A/N: Bow before the people on the LoZff ML, who kindly beta-d this chapter, and to Tori, who made sure everything in this made sense. Thanks so much you guys. =)
"Give me a bourbon, will you?" he said, sinking onto the worn barstool.
The bartender raised his eyebrows. "It's barely noon, Link."
Link gave the violet-haired man a glare. "I know what time it is. Will you give me a drink or not?"
Kafei shook his head. "Whatever, it's your liver." Grabbing a glass, he filled it with the dark liquid. "Are you still worrying over tomorrow?"
Taking the drink, Link swallowed it all, wincing as it burned its way down. "I still don't know why you dyed your hair that color. You look like an idiot, and I wonder how many indigo plants had to be sacrificed for your new look."
"They died for a worthy cause, and you're avoiding the question."
Sighing, Link propped his elbows on the beaten counter. "Yes, I'm worried about tomorrow. All my years of training depend on what the Oracle says, and this will decide the rest of my future."
"So the prophet lady chooses who'll be in your care and you're stuck with them for the rest of your life. You've known this was coming and it never bothered you before."
"She doesn't have to choose me. What if I fail whatever test she has in store?"
Kafei smiled indulgently. "Link, I don't think she'll pass you up."
"That's what I'm afraid of."
"Now you got me confused. What do you mean?"
Link ran a hand agitatedly through his blond hair. "What if the Oracle does choose me? I'll be stuck protecting some dull Royal for the rest of my life." He leaned against the counter, trying to focus his thoughts into words, something he had never dared before. "I want to see the world, to explore all the unknowns, see new cultures. Do you know the farthest from home I've been is Kakariko? That's only a candlemark away!"
"That's been building up, hasn't it?" Kafei remarked, wiping clean a glass as he smiled wryly at his friend.
"You have no idea," said Link, sitting back and motioning for another drink. This time Kafei complied without a word.
"I can see your quandary," Kafei said. "If you don't go tomorrow for the ceremony, you'll bring shame upon your family, but you'll be free. If you stay, you fulfill the hopes of everyone but yourself. Tough call."
"You got any suggestions?" Link said. "You gave up running your father's town for here."
A dark smile appeared on Kafei's lips. "These are not the same circumstances. Let's just say I couldn't handle my parents' constant pressure anymore."
"So you dyed your hair purple, eloped and opened a bar in Castleton."
"Don't forget all the illegitimate children, hookers and drug lords I have in the inn above."
A snort of laughter escaped Link. "Yeah, right. Kafei, mob lord of Hyrule. Has a certain ring to it."
"I'm sure Anju would love to be my partner in crime."
"You never asked," interrupted a new voice.
Kafei smiled at his wife. "Would you like to rule the black market of Hyrule with me? I could appoint Link to be my slave, and he can run everything whilst we whittle away the hours at the beach by Lake Hylia."
Anju burst out laughing, the tray of tankards she carried threatening to tumble off. Link took hold of the tray, moving it to a safer spot. "I think I should have some say before I become anyone's 'slave'."
"You'd love it, I'm sure," Kafei said flippantly.
"Right." Finishing off the last of his drink, Link stood up. "I'd better be going, big day tomorrow and all. Catch you two later."
"Bye Link," Anju said, giving him a heartwarming smile while Kafei waved.
Stepping out of Kafei's crowded tavern, Link emerged into the equally populated streets of Castleton, the capital of Hyrule and seat of the Royal family. Looking over the heads of the people as they passed by, he saw the spires of the ancient castle rise over the city, the only relic still standing from ancient times, though the ruins of a temple haunted one corner of the city, mostly forgotten and covered in ivy and graffiti.
He headed over to the ruins. They were his place to go when he needed to think, to be alone, a rare opportunity in Hyrule these days.
The scent of rain and smog, brought by a rising wind, assailed his nose as he stepped onto the cobbled street. Someone's burning coal, he thought with a grimace. While the newly found resource allowed people to heat their homes and power steam engines cheaply, the residue from the fires filled the air with a permanent stench, blackening the city around it.
One of the many reasons I want to leave, he thought, drawing his greatcoat closer to him. Today was chilly, the hint of fall finally making itself known.
Turning off the main avenue, he gratefully left the sounds of the busy streets behind, the crowded houses looming over him, each one seeming to vie for recognition. Their plethora of moldings and columns the wealthy deemed in style covered their facades. He personally detested the design, which reminded him of a child who threw everything together in a fit of temper.
After only six blocks, the scenery drastically changed around him. Derelict houses lined the road, litter strewn in the gutter along with substances Link was happier not knowing. Soot heavily coated the tops of the buildings, their broken windows like missing eyes in the afternoon sunlight. A feral dog raised its hackles at the sight of him before deciding Link wasn't worth the effort and trotted off in search of lunch.
Rounding one last corner, he came to the ruins of the forgotten temple. No one knew what the remnant was for, the knowledge locked up within the walls of the palace. He had once tried to weasel the information from his history tutor, Remus, but to no avail. The man was more pig-headed than he, which was saying something.
Picking his way carefully over the strewn chunks of marble, once one of the building's walls, he entered the roofless temple. He found his usual seat in the farthest corner, hidden from passer-bys, though no one ever came near here. People believed the place to be haunted, which was fine for him. No nuisances to disturb his peace.
The stone floor was cool to the touch, despite the rays of the sun that beat upon its surface. He leaned against the crumbling wall, the ivy that covered nearly everything cushioning his back. A sense of comfort and welcome swept over him, feelings he always associated with the temple. It was like the ruins had a consciousness, one that watched over him and accepted him for who he was, not as a Guardian or some long-remembered hero's descendent. Perhaps this feeling was the reason people believed the place filled with spirits.
Bringing his hands behind his head, he looked up to the sky, the azure color nearly blinding in its brilliance, the sun almost at its zenith. Why do I fear my place here? he asked himself, eyes searching the heavens as if they held some answer. I spent my life learning all manner of weapons, how to fight with or without them, to speak other languages and know about their cultures. All so that I would fulfill my duties as a Guardian, to be one of the elite who protect Royals personally, keeping them safe even at the cost of our lives, a tradition started up after the death of the great hero. It's a huge honor, and I'd spend my life in a palace, never wanting for anything.
Wait, that's not true, he corrected himself. I desire the ability to actually use all I learned, to travel to far off places and utilize my knowledge of different lifestyles, surviving on my own with no one to tell me how to live. I'd finally be truly happy...and end up disappointing everyone else in the process. Mother and father would disown me to protect themselves from the shame. I'd probably be exiled from here for giving it all up. He sighed heavily, thinking, Great goddesses, this is only taking me on the same never-ending circles I've been brooding over for days.
"That's it," he said to the sky. "No more useless thoughts, what comes will come and I'll meet it when it gets here. Until then, I'm shutting my brain off."
"Are you sure you ever had it on?"
Taken by surprise, Link let out an undignified yelp as he scrambled upright. Seeing who had snuck up on him, he mock-growled. "Malon, when I get my hands on you..."
The redheaded girl smirked. "You've tried to catch me before and I'm always too fast."
Link had no argument there. Settling back down, he said, "What brings you here?"
"Papa had to talk with the one of the King's councilors about the new tariff on milk. If the bill is signed by the King, we'll lose a lot of profit from our stores."
"You still have the livestock and horses, don't you?"
Malon grimaced. "Yes, but no one has any need for animals anymore, except for a rare few. Horses are too large to fit in most cities, with all the crowding, and those new mechanized vehicles are starting to take their place. Milk and eggs are the only commodities that are keeping us alive at the moment."
"Sorry," murmured Link, unsure of what else to say.
"Not your fault," Malon said with a feral grin. "We'll survive, always have. The LonLon name will live on!"
"Glad you're so enthused," said Link, smiling.
"Got to stay positive," Malon said with a wink. "Besides, you promised to visit our ranch again, this time while off duty. We need to stay open, so then I can finally give you a proper tour."
"I will, don't worry."
"You remember that promise, mister," she said, standing up and brushing her skirt off. "I'd better be heading back before I'm missed. Talk to ya' later!"
Link waved her off with a smile. He recalled the first time he'd met the fiery daughter of Talon LonLon, business mogul of the ranching world. He'd been sent there by Lasva, his riding instructor, to ask about a shipment of horses that were due soon.
While Malon had been correct in saying few bought horses nowadays, the Royal family kept their breeding program operational to this day. Hundreds of LonLon horses filled the stables at the castle.
The Ranch, the main headquarters of the LonLon business, was located a half a candlemark from the city, though he wondered how long that would last with the town growing out with each passing year.
The Ranch could be a small city in itself. Workers lived on the property in homes built on the west side, behind the large, crumbling stockade that used to surround the LonLon home and main portion of stables. Acres of land were used to hold the famous LonLon horses and their milk cows, the barns that lined the sides used for chickens or for housing the animals in foul weather.
While he had found the Ranch's location easily, locating Talon, whom he was supposed to bring his message to, was another problem. The enormity of the place coupled with the haphazard way it had been formed quickly stole all sense of direction from him.
Wandering aimlessly, he spotted a young woman exercising horses in a large arena, her flaming hair shining like a beacon in the summer light. Not knowing what else to do, Link decided to take a break from his search and watch. The horse was beautiful, a sorrel with the characteristic conformation of the Gerudo line, long legs, arched neck and short back, though with none of the breed's hotheadedness. The animal responded readily to all the girl's commands and seeing them move together, he had to admit they made a striking pair.
When she spotted him, she pulled up her mount to where he stood. "What brings you here to our humble abode?"
"Nothing much, just trying to find my way around this maze," Link said. "I need to speak with Mr. LonLon."
She dismounted swiftly, handing the reins to a man standing nearby. "I think I can help you there," she said with a smile. Thrusting out her hand, she said, "My name's Malon, his daughter."
Gripping her hand, he said, "Link."
"Stuck running errands for the Royal family?"
"That's what we're here for. Free labor."
She laughed and he felt a smile appear on his own face in response. She had a warm, easygoing personality, one he liked right away. "I'll take you to him, free of charge."
Ever since then, they remained close friends, visiting whenever duty gave them time. With her trusting, open heart, she was a welcome change to the silver-tongued courtesans he encountered everyday at the palace.
Maybe I can get a job there, he mused with a silent laugh. Link, horse boy. Better than Kafei's offer.
Sunlight struck his eyes, the glare blinding him. Raising his arm to block the view, he saw the fiery orb start to sink into the horizon. Letting out a groan, he stood up, ligaments and tendons popping from too much time in one position. Mom and dad are going to kill me, he thought. I was supposed to be home hours ago. Oh well, no use worrying. They can't really murder me, not with tomorrow coming up.
* * *
Link shifted uneasily, the high collar of his dress uniform itching him like mad. The urge to scratch was overpowering, but he refused. Solastaire had threatened death to any who disrupted the ceremony in any way, and Link had a feeling that itching one's neck would not be a plausible excuse for moving.
Will you get this over with! he complained silently. For the past two candlemarks they had been subjected to speech after speech, each one telling them of the great honor that would be bestowed upon them, how the kingdom depended on them, blah, blah, blah. The words had run together a long time ago.
Glancing away from the speaker, he scanned the area where the ceremony was taking place. Garlands of late-blooming flowers and leaves hung from the chandeliers and walls of the enormous room they were crowded in. Frescos covered the vaulted ceiling, adding color to the otherwise white surroundings. Link could feel hundreds of eyes upon him and the other two who stood beside him. It felt like the entire population of Castleton was gathered here.
Sneaking a look to the side, he watched the Royals in their area, grinning slightly at the bored expressions of most. The King looked like he was about to fall asleep.
A glimmer of gold caught his eye and he noticed a new face. A young woman sat beside the King on his right, the silver coronet of the heir nestled in her golden hair. Who's she? he wondered. He had never seen the woman before, and with a face like hers, he knew he would have remembered. She was the most beautiful creature he'd ever laid eyes on.
A sharp jab in his side made him grunt slightly. Link gave the man standing beside him a glare, which he returned with a sly smile. "Eyes off the Princess Zelda," he whispered, his hazel eyes dancing. "We're supposed to be concentrating today."
"Yeah, like you weren't looking," Link muttered out of the corner of his mouth, giving Lure, his close friend, a wink.
Someone poked both of them hard in the back. "If you two do not remain still, I will personally remove you right now!" Solastaire whispered furiously, his craggy face twisted into an evil scowl. They both nodded their understanding, and satisfied they would stay quiet, Solastaire stalked off, robes billowing behind him.
They exchanged grins when the elder man left. Solastaire often accused them of delighting in angering him, and he was right.
"How much longer do you think this'll take?" Link asked Lure softly when Solastaire was out of earshot.
"Not much longer, hopefully. They keep going on like this, and we'll all have died of old age."
"Will you two be quiet!" chastened the other man to Link's left. "This is a great honor, you both should be more respectful!"
"And you should loosen up," Lure said. "Marek, do you have a permanent rod up your-"
"Shh!" warned Link, seeing Solastaire eye them beadily. He felt another pair of eyes watching them closely and saw the Princess Zelda looking in their direction. He straightened up with a gulp, hoping they hadn't offended the Royal with their soft chatter. To his surprise, she only smiled gently, her expression melting any bone he had in his body, and turned back to watch the speaker as she finally wrapped up her presentation.
A hush fell over the crowd in anticipation for what would come next. Link bit back a sudden wave of anxiety that threatened to overpower him. The Oracle would appear and soon his future would be decided.
A door in the wall before them opened up and the Oracle stepped out. She wore robes of gold and burgundy, each color complimenting the auburn hair piled atop her head, held back by a headdress decorated with beads and precious gems. Her eyes were dreamy and unfocused, like her mind was elsewhere, which it probably was.
The Voice of the Oracle appeared to her right. She acted as the Oracle's orator, for the seer never spoke unless in prophecy. "Each of you will step forward one at a time and the Oracle shall judge you," she said, her melodious voice carrying easily in the large room. "Marek Vortizen."
Link saw him hesitate, his normally tan skin a milky white. He didn't blame the guy, he knew that was how he was going to look in a few moments. Link gave him a small smile of encouragement, one Marek could hardly return. Taking a deep breath, Marek lowered his head and strode forward, stopping before the Oracle.
What was said between them, no one could discern, for the method of communication the Oracle used was one of utmost privacy. She spoke mind to mind, all truths and hidden secrets revealed to her. Doing so guaranteed the ability and trustworthiness of the Guardian, and also made sure that the position was the right one. A few of the country's best military tacticians and advisors were failed Guardians.
When Marek finished, he returned to his spot beside Link, some inner turmoil visible in his gray eyes. Link wanted to ask him about what had happened, but doing so was forbidden. No one was to know what had transposed. The only knowledge the rest would learn was the identity of the Guardian's charge.
"Lure Oryndell, step forward," said the Oracle's Voice.
"I hope I don't get that witch Harissa," Lure said softly to Link with a roguish grin.
"Good luck," Link said. "Who knows, you may get the Princess."
Lure waggled his eyebrows. "You know it." Squaring his shoulders, he took his place before the Oracle. All was silent within the great room, the absolute quiet grating on Link's nerves. No one dared even to cough during the ceremony.
Link thought about tapping his foot just to break the monotony when Lure did it for him. "That's not possible!" he shouted, shocking everyone in the room. No one had spoken during the Initiating Ceremony ever.
The Oracle's response was a silent one, but her face appeared concerned to Link's searching gaze. Lure seemed to not agree with her answer, for he shook his head violently. "No, I won't believe it, it's not possible."
An excited murmur began in the crowds, their whispers passing through the room like a small breeze. The Oracle placed her hand on Lure's chin, forcing him to look her in the eye, her disconcerting stare burning into his, trying to pass something to him which he was unwilling to accept. Finally he dropped his gaze, the slump of his shoulders betraying a great weariness that had settled upon him. He shook his head one last time, turning away from her and retaking his place in line.
Link watched him, concern building up inside. "Are you all right?" he asked Lure, reaching out to him.
Lure avoided his touch. "It's nothing," he said, not meeting his gaze. "I'll be fine."
Before Link could press the issue, the Voice called his name, the last to speak to the Oracle. Giving Lure one last worried look, he made his way to the Oracle, meeting her sloe-eyed gaze. What did you do to him? he demanded, anger coloring his thoughts red.
What we spoke of is no concern to you, the Oracle said silently. We are here to discuss you.
Link wanted to protest, to force the knowledge from the woman, but he knew it was folly. Instead he said, What about?
You are torn between your desires and your duty, I can see that easily enough. Each has equal hold on your heart. Have you reached a decision on this matter?
Not yet. No matter how hard I try, I can't come up with an answer.
The Oracle cocked her head slightly to the side. Maybe you have the answer, but do not wish to see it.
You're the great seer, you tell me.
Her fathomless eyes crinkled with laughter. Be careful not to bite the hand that would feed you. Suddenly her demeanor became solemn, her face grave and remote. Your hesitance and lack of will is a weakness, one that allows an entrance we cannot afford.
He could feel his brows knit together, puzzlement filling his mind. An entrance for what? I don't understand.
I cannot discern such matters to you, not now. You must make this choice without bias, of your own free will. He could feel a power begin to gather within her, reminding him faintly of magic, a skill very few could wield in this day. He fought the urge that told him to back away from her and held his ground. What choice?
Do not play the fool to me, she said, her eyes narrowing. Answer the question.
He met her gaze, the act helping him sort out the raging tumult of thoughts in his head. What do I want? he asked himself yet again. The answer came swiftly, as if it had lain just below the surface of his mind, evading him like a clever darting fish until this moment.
I want to be free, to live my own life. I don't want to be a Guardian.
It is as I foresaw, said the Oracle, something akin to disappointment filling her gaze. Good fortune to you, young one. You will need it.
Link unconsciously opened his mouth to ask her what she meant, but an impenetrable shadow overtook his vision, blotting out everything around him. He tried to fight the onslaught, pushing it away with his mind and body, but to no avail. The power quickly overcame him and he fell to darkness.
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