Refugee (Chapter 14)

She was sound asleep in his lap, her hand curled against his chest, her head resting in the hollow of his shoulder as she breathed slowly in and out. As she slept, the tension of the day faded from her features making her appear even younger, more vulnerable, which only made him worry for her more. Max hadn't appeared again since he'd rebuked her earlier and Braith hoped that he never did.

Daniel was talking quietly, pointing at some of the designs and drawings he had created. "These are all of your cave systems?" Gideon inquired.

"Not all of them," David answered. "These are the ones closest to the palace. We had others, but some have been lost to cave-ins, and others are too far from the palace to be of any use."

"Are there often people within them?" Ashby inquired, glancing nervously at Braith.

"What do you mean?"

"The cave system where the troops are hiding had a man inside of it."

"That's not unusual, many know about the caves and the food supply," David told him.

"It looked like he'd been there for awhile."

"I suppose some may stay below hoping to avoid the king's troops. It's why we retreated into the swamplands. The king's raids have become more frequent and aggressive since you left the palace." Braith held David's steady gaze. "The man in the cave, what did he do?"

"He attacked Aria," Braith growled.

David's eyes widened, he leaned forward on the table. Braith lowered his head and inhaled her sweet scent. The soap she'd been given smelled of honey. Beneath it he could smell the faint hint of his blood as it flowed through her veins. She was the most enticing thing he'd ever smelled, and he needed her soothing effect right now.

"Why would he do that?" David inquired.

Ashby glanced nervously at Braith, but seemed satisfied that he would remain calm while holding Aria. "Apparently he hadn't seen a woman in awhile."

"Did he harm her?" Daniel demanded.

"He tried, but she's fine."

"And what of the man?" David inquired.

"Dead," Braith said unremorsefully. "Anyone that injures her will meet the same fate."

David sat back as he studied them. "What exactly is it that you intend for my daughter? What do you think you can give her?"

"Anything she desires."

Gideon and Ashby shifted nervously, well aware that this conversation was drifting into treacherous waters. Xavier leaned forward, his dark eyes eager as he absorbed the discussion. "I can see that she loves you, and though it's baffling and astonishing to me, I think you love her too. But I don't see how any of this can work. Will your people accept her? Do you have plans to make her a vampire?" David nearly choked on the word vampire but somehow managed to get it out. It was apparent the man found the thought abhorrent.

"Most do not survive the change; I have no intention of inflicting that upon her." Gideon, Jack and Ashby winced, Xavier quirked an eyebrow as he gazed at Aria.

David's frustration was nearly palpable. "Then what do you intend? To watch her grow old and die? To have her be an outcast among your people? Tell me Braith, what will you do when she dies?"

"I'll find a way to die also," he said simply.

Gideon groaned as he shook his head, dropping it into his hands. Ashby closed his eyes as Jack folded his arms over his chest and sat back in his chair. Xavier remained unmoving, he'd known there was a bond between them but he hadn't known the extent of that bond until now.

"But you have been voted the leader; your people will follow you…"

"Or Jack," he interrupted sharply. Despite his every intention not to, he found himself leaning forward as he met David's incredulous gaze, and Jack's completely aghast one. "I will lead them into battle, I will lead you all into battle, but I have not hidden the fact that I do not intend to lead afterward. Not unless Aria is at my side. I will stay long enough for whatever leader you elect to settle in, and then she and I will leave. I will not expose her to a life of unhappiness."

"I don't want it," Jack blurted.

"Neither do I," Braith snarled in frustration. "I never have, but I accepted it, and I did it. I've done my duty for the past nine hundred years, I've done everything expected of me and I will continue to do it until this is over, but someone else can step up afterward."

"It will be difficult on her, to grow old while you don't," David told him.

"I know that."

"You could let her go." Braith stiffened as fury ripped through him. Aria's fingers slipped beneath the buttons of his shirt to press against his flesh in an attempt to soothe him. They had woken her. "It would be best, for both of you, for everyone involved if you let her go."

"It's too late for that." He had managed to regain enough control to answer without smashing the table before him.

"I don't understand why. I know it will be tough, the last thing I want is to see my daughter unhappy, but she'll be hurt no matter what. There's no way to stop that now."

Her heartbeat had increased; the scent of her fear assailed him. "Ashby can explain it to you," he said bluntly. Aria gasped as he rose swiftly from his chair. Staying here was only going to annoy him further and he had promised her that he would try to be nicer. "Does it matter what room we take?"

David's jaw dropped. Aria's lashes flickered against his neck as she opened her eyes, he could feel the heat of her skin against his neck. He bit back a groan, he didn't understand these human customs, or perhaps they were simply family customs, but he was becoming increasingly frustrated with them.

"I'll sleep on the floor," he grated, hoping that would help to ease some of the tension that filled the room. He swore that once this whole mess was over he was going to build her a house that no one else would ever be invited to.

"Third room on the right, there's a small cot in there," David responded in a choked voice.

"I'll get you some blankets," Daniel volunteered.

"You can put me down Braith."

He held her for a moment longer before lowering her feet to the floor. She hurried to her father, pecked him on the cheek and gave him a hug. Braith was fascinated by the look of love on David's face as she spoke with him. He sure as hell had never seen it on his own father's face. David patted her arm reassuringly as she kissed him again and rejoined Braith.

"I would like to retire also." Xavier rose to his feet, his fingers rested briefly on the table as he surveyed the room. "I am aware of the baffling vampire bond referred to as a bloodlink. I assume that is what Ashby will speak of as I am well aware of his relationship with Braith's sister, and not the one he married."

Apprehension flashed briefly across Aria's face, but she remained immobile at Braith's side. She didn't trust Xavier, not yet. Braith wasn't even certain he completely trusted him yet. "How do you know about that?" Ashby demanded, his carefree demeanor vanishing at the mention of Melinda.

Xavier moved away from the table. "My job in the palace was to pay attention, to record the histories, to take note of things and see the things that no one else saw. I'm not blind Ashby, the two of you tried to hide it and you succeeded with most." His gaze was pointed on Braith. "But not me."

Ashby looked wary. His eyes were hooded as he studied Xavier with annoyance and distrust. "Ease up Ashby, I never told anyone that you were having an affair with the youngest daughter while still married to the oldest."

"Watch what you say Xavier," Ashby's tone was low, deadly.

Xavier didn't look the least bit phased by Ashby. Braith pulled Aria back a step as Xavier stopped beside her. "But a human." He shook his head, something flickered in his eyes as he studied her. "That is unheard of." Aria's eyes narrowed, her chin tilted defiantly. Xavier smiled at her in amusement. "Quite a conundrum."

"I'm not Ashby. War or no war, followers or no followers, I will kill you if you touch her. Remember that Xavier, I am a real threat to you."

"I am well aware of that fact Braith. I have no ill intentions toward her."

Braith was not appeased by the words. He pulled Aria further back as Xavier stepped closer to her. "Don't," he snarled thrusting himself in between them.

Xavier held his hands up as he took a step back. "Easy Braith, I said that I would not hurt her, and I meant it. I've seen what you are capable of when it comes to her, and I have a feeling that cave was only the tip of the iceberg. We need her if we are to win this war."

"And after?"

"After will be up to you, and her. Now, where are those blankets, I'm exhausted."

Aria pressed closer to Braith's side, he stood for a moment, trembling with suppressed anger and uncertainty. Xavier had always been a little odd, or at least he had always seemed that way as he stood in the shadows calmly watching everything. He suspected Xavier knew more than he was letting on as he stared curiously at Aria, but exactly what his secrets were, Braith couldn't even begin to guess at.

"Uh, this way," Daniel awkwardly interrupted.

He stepped back as Xavier moved past him to the stairwell. "Are these things going to hold me?" Xavier pondered as he eyed the stairs.

"Yes."

Daniel led them upstairs, handed out blankets and hugged his sister goodnight. Braith wasn't pleased to see that the room really did hold just a tiny cot shoved against the wall. He wasn't even certain Aria would fit on it as he spread the blanket out.

"Xavier is strange."

Braith sat on the edge of the cot and pulled her into his lap. She wrapped her arms around his waist as she rested her head against his chest. "He is," Braith agreed, lightly rubbing her back.

"He's baffling but I don't think he would harm me. I think he's just as confused by me as I am by him."

He was glad she thought so, but Braith wasn't convinced that Xavier wouldn't do something. Xavier had never been power hungry before, but there was no way to know what was going on inside of his head, or any of the others they had aligned with.

"I'm glad you're not scared of him."

He felt her smile against his neck. "I'm not scared of anyone," she said laughingly.

He would have laughed too if it wasn't so true. For someone so frighteningly mortal, she was strangely unafraid of anyone or anything. It was terrifying. "I know."

"Don't get all bristly." She sought to calm him as she caressed him. "You must be hungry."

"I'm fine."

"You're stubborn."

"As are you."

She was grinning as she tilted her head back to look at him. "Yes, but it's been awhile, I'll be fine Braith."

He dropped his head to hers. "I know, I just…"

Her fingers were against his lips, and then her mouth replaced her fingers. "There is no, "I just", not now. I crave the connection Braith, just as much as you crave my blood. I want to feel you inside me." He shuddered at her choice of words, his arms constricted around her. A low groan escaped him. He would never get over how swiftly and easily she could unravel his composure. "I would love to satisfy you in every way, but with everyone in this house, especially my father…"

"I understand," he grated through clenched teeth. "Not here, not on this cot, and not with your family surrounding us. Not for you Arianna. I want better for you, it will be better."

When he opened his eyes to look at her, he was surprised to find her watching him with a look of absolute love that nearly shattered him. She unwrapped her arms from his waist and ever so slowly pulled the hair back from her neck. Marks from his other feeding were still visible upon her porcelain skin. He pulled her shirt slowly down to reveal the nearly invisible marks from the first time he'd fed from her. His fingers brushed over it as she pressed against him, her breasts firm against his chest.

"Do you remember this?" His voice was tense.

"How could I forget?"

"I almost killed you that night."

"Braith…"

"Yet you continue to give yourself to me."

"I love you."

"Is it so simple then?"

"Yes. This is not an easy life."

It wasn't, but he hadn't once wished that he was back in that hideous palace with its vast supply of blood and every imaginable luxury. He would wade through a thousand swamps before he ever let her go again. "And I wouldn't change a thing," he whispered against her cheek.

"Why?"

"Because I love you."

"Is it so simple then?"

He smiled back at her. "Yes."

"Good."

She silently guided his head to her neck. His fingers slid up the back of her shirt to press flat against the slender curve of her back. A faint whimper escaped her, goose bumps broke out across her skin. He bypassed the marks on her neck to rest his lips gently against the first bite he had placed upon her; the first time he had marked her as his.

She moaned when he bit into her, reopening the wounds that had bound them irrevocably to each other. She slumped against him as the rest of the world faded away.