden by the guardsman helmet and the slightly oversized gorget that protected her throat. From what little he could see, Sheik would assume she was a little older than him, but not by much. She noticed him staring and jerked her head towards the door. "Let's go," she said simply, heading out without waiting to see if he was following.
"Is this some sort of punishment?" Sheik asked Impa, who raised a single eyebrow; a silent request to elaborate. "Have I displeased you in some way, to the point where you want me to get a knife in the back by a Sheikah-hating guardsman?"
"You do have some strange ideas in your head, nephew," Impa said simply, pointing to the door. "That woman is one of the most capable guardsmen Kato has, and I specifically requested her as your partner because I do not take your safety lightly. Stick with Constable Calli, Sheik, and you will be perfectly fine."
"She didn't seem very keen," he said, absentmindedly pulling at the strap of his wrist protector, which also happened to conceal several poisoned needles.
Impa had requested them to show up in full gear, so he hadn't taken any chances. A little overkill, perhaps, since the worst they'd probably face tonight was a drunken fight with broken bottles. Still, couldn't hurt to bring them along, just in case.
"Her reluctance has everything to do with me, and not with you," Impa said simply, and gestured to the door once more. "Now go on, before she leaves you behind."
Nodding, Sheik went for the door, pausing slightly when Impa called after him:
"I'll see you at debriefing in the morning."
"Yeah, you will," he muttered, blinking when he found Calli standing in the hallway, tapping her foot impatiently.
"I hope you're not going to be this slow the whole night," she said sharply, still refusing to look him in the eyes, adjusting her cloak so that it was shorter, presenting a less tempting target for troublemakers. "We have a lot of ground to cover."
"My apologies," Sheik said through gritted teeth. "There was a matter I needed to discuss with Mistress Impa."
"Hmph," the constable snorted. "Well, I hope you managed to settle it—you'll need your wits about you and your full concentration for this job."
"I have been on patrol before, you know," he pointed out as they navigated the corridors of the castle barracks before emerging into the courtyard, which was a flurry of activity as it was currently the staging area for both royal and guardsmen patrols.
"What, in little Kakariko, which is filled mostly with your own kind?" Calli said, chuckling. "Not exactly a dangerous place, is it?"
They went through the gates, and then they were in the city streets. The district around Hyrule Castle was quite calm and orderly, on account of it being mostly occupied by office buildings or the residences of the city's wealthier occupants. The streets were a bit more crowded than usual, but this was nothing compared to the pandemonium Sheik knew would be awaiting them further ahead.
"How about behind Gerudo lines during the war?" he said innocently. "That dangerous enough?"
"You were on the frontline?" she asked, taking the lead and bringing them off the main avenue leading downtown. She seemed to prefer backstreets and alleys, navigating them with ease. She probably had some sort of mental map of the whole city—Sheik had heard that guardsmen were supposed to be very well acquainted with the city before they were allowed out on patrol.
That was the first non-hostile-sounding question he'd heard from her.
"I was beyond the frontlines," he corrected her. "Scouting for enemy formations and such."
He realised he was puffing up his chest, as if he was defending not only himself but his entire clan and forced himself to relax. It really wouldn't do any good to antagonise the person who was supposed to watch his back for the night. He didn't do it on purpose, though. There was just something that irked him about the woman...and apparently, he was irking her just as much, if her absolute refusal to meet his gaze with her own was anything to judge by.
"Huh," she said, leading him through a series of progressively narrowing alleys until he could hear the noise of a nearby square, where celebrations were underway. They were already passing by passed-out drunks in the gutters. Calli stopped near one that was lying face-down on the ground.
"You still alive, friend?" she asked loudly as she pushed him over until he was lying on his side, steadying him by arranging his arm and legs in a specific way that would prevent him from tipping over either way. She slapped his cheek lightly and got an annoyed, badly aimed swat in her general direction in return. Nodding, she stood up and continued walking with Sheik in tow.
"Got to make sure they're not dead," she explained, gesturing to a man who lurched past them, eyes glassy and unfocused. "Or about to pass out and drown in their own vomit."
"Charming," Sheik said, nose wrinkling beneath his mask at the odour of some of them.
"It's the job," she said with a shrug. "Beats sneaking around all the time."
"It's not all we do," he said, refusing to rise to the bait.
She stopped at the mouth of the alley, the square just ahead of them. The press of bodies was tight enough to block the view to most of the happenings in the area, but Sheik could tell that it'd be a maze of market stalls, carts, and people in there. Add a little drink to the mix and it was practically a powder keg waiting to explode.
"Right," she said, turning to him, and for the first time he caught a glimpse of her eyes. Blue, predictably (she was Hylian, after all), though a slightly different shade than he was used to. They were hidden from view again just as quickly as they'd appeared. "The moment we step inside that square, it's going to be chaos. It's going to be loud, it's going to be tight, and it's going to be unpleasant as all hell. Stick close to me and do as I say. Remember, we're here to keep the peace, which means that we stay calm no matter what happens, and we do not draw our weapons unless absolutely necessary. Is that understood?"
I don't think we ever discussed the chain of command here, Sheik thought, nodding. Then again, I've never been a guardsman before, so...
"Also," Calli continued, gesturing to his uniform, "they will make comments, probably even insult you. Do not rise to it. Hell, don't even respond. Just ignore them."
Now it was his turn to snort. "I've been dealing with harassment for as long as I can remember," he said. "You think a few drunkards will make me lose my cool?"
"Just a warning about what you can expect," she replied. "We represent the law, here, and people mostly respect that, but you'd be surprised at what drinking can do to a person's judgement."
"And exactly how much am I supposed to tolerate, hypothetically, before I am allowed to defend myself?" Sheik asked, the constable confusing him more and more by the second. Half an hour ago she hadn't even been willing to speak to him.
"Let them say whatever they want," she said. "They lay a hand on you, however, you remind them who and what you are, and what you represent. If they do not desist...well, let me know, and I will put a stop to it."
"I am a trained Sheikah operative," he said, eyes narrowing. "I can handle myself—"
"And will you know when to stop?" she interrupted him. "Know where the line that separates acceptable and unacceptable use of force is drawn? This isn't the frontlines, operative. If you hurt one of these people when a simple, stern warning would have sufficed, you damage not only your own reputation, but that of the law as well! It is vital for the people to have trust in the Watch...or it'll all break down."
She was breathing a little heavily at the end of her rant, and Sheik felt a little...ashamed. She was right. His combat training had mostly focused on how to kill or neutralise an opponent as quickly as possible...and said neutralisation techniques had mostly involved breaking a few bones or slicing tendons. Not really acceptable things to do to someone who'd had just a little too much to drink and a big mouth.
"Very well," he said, nodding. "I will follow your lead, constable, and let you handle those who get a little too...handsy."
Not for the first time that night, Sheik wished he was back in bed, snuggled up to Atiya. They'd barely had any time to see each other since the prince had arrived, and this celebration was ruining everything!
"Good," she said with a nod. "People are nervous enough around the Sheikah as it is—it's hardly going to get better if you start going around breaking limbs left and right."
"True," Sheik agreed.
"All right, then," the constable said, turning her attention to the square. "You ready?"
By the time they emerged on the other side of the square about an hour later, Sheik was already exhausted. The sheer assault on his senses in the form of lights, noise, and smells was enough to prompt a headache, and that wasn't even considering the numerous unpleasant situations he'd been witness to and participated in.
Fights, he could handle. Getting between a pair of arguing men, trying to stop a physical confrontation was, while unusual for him, also not very trying. Most of aggressive drunks backed down when a fully armed Sheikah firmly told them to cool it, and those who didn't certainly were cowed by the loud voice of a Watch Constable, who pulled a very formidable figure in her uniform. The brandished truncheon helped too, of course, but Constable Calli was...an intimidating sight when wielding nothing but the full authority of the Law.
Then there were the medical emergencies, the lost and crying children, the endless parade of merchants and peddlers trying to hawk their wares. For once, they were even willing to sell to Sheikah when, on any other day, he'd likely be ignored, if not asked to leave outright.
There was so much noise and information to take in and keeping an eye out for real trouble was about as easy as keeping his head above the water in a troubled, stormy sea.
Despite the tension, Constable Calli's presence was therefore an anchoring point, something to focus on, to keep him from going insane from the sensory input. A guide to follow. This was all old hat to her, it seemed, as she handled every single situation put before her with extreme efficiency.
An injury? Send for a doctor, you chaps help him up and keep his leg elevated, do not worry ma'am he will be perfectly fine, just a sprain, I'm sure, had a little too much, eh?
A lost child? This is the Watch! Does someone know this child?! You! You are her father? Is that true, girl, is that your ol' dad? All right, then, off you go!
A fight? All right, that's enough, you two, go cool off with a drink, or better yet go home! This is no time to be knocking each other's teeth out! It's a celebration!
Sheik had to admit he was impressed.
"Ah, there you are."
Kafei and the dour-faced, one-eyed Hylian man was waiting for them by the edge of the square. The guardsman's tabard was covered in some sort of brown, lumpy mixture, while Kafei's hair had come undone and he looked quite frazzled, even under his mask.
"Calli," the Hylian greeted them with a nod.
"Vordt," she replied. "All good on your end?"
"Thatcher's a bit rowdy," he said, his voice a little strained as he gestured to his tabard. "Someone decided their stew looked better on my uniform." He looked at the square. "And here?"
"Just the usual," she said. "A few defused situations, a lost kid, and a nasty-looking ankle twist, but that's about it. Nothing we couldn't handle."
"This is the worst night of my life," Kafei said, looking Sheik dead in the eyes. "I will never forgive Impa for this."
"What happened?" Sheik asked, letting the constables have their own conversation in peace.
"A child kicked me," Kafei said, his tone suggesting this was on par with the worst of war crimes. "A little boy, chasing after a bunch of other little monsters, stopped when he saw me, calmly walked over, looked up at me, called me a doo-doo head, kicked me in the shin, and ran off, laughing." He held out a hand, his thumb and forefinger less than in inch apart. "I was this close to murdering the little shit!"
Sheik tried not to look too amused at his cousin's misery. "Well, the doo-doo head bit was unnecessary, but...well, isn't kicking shins pretty much what kids do?"
"I am never having them," Kafei said firmly. "No matter what E says, I will not budge on this."
"You'll fold like a house of cards," Sheik said, snorting at the mental image of his cousin being able to stand up to Elenwe in any way.
Kafei made an agonised noise as he hung his head in shame. "You're right, I am powerless against her. My future is filled with little monsters just like her, isn't it?"
"Don't worry," Sheik said brightly, patting his shoulder. "I'm sure Impa will murder you for sleeping with the enemy before that ever becomes an issue."
"Huh..." Kafei hummed, his eyes brightening a little at that prospect. "You're right!" He sighed in relief. "Good old Impa, what would we do without her?"
"Life without fear?" Sheik suggested.
"At least there'd be less of it."
There was a loud, deliberately intrusive cough, and they found Calli and Vordt looking at them impatiently.
"I'm sure your conversation is very important," Calli said, her eyes flashing in the light of the street lamps, "but we have a schedule to keep. We're due in Artificer's in five minutes, so we'd better get a move on."
"Right," Sheik said, patting Kafei's arm. "I'll see you later, yeah? Don't get assaulted by any more children!"
"You're a cruel man, cousin!" Kafei shouted after him.
It was only a matter of time before the presence of a dreaded blood-eye at a party would be too much for someone to handle.
Sheik thought he'd been doing quite well—he'd stared down a man and a woman in the middle of a rather nasty fight regarding the man being a philanderer, suggesting it was better that they have this particular discussion some other time, preferably sober—and was preening a bit when Calli had actually said he did a good job before her attention was drawn away by a shopkeeper insisting someone had tried to steal from her.
And then it happened.
"What th' fuck's he doin' here?!"
The words were slurred, and there was no question regarding the man who'd utter them's sobriety.
Or lack thereof.
He was a big one. That was the first thing that popped up in Sheik's mind. Easily twice his height and triple the width. Not much muscle on him, but given the size difference Sheik was pretty insignificant. He stood his ground, however, when the man lurched closer, pointing a thick, dirty finger directly at him.
"Your kind ain't welcome here, blood-eye!" he shouted, apparently having trouble focusing on Sheik, who stood mere feet away. Hell, his entire balance seemed to be off, judging by the way he was swaying and spilling his drink when waving his tankard around. "Bad enough you's infestin' th' castle 'n poisonin' th' pri'cess with yer filth...now y'gotta come down here too?!"
Oh, how delightful, Sheik thought, crossing his arms to appear resolute and unmovable...which wasn't easy when the man pretty much dwarfed him. Just what I wanted to deal with tonight.
Calli was still busy with the shopkeeper, and hadn't noticed the situation, which Sheik had a strong feeling was about to escalate, no matter how he decided to handle it.
Still, he had a job to do.
"Sir, please calm down," he said calmly. "The Sheikah are assisting the Watch in keeping the peace, and that is the only reason I am here right now. Please, go back to your friends and enjoy your evening."
"S'hard to do with a fuckin' blood-eye around, ain't it?!" the man shouted back, still pointing that disgusting-looking finger at him. "Bet yer gonna slit my throat th' momen I turn around, ain't ya? That's what yer kind does! Murderers, the lot of ya! King should'a put you all down years ago!"
Sheik clenched his fists, fighting down his temper. He was the Law tonight, not an operative. If the man tried something, he could probably handle him without too much difficulty, but his friends were starting to rise from their seats as well, looking a little rowdy.
"Maybe we oughta do th' pri'cess a favour, boys," the man said, lurching forward. "And start with this'un!"
Fuck, here we go, Sheik thought, dropping into his fighting stance and preparing to take the man on, figuring he could probably use his momentum against him, and—
Calli's truncheon came down hard on the man's outstretched arm, making a loud cracking sound as the wood collided with the limb. Calli herself followed immediately after, her shoulder slamming into the drunkard's solar plexus, knocking the air out of him, before she reached up and seized his other arm, twisting her torso and throwing him over her shoulder, face first, into the cobblestones. There was another crack, and blood spurted from the man's nostrils, his nose broken against the stone.
"Now, I know you weren't about to do something as foolish as raise a hand against an officer of the law, were you?" Calli asked, twisting the man's arm until he was whimpering. "Because that, my friend, is punished severely!"
The man howled in pain, asking his friends for help, but they remained rooted to the spot...which was probably the smartest thing to do, since a watchman half their friend's size had taken him down without any sort of effort.
"Constable Sheik," Calli said, surprising him with the title, "would you please take the whistle out of my right pocket and blow it as hard as you can?"
Sheik did so, his hand finding a small, brass whistle in her pocket. The noise was shrill, easily piercing through the general din of the street around them. Within seconds there was an answering call, and soon enough another guardsman-Sheikah team appeared from within the crowds.
"You called?" the guardsman asked, looking amused at Calli, who was still holding the drunkard down.
"You all right?" the Sheikah, whose name slipped Sheik's mind at that moment asked, to which he nodded.
"He got a bit frisky, that's all," he said, nodding to the man on the ground. "Constable Calli handled him with no issues."
"I should hope so," the guardsman said as he helped Calli put the man in cuffs. "Wouldn't be allowed on the streets if she couldn't handle this lump on her own."
"Gee, thanks," Calli said, glaring at her fellow guard, who simply chuckled. "This one needs to cool down a bit, I think. A cell for the night should do the job."
"Right, we'll take him to the Watch house up on Marrow," he said, nodding in the direction of the street commonly referred to as Marrow Vein, named so for the many butcher's shops and tanneries that could be found there. "Smell ought to remind him to keep out of the cups for a while."
"I don't think he can smell anything right now," Sheik pointed as they hoisted the man to his feet.
"Ah, well, still worth a shot, I'd say," the guardsman said, nodding to his partner. "Let's go, Red."
"Be safe, Sheik," the Sheikah said in their tongue before following his partner.
There was an awkward moment of silence, and a lot of shuffling from the people around them. Calli looked annoyed, pointing her truncheon at them. "Right, show's over, you lot! Back to your business!"
Suddenly, everyone was very interested in their cups, food, and/or partners. Sheathing her truncheon in her holster, Calli took Sheik's arm and pulled him along their patrol route.
"I...er...thank you," Sheik said after a while. "I probably could have handled him on my own, but...thank you."
"We look out for each other," she replied, flashing him a smile that was actually visible for more than a fraction of a second. Her eyes really were a strange shade of blue—almost purple, really. "This may be a temporary arrangement, but right now you're a guardsman, and we have each other's back, no matter what. I've got yours, you've got mine. Got it?"
He smiled back. "Got it."
It was long past midnight, and the party was winding down in most parts of the city, especially after a light drizzle had begun to fall. Based on past experience, Sheik knew that most people would be heading home in this kind of weather, but that the most raucous and energetic partygoers would still be at it, moving the celebration indoors to nearby taverns and pubs.
"Well, guess that's it for us," Calli said, checking her timepiece. "Just a few more blocks, and our patrol is over."
"What then?" Sheik asked, keeping pace with her strange gait. She'd called it the policeman's walk, and seemed to be all about conserving as much energy as possible while still moving forward. It was all based on momentum and swinging your leg forward with just enough force to drag the rest of your body with it. It'd taken Sheik all night to figure it out.
"We report in at the castle, and then we're off," she said. "Unless something's big happened and we're in a state of emergency—which we would have been aware of by now—the regular patrols can handle the rest, especially since people will have moved inside. Easier to contain and investigate, you know?"
She paused, giving him an appraising look. "Still think being a guardsman is easy?"
He blinked. "I never said I—"
"That was the general impression I got from the rest of the clan when we were in the briefing room," she said, lowering her voice. "Maybe not from you, but that purple-haired one—Kafei, was it?—he definitely thought the job beneath him."
"He's just nervous whenever we have to interact with civilians in general," Sheik said. "They don't like us much, as you could see, and he worries about our safety." He looked her up and down, noting that she looked oddly defensive. "And as for me, I never thought the job beneath me. I just...underestimated how hard it'd be. I stand corrected, however. I do not envy your position, Constable Calli, but I do respect it."
"Glad to hear it," she said. They continued walking for a few minutes, until she paused again. "And for the record...I'm sorry for what I said about you earlier tonight. About the operative thing. I did not mean to imply that you are...that all you do is—"
"Slit throats in the shadows?" Sheik suggested, to which she nodded with a slightly shameful look on her face. "It's not exactly incorrect, but it's not the only thing we do."
"I know," she said. "It's just...people have always told me that I..." she suddenly trailed off, eyes narrowing at something ahead of them. Sheik followed her gaze.
A man, his face hidden by a jester's mask, was standing at the mouth of an alley, just ahead. His clothes were nondescript, just a simple coat over a shirt and trousers with no remarkable detail. In his hand was a knife, the blade of which was covered in red, dripping fluid. The smell of blood hit Sheik's nose a moment later, noticeable even under the scent of the rain. The man was staring at them, his head tilted at a slight angle, like a curious dog, his breath fogging through the mask's mouth hole.
"Is...this a normal occurrence on your patrols?" Sheik asked as the three of them simply stood there for a moment, staring at each other.
"No, it is not," Calli said, drawing her truncheon. "This is the Watch! You there, drop your weapon and lie down on the—shit!"
The man took off running into the alley. They quickly followed him, their boots smacking against the wet cobbles. The rain was making them slick, and Sheik found it difficult to keep his footing around tight corners, whereas Calli had no trouble whatsoever, her strides as sure and steady as a mountain goat's.
"Fuck, he's fast!" Calli said, panting, as the man disappeared around yet another corner.
Sheik had no idea where they were. This particular part of Castle Town was one of the oldest, and the street layout was almost impossible to figure out unless you actually lived in it. The alleys were practically a maze, and the reform that was supposed to ensure street lighting for the sake of safety had not taken this place into account.
If I had a clear shot, I could probably take him down with a dagger, Sheik thought. Probably wouldn't be popular with the Watch, though. They want possible murderers alive, after all.
On one hand, this could all be a ridiculous prank of sorts. As Calli had said, you'd be surprised at what people with lowered inhibitions could do...but if it were, this was in particular poor taste. Standing in the street with a bloody knife...hah...
They rounded the corner, and they both slid to a halt when they were presented with a path that branched off into different directions...with no sign of the fleeing man or any indication of which branch he'd gone down.
"Right, you go left, I go right," Calli said. "We'll meet on the other side, wherever these streets go!"
"What do I do if I catch him?" Sheik asked before she could run off.
"Do whatever you feel is necessary to stop him," she said after a moment's hesitation. "That knife looked real—there's no telling what he'll do with it if he feels threatened. If you're in danger, neutralise him by any means necessary."
And then they were off again...though Sheik felt lonely, now that his was the only footsteps he could hear.
Still, he ran on. Whoever the fleeing man was, he could have hurt someone with that knife, and he had to be stopped. His fingers itched to draw the short sword on his back, but he fought the urge. He couldn't help but want to resolve the situation peacefully, to make sure that Calli wasn't left with an impression of him as a violent brute whose only solution to difficult situation was to, as it were, slit its throat.
The drizzle had turned into proper rain by now, and he was slowly getting soaked, the water seeping into his uniform. Every now and then he slid in piles of...well, he'd rather not know what they were, but since modern sewers had yet to be installed here, well... One almost took him down as he slipped and almost cracked his head into a low-hanging alchemist sign.
He couldn't hear his target up ahead, or his footsteps. There had yet to be any further branches or side streets, however, so as long as he ran fast enough he'd catch up with the bastard sooner or later...or reach the other side where he'd meet up with Constable Calli.
Or so he thought.
The dead end in the form of a courtyard surrounded by dilapidated apartment buildings was not what he expected. He slid to a halt in the middle of it, cursing as he tried to catch his breath, realising he had to run all the way back to the original branch and catch up with Calli. Not that he was worried she couldn't handle the guy herself, of course, but...well, he was supposed to have her back.
Only when there was a shuffling sound to his right did he realise he wasn't alone in the courtyard.
Not by a long shot.
More masks, all of them bearing the same grinning, jester-like face appeared from darkened corners and doorways. Their clothes were a hodgepodge of different styles and fits, but all remarkable...normal, in a way that seemed extremely coordinated.
Yeah, no, not interested, thanks, Sheik thought as he slowly took a few steps backwards before turning around...and finding his way blocked by another pair of masked men, one of whom was brandishing a crossbow.
So were a few of the others, he realised.
"Well, well, well, what do we have here?" One of the masks spoke in a high-pitched, warbling voice, hiding their real one by affecting that of a jester. "A little Sheikah, separated from his pack? How sad..."
This was a fucking trap, Sheik thought, turning in a circle, counting the men and their positions. Fourteen, in all. Three with crossbows, placed in a rough triangle around him. Impossible to deal with them all at the same time, forcing him to take on one at a time...
"What do you want?" he asked, addressing the mask who'd spoken. "If this is some sort of joke, it is not funny in the least."
"Joke?" the mask said, tilting his head. "No joke...except you, that is." He giggled. "So eager to follow the constable's orders, weren't you? Listened to her every word..."
Calli? Surely not...she can't be involved in this?
"I assume there is some sort of point to this, then?" Sheik asked. "Going to kill me to send a message, perhaps? That will go badly for you—The Sheikah do not take the murder of our kind lightly."
"Kill? Oh, no, no, no, no," the mask said, giggling again. "That is far too good for the likes of you, friend! Kill you, and two more will sprout up and take your place! No, no, no, this is about sending a message!"
"And the message? Perhaps I can deliver it for you," Sheik suggested, realising the other masks were slowly closing in around him. They were all carrying truncheons, clubs, and other blunt weapons. None with edges or blades.
"I think it best that we deliver it on you," the apparent leader said. "But I suppose I could tell you the gist," he continued, lowering his voice into a conspiratorial tone. "In short...we want you gone. You and the Gerudo. All filthy foreigners and blood-eyes. Dead, deported, relocated, we don't care, as long as you all disappear!"
Right, Sheik thought. Well, I suppose that's my cue...
The angle of attack was going to be difficult, especially with the crossbowmen in place. He was fast, but he wasn't that fast. And all it would take was a lucky hit. He would have to catch them by surprise. They didn't look very tough—all they had in their favour was their numbers, and Sheik could easily thin that out as long as he had enough elbowroom.
"Sorry," he said, grinning under his mask. Out of anticipation or nervousness, he didn't know. "But I don't really feel like being a message, so—"
He jumped out sideways into a roll, reaching for and drawing his short sword when he was halfway to his feet again, slashing at the nearest crossbowman...who wasn't there?
They'd...anticipated—known—what he was going to do, and—
He heard the crossbow string behind him, and there was an agonisingly long moment before his calf erupted with pain, white-hot and debilitating, so horrible he had no idea he was falling before the back of his head hit the cobbles. Gripping his leg, he saw to his horror that the bolt had hit him from the side, going straight through the muscles.
A marksman's shot.
Footsteps came closer, and he tried to reach for his sword, but it was kicked out of reach before several hands were hauling him up, forcing him onto his knees, his leg feeling like it was on fire the entire time.
"That's your problem, blood-eye," the lead mask said, suddenly standing above him. The happy tone in his voice was gone now, replaced with an utterly malicious one. "You never know when to quit." He reared back, and his fist slammed into Sheik's jaw so hard he felt his teeth rattle. A blessed moment of silence, and then his other fist hit the other side of Sheik's head, striking his ear which caused a high-pitched whine to echo through his head.
He struggled against the arms holding him down, but they were impossible to budge. The bolt in his leg was jolted every time he tried to move, and one of the fuckers even kicked it, which caused his vision to go white.
Someone yanked down his mask, exposing him to his tormentors.
"Such a shame," one of the others said. "He's got a nice face."
"Pity we can't sell 'im," another added.
"This isn't about profits," a fourth said from behind. "It's about the message."
"Indeed," the leader said, leaning down, his dark, glinting eyes meeting Sheik's from within the confines of the jester mask. "And what a message it'll be. We knew we'd catch one of you tonight...sending you out with the watchmen like that, it was just a matter of setting a proper trap, wasn't it? Well, your whore mistress will hopefully learn from her mistakes after this." From within his sleeve he fished out what looked like a thick metal frame with finger holes, that slotted around his knuckles perfectly.
"You think the first two were bad?" the leader asked. "Just wait till you feel this..."
There was no warning, the metal-covered fist hit him once more in the lower jaw, and Sheik's mouth was immediately flooded with blood, the impact knocking at least one of his teeth loose. He had no time to recover before the fist struck again, this time higher, on his cheekbone just beneath his eye. There was a snap, and his face was suddenly on fire as well, along with his leg. The arms holding him leg go, but all strength had left Sheik's body, and he felt himself hitting the cobbles once more, powerless to even stop the fall.
"Have at him, boys," the leader said with another giggle.
And then his entire world was agony. Boots and fists and clubs—all striking him everywhere. A club splintered against his side, breaking or fracturing his ribs. A boot came down on his thigh, failing to break the femur but definitely fracturing it. Someone took his hand and started bending his fingers backwards until they could not anymore...and didn't stop.
Only when the first finger snapped did Sheik scream, but his howl of agony was cut short as another boot tip struck him in the gut, robbing him of his breath and reducing his scream to a mere wheeze.
"Make sure he doesn't bleed out," the leader's voice spoke over the sound of fists and tools hitting flesh. "We don't want him dead, just wishing he was."
Something tightened around his leg, above the spot where the crossbow bolt had entered his muscles, surely to stem the blood flowing from the wound. Sheik only felt the pain of that in a distant, unclear way. The pain in the rest of his body was flaring up far sharper, far brighter, than a simple bolt in his leg.
Someone grabbed his hair, lifting his head higher...only to slam their knee into his nose. he wasn't sure if it broke, but it certainly hurt enough to feel that way.
He felt himself being dragged over the cobbles to an old fence, felt his wrists being tied to it with rough rope, keeping him upright rather than curled up in a defensive ball on the ground. And they continued.
He had no idea how long they kept at it—they broke every finger on his left hand, and crushed the ones of his right with a mace. His left arm was straightened out until the elbow couldn't bend anymore...until someone brought their knee down. He felt that snap as a white-hot pulse that travelled in waves throughout his entire body.
All the while he screamed whenever his lungs permitted it, whenever they allowed him to actually draw breath. He was crying, he knew that, heard their mocking jeers, asking if he wanted his mommy, if he needed a tissue.
Atiya. He wanted Atiya. Wanted the Gerudo prince to come save him. He'd gladly endure anything Impa had to say about him and their relationship, would gladly have Ganondorf have a go at punishing him for corrupting his little brother.
Anything but this!
The men paused their brutalising, though the pain remained. Sheik squinted through the rain, one eye swollen shut.
Calli. Her eyes wide with shock, face frozen, helmet gone, exposing her face...and golden-blonde hair.
Huh, Sheik's addled thoughts went, her eyes really are purple...
Her truncheon, its tip red with blood, was held in a vice-like grip, her knuckles white from the tension. At her feet, one of the crossbowmen lay, face-down. For a moment, all was still as the masked men regarded her with surprise.
"Wasn't Gren supposed to take care of her?" one of the masks whispered.
The leader growled. "He was."
"All of you!" Calli shouted, voice still unwavering. "Stand down right now! Drop your weapons and lie down on the ground! You are all under arrest!"
"I don't think so," the leader said, whistling.
Sheik saw the bolt striking Calli in the chest, saw the tip pierce through her tabard and the useless leather armour beneath. Saw her eyes—so purple—widen with shock and surprise. Saw her fingers dropping the truncheon as she stumbled back, eyes fastened on bolt now sticking out of her. Saw her back hit the wall behind her, saw her slide down, saw her eyes close.
"N...No..." Sheik whined.
"Hmph, never send a woman to do a man's job," the leader said, turning his attention back to Sheik. "See that, blood-eye? Your incompetence just got that girl killed. I hope it was worth it. You know what? What say we remove some of those teeth of yours, as penance? I have pliers, right here..."
It was a strange feeling, when he realised what he was thinking at the time.
Can't be any worse than what you've already done...
He tasted the metal of the pliers as they were forced into his mouth, whimpered when he felt them tighten around one of his molars.
"Shh, don't worry," the leader said mockingly. "This'll only take a minute..."
The ear-piercing shriek of Calli's whistle reached even Sheik's addled brain, and the entire group of masked men stilled as they looked back at the fallen constable, whose eyes were open and crystal-clear, her lips wrapped around the brass whistle. She took another breath and blew again, even louder this time.
Within moments, yet again, there were answering whistles and voices shouting nearby.
"Fuck, the watch is going to come down on us like a hammer!" one of the masked men said, already running for it, and was quickly joined by several others.
The leader breathed heavily for a moment before letting go of the pliers and standing up, looking down at Sheik.
"A little too soon, I guess, but the message is clear enough." He drew back and gave Sheik one last kick in the gut. "Remember what I told you, little Sheikah..."
The last thing Sheik saw before his vision went dark and he passed out, was Constable Calli desperately trying to crawl towards him, bolt still embedded in her chest, her hand reaching out to him, lips moving but with no words coming out...or maybe he just couldn't hear them, the sound of his own staccato heartbeat deafening him.
Then he slipped under the waves, and let the darkness claim him.
Chapter 6: A Message - Part II
Prince Atiya of the Gerudo was not having a good morning. He had spent the night before at a private dinner party hosted by a Lord Something of Something and his wife, the Honourable Lady Something née Something Else, which for the most part had been a miserable affair he strongly suspected was just an excuse for the good lords and ladies attending to gawk at him and say veiled insults about the Gerudo, all the while pretending to be absolutely thrilled by his presence.
It was only Ayla's pointed clearing of her throat (which occasionally sounded like she had a nasty case of bronchitis) that had kept Atiya from insulting them right back—and he wouldn't have bothered with the thin veneer of civility to mask his words. He could take insults directed at him personally, but his sisters did not deserve their jeers, of which there were many.
"They are only words, my prince," Ayla had whispered during the rare moments the nobles were otherwise occupied with stuffing their faces or drinking till their livers gave up. "Hylians hide behind them when they feel threatened. Take heart in the fear our mere existence strikes in them."
Honestly, it was only his bodyguard's presence that had prevented Atiya from causing a diplomatic incident that night, and he would be eternally grateful for that. The last thing he wanted was another war starting over something stupid he did. The idea of losing more sisters to senseless slaughter made his stomach churn, and Gan...Gan had nearly been destroyed by the last war—he couldn't take another one. Not without losing himself to grief and rage, and Atiya couldn't bear to see it.
At the same time, Ayla also had the wrong idea. Fear wasn't what he wanted to make the Hylians feel. He wanted them to feel friendship upon looking at him and the Gerudo, not something other, something to be mistrusted at best, feared at worst. It created an unsustainable tension that would snap at the slightest provocation from either side. The frequent celebration of every single progression in the peace agreement helped a little, but every now and then there were...incidents that had to be handled delicately. Sometimes even covered up.
The Sheikah proved instrumental in these operations, and as much as Atiya hated to admit it, it was no wonder why the Gerudo had feared the presence of Sheikah, both on and off the battlefield. He could only imagine what Sheik would be capable of in a few years, with some more experience and training under his belt.
Atiya didn't like it; neither covering up the incidents or using the Sheikah to clean up messes caused by either Atiya's or Zelda's people. It was unfair to the Sheikah, who kept getting blamed for the incidents, and what progress could either side hope to make if they never acknowledged the circumstances or situations that caused the incidents in the first place? They had to be examined, and proper precautions had to be taken so they couldn't be repeated.
But it was all done on Gan and Princess Zelda's orders, and in the end, they were the ones in command. Atiya could only carefully advise Gan on these matters and make his protests known whenever he disagreed, which Gan would usually take into consideration...though more often than not, he would go with his original plan.
Gan was stubborn like that.
At least he made those decisions based on what he thought best for the Gerudo as a whole, and not just for his own peace of mind as a ruler. Atiya supposed that was a lot better than what most other kings and queens out there did. Zelda, too, seemed to have her people's wellbeing as her topmost priority, which agreed a lot more with Atiya's way of seeing things than what her father's attitude had.
However, it resulted in a rather...insular way of going about their negotiations. They needed to be more open to accommodating both sides at once, not just their own.
The question was how to do that, and he'd spent most of the dinner and insufferable dessert considering various ways to make it happen. Once the menfolk had withdrawn to the drawing room for brandy and cigars, Atiya had been hopeful in that he could discreetly beg his leave and head back to the castle, but he'd been more or less dragged inside and forced to spend another few hours listening to more pomposity and blustering self-congratulations on their efforts during the war.
Efforts they had barely had any hand in, if Atiya's knowledge of Hyrule's troop movements during the war had been accurate. The nobles had, predictably, kept their own troops behind the conscripted commoners, avoiding the massive casualties the frontline troops suffered.
As the brandy flowed, the words became blusterier and so loud. In the end, Atiya had been forced to down his brandy at a blinding pace, lest he say or do something unfortunate. It had worked, too. He'd been lulled into a warm, comforting cocoon of inebriation that allowed him to ignore most of the barbed comments against the Gerudo and smile placidly whenever questions about his parentage were raised, and whether he wouldn't be more comfortable in Hyrule than the savage west.
Not that the Gerudo are savages, my word, no, what would give you that impression? Noble is what they are, surviving so well on so little!
He'd lost track of time, and before he knew it, he was bundled into a carriage and taken back to the castle, Ayla making sure he wasn't seen so utterly smashed in public.
"You look like you've been trampled by a herd of horses," Ayla commented kindly upon marching into his chambers, after which she mercilessly opened the blinds and let the light flood into the room. "And then left to rot in a latrine," she added.
"I'll give the Hylian nobles one thing," Atiya said, regretting waking up already, cradling a hand to his throbbing head. "They sure can drink. How do they stand it?"
"They have years to build up the resistance, huffing and puffing in their drawing rooms," his bodyguard said, giving him a considering look and wrinkling her nose after finding his appearance wanting. "You need a bath, my prince. I shall have the chambermaid draw one for you." She turned to march out, but Atiya cleared his throat.
"I thought this was my day off," he said pleadingly. "Figured I'd...you know...sleep in?"
Preferably joined by the warm, comforting body of a certain Sheikah, who'd enjoy hearing about the utter stupidity Atiya had been exposed to last night.
Ayla grimaced. "I'm afraid your free day has been cancelled, my prince. The princess has called a meeting of the council, and you are expected to attend. You have roughly one hour to get yourself presentable."
Atiya groaned, wondering when the bastard behind his eyes would stop trying to beat up his poor brain. Damn meetings, day in and day out of meandering talks, very little of which had anything to do with Atiya or the Gerudo, and of absolutely no interest whatsoever to anyone but the pernickety types who enjoyed writing everything down.
Including, for some reason, Atiya's choice in clothes.
Well, fine, maybe he'd done that on purpose, wearing a midriff-exposing top a few times to provoke the prudes on the council. Show them one bellybutton and they all lose their minds.
"What is it this time?" he asked. "Someone decided they don't get a big enough percentage of the grain export to Termina?"
"I don't know," Ayla said. "There was some sort of event last night, apparently, and this meeting is called to discuss it. I haven't been able to find anyone willing to talk about it yet—seems they want to keep it very hush-hush for the moment. It's very important, though, they're even sending a Sheikah to escort you to the chambers."
Well, that was good news, at least. He'd get to see Sheik for a few minutes. "All right, guess I'll have to take that bath, then."
Ayla wrinkled her nose again. "Yes. Yes, you do."
"Did Gan know you were going to be this smart-mouthed when he appointed you as my bodyguard?" he asked.
"Yes," Ayla replied. "Yes, he did. Said he needed someone to match your own sharp tongue."
Atiya sighed. Yes, that sounded like Gan, all right.
To Atiya's immense disappointment, Sheik wasn't his escort to the council chambers. Instead it was Kafei, and even by his standards he looked terrible. His eyes were red, his hands were shaking, his hair was frazzled, and he looked ready to throttle anyone who came too close as they walked along the corridors.
"What happened to you?" Atiya asked quietly, adjusting the sleeve of his robe. He'd decided to forgo the intentionally provocative outfit for now, since this meeting actually seemed important. The state of his escort only confirmed he'd been right to do so. Innocent rebellion against so-called decency was one thing but acting flippant during a serious meeting was another entirely.
"It's...been a long night, Your Highness," Kafei replied simply, his voice hoarse. "Can't really say any more."
"Some sort of attack?" Ayla asked just as quietly. "The Sheikah are out in force today."
She was right. There were always a few of the red-eyed folk skulking about the castle, acting as lookouts and guarding the princess, but today there seemed to be a Sheikah posted at every single door and major hallway, and even more of them outside on the grounds. Disappointingly, no Sheik yet. He must have been assigned to Zelda's personal guard again, which he admittedly hated because it made him feel like he was being condescended to by having the "cushy" jobs.
"I cannot say any more," Kafei repeated. "You'll know the details soon enough, Your Highness."
Atiya wanted to ask if Sheik was all right, but he was interrupted as they met another group heading for the meeting room. Lord Such-and-Such, escorted by a member of his household guard and another Sheikah, gave Atiya a curious look.
"Your Highness, do you know what this meeting is about?" he asked.
"I do not, my lord," Atiya replied, feeling a little guilty for not remembering the lord's name. He was one of the few who didn't stare down his nose at anyone who wasn't Hylian.
If only they didn't have such complicated names, Atiya thought.
They rounded the corner and entered the Great Hall, where the throne of Hyrule stood. The council chamber was through one of the doors near the throne itself, in a chamber that, compared to the marble tiles and gold inlays of the Great Hall, seemed quite simple.
The entire council had been gathered today, and Atiya realised he and Lord Such-and-Such were, save for Princess Zelda, the last to arrive. The other members didn't look impatient, however. More confused than anything.
"This way, Your Highness," Kafei said, directing Atiya to the chair on the princess' immediate left. The right chair was reserved for Mistress Impa, but her seat was usually empty unless the topics being discussed concerned either the Sheikah, Zelda's safety, or, sometimes, war.
"Thank you, Kafei," Atiya said, nodding to the Sheikah as he took up his position three paces behind Atiya's chair. Ayla hovered just behind it.
As the minutes dragged on, the lords discussing the meeting's possible topic amongst themselves, Atiya took the time to study each of the Sheikah operatives in the room. There were five in all, including Kafei, and they all looked to be in similar states of exhaustion and disarray as their future commander. Something had clearly happened that had taken them by surprise, and the consequences...Atiya didn't dare to think what could have the normally stoic assassins so...twitchy.
His stomach gave an uncomfortable lurch, both as a reminder of the night before, as well as worry. Had Sheik been caught up in all this as well? Was that why he wasn't present? No, Sheik was tough. He was definitely assigned to be Zelda's guard until matters calmed down. He'd stride into the council chamber, watching the princess' back like an eagle, ready to cut down anyone he considered a threat to her safety.
The council door opened once more, and the entire room stood and bowed as Zelda entered, flanked by no less than four Sheikah operatives, including Mistress Impa and Paya. No sign of Sheik.
Atiya's stomach refused to settle, and he was quite sure he'd end up causing a scene if someone, anyone, didn't reveal what had happened soon.
"Please, sit," the princess said once she had seated herself at the head of the table. Atiya tried to make eye contact, but she steadfastly refused to do so. Even then, he could see the red tinge to her eyes. Across the table from him, Impa sat quietly, her face impassive.
"I am sure you are all wondering why you have been summoned today, and with such urgency," Zelda said, her voice wobbling a little. "Mistress Impa will explain the situation." She nodded to the Sheikah, her gaze locked on the dark, wooden surface of the table.
Impa nodded. Atiya didn't know the woman very well, but even for her the action seemed a great deal stiffer than usual. More like a twitch than a deliberate movement.
"Thank you, Your Majesty," Impa said, clearing her throat. "Last night, during the celebration, there was an incident. Due to the challenges faced by the City Watch in maintaining the peace and patrolling the streets because of their currently diminished numbers, several Sheikah operatives were temporarily joined to Watch patrols in order to alleviate some of the Watch's burden. It is no secret that celebrations in this city can get...out of hand."
Atiya watched her carefully as she spoke. Her voice was perfectly steady, but every now and then there was a small twitch that clashed horribly with the calm she tried to portray. Something had shaken her...and it didn't take Atiya's mind long to connect the dots. His grip on his chair's armrests tightened.
"For the most part, this went well," Impa continued. "There were no major incidents to speak of, and while a few situations had to be defused, there were no open hostilities. That is, until the first bell after midnight. A patrol group spotted a suspicious individual and gave chase. The layout of the streets forced them to temporarily split up, and the Sheikah operative was led into a small courtyard near the old Temple of Time."
She paused, her right hand curling into a fist. Atiya felt like he was about to explode.
"There, the operative was ambushed and severely injured by masked individuals. They are currently in critical condition. The Watch constable arrived soon after and witnessed the attack. They attempted to intervene but were themselves injured by a crossbow bolt to the chest. They were able to call for backup, however, and the ambushers had disappeared by the time more constables and operatives were on the scene."
Atiya's head felt like it was in a vacuum. Impa was careful not to reveal the identity of the injured, but he knew exactly who it was.
"Ghastly business," one of the ladies of the council said, frowning. "What reason could anyone have to attack the Watch in such a manner?"
Atiya had to force himself not to growl at the woman, who'd so carefully but deliberately left the Sheikah victim out of her sympathy.
"Simple-minded hooligans," a lord harrumphed. "Spitting on the very thing the Watch represents. I trust the constable is all right?"
"The constable is fine," Impa reported, but the slight narrowing of her eyes told tales of what she'd like to do to the ones ignoring her nep—her operative.
Atiya couldn't face it. Not yet. He wouldn't make it through the meeting otherwise.
"The crossbow bolt did not penetrate very deeply, and they should make a full recovery with time."
"The Goddesses are good," the first lady said, directing her words to the ceiling.
What about Sheik?
Atiya wanted to ask so badly, but he didn't trust his voice to remain steady. He couldn't reveal any sort of weakness to these bastards. They'd pounce on it in a minute and use it against him at the most inconvenient moments, ruining all the progress Gan had made. He only vaguely felt Ayla's hand on his shoulder, trying to keep him grounded.
"And...the operative?" Lord Such-and-Such asked, leaning forward. "You said they were in critical condition...does that mean...?"
The interest shown by the nobles waned a little at the question, but the Sheikah—try as they might to appear implacable—perked up immediately, their eyes on their commander.
"They are being tended to by our physicians," Impa said carefully. "I have been told survival is very likely, but it is too soon to know for certain."
"Then I pray for their recovery," the lord said, bowing his head. "You have my deepest sympathies, Mistress Impa. Please, do not hesitate to call on us if there is anything I or my House can do to help."
"Thank you, Lord Crawcolt," Impa said, bowing her head. "We will keep that in mind."
Crawcolt's sincere sympathies apparently woke up some sort of competitive instinct in several of the other nobles, and they were quick to offer their own sympathies, each more simpering and obviously false than the previous. Impa accepted them with considerably more ice in her voice than she had with Crawcolt's.
This was hell. This was Atiya's hell. Sheik was hurt, possibly dying, and he had to sit here and pretend he gave a rat's arse about these horrible people and their fake masks of sorrow. All he could think about was how he should have been there. Should have been there to help Sheik. They could have taken them all on—all Sheik had needed was someone to watch his back.
"A letter was found near the operative," Impa said after accepting their well-wishing with gritted teeth. She held out a hand, and Paya placed a bloody, crumpled piece of paper in it. Impa folded it out, placing it on the table. "It calls for the immediate expulsion of all foreign individuals from Hyrule. Foreign, in this case, meaning people of Sheikah descent and the Gerudo. It is signed by a group calling themselves The Keepers. What they claim to be the keepers of is anyone's guess."
"Ridiculous," Atiya muttered under his breath.
"They say that such attacks will continue and increase in numbers if their demand is not met within the next four weeks," Impa continued. "Until, as the letter states, nothing but the rightful rulers of this land, the Hylians, remain, and Hyrule is purged of all foreign influence."
Silence reigned for several minutes as everyone let the words sink in. Atiya wanted nothing more than to find the ones responsible and take their heads off, one by one. Ayla's hand gripped his shoulder a little harder, his bodyguard apparently reading his thoughts.
Certain parts of Hyrule's society had not been happy with the peace agreement, Atiya knew. Some had loudly called for nothing less than the utter destruction of the Gerudo. He'd hoped that those voices would be silenced once they realised how good peace with their western neighbours would be, but...no, he'd hoped in vain.
"Heinous," the lady spoke. "Of all the ways to mount a political protest. Surely there are better ways!"
"Political protest?" Lord Crawcolt asked, giving her an incredulous look. "People have been hurt, Firi, and that's what you call it?"
"It was a politically motivated attack," a lord broke in, giving Crawcolt a slightly smug look. "The medium is unfortunate, of course, but I am not surprised they would be desperate enough to use it. After all, not everyone is happy about the peace agreement, or the concessions Hyrule was forced to make to have it happen. Why, with the way the Gerudo are flooding our lands—"
"Flooding, my lord?" Atiya asked, glaring at him. "I did not realise my people and I are a natural disaster. A limited number of my sisters have come to Hyrule to live and work here as a sign of good faith, to mend and heal the wounds left by so many years of warfare. Some may not like the idea, I agree, but attacking individuals who had nothing to do with the decision in the first place...is that something you would call a measuredand understandable response to the situation? If so, Hylians are even stranger than I believed."
There was something familiar about that lord's face, about that smug smile he kept throwing Atiya, as if he wasn't worth the muck found on the sole of his boot. He gave Atiya a condescending bow of his head.
"My apologies, your highness," he said. "I did not mean to offend. However, there are some who believe the number of Gerudo to cross our border in the past months to be too high."
Shit, that was the host of last night's party, wasn't it? Atiya recognised him now, even without the blurry haze of alcohol that caused his eyes to swim. If Atiya had known what kind of person the Lord Something of Something was, he'd have turned down the invitation flat.
He was about to launch into a tirade, but Zelda gently—and pointedly—cleared her throat before he could, levelling a cold look at the Lord Something of Something.
"My lord," she said, "may I remind you that a lot of time and effort was put into that peace agreement? The numbers going back and forth across the border have been checked and re-checked by our finest scholars. Your protests have been noted, but I assure you, the numbers are very sustainable."
It was a gentle reminder, but she might as well have slapped him in the face and told him to fuck off, as Atiya was dying to do.
"Of course, Your Majesty," the lord said, nodding. "I am simply endeavouring to give voice to those who do not have seats on this council. The commoners in my lands are deeply worried—"
"Which they have no reason to be, I assure you," Zelda said pointedly. "I did not call this meeting to discuss immigration. If you have further concerns about this issue, please submit them in writing and I shall give them a proper review once time permits."
She gave Atiya a thinly-veiled look of exasperation, to which he returned a commiserating grimace. Then she looked to Impa, who nodded.
"The purpose of this meeting was to notify the council of a new threat that has arisen within our own borders." She nodded to one of the royal guards, who began handing out sealed envelopes to each of the gathered nobles. "Within those envelopes you will find sealed orders from the princess detailing how we will proceed with investigating The Keepers, and, if possible, apprehend the individuals behind the masks. You are expected to lend your assistance to this investigation and cooperate with Her Majesty's officials with whatever they require, whenever they ask."
"I will not tolerate any attempted interference with this peace agreement," Zelda added, her voice firm. "Too much blood has already been shed between our peoples, and for the first time in centuries we truly have a chance to build bridges between our cultures, instead of burning them down. I want the ones responsible caught and brought before me in chains, awaiting my judgement. Any information leading to the capture of these Keepers will be richly rewarded. Is that understood?"
"Yes, Your Majesty," the lords and ladies chorused.
"Good, then this special council is adjourned," the princess said. "You are all dismissed. Prince Atiya, please come with me."
If he hadn't already figured out who the operative in question was, Atiya would have been surprised at being asked to follow her, but...well...
He fell into step alongside her, as they were closely followed by Impa, Kafei, Paya, and the other Sheikah operatives. Ayla naturally folded herself into the formation, remaining close to Atiya. A tense silence was carried between them until they were several rooms away from the council chambers, heading into the corridors that led to the royal apartments and, according to Sheik, the Sheikah headquarters.
"I assume you've already figured it out," Zelda said as they walked.
"I have," Atiya said, jaw clenched. His palms were sweaty, and he itched to get his hands around his spear and beat the shit out of some training dummies...but not before he could see Sheik. "Why was I not informed immediately?" he asked, perhaps a bit too sharply judging by the glare he received from Paya.
"We do not know who we can trust, your highness," Impa answered for Zelda. "And since we did not know what your...reaction would be, it was decided that it was best not to shout it from the rooftops."
"Meaning, you have no idea where to even start with the investigation," Atiya replied. "Otherwise, arrests would already have been made."
"It is a delicate matter," Zelda said. "If our suspicions are correct, The Keepers consist of members from every level of Hyrulian society, with eyes and ears everywhere. They knew the patrol routes, knew where to draw them and where to lay the ambush. The less we reveal of what we know, the less secure they will be in their own positions. We can only hope they will make mistakes and slip up."
"Like that one lord," Atiya said. "The one who wouldn't let up about the numbers of Gerudo flooding your lands—"
"That has always been Lord Russol's way," Impa said. "Complaining about everything and everyone seems to be his favourite pastime, and he is always looking for a new subject of his ire. Your people's presence in Hyrule is simply his newest target."
"We're still keeping an eye on him, though, just in case," Kafei said.
"Kafei," Impa said warningly.
They reached a seemingly innocuous door and, after the Sheikah had checked that the area was clear, headed through it. Beyond it was a beehive of activity; the Sheikah headquarters.
Atiya had never seen so many of the red-eyed people in one place before. They swarmed through the corridors, heading to and from the various rooms, all communicating in their own tongue, pausing only to bow to the princess. They passed by a training room, where a group of the warriors were sparring intensely, looking like they were actually trying to kill each other.
Had Sheik been through that sort of training?
Atiya followed blindly as they reached a calmer section, and he recognised they were in some sort of healing quarter, judging by the sterile-looking rooms they passed by, and the multitude of medical supplies in the cupboards.
They stopped outside another innocuous door, this one guarded by a huge Sheikah warrior, armed with an axe taller than Atiya.
"Your Majesty," the bear of a man growled, bowing.
"Anything to report?" Impa asked, to which the man nodded.
"Mana says he is stabilised, mistress," he said. "She will return in a few minutes."
"Good," Impa said, and Atiya could see the tension lifting from her shoulders. "Take a break. I will remain here."
"As you wish."
Atiya was suddenly aware of several pairs of eyes on him, and he suddenly felt like bolting. Between the stares and the door in front of him, he wasn't sure if he could take the pressure.
"Go ahead," Princess Zelda said, giving him a sad look. "I know you're anxious to see him."
"I...I don't know what you mean," he said slowly. Did she know? Kafei had blabbed to Impa, according to Sheik, but Atiya wasn't sure how far up the ranks the information had travelled after that.
Zelda shook her head. "Your highness, please don't take me for a fool. Please, I brought you here for a reason. Go on. I will be with you shortly."
The door opened with nary a sound, but Atiya's footsteps sounded like thundering explosions as he stepped into the small sickroom, silently shadowed by Ayla. The room smelled of blood and medicine, a combination that had his already rebelling stomach threatening to empty itself.
A single bed stood against the stone wall, the once-pristine, white sheets now spotted with blood and other fluids. Atiya choked upon spotting the still form of Sheik, nearly hidden by the masses of blankets and pillows.
Atiya barely recognised him—there were so many bruises and cuts marring his face, some parts looking so swollen they were about to burst. His nose had been bent to the side, surely broken, and the skin around his eyes were blackened with bleeding under the skin. His arms were kept elevated by a complicated-looking metal contraption, every inch of him covered in bandages. And that was just the parts not hidden from view.
"Goddess," Ayla said under her breath.
Atiya didn't say anything. His vision was blurred by tears that soon began to fall as he sank to his knees by Sheik's bedside. Just yesterday they'd jokingly complained about how little time they got to spend with each other, and now...now Sheik was here. Almost dead, if he'd only just been stabilised now.
He was asleep, luckily, either naturally or chemically induced, his breaths coming in short, raspy gasps, his chest barely moving and brows knitting with effort.
"What have they done to you?" Atiya asked, his words barely making it out. "Sheik...?"
Behind him, Ayla had picked up a sheaf of papers and begun reading, but Atiya paid her no mind, his attention focused solely on his lover.
He didn't know how much time he spent staring at Sheik's unconscious form, but little by little he realised Ayla was speaking, reading from the papers.
"...broken humerus and ulna of the left arm, broken elbow joint, dislocated shoulder, difficult to reset without causing further damage to left arm," the bodyguard said quietly. "Fingers of left hand systematically broken. Fingers of right hand crushed, likely with a blunt object. Severe assault to thoracic cage, several ribs broken and fractured, with laboured breathing indicating a possibly perforated lung. Fractured right femur. Blunt force trauma to the skull, concussion very likely. Broken nose, attempts to reset failed due to ruined cartilage."
"Please stop," Atiya pleaded.
"Injuries deliberately of a non-lethal nature, suggesting patient's death was not the desired outcome," Ayla continued, her voice horrified. "Survival, albeit with severe trauma and lasting damage, was likely engineered as a message."
"Ayla!" he hissed, causing the bodyguard to snap back to attention, clearing her throat.
"My apologies, my prince." She carefully placed the papers back where she'd found them. "This is...beastly."
"I want them dead," he said, placing a hand on Sheik's bed, unsure if there was even somewhere he could touch his lover without causing him pain. "All of them," he growled.
"Perhaps it would be best to leave the investigation and punishment to the Sheikah, my prince," Ayla said carefully.
A ball of fire had erupted in Atiya's chest, and all he wanted to do was direct it at the bastards who had done this to Sheik, to watch them burn until nothing remained but their charred, blackened bones. Even that was too good for them. Cowards, all...and Atiya would find them.
"How many agents do we have in Hyrule at the moment?" he asked.
Ayla stiffened, her mouth shifting under her veil. "My prince, I do not know what you are talking about—"
"Don't try that with me, Ayla," he hissed. "I know Gan would never willingly send any of our sisters to Hyrule without protection. I know you know who they are, and how to contact them. I want you to do that, and tell them to look into The Keepers, and bring any information to me."
The bodyguard looked uncomfortable. "My prince, interfering with the Sheikah's investigation might provoke—"
"We aren't interfering," he interrupted with a hiss. "We are just...looking into it," he repeated. "Do it. Now."
"I cannot leave you—"
"I'm in what is likely the safest location in all of Hyrule right now," he said, turning his attention back to Sheik. "I'll be fine until you return."
"I...very well, my prince," Ayla said, sounding defeated. "But I shall have to inform King Ganondorf about this."
"That is fine," he said, waiting until he heard the door open and close behind him before breaking down, crying against the bloodied sheets of Sheik's bed.
"I will find them," he promised in a harsh whisper. "I will find them and kill them. This I swear to you, ruuhi. Please wake up...please come back to me..."
Chapter 7: A Message - Part III
Writer's block pretty much killed my desire to write for a while - hoping this makes up for it!
Ayla took a moment to breathe and roll her eyes before turning to face her contact, giving the other Gerudo an unimpressed stare.
"I arrived at the exact time you specified," she countered. "If anything, I have been waiting for you."
Her contact shrugged.
"In this place, being on time is the same as being late," she said. "Ideally, one should arrive fifteen minutes early. Or more." She gestured to the bustling market around them, and the sheer tempo at which the fair-skinned Hylians moved as they attended to their shops and shopping. It was not difficult to notice how they kept giving the Gerudo a very wide berth. At least there were no glares or spitting at their feet. "The Hylians are obsessed with time, and the money they lose by wasting it."
"Good thing we're not Hylians, then," Ayla replied, looking expectantly at her. "Well?"
Now it was the other Gerudo's time to roll her eyes.
"Not here," she said, jerking her head towards an alley. "Follow my lead." Her face went from serious to ecstatic in the blink of an eye, plastering a huge smile on her face as she grabbed Ayla by the hand, dragging her towards the alley. "Of course I want to hear news from home! Please, follow me! You can sample some of my fabrics while we speak!"
Ayla sighed, but let herself be manhandled by the smaller Gerudo. She was quite strong, despite her size.
Then again, that was likely why she'd been chosen for the position in the first place. Like this, playing an enthusiastic seamstress eagerly showing a potential customer to her shop, she appeared about as dangerous as an excited puppy meeting a new friend.
"Please, sister, enter!" she shouted happily, more or less shoving Ayla into a gaping maw of a doorway in the alley, the only thing suggesting it led to a shop being the ratty-looking sign above it, showing a crude carving of a Gerudo woman wielding a needle and thimble.
The air inside was humid and stuffy, and the shop itself was dark on account of the windows being blocked by huge rolls of fabric. Hardly quality stuff, but their purpose lay in hiding the inside from view rather than enticing customers, as well as softening the noise.
Ayla cleared her throat, the musty air already getting to her.
"Nice...hole in the wall?" she said as her contact shut the door behind them and locked it, though not before making sure they weren't followed.
"Thanks," she said, dropping the cheery façade from before. "I hate it. I'm pretty sure it's the worst property the landlord had, and he wasn't willing to show me anything else. The roof leaks when it rains, it is always humid, and I'm pretty sure there's something alive beneath the floorboards." Something rumbled ominously above them, causing her to wince. "The less said about the plumbing, the better." She lit an oil lamp and placed it on the counter before hopping behind it, gesturing for Ayla to sit in a chair in front of it. "Go on, we don't have much time."
Ayla nodded. That was true. She had, at best, twenty minutes before she had to return to Atiya's side at the teashop some streets away, where he and his other bodyguard for the day were pretending to enjoy a relaxing afternoon. Ayla had been sent to purchase some random item from the market, which she had done before pretending to be accosted by her contact.
"Ayla," she introduced herself.
"Sivan," the fake seamstress replied. "A pleasure."
"Wish it were under better circumstances. What have you found, Sivan?"
Sivan sighed, shaking her head. "Frustratingly little. Whoever these Keepers are, they know how to hide their tracks, which is alarming."
"Because it means they don't want any attention beyond that which their messages gain," Sivan explained. "Usually, with groups like this, there is some sort of narcissism at the very core of their motivation. They want people to know they are responsible, which manifests in them consciously or subconsciously leaving behind clues and tracks. Not necessarily the kind that is easy to figure out and follow, but there is always something we can latch onto in our investigations."
"However, in this case..." Ayla said questioningly, trailing off.
"Nothing," Sivan confirmed. "Absolutely nothing. The others and I have scoured the location of the incident and probed at every layer of society in Castle Town we have access to, but no one seems to have heard of or been in contact with the group."
"Could they have been bribed?" Ayla suggested.
Sivan cocked her head to the side. "It's possible," she admitted. "But given the number of assets we have in play, I highly doubt it. The cost would be enormous, no matter who is bankrolling these people."
"So, if they are not bribing people into silence, they might simply be good enough to elude our spies," Ayla said.
"Indeed," Sivan said, nodding. "And that is where I start to worry. There are only two groups I would consider good enough to conceal their presence from us so completely, even in their own territory."
"The Sheikah?" Ayla suggested.
"That is one of them," Sivan replied. "But I cannot imagine them being willing to do something like this to one of their own, much less their leader's own nephew, even if they stood to gain anything from this mess...which, to my knowledge, they don't. Hylian Intelligence, however..."
"I thought the Sheikah were their intelligence?" Ayla asked.
Sivan gave another sigh, and Ayla felt a little insulted. Sure, she hadn't been considered smart or cunning enough to be accepted into the ranks of espionage, but she wasn't stupid!
"The Sheikah answer to the Hylian royal family, and to them only. No other branch of the Hylian hierarchy has authority over them," Sivan said, evidently not picking up on Ayla's irritation. Or just not caring. That was also a (more likely) possibility. "They lend their assistance to Hylian Intelligence every now and then, and nominally the groups are supposed to share their resources and findings, but...well, let's just say there's no love lost between them, and that says a lot given the relationship between the Sheikah and Hylians to begin with."
"So, you think someone from Hylian Intelligence is behind this?" Ayla asked, just to be clear about this. The last thing she wanted was to report back to Atiya with bad intel. Making baseless and erroneous accusations at this point could set the relationship between the Gerudo and Hyrule back decades.
Sivan cocked her head sideways again. It seemed to be a habit, when she didn't have a simple yes or no answer.
"Possibly?" she said. "At the very least, I suspect that someone with a background in Intelligence is among the Keepers' leaders. The attack itself was amateurish at best, but the clean-up afterwards was nothing but professional. From what I've heard, even the Sheikah are struggling with this investigation—who better to give them a run for their money than their arch-enemies?"
Ayla rested her forehead on the surface of the counter, regretting it a little when she felt the unusually moist wood warping under it. She groaned.
"Trust our brother to get us involved in this mess right after securing us a peace agreement," she muttered.
"Oh, I don't know," Sivan said, retrieving a bundle of letters sealed with wax and placing them on the counter next to Ayla's head. "If nothing else, this will bring us closer to the Sheikah once they realise we're investigating the incident as well. They're the ones worth allying ourselves with, in my opinion."
"Not the Hylians?" Ayla asked, looking through the bundle of letters. "Encoded?" she added, gesturing to the letters.
"Of course," Sivan said, looking offended. "What do you take me for, an amateur? And no, not the Hylians. They are a petty and cruel people, and show no compassion for anyone but themselves, and even then it is mostly for show." She shook her head. "The Sheikah, at least, have honour."
"Some of them are good," Ayla said, though it took her a moment to think of any examples besides Princess Zelda.
"The princess doesn't count," Sivan said, eyes glinting in a way that told Ayla she knew exactly what she'd been thinking. "That girl almost makes up for her people. Almost." She glanced at mechanical clock on the wall, eyes narrowing. "Ah, but this is where our meeting ends. I have a client coming in about five minutes, and I'd rather not have to get caught up in unnecessary chitchat about my origins," she said, shuddering.
"Just as well, I need to get back to the prince," Ayla said, shoving the letters into her shirt. She paused at the door. "Do you actually do any sewing?" she asked.
"Me? Hah!" Sivan barked with laughter. "I wield a needle with the skill and precision of a blind archer. Nah, I have a Terminan friend with an actual shop a few streets over who takes care of my orders. I just bring her the measurements and she does the rest."
"Why not just work in her shop, then?" Ayla asked. "Doesn't seem worth it, keeping a front like this. How many customers do you even get?"
"Surprisingly many," Sivan said, shrugging. "Quite a few rich people who see no issue with exploiting a poor, desperate Gerudo who's willing to do the work for nearly free in an attempt to gain further patronage, and they certainly talk a lot when they think the stupid girl doesn't understand them." She pointed to the clock again. "Like I said, Ayla, the Hylians are obsessed with time and money. Besides, I've always wanted to be an entrepreneur...or at least pretend to be one, and this way I don't have to do any actual work."
"Right," Ayla said slowly, unsure of what to do with that information, eventually deciding to discard it entirely. "Thank you for the information," she said, gesturing to the letters hidden on her person. "Same time next week?"
"Agreed," Sivan said. "If I discover something major before then, I'll contact you."
"Good hunting, sister," Ayla said in their tongue, dipping her head slightly.
"And to you, sister," Sivan replied. "Now get the fuck out of my shop; you're going to scare away my customers."
Kafei lingered outside Sheik's door. He did that a lot these days. Lingering. Whenever he wasn't on duty, he found himself both restless and listless at the same time. He didn't have the energy to do something useful, but found it impossible to rest, his mind racing too fast for him to calm down.
The images his mind presented him whenever he tried to wind down all involved Sheik, and the various states of horror they'd find him in one morning, when the Keepers had managed to infiltrate his quarters and finish the job. The images were relentless, bombarding his mind's eye the moment his real eyes closed.
Logically, he knew that the chances of the Keepers getting to Sheik again were remote, secure as he was at the very heart of the Sheikah operating base in the castle. He didn't need to stand here, making sure none of those bastards could ever get near Sheik again.
Logic and Kafei had never been close friends, even during the good times.
The only way he managed to find some semblance of purpose was standing guard outside his cousin's door, waiting for him to wake up. And if he had a chance to catch one of the Keepers in the act, all the better.
Unfortunately, Impa didn't agree.
He heard her footsteps, but he didn't turn his head to acknowledge her, much less bow his head. Something like that would have earned him a cuff over the head when he was younger. Now, however, Impa simply sighed tiredly, taking up position next to him, back hitting the wall with a slight thud.
"Anything to report?" she asked.
"Nothing," he replied. "Neither out here nor in there."
"The physicians all agree," Impa said. "He will wake up. It's just a matter of time; when his body decides it has healed enough."
"Which could be years from now," he said bitterly. "Forgive me if I don't feel particularly reassured."
"Truth be told, neither am I, but I have to remain confident that Sheik will get bored with healing and wake up soon." She shook her head. "If only to calm Prince Atiya. He caused quite a scene during the council meeting earlier."
"I don't blame him," Kafei said, wishing he could have seen it. Few things made Kafei happier than seeing discombobulated Hylian nobles. Really, the only things that outshone that bright light was Elenwe—he reached up to touch the ring in his ear—and having fun with his cousins.
"Hmph, you're not the one who had to wrangle the angry lordlings who took insult," Impa grumped. "The little shits are getting bolder with their demands." She sighed. "But I'm not here to talk politics." She eyed him closely for a moment. "You can't keep going like this."
"I beg to differ," he said with a sniff. "Besides, I'm off-duty, I can do whatever I like with my time."
"Not when what you do off-duty starts to affect your performance," she said firmly. "I looked over your report from this morning. Full of errors and mistakes—mistakes you have never made before. Mistakes stemming from you not keeping your head in the game. Mistakes that can get people killed."
He scowled. "Everyone makes mistakes."
"We don't," she said, the heat of her glare practically warming the side of Kafei's face. "The others look to us for guidance—for answers. If they cannot trust our intel, why would they trust anything we have to say? How can they put their lives in our hands and believe that everything we do is carefully planned and calculated, that nothing is left to chance?"
"That's your perfectionism talking," he said, glaring back at her. "No one can live up to those demands, not even yourself. You know that."
"That does not mean I cannot strive to do so," she replied. "True, not every plan will succeed or pay off in the manner we expect, but until one does fail miserably, we have to appear to be infallible, and that includes not making the mistakes you have been in the past few days. You need to rest, Kafei."
"I can't," he said, gritting his teeth. "Every time I try to, I get this feeling..." he trailed off, feeling stupid.
"Feeling?" Impa prodded.
"I...I feel like leaving him alone is the biggest mistake I could ever make," he said. "Like, if I take my eyes off this spot for even a second when I'm not on duty, then someone will find their way inside and...and..."
He couldn't even say it. The thought alone was horrifying enough, but to voice it out loud felt akin to making a prediction. Like it would turn from fantasy into reality.
Impa lowered her head, glaring at her feet. "Paranoia is a double-edged sword for us," she said. "It keeps us alive in the field, but absolutely ruins us outside it. It took me years to learn how to suppress it when it is not necessary."
"How do you do it?"
She gave him a helpless look. Or, as close to a helpless look as the Sheikah clan leader allowed herself to give. Sometimes, Kafei wondered if Impa had hid behind her mask for so long that she'd forgotten how to emote like a normal person.
"Your guess is as good as mine. One day, it simply...clicked into place. It remains hidden behind a smokescreen, and only emerges when I need it. I wish I could say there was a trick to it; meditation, mental training...but no, there is no technique to call upon. It simply...does as it should, when it should. I suppose it comes with experience...which is of no help to you at all."
He closed his eyes, knocking the back of his head against the wall. "So you're saying I'm fucked, is what. Nothing I didn't already know."
"You survived me finding out about your and Sheik's impromptu diplomatic meeting with Prince Atiya in the desert," Impa said, huffing. "I'd say that makes you the luckiest man alive."
He shuddered a little at that. "I still have nightmares about you sharpening your knife."
"I've always enjoyed audio-visual aids," she said, grinning a little too widely for it to be anything but unsettling. "They help plant certain seeds in the heads of my targets."
"You do remember that we are, technically, family, right?" he said.
"That just makes it funnier."
It was no wonder, really, that Kafei's family was as messed up as it was, considering its matriarch. Still, he supposed it could be worse. Somehow. He'd yet to find an example, but he knew there was one out there. Somewhere. He had to keep that hope alive.
Impa grabbed his arm and started pulling him away from the door. "Come," she said.
"What?" he asked, trying to pull away but her grip was like iron and she had no trouble dragging him along, no matter how firmly he tries to resist. Where did she hide all that muscle on such a willowy frame?! "What are you doing? Where are you taking me?!"
"To the dojo," she said with mock cheer. "You need to get out of your head, and I need to let off some steam, lest I beat the next noble I see to a bloody pulp. We'll both benefit from this, now come along."
"I fail to see my benefit!"
"Think of it as me shifting your paranoia to something actually useful."
"Goddesses, save me!"
But nobody came.
"That's it?" Atiya asked, glowering at the pile of paper on his desk like they'd personally offended him with their uselessness. "This is all they have to show after five days?"
"Five days is not a lot of time for an in-depth investigation," Ayla reminded him. "They're still probing at the edges, trying to find leads—"
"It's not good enough," the prince said. "Tell them to pick up the pace. I want results."
Ayla took a deep breath, reminding herself that the prince was still young and inexperienced, and had no understanding of the concept of professional detachment. The boy's lover had been hurt, and he was desperate to find the people responsible. Of all the good qualities the king had managed to instil in his younger brother, patience was not one of them. Combined with the infamous tempers they both possessed, it was a wonder a peace agreement had ever been made.
"They are working as fast as they can, my prince, but they also have covers to maintain," she said, trying not to sound too gentle but not too harsh either. "If they probe too deep too soon, their true identities will be compromised, and we could be looking at an international incident since I doubt the Hylians will appreciate a recent enemy already looking into their secrets."
Atiya groaned, leaning back in his seat. "I know!" he exclaimed. "I know, but...I just wish they could work a little faster. The more time we waste the more time the Keepers have to cover their tracks!" He gave Ayla a pleading look. "And you're sure you've checked in with everyone?"
"Everyone," Ayla confirmed for the fifth time. "Sivan was the last. They have been instructed to contact us immediately if they find something of interest. Until then we will simply have to wait."
"I hate waiting," Atiya said petulantly. "It makes me feel useless."
"I know," Ayla said. "But it is all we can do for now."
The prince slumped behind his desk, grimacing before carefully shuffling the spy reports into an orderly pile and putting them into his desk's drawer, locking it. Then he stood up, cracking his neck with a pained sigh.
"I'm going to see Sheik," he announced. "Why don't you take the afternoon off, Ayla? I'm sure there's something more fun for you to do than stare at a wall while guarding me."
"My prince, I cannot leave your s—"
"I insist," Atiya said firmly. "I will be in the middle of the Sheikah headquarters. Just about the safest place in Castle Town, if I'm not mistaken. You haven't gotten to do much sightseeing—why don't you explore the city a little?"
Ayla felt her eyebrow twitch. "You know this is a serious breach of protocol—"
"I'm just trying to make sure you don't overwork yourself," he said, giving her a genuine smile. "You deserve a break. The Sheikah will keep me safe in the meantime."
The million reasons Ayla could have given in response to that statement died on her lips when Atiya's face twisted in a pained grin. Sure, there was technically an agreement in place for the Sheikah to protect Atiya for the duration of his stay here, but that was mostly for official and public events. They would probably take their obligation seriously, especially after giving Atiya access to their headquarters, but the idea of just leaving her charge on his own while she gallivanted around the city left a bad taste in Ayla's mouth.
"I can make it an order, if you'd like?" Atiya added, seemingly reading her thoughts. "Or just say that I'd like to be alone for an afternoon without you hovering at my back."
"Your brother will—"
"I won't tell Gan if you don't."
"...very well. But I will be back at six bells."
Atiya smiled at that, pulling her into a tight embrace, which she reluctantly returned. Her little brother was such a pain sometimes, but...
"I'll see you soon," he said. "Have fun!"
Alone in the prince's office, Ayla briefly debated just heading to her quarters for a nap. There were a few reports she'd neglected writing, and a book she was looking forward to getting started on, but...the castle was starting to feel a little claustrophobic.
"Fuck it," she muttered, heading for the door. There were still a few markets she hadn't visited yet, and plenty of little hole-in-the-wall shops to explore. And if she happened to be keeping an ear out for leads on the Keepers...well, who could stop her?
Impa watched Kafei leave the dojo, trying not to feel too guilty about the suppressed groans of pain coming from her cousin with every step he took. She'd probably gone a bit overboard with the leg locks, but they had worked so well to get Kafei out of his headspace and actually focus on the fight at hand. Rather than fret and stress about Sheik's condition, he'd been busy trying to beat her.
He'd failed, of course, but he'd tried, and that was the important thing. The winded and sweaty, but relieved-looking Kafei who'd left the dojo was a marked improvement over the jittery one that had entered it. She could only hope he'd be too tired to rebel against her order to get some sleep. If not, she'd recruit Paya. She always had a way with getting her cousins to do as they were told.
Impa finished her stretches, trying not to feel annoyed at how much longer it was taking these days, and changed back into her uniform. Her shift was technically over after pulling an all-nighter, but being the clan leader meant that she was, more or less, always on duty. It wouldn't do to be caught out of uniform if something happened and she was needed immediately.
The corridors weren't particularly busy at this time of day—most of the operatives were at their posts or enjoying their downtime somewhere else. She nodded to those she passed but did not stop for conversation. Not out of the norm for her, but she had a feeling she was coming off as less approachable than usual.
Mana was standing outside the door to Sheik's room, leaning against the wall and writing in her journal. The small black book contained all manners of secrets, none of which Impa had ever been privy to, even though she'd grown up with the other Sheikah.
"How is he?" she asked without preamble.
"Stable," Mana replied without hesitation. "My fears regarding his lungs were unfounded—his breathing is mostly fine, though somewhat constrained by his broken ribs. No sign of perforation after all." She looked at Impa. "The prince is with him at the moment."
"I am not surprised," Impa said drily, wondering if she'd ever again have a moment with her nephew that did not also include Atiya. "How long?"
"He just got here—poor thing looked absolutely miserable."
"Absent today," Mana said, crossing off a line in her journal before closing it and putting it in her uniform pocket. "Sent her off on sightseeing, apparently." There was a knowing glint to her eye when she said that.
Spying, more likely, Impa's mind told her. "Is someone keeping an eye on her?" she asked.
Mana grimaced. "Obviously."
"Good. Why don't you take a break?"
"Well, don't mind if I do. I'll be off," the other Sheikah said. "Try not to kill the prince while I'm gone, hm?"
"I won't, provided he behaves himself," Impa said, refusing to rise to her bait.
Mana chuckled and left. She still had a slight limp from her injury all those years ago, even if she did her best to hide it. One of Impa's many mistakes.
She took a breath and knocked once on the door to Sheik's room before letting herself in. She was not surprised to find Prince Atiya sitting as close to Sheik as he possible could, almost draping himself over the still form of her nephew. The only thing stopping him from doing it fully was knowing it would probably cause Sheik a lot of pain.
"Mistress Impa," Atiya said, bowing his head, but refusing to stand up, as if Sheik was going to disappear the moment he left his side. "Good afternoon."
"Your highness," Impa greeted in return, bowing. "I trust you have been treated well by my people?"
"They have been perfectly courteous," Atiya replied. "I'm sorry for imposing."
No, you're not, Impa thought. But that's all right, because you're doing it for him.
If there had ever been a moment in Impa's life where she was certain she'd lost it, or that a stroke was coming on, it was the moment she'd been told the full story of Sheik and Atiya's meeting in the desert.
She'd known something was afoot when she'd received the reports and spotted a few discrepancies and things that did not match up, but it had seemed minor in the grand scheme of things, so she'd let it go. It had been Sheik's first time in the field—of course things hadn't gone off without a hitch, but they'd all made it back alive so why make a big ruckus about nothing?
And then, several weeks later, Kafei had gotten massively drunk.
It was his own fault; challenging Mag to a drinking game always resulted in massive casualties. Rather than interfere, Impa had elected to simply observe, always amused to see the many ways in which Kafei could get himself into trouble. It was one of her kind-of-sort-of nephew's more entertaining qualities. After all the grey hairs he'd put on Impa's head, he deserved a bit of public humiliation.
Of course, she hadn't expected the fool to blurt out that he'd met a Gerudo prince in the desert, captured him, and then let him go...as a response to a question of how he was feeling.
Idiot couldn't hold his liqueur. Usually a source of entertainment, this time a headache the size of the moon.
Luckily, the people around them had been too drunk to remember it, or just hadn't believed him. Impa had coaxed the whole story out of him later that night, once he'd sobered up a little.
She could envision the approaching disaster from the very first moments of the story, and when Kafei revealed that Sheik had been...intimate...with the prince, she'd seriously considered committing seppuku right then and there to spare herself the calamity...but then she'd remembered Iana would be waiting for her in the afterlife, ready to kick Impa's arse for allowing her son to be besmirched in such a manner.
It had been a struggle, really, not to talk to Sheik about it in the weeks that followed. That said, she had been impressed with his ability to lie through his teeth and pretend that nothing out of the ordinary had happened. If only he'd known his cousin had sold him out over a tankard of ale.
She was content to leave it at that...until Ganondorf, the fool, had brought Atiya to Hyrule for the peace summit. The way Sheik's eyes had nearly popped out of his head had been amusing in its own right, but his reaction to Zelda introducing them...well, Impa was quite sure Iana had been laughing too. It was too bad she had to play the part of the surprised and shocked, or she would have had no small amount of comments for Sheik.
A small, petty part of her wanted to blame Atiya for this. The Gerudo, in general. The Keepers had probably formed as a response to the peace agreement and the Gerudo guests arriving in Hyrule, and if peace had never been made, then perhaps Sheik wouldn't be where he was today.
...but that wasn't right. She knew that. The Keepers wanted to expel anything and anyone that wasn't Hylian from the kingdom, not just the Gerudo. The Sheikah were also on that list. This would have happened sooner or later anyway, she suspected.
She just wished it hadn't been Sheik.
"You are not imposing, your highness," she said. "You are welcome here."
Atiya nodded, his eyes softening as they returned to Sheik's face. Still so swollen and bruised, it was hard to know that was her nephew. "His breathing sounds better today," the prince said softly.
"Mana tells me his lung wasn't punctured after all," Impa replied, trying to keep an even tone. She couldn't let herself show emotion. Not to the prince. "His breathing will improve as his ribs heal."
"That's good," Atiya said, his eyes shining a little in the candlelight. "He didn't deserve this."
"He didn't," she agreed. When she found the ones responsible, nothing would save them. Zelda wanted them before her in chains. Impa had no intention of letting them get that far. "I shall leave you to it, your highness."
"Please, don't leave on my account," Atiya said quickly. "I did not mean to chase you away—"
"I only had a little time to see him, and I'm glad to see that he is not alone," she said, shaking her head. "Thank you for keeping him company, your highness." She bowed again.
"Thank you for letting me see him," Atiya replied in kind, also bowing. "Few would, considering our...relationship."
It was the first time either Sheik or Atiya had spoken about it out loud. At least to Impa. It was hardly a secret, but if talking about it made Sheik uncomfortable, Impa wasn't about to bring it up as long as both participants were happy.
"You're a romantic at heart, even if you try to deny it."
Iana had been right. Too bad it wasn't she who'd been saddled with this political nightmare. The sweet embrace of death sounded pretty good right about now.
"As long as he's happy," she told the prince, "I have no objections. The moment he says no, however, you will respect it."
"I am glad we have understanding, your highness. Good afternoon."
She didn't give Atiya a chance to reply, quickly leaving the room. She wasn't running away. Nope. Not at all. The corridor outside was empty, and she took a moment to recompose herself before heading back to the briefing room. She preferred to remain within view for the on-duty Sheikah, and available for consultation or assistance.
She didn't get far, however, before encountering someone who was not supposed to be there.
Constable Calli was breathing heavily, her face red and sweaty from the effort of moving around. She had a crutch under each arm, her knuckles white from the tightness of her grip on them. She was wearing infirmary whites beneath a neutral tabard; her feet bare on the stone.
"You should be in bed," Impa told her, watching the constable take step after agonised step. She'd help, if she didn't know how the constable would react. Trying to fight an injured person didn't look good, no matter who struck first.
"I want...to see him," Calli said through gritted teeth, her eyes narrowing at Impa in an expression that was hauntingly familiar. There really was no mistaking where she'd come from. "Get out of...my way..."
Impa rolled her eyes. Even the stubbornness was familiar. She'd been at this for the last few days, insisting that she wanted to see Sheik, to see for herself that he was still alive. She'd been kept in the Sheikah infirmary, same as Sheik, for fear of further attacks by the Keepers. She had not appreciated this, and had made several escape attempts already, easily foiled because...well, one does not simply walk away from such an injury.
"I cannot allow that yet," Impa said, standing firm. "Look at you, you're about to pass out, and then where will we be?"
"You?" Callie asked. "Preferably somewhere...else..."
Spare me the stubbornness of children, Impa thought, stepping forward and taking Calli by the arm. "Come along, I'll take you back to your room."
"Don't touch me!" Calli hissed, trying to pull away, but failing. The injury really had taken a toll on her. "Let me go!"
"No," Impa said simply, readjusting her hold on Calli and, after a moment of thought, tossing the constable's arm over her shoulders, effortlessly turning them around and heading back the way Calli had come. "You need rest, constable."
"I want to see—"
"Sheik is stable, but unconscious," Impa continued relentlessly. "He is in no condition to talk to you, and he already has a guest who does not take kindly to strangers."
Plus, Impa had no idea how Atiya would take to meeting the constable who'd been Sheik's partner the night of the attack. The prince had graciously enquired about the constable's condition, but that could have been knee-jerk politeness rather than genuine concern, and there was no telling how people under such emotional stress might react to each other.
"You can see him later," she added when Calli continued to struggle. "Until then, you need to focus on healing and getting better."
"Why do you care?!" Calli asked, teeth bared in a snarl. "You never did before!"
Impa fought down the urge to bark back at her. She deserved that, she truly did. The anger from Calli was nothing new...though it still had the same effect on Impa where it immediately triggered her challenge response. She fought it down and continued to half-drag, half-lead Calli back to her room, listening to her protests the entire way.
Her grandfather had a lot to answer for.
After several hours of walking around Castle Town, checking out its many shops and cafes and taverns, trying her best to mingle with the locals, Ayla had come to a conclusion.
She could never be a spy.
She didn't have the patience for it. Playing a character other than herself, asking seemingly innocuous but deeply probing questions, gently leading targets to reveal more about themselves and the people around than they should, subtly gathering information that could be aggregated and analysed to gain a deeper understanding of their targets...
...no, she'd go mad within a day. Almost had, this afternoon, when her attempt to ask a merchant's son about his father's business had resulted in him making embarrassing passes at her...which had then gotten aggressive after she'd turned him down. It was only a customer coming in that had stopped her from rearranging his face.
Realising she was absolutely shit at spying, she'd taken to wandering the streets at random, just taking in the sights and atmosphere of Castle Town. Sivan had been right—judging from how much of a hurry the Hylians seemed to be in all the time, time was money to them. Few seemed to have the time to just sit and enjoy life for what it was.
Things got busy back home as well, but never at the tempo these people moved. Partly that was because of the climate—the temperature threatened to knock you out if you worked too hard—but also partly because...well, to Gerudo, work was more about survival. It wasn't about the money itself.
She shook her head. She missed home. She missed her sisters. Being Atiya's bodyguard was an honour, but she hadn't anticipated this mission to last so long. If everything had gone according to plan, they'd be on their way back to the desert already, but the attack had changed that. She didn't begrudge her prince his time with his beloved, but...things were getting dangerous. There was no telling when the next attack would happen, or who would be the victim.
They wouldn't be stupid enough to go after Atiya, but they could go after any of their sisters living in Castle Town. Or another Sheikah.
Before she knew it, she was turning into the side-street where Sivan kept her shop. Or pretended to keep her shop, at any rate. She wasn't sure why she'd taken this path, but she felt like talking to someone who wasn't going to make crude jokes or insult her.
She found the Gerudo in question seemingly closing her musty shop for the day, stuffing her bag full of papers.
"That was quick," Sivan said, blinking at her. "I just sent the runner—guess you took my words to heart. He deserves a big tip."
"Runner?" Ayla asked. "What runner?"
"The one I sent to fetch you? For the measurements?"
"I just wandered here by mistake," she said. "Was there something you wanted?"
"You have the most peculiar timing, then," Sivan said, retrieving one of the papers from the bag and handing it to her. "One of the others just brought me this. We have a name."