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.