Again, Lissa was ushered into the room alone. Her heart began to pound when she saw the same old woman. Were more terrible images to come? Lissa couldn't see the chalice, but that was no guarantee of safety. There was no extra chair, so Lissa simply stood in front of the old woman.

"Hello,' Lissa said respectfully. "It's nice to see you again.'

The woman grinned, showing those missing teeth. "I doubt that, but you say it very convincingly. You have politics in your blood.'

"Thank ... you ...' said Lissa, unsure if she'd been complimented or not. "What would you like me to do for this test?'

"Just listen. That's all. It's an easy one.'

A twinkle in the woman's eye made Lissa think this would not be easy.

"All you have to do is answer a question for me. Answer correctly, and you're through to the vote. And won't that be entertaining.' The old woman seemed to say those last words more to herself than Lissa.

"Okay,' said Lissa uneasily. "I'm ready.'

The woman sized Lissa up and seemed to like what she saw. "Here it is then: What must a queen possess in order to truly rule her people?'

Lissa's mind went blank for a moment, and then a jumble of words popped into her head. Integrity? Wisdom? Sanity?

"No, no, don't answer,' said the old woman, watching Lissa carefully. "Not yet. You have until tomorrow, at this same time, to think about it. Come back with the right answer, and you'll have passed the trials. And ...' She winked. "It goes without saying you won't talk to anyone about this.'

Lissa nodded, rubbing the small tattooed spot on her arm. She'd get no help with the answer from anyone else. Lissa left the room, turning the question over and over in her mind. There were too many answers to a question like that, she thought. Any of them could--

Movement in my reality instantly snapped me out of her head. I half expected Sonya to come bursting into our tent, but no, that wasn't what had caught my attention. It was a much smaller motion ... and something infinitely more powerful.

Dimitri was in my arms.

Chapter Twenty-eight

I STOPPED BREATHING. WE'D each had our own blankets, but even in the middle of summer, the temperature had dropped during the night. Dimitri, in his sleep, had rolled over against me, merging our blankets into one pile and resting his head on my chest. His body lay against mine, warm and familiar, and he even snuggled a little closer.

He was more exhausted than I'd realized if he was doing this in his sleep. After all, this was the guy who slept with one eye open. But his guard was down now, his body unconsciously seeking ... what? Simple warmth? Me? Damn it. Why had I asked Sonya my question? Why couldn't I keep going with my easy role as Adrian's girlfriend and Dimitri's friend? Because honestly, I wasn't doing a very good job at either one right now.

Tentatively, fearfully, I shifted slightly so that I could put one arm around Dimitri and draw him closer. I knew it was a risk, one that might wake him and break this spell. But it didn't. If anything, he seemed to relax more. Feeling him like that ... holding him ... it churned up a swarm of emotions within me. The ache I had felt since his loss burned within me. At the same time, holding him like this also seemed to fill that ache, as though a piece of me that had been missing was now restored. I hadn't even realized that piece was missing. I'd blocked it all out until Sonya's words had shaken my fragile new acceptance of life.

I don't know how long I stayed like that with Dimitri. It was long enough that the rising sun began to illuminate the tent's translucent fabric. That was all the light my eyes needed to now see Dimitri, to see the finely carved lines of his face and softness of his hair as he lay against me. I wanted so badly to touch that hair, to see if it felt like it used to. That was a silly sentiment, of course. His hair wouldn't have changed. Still ... the urge was there, and I finally gave in, gently running my fingers over some stray locks. They were smooth and silky, and that barest touch sent chills through me. It also woke him up.

His eyes opened, instantly alert. I expected him to jump away from me, but instead, he only assessed the situation--and didn't move. I left my hand where it was on the side of his face, still stroking his hair. Our gazes locked, so much passing between us. In those moments, I wasn't in a tent with him, on the run from those who regarded us as villains. There was no murderer to catch, no Strigoi trauma to overcome. There was just him and me and the feelings that had burned between us for so long.

When he did move, it wasn't to get away. Instead, he lifted his head so that he looked down at me. Only a few inches separated us, and his eyes betrayed him. He wanted to kiss me--and I wanted him to. He leaned over me, one hand resting against my cheek. I readied myself for his lips--I needed them--and then he froze. He pulled back and sat up, exhaling in frustration as he looked away from me. I sat up as well, my breathing rapid and shallow.

"Wh-what's wrong?' I asked.

He glanced back at me. "Pick. There are lots of choices.'

I ran a finger along my lips. So close. So, so close. "I know ... I know things have changed. I know you were wrong. I know you can feel love again.' His mask was back up as he formulated his answer. "This isn't about love.'

The last minute replayed in my head, that perfect connection, the way he'd looked at me and made my heart feel. Hell, Sonya claimed we even had some mystical connection. "If it's not about love, then what is it about?' I exclaimed.

"It's about doing the right thing,' he said quietly.

The right thing? Right and wrong had been perennial topics at St. Vladimir's. I wasn't eighteen. He was my teacher. We were slated to be Lissa's guardians and had to give her our full attention. All of those were arguments for why staying apart had been necessary back then. But those had long since fallen by the wayside.

I would have questioned him more--if someone hadn't scratched at our door.

Both of us sprang up and apart, reaching for the stakes we'd slept near. Grabbing my stake was instinct because I knew there was no Strigoi out there. But lately, Strigoi had been the least of our worries.

"Rose? Dimitri?'

The voice was barely audible--but familiar. Relaxing slightly, I unzipped the tent's entrance and revealed Sonya kneeling in front of it. Like us, she wore the same clothes from earlier, and her auburn hair was messy. Otherwise, she seemed to have escaped her pursuers unscathed. I scooted aside so that she could enter.

"Cozy,' she said, glancing around. "You've got the farthest spot out on the campground. Took me forever to find the car you described.'

"How'd you get here?' I asked.

She winked. "You're not the only ones who can steal cars. Or, in my case, get people to "willingly' lend them.'

Tags: Richelle Mead Vampire Academy Fantasy
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