“Have any of you heard rumors of Vlad Ţepeş living in these woods?” Professor Radu asked the class of half-sleeping pupils. I exhaled. Honestly, I was surprised anyone would truly believe such nonsense. Anastasia shot me a knowing grin from the seat beside me. At least I wasn’t the only one in the classroom who thought this to be utter rubbish.
Thomas rolled his neck, dragging my focus to him once again. He was uncharacteristically subdued. We’d shared Uncle’s class at the start of the Ripper murders, and no one could keep him quiet then. Normally his hand shot into the air so often I had the urge to shoo him from the classroom. I wondered if he was feeling ill.
I tried catching his eye, but he pretended not to notice. I tapped my quill against my inkwell, eyes narrowed. The day Thomas Cresswell failed to take note of anything, most especially my attention, was a troublesome day indeed. Unease slipped into my thoughts.
“No one’s heard these rumors?” Radu tripped up one aisle and down the next, head swooping from side to side. “I find that rather hard to believe. Come, now. Don’t be shy. We’re here to learn!”
Andrei yawned obnoxiously in the front row, and the professor practically deflated before our eyes. If I hadn’t been so horribly bored myself, I would have felt sorry for the older man. It had to be difficult teaching fiction and myth to a class more interested in science and fact.
“All right, then. I shall tell you a story almost too fantastical to believe.”
Nicolae shifted in his seat. I could tell he was trying not to be too obvious about watching me, but he was failing considerably at his task. Wilhelm, as unfortunate as his death was, had likely died from a rare medical condition. Not murder. Certainly not mystical powers working to assassinate him on my behalf. I hoped the prince wouldn’t spread rumors of my supposed curse; I had quite enough obstacles of my own to overcome.
“Villagers believe the bones found in the woods outside the castle are the remains of Vlad’s victims. There are those who’ve claimed his grave is empty. And there are others who say it’s been filled with animal skeletons. The royal family refuses to allow anyone to exhume the body or casket to be sure. Some say this is because they know precisely what will be found. Or rather—what won’t be found. There are those who believe Vlad rose from the dead, his thirst for blood defying Death itself. Others claim it’s simply blasphemous to desecrate the resting place of such an important man.”
Professor Radu went on about the legend of the alleged immortal prince. How he’d made a deal with the Devil and, in exchange for eternal life, needed to steal the blood of the living and drink it fresh. It sounded like the gothic novel by John William Polidori, The Vampyre.
“Voievod Trăgător în Ţeapă, or, roughly translated to, the Impaler Lord, was thought to drink from the necks of his still-living victims. It was meant to inspire fear in those who sought to invade our country. But history says his preferred method was dipping bread into the blood of his enemies and ingesting it in that more… civilized manner.”
“Oh, yes,” I whispered to Thomas. “Dining on blood is more civil when one dunks their bread in it as if it were a hearty winter stew.”
“As opposed to calling it a precursor to cannibalism. First one drinks blood, then they move on to sautéing up some organ meat,” Thomas mumbled back. “Next comes the blood gravy.”
“Scientifically improbable,” Anastasia whispered.
“What’s improbable? Blood gravy?” Thomas asked. “Not so. It’s one of my favorites.”
Anastasia seemed momentarily stunned before shaking her head. “Ingesting blood the way Radu’s implying would lead to too much iron in one’s system. I wonder if he bathed in it instead. That would be more logical.”
“What sort of journals do you read?” I said quietly, flashing Anastasia a curious look.
She grinned. “There’s a limited number of novels in this castle. I make do.”
“Unfortunate for dear old Vlad,” Thomas said in a loud whisper. “His flatulence must have been legendary.”
I hid my smile behind my quill as the professor nearly tripped over his shoes again. Poor thing. His eyes lit up as if he’d been offered a shiny Thomas-shaped gift from God above. Too bad Thomas wasn’t commenting pleasantly on the subject. There was only so much fantasy that he could withstand. If anything, I was impressed it had taken this long for him to speak up. At least Nicolae seemed to be slightly amused. It was far better than that awful glazed-over expression he’d worn since his cousin’s death.
“Did someone say something?” Radu asked, caterpillar brows waggling skyward.
Thomas drummed his hands over his journal, pinching his lips as if he could keep his comments from spewing out. I sat straighter; things appeared to be getting interesting. Thomas was a geyser ready to burst.
“We were speaking of flatulence.”
I snorted in the most unladylike manner, then coughed the giggle away when Radu turned on me, eyes blinking expectantly. “Scuzele mele,” I said. “So sorry, sir. We were saying perhaps Dracula bathed in the blood.”
“I believe you’re confusing Vlad Dracula with the Countess Elizabeth Báthory,” Radu said. “She is sometimes called Countess Dracula and was said to bathe in the blood of servants she killed. Nearly seven hundred of them, if reports are accurate. Very, very messy business! Another good lesson, though.”
“Sir?” The boy with red curls spoke with an Irish brogue. “Do you believe historical accounts of Vlad drinking blood have been confused with folklore?”
“Hmm? Ah, I nearly forgot!” Professor Radu paused beside Thomas’s desk, chest puffed up with pride as he faced Nicolae. “We have an actual Ţepeş family member in our midst. Perhaps he may shed some light on these legends. Did the infamous Impaler Lord drink blood? Or has that myth sprung from the fanciful minds of peasants who were in need of a hero more fearsome than the invading Ottomans?”
The prince was now staring straight ahead, jaw clenched tightly. I doubted he wanted to offer up any Ţepeş family secrets, especially if his ancestors were rumored to enjoy sanguine delights. I studied him closely, deciding that I wouldn’t be shocked to discover he enjoyed drinking blood himself.
“What of the Societas Draconistrarum?” Anastasia interrupted, her focus drifting toward Nicolae. “I heard they combat such myths. Do you believe Vlad was indeed strigoi?”
“Oh, no, no, no, dear girl,” Radu said, “I do not believe such rumors. Vlad was no vampire, no matter how compelling a tale it makes.”
“But where did those rumors originally come from?” Anastasia pressed. “They had to be born of some fact.”
Radu chewed on the inside of his cheek, seeming to consider his next words more carefully than before. It was a serious expression I hadn’t yet seen on him and I was intrigued by the subtle shift. I hadn’t thought him capable of being anything other than scattered.
“Once upon a time men needed explanations for such darkness and bloodshed during times of war. They were quick to blame anything other than their own greed for their troubles. And so they sat down and created vampires—sinister creatures that sprang forth from the twisted depths of their dark hearts, mirroring their own bloodlust. Monsters are only as real as the stories that grant them life. And they only live for as long as we tell those tales.”
“And the dragonists started these legends?” she asked.
“No, no. I did not mean to imply that. I’m getting all tangled up in my myths. However, the Order of the Dragon is a story for another time.” He addressed the handful of us in the class, seeming to come back to himself. “For those who may be unaware, they were a secret society made up of selected nobility. Often called Societas Draconistrarum, or, roughly translated, Society of the Dragonists. They fought to uphold certain values during times of war and invasion. Sigismund, king of Hungary, used the Crusaders as a model when he founded the group.”
“How on earth does this relate, sir?” Nicolae asked, his accented drawl expressing his disdain.
“The Order believes this academy is teaching young men—and women, I haven’t forgotten you, Miss Wadsworth—to be heretics! I’ve heard on many an occasion that village folk believe if Vlad were alive today, he’d be appalled by this school and its blasphemous teachings. His family were crusaders of Christianity, which is how they became involved with the Order. We all know how society looks upon the practice of cutting open the dead for study. The body being a temple and all. Complete heresy.”
I swallowed hard. Society had recently turned on Uncle as well, despising him for the practice of postmortem examinations. It did not understand the bodies he cracked open on his table, or the clues he could unearth about their demise. Radu took in my troubled expression, eyes going wide.
“Oh! Please don’t worry, Miss Wadsworth. Mr. Cresswell informed me of the sensitive nature of the Ripper case and its disturbing effects on you. I certainly don’t want to upset your fragile constitution, as Mr. Cresswell warned.”
For an extended moment, a piercing noise sounded within my head. “My… what?”
Thomas closed his eyes, as if he could shut Radu’s revelations out entirely. I was dully aware that my classmates were now twisting in their seats, staring as if one of their favorite plays were being performed and the hero was about to fall.
“Oh, nothing to be ashamed of, Miss Wadsworth. Hysteria is a common affliction for young, unmarried women,” Radu went on. “I’m sure if you refrain from mentally taxing yourself, you’ll be emotionally sufficient again soon.”
Some of the boys laughed outright, not bothering to mask their delight. Inside, the cord that tethered me to Thomas vibrated with anger. This was my worst nightmare come to life, and there wasn’t a thing I could do to wrench myself out of it.
I could barely look at him, too afraid of bursting into tears, but I wanted him to see the void yawning within. He’d betrayed me. He’d told our professor that I’d been affected by a case. That my constitution had been damaged. It was my secret to keep. Not his to share. His loyalty to me obviously didn’t mean a thing. I could not believe—after I’d told him to not interfere with my choices—that he’d go behind my back and share personal information.