Shadow's Mastery: Chapter 85

WHERE is he, blast you?"

The gnarled staff swung viciously and caught him in the chest; his ribs creaked with the impact as he tumbled backwards onto the step of the throne. Sprawled there he grinned up bloodily at the wild-eyed man who stood over him with purple hair seething like a nest of vipers. The trio of Stalfos who had caught him, dragged him back here to face judgement, were backing silently out of the room.

"Dost fear a dead boy, Carock?"

The man's lips drew back in a feral snarl; he raised his staff like a bludgeon, two-handed, and brought it down with vicious force; Dark felt his collarbone shatter under the blow. His body was broken, perhaps beyond repair, but he kept smiling, kept staring up into the man's furious face. A wild, savage joy filled him.

"What did you do?" Carock demanded, his chest heaving. He leveled the staff and a dull red light grew in the round gem, a killing light. "Blast you, what did you do?"

He felt a scornful sneer spread across his face; his split lip bled hotly down his chin. "The Hero lives," he whispered thickly, pouring all his contempt into the words. "Did you think you could succeed where Ganon failed? Did you think you could betray our King in his own throne room?"

The staff slammed into him again, rolling him over and over on the cold stone floor. He came to rest on his side in a tacky pool of Link's blood, nearly dry now but still sticky as his cheek touched it. The rekindled light in the room showed a slaughterhouse scene: blood puddled all across the floor, smeared about by many boots and here and there the clear prints of hands where the boy had tried to crawl away. Dark lay still--he thought his back might be broken, but he could not at this moment tell for sure.

Footsteps. The man was coming over, moving slowly and deliberately, tapping the staff's base to the floor with every step. "You wretch. I'll make sure you live to appreciate my ingenuity."

"You think to frighten me with pain?" Dark gasped out, full of a heady elation. "You disappoint me--I thought you had more wits than that! But then you always did let your desires rule you..."

The toe of the patent-leather boot swung savagely into his stomach, forcing the breath from his lungs. Even that could not wipe his smile away. He dragged in a breath. "They will follow you now," he whispered, "but when they learn that the Hero lives, despite all you did? What then, Kafei?"

"You do not use that name to me, shadow," the man snarled.

"My master does not take kindly to treachery..." He began to laugh, wheezing weakly. Even when the man kicked him again, rolling him over onto his back, he could not stop. Bitter triumph filled his world.

"Treachery?" Carock said, quite calmly. "Perhaps you'd better look to yourself first, hey? Does your master approve of your saving the boy? Does he?" His voice grew sweet and syrupy. "Perhaps you've done me a favour after all, old boy--if the cub really did survive somehow, and frankly I very much doubt it, I'll have another chance at Courage. How does the Boar feel about that, eh? A Triforce to oppose a Triforce?" He kicked him, and then again. "Well? Tell me!"

Words came; he spoke them wildly in a voice that was not his own. "Will it bring your Anju back, great wizard? You tell me--you could have walked away that night, so why did you not? Did you know even then that she'd not have you? And can you fool yourself for even a moment to think that such as you could claim the Triforce of Courage? Look at you, you craven, painted like a courtesan! You still wear a mask, Kafei--what does it hide?"

"You filth!" The boot slammed into his face, breaking his nose; he heard the crunch of bone, sickeningly loud within his head. A starburst of white heat filled his brain, and for a moment he almost grayed out, overcome by agony beyond what even he could tolerate. He was fading. His strength was leaking from him like water from a punctured skin, and he had no way to replenish what was lost.

"Go on," he whispered maliciously through the mask of his blood. "You cannot hurt him, long dead as he is, so you beat me instead. Kick me again, Kafei. She loved him, in the end, and he wouldn't have her. And you refused to settle for being second best. I know it all now--Anju was a Knight, light to your shadow, and you murdered her."

A shadow fell across him, cutting off the torchlight. He heard a hiss like a viper about to strike. For a long tense moment Carock was still, the staff raised for the blow; then he stepped back.

"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" he said. "You'd like me to crush the life out of your wretched husk. Only so you'd rise again and come after me a few years down the line. The death of your body's not final for you, Dark Link--I know that well enough. No. You won't goad me into making that mistake. I still have one more use for you, my friend. And when I sit in that throne, as I will, it'll be the boy Link who sits at my feet, for he's ten times the Hero you ever were." He turned on his heel and walked away.

"Coward," Dark whispered after him, and heard the footsteps cease, saw the slim form stiffen under the rich swirling silks. For a few seconds the man remained very still; then he walked on again, and glided out between broken doors into the deep shadows of the hall.

Dark let go for a while, let his awareness sink down into the shattered ruins of his body to begin the long and arduous task of repair. He flinched back in dismay at the magnitude of the task. There was too much; he did not know where to begin. But he could not let go and die, as he would have liked to do; he was bound to the Amulet even now, as a dog was chained to its kennel. He could not leave the world. Either he remained as he was, or made some attempt to shape himself back into a form he could tolerate. Slowly, tentatively, he sought out the worst of it--the internal bleeding, the fractures in his chest--and coaxed them to heal. It demanded reserves he knew he did not possess.

Engrossed in his work, he did not at first notice the swirling shape that hovered over him, until a change in the intensity of his pain told him he was being carried. With weary resignation he opened his eyes.

"...Gomez?" His voice cracked.

"As you see." They were passing through shadowy corridors, along a way he remembered well. The shifting shape was gentle with him, carrying him as if he were an injured child.

"You served our lord faithfully once," Dark said softly. "Why this, and why now?"

The phantom sighed with a rattling of wings. "Our lives take us through strange placezz, General. As you should know. You are not the only one of His Majesty's children to question your role."

He let his eyes slip closed again; he felt suddenly very weak. "You were my friend once... the battle at the gates of Hyrule Town, when you saved me from the Hero..."

"As far as it is possible for such as us to love, I loved you."

"Will you free me, then?" he asked with a little spark of hope. "Will you let me die?"

"I cannot," Gomez said. "I serve a new master now."

A door swung open into darkness. He felt himself laid down on cold stone, with care; the flutter of a thousand wings filled his ears as the phantom hovered close. It drew back after a moment, lingered by the rectangle of brighter light that was the door, and then went out. With an echoing steel clang, the door swung closed, locked, and he was alone.

Darkness. It stopped the steady drain of his strength, but he could not seem to grasp it or use it as he once had. The cold, empty space in his chest was a constant distraction. Carock had torn out his heart.

You must kill him.

"I know," he whispered into the darkness. "I will try..."

Both his arms were broken. He could not heal his shattered limbs until the bones had been realigned, but there were other fractures that could be dealt with. He did so, and then paused, to rest and consider what he might do next.

An interminable time later, the door lock rattled. He raised his head a little as it swung open: light flooded in like searing fire. A figure stood framed in the doorway--it hesitated there for a moment, its shadow stretched out blackly before it, then came over with swift light steps. Silk whispered as it knelt beside him, and he scented perfume.

"Sepultura?" he said softly.

The woman's pale face was strained, full of revulsion even as she took in the state of him. She mastered herself with an effort and reached down to grasp his arm in both hands.

"Are you with us, Dark Link, or are you against us? Choose now."

He made a painful smile. "You should choose your allies more wisely, sorceress..."

"Don't taunt me, shadow," she hissed at him. "Your fate depends on me, now--you'd be wise to sweeten your tongue."

"More bluster..." He sighed and turned his head away. "You never change, Sepultura. The years turn and leave you behind... sooner or later you will find that immortality is no gift. Look at that man, for man he was once--in a few hundred years you will be as he is."

"Better than becoming as you are," she retorted, tight-lipped, and forced the broken bones back into alignment with a heave of her shoulders. He had been expecting it, but still could not suppress a groan as the splintered ends ground against each other in his flesh. Pain filled his world, but it was the right kind of pain now: he could heal. He gathered his strength, concentrated, and felt the bones fuse smoothly back together. Sepultura was already stepping over him to get to his other side.

The healing left him drained beyond what he had believed was possible. She dragged him roughly to his feet, and he wobbled towards the door with her, leaning weakly on her arm.

"Did you know?" she said, her voice savage.

"Know?" He spoke breathlessly. "Did I know... who he was..? Or what he had done?"

She grabbed at him then and held him by the collar of his tunic, glaring into his face. "I don't understand why His Majesty still wants you," she hissed. "Were it up to me I'd have left you there to rot."

"He needs me," Dark said, and knew that it was true. He reached up and knocked her hands away; he stood up on his own, and began to straighten his tattered clothes. He was calm now, prepared. "I am to be his assassin one last time, it seems. I will kill Carock for him."

They stood facing each other in the gloomy stone corridor, scents of blood and iron thick in the clammy air. Sepultura's eyes were narrowed to crimson slits: a bruise was blooming on her white cheek. "And after?" she said. "Will you hunt down the Hero, as he demands? Or must I then kill you?"

He smiled, thinking, I know something now, and you do not. Something in his expression unnerved her, frightened her even; she moved back a pace, her eyes widening.

"Find me a weapon," he said softly.



Vaati was an enthusiastic guide, once sweetened by two of Miriel's honey-cakes. He trotted ahead, making the most of his power over them; occasionally he would order them to stop and be still, in an imperious voice, while he scouted out the route. He disappeared for minutes at a time before returning to motion at them: hurry up, hurry up. Whenever they tried to speak, he shushed them. It was difficult to tell whether he was playing a game, or whether they really were in danger; his manner at all times was deadly serious.

Dinolfos followed patiently at their heels, and did not say a word; like Dark he seemed to have a talent for making himself inconspicuous.

The little boy led them up, away from the lake and by degrees back into twisting tunnels. Zelda quickly became confused trying to follow their route, and eventually had to give up and trust to luck. At least Vaati seemed to choose his way with confidence.

They crossed a rope bridge, stretching over a vast black fissure in the earth, and passed into another tunnel on the other side. This one appeared more regular, with a smooth level floor, and when they passed the first green lantern shining in a niche, the boy seemed visibly to relax. Zelda had seen the dark slots high in the wall, and did not doubt that they were observed, but nobody challenged them.

And a sorry cavalcade they were--Link in particular. He stumbled along blindly, clutching her cloak tight around himself to ward off the Underworld chill. He was keeping up with them, but she could tell what it was costing him; she kept close at his side, for he was so unsteady on his feet that she was frightened he would fall.

"Are you all right?" she said softly; it was a stupid thing to say, but she couldn't think of anything better.

He raised his head and made a little smile, and she thought her heart would break. "I'm all right," he said.

I thought you were dead.

I think I was...

She was crying; she turned her head away quickly so that he would not see. But a moment later she felt his light touch on her arm. After all that had happened, the hideous ordeal he had suffered through, he was trying to comfort her. It made her feel weak and unworthy, and she pulled away sharply and then regretted it. Everything she had done lately was wrong.

Sofia was leading, with Vaati. She had persuaded him to talk with her by asking the boy simple questions: what did he like to eat, did he have any brothers and sisters, what were they like. He was easily led into conversation now, especially once the packet of honey-cakes came out again, and chattered on excitedly. Zelda watched them together for a while, wanting a distraction.

Sepultura was the only Sheikah they had ever met. It was surprising, she thought, how alike they looked, the witch and the little boy. Perhaps it was just the coloring that made her think that, the ghostly skin and blood-bright eyes. She looked over at Vaati, who was swinging his strange bow carelessly as he told Sofia some story or other, and felt an inexplicable twinge of dislike. Yet there was that mark, the glyph of the weeping eye: symbol of their oath of allegiance to the Hyrulian Royal Family. Sepultura had never visibly borne anything of the kind; that the child wore the mark openly gave her hope.

A long time later, they reached the end of the tunnel: a small round chamber carved from the black rock, lit dimly by three green lanterns positioned at intervals in carved wall niches. Silvery veins gleamed in the stone, running at a slant from floor to ceiling. Had it not been so gloomy, it would have been beautiful.

Vaati detached his hand from Sofia's and scampered over to the wall. "Wait here," he said, and did something. There was a soft grating sound; an opening appeared and closed again, and the boy was gone. The place where he had been standing was featureless rock.

Dinolfos had not spoken once on the long journey here; now, she turned and saw him looking intently at one of the shining lanterns. Was he--? He turned his head and looked towards her, perhaps sensing her gaze on him. As if he had read her mind, he shrugged and said quietly, "Don't think I'd get far, do you?"

"You saw the arrow-slits, then," Zelda said. She shifted, wincing at her sore feet, and leaned back against the wall. "I imagine they can see us in here too, from somewhere or other..."

He bared his teeth again in a humorless grin. "Oh, don't worry, I'm not stupid. Well, you all seem to have fallen on your feet. As usual."

"No need to sound so sorry about it," Sofia remarked dryly.

"So what happens to me now?"

The Gerudo shrugged her pack off her shoulders, and dropped it heavily. "When we know what's going to happen to us, we'll let you know." She rolled her shoulders back, wincing as the joints cracked. Two paler stripes on her filthy tunic showed where the straps of the pack had been.

Link sat down stiffly, and the cat came to him; he rubbed at her ears, then pulled her close and held her for a moment, pressing his cheek against her broad forehead. Zelda made a hesitant attempt to reach him, but he had closed himself off to her and would not share his thoughts. It was a rejection, albeit a gentle one, and it stung her to the soul.

After a little time, the hidden mechanism grated again, and a woman was there, hands on hips, regarding them all with a calm crimson gaze. She was tall and lean, with close-cropped hair of whitish blonde, and Vaati's pallid skin. The painted design under her eyes glittered in the lantern light, bright slashes of blue and gold. It matched her garments: figure-hugging leather armor dyed the same rich blue, with a golden pendant on her breast carved to the shape of the weeping eye. She bore no weapon.

For a long moment she was silent, looking from one of them to another with a stern, emotionless expression, then at last she spoke, the words coming with cool precision and a trace of some odd accent.

"Vaati says that you are to be trusted."

So easily had a couple of honey-cakes bought sanctuary.

Zelda drew a breath. "Vaati very kindly took us under his wing," she said. "I'm--"

The woman cut her off. "He says also that between you, you killed the Old Man."

She had been going to introduce herself and the others, reveal her identity, ask in her family's name for aid. Thwarted, she blinked and became unsure under the piercing red-eyed stare. It was Sofia who answered, after a pause that was slightly too long.

"We killed it," she said simply.

The woman turned her head lazily and looked at the Gerudo for a long moment. There was something unpleasantly patient about her stare, something snake-like. Sofia stood straight under her scrutiny, meeting the gaze of the blood-red eyes without hesitation. There seemed an infinitesimal softening in the woman's manner, though she did not smile.

"That was well done," she said quietly. "The Old Man has accounted for many a stouthearted warrior over the years. We thank you."

"It was him or us," Sofia said, a little uncomfortable.

The woman nodded very slowly, and the atmosphere changed again: some sort of test had been passed. She turned her head with the same indolent grace, and fixed the Princess with her cool stare. "Your name is Zelda."

"Yes," Zelda said. There didn't seem to be any other response to make.

The woman made her slow nod again--then her eyes became suddenly sharp. She turned to face her fully. "What is wrong with your hand?"

"I... I cut it." She had been rubbing at the wound under its bandage, without thinking about it; it ached.

"I see." The woman's tone was worryingly thoughtful. She watched Zelda very intently for a moment, as if she would have liked to stare right through the bandage and find out what the Princess was hiding. Zelda clasped her hands together awkwardly, and stared at the floor.

"I am Lazuli," the woman said, and there was a very slight thaw in her voice now. "You are welcome here, your Highness, and your..." --her gaze flicked doubtfully in Kleox's direction-- "...friends. Please follow me now, and I will take you to a healer. If the Old Man injured you, the wound must be cleaned without further delay or it will fester."

"It wasn't him, exactly," Zelda began, but the woman had already ducked through the low door and Sofia was moving to follow her.



Zelda's overriding impression of the stronghold was one of stillness. The cool dark corridors were wide and airy, with a clean scent. There was little decoration and no color: the walls were polished to a glassy darkness, and the woven mats spread on the floor had not even a hint of a dye. Once the eye had grown accustomed to low light, it was quite restful. As they passed an open door, there came quiet laughter from within; elsewhere a male voice murmured softly and was answered by a young chorus, reciting a lesson.

At a junction they paused, and a young man came quietly out of a side-passage and bowed to them. He had dark hair tied into a smooth ponytail, and wore hunter's clothes of gray and brown, but in his face, with the porcelain coloring and sharply defined bones, he could have been Lazuli's twin. Without a word he gently placed a hand on Zelda's shoulder and led her away; she craned her neck to see what was happening to the others and caught the anxious flash in Link's eyes as he was ushered down a different corridor.

"Do not be afraid," her guide said softly. "You are among friends."

She balked. "Where are you taking me?"

"To a healer." The pressure on her shoulder was gentle but insistent.

"What about my friends? What's going to happen to them?"

"You will join them soon. Please, come with me."

She gave in and walked with him along the length of another corridor and into another small round room. It was bare of furniture, save for a lantern in a niche, and a low pallet in the middle of the floor. She sat down on it as indicated, and stretched out her aching legs painfully on the thin rug. Her escort turned up the lantern until its light glittered in the silver seams of the walls, then slipped out of the room, closing the door silently behind him. It was wrought of an unfamiliar wood, black, with a very fine grain. The elegant carved handle shone polished silver.

In just a few moments the door opened again and Lazuli entered herself, carrying a jug and a small cloth bag. An acrid, herbal scent filled the air as she set the jug down on the floor. "Now," she said, crouching, and there was an odd light of eagerness in her crimson eyes.

Zelda felt curiously reluctant to allow the woman near her, but she had no good reason to refuse. She held out her hand and tried not to feel sulky about it. Lazuli's pale fingers were cool on her skin as she picked at Sofia's clumsy knot. A quantity of loose dirt fell out as the folds began to unravel, and Zelda grimaced.

Lazuli worked slowly. There was something almost reverent about the way she handled the Princess's arm, as if she were touching something sacred. Zelda watched her sidelong, feeling more and more puzzled by the whole business. When there was just a single thickness of bandage left covering the wound, the woman paused, and drew in a long breath, and her hands trembled for a moment. Startled, Zelda glanced at her face, but the woman's eyes were cast down, intent on the task.

The last layers of the bandage were sticky with congealed blood. Very gently, Lazuli lifted it away. Zelda made a small sound and bit her lip as the fabric peeled off raw flesh, but she could not avoid seeing. The straight-edged cut ran deep through the flesh of her palm, biting into the muscle; the exposed flesh was a deep rich red, glistening with wet. She was reminded, sickeningly, of raw steak on a slab in the castle kitchen.

Lazuli gripped her wrist in both hands and, gently but firmly, turned her hand over to look at the back of it. She paused there for a moment, then let out a great sigh. Zelda stared at her own hand, nonplussed. Aside from being very dirty, and smeared all over with the brownish stains of dried blood, there was nothing remarkable about it.

"Well," Lazuli said, with a false and brittle brightness. "Let us see what is to be done about this." She turned Zelda's hand back over to examine the wound more closely, and they both pretended that nothing untoward had taken place.

The warm liquid stung so sharply that Zelda had to bite the thumb of her good hand to keep from crying out. She turned her head away, closed her eyes and bore with the pokings and proddings as best she could. It seemed a very long time before it was done. Lazuli was silent now as she worked.



They offered her food: little round balls of bread, with an odd mushroomy taste, and small pieces of a strongly spiced meat. She ate and drank dutifully, and was taken to another room where they washed the dirt out of her hair and gave her fresh clothes in faded hues of gray and lilac. A woman put salve on her blistered feet and slid on a pair of soft slippers in place of her boots. As she sat, clean in borrowed clothes, a great weariness came over her, and she nodded in the chair.

She remembered the conversation as if it were a dream, with a dream's vividness.

"The boy has it, certainly." That was Lazuli. "It's very clear. Or it will be, in a few more days. And I thought, for a moment... But she is just a girl, after all."

"A girl who bears the name of Zelda," said another woman, gravely; her voice seemed at once strange and oddly familiar. "The power can lie dormant for years, you know. Do not underestimate it."

"I would not underestimate anyone who could take on the Old Man and live to tell the tale." There was a warm humor in Lazuli's tone, a liveliness that had not been there before. Zelda opened her eyes a crack. She was still sitting in the chair, but someone had covered her over with a light blanket. The room was warm and, for once, bright: a small fire burned in a grate a few yards away. There was something reassuringly normal about the warm yellow hue of the light. Lazuli and a woman robed in white stood a few paces away, their backs to her.

"It wasn't chance that brought them to our door," Lazuli said.

The white-robed woman gave a throaty laugh. "No--it was Vaati, the little devil. Why was he out on his own? Japhi will tan his hide--he was supposed to be having his history lesson."

"That boy! What's the obsession this week?"

"Very small things, apparently. I wish Japhi had never given him that lens--he was looking at some drinking water with it the other day and insisting he could see animals in it. It rather put me off my dinner."

"And were there?" Lazuli asked. The brightly dyed leather creaked as she shifted her weight from foot to foot.

"Were there what?"

"Were there animals in the water?"

"I don't know," the white-robed woman said. "I didn't look. What are we going to do with her?"

Lazuli sighed. "You are Impa now; you tell me."

"May Impa not ask her sister's counsel now and again? I must know why they are here, Lazuli--I must know that much at least. It's never happened before."

"It has once, sister, if you recall. A Hylian Princess came to us for sanctuary, long ago."

"But she had her Impa with her. By the Three--unguided, and with no training! I shudder to think what might have happened..."

She drifted away.



Her body had the fuzzy and wonderfully warm feeling that came with rest after a hard and painful task. There was no sense of danger, and so for a while she remained where she was, peaceful and content. She'd face the world and its attendant demands--but not just yet.

Time passed, and gradually her comfort receded: she was too hot under her coverings. She opened her eyes slowly, with luxurious laziness, and gazed up at a high ceiling of pale gray stone. The makers had cunningly carved it to resemble the branches of trees; she could even see a little stone bird peering down at her with a quizzical expression. The greenish light from the hanging lanterns fooled her, for one sleepy moment, into thinking that she was really in a forest. But it was too quiet, too still, and the scents were wrong...

She sighed and sat up, rubbing at her eyes with her fingertips. Her injured hand ached dully under the smooth white dressing. They'd padded it, wrapped it up so thickly that she could barely move her fingers.

The chamber in which she found herself was a long, bare, dormitory style room, with several beds in a row; they were mostly empty. Mostly--for Sofia was sitting on the bed next to her, combing her fingers through her long unbound hair. She glanced back over her shoulder and smiled, then touched a finger to her lips. Zelda stared at her for a moment before turning to look the other way. In the other bed, Link slept deeply, curled on his side with the blankets pulled up. He looked scrubbed. The cat sprawled at the foot of his bed; she turned her head and yawned, dismissing them all.

A great swelling happiness rose in her: all was right with the world.

She pushed her covers to one side and slid her bare feet into the slippers that lay waiting, trying to be as quiet as possible. Evidently she had not been quiet enough, for as she stood he opened his eyes and looked across at her.

"'Morning." His voice was sleepy and hoarse.

"Good morning to you too," she said, unable now to keep a silly grin off her face. "How are you?" Behind her there was a rustle as Sofia turned.

He shifted, winced; the cat leaped off the bed with an insulted look as he sat up. A loose white long-sleeved shirt hid most of his torso, but her gaze was drawn at once to the bandages on his right hand, and on his throat under the open collar. He saw her staring, and made a wry self-mocking smile. "I feel like a Gibdo under here," he said.

Zelda looked at him, and then away, biting her lip; there were too many things she wanted to say, and she didn't have the words for most of them. "Where's Kleox?" she asked instead, turning to direct the question to both of them at once. "Sofia--?"

"I don't know," the other woman said; she was tying her hair back now. "They've got him, somewhere. I haven't seen him since we were separated."

Link flexed his fingers and grimaced. "How did you end up with him, anyway?"

Zelda waited for a moment, expecting Sofia to jump in, but she was disappointed. "It's a long story," she said at last. "We found each other, really."

He was looking at her. "Go on--tell me."

She hesitated, knotting her fingers together in her lap. "Are you sure..?"

Something made her look up at him again; there was something in his look that she had never seen before, something uncomfortable. "Zelda," he said quietly, "don't treat me as if I'll break, all right? Just let me put it behind me. The last thing I want to see in your eyes right now is pity."

The gentle words cut like knives. "I was frightened for you," she whispered, tears stinging at the backs of her eyes.

"And I was frightened for you. But we're still here, still alive, so let's just make the most of it." He sat back. "It's your turn--tell me what happened."

She wanted to hug him and throw things at him in equal proportions, but she dared do neither. Instead she did as he asked and began to speak, relating events in a cold and passionless voice as if reporting to a commanding officer. If he was at all dismayed by her anger, he did not show it--he sat and listened with a look of mild interest on his face, and after a while she forgot herself and grew engrossed in the tale. He laughed a little when she told what had happened on the lake shore, and something like the old carefree Link sparkled for a moment in his eyes. Sofia, sitting cross-legged on the other bed, offered a few comments now and again, but seemed content to leave most of the telling to her.

The tale was nearly finished when the door opened. They had been sitting close together, leaning towards each other across the gap between the beds as they spoke, and they both jumped guiltily.

"Vaati!" Sofia said gladly. "How are you?"

The little boy had changed his clothes: he wore a lighter indoor tunic now, with no cap. Someone had brushed his silvery hair, and it shone. He looked at them all solemnly through the lopsided fringe. "I'm all right. How are you?"

There was something endearing about his old-world manners: it was impossible not to smile. He came a few steps into the room, his gaze fixed on Zelda. "Are you really a princess?"

"What, don't I look like one?" Zelda said, smiling; though in all honesty she was a little annoyed.

Vaati sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve. "Nah. Princesses wear dresses."

Link burst out laughing. "That's you told, Zel!"

She did her best to look pleased and join in the joke. "Well, what can we do for you, Vaati?"

"Umm..." He shuffled his feet. "I have to take you to Impa. Impa wants to talk to you. If you're feeling better now, I mean."

"Just me?" she said.

"Umm... yeah." He was rubbing his shoe against the back of his other leg.

Still she hesitated. "Who is Impa?"

Vaati looked up at her, nonplussed. "Huh?"

"It's all right, Zelda," Sofia said. "Go on. I don't think we're in any danger here."

Zelda glanced at her. "All right," she said at last, and stood up, wincing as she put weight on her sore feet. "I'll be back soon, then, when I've spoken to this Impa."



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