Refugee (Chapter 5)

It was sometime later before Aria stirred. She was drowsy, her muscles felt weak, but the strange sensation of being sated clung to her. Her fingers curled, she had expected to find the unyielding bite of the ground but instead she felt the solid muscle of Braith's chest, and the yielding give of a mattress. She was momentarily confused, she barely recalled the last time she'd been in a bed, or the last time she had awoken with Braith still beside her.

But he was beneath her now.

She allowed herself to simply drift in the pleasure of that realization and managed to doze off once more. He was still with her when she woke again feeling more refreshed and a little livelier. She lifted her head slowly, blinking down at him as she found him staring back at her. The glasses, thankfully, were not in place.

Though his eyes were filled with concern, the lines around his lips and eyes had nearly vanished. The strain he had been exhibiting, the nearly mechanical movements he had been going through were gone as he gazed at her. Her blood had revitalized him, his body had been nourished. She stretched and pressed closer to him as she was swamped with the realization that she had been the one to give him what he so desperately needed.

"How do you feel?"

"A little tired," she admitted. "How long have I been out?"

"A while."

Uneasiness filled her. "We were supposed to only be an hour Braith."

"It's fine."

"But Gideon is waiting for us and he doesn't seem all that patient. William…"

"I took care of it Aria, and William is with Ashby, you don't have to worry."

Of course she had to worry, her brother was stuck in this place and she was curled up sleeping with Braith. "We should go."

She went to climb out of the bed but he grabbed hold of her, pulling her back. "Braith…"

"Wait Arianna, just wait." His left hand entwined in her hair, she became acutely aware of the fact that she was only wearing a towel as it dropped a little. "It shouldn't have happened like that. I was out of control."

"You can't keep denying yourself, and I'm fine."

His fingers brushed nimbly along the top of the towel. Her heart lurched as excitement pulsed through her and her mouth went dry. Her skin tingled and heated everywhere he touched. "You're fine this time, but next time…"

"Next time I will be fine too because you are going to start feeding better. If you insist on not using other humans as much, fine." That was just fine and dandy with her also, but she couldn't stand to see him suffering anymore. "But you're going to have to use them more when animals aren't readily available."

His jaw clenched and unclenched as he studied her. "How are you so accepting of all of this, of me? I hurt you."

She tilted her head to study him. "You didn't hurt me."

He pushed himself up, launching to his feet as he stalked across the room. She watched him, sensing something more beneath the tension radiating from him. "Not just today Aria, but the first time I took your blood, in the woods, the fact that I was previously engaged. The other blood slaves."

She recoiled at the reminder of all of those things. She felt the blood drain from her face but somehow managed to keep her chin up as she glared at him. "And I left you in that palace Braith. My pride wounded us both when I left with Jack. I didn't believe in you, and because of that I drove you to those slaves; I drove you to your lowest depths of depravation. How do you forgive me for that?"

"You didn't almost kill me."

"I shot an arrow at you!" she snapped.

His head tilted to the side, his dark hair spilled across his forehead. "That hardly counts."

Irritation flared through her, she clasped the towel to her as she knelt on the bed to face him. "Then give me another one and this time I'll make it count!" His grin infuriated her. Huffing a little she clutched the towel as she shimmied her way inelegantly off the bed.

He grasped hold of her arm before she disappeared into the bathroom; he held it tenderly as she glared angrily up at him. "Aria…"

"Love isn't about perfection Braith! It's about understanding and forgiveness, it's about giving and taking in equal measure. I gave my blood to you. I forgave you for things that you are struggling to forgive yourself for, because I love you. I know that you have done some awful things, and you have hurt me, just as I have hurt you. You gave up a life of opulence, grace, and a vast supply of blood for a life of deserts and fighting and starvation for me. I willingly gave you my blood because I would do anything for you also.

"That is love Braith. I'm seventeen and even I know that. Maybe you should learn."

She jerked her arm free of his slackened grasp and didn't look back as she stormed into the bathroom and slammed the door. She gasped in a breath as she leaned against the door; all of her pleasure from earlier had evaporated. He was such an infuriating ass sometimes.

She realized only too late that there were no clothes in here for her. Crap, she thought as she released an aggravated breath. She had just blown up on him, and now she was going to have to go back out there to ask him for clothes. It was humiliating.

She remained leaning against the door, reluctant to face him again. A low knock reminded her that it was impossible to hide. She opened the door to find his large and imposing frame standing before her holding a dress which looked tiny in his hands.

"I thought you might require some clothing."

She scrunched her nose as she nodded. "I do."

"Gideon had it sent up while you were sleeping." She eyed the dress warily as he stepped into the room. She hadn't worn one of these horrible garments since her time in the palace, and had hoped to never have to wear one again. She took the dress from him, barely meeting his gaze as she draped it over her arm. "I'll button it for you after you slide it on."

He turned away as she dropped the towel and slipped the dress over her head. His fingers were gentle as he buttoned the back with surprising ease. Pulling her hair over her shoulders, he covered the fresh marks upon her neck with it as he turned her around to face him.

"I need you to know I'm not a complete monster."

She started in surprise, that's what this was about. "I know that Braith, I never thought you were." She sought to give him comfort as her fingers wrapped around his wrists. "The past can't be undone, but it doesn't define you. It's our future actions that will show who we really are, what we'll become."

"I hope so."

"They will," she promised him. "I'm sorry I yelled at you."

He smiled wanly. "I deserved it." She wasn't going to argue with that. He kissed her forehead soothingly. "I never had anyone to teach me about love before."

Her hands constricted on his forearms, tears burned her eyes. He was stronger than her, faster and more powerful, his life had been one of pleasure and luxury, hers one of struggle and starvation, yet she realized now that she had gotten the better deal. She knew what it was like to have people that loved her. His siblings, at least Melinda and Jack, seemed to care for each other, but they weren't anywhere near as close as she was with William and Daniel. Yes, her mother had been killed, but she had died for her children. Her father had never hidden the fact that he loved his kids, even if he had never been overly affectionate with them, and even when the rebellion had too often come first. Her entire life had been about love, his had been about cruelty. It was amazing he had turned out as wonderful as he had.

"I'll teach you," she vowed.

"You already have." Tears spilled down her cheeks as he lifted her face and kissed her tenderly. She embraced him, reluctant to have the moment end, but knowing that it must. It was time to return to reality. "We have to go downstairs."

"I know."

He gently wiped the tears from her cheeks before taking hold of her hand, and following the sounds of voices back to Gideon's study. Ashby looked up from his place by the window where he had been staring outside, a drink in his hand as he spoke quietly with Gideon. He grew silent the minute they entered the room. Gideon was sitting behind the desk, his feet propped on top and his hands folded on his stomach.

"Where's my brother?" Aria demanded.

"Relax Aria, he's fine," Ashby assured her.

"Where is he Ashby?"

"Dara took him on a tour of the town."

A cold chill crept down her spine, she nearly sputtered in disbelief. "You let him go alone?"

"There's no need to fear anything here, your brother is safe."

Gideon's smug tone irritated her as she turned her glare on him. "I don't fear anything," she retorted sharply.

Gideon quirked an eyebrow as Braith shook his head. "She's a feisty one."

"She is," Ashby agreed. Though Ashby was smiling, and Gideon seemed somewhat amused, they were both studying her with an intensity that was a little unnerving. "I wouldn't let him go anywhere if I thought he was at risk, I promise. Besides, he's with a human."

Aria refrained from saying that didn't mean much, especially not in a vamp ruled world. She didn't think William should be wandering around alone; she tried to control her panic at the mere thought of it. "I'd like to find him," she said softly.

"Of course," Gideon purred. "I can have someone take you to him. We have some things to discuss anyway, don't we Braith?"

Braith shook his head. "Aria will be here for that discussion. We'll find her brother first."

Gideon contemplated this before he dropped his feet down and rose with an easy grace. "Why not?" he asked nonchalantly. "I'd like to show you around anyway. I think there is much you'd like to see here."

A small chill of apprehension raced down her spine, she wasn't sure she cared to see much of what this town had to offer, but her need to find William outweighed her trepidation. Gideon handed Braith a cloak, this one the same deep blue color as her dress. "It gets cold at night around here," Gideon explained as she studied it. "The color doesn't denote any certain position. Not in these lands."

She nodded slowly and slipped it around her shoulders. Braith tied it for her and pulled the hood up. She was grateful the cloak hid the fresh bandages on her arms, and even more grateful for its warmth as they stepped outside. After the intense heat of the past week, the sudden chill was shocking to her burnt skin. Goosebumps instantly broke out on her flesh, her teeth chattered as she wrapped her arms around herself.

"The water in the area causes the nights to be colder here," Gideon explained.

Braith slid his arm around her waist, pulling her firmly against his side in an attempt to offer her some warmth. It did little good as the icy air licked at her. "Moving will help," he told her, seemingly unfazed by the sudden chill.

They made their way through the cobbled streets of the loud and boisterous town. People and vampires littered the crowded streets. They passed by bars and a theatre, and a dimly lit brothel that caused Aria to blush as one of the women called out to them.

Then they were moving out of what seemed to be the party area of the town, and into an area of subdued streets and dimly lit homes. Though the houses were small, they were all in well repair, and it seemed as if the owners took pride in them. She had been unnerved by the seedier parts of the town, but she was surprisingly charmed and a little fascinated by this area. Did humans and vampires actually live side by side in these homes?

"Let's rest here for a bit." Aria frowned at the building Gideon had stopped in front of. Large windows in the front revealed the people sitting inside talking as they ate in a cozy, candlelit ambiance she found intriguing. Gideon held the door open, allowing the gentle aroma of food to waft out as he waited expectantly for them to follow him.

Braith kindly nudged her forward into the entrance of the building. People glanced up at them, momentarily riveted as Gideon led them easily through the crowd of tables. Aria's stomach rumbled far more loudly than she would have liked. Gideon spoke softly with a woman. Aria found it impossible to decide if the woman was human or vampire as she flashed him a smile and nodded.

"This way." They followed the woman through the room to a booth hidden within the dark shadows at the back.

"We should find William first," Aria said, trying to ignore the increasing rumble of her stomach as she studied the plate of crackers already on the table.

"Relax young human," Gideon chided. "I can hear your stomach rumbling from a mile away. Besides, if we are going to fight a war together than at least some level of trust should be formed, don't you think?"

There did have to be trust and her hunger was making her lightheaded, but she was worried about William.

"I'll find him Aria, sit and eat," Ashby assured her.

Relief and gratitude filled her as she nodded. "Thank you Ashby."

He grinned at her before disappearing into the crowd. Aria slid into the booth, she almost grabbed the plate of crackers and pulled it over to her, but managed to restrain herself from acting like a complete ruffian as she eagerly ate one.

"What is this place?" she inquired as she studied the people, or vampires, gathered in the booths surrounding them. Some were eating, some were leisurely sipping wine. There was a faint melody playing in the background that lulled her, and to her surprise she found herself swaying along with the music.

"It's a restaurant," Gideon told her.

Aria blinked out of her strange reverie. "It's where people gather to eat," Braith explained further.

"They just feed you here?" she asked in surprise.

"For a price," Gideon explained. She frowned fiercely at him. She could well imagine what that price might be. Gideon held up a hand, chuckling as he shook his head. "The only price here is our form of currency."

"I see." Aria's gaze drifted slowly over the strange place again. It was such an oddly wonderful thing. Braith handed her a piece of paper, her stomach lurched as she read over the list of food.

"Choose what you want."

She wanted everything. It all looked so wonderful. A young woman appeared at the booth; Gideon spoke to her before they all turned their attention to Aria. Her hands were trembling, her stomach was rumbling so loudly that mortification was starting to take hold of her. Braith leaned over her shoulder to study the paper in her hand. He leaned away, talked briefly with the woman, who nodded and disappeared.

"Let me see the menu," Braith said."Menu?" she croaked. Her head was spinning, this town and everything in it was far different than anything she'd ever known. It was overwhelming and so out of place with the jars of teeth and scenes of death she'd seen in Gideon's study.

Braith pointed to the paper she held before smoothly taking it from her hands. A feeling of uncertainty seized her; there was still so much she didn't know. Braith's hand took hold of hers; he gave her a reassuring squeeze as he nudged the crackers toward her. Gideon was studying her in a strange manner that flustered her even more. Instinct made her want to pull her hand away from Braith's, but it was already too late to hide what was between them from Gideon.

"These are all humans?" she inquired as she studied the shadowed room.

"No, there are vampires here too." She started in surprise as her focus shifted back to Gideon. The woman reappeared, placing two goblets before Braith and Gideon, and a glass of water before her. Aria's throat was dry, but she was far more interested in what Gideon had to say at the moment. "Braith and I can tell the difference."

As she looked around the room again, she realized she could pick out some humans also. The one's that appeared to be over thirty and eating were most certainly humans, but the rest were more difficult to discern. She didn't ask how the two of them could tell; she assumed all vampires could tell the difference. "They get along together?" she asked.

"Of course they do, why wouldn't they young human?"

Aria shot him a dark look, not at all liking his placating tone, and the young human nickname was beginning to grate on her last nerve. "You have jars of human and vampire teeth on shelves in your home," she retorted. "That's why."

Gideon just grinned annoyingly back at her as he reclined in his seat. He swirled the contents of his goblet before taking a small sip. "Those humans were just as culpable as those vampires during the war, sweetheart."

"Watch it Gideon," Braith growled.

Gideon's hooded gaze flickered briefly to Braith; he looked about ready to say something more but seemed to think better of it. "What do you mean?" Aria inquired.

"Do you think it was just vampires that were fighting on the side of the king? No dear, there were also humans involved."

Surprise flooded her, her gaze flew to Braith, looking for denial of Gideon's words but he just squeezed her hand. Anguish filled Aria; her shoulders slumped as she forgot about her crackers. "Why?" she breathed.

"Who really knows why?" replied Gideon. "Some wanted to be on the winning side while others wanted to be in the king's good graces should he be the victor. You know the saying 'to the victor go the spoils?' Perhaps some of them were even offered the chance to survive the change. No matter their reasons, unfortunately, they chose correctly and it paid off. Their offspring, and their offspring's offspring, are still amongst the higher-ups of the human race within the palace."

"Oh," Aria breathed, her hand pressed against her lips as the full horror of his revelation sank in. She'd known that the humans within the palace were more than willing to sell them out now, and in the past. She hadn't known it had gone all the way back to the war, and that they had actually fought with the vampires.

"I keep the teeth of the ones I killed, and their vampire brethren as a reminder."

"Why would you require such a reminder?"

"To keep the fire for revenge alive." Gideon leaned across the table, for the first time his flippant air vanished. His hazel eyes burned forcefully as he studied her. "I keep that whole room like that to remind myself every day of my hatred of that place, of the betrayal, and the destruction. I fan the fires everyday in the hopes that one day, just one day I'll get a chance for payback."

The ardor with which he spoke, the fire in his eyes ignited an answering spark inside of her. "I escaped that palace, and that war, and I fled to safety. My family was not so lucky. They were already gone, already massacred when I escaped, but I vowed that one day I would avenge their deaths and it appears that day has finally come."

Aria swallowed heavily, she didn't know what to say to that. She knew how Gideon felt and understood the urge that drove him forward. She had hated the vampires for as long as she could remember, had wanted their deaths more than anything, until she'd met Braith. And now she realized that her kind was just as culpable for the fall of her race as the vampire's were. She should be relieved to see this side of Gideon, to know what drove him, and finally understand why he had that hideous room; however, she didn't like the way Gideon was looking at Braith.

She didn't like the stiffness, the rigidity she could feel taking hold of Braith. The tension was nearly palpable in the small booth. The woman reappeared, seemingly oblivious to it as she placed heaping plates of food before Aria. She laid utensils down, utensils that Aria hated but had grown accustomed to in the palace. Her stomach rumbled at the sight of the food, but she couldn't bring herself to move toward it as she warily watched the silent war of wills going on beside her.

Braith looked away first, not because he was capitulating to anything, but because he realized that she was not eating. His glasses were back in place but she knew when his eyes latched onto hers, she would always know. "Eat Aria." She swallowed heavily, her gaze darted nervously to Gideon. Braith grasped hold of the fork and pressed it into her palm. "Eat," he urged.

She hesitated before digging eagerly into the plates of meat, potatoes, and vegetables before her. She thought he might have ordered everything on the menu. It was delicious and she couldn't stop the small moan of pleasure that escaped her as she devoured it. They didn't speak again until she had finished every last morsel on her plate.

"Are you still hungry?" Braith inquired.

She did want more, simply because it had been so good, but she was completely stuffed. "No, I'm full." He squeezed her knee gently as she focused on Gideon again. "Humans and vampires live together in peace here?"

Gideon signaled for the woman who reappeared with a bottle of something. She topped off Braith and Gideon's drinks, though Braith required far less of a top off than Gideon did. "They do," Gideon confirmed when the woman was gone. "We do not have blood slaves and we do not force people to give their blood."

Gideon's gaze latched onto her neck. She hadn't realized her hair had fallen back until Braith tugged it over the marks he had left upon her.

"Most give it willingly, either by allowing us to feed from them or by donating their blood. Just as most vampires don't like the intimacy and vulnerability that the exchange of blood can produce, neither do some humans." Braith didn't move his arm, but his firm jaw flexed as Gideon's gaze dropped to the bite marks on his inner wrist. Gideon's left eyelid ticked. "Though, the connection between a human and a vampire is never as strong as it is between two vampires. I've never allowed another to feed from me, and I have never fed from another. I don't know many vampires that have."

"What do you mean by donate?" she inquired. She knew what "donating" meant in her world. The people who were not purchased as blood slaves were taken to be drained of their blood, and their bodies were callously discarded afterward.

"It is given willingly here. If they do not care to give, they do not have to." A small smile played at the corner of Gideon's mouth as he lifted his goblet and swirled the liquid inside. Aria frowned and leaned over Braith's shoulder to peer at the contents of his goblet. It was the color and viscosity of blood as it gleamed in the candlelight. She glanced up at Braith, who nodded briefly, confirming what she suspected. He didn't seem to be enjoying it very much though as he'd only taken a few small sips. "There is enough for everyone to go around here, and we live in easy, relative peace."

Aria sat back. "Relative?"

Gideon frowned as he nodded firmly. "There are always those that break the rules. I think you encountered a few of them on your way here." He glanced pointedly to the bandages on her arms showing from the edge of the cloak that had slid back. "Humans are not to be hurt here, not unless they ask for it, of course."

"So those humans in that section of town back there, and that girl at your home, they were… ah…"

"They are willingly there. We do not force humans to do anything they do not want to do, some simply have lustier needs than others, and they like to fulfill those needs. Besides, most of them are vampires, not humans, and we have far lustier needs, don't we Braith?"

Aria fought against the blush creeping up her neck and across her cheeks. She was well aware of Braith's needs, even if she hadn't satisfied all of them yet. "Gideon," Braith warned.

"She's a big girl Braith, she can handle it, stop being such a bear." Braith's jaw clenched, his hands fisted on the table. Aria grasped hold of his arm; his biceps bulged beneath her hand as he fought the urge to punch Gideon. "There is a no tolerance policy here against hurting humans that are not willing and eager. Those offenders are dealt with swiftly. We do not kill our own kind, but we do not allow them to stay either. Although, most of them would probably prefer death to the banishment they are given."

Aria glanced at her bandaged arms. Gideon was probably right, those pitiful creatures probably would have preferred death to the life of starvation and struggle they now endured. "And what are the rules for the humans?"

"They are the same for both species. Do no harm to others, no stealing, and no false accusations are to be issued. Our justice system is swift and decisive. The humans are also banished; most of them end up in the border towns where their rights are stripped away by the vampire's presiding there. Some of us didn't care for the king's new rule, and fought to keep things the way they were. Others liked the idea of no longer hiding, of letting their cruelty reign, but they didn't like the rules and tyranny of the palace. Those vampires reside in the border towns. You passed through one such town before arriving here, that's how I knew you were coming.

"We trade human food, clothing, and other goods with them and in exchange they alert us when anyone may be coming to look for us. Though we do not actually hand them the humans that are banished from here, or deal in slavery, it doesn't hurt that most end up seeking shelter and protection in the towns.

"The vampires within the towns are used to dealing with The Forsaken Ones, as we have started to call the banished, and are usually able to avoid them in order to reach us, though sometimes they do get lost. However, if they hope to keep receiving food they have no choice but to aid us. We need to know when someone is coming, or when the king has sent one of his raiding parties to attempt to find us. The Forsaken Ones are hazardous, and we've been having increasing problems with them lately, but they come in handy as a defense against the king's soldiers, and other unwanted guests."

Aria hadn't realized what that town had been; it was a little unnerving to know they had been being spied on, and monitored, the entire time. "They asked to buy me though," she blurted.

"No dear, it was Braith they were interested in. It's been awhile since they've seen the prince, and they were a little surprised by his appearance. Though, they would have taken you if Braith had been willing." Aria sat back, she was flabbergasted by this revelation. "Truth be told, we had once hoped that Braith would come here to do something about his father's policies. We had given up that hope though."

Gideon's gaze was irritated as he turned his focus to Braith. "Why would you think I'd come at all?" Braith's voice was hoarse, grating.

"You were never a malicious bastard like your father or Caleb. I thought you would eventually grow tired of the brutality, the unfairness of it all."

"You could have started your own rebellion."

Gideon shook his head, though he tried to appear casual, tension hummed through his shoulders. "Not many of us escaped Braith, certainly not enough to challenge the king again, not with the power he wielded. The number of vampires was just as badly decimated as the number of humans, especially vampires that didn't agree with your father. We would have been massacred.

"It was a long time before we were able to establish this town. The first twenty or so years after the war were spent moving constantly, trying to avoid the hunting parties he sent after us, but eventually he grew tired of hunting us and became more concerned with the rebellion brewing in his own backyard. We continued to move about for a few more years, but there's nothing out there anymore. Nothing Braith."

Braith shook his head almost sadly and took another sip of blood. "We eventually found an underground water supply here that we were able to tap. It took a lot of work but we established an environment where humans and vampires could coexist peacefully."

"We never knew much about The Barrens, but none of us suspected this existed amongst them," Aria murmured.

"Nor did we want you to." Gideon idly twirled the goblet in his fingers, his gaze pensive as he stared at the shiny metal. "The last thing we needed was an influx of humans leaving the woods to come here. We may not have everything we once had, may not live in the lap of luxury, but look around you, these people are happy."

Aria studied the occupants of the restaurant. They were smiling and they were healthy. They weren't dirty and bedraggled, they weren't too thin or sickly like some in the woods. They weren't pale and drained like the blood slaves. The most amazing thing though, was that they weren't afraid. They weren't hiding and screaming, they weren't struggling to survive, they were sitting in the open, surrounded by vampires, and they showed no fear. It was wonderful.

"We weren't going to let the word out until we were ready."

"Ready for what?"

"For a revolution," Braith informed her.

Gideon shrugged as he leaned forward. "Perhaps, but it still would have been a long time coming. Our numbers are not as strong as we would like, and to reach out to your little rebellion would have been risky."

"Little rebellion?" Aria demanded in indignation.

"Even you must admit that you don't accomplish much more than being a thorn in the king's side."

Aria's jaw clenched as she leaned across the table. "At least we're not hiding in the middle of the desert!" she snapped at him. "We're there, we're fighting now, and we've come to you to join this fight!"

Gideon arched a brow at her as he leaned closer. Braith rested his hand on the table, twisting so that his shoulder was in between them. Aria sensed no hostility from the man across from her though, just a desperate need for her to understand something. "You have no idea what the king is capable of, what humans are capable of when their livelihoods are threatened. Rushing into something, and getting ourselves killed, wouldn't do anyone any good.

"The king has a way of drawing everyone in, of making them believe things that they wouldn't normally believe. It is how he was able to wrest control, how he was able to inflict the damage upon the world that he did. By the time any of us realized what he had in mind, and the lengths that he would eventually go to, to get it, it was too late to stop him. We were outnumbered and overpowered, getting ourselves killed by rushing heedlessly back in would not help us one bit. Of course not everyone was on board with the king at first, which is why your mother was killed, something I think you now realize was your father's doing."

"Yes," Braith acknowledged.

"Vampires gobbled up the crap the king was spewing, bought it hook, line, and sinker. Even then the king was the most powerful, the oldest, and though he didn't control everything, we looked to him for leadership and guidance. We were fools. He took everything. And when he was done with the humans, he turned on his own kind. There were those of us that disagreed with what he was doing all along, and those that realized to late what he intended. The world had gone to hell, blood and death ruled. Though I do enjoy my fair share of blood, killing indiscriminately was never my forte, or anything I took pleasure in.

"These people, and these vampires," he gestured around the restaurant, "Are the survivors, and their offspring. The factions surrounding us are led by the other aristocrats that escaped, and the humans that fled from the fallout of the war. Some of the humans are descendants of the early escapees from the palace."

"My great grandfather escaped the palace when he was thirteen, he started the rebellion," Aria muttered.

"So you've always had rebel in your blood?" Braith inquired as his finger briefly rubbed the back of her hand.

She smiled as she shrugged at him. "I guess so."

Gideon shook his head as he took a sip of blood and looked at Braith thoughtfully. "If it hadn't been for Ashby's bomb, I think you would have come to see what your father was a lot sooner. I still can't believe you survived that thing. You were a mess; your arm was barely attached, your torso… We all thought you were as good as dead."

Aria didn't like the picture that Gideon was painting. She couldn't imagine Braith so vulnerable and broken. "So did my father," replied Braith. "I think surviving it in the first place, even more so than mastering my blindness, was the thing that convinced him to let me live."

"Your blindness?" Gideon inquired, though his gaze was focused on Aria.

"Don't play stupid Gideon, I heard you questioning Ashby about us." Braith's body vibrated like a tuning fork as his chest pressed against her shoulder. His hand fell to her waist, pulling her possessively closer to him. "I think you've figured out the extremes that I will go to, and that there isn't anything I won't do, any one I won't destroy, to protect her."

The words, growled and cold, caused the hair on her neck to stand on end. Gideon quirked an eyebrow, a small smile of amusement flickered over his full lips. "Easy there watchdog, I mean no harm, to either of you. Like I said, we've been waiting for your arrival. I'm not going to ruin that now. Yes, I already figured out that there's something going on between you two. I'm not exactly sure what, but I'm guessing that it's far more than you're willing to tell me right now, and that it has something to do with the return of your sight. Though, I think it will be best if this is kept from the others, at least for now."

There was something more beneath his words. She suspected the "for now" was just to appease Braith, and that this was really something Gideon meant to keep secret for good. A part of her knew he was right, and that part terrified her.

"And you truly think things will be so different if you return now?" Aria inquired, proud her voice remained strong.

"I know they will be," answered Gideon. The way he stared at Braith made it clear why he believed things would be different.

"Why would you even go back?" Aria gestured around the restaurant. "Everyone seems happy here, you've somehow managed to find a way for humans and vampires to coexist in peace."

"Let's be clear here, before the war we all lived in relative peace too. Most humans were oblivious to us, and we liked it that way. There were some that were a threat, some that hunted us. For the most part other humans thought those that hunted us were crazy, and there were so few of them that they weren't all that threatening to us anyway. Some of the humans actually enjoyed our world, enjoyed sharing their blood with us. It was actually an agreeable time and place. The king forced us into the border towns and The Barrens. He ripped our world away from us and he slaughtered our families. I want revenge, I want my life back just as much as you want freedom and security."

Aria hadn't seen Gideon move until his hand was resting casually upon hers. She jumped slightly, as did everyone around them, when Braith's hand slammed down upon Gideon's. "I'll only tell you this once, do not touch her."

Gideon winced as Braith's grip tightened on his wrist. "Braith," Aria said softly.

He lifted Gideon's arm from her and threw it back at him. Though he tried not to, Gideon finally gave into the urge to rub his brutalized wrist. Aria almost apologized to him but she remained silent as Braith smoothly moved her hand off the table. "Touchy aren't we," Gideon muttered.

The people around them slowly went back to eating. "I'm not saying it's going to be easy," Gideon continued. "It took awhile for the humans to trust us, years and a couple of generations to forge the easy coexistence we have now, but it works well for us. It will probably take even more time with your people. They've been even more oppressed, even more beaten and broken than the ancestors of the people here. However, their offspring, and future generations, won't even know what it was like to be oppressed."

Aria was breathless, her hand clenched around Braith's as hope filled her. "The same way I don't know what it feels like not to be oppressed," she whispered.

Gideon offered a sympathetic smile as he nodded. "Exactly. If it wasn't for our aversion to having children our numbers would be even stronger, but some things don't change."

"Your aversion?" Aria asked in surprise.

"Most vampires don't like the thought of having children," Braith explained.

"It's not that we dislike them," Gideon continued. "In fact I tolerate them well enough; I simply do not have the patience or the time to take care of them. It's too much work and not enough play. Nor do we want a vast group of immortals running around the planet; it would only be a matter of time before we outnumbered humans. That would be a nightmare for everyone involved so we've always kept our numbers in check. Braith's father is one of the few that had more children after a son was born."

"To make it look as if he cared for my mother," Braith told her.

"I think he was also hoping that he would have a built in, powerful unit of protection. Though he did get two junior psycho's out of the five of you. Luckily the rest of you were born with a conscious," Gideon continued. "Most of us accept that offspring will be required of us at some point in time, but we are also aware of the fact that if we are lucky enough to beget a son on the first try, we can consider ourselves successful."

Aria scowled at him as she folded her arms over her chest. "I can assure you that a woman is a success too!" she snapped.

Gideon grinned at her as he raised his goblet in a salute. "I'm sure, but they do us little good for continuing our line."

"You're an ass."

Gideon shrugged, not at all offended by her words. "Simply the truth, our heritage and our ways have been like this for thousands of years. Though we have adapted and changed greatly over those years, there are some things that simply don't change. Perhaps if I cared for the woman it would be different, but I know the hag I was supposed to be saddled with despised me as much as I despised her. Believe me, a son would have been a miracle for both of us. I didn't mourn her even a little when she was killed during the war."

Aria seethed as she continued to glare at him. Screams erupted in the night, pulling her attention away from Gideon as she searched for the source. A chill swept down Aria's spine as more shouts pierced the air. On the street, people began to run; their heads were barely visible through the glass as they bolted forward.

Both Braith and Gideon leapt to their feet. "Stay here," Braith commanded.

Aria sat for a bewildered moment, disoriented by what was going on, confused by the sudden eruption of chaos into this peaceful setting. She remained still for only a moment before she jumped to her feet and followed swiftly behind the two vampires. They had to push and shove their way through the confused and frightened crowd packing the building. Being smaller, she was far more adept at moving in and out and around the people and things.

They were stepping onto the street when she arrived at the door. Standing behind the glass, she watched as more people fled past, some were bleeding, others were carrying their children and still more were stumbling around and disoriented. Aria was nearly taken out as two people slammed into the door, shoving it open as they tumbled inside in a breathless heap.

She grasped hold of the man's arm and helped him to his feet. "What's going on?" she demanded.

His eyes were wild, rolling in his head. Blood trickled from his forehead and into one of his eyes. "The Forsaken Ones," he gasped.

Dread trickled down her back as one ran past the building. It appeared more grub-like than man-like with its nearly translucent skin, hairless body, and nondescript features. It was in much worse condition than the ones they had encountered in the desert. Is this what happened to the vampires after years of banishment and starvation? A shudder rippled through her, nausea twisted in her stomach at the thought.

More of the creatures appeared, their heads swiveled slowly back and forth, their nostrils flared as they scented blood in the air. They were twisted and demented in a way that not even Caleb had been. And they were heading straight toward Braith.

Her breath exploded out of her. She released the young man as she leapt over some broken dishes on the floor and shoved through the door. The chilly air hit her but it didn't rob her of her breath anymore. Braith was about fifty feet away, his head swiveled toward her, and his jaw clenched as he came back at her.

"Get back inside Aria!" he shouted.

"You need my help!"

"You don't even have your bow, get back inside! We'll be fine!"

"I'll get it!"

"What?"

Lifting the hem of her dress, she tucked the ends of it into the attached belt. Braith, seeming to sense her intent, started for her. She didn't have much time. Running, she bolted up a set of stairs next to the building, jumped onto the railing and leapt at the top of the wall. Her fingers scrambled, and nearly lost purchase. By sheer luck and pure determination, she was able to keep her hold and pull herself up. Panting for breath, she knelt on the roof and peered over the side.

Braith was standing on the street below, fury radiated from him as he stared up at her with clenched fists. She was going to get an earful later, but she didn't care. "I'll be right back!" she called to him as she rose to her feet and raced across the roof of the building. She jumped onto the wall and leapt across the space between the buildings. They weren't the same as her trees, but she was able to navigate them with relative ease as she raced back to Gideon's house.

Some of the creatures started to follow her, but the others continued to filter through the streets hunting for prey. The screams of the maimed and frightened increased as she moved deeper into the fray.