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Zelda, Don't be Racist.

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Zelda had to be physically separated from her handmaid. The tall Sheikah walked alongside impassively as two of her father’s men were forced to chase the princess down the hall.

"Impa! You know this is wrong! I need to stay here to protect the Triforce!"

As ever, her pale guard betrayed no secret of passion or movement. “Princess, I am faithful to the Royal Family, befitting of my kin. But your father the King also is of your same blood. I must respect his wishes for you, I’m afraid.”

"But…what about my vision! You know it’s true… and if I’m not here…!"

"You are young," said Impa. "I trust you fully that you did see what you saw. But to interpret what it means… that may take more discovery. Perhaps it is the true and destined future. Perhaps it is a warning of a future you cannot let manifest. Perhaps it is a symbol for what already has occurred. Perhaps it is all three."

“Impa!”

And then Impa was gone.

Zelda clutched her small satchel as she was forced out into the pre-dawn courtyard. The baggage train was neatly set out beside her, and before her a run of women riders stood, clutching fine-limbed desert horses by rein and by lead. The princess cringed in stage fright.

One horse stood out of the chorus by towering height. Ganondorf’s mount was the largest beast she had ever seen-- beyond even the war-steeds of the Knights. Each well-shod hoof was wider than a plate, and its thick legs were long enough for Zelda to run underneath its wide barrel. The mount’s rider was similarly scaled, mountainous over his kin. Even at somewhat of a distance, she could barely see above his prickled chin. He did not look down at her, but instead regarded her father the King of Hyrule, who had only just arrived. Zelda felt his hand on her shoulder. Tight nails and stiff formality. The servants bowed. Ganondorf did not.

“Ah, I must again thank you for this generous opportunity, esteemed Lord. I trust my daughter is in capable hands.”

“There are no more capable hands,” said Ganondorf. His entourage, sisters or aunts, smiled, but not at her. Zelda feared the joke they shared amongst themselves.

“The terms are set, then. Five weeks, from today, she will return, and promptly. I trust that is sufficient time to… settle her attitudes?”

Ganondorf’s deep voice bruised. “If the girl is willing.”

“She will be.” Her father’s scorn was almost as cutting. “Zelda, delight, come here.”

He pulled her aside, behind the baggage train. Zelda quickly was getting sick of being pushed this way and that way. Something about this whole affair prickled with tension and unprecedented force. She prepared to listen to her father.

“Behave while you are a guest in their fortress. I cannot imagine their accommodations are as grand as the Castle, but it will be only for a little while.”

“Yes, Father.”

“And for the love of the Gods, do not test Lord Ganondorf’s patience. I still am shamed with humiliation. You are a princess, and you know this is not child’s games. Consider this your first encounter with real, proper politics.”

“If I hear anything dangerous, should I tell you? Rebellion? An Army of Darkness? That sort of thing?”

“Zelda, don’t be racist,” her father said sternly. “The Gerudo are destitute thieves, little more these days. They do not smuggle demons hidden in their silk trousers. I wish you would cast off these nonsensical fancies. They’re unbecoming of a lady.”

“I understand.”

When Zelda said ‘I understand,’ very often she actually meant, ‘I don’t care.’ All the same, her father shoo’d her out from behind the caravan, clapped his hands, and regarded Ganondorf with a diplomatic smile. “Very well! As you can see, her train is ready to be underway. I assume this is sufficient for her care?”

“No,” Ganondorf said tersely. He paused, and Zelda could taste foul disgust in his tone, though serpent-scaled as always. “Respectfully, I require only Her Highness. Not a parade.”

“But what will I wear?” asked Zelda, while her voice died in the back of her throat.

“You are wearing clothes,” said the Gerudo King, wry-fanged. “I think this will teach you not to waste their utility.”

And, to Zelda’s horror, her father did not argue this. And, miserably clinging to the mane of a Gerudo horse, Zelda was off. The ride would take more than a day, but the entire journey she seemed to levitate; hardly touching the saddle or the woman behind her.

--

The buzzards rode on the heat overhead. Zelda didn’t find it so uplifting. After a sleepless night over fields, with saddle sores, the Gerudo company hit the badlands that bordered the desert and eventually crossed the great chasm cut by River Hylia. The experience was like being a lump of dough slowly being pushed towards the oven. With each mile, she could feel the moisture wick out of the air, the ground and rocks bake, until she was cooking in her dress. When they could, they rode in the shade of the cliffs and the large mesas, but there were tracts of wasteland in which there was no respite from the oppression of the sun.

But eventually, bleached banners and cut stone appeared through the simmering air. The narrow pass into Gerudo Valley felt cool on Zelda’s itching nose.

Squinting in the glare and trying to avoid the rider she was paired with, Zelda did her best to consider her options. The Fortress was solid stone, and the only way out of Gerudo Valley was the slim bottleneck. There were miles of parched land even before she reached Hyrule proper, much less civilization. There were two watchtowers, one at the back of the valley, and one at its entrance. Armed guards patrolled the walls and open yards of the valley fortress. Possibly, there could be a back exit into the mountain, but Zelda didn’t want to guess. And to vault the massive portcullis that barred the desert was beyond belief.

Zelda was forced to admit that escape was fairly unlikely to impossible.

The riders stopped. Their arrival was met with little excitement, but Zelda was uncomfortable to feel idle eyes on her back. No one assisted Zelda after her escort dismounted, and she slid off herself. She almost stumbled; the fall to her feet shook her bones, and she walked bow-legged after the long journey. She clutched her satin-stitched bag in her grasp, all she’d been permitted to bring.

Zelda glanced at Ganondorf, expecting direction. Or the next round in being ported like luggage. He spoke to other Gerudo, but in no language Zelda knew. Only the Hylian tongue was permitted in the castle court, so that all would understand and no secrets could be kept; Zelda was aware that there was a Gerudo language, but she had heard little more than whispers, and seen characters only rarely in smuggled books. But his tone did not sound like a command, for all the words were unknown.

That was a new suffering. Zelda had learned to read not long after her third birthday, and had understood her father’s many oaths as long as she could remember. Yet, she couldn’t comprehend anything of what the Gerudo said. The characters on banners did not form sentences. They were only patterns of symbols. The metered syllables that she took into her ears, she knew they were words, were language, but they did not fall into any significance, invoked no ideas or understanding. She stood still as she listened to them talk. Zelda could only guess that they were determining what to do with her, for her name was all she could discern. The tone they spoke it with was strange, formed out of parts that did not fit together.

Oddly, Ganondorf subdued himself in a way he did not in her father’s court, and his sonorous voice was an equal match to his riders and sisters. It became plain to her that Hylian was his second language, though he was arguably more fluent than many noblemen. His rough throat persisted, but blended into timbrous consonants and round vowels, smoothed as an adder slipping back into its own, familiar hole.

“She is attentive, at least.” A woman spoke the first sentence of Hylian in half a day. They’d noticed her staring; Zelda quickly looked at the ground.

“A virtue I am sure she enjoys alone, among her kin,” Ganondorf replied. His grin was wider than any man’s ought to have been. He began walking towards her; there was a horse behind her, and Zelda could not back away. His face had never been so close, as when he stooped down to speak with her.

“I do not expect your obedience, kid,” he said, with shocking familiarity, “but I do expect that you know what’s good for you. If you do something foolish, you’ll find little sympathy to sop up. If you harass or harm any Gerudo, I have a very secure jail for you to spend your time in. Am I clear?”

“I understand.”

When Zelda said ‘I understand,’ this time she meant, ‘I hate you.’

“We’ll see,” he said, and rose, suddenly a warhorse’s height above. “Laveil, Asolei, you know your business with Zelda. Tomorrow, I will assign an attendant befitting her station. Do not bother me about her, unless you must.”

Zelda braced herself for the inevitable shuffling-around once again, but it never happened. Ganondorf simply left, ducking under a doorframe into the darkness of the fortress. The horses were handed off to a stablemaid, who led them to water from a deep well. The riders wearily disbanded, save one. She was joined by a fresh girl with short hair and a somewhat stocky build. Presumably, one was Laveil, and the other Asolei.

“What do you want from me?” Zelda asked, posture closed against their inquisitive stares. “Please, just get whatever he asked over with. I’d like to proceed quickly.”

They both snickered, despite their difference in age.

“Excuse me, is there a problem?” Zelda said angrily, refusing to be mocked.

“Nothing,” said the elder, the one who had been among the riders, who Zelda guessed was Laveil. Her Hylian was more awkward than her King’s, more heavily accented. “Only the way you talk, yeah?”

“I speak like a normal person,” said Zelda.

The look they gave her was a better chaser than her father’s men.

--

The woman was staring at her again. Zelda pulled her knees closer and stuck her book tighter to her nose, inching over the words at a deliberate pace. It contained her lessons, and she hated reading about protocol, but she needed a barrier between her and the Gerudo that had been posted in her room. She’d already been through the theology and the geography texts three times.

Itself, the room was just as her father had suggested: far from opulent. The shutter on the window didn’t keep the sand out, and even hidden indoors Zelda became gritty. The furnishings were serviceable, but no more: a cot, a table, a chair, a basin, a tin mirror, a small clay lamp with a frayed wick. A mat of dry reeds protected the bare floor. Zelda had sworn she’d seen a rat on it, at night. She curled tighter into a ball.

“I just don’t get you, kid,” said the Gerudo, from across the room. Zelda could hear the chair creak. She turned another page. It was only a few weeks. She’d been told to wait longer for a new dress.

Minutes, or an hour passed. Zelda burned each character of that book into her mind, reading as slowly as she could manage despite the tapping foot she heard across the room.

“Ugh! I can’t take this anymore. It’s just not right for a kid like you to sit so still!” the Gerudo said, and with a thief’s deft snatch she plucked the reading from Zelda’s grasp.

“C’mon! Don’t do that!”

The Gerudo’s eyes squinted as she made out the text’s characters, then she turned it right-side-up. Zelda reached and groped for it, but the older woman’s arms were long enough to keep Zelda away, palm pressed firmly into her cheek.

“You really read this? Why?” the Gerudo said. “It’s about sitting at tables! Boring stuff, if you ask me.”

Zelda was undaunted. She tried to push the Gerudo’s hand out of the way, only to find it now planted on her forehead. “It’s for my studies. I’m a princess! I have to know things like that.”

“Oh please, you can’t really be so excited about it. Don’t tell me all Hylian girls are weird like this.”

“Weird?” Zelda stuck out her tongue. “I didn’t know you could even read it!”

The Gerudo smartly swatted her on the head with the book. Zelda’s skull rattled, but it was fairly clear the Gerudo didn’t actually want to hurt her. “Seriously? Hylian’s the only thing on signs, and you think I don’t know your lousy letters?”

“I think you should get out,” said Zelda.

“It’s too bad. We don’t get what we want all the time.”

“I didn’t ask to come here, all right?” Zelda said, voice bursting against the wooden door. The shame wasn’t far behind, it came with the second sob. Her fists balled into her eyes. “They made me go. I never wanted to come to this place, and be surrounded by darkness…”

“Shit, don’t cry, sssh,” said the Gerudo. “It’s not like you’re in a cell. You can go outside and run around any time you like.”

Zelda only sniffed, eyes blotted on her now-dusty white skirts.

“That didn’t do it for you? Damn it.” The Gerudo followed it with more in her own language, presumably to the same effect. “I was never the greatest with kids. Ganondorf probably dumped you on me to be annoying.”

“Annoying?” Zelda mumbled through a wad of boogers. “He’s probably super evil.”

“Yeah, probably.”

Zelda looked up. She blinked through puffy eyes. “What, really?”

“You’re still a spoiled Hylian brat who called me illiterate,” said the Gerudo. “But yeah, Ganondorf’s definitely up to something.”

“You won’t get in trouble for saying that?”

“Trouble is for people who get caught, and if you hate him so much it’s not like you’ll snitch.”

Zelda thought a little, and rubbed her cheeks dry. “I’m Zelda,” she said, not sure how to proceed.

“The whole fortress already knows who you are, kid. But I’m Nabooru. No more crying, right?”

--

“But why do you have yellow eyes?”

The other girl looked at her as if she was a bad dream. Zelda sweat in her skirts more than she already had been. She considered that this might have been a poor question. But she also considered it a real question.

“No reason,” said the other girl. She was one of three, the eldest and best-spoken of those she’d talked to outside. Already she felt pink from the sun. But going back in would mean teasing from Nabooru. Make some friends, she’d been told. Zelda didn’t know what to do with anyone her own age back at the castle, much less brown girls who barely spoke her language.

“Why do you have yellow hair?” another girl asked. The last snickered; Zelda didn’t think she spoke much Hylian.

“My mother had yellow hair,” said Zelda.

“My mother had yellow eyes,” said the eldest girl. “Also hers.”

“My mother has no eyes,” said the last in broken words, and dissolved into giggles. She was swatted by the middle; they seemed close friends.

Zelda swallowed a lump of dust in her throat. They didn’t seem very evil, though she supposed when they got older they’d steal as much as the grown-ups. “I’m sorry, I should have introduced myself,” she mumbled. “I’m Zelda. What are your names?”

“Risav,” said the eldest. She’d nominated herself spokesperson, apparently. She pointed to her close sister, “She’s Jenavalle, call her Jena.”

“My name is Lulaanne,” said the youngest, with rehearsed excitement. “What is a ‘Princess?’”

The other two girls groaned loudly, Jenavalle even ran her hand through her braids and turned to explain, but Zelda cut her off. “A princess is a daughter of a king,” she said.

The girls looked at each other. Then they looked at Zelda. “We’re all princesses!” And they burst into laughter. Zelda wrung her hands. She felt a little green at the implication that Ganondorf had so many children. As for the girls, they teased each other in their own language, leaving Zelda to stare at her feet in the shade of the fort’s hewn walls.

“No, no, that’s not it,” she said quickly, trying to ease her correction in sideways past their private chatter. “A princess is the daughter of a king and a queen. One day, they could be the queen.”

This seemed interesting to them. Their chatter didn’t stop, but quieted as they sat down, and motioned for Zelda to do the same. Not wanting to feel left-out, Zelda obliged, and they rested a while. “Hylians really have a king and a queen at the same time?” asked Risav in her heavy accent. “That’s weird. Why do you need two to do the same job?”

“Kings and Queens have different jobs,” said Zelda. “Kings rule the country and take care of the army, and make the rules and laws. Queens give the king an heir to take over, and run the castle and town. They also have something special to do with the Temple of the Goddess, and if the King dies, his wife the Queen takes over until a son is old enough to rule.”

“Kings die many times?” Lulaanne said, but Zelda could make out what she meant well enough.

“Um, I don’t know. Sometimes they die.”

“You need stronger kings,” the girl replied. “Maybe you have too many. Less kings, stronger kings, yeah?”

“Yeah,” said Zelda. “I suppose.”

Jenavalle rested her face in her hands, knees spidered out cross-legged. “But what does a Princess do?”

Zelda had to think about that.

“I study a lot. I learn about laws and how to behave properly. There’s a lot of things to know if one day I have to be Queen.”

“Sounds boring,” said Risav. “Did you really drop bees on Ganondorf’s head?”

With more than a little worry about how to make it sound better, Zelda just decided to be direct. “Yes, I did.”

The three were speechless. They didn’t seem sure whether to laugh or gasp, or stare in horror. “Why did you do it?” whispered Lulaanne.

“I didn’t like him,” said Zelda honestly. She crossed her arms in a way she hoped seemed tough. “I wanted to make sure he knew he wasn’t welcome to make trouble in my Kingdom.”

“Oh,” Jenavalle gasped. “You bullied Ganondorf…”

“Well, I wouldn’t call it bullying exactly,” Zelda began awkwardly.

“Did you touch the bees?” Lulaanne seemed terrified. “You don’t like him so much you touched bees…”

Risav yelled. It probably was something like ‘quiet,’ or ‘shut up!’, because her two friends closed their mouths immediately. “I don’t think that’s right, but Ganondorf wouldn’t have brought you here if he thought you were no good.” She stared hard at Zelda. It reminded her of Impa. But then she snickered; the Gerudo shared a certain kind of smile, a wide, whole-face grin. “But you have a lot of guts to attack the King!”

Zelda laughed nervously.

“So I tell you this, snooty bully,” she said, hands on her hips as she stood up tall over where Zelda was sprawled in the dirt. “You can play with us, but with one rule.”

“What is it?”

Risav snatched the coif from Zelda’s head, causing her hair to fall free into her eyes. When Zelda composed herself, and caught the pins that had fallen free, she saw Risav tying it around her braids like a gold-emblazoned kerchief. “The rule is that we’re all the princess!”

--

By the time Nabooru finally collected her, Zelda was as red as a blister and covered in dust. Zelda was handed off to a parade of pitying aunts, all who rummaged in cupboards for various remedies. They argued over which one would be best, and to her horror Zelda heard them agree to try them all over time, for they’d hardly seen such sun-rash. It took her a whole hour to brush the dirt out of her hair, while her face was covered in an opaque paste mixed of oil, milk, and some sort of ground wood or plant. It took the burning off, but Zelda worried she’d soon smell like an herbal cheese.

The Gerudo in the main hall didn’t comment at her smeared nose, however, when she was chased in for supper. It was too hard to avoid it, as she had the past few days. She couldn’t see Risav or Lulaanne anywhere; there were enough red heads and laughing voices to make picking any one child out impossible. Because of her status, and as her position as a guest, Zelda sat with Nabooru: not at the head of the hall, but close. Seating was on clean-hewn benches, before long tables. Zelda was thankful that this was familiar, but supposed it would have been unreasonable to sit upon the floor to eat when it was prone to being so dirty, and its penchant for harboring scorpions.

It was an uproar of voices she couldn’t understand. There were grandmothers and dozens of children, far more than she’d seen in all of Hyrule’s courtly functions. But it hit Zelda that these were the majority of all Gerudo that existed; they all lived here, ate here, slept here. She supposed there also must have been other outposts, those who ate away from the community, and those abroad or on-guard. But it was an eerie thought to consider how few Gerudo there really were. Zelda wondered how to gather most Hylians into one hall for a single meal, and couldn’t imagine there was any building large enough. Even on holy days and feast days, when the castle banquet was open to the town, that was only a fraction of greater Hyrule.

But she composed herself; she could wilt how they doubtlessly expected her to. She didn’t want to give any Gerudo that satisfaction. Still, the shade of her father’s absence, the lack of any attendants or any kind of party at her back was the weight of an open field’s sky; she the mouse under what felt like a flock of circling condors.

“No talking, huh?”

She looked up at Nabooru, only to find the woman chewing her food already, as if she had said nothing. Zelda wasn’t sure what there was to discuss. She didn’t want to talk about herself, and she wasn’t certain how to ask about her company. Her lessons were supposed to have prepared her for this, she thought with woe, but diplomacy presumed official, equal terms and representatives. At least at the level she had been permitted to study at.

Zelda realized that she was a representative of Hyrule, and that what she did would likely shape the opinions of all present. For once she, not her father or an ambassador, was the most important official of her country.

Zelda looked at the food in front of her. It was a kind of highly-spiced stew, and there were no plates; only some sort of flatbread. The only utensils she saw in use were knives, but they seemed to be knives personally belonging to Gerudo, and they were used to peel a kind of spiny, bright-red fruit. All other eating was done with bare hands. Zelda already had tasted some of what was set out to drink, a weak tea that had been brewed with milk and chilled.

The food smelled good, she supposed, but she had no idea how to eat it. Zelda tried to watch what the Gerudo did, praying none of them caught her snooping. She didn’t know the consequences for being rude but she hoped it didn’t involve a night in jail. It was a futile effort, though, because enough Gerudo were already staring at her before she could even risk locking eyes with them: from the farthest seats to the very highest head of the table. From where she sat, Zelda could even see Ganondorf, who dined with the most prestigious elders and raid-leaders. Surprisingly, he was not one of the many studying her.

On either side of him, two ancient crones pinned her with vultures’ gazes. Zelda resolved not to look anywhere but at her food, after that.

Doing her best to copy the women eating around her, Zelda tore a piece of her flatbread, scooped up a bite of the stew dish, and with what she hoped was polite fingers put it in her mouth.

Tears sprang to her eyes. Her nose ran. Her throat burned.

It dawned that staying in her room may have led the Gerudo previously to serve her food intended for someone sick.

Not so, now.

This is it, Zelda thought. I’m going to die. I’m eating demon food and it’s killed me.

“Hey, what’s with you?”

Zelda chewed, unwilling to show any signs of weakness. You are a dead princess, but still a princess, she thought. Zelda swallowed quietly.

“I’m fine, Nabooru,” lied Zelda.

Nabooru took one look at her and laughed. Unlike women of the court, she laughed from her whole chest, and didn’t hide her mouth. “Wha-ha-ha! I’m sure you are!” Then her smirk became truly mischievous. “Do you like the food?”

“Yes, it’s good,” Zelda said, with a face she’d perfected in a mirror for months. Nabooru grinned and to Zelda’s horror, stood in her seat and yelled, waved for someone (or many someones) across the hall. Even without knowing what was said from the amount of eyes on her Zelda knew that it had been something that alerted the cook, or had told others to look at her.

Oh no, she thought. They now all want to see me back that up.

She took what she attempted to pass off as a casual drink from her cup. It didn’t do much for the ruins of her mouth.

They can’t kill what’s already dead, Zelda thought resolutely. Then she took another bite. And another. It felt like descending into the underworld, one fiery chew at a time. Her eyes were too misty to tell if they were looking at her, or had lost interest. But after one final swallow, her small meal was finished and she folded her hands neatly in her lap. She tried not to sniff, and smiled serenely.

They definitely were laughing at her. Zelda swallowed it, too.

--

“You really are the most boring kid I’ve ever seen,” said Nabooru. “When you’re not running around, I have to watch you. I have better things to do with my time, you know.”

“Maybe I want you to be bored,” Zelda said, sitting in the shade underneath the far guard tower. Beyond it was the desert, and with her head pressed against the stone she could almost hear the winds whip.

Nabooru scoffed. “Stabbing yourself to get to me is a great plan,” she said. “Brat.”

“I play with the other kids enough” said Zelda. “It’s just that I don’t like being bossed around by them. But I can’t be the leader all the time.”

“That’s rough,” said Nabooru.

Zelda could tell she didn’t mean it.

“I don’t have a lot of friends at home,” Zelda said, after a while. “So please don’t get me wrong. You know I’m not used to your people. But I don’t see many Hylians my age, either. Only at some events, or outings. I don’t really know what to do with other children all day…”

“Eh? What do you mean, you don’t know what to do all day?” Nabooru asked. “What do you normally do?”

“Lessons, mostly. Then I have to sometimes make appearances in parlors or at functions. Those aren’t fun,” said Zelda. “Impa’s supposed to take me on a constitutional every day. I usually sneak off then. But it’s not like it’s secret; Impa couldn’t possibly lose me.”

“Why’s that?”

“Impa’s one of the Shadow Folk. No matter where I go, she’s not far behind. Well, except for here, maybe,” said Zelda. “So it’s not so much I sneak off as Impa lets me wander off. Sometimes I spy on my father, but mostly I just run around the castle. The steward always complains I scuff my shoes climbing. The last time I decided to go swimming I got in big trouble.”

Nabooru seemed repulsed by ‘swimming’ but waved it off. “Well, I don’t see you doing any of that stuff right now.”

“Well…” Zelda had to think about her next words carefully. “At home… I don’t really have to worry.”

“About what?”

“I’m not really sure,” said Zelda honestly. “But… I… I just don’t know. I feel foolish.”

“Yeah, right,” said Nabooru. “I bet you can’t do those things at all.”

“But I can, though! I do them all the time!”

“Oh, yeah?” Nabooru smirked, but Zelda felt too upset to bother about it. “Prove it. Go climb the fort.”

“All the way to the top!?”

“Well, you said you could climb. Was that a lie?”

Zelda wrinkled her nose. Then she removed both her bracelets and her jewels. “Don’t take these,” she said to Nabooru. Then she unhooked her belt and stripped off her embroidered tabard and layers of kirtle and smock, leaving only her linen shift. Zelda tied the skirts above her knee, and feeling a horse’s heat cooler, she left her decent clothes in a pile. She set off running up the weathered stairs, and to the fortress wall.

It was strange to feel the watch of the guards passing by, but to hear no shock at her underdressed state. Zelda often climbed in her ordinary clothes; the only scandals associated were burst buttons or torn stitching. When Zelda sprang off the ground she felt light as feathers.

Immediately Zelda regretted not bringing or wearing gloves; the rough stone chafed her palms even if her fingers found it easy to grip. The Gerudo at least were sensible builders; they laid heavy sandstone bricks, with solid handholds and good footing.The Fortress followed the natural bed of the valley, and so the structure leaned inwards slightly, making it easier to climb. Zelda practically flew up the first level, but the terrace afterward wound around several balconies and doors all too difficult for her to scale. Zelda wasted what felt like forever looking for a convenient box to boost herself up on. The next few floors actually had leftover scaffolding and some mats of ancient, deep-rooted weeds sprouting in old mortar. Eventually Zelda stood on the very top of the Fortress. It was a shorter structure than the castle’s towers, and scaling it was much easier than braving battlements or dangling through windows in the castle courtyard.

“Okay, now climb down!”

Nabooru wasn’t exactly anted down below, but Zelda had to squint against the sun to pick her out. Without a cord to hang on to, descending was more difficult than climbing. But Zelda managed it with scraped fingers and a few stumbles. The last drop down was high, and the impact on her feet jarred her knees. But, feeling the sun bite in places previously left pale, Zelda jogged back down to the far gate tower.

“Kind of slow, but not bad for a kid like you,” said Nabooru. “You move better without all those curtains on.”

“I’m in my underwear,” said Zelda.

“Well, it’s not under anything now,” said Nabooru, handing the girl her bracelets and her jewels. Zelda did her best not to flinch, and put out of her mind that Nabooru was a master thief (she’d been told) and now had handled the red diamond she carried. But such things seemed less important when Nabooru herself was clad in gold at all times.

“Okay, that’s a fair point.” Wearing her cuffs and collar over only her shift, Zelda felt she averaged out to being decently dressed. “Nabooru? Can I ask you something?”

“What do you want?”

Zelda scowled at the ground, trying to word her question in the least humiliating way she could. “It’s hard to play with the others when I can’t understand what they’re saying,” she said. “But it’s not fair to say they should learn to speak Hylian, just for me.”

Nabooru raised a blistering eyebrow. “Are you going to ask something?”

“I just want to learn a little bit of your language, okay? I’m getting really sick not knowing anything going on, or not being able to read anything, or not knowing if people are making fun of me.”

“They’re definitely making fun of you,” said Nabooru. “Maybe because you jump at every shadow.”

“Ugh! I’m sorry I said anything,” said Zelda. “Just forget it.”

“Tch, you have the thinnest skin,” Nabooru said. “I tell you what, I’ll get you a book or something. You like those, right? But I’m not a teacher, so I can’t promise I can help you with it. But you do two things for me.”

“Like what?”

“One, figure out something to trade for some real clothes. I’m not going to have you running around dressed in just that all the time, you catch a rash like paper catches fire,” said Nabooru. “Two, climb the tower ladder. I want to count how long you take.”

--
It took Zelda longer than she wanted to climb the ladder, and more work than she expected to begin with the book Nabooru gave her. In fact, it took fifteen days to improve her time on both.
--

“Bow practice!”

Zelda slung the quiver over her peeling shoulder and puffed up the hill at a run. The short practice bow she’d been given would have to do, but if she was going to sit in the shade for half the things the girls her age did, she was not going to miss this. Riding practice was another activity she had come to favor, because horses were of the same mind everywhere and she already knew how to keep up with a summer hunt.

But archery! Zelda had read of ancient queens-at-arms of antiquity, back when Hyrule was vastly wild and free to settle. But no queen or lady of the royal family had been valued in terms of martial practice in centuries; only legends of prior Zeldas remained. Why, she had once read the Goddess herself had in ancient times favored the bow-string, as well as the harp-string, and the strings of fate and time.

“Bow practice!”

Zelda lined up with the other girls, blonde and burned at the end of a file of brown shoulders. Too excited to care, she inspected the bow she’d been given. It was a hand-me-down, but it was enough. The teacher, a stern-seeming sort with deep crows’ feet and a build more wiry than lithe, did not speak Hylian to them. Still, Zelda watched, and strained her ears to catch even a few words she had been furiously studying.

The older woman demonstrated for the line of girls; Zelda did not dare blink as she pulled a much heavier, deadlier bow. The alignment of her shoulders and elbows seemed important, and her feet led just so. Aiming the arrow, the teacher’s back could have been carved from gnarled wood, tense with restrained power.

Zelda’s “oh!” as the arrow flew was companion to many other gasps from the girls around her. The shot hit a far target, a wide drum of bleached sackcloth that reminded Zelda of an embroidery frame. Presumably there were sandbags or straw bales behind them, which caught the arrowhead. The teacher demonstrated several more times, each arrow tightly neighbored where they hit. Zelda knew that the target could have been a man, but her interest put thoughts of danger to rest.

The teacher said something along the lines of “go,” or “commence,” and bows up and down the line pulled, blunt-tip arrows scattered. Many even hit center marks, especially at the hands of the older girls. But most of the students were not yet skilled. Zelda did her best to focus on the target, felt the awkwardness of her limbs and feet. In her mind, she tried to line up what she had seen, to what she had to try. The bow was slim, but heavy for her thin arms. She held her breath as she released her shot.

It struck the target cleanly, hanging left. Zelda noticed the breeze down the long, flat expanse of canyon. Had it pushed the arrow? Biting her lip, she adjusted her aim, fixed her feet, and tried again. To her shock, a dead center shot. Giddy, Zelda pulled arrow after arrow and noted the wind, clustering the shafts before her.

Soon, others began to notice. She simply kept practicing, surprised at the ease she took to it-- like writing script after a long time with bold letters. Her arms ached and her shoulders quivered; her endurance lagged behind her aim.

The teacher interrupted her work with a stern hand on her head. Zelda flinched, almost dropped her arrow. “You’ve practiced before, in Hyrule?” she asked tersely.

“No,” said Zelda. “Have I done something wrong?”

“Quiet,” said the woman. “Show me again how you shoot.”

The other girls watched silently. Zelda’s aim wobbled under their pressure, and the shaft strayed to the right, barely on-target. “I’m sorry…”

“Again.”

Her next attempt was surer, and crowded the arrows she’d already sunk close to center nicely. Zelda had little time to be proud before the teacher’s fingers firmly turned her elbow straighter, soon moved to fix her shoulder.

“Do it like this,” she said. “Three hundred times.”

“Three hundred?!”

“Are you lazy?”

Zelda lowered her gaze, trying to think about how long it would take. “No…”

“Good. Do that many today, and half again more tomorrow. Then we’ll see.”

After that, there wasn’t much to focus on but shooting, and her thirsty tongue. Her small quiver only had twenty blunt-tipped arrows in it. If the others were doing well or poorly, Zelda couldn’t spare her thoughts for it. What had first felt like discovery, then pride, then excitement at perhaps fitting in somehow, dulled. Zelda did the math in her head. Three-hundred was three hundreds, and were five twenties in a hundred. Which meant she had to shoot fifteen full quivers of arrows before she could stop. The afternoon sun dipped lower, goldening the field. Eventually, the other girls left. Then, the teacher left. Zelda shot her arrows, walked across the cracked earth to retrieve them, and then set back to work again. She loved archery, she was excited to discover a talent. She hated archery, because she felt punished. It averaged out into a dull tedium, the chore of repetition.

She supposed she could just lie, say she completed three-hundred, and leave early. But she could not shake the horrible feeling that someone, somewhere, was watching. Her back and neck were stiff as cordwood by the time she finally finished, and her fingers glowed pink with blisters. The raw sting on her cheeks was back. Zelda resisted the urge to itch. Three hundred. She gathered the arrows a final time. Then she walked alone down the path.

Zelda wasn’t expecting it when she was pushed down. She didn’t cry out, but gasped, arms shooting out to catch herself. Her sore elbows jarred, and her hands went numb biting hot dirt. She sprawled to get up, but the girl over her shoved her again.

“Risav!” Zelda said. “I don’t-”

“You’re trash. Trash!” The girl hissed, through other curses that Zelda couldn’t make out. “The sooner you leave, the better.”

“I can’t,” Zelda yelped.

“Then you’re not trying hard enough.”

Zelda closed her eyes, dreading a kick or a punch, but it never came. When she gathered the courage to peek out again, Risav was gone, and the narrow way from the shooting range was clear. A horrified pair of braided heads leaned out from behind a lonesome rock: Lulaanne and Jenavalle. Trying to gather herself, she began picking arrows up where she’d scattered them, and prayed her bow hadn’t been broken.

“I’m okay,” Zelda lied to the rock.

“Risav could get in big trouble,” said Jenavalle. “We’re not supposed to hurt you…”

Zelda did her best to seem unbothered, but even she knew it was a bad act. “Please don’t tell anyone what she did, I don’t want a fuss,” she said. “But… what was that about?”

“Risav has been training hard for a long time, to be an archer one day,” explained Jenavalle. “She said she was angry that you did so well without trying.”

“But I didn’t mean to make her mad! I’m sorry,” said Zelda. “It’s… it’s not my fault. I didn’t ask to be good at it…”

“Sorry won’t help, not meaning isn’t important,” Lulaanne said. Her Hylian had never been surer. “You have a big kingdom, to be good at many things. Risav only has this.”

--

Zelda didn’t mention any of this to Nabooru that night. She said she had been so tired, she’d tripped on the way down from the shooting range. The dust on her was real, though, and the bruise. As always, Nabooru sighed as if put-upon and helped Zelda clean up. The girl had had enough ladies-in-waiting and handservants at home to feel comfortable with nakedness, being dressed and undressed. After a few days of initial hesitation it wasn’t difficult to mind herself around Nabooru.

“You said something, a while ago,” said Zelda, wiping the fine grit off her arms with a wet cloth, “about Ganondorf. About how you didn’t like him.”

“Yeah? So?” Nabooru replied, pulling a comb through the girl’s much-finer hair.

“I wanted to ask why you don’t like him.”

Nabooru took a blonde fistful and braided it loosely, then tied it around itself and out of Zelda’s face. “This stuff doesn’t hold anything,” she muttered, but then considered Zelda’s question. “Kid, what do you know about Ganondorf?”

“Well, he’s your King. And he seems to try and get himself in with my father a lot,” said Zelda. “But I don’t feel he’s sincere.”

“The ‘Great’ Ganondorf’s first achievements as King were in the Fierce War,” said Nabooru. “Before you were born. To be honest, we were both young then, too, only a few years older than you. But I’ll never forget what he did.”

“What?”

“Look, the Gerudo weren’t always on the side of Hyrule. Not that being on your ‘side’ gets us much of anything,” grumbled Nabooru. “The Gerudo fought Hyrule along with the rebel provinces for respect. But anybody could see we were losing. That’s when Ganondorf changed sides. The Gerudo broke alliance with the southern rebels, who were put to death.”

“Why?”

“You know what happens to the losing side, right? Didn’t I just say they got axed? The leaders were imprisoned, in some dark pit only the Royal Family knows. My skin crawls just thinking about it. But you don’t just switch sides without proving it. So Ganondorf did. He stole from women and children fleeing the fight, killed their escorts, drove them right into the Lost Woods. Not a one made it out alive.”

“That’s horrible!” said Zelda.

“He’s always been trouble, but eh… he changed. The twin rova treat him like half a god, but it didn’t go to his head until the war,” said Nabooru. “He did what he did to suck up to Hyrule and ten years later he’s still at it, waiting for something to fall out. He’d probably do it all again if it got him another title and the moment’s glory.”

“Or the throne,” said Zelda.

“Maybe, yeah. Who knows what he does with criminals he exiles to the desert?” Nabooru agreed. “But why do you say that? Did he do something?”

“I don’t really know, this is kind of silly,” Zelda began quietly, though was skeptical at the idea of bandits having criminals amongst themselves. “But I had… kind of a dream. A dream that depicted him as dark clouds, descending on Hyrule…”

“You had a vision?”

Zelda’s eyes went wide. “You believe me?!”

Nabooru looked as if she hadn’t decided this herself. “It’s not a real reason to hate Ganondorf, even if he is getting too bold. But dreams wouldn’t be strange, if you’re the Princess. Your queens are supposed to have magic powers, yeah?” She looked conflicted. “If a Gerudo gets visions, they go to the Spirit Temple. They might be a Sage; but it’s not like there’s been one for ages.”

“Huh? What about those two you were talking about? The rova?”

Rova are just temple keepers. They’re good with sorcery, but they’re not the Sage,” explained Nabooru. “But I don’t know so much about spiritual stuff, it’s not really my thing.”

“Okay,” Zelda said. “Well, goodnight, I guess.”

“You go to bed. I don’t want to hear any whining in the morning, you get me?”

Zelda stuck out her tongue. She missed Impa; Impa wasn’t often rude. Nabooru left, throwing up her arms in disgust. She’d barely vanished behind the corner when Zelda climbed out of the cot and started rummaging for her bag, for her books. There was more language to study, and she was happy to have made headway listening to the people around her.

The trouble was, her bag wasn’t where she’d left it. Zelda hadn’t noticed. She tried to assure herself it was probably under the shelf, but no-- it was nowhere to be found.

A white streak of panic shot up her spine. She hadn’t had enough time to hide the Ocarina of Time before leaving, so she’d brought it with her: hidden amongst her belongings. At best, her bag was just lost. At worst, Ganondorf could…

Zelda put that suspicion out of her mind. There was no way Ganondorf could have known that she had it, much less taken it along. Something else must have happened. Only when Zelda got on her hands and knees and looked under the cot did she see a small scrap of folded paper: rare in the fortress. Inside, there was a message.

It was written in Gerudo characters, with ink and reed-brush. The noise Zelda made when she reached for her notes only to remember she’d put them in the bag was very unattractive for a princess. Despite the setback, she focused and did her best to remember the alphabet she’d been studying.

Zelda slowly picked the message out of the note, word by word. She didn’t understand all of them, but it clearly was from Risav, and was about both the events of the day, and Zelda’s bag. She’d taken the bag, Zelda deciphered, and hid it…

Oh.

Zelda peeked out the simple shuttered window. The entrance to the Gerudo Training ground was dark, locked up, unguarded at night.

She considered putting it out of her mind. Surely someone would find her things and return them in the morning. But what if they didn’t? What if she had to tell someone? Zelda was mad at Risav, but not mad enough to get her in trouble. Ganondorf had hurt children before, Zelda now knew. And if someone found the bag, what would stop them from giving it to him anyway?

And her shoulders already ached. Nabooru was just going to have to be disappointed, Zelda thought.

--

A heavy steel grate barred the entrance, but the clearance underneath was just enough for Zelda to scrape out a divot with dirty fingernails. It was too bad to get all sandy just after being clean… but this was the future of Hyrule, Zelda thought, and some sacrifices had to be made.

The darkness inside drew thick around her as Zelda ascended the bricked tunnel stairs. The training ground cut deep into the canyon walls, and she could feel the air chill. No desert heat penetrated here. Still, she did not dare find a light. Zelda couldn’t think of a better ‘I’m here!’ beacon.

Soon, she came to a wide room, perhaps an entrance or trial hall. She just barely see, by slow-burning smoulders: tar-torches with embers in their fittings. Between carved columns, several doors were cut into the walls: each yawning out fearsome stone Lynel’s heads. Zelda cringed; she’d heard of such savage beasts that roamed the lonely badlands and blistering desert wastes. Hopefully, she shuddered, they don’t have one running loose inside.

There wasn’t much choice about which door to take; all but one were locked tight. A leap of hope rose in Zelda’s throat-- if Risav had also crept in here, she wouldn’t have had the proper keys. Meaning, it was possible all she had to do was retrace Risav’s steps where the other girl had picked the locks or opened the doors.

The first room was a pit of sand, broken by boulders. Zelda supposed that in the day, they would dump vicious animals or other foes to fight in the difficult terrain. Presumably no humans but challengers entered, for there were no lights; it was illuminated by thin shafts cuts into the rock: a pale glow from the moon that glowed over the desert. Even so, Zelda didn’t want to take many chances, and ran quickly to the far door. It was jammed, but not locked.

Heavy stone walls muffled sound, but Zelda felt an odd vibration through the ground. Somewhere above, or below this new room, a winch was turning. A very large one. It couldn’t possibly have been anyone awake; Zelda had heard of Gerudo machinery, but hardly had believed in its sophistication. Walking quickly down these new, poorly-lit corridors, Zelda found a labyrinth of ramps and ledges.

An enormous rolling boulder nearly squashed her flat when she turned a corner. Sobbing, Zelda pressed herself into the absolute smallest space she could against the wall; if she was able to flatten or roll up like a scroll, she would have. When she had finally caught her breath and the dizziness of what almost had happened faded, the same stone had rolled around twice. The intervals had been even. Obviously, that was what the winch caught and reset back at the beginning of some terrible obstacle course.

Look twice, she thought to herself in terror. She wondered exactly how many Gerudo simply didn’t make it out of the training grounds.

At least the slab walls made them easy to climb, as easy as the walls on the outside of the fort. And she’d cut her time on those in half, or at least as Nabooru counted it. Her callused fingers found the edges of the stone even in the gloom, and on a near ledge Zelda felt around to find a door that gave when pushed. Perhaps if she were taller or heavier, the climb would have been impossible without rope.

This new space smelled foul, from the piles of refuse, dung and litter that were heaped in it. A wide skylight was cut into the roof and by it Zelda could see an enormous sealed-stone threshold, a door, and a hole in the upper wall directly above it.

Zelda was halfway to the door when she noticed one of the piles move. It snarled, disturbed, and as soon as Zelda saw the pink tongue lolling inside dagger teeth she was off running. The wolfos pounced, its claw barely catching her back leg. It tripped her, however, and she went sailing forward onto her face. It probably hurt; Zelda was too scared to know, and after the stars faded she found herself on the ground kicking at snapping teeth. Her crown for a knife! Screaming, she balled a dirty fist and punched straight up into its soft, unprotected neck. The Wolfos yelped and retreated, apparently staggered in the brainpan. Zelda ran faster than she ever had for the opposite door.

In between strides, in that space of pounding heart and slowed time, Zelda noticed something odd. Why have a door, which could be locked, when an unguarded hole to the very same room existed directly above? Either she was seeing some error that ought not to have been there, or…

With the claws of the Wolfos only a stride behind, Zelda took a flying leap at the wall and practically vaulted up the surface of the raised exit. Her foot scrambled on the stone only a moment before the door itself collapsed on hinges and slammed against the ground-- intended to stun or crush anyone who attempted to open it. It mashed the Wolfos well enough, which yowled and retreated to the shadows to nurse itself in peace. Zelda, who perched on the lip of the hole like an owl, caught her breath long enough to feel an ache below her right eye. Shaken, she stared down into the room. The Wolfos behaved as if it couldn’t see her. Perhaps their eyesight was poor in the dark?

Unwilling to wait any longer, Zelda unhappily limped beyond yet another door, half expecting to find it locked.

This room was lit. A dull red glow from the floor drew Zelda to a long gallery, below which an enormous statue of many faces rested, surrounded by…

“Magma,” Zelda said, incredulous. First, of how anyone could manage to maintain magma without a volcanic vent, second that there were no railings whatsoever to prevent a person from falling in. ‘Sorcery’ could have been the answer to one of those questions, but the other was a mystery as to exactly what the limit was to Gerudo training. The statues below rotated serenely, likely on massive hidden gears. But whatever mechanism they were involved with was undone for the night and likely reset in the morning; the door ahead was not only unlocked, but open. Ignoring the rough, stinging cut on her leg, Zelda ran up the gallery, and with relief saw her small bag leaning against a bolted wooden box. She leaped upon them, and tore through her possessions until she found the Ocarina of Time, still wrapped in her underthings. Still safe and whole.

Then, she remembered. She had to get out. And before the sun rose, or before she was missed. And then, should she escape, she had to sneak back to the open window she had climbed out of, and pretend as if nothing had happened.

Zelda said a bad word, one her father had told her to never, ever repeat.

“Crap!”


--

‘Climb into bed and pretend nothing at all had happened’ was doomed to fail, Zelda had to admit. But she’d tried. She’d even made it all the way back into her room, and fallen asleep. But the trouble was the archery practice. Showing up early in the morning with a black eye and a flesh wound, reflected Zelda, definitely broke her cover.

She didn’t expect there to be such an uproar, though.

It was blended with worry, and more than a little fuss. At first, Zelda couldn’t understand what the enormous problem was while she was bounced around the healing women’s quarters- first to clean and treat her cut leg, then to nurse her black eye. She’d fallen while climbing or taken a tumble before, and it had hardly been an issue.

Then, Zelda remembered that her time in the valley was half-over, and if her father saw her with visible wounds, even healing ones, Hyrule would not spare the Gerudo an ounce of punishment for her sake. Especially when said marks clearly had been made by an attacker, or in flight from one, rather than idle tumbles or childish play.

That’s when the questions began. It wasn’t Nabooru; it was a long chain of healers, nannies, grandmothers, all demanding an explanation of how this had happened. Zelda evaded answering every inquiry, slowly coming to see they were trying to learn from her which among them was responsible for the injuries.

It got so bad, Zelda found her self shoo’d into the Hall of Kings, having refused to talk to every single Gerudo up the chain of seniority. Bad planning, she thought. She should have lied or made up a story, even if the longer they got the worse they got. Now…

She had to be a Princess.

Zelda approached the seat of the Gerudo King with every lesson on protocol at her back. She herself looked a fright, with balm over one eye and a tight bandage on one leg. Each step she took down the center of the room was muffled, footsteps buried in rich furs and skins. The carved sandstone walls arched over her, draped with linen in violet and scarlet to muffle proceedings inside.

She halted squarely the respectable distance in front of the King’s thornwood seat, and did not dare look higher than the floor. Her curtsy-- thank gods-- was impeccable.

“Rise,” the great King rumbled. The gravity of it was laced through with amusement, as if he would play with her before eating her. Zelda lifted her head to face him. She would have obeyed any command from him, if it would save her.

Ganondorf did not wear fine leathers in his own fortress, but loose-fitting trousers and tapered slippers, bare shoulders draped in black and gold spider-silk. Besides that and his array of gleaming gems and gold, he wore nothing above the waist. Zelda conceded that his sisters also wore few clothes in that respect but the contrast of massive size and slabbed muscle was more than Zelda knew what to do with. Her heart sank; for all the man bowed to the Hylian throne, Ganondorf could probably wring her father out like a dishcloth. Above his seat of power, the heads and trophies of dozens of vicious beasts loomed. Zelda could believe the man before her had snapped the neck of each and every one of them with his bare hands.

His eyes burned in a way his sisters’ did not.

“So this is the troublesome child!” said one crone by his left, that Zelda had actually overlooked for a moment when confronted by the sight before her. “Really, she attacked a guest in her kin’s own home with hornets, of all things?”

“Yes, sister,” said her twin, on the other side. She, like the other, leaned on a crooked broomstick like a staff. “What a delightfully cruel, heartless brat! I like this one already!”

Ganondorf held out a hand. “Koume, Kotake. Enough. Let the kid explain why she has been brought before me. I’m sure you’ll have more to say after.”

You already know, thought Zelda. She didn’t show it on her face. “Your Majesty, I’m sorry to report that I hurt myself, last night. It was very clumsy of me, and I promise to be more careful in the future.”

Ganondorf raised an eyebrow. That was a lot of eyebrow to raise. “Is Nabooru not performing her assigned duties correctly?”

“She’s doing very well, Sir,” said Zelda carefully. “She had nothing to do with the incident. I ought to have been asleep when it happened.”

The old woman, Koume of the two, scoffed. “And where did you have to go in the middle of the night, to make a mess of yourself? Without being caught, even!”

“Ought to double the guard,” agreed Kotake.

“Um…”

Zelda felt sweat dribble down her back. She couldn’t crack. But every fib she thought of seemed so frail, before Ganondorf’s piercing gaze. Praying that this wasn’t a dreadful mistake, Zelda looked the great King straight in the eye, and told the truth.

“I was in the Training Grounds,” said Zelda. “I’m sorry for trespassing.”

“Insolent child! What business could you have in there?!” Kotake spat. “You’re not much of a warrior, from the look of you!”

Zelda cringed. “I-I know, Ma’am,” she said. “”But someone took my things, and hid them in there. It wasn’t very far in. I had to get them back. I tried to be quiet.”

Ganondorf leaned forward, and it took all Zelda had to stand her ground, not to appear disrespectful. But, she was curious to find his expression full of interest, rather than outrage. “If you would brave a course designed for only the greatest warriors, rather than simply wait until morning for assistance, then you must have wanted your luggage back very badly.”

“I don’t have any spare underwear,” said Zelda, and it was technically the truth.

He looked at her, he looked through her. Then, the Gerudo king laughed at her, deep and wicked. “Very practical,” he chuckled. “I like the way you think.”

Zelda had really no idea what to make of that. “Thank you, Sir,” she said.

“Even so, if you knew your belongings had been hidden and where, you likely know who hid them,” said Ganondorf, catching her trepidation from the air and crushing it with his words, “for the thief likely had told you herself. I take misdemeanor in my Fortress very seriously.”

“I know who hid them,” confirmed Zelda.

“Then speak!”

“I am sorry, Your Majesty, esteemed rova,” said Zelda. “But I won’t.”

Ganondorf sat up, the smile dissipating like steam. But surprise, not annoyance, replaced it. “Explain yourself,” he demanded, suddenly quite serious. “If you were harmed by any Gerudo, she should experience the full penalty for putting the rest of her people at risk for offending Hyrule.”

“She took my bag because she was angry with me, and there are probably a lot of reasons any Gerudo ought to be angry with me. I’m not offended,” said Zelda carefully. “But even though she took my things, I chose to break into the Training Grounds after her of my own free will. And I got myself hurt doing it, she didn’t do that to me. And I came out all right, so there’s no harm done.”

As Ganondorf seemed to consider this, Zelda spoke further. “You told me when I arrived that if I hurt any Gerudo, I’d get in big trouble. If I tell you her name, she’ll get hurt.” Zelda squeezed her nails into her palms. “Besides, she didn’t get caught like I did, so I shouldn’t snitch on her.”

“It’s inconsequential,” said Ganondorf. “There’s no error I can find in your reasoning. Very well-- I will respect your preference. This thief is lucky to have you as such a merciful enemy.”

Zelda was not sure how to place the look in his eyes. She guessed his face was simply set in a sinister cast. Furthermore, she wasn’t sure if this was the end or if she had permission to leave or not, or how to do so gracefully. Her leg ached, the bindings numbing her foot from standing too long.

“You impress me, kid,” Ganondorf said. “It’s clear you pay at least a shred of attention. I’ll make a deal with you; befitting your station as royalty of Hyrule, you are welcome in my court here. But you honor this one rule: you are not to speak unless spoken to, or unless I myself permit you. Perhaps you will learn what it is to be a vassal, as I am to your King.”

He stated that last fact as if it was a great insult. Not accepting would be an even greater insult. “How am I supposed to ask to speak up, Sir?”

He shrugged and made a noncommittal noise, one that was not terribly evil or intimidating. “Raise your hand, or something. I don’t really care.”

--

Zelda rarely read in bed after that; exhaustion took her almost before she could climb in her cot to sleep. She’d always risen early, but now dragged out of bed at dawn to begin archery exercises, then breakfast. Then Nabooru would snicker at her to beat her time and Zelda would of course have to climb the entire fortress several times in a row. Then the girls would steal her for some massive scavenger hunt, or hide-and-seek, or some other game, and she wouldn’t catch her breath until midday.

In the afternoon, she was held captive in Ganondorf’s court, watching women come and go with concerns, patrol reports, records of spoils, deaths, losses, and missives to review. Unable to comment and unwilling to try, Zelda usually sat cross-legged on the small cushion she had been provided and practiced her own studies. Listening closely, she made headway with the language work Nabooru had given her. It was beginning to prove very functional.

Then, after the evening meal, she spent time spent washing up and nursing fading bruises and sun-rash. Then, a thick sleep that laid her flat the entire night. Zelda suspected that as the Gerudo saw she became less shocked by their every appearance, they increased their efforts to run her limbs down to stubs. Each day felt twice as long as the previous ones, and there was not a moment wasted hiding in the shade. Nabooru thought it was an improvement, but Zelda hadn’t the heart to mumble something rude at the idea.

“Princess Zelda. Give me your advice on this matter.”

Zelda almost made a wide streak in coal-pen in the margin of her book. Her heart fluttered in panic. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty… I… was occupied.”

“Of course,” said Ganondorf. “Twenty styles of dance and cheese varieties, no doubt. Pay attention, now.”

Sheepishly, Zelda nodded at a woebegone, steel-eyed woman. She was tied at the wrists, flanked by two stern guards. A criminal among the Gerudo thieves? “What’s her name? What did she do?”

“She is called Enlamia. She was caught having sold caravan movements and intelligence to independent bandits, Hylians, in exchange for gold.”

Zelda bit her lip. “With respect, Sir… I… She’s of your people, and not mine. Why do you want my word on this? I’m…”

“A child?” Ganondorf scoffed. “I rode into battle only a year older than you are now.”

“I want to hear what she has to say,” Zelda said lamely, not sure what to do with the sudden control of the room. Ganondorf wasn’t the only one watching. The twin rova also sat silently, eyes gleaming.

“It was a mistake,” said Enlamia. “I thought it would make an easier mark. With less risk. I didn’t know it would get Anovu and Lisset killed.”

Zelda thought of the arbiters she had seen at the castle, presiding over land disputes and high trials. She did her best to imitate them. “Could you explain, please? Was doing this part of a plan?”

“By trading with these bandits, they instead of us would take caravans, and risk knights and trouble. Then, by taking them after they’d been tired by the fight, we could easily collect their spoils as well as any bounties they could have had,” said Enlamia. “But they did not keep their promise, and ambushed us as soon as we left. Only I made it back alive.”

“Even so, she is still a traitor to the Gerudo, for getting her company killed and betraying the trust of her position,” said Ganondorf. “Such a crime often demands exile.”

Zelda bit her lip. “If that’s your way, then I shouldn’t try to stop you,” she said. “But it sounds like these other bandits are much worse trouble. What happened to them?”

“Nothing. We killed some,” said Enlamia. “More are out there.”

“What caravan did you say they were supposed to hit?”

“The one between the lake and Castle Town, as it rounded the far edge of the field.”

Zelda folded her hands neatly in her lap, and tried to keep her face even. “I’ll send a letter to my father. They’ll probably be caught and punished,” she said. “I’ll tell them they’re murderers as well as thieves. Hopefully that will make him do something about it.”

“And what of Enlamia?” Ganondorf asked, expectantly. His eyes flashed with impatience.

“Well,” said Zelda slowly, “stealing is still a crime, so if their intent was to steal from caravans second-hand, I can’t endorse it. But Hyrule’s laws don’t apply here…”

“Kid, you’re lengthy beyond bearing. Make your verdict.”

“She’ll remember her mistake for the rest of her life, anyway,” said Zelda. “I don’t think she should be banished. What she did was wrong, but also ended badly. I think if people come to see you as a king that punishes his subjects after they’ve already suffered… it would say you’re unfair.”

Ganondorf considered this. He considered this for a surprisingly long time, a wide pause that filled Zelda with dread. The furrow in his brow was not just for show, he truly was debating her point’s worth. Beyond that she could have offended, Zelda’s skin crawled with the weight of her own words. This woman’s life could very well depend on her judgement, the judgement of a girl.

“I will decide her fate in counsel with the elders, at a later time. For now, see her cell is… comfortable enough,” he said. The guards bowed shallowly, saluting with hands over their breasts, and escorted Enlamia from the hall.

“Kid, listen to me,” said Ganondorf. “Fairness is not real. It is something made up by those that have power. When that power is threatened, the threat is said to be unfair. Fairness is defined by the one who possesses it.”

“But how will you define it?” Zelda said.

He could not restrain a short bark of laughter even as a shadow fell dark over his face. “How, indeed…”

--

Zelda soon learned that Gerudo had structures of power within themselves, as she watched the deliberation proceedings. Day to day, Ganondorf himself was present for much of it, but he spoke surprisingly little amidst the discussion of elder Gerudo, as well as other members of note.

There seemed to be three branches of decision-making, Zelda noticed. One, Ganondorf himself-- though he seemed to distill all other discussion into final verdicts, and represent the whole… the lonely company of traders that had approached him for a mercenary commission had proven that.

The second dagger of power was the elders, and though it included the rova it was not limited to them; a dozen grandmothers, some still active warriors, was the major body of order in the fortress. Their king could command them, but he could not silence their demands.

Last were the elite among the Gerudo. The head of the guard, the stable-mistress, the head-cook and the most distinguished swordswomen were only some of many, and were called in to provide their experience and perspective in counsel. Though Zelda supposed many of the elders also had prior or even still-ongoing professions they too were expert in.

But unless they were all called to assemble, it was only Ganondorf and the rova in the hall. Nabooru didn’t envy Zelda, she said. Impossible to deal with Ganondorf all the time these days, she said. She said she was nothing like him. She even said that if he did one more thing, just one more, she’d leave the fortress.

These were the kind of things a thief could admit to a girl who didn’t belong, and who would be leaving anyway. Who, Zelda knew with a surprising sadness, probably would never see Nabooru again.

Still, Zelda watched, and where she could, she did her best to prevent Ganondorf from doing… Zelda wasn’t sure, if it had little to do with the Triforce. But it was bad.

Sometimes, though, that meant a little lingering where she ought not to have been.

“But, my king! You have come so far! And our studies have been fruitful!“

Zelda closed her eyes and focused attention to cleanly understand the words. With study, a month of listening, and a knack for language Zelda could make out the meaning of one of the rova sisters. She couldn’t speak, but she had learned to hear. It helped that the old woman begged slowly.

“You will not fight me on this,” said Ganondorf warningly. “I have made my decision. And you both will respect it.”

It was harder to peel through his sound; his voice was deeper and more resonant than any of the women’s. Especially through the stone wall. But Zelda concentrated as Ganondorf continued.

“If I wish to conduct court correctly, I will. Perfecting the Iron Knuckle is not worth another Gerudo life. Our arrangement is over. If the other elders banish Enlamia, then you get your prize. But I do not think they will do so willingly.”

“Great Ganondorf, you know we work in your name. All we do is for the sake of your rise to power. That our King, with our sorcery, achieved mastery of this world--”

“Then I will find another way,” said Ganondorf. “Or do you believe “greatness” is treachery and bewitched warriors?”

“You must be sick, child,” said one of the witches, that Zelda learned had been mothers to him. “It is not treachery to take advantage of our capabilities. We stand with you as we always have.”

“Do not condescend to me. If you truly stand on my side, you would know my wishes may change. And I wish you to never complete the Iron Knuckle!”

Zelda did not know what to do with the doubt, the hatred in his words. If his own trusted advisers were surprised at this decision, she thought, then he must have been very set on the goal, whatever it was.

“But it is foolish to think that this one who got her sisters killed would be any use to you. Better that her capacity for failure is removed, rather than her face shame or exile! What then, if she dissents--”

“Is that how you’d empower me?” said Ganondorf hotly, almost mockingly. “To strip my own down to nothing? All warriors may fail. Would you bewitch them all? And when the others learn their sisters are nothing more than husks, bewitch the dissenters, to complete my set of silent daughters?”

“If it would lead to victory.”

“I have thought on this,” snarled Ganondorf. “And such a cost on the Gerudo is not victory.”

Zelda cowered, feeling his voice rumble through the stones. Her father had often raised his tone at his retainers. But if he’d borne violence, it had never felt like the outrage of the earth. It was terrible and frightening, but Zelda preferred this Ganondorf in voice and fury, she thought, to the one that leered in poison.

“It saddens us to see you lose your nerve, great one. Fear has always been your greatest struggle. You concern yourself too closely with the pale child and her taunts these days. She has greater hold on your opinion and destiny than you know.”

“As if either of you have concerned yourself with any child in a century or two.”

“We raised you, didn’t we?”

And Ganondorf laughed, more a bitter growl than amusement. “At times, I wonder.”

“Very well. We will not be altering our vote at the trial. But if you do, perhaps later there will be Hylian candidates to finish this project. It is too late for you to turn back on your plans, Exalted King.”

“I understand,” Ganondorf said.

Zelda could hear something else he meant when he said that.

“But if I have the strength to attain all I desire, it will not be an army of warriors, or a sacrifice of my people, or even your magic. It will be my own will, my own worthiness, and my own might, that will make me a God.”

He said this like he believed it. Like he had to believe it. The howling of the wind in the night, and the desolation of his kingdom beyond, bit Zelda’s bones. She wondered what it would be like to be called ‘great.’ She wondered what it would be like to not have control of much despite that.

She didn’t really have to wonder long. Zelda was a Princess. She knew why she fashioned her dreams to be prophecies from the heavens. It would solve many problems, she thought, if she too was a god.

--

It was because of this event, and her spying, that Zelda devised a series of tests for Ganondorf. The purpose of them was to discern, partially, if he could ever be a decent person. The secondary purpose was to decide if she had been wrong and if she was right feeling fairly bad for her behavior towards him in the past.

Zelda, with some measure of authority, called them “The is this man possibly sort of alright after all? tests.”

Like many things, she didn’t explain any of this to Nabooru. The name, she admitted, could use some work. Zelda clutched the book she’d chosen as her prop. Unfortunately, like any good test, it involved a fair bit of risk.

She knocked on the doorway. Ganondorf’s quarters did not have a door, merely a curtain that blocked the view. Zelda’s own cell was different from most other fortress interiors in that way. Still, Ganondorf had his own lodging, near the crest of the inner keep, in contrast to his sisters.

It wasn’t until Ganondorf actually appeared in the high doorframe that Zelda began to regret her scheme. The man seemed curious that she’d come, from what she could tell of him looming far above her. His presence almost seemed ordinary, though he was definitely too large to be a regular sort of person.

“What do you want?” he said, and Zelda felt the unscripted nature of the words. They weren’t as sleek as when he formed them before others.

Zelda did her best to smile; to be terribly polite, she curtsied. “Good afternoon, Sir,” she said. “I… um, wanted to ask a question.”

“Then ask it, kid, and don’t waste my time,” he grumbled. “And enough of that flouncing nonsense, I could not care less for it.”

“All right,” Zelda said evenly. “I was wondering if you had any books.”

Ganondorf bent down to look at her. He had to bend embarrassingly far. Zelda compared it to the man descending a flight of stairs. “Books.”

“Yes. To read,” elaborated Zelda.

“I assumed you had your own.”

“I have three books,” Zelda continued, “because I didn’t bring any luggage. And I read them a month ago.”

“And you wait weeks before pestering anyone about it?” Ganondorf asked suspiciously.

Zelda tried to seem very reasonable. “Well, I hadn’t read them a hundred times before now. Besides, what could Nabooru do about it, steal a book?”

“Yes,” Ganondorf said.

He was completely serious, of course. Zelda couldn’t resist it; it wasn’t very princess-like, but she let out an ugh of frustration. It was a long, drawn-out ugh. It was an ugh that only a twelve-year-old could make. It really was more like “uUUUuuughhhHHHHHH.

Only positive results so far, she thought. He had not turned her away or done anything terribly unfair, violent, cruel, or rude. On the other hand, Ganondorf, King of the Gerudo was really, really good at just being sort of generally difficult.

“You have a book there. Give it to me,” Ganondorf demanded, utterly unimpressed with her displeasure. He barely waited for Zelda to offer it before snatching it out of her hand. He straightened to his feet, pulling it high above her head, and opened it to read. Ganondorf was very quiet for several minutes, as he skimmed the pages. Then he made a face like he’d smelled something exceptionally terrible.

(Or maybe only mildly terrible, Zelda thought, for such a large nose likely was sensitive to that sort of thing.)

“What a waste of time,” Ganondorf uttered under his breath, continuing to thumb through the pages as if regarding a particularly nasty accident. “You read this?”

“It’s for my studies,” Zelda said. “I don’t actually like protocol much; I was sent with the texts on the lessons I’m not really so great at.”

“No,” Ganondorf grumbled. “What age are you, ten?”

“Twelve,” corrected Zelda. “Is it really so remarkable to read well at my age?”

“What is remarkable is that an adult gave you this, expecting… what?” He scoffed, sneering at her tutor kilometers away. “No, you come here with me. That is what you’re here for, kid?”

Zelda nodded. But she followed him into his quarters as if she wasn’t really awake. What was he doing? Was he actually…

Ganondorf’s rooms, from what little she could see, were actually not much more luxurious than accommodations of the other Gerudo, though he did have his own bed. Zelda was sure someone could pitch a pavillion on that bed; it felt like the size of the whole castle green. The stone walls were shrouded in cloth and furs, but what stood out were the books.

Few other Gerudo possessed more than one book, if they read Hylian at all. They all tended to swap amongst each other, and Zelda hadn’t been able to get any of them to part with a single tome. Ganondorf, however, hoarded the things like a dragon. Nearly every wall that did not bear a fixture or utility was home to a shelf of books. Zelda had a feeling some of them were books that certainly never would have been permitted in the castle library. A few, in a closed iron-barred alcove, felt to seethe with an evil chill.

Ganondorf picked through a tamer shelf, his voice simply not meant for muttering. Zelda had to bite her lip to prevent herself from asking him to hurry up; it wouldn’t do to let him know she thought his quarters counted as enemy territory. He asked her a question. “Do you like animals?”

“I guess,” said Zelda, because she didn’t care to find out what would happen if she said ‘no.’

He nearly dropped a thick volume on her. It was titled Baleful Bestiary, vol. 1. Zelda barely had time to catch Animalia Complex, and A Folio On the Nature and Behavior of Hunting Creatures.

“I… I think this is enough,” said Zelda, unsure of what she had just instigated.

“Enough? This is an afternoon’s read,” said Ganondorf wryly.

And then, Zelda was scared. She was not scared of what he could do to her, that he was far larger than her, or that she was trespassing in his quarters. She was scared of the kind of man that not only freely gave her the sort of books her tutors withheld, but considered it light skimming for a young girl.

Not because she disagreed-- the opposite. She didn’t want to agree with him. She was afraid because she was not liking the results of this test.

“You’ll bother me again, if you finish these,” the man muttered. “What topic of your studies have you applied yourself most to, kid?”

“I like history,” said Zelda.

“I shudder at the thought,” Ganondorf said. He then rummaged on a top shelf not for books, but tightly rolled scrolls. He shoved three into the crook of Zelda’s arm. Then he piled her with Annals of the Ancient World, and Thesis on The State of a Divided Hyrule. “And you cannot read that without first understanding this.” He added a heavy tome, Fealty and Codes Threreof, as Pertaining to Dissemination of the Skyloftian Colonial Element, which Zelda suspected was so thick only for the ability to display the title fully on the spine, in multiple rows.

Zelda’s arms creaked.

“You’re very generous,” said Zelda, trying to be polite. “I… I think this will be enough.”

“It will be sufficient,” said Ganondorf, “but not ‘enough’. In return, I will keep your… book, such as it is. I expect good conversation on the contents of these in court, starting tomorrow.”

“I understand.”

For once, when Zelda said ‘I understand,’ she meant no more and no less than what the words implied.

He looked down at her venomously. “Understand that if you damage even a page in these books, no political scandal will stand between me and your deserving punishment.”

“I do.”

“Excellent. Now, get out of my rooms. Do not come here again until you are to return these to me.”

Wobbling under the load, Zelda staggered through his curtain, stumbled down the hall, and felt her way down the first stairwell back to the fortress proper. She nearly choked before she felt safe to exhale. Then she got angry.

It was a strange sort of angry.

Barring that last bit, she thought, that was not how she expected the test to go at all! And now she had not a lack of books, but too many books! They all looked interesting (well, except the last, really big one…), if difficult. That only seemed to make things worse.

Greedy men didn’t give stuff away! Not even if they were stingy about getting it back. And they certainly didn’t take little girls seriously! What was Ganondorf trying to do?

Teetering step by step, Zelda fumed back to her rooms. That was it! He must have figured out what I was up to, somehow, and acted as normal as possible to mess it up!

No, no, she redacted. That was silly, even in her head. He was probably evil, but he wasn’t a mind reader. He had seemed genuine enough, for once.

Finally, she stacked the tomes on the little table allotted to her. First, by subject. Then, by order she planned to read them. Lastly, by size, with Fealty and Codes forming the solid base of a considerable structure.

She felt like crying. There was really no choice, but to consider the results. She hadn’t wanted Ganondorf to pass “The Is this man possibly sort of alright after all? test.” But after feeling extremely poorly about herself about many other things, the idea that it really was a delusion that she felt evil from this man, just as her father said…

It was almost too much to bear. If she was a fraud, then what about her besides being Princess was true? Besides terrible protocol manuals and having to go back to no more archery or fun with her friends, forever?

“I like animals,” mumbled Zelda. She opened Baleful Bestiary and tried not to cry on it.

--

To her shame, Ganondorf passed the next test as well. And the next. Zelda didn’t reveal to anyone her secret despair, for no matter how strongly she felt the terrible potential of Ganondorf, the less and less it seemed truly real.

When he made his case for the emancipation of Enlamia, against the furious twin rova before the other elders, Zelda almost admired him. In some ways, this was a relief. To feel the stare of a demon on her was exhausting; for him to bear only a man’s eyes, the eyes of any other Gerudo, was light on her nerves. But it came with a heavy price.

You are not a god, she thought more and more. You are only a girl, who really knew very little outside her castle. And you still don’t know anything you haven’t seen with your own waking eyes.

It was in the path of these thoughts, after sleepless cover-to-cover nights, that Zelda had a nightmare.

Nabooru shook her awake. Starting with that she was in bed, Zelda became aware of things backwards, until finally she stopped shaking. Her throat hurt.

“What’s the screaming for?” Nabooru tried to play it off, but even she couldn’t help but show concern. Zelda had never seen her before without her gems, with her long hair in braids for sleeping. Even so, on her off hand she clutched a scimitar. Screaming could mean an attacker, Zelda supposed groggily.

“Nothing,” she said. “I’m sorry, it was nothing.”

“I don’t believe that for a second. What was it? A lizard?’”

Zelda sighed and rubbed her eyes. “No, really. It was just a bad dream. You don’t have to worry about it.”

“Did you have another vision?” asked Nabooru.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “I mean… I don’t think that… I’m not sure they’re visions anymore. I thought the dream I had meant something but… I also thought a lot of stupid things.”

Nabooru wasn’t appeased by her assurance. “Look, whatever you are, you’re not stupid. Stupid kids might be easy to handle. You? You’re a pain.” She paused. “There may not be such a thing as a stupid kid. All kids are giant pains.”

“Yes, thanks,” said Zelda grumpily. “I’ll just go back to sleep.”

Nabooru squatted by the side of her cot, not to be denied. “If you feel it’s an omen, you should take it seriously. Visions are the kind of magic horse crap that only gets worse, not better.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Where do you think ‘only one king born every century’ comes from?”

Sheepishly, Zelda attempted to hide her face in her thin sheet. “Oh.”

“I just want to know if it’s something that’s really important,” said Nabooru. “I don’t know if it’s different for Hylian sages or queens or whatever else gets them, but if a Spirit Sage has a vision, somebody has to be told right away.”

“Ugh, fine,” said Zelda. She closed her eyes, and tried to remember. That was so odd about these, she knew, that she could always recall them, beyond what any ordinary dream had in detail. They did not fade like mist on waking. They instead seemed to become more concrete.

Zelda began. “Well, I was looking at the castle. From afar. But not as if I was flying, as if I was on a horse… I was riding away, I think. I couldn’t see the town… There were dark clouds, which… I saw before.”

“They’re Ganondorf up to no good, right?”

“I’m not sure anymore,” said Zelda. “I thought they were dark clouds. But… I got a better look at them and they turned into smoke. It was rising out of the castle, the castle was burning inside…”

Zelda couldn’t tell if Nabooru looked interested or worried. “So what, Ganondorf’s going to set your towers on fire?”

“I don’t know. It might not even mean anything,” said Zelda. “Or I might not be able to know what it means…

“Or maybe it means that your future’s something that can change, yeah?” Nabooru said. “That can’t be the part that made you cry.”

“I don’t know if any of it was really scary. I didn’t even know I yelled,” Zelda whispered earnestly. “Really, please don’t worry about it… There was some other stuff with a light from the forest and a boy and a fairy, but that’s not important to you. That hasn’t changed.”

“Well, there’s got to be something important,” said Nabooru.

Zelda pinched her eyes shut. “You know, yes, I think something else was different.” She placed herself in the scene again. “The wind… it was blowing.”

“From where?”

“What do you mean, ‘from where’?” said Zelda. “From wherever wind comes from.”

“Are you joking? What direction was the wind blowing from?”

“Why does that matter?”

“What’s it to you?”

Zelda sighed, miserable and exhausted, wanting nothing more than to sink back to sleep. “I guess I was to the south of the castle, from where I was looking… so that would mean the wind may have been blowing from west to east. I didn’t really notice because I didn’t think it was important…”

“I don’t know if it is,” said Nabooru, hushed, as if she were her own audience. “But Hylian princess has some kind of Hylian vision about Ganondorf, Ganondorf starts acting strange, then she has some other vision that also changes right after he makes a call I’ve never seen him make before. I don’t know what you have going on here, kid, but something’s clearly happening.”

“What do you mean? He’s acting weird?”

“Please, Koume and Kotake are both his minions and everybody knows it. They’ve practically worshiped the ground he walked on his whole life. That’s how he gets around the council of Elders whenever he wants something, you see?” said Nabooru. “But a few days ago, that whole thing with Enlamia? That’s the first time he’s ever disagreed with them, and they still haven’t come around to his side. And it wasn’t even over something that got him anything! He’s banished someone for much less.”

Zelda prudently kept her mouth shut about her snooping. “So how he’s acting… it’s not normal for him?”

“Ganondorf always knows what he wants,” said Nabooru. “But you, something you’re doing, he’s confused about it. But if it means he’s at odds with the rova and does something right for once, I’m not complaining. Keep doing it.”

“And what are you going to do?”

Zelda’s question caught Nabooru in the middle of a giant yawn, one the woman didn’t even attempt to hide. “Ask around. Maybe someone else knows more of how to approach these visions you have.”

“You still really think they’re real?”

Nabooru halted in the door. She’d looked tired. But when she turned around, framed by the low morning moon, her smile was as wide and devilish as ever.

“You’re a princess, yeah? You have a whole country that believes in you. And when I met you, so did you. Is that different now?”

--

Nabooru did not meet her in the morning. Thankfully, Zelda had grown used to the routine and pre-dawn rituals and even her more recent augmentations to said schedule. She salved up her face, tied back her hair, dressed and ran up to the archery range for her exercises. It was awkward and silent without Nabooru’s pleasant (if tart) company. Perhaps she was investigating early, Zelda thought, and would be back by lunch to tell what she’d learned.

Zelda decided to spend her midmorning reading. But Nabooru never returned. She snuck herself some flatcakes, and read further through the afternoon, waiting for court to begin, where she could tell someone without any fuss. But court did not convene that day, to her surprise. And her suspicion.

She was still unable to corner anyone of proper importance at supper, when she found most of the head table hadn’t attended. This was not unusual; the elders had their own business to work at, and Ganondorf often was absent or preoccupied with this-or-that, sorcery-or-mission. Still, Zelda had hoped for a convenient opening to report that she was very, very unsupervised.

Seeing no other option, Zelda made very certain to have finished every single book and scroll stacked on her shelf. She wrapped them carefully in a sling fashioned of her own tabard, hefted them over one shoulder, and hiked across the fortress in the evening to Ganondorf’s quarters.

Nayru, let him be in, she thought. For all that I don’t want to see him, let him be in. She knocked loudly on the wooden doorframe. Silence matted the air before she heard heavy footsteps behind the cloth screen. When he swept the curtain back, not leisurely but clad in boiled leather and armed for the road, Zelda rethought the sigh of relief she’d previously exhaled.

“I finished your books,” she said as evenly as she could manage. “I’m sorry if I bothered you.”

He stared down at her, as if he was not sure what she’d said, or where the books were. “That was surprisingly fast,” he said, “Are you sure you understood it all in a week and a half, kid?”

Zelda didn’t have time for this. “Look here, sir-- you told me not to come back until I finished the books. I really need to talk to you. So I finished the books. And here I am.” She paused. “Also, I’m very, very sorry for what the fealty and tribute codes do to you, I didn’t know. I’ll do something about it when I get home.”

“You can’t simply ‘do something about it.’ It’s been your law for over five hundred years.”

“Sir, I’ve been Princess for twelve years, I’ll figure something out,” said Zelda. “But please, I need to speak to you.”

If she hadn’t practiced talking to him in court, she’d never have had the nerve. Even then, Zelda’s knuckles clenched white and tense. But-- thank gods-- Ganondorf shrugged his enormous shoulders and held the curtain open for her. She cautiously walked inside, underneath his bridge of an elbow. “I leave for your lands in the morning, kid. This had better be truly important.” He gestured to a table already piled with thick texts. “Leave the books there. For your sake, I hope there are not dog-ears in them.”

Zelda slung her burden down as quickly as she could without harming the cargo, then quietly turned to Ganondorf. His thick arms crossed before his chest, authoritative, and as he leered down them Zelda felt as though he was leaning over the wall of a fort. “There’s not, Sir,” she said. Then she took a deep breath. “Nabooru’s missing.”

“Not unexpected. I’ve known she was traitorous for years,” Ganondorf said, words barbed with scorn. “I’m surprised she didn’t leave earlier. But perhaps she didn’t see placing you in her care as enough of an insult.”

“No, I don’t think she left on her own,” said Zelda. “She’s angry with you, she’s not a traitor to anybody. She thinks you are hard and cruel. She hasn’t forgiven you for what you did to become friends with my father.”

Ganondorf snarled at her, and while she flinched, Zelda resolved to stand firm. “I do not think you should comment on that further, Hylian Princess.”

“We’re not talking about my father. He’s another bad man for another bad day,” said Zelda. “Nabooru didn’t leave on her own because she also said you used to be different. And, that how you’ve been acting only recently gives her hope that maybe you can be different again. She doesn’t give up on people that easily. If she can stand somebody like me who hated her, anyway.”

“I wonder if you would be so quick to defend her, or any Gerudo, if she hadn’t been your nanny,” said Ganondorf. But while his words scorched Zelda’s ears, the strangeness in his tone, from his argument with the rova, was back. It unbalanced his speech, slipped him in accent further away from the immaculate courtly tone Zelda knew from him.

“Before Nabooru went missing, I told her about a dream I had, and she was sure it was some sort of vision or an omen,” said Zelda. “She told me she would investigate it. But then she didn’t turn up this morning. I know that your Sages spend time at the Spirit Temple, and there’s only two people she could have gone to, if she wanted to know more.”

“You mean to blame Koume and Kotake for her disappearance.”

“I don’t know,” Zelda said. “But I do know that they weren’t at supper either. So if Nabooru looked for them at the Spirit Temple, or if they took her, they probably are still there.”

Ganondorf still seemed doubtful. It crept up on Zelda that she hadn’t any real evidence of her assertions. But something about the universe seemed true when she said it. His expression still was jagged with spite. Her father never listened to anything he said.

“They’re probably still there,” said Zelda, weighing her next, heavy words, “with their Iron Knuckle.”

The clouds burst.

“Where did you hear that?” he roared, eyes flashing in turmoil-- but Zelda was prepared this time, had seen more of him this time. What infernal rage he manifested was steeped deeply in fear, a raw terror. It was more alarming to Zelda now that his clear intelligence and brilliance could ebb so quickly to a cornered beast. Zelda realized that he was afraid of her.

“I heard it from you, Sir,” Zelda said, “I heard what happened between you and the rova. I think you did the right thing. I just don’t want Nabooru to replace Enlamia for whatever it is you decided to stop doing.”

“You should have known better than to pry,” he said, between his teeth. “I’m sure you armed that wasp’s nest with just as poor judgement.”

Zelda was just too tired to be polite. “Oh Din! That was only one time! I wish I had never done it! I’m sorry!” she said. “But you said that Iron Knuckle wasn’t worth more Gerudo lives. Just because you’re too scared to go and be a good king and face that you did something bad, doesn’t mean that Nabooru should suffer! Even if you hate her, even if she doesn’t like you!”

“You have no right to define the worth of a king, when your father-”

“My father isn’t here! You are here! And you won’t even check to see if I’m right! My father didn’t even tell me half the things he did, and I barely understand now the half I do know! He didn’t tell me because he doesn’t care what happens to other people he can’t see. And he doesn’t see me! He doesn’t listen to me, he’d rather treat me like I was crazy!”

Zelda cried. She cried the way a bottle burst when thrown against a stone floor, quick to shatter, impossible to undo, sharp-edged and ruinous to the contents. Her disastrous tears stung raw, sunburned cheeks. Sobs hurt to breathe past, choking on words she couldn’t take back between her smeared lips. “I know I’m right, I know it this time,” she said, almost unintelligible, a croak into her wet palms. “ But I’m just a girl.”

“Very well. Weep.”

Ganondorf’s words cut through her sobs, weighty and full of command. When Zelda blinked through blurry eyes, she was startled to see his expression didn’t really match it. He spoke like a general at arms, but the grim set of his mouth and the discomfort in his eyes suggested that he may have somehow set something on fire and was unsure to put it out. “You’re an insufferable, conceited brat. But if you had known more than what your precious kingdom would believe about me and my people, then maybe you would have dropped something a little heavier upon me.”

“My father doesn’t need any excuse to,” said Zelda quietly. “Please… just go help Nabooru. I’m begging you.”

And she did beg. She begged on her hands and knees, lower than any member of the royal family had ever bowed to a Gerudo before.

No one spoke in the room. No one answered. When Zelda looked up, Ganondorf was gone. Faintly, she could hear the bellow of a horse in the valley below, and the thunder of hooves. But in what direction they rode, Zelda couldn’t discern. Zelda desperately, deeply wanted to hope for the best. But she also knew, in her miserable mind, that she couldn’t take that chance. She took deep breaths, gagging on her own sobs.

Being a Princess, Zelda had come to rely on many things. She relied on her Kingdom to function properly. She relied on developing into a marriageable woman, when her childhood was over. She relied on her handmaid and her guards to keep her safe. She relied on a chain of command to see that problems were addressed at any given level they could arise in. But here, she had ascended that chain of command until even at the top there was no force that could reliably help her. She was stuck.

Or, she would have been stuck if she had not been Zelda. She gave herself ten, twenty more minutes. Then, still shaking, she wiped her face clean with her skirts and resolved that if no one else was going to help Nabooru, it would just have to be her. There was no getting around it. She walked into the doorway.

“Ouch!”

Zelda literally walked into the doorway; the open exit became solid to the touch as she approached. Reaching out, Zelda discovered a barely-visible wall had been placed just before the privacy screen, a faint red crystal barrier, blending in with the rich linen curtain. She knew better than to bang on it.

She imagined in dread that no matter what Ganondorf was doing at the moment, she had revealed that she knew his plans. He obviously had used evil sorcery to secure the door until he returned. There were no other exits to the room. Zelda began feeling the masonry of the walls; if there was so much as a single loose stone, she was prepared to knock a hole through solid brick to escape.

Thankfully, Zelda didn’t have to go so far as that. When her fingers pried at Ganondorf’s rough-wood bookshelves, an unexpected draft breathed from behind one. He had blocked off a window! With a little pushing, some creativity, and a loud crash, the shelf fell forward, scattering volumes everywhere. But the old reed shutter behind it was there-- and incredibly unwarded. Perhaps Ganondorf had forgotten about it in his haste. Perhaps he hadn’t believed her strong enough to budge several hundred heavy books. But Zelda knew what a lever was, thank-you, and had no problem using his iron coal-pan to achieve her goal. She also used it as a club, to shatter the long-fused shutter and fill the room with moonlight. The moon was huge, that night, and settled upon everything like a silver cloak.

Zelda stripped the outrageously wide sheets off Ganondorf’s outrageously wide bed. They made for an excellent rappelling line down the side of the Fortress, until finally there was solid ground within reach. She ran quickly across the rooftop until she found the raised canopy over her own rooms, and hung by her fingernails to reach the bottom of the open shutter with her tiptoes. She dropped into her own room with a tumble, and sat down to think.

The Spirit Temple was in the desert, and that was beyond the far gate. Presumably, it was much too far to travel to on foot in time. Sneaking past the watch was out of the question; the night was too clear and bright to leave any shadows.

Zelda made a plan. It was not a very good plan, she admitted. But it was the best plan she could make. Then, Zelda gathered all the supplies she had. The remnants of her dinner and the kitchen knife she’d eaten it with, two waterskins, her lamp and a full flask of oil, her small bow and full quiver of arrows-- real arrows. She did not have a compass or any other sort of orienteering equipment, but Zelda hoped she could manage. Finally, Zelda packed the Ocarina of Time in the bottom of her satchel. Leaving that behind was not an option.

Carefully, Zelda wrapped her arms and hands how Impa had once shown her. The spare bandages from her healed gash were clean enough and taut enough to protect her. Then, after stripping off her dress, she firmly laced her breastband and tied her hair back. She wore her good shoes and the loose trousers she’d borrowed from Jenavalle under her smock, which she belted over to keep fast. Finally, she folded her coif like a kerchief and stuffed her hair inside. It was dark in her room without a flame, but in the small polished-tin mirror Zelda saw her own face. She made a serious expression, all red rash toasted tan on the outside, like the crust of bread. “I look kind of cool,” she said, mostly to herself. “And I’m going to do what princesses do.”

Then, she pulled herself out the window, and climbed down to the roof of the level below. With proper precautions, her hands didn’t hurt a bit. Wary of the guard on the ground, Zelda ran quickly across the slate slabs and clay-fired mounting that held them in place, to drop behind the shadow of the fort itself. Then, safely out of sight, Zelda sprinted to the stables, by the archery range.

Three horses were already saddled, intended for border patrols before dawn. They munched hay sedately in separate stalls; Zelda picked the closest one. She didn’t know enough to discern the fastest or best horse at a glance, but she rubbed over its grey coat with her hands, patted its back, and adjusted its leathers for her short legs. She offered water, and it slurped greedily-- as if it knew it wouldn’t drink until it returned.

Then, in the darkness and quiet of the tall-roofed stable, Zelda fit her foot into the stirrup and heaved herself over its back. Her thigh burned; without a mounting block, it was like scaling a building. But Zelda scaled buildings. And she could ride a horse as well as any noble-born child of her age.

Zelda dug her heels in. “Go!” And, despite its fear, the horse did, shooting out from the barn and into the night like an arrow. It was smaller but swifter than any palfrey of Hyrule, but Zelda was still tiny atop it as it galloped all-legs. She felt as if she were riding a deer. The sound of hooves and her rapid descent downhill attracted attention. Zelda clenched and tightened the reins as she turned the corner and kicked again into a full sprint. A guard tried to bar her way, but leaped aside as Zelda did not slow-- yelling curses. Someone rang the alarm bell.

But the gate was in sight.

It looked twice as tall as it normally did.

An arrow bit the dirt at her heels. Please, Wind-gods, make this horse fly!

Eyes watering at the speed, Zelda leaned forward, and jumped the horse over the gate. The horse pushed off and rose, and to her astonishment seemed to catch a breath of fortune or grace and continued to climb higher. The steel bolts of the portcullis passed narrowly under her. She passed level with the sentries. They stared, forgot to shoot at her. Zelda had no idea what they said as the animal’s back feet knocked the top of the gate.

Then she was on the ground, gravity hitting her in a jolt and a lash of dirt. “Go!” she yelled again, and raced off into the desert. The pale back of her horse glowed under the moon, white as the sand torn beneath it. Zelda perched on its withers vibrated with nerves.

--

Riding on for an hour, Zelda hurried, fearing chase. When no riders appeared behind her, she slowed. The tired horse gasped, surprisingly cool for its exertion-- an adaptation to parch and heat, Zelda supposed. She trotted on then for another hour, then walked under the bleak and arid sands. Theoretically, the waymarkers guided her to the temple. But pole after pole passed her by and she felt no closer. The chill wind picked up, threw sand in her face, and bit her exposed ears.

Zelda did not want to contemplate being stuck in the desert after sunrise, and anxiously plodded on. Up the dunes. Down the dunes. Up the dunes. Down the dunes. Mile after mile of barren land crawled onward, under a sky so brilliant with stars that Zelda spent as much time looking up as forward.

She didn’t actually know where the temple was, Zelda thought, she only knew supposedly how to find it. Stride after stride, Zelda felt more and more that this had again been hubris, blind and foolish faith, and that she had made a terrible mistake. Her dread mounted-- Ganondorf had been right to doubt her. She hadn’t any proof of her suspicions. But they seemed so real, so true and right, that she was completely sure of them. But here, with not a soul but the horse around to see her, they didn’t seem to be getting her anywhere.

Her entire life, Zelda had never been truly alone, with nothing to rely on but her own wit, nerve, strength. No, someone always slept only in one building over, or one floor above, or was watching from the shadows.

“Impa?”

No, of course not. Not here.

Zelda tried not to panic. The horse under her felt her tension, though, and became skittish, trotting at only the slightest brush. Then, after the span of what could have been the breadth of Hyrule, it shied.

“Ah! Don’t do that!” She knew better than to scream on a horse, but Zelda shortened the reins and tried to be soothing. “It’s okay! It’s all right, what is so scary…?”

She looked up, squinting into the sand and the wind. The moon reached its zenith in the sky, a second daylight. There was a beacon in the distance. It was a cold one-- winking like a distant mirror. Unhappily, the horse picked up speed toward it at Zelda’s urging, and she cupped one hand over her eyes to see the shape against the endless landscape. Something was wrong with that, she thought; it should have reflected the moon, should have stood out against the brightly lit blanket of dunes.

Only when it drew closer did Zelda notice that the figure moved too quickly over the sand to be real, and cast no shadow.

“Ghost!”

Or so Zelda guessed; she had never seen a real Poe before, or any other kind of spirit. But she knew that to catch it it usually meant great ruin, or great riches-- nothing in between. The spectre’s eyes glowed white as the shift it wore, as brightly as the lantern it carried. It beckoned.

She didn’t know how, but Zelda knew to follow it. Watching the ghost hurt her eyes, like staring too long at a fire or a difficult pattern in a modelbook, but Zelda didn’t risk blinking. The spooked horse had no opinion, save to run, and obliged her. It obliged her deeper into the desert, into a swirl of sand and dust that left Zelda coughing and squinting. She pulled her smock over her nose, furrowing her brows and trying not to think that the barely-visible glow in front her was leading her in circles, there was simply no way she was going forward or towards any goal. In the gritty storm, all landmarks vanished save for ruins; broken crates, old stonework, all swallowed up by the hungry sand as soon as they were out of sight.

Zelda kept pace as closely as she could, but soon could no longer bear it. She pinched her eyes shut and rode blind, feeling the sting on her eyebrows and the horrible grains scratch her ears and even into her hair despite her coif.

Then, the sharp-toothed wind died down. Not all at once; each gust came less and less violently, until a gulf of calm was all that remained. Zelda cracked one eyelid open, feeling a crust of dirt give way and slough off of her face. Then she dared to look higher than the horse’s neck.

She pulled on the reins and stopped.

Before her, a shadow loomed over a desert basin, carved directly into a great mesa. Both titanic hands were open, deceptively peaceful, but her chiseled gaze sliced the horizon to ribbons. Time and wear had gouged deep wounds out of her side and her scaled mantle, but before Zelda was the Sand Goddess, a colossus in stone to shame the finest monuments of Hyrule. Below her crossed legs, a great arch door into the Spirit Temple sat plain and clear-- and lit.

Zelda dismounted, rolled up her stirrup leathers, and with a little reaching pulled the bridle out of the horse’s thirsty mouth. Bundling it under the saddle’s flaps, she let the beast loose to drink at a nearby pool, a natural well. Her own legs ached, but Zelda refused to be sore. Or tired. There wasn’t time for a nap! She drank a hesitant gulp from a waterskin to try and wake up.

Then, she took her bow, drew an arrow, and carefully walked into the temple. If lamps were lit, then someone was present, and she doubted it was Nabooru. Zelda didn’t waste time reading inscriptions on looming serpent statues; she ascended some low stairs, and faced the figure pacing heavily back and forth on the red carpet, between two stone guardians.

“Ganondorf!”

He jumped, whirling around to face her immediately. One hand froze halfway to his sword, the other released a slight glow of magic ash. Actual shock lingered on his face, more than Zelda expected was on hers. “You! How… why are you here?”

“You first, please,” said Zelda.

“This is my people’s Temple,” said Ganondorf hotly. “I have far more right to be here than you-- and you yourself demanded I investigate here.”

“I didn’t know if you’d actually show up,” said Zelda. “You never said you would.”

Ganondorf considered this. “That is true,” he admitted bitterly. “Honestly, I did not expect to see you further tonight, Princess.”

“Well, after locking me in your room, I can see why not,” said Zelda. “I’m sorry for the mess I made in there. I broke your shutter. And a bookshelf. And bent a coal-pan. And possibly tore your sheets.”

Ganondorf scoffed. “All replaceable. And how did you appear here?”

“I jumped the gate, and rode,” said Zelda, aim still trained on the wide target of his chest. “The horse is okay,” she added.

“You should not have been able to get here overland, without a guide.”

“A ghost helped me.”

He looked down her bow sight. “Put that away,” he demanded. “I did not draw my own weapons, you cannot expect to speak to me in fairness and peace faced with an arrow.”

“Fair is the advantage of the one who possesses it,” Zelda said. “Peaceful or not, we’re alone out here, and you’re still my arch-nemesis.”

“Arch-...” He began, then exploded into laughter. Real laughter, not cruel laughter-- deep, rich, but jagged as it scraped over rocks to get to her ears. A moment of frustration passed before Zelda understood Ganondorf was not laughing at her, but because of her.

“Yet, you still sought my assistance, revealed your true self to me in weakness and despair,” he said, “but you do not stay humbled long. My barrier, circumvented. My walls, broken. You stole one of my horses, and evaded every daughter and sister I have, risking everything. You found your way across the haunted wasteland, and it has killed many in the ages it has existed. You burst into my temple, put an arrow to my neck as if I could not burn you to cinders… simply because I am your enemy and you have the benefit of drawing first.”

He had to pause, for one last dark chuckle. It was a form of punctuation.

“You see what is in your way, and you remove it. All that you do is done in cold blood, without a second thought-- no hesitation whatsoever.” He grinned, and it was vicious, proud. “I like that about you, kid.”

Zelda thought about this. She had very good reasons for being a vandal and a thief. It was enough to lower her bow. He was right, that she felt no shame. “I just thought it was all the right thing to do.”

“Yes, and you also seem to let your guard down to anyone who praises you,” Ganondorf said wryly, ignoring how Zelda blew an uncourteous raspberry. “If you’re done with threats, there’s something you will do for me.”

“Why would I do something for you?”

“You had no trouble crying to me to solve your problems,” said Ganondorf. “I think my request is trivial, by comparison. That is, if you wish to save Nabooru.”

“So you really believe me?” said Zelda, cringing in humiliation at thoughts of her prior tantrum.

Ganondorf shrugged, leaning on the nearby stone guardian. “I will discover how you could possibly know, but your suspicions were accurate-- at least where the rova are concerned. They will not answer my summons, and have fortified the temple against me.” His lip peeled over bared teeth in contempt. “I seem to have upset them.”

Fortified? Zelda had not considered that there was more to the interior than this inner shrine. But as she looked more closely at the walls, both of them seemed to have been blocked off. One exitway was bricked up imperfectly, the other secured with an enormous stone slab that surely couldn’t have been put in the way by ordinary means. “They locked you out?”

“Hardly,” said Ganondorf. “I control every lock, every gate within this place,” said Ganondorf. “No, they’ve set more sophisticated barriers.”

He stooped to pick up a loose stone mortar block, one that Zelda could see was wrenched from the bottom of the far wall. It had to be wider than her whole body. He cast the brick at that slab. A spray of inferno and rime first froze the sandstone brittle, then exploded it in a gout of smoke. Compared to that, the wall Ganondorf had left on his own room seemed friendly, passive.

“Oh…” gasped Zelda, looking at the smouldering rubble. “That does look like a problem. Why can’t you just blast a hole around the door instead? And make a new door?”

Ganondorf merely smiled, as if he liked that suggestion. “I could easily,” he said. “But would you also destroy the Temple of Time, in your city?”

“I suppose not,” said Zelda. “I didn’t know you were so interested in architecture, though.”

“I’ve read a book or two,” he dismissed. “No, what I mean is that while the rova will not have noticed a brick’s destruction, they will notice if I begin tearing apart the temple they are sworn to protect. And they will either flee to avoid me, or attack.”

Zelda finally put her arrow back in the small quiver she had, perplexed. “But you’re big as a horse and you have enough evil magic to pulverize maybe a thousand grandmas,” she said. “I’m sure you’d win.”

“I am more powerful than they ever were,” Ganondorf agreed. “But I’d never learn what they were up to. And they will spirit whatever prize they’ve taken away, before facing me. Do not underestimate them, kid-- they may be ancient, but they also have skill from such long lives. Possibly even a way to disarm me, if they fear as well as revere me. The twin rova are no foes to take lightly, and I would be a fool to risk being caught by surprise.”

“That’s very forward-thinking of you,” admitted Zelda. “But if they’re so difficult, what do you expect me to do about it?”

“You did come here with suspicion of the rova and intentions to rescue Nabooru, correct? You already expect yourself to do something about it,” Ganondorf stated. “I know that this barrier is controlled by something beyond that wall, but if I brought the temple down, the rova would learn I was here. I need you to get on your hands and knees and crawl through that hole, and take care of whatever is on the other side.”

Zelda noticed the hole he meant, where he’d removed the stone block from the base of the wall. It was dark, and she wanted nothing to do with it. But she supposed there were rooms on the other side. “That sounds easy,” she said.

“It won’t be. There is a gauntlet of traps and ravenous beasts beyond, waiting to kill you,” said Ganondorf. “But, good luck.”

“What?!”

“Enough. You navigated the Training Grounds well, but it occurs to me that because you did so unsupervised, you did not have to obtain any key or open any lock,” said Ganondorf. He snapped his thick fingers, and in her feet Zelda could feel the sliding of stone and the vibration of many latches. “All the doors are open, now. Go, before it’s noticed.”

Zelda nodded, slung her bow on her back, and crept over to the hole. She gulped. “Are you sure they won’t notice right away?” she asked, kneeling down to fit inside the tunnel.

“Sure enough,” said Ganondorf. “They do not know I am here, and they both have this same power; either one will assume the other did it. But they will not be fooled for long. Go!”

His command still came with barbed urgency; it swatted her down the hole like a crop. But as she crawled, nervous, the wall’s other side inched close before her. Zelda peeked her nose out. It all seemed clear. Silently, she pulled herself out, and flattened herself against the stone.

Huge bats slept on the ceiling. Zelda didn’t want to see them wake up. And-- right in the middle of everything, a much less-friendly stone sentinel, surrounded by active whirling blades.

Zelda looked at this. She looked at this, and thought of Ganondorf, and then of her own castle and temples in Hyrule, and further thought, isn’t this a bit too much interest in architecture? All the same, she crept quietly past the first row of live steel, up the stairs, and came to two doors, surrounded by yet more slipshod afterthought brick. Recognizing it as the same sort of patch-job as had been done in the prior foyer, Zelda crept around the obvious trap and dropped to the ground, feeling the stone for loose mortar. The logic being that if the other doors were truly important, then why hadn’t anyone made an effort to brick them up?

Zelda’s hands slid inward with a crash as a heavy piece of masonry budged and then ground forward. She froze, looked up at the bats. Nothing. Hurrying, she pulled her feet close out of the path of the oncoming metal blades, and pushed the stone brick out like a cork, and it popped free of the other side. Sure enough, there was a door beyond the barrier, one she scrambled up the steps to open almost without looking.

Loose spidersilk and dusty stone greeted her in the dark tunnel beyond; the shaft extended up into the shadows, rustling legs and cobwebbed detritus. Carefully, Zelda pulled out her small lamp, and lit the oil with the tiny flint in the base. A handful of bulbous skulltula scuttled over the rough brick walls, above which a tiny lip of a ledge could be seen. If there had once been a ladder, it had been removed. In the dim firelight., Zelda aimed her bow. She thanked Din for slow-moving targets. Then she shot each spider down, and cringed at their fallen bodies and gelatinous guts. Zelda was loathe to re-use the arrows, but she only had twenty.

The tall climb was sticky with webs. Zelda touched it with her wrapped hands. “Ew….” she seethed, trying not to imagine the tiny spiders or dead things she might touch. Repressing a gag, she snuffed and bundled her lamp, and then dug her boots into the unfinished wall. There was good traction and grip, but Zelda had to deliberately put out of her mind the consequences for falling.

When she finally pulled up over the ledge, Zelda did not expect to see two hunched, scaly figures by the far door. This room was cut into a natural cavern in the mesa, and had become home to far more sophisticated denizens than spiders and bats. Lizalfos! Zelda had read about them, in Baleful Bestiary, though they weren’t really animals-- simply a scattered and hostile sort of people, unwilling to negotiate. Like Moblins and other goblins, they flocked to the strongest figures that could protect them.

Unfortunately, they noticed her. Zelda’s bow was out faster than she was sure she could aim, but they had swords! She could shoot one, she thought, but the other would get too close, and--

“Stop!” She yelled, before the reptilian warriors could advance further. “The Great Ganondorf sent me! If you get any closer… he’ll be angry at you!”

Amazingly, they halted, confused. Zelda wasn’t sure if she seemed scary enough to be one of Ganondorf’s followers. She certainly didn’t have size, or strength, or very sharp teeth… yet the man had said he’d liked her anyway.

“And worse, I’ll be angry at you! I’m the Princess of Hyrule, and a big bully!” she yelled, trying to channel what in the world the Gerudo King saw in her. “I might just shoot you both right now, and send my whole Hylian army to clean up the mess!”

The Lizalfos gaped, genuinely concerned now, clutched their weapons tightly. “Drop it!” Zelda said, pulling the bowstring tighter. They threw their swords, shields, a bombchu, and their dignity on the ground. “Now… go on! Get out of here! And if you tell anybody I was here… I’ll make my personal Sheikah assassin eat your children!”

They fled, screaming-- and leaped down the shaft behind her to hide. Zelda exhaled a sigh of relief, and composed herself. Then she dug through what had been left behind. The blades were too heavy for her, and she knew nothing about swordplay. Each shield was too large for her to properly carry. The bombchu was portable, though, and she put it in her bag with some care-- she’d heard that these were used in a dangerous game in the market square, and she theoretically knew how to play with one… but it still was armed with deadly explosives. To find it here, Zelda thought, was a rare treasure.

And yet, no wisdom could have let her pass through the door unhumbled. Before her, a great cavernous chamber stretched in all directions, below the high balcony she’d emerged from. On every wall, in script taller than she was, Gerudo rites and law were chiseled and burned into the stone, lit perpetually by long-smouldering braisers of tar ash and magical fuel.

A great statue loomed out of the high shadows, carved from the heart of the mesa. Perhaps it was a smaller copy of the enormous facade outside, but all the same it was no less grand. The large one too, at a time, may have been painted vividly with copper-green and iron-red, the intricate khol of the goddess’ eyes painted in black lead. Her skin was plain, brown stone: Gerudo and cut from the same earth as the desert. A fearsome serpent crowned the Sand Goddess, as deadly as the woman was patient and stern.

“She’s beautiful,” whispered Zelda, leaning over the railing for a better look. Below, there was an area for worship, or perhaps an altar for ritual. But there was nothing that looked like it had to do with a magic barrier. Other doors, perhaps-- but Ganondorf would have given her better directions if it meant crossing to the other side of the temple…

Unwilling to turn her back on the magnificent sculpture, Zelda stepped up the nearby stairs in reverse, admiring it all the way out the high door. Until, of course, she almost got sliced badly by an automatic blade in the next room. “Ahaugh!” She hopped aside in panic. Another whirling dervish was flying at her from the other direction; Zelda leaped on top of a risen ridge within the room.

Something hot scorched her behind. “Ouch!” Zelda had read about beamos, unmanned magical turrets that attacked all that moved before them. But nobody in Hyrule really had a use for such violent constructs. Zelda bit back tears from the pain, and ran for the far door before it could catch her again-- a second beamos’ fire struck the floor behind her as she slammed the slate door safely shut. Shivering, she slid down the stone in exhaustion. She really had to talk to Ganondorf about this temple.

And yet, the hall before her was normal. Unsettlingly so, Zelda thought, carefully walking the featureless corridor, ascending yet more steps. By her figures she had to be significantly above ground. Her boots trod into worn carpet, similar to the main foyer far below and behind her, zigzagging past evenly-spaced wall sconces. They burned without smoke, but with a vaguely spicy incense: unsettling, as no one but her was here. She hoped.

Short-lived hope. Someone sat before her, at the other end of a long, wide hall. Beyond pillars and dimly burning oil and perfume. The smell was thickest here, almost a haze. Zelda felt light-headed. But the figure-- she almost thought it was Ganondorf. But it was not massive enough, though larger than her and clad in thick steel. It was unmoving upon a stone throne, hefting an axe taller than a horse’s withers.

Imbedded in the armor’s silver gauntlets was a vivid red crystal, a glint of something brighter than ruby-- magic and probably what Ganondorf had detected, Zelda knew, though she wasn’t sure how. Or how to pry the gauntlets off the statue.

The statue stood.

Zelda dove, tumbling behind a nearby column, praying she hadn’t been seen. She closed her eyes, listened. Heavy footsteps. One boot. Armor upon armor. Another boot. Zelda pulled an arrow, but found herself paralyzed. One boot. Another boot.

The boots stopped. They had been close. Zelda strained to hear the sentinel breathe.

The stone directly above her head shattered, shivered like fired clay. Zelda screamed, blinded by the dust, imagining the strike only a hand’s breadth lower. She flew out from the rubble, nearly tripping over a second cleave; it hewed deep into the floor. Zelda’s first arrow missed-- panic. The next, once safely across the room, struck square. And bounced off the solid backplate. The foe turned to face her slowly, as if sleepwalking. Then it charged at a jog at her, battleaxe raised.

The gait was wide-hipped and familiar. A Gerudo?

In the low light, Zelda suddenly could see past the armor, into the truth to peel the edges off like tape. She knew who was locked inside. “Nabooru!”

But if Nabooru heard, she did not recognize her own name. The axe swept forward with inhuman strength, and if Zelda hadn’t ducked her head would have come off with the same force. She leaped forward, rolled on the ground like this same woman had once shown her, and sprang off running. The world pinched in at the edges, passing more slowly than she knew her hammering heart measured it. Zelda assumed that the un-Nabooru was right behind her, but as she looked back it stared at the far wall, searching. Confused? It didn’t think with the cleverness of a real person, despite who was stuck in it.

Zelda peeled behind another pillar, breathing hard, and forced herself to think.

“Perfecting the Iron Knuckle is not worth another Gerudo life.”

“Would you bewitch them all, then? And when the others learn their sisters are nothing more than husks, bewitch the dissenters, to complete my set of silent daughters?”

And Zelda knew.

“Ganondorf… you couldn’t have…”

But he had. Zelda expected to hate him. But she found she could only cry instead, in horror, and grief at the shame she’d heard in him… but had not understood. Somehow it made her angrier at him, yet all at once pity him.

She definitely hated the twin rova, though.

Ganondorf had come here to bury his mistakes. If he had thought to save Nabooru at all, the secret had to die with her to be kept. And she too, Zelda knew, had been trapped for knowing the truth.

Heavy footsteps clanked over carpet and stone again. There had to be a way to save Nabooru now. Zelda dug in her bag, which had been greatly disturbed by the excitement. Water, no. She considered the dinner knife. It felt smaller than a splinter. Mashed dinner, no… Ocarina of Time? Useless. Zelda pulled out the bombchu and began winding it-- racing the Iron Knuckle’s approach. She only had one, she thought. She’d have to use it wisely.

Swinging out from behind the column, Zelda opened her eyes wide to take in her options. The Iron Knuckle noticed her, charging fiercely. Crouching to set the charge, Zelda ducked out of the way and braced against the near wall for the blast.

The bombchu scurried on clockwork wheels, skittering over rubble and up a nearby pillar. The key turned. And after the spring wound down, the flint inside struck black powder. The explosion shook the floor, and with a rumble half the ceiling came down upon Zelda and the Iron Knuckle both. Zelda felt stones rain down on her, but heard larger clanks and crashes as steel armor deflected greater wreckage.

Still, Zelda coughed and gagged on the dust, huddling in the shelter of one of the few remaining columns. Then she ran, waving away at the murk and gloom. “Nabooru!” With all her strength, she threw jagged hunks of rock and clay off of the buried shape. Digging in a frenzy, Zelda revealed armor intact, but the wearer stunned. The heavy plates seemed to have been good protection, dents notwithstanding. Zelda pulled the helm off and threw it aside. Nabooru’s long hair fanned out, matted and tangled. She slept, but her eyes remained open-- brimming with horror. Zelda picked at the armor buckles, managed to remove pauldrons and cuirass. The gauntlets, too, but the explosion had smashed the gems upon them… along with their magical element too, Zelda supposed.

“Nabooru, wake up!” Zelda dumped the remains of her second waterskin on the woman’s face. Amazingly, it seemed to work; Zelda vaguely knew mirrors, sunlight, and water could often foil witches’ spells, but had never seen a curse in person.

Nabooru’s first words were in her own language, too slurred for Zelda to understand. Then, budging her bruised body, she tried again. Still in Gerudo, “How long was I asleep?”

“Maybe a day,” Zelda said, in Hylian. “But you weren’t out. The rova turned you into an evil soldier of darkness.”

She winced, trying to swat Zelda off of her. But she consented to using the princess as a crutch to stand, dragging her feet in the heavy iron boots. “Are you sure you’re all right?” asked Zelda. “I’m sorry if I hurt you… no inside bleeding or…?”

“I’m fine, kid,” Nabooru said, switching languages. Then she considered. “But walk with me, we’re getting out of here.”

For someone who was fine, Nabooru leaned on Zelda an awful lot.

“What did they do to you?” said Zelda quietly. “Do you remember?”

“You know more than me,” Nabooru groaned. “But this room… it’s full of that smell…”

It must have been part of a ritual. The room seemed longer, with Nabooru using her back. But finally, they reached the far door, hobbled up the stairs, and with a sigh of relief there was a hatch, and Zelda felt wind behind it. It was a tight squeeze for Nabooru, but the night air was a relief for them both.

“Hold on, just wait a moment, let me breathe,” said Nabooru. She slumped by a shallow rise, one Zelda recognized as part of the great exterior statue’s palm. They had emerged onto one of its hands! Zelda squinted into the dark, looking for the horse she’d left. It wasn’t there.

It wasn’t there, and events down below had no intention of waiting.

Zelda had only just begun trying to figure out how to get down from the platform when the door below was widened with a shuddering crash. A large shape skidded backwards, trailing flames and wisps of magic. Ganondorf’s arms were still raised, still holding a sorcerous wall fast against a barrage of sharp ice and torrid flame that left streaks of glass at his feet. Zelda gasped and stumbled backwards, terrified at both the assault and the brutal prodigy required to bear the brunt of its force.

“We have not had to discipline you for many years, great King,” cried a voice that Zelda only vaguely recognized, over the sparks and ash. The figure that emerged from the temple’s darkness was taller than any ordinary person could have been, yet not in natural height as Ganondorf boasted-- in illusory form and enfleshed magic. She burned and chilled, burying Ganondorf’s defense. She spoke with the voice of two witches at once-- only in the Gerudo language.

The rova! But how had they noticed an intruder…?

Zelda remembered she had exploded a fair bit of the room prior. They must have assumed it had been Ganondorf, when they found him.

“Oops,” Zelda whispered.

Ganondorf laughed, harsh elements scattering on his will like rain. “Yes, not since you swore fealty to me, and me alone… something I see fit to remind you of!”

Zelda’s fear made his tongue easier to understand, or her studies had paid off-- each syllable shuddered her bones. The shrug of sorcery he made cast away sparks, and from each hand he wielded a nexus of thunder and flame, terrible bolts that withered the landscape. The rova could not seem to repel them, and instead evaded every shot, replying with lances of ice and comets in return. “You promised greatness, that our King would not only be god among the Gerudo, but transcend the heavens as well! That our legacy would not die! And we are loyal to our hopes for you, Great King… and you shrink in childish hesitation from them now!”

Farore divine, Zelda thought, it’s a wizard shouting contest. Only warlocks and their kind could somehow think augmenting ordinary arguments with meteors and thunderbolts was any way to solve problems.

“You are close! You are so close! Is your great fate really so fragile? You have come too far to turn back!”

Ganondorf did not answer. Zelda did not know why; the man resented weakness, resented hesitation, was all-too-bloodthirsty to punish those who failed or betrayed him. His own resistance slowed, stopped-- they locked eyes. Zelda felt the blood drain from her skin. She’d been seen! Even from far away, In the glare of magic and burning stone, the surprise and… something on his face cut her mind. Was it concern?

The rova seized upon it. No matter the raw might of their king, his distraction opened up a new path of attack. They mired Ganondorf, sinking him into the ground. he roared, trying to lift himself free. Despite his power, the hungry portal began to pull him in. Soon his hands were claimed, while he wrestled in vain.

“Nabooru! We have to get out of here!” Zelda said, suddenly considering what would happen if Ganondorf could not best his teachers. “Nabooru?”

The woman had passed out, too exhausted to move.

Zelda clenched her eyes, hid her face.

So long, she had spent watching from afar. Through this window, as if what was on the other side was only vaguely real. She could turn her back at any moment, and bear nothing more than memory.

Even behind burning eyelids, Zelda could not look away. She knew-- she knew that Ganondorf was a killer and a villain and a thief. And that if he lived, he would seek her for what she’d learned. And she knew that she hated him.

She had hated him.

But she couldn’t just let him… die?

A death, lost forever as the man with evil eyes. That was the greatness the rova had been promised from him. The one they’d force him to deliver, if he was no longer willing.

He’d die, Zelda would kill him by letting it happen, waiting like a shadow behind glass. Zelda reached for an arrow. She had to believe things could be different, she thought. She knew she’d been wrong about him. But it would mean nothing if he amounted only to darkness. If there was even the slightest chance, that there were no demons…

Zelda drew, aligned her sight between the rovas’ shoulderblades. She’d never fired at a real person before. She’d met them, and she’d stab them in the back. Some part of her felt sick-- it wasn’t fair. But it had to be this way, she told herself. “Fair is my advantage,” she whispered, weaker than water.

But how will you define it?

Belief in him, when those who raised him do not. Belief in him, when Nabooru was right to doubt him. Belief in him, when Hyrule never did. Because you have so very much at his expense, and at this moment, away from everything, and everyone,

he only

has

this.

Zelda shot. Zelda shot, and it lit up the desert: a white flash that left sunspots behind her eyelids. What accident or trickery had interfered, it had been effective. The rova shrieked, burst into two once more. Shattered, their spell released Ganondorf-- and he did not waste even a breath before leaping up to drag them to earth. He snapped their broom-steeds in two angry fists.

“Do not think I will overlook this treachery because you mothered me,” he said acidly. “We will discuss the consequences… later.”

He banished them. They vanished. It was over. Enough so, that Ganondorf conjured Zelda and Nabooru just as he’d sent the rova away. “And what about discretion was difficult to understand?”

“I’m sorry! They turned Nabooru into a heavily armored zombie and glued their barrier keys or whatever to her hands,” Zelda said. “Also, your temple is a deathtrap, I scared some Lizalfos, and I think I blew up a room--”

“You think?”

“I definitely blew up a room,” Zelda corrected. “But really, please! Nabooru needs a doctor right away!”

Ganondorf groaned, smoothed back his short hair, and surveyed the damage. “Fine. Stand away,” he grunted, and vanished Nabooru, too.

“I hope you didn’t put her with the rova.”

“Where I put the rova is none of your business,” said Ganondorf. “But suffice it to say, it is not with the fortress’ healers.”

Zelda shivered in the cold desert air. The moon sank behind the colossus, a bright halo that cast its shadow onto them both. “What happens now?” said Zelda, almost under her breath.

“You return to Hyrule in two days,” said Ganondorf. “And you are awake long past curfew, a dozen miles away from the fortress, unsupervised with explosives.”

“You’re a grown-up, you were supervising,” said Zelda. “How about this? If you don’t tell my father anything, I won’t say anything about your evil magic soldier experiments to anyone-- so long as you agree to never do them ever again.”

“You drive a hard bargain, Princess,” Ganondorf said wryly.

“The alternative is killing me to keep me quiet, which I hope you weren’t going to do,” said Zelda. “And my father would be very angry if you did that.”

Ganondorf paused. Zelda could barely see his eyes at night, but she could feel his stare upon her. “I hadn’t thought of it,” he said, and Zelda hoped he wasn’t lying. “But, if it pleases you-- fine. Your bruises may tell the story more clearly than I would have.”

His arm moved in the dark, and with a sweeping gesture he summoned his enormous horse, saddled and fresh. Zelda had previously suspected it wasn’t normal, but its eyes glowed faintly red against the stars, made of demon-fire. Still, it did not seem an unpleasant creature. Ganondorf even gave it an affectionate pat for its prompt service. “Get on,” he commanded. Zelda decided not to mention the incongruence of riding when he seemed to be able to vanish people places.

Zelda looked up at the horse’s distant back. Then she sort of began hopping to reach the stirrup. “It’s too high, sir,” she said. “Could you… lift me?”

He reached down, and with his hands that had snapped solid wood only minutes earlier, scooped her up and placed her forward on the horse’s saddle. His touch was surprisingly gentle, and spoke of long experience metering it. He moved as if she weighed nothing.

Ganondorf buried one palm in horsehair and lifted off the ground by a stirrup. He settled in the saddle behind her, pushing her up against the pommel. Zelda froze; she had never been so close to him before, but as they set off into the pale desert she had to relax to stay seated. The trunks of his arms on either side closed her in, and she’d hardly ever felt so far off the ground. Her legs splayed wide to cling to the horse’s sides.

The canter they rode at did not slow, or stop; it rolled up and down for strides and strides, tireless and smooth over the sand. Zelda yawned, finally realizing the hour. She felt her scrapes and bruises keenly, but foggy sleep settled thickly over her eyes. Leaning back into the broad chest behind her was as warm as her own bed, and she did not remember further details of that night.

--

On the ride back to Hyrule Castle, Zelda also rode with Ganondorf. She’d considered asking to ride alone, but after debate she conceded that it would look better to her father if they’d visibly appeared to have made up. Initially, Zelda had wanted to be with Nabooru, but she still was recovering-- which was too bad. Still, she had promised to send many letters and presents. Saying goodbye to her new friends hadn’t been difficult, but it had been a little depressing. As had check-ups with the healers and washing her good tabard and dress. The fabric felt stiff over her shoulders, the cuffs too-narrow, hem unwieldy.

It seemed more real once they passed the bridge, and she could smell the wind off of fields of grass.

“This may not be right of me to say, but I will miss the fortress,” said Zelda sadly. “I mean, it sounds ridiculous, going back to the castle and the luxury, but… No one listens to me there.”

“It does,” replied Ganondorf. “No one listens to you in my fortress, either.”

“It’s a different kind of not-listening,” Zelda replied, irritated. “I don’t want you to listen to me all the time. But I don’t get treated like a tiny baby or a doll, at least.”

Ganondorf did not reply to that. Zelda rolled her eyes. To him, she was almost doll-sized.

“They treat boys like the people they hope they’ll be. But I don’t know what they see in my future.”

“Someone who cares inordinately much about seating arrangements,” Ganondorf suggested.

“I want to puke in my protocol teacher’s shoes.”

“A good start, but lacking in ambition and dignity.”

Zelda looked behind. And to the side. The other riders trailed them. “Sir? I need to talk to you about something serious.”

“I’m sure,” Ganondorf said, as if he really wasn’t.

“I know you’re after the Triforce.”

The words froze him like a winter evening, straightened his back. Zelda could feel him tighten the reins around her. “You have an inconvenient habit of knowing things you shouldn’t.”

It was not satisfaction to hear him confirm it. “I’m going to tell you right now; it’s not a good idea. You shouldn’t do it. You know history even better than I do.”

“I know it well enough to remember that your kind holds the golden power above every other people in this land,” said Ganondorf, “and that if you impede me, or are a neutral party in its keeping, you are my enemy.”

“Nobody should have it,” said Zelda. “That’s why it’s locked up.”

“It does not matter if you physically can touch it, or not. Your people built the temple it hides in. Your people gave away its keys. Your people possess the esteem that comes with its legacy, and the bounty it bestows on your lands. It is yours, and you have it. Locks or no.”

Zelda considered this. “That’s true,” she said. “But if you get the Triforce are you going to do what we did with it?”

Ganondorf grumbled, something in his own language under his breath. Zelda didn’t need to know exactly what, only that it betrayed he’d been thinking about this. It was the kind of grumble a stoic man getting stitches might make.

“My father fears that, you know. That your two positions might be reversed. It would never happen, without the interference of the Gods. He may sound polite, but he’s just as scared of you as I was. And that’s even when he thinks you can’t win.”

Ganondorf leaned down in her ear, as if he felt the riders behind them closer than she did. “I will win,” he said. “I have gone too far in this to reconsider.”

“I don’t mean for you to turn back,” said Zelda. “But I already know you’re considering new directions. Which is good, because I’d hate to see more Iron Knuckles and so would you, I think.”

“So, what is your proposition, kid?”

“Trying to take the Triforce is a very bad idea. Whole wars and things have happened that way,” Zelda said. “But if we can plan it out properly, think of a really good wish that doesn’t end up with things in chaos, I think it might be right for you to use it for a while. I mean… I’m the Princess of Hyrule and part of the Royal Family. And if I say it’s not fair to keep the Triforce all to ourselves and never let anyone else have a turn, it’s not fair.”

“You do understand that you suggest treason against your own father?”

“You’re only in trouble if you get caught,” said Zelda.

Ganondorf was silent for a very long time. Then, he laughed. It shook Zelda’s entire body, through where they had contact in the saddle. Letting this earthquake walk around and pretend to be a man, who thought that was even remotely normal?

“I expect to speak more about this later,” he said. “But for now… I have nothing but your word that you’ll act in good faith. And Hylian faith is cheap.”

Zelda thought.

She dug in her bag. “I know it doesn’t look like much, but I actually have something sort of neat with me.”

From the tightly-packed satchel, Zelda produced a bundle of her underthings. “Wait, hold on,” she said. Then, from inside that, she pulled a small instrument carved from a single, opaque crystal. It was as blue as the sky above, but did not dull in the bright sunlight. “This is the Ocarina of Time. It’s a special treasure of the Royal Family. I want you to have it.”

“This is… one of the keys required to open the Temple of Time,” said Ganondorf. “Why would you have this?”

“I wanted to keep it safe, from you,” Zelda admitted. “But, I changed my mind. You should take it. Every settled people of Hyrule was given a key to the sealed chamber, as an offering of peace, and so that none could open the door without the blessing of all of the others… every people but the Gerudo. I’m sorry it’s late.”

Ganondorf slowly shifted the reins to one hand, and then reached around to take her gift. It was tiny in his grasp, and he held it as if it was an egg. “You know that with this, I don’t need you.”

“You didn’t need me, anyway,” said Zelda. “But you asked for a reason to trust me, so here’s my reason: I’m going to have to trust you, now. By giving this to you, I’m already in trouble with my father. There’s no advantage I hold that could stop you.”

“That’s a fairly sophisticated reason,” said Ganondorf.

“I’m twelve, not five,” said Zelda. “Besides, I think the magic rock it’s carved out of actually came from the desert, long ago. So it probably wasn’t really ours in the first place. It’s supposed to have special time powers, but I don’t know how to make it work.”

Zelda packed up her bag again, teetering on the far edge of her decision, what she had just done.

“Now, my family can’t open the door and use the Triforce without you,” she said, almost to assure herself more than to sell the idea to Ganondorf. “I hope it will be kept in capable hands.”

Yet, something in her felt sure the moment she heard his words in her ear.

“There are no more capable hands,” he said, and it felt like a promise.

Hyrule Castle Town grew in the distance, from a speck to a granite fist that thrust out of the field, nestled between mountains. Zelda sighed, and thought of other things. How to explain to Impa what she’d learned. Whom she could speak freely to about what had happened. How to charm her father.

Zelda found that she didn’t care. The part of herself that cared had blown away, and she did not need it anymore.

She thought of more useful things.

Like the earliest possible time to slip away, and how to get into the Records Archive without being caught. There was a fealty code there that deserved some strongly-worded commentary, and she’d been practicing her handwriting for the occasion.