If his sincere laughter hadn’t been so entrancing, I would have jabbed him with my finger. He was certainly lighter here, more relaxed with himself and less guarded, than he was in London. I couldn’t deny being intrigued by this side of him.
“I wish I could capture the look on your face, Wadsworth. It’s the most endearing shade of red I’ve ever seen.” When I thought he’d collected himself, he chuckled again. “Under attack indeed. Seems you have a bit of work to do on your wooing, Daci.”
“Oh, stuff it, Thomas.” Daciana turned to me. “Ileana and I have known each other for quite some time. When she learned of Thomas attending the academy, she applied for a position. It was a convenient way for us to see each other. I’m sorry for having scared you. It must have been awful, thinking something sinister was occurring in the morgue. Especially after the Ripper murders.”
A lovely expression lit her face, and I marveled at the pang of envy that it stirred within my cells. I wanted someone to have such a look of utter longing while thinking of me. I took a deep breath and composed myself. Not someone. Thomas. I wanted him. I dared not glance in his direction for fear of those wanton emotions showing.
“I suppose we got a bit carried away last night,” Daciana said. “It’s been a while since we’ve had an entire evening alone. It’s just… I adore her in every possible way. Have you ever looked upon someone and felt a spark within your core? She makes me want to accomplish grand things. That’s the beauty of love, though, isn’t it? It brings out the very best within yourself.”
I thought on that last part for a moment. While I fully agreed that she and Ileana were exquisite together, I also felt impressive feats could be accomplished if one chose to remain unattached. The proximity of a romantic partner should neither impede nor facilitate inner growth.
“I do agree that love is wonderful,” I began slowly, not wanting to offend, “but there’s also a certain magic in being perfectly content with one’s own company. I believe greatness lies within. And is ours to harness or unleash at will.”
Daciana’s eyes glinted with approval. “Indeed.”
“While we could chatter on endlessly about love,” Thomas said in a faux huff, “your midnight tryst is making me quite jealous.”
A third knock interrupted Thomas before he could say anything inappropriate. He stood, a serious countenance falling over him as if he’d flipped a cooling switch. Though his sister was here, it would still be frowned upon that we were without a chaperone.
I swallowed my fear down and called out, “Yes?”
“Bună dimineaţa, mis—Audrey,” Ileana said, cheeks flushing slightly. “I—”
“Good morning to you, Ileana,” Thomas said from beside me. “I didn’t know you worked here until my sister showed up, all doe-eyed and excited. I should have known she wasn’t here to bless me with her sparkling personality.”
To my utter amazement, Ileana cracked a genuine grin. “It’s good to see you, too.” The smile quickly faded. “You’re both needed downstairs immediately. Mandatory meeting. Moldoveanu is in some sort of mood. You shouldn’t be late.”
“Hmm,” Thomas said. “This ought to be interesting. I was under the impression that he’s permanently in some sort of mood.”
Daciana dropped onto the settee, propping her silk-covered feet up on the low table. “Sounds lovely. Do give my regards to him. If you need me, I’ll be here, sprawled by the fire.”
Thomas rolled his eyes. “You’re like a house cat. Always napping in patches of sunshine or lounging before a fire.” A mischievous slant to his lips had me shaking my head before he opened his mouth again. “Please refrain from relieving yourself on the furniture.”
Thomas ushered me and Ileana out before Daciana could respond, and I tried hard to not laugh at all the foul things she was shouting in Romanian at the closed door.
By the time Thomas and I entered the dining hall, Anastasia had already wedged herself between Nicolae and the large brute, Andrei. I raised my brows at her choice of attending this meeting with her uncle. It was a bold maneuver. Clearly she wasn’t going to permit Moldoveanu an opportunity to shut her out of the castle’s intrigue. I imagined being stuck in her chambers every day would be unbearably boring.
As had been the case yesterday, the tables were filled with the same pairings. I realized I didn’t know anyone else’s name and resolved to introduce myself by the evening. The boy with red curls sat with the boy with the dark skin. The Italian brothers were hunched together, studying. And Thomas and I were momentarily unsure where to situate ourselves.
Undeterred by the sidelong glances Andrei slid her way, Anastasia excitedly motioned for us to come sit with them. Nicolae lifted his attention from his plate, glaring in our general direction halfheartedly. Thomas ignored him and focused on me. Sitting with the prince appeared as if it were the furthest thing from what he wanted to do, but he was leaving that decision up to me. It was a peace offering after his insistence yesterday that we return to London, and I appreciated the gesture.
While I didn’t relish the idea of becoming best friends with Nicolae, I didn’t want to remain enemies either. If Anastasia had the fortitude to incorporate herself into the group against her uncle’s wishes, I could follow her lead.
Nicolae picked at a meat pastry, pulling it apart and pushing the pieces around his plate. He never once took a bite. A bit of me softened. Losing a loved one wasn’t easy and often brought out qualities we weren’t proud of.
Anger was a wall to hide grief behind. I knew that firsthand.
I marched directly to their table and sat. “Good morning.”
“Bună dimineaţa,” Anastasia said, cheerful voice echoing in the mostly empty room. Her dress was a bright crimson, another statement. One carefully crafted for maximum effect. She turned to Thomas, running her gaze over him swiftly. “You must be the handsome traveling companion.”
Thomas slid into the chair beside me, expression bland. “With Audrey Rose, I like thinking of myself more along the lines of ‘handsome life companion.’”
My face burned at his proprietary use of my Christian name, but no one else seemed to notice. Andrei snorted, then quickly chomped down on any more laughter as his gaze took in the empty seat next to Nicolae. While Anastasia chattered on with Thomas in Romanian, I subtly watched Andrei, wondering how close he’d been with Wilhelm. Dark circles marred his face, leaving me to imagine he’d taken the news as hard as the prince had. This could not be easy for them, sitting here when they’d rather mourn properly.
I hoped the headmaster was going to deliver news of delaying our coursework. Perhaps he’d cancel the winter term and invite us back next season. A small bit of me sank at the thought. Nicolae kept pinching his pastry into pieces, his gaze set somewhere inward and far away.
I wanted to reach over and say something comforting, something to maybe help heal myself as well, but Moldoveanu entered the dining hall and silence fell. Even Andrei shifted in his seat, a bead or two of perspiration dotting his broad brow.
Moldoveanu wasted little time on pleasantries. He began speaking in Romanian, slow enough for me to pick up much of what he was relaying. Classes were to begin immediately. We’d be taught in English, since it was a common language for all countries present, but lessons would also include sections in Romanian for those who weren’t fluent yet.
“Your first lesson will be with Professor Radu,” he continued in English. “Basic knowledge of folklore helps when investigating a scene in villages, where superstition may override logic and scientific sensibility.” He glanced at each of us, and I was surprised to see that his disdain was directed at the entire group. As if we were all wasting his precious time. “Due to the unfortunate passing of your classmate, I’ve decided to invite another student in his place. He will be arriving today.”
A clock chimed the hour, loud enough to force the headmaster to press his lips together. I stole a glance at Nicolae, his jaw clenched tight. I could not fathom being in his place, listening as the headmaster cast off his cousin’s death so easily. It seemed highly callous to invite a new student so cavalierly, as if Wilhelm had simply run off and decided against trying out.
Once the chimes stopped, Moldoveanu met each of our gazes. “I suspect some of you may be… distracted by the events of yesterday, and I understand. Loss isn’t taken lightly. We will have a vigil at sundown to honor Wilhelm. Professor Radu will provide more details. Immediately following his class, you are to report to your first postmortem laboratory. An anatomy lesson instructed by myself will follow that. You are dismissed.”
Without offering another word, the headmaster exited the room, his shoes clapping against the floor and his footsteps fading away down the corridor.
Vlad Ţepeş, c. 16th century.
CURS DE FOLCLOR
4 DECEMBER 1888
“The woods surrounding the castle are filled with bones.”
Professor Radu didn’t notice half the students’ chins were dropping to their chests while he flipped through pages in his oversize folklore book. He was reading to us as if we were babies with nursemaids instead of serious-minded students of medicine. Presently, it took a great amount of effort to keep myself from laughing while he regaled us with fantastical tales of creatures and immortal princes.
All I wanted was to skip ahead to the laboratory study next period. There was a cadaver waiting to be explored, and I couldn’t wait to put my new scalpels to use. Only two weeks had passed since my last postmortem with Uncle, yet it felt like two decades.
I needed to see if I could put my difficulties aside and study the dead as I used to. Or if the way I’d been forgetful and terrified of previous hauntings would plague me forever. I was not as anxious to attend Moldoveanu’s lesson, though anatomy was a subject I excelled in.
Thomas shifted his long legs under his writing desk, drawing my attention. He tapped his inkwell so hard with the end of his quill I feared the ink would spill all over his parchment. Another quick rap had the bottle teetering precariously until he seized it and started tapping again. He’d been rather distant since he’d run off to speak with Radu before class, leaving both Anastasia and me puzzled at his swift departure as we exited the dining hall.