Refugee (Chapter 9)

Braith stood silently, his arms folded over his chest as he watched Aria move about the room with subtle grace. She didn't know he was there as she studied the bindings of the books with interest. Her hands were folded behind her back as she leaned back on her heels before tilting forward again. There was a wistful smile on her face that enchanted him.

He didn't think he would ever get over the powerful effect she had on him. The sway she had over his deadened heart. She leaned back on her heels again. "Are you going to stand there all day?" she asked.

"I didn't realize you knew I was here."

The sunlight lit her features as she tilted her head to study him. "I'd know you anywhere." For a moment he was robbed of all sense of reason. His fingers ached with the need to touch her, to hold her. Standing on her tiptoes she pulled a book from the shelf. "Would you like to read with me?"

He would like nothing more than to curl up and read with her, but that was not why he'd come here. She seemed to sense that as her smile slipped away and she tucked the book under her arm. "What is it?"

"They're going to vote on whether or not they're willing to join us. I thought you would like to be there."

"I would," she agreed. Her hand slid into his extended one. He held her for a moment, simply savoring in her as she watched him. "What do you think they'll vote?"

Braith shook his head. "I don't know. Those creatures have been taken care of, there may be a few left out there, but they're not much of a threat. I think I passed their test. I think I proved that though I was blinded, I am still deadly enough to lead."

"Do you think they suspect you can see when I'm near?"

He shrugged. "I don't think so, though Xavier saw far more of our relationship than I intended for him to. I don't think he will say anything. For now he prefers to watch, listen and learn."

"What does he want to learn?"

"Everything and anything. Xavier's bloodline has always been the record keepers; he knows more of our history than anyone. His leaving was a huge blow to my father. Xavier sees far more than most, he processes things differently. He'll keep what he saw to himself until he can figure out what to do about it."

"Do you think he'll do something bad with it?"

"Not if he wants to live. Xavier, though his original loyalty was to my father, is a man of thought and learning, not one of action and violence. He is logical and fair. He will come to me when he is ready to confront me about you, before he goes to them. He'll look for answers first."

"I think you're right, he seems very curious about us." She rocked back on her heels again. "They will agree to help us."

"And what makes you so certain?"

"Because it's impossible not to follow you."

He chuckled as he folded her arm within his. "I'm glad you believe so."

She tugged on his arm for a moment, causing him to stop in the doorway of the library. Her hand tightened around his arm, her eyes were filled with determination. "I don't believe so Braith, I know so. They'll follow you because they know strength when they see it, because they'll believe in you, and you'll win." He was awed and humbled by the amount of faith she had in him. She grinned at him, a smile that lit her face and caused her eyes to sparkle as she playfully bumped his hip. "Just don't let it go to your head when you become king."

He couldn't find the words to remind her that he had no intention of becoming king; he was too stunned. She turned away from him, her gaze darting toward the dining room that they had been meeting in. She squeezed his hand before reluctantly releasing it and nervously tucking the book under her arm. "You can do this Braith," she whispered.

He was pretty sure he could do just about anything if she was standing at his side. He wanted to reach for her again, wanted to pull her back against him, wanted to walk proudly into that room with her, but he knew he had already allowed too much to slip in front of Xavier.

Aria entered the room first and walked to her brother's side. William studied her before nodding to Braith. The others had already gathered around the table, the chair at the head was empty as it waited expectantly for him. Braith rested his fingers on the top of the table as he faced the powerful people whose help he desperately needed if they were going to have any shot of winning this war.

"You've all made your decisions?" he inquired.

"We have," Xavier confirmed as his dark eyes flickered briefly to Aria. Frustration filled Braith; his momentary loss of control in the hallway earlier had placed Aria in even greater peril. She met Xavier's inquisitive glance with a lift of her brows that somehow managed to make her appear even more innocent and unknowing. But Braith could see that Xavier didn't buy it, not for an instant.

"I'll fight with you," Xavier confirmed. "You've proven that you are capable enough to earn my allegiance, and I have never agreed with your father's policies. I believe yours will be more just." His eyes flickered briefly to Aria again.

Braith had to force himself not to look at her. "They will be," he assured him.

"I will also fight with you," Barnaby confirmed. Braith felt a momentary tug of apprehension, he still didn't know how to feel about Barnaby, but at least this time he was actually taking a stand instead of cowardly waiting until the end. Perhaps the past hundred years had actually changed him. Ashby made a slight face but remained silent. "I've been waiting for this moment for a very long time."

"I would like to confer with my people, but I believe they will agree to help." Saul folded his hands into the sleeves of his cloak, his head was bowed. He had always been tranquil, reserved, with an air of dignity that was enhanced by his seemingly vast years, even though he was almost two hundred years younger than Braith. "We've built a good home here, but we are well aware of the fact that it is tentative at best. The king still randomly sends search parties after us, there is no guarantee we will not be uncovered and ousted at some point. War offers no promises, no peace or stability, but the hope of a future filled with security will probably sway them, as will the chance to leave The Barrens and return to a home that most of us still miss."

"I was in even before we went after those creatures," Calista said. "I want my homeland back. We've established a nice system here, but I'm sick of dust and heat and sand. I assume that those of us who join with you will also be rewarded."

"Your wealth will be returned to you. The Council will be established as the ruling body again, you will be returned to your seats upon it, you will have equal say within it and the majority will rule," Braith assured them.

"Even the humans?" Frank inquired.

Braith nodded. "What you have established here will be the model that the new rule will be based upon. Humans will rule with us, vampires and humans that do not follow the rules will be punished accordingly."

"And blood slaves?" Frank pressed.

Despite himself Braith felt his gaze flicker to Aria as she shifted uneasily. Though few people in this room knew she had once been his blood slave, it was still a touchy subject with her. "If we are successful, no human will ever be forced to be a blood slave again."

It was only the slight tremor of Aria's chin that hinted at any sign of distress from her. He couldn't take those days away from her, even if he could, he wouldn't. If she'd never been captured, if she'd never been brought to the palace as a slave, he never would have met her. He wouldn't be standing here right now and neither would she. She was in danger now, but her life up to this point had been nothing but danger. He hated it but for the first time he saw things from her perspective, for the first time he understood her total lack of fear toward anything.

She feared nothing because she had lived with the constant threat of death every day of her life, it remained the same now, but there was finally hope for her. Finally there was a light at the end of a tunnel that before had only been dark. She would do anything for that light, anything. She had been trying to tell him this, trying to make him understand that this was a battle she embraced wholeheartedly, enthusiastically, and with a determination that may even exceed his own, but he had been too stubborn to listen. He needed to give her more freedom or he would crush the beautiful spirit he had fallen in love with in the first place.

The thought of losing her was almost enough to drive him to his knees, but he realized he'd rather see her dead than destroyed by his inability to let her be who she was.

He almost took her hand, but thankfully he came to his senses before he did something careless. Her life may not be any more precarious now than it was before, but if he revealed his feelings for her any further, it would be.

He turned forcefully away from her as he focused on Frank once more. "You and David will have a say in how things are run afterward. You will both have seats on The Council to represent your people. If there are other human leaders amongst the rebels I'm sure David will bring them to my attention."

"There aren't any others," William informed him.

"The humans will have the same say as vampires?" Frank persisted.

"Yes, humans will have an equal say," Braith assured him.

"And a leader will also need to be appointed." Gideon's hazel eyes were turbulent as they met his.

"There isn't truly a need for a leader." Braith stared at Gideon, silently warning him to back off.

"There is always a need for a leader. A leader will have to carry out the results of any vote, and they will have to squash any inner squabbling. A leader will be needed to make sure that justice, fair justice is carried out. And everyone, people and vampire alike, will need someone to follow. There is a need for a leader, a strong one that can rule and see over what will be a difficult time of transition for everyone involved. They will be required to put an abrupt end to the uprisings I am sure will follow this overthrow, and to make sure that all traitorous persons are hunted down and dealt with appropriately.

"There is a need for a leader if what you envision, what we all envision, is to be successful. We will need the strongest among us to carry out this vision. Someone who is just and not simply seeking power, someone who knows how government and politics works, someone that is recognizable to everyone, as there are many of us that would not be known among the humans anymore. "

Braith was silent, astounded by the fervor of Gideon's speech, frightened by the sway he felt in those words. Aria gazed at Gideon for a long moment before turning slowly to Braith. It was the pride gleaming from the bright depths of her beautiful eyes that caused his gut to clench. He knew what she expected of him, but if he rose to power she would never be accepted, never be welcomed at his side.

He would give up anything for this cause, except for her.

Beside her, William looked just as amazed as she did. His gaze moved slowly from Gideon to Braith and then finally to his sister. An almost painful look crossed his face before he turned away.

"We should select a new leader, a new king so to speak, here, now, amongst the leaders that our people have elected to speak for them."

"Not all of them are here," Braith reminded them, unable to keep the aggravation from his voice as Gideon tried to railroad him.

"Either I, or William, can vote for our father, for now," Aria amended quickly. "I'm sure he would trust our judgment, and if he doesn't then he can have his say when we reunite."

He wanted to tell her no, that there would be no vote now, but the others were already nodding their agreement. A cold chill swept down his spine. He was not a coward, he had never shirked his responsibilities but he did not want this. Maybe he was getting ahead of himself though; they had not elected him yet. Gideon had just given a rousing speech that had swayed everyone in the room. After Braith, he was the most elder vampire within this room. They all knew Gideon well, had worked well with him over the past hundred years. All Braith had was his older age, his power, and his pedigree.

"I think that's fair," Xavier said. "They came as representatives for their father after all." His gaze fixated on Braith. "I'm sure he would respect their vote."

"He would," William confirmed.

"Jericho is also an option as a leader," Braith reminded them. "My brother has lived amongst David's rebel faction for the past six years. He is part of the royal bloodline, David's people trust him."

Saul chuckled as he shook his head and spread his hands before him. "I'm sure Jericho has matured greatly over the years Braith, but I do not believe he is up for this responsibility. Nor was he ever groomed for it. We represent our families now because most of our family members are dead. Barnaby's youngest cousin, and my sister, are the only others that survived the war, subsequent slaughter, and exile. Neither of them is prepared to lead, and neither is Jericho."

"That is yet another thing we can discuss when we're all united," Xavier said. "I'm sure that Jericho is not the boy we remember, and if there is to be true equality amongst us than we should consider him. If he wishes to be considered."

"Then we are in agreement, for the most part," Gideon asserted. "We'll vote now. Ashby?"

Ashby was pensive as his eyes flickered briefly between Aria and Braith before his shoulders slumped a little. "Braith started this, he has led us this far, united us, and defeated most of your enemies. He'll see us to the end; he'll take down his father. My vote is with him."

Braith remained silent, unmoving, his body becoming steadily colder as Gideon went through the room. He somehow managed to remain impassive and unflinching every time his name was said. William and Aria were second to last. They spoke briefly with each other before Aria quietly said his name. It was like a stake to his heart, she didn't know what she had just done.

"It seems as if we have had our first unanimous vote." There was no satisfaction in Gideon's tone. In fact he seemed resigned, saddened yet sturdy as he met Braith's gaze. "Will you accept the decision to run the form of government that you would like to see carried out in the future?"

Braith's jaw clenched, his teeth ground as he slowly nodded. "I will."

He left out the words "for now" as he gave his response but they were there and Gideon and Ashby were well aware of it. He would lead them into this war, he would help to see them established, and then he would disappear with Aria leaving Jack or even Gideon in his place. They may be unsure of his little brother; to a certain degree so was he, but Jack would at the very least be a fair king.

"You have two days to gather your people. We'll move out on the third to rejoin with David."

"How will we find him?" Barnaby inquired.

Aria grinned. "Oh we'll find him."

The sinking feeling in Braith's stomach had nothing to do with his recent election, and everything to do with the unruly air suddenly surrounding her. He'd never inquired how Aria and William would find their father again; he'd simply assumed they had a way of relocating each other after all their years of moving and separating so often. He was beginning to realize he wasn't going to like the answer.