A few more classmates snickered. Bulky Andrei even pretended to have fainted from shock and required assistance from the boy with the Irish accent. My face burned.
“Don’t worry, class. I do not believe you are all damned because of the science that’s performed here,” Radu went on, completely unaware of what he’d unleashed. “It’s hard to break villagers of their traditions, though. Be mindful if you go into Braşov alone. Oh… I suppose there’s been a meeting about that—”
A clock chimed in the courtyard, signaling the blessed end to this torture. I tossed my journal and writing utensils into a small sack I’d taken to carrying. I could not remove myself from this room fast enough. If I overheard one more snide remark about fainting couches or hysteria, I would truly snap.
“Students aren’t permitted off grounds unsupervised!” Radu called over the clamor of seats being pushed from desks. “Don’t want anyone being sacrificed as a heretic. That would be quite bad for our program! The vigil will be held at sundown, don’t forget.”
Nicolae shook his head at the professor and stepped around him into the aisle. Thomas paused by his desk, stopped from closing the distance between us by the fleeing students, his attention riveted on me. I didn’t wait for him to get close. I turned my back and walked for the door as quickly as I could.
CURS DE FOLCLOR
3 DECEMBER 1888
“Audrey Rose, please. Wait.” Thomas reached for me in the corridor just outside the classroom, but I moved swiftly. He let his arm fall limp at his side. “I can explain. I thought—”
“Oh? You thought?” I snapped. “You thought it a fine idea to make me into a mockery in front of our peers? To undermine me? Did we not just have a similar conversation yesterday?”
“Please. I swear I never meant—”
“Exactly. You never mean anything!” Thomas staggered back as if I’d struck a blow. I ignored his air of injury, dropping my voice to a harsh whisper as Anastasia tiptoed around us and fled down the corridor. “You care only for yourself and prove that through your cursed actions daily. You keep your emotions and stories and history to yourself. Then you freely tell others my secrets. Do you have any idea how difficult it is for me? Most men do not take me seriously based on the skirts I wear, and then you go and prove them right! I am not inferior, Thomas. No person is.”
“I mustn’t what? Tolerate you thinking you know what’s best for me? You’re right. I don’t. I do not understand how you believe yourself entitled to speak for me. To warn others of my fragile constitution. You are supposed to be my friend, my equal. Not my keeper.”
A few weeks earlier I’d worried that my father would take Thomas and forensic studies from me the same way my brother had been torn from my grasp. I wasn’t able to bear the thought of being without him. I couldn’t have known that Thomas would betray me under the guise of protecting my best interests. I never would have predicted that he would be the one who’d destroy our bond.
“I swear I am your friend, Audrey Rose,” he said earnestly. “I see you’re angry—”
“Another fine deduction made by the infallible Mr. Thomas Cresswell,” I said, unable to keep the bite from my tone. “You said you loved me once, but your actions show a much different truth, sir. I require equal standing and will accept nothing less.”
The future I hadn’t been sure I’d ever wanted was made clear as fine crystal. I was correct in my assumptions. No matter how much Thomas pretended otherwise, he was still a man. A man who felt his duty and obligation would be to speak on my behalf and set rules, were I to marry him. I would always be undermined in some manner by his thoughtless “assistance.”
“I refuse to be governed by anything other than my own will, Cresswell. Allow me to make myself even more clear, since you obviously missed the point earlier: I would rather perish an old maid than subject myself to a life with you and your best intentions. Find another person to torment with your affections.”
I heard Thomas calling my name as I rushed down the corridor and blindly ran down a twisting set of stairs. Torches nearly blew out as I rushed past them, but I dared not stop. I ran around and around as I descended the winding staircase, my heart shattering with each step I took away from him.
I’d never felt more alone or more foolish in all my life.
The stiff body lying on the examination table brought me more comfort than should have been proper. Instead of admonishing myself for unseemly behavior, I relished the feeling of absolute control over my emotions. Never was I more confident than when a scalpel was in my hands, and a corpse was waiting with its flesh cracked open like the spine of a crisp new book to be studied.
Or at least—I’d never been more confident in the past. This test was far more crucial to me now, especially after Thomas’s meddling.
I focused on the cold body, kept decent by carefully placed bits of cloth. My heart fluttered a bit, but I commanded it to calm. I’d not break apart during this examination. If need be, I’d allow stubbornness and spite to hold me together.
“Fii tare,” someone whispered from a spot nearby in the surgical theater. “Be strong.” I glanced up, searching for the source. It was likely mockery thanks to Radu’s declaration of my fragile constitution. I would prove to myself, more than anyone else, that I was completely capable of performing this autopsy.
I gripped the scalpel, putting aside my emotions as I stared at the boy who’d been alive yesterday. Wilhelm was no longer my classmate. He was a specimen. And I’d find the strength I needed to identify his cause of death. Give peace to his family. Perhaps this was how I might help Nicolae cope: I could offer him an answer as to why and how his cousin had died. My hands shook slightly as I lifted the blade.
Our professor, a young Englishman named Mr. Daniel Percy, had already shown us the proper way to make a postmortem incision, and he offered one of us the opportunity to assist in the investigation of Mr. Wilhelm Aldea’s death.
Since I’d completed similar tasks, I was the first to volunteer to remove his organs. I suspected Thomas was as anxious as I was to inspect the body, but he hadn’t challenged me when I’d raised my hand. Instead he’d sat back and sunk his teeth into his lower lip. I was much too annoyed with him to appreciate the peace offering. He knew I needed to do this. I needed to overcome my fears or pack my trunks. If I could not handle this postmortem, I would never survive the assessment course.
“Class, please note the tools needed for your postmortems. Before each procedure, it’s important to have everything you might need ready.” Percy pointed to a small table with a tray of familiar objects. “A bone saw, bread knife, enterotomy scissors for opening both the small and large intestines, toothed forceps, and a skull chisel. There’s also a bottle of carbolic acid on hand. New studies favor the practice of sterilization. Now, then, Miss Wadsworth, you may continue.”
Using a decent amount of pressure, I cracked the sternum open using a pair of rib cutters. Uncle had taught me his method last August, and I was grateful for the lesson as I stood in the surgical theater, surrounded by three concentric tiers of seats that rose at least thirty feet into the air, though my classmates were all smushed together in the lowest level. The room was mostly quiet, save for the occasional shuffle of feet.
From the corner of my vision, I noticed the prince cringe. Percy had offered him the choice of sitting this lesson out, but he’d refused. I had no idea why Moldoveanu wasn’t inspecting the body himself or why he’d turned it over for our studies. But Nicolae sat there, stoic. He’d chosen not to abandon his cousin until his body was laid to rest. I admired his strength but could not fathom sitting through such a procedure for a loved one.
Now I couldn’t help but sense his gaze on me, sharp as the tool in my hands, while I spilled secrets of his cousin’s unexpected death.
During pre-laboratory attendance, I’d learned that the Italian brothers—Mr. Vincenzo and Mr. Giovanni Bianchi—were fraternal twins. They were no longer staring hungrily at their books but at the method in which I was conducting my postmortem. Their intensity was almost as unnerving as the manner in which they seemed to communicate silently with each other. I glanced at my other classmates briefly. Mr. Noah Hale and Mr. Cian Farrell were equally intrigued. My gaze started to slide in Thomas’s direction before I stopped it. I did not care to look at him.
I clamped the rib cage open and forced my expression to remain unaffected as the scent of exposed viscera wafted into the air. A slight scent of garlic was present. I shut out images of slain prostitutes. This body had not been desecrated by a horrid murderer. His organs hadn’t been ripped from him. Now wasn’t the time for thoughts beyond the surgical table. Now was the time for science. I sliced through some muscle, revealing the sac around the heart.
“Very good, Miss Wadsworth.”
Professor Percy walked around the surgical theater, dramatically raising his voice. He was every inch the performer, a maestro leading a symphony into a crescendo. The sound of his voice slapped at the outer reaches of the room like its bass was a wave crashing against the shore.
“What we have here is the pericardium, class. Please note the way it covers the heart. It has both an outer layer and an inner layer. The first is fibrous in nature while the other is a membrane.”
I narrowed my eyes. The pericardium casing had dried out. I’d never seen such a thing before. Without being told to do so, I plucked a glass and metal syringe from the table and attempted to extract a sample of blood from the deceased’s forearm.
Pulling the stopper back, I expected the thick consistency of coagulated blood—and came away empty. An audible gasp raced around the lower ring in the hall, echoing like a choir singing a soul into heaven as it reached the upper levels.
Percy pointed out tools and procedures, this time in Romanian.