It is quiet, almost too quiet. With senses on full alert, Gelda scans the area. The warm light of sunset creeps into the room, the soft light shining on the golden stone. The breeze wafting through the opened window is sharp, cool, bringing the scent of pine and the chirps of birds calling as they roost for the night. The gathering gloam of evening falls like soft blanket over the earth and Gelda feels her magic bloom in response. It will surely not be long before Edinburgh Castle bustles with activity. She stretches out her powers, not yet fully developed, nowhere near those of the demon lying beside her, but enough to navigate the vampire clan.
Her father, King Izraf, is still asleep in his chambers. Orlondi lingers in the cellar, his energy fuzzy, suggesting he had spent the day as usual drinking himself to a stupor. The others she feels patrolling the outside of the castle, pausing, walking slowly, on the alert for human intruders. Once the sun is set the vampires will not be disturbed and her breatheren will return to organise a hunt. Only Ren is missing, but this is not of concern. Alone of their clan this warrior takes her training seriously and is often absent at the juncture between day and night, pushing her strength to the absolute limit.
And it is as well for Gelda that she has not been discovered. Heat pools in her cheeks as she examines the figure beside her, dark hair and pale skin, his brow furrowed as if in thought even as he sleeps. She watches the mark of his power shifting as he dreams, black and purple swirling on his forehead like molten ink as the thin cover he rests under rises and falls. The tenderness she feels in that moment is enough to make her heart ache, and she wonders when their soft words and slight touches had blossomed into the joy in one another they had shared that day.
Loath as she is to leave him, she will need to go soon, before Ren gets back or her father awakens and demands her attendance. Slowly she stretches her legs, preparing to make a careful exit. She knows the man at her side gets precious enough sleep, keeping as he does a close watch on the castle by day and by night. But despite her precautions he stirs, bright malachite eyes opening as his mark fades to skin, and the contentment she beholds there takes her breath away.
It is just over a week since Zeldris had come to Edinburgh, his orders to make sure of the tentative alliance between their two clans by any of the various means available to the demon king’s executioner. The look on her father’s face after their first encounter had made her blood run cold.
Yet despite the very real danger her heart flutters almost painfully, her chest near to bursting as they gaze at one another. Without thinking she bends towards him, allowing her lips to brush over his. Her world stops, the earth seeming to pause on its axis as his scent of ginger and cardamom smooths over her like balm.
But something is wrong. The seconds tick by and he does not respond, apparently frozen at her side. Gone is the passion and sweetness they have shared but hours ago replaced with a cold, lifeless nothing. She squeezes her eyes shut as the trepidation she had felt at the prospect of their discovery instantly morphs into shame. He obviously does not care about her at all. She is a princess, a future queen, not some common whore. What could she have been thinking to put herself in this position?
He swallows, his breathing shallow as he pulls sharply away. “Gelda…” he gasps and for a moment his hand cups her face and the blood returns in a rush to her cheeks. Then, with a shudder, his arm drops, and she hears him force the breath from his lungs as he moves from the bed. His back to her, he dresses in silence and she struggles for words, struggles to make sense of the hurt and anger and confusion which fight for dominance in her soul.
“I am so sorry.” Her breath is ragged and she hears the bitterness in his voice as he declares, “I should never have let things get this far. I should have had more self-control.”
Her eyes slide close, holding back tears. “It was my fault,” she manages to force out past the lump in her throat. “I came to you.”
“To plead for the safety of your people, which is natural enough. I am responsible for the... transgression,” he says stiffly, self-loathing edging his tone. He steps away as he turns to face her, his eyes obsidian and expression unreadable. “I should have stopped it, and now I find that I am in a position where I must beg your forgiveness. I promise you it will not happen again.”
Before she can reply, he heads to the washroom, crossing the room in a few graceful steps despite its large size. Alone, she takes the opportunity to dress, smoothing her saffron gown so it falls unwrinkled to the polished stone floor. Her corset she cannot pull as tightly round her body as usual without the assistance of her maids, but the slight difference will hopefully not be too noticeable.
She checks her appearance in the large mirror hanging to one of the walls, fixing her braid so it falls neatly over her shoulder. But preparing to leave causes something to snap, the world somehow to shift. She remembers the hours they have spent basking in each other’s company, the spark between them now blazing like fire. Would she not give anything, everything, to stay by his side, for what they had shared to be more than a passing mistake?
Zeldris steps quietly into the room, his hearts stuttering to a painful halt. From the shadows he watches as Gelda braids her hair, deft fingers working the golden strands. He loves her, dearly, of that he is certain. How it happens he knows not, but, to him, she is now everything and more: the light and that dark, the very centre of the universe. So how could he have been reckless enough to place her in such peril? Blood pounds in his ears and he clenches his hands into fists to prevent them from trembling. He is the master of control, how could he have lost it when the stakes were so high?
“Why are you still here?” He intends to snap but his words come out as a hoarse whisper. He strides forward, risking a look into her face, the sorrow he sees there almost sufficient to break his resolve. Still, with difficulty, he commands, “Leave. Now. Before you are discovered.”
“Zeldris.” The sound of his name on her lips, soft and low, sends a chill up his spine. “What is it? If I did something wrong…”
The distress in her voice pierces him through and all at once she is in his arms. He holds her close, digging his fingers into the fabric of her gown, as rose and lily diffuse in the air. The ache he feels as she returns his embrace, sweet and sharp, leaves him shaking with adoration and fear. And yet, painful though it may be, he must let her go, or else risk her life.
“We cannot do this,” he murmurs even as he tightens his grip. “If my clan find out your life would be forfeit. Do you not understand? I cannot let any harm befall you.”
To his surprise, he feels Gelda relax in his hold. “Is that what this is about?” asks the vampire, her voice sounding light and he pulls back, incredulous, to stare into her face. She is smiling, eyes of amethyst shining with determination. He holds his breath, spellbound.
“But why didn’t you tell me? This is no problem,” she says, “at least not in the long term. Our clans are allies…”
“Who have less than no trust for one another.” He sighs, taking her hands in his, their fingers interlacing in an instant. “That is, after all, why I am here,” he adds, a touch of impatience in his address.
“Yes, I know. But once the war is done, and the alliance has held, surely any union between us would be desirable,” Gelda explains, a smile playing on her lips. “When your brother is king, I’d be willing to bet he won’t want you around; you’re far more use to him as a instrument of diplomacy than a potential rival hanging in the wings. And I am a suitable candidate for your hand. I may not have your power or influence but I’m your equal in rank. There would be no good reason to oppose the match.”
At her words, visions of the life they could have together crowd upon him and utter contentment diffuses through his soul. It is with effort that he forces them away. “This is fantasy,” he whispers as his throat constricts, clutching her hands more tightly in his own. “Once I am gone, Izraf will never keep his word.”
“I truly believe that’s not the case,” Gelda declares, her thumbs running in light circles over the backs of his hands. “My father may not always be the most honourable of rulers, but whatever the downside this alliance is bringing him power and prestige.”
She looks at him, and he feels a rush of hope as she asserts, “I can make sure by father does his duty, and if the war’s won soon, he will remain loyal.”
“Are you certain of this?” he asks carefully. She nods, head cocked to one side, and he moves, pressing their lips together. This time their mouths mesh together, and it is all he can do to keep his emotions in check as his hearts thrum in his chest. Then, painful as it is, he places his hands on her upper arms, gently pushing her back, before making his way across the room.
“In that case I will take my leave of your father,” says the demon, his hand on the door. “I trust your judgement. I will leave the vampires to you and return to the battlefield. I will end this war once and for all.” Then he is gone, heading through the castle towards the throne room and Gelda makes her way back to her own chambers. As she passes statues and polished suits of armour, a doubt claws at her insides and she wonders if she can truly keep her end of the bargain.