A church was the grandest sight of all, its Gothic spire pointing at the heavens. From where we stood, we could see its red-tiled roof spreading over a massive building made of light-colored stone with stained glass windows. My eyes stung before I blinked my awe away. Perhaps the trip hadn’t been such a waste of time after all.
“Biserica Neagră.” Thomas grinned. “The Black Church. During the summer, people gather to hear organ music that pours from its cathedral. It also has well over one hundred Anatolian carpets. It’s absolutely stunning.”
“You know the strangest facts.”
“Are you impressed? I didn’t bother pointing out it had been renovated after a great fire, or that its blackened walls were how it received its name. Didn’t want you to swoon too much. We do have a suspect to inquire after.”
I smiled but remained silent, not wanting to share my fear of this being a fool’s errand. Wilhelm had likely been just a passenger on the train and had already been ill. Sickness explained his jittery actions—he very well might have been feeling faint, and the stress of witnessing a murder proved too much.
We walked in silence, finally arriving in the old village. My feet were no longer numb but felt as if I’d been stomping about on bits of glass in my stockings. Liza would be enchanted by the way the snow dusted the rooftops, a sprinkling of sugar electrified by the rays of the sun. I would have to write to her later tonight.
I slowed to a halt, scanning the cobblestone streets for the black cloak belonging to Wilhelm. I saw a flutter of dark material disappear into a shop with a sign I couldn’t read. I pointed it out to Thomas.
“I think he went in there.”
“Lead the way, Wadsworth. I’m simply along for my brute strength and charm.”
We entered a store that sold parchment and journals and all manner of things one needed to write or draw with. It wasn’t an odd place for a student to visit. Wilhelm very well might be in need of supplies for class. I drifted down narrow aisles stacked with rolled paper.
It had a pleasing ink and paper smell that reminded me of sticking my nose in an old book. Antique pages were a scent that should be bottled up and sold to those who adored the aroma.
I smiled at the shop owner, a wrinkled old man with a generous grin. “We’re looking for our classmate. I believe he came in a moment ago?”
The old man drew his brows together and responded rapidly in Romanian, his words too fast for me to process. Thomas stepped forward and spoke just as quickly. They continued back and forth for a few moments before Thomas turned to me and motioned toward the door. I’d finally gathered the gist of it, but Thomas translated anyway.
“He said his son just brought a new delivery in, and no one else has been in all morning.”
I stared out the window at a line of shops. Their signs and windows made it clear what wares they were selling. Pastries and fabrics and hats and shoes. Wilhelm could have entered any of them. “We might as well split up and check each business.”
We bid good-bye to the shop owner and exited. I walked down to the next shop and paused. A dress made for royalty hung proudly in the center of the bay window, stealing my breath. It had a pale yellow gem-encrusted bodice that gradually tapered into shades of butter, then winter white at the waist. The gown’s skirts appeared as if clouds of white, cream, and pale yellow tulle swept over one another in the most magnificent gradient.
Its stitches were crafted by a deft hand, and I couldn’t help but move closer for a better look. I all but pressed my face against the thick, wavy glass separating me from the garment. Gemstones were splattered across the low-cut bodice—stars set against the daylight.
“What exquisite artistry! It’s… heaven. It’s a daydream in wearable form. Or sunshine.”
It was gorgeous enough that I forgot about our mission for a moment. When Thomas hadn’t answered or even mocked me for getting distracted, I turned. He was watching me with deep amusement before snapping out of his own reverie. Straightening to his full height, he jerked his thumb at the next storefront.
“The neckline on that beauty would certainly cause an uproar. And quite a few… daydreams.” He flashed a wolfish grin as I crossed my arms. “Not that you couldn’t handle yourself when fighting off the hordes of gentleman suitors. I believe you could manage that just fine. Your father, however, did say to chaperone you everywhere and keep you out of trouble.”
“If that’s true, then he shouldn’t have asked you to be my caretaker.”
“Oh? And what would you ask of me? Should I forsake your father’s wishes?”
The glint of an unexpected challenge lit his features. I hadn’t seen such a serious expression since the last time he’d grasped me in his arms and allowed his lips the freedom of communicating his deepest desires without words. I found myself momentarily breathless as I recalled—in vivid detail—the sensation and rightness of our very wrong kiss.
“What do you want from me, Audrey Rose? What are your wishes?”
I took a step back, heart pounding. I wanted more than anything to tell him how afraid I was of my recent hauntings. I wanted him to reassure me that I would heal in time. That I would once again wield my blade without fear of the dead rising. I longed for him to promise me he’d never cage me were we to become betrothed. But how could I utter such things while he was being vulnerable? To admit that the fissure inside me kept growing and I’d no idea if it would ever truly be mended? That perhaps I might end up destroying him along with myself?
“Right now?” I stepped closer, watching the column of his throat tighten as he nodded. “I wish to know what Wilhelm saw on the train, if anything. I want to know why two people were murdered—staked through the heart—as if they were strigoi. And I want to find clues before we potentially have another Ripper case on our hands.”
Thomas exhaled a bit too loudly for it to be casual. Part of me wished to take it back, to tell him I loved him and wanted everything I could see he was offering in his eyes. Perhaps I was the worst kind of fool. I kept my mouth shut. Better for him to be temporarily dismayed than permanently hurt by my wavering emotions.
“Let’s go hunting, then”—he offered an arm—“shall we?”
I hesitated. For a moment I thought I saw a shadow angling toward us from around the building. My heart picked up speed as I waited for its owner to step forth. Thomas followed my gaze, a crinkle in his brow, before turning back to inspect me.
“I think it best if we split up and find Wilhelm, Cresswell.”
“As the lady wishes.”
Thomas stared at me a moment too long, then pressed a chaste kiss to my cheek before I knew what he was doing. He drew back slowly, mischief flickering in his eyes, as I quickly glanced around for witnesses to such untowardness. The shadow that I’d sworn was moving in our direction was gone.
Shaking off the feeling of being watched by things I couldn’t see, I admitted to myself that I’d been bested by my imagination once again and entered the dress shop. Bolts of fabrics in rich colors spilled from rolls like they were silken blood freed from their host. I ran my hands over the satins and fine knits as I made my way toward the work desk near the back.
A short, rotund woman called hello. “Buna.”
“Buna. Has anyone been in here? A young man? Very sick. Um… foarte bolnav.”
The gray-haired woman didn’t break her dimpled smile, and I hoped she understood my Romanian. Her gaze traveled over me swiftly, as if assessing whether I had any snakes hidden up my sleeves or other nasty tricks she should be wary of.
“No young men here today.”
On the wall behind her, a sketch of a young woman caught my attention. There was a series of notes around the image, written in Romanian. Chills lingered on my skin. The woman’s blond hair reminded me of Anastasia in a way. “What does that say?”
The shop owner brushed away strips of fabric and motioned at the calendar on her table, pointing her scissors to Vineri. Friday. “Missing since three nights ago. She was seen walking near woods. Then nimic. Nothing. Pricolici.”
“That’s awful.” My breathing stilled for a moment. This woman truly believed an undead werewolf prowled the area, hunting for victims. However, it was the thought of being lost in those dreadful woods that made my limbs go weak. I hoped for the girl’s sake she’d made it somewhere safe. If snow and ice fell all that night, it would have made survival impossible.
I picked out new stockings and, after paying the shop owner, replaced my sodden ones with them. They were thick and warm and made my feet feel as if they were enveloped in soft clouds.
“Thank you… mulţumesc. I hope the girl is discovered soon.”
A commotion outside drew my attention. I watched men and women run down the cobblestone street, their eyes wide and unblinking. The mild-looking shop owner drew an iron pipe from behind the counter, her mouth set in a sharp line.
“Get back, girl. This is no good. Foarte rău.”
Fear stitched itself into my veins, but I snipped it away. I would not succumb to such emotions here. I was in a new location and wouldn’t fall into old habits. No matter if something was thought to be very bad. There was nothing to be afraid of other than our own worries. I was quite convinced no one was hunting people along these streets, especially during daylight hours.
“I’ll be all right.”
Without hesitation, I pushed the door open, gathered my skirts, and ran toward the small crowd that had sprung up near an alley at the end of the shopping district.
Chills invaded the cracks of my emotional armor, sliding their icy fingers along my skin. I gave in to their prodding and shivered in the waning morning light.
Another storm was approaching. Bits of ice and snow stumbled along in front of an angry gray cloud, a warning of worse things to follow. Much worse things.
STRĂZILE DIN SAT
2 DECEMBER 1888
I dipped down, low enough to peer between people as they shifted around the scene. My first glimpse at what had caught their attention was of a foot that belonged to someone lying on the snow-covered ground.