I stepped back, my gaze traveling over the nearly nude body, too focused on the mystery to blush. And that’s when I noticed it—the absence of postmortem lividity.
I ducked closer, trying to find a hint of that bluish-gray pooling of blood that should have been present. Whenever a person perished, his blood stained the lowest area of the body where it last lay. If he died while lying on his stomach and then was flipped over, discoloration would still be present on his stomach. I searched each of Wilhelm’s sides and under his limbs for lividity. None could be found. His pallor was odd even for a corpse.
There was something very wrong with this body.
“It’s all right,” Percy said, taking up a larger syringe. “Sometimes it’s a bit trickier to remove a sample from the deceased. Nothing to feel embarrassed about. If you don’t mind.”
“Probably her weak constitution,” someone muttered loud enough for me to overhear, and pretend not to.
Stepping aside, I allowed Percy room to draw a sample of his own, ignoring the snickers of my classmates. I flicked the side of my syringe, wondering how on earth it had failed to remove even a bit of blood from Wilhelm. The size of the needle shouldn’t matter. I wanted to glance at Thomas but didn’t give in to the urge.
Percy picked up the left arm and slowly sank the needle into the thin skin of the deceased’s elbow. When he pulled the plunger toward him, no blood accompanied it. The professor drew his brows together and tried another spot. Again, the syringe came away empty. Unsurprisingly, no one mocked his inability to withdraw blood.
“Hmm.” He murmured to himself, trying to take samples from each limb. Every single time, he failed to draw blood. He stepped back, hands on hips, and shook his head. A few locks of ginger hair fell across his brow the way freckles were tossed about his face.
“Our mystery death deepens, class. It appears this body is missing its blood.”
I cursed myself for doing so, but I couldn’t help but search out Thomas’s reaction in the crowd this time. My gaze drifted from stunned face to stunned face, everyone talking amongst themselves in anxious tones. Andrei pointed at the cadaver of his fallen friend, terror slashed into his every movement. I wanted to tell him that fear would cloud his judgment, that it would only complicate and delay our search for the truth, but I said nothing.
It was a horrific discovery.
I spun in a slow circle, eyes tracking around the tower room, but Thomas had already gone. A flicker of sadness lit within before I could extinguish it. It was better this way. I would need to learn to eventually stop looking to him for comfort he wasn’t equipped to give anyway.
The prince leaned over the railing, knuckles going bone white. “Are there strigoi marks on his neck?”
“What?” I asked, hearing but not understanding such an absurd question. I bent down and turned Wilhelm’s head to the side. Two little holes were crusted with dried blood.
I ran a hand over my plaited hair, not thinking about the rib cage I’d just cracked open as I did so. There had to be some explanation that didn’t point to a vampire attack. Strigoi and pricolici were stories; they weren’t scientifically possible. No matter how much local folklore Professor Radu fed us.
I rolled my shoulders, granting myself permission to lock my emotions away. Now was the time to adopt Thomas’s method of deduction. If a werewolf or vampire hadn’t bitten Wilhelm, then what had? I flipped through pages of scenarios in my head—there had to be a reasonable explanation for the two points on his neck.
Young men didn’t simply drop dead and lose their blood due to natural causes, and I wasn’t aware of any living thing that could leave those—bite marks. I shook my head. Bite marks indeed. That was hysteria clawing its way into my mind. An animal couldn’t have made that wound. It was too neat. Too clean. Teeth marks wouldn’t have been so precise when entering flesh.
Animal attacks would be brutal, leaving many indications on the corpse: flesh torn, nails broken, scratches. Defensive wounds would have been present on the hands, as Uncle had pointed out in cases of a fight. Bruising.
Vampires were no more real than nightmares were. Then it hit me.
The marks could have been made with a mortuary apparatus. Though I wasn’t sure about what method morticians used to extract blood.
“Are there strigoi marks on his neck?” Nicolae asked again, a demanding edge in his voice. I’d forgotten all about him. There was something else in his tone, too. Something tinged with dread. Possibly even fear. I wondered what he knew of the rumors being discussed by the villagers. That his vampiric ancestor had returned from the grave and was thirsty.
The headline from the newspaper revisited my thoughts. has the immortal prince returned? Did villagers secretly hunger for their immortal prince? Had one of them gone to great lengths to stage this death, draining the body and leaving it for display? I did not envy Nicolae in this moment. Someone wanted people to believe Wilhelm had been murdered by a vampire. And not simply any vampire—possibly the most bloodthirsty of all time.
Without glancing up, I nodded in response to the prince’s inquiry. It was barely a perceptible movement, but it was enough. I hadn’t the slightest clue how to go about solving this riddle. How had a body been drained of blood without anyone noticing?
We’d been in the village for only an hour or so. That was scarcely enough time to accomplish such a task. And yet, was it possible for a skilled hand? I had no idea how long it took to drain a body of blood.
Whispers rushed throughout the surgical theater, and several drifted over to my spot on the main floor. A few chills tingled my spine as I stood straighter.
It seemed the villagers were not alone in their superstitions; some of my classmates were also convinced Vlad Dracula lived after all.
As you’ve pointed out—on several occasions now, not that I’m keeping track of such things—your expertise with matters of a more… delicate nature are superior to my own. Especially when it comes to the less fair sex. (I jest, naturally!)
To speak plainly, I fear I may have wounded Mr. Cresswell in a manner even his brava do would have trouble recovering from. It’s simply… he drives me utterly mad! He’s been a perfect gentleman, which is at once intriguing and maddeningin itself. Some days I’m sure we would live as happily as the Queen had with her be loved Prince Albert. Other moments I swear I feel my autonomy being ripped from my fingertips as he insists on protecting me.
However, back to the matter at hand: I scolded Mr. Cresswell greatly. He’d informed one of our professors that my constitution was not quite sturdy. Which doesn’t sound that outrageous, except it was the second time he’d tried to interfere with my independence. Such unmitigated gall! Our classmates were quite amused, though I was (and am) anything but. My angry response may have alienated Mr. Cresswell’s affections. Before you ask for the lurid details, I explained—quite harshly—that I would rather die alone than accept his hand. Were he of any mind to offer it, that is.
Please assist me with any advice you may possess. I’m much better equipped to extract a heart than encourage one, it seems.
Your loving cousin,
P.S. How are you getting along in the country? Will you be heading to town soon?
PELUZA DIN FAŢĂ
3 DECEMBER 1888
Moldoveanu stood in the center of our small group, both his black cloak and silver hair flapping against the biting wind snapping through the mountains as he recited a prayer in Romanian.
Snow and ice fell steadily but no one dared complain. Right before Moldoveanu began the vigil, Radu had whispered that if it rained at a funeral, it was a sign the deceased was sad. I was thankful this wasn’t a funeral service, but didn’t know what to make of the weather and what its miserable state indicated about Wilhelm’s emotions in the afterlife.
My mind wandered—along with my eyes—as Moldoveanu continued his eulogy. Our newest classmate—and the replacement for Wilhelm—was a young man named Mr. Erik Petrov from Moscow. He appeared as if he’d been born of ice. He ignored the sleet coating his brow as we stood in a circle on the front lawns, our candles flickering behind cupped hands. Aside from the teachers, there were eight of us from the assessment course, plus Anastasia. Thomas hadn’t bothered to come.
In fact, I hadn’t seen him since he’d left Percy’s class earlier. Due to the worsening weather, Moldoveanu had postponed our anatomy lesson until after the vigil, and I wondered if Thomas would trouble himself by attending that. I pushed him from my thoughts and nestled into my duster. Snow found its way under my collar regardless. I blinked flakes from my lashes, trying my best to keep my teeth from chattering. I did not believe in ghosts but felt it was prudent to not annoy Wilhelm if he were indeed watching us from the great beyond.
Anastasia shifted closer, nose bright red and shiny. “This weather is groaznică.”
I nodded. It was most certainly awful, but so was the brutal manner in which Wilhelm had lost his life. A little snow and ice were nothing compared to the infinite cold his body now resided in. Nicolae stared at the woods, eyes glazed with unshed tears. According to Anastasia’s endless supply of castle gossip, he’d not spoken to anyone since the discovery of Wilhelm’s blood having been taken, though Andrei tried engaging with him often, unwilling to let his friend suffer alone.
It was surprising how tender Andrei could be when he’d been so horrid to Radu. Though I knew there were many sides to each person if one searched hard enough. No one was entirely good or evil, another fact I’d learned during the Ripper case.
Movement near the edge of the forest grabbed my attention. It was nothing more than a slight shift, as if something was slinking into the shadows. Images of bright golden eyes and black gums flashed through my mind. I chided myself internally. Werewolves weren’t surrounding our group of mourners, waiting to unleash a calculated attack. Just as vampires weren’t real.
Anastasia glanced at me, eyes wide. She’d seen it, too. “Maybe Radu was right. Maybe pricolici are lurking in the forest. Something’s watching us. Do you feel it?”