Chapter 1: The Century Ball
The ballroom at Edinburgh Castle was alive with activity. A string quartet which had just set up on the raised platform was tuning up with the harpsichord, the melodic sounds echoing sweetly to blend with the low murmur of conversation. Uniformed manservants moved silently across the space, unobtrusively removing dishes from the dozens of circular tables which dotted the room. As the meal was cleared away, the diners drifted slowly to an area at the front where the pale wooden floor had been specially prepared for dancing, sugared water spread over it to help ensure traction. The shoes in current fashion had slippery soles, and a few recent balls had ended in social disgrace for the organisers until some bright spark had come up with the solution. As the music began in earnest, the guests started to break off into pairs, bowing respectfully to their partners as they took the floor.
It was the century ball which each of the six clans took turns in organising, an institution which had taken hold since the Treaty of London was signed effectively ending war in Britannia. Naturally, there was the odd skirmish, but the constant battles of the past were a long distant memory. Many of those in the room had no recollection of what real conflict was like, taking for granted the easy way the different races moved alongside one another. This time, it was the vampires' turn to host the event, and the servants of Edinburgh Castle had been doing nothing but prepare for this day for the past several weeks. Gelda had done her part, working with the others to polish the silverware and arrange the centre pieces with perfect red and white roses. She had not been to the ball since the vampires had last hosted the event when she was just a small girl, and she had been awed by the pomp and spectacle of it.
Her protector, King Izraf, had allowed her to attend despite her lowly station, a favour he said for her loyal service and placid demeanour. Gelda sighed. It was kind of him but this was not really her thing. She was used to being on her own, and had learned to appreciate the freedom of solitude and the time it gave her to read and learn. She was wishing she could run back to her room when a small, dark man approached, confidence exuding from him as he strode forwards. Gelda found herself envying him, wondering what it must be like to move through life knowing you had everyone's respect and attention. She was more than a little surprised when the young man stopped next to her, regarding her carefully, a lopsided smile curving over his face. Her table was at the very back of the room and she had assumed he was headed out for a breath of fresh air.
"You probably don't remember me," the man pronounced, smiling warmly and Gelda's eyes were drawn to the neat, dark swirl circling over his forehead which gave away his heritage. "But you saved my skin a while back."
"Really?" Gelda asked, trying and failing to recall what on earth the demon was talking about.
"It was the last time the ball was here," he replied. "My brothers and I had, ahem, appropriated Izraf's crown if I remember rightly. Someone found out it was missing and the whole place was looking for us. You did us the favour of showing us where to find that secret passage."
"Oh, of course..." Gelda returned the smile. How could she have forgotten? The three of them had been so funny, and had beyond expectation included her in their game once the she had helped them evade detection. They had spent the whole evening running about the castle, laughing their heads off and Gelda had been very sorry when they had left. She had later learned that the three boys were the sons of the demon king and had forced herself to put them out of her mind.
"It's Gelda right?" the demon asked. "Or have I now made a hideous mistake?"
"No, you got it right, but my memory is nowhere near as good as yours," Gelda said softly, her eyes flicking down to the pristine white tablecloth. She was usually left to herself at these sorts of events and, while enjoying the company, was finding it a little challenging to know how to respond.
"I'm Zeldris. May I sit with you for a bit? I'm trying to lie low." Gelda looked up, taking in his shifty expression and noting that most of the girls standing at the other end of the room near the dance floor appeared to be staring pointedly in their direction. His eyes followed hers, before rolling up in exasperation and Gelda giggled in spite of herself.
"It's not for me personally," Zeldris protested as he took the chair next to hers. "These harpies are just trying to get their claws into the demon royal family. They'll notice Estarossa is free in a bit and make a beeline for him."
"Cui amat periculum in illo peribit," Gelda quoted in her amusement, forgetting herself. She usually remembered not to say anything which gave away her education, and she inwardly reproached herself for the lapse.
Zeldris stared at her. "How do you know the ancient language of the demon realm? I didn't think the vampire clan bothered with it."
"I... I like reading," Gelda stuttered, her cheeks blushing rose pink. "I've had a few lessons in languages which have given me the basics and I've studied to get by. The literature of your realm is particularly good so I pushed myself to learn it as best I could. The translations don't really do the works justice."
"Well, I'm impressed," Zeldris said with approval. "Most of our books on tactics are in that tongue so I've had to become fluent enough, but it's not easy. The grammar is impossible!"
"It's fine once you get used to it. Easier than Fairy anyway." Gelda looked up, taking in the easy smile and warm flashing eyes of the slight demon sitting next to her and with a slight rush of shame she caught herself understanding why he was such an object of interest.
"I'm so ready to give up with that. Why on earth do they have to have so many different ways of saying the same words?" Zeldris groaned and Gelda giggled again at this, finally enjoying the conversation. There were not many people she could confide in and they did not share her interest in scholarship.
"Listen, you want to make a break for it and head somewhere else," Zeldris asked, his head swivelling round to watch as a group of women made their way towards them. "I really don't think I can face this..."
"There's a way out from this corridor which leads to a hidden garden. You'll be safe enough there," Gelda offered with a smile. She rose from the table, Zeldris following her lead. Gelda could swear she heard murmurs of disappointment as they fled the room and she took them through the red carpeted halls and out of the castle.
"Where is he off to?" Estarossa pondered as he watched Zeldris fleeing the room.
"Would you relax!" his elder brother commanded, frustration showing in the bite of his tone. "I don't want to babysit either of you tonight."
Estarossa followed his brother's gaze to a beautiful woman, her white wings shining brightly and he smirked to himself. Princess Elizabeth, one of the most powerful of the goddess clan and the daughter of the supreme deity herself. Meliodas was always chasing the unobtainable.
"I'd let her be if I were you," Estarossa cautioned, a sly smile on his lips. "We may not have been at war with them for centuries but the goddess clan are not exactly our biggest fans. There's no way she'll give you the time of day."
"Wanna bet?" Meliodas asked, his smile broad. "I reckon I've got enough to get her attention."
"Be my guest. Loser goes after our youngest brother to bring him back to decorum," Estarossa called as Meliodas made his way over to the goddess.
Meliodas felt his hearts thumping erratically in his chest as he made his way through the crowds. Estarossa was right, this was not a good idea. It would either be a humiliating rejection or polite but cold remarks which were just as hard to deal with. But he could hardly back out now, not when his brother was observing his every move. Sighing, Meliodas pressed onwards, his eyebrows shooting up in surprise when Elizabeth looked directly at him, a serene smile gently spreading over her face, her blue eyes sparkling at him in apparent welcome. Maybe not such a pointless venture after all, he considered with a grin as he continued towards her.
The small passageway took Zeldris and Gelda out into a walled garden used by the kitchen staff to grow herbs. The warm, soft air was thick with the scent of thyme and lavender and the moon shone brightly, its silver rays bouncing off the garden walls to light up the space. Gelda filled her lungs, appreciating the peace after the cacophony of the ball.
"How do you know this place so well?" Zeldris asked. "I take it you live in the castle?"
"Yes. I'm one of the staff," Gelda replied quietly, suddenly realising their compromised position. If word got out that one of the demon princes had spent the evening with her, on their own, there would be a big scandal. She'd need to make sure no one ever found out.
Zeldris frowned. "The way you vampires do things is a bit different to us. Literacy among domestic servants is rare in my experience."
"It's not usual for us either. For some reason the king has taken notice of me since I was a small child. My parents died in service so I guess he felt like he owed me something. He's seen to it that I have clothes that fit and got an education. And he doesn't let me do much of the rough", Gelda lowered her eyes, her voice coming in a whisper. "I know it's ungrateful but sometimes... I wish he had just let me be."
It was so difficult being nothing but a maid yet at the same time having the king's favour. The other servants shunned her, thinking she was too polished and formal, too big for her boots in fact, and the royal family and nobles looked down on her as nothing but a commoner, a lowly one at that. The result was that Gelda had no one to talk to.
Zeldris looked at her carefully. "Must be hard," he finally observed. "Like you never quite fit in." Gelda was surprised. Most people just assumed it was a blessing to have the king's patronage and could not see the downside.
"It's not the same of course, but I sort of understand," Zeldris murmured. "Being the third one I'm the least important of my brothers. My father insists that we all prepare to rule, but there's no chance that will ever happen in my case. I guess in the old days I'd have been leading the army but now the reality is I have no job. And none of us are normally allowed out without bodyguards, not even Meliodas which is ridiculous. It all puts people off and it can get a bit purposeless and lonely." He looked down at the ground as he said this and Gelda felt slightly ashamed. She'd always assumed the royals had no cares in the world.
"And I hate events like this," Zeldris murmured unwillingly. "Not talking to you of course, I mean forced social gatherings. People take me as some sort of representative of the demon king which means I constantly have to watch what I say and I'm no good at being discrete. Meliodas is always having to smooth things over for me."
"It is hard being careful all the time," agreed Gelda. "I have to be. Servants should be seen and not heard of course, so I've had to learn the hard way not to speak out of turn. I'm pretty good at it now." Gelda smiled at Zeldris, seeing his face cloud in concern as the demon bit his lower lip.
"We should get back," Gelda said, taking advantage of the silence to try and end the possibility of hard gossip.
"You are so refreshing. Everyone else in a skirt has been trying to get me alone all night," Zeldris replied with a grin and Gelda felt the heat of her blush pushing down her neck.
"It's not like that!" Gelda retaliated. "This is not fair really. The other women here can listen to you or not as they choose but I cannot. I have to think of my reputation. As a servant I cannot be seen with you but cannot turn you away."
Zeldris looked down at this. "Quite right, I'm sorry. I don't want to get you into trouble, I just... you're pleasant to talk to," he muttered. "It was nice to be with someone who doesn't have an ulterior motive."
"I didn't mean to upset you," Gelda said softly, seeing the expression of genuine regret on his face.
"No, you were right to. I just wish we were a bit closer to having a society we can be proud of. We've had no war for ages and yet there's still so much prejudice. What does it matter who your parents are? My father's appalling, but that doesn't seem to make any difference because he was accidentally born king. Fairy princess Gerheade has just got engaged and look at the uproar that's caused, all because the man she's chosen is a human and a commoner. But I've seen them together and nothing makes more sense than they do. And two people like us should be able to have a conversation without worrying about the consequences."
"You don't think class matters?" Gelda asked, taking a few steps towards him so as to examine his expression more closely.
"No I don't, because it shouldn't. But you're right. Until the world catches up we'd better play by the rules."
"I would say so yes, little brother," a stern voice came from behind them and both Gelda and Zeldris whipped round. Gelda took in the tall man standing in the doorway to the garden, the bright moonlight shining on a hard, cold face, framed by messy silver hair.
"Zeldris, come with me now," the tall demon commanded. "Father will not be pleased when he hears about this."
"Why? We've done nothing wrong," Zeldris said cooly. "We were talking, that's all."
"I've made enquiries. That girl is nothing more than a servant."
"Your point being what exactly?" Zeldris retorted. "As I said, it was innocent conversation, nothing which anyone should be ashamed of."
Turning to Gelda, Zeldris bowed low, the show of respect throwing her off guard. "I apologise for the unpleasant behaviour you've been subjected to. We will take our leave before we cause further offence."
Zeldris grabbed his brother's elbow and dragged him forcefully out of the garden, the taller demon shooting Gelda a disgruntled look before they departed.
Gelda felt relief as she was left alone, along with an unexpected regret, the cause of which she could not quite identify. That was the last time she would let the king make her attend one of those, she thought as she set off through the castle, treading the deep red carpet of the halls until she found her way to the servants' staircase. She and her colleagues lived in one part of the castle, the lowliest among them being assigned the rooms in the basement and the garret while long-standing servants with families were given the more capacious accommodation on the ground floor. Gelda's room was pretty near the top of the tower and she climbed the steps quickly, wanting nothing more than to be safe in her room.
Once there, she leaned against the door to close it softly behind her and hoped no one at the ball would notice her absence. The king would not be pleased if he found out she had rejected his favour, but she needed some space to examine her feelings. Her emotions were definitely in greater turmoil than they had been at the start of the evening, and it would do her no good if she could not get herself under control. She needed to return to her duties tomorrow with a clear head.
"There was absolutely no need to be so rude to her. We were talking that's all," Zeldris fumed as he and Estarossa made their way back to the ballroom. Zeldris had a pretty good sense of direction, and navigated them though the many similar-looking passageways without too many wrong turns.
"It doesn't look particularly innocent to me," Estarossa replied darkly, his eyes flashing a warning. "Since when do you ever defend a girl?"
"Since you suggest unfairly that she was doing something she shouldn't have," Zeldris shot back.
"Well, you can explain it to father, but I
promise you he won't be too happy." Estarossa smirked. "You're supposed to be here to find someone to court remember? Someone with enough power to help secure our realm."
"Against what?", Zeldris asked incredulously. "And I don't understand why he's bothered with what I do anyway. I'm the spare of the spare after all." At this Estarossa chuckled, his equilibrium restored.
"Come on," Estarossa said, his tone notably lighter. "I know it's tedious but it's got to be done. Meliodas seems to be getting on nicely enough anyway though I don't think father will be any more pleased about that. He's been trailing some goddess all evening. I lost a bet with him about her actually."
"You should know by now never to bet against Meliodas, he always wins." Zeldris laughed as the two brothers made their way back into the ballroom.
Chapter 2: An Eventual Promise
Zeldris sped through the sky, cursing the biting night wind which stung his face sharply and shot like ice into his lungs. He could feel the wind fluttering through the long feathered wings of darkness which spread down his arms and was extremely thankful the soft warmth of them guarded his hands from the chill. Why did Britannia have to be so cold all the time? It was noticeably less warm up here than in the demon realm.
The bird he was following curved sharply down, letting forth a keening cry as it twisted away from the twinkling stars of the horizon. Zeldris quickly fled after it as it circled lower towards Edinburgh Castle, relishing the sudden rush of the fall.
He was worried. Gelda had not sent an answer back to him all day. Since the ball, they had been corresponding in earnest, using the night when they were both free of their responsibilities and could be alone. The pet falcon Zeldris had tamed as a child had proven itself an admirable messenger. It had stalked the castle, pretending to hunt until it had finally identified Gelda's room so that it could deliver his heartfelt words of apology. He had been surprised and delighted when the clever bird had brought back Gelda's reply, having assumed she'd want nothing to do with him after the events of the previous evening.
As the weeks had passed, Gelda's messages had become more familiar in their address and revealed a little more of who she was each time. Zeldris had learned about her harsh life at the castle and the way she used fiction to escape the reality of her existence. She never deliberately moaned, but with careful reading the odd sentence here and there unwittingly gave her feelings away and Zeldris had been pondering for some time what he could possibly do to make things better for her.
It had got to the point where he waited impatiently to hear from Gelda each night, but it was not until her message had failed to arrive that evening that he realised how much he had come to rely on her letters. His bird had returned with nothing, giving Zeldris a worried nip on the fingers to let him know there was something wrong.
The falcon's sharp cry brought Zeldris back to his senses and he watched as it carefully landed on a rock which jutted out of the castle wall, its small form just distinguishable by the light of the moon. Next to it was a round window and Zeldris smiled. It was not often his height had much advantage but it definitely did on this occasion. He would be able to squeeze in without too much difficulty. The window was open and, angling his legs, he managed to gain entry, pulling his darkness back into his form. The wings were very useful but did tend to cause alarm if you weren't expecting them.
The sounds of sobbing hit him immediately as he entered and his eyes strained, trying to adjust to the pitch dark of the room.
"Gelda? What's wrong?" he called out, the sound of his panic evident as he did his best to move towards her. He banged his hip on something and gave up, using his power to illuminate the room with a soft red glow to see that a small wooden table had impeded his progress. Gelda was sitting on her bed at the other end of the room, her head hanging down, and even at a distance he could see a livid bruise showing round her neck.
"Who did this?" Zeldris asked, the quiet calm of his voice surprising him. What he absolutely needed to do in that moment was find whoever had dared to lay their hands on her and cut them to pieces, his blood boiling with rage. The bruise was a lurid red, distinct finger marks showing on Gelda's pale skin, and as she looked up at him he saw her left cheek was also glowing where someone had obviously slapped her. Her eyes were red-rimmed and puffy, the dark lashes clumping together and Zeldris felt his anger instantly die as they met his own. He crossed the room quickly to sit beside her, cupping her face in his hands as he stretched out his darkness to cover her wounds.
Gelda gasped at the warm sensation pressing her face, feeling relief as the soft, soothing heat pooled over her skin, resting there comfortingly for several moments before sliding away. As the darkness withdrew, she could feel it pulling the dull pain with it and she was not surprised when she felt almost normal once it had gone. She could not remember when she had last experienced such kindness and, without thinking, she wrapped her arms round Zeldris to sob bitterly into his shoulder. He pulled her in closer, nuzzling into her hair and she could feel the rise and fall of his chest as his fingers gently caressed the back of her neck.
"I didn't know you could do that," she croaked, her voice grating slightly as she finally pulled back and she instantly missed the comforting feel of his head on hers.
"Don't change the subject," Zeldris said sternly, his hands clasped at his sides and Gelda was taken aback by the hard expression which marred his face. "Tell me what happened."
"It was Orlondi," Gelda admitted, her face pulling into a grimace. "He..." she held her hand up to her throat, tentatively feeling where the vampire's fingers had pressed, squeezing mercilessly as he had pushed her up against the wall. She remembered the feel of the rough stone on her back and the swimming sensation in her brain as she had begun to pass out. "He was drunk."
"He's always drunk," Zeldris spat angrily, his eyes pools of ink. Orlondi the Rose, the vampire crown prince was a notorious sot, an object of ridicule among the other five clans but Zeldris had never suspected he harboured a sadistic streak. "Did he..." Zeldris swallowed, unable to go on as disgust showed in every aspect of his features.
"No, but... I think he would have done." Gelda closed her eyes, shuddering as she relived the moment her attacker had leaned into her, his smile cruel, his face right up against hers and the alcohol on his breath unmissable. "The king found us in time. I've never seen him so angry. He slapped me and sent me away. He said it was my fault..." Gelda's tears returned as she felt panic and indignation flood through her.
Zeldris pulled her into him once more, stroking her back gently as she wept. He pressed his lips into her hair, noticing for the first time that it was disheveled, strands having come loose from her braid to fall round her face. The effect was pleasing and he cursed himself for taking gratification from such a sight even as he breathed in the scent of roses which clung faintly to her and realised as he closed his eyes how tender she made him feel. In that moment, he knew he never wanted to let her go. Not the best time, he reprimanded himself sharply. The last thing Gelda needed was someone else trying to force themselves on her. He made himself pull away from her, gently pressing her arms back with his hands as he worked his face into a neutral expression.
"You should leave this place," Zeldris murmured, dismissing visions of himself cutting Orlondi's hands off for daring to touch her as impossible, however tempting. "It's unfair, but he'll get away with it. He might even try again."
"I can't. I still have my duties," Gelda whispered, gulping slightly as she gained control of her breathing. "But I think the king will stop anything from happening, as long as I keep my head down. I can avoid being alone with him."
Zeldris looked at her carefully, seeing the set of her eyes and knowing she would not be dissuaded. And where could she go? He could hardly take her back to the demon realm with him, but he felt acutely uneasy, knowing that he should not leave her in such danger.
"I'll be fine," Gelda declared in response to his silence, the ghost of a smile lighting her face and Zeldris felt his hearts melt with pity.
"I'll speak to my brother. Meliodas has enough influence with your clan. He will be able to sort something out, I'm sure." Zeldris smiled wanly, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt. But this was right, if this could be fixed by anyone Meliodas would manage it. "He's home at the moment, I'll get hold of him first thing tomorrow. Will you be alright until then?"
Gelda nodded, her smile growing more sure as she looked at him, calming his nerves. Zeldris took her hand and kissed it lightly before dropping it and heading across the room quickly and propelling himself out of the window before he could change his mind. Gelda ran to watch him as he flew higher into the sky, leaning on the rough stone as she gazed out of the window. She felt her heart sink as his dark form disappeared into the black of the night and heat rose to her face as she realised that she had wanted him to stay. Suppressing tears, Gelda reproached herself sharply for dreaming of the impossible as her eyes continued to scan the horizon.
Zeldris woke to sound of a persistent knocking and rubbed his eyes with tiredness and frustration. His mind felt wooly and unresponsive, his sleep having been brief and uneasy, chased away by nightmares. He knew why of course. He should never have left Gelda where she was and the regret of his choice had plagued him all night.
But how could it be morning already? He rose unsteadily, taking a few steps away from the bed so he could look out of the window and he felt a flush of annoyance when he saw how dark it still was. It wasn't time to get up and would not be for a while. Who could want him at this hour? Stretching, he made his way to the door and was surprised to see his eldest brother, his face framed with his messy blonde hair and alight with his signature smile. How could even he be so peppy at this hour?
"Hey, no need to look so glum, it's good news!" Meliodas grinned, his head cocked slightly to one side and his black eyes flashing mischievously. "Father wants to see you."
"How is that good news?" Zeldris groaned, moving over to his wardrobe to dress quickly, pulling out the black shirt and trousers he usually wore. His father did not like to be kept waiting.
"You'll see," Meliodas replied with a chuckle. "You owe me for this."
Sighing, Zeldris followed his brother out of the room, speeding up slightly so as to catch up with him. Meliodas set a fast pace as they travelled through the hallways of the castle, walking past the huge oil paintings which adorned the walls, illuminated poorly by flickering candles. After a while they arrived at the demon king's throne room, the enormous gold doors sticking out incongruously from the onyx walls, the display more for wealth than for taste. Meliodas opened the door with a sharp push and Zeldris shuddered slightly. Only his brother would dare do that without knocking.
"You took your time," the demon king rasped, as the pair approach the throne, Meliodas moving to stand to his father's right. Zeldris suppressed a sigh. This was going badly before it had even started and he wondered if it was a trap. The thought that his father might have found out about Gelda made him slightly nervous and he forced his countenance to be still, giving nothing away.
"I may regret this," the demon king boomed as he looked his youngest son over carefully. Zeldris felt the drag of his eyes and made himself stand erect, legs slightly apart to appear more authoritative the way he had been taught. "In fact I do already. Nonetheless, I have decided to make you my heir should anything happen to Meliodas." The demon king gave a rare smile as he looked over at his eldest son, who was grinning profusely.
"But why?" Zeldris exclaimed before he could stop himself, his jaw slack, unable to take in what he was hearing.
"Would you dare question me?" The demon king growled, rising slightly on the throne and Zeldris shut his mouth quickly.
"No sir," he quietly replied, "Of course not. I was just... surprised." Zeldris allowed his eyes to stray down to the emerald green carpet, not daring to meet his father's cold gaze.
"It is on Meliodas' counsel," his father said, more softly than usual and Zeldris looked up sharply at his brother. What was going on? Meliodas never did this sort of thing unless there was something in it for him.
"Your brother has persuaded me that you, not Estarossa, are best fit to rule in his place. And I agree. You have shown yourself to be obedient enough. You have a good eye for detail and are fairly hard working. It makes up for your lack of power." Zeldris bridled at this. Estarossa may be slightly more accomplished than he but it was not by much, and his brother was sloppy. Zeldris could easily beat him in a fair fight, and had done so more than enough times to prove the point.
"In fact, even though Meliodas will take the crown I am sure he will want you in his administration. With that in mind, I have arranged for you to go on a tour of Europe. You will study under the continent's finest trainers. Under their instruction your power will grow to where it needs to be to suit your new station." The demon king waved his hand, signalling that Zeldris could leave.
"But... how does Estarossa feel about this?" Zeldris just about spluttered out, managing to prevent his voice from squeaking. This was awful. The last thing he wanted to do was to head off to Europe. Meliodas had done the tour a few decades back and had been gone for years. Zeldris remembered the way Gelda had felt in his arms and knew with certainty that he did not want to go anywhere.
"Oh, don't worry, I'll square it with him," Meliodas assured, his bright laugh echoing through the room. "He'll be fine. I'll make it sound like a favour." Possibly because it was Zeldris thought. This is just the sort of thing Meliodas and Estarossa would do to him as a prank.
Accepting the inevitable, Zeldris bowed low to his father and made his way out of the throne room, not turning his back until he had made his way through the doors as was the custom. This time he was followed by Meliodas who, as usual, ignored the tradition. Zeldris frowned as he stormed through the corridors back to the main living area of the castle. Meliodas was of course insanely powerful and he somehow managed to get the demon king any outcome he wanted, but even so the blatant favouritism was very annoying, hurtful in fact Zeldris admitted. He tried to accept the situation, knowing from experience it could not be changed, but every now and again his jealously still made itself felt.
"What is going on?" Zeldris snapped as soon as they were alone, pulling Meliodas into an empty room so they could talk more freely. There were a large number of servants who attended the castle and the hallways were rarely unoccupied for long. "Had it ever occurred to you that this is the last thing I want?"
"Why? I thought you'd be pleased," Meliodas said, a calculating look spreading over his face. "Don't tell me Estarossa was right, you've fallen for some vampire slave?"
"Gelda's not a slave!" Zeldris snarled, staring at Meliodas coldly, regretting the words as soon as they were out of his mouth.
"Hmm... I see. All the more reason for you to be heading off on the tour. It's fun. You'll enjoy it."
"Look, I have my reasons for this okay. Trust me, it's in your interest," Meliodas said softly, his face uncommonly serious. "You'll find out what's behind it soon enough, and it's important you play along now."
"Fine, if you're going to be mysterious I'll have to let you be, but there's something I need you to do in return. It's Gelda. Orlondi attacked her yesterday. She's in danger and I don't know what to do." Zeldris grit his teeth as he admitted his failing. "Can you do something?"
"Orlondi is a problem," Meliodas mused. "And your news doesn't surprise me. His drinking's completely out of control. You know he tried it on with the supreme deity's daughter at the ball? I had to discipline him. Izraf was not best pleased but even he realised that there could have been a diplomatic scandal.
"I will speak to Izraf again, but I'm afraid that is the best I can do, and don't hold out much hope. The vampire king is unreasonably fond of the boy. Comes with being an only child I guess."
"Or maybe it's because he's the eldest. That's how it works in our family," Zeldris observed, his mouth curved in a snarl.
"Don't be like that. Come on, I'll help you pack." Meliodas smiled in response to Zeldris' gloomy silence. "Leave the vampires to me. Let me make a fuss of you today." Zeldris looked at his brother carefully. Meliodas was definitely up to something.
It was night before Meliodas left him, the boxes all sorted and ready for his start in the morning. Spending time with his brother had been fun, they rarely did so, but Zeldris was relieved when he was gone. Summoning his darkness, he flew through the sky, this time not needing a guide to show him where to go.
As he approached the window, Zeldris was pleased to see an orange glow coming from within Gelda's room, confirming that she was there. Although he had forgotten in his haste yesterday there was of course a chance she might have been out on a collection. Since the end of the war, the vampires no longer hunted for food but they did travel after dusk in parties to collect blood, each member of the clan taking their turn. Vampire bites prolonged human life by a few months and the subjects of these lacerations would live without pain or suffering as long as they too had access to blood. Many humans nearing the end of their lives were happy to take advantage of this, offering their fluids willingly in exchange for the chance to say goodbye to their loved ones and to settle their affairs.
Zeldris carefully knocked on the window, waiting for Gelda to beckon him in and he was relieved to see she looked composed after the trauma of the previous day. She smiled at him sweetly, twisting her fingers round the gold braid that fell over her shoulder. Her face was so beautiful, her deep blue eyes shining in trust and he realised then how much he truly cared for her. He could never leave her. He would stay as close to her as she would allow, whatever the cost.
"I... I came here because I had some news," Zeldris said quietly. "But it doesn't matter really. How was it today?"
"Better than I had hoped." Gelda smiled, the thin skin round her eyes crinkling slightly. "I've been excused from any duties which might put me in Orlondi's way, and the king apologised for his outburst. He promised it wouldn't happen again and told me it wasn't my fault."
"You still need to leave," Zeldris said earnestly, taking her hand. "I should have said so yesterday. Come with me. I'll look after you, I'll... I care about you," he finished limply in response to her questioning stare.
"I can't say I haven't thought about running away," Gelda said carefully, "But it's only a fantasy. I'll be alright here."
"I can't bear to think of that monster touching you," Zeldris protested, as his hand went to Gelda's shoulder, feeling the delicate bones under his fingers. "Izraf does not have Orlondi under control, he might try again."
Gelda took a step towards him, and saw the genuine concern etched on Zeldris' face. Without thinking, she ran her hand over his cheek, hoping to reassure him. She was surprised when he lent into her touch, pressing his lips into her palm. She was equally shocked when she felt her heart beating wildly in excitement as Zeldris wrapped an arm round her waist to pull her close to him, his other hand delicately stroking her chin. She had known that her feelings for him were growing stronger but she had convinced herself it was just friendship. As she relaxed in his hold, allowing herself to run a hand over his shirt to feel his muscular frame under the fabric, she acknowledged for the first time that her desire ran deeper than that. The jolt of electricity which ran through her body as his lips met hers completely confirmed her suspicions, and she responded eagerly, exploring his lips and twisting her fingers into his hair.
Zeldris stroked the clinch of Gelda's waist, feeling the starched fabric of her uniform under his fingers, sparks flying through him as she pulled gently at his lower lip. He titled his head to deepen their kiss, guiding her inexperienced lips with his own, groaning into her mouth as he felt her fingers run through his hair and her nails draping lightly over his scalp. He moved his hand round to palm her rear, pleasure running through him as she murmured a soft sigh of gratification into their kiss. Then he felt the cold shock of confusion and disappointment as she pulled back, placing her hands on her shoulders to push him away.
"What did you come to tell me?" Gelda asked. "It must have been important or you would have written."
"It really isn't," Zeldris sighed, running a hand soothingly over her back, wondering if he dared risk squeezing her breasts. They looked so perfect and his eyes darkened as he gazed at her, the mark on his forehead growing slightly more jagged with his desire.
Gelda tipped his chin upwards, forcing him to make eye contact and then gently laid her hands on his shoulders. He chuckled to himself, acknowledging his defeat.
"It's not a big deal. I've been offered a promotion of sorts," Zeldris said smoothly. "My father has offered to send me to Europe for training so that I can play a greater role at court. But it won't matter if I don't go. He can always send Estarossa instead."
"How long would you be gone?" Gelda asked softly, her fingers gently caressing the back of his neck. The sensation was hypnotising, and Zeldris could feel his breathing becoming more laboured.
"It depends on how quickly I learn, but years at the least."
"Then go," Gelda spoke, breaking the spell and Zeldris looked up quickly into her eyes. "If you still want me when you get back we'll make plans. We need to be sure this is what we both want before we do anything rash."
"I have never been more certain about anything in my life," Zeldris protested.
"You know this could easily be just infatuation," Gelda forced herself to speak, hating her words but knowing they were for the best. Whatever they had, it was too early, too immature to take risks over.
Zeldris bit his lip. "I really don't think so. I've never felt this way about anyone before."
"But we both need to be sure. I don't think I could live with myself if you changed your mind," Gelda pleaded and Zeldris gave way, dropping his head in assent. She was right, and it would not be fair to her to force her into an irrevocable decision now.
"But you will wait for me?" he begged, his dark eyes showing his nerves.
"I will. I promise," Gelda said softly, her heart melting as she saw Zeldris shudder with relief, his shoulders dropping noticeably in her grip as he relaxed. She hadn't realised how nervous he was.
Before she could embrace him, Zeldris stepped back from her. Removing his signet ring and holding it up, he muttered some words and a delicate silver chain silently formed in the air, circling through it. Gelda watched fascinated, staring in awe at the flash of magic. The vampires had power but not like this. She was even more astonished when Zeldris took the chain and placed it round her neck. It was long, easily hidden under her clothing and she felt the slight cold as the ring fell under her dress and the metal met her skin.
"If you hold that and call for me I'll come to you. Look at it as a sign of our engagement. As far as I'm concerned I have made a promise to you, and I will not change my mind."
Zeldris was surprised but pleased when Gelda practically leapt at him, flinging her arms around his neck, deciding to take her evident enthusiasm as a sign of assent.
Chapter 3: The Approach Of Death
"What do you want?" Izraf rasped, his words spitting out in harsh, dry coughs. The vampire king lay prone in his enormous four-poster bed, his forehead glistening his sweat and his wiry black beard horribly matted. Meliodas sighed. The king was in a bad way, even after months of treatment. The supreme deity herself had tried to heal Izraf, but after a momentary recovery he had slipped back into his mysterious illness. It was becoming increasing clear to everyone concerned that his end was near, and the other five clans had called an urgent conference to discuss the succession. No one wanted Orlondi to take his father's throne, fearing the greed and immaturity of the heir apparent.
"Your majesty," Meliodas said sadly, "I have been sent as a representative of Britannia. I beg you to reconsider..."
"You want me to cut out my only son..." boomed the king before dissolving into spasms. The coughing became more persistent and after several minutes blood surged up covering Izraf's lips and splattering over the blankets. Meliodas pulled the cord next to the bed, trying and failing to get the king to drink the medicine on the table next to him while he waited impatiently for help to arrive. The king could not swallow, his eyes bulging in his head and Meliodas felt an overwhelming pity. He had known Izraf was ill, but was still shocked to see how sick he really was. Death was not a common occurrence in the demon realm.
A slender girl entered the room, carrying a pail of steaming water. Her blond hair was tied in a neat braid down her shoulder, and her face was delicate and proud, the starched black dress and white pinafore she wore the only sign of her lowly station. She took the bottle from Meliodas and, speaking softly to Izraf, she managed to sooth him, enough for him to drink the yellow liquid she proffered, having first tasted it herself to check it was safe. Poisoning had been one of the theories but forward to explain Izraf's malady and evidently the vampire king was taking precautions. Izraf sighed, his spasms lessening gradually and he sank back into the covers, eyes closed with relief. The girl crossed the room, taking a cloth from one of the cupboards and Meliodas took in the grace of her movements. She wet the cloth, and gently washed Izraf's pale face, taking her time, making sure she made him as comfortable as possible.
"Thank you Gelda," the king rasped, mercifully free of his cough and Meliodas pricked up his ears. So this was the vampire Zeldris had told him about. He looked at her more carefully. It was a long time since he had studied a woman this intently and he was surprised as he took in her poise and the fire of her piercing blue eyes. She clearly had character and Meliodas completely understood what had captivated his brother. The girl curtsied and silently left the room, leaving him alone with Izraf once more.
"I won't do it," the king snarled as he met Meliodas' gaze. "Orlondi will do well enough as he grows older."
"Your majesty, Orlondi is no longer a boy. He's unlikely to mature much more," Meliodas said softly.
"Of course he will!" the king spat out in annoyance. "But I will make you a deal," he said, a shadow of doubt crossing his face. "I will leave my wife's niece Ren as grand vizier. She will have ultimate authority over decisions until Orlondi is three hundred years old. But hear this, I have made it so that no one but my own flesh and blood can take the crown. If Orlondi dies childless there will be civil war as the rest of my clan fight for the succession. Only the strongest will win the throne. This means it is in your interest to ensure he succeeds," Izraf's voice trailed off, fear ghosting over his expression and Meliodas felt his hearts sink. He would be babysitting for a while it seemed and he cursed his position as the six clans' ultimate fixer.
"Don't let him touch that girl though, the one who was here before. That must not be allowed. You must promise me! He will need a wife but he must leave her alone." The king stopped, unable to continue as his hacking resumed.
"Promise!" he yelled, biting the word out between coughs and Meliodas nodded. It was not often he received the same instruction from two people with such different interests and his curiosity was peaked. He had spoken to Izraf a year ago following his brother's request and had been surprised then that the king had agreed so readily to watch Orlondi's behaviour and make sure Gelda was not bothered again. What was his interest in this servant girl?
"I promise," he murmured soothingly. "And the steps you have taken with Ren make sense. As you say, perhaps Orlondi will mature with time," Meliodas smiled comfortingly, not wanting to upset Izraf further but knowing for certain that this hope was misplaced. Orlondi was nothing but a lazy hedonist, with no aptitude for rule and little intelligence. He would be a disaster. The other five clans would just have to clean up the mess during his reign and hope that whoever Orlondi managed to breed with produced acceptable children.
Izraf's eyes closed and without warning he fell into a deep sleep. Meliodas quietly left the room. He should be heading back to report the result of his discussion to the others but a nagging unease stopped him. Instead, he went to find Ren. After all she should be the first one to hear the news.
As he expected, Ren of the Black Claw was in her personal study. Out of respect for Izraf, she had moved the centre of decision-making to her own rooms, leaving the throne room untouched. She smiled as Meliodas entered, pulling off the claws from her arms so she could shake his hand in welcome.
"How did it go?" she asked him eagerly. "Did he listen to reason?"
"Sort of. He's left you in charge until Orlondi is three hundred years old."
"Great lot of good that will do," Ren demurred, "the boy does not get better with age."
"It gets worse. Izraf said that only his flesh and blood can succeed him. If Orlondi dies childless, it sounds like there needs to be some sort of sick contest to decide the succession."
"He's done that has he? Stupid. It is an ancient law he can invoke but to be honest I'd hoped he'd forgotten it."
"Can it be undone?" Meliodas asked hopefully.
"Not a chance. It's a law set in stone, no loopholes," Ren murmured. "Only the monarch can revoke this magic. We'll just have to hope Orlondi breeds and dies quickly."
"That's what I thought." Meliodas grinned. "Alright. I'll tell the others.
"Say though, can I see the girl who looks after him, Gelda I think her name is?" Meliodas asked as casually as he could manage.
"You wondering if there's any sign of foul play?" Ren enquired sharply, a bite to her question.
"I don't think so," Meliodas said thoughtfully. "She tasted his medicine first, you know."
"Did she?" Ren exclaimed, her eyebrows raised. "She's not been asked to do that. By all means talk to her. Maybe she will tell you of her suspicions. The king has ordered that she attend to him in his illness so she may have seen something."
Ren pulled on the velvet cord which hung by her desk and a manservant entered in response to the bell. Ren quickly gave her orders and the man set off hurriedly on his errand.
"The king asked for her personally?" Meliodas enquired his eyes calculating. "Why's that?"
"She's always been a favourite, ever since she was little," Ren replied. "Her mother died in childbirth and her father was killed before she was born. By Izraf actually."
"What? How did I not hear about this?" Meliodas gasped. He prided himself on being in the know.
"We kept it quiet, it's a bit embarrassing. A hunting accident. Henry Thorne was in service too, and was attending the party. An unfortunate mistake."
Just then, a slight knock sounded and Ren called the visitor in. Gelda looked expectantly as she entered, her eyes widening in shock as they fell on Meliodas. Ren spoke some words to her explaining the position and then left the room.
"Don't worry Miss Thorne," Meliodas said as he looked at the girl, her hands twisting together in obvious discomfort. "I'm not here to talk about Izraf."
"I saw you watching me earlier," Gelda explained. "I did think he was being poisoned but I couldn't find any proof. Why would the king get so bad again after the supreme deity had healed him? He was fine after that for quite a bit. I'm sure I'm wrong, but I check everything I can just in case."
"It's about Zeldris," Meliodas said sternly and he watched as the set of Gelda's jaw grew more determined, her nervousness gone.
"What have you to say to me?" she asked harshly. "Because if you are going to tell me to give him up I can save you the trouble. I won't. I love him and he loves me." Gelda felt her cheeks flush at her words, but she was sure of herself. For a whole year Zeldris had written to her consistently, setting out how he would provide for them when he got back. He had secured a job in France where they still had some skirmishes, being accepted as a Holy Knight at Versailles. He would finish is training then relocate them both there, having gone as far as finding somewhere to live. He had even flown over to Edinburgh from the Low Countries a month or so ago, travelling for hours so they could spend a single night of bliss together. She was sure of him now.
"And how's that in his interest?" Meliodas asked carefully. "You strike me as a woman of integrity. Do you really want my brother to give up everything for you?"
Gelda felt like he had slapped her in the face. "It's true that he would perhaps lose some things, but he will be happy with me. Would you want your brother to be miserable for the rest of his life because you and your family are too proud to accept me as his choice."
Meliodas was impressed. It was not often people spoke back to him, but the stakes were too high for this. Regrettably he would have to press the point.
"Look, it's not your status or your lack of dowry that are the main problems. Obviously they're not great, but I could bring my father round eventually. You have no power, that's the issue. I can read you. Your magic and strength are practically zero. The demons will accept poverty, but believe me they'll want their queen to be strong. They have no tolerance for weakness.
"If you don't let Zeldris go you'll force him give up his crown and I can assure you he wants it, more than he'll ever let on. You can't possibly think he loves you enough for that."
"He does love me," Gelda said softly. "He has proven it to me too many times for you to make me doubt him now. He has made a promise to me."
"Let me get this straight, are you telling me there's a formal understanding between you?" Meliodas asked fretfully.
Gelda reached under the collar of her dress and pulled on the chain round her neck, bringing the gold ring which hung there out into the open. Meliodas looked at it, jaw slack. This would definitely mess up his plans.
"And what does it matter what the demons want from their queen?" Gelda cried out angrily, replacing the ring. "You are the heir, not Zeldris." She looked at Meliodas coldly, and was taken aback when his head tipped downwards, the messy blonde bangs covering his swirling black mark and dark eyes.
"Well, not really," Meliodas spoke slowly, choosing his words with care. "Keep this to yourself but Zeldris will be the one to take my father's throne, so he needs to find someone our clan can accept as his queen. You need to break it off. He won't, he's too stubborn. If you don't want to get between him and his ambition you must release him. Just... think about it."
With that Meliodas bowed low, surprising Gelda, before turning to leave the room. His words had stung. Should she really force Zeldris to be true to his promise? He would not have known what he was giving up when he proposed to her. Perhaps Meliodas was right, it was her responsibility to set him free.
"Wait!" she called and Meliodas stopped, his hand on the door.
"You need to tell him," Gelda mumbled, forcing herself to talk through the tightening at the back of her throat. "When I send his ring back he will be hurt. You need to explain."
Meliodas spun round, his eyes sparkling, a small smile creeping over his face. "Thank you," he gushed. "You are a remarkable woman." Bowing to her again, he finally left the room, allowing Gelda the space to dissolve into tears.
Chapter 4: The Promise Is Broken
Zeldris held the letter in his hand, eyes downcast, not knowing quite what to do. The swirl of emotions was too much, too confusing to cope with. As he grasped his fingers round the ring still circled by the silver chain Gelda had enclosed with her brief message he felt the ache in his chest pressing painfully. What had he possibly done to make her change her mind?
Zeldris looked round the small cottage, taking in the polished stone floor, the broad beams and small round wooden table and chairs. He'd lit a fire in the hearth, wanting to see what their home would be like when it was all set up and ready, the efforts he had been so pleased with mere moments before now seeming so pointless. This was all for nothing. Everything was. Without thinking, Zeldris sank to the floor, arms round his legs and he rested his head on his knees. He hugged himself tightly, rocking slightly, willing himself not to cry. There had to be a way to fix this, he just needed to think of it. He just needed to understand what he'd done so he could make it right.
How long he sat there, lost in thought he was not sure, but when the knock came on the door and he looked up the fire was low in the grate, barely embers, and the sky to be seen through the windows was dark. It must be night already, and no plan had presented itself. He had no idea how he would get Gelda back.
The door opened without invitation and in walked Meliodas, his step light and springy. He pulled up short when he saw Zeldris. Meliodas realised then that he had underestimated his brother and the strength of his feeling. He'd never seen him looking so miserable. Gelda had warned him Zeldris would be upset but he had not expected this level of dejection.
"Hey, it's alright", Meliodas said softly, moving over towards Zeldris to place his hand on his shoulder. Zeldris stood up, turning to face him and Meliodas felt a sharp stab of guilt seeing the desolation on his face.
"Why are you here?" Zeldris snapped. "I don't need company at the moment."
"I'm sorry, I should have got here sooner, I need to explain what's going on."
"What's going on is that everything I've worked for over the past year has come to nothing and I don't know why," Zeldris said quietly, his head down, taking deep breaths to suppress the tears he felt pricking his eyes. He would not cry, not ever, and definitely not in front of his brother.
"Look, it's all for the best, I promise," Meliodas started.
Zeldris looked up at this, a glimmer of the truth suddenly presenting itself. "You did this? You told her to break things off with me?" Zeldris choked, the confusion in his eyes blazing into anger as Meliodas lowered his head in assent.
"How dare you!" Zeldris instantly drew the sword from the scabbard at his side, the sharp scrape of metal filling the air. "I'll kill you for this," he growled, holding the weapon right up against Meliodas' throat. Meliodas took in the fire of his eyes and the determined line of his jaw and knew the threat was serious. There was no way he would lose if it came to a fight, but he needed to diffuse this without violence.
Raising his hands, Meliodas murmured as soothingly as possible, "You need to let me explain. Just hear me out."
"Get on with it then", Zeldris snarled, keeping the tip of the sword pressed into Meliodas' adam's apple.
"I did tell her she should release you. Listen!" Meliodas warned as the tip of the sword nicked his skin. "She understands that it's in your interest. She's doing this for you."
"How can you possibly say that? Do you know how hard I've worked so we can have a future together? Look around," Zeldris gestured at the small cottage. "I bought this. I've worked every spare hour I could, mercenary, odd jobs, whatever, so we could live somewhere. Don't you understand? I love her!"
"You'll be king soon," Meliodas murmured with a sigh. "Look, I'm leaving the demon realm. Father doesn't know," Meliodas said quickly in response to Zeldris' withering glare. "That's why I wanted you to train to be heir. You have the attention to detail and authority you need to rule our clan, and I know it's what you want. But as our next king you can't bind yourself to Gelda. She doesn't have enough power."
"So why are you going? Why can't you just take over from father and let me get on with my life?" Zeldris snarled.
"It's... complicated. You'll find out later." Meliodas smiled wanly.
"Not good enough. You owe me a proper explanation."
Meliodas sighed, the sword still at this throat. "I'm... I can't explain now, I'm sorry. I'll tell you when I can."
"You're completely impossible! Why do you have to be so damn mysterious all the time?" Zeldris spat out angrily.
"Anyway, I don't care what you're up to. You can't make me fit in with your plans. I've got a job here. The Grand Master of Versailles has agreed I can stay on as a Holy Knight and the salary is more than enough to live on. I will stay here even though Gelda has left me and spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to win her back. It doesn't matter if I never succeed, I'll keep trying. I don't care about the crown. So you can leave me alone."
Meliodas stared. He hadn't anticipated this. Zeldris had never shown quite this level of constancy or industriousness, not where a woman was concerned anyway.
"You win." Meliodas smiled and, shocked and surprised, Zeldris lowered his sword. "You appear to have me in checkmate."
Zeldris stared at him, trying to read his brother's expression. Meliodas had that signature grin on his face which was so annoying and Zeldris felt a strong urge to swipe it off with his sword.
"I'll go speak to her again if you like. She loves you, she'll take you back. Gelda put up a remarkable fight actually. I can see why you like her."
"You've done enough," Zeldris fumed, staring his brother down and Meliodas cocked his head to one side.
"I'm sorry," he murmured. "I got it wrong. I just assumed you'd want the crown most of all."
The blonde looked up, hoping to see forgiveness in his brother's eyes, but found nothing there but cold anger. After a few tense moments, Meliodas left, closing the door quietly behind him.
"Now that was fun to watch," a suave voice sounded from behind and Zeldris spun round, adrenaline rushing, ready to fight. He left his sword alone. This was not Meliodas and he would be best off using magic. Zeldris instantly summoned his power, feeling the sparks of it at his fingertips as he prepared to attack.
"Not a bad reaction time," Cusack said approvingly, his long flowing moustache quivering with enjoyment. "But room for improvement, and you should have picked up on my presence long ago. I'll chalk it up to your emotions rather than sloppiness but you'll need to watch that in future."
"Grand Master!" Zeldris gasped, bowing slightly. "I'm sorry..."
"None of that," Cusack purred. "It was an interesting discussion. And it did clarify your position. It's not often the son of a king asks for a job, and I did wonder if that poetry you were spouting was a cover for something more sinister. I thought you might be a spy actually. I'm pleased you're not. You're the best student I've ever taught."
"So, you will let me stay?" Zeldris asked hopefully. He had not realised he had been under scrutiny and was cross with himself. He should have anticipated that Cusack would be suspicious.
"If you still need a place when your training is over then of course, I'll be delighted to have you. But I suspect it won't come to that. These things have a way of working themselves out," Cusack said fondly. "Anyway, I came to tell you the trap is ready to take you on to Venice. Say hello to Amadeo for me when you get there."
Cusack watched as Zeldris went on his way. He'd miss the boy. His power was on a truly exceptional level and he had been a joy to teach, so eager and quick to learn. It was a pity he would not end up as a Holy Knight in Versailles, he would have been the perfect deputy. But it was not to be. Cusack had made up his mind what to do and, without delay, he teleported to Edinburgh Castle, using his power to find the girl Zeldris had told him about. His description had been so clear it would be enough to find her. The poor boy had been unable to contain himself having kept the secret for so long and a bit of friendly encouragement was all it had taken to get the details.
Cusack looked over the castle, his vaporous form shifting through the hallways and rooms as he systematically searched for Zeldris' girl. After much effort he found his way to the vampire king's rooms and was shocked to see him so close to death. He had heard of his illness but had not expected the level of suffering Izraf's face radiated. The girl tending to him was obviously Gelda, and Cusack smiled. Zeldris' description was extremely accurate, the power of true love he thought to himself. He followed Gelda as she left the room and sped on her way through the castle until she came to the library. It was empty and as soon as she was alone the girl broke down, leaning her back against the polished wooden door and sobbing passionately. Materialising quickly, Cusack made his way over to her, touching her shoulder gently to attract her attention.
Gelda shot up, wiping her eyes furiously. "Who on earth are you and how did you get in the castle?" she cried. The man in front of her was a stranger, and she took in the wicked black eyes surrounded by long strands of dark hair and the marks like arrows shooting down from his eye. Obviously a demon but not one she had seen before and Gelda moved quickly towards the bell to sound the alarm.
"No need for that," Cusack cooed, his eyes flashing. "I've just come from Zeldris."
Gelda stopped dead, spinning round to look at him. "Who are you?" she asked, her voice harsh.
"I'm Cusack, Grand Master of Versailles," he said, bowing slightly and Gelda relaxed. Zeldris had mentioned this man in his letters and had made clear his great admiration.
"I happened to overhear a conversation between the young master and that brother of his. You should not have let the idiot talk you into breaking things off. I can see from your face that you regret it."
"Is Zeldris okay?" Gelda asked pleadingly.
"Not really. He wants you back. Zeldris told his brother he would stay in Versailles working for me until he has convinced you to return to him."
Gelda felt her chest tightening and a lump rise in her throat. As if she had needed any more proof of her mistake. Without thinking she ran to Cusack and hugged him, needing to share her joy and sorrow with someone as her emotions overwhelmed her, bringing tears to her eyes. It had been so difficult not being able to confide in anyone for all these long months, especially these last few days when she had felt so desolated.
Cusack was surprised, but held her gently as she cried into his chest, giving her the time she needed to compose herself. It didn't take too long, and Cusack looked at her appreciatively. She was obviously strong enough in spirit, a good enough base from which to train.
"I understand the main problem here is your supposed lack of power," Cusack mused. "I don't believe anyone totally lacks power. It's a matter of will and experience. Everyone has that, it's just a case of learning to draw it out and then training it to make it grow. I can help you with that. I'm very good at what I do."
"You mean it?" Gelda whispered, gulping slightly as she forced her tears away. "You'll really help me?"
"Of course, anything for the young master. He's remarkable." Cusack hummed, his moustache quivering slightly as he gently took Gelda's hands in his.
"Now, I want you to close your eyes and concentrate on thinking about everything that is important to you. Hold on to every memory that makes you feel something, be it good or bad, and concentrate on that sensation. Gather it up in your mind, then push it into your fingertips and hold it there. Press what you have into your fingers as hard as you can. It will take a while the first time so don't give up, just keep concentrating on your thoughts and emotions and something will happen."
Gelda let her eyes close, her memory straying back to her youth, the kind eyes of the king as he told her that she was special and that he would protect her, making her feel so safe. Then the cold, angry stares of the other servants, their whispers which had followed her through the corridors as she went about her duties, and the quiet learning she had done on her own in the library to try and give herself some comfort. She did feel something, and with all her might she pushed it into her fingers feeling the tips of them glowing very slightly. It was barely anything but the warmth she felt there made her think of Zeldris, the way her had healed her. She recalled the flash of his eyes, the image of his pale face, perfect and vivid as she held it close to her heart, cherishing the way he looked at her. With a shudder, she remembered the way he had caressed her that night, bringing her a pleasure she did not know could exist as she looked into his face and saw the rapture she had brought to him. Her love for him, which had grown from a tiny speck to something which now consumed her whole being, took her over and she let the full force of her adoration spread through her unchecked, relieved to be able to give it full reign. At this her fingers burned hot and fierce and, to her surprise, she felt Cusack pull away sharply, the images she had conjured fading as her concentration failed.
"Ouch!" Cusack yelled and Gelda opened her eyes to stare at his gloved hand, the white leather singed a dark brown, smoking slightly. "That will do nicely," he said appreciatively. "Purgatory Flames, a useful power, good for long range attacks. You'll have a hard time causing the demon race true damage but everyone else had better look out."
"But it was so small," Gelda said meekly, seeing the stain of the burn on Cusack's gloves was barely more than a spot.
"For now," Cusack soothed. "You wait until I'm through with you. We start now."
Chapter 5: A Secret Uncovered
The drawing room was dark, black drapes covering the walls and furnishings. It was night and with only small candles to light the space the room was fittingly gloomy. The hushed murmur of whispers filled the area with a solemn buzz and Gelda sniffed slightly as she carried the glasses of wine round on a circular tray. She had never expected to be here, doing this. Izraf had always seemed so alive. Even at the very end, when it had become clear that his illness would claim his life, Gelda had not quite believed he would actually die. She never dreamed she would be serving drinks at his wake.
Representatives from the other five clans mingled with the vampires, offering condolences, falling back on the trusted words of diplomacy to get through the awkwardness of the day. Meliodas was in deep conversation with a goddess, her wings shining softly in the dark room, the light catching her long, sliver hair and Gelda wondered what the two of them were discussing. They seemed very close. She had not quite forgiven the demon and wondered if she dared give him a piece of her mind. She shook her head. Even if she did, this was hardly the place she thought as she continued round with the drinks, delighting fairy king Gloxinia when she addressed him in his native language. He ignored her uniform and quickly set about talking to her in earnest. Gloxinia smiled to himself. Maybe this girl's station would have bothered him in the past, but Lowe had changed his mind about such things. His brother-in-law had proven himself an admirable leader despite his lack of wealth and education.
"What happens now?" Meliodas whispered to Elizabeth, his eyes alert, checking they could not be overheard.
"Orlondi's coronation," Elizabeth said, sighing solemnly. "Ren's checked the paperwork. Izraf did what he promised. Everything Orlondi wants to do has to go through her first." Elizabeth scrunched her face up in distaste. "But it will be difficult for her. I'm sure he will make himself very disagreeable."
"Tell me about it," Meliodas muttered crossly, rolling his eyes. "I've got to look after him too. Izraf begged me and I made a promise to my brother which I can't break. I've done enough damage there already." Meliodas looked over at Zeldris who was very effectively ignoring him, studiously avoiding his gaze. The youngest had been called back to attend the funeral and had been civil enough since his arrival, but he had stubbornly deflected all of Meliodas' attempts to apologise.
"Give him time," Elizabeth murmured softly, resting her hand on Meliodas' arm. "He's angry now but he'll forgive you. I'm sure it will all work out."
Meliodas smiled, leaning into Elizabeth slightly to rest his hand on her hip and, unable to resist himself, working his fingers round slowly to palm her rear. He was delighted when she gave a slight squeak despite her best efforts to keep quiet in the hushed, sombre room. Enjoying the deep blush which flooded her cheeks, Meliodas was on the point of repeating the experiment when Ren burst in, visibly shaking, her face livid with anger.
"He cannot be king," Ren stormed, drawing up abruptly to stand in front of Meliodas. "We have to find a way to stop him."
"What's he done now?" Meliodas groaned in exasperation.
"He wants to bring back hunting," Ren seethed and Meliodas' eyes widened involuntarily while Elizabeth held her hand up to her mouth.
"He can't!" Elizabeth whispered softly, trying to lead Ren into lowering her voice. A few of the guests had looked over towards them, disapproval etched onto their faces. "The humans won't stand for that. There will be war."
"I know," Ren spluttered angrily from between clenched teeth. "I told him he couldn't. You know what he said? That he will let it be known that I was the one who got in his way. If our people go hungry he will tell them it's my fault."
"Are you in trouble?" Meliodas enquired. The vampires had not mentioned any issues with blood supply at the last meeting of the six clans and he was rather surprised.
"No!" Ren said crossly. "Well, not really. The problem is blood doesn't store so we can't stockpile. If there was ever a sudden drop in supply then we would be in a difficult position. In reality that's never happened, but Orlondi's argument is we need contingency, though he didn't use those words of course. But his real motivation is just greed, he wants more than he needs."
"Izraf said he'd made it so only his flesh and blood could succeed him right?" Meliodas muttered thoughtfully. "Might be a way around that. Ren, can you show us where the library is?"
Ren raised her eyebrows but did as she was requested, the others following her discretely out of the room as she sped through the door.
"What are we looking for Meliodas?" Elizabeth asked once Ren had left them. The library was enormous, a circular room with shelves that covered the walls from floor to ceiling. Leather-bound books in red and green were stacked neatly in rows and Meliodas was grateful they seemed to be laid out in themed sections.
"Genealogy," he said grinning, his eyes alight with mischief. "We're looking for blood relatives. We need to find someone who's Izraf's nephew or something." Meliodas looked at Elizabeth, who returned his smile as she caught his meaning and he felt his chest tighten as his eyes fixed on the soft curve of her lips.
Shaking his head to bring some sense back, Meliodas started to read the labels showing how the books were organised. The pair of them scoured the library, climbing the ladders to view volumes at the higher levels, and bending down to check the ones near the floor. At last they found it, a small section of large tomes, which contained thousands of pages of family trees spidering across the yellowing paper. The books were old, the paper delicate and they were both careful in their search to turn the pages gently.
Finally they located Izraf's dynasty. It was a disappointing read. The vampire king had two elder sisters but both had died in infancy and the rest of the family had petered out too. There were no surviving blood relatives apart from the son who would do so much damage.
Sighing, Meliodas replaced the volume on the shelf, giving the book a soft push so that it rested flush with its fellows. "Well that was a bust," he huffed with annoyance.
"But it might have given me an idea,"
Elizabeth said cautiously. "Are you willing to help me out with something indecorous?"
"Always!" Meliodas agreed enthusiastically, turning to face Elizabeth and lightly gripping her hip to gently pull her towards him, feeling sparks fly through his body as she tumbled against him with another adorable squeak of surprise.
"Not now," Elizabeth giggled. "We're looking for scandal," she explained playfully as she twisted her fingers into Meliodas' hand and removed it from her hip. Gripping him more tightly, weaving her fingers through his, she led him out of the library and through the wide corridors of the castle, stopping a few times to check she knew where she was. It was not until they were practically at their destination that Meliodas realised they were headed for Izraf's chambers.
"You're thinking of a child out of wedlock?" Meliodas said incredulously. "That's impossible. Izraf was devoted to his wife."
"Yes, but he married really late in life," Elizabeth remarked. "Perhaps someone was there before the queen caught his attention."
"Worth a shot, I'll try anything at this point," Meliodas said gloomily. He was not hopeful. Izraf had the reputation for being almost pathologically uxorious. But as Elizabeth tiptoed into the room, evidently slightly uncomfortable at the spying they were about to engage in, Meliodas followed her, knowing he could not let her go ahead on her own.
Izraf's room was a mess of overly ornate fixtures and fittings. Even the demon king's castle did not host so much gold leaf. The effect was brash and unsettling and Meliodas felt deeply uncomfortable. He did not relish invading the privacy of a dead man.
Elizabeth knew what she was doing. Heading for the armoire, she quickly sank to her knees and opened a small drawer at the very bottom. With a shout of triumph she removed a small wooden box from the depths of the space, proving its likely usefulness by attempting unsuccessfully to open it. It was locked.
"Explain to me how you knew where to look," Meliodas blurted out in amazement.
"Easy. I saw him put it here one time," Elizabeth said brightly. "I was a little girl and was playing around the castle. He was quite cross with me."
Laughing, Meliodas took hold of the box wondering how they were going to open it. Stretching out a thin tendril of darkness, he carefully pushed it inside of the lock to explore the mechanism, pressing against the ridges and pins experimentally until finally there came a soft click. The lid sprang open slightly and Elizabeth completed the task, removing a bundle of letters and she eagerly began reading them.
"There was an affair," Elizabeth said smugly, her eyes bright as they looked up at Meliodas. "Looks like before Izraf met the queen he was in love with a servant called Mary Thorne."
"Thorne?" Meliodas gasped, practically pulling the letter out of Elizabeth's hand. After finishing it at top speed, he took sheet after sheet from the pile of writing. He hurriedly read the story there. Secret meetings, snatched pleasure and the illegitimate child the poor woman was terrified her husband would realise was not his as soon as it was born. Apparently the two men did not look alike and there was a strong chance the deception would be uncovered. Mary Thorne had begged Izraf to find a way to save her honour, and Meliodas remembered the supposed hunting accident which had claimed her husband's life.
"She may not be his," Meliodas said cryptically, his eyes sparkling with delight. "But if she is, this could be a bit of a blessing. It would explain Izraf's attitude too."
"What are you talking about?" Elizabeth asked, completely perplexed by the apparent nonsense.
"Come on, we have to get back to the wake. Right now!"
Meliodas grabbed Elizabeth's hand and pulled her out of the room, snatching the bundle of letters up in the process before practically running back the way they had come.
"Time to join the ladies I think," came a slurred, sibilant voice from the shadows of the darkened drawing room. The milling guests hushed their soft chatter instantly as the new king of the vampires, Orlondi the Rose, made a belated appearance. Taking several unsteady paces, he stopped directly in front of Gelda and grabbed her wrist, squeezing it tight in his fingers as the rest of the room stared in horror, frozen in place.
"Nothing preventing this now," Orlondi leered, pulling the girl in towards him, glasses of red wine tumbling to smash on the floor as Gelda dropped the tray she was holding. She leaned back in disgust, pulling at her arm forcefully to try and wrench it away, her body twisting sideways with the effort but Orlondi held her in place.
"I've wanted to do this for a while," Orlondi whispered into Gelda's ear as he pulled her in closer and she could feel his warm breath ghosting over her skin. She winced as the repugnance of the situation hit her with force and she tried once again to release herself from his grip.
"Get away from her," Zeldris snarled, appearing in front of Orlondi at astonishing speed, crushing the bones in his wrist with his fingers and forcing the vampire to let Gelda go. She cried out in relief as her arm was freed, stepping back several paces to get away from her attacker, but not wanting to go any further. Her eyes locked on Zeldris, taking in the rigidity of his posture. She knew with certainty that he was thinking about killing his target and wondered how best she could protect him from his own anger.
Orlondi looked Zeldris over, a cruel sneer curving over his lips as he prepared his powers for the strike. But before either could move, a wall of white fire spread between them, forcing the pair abruptly apart. Zeldris looked at Gelda in astonishment, taking in her proud, cold stare and her calm poise as her power stretched out in crackling waves all over the room. She seemed taller somehow, more authoritative as she addressed the vampire who would have defiled her.
"You will not touch me again. This fire is cold but I can turn up the heat if I want to," Gelda said cooly, demonstrating the truth of her words as the flames gained a slight orange hue and the temperature the room rose appreciably. "Our king did not want you to come near me and neither do I."
"What king? I am your lord!", Orlondi said, laughing as he recovered his composure. "You are my subject and I will do whatever I want with you. Mod! Ganne! Take her to the dungeon. Make sure you tie her up tight."
A huge vampire, chest heaving with muscles stumbled towards Gelda, driven on by a tiny snarling goblin-like being with sharp fangs who sat on his head, pulling his hair to guide him while issuing instructions.
"Black Whirlwind!" the small vampire cried when the pair were close enough and a cross of darkness formed in the air before rushing straight towards Gelda.
Before it could reach her, Zeldris stepped in front of the surge of power, raising his arm up and deliberately clenching his fist. After a few moments, the cross shimmered before him, then vanished, a trembling wind rushing round the room, knocking over a vase and swinging pictures off the wall as the magic disintegrated.
"What? I can't summon more!" the goblin cried, waving his arms frantically in the air, trying to resume his attack.
"I've sealed your magic, and everyone else's for that matter," Zeldris said smoothly, looking coldly round the room at the astonished dignitaries. "This is a wake after all.
"Gelda, I love you. More than anything. Will you come with me? Will you marry me?" Zeldris pleaded as he turned to face her. His demeanour was calm but Gelda could see the acute anxiety in his eyes and felt the slight tremor in his voice as it rang in her ears. "Everything's ready. I know I'm not..."
Before he could finish, Gelda ran to him, wrapping her arms round his neck and clinging to him tight. "Yes!", she cried, stepping back slightly and caressing his cheek with one hand, tenderly stroking his chin with her thumb. "I love you. I'm so sorry."
Zeldris turned his head into her hand, kissing her palm gently as he nuzzled against her. He took a tight hold of her waist in both of his hands, shuddering with relief as she ran her fingers into his hair to pull him closer towards her, his chest tightening uncomfortably with the unbridled joy. She wanted him and that was all he needed to be happy. He summoned his darkness to form wings over his back and, as Gelda looped her arms round his shoulders, the lovers rose into the air. Zeldris spread his wings to flee the castle at speed, ignoring the vampire king's loud shout of rage and protest as they soared through a large window, left open so that the giant king Drole could commune with the rest of the party.
"Guards, after her! The girl is under arrest for treason!" Orlondi yelled.
"Honestly I'm out of the room for five minutes and all hell breaks loose," muttered Ren in disgruntlement as she ran in, claws swinging wildly at her sides. "What on earth is going on?" she fumed, taking in the mess and debris. "It looks like there's been a fight."
"That girl, Gelda Thorne. She's committed treason. You all saw it!" Orlondi gazed round at the vampires in attendance, some nodding in agreement. "She attacked me. And we all know she was responsible for my father's death. She tended to him and she's not like the rest of us is she? She's always been strange. Who else could have possibly poisoned him?" Orlondi snarled. "And she has been taken away from justice by the demon king's son. This act of war by the demons must be avenged."
"Excuse me, what proof do you have of her guilt?" Gloxinia asked calmly, bobbing in the air before the seething Orlondi, his large, colourful wings flapping gently so that he could maintain his position.
"There is more than enough proof," Orlondi shot back.
"What is it?" Gloxinia asked again, unperturbed by Orlondi's cold stare. "I spoke to the girl for a good half hour. She didn't strike me as a murderess. And as for attacking you, that's not how I saw it, it was more self defence. So, as one king to another, what is the proof of her guilt?"
"Ren, make arrangements to bring her back," Orlondi yelled.
"I don't think she'll thank you for that," Drole said with a chuckle, his huge blue face pressed to the window wreathed in a wide smile. "I just saw them fly off. She looked happy enough."
"If Gelda has gone of her own free will and there is no good reason to detain her, then we can't force her return, your majesty," Ren murmured soothingly, suppressing her smile and forcing her face into the blank, neutral expression which befitted a professional adviser. "I know of no proof against her and Gelda is not a slave. She is entitled to end her employment with us whenever she wishes. I would consider this her formal notice."
Orlondi was still red-faced and spluttering with rage to anyone who would listen to him when Meliodas and Elizabeth finally returned.
"Yo!" Meliodas said lightly. "What did I miss?"
"A diplomatic disaster," Estarossa hissed, moving closer to his brother and lowering his voice to a whisper. "Zeldris has run off with that vampire of his and the new king seems to want her on charges of treason. He was on the point of declaring war on us before Ren calmed him down.
"I told you Zeldris would be trouble and that you were better off sticking with me, but would you listen?" Estarossa crowed, his cold smile exultant as Meliodas rubbed his eyes with his fists in frustration. "You're on your own this time. Good luck fixing this one big brother."
Chapter 6: The End Of The Rose
Gelda stretched out, feeling her muscles burn pleasantly as her body gradually responded to the soft morning light. As she started to come properly to her senses, she felt a warm hand stroking her shoulder and she turned over to welcome the embrace of the man she loved. They clung together for several moments, Gelda feeling her heart fluttering in contentment as Zeldris kissed her neck languidly, taking his time to help her wake up. They had been living together for weeks, and their passion had grown a little each day as they had settled into a routine of quiet domesticity.
Gelda had been nervous at first, they had only ever really corresponded after all, who knew if they would find being together on a daily basis rewarding or difficult. But Zeldris was easy to live with. Always attentive and so hard working, surprisingly useful around the place in fact. Although sometimes the execution was a little sloppy. He was still learning how to run a household having never needed these skills before and Gelda dissolved into silent giggles as she recalled the first omelet he had attempted to make. It had been burned to a cinder, but with patient instruction his technique was improving. And he was so good at this Gelda thought as Zeldris claimed her lips with his and Gelda felt her body respond instantly to his caress.
"Come on," Zeldris murmured as he pulled away from her to reluctantly sit up on the bed. "We need to get to work."
"Already?" Gelda asked petulantly, stroking his chest, lightly tracing the lines of his muscles, relishing the way he shuddered slightly. "Can't we stay here a bit longer?"
"So tempting but no. It's our investiture today, we can hardly be late for that, or what comes afterwards."
In one fluid movement, Zeldris was out of bed and putting on the uniform which he'd hung over a chair the previous night, smoothing over the tunic embroidered with the crest of Versailles to remove the wrinkles. Gelda reluctantly followed, feeling the chill air freeze her body as she left the warmth of the covers and she quickly put her uniform on, wanting to be out of the cold as soon as possible. She helped Zeldris strap his sword round his waist and together they set off for the training grounds, walking close to each other. The French court had been entirely accepting of their relationship, and they had both felt relief that their love was finally out in the open.
Gelda had continued to train with Cusack once she and Zeldris had reached Versailles and her power was now at a high enough level for her to join the ranks of the city's Holy Knights. Her move, Flaming Death, was considered a strategic advantage as she could send it out to strike targets at a great distance, and more importantly in these times of peace it meant no one had to go through hassle of creating fire with flint and tinder.
As Zeldris and Gelda approached the grounds they saw Cusack in conversation with two others and both pulled up short. These were not Holy Knights of Versailles and their presence was definitely not welcome.
"Looks like the honeymoon's over," Zeldris muttered as Gelda picked out the forms of Meliodas and Ren.
"What do they want?" she wondered, feeling a cold dread sliding over her chest. The discussion looked earnest and she knew it could not be good news.
"Us, back and in our rightful places I expect. Unless they've convinced Cusack though they can't make us leave so it may be alright."
The pair continued their approach. Zeldris scanned his brother's face carefully to see if he could tell the lie of the land, but of course he could not. Meliodas had that infuriating grin on his face which appeared to be a guide to his feelings but in reality said nothing at all.
Cusack turned towards them, a kind smile on his face but his eyes betraying his disappointment. "My two favourite pupils. The investiture's off I'm afraid," he said kindly. "I'm sorry. You would have made excellent Holy Knights, but duty calls." With that Cusack bowed low to them both before sweeping away back towards the castle, his cloak flapping behind him in the breeze.
"Why can't you just leave us alone?" Zeldris fumed at his brother.
"Circumstances have changed Prince Zeldris," Ren answered softly, her tone respectful. "I need to speak to Miss Thorne alone."
"Anything you have to say to me you can say to both of us," Gelda said hotly. "There are no secrets between us."
"No, you really need to hear this on your own. It will... take some processing. I'll fill Zeldris in on the details," Meliodas said, the grin still lighting his face and Zeldris stopped suddenly. The smile actually looked genuine. "Come on, you're not in trouble. Well not much. Will you let me explain?"
"Whatever this is about I love you," Zeldris murmured, taking Gelda's hand and kissing it lightly, before allowing his brother to lead him away.
"My queen," Ren said bowing to Gelda. "I must request that you return to Edinburgh and resume your role as our monarch. Orlondi is dead and you are the heir."
"What?" Gelda cried, staring at Ren in amazement, seeing a rare smile pulling at her face and lighting her pale eyes.
"There is no doubt. I have made all the necessary enquiries. You father was our former king, Izraf. Your mother and he were desperately in love and you are his child. Before he died, Izraf made it so that only his flesh and blood could succeed to the throne. With Orlondi dead, you are the only surviving heir, and we want our queen on the throne. Will you come back with me, please?"
Ren looked at Gelda carefully. Her life with the vampires had not been a pleasant one and there was every chance she would refuse the request. But as she examined Gelda's expression, Ren could see the hard determination in her jaw and knew that she would not shirk her duty. She felt relief that her people would finally have a monarch they could be proud of, more than the last one at least.
"Ren, the antidote," Orlondi spluttered between trembling coughs, his weak, pale blue eyes protruding slightly in his face. "It's a purple bottle in the cabinet."
Ren raised her eyebrows, waiting, keeping silent knowing that this would goad the king into an explanation. Minutes passed and Ren continued to stand unmoving, waiting for Orlondi to give in.
"I drank the poison by accident. Someone moved it," Orlondi whined and Ren felt her heart thump exultantly.
"Are you admitting that you killed his majesty?" Ren murmured, keeping her face neutral as she looked at Orlondi, making sure to mask her abhorrence.
"He was in my way," Orlondi moaned, gripping his nightgown round his chest as another fit of coughing consumed him. "He would not let me have her," he cried out, his coughing had abated temporarily but he was still in evident pain.
"If you mean Gelda Thorne there's a very good reason for that," Ren said smoothly, suppressing her smile. "She is your half sister."
"What?" Orlondi yelled, sitting up in the bed, glowering at Ren even through the coughs which made his body shake pitifully.
"No doubt about it. We've found letters between your father and her mother, Mary Thorne. Gelda is their child. It seems Mary and her husband were not on intimate terms when Gelda was conceived so there is no room for doubt. Some of the servants remember the couple and have corroborated this story. It was before the king met your mother," Ren explained, again making sure not to show her enjoyment.
Orlondi leaned over the side of the bed and was violently sick, a green tinge showing with the remains of the toast he had managed to consume earlier that day. The hue of the poison Ren suspected.
"I'll kill her," Orlondi snarled, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. "That will make things right. Ren, fetch me the antidote. It's the purple bottle there in the cabinet, I can see it."
Ren moved over to the other side of the room, taking the dusty bottle off the shelf. Pausing, she turned to face Orlondi then, slowly and deliberately, dropped the bottle onto the floor.
"Oops!" Ren said, finally letting her smile have full reign as the liquid spread round her feet in a puddle.
"What have you done!" yelled Orlondi. "That was my only hope!"
"An unfortunate accident," Ren murmured.
"I'll have you killed for this!" Orlondi cried, pulling on the velvet cord by his bed with urgency.
"No one will come your majesty," Ren murmured, satisfaction sounding through every word. "They believe the disease is infectious. I've offered to take on your care all by myself to save the rest of our people. They think I'm a saint."
Orlondi spluttered furiously, gulping for air as his breathing became more ragged.
"You obviously have a much weaker constitution than your father. You don't look like you have more than a few hours at best while he took weeks to die. But don't worry. I'll wait here until you draw your last breath."
"Change the succession," Orlondi rasped out. "You can do it with my authority."
"I could, but I won't. You would not pick anyone acceptable. Gelda will do just fine," Ren purred. "Don't you worry, Edinburgh will be in safe hands."
Orlondi tried to rise, stretching out his power so as to strike Ren down. The exertion was too much and with a cry of agony Orlondi lay back on the bed, anguish etched into his contorted face. Ren checked his pulse and smiled when she found nothing there before hurriedly fleeing the room to tell Meliodas the news. She would need his help fetching the new queen home.
"Ren, are you sure this is for the best?" Gelda asked quietly. "I'm not exactly their favourite person."
"They'll come round eventually. It will be hard at first and there may be some uprisings, but when they see you're competent they'll forget the past," the official reassured.
"And Zeldris? What does this mean for us? Will they accept him?"
"Oh yes, there'll be no problem there", Ren said, her pale eyes sparkling with mirth. "I've kept an ear out for rumours. They think he's exciting. And from what Meliodas tells me the demon king is now entirely in favour of your marriage.
"He'll have to leave the demon realm of course, but given you've been living here for weeks I'm going to assume that's no problem."
Gelda wondered. It was one thing giving up a throne to make an independent life for yourself but to be a mere consort? Zeldris would have to watch his tongue all the time and he'd hate that. Gelda set off towards the Palace of Versailles, Ren walking alongside her, presenting several options for securing Edinburgh's water supply which Gelda tried and failed to pay proper attention to, her mind continually wandering to how she could possibly break this news to the man she was supposed to have married later that day.
"Gelda is Izraf's daughter?" Zeldris yelped, his eyes widening in shock.
"Yup!" Meliodas said, his habitual broad smile in place. "You've gone from zero to hero in record time as far as father is concerned. He was very cross indeed when you two eloped but now he's gushing about you to anyone who will listen, mostly me. A lot of guff about how you can obviously tell when someone has good breeding."
"He's such a snob," Zeldris said, huffing angrily.
"Anyway, he didn't need much talking round in the end. He's going to miss you but he's happy enough that you'll be ruling Edinburgh now Orlondi is dead. I persuaded him Estarossa will do a good enough job in the demon realm now we're both out of commission, and as you might expect Estarossa is pleased as punch."
"So what's going on with you? Why can't you take the throne?" Zeldris enquired. "I've been trying to work it out for months."
Meliodas rubbed the back of his head with his hand and Zeldris was surprised to see him looking slightly sheepish.
"Yeah, I guess I can tell you now. I'm going to live in the celestial realm. The supreme deity has agreed that I can marry her daughter, but on the condition that I join their clan. She didn't want to lose Elizabeth, and nor do I, so I'm going along with it. I'm not thrilled though. Some of the goddess clan are pretty awful, and the supreme goddess herself is an absolute harpy.
"You mustn't tell anyone I said that," Meliodas warned hotly in response to Zeldris' smirk of derision. "Just be thankful you have no in-laws to deal with."
"I can't believe you are giving up the throne for a woman!" Zeldris commented, his sneer gradually morphing into a grin of genuine amusement. "I don't know how many more surprises I can take today. What did father say about it?"
"He was very, very angry," Meliodas said, his tone suddenly serious. "He even talked about resuming war against the goddesses at one stage. That's why we had to keep it quiet. Elizabeth brought him round in the end. She's very persuasive. Once he met her properly he was quite taken with her, and I think he gets to name our first child or something. Definitely better than a Holy War."
"So, do we need to organise a ceremony or did you two get married already?" Meliodas enquired.
"No, we were going to have a small legal affair later today, after the investiture. Gelda wanted to make sure our incomes were secure first," Zeldris stated, his eyes suddenly weary.
"That's good. These things go down well and it will be an excellent chance for you to practice at being a diplomat."
"I don't want to take anything for granted Meliodas," Zeldris cautioned. "Now the circumstances have changed so much there's no reason why Gelda would still want me. I have to give her the chance to break off our engagement."
"What? Why on earth would you do that?" Meliodas exclaimed. "You've been pressing your claim for long enough when you knew you shouldn't, and now it's all fine you want to be careful?"
"It's not fair on Gelda. She didn't know she was going to be the vampire queen when she accepted me. She might well want someone different now. As you say, I'm not great at diplomacy and she needs someone who is," Zeldris lamented. Part of him wished vehemently that he hadn't let her talk him into being so cautious in the first place. They could have got married at Gretna Green before going to France as he had suggested but he had reluctantly agreed with Gelda that it would be better to make sure they had enough to live on first. He knew her caution was right, but in that moment he regretted that he had not pressed the point and so remove this danger that their relationship might fall apart.
"Hey, don't worry about that, I'll coach you," Meliodas offered. "You just need to learn how to talk without really saying anything."
"I'll take you up on that if I need to. Wish me luck." With that, Zeldris set off to find Gelda, not quite remembering when he had last felt so nervous.
Gelda was sitting on a bench in the castle herb garden, thoughtfully crushing a sprig of mint between her thumb and forefinger to release the aroma. She wondered if she had made the right choice and reproached herself bitterly for being so hasty. Now she had time to reflect she had no idea if Zeldris would approve. This was so unlike her. She was usually the cautious one, but it had seemed like such a good idea that she had just gone for it.
"May I join you?" a familiar voice sounded behind her, and she turned at once, relieved to see Zeldris' gentle smile. He sat beside her, taking her hand in his and she noticed the way he bit his lip, always a sign that he was dealing with stress.
"Gelda, I won't hold you to our engagement," Zeldris murmured, forcing himself to continue. "Now that you're queen you are in a different position and I understand if you want to change you mind."
"Zeldris!" Gelda cried, pulling him towards her and crushing her lips on his. She felt his desperation as he returned her embrace, and she responded in kind, pouring all her emotion into their kiss. She tilted her head so as it give him more access, her heart filling with tenderness as he sighed softly into her mouth and she gently stroked her hand down his muscular arm. How could he ever have thought she would let him go?
Gelda reluctantly pulled away, remembering her own error of judgement. "It's you who might want to change your mind. I've done something stupid."
"Nothing you do will ever make me change my mind," Zeldris vowed as he rested his hands on her shoulders, gently massaging her upper back with his fingers. "You can tell me, I promise it won't make any difference."
"I abdicated the throne," Gelda blurted out. "I gave it to Ren and I'm really sorry. I should have asked you first."
"Why?" Zeldris asked gently, looking into her eyes and Gelda was relieved to see no anger there, only curiosity.
"The vampires would never have accepted me. And I'll never be able to enjoy the trivialities of rule. I find it impossible to take pleasure in reading submissions. Ren gave me one with some recommendations about changes that need to be made to parliamentary process. I read it four times and I still didn't care."
"A bit rash to make such a big decision based on that perhaps," Zeldris murmured soothingly. "But I dare say you can change your mind if you want to. I can help you out with that kind of thing."
"I know, because you like details. You enjoy the technical aspects of policy. I don't. It makes absolutely no sense for me to be the monarch.
"What I'm trying to say," Gelda continued shyly, her lip trembling slightly with her anxiety, "is that I thought that it would be better for us both if I joined you in the demon realm. I don't want to rule the vampires and they don't want me. I'd be happiest never going back to Edinburgh again and I don't want you to be my consort. I want to be your queen."
Zeldris looked at her in amazement as he struggled to breathe.
"Are you sure?" he asked tentatively, swallowing slightly in an attempt to keep his emotions in check. "I will do whatever you want."
"This is what I want, and it's what you want too, isn't it?" Gelda asked gently as her eyes searched his, reading the truth in the contentment she found there. She let out the breath she didn't realise she was holding as Zeldris pulled her in close, wrapping his arms around her and pressing his forehead to hers.
"More than anything," he admitted, his voice quavering as he rubbed her nose with his before tenderly capturing her lips. Gelda responded instantly, kissing him slowly and passionately, relishing the new understanding between them. They stayed locked together, their hearts full of happiness as the sun began to set over the vast expanse of the grounds at Versailles.
Several weeks had passed since the death of the vampire king, and Ren had never enjoyed a job so much in her life. Being queen gave her the licence to delegate and she found she actually had more free time than she had experienced while working as Izraf's grand vizier. Being able to come to a wedding and just relax rather than sneakily negotiate trade deals was a treat she had not experienced for years, though she did check to make sure she only had as much alcohol as she could tolerate to avoid any slip ups.
The ceremony had been lovely, the demon king himself leading the couple through their vows. Zeldris and Gelda had married in the demon realm surrounded by their new subjects. The prince and princess were incredibly popular, the story of their love having captured the public's imagination in a way that the usual arranged matches failed to. And then of course it was well known that both of them had deliberately chosen to stay in the demon realm when they could have picked Edinburgh and this made their subjects incredibly proud. The new princess was a particular favourite, her style having been instantly adopted by the high-ranking demons who were today all wearing clothes for once instead of just swirls of darkness. Ren chuckled to herself. If this fashion stuck, it would certainly make the six clan meetings a lot less embarrassing.
Ren looked around. The reception was being held outside, a bit of choice magic guaranteeing the weather and the circular tables were all laid out in a flowery meadow. It was peaceful and most of the guests looked to be having a very good time. Ren smiled as Meliodas made his way over towards her, grinning broadly.
"I knew I was doing the right thing," he gloated. "This is all very pleasing."
"Not everyone is enjoying themselves," Ren observed, her eyes straying over to a tall demon hunched over a table, his unruly silver locks falling over his face.
"Well," Meliodas said sighing. "Yes, that is my fault. I shouldn't have fed his expectations too early. But, can't please everybody.
"Anyway, I came to tell you that it's time to catch the bouquet," Meliodas announced. Ren rolled her eyes. "Come on, it's just a bit of fun." Meliodas said grinning, "You can leave the claws here, no one will mind."
"You really have no idea when to take no for an answer do you?" Ren muttered, but she gave in. She removed the long spikes from her arms and set off to join the group of women gathering in front of the bride. Zeldris and Gelda were standing on a raised platform where the bridal party was situated and Gelda caught Ren's eye as she approached. She smiled at her warmly, before turning around to fulfil the tradition.
The crowd counted her down, and Gelda tossed the bundle of purple calla lilies over her head, the throw landing expertly in amongst the congregation. There was a bit of movement like waves before a squeak of surprise issued from the victor, signalling the end of the game. As the women moved back to their seats, disappointed, Meliodas was delighted to see Elizabeth standing alone, clutching the bouquet in her hands and her eyes alight with enjoyment. He glanced up at his brother, asking a silent question and he felt excitement run through him as Zeldris gave him a grin and a nod. Meliodas took a deep breath then quickly moved over to the goddess he loved before he could change his mind.
"Elizabeth. This feels like the right time," Meliodas pronounced, his eyes fixed on hers as he went down on one knee. Pulling a box from his pocket, he opened it to reveal a sparkling sapphire set on a platinum band.
"I've had this for a while, the blue matches your eyes. I love you, I have for years, since I first saw you and I will do anything for you. Will you marry me? Please?"
Meliodas held his breath, forcing himself to look into her eyes and his chest squeezed with fear as he waited for her answer, suddenly wishing profusely that he had chosen somewhere less public for the purpose.
"Of course!" Elizabeth finally gushed before she dissolved into tears and Meliodas felt the relief flood through him as she sank to the floor and wrapped her arms round his neck. As he pulled her head into his chest, nuzzling her soft hair with his chin and gripping her shoulders, the air was filled with the deafening sound of enthusiastic applause.
Zeldris looked over to the table where the goddess clan were seated, noting the conflicted expressions on their sour faces. Meliodas was not going to have an easy time of it, he considered, penance enough for the harm he had so nearly caused. And now Gelda was irrefutably his and everyone loved her so much he could afford to be charitable. Jumping down from the platform, Zeldris walked over to Meliodas as he broke apart from Elizabeth and gave them both a warm hug of congratulations.
Gelda smiled too, her eyes falling on Estarossa who still looked like he had been sucking a lemon. She felt a pang of guilt as she looked at him, having not realised her decision to abdicate Edinburgh's throne would have affected him. Descending the platform by the stairs so as to maintain her composure in the high heels she wore, Gelda made her way carefully towards her new brother-in-law, weaving through the tables to reach him.
"I have some news for you Estarossa," Gelda said softly, as she took a chair next to the hulking demon. "The clans finished the liberation of Ireland yesterday, driving out the leprechauns who have done so much damage. Anyway, there is no one there with sufficient power to rule in a way which will make sure they don't come back, so the delegation determined that they should appoint a lieutenant. Your name came up and I can tell you that the position is yours if you want it."
Estarossa looked up at Gelda, his eyes showing excitement which was damped slightly as his natural caution asserted itself.
"Is this a trap?" he asked warily, his eyes searching Gelda's with earnest.
"That's why I was chosen to tell you. Everyone thought you'd instantly call foul if either of your brothers did the honours. It's all true, I promise. You start tomorrow," Gelda finished as Estarossa's face lit up in a smile.
Satisfied, Gelda made her way back to her husband, her heart soaring with joy as he smiled over at her. They would have some time to themselves for now, but before too long Zeldris would take the demon king's crown. When that happened Gelda knew with certainty as she looked at him that between them they would keep the realm happy.
Thanks for sticking with this story. I really hope you liked it. Please let me know your thoughts. Trollope's original is an amazing read.