General view, Bukharest, Roumania. c. 1890.
KINGDOM OF ROMANIA
1 DECEMBER 1888
Our train gnashed its way along frozen tracks toward the white-capped fangs of the Carpathian Mountains. From our position outside Bucharest, the capital of Romania, the peaks were the color of fading bruises.
Judging from the heavy snow falling, they were likely as cold as dead flesh. Quite a charming thought for a blustery morning.
A knee struck the side of the carved wooden panel in my private booth once again. I closed my eyes, praying that my traveling companion would fall back asleep. One more jitter of his long limbs might unravel my fraying composure. I pressed my head against the plush high-backed seat, focusing on the soft velvet instead of poking his offending leg with my hat pin.
Sensing my growing annoyance, Mr. Thomas Cresswell shifted and began tapping his gloved fingers against the windowsill in our compartment. My compartment, actually.
Thomas had his own quarters but insisted on spending every hour the day possessed in my company, lest a career murderer board the train and unleash carnage.
At least that’s the ridiculous story he’d told our chaperone, Mrs. Harvey. She was the charming, silver-haired woman who watched over Thomas while he stayed in his Piccadilly flat in London, and was currently on her fourth nap of the new day. Which was quite a feat considering it wasn’t much past dawn.
Father had taken ill in Paris and had placed his trust and my virtue in both Mrs. Harvey’s and Thomas’s care. It spoke volumes as to how highly Father thought of Thomas, and how convincingly innocent and charming my friend could be when the mood or occasion struck. My hands were suddenly warm and damp inside my gloves.
Derailing that feeling, my focus slid from Thomas’s dark brown hair and crisp cutaway coat to his discarded top hat and Romanian newspaper. I’d been studying the language enough to make out most of what it said. The headline read: HAS THE IMMORTAL PRINCE RETURNED? A body had been found staked through the heart near Braşov—the very village we were traveling to—leading the superstitious to believe in the impossible: Vlad Dracula, the centuries-dead prince of Romania, was alive. And hunting.
It was all rubbish meant to inspire fear and sell papers. There was no such thing as an immortal being. Flesh-and-blood men were the real monsters, and they could be cut down easily enough. In the end, even Jack the Ripper bled as all men did. Though papers still claimed he prowled the foggy London streets. Some even said he’d gone to America.
If only that were true.
An all-too-familiar pang hit my center, stealing my breath. It was always the same when I thought about the Ripper case and the memories it stirred within. When I stared into the looking glass, I saw the same green eyes and crimson lips; both my mother’s Indian roots and father’s English nobility apparent in my cheekbones. By all outward appearances, I was still a vibrant seventeen-year-old girl.
And yet I’d taken such a devastating blow to my soul. I wondered how I could appear so whole and serene on the outside when inside I was thrashing with turbulence.
Uncle had sensed the shift in me, noticing the careless mistakes I’d started making in his forensic laboratory over the past few days. Carbolic acid I’d forgotten to use when cleansing our blades. Specimens I hadn’t collected. A jagged tear I’d made in ice-cold flesh, so unlike my normal precision with the bodies lined up on his examination table. He’d said nothing, but I knew he was disappointed. I was supposed to have a heart that hardened in the face of death.
Perhaps I wasn’t meant for a life of forensic studies after all.
Tap. Tap-tap-tap. Tap.
I gritted my teeth while Thomas tap-tap-tapped along to the chugging of the train. How Mrs. Harvey slept through the racket was truly incredible. At least he’d succeeded in drawing me from that deep well of emotions. They were the kind of feelings that were too still and too dark. Stagnant and putrid like swamp water, with red-eyed creatures lurking far below. An image well suited to where we were heading.
Soon we’d all disembark in Bucharest before traveling the rest of the way by carriage to Bran Castle, home to the Academy of Forensic Medicine and Science, or Institutului Naţional de Criminalistică şi Medicină Legală, as it was called in Romanian. Mrs. Harvey would spend a night or two in Braşov before traveling back to London. Part of me longed to return with her, though I’d never admit it aloud to Thomas.
Above our private booth, an opulent chandelier swung in time to the rhythm of the train, its crystals clinking together and adding a new layer of accompaniment to Thomas’s staccato taps. Pushing his incessant melody from my thoughts, I watched the world outside blur in puffs of steam and swishing tree limbs. Leafless branches were encased in sparkling white, their reflections shimmering against the polished near-ebony blue of our luxury train as the front cars curved ahead and carved through the frost-dusted land.
I leaned closer, realizing the branches weren’t covered in snow, but ice. They caught the first light of day and were practically set ablaze in the bright reddish-orange sunrise. It was so peaceful I could almost forget—wolves! I stood so abruptly that Thomas jumped in his seat. Mrs. Harvey snored loudly, the sound akin to a snarl. I blinked and the creatures were gone, replaced by branches swaying as the train chugged onward.
What I had thought were glinting fangs were only wintry boughs. I exhaled. I’d been hearing phantom howls all night. Now I was seeing things that weren’t there during daylight hours, too.
“I’m going to… stretch for a bit.”
Thomas raised dark brows, no doubt wondering about—or more likely knowing him, admiring—my blatant dismissal of propriety, and leaned forward, but before he could offer to accompany me or wake our chaperone, I rushed for the door and slid it open.
“I need a few moments. Alone.”
Thomas stared a beat too long before responding.
“Try not to miss me too much, Wadsworth.” He sat back, his face falling slightly before his countenance was once again playful. The lightness didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Though that might be an impossible task. I, for one, miss myself terribly when asleep.”
“What was that, dear?” Mrs. Harvey asked, blinking behind her spectacles.
“I said you ought to try counting sheep.”
“Was I sleeping again?”
I took advantage of the distraction, shutting the door behind me and grabbing my skirts. I didn’t want Thomas reading the expression on my face. The one that I hadn’t yet mastered in his presence.
I wandered down the narrow corridor, barely taking in the grandiosity as I made my way toward the dining car. I couldn’t stay out here unchaperoned for long, but I needed an escape. If only from my own thoughts and worries.
Last week, I had seen my cousin Liza walking up the stairs in my home. A sight as normal as anything, except she’d left for the country weeks prior. Days later something a bit darker occurred. I’d been convinced a cadaver craned its head toward me in Uncle’s laboratory, its unblinking gaze full of scorn at the blade in my hand, while its mouth spewed maggots onto the examination table. When I’d blinked, all was well.
I’d brought several medical journals for the journey but hadn’t had an opportunity to research my symptoms with Thomas openly studying me. He’d said I needed to confront my grief, but I wasn’t willing to reopen that wound yet. One day, maybe.
A few compartments down, a door slid open, dragging me into the present. A man with primly styled hair exited the chamber, moving swiftly down the corridor. His suit was charcoal and made of fine material, apparent by the way it draped over his broad shoulders. When he tugged a silver comb from his frock coat, I nearly cried out. Something in my core twisted so violently my knees buckled.
It couldn’t be. He had died weeks ago in that awful accident. My mind knew the impossibility standing before me, striding away with his perfect hair and matching clothing, yet my heart refused to listen.
I grasped my cream skirts and ran. I would’ve known that stride anywhere. Science could not explain the power of love or hope. There were no formulas or deductions for understanding, no matter what Thomas claimed regarding science versus humanity.
The man tipped his hat to passengers sitting down to tea. I was only half aware of their openmouthed stares as I bounded after him, my own top hat tilting to one side.
He approached the door to the cigar room, halting a moment to wrench the outer door open to travel between cars. Smoke leached from the room and mixed with an icy blast of air, the scent strong enough to make my insides roil. I reached out, tugging the man around, ready to toss my arms around him and cry. The events last month were only a nightmare. My—
Tears pricked my eyes. The hairstyle and clothing did not belong to the person I’d believed they did. I swiped the first bit of wetness that slid down my cheeks, not caring if I smudged the kohl I’d taken to wearing around my eyes.
He lifted a serpent-head walking cane, switching it to his other hand. He hadn’t even been holding a comb. I was losing touch with what was real. I slowly backed away, noting the quiet chatter of the car behind us. The clink of teacups, the mixed accents of world travelers, all of it a crescendo building in my chest. Panic made breathing more difficult than the corset binding my ribs.
I panted, trying to draw in enough air to soothe my jumbling nerves. The clatter and laughter rose to a shrill pitch. Part of me wished the cacophony would drown out the pulse thrashing in my head. I was about to be sick.
“Are you all right, domnişoară? You appear…”
I laughed, uncaring that he jerked away from my sudden outburst. Oh, if there was such a thing as a higher power, it was having fun at my expense. “Domnişoară” finally registered in place of “Miss.” This man wasn’t even English. He spoke Romanian. And his hair wasn’t blond at all. It was light brown.
“Scuze,” I said, forcing myself out of hysterics with a meager apology and slight incline of my head. “I mistook you for someone else.”
Before I could embarrass myself further, I dipped my chin and quickly retreated to my car. I kept my head down, ignoring the whispers and giggles, though I’d heard enough.