I tried to summon him up in my mind and draw strength from him. I thought about that time in the cabin again, thought about the way his lips had felt on mine and the wonderful scent of his skin when I'd pressed closer to him. I could hear his voice once more, murmuring in my ear that he loved me, that I was beautiful, that I was the only one... Thinking of him didn't take away the discomfort of my journey with Yeva, but it made it a little more bearable.

We walked for almost an hour more before reaching a small house, and I was ready to fall over in relief, soaked in sweat. The house was one floor, made of plain, weatherworn brown boards. The windows, however, were surrounded on three sides by exquisite, highly stylized blue shutters overlaid with a white design. It was that same sort of flashy use of color I'd seen on the buildings in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Yeva knocked on the door. At first there was only silence, and I panicked, thinking we'd have to turn right around and head back.

Finally, a woman answered the door-a Moroi woman. She was maybe thirty, very pretty, with high cheekbones and strawberry-blond hair. She exclaimed in surprise at seeing Yeva, smiling and greeting her in Russian. Glancing over at Paul and me, the woman quickly stepped aside and gestured us in.

She switched to English as soon as she realized I was American. All these bilingual people were kind of amazing. It wasn't something I saw very often in the U.S. She pointed to a table and told me to set everything there, which I did with relief.

"My name's Oksana," she said, shaking my hand. "My husband, Mark, is in the garden and should be in soon."

"I'm Rose," I told her.

Oksana offered us chairs. Mine was wooden and straight-backed, but at that moment, it felt like a down-filled bed. I sighed happily and wiped the sweat off my brow. Meanwhile, Oksana unpacked the things I'd carried.

The bags were filled with leftovers from the funeral. The top box contained some dishes and pots, which Paul explained had been borrowed from Oksana some time ago. Oksana finally reached the bottom box, and so help me, it was filled with garden bricks.

"You have got to be kidding," I said. Across the living room, Yeva looked very smug.

Oksana was delighted by the gifts. "Oh, Mark will be happy to have these." She smiled at me. "It was very sweet of you to carry these that whole way."

"Happy to help," I said stiffly.

The back door opened, and a man walked in-Mark, presumably. He was tall and stockily built, his graying hair indicating an age greater than Oksana's. He washed his hands in the kitchen sink and then turned to join us. I nearly gasped when I saw his face and discovered something stranger than the age difference. He was a dhampir. For a moment, I wondered if this was someone else and not her husband, Mark. But that was the name Oksana introduced him with, and the truth hit me: a Moroi and dhampir married couple. Sure, our two races hooked up all the time. But marriage? It was very scandalous in the Moroi world.

I tried to keep the surprise off my face and behave as politely as I could. Oksana and Mark seemed very interested in me, though she did most of the talking. Mark simply watched, curiosity all over his face. My hair was down, so my tattoos couldn't have given away my unpromised status.

Maybe he was just wondering how an American girl had found her way out to the middle of nowhere. Maybe he thought I was a new blood whore recruit.

By my third glass of water, I began to feel better. It was around that time that Oksana said we should eat, and by then, my stomach was ready for it. Oksana and Mark prepared the food together, dismissing any offers of help.

Watching the couple work was fascinating. I had never seen such an efficient team. They never got in each other's way and never needed to talk about what needed doing next. They just knew. Despite the remote location, the kitchen's contents were modern, and Oksana placed a dish of some sort of potato casserole in the microwave. Mark's back was to her while he rummaged in the refrigerator, but as soon as she hit start, he said, "No, it doesn't need to be that long."

I blinked in surprise, glancing back and forth between them. He hadn't even seen what time she'd selected. Then I got it. "You're bonded," I exclaimed.

Both looked at me in equal surprise. "Yes. Didn't Yeva tell you?" Oksana asked.

I shot a quick look at Yeva, who was again wearing that annoyingly self-satisfied look on her face. "No. Yeva hasn't been very forthcoming this morning."

"Most everyone around here knows," Oksana said, returning to her work.

"Then... then you're a spirit user."

That made her pause again. She and Mark exchanged startled looks. "That," she said, "is not something that's widely known."

"Most people think you haven't specialized, right?"

"How did you know?"

Because it was exactly how it had been for Lissa and me. Stories of bonds had always existed in Moroi folklore, but how bonds formed had always been a mystery. It was generally believed they "just happened." Like Oksana, Lissa had generally been regarded as a non-specializing Moroi-one who didn't have any special ability with one element. We realized now, of course, that bonding only occurred with spirit users, when they saved the lives of others.

Something in Oksana's voice told me she wasn't really all that surprised I knew. I couldn't figure out how she'd realized that, however, and I was too stunned by my discovery to say anything else. Lissa and I had never, ever met another bonded pair. The only such two we knew about were the legendary Vladimir and Anna. And those stories were shrouded by centuries of incomplete history, making it difficult to know fact from fiction.

The only other leads we had to the world of spirit were Ms. Karp-a former teacher who went insane-and Adrian. Until now, he had been our biggest discovery, a spirit user who was more or less stable-depending on how you looked at it.

When the meal was ready, spirit never came up. Oksana led the conversation, keeping to light topics and jumping between languages. I studied her and Mark as I ate, looking for any signs of instability. I saw none. They seemed like perfectly pleasant, perfectly ordinary people. If I hadn't known what I did, I would have had no reason to suspect anything. Oksana didn't seem depressed or unhinged. Mark hadn't inherited that vile darkness that sometimes seeped into me.

My stomach welcomed the food, and the last of my headache faded away. At one point, though, a strange sensation swept through me. It was disorienting, like a fluttering in my head, and a wave of heat and then ice coursing through me. The feeling disappeared as quickly as it came on, and I hoped it'd be the last of that demon vodka's ill effects.

We finished eating, and I jumped up to help. Oksana shook her head. "No, there's no need. You should go with Mark."

"Huh?" I asked.

He dabbed at his face with a napkin and then stood up. "Yes. Let's go out to the garden."

I started to follow, then paused to glance back at Yeva. I expected her to chastise me for abandoning the dishes. Instead, I found no smug or disapproving looks. Her expression was... knowing. Almost expectant. Something about it sent a shiver down my back, and I recalled Viktoria's words: Yeva had dreamed of my arrival.

The garden Mark led me to was much bigger than I expected, enclosed in a thick fence and lined with trees. New leaves hung on them, blocking the worst of the heat. Lots of bushes and flowers were already in bloom, and here and there, young shoots were well on their way to adulthood. It was beautiful, and I wondered if Oksana had had a hand in it. Lissa was able to make plants grow with spirit. Mark gestured me over to a stone bench. We sat down side by side, and silence fell.

"So," he said. "What would you like to know?"

"Wow. You don't waste time."

"I don't see any point in it. You must have lots of questions. I'll do my best to answer."

"How did you know?" I asked. "That I'm shadow-kissed too. You did, right?"

He nodded. "Yeva told us."

Okay, that was a surprise. "Yeva?"

"She can sense things... things the rest of us can't. She doesn't always know what she's sensing, however. She only knew there was a strange feel to you, and she'd only ever felt that around one other person. So she brought you to me."

"Seems like she could have done that without me having to carry a household's worth of stuff."

This made him laugh. "Don't take it personally. She was testing you. She wanted to see if you're a worthy match for her grandson."

Tags: Richelle Mead Vampire Academy Fantasy
Source: www.StudyNovels.com
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