Ralph always considered Nayru’s hut to be cozy. Perhaps it was the fireplace. When a log sat ablaze, as it did now, the light of the flames would reflect off the finish of the wooden walls, giving the entire room a sort of golden glow. It reminded Ralph of the light in a library or temple. Still, as he sat in front of the fireplace, watching Nayru’s face across the table, the cozy, safe feeling evaporated from his spine.
He knew something was wrong the moment she sent the note, inviting him to tea. She never invited him to tea; that was an activity strictly reserved for her female friends. At first, Ralph had simply chalked it up to her ongoing recovery after the whole Veran incident. She was still afraid, he told himself as he walked down the road to her hut, she was simply nervous and needed his company, she needed him to comfort her. Who’d want to be alone after such a trauma? But now, as he looked at her, he knew that Nayru, as always, was anything but afraid.
“You look troubled,” she said, running her finger around the rim of her porcelain tea cup.
“I’m not,” he lied. Immediately, he knew that was a mistake.
“Tell the truth,” she insisted.
Ralph frowned. “I’ve been thinking about…everything. Veran. The Oracle from Holodrum. The Twinrova creature.” It wasn’t entirely a lie. Ralph had spent a great deal of time thinking about the whole incident.
Nayru seemed to accept this for an answer. She nodded vaguely, taking a sip of her cold tea. “So have I.”
He attempted a chuckle. “It’s sort of hard to forget, isn’t it?” He waited for Nayru to respond, but all she did was nod, keeping the cup to her lips. “I wonder where Link is now.”
“With any luck,” Nayru replied, setting her tea down, “he’s already gotten back home.”
“Do you suppose we’ll ever see him again?”
She shrugged. “Who can say?”
“I’d certainly like to meet him again.”
“He didn’t like you very much.”
Inwardly, Ralph cringed. He hated it when Nayru did that. She had a certain, blunt way of speaking, one she generally reserved strictly for him. “We didn’t meet under the best of circumstances,” he answered.
“That much is true,” Nayru agreed. When Ralph looked up at her heart shaped face, he could see traces of a smile. “Listen, Ralph…”
This time, Ralph cringed outwardly. He knew all too well what that tone of voice meant. Whenever Nayru started a sentence with ‘Listen, Ralph…’ he knew it meant that she was going to ask him for a favor. Ralph wasn’t stingy with his favors, of course, but he wasn’t exactly looking forward to what this one would be. After all, he had arrived with the feeling that something was seriously wrong. For all he knew, this was going to be it.
“Listen, Ralph…I’ve been doing a lot of research on this Twinrova creature. It…she…is something serious.”
“I think we established that when she…it…tried to resurrect the ancient Hylian pig-monster.”
“Don’t be glib.”
“Sorry.” And he meant that.
Nayru sighed. “What I mean is…Twinrova is a truly ancient evil. References to it or her go back thousands of years.”
“Well, I thought she looked a bit worn around the eyes.”
Apparently, Nayru wasn’t in the mood for levity. She continued on. “Ancient evils, they don’t stay away.”
“Link killed her.”
“No. He just defeated her. Real evil can’t be killed. It can only be defeated temporarily.”
“What are you saying? Are you afraid that she…it…is going to come back again?”
Nayru licked her lips, focusing intently on a spot on the wall, somewhere over Ralph’s right shoulder. “It can be delayed.”
“There’s a ritual. Din was telling me about it. It involves using three ancient artifacts.”
“The Harp of Ages.”
“The Rod of Seasons.”
She paused a moment before continuing. “And the Amulet of Secrets.”
“The what of the who?”
This time, Nayru laughed a little bit. “The Amulet of Secrets.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Not surprising,” Nayru sighed. “Few people have.”
“According to the texts I’ve been looking at, it was stolen decades ago by Derrial Kotay.”
“Derrial Kotay,” Ralph repeated, turning the name over in his mind. “That sounds familiar.”
“He was king of Galaxia in our grandparents’ time.”
Ralph snapped his fingers, recognition coming to him in a flash. “Didn’t his son just die?”
Nayru nodded. “His grandson is about to take the throne.”
“Do you think the Amulet is still there?”
“I’m sure it is,” Nayru replied. She ran a hand through her hair, watching her friend across the table. “Which is why I called on you this morning.”
It took a few moments for the realization to hit Ralph. He stared blankly at Nayru, her words not yet penetrating his consciousness. When they finally managed to break through, he blinked his green eyes feeling quite certain he had misheard her. “I’m sorry?”
“Ralph,” Nayru said gently, reaching across the table and putting her hand firmly on of both of his, folded on top. “I need you to do this for me.”
“I’m sorry, I must be going crazy,” Ralph said sharply, pulling his hands out from under hers. “Because I could have sworn you just asked me to steal a priceless artifact from royalty.”
“Ralph, this is our one shot to seal Twinrova out of the realm. I have to try and do this.”
“Great,” he said, standing abruptly. “You can go to Galaxia and explain it to Derrial’s grandson. I’m sure he’ll be happy to lend you the Amulet.”
Nayru stood as well. “Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you? He’d have me thrown in the dungeon for sounding like a crazy person!”
“And I’m sure I won’t get thrown in the dungeon for getting caught stealing from the treasury.”
“No, not stealing.”
“What would you call it?”
He stared at her. Nayru’s eyes were filled with earnest as she looked up at him. Taking a deep breath, he allowed a small smile to appear. “I must be crazy.”
“Oh, Ralph!” She ran past the table and threw her arms around his shoulders, hugging the life out of him.
Ralph patted her back gently for a moment before pulling out of the embrace. “But I can’t promise anything. Larceny isn’t my thing.”
“I just know you’ll manage.”
“You have too much confidence in me, Nayru. I’m not a thief.”
“Thieves can’t be trusted. I trust you.”
“I’ll do what I can.”
“Thank you, Ralph.”
He raked his fingers through his bright red hair. “How am I going to get to the treasury?”
“The castle is going to be bustling with business,” Nayru said excitedly. She rushed over to her dresser and pulled the top draw open, removing a scroll. “Derrial’s grandson, Prince Fiyero, needs to select a bride before he can become king.” She handed the scroll to Ralph. “All sorts of dignitaries will be attending; you’ll be able to blend in easily.”
Ralph unrolled the parchment. On the top was a royal seal. His eyes danced back and forth as he read the fancy script, written in purple ink. “By order of High Minister Lachesis Ibsen –”
“She’s Prince Fiyero’s top advisor,” Nayru interjected.
“By order of High Minister Lachesis Ibsen,” Ralph pressed forward, “a ball will be held in honor of Fiyero of the Cilissa Clan, son of Aeschylus, son of Derrial, son of…” Ralph skipped forward quite a bit, “so that his majesty may select among the eligible princesses of the realm, a bride to be queen of Galaxia.” He stopped, looking up at Nayru.
“You see? The place will be packed.”
“Yes,” Ralph agreed, “with extra security to protect all the princesses.”
“Ralph,” Nayru said softly, touching his arm. “I need you to do this for me. It’s the only way.”
“I’ll keep my word,” Ralph assured her.
“I’ll get your Amulet. But I’m not going to be able to do it on my own. I’m going to need help.”
If he could have had his heart’s desire, anything in the entire universe, all Link would have wished for was the chance to return to Hyrule. He had been away for so long now, that he was beginning to fear he had forgotten what it smelled like to be home. It wasn’t for lack of trying either, that he had somehow continually failed to reach his native shores. First there had been Holodrum and then Labrynna. After that, Link had been certain he was done, but, fate just kept stepping in to prevent his triumphant return. This time, fate was in the form of the Ruathan court.
Making eye contact with Link, the page standing near the grand doorway to the throne room pulled back on the iron handle. A small procession walked in. Leading the pack was the captain of the guard. Following closely behind him were two more knights, holding, in between them, a gangly, spry fellow with feathery tufts of brown hair. He was dressed in rags, his wrists held by iron shackles. Though he didn’t struggle as the guards led him down the carpet to the throne dais, he made no attempts to mask the nasty glares he was sending Link’s way.
Link couldn’t really blame the fellow. He had been responsible for his arrest. Still, as Link stood there on the dais, beside the throne, he felt a twinge of doubt. What if his suspicions were wrong? He glanced uneasily at the old man sitting in the throne. The fellow nodded in his direction. Steeling himself for whatever was to come, Link stepped down, off of the dais, and addressed the prisoner.
“You were caught lighting fire to the village well in the town of Arden,” Link told him calmly.
The prisoner lifted his chin to a fierce angle. “That’s right!” he said proudly, giving the guards holding him a smug grin.
“You claim that King Corbel paid you to stir up trouble,” Link continued, gesturing to the throne.
“Yeah,” the prisoner said fiercely.
The Captain of the guard grabbed a handful of the prisoner’s hair. “Is this the man that hired you?” he growled, turning the skinny man’s face in the direction of the throne.
“That’s him, King Corbel!”
“I’ve heard enough.”
From behind the throne platform, the hanging red curtains parted. A powerfully built Human stepped out from behind them, walking up onto the dais. He had broad shoulders, but everything else about him seemed quite compact. His hair was dark black, graying slightly at the temples; his goatee was also brushed with silver, although he looked in no way feeble. As the newcomer made his way to the throne, the old man sitting in it stood up abruptly, removing the crown from his head and handing it to the real King Corbel.
The prisoner’s mouth gaped open, revealing his bright yellow teeth. “But…but…”
“It looks like you don’t know your own employer very well,” Link muttered coolly.
“Take him away!” the captain of the guard barked to his men who promptly spirited the confused prisoner out of the room. The captain remained, turning to look at Link. “It worked.”
“An old classic,” Link replied proudly, climbing back up the steps of the throne platform.
“Indeed,” King Corbel grumbled, sitting down in his throne. “Pay this man,” he added, gesturing to the imposer who had inhabited the seat a few moments ago.
“This way please,” the captain said, escorting the old man out of the room.
King Corbel turned to look at Link. While he never smiled, Link could tell that he was pleased. His eyes seemed a bit less beady than usual. “Another trouble maker from Galaxia exposed. You have my thanks, Link.”
Link bowed slightly. “I just don’t like trouble.”
“I’m afraid it’s been increasing ever since King Aeschylus died,” Corbel muttered, bridging his fingers. “Prince Fiyero has made his intentions about Ruatha perfectly clear.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Link said.
“Why do you say that?”
“Galaxia is too far away from Ruatha. Why would he want this land? He wouldn’t be able to control it.”
“He could control it indirectly, assuming he were actually capable of taking the city,” Corbel said.
“Oh, many ways. He could appoint a governor from his own staff. He could impose military rule. He could leave Galaxia in the hands of his advisors and oversee Ruatha personally.”
“I’m still not convinced he wants to declare war,” Link said.
“Legally, he cannot declare war until he’s officially named king,” Corbel explained.
“And until that time, all he can do is stir up trouble on a local scale. Lighting fires to wells and such.”
“What do you plan to do?”
Corbel sighed, leaning back in his throne. “The way I see it, I have several options. I can ignore it.”
“Which could only lead to more trouble.”
“I can attempt to arrange some kind of treaty.”
“Which would make you look like you were surrendering.”
“Or,” Corbel paused, scowling. “I can beat him to the quick and declare war on him first.”
Link blinked in surprise. “You’re not seriously considering…”
“It appears to be the only avenue at the moment. I’ll admit, I’ve been trying to put off the decision as long as possible, but I’m running out of village wells.”
Corbel waved a meaty hand, dismissing Link before he could continue. “I know what you’re going to say.”
“You’re going to tell me that war isn’t the answer.”
“That fighting never solved any thing.”
“And that all our problems can be worked out if we just talk to one another like civilized adults.”
“Do I really sound like that?”
“Yes, you do. Which I might add, is a bit hypocritical considering all of your famous exploits against monsters and fiends.”
“Monsters and fiends don’t sit down like civilized people and talk. Some of them don’t even have mouths.”
“Link, I don’t like the idea of war any more than you do. It’s expensive, messy, and a big waste of time in the end. However, I’m a rapidly losing patience with these Galaxians.”
“Send someone to talk to them.”
“If I send someone,” Corbel answered, “it’s very likely they’ll be killed on the spot.”
“There must be some way to delay this, even if for a short period of time. This isn’t worth a war.”
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll make an accord with you.”
Link scrunched up his face, looking a bit confused. “What do you mean?”
“Go to Galaxia on Ruatha’s behalf.”
“But didn’t you just say that –”
“They won’t kill you. You’re a third party. The Hylians are neutral.”
“What will I do there?”
“Appeal to their better natures. Give them the inspirational speeches you’re always sharing with me. Try and convince them to cease hostilities before things get out of hand.”
Link sighed heavily. “All right.”
“I’ll give you until Fiyero attains the title of king. If, when he ascends, he declares war, then I’ll be done with talking.”
“That’s fair,” Link told him.
“In your talks, remember, Ruatha will cede nothing, but we will not make any demands. All we want is to return to peace.”
“I’ll do what I can.”
“Go, gather your belongings. I’ll have my attendants prepare a coach to take you across the terrain. My swiftest horses will get you to Galaxia in two days.”
“Thank you, your majesty,” Link said, bowing again. “But I think I can travel faster on my own.”
“Ah yes, your Hylian parlor tricks. I’d forgotten. Well, best of luck to you then. Thank you for all your help.”
“And thank you for this opportunity.”
King Corbel nodded. Link knew the gesture. It meant the conversation was over. Even if Link had had anything else to say, it wouldn’t have been heard. Turning on heel, Link trotted down the steps of the throne platform and passed through the throne room, going out the far entrance. He wasn’t sure how to feel at this moment. On the one hand, he had gotten his way and delayed the war, at least for awhile. On the other hand, as he thought about it, he realized that Hyrule was farther away now. A sigh managed to escape his lips. He would never get home at this rate.
Maple was sitting on the windowsill. It was a funny thing to call the ledge. There wasn’t actually a window. That had been boarded up years ago after an unfortunate vacuuming accident. Nevertheless, everyone still called it the windowsill. Now, Maple sat there, flipping absently through the book on her lap. She should have been studying her spells, but for some reason, she felt a bit distracted.
She leaned her back against the wall, running a hand through her knotty hair. In all her life, Maple could not remember a time when she successfully got her fingers all the way through. They would always catch on something gnarl or tangle. She had her genetics to blame for that. Both her mother and grandmother had curly hair. Maple’s hair wasn’t curly. It was wavy and, from lack of proper maintenance, a bit of a mess to be honest.
The words on the page were getting wavy now. They danced in front of Maple’s eyes but said nothing to her. Chewing on the tips of her hair, she ran a finger across the ink. She could feel the indentations from the ancient quills that had originally written the words. Secretly, that was Maple’s favorite thing about the spell books. She loved the history behind the words. Sometimes, late at night, Maple would lay awake, making up stories about the long gone witches. It was rare that she was allowed to look at the history books, so she came up with her own names for these characters.
The book went flying out of Maple’s hands and she looked up to be greeted by a cross look from her grandmother, standing over her. “What is it?” Maple asked, fighting to keep the irritation out of her voice.
“I’ve been calling you for two minutes,” the old woman answered in her cracked voice, which, in all honesty, reminded Maple far too much of a frog.
“What do you want?”
“There’s someone at the door.”
“So! Answer it!”
“Why can’t you?” As Maple sat there, she could now hear the persistent knocking of someone at the door.
“It’s the middle of the afternoon. You know what the sunlight does to my cataracts.”
“Now go answer the door.”
Maple hefted herself off the ledge, walking in the direction her grandmother pointed insistently. She passed the family tapestry, the only remaining artifact of any value from the old country which her grandmother had managed to salvage years ago. This was Maple’s favorite thing in the house, hands down. She didn’t recognize any of the names on the family tree, but she loved to make stories about them. Her favorite name was Orestes Fleance and although she had no idea who he really was or where he came from, she could see him perfectly in her mind’s eye.
The incessant knocking continued. “Coming!” Maple shouted, racing to the door. “All right already!”
She pulled open the door to find Ralph on the other side, his fist poised to knock again. Their eyes locked and suddenly the rest of the world seemed to deteriorate into the recesses of Maple’s mind. Hungrily, she drank in the sight of the handsome gentleman, his piercing green eyes, that flaming red hair which would absolutely never lie flat. He looked better than the last time they had met, lost a little weight, put on some muscles. Her jaw slowly dropped. Neither of them could conjure up the words to say, all intelligible speech vanished as the two of them stared.
“Ralph…” Maple slammed the door in his face, but Ralph was quicker, throwing his arms out to catch the door just before it could latch.
“Maple!” he yelped. She pressed on the door, trying to slam it shut despite the fact that Ralph’s fingers were inconveniently in the way. After another attempt, she turned on heel and stalked away. Ralph pushed the door open, following her inside. “Something tells me you’re not glad to see me.”
“Gee,” she snapped, whirling around to face him. “I just thought I’d never see you again.”
“You’re mad at me,” Ralph said, stepping forward. Maple grabbed a broom resting in the corner of the entryway, pointing the handle directly at his chest. He held up his hands quickly. “I understand, I understand!”
“Why are you here?” she asked, narrowing her eyes.
Ralph frowned. “The truth is I’ve spent the last couple of months feeling really bad about the way things ended between us.”
“You’ve got no one to blame but yourself. Get out!”
“Let me finish!” Ralph allowed his arms to drop slowly. “I’ve been trying to think of a way to make it up to you.”
The handle of the broom dropped. Maple regarded him in silence for an uncomfortable amount of time before responding in a quiet voice. “Oh yeah?”
“Maple, I have a proposal for you.”
By this point, the broom was dropped to the floor. Maple’s eyes grew a little wider and she took a step in his direction. “Yeah?”
“How would you like to be a princess?”
Maple blinked. “A princess?”
“Listen,” Ralph reached forward and took Maple’s shoulders, “the prince of Galaxia is throwing a ball. He can’t be king until he has a queen or something like that. Anyway, everyone who’s anyone is going to be there. And I want to take you.” Ralph reached into his cloak and pulled out a scroll of parchment. He unfurled it. “Right here, listen –”
She snatched the scroll out of his hand. “Princess!” She jabbed the parchment on the word. “Princess! I’m not a princess!”
“I know!” Ralph said, quickly taking a step out of her reach. “Not yet anyway.”
“Maple, please hear me out.”
“No, no, no! A thousand times no!”
“That was only three times. Unless my math is dodgy.”
Angrily, she hurled the scroll back at him. “I don’t have time for this.”
“You’d get a castle,” Ralph pressed on. “A beautiful, big castle. You could move your grandmother out of this dump.”
“This dump is our home!” Maple snapped. She leaned over and picked up the broom, sweeping the floor angrily though, as always, it was clean enough to eat off of, truth be told.
“I know! I know! I didn’t mean it to sound like that. But think of it Maple, you could improve your life so much.”
“Why are you doing this anyway?”
“I just want to see you happy,” Ralph told her. “And you could be so very happy in a castle. How much happier could you be than living the life of royalty? Don’t you see? That’s my reward, your happiness. That and accomplishing a minor errand for Nayru.”
“It’s role play.” Snorting, Maple turned to walk away. Ralph watched her as she passed the family tapestry. “Think of it as making up a story.” That got Maple to stop. Ralph made his way over to her, his speech picking up momentum. “You can come up with all sorts of valiant tales about your own fake ancestors. This is the chance of a lifetime.”
“But no one is going to believe that I’m a princess,” Maple said softly, still facing away. “Princesses have tutors and advisors and stuff.”
“You don’t have to be intelligent. You just have to pretend you are.”
She circled around, glaring at him. “That isn’t funny.”
“This just isn’t going to work.”
“But you’ll have me.”
Maple folded her arms across her chest. “What?”
“You don’t need tutors or advisors. I’ll teach you everything you’ll need to know. I’ll be right at your side every step of the way.”
Her resolution began to crack. “Every step?”
“I promise. I’ll be at your side.” Maple allowed her arms to drop. “And we’ll start right now. We’ll have to get you all new clothing.”
She looked down at her plain lilac shift. “What’s wrong with my clothing?”
“Well, it’s not…” Ralph fumbled, afraid to offend her again. “It’s not very princess-like.”
“Take off your hat.” Maple obeyed, tossing her old floppy hat down to the floor. Her dark hair, a gnarled and tangled mass, fell about her shoulders. “Oh, this is going to take a lot of work. But we can do it, we can do it.”
“And just where am I supposed to get fancy dresses and hair care products?” she asked, planting a hand on her hip.
“Leave that to me,” Ralph replied. “We’ll set off for Galaxia first thing in the morning. We should arrive by the afternoon. For the next twelve hours, I want you to focus on improving your posture.”
“What’s wrong with my posture?”
“It’s just not ladylike.”
“What do you expect me to do?”
“Well…” Ralph cautiously approached her, holding his hands out. Gently, he pressed his right hand into the small of her back, putting his left hand on her shoulder and pulling her into a ramrod straight stance.
Maple watched him as he worked, adjusting her position with his hands. They felt warm and familiar and although she stared at him, in her mind their all too brief romance replayed before her eyes. She remembered the way he had courted her, he would always sneak little trinkets into her pockets when she wasn’t paying attention. Although she didn’t dare tell anyone, she kept every last one in a big box underneath her bed.
“And there you are,” Ralph said, pulling his hands away.
Blinking rapidly, Maple revived herself from the reverie. “Yeah…here I am.” She was secretly glad to be back in Ralph’s arms, even if this was a little bit different than last time.
Attention in the Galaxian throne room was always focused on one single thing. Prince Fiyero’s nose. To be certain, he was an extremely handsome man with golden brown skin, stretched taut over impressive, but not overpowering, muscles. His eyes were hazel and the whites were perfectly white. He wore his hair in long, skinny dreadlocks, going down over his shoulders and halfway to his tight rump. A little goatee ran over his chiseled jaw. Yet, it was his nose, of all things, that made it absolutely clear he was royalty. His nose was perfect, utterly sublime. He tilted it upward at a very slight angle, high enough to make sure everyone knew he was top dog, but not so high as to appear snobbish.
For the briefest of moments, when Lachesis walked into the throne room, marching down the central aisle with determined purpose, the focus in the room shifted from Prince Fiyero’s nose, but it quickly returned to its rightful place as Lachesis, in her typical hurry, was acknowledged. Lachesis knew the routine well enough. At the foot of the throne, she bowed before daring to look up, fixing her own gaze on Fiyero’s perfect nose.
“Your majesty,” she mumbled.
“Good morning, Lachesis,” Fiyero greeted her pleasantly. He had a soothing, silky voice, nearly perfect, but not as perfect as his nose.
“There’s a young man outside who wishes to hold an audience with you,” Lachesis told him.
“Who is he?”
“He calls himself Link of Hyrule.”
Fiyero’s eyebrows shot up. “The Hero of Holodrum? Here?”
“Yes,” Lachesis replied with a nod. She pushed a long, black curtain of hair over her shoulder. “Shall I send him away? Today is an important day; I would hate to have you distracted.”
“How often am I visited by Hylians? Send him in, please.”
“As you wish,” she sighed, gesturing to a knight by the door. Immediately, the knight marched out of the throne room with the loud clank of ceremonial armor. Everyone in the castle hated special occasions because it meant the knights had to wear their armor. Those with sensitive ears tended to choose such days for a holiday.
“I wonder what a Hylian could possibly be doing here,” Fiyero said in sotto to his high minister.
“We shall soon find out,” Lachesis muttered absently. “And I do hope he’s brief. The guests will be arriving within an hour.”
“The Hylian is a guest of my kingdom just as much as all the princesses you’ve invited,” Fiyero told her. “I won’t have him treated in any way inferior.”
“Of course, sire.”
“Ah, here he comes now.”
The clanking of armor returned along with the knight who once again took up post near the door. Behind him, Link entered the throne room. He seemed a bit dazed, uncertain of what he was supposed to be doing. The knight who had escorted him in gently prodded his back, directing him down the center aisle to where Fiyero and Lachesis watched. When Link arrived, he bowed. Lachesis cleared her throat delicately. “Prince Fiyero of the Cilissa Clan, son of Aeschylus, son of Derrial, I present Link, our Hylian guest.”
“Your majesty,” Link said politely.
“Rise,” Fiyero told him. As Link obeyed, Fiyero rose from his throne. He was an imposing figure, nearly six feet tall. His dress this morning didn’t make him less so. Prince Fiyero wore a tunic of chain mail and leather pants. Over this was a long leather coat, sleeveless, going down to Fiyero’s impressive calves. He extended an arm out in Link’s direction. “Welcome to Galaxia,” he said as Link clasped his wrist around his leather gauntlet. They exchanged a warrior’s handshake, though Fiyero, all things told, had never fought in a war to date. “You’ve come a long way.”
“Yes, I have,” Link agreed, releasing Fiyero’s wrist and taking a small step back away from the platform.
“What brings you to my kingdom?” Fiyero asked.
“I come on behalf of King Corbel.”
Lachesis clapped her hands twice. “Seize him,” she barked to the guards by the door.
The guards started to walk forward, but Fiyero held up a hand. “Belay that order.”
“Sire,” Lachesis hissed, “he’s here on behalf of the Ruathan king!”
“There’s nothing wrong with my hearing, Lachesis.”
“He’s here to cause trouble.”
“I am not!” Link sniffed defensively.
“You hear that?” Fiyero said with a smirk, jerking his head in Link’s direction. “He is not.”
“The Ruathans have been causing us nothing but trouble for the last two and a half years,” Lachesis snipped. “Do you remember what they did to the village well in Saroyan?”
“I haven’t forgotten.”
“So kill him!”
“I am not about to kill him. He’s a Hylian, obviously he has no profit in the hostilities between Galaxia and Ruatha.”
“That’s right!” Link declared.
“Then why are you here on behalf of the Ruathan king?” Lachesis snapped back at him.
Ignoring Lachesis, Link turned to address Fiyero. “King Corbel has sent me to speak with you about ending the hostilities.”
“Ruatha is surrendering?” Lachesis asked in disbelief.
“No,” Link replied quickly. “They just want peace.”
“You cannot surrender without a declaration of war, Lachesis,” Fiyero added gently.
“King Corbel has no desire for war,” Link said earnestly. He glanced at Fiyero. “And my guess is that your heart isn’t in it either. Think of the cost. War is a messy business and you’d lose hundreds of your people, perhaps even thousands. I know that in your heart, what you want is peace too.”
It took Link a moment to register what Fiyero had just said. “I’m sorry? What did you say?”
“I said, you’re right. I have no desire for war with Ruatha.”
“But I thought that –”
“Your majesty,” Lachesis hissed. “Saroyan. Revenge must be taken. Retribution cries out for Ruathan blood.”
Fiyero was about to reply when a crash of armor interrupted him. A new knight looked in on the room. “Your majesty,” he called, his voice muffled underneath the visor of his helmet, “Princess Aislinn of Shaldani has just arrived.”
“Already?” Lachesis yelped.
Sighing heavily, Fiyero made a dismissive gesture. “Escort her in, at her leisure,” he instructed the knight. As the clunky knight departed, Fiyero gave Link an apologetic look. “A royal ball is being held so that I may pick my queen from the eligible princesses of the realm,” he explained.
“My timing is off, I see,” Link muttered.
“No, no, not at all. I invite you to join in the festivities, Link.”
“Your majesty, I really must object!” Lachesis blurted.
“Put it in writing,” Fiyero told her dismissively. He never took his eyes off of Link. “Do you have the proper attire?”
Link looked down at his green tunic. “This is all I ever wear.”
“Well, you must be sick of it. I’ll have some seamstresses bring you a selection for the ball.”
“Thank you very much, your highness.”
“I should be the one thanking you.”
“And why is that?”
“It’s not every day we have a Hylian visiting court,” Fiyero told him pleasantly. “And you bring excellent tidings of peace.”
“That is all King Corbel wants. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“Good. Guard!” A knight approached halfway to the throne. “Please escort Link to the castle steward and then to guest quarters. Then see to the seamstresses.”
“Yes, your majesty,” the knight replied before addressing Link. “This way please.”
Together, the two of them exited the throne room with the usual raucous crashing of armor. “I don’t trust him, your majesty,” Lachesis whispered as she watched them disappear.
“I know you don’t,” Fiyero replied.
“He’s allied with Ruatha. He could be trouble.”
“He might be, but then again, he might be exactly what he claims to be. A doorway to peace.”
“Are you certain peace is what you want given the crimes of the Ruathans?” Lachesis asked.
“What is war but a crime on a grand scale?”
“Are you sure this is the way princesses wear their hair?” Maple asked yet again, awkwardly touching the foot high turban wrapped on the top of her head.
“When they’re traveling, yes,” Ralph replied with a sigh, sounding a little bit annoyed. “Besides, we need to keep your hair hidden until that cream takes full effect on it.”
“What’s it going to look like when it’s done?”
“Hopefully the opposite of a beehive.”
They had been on the road all morning, traveling in a hired coach that Maple couldn’t figure out how Ralph had managed to pay for. The curtains were drawn tightly shut and they sat on opposite couches. Maple felt absolutely ridiculous. Ralph had her dressed up in the most absurd and elaborate get up she had ever laid eyes on. Aside from the turban, wrapped of pink silk with a blue trim, she wore a blue riding cloak. Ralph had instructed her to keep it tightly buttoned, as the dress underneath it, a parsley green gown with empire waistline, didn’t match.
“Say the line again.”
“Do I have to?”
Maple sighed, rolling her eyes. “The new nymph had never before met a nicer neighbor. Like I’m ever going to use that in a conversation.”
“It’s just a drill. The point is to improve your diction.”
“What’s wrong with my diction?”
“Well, it’s just not very princess-like.”
“That’s starting to annoy me.”
“And another thing, while we’re at it. You need to stop rolling your eyes. I don’t mind it, of course, but royalty will take issue with it.”
“Can’t we make up my royal lineage now?” she asked, eager to create a story for herself.
“Maple, no one is going to ask you for your lineage.”
“I’m beginning to think I won’t like this,” she muttered. “You can’t dress like you want, you can’t talk like you want, and you can’t roll your eyes when someone is being incredibly stupid.” She put emphasis on ‘stupid’ while looking at Ralph.
“Why can’t I just be myself, Ralph?”
“Well…you can be,” Ralph said, his eyes racing with thought. “In fact, you should be. Just, like every other woman, wait until you get married before you start doing that.”
“Married! Don’t you dare rush me into that!” The carriage bounced over a rock in the road and Maple fell over to her side. She sat up again, gesturing angrily, “I’m not going to marry someone I don’t love!”
“Stop flailing,” Ralph cried urgently. “Your dress will come unlaced.”
“You didn’t lace it properly,” Maple sneered.
“Well, I’m sorry. I’m better at unlacing them!”
Maple sighed, resting her head against the wall of the carriage. “What if this guy turns out to be awful? I’ve known a few horrible men, you know.”
“Well, give him a chance,” Ralph urged her. “He has quite the reputation. He’s young, rich, and possibly even better looking than me.” He paused to consider it. “Well, maybe not that last part.”
“A practical match,” Maple muttered, fingering the turban which miraculously stayed intact. “You’re always practical, aren’t you?”
“You know…being practical all the time isn’t necessarily a good thing.”
She shrugged. “What about love? You can’t be practical in love.”
“I think we should get back to your lessons,” Ralph said quickly.
“All right, all right.” Maple frowned. “Maybe you should instruct me on current events a little bit.”
“Well, what am I going to talk about with this prince?”
Ralph chuckled. “Talk about? Oh Maple, he doesn’t expect you to talk about current events.”
“Just talk about him. He’s a man. Men always think they’re the most important topic of conversation.”
“I suppose you would know,” she said hotly.
“In my case, it’s justified.”
Maple did not look amused. “You’re not helping.”
“Well, you don’t really have to say anything at all,” Ralph continued. “Just smile a lot and bat your eyelashes.”
“That’s it!” Maple declared. She stood up and started banging on the roof of the coach. “I want out, let me out!”
The carriage hit another bump and Maple lost her balance. She toppled forward, crashing into Ralph who just managed to catch her. They locked eyes, their heads bobbing slightly with the sway of the road. Ralph needed a moment to swallow. He wetted his lips, trying to right Maple again. “That was a little obvious. Throwing yourself at a prince is never a good idea.”
Maple snarled. “I quit!”
By this point, the carriage had slowed to a stop. “Quit? You can’t quit. Not after all the work I’ve done.”
“All the work you’ve done?” Maple stared at him disbelievingly. “All the work you’ve done?”
“Yes, all the work I’ve done,” he replied.
“I’m sorry, are you the one being forced to wear stupid costumes? Are you the one being handled like a rag doll because your posture isn’t good enough? Are you the one whose diction isn’t good enough?”
“Now Maple, calm down!”
“I detest you!”
Ralph blinked in surprise. “What?”
“I detest you.”
“Maple, you just said detest.”
“So! It was absolutely perfect!”
She was caught so off guard that she completely forgot to be angry. “What?”
“Detest. That’s excellent diction, that’s wonderful!”
“You brilliant princess, you!” Ralph was laughing joyfully. “She detests me! She detests me!”
Maple was soon caught up in his excitement. “I did it? I really did it?”
“You did it!” He knocked against the wall of the carriage. “Driver, onward. We have a ball to get to.”
The carriage started moving again. “Was I really perfect?”
“Absolutely,” Ralph told her in a tender voice, leaning forward to take her hand.
“I’ve never seen you so excited before,” Maple murmured, looking down at their hands.
Ralph stroked the back of her hand with his thumb. He leaned forward slightly, gazing into Maple’s eyes. “Only one thing left to do,” he said.
She leaned in, unable to tear her gaze away from him. “Yes?” she said softly, bringing her face closer to his.
He sat back up straight, releasing her hand. “We need to think up a name for you.”
“Yes, you don’t hear about many princesses named Maple.”
“I guess not,” Maple said, slumping back against her seat.
“Sit up straight.”
“Sorry.” Maple sat up straight.
“We’ll need to come up with a kingdom for you too.”
“Now, let me think. What can we borrow? Princess Aislinn of Shaldani? No, who in their right mind would travel from Shaldani all the way to Galaxia?”
The rest of the carriage ride consisted of Ralph trying out names and rejecting them. Maple watched him sullenly, not saying much of anything. She wondered about this prince she was going to meet. What would he be like? Normally, when Maple wondered about a person, she would make up a little story that would set her heart at rest, but she couldn’t do that with Fiyero. She knew she’d be meeting him soon enough and she didn’t want her expectations to be crushed. Not again.
When there was a knock at her door, Phillia didn’t want to answer. She sat frozen on the foot of her bed, staring at the wall, watching the shadows the afternoon sun cast move. There was so much tension in her hands that her knuckles had turned white. “Come in,” she called in a choked voice.
The door opened and Phillia instantly relaxed somewhat when the round faced boy entered, shutting the door behind her. “I’ve been sent by your sister,” he said. Immediately, the tension was back.
“What does Lachesis want?” Phillia asked. She and her sister did not look like sisters at all. Aside from the fact that they both had the same delicate, almond shaped eyes, they were polar opposites, Lachesis with her curtain of black hair, Phillia with her long blond curls, Lachesis with her severe, high cheekbones, Phillia whose face still retained traces of baby fat and dimples.
The young man reached out, handing Phillia a roll of parchment, sealed with Lachesis’ seal. “She told me to give you this.”
“Of course,” Phillia muttered, accepting the scroll. “The gods forbid she should come in person to speak with me.” Grumbling thus, Phillia broke the seal and unfurled the parchment. Her eyes danced back and forth, scanning the paper. It was written in the old language. Phillia might have laughed at her sister’s paranoia, but the words before her weren’t very funny.
“What does she say?” the young man asked curiously.
Phillia bit her lips together for a moment, fearful that if she tried to say anything, a great sob would escape. “She says,” Phillia answered slowly, “that you are to prepare me for the ball tonight, Jason.”
“The ball?” Jason blinked, as if not quite comprehending.
“But…but…the only women attending the ball tonight will be the princesses suing for Fiyero’s hand.”
Jason knelt down beside the bed, gently pulling the letter in his direction. He quickly scanned the page. “Oh gods.”
“She wants me to vie with the other girls to be Fiyero’s wife!” Phillia buried her face in her hands, fighting back tears.
“But that’s not possible,” Jason said, rolling up the message of doom. “You’re not a princess.”
“If our clan was still intact,” Phillia told him, her voice breaking every once and again, “I would technically have the title. I wouldn’t be a ruling princess, but I’d be a princess.”
“But the clan is gone!”
“You know how Lachesis is,” Phillia sighed. She lifted her head from her hands, looking down at Jason. Filled with heaviness, she slid off of the edge of the bed, landing on the floor beside him.
“This wasn’t part of the plan. Why is she changing the plan?”
“Something must have stood in the way of her ‘perfect’ plan,” Phillia muttered angrily.
“What are we going to do?”
“I suppose I’ll wear the pink dress. Lachesis says that’s the sort of thing a princess would wear.”
“You’re not actually going to go along with this, are you?”
She looked at him, her amber eyes widening slightly in surprise. “Of course, I am.”
“Do you love Fiyero?”
“Of course not,” she replied indignantly. “I barely even know him. Lachesis never lets me go to court.”
“Then why are you going to go along with it?”
“Because Lachesis says I have to.”
“Do you always do what Lachesis tells you to?”
“Well, it’s wrong.”
Phillia gently stroked his shoulder. “So do you, Jason.”
Jason opened his mouth and closed it again, looking a bit like a fish out of water. “Well, that’s wrong.”
“We have no choice, neither of us.”
She leaned her head on his shoulder, several curls spiraling down his chest. Jason watched her intently with his gentle brown eyes. “Lachesis would be very cross, wouldn’t she? If we showed any sign of disapproval.”
He pulled back, placing his hands on her shoulders and forcing her to look into his eyes. “We could leave.”
“We could run away.”
“No, no, no,” Phillia stood up, crossing the room to her closet. She wheeled back around, pointing at Jason. “That would never work!”
“She’d find us. You know she’d be capable of it. No matter where we went, she’d manage to track us down eventually.”
“So are we to live in fear for the rest of our lives?” he asked, standing up to face her.
“Are we to live in fear and loveless marriages?”
“You know I wouldn’t choose it.” She sighed, turning around. “Who knows? Maybe I won’t please Fiyero.” Pulling her closet doors open, she blinked away a few tears and began to examine the dresses inside. Suddenly, she felt Jason’s arms snake around her waist. “Jason…”
“You’re the prettiest girl in Galaxia. I daresay the world.”
“No, let me finish. We all know how much our beloved prince values outward beauty. He’s always flaunting his own. How in the world can you think that you wouldn’t please him? He’d choose you in a heartbeat.”
“Maybe you’re not giving him enough credit. There must be more to him than there is to him.” She leaned against his chest, feeling his pulse on her back. “I’ll do my best to displease him, but Lachesis will know.”
“She’s been into all sorts of things lately,” Jason mumbled. “Dangerous, powerful things.”
“The plan must have gone wrong.”
“Which means, I have to play the dutiful sister and become a princess.” She sighed. “Oh, I don’t know the first thing about being a princess!”
“I don’t think it requires much,” Jason replied. “A pretty face to match a pretty dress.”
Within his arms, Phillia turned around to face him. She draped her hands over his shoulders, absently touching his soft brown hair with her fingertips. “I wish I could have said yes to you.”
“I’d leave in an instant if I had the choice.”
“There’s nothing left for us here.”
“Lachesis seems to think there is.”
“Lachesis tends to obsess,” Jason countered.
“She just doesn’t like to let go of an old grudge.”
“That’s another way of saying obsessive.”
Phillia lowered her eyes, looking at the hollow of Jason’s throat, very evident as he never seemed to take the time to tie the strings of his tunic all the way. His sloppiness was something Phillia absolutely adored. “Maybe we can steal a dance tonight at the ball before the prince arrives?”
“The prince always arrives first.”
“But maybe when his back is turned,” Jason added quickly with a gleam in his eyes.
“Just be sure Lachesis has her back to us too.”
“I’ll do my best.”
Phillia trailed a finger down Jason’s chest, in between the flaps of his tunic. “We still have a few hours before the ball.”
“And I fully intend to make the most of them.”
Jason leaned forward. Gently, he brushed his lips against hers. Phillia clapped her hands to either side of his face. Drawing him closer, she kissed him. Jason was surprised at first. He blinked a few times, not sure what had just happened. As his mind cleared, he kissed her back, throwing aside their troubles for one moment of perfect happiness.
“Princess Charlotte of Brennen,” a page announced as yet another princess was paraded into the throne room. She walked down the carpeted aisle to the foot of the throne where Fiyero stood.
“Princess,” Fiyero said, taking her hand and kissing it as she curtsied, “welcome to Galaxia.”
With that, she was escorted to guest quarters, just like the dozens and dozens of girls who had entered before her and the dozens more waiting to be introduced. Lachesis entered without introduction, pushing aside a few of the last members of Charlotte’s train to make her way to Fiyero before another girl could be introduced. “Your majesty,” she called, barely pausing to curtsy.
“What is it, Lachesis?”
Brushing her long hair over her shoulder, Lachesis climbed a step of the throne platform, leaning close to whisper to Fiyero. “I’ve just received word of another attack by a Ruathan troublemaker.”
“What now?” Fiyero muttered back, his cordial smile never faltering to concern the courtiers.
“The village of Greene.”
At this point, Link appeared in the doorway to the throne room. He started to walk forward toward the throne, but the page by the door stopped him. Rolling his eyes skyward, Link murmured a few words to the page who then turned to address the room. “Link of Hyrule.”
With that, Link was released and made his way down the aisle to where Lachesis and Fiyero were huddling. “It seems there’s a deviance between your message of peace and the acts of war being wrought on my territories,” Fiyero told him in a very stern whisper.
“The village of Greene,” Lachesis said, folding her arms across her chest. “Don’t act like you didn’t know it would happen.”
“I didn’t know what would happen?”
“There was trouble in the village.”
“Is anyone hurt?” Link asked urgently.
Lachesis scowled. “No. But the bake shop was burnt down and there are a lot of angry people without bread.”
“This is getting out of hand,” Fiyero said gruffly. “These Ruathan antics must be stopped once and for all.”
“Your majesty,” Link implored, “believe me when I say something is amiss here. I promise you, all King Corbel wants is peace.”
“A likely story,” Lachesis sneered. “He wants to get our guard down so he can attack.”
“That’s not true!”
“Enough!” Fiyero roared, a bit louder than he ought to have let his voice get in the middle of court. He turned to address Link. “I suggest you get yourself back to Ruatha at once.”
Fiyero held up a hand to silence him. “I have a message for Corbel. Tell him his people are no longer welcome in my land.”
“Princess Kym of Ruatha!” the page by the door cried.
In an instant, Link, Fiyero, and Lachesis all turned to look up. Link felt himself deflate instantly. Standing there beside the page, he at once recognized Ralph, the annoying young man who had followed him around during his exploits in Labrynna a few months back. Ralph looked very much the same as ever, though his clothing was a bit more ceremonious than usual, dark gray leggings under a red and gold tunic, and on his arm was a woman. Link squinted his eyes slightly, looking closer. No! It couldn’t be, it couldn’t possibly be! But it was. Standing beside Ralph, looking absolutely ridiculous in a high turban, was the witch Maple.
“Guards!” Lachesis shouted, “Seize them!”
The color drained from Ralph’s face. “Oh, I’m sorry. Is this a bad time? Well, we’ll just be…” He and Maple backed up, but quickly found that several knights had appeared behind them, brandishing swords menacingly.
“Take them away!” Lachesis barked.
One of the guards grabbed Maple’s arm. “Stop that!” Ralph snapped, slapping the hand. “Take your hands off of the princess.”
“And just who are you?” Lachesis asked, gesturing for the guards to wait a moment.
Ralph threw back his head proudly, brushing his hair out of his face. “I am Ralph,” he announced in a booming voice, “advisor to the king.”
“He’s given you some rather bad advice,” Fiyero said quietly.
“Ralph,” Link muttered, narrowing his eyes. He walked across the room toward them, registering their shared surprise at seeing Link of all people in a place like Galaxia. “I know exactly who this man is, your majesty,” he said, turning around to face Fiyero. “And believe me when I say that King Corbel would trust his daughter to no one else, but Ralph.”
“King Corbel is a fool, then,” Lachesis sneered.
“Don’t you see?” Link addressed Fiyero. “This is a gesture of peace. King Corbel’s own daughter. His only daughter.”
“It’s a trick, your majesty,” Lachesis said.
“How can it be a trick?” Link asked. “One girl, completely at your mercy, with only a weak and pitiful advisor to protect her.”
“Hey!” Ralph cried.
“This is a gesture of peace,” Link pressed on.
Fiyero had been silently stroking his chin up until this point. Now he moved forward, crossing the room toward the others. Disgruntled, Lachesis hefted up her black, gathered skirt and followed behind him, the sharp points of her heels clicking angrily on the floor. With a gesture, Fiyero caused the guards behind Maple and Ralph to back away. “What’s your lineage?” he asked Maple in a quiet voice.
Ralph’s eyes nearly bugged out, but Maple boldly stood forward. “I am Kym Corbel,” she told him evenly, “daughter of the king. Son of Seyton, son of Natalya, daughter of Lycus, son of Orestes.”
“Orestes?” Fiyero questioned her.
“Orestes Fleance, my lord,” Maple replied smoothly.
“Orestes Fleance,” Fiyero repeated, his eyes lighting up. “My grandfather used to tell me stories about Orestes Fleance. He was a great battle mage for my great-great-grandfather’s army.”
“Your majesty!” Lachesis cried.
“Princess Kym has a guest friendship with my family,” Fiyero announced, loud enough for the entire room to hear.
“Your majesty!” Lachesis called again.
“For as long as her visit, she is not to be harmed. Your future king has spoken.” And all the courtiers wouldn’t dare to question it.
Lachesis had no objection, however. “Your majesty, I really must protest. Do you really think that the –”
“I’ve made my decision, Lachesis,” Fiyero interrupted her.
The high minister sighed, defeated. “As you wish, your majesty,” Lachesis surrendered.
“Good. Now see to it that the princess and her escort are assigned rooms along with the others.”
“Yes, your majesty.”
The entire time, Fiyero didn’t take his eyes off of Maple. Now, he took another step forward, gently taking her hand. “Welcome, Princess Kym,” he told her, leaning down to kiss her knuckles. “I do hope you’ll enjoy Galaxia.”
“So far,” Maple snapped bitterly at him, “I’m not very impressed with your hospitality.”
The entire room was shocked and scandalized. Ralph turned pink, biting down on his lips to keep from saying anything. Several courtiers within hearing range inhaled sharply. Lachesis’ folded arms dropped down, dangling uselessly at her sides. Link was forced to cover his mouth. Everyone waited nervously, watching Fiyero and his perfect nose to see if it would flare in anger. The last thing anyone expected Fiyero to do was exactly what he did. He laughed. “I suppose you haven’t seen us at our finest,” he chuckled.
“I’ll say,” Maple agreed, grinning a little bit, completely oblivious to the shocked stares around her.
“But perhaps,” Fiyero continued, “I can make amends for our bad first impression. Galaxia is a fine place.”
“Well, everyone deserves a second chance,” Maple admitted.
“Thank you,” Fiyero told her, bending down to kiss her hand yet again. “With your permission, I should like to begin making amends right now. Unless of course you’d like time to freshen up from the road, change out of your traveling clothing into something more comfortable.”
“I’m perfectly comfortable,” Maple replied.
“I should hope so. Well, then, with your permission, I’d most like to escort you to the royal gardens. The orchids are just beginning to bloom. You’ll love it, I’m quite certain.”
“Sounds like a plan,” she said.
Fiyero took a step back and held out a fist. Delicately, Maple rested her palm on top of the fist. “Lachesis,” Fiyero called without taking his eyes off of the woman on his arm. “Get them rooms prepared.” Grumbling under her breath, Lachesis stormed out of the throne room. “This way,” Fiyero said, gesturing grandly as he escorted Maple through the glass doors of the throne room which let out into the blossoming Galaxian courtyard.
King Corbel was in a good mood. He lounged on his throne, luxuriating in the comforts of being king. Before him, his fool performed amusing antics, tossing ladies skirts into the air from behind them and laughing with joy as he dodged their angry shrieks and fists. Sitting on the king’s knee was a beautiful girl, less than half his age, letting out bemused shrieks as he toyed with her braid.
The door to the throne room burst open and the captain of the guard came huffing and puffing to the throne platform. “Yes?” Corbel asked in a booming, annoyed voice. “What is it?”
“Your majesty,” the captain gasped, bowing hurriedly. “I have intelligence of great importance.”
“What is it?” Corbel demanded.
“It’s about Galaxia.”
“I’ve just received a report that a member of the Agave clan has been spotted in Prince Fiyero’s court.”
“What?” Corbel started to lean forward, but the girl gave a shriek of protestation. “Oh, away with you,” he said, sending her off on her way. The king’s attention was completely focused on the captain. “The Agave clan is dead.”
“Not as dead as we thought, sire.”
“Send word to Link immediately,” Corbel barked. “He must be warned.”
Link angrily slammed Ralph up against the wall, pinning him there by his shoulders. They were just outside of the throne room and the door had just closed, sealing them off from the watchful eyes of the courtiers. “Ow!” Ralph shouted in indignation.
“Princess Kym,” Link said, gritting his teeth in a vain attempt to keep his voice down, “is fourteen years old.”
“She’s an early bloomer!”
“That girl is not Princess Kym. That is Maple, the witch’s apprentice!”
“A minor detail,” Ralph mumbled.
“You’re going to give me a good explanation.”
“Or I’ll tell Prince Fiyero that she’s a fraud and you’re an idiot.”
“And he’ll throw you out of Galaxia or into the dungeon for lying to him!” Ralph shot back. “Now who’s the idiot?”
Link released Ralph abruptly, letting him drop down to the floor. “What’s going on Ralph? I deserve to know.”
Ralph took his good time brushing off his rumpled tunic before he answered. “I’m on a mission,” he said haughtily.
Fighting the urge to explode, Link closed his eyes, counted to five then repeated, “A mission.”
“Yes,” Ralph boasted, puffing his scrawny chest out, “a very important secret mission.”
“Who sent you on this mission?” Link asked quietly.
“Nayru, of course.”
“I should have guessed.”
“It was something she could only trust me with.”
“What’s the mission?”
Ralph looked from side to side, although it was very obvious they were alone. “Artifact,” he grunted, keeping his teeth tightly clenched, looking in the opposite direction.
Link smacked Ralph on the back of the head. “Just talk. If someone’s coming, I’ll know.” He gestured to his pointed Hylian ears. “I have super sensitive hearing,” he lied.
“Well, I didn’t know you could do that. How handy it must be.” Ralph cleared his throat before continuing in a very important voice. “Nayru has sent me to retrieve an artifact from Prince Fiyero’s treasury.”
“The Amulet of Secrets.”
Link squeezed the bridge of his nose. “The Amulet of Secrets.”
“What’s it do?”
“Well, I don’t know exactly, but what I do know is that, combined with the Harp of Ages and the Rod of Seasons, it has the power to seal Twinrova out of the realm forever…or the next best thing.”
“Crazy, I know.”
“Actually, in a strange way, it makes a lot of sense. Why do these things always come in threes?”
“I don’t know, but Nayru asked me to get it, so I’m going to get it.”
“What’s it look like?”
“What does the amulet look like?”
“Well…I…I never got around to asking actually.”
“But I’ll be able to figure it out. You see, that’s the true brilliance of the plan. Maple goes to the ball and distracts everyone so that I can go down to the treasury and snoop until I find the amulet.”
“How’s Maple going to distract everyone?”
“Well, I haven’t actually gotten to that with her yet.” Ralph laughed a bit. “She thinks she’s just here to meet a prince.”
“You’re using Maple!?!?”
“Well, I didn’t say it was a perfect plan!”
“No, Ralph, it’s not a perfect plan.”
“There’s no need to get snippy.”
“Okay, Ralph, listen to me. Listen very carefully. You cannot cause trouble at the ball tonight.”
“Besides the fact that it’s not nice to cause trouble at another person’s ball? You made a grave error in claiming to be from Ruatha. Galaxia and Ruatha are on the verge of war! One false step and you two could be killed and me to boot.”
“All right, all right, no trouble at the ball. I’ll just slip out after Maple makes her debut and steal the treasure.”
“You can’t do that.”
“Because!” Link had to pause again to compose himself. “Because,” he went on in a quiet voice, “the guards are going to be watching your ever step. If you disappear from the throne room, they’ll immediately follow you and you’ll get caught and there will be a big mess, ending with you and Maple being killed and me to boot!”
“So how are we supposed to get the Amulet?”
“I will find a way.”
“Woah, woah, woah!” Ralph shouted, holding up his hands. “Hit the pause for a moment there, buddy.”
“You are not horning in on my mission!”
“Oh, for crying out loud!”
“You just want to steal my glory. You think that maybe Nayru will start to think you’re better than me.”
“Ralph! I’m not trying to steal your glory!”
“Yes, you are!”
“I’m just trying to keep you and Maple alive long enough to celebrate while at the same time preventing a war!”
“You stick to your job and I’ll stick to mine, buddy.”
“Ralph, I promise, when you return to Labrynna, no one will even know you saw me. Just please, do as I ask you. Don’t cause trouble. There will be another way to get this accomplished so we’ll both be happy. Understand?”
He folded his arms across his chest, pouting slightly. “All right.”
At long last, Link managed to exhale. “Thank you.”
“Now, you’d better go to the rooms they set up for you. Just…wait there until the ball, all right?”
“Fine.” Ralph turned and started to stalk down the hall.
“Hey, Ralph?” Link called after him.
Ralph turned around. “What?”
“There’s one thing I’ve got to know.”
“Oh…well…we used to…”
He frowned. “It’s strange. It was like there was no question about it. It had to be Maple and no one else.”
“That is strange.”
“Tell me about it.”
For once in his life, no one was paying attention to Fiyero’s nose. As he and Maple walked through the courtyard, Maple’s eyes darted excitedly from one thriving plant to another. Fiyero, for his part, had eyes only for Maple. In all of his days, he could not remember seeing anyone so enthused by something as trivial as a flower garden. Nevertheless, there she was, pausing every few moments to touch the waxy petals of an orchid.
As she stopped for the fifth time, Fiyero chuckled. “Do you have gardens back home?” he asked.
Maple frowned slightly. “Nothing like this,” she answered. It was true enough. Labrynna, as it was, still had a long way to go before it fully recovered from the catastrophes that Twinrova had brought about through Veran.
“Do you like plants?”
“Yes, I mean, they’re not my favorite thing in the world, but I like them well enough.”
“So do I,” Fiyero said. He glanced up. Looming ahead of them was an enormous tree in full bloom. Emerald green leaves lit up the branches, each one hanging down with five points. “This might interest you,” Fiyero told her, guiding her over to the base of the great tree.
“It’s big,” Maple muttered.
“This,” Fiyero announced proudly, “is a brand new species of tree. Never before seen in the realm.”
He nodded. “It was a gift to my father.”
“What’s it called?”
Fiyero frowned slightly. “It doesn’t really have a name,” he sighed. “My father never got around to naming it.”
“Well, then you’ll have to name it.”
“I’m not sure I can,” Fiyero replied.
“Well, you must,” Maple insisted. “You can’t have a nameless tree. What will the other trees say about it?”
It took a few moments for Fiyero to grapple with what she had just said. When comprehension finally dawned on him, he let out a hearty chuckle. “I suppose you’re right. The trees do tend to gossip.”
“Well, not the trees themselves,” Maple corrected him with a playful smile.
“Not the trees?”
“The wood nymphs inside of the trees.”
“Wood nymphs! How foolish of me.”
“If you listen very carefully, you can hear them right now,” she said, closing her eyes.
Fiyero watched her in pure admiration, a silly grin on his face. “What are they talking about?”
“Old family tales,” Maple answered. “The matron, Grandmother Andromache is telling her grandchildren stories of the woods.”
“What are the grandchildren named?”
“Lurian, Calonice, and Sosias.”
“You are remarkable.”
Maple opened her eyes, looking at him in surprise. “What?”
“The way you see tales in the air, drawing out invisible strings and weaving them together. I’ve never seen anyone do anything like that.”
“My grandmother tells me I’m just wasting time on silly entertainments,” Maple told him.
“She’s wrong. It’s delightful.”
She shrugged. “I just think made up histories are better than what’s really happening.”
“The world isn’t quite filled with happy endings, is it?”
“Such as the troubles between our two kingdoms.”
“I must confess, I have no idea what’s going on.”
Taking her arm, Fiyero led her to an iron wrought bench on the side of the cobblestone path, beneath the shade of the great, nameless tree. As Maple sat, Fiyero propped his foot up on the bench near her, gesturing out to the Galaxian countryside. “Ruatha and Galaxia have been at a stand off since well before our grandfathers’ time,” he said.
“Yes, but why?”
“You know that Galaxia was once, in ancient times, divided into clans?”
Maple shook her head. “No.”
“Well, centuries ago, instead of one unified kingdom, we had small city states, each one inhabited by a different clan. There were ten clans in total. The Cilissa, the Baz, the Crito, the Morn, the Katt, the Ces, the Kostya, the Timore, the Thucy, and the Agave.”
“Well, one day, a great warrior of the Cilissa, my ancestor, united the clans all under one government. Some of the clans blended together better than others. The Agave and the Kostya remained a bit less involved in the social and political scene of Galaxia, living in the more isolated border towns.”
“By the sea?”
“Yes. And years ago, a Ruathan fleet, heading home after a war with Pyrnne, weighed anchor right off our shores. A small team landed to barter for supplies, but the Agave living in the town mistook them for an attack. They killed all of them and the Ruathan fleet still at sea retaliated and burned the town to ashes. There were practically no survivors.”
“My grandfather had no desire to start a war over it, especially considering the fact that the Agave had struck first. He signed a pact with your grandfather in which they each agreed to refrain from any act of revenge for forty five years.”
“Why forty five years?”
He shrugged. “I suppose, they both knew they wouldn’t be around by that time to deal with the mess of waging a war. Anyway, the pact was sealed with a spell from the last remaining Agave. The Agave, you see, were our magicians. Ever since the last Agave died out, there’s been no more magic in Galaxia.”
“What distinguishes one clan from another?”
Fiyero pulled aside the left half of his leather vest. On the firm muscle of his shoulder, right near the sleeve of his tunic, there was a faint marking, a sun with a crescent pointing down, directly in the middle. “This is the mark of my clan,” he explained, pulling the vest back up into place. “Each clan has a separate mark which gives them, in theory, the special ability of the clan.”
“The clan powers have long ago died out. Some people think they were only a myth to begin with.”
“What’s the power of the Cilissa?”
“According to the ancient texts, the Cilissa are supposed to be endowed with the strength of ten.”
“Well, you certainly look strong,” Maple said. And then, she did the unthinkable and reached out, squeezing his bicep lightly.
This breach in etiquette absolutely floored Fiyero. He found it perfectly charming. “That comes from daily exercise, not magical genes.”
“Magic is real, you know,” she said seriously. “And it really does run in families.”
“Do you believe in it?”
“Then I have no choice but to believe as well,” Fiyero declared. “Your word is good enough for me.” He paused, glancing over at the trees. “What are the nymphs saying now?”
Laughing softly, Maple closed her eyes, tilting her head to one side in a gesture of listening. “Mala is talking about the sea nymph that’s just set up in the pond.”
“Mala? That’s a new one.”
“Well, the new nymph had never before met a nicer neighbor.”
Fiyero let out a hearty chuckle. “Come, my lady,” he said, offering her his arm again. “The day grows late; I must get you back to your escort so you can prepare for the ball tonight.”
She opened her eyes and stood up, lacing her arm around his. “It is getting a bit dark,” she admitted.
“The time passed too quickly.”
“I hope you don’t feel your time has been wasted.”
“Not at all,” Fiyero said firmly. “In fact, much greatness has come out of this afternoon.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve finally thought of a name for the tree.”
“What are you going to call it?”
“I’m going to name it after you.”
“Yes, I’ll call it a Kym Tree.”
Maple looked at the enormous tree with its five pointed leaves. “I hope the wood nymphs approve,” she said quietly.
“Well, I’m sure they will. Do you approve, Kym?”
She tried to come up with an answer, but found that she couldn’t. There was no question about it, she liked Fiyero. And in liking him, she found herself feeling more and guiltier about the web of lies Ralph and Link had spun about her identity. She knew, of course, that she couldn’t spill the beans. That would only get her in trouble and Ralph mad at her. All the same, the weight of the lie dropped heavily upon her as Fiyero, doting on the girl, made the gesture of naming a tree after her. The Kym Tree was nothing but a lie.
Phillia and Jason were engaged in a passionate kiss when the door to Phillia’s room burst open with a crack. Both of them were so horrified, they fell apart in opposite directions, Phillia hitting the back of her skull against the wall, Jason’s head falling underneath the bed’s dust ruffle. They both heard an extremely irritated sigh from the door way. “What are you two doing?” Lachesis demanded wearily.
“Nothing,” Phillia chirped quickly.
“Nothing,” came Jason’s muffled voice from beneath the bed.
“Don’t play me for a fool,” Lachesis snapped. She pointed a perfectly manicured finger at Phillia. “You’re not even dressed yet.”
“I’m sorry,” Phillia said, quickly pulling her robe shut tightly around her throat. “Really.”
Lachesis, herself, was dressed to kill for the ball. Her long black hair was piled up on top of her head in an elaborate style of woven braids. One long curl fell down her left temple, over her impeccably smooth skin. Her gown was elegant for its simplicity, a black satin bustier over a deep, dark midnight blue hoopskirt. The finishing touches were what truly set Lachesis apart. Around her throat was a sparkling diamond choker, made up of so many diamonds that her skin lit up light the moon. A silk shawl, studded with bright stones was meticulously draped over her shoulders. Long gloves climbed up her arms, ending around her biceps with fancy diamond arm bracelets. Dangling diamond earrings, shaped like stars, hung from her ears.
“Put on the pink dress, get yourself ready for the ball,” Lachesis instructed her sister.
“Yes, Lachesis,” Phillia chorused sadly, getting to her feet.
“Phillia,” Lachesis sighed, crossing over to her sister and taking her shoulders. “You needn’t act like that.”
“As if I’m giving you a life sentence in the dungeon.”
“It feels that way,” Phillia said with a pout.
“There will be time enough for dalliances after you’re made queen,” Lachesis told her reassuringly. “Now get dressed.”
“Yes, Lachesis,” Phillia said quietly, walking to her closet.
“Jason,” Lachesis snapped, dropping her sweet tone of voice.
“Yes?” came the muffled reply.
Obediently, Jason sat up, cracking his forehead on the bed frame. Lachesis rolled her eyes, a longsuffering sigh escaping her lips. Muttering to himself, Jason corrected his error and sat up, rubbing the red spot on his head. Without a word, Lachesis gestured sharply to the door. Jason scrambled to his feet and, prodded by Lachesis, hurried out of the room, throwing one last longing glance at the beauteous Phillia before Lachesis shut the door and separated them.
“Come with me,” Lachesis instructed him.
“Where are we going?”
“Follow me,” was the only answer he received. Lachesis led him through the crowded hallways of the castle, passing dozens of foreign dignitaries with their respective princesses as they prepared to depart for the ballroom. Jason was quite certain none of these paltry ladies were even close to Phillia in beauty.
Winding around the twisted iron staircases, Lachesis drew Jason deeper and deeper into the core of the castle. “Lachesis,” he called.
“Be silent,” she snapped.
“But Lachesis –”
“Wait until we get there.”
“But where are we going?” he blurted out before she could silence him for a third time.
Jason stopped in his tracks. “The dungeon?”
She took a few more steps before realizing he had stopped. Irritated, she turned around to face him. “The dungeon.”
“There’s less of a chance of us being overheard down there.”
“I don’t like it when we have conversations that can’t be overheard, Lachesis,” he muttered.
“This will be the last one, I promise. Now hurry.”
Begrudgingly, Jason allowed her to continue leading him through the labyrinth of corridors leading to the dungeon. The dungeon itself was rarely used. Occasionally, extremely dangerous prisoners, thought too unsafe for local jails were kept there, but for the most part, the Galaxian dungeon was a throwback to the old days. And Lachesis knew well enough it had been completely emptied in order to put at ease the troubled monarchs sending off their daughters to vie for Fiyero’s hand.
“All right,” Jason said, watching as Lachesis walked down the hallway, looking into each cell to be certain it was empty. “We’re here. What’s going on?”
“I’m afraid,” Lachesis said bitterly, “that our plan is in peril.”
“I figured that when you told Phillia to prepare for the ball.”
“That was only our first trouble: When that irritating Hylian showed up to prevent Fiyero from declaring war on Ruatha.”
“There’s an irritating Hylian in court?”
“Yes, but enough about him. We have a new problem.”
“It appears,” Lachesis said tightly, “that King Corbel has sent his own daughter to our little ball.”
“I guess that makes things harder,” Jason sighed, trying his hardest to sound interested in what she was saying.
Lachesis ran her finger along the bars of the nearest cell. “It wouldn’t, except the foolish prince actually seems taken with the girl.”
“Listen, Lachesis,” Jason said in exasperation. “Maybe we should just let this whole thing go. I think the gods are trying to tell us something. Clearly, the war with Ruatha just isn’t meant to be.”
“Let it go?” Lachesis repeated, her voice dropping to a low, very dangerous tone. “Let it go.”
Jason sighed. He knew perfectly well that he had made a mistake and that now Lachesis would launch into another one of her passionate speeches about how the war with Ruatha was the only course of action. Fed up with this old speech, which he could now recite by heart, Jason beat her to the punch. “I know, I know, it’s a matter of honor, a matter of pride.”
“It is more than that,” Lachesis snapped. “The blood of our ancestors cries out for vengeance.”
“Yes, yes, yes, and the spirits of the dead will not rest until we put their murderers to rest. I know how it goes.”
“Do not mock me.”
“I’m not mocking you! But Lachesis, the plan keeps going awry. How much are you willing to sacrifice?”
“I would sacrifice everything!” Lachesis roared. To Jason’s horror, her dark almond shaped eyes suddenly lit up, glowing bright green in the darkness for a split second before returning to normal. He felt his heart leap up into his throat. Of course, he had known Lachesis was meddling with some dark forces she should have left well enough alone, but he hadn’t realized how far it had gone.
“What do you want me to do?” he asked quietly.
“I’ve decided to switch to another contingency plan,” she said. “I’ve hired some assassins to take out our beloved prince tonight.”
“I think I’ll sick them on the Hylian too, just for good measure. It was he that first mucked up our plans.”
“Do you expect me to help them?”
Lachesis laughed. It was not a mirthful laugh, like her sister’s, but a dark, cold laugh. “Of course not. They won’t need help from an idiot. Your job will be to plant evidence.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re going to leave their contract in the room of our Ruathan guests. When the prince is regrettably killed without an heir, I’ll take the throne and have the knights find this juicy bit of evidence. The princess and her escort will be killed on the spot and war will be declared on Ruatha. Vengeance will be ours.”
“There you are!” Ralph cried as the door opened and Maple walked into the guest apartments. “I was starting to get worried.”
Maple laughed, giving him a goofy grin as she closed the door. She threw her arms out, twirling in a circle of ecstasy. “You were right Ralph!”
“I was? Of course I was right!” Ralph paused a moment and frowned. “What was I right about?”
“Prince Fiyero, you told me to give him half a chance and I did and he’s wonderful! He’s better than that. He’s simply marvelous!”
“It’s just us, Maple, you can drop the big words.”
She floated over to the window. Much to her delight, it overlooked the courtyard. Sighing with content, she gazed down at the pretty orchids and the high woods, home to the wood nymphs she and Fiyero had created together. This was better than stories about the dusty old family tapestry back home, and at last, she had someone to make up stories with. Down there, she saw their tree, the bountiful Kym Tree. “Ralph…” she whispered gently.
“I’m going to come clean.”
“I’m going to tell Fiyero the truth.”
Red alert sirens went off in the back of Ralph’s head. “What? You can’t do that!”
“I have to be honest with him,” Maple insisted, turning around to face him. “I’m not going to lie any more.”
“But Maple, if you tell him the truth then you can’t marry him. Prince Fiyero has to marry a princess.”
“If he cares for me the same way I care for him then it won’t matter. Love is above the law.”
“Love? Maple, don’t you think you’re rushing things a bit?”
“I thought I was at first,” she told him in a dreamy voice that in all their years, he had never before heard her use. “But as we were walking, I realized that we have so much in common. He doesn’t laugh at me about making up stories or believing in magic.”
“Maple, you can’t come clean.” As she was opening her mouth to object, Ralph held up a hand quickly, “Not yet.”
“When…” Ralph began pacing the room, nervously tapping his knuckles against his palm.
She stomped her foot on the ground impatiently. “When?”
“Tomorrow!” Ralph blurted out.
“Tomorrow.” Maple mulled this over for a moment. She seemed to decide it was acceptable, because she slowly nodded her head. “All right,” she declared, “I’ll tell him tomorrow.”
“Good,” Ralph said, allowing a sigh of relief to escape. “For now, we should finish up with your final lesson.”
“Well, of course dancing,” Ralph chuckled. “It’s a ball. What did you think you were going to do?”
“Come over here.”
“I’m going to teach you how to dance.”
She looked at him, a bit incredulous. “You know how to dance?” she asked in a skeptical tone.
“Do I know how to dance? Of course I know how to dance! Now come over here, Maple.”
Maple crossed over to Ralph. As she did, he noticed that she delicately lifted her skirt off the floor a bit, the way they had seen some of the courtier ladies do so earlier in the day. “All right, teach me.”
Ralph’s mind raced. In truth, he wasn’t much of a dancer at all. Oh, to be certain, he attended some formals and festivals alike, but as far as the dancing went, he was more of an observer, offering words of great encouragement from the sidelines. “Well,” he stumbled, “the key to dancing is eye contact.”
“Well, you have to anticipate your partner’s next move. Now for me, the man, it’s easy. I get to lead. Your task is to try and follow, doing the exact opposite while wearing ridiculously high shoes.”
“I don’t know. That’s just the way it is.”
“How do we begin?”
“The general custom is to bow and curtsy.” Maple started to bend over. “No, no, no,” Ralph chuckled, catching her shoulders and straightening her up again. “I’ll bow.” With great humility, Ralph stooped in a low bow to her. “And you’ll curtsy.”
“Like this?” she asked, gathering her skirt in her hands. Maple lowered herself, performing a remarkably graceful curtsy for such a clumsy, awkward girl.
“Just like that,” Ralph told her as she straightened out again.
“And now what?”
“And now…” Ralph slowly reached out his hands. He placed his right hand on her side, his fingers just gracing her back. With his other hand, he took hers. “Put your hand on my shoulder.” She obeyed. Ralph leaned down a little bit, taking up part of her skirt in his left fingers.
“Now, we start dancing.” Without another word, Ralph began to move in sudden, jerky motions across the floor, doing his best to lead Maple in a waltz. Maple followed along perfectly, though she replicated his mistakes as if they were a part of the dance. Still, at least they were in sync.
“Is this all there is to it? It’s quite easy.”
“No, this is just the beginning,” he answered, his mind racing back to every last formal dance he had ever attended.
“Now we start with the fancy stuff.”
To demonstrate, Ralph suddenly let go with one hand. He spun Maple around in a circle, her dress flaring out then roped her back into his arms. “Fancy stuff.”
“Try this one.” Ralph stopped mid-step and transferred all his weight to his right foot. He dipped Maple back, so far that her turban nearly touched the floor before he managed to pull her back up and return to the basic steps.
“You’re not keeping your own rule.”
“Oops.” Ralph locked gazes with Maple. As he did so, a funny memory flashed through his mind. He raced back to when their courtship had first begun, years ago. For some reason, he wasn’t certain why, he remembered the silliest little ritual they used to follow. He would slip little knick knacks into her pockets, useless things really, gasha seeds and plastic rings and other toys. Now, as he led her in a dance she was to dance for another man, he wondered why he should think of something so silly, so trivial, at a time like this.
There was a knock on the door. Ralph gestured for Maple to respond. “Who is it?” she asked.
“One hour to the ball, princess,” a page called from the other side of the door. “One hour to the ball.”
“One hour, thank you!” she shouted back brightly. Suddenly, she stopped dancing and all the color drained from her face. “One hour!! Ralph, what do I do? I need to get dressed!”
“Relax, relax,” he told her evenly. “I’ve put all of the things you’ll need in the adjoining room. Just go put it on. Oh, and take off that turban.”
“Take off the turban?”
“Give that hair of yours a good brush. That should do the trick.”
“All right.” She leaned forward and gave him a big kiss on the cheek. “Thank you, Ralph!”
With that, she darted out of the room, closing the door behind her. Ralph stood still, watching the door. Almost unconsciously, at first, he touched his cheek. His panic from Maple announcing she wanted to come clean hadn’t died down. He knew what it meant: He would have to get the Amulet tonight. Of course, Link would be on his case, but Ralph had it all worked out.
After putting in an appearance at the ball to watch Maple’s debut and make sure that Link saw him, Ralph would merely slip out the servants’ entrance and make his way to the treasury. He would swipe the Amulet, bring it back to the room, and return to the ball. Assuming he was able to recognize the Amulet right away, it couldn’t possibly take more than half an hour. With any luck, Link wouldn’t even notice his absence, and if he did, Ralph would merely laugh and ask if Link really thought it possible to steal a priceless artifact and return in half an hour’s time. Yes, Ralph was fairly pleased with himself. It was a good plan, nay, a perfect plan. Little did he know that his perfect plan would unravel due to his own dealings.
Link felt more than a little funny, walking down the halls in ball garments. Galaxian attire was somewhat different from what Hylians wore to such formal occasions. The fact of the matter was that Link almost felt naked without his sword and it didn’t help that his shirt exposed so much of his chest. He felt as though he were wearing a vest instead of a tunic. The laces were practically at his bellybutton. Oh well, he supposed, he would just have to honor the customs of these people. It was the proper and the polite thing to do.
As he passed down the corridor, he noticed some of the foreign princesses lined up to enter the throne room paying him more attention than he was comfortable with. Several girls waved coyly, calling out to him. Of course, beautiful though they were, they paled in comparison to the Hylian monarchy. Again, Link felt the wistful longings for home that had been plaguing him ever since he first awoke to the music of Din’s band in Holodrum.
“Soon,” he whispered to himself. “Soon.”
By this point, he had arrived at the entrance to the throne room. The doors were closed and barred, several burly knights standing before them with their arms folded across their barrel sized chests. “The throne room isn’t open to guests yet, Hylian,” one of the guards told him.
“My name is Link,” he said hotly.
“Whatever, Ruatha sympathizer,” the guard snarled.
Link had two choices. He could engage, or he could just walk away. If he had been carrying his sword, perhaps he might have been tempted to engage. Seeing Ralph had put in him a foul mood. But, as his sword was far away and he was grossly outnumbered, Link chose the latter option. Heatedly, he turned on heel and marched away. He supposed he would go back to his room and wait for the ball to begin, as he had no desire to be the object of these princesses’ amorous gazes.
By this point, Link had the gist of the castle. When he had first arrived, he had longed for a map and compass to guide him, but Link fancied himself reasonably good at navigating after all he had been through. He marched down the hall, his boots pounding the floor a bit harder than usual. He didn’t like this fancy boots, not at all. They were too difficult to walk in. Suppose he had to move quickly?
Violently, Link shook his head. He was too accustomed to bloodshed. This was a social event. There would be dancing and the only punch he had to worry about was the kind the people drank. Scolding himself thus, Link turned the corner and nearly toppled over a jittery looking man walking in the opposite direction. “Oh!” Link cried, reaching out to steady the teetering man. “I’m terribly sorry.”
“Oh my…” the nervous man mumbled. “You’re the Hylian. I heard there was a Hylian around here.”
“My name is Link,” Link repeated.
“Link? The Hero of Holodrum?”
Link rubbed the back of his neck. “Well…”
“My name is Jason,” the other man replied, reaching out to pump Link’s hand heartily.
Some surprise registered on Link’s face. He hadn’t been expecting a fan. “Nice to meet you, Jason.”
“It’s an honor, sir, truly and honor.”
“It is true that you’ve vanquished eighteen monsters?”
“Well, I’ve fought a lot of monsters really. Eighteen of them were really hard, I guess.”
“That’s amazing. Simply amazing.”
Jason frowned a little bit. “We shouldn’t be standing here talking like this. She might see.”
He glanced from side to side anxiously. “Lachesis.”
“Lachesis? The walking bad attitude?”
“The high minister.” Jason looked both ways again before grabbing Link’s arm. “Come with me.” At once, Jason dragged Link down the hall. Baffled though he was, Link allowed this. If nothing else, this was certainly a good, entertaining way to pass the time until the ball started. Link was all too bemused to discover that he had soon been pulled into a broom closet. “We’ll be safe here,” Jason whispered.
“Unless the brooms have teeth.”
“Or ears,” Jason said darkly.
Link folded his arms across his chest. “What do you mean?”
“Listen, I can’t tell you how I know this. I just know.”
“What is it?”
“There’s going to be trouble.”
“Tonight. At the ball.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
Jason made a pained expression. “Because I know you can stop it.”
“You’re the hero of Holodrum. You killed eighteen monsters.”
“Are you expecting a monster in formal wear?”
“What kind of trouble is it?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Jason, do you want me to stop this trouble?” Jason nodded miserably. “I can’t stop it unless I know what’s coming.”
“Then why can’t you tell me?”
“Because she’s put a binding spell on me.”
“Who?” Jason worked his mouth for a moment, as if he were fighting to pry his own lips apart. When that failed, he struck a pose, folding his arms across his chest and popping his hip to one side. “Lachesis?” Link guessed.
“A binding spell? How is that possible? There’s no magic in Galaxia, everyone knows that.”
“I can’t tell you that either.”
“What can you tell me?”
“I’ve pretty much reached my limit.”
Link scowled. “Could you write it down? The kind of trouble you’re expecting at the ball, that is.”
“I can’t write in Common. I only know the letters for the old language.”
“Well, that’s a problem, as I don’t know your old language, whatever it is.”
“So what do we do?”
“You’re going to have to act it out.”
“Like you did when you wanted to say ‘Lachesis.’”
“I don’t know if I can do that.”
“You’re going to have to try,” Link told him firmly. He sat down on an overturned bucket on the floor. “Now, what kind of trouble are you expecting?
Jason held up five fingers.
He nodded. Next, he did a pantomime dance with an invisible partner, getting a little elaborate with his waltz steps.
“That the ball?”
Grinning, Jason touched his nose. He drew an invisible sword from his belt, brandishing it above his head.
Jason shook his head.
Clapping his hands, Jason moved on. Puffing out his chest, he planted his hands firmly on his hips and lifted his chin into the air, flaring his nostrils slightly.
“After the prince?”
He nodded again, holding his hand up with his thumb and forefinger close together.
“Small word?” Link licked his lips. “The? It? In? Is? Of? A? With? To? Be? And?” Jason pointed to him. “And! The prince and…?” Jason continued pointing at him. “Yes, I know, the word is ‘and.’ Who else are the assassins marking?” Still, Jason pointed at Link. Slowly, it dawned on him. “Me? They’re after me?”
“Yes,” Jason managed to get out of his mouth.
“You’re in the way,” Jason explained. “You’re messing things up.”
“I seem to have a knack for that.”
“Can you stop it?”
“Well…” Link ran through several scenarios, given what he knew about the geography of the ballroom. “I can’t do very much without my sword. And I don’t think they’ll let me bring it. According to tradition, I think it’s only the prince who’s allowed to carry a weapon, right?”
“A ceremonial weapon.”
“I’ll need my sword.”
“I can get it to you.”
“Just trust me.”
“Can I trust you?”
Jason nodded. “I swear on the ancestors of my clan.”
“All right.” Link narrowed his eyes. “But betray me, and you’ll wish those ancestors hadn’t gotten around to begetting.”
Link stood up, slapping his thighs. “Follow me. I’ll show you where I keep my sword.”
Lachesis had intended to arrive early at the ball. She was just departing from her quarters, but something stopped her cold. Against the glass window of her sitting room, overlooking the front of the castle, she heard a soft ping. Scowling, she made her way to the window and looked down. Standing below, with a handful of rocks, she saw a dark figure, meticulously tossing stones up at her room. Lachesis unlatched the window and opened it a crack. “Stay down there,” she hissed.
At once, she shot out of the room, flying down the hallway as fast as she could while still retaining her dignity. She hefted her skirts up slightly, careful to preserve her appearance as much as possible for the ball. After all, she wanted to look good when she was tragically crowned queen. The entrance hall, she knew full well, would be completely deserted. There might be one lonely guard watching the front door, but that wouldn’t be a problem. She was high minister.
It was no problem getting out onto the castle grounds. Swiftly, Lachesis made her way around the high turret of the observation tower. Up ahead, in the distance, she could see a dark silhouette against the moonlight, staring up at the high walls of the palace. “Cimon,” she whispered fiercely. The figure turned to see her approaching and raised his hand in salute.
When Lachesis got near, she soon recognized the features of Cimon, bathed in moonlight. His face looked a bit sallow, paler than before, and there was a large bruise on his left cheek, but other than that, he was much the same; a gangly, spry fellow with feathery tufts of brown hair. To be certain, Lachesis had not anticipated seeing him again. She managed to hide her shock as she approached, looking him once over before pulling her arm back and slapping him across the face, making certain to strike where his bruise was.
“Hey!” Cimon shouted, his head turning sharply to the side.
“Keep your voice down.”
“What was that for?” he asked, rubbing his face.
“That was for showing your face here,” she snapped. “What if someone sees us together?”
“Tonight’s the ball, isn’t it?” he snipped. “I imagine most of the security is going to be inside.”
“What are you doing back here?” she questioned him. “I thought the Ruathans had captured you.”
“They did,” he grumbled.
“How did you get out?”
“I bribed the guards.”
“Works every time.”
“No thanks to you.”
“I assume you accomplished what I asked of you.”
“There are barely any wells left in Ruatha to destroy.”
“I hope your plan is going well.”
“It would be,” Lachesis hissed, “if the fool King Corbel hadn’t sent his daughter into the middle of this.”
“King Corbel’s daughter is attending the ball tonight. And the foolish Fiyero seems taken with her.”
“No, she’s not.”
“I’ve just come back from Ruatha. Princess Kym certainly isn’t attending any courtship balls.”
Lachesis examined his face closely. “Kym Corbel was just announced this morning. The Hylian who came from Ruatha –”
“Link…” Cimon growled, the memory of Link’s Ruathan trap still very fresh in his mind.
“Link vouched for the girl himself.”
“Well, Link was obviously bluffing. Again.”
“I don’t understand…”
“Lachesis, I swear to you, Princess Kym Corbel is safely nestled at home with her father and her nurse.”
“She’s fourteen years old!”
“Well…this is unexpected.”
“Whoever is in there is obviously a fraud.”
“So it would seem.”
Cimon puffed out his chest a little bit. “So?” he asked with a cocky edge to his voice. “Does this please you?”
“Yes,” Lachesis answered. “It pleases me very much. Nevertheless, I shall go ahead with my plan for tonight.”
“What’s the plan?”
“An assassination of the prince. And the Hylian.”
“Good,” Cimon declared. “The little runt deserves to die.”
“You seem awfully cross.”
“He’s the fink that got me in trouble with the Ruathan government.”
“What do you mean?”
“He caught me burning the well. I did like you told me, I told him I was working under King Corbel’s orders but…he found me out.”
“So you two have a personal history then?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“Listen, Lachesis,” Cimon transitioned, tucking his hands into his pockets. “I’ve been pretty good up until this point of not asking too many questions. But now, after all I been through, I gotta know. What is your plan exactly?”
“My plan is frightfully simple,” she said.
“I mean to start a war between Galaxia and Ruatha.”
“Yeah? What’s in it for you?”
“Plenty, provided I play my part right.”
“That’s great. I’m happy for you, really.” He looked her dead in the eye. “Now…what’s in it for me?”
“Well, Cimon, I’m glad you asked that.”
“Yeah,” she said, imitating his provincial accent.
“Well, I certainly don’t want to leave any loose ends untended to in my plan. And you, Cimon, are an enormous loose end.”
“What do you mean?”
“You did just tell me you had a history with our Hylian friend, did you not?” she asked.
“Well, suppose he sees us talking like this again? Don’t you think that would cause a lot of trouble for the plan?”
“We must take some steps to protect ourselves, mustn’t we?”
“So what do you want me to do? Go into hiding or something?”
“What I had in mind is a bit simpler.”
From her bustier, Lachesis drew a knife. “Something quicker too.”
Cimon’s eyes widened. He took a step back. “You can’t be serious.”
“Oh, I am serious,” Lachesis told him gently, moving forward to match his steps. “Dead serious.”
“I’ll scream,” he cautioned her.
“Who will hear you? Tonight’s the ball, isn’t it? I imagine most of the security is going to be inside.”
“You can’t do this,” he said, taking another step back.
“I can,” she stepped forward, “and I will.”
“Oh, go ahead, scream. I’ll enjoy it.”
Cimon broke out into a mad sprint, dashing across the green toward the murky castle moat in the distance. Lachesis laughed, watching him for a few moments. Her eyes lit up, bright green, and she lifted her hand. Instantly, a green ether shot out from her palm, uncoiling like a rope and catching Cimon around his ankle. She pulled back, the hapless man sliding across the grass on ethereal strings. In no time at all, the screaming, quivering mass that was Cimon was at her feet.
“Goodbye, Cimon,” she said gently.
“I was faithful to you!”
“I know,” she told him. “And I’m very grateful for it.” Without another word, she pulled her arm back and stabbed Cimon in the chest. He cried out in agony, but soon his shouts turned to pathetic groans and finally to silence. Lachesis delayed, frozen there for a minute before brutally yanking her blade out. Mistake! A geyser of blood came shooting out, falling on Lachesis’ dress. She scowled in discontent. Now she would have to change, she’d be late for the ball.
The throne room glittered and sparkled, and most of it wasn’t from the guests’ diamonds. In preparation for this ball, the royal decorators had gone to great lengths to make the room look like a net of a thousand stars. Celestial objects of glass hung on invisible fishing line from the ceiling, casting rainbow colored refractions over the mahogany floor, stained royal purple. Along the sides of the room, silver garlands were draped across the walls, attached to gold and copper balls, making them look like the tails of comets. From the crystal chandelier hung orbs of various metals, some of them ringed, others just as they were, a mini solar system.
As fantastic as the throne room was however, it was nothing more than a stop on the way to the ballroom. A doorway opened onto a large staircase, leading down to the glittering black dance floor, embedded with diamonds and sapphires, the most incredible display of wealth in the realm, as far as Link was concerned. He stood in the middle of the room, watching the staircase as princess after princess was announced by a pudgy herald and ushered into the ball.
Prince Fiyero stood at the bottom of the steps on the left side. Even in formal attire, he had found a way to show off his impressive muscles. He wore a sleeveless white tunic under a violet vest, both going down to past his knees. Around his waist as a gold sash and a belt with a buckler. Hanging from his neck was an amulet, on one side emblazoned with the figure of an enormous tree on one side and a tiny sapling on the other. Tight gray leggings, padded a bit at the calves, gave way to brown boots, studded with gold circles around the ankle.
He greeted each princess as she arrived, bowing politely and kissing her hand before returning it to her assigned escort. Link observed that he didn’t really seem to be paying much attention to the girls as they passed his way. It was as if he weren’t looking for his bride to be at all, but rather just going through the motions. This caused Link to frown. He was certain that, had he been looking for a bride, he’d be paying a bit more attention. Then again, Link supposed, this isn’t how he’d met his wife to be. Balls weren’t his style.
“Appetizer?” a voice asked from behind his right shoulder. Link turned around and immediately found Jason standing behind him.
“Yes,” Link said, reaching out to take a treat from the tray Jason was carrying with his left hand. As he did so, he opened his right hand and suddenly felt the familiar handle of his trusty sword. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure, sir,” Jason answered with a bow. At once, he turned on heel and walked away, carrying his tray over to another cluster of partygoers.
Link carefully tucked his sword into his belt, keeping it tight against his leg so it could only be seen from one side. He knew, of course, that there would be trouble if anyone caught him with a weapon, especially since a lot of the guards clearly took him for a Ruathan sympathizer. Still, considering what Jason had told him, Link decided it was best to be prepared. He’d rather breech etiquette than die for want of a weapon in a fight.
Ralph entered the ballroom up at the top of the steps. All guests who weren’t princesses descended on the left side and so did Ralph, bypassing any kisses from Fiyero. Link had to admit, the fellow cleaned up reasonably well. At least his hair wasn’t sticking straight up. This time it was at an angle. “Where’s Maple?” Link asked as Ralph trotted over to his side.
“Getting dressed,” he replied. “Some trouble with a bauble or bangle or something.”
“Women’s clothing is…” Just then, a woman walked past the duo, wearing an enormous headpiece of peacock feathers that shot up into the air, nearly two feet higher than the top of her head.
“Yeah…” Ralph muttered, watching her pass.
“Listen, Ralph,” Link said quietly. “I think there’s going to be trouble tonight. Keep close watch on Maple.”
“If you mean that prince getting too fresh with her,” he responded with a laugh, “Well, Maple can hold her own.”
“That’s really not what I –”
“Yes, sir, my Maple is one tough little –”
“Princess Kym Corbel of Ruatha!” the herald at the top of the steps shouted loudly.
At once, all eyes were turned to the entrance. Standing high above the crowd was Maple, but, Link had to admit he would never have been able to recognize her had he not been an unwilling coconspirator. She looked completely transformed. The dress was a stunning blue, the color of the ocean after a storm, with gold fabric lining the top of the bodice. Maple’s long window sleeves were gold as well, trailing down to the floor. A gold chain was wrapped around her narrow middle, the excess dangling down the front of the gown and ending with two balls of blue glass. As for her hair, it wasn’t the knotty, tangled mess Link remembered from his previous encounters with Maple. Instead, it fell to her shoulders in silky, dark cascades.
Slowly, with great poise, she made her way down the stairs. Everyone in the room was whispering excitedly, staring at this shining girl as if they had never seen a lady before. Fiyero, on the bottom of the stairs, crossed to the center and held out his hand for her. She easily slipped her hand into his and stepped onto the floor. Fiyero kissed her knuckles, bowing as he did so. Maple curtsied. Without any audible exchange, he tucked her arm on top of his and led her out to the dance floor.
In the very center of the ballroom, they turned to face each other. Fiyero slipped his hands into a dancing position as Maple stooped to pick up the hem of her dress’s train. With a curt nod, Fiyero signaled the musicians who began to play a lively waltz. Together, the two of them glided across the floor, under the admiring eyes of all the men and the jealous eyes of all the women in the room.
Link turned to look at Ralph. His mouth was absolutely gaping open, like a fish. He stared at Maple, almost sputtering. “It looks like you’ve created a monster,” Link joked.
Ralph’s eyes never left the dancing couple. “Yeah…” he whispered softly, almost to himself.
“She looks great.”
“Ralph?” Link waved his hand in front of Ralph’s eyes, but they remained glazed and fixed.
Soon, the dance was ended. Amidst a light spattering of applause, Fiyero spoke softly to Maple, in words no one else could hear. She smiled at him and answered something. Fiyero reached to the chain around his neck and removed the necklace, slipping it over Maple’s head and gently pulling her hair out from under it. He gestured to the musicians and they prepared to play another song.
Before a single note could be played, a horrifying shriek filled the room. Link turned to look at the top of the steps, and, as he had expected, there stood five people, all of them dressed in black, wearing identical masks which were purple on one side and black on the other. More upsetting than the masks, though, was the fact that all five of them were brandishing sharp swords, two apiece. The one standing in the middle of the line was clearly the leader. She let out a sharp screech, pointing first to Fiyero and then to Link, and at once, the others descended on the ballroom.
The party guests screamed, toppling over each other to get out of the path of the four assassins. “Get behind me,” Link heard Fiyero shout, stepping in front of Maple and drawing his ceremonial sword.
Two of the assassins made their way for Link. Without thought for etiquette, Link lifted his sword, charging to meet them in the comfort of his old, brown boots. When he encountered the first, he immediately spun around, catching the assassin behind the knees as he shot past. The confused warrior let out a yelp of surprise and flipped onto his back, two threads of blood forming on his legs. Link planted his foot on the assassin’s chest and turned to his fellow, parrying two thrusts with his sword.
The assassin on the floor tried to lift his blade to cut Link’s arm, but Link quickly shifted his weight and kicked him in the head, knocking him out. As he turned his attention to the second assassin, Ralph came up from behind and brained him on the head with an appetizer platter. Link guessed that behind the mask, was a momentary look of shock before the assassin crumpled over.
“Thanks, Ralph!” Link shouted.
“What should I do?”
“Tie them up!”
Link turned to look where the other two assassins had gone. Fiyero was engaged with one of them in quite the duel, their blades dancing across the space like feathers. The second one seemed to be frozen in shock, but when Link turned to look at Maple, he realized she was whispering quietly while staring at him. A jinx. Taking advantage of the spellbinding, Link raced over to the frozen assassin and hit him on the back of the head with his hilt.
“This one too, Ralph!” Link shouted.
“I got it!”
Next, Link looked up at the top of the stairs. The lead assassin had not yet descended. She stood on the railing of the staircase, watching as the frightened nobility scrambled out of the room as fast as possible, feathers, sequins, and diamonds flying everywhere. When she saw Link looking up at her, quite alive and well, she shifted her weight, sliding down the banister as if surfing. At the end, she flipped in the air and landed on her feet, her arms out at her sides for balance. Link charged forward, sweeping his sword from side to side
The assassin met him head on, clapping her swords together to catch his blade. They grappled like this for a moment before Link pulled back and kicked her in the face. The mask took the brunt of the blow, but she released her hold on Link’s sword long enough for him to get a good, clean cut at her left knee. She clearly hadn’t been expecting this, so she fell off balance, dropping down to a wounded crouch. Link pointed his sword at her throat.
Suddenly, and much to Link’s surprise, the masked stranger grabbed hold of the blade with both her hands. With a primal grunt, she pulled it forward, impaling herself. “Hey!” Link shouted, but it was too late. The assassin dropped down dead on the floor. Link wouldn’t be able to question her now.
As Link turned around, he saw Fiyero and his attacker still engaged in combat. Ralph was kneeling at Maple’s feet, tying up another one of the prone assassins and Maple had her eyes locked on Fiyero. Carefully, holding his sword at the ready, Link made his way closer and closer to the fight. Fiyero was decent, but he wasn’t on the same level as a professional. Link could tell that the assassin would soon have the upper hand.
Right as Link arrived on the scene, Fiyero’s blade went flying of his hand, clattering to the floor somewhere far away. Fiyero held up his hands in surrender and the assassin started to close in on him. Link placed the tip of his sword on the assassin’s back. “I wouldn’t,” he said calmly.
Immediately, the assassin dropped his swords. Fiyero lowered his arms, looking over at Link. “I owe you my life, Hylian.” With that, he punched the assassin in the face, sending him to the floor.
Link shrugged slightly. “Nah.”
By this point, finally, the noisy sound of armor reached the ballroom. Fiyero’s knights came trooping in, too late for the fray. “Take them away,” Fiyero snapped angrily.
“Yes, my lord,” one of the knights said. At once, they got to work, hauling off the surviving assassins.
“They aren’t from Ruatha,” Link said, trying to cut off any conclusions Fiyero might draw as quickly as possible.
The prince merely nodded his acknowledgement. Fiyero turned to Maple, offering her a hand. “Are you all right, Princess?” he asked her gently.
Maple nodded. “I’m fine.”
“So much for security around here,” he said bitterly.
“It’s all right,” Maple assured him. “We’re all right.”
“Looks like the party’s broken up though,” Link added. Indeed, the ballroom had been deserted. All that remained of the nobility that had been littering the room moments earlier were various scarves, fans, and pieces of jewelry that had been abandoned in the panic.
Looking at Maple, Fiyero caressed her cheek. “Oh, I don’t mind all that much,” he said.
“No?” she questioned him.
“Not at all. Why would I want to be in a crowded room with lots of people I don’t know or like when I could spend my time alone with you?” To Link, that sounded a little mushy, but Maple seemed to appreciate it. Suddenly, and much to everyone’s surprise, Fiyero leaned forward, taking her face in his hands, and kissed her.
There was screaming in the hallway. Phillia stood in the darkest corner of her bedroom, listening to the panic outside of her door. She had absolutely no idea what was going on, true, but somehow, she knew it absolutely had to be connected to her older sister. Lachesis was many things. Subtle was not among them. Nervously, Phillia twisted a curl in her fingers. Perhaps, she supposed hopefully, this meant that she wouldn’t have to attend the ball after all.
Uneasily, she crossed over to the narrow window, overlooking the front of the castle. As she peered out, she could see dozens of regal figures streaming out of the front gate, rushing over the lowered draw bridge. Already, several coaches had appeared, the horses galloping at a frantic pace. Phillia leaned closer. Princesses were wrestling each other out of the way to board and take off, no thought left for luggage or their escorts. Everyone seemed in a great hurry to get far away from the castle.
Phillia turned away from the scene. There was nothing like a moment of panic to show a person’s true colors. How disgusting people could be! Sighing, she walked over to her vanity. Lachesis had left her all sorts of silly creams and rogues that princesses were expected to wear. Frankly, Phillia was loath to put them on as she had no idea how they were supposed to be used. What a silly game this was, hunting royalty like a prize bull.
A knock came at the door. “Who is it?” she asked wearily.
“It’s me,” came Jason’s voice from the other side.
“Come in!” she hissed excitedly, rushing over to the door and pulling the latch back.
Jason came running into the room, flying right past Phillia who held the door. He looked around in great confusion, seeing an empty room in front of him. “Phillia?” he muttered in confusion.
Behind him, Phillia shut the door. “Over here.”
Jason yelped and turned around, looking surprised. “Oh!” He took a few steps in her direction before stopping cold, frozen in place.
“What’s the matter?”
“Phillia, you look beautiful.”
“Do I?” And she did indeed. Phillia’s older sister may have been of horrible intentions most of the time, but she did have excellent taste when it came to choosing gowns for her little sister. Phillia looked absolutely stunning in the pink dress, the empire waistline and cap sleeves lined with gold lace. Half of her golden curls were pulled back behind her head with a satin ribbon. On top of her head was a wreath of leaves hammered out of gold.
“Uh huh…” Jason grunted with a nod.
“Thank you.” Phillia frowned, looking over her shoulder at the door, closing them off from the noisy hallway. “What’s going on?”
“The ball was attacked by assassins,” Jason explained.
“Lachesis!” Phillia cried angrily.
“Don’t worry, everyone’s all right. At least…I think everyone’s going to be all right.”
“How can you say that?”
“Because…” Jason shifted his weight nervously from one foot to the other. “Because I told someone.”
“I told someone about Lachesis’ plan.”
“I know, I know.”
“How could you do a foolish thing like that?”
“I did what I had to do!” he declared firmly.
“Who did you tell?”
“Lachesis wanted him dead too, and I couldn’t let her do that. He’s the great hero we’ve heard about.”
“Wow…Link is in our castle.”
“And my sister wanted him dead.” Phillia scowled. “Jason, you did the right thing…”
“Oh, Jason!” She surged forward, flinging her arms around him. “How I fear for you now!”
“What do you mean?”
“Lachesis will find out.”
“You know she will. She has eyes everywhere and she’s smart. She’ll figure out that you were the one to tip off the Hylian.”
“She won’t find out.”
“How can you say that?”
“Because, I’m not going to be here to know one way or the other.”
“What do you mean?”
“Yes. And you’re coming with me.”
Phillia blinked. “What?”
“Come with me, Phillia.”
He shook his head. “I’m doing this all wrong.”
At once, Jason stepped out of her embrace and took a knee in front of her. He gently clasped her hand in both of his, kissing her knuckles. “Phillia, will you marry me?”
“We’ve had this conversation before, Jason. I told you, there’s no way we could ever do it.”
“Are you going to live in fear of your sister for the rest of your life?”
Jason rose to his feet. “You are going to marry me. And we are going to be very happy, living someplace far away with our family.”
Phillia looked at him for a moment, a silly grin appearing on her face. “Family?” she asked coyly.
“Family.” He kissed her gently. “So? Will you?”
She looked at him fondly. “I will, Jason.
“Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll send for you after I’ve made all the arrangements,” he told her.
“Be careful to stay out of Lachesis’ sight until then, my love.”
“I’ll do the best I can.” For a second time, they kissed. They had no trinkets to exchange, no vows or tokens, only each other. But that was all they needed, for the mark of true love isn’t gold or diamonds, but rather devotion, something Jason and Phillia possessed in great abundance.
When Link knocked on the door, he didn’t expect to be greeted by silence. He wasn’t surprised, only disappointed. Deciding to give Ralph the benefit of the doubt, he knocked again, louder this time. Again, there was no response. Surely, he could afford Ralph one last chance. “Ralph!” he called into the door. Nothing.
Sighing, Link pulled back his leg and kicked the door in. The fancy hinges may have been beautiful, but they weren’t terribly strong and at once, the door fell over, hitting the ground with a satisfying smack. At any other time, the noise might have called half a dozen palace guards running, but the night had been so hectic that no one seemed to notice. Any guards that were still left in the castle were busy helping the remaining royal escorts to remove their princesses’ personal belongings. Not a single guest, save for the “Ruathan delegation” desired to remain in the dangerous castle a moment longer.
Link took half a step over the fallen doorway when he realized that, against his sinking suspicion, Ralph was indeed in the room. He sat on the side of his bed, knees splayed, his hands resting on top of them. His face was down, looking at the expensive carpeting, yet not really looking at it at all. Ralph hadn’t changed out of his ball attire, but he looked more rumpled and baggy than in his regular clothing to which Link was accustomed. Strangely, he showed absolutely no response to his door being broken down.
“Ralph?” Link asked hesitantly.
He must have known, now, that he could no longer ignore his summons. “Yeah?” he responded absently.
“What are you doing?”
“Sorry about the door.”
“I don’t have to pay for it.”
“Why didn’t you answer?”
“Hmmm,” Ralph grunted, noncommittally.
“Is everything all right?” Carefully, Link stepped over the door. He leaned down to pick it up, resting it against the doorframe.
A small, dry laugh escaped from Ralph’s lips. “That’s a really good question,” he deadpanned.
Link glanced over his shoulder at Ralph. Once he was certain that the door wouldn’t slide down, he walked over to the bed. “Shaken up by the assassination attempt?”
“You fought well,” Link coaxed him.
“Of course I fought well. I always fight well.”
Link decided not to contradict that statement. “I can’t help you unless I know what’s wrong.”
“Who said I wanted your help?”
“You haven’t thrown me out yet.”
“Maybe I should.”
“Go ahead.” But Ralph didn’t. Boldly, Link sat on the foot of the bed, watching the troubled man. “Well?”
“What happened at the ball.”
“But I thought you just said the assassination attempt didn’t scare you,” Link scoffed.
“Not the assassination attempt.”
“You mean the spell? I don’t think the prince noticed it. It sure was helpful though, I’ll tell you that.”
“Not the spell.”
Link frowned, turning this over in his mind. All at once, like a blinding flash, it hit him. “Oh…” he said softly. And the more he thought about it, the more it made sense. Ralph had seemed rather transfixed by Maple once she made her grand entrance. In fact, Link couldn’t remember Ralph ever stopping in mid-sentence before, but tonight he had when he saw Maple.
“Well, she looked amazing tonight.”
“I know. Perhaps a little too amazing. It just made me…”
“What?” Link coaxed him.
“What do you mean?”
“Maple and I have a history.”
“What sort of history?”
“We were in love.”
Blinking in surprise, Link sat up ramrod straight. “I didn’t know that.”
“It ended badly,” Ralph answered, waving the comment off with a gesture of his hand.
“She grew angry with me always putting my duty to Nayru above my devotion to her.”
“I can’t say I blame her.”
“I thought I could. She didn’t understand, I told myself. I guess she was right after all.”
“Is that what you remembered?”
“It’s funny. Usually, when I think about my relationship with Maple, I think about the end, when it was at its worst. But tonight, when I saw her like that, my mind went back to the beginning, when it was at its best.”
“I remembered the first time I told her that I loved her. We weren’t doing anything particularly special. Just walking. And suddenly, I realized that I loved her, so I blurted it out. Just like that.”
Link chucked softly. “Sounds fun.”
“It wasn’t very romantic.”
“Didn’t have to be.”
“No. Not with Maple.”
“Seeing her tonight just made me think of it, that’s all.”
“Well, Ralph,” Link said slowly, “I don’t know a lot about this sort of thing, I’m better at slaying monsters, but maybe, just maybe, some of those feelings for Maple are still unresolved.”
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe you still love her.”
“Of course I do!” Ralph blurted out before he even realized what he was saying. He sat up, looking bewildered. “I still love Maple,” he repeated again, more to himself than to Link.
“There’s nothing to be done about it.”
“She’s with that Fiyero guy now. And he seems to really like her.”
“I think you should tell her.”
“Well, suppose she still has feelings for you?”
“I don’t see why she would. I was a complete louse.”
“I’m not questioning that. But, if you don’t say something to her, you could end up regretting it for the rest of your life.”
“Wondering whether or not she feels that way for you.”
“Maybe you’re right.”
“I’ll let you think about it.” Link stood up and started for the door.
“Wait, wait a second. Why did you come here in the first place?”
“I thought you were going to try and steal the Amulet in the confusion.”
Ralph slapped his hand to his forehead. Why hadn’t he thought of that? As Link left the room, he supposed, deep down, he knew exactly why he hadn’t done like Link suggested and stolen the Amulet in the confusion. He had been too concerned about Maple. For the first time in his recollection, Ralph had chosen Maple over his duty to Nayru.
Maple felt giddy when she woke the next morning. Images of the night swam happily before her eyes as she lay in bed, staring up at the beautifully painted mural of wildlife on the ceiling above her. She touched her hands to her face, running her fingers over the silly smile. Of course, it was wrong to be so contented after the great panic, but she simply couldn’t help it. Their loss was just her good fortune and because they had fled in such a panic over some silly little assassins, she had been granted an entire evening alone with Fiyero.
She slid out of bed and quickly dressed in yet another one of the gowns Ralph had procured for her. This one was fairly basic, a red peplos chiton clipped together by gold pins. There was a gold net which she threw over her hair, though several wispy strands escaped. Maple still had to accustom herself to this sleek, smooth texture; she was used to the gnarls. For a finishing touch, Maple threw the amulet Fiyero had given her around her neck.
When she left her apartment, she noticed that the door to Ralph’s room was shut. She paused briefly to knock, but there was no reply on the other side. Shrugging, she decided to let Ralph sleep and started on her way down the hall through the main door which had mysteriously broken off of its hinges last night. The castle had grown quite empty with the severe decrease in royal guests. Maple made the walk to the throne room more or less alone with her thoughts. And they were certainly enough to keep her company.
In some ways, Maple couldn’t believe she had only met Fiyero yesterday. In her heart and her soul, she felt as if she had known him all her life. All last night, they had walked together, making up stories about the fictional wood nymphs living in the courtyard. A pang of guilt stung at Maple as she remembered the tree Fiyero had named after her. The tree he thought he had named after her. Maple was determined to come clean today. It was the right thing to do.
The doors to the throne room were wide open. Lifting her skirt a bit, Maple crossed over the threshold. She expected to be greeted by a herald or page, anxious to announce her to the room, but much to her surprise, there was no one by the door except for two knights, honor guards, she assumed, each holding a large pike. This was nothing shocking, but as Maple gazed across the throne room, a new sight blazed in her eyes. Sitting in Fiyero’s throne, looking very much at home there, was Lachesis. Her hands rested lightly on the armrests and she glared condemningly across the room at little Maple.
“Good morning,” she said quietly.
“That is not your throne,” Maple replied fiercely, balling her hands up into fists at her sides.
“No,” Lachesis agreed, “I’m only borrowing it. But you would know something about borrowing from royalty, wouldn’t you?”
“Your robes sit nicely upon you. Exactly when were you planning on returning them to Princess Kym?”
Maple’s eyes widened in surprise. At once, she realized her blunder and narrowed them. “How dare you!”
“No!” Lachesis shouted, rising swiftly to her feet and crossing the room halfway to Maple. “How dare you! Do you take us Galaxians for fools?”
“Guards!” Lachesis snapped, pointing to Maple. “Seize her!”
Immediately, the guards flanking the door behind Maple sprang to life, both of them pointing their spears directly at her back. Maple whirled around angrily. “Lay down your weapons,” she ordered them, conjuring up the most authoritative voice she could.
“Do nothing she tells you,” Lachesis barked.
“Please cooperate,” one of the guards said.
“We don’t want to hurt you,” the other added.
“I know,” Maple said quietly. And with that, she flicked her wrist and both of the pikes turned into enormous green snakes.
The guards cried out in shock and fear, both of them dropping the snakes which immediately slithered across the room, vanishing into the shadows cast by the early morning sun. “Witch!” Lachesis screamed. This cry brought several more guards running. They filled up the doorway, all of them staring at Maple in fear. “Don’t just stand there! Arrest her.”
Not a guard moved. All of them stood there, watching Maple, clearly afraid to get too close. Inwardly, Maple sighed. All right, they wanted a witch; she’d give them a witch. Twirling her hands around each other, she began to chant quietly. “Ah tum ah tum eleka nahmen…”
“Don’t just stand there!” Lachesis shrieked. “Do something! Before she curses us all!”
“Eleka nahmen nahmen…”
“But high minister…” one of the guards started.
“Eleka!” Maple declared. At once, all of their weapons turned into serpents, slithering and sliding around their bodies before disappearing the same way the first two had gone.
“How dare you make a mockery of this castle!” Lachesis screamed.
“Who’s making a mockery of this castle?” The guards around the door quickly parted, stepping back to allow Fiyero to enter. “What is going on in here? Haven’t we had enough excitement?” In his mind, a horrible image was flashing. They had found a man outside the front of the castle who had literally been trampled to death, it seemed, in all the chaos.
“Your majesty,” Lachesis said, marching over to the crowded scene. “I charge that she is a witch!”
“The princess?” Fiyero repeated incredulously. “Are you mad?”
“She’s no princess. She’s a fraud.”
“What? Lachesis, you’ve gone daffy.” Fiyero turned to look at Maple. “Kym, tell this woman who you are.”
Maple looked back and forth between the two of them. “I…” This wasn’t how she wanted the truth to get out.
“Go on,” Lachesis prompted. “Weave your tale of lies. I know who and what you really are.”
“Lachesis, hold your tongue!” Fiyero barked. “Kym, what’s all this nonsense about?”
She frowned slightly, brushing a few wisps of hair back behind her ear. “I’m sorry.”
Fiyero took Maple’s shoulders, pulling her away from the crowd. “What’s the matter? Tell them it’s not true.”
Blinking back a few tears, Maple looked up into Fiyero’s gorgeous eyes. “My name is Maple,” she said quietly.
His hands fell away from her. “What?”
“I’m a witch’s apprentice.”
The prince took a step back. “Stop.”
“I’m from Labrynna. I’ve never even been to Ruatha.”
“You see, your majesty?” Lachesis said smugly, stepping in their direction. “She admits it. I’ve already taken the liberty of having her escort thrown in the dungeon. We await your orders on this girl.”
Fiyero didn’t take his eyes off of Maple. “You lied to me.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
“Your majesty?” Lachesis interjected.
He shook his head, his eyes glazing over. “Take her away,” he said softly. The guards stood in confusion, looking at each other. “Take her away!” Fiyero roared, his voice shaking the chandelier. Angrily, he surged forward and ripped the medallion from Maple’s neck. It fell to the floor with a loud clatter.
“I’m sorry,” Maple sobbed as the frightened guards carted her out of the room. She didn’t bother to put up a fight, nor did she chant any jinxes or spells. All she did was turn her head to look over her shoulder at Fiyero as she was removed from the room.
“Well, that was an ugly scene,” Lachesis said breezily. “I’m so sorry you had to get caught up in that.”
“Well, she had us all fooled.”
“Yes.” Like a zombie, Fiyero numbly crossed the room, returning to his throne. Unceremoniously, he sank down into his seat, resting his elbows on the armrests and cradling his head in his hands. “How many of the guests are left?”
“I’m afraid everyone has fled.”
“Are there any candidates for my hand remaining?”
Fiyero nodded slightly. He slowly drew himself up straight, casting his eyes about the empty room. “I want you to make a proclamation,” he told Lachesis in a stern, hollow voice.
“Yes, your majesty?”
“Spread word to all the courtiers and nobles of Galaxia. There shall be a wedding this morning.”
“A wedding, your majesty?”
“I will marry Phillia,” he said.
A smile spread across Lachesis’ face. “She will be most pleased to hear it, my lord.”
“Be on your way,” he replied coldly.
“Your majesty…there is one further matter to discuss, regarding this dreadful hoax.”
“What is it?”
“He vouched for our false princess.”
“That makes him one of this confederacy. For all we know, he didn’t come as an ambassador from Ruatha at all.”
“Shall I have the guards arrest him?”
“No,” Fiyero decided.
“He saved my life last night.”
“But your majesty, for all we know, it was he that ordered the assassins, merely to defeat them and endear himself to you.”
“One of them is dead. The other four were all Galaxian. Link did not send for them.”
“But your majesty!”
“I’ve made up my mind, Lachesis,” he told her in a frightfully calm voice.
“As you wish.”
He frowned a bit, his eyes never focusing. “But you are correct about him being part of the confederacy.”
“Shall I have him thrown in the dungeon?”
“He saved my life. I’ll not harm him.”
“Then what shall I do?”
“I hereby decree,” Fiyero said slowly, “that the Hylian known as Link is banished from my lands. I want him out of here by noon.”
“Your will be done,” Lachesis replied, bowing deeply to Fiyero.
Lachesis didn’t need to be told twice. She shot out of the throne room as quickly as she could, grinning like a jack-o-lantern. Fiyero was alone at last. He couldn’t describe the feeling deep in his chest. He felt empty, completely vacant, as if someone had ripped out his heart. And in a sense, someone had.
Ralph hated dungeons. To be certain, he didn’t know anyone who was overly fond of them, but he absolutely detested them; the way they smelled, the way they felt, the way the little hairs on his neck always stood up on end whenever he was confined to a small space. All right, so Ralph had never actually been locked up in a dungeon. Still, he intrinsically knew the suffocating sensation he was experiencing now.
He had already walked the length of his cell repeatedly, tried to lie down on the cot, tried climbing up the wall to look out of the ground level window, high above his head. There seemed to be nothing left to do to keep his mind off of his fears. This morning, he had received a rude awakening. Even before the sun rose, several knights had bombarded his room and dragged him, still in his nightshirt, down to the dungeon. There had been no explanation, no warrant, no words even. When Ralph had tried to cry out, his own sock had been shoved in his mouth.
In the dungeon, he had been allowed to scream all he cared to. It made no difference. They were far below ground, in an abandoned wing of the castle. Once he had satisfied his desires to scream, he tried to find any other way to keep his mind busy. All the while, a nagging thought haunted him. When? When would someone come to see him? When would he find out what he had done to deserve this? When would Link come to his rescue? When? When? When?
There was a faint clanking noise somewhere above him. At once, Ralph new he wouldn’t be alone long. In his mind, he tried to picture the fantastic battle Link was raging with the guards to release him from his cell. He could just see it now. Link would come charging down those steps any minute now, brandishing his sword, perhaps an ugly cut on the left side of his face, just across the corner of his eye.
The noise grew steadier and louder. Though Ralph struggled in a vain attempt to cling to his hopes, he knew it was for nothing. That steady sound wasn’t the noise of a battle. It was the noise of men marching in formation. With a withered sigh, Ralph sank down, sitting on the cot. Still, the noise was growing louder. At least something involving the dungeon would soon take place.
Somewhere beyond Ralph’s sightlines, the door to the dungeon flew open. The guards rushed down the stairs, coming straight up the center of the cellblock. Ralph rose to his feet again as he saw two of them approach his cell. One of them shoved a key into the lock and turned it until there was a click; the other one pulled the door open. Ralph took a step forward in the direction of the door, but then Maple was hurled in, crashing into Ralph and sending them both to the floor.
As quickly as they descended, the guards vanished, locking the door behind them. The noise of armor grew faint. “Maple?” Ralph asked, standing up and offering her a hand. “What happened?”
“What happened?” Maple seized Ralph’s hand violently and threw him down to the floor. “What happened?!?”
“I see you’re upset.”
Maple got to her feet. “Upset? Me? Upset? I’m the opposite of upset. I’m very upset!!!”
“That’s not the –”
Maple stalked across the room, violently ripping the gold net off of her head. She flung it down on the floor with a loud, “Aggghhh!”
Carefully, Ralph got up again. “What happened?”
Without looking at him, Maple replied, “They found out.”
“I don’t know!”
“You didn’t come clean, did you?”
“No. That wasn’t how I wanted Fiyero to find out.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“Lachesis…” Ralph muttered. “The walking bad attitude?”
Ralph ran a hand through his hair. “Huh.”
There was a brief silence before Maple spoke again. When she did, it was in a small, frightened voice. “What are they going to do to us?”
“You’ve got nothing to worry about,” Ralph told her firmly.
“Link will be down here any minute to rescue us.” If Maple wanted to refute this statement, she didn’t say anything. “Actually, I’m kind of glad we have a few minutes to ourselves. Maple, there’s something I want to tell you.”
“He was disgusted.”
“Fiyero. He would barely look at me.”
Finally, she turned to face Ralph. There were tears in her eyes and even more streaming down her cheeks. “He wouldn’t look at me.”
“It’ll be all right, Maple.”
She shook her head violently. “No, no, it can never be all right.”
“Don’t talk like that, Maple.”
“You don’t understand, Ralph.”
“What don’t I understand?”
“I love him.”
Ralph could feel himself deflate almost instantly. “What?”
“I love him, Ralph. I do.”
Somewhere above them, wafting down through the ground level window, the sound of bells could be heard. After a moment, she wiped her eyes. “What did you want to tell me?” she asked thickly.
“What? Oh, nothing. I just…” From out of their line of vision, Ralph and Maple heard the door to the dungeon slam open. Ralph attempted a small laugh. “See? What did I tell you? Here comes Link.”
But it wasn’t Link who greeted their sights. Instead, a lanky, funny looking man with a bundle of cloth under his arm appeared on the other side of the dungeon bars. “Who are you?” Maple asked.
“My name is Jason,” he replied.
“What are you doing here?” Ralph questioned him.
“Oh, I’m breaking you out.”
“I’m breaking you out.” As if to illustrate his point, Jason pulled a ring of keys from his pocket and began fiddling through them, trying to find the proper one.
“You hear those bells?” Jason said more to Maple than to Ralph.
“Yes,” Maple answered.
“Those are bells summoning the nobles to the castle for a wedding.”
“A wedding? Whose?”
“Who’s he marrying?” Ralph wondered.
“Ibsen…Lachesis Ibsen. He’s marrying into that snake’s family?”
“I don’t intend to let him,” Jason said, finally fitting a key into the door.
Jason turned the key and pulled the door open for Maple and Ralph. He tossed the bundle of clothing to Ralph. “Because, I love Phillia. And Fiyero loves you. Now hurry. We have a wedding to break up.”
As Link passed down the hall, he knew something was going on. The bells were anything but subtle. Yet, for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out what the trouble was. When he woke in the morning, there had been a slip of paper under his door from the castle steward, telling him that a message had arrived with his name on it. Curious and surprised, Link made his way to the small, cramped room in which the steward worked and received his letter. It had a royal seal on it, clearly from Ruatha. Link was actually quite surprised that a letter bearing the Ruathan stamp had made it to his possession without being opened, but deciding not to fret about it too much he took his correspondence and left as quickly as possible.
Now, as he made his way down the hall, his head aching a bit from the clamor of the bells, he allowed himself to slowly peel away the wax. He rolled it into an amorphous lump in his hand. No sense in leaving more evidence that he was involved with Ruatha. Opening the letter, he immediately recognized the handwriting of Corbel’s captain.
“Dear Link,” he read aloud, coming to a stop right in the middle of the hall. “On the orders of the king, I write you this letter of great importance. I hope you know at least some of the history between Ruatha and Galaxia, for I do not have time to include it all in this letter.”
Link paused at this, straining his brain to remember everything he had been told by King Corbel. Unfortunately, Link wasn’t the best of students, so only fragments came back to him. There was something about a naval voyage. The Agave clan. A peace treaty. It was forty five years ago, wasn’t it? Or was it fifty four? Link couldn’t remember for sure.
He turned down to the page again. “Intelligence has reached us here in Ruatha that a survivor of the Agave clan is dwelling among the courtiers of Prince Fiyero’s court. I am writing to warn you of this for the Agave are a dangerous race, not to be trusted by anyone…”
“Truer words were never spoken.”
Blue eyes shot up from the page and Link saw Lachesis approaching him down the hallway. “You shouldn’t sneak up on people.”
“You need to whistle. Or hum.”
“I don’t hum.”
“Oh, sure you do,” Link insisted, edging away from her as she neared. “You probably just don’t notice it. Maybe in the sho –”
Link’s eyes narrowed at this. If there was one thing he couldn’t tolerate, it was being told to shut up. “That’s not very nice.”
“I’m not a very nice person.”
“You know, I’ve noticed that.”
“Your friend, a Ruathan I’m guessing, is right, you know.”
“The Agave are a dangerous race.”
“Although, I do think it’s unfair to judge a person based solely on their race. ‘Not to be trusted by anyone,’ is that how it went?”
Link glanced down at the letter. As he did, he caught a small drawing on the bottom, right near the signature. The image showed three intersecting spirals, each one tipped with a square shaped dot. “Yeah,” Link replied slowly.
“That would sort of be like calling all Hylians nosey little creatures who tend to butt into business which isn’t their own.”
“Well, if that’s our reputation, I might as well make good on it,” Link decided smugly. “What’s going on? What are the bells for?”
“Prince Fiyero’s wedding.”
Immediately, Link could feel his throat dry up a bit. “Who’s he going to marry?” he asked.
“My sister, Phillia.”
“But what about –”
“Your fake Princess Kym?” Lachesis interrupted. “Yes, we found out all about that.”
“She’s been taken to the dungeon, along with her escort. They’ll have their trial in a few weeks.”
“Fiyero won’t allow it.”
“Not only will he allow it, but these actions were taken under his orders. And I have one additional order to deal with.”
“By decree of Prince Fiyero, son of Aeschylus, son of Derrial of the Cilissa clan, you are to be banished from this land.”
“Yes, a punishment I find unsuitable as well.”
“Oh, do you?” he retorted.
“Yes. I think you deserve far worse.”
“I appreciate your sentiment.”
“Prince Fiyero has made his orders.”
“Too bad for you.”
“Unfortunately,” Lachesis continued, “Prince Fiyero is busy getting married right now.”
Link took a step back, his hand slowly drifting to the hilt of his sword. “Unfortunate for me.”
“He won’t even wonder. He’ll assume you just slipped away in all the excitement. And he’ll never think of you again.” With that, she pulled her knife from her corset, pointing it at Link’s neck.
“Be careful,” he said quietly, “I have arteries in that neck and I’m rather attached to them.”
“That can be fixed.”
“Okay,” Link said loudly, knocking her wrist away. “This game of scary talk has gone far enough.”
Lachesis whipped her hand back into place, pointing the knife at him. “No one’s playing a game.”
Again, Link pushed her weapon aside. “You’re not going to kill me,” he said calmly.
“What makes you so sure?”
“Because.” Link answered, boldly taking a step in her direction.
Link was close enough now that he pulled his leg back before ramming his knee upward, smashing it against Lachesis’ wrist. She yelped in surprise and dropped the weapon, letting it clatter to the floor. This, however, did not stop her from attacking. Shrieking like a keese, she launched herself forward, latching onto Link’s throat with her fingers and driving her long nails into his skin.
Grabbing her wrists, Link spun her off of him, stepping back as he coughed. Lachesis recovered in a heartbeat and charged again, knocking them both to the floor with Lachesis on top. She pulled back her fist and punched him in the face, but when she geared up to do it a second time, Link tilted his head to one side and her fist hit the floor, a loud cracking coming from her knuckles.
That obviously hurt her because she yowled like a wounded animal and blood began trickling from her hand onto the floor near Link’s head. His body had begun to shiver, as was typical for Hylians in the presence of danger, but now, as her blood dripped onto his ear, he felt a burning sensation crawl over his skin. With a grunt, he grabbed her sides and threw her off of him, sending her into the wall.
As Link rolled to his feet, so did Lachesis. She looked decidedly the worse for wear. Her hand was bleeding profusely and appeared pretty broken. “Broke your hand,” Link told her.
“Got another,” Lachesis replied. Her eyes lit up, glowing green as she raised her other hand. A ball of green energy appeared in it.
“I hate it when that happens,” Link muttered.
Lachesis hurled the ball at him. Deftly, Link dodged out of the way, slamming hard into the wall. Before Lachesis could summon up a second blast, he rolled forward, crashing into her legs and sending her off balance. Her sleeve caught on the panel and ripped, pulling clean off of her shoulder. Link had only a moment to glance at her clan symbol when Lachesis suddenly vanished in a puff of green smoke. It had been moment enough, for Link was quite certain that the spirals on Lachesis’ arm perfectly matched the drawing in his letter, warning him about the Agave clan.
Galaxian religion was a complicated thing. The Galaxians worshipped four major goddesses, each with a different realm to rule. In addition, however, there were four minor deities, one of whom was considered to actually be more powerful than the four major ones. In light of this fact, Galaxian sanctuaries were built in a complex manner. The room was shaped like an octagon. Four of the sides were very long, each one representing one of the major goddesses. The four other walls were much shorter to represent the minor gods, however, the altar was placed in front of the wall for the most powerful.
The shaman stood before the altar, lighting eight candles, four of them gold, the other four silver. He wore a dark navy robe made of velvet, studded with pearls in the shape of the symbol for the Kostya clan, the clan which dominated religion. On his head was an elaborate headdress of the same blue shade. Once he had finished lighting the candles, he turned around to face up the aisle in between the pews of the temple. The door on the opposite side of the room actually led directly into a castle corridor, as this was the private royal chapel. Flanking the doors on either side was a host of knights, Prince Fiyero’s honor guard.
Prince Fiyero himself had not made his entrance, however, his blushing bride, Phillia, stood beside the shaman. The poor girl was weeping hysterically, drying her tears with the end of her long, window sleeve. Her gown was positively stunning. It was an artifact dating back to the clan days, said to be the first royal wedding gown. Most of the courtiers assembled to watch the wedding highly doubted that the gown was really so old. If that were the case then the delicate lilac fabric would have absolutely crumpled away under the flood of Phillia’s tears.
Loudly, the doors to the room were drawn open to reveal Prince Fiyero, standing in his formal attire from last night. His chiseled jaw was set firm in the air and he was not smiling. As he walked stiffly down the aisle to the altar, all the people fought from whispering. How solemn he looked on such a joyful occasion, coronation and wedding in one! It felt more like a funeral. Adding to this ominous feeling was the fact that Phillia’s sobs grew louder as the prince neared her. Behind him, the door slammed shut, rattling the candles in their sacred holders.
Grandly, the shaman raised his hands, singing aloud to the goddesses in the ancient language of his clan. Fiyero arrived at the front of the sanctuary, standing opposite Phillia. When he looked at her, the cold determination in his eyes wavered slightly into surprise. He caught himself quickly though, returning to his steely gaze at once.
The shaman finished his chant. “The gods are come from nature to bless this union,” he said in his cracked, ancient voice. “Moon. Sun. Rainbow. Wind. Ruled by Twilight.”
“Moon. Sun. Rainbow. Wind. Ruled by Twilight,” the congregation chorused together.
“They stand beside every altar, they stand beside every pyre. Moon. Sun. Rainbow. Wind. Ruled by Twilight.”
“Moon. Sun. Rainbow. Wind. Ruled by Twilight.”
“They hear a baby’s first newborn tears. They see the end of time, for those both great and small. Moon. Sun. Rainbow. Wind. Ruled by Twilight.”
“Moon. Sun. Rainbow. Wind. Ruled by Twilight.”
“This is a day of ascension,” the shaman said, breaking out of his hypnotic verse. “Today, our prince attains a higher status of life. But, can not all weddings be called ascensions, even if they do not come with a coronation? For, to be in love is to achieve godhood. Those in love can both create and destroy, make peace and make war, live forever and wish they had never existed at all.”
Phillia’s sobbing swelled in volume.
“The responsibilities you face as king, Fiyero, are no more important than those you face as a husband and father. They pale in comparison. For in your hands, you are taking responsibility for another life, just as you, Phillia, are doing the same. You give each other a precious gift. You give each other your hearts. If this gift is not taken care of then the kingdom will feel it.”
The door to the sanctuary burst open. There was an astonished gasp from the spectators as a skinny, funny looking man tore down the aisle, waving his hands up in the air and crying, “Stop the wedding, stop the wedding!”
“Guards!” Fiyero shouted.
Instantly, several guards broke position from where they stood and began chasing after him. “Jason!” Phillia cried.
With a good head start, Jason arrived at the altar before the knights. “Your majesty,” he panted, stepping in between Phillia and Fiyero, shoving the shaman out of the way. “I beg you; call off this farce of a wedding!”
The guards arrived, encircling the altar with their pikes pointed at Jason’s throat. “How dare you defile this house of worship,” the shaman croaked indignantly.
Fiyero was examining Jason. “I’ve seen you before.”
“I’m one of the kitchen drudges,” Jason said.
The prince nodded. “I see. And where does a kitchen drudge work up the gall and the presumption to interrupt his master’s wedding.”
“I know what I’ve done is wrong,” Jason answered, “and if death is to be my punishment, then I willingly accept it. But my conscience wouldn’t allow me to stand idly by.”
“Your conscience? How does your conscience factor into this?”
“I could not allow this loveless marriage to take place,” Jason explained breathlessly.
All around them, the nobility began muttering. “Loveless marriage?” Fiyero questioned him.
By this point, Phillia had worked her way in between the knights, coming to Jason’s side. Jason put an arm around her waist. “Yes,” he responded fearlessly. “You see, I love Phillia.”
“And does she return your love?” Fiyero went on, looking more at the girl than at Jason.
Phillia nodded tearfully. “Yes, your majesty,” she told him softly, “I love Jason. I do.”
“And your majesty does not love Phillia,” Jason added.
“How do you know that?” Fiyero snapped.
“Because…” Jason turned his head to face up the aisle to the entrance. Everyone followed his gaze. Standing in the doorway, flanked by guards on either side, was Maple.
Fiyero could not fight a wavering in his voice. “Kym…” he whispered.
“Maple,” Jason corrected him. “Your majesty,” he added quickly.
With one last glance at Jason and Phillia, Fiyero moved aside his knights and began running up the aisle. Maple sprang into action, racing to meet him halfway. In the center of the aisle, Fiyero stopped short, just before reaching her. “You still lied to me,” he reminded her.
“I know,” Maple said.
“Why did you do it?”
“I was only doing a favor for Ralph. I never dreamed that in a million years I would…”
“I would fall in love with you.”
His eyes glazed over. “Say it again.”
“I love you, Fiyero,” she told him.
At once, he surged forward the final step, gathering her in his arms and kissing her passionately, before the courtiers, the knights, and the astonished shaman. When he was finally forced to pull away, he looked at her, taking her shoulders in his hands. “I love you, Maple.”
“Say it again.”
“Just,” she interrupted him. “Just say my name.”
With a silly grin, Maple fell forward into his arms, resting her cheek against his chest. “Thank you.”
Annoyed and ignored, the shaman cleared his throat loudly. “Is there going to be a wedding today or not?” he asked bitterly.
“Yes,” Fiyero replied immediately. He took Maple’s hand and pulled her down the aisle, dismissing the guards with a wave of his hand. Jason and Phillia stepped back quickly. “Maple shall be queen of Galaxia. Will you have me, Maple?”
“Yes,” Maple said. “A thousand times over again.”
“Your majesty,” the shaman said irritably. “I hate to remind you, but this girl is not a princess, she’s a witch.”
“Am I ruler of this kingdom?”
“Well…certainly, but –”
“Then I will have no other queen.”
“So be it,” the old man replied irritably.
Fiyero turned to look at Jason and Phillia. “And as for you,” he said in a cold, angry voice. Then, he broke into a wide smile. “Off with you two.”
Jason laughed. Smiling, he took Phillia’s hand, gazing fondly into her eyes. “Thank you, your majesty.”
With that, Jason took off down the aisle, pulling Phillia behind him, completely deaf to the scandalized gasps of the courtiers, watching the ancient dress vanish back into the depths of the castle. Meanwhile, Fiyero turned to face Maple, taking both of her hands in his. He kissed each of them. “Now, shaman,” he said, never taking his eyes off of the girl, the one destined to be his wife.
Link was sprinting through the castle, sword drawn, a thousand times grateful that all of Fiyero’s knights seemed to be tied up with the wedding. If Link had been running the castle, there would have been better security, but since Link was not running the castle, and in fact had been labeled an enemy, he was glad for the sloppy placement of the guards. He couldn’t really explain it, but he knew exactly where Lachesis was going. Every instinct in every fiber of his being screamed out her location, so Link unconsciously made his way, focusing his mind on what he would do once he arrived where ever it was.
Lachesis was the Agave he had been warned about, he was certain of it. What this meant, he couldn’t really be sure, but he knew now that she was more than just a walking bad attitude. She was a dangerous walking bad attitude. Vainly, Link wished he had paid more attention to Corbel’s lectures about the relations between the Galaxians and Ruathans. Perhaps then, he might have some clue about Lachesis’ motives. Then again, he was much better at hitting things with his big sword than pausing to piece the puzzles together. Wisdom was not his strongest virtue.
Trusting his feet, Link made a hard left, throwing himself sword first into the throne room. He skidded to a halt, blinking, unable to trust his eyes for a moment. There she was, Lachesis, standing in the middle of the room, tending to her wounded hand gingerly.
She heard his footsteps and turned to face him. “You.”
“You’re really a glutton for punishment, do you know that?”
“Yeah, I get that a lot,” Link answered.
“Or perhaps you’re just curious.”
“Yes,” Lachesis said, dropping the bandages in her hands.
“Perhaps you’d like to see what a full grown Agave is truly capable of with the proper training.”
“Now, now, don’t be shy,” Lachesis said gently. With that, she held her hand up, eyes glowing green. “I’ve been trained for retribution since the day I was born.” A ball of energy collected over her hand. “Sit down. Watch the show.” At once, she fired the blast at Link. He jumped, dodging the blow but landing on the floor in a terrific swan dive. “I give a killer performance.”
“Puns,” Link grimaced, “why do they always have to resort to puns?”
Lachesis held her arms out, the glow in her eyes getting so bright that it radiated out to cover her entire face. “School is in session,” she hissed.
“If you tell me I’m going to flunk, I swear I’ll just kill myself.”
“That would spoil all the fun.” The glow consumed her entire torso now and began creeping down her legs and arms.
“Are we going to fight? Or are you going to talk me to death?”
“Watch and learn, little boy.”
Lachesis was a humanoid composed of bright green light, it seemed. Slowly at first, but gradually faster and faster, her form began to change. The first change Link noticed was a long, thick tail which appeared from behind her. Next, he realized that she was growing steadily taller, and that her arms seemed to be melting into her body. She had assumed the shape of an amorphous blob, it seemed: Something reminding Link horribly of his experiences in Holodrum and in Labrynna, much to his dismay.
The glow slowly began to die down and Link’s fears were realized. The beautiful, although frightening, woman had disappeared. Lachesis had transformed into a creature completely alien to Link. She looked a bit like a snake with two long, powerful legs, only instead of scales her body was covered in green fur. Two yellow horns crowned her head, each one looking deadly sharp. Her eyes took on a wolfish quality. Speech seemed impossible in this form. Lachesis merely roared. In a sense, Link could understand what she was saying, though he didn’t know how.
Rising to his feet, he smirked a bit. “You look just like a substitute teacher I once had,” he quipped.
That certainly seemed to set her off. Lachesis lowered her head, aiming the horns directly at Link and charged. Having small size as an advantage, Link was agile enough to duck out of the way, letting Lachesis stick her horns deep into the wall behind him. Link ran halfway across the room before turning to face the beast. His mind was racing now, examining every inch of the struggling, stuck creature, trying to find the vulnerable point. To be certain, Lachesis wasn’t very practiced in this body, Link could use that to his advantage, but where was it best for him to strike?
Just as Lachesis managed to pull her horns out of the wood, the door to the throne room flew open and Ralph came racing inside. “Hey, Link!” he shouted.
“Ralph, watch –”
Too late! Not aware of the monster beside him, Ralph ran, tripping over her tail and falling face first to the floor. Lachesis seemed to take extreme umbrage with this and roared furiously. Almost sounding like she was in pain. Link furrowed his brow, watching as the gigantic beast shrieked and moaned over such a slight offense.
By this point, Ralph had rolled over onto his back. He stared up, his eyes growing wide in horror. “What the…?”
“Lachesis,” Link explained. “Get back.”
He didn’t have to be told twice. Ralph scrambled to his feet, racing over to the dais and hiding behind the throne. “How did she…?”
“Magic,” Link cut him off. “I’ll explain later.”
“Are you going to kill her?”
“I certainly hope so.”
In determination, Link clutched his sword in both hands and raced forward. Lachesis had recovered from her shock and growled, barring a line of lime green teeth at Link. Two beams of green energy shot out of her eyes, flying directly at Link. He stopped in his tracks, pulled back his sword, and swung it, cracking the beams as if they were solid and sending them flying back at Lachesis. One of them bounced off of her head and seemed to have no impact on her, but the other hit her tail with such force that it sent a trail of smoke up into the air, filling the throne room with the scent of singed fur and flesh.
“She looks really mad now,” Ralph called from the sidelines.
“Would you be happy if someone turned your attack back on you?”
“No monsters ever are.”
“You’ve had experience with this kind of beast?”
By this point, Lachesis launched a second attack at Link. One beam managed to get by him, grazing his shoulder and burning right through his tunic sleeve. Despite the pain, however, he managed to bat the second blast back, again hitting Lachesis right in the tail.
“She’s going to kill you,” Ralph called.
“No, she’s just throwing a temper tantrum.”
“She should cut it out.”
“I’ll save her the trouble and cut it off,” Link declared. Gripping his sword as tightly as possible, he raced forward, a slightly mad look in his eyes. With a determined swing, he brought the sword directly down, slicing off Lachesis’ tail. She shrieked and wailed, flashing like a green light. As Link and Ralph watched, the beast’s body began to degenerate. Arms separated from the main body as it shrunk back to humanoid proportions. Her dress shredded and bloody, Lachesis fell beside the severed tail, still writhing in agony. Lachesis, for her part, was eerily still.
The last echo of bestial screaming died out, plunging the room into a deep silence. Slowly, Ralph stood up, peering out from behind the throne. When he saw nothing stir, he carefully made his way down the hall, coming to a rest at Link’s side. “Is she dead?”
“Is anyone going to believe what happened here?”
Ralph nodded. He waited a moment. “What happened here?”
Despite himself, Link grinned, clapping Ralph on the back. “I’ll explain it to you later. But first, I think we’d better explain it to the people who actually live in this castle. Common courtesy, you know.”
Link pulled Ralph against his side for a moment in a friendly hug. Then, he released the other man and walked over to the door, right past the large holes in the wall where Lachesis had stuck her horns. He was about to exit the room, but turned back to see Ralph standing there, completely motionless. “Are you coming?” he asked.
Ralph blinked. “What? Oh…right.” Together, they left the room, leaving behind the still form of Lachesis and her tail. There would be time for tales soon enough.
The events of the throne room were soon the talk of the kingdom, despite Fiyero’s best efforts to keep things quiet. Aided by Phillia, the entire story was assembled, how there had been a surviving sect of Agave who had been silently plotting revenge against Ruatha for years. The personal writings of Lachesis told most of the story. Phillia and Jason, though both Agave and accessories to Lachesis’ plotting were both granted a full pardon in light of their efforts to help uncover the truth. All additional Agave were asked to step forward, though few turned up.
Link and Ralph were heralded as heroes for their actions against the beast. Ralph’s lies in relation to Maple’s identity were forgiven. As per Link’s requests, Fiyero called off all hostilities against Ruatha. The body of the trampled man found outside on the night of the ball was also identified by Link as the trouble maker who had been burning not only Ruathan wells, but Galaxian wells as well, each time in the name of the monarchy.
Several days later, all the activity calmed down and Ralph found himself alone in the courtyard. His plans were to simply slip away unnoticed and return to Labrynna. The last thing he wanted to face was what happened. As he sat underneath a large tree, composing a long letter to Nayru about how he had been unable to obtain her Amulet, he heard the sound of footsteps coming up the cobblestone path.
When he looked up, he saw Maple approaching him. Her purple, royal robes sat well on her, but she was much the same girl as ever. For a brief moment, he considered ducking behind a plant or tree to avoid any contact with her, but he realized that wouldn’t be an option. She had seen him. She had come to see him.
Putting aside his parchment and quill, Ralph stood up, bowing deeply to Maple. “Your majesty,” he greeted her.
Maple smiled slightly. “You don’t have to do that,” she told him.
“I wanted to.”
“I hear you’re leaving.”
“Who told you that?”
“Well. Link is a very, very troublesome boy.”
She laughed lightly, but her smile soon faded away. “I owe you so much, Ralph,” she told him sincerely.
Ralph waved aside the comment with his hand. “Nah.”
“I really do,” Maple insisted. “Without you, none of this would ever have happened.”
He dipped his head slightly. “I owed it.”
“There’s so much to do now. So much to think about. Being a queen and all.”
“You won’t even have time to miss me when I’m gone,” Ralph told her.
“Of course I’ll miss you.”
“Ralph, you mean the world to me.”
“You have my word.”
He smiled. “Thank you, Maple.”
“No, thank you Ralph. You brought me to my one true love.” She tilted her head to one side, looking at him for a moment. “It’s funny. I always thought it would be you.”
Before Ralph could respond, Maple raised her hands to a chain around her neck. She pulled off her necklace and leaned forward, putting it around Ralph’s neck, the medallion bouncing against his chest. With a small, funny smile, one that only Maple could claim, she gave him a kiss on the cheek. That accomplished, she turned on heel, walking away and disappearing into the depths of the courtyard.
Ralph stood there, motionless. He was so dumbfounded that it took him a few moments to realize that Link had appeared at his side. “She’s quite the girl,” Link said, watching where Maple had disappeared.
“Yeah,” Ralph agreed.
“She’ll make a terrific queen.”
“You think so?”
Link nodded. “I can tell.”
Hesitantly, Ralph obeyed. His eyes fell on the amulet around his neck, emblazoned on one side with a sapling and on the other side with an enormous tree. “Is that…”
“The Amulet of Secrets.”
“Are you certain?”
“That looks like the Maku Tree to me.”
He chuckled slightly, turning the medal over and over in his hands. “Well, what do you know?”
“Come on,” Link said. He clapped Ralph on the back. “Let’s get that back to Nayru.”
“Aren’t you going home?”
“Eh. Eventually. Don’t worry. You still get all the credit.”
Together, Link and Ralph set off. They turned their backs on Galaxia with its newly named King and Queen. They turned their backs on the mess with Lachesis and her brutal agenda. They turned their backs on the Kym Tree. Yet that tree would keep on growing, standing as a testament to the love between the King and Queen. And, while it would earn itself a new name in the ages to come, leaving the old name to be forgotten, no one could ever forget just what it stood for.