Aria felt her eyes widen, her mouth parted slightly as she stared at Maggie in disbelief. She recalled her encounter with Braith’s sister. The woman had asked what he was doing with her. She had thought the question odd at the time, had wondered if she was the first but she had never given much credit to the notion. This revelation did little to ease the confusion inside of her. In fact it made it even worse. “No, I didn’t know that.”
Maggie nodded. “It’s true, he has never had one.”
Arianna frowned, her eyebrows drawing sharply together as she thought over what Maggie had just revealed. She didn’t know what to make of the words, or what they might implicate. Why would he choose her then? What was it that he wanted from her?
Before Aria could ask any of these questions Maggie slipped out the door, leaving her alone with her thoughts. She sighed softly as she settled onto the window seat, torn and guilt ridden. It was an awful mess that she was in, that they both might be in right now. She didn’t know what the rules for a blood slave were, but she imagined she was not supposed to be treated so kindly. And she was fairly certain that she was not supposed to live for long.
That realization turned her thoughts back to Max. He was out there somewhere, going through God only knew what and possibly on the verge of losing his life already. Sweet, gentle Max who deserved far better than what he was probably enduring right now. Sweet, gentle Max who was only here because of her. Aria sat silently, her thoughts turning over the situation. Max had vowed to try and rescue her, they had both known that it would be a slim possibility, but was there any chance that she might be able to get to him?
Her gaze traveled over the beautiful apartment, and all of its wonderful things. She was lucky to be here, she was lucky that Braith had rescued her from that other, vile creature, but no matter how lucky she was, how well she had it, and how angry it would make Braith, she knew that she had to break free of here. She had to get to Max, and she had to get them both to safety before it was too late. Because no matter how safe and secure she felt now, it would not last. It could not last.
It was only a matter of time before this all crumpled around her, she had to do something before that happened. She had to save her friend before they were both doomed. Arianna sighed softly, her gaze slid slowly back to the tray of food. If she was going to plan an escape, going to get them both free she would need as much food, energy, and strength as she could get, but the idea of an escape was enough to make her stomach twist. She needed the food, but there was no way that she could force it down her throat right now. She was too frightened and lost right now to even attempt it. Tomorrow she would start taking better care of herself, for now she simply wanted to sit in silent misery as she tried to formulate some kind of a plan to get out of here.
The first thing she had to do was locate Max. It would do her little good if she was able to break free, yet unable to find her friend. If she got out of here, she would have to know where he was so that she could get to him swiftly, and safely. It would be hard, she knew that, but she was fairly certain that she would be able to do it.
Her attention was drawn to the door as Braith returned; his loyal wolf close to his side. She knew immediately that something was not right. His shoulders were too stiff, his jaw clenched tight. Arianna’s eyes widened, her hands clenched tight before her as she braced herself for whatever it was he had to say.
“Caleb will be here shortly. I need you to go to my room and stay there until I call for you.”
Aria swallowed heavily, she managed a brief nod for him. “Of course.”
“Arianna.” She turned back at his soft word. His knuckles were white as he gripped the head of his cane. “I mean it; do not come out of there.”
Her temper bristled slightly, she wanted to rebel against his command, but she was able to keep her mouth shut as she nodded again. She didn’t particularly want to see his brother again anyway; there was something about the man that frightened her on a primal, instinctive level. She slipped silently from the room.
Arianna hated the thin gold leash, but she accepted the fact that she had to wear it, that she would not be allowed out without it. And all she wanted was out. It was the only chance she had of maybe finding Max. Thankfully she didn’t have to plead with Braith to take her with him to town; she suspected that he wanted people to see her chained to him like any other blood slave should be.
Arianna ignored the questioning stares as Braith led her through the streets that she hadn’t truly noticed on their walk to the palace. They were clean, made of cobblestone, and lined by sweeping, beautiful buildings that she tried hard not to gape at as they made their way swiftly along. Vampires moved about the street, many had blood slaves following meekly behind. The gold leash was the brightest thing about the poor victims that trudged behind their masters.
Aria tried hard not to stare at the blood slaves, tried hard not to notice the misery that radiated from them, but by the time they had made it a few hundred feet down the road she had tears forming in her eyes. These slaves were thin, beaten, marred with bruises and bite marks. There were some that looked healthier than others, but there was still a bleak look in their eyes that left Aria shaken and confused. These were her people, and they were being cruelly used and slowly bled to death. Braith had spared her from such a fate, but it had nearly been her as well. That thought did not ease the pain clawing at her, but only increased it. She had been lucky enough to be spared such a fate, but why? She was no better than any of them; she did not deserve to be spared when they had not been.
Braith grabbed hold of her elbow, pulling her close against him. “Do not cry; do not show sympathy, if you do so then we must go back. You are not permitted to show such emotions, do you understand me?” he hissed in her ear.
Aria swallowed heavily, her head bowed as tried to blink away the hot tears burning her eyes. How could she not show sympathy for these poor, broken people? They were her people after all, and they were suffering unfairly. Braith released her arm; he took a swift step away from her as they neared the busier section of town.
Vampires and people mingled about the shops and stores, merchants sold their wares in the streets, shouting to be heard above the hustle and bustle of the people. Aria’s eyes darted over everything, there was so much to take in, and she could not do it all at once. She had never seen anything like it in her life of wilderness and caves. She had never even imagined that such a thing existed.
“Amazing,” she said softly.
She felt Braith’s eyes upon her, but she did not look at him again, there was too much to see around her. The crowd parted easily as he led her through it. Everyone scurried to get out of his and Keegan’s way. Aria trailed silently behind, like the docile and good blood slave that she was. Her eyes darted over everyone, rapidly searching for Max, or the blond woman that had claimed him somewhere amongst the crush of bodies.
Aria stopped short as they broke free of the crowd, horror rolled through her, nausea surged through her stomach as she came face to face with the stage she had been paraded upon. She felt the sharp tug of her leash, but her feet would not move as she gazed at the newest victims upon the simple platform. The same man that had auctioned her off was spewing the praises of the young boy he held.
“Move!” a sharp shove pushed her forward, knocking her slightly off balance. She turned slightly, just catching a brief glance of the woman that had shoved her out of the way. Aria did not recognize her, but it was apparent the woman was in a rush as she disappeared swiftly into the mob of bodies.
Aria managed to get her feet to move again. She stumbled forward, suddenly finding it hard to breathe in the packed street. Braith had not gone far in the crowd, as he had been stopped by an older man with graying hair and a potbelly. He must have been human. The man looked intense; his eyes were narrowed as he spoke rapidly and swiftly. Aria was smart enough to hang back; she would not be welcome in this conversation.
The man did not acknowledge her presence, but she did see his gaze flicker to the golden leash. Aria turned away, trying hard not to think about the bond that kept her tied to Braith. Keegan was allowed to roam free, while she was leashed and tethered. Anger and resentment coiled through her, but she fought both emotions back. This was the way it was supposed to be, this was the only way that a blood slave could be brought out in public. He could not allow her to wander free, too many questions would be raised then; she would be in danger. It would be the end of her life.
Aria bristled against the restraint, bristled against the fact that this was her life for however long it would be granted to her. For no matter what, eventually she would have to die. A chill crept down her spine. She had accepted death when she’d first arrived here, she had hoped for it, and prayed for it. She did not want to accept it now though.
A sharp tug on her leash alerted her to the fact that Braith was ready to move on. She turned back to him, freezing instantly as her eyes latched onto the woman that had claimed Max. She was a few feet away from Braith, narrowing in on him. She was just as beautiful as Aria remembered with her long blond hair, and voluptuous figure. Aria had the fleeting thought that this was the type of woman, or vampire, that Braith really liked and desired. She didn’t know why the thought popped into her head, but once there she couldn’t shake it.
“Prince,” the woman greeted, a knowing smile curving her full mouth as she thrust her hip out.
Aria stared at her, fighting the urge to glare at the overt, obnoxious woman. Anger and jealousy curdled through her as the woman touched Braith’s arm lightly. There was a familiarity between them that left Aria shaken, and stunned. A familiarity that left her feeling slightly sick and more than a little disconcerted. She didn’t like the thought of other women around him; she didn’t like the fact that such a realization troubled her so much.
Though Braith did not move closer to the woman, she did press herself against him in an overt way that nearly caused Aria to vomit. That was all she could take, she turned sharply away, her gaze scanning over the crowd as she eagerly sought out Max. She needed something to distract her from the awful scene before her. She spotted him almost instantly, standing amongst the crush of bodies, his golden leash draped over a wooden post. A post that had other blood slaves tied to it.
Aria’s stomach dropped, her heart leapt in her chest. A surge of relief, hope, and joy erupted in her chest. The sight of him was one of the most wonderful things she had ever encountered. The moment that her eyes found him, he also found her. His bright blue eyes widened considerably, he took a step toward her, only to be brought up short by the leash holding him in place. Tears filled her eyes, he still looked healthy, but there was a broken air about him that robbed her of her breath.
Without thinking, she was moving, heading toward him, needing to be with her friend, needing to see and touch and speak with a man that meant so very much to her. Max watched her, his eyes bright with excitement, he grabbed hold of the leash, looking as if he was going to rip it free, but they both knew that was impossible. His mouth parted, delight radiated from him. Aria couldn’t help but smile back at him; her fingers itched to touch him, her heart soared with happiness. For one brief, shining moment, everything was right and she didn’t know fear. She knew only that she needed to get to her friend.
Aria felt a sharp tug; she was pulled back a few inches. She turned, about to vent her frustration when she realized that Braith was right behind her. She was brought up against his hard chest as he jerked her back another step. His jaw was locked tight, his shoulders squared. He slowly turned his attention to Max. Aria could feel the anger that welled through him, but she did not understand the intensity of it. He wrapped his hand tightly around her leash, drawing her closer to him, forcing her against his body as he wrapped the golden cord around his hand.
Aria glanced longingly back at Max, but she knew she had made a mistake. Braith was infuriated; his knuckles were white as he clung to her chain. Though no one around them seemed to have noticed her encounter with Max, even the woman that owned Max had been distracted by some jewelry, it was obvious that Braith had not. “Braith…”
“Your highness,” he growled.
Aria’s eyes widened, hurt bloomed rapidly through her chest. She wanted to explain, wanted to tell him something, anything that would make that look leave his face. That would make the fury simmering through him abate a little. But she didn’t think he was in the mood to listen to her, and she didn’t know how to even start explaining anything amongst this crowd. She wasn’t even sure what she had to explain to him, or why he was so obviously irate with her. She hadn’t done anything wrong.
Aria stared helplessly up at him. The woman appeared at his side again, drawing his attention away from Aria. They spoke briefly, but Aria didn’t hear a word they said. Despite her best efforts not to, her gaze slid slowly back to Max. Her heart leapt, tears of hopelessness swam in her eyes. In his gaze she could see the awful despair of their situation, the awful realization that they were trapped. And yet, she could also see a burgeoning rage firing within his gaze as his attention turned slowly back to Braith. True hatred simmered within Max’s bright blue eyes.