Zelda woke to the clear and radiant light of dawn as she struggled to free herself from the clutches of a dark nightmare. Her heart beat in her throat, and her skin was as cold as ice. Something monstrous had been reaching for her, and she had almost been caught.
As she waited for her breaths to slow, Zelda stared at the embroidery on the canopy above her bed. The twirling lines of silver thread depicted the familiar motif of the winged sky goddess Hylia, the protector of the royal family and, if the legends could be believed, Zelda's own ancestor.
May the Goddess grant me wisdom, Zelda recited in her mind. She had been taught to speak these words to herself when she was agitated. Above all things, a princess must be calm and composed, graceful and gracious.
Zelda kicked the quilt away. With her twentieth birthday soon approaching, she was expected to attend every meeting of her father's council and court, and today she would need to prepare for both. It made no sense for her to lie in bed and wait for her maids. She had appeals to consider and correspondence to complete, and she may as well get started early.
After washing her face in the small bathroom adjoining her private chamber, Zelda sat in front of her mirror and began to wind her hair into the braids that would support her cornet. The headpiece was small and unadorned, but after a full day of attending to the cares of her kingdom she would feel its weight, and if she did not twist her hair tightly it would come askew.
Zelda set the cornet into her braids, its silver reflecting a pale light she hoped would hide the dark shadows under her eyes. Her coronation ceremony was scheduled to be held in a few short weeks. It would then be announced that she would take her place on Hyrule's throne as the equal of her father Daphnes, who had married into the royal family when her mother was scarcely older than she was now. It had been her mother who had named her Zelda, supposedly after the princess in the old legends.
How happy I would be if I were a princess in a fairy tale, Zelda thought, allowing herself a moment to indulge in a fantasy of leaving the castle on her horse, a sword at her waist and her hair streaming behind her. She bit her lip to stifle a grin as she loosened two strands of hair at her temples, giving herself long sidelocks. The golden strands softened the lines of her cheeks and chin, but her mouth pulled into a frown. Her reflection had triggered a faint memory, something in the back of her mind that she couldn't quite recall.
Zelda shook her head and stood. She stepped into the split skirt that had been laid out for her and tightened its sash around her waist. She then slipped a thin chemise over her head before pulling on a long satin tunic. After latching a heavy necklace around her collarbones, she affixed a short gauze mantle to its joints, allowing it to drape over her shoulders like a cape. Zelda found the outfit ostentatious and uncomfortable, but at least it was preferable to the gown she would wear at the evening court. She glanced at the elbow-length gloves that remained on her dressing table before reaching instead for a stoppered inkwell, which she carefully placed into a leather satchel that was already heavy with paper. The light in her room was growing stronger, and she was anxious to be off before her maids entered and waylaid her with their elaborate rituals of plucking and polishing and coloring and concealing.
Instead of exiting into the hallway, Zelda pushed aside a tapestry hanging in the antechamber of her quarters. She ran her hand along the stone wall underneath it, pressing her palm against the pressure points that revealed the hinges of a secret door, which opened with a barely perceptible click.
Zelda let the fabric of the tapestry fall behind her as she stepped into the dark passage. She knew its twists and turns by heart, and she did not hesitate as she made her way down a set of stairs whose edges had been worn smooth with use. Running her fingers along the wall as she walked, she descended to the second floor of the castle and emerged from behind a life-sized portrait of one of Hyrule's past queens, a woman with rich dark hair and stern face.
She smoothed her tunic and shook the hem of her skirt before turning the corner into the corridor that ran in front of the library. The ancient room was one of her favorite places in the castle, and the mornings when she could begin her day there were precious to her.
When she stepped into the hallway, Zelda's breath caught in her throat. As she watched a dark shadow emerge from the library, she was suddenly struck with the full force of the horror that had visited her during the night. For one terrible moment, she was back in her nightmare, running as fast as she could from a tidal wave of pure black oil. There was a creature rising from the torrent, an enormous monster with burning eyes that threatened to spark the viscous liquid into an inferno.
Zelda blinked and returned to reality. Her vision cleared, and she realized that she recognized the figure standing in the hallway in front of her – it was Ganondorf, an emissary from the tribe that clung to the edges of the vast western desert. He had apparently noticed her as well, for he stood silently in one of the bays between the windows overlooking the castle gardens. He did not move as his gaze met her own, and his eyes were as golden as the sunlight that fell to the floor at his feet.
Bow, she wanted to say to him. Bow before Hyrule's princess.
Even as the compulsion wrapped itself around her mind like fingers grasping the hilt of a sword, Zelda was shocked by her own audacity. She had never thought of herself as superior to any of the rulers of the outlying tribes, and she tried to be courteous even to her own servants, yet there was something in the man's countenance that made her want to strike him. He looked at her not with defiance, exactly, but with a certain wariness.
Zelda refused to drop her eyes, careful to keep her breathing steady and her face relaxed. Although she felt strangely vulnerable, it would not do to demonstrate anything other than calm equanimity.
Ganondorf regarded her approach with a blank expression. When she was a few steps away, he nodded to her in greeting. "Your Highness," he said, a ghost of an accent haunting his voice.
"Lord Dragmire," she responded, and in the space between syllables she saw the corner of his mouth twitch. She recognized her own self-control in the set of his jaw and realized that her presence made him uncomfortable. Good, she thought, surprised by the vehemence of her pleasure.
"I did not expect to find you at the library this early in the morning," she said politely.
And indeed she had not. She had never caught a glimpse of him in broad daylight and had assumed he preferred to keep late hours. Although Ganondorf had ostensibly come to Hyrule Castle to represent the Gerudo people at her coronation, he seemed to dislike the evening courts as much as she did, and she had yet to exchange more than a few words with him.
"I was just leaving," he responded. "You will be pleased to know that you have the room all to yourself."
What a curious comment, Zelda mused, deigning not to answer him. She did feel more comfortable with solitude, but how could this man possibly have known that?
Although he was not much older than her, the light flooding through the windows revealed the harsh contours of his face and the fine lines spreading from his eyes as he looked down at her. He was immoderately tall, and his loose robe and trousers could not disguise the bulk of his body. His auburn hair was swept back from his forehead but flared out behind him into an unruly mess. He looked entirely out of place amidst the delicate furnishings and well-ordered symmetry of the castle corridor.
"If you will excuse me," he said brusquely, breaking the silence when it became clear that Zelda would not speak. He turned and paced off in the opposite direction. Zelda was not accustomed to being shown anyone's back, and the bitter sting of Ganondorf's rudeness infuriated her.
May the Goddess grant me wisdom, Zelda thought, sighing to herself.
And yet it was not wisdom the princess desired, but power. She wanted to rule Hyrule on her own terms, unhindered by the silk ropes of tradition that tied her to her role. When she ascended the throne, these bonds would only tighten around her throat. As she pushed the door to the library open, Zelda couldn't help but wonder if any of the queens who had come before her had ever found a way to cut themselves free of the threads of their fate.