“Anastasia, be serious! It’s nearly ten at night!” My accompanying smile did me no favors. “What on earth are you doing out of bed?” I took in her ensemble again, recalling a time when I, too, dressed in a mourning gown. “Actually, it seems I ought to be asking where you’re planning on sneaking off to instead?”
“We are about to investigate the scene of Wilhelm’s death.” She skipped into my bedchamber and removed a few dark pieces of clothing from my trunk. “Hurry. The moon is full and the sky is mostly clear. We have to get to Braşov tonight. Uncle told me he’s called for royal guards; they’ll be arriving tomorrow and will make sneaking about difficult.” She glanced at me over her shoulder. “You are still interested in searching that house, correct?”
“Of course I am.” I nodded, trying not to consider the creatures in the woods. Monsters were only as real as our imaginations. And mine was intent on populating the world with the supernatural. “Shouldn’t we wait until daylight? Wolves might be out hunting.”
Anastasia snorted. “Professor Radu is simply filling your head with worries. However, if you’re too afraid…” She allowed the taunt and challenge to hang between us. I shook my head, and her eyes lit with pride. “Extraordinar!” She tossed the dark clothing to me. “If we’re lucky, perhaps we’ll run into the immortal prince. A midnight stroll with the enchanting Dracula sounds delightful.”
“Delightfully morbid, you mean.” I slipped into my black dress and fastened a matching fur-trimmed cloak about my shoulders. Before we left, I snatched a hat pin from my dresser and stuck it in my hair. Anastasia smiled at me, bemused, but didn’t inquire about it. Which was good. I didn’t wish to say so aloud, but I certainly hoped we would not run into anyone who thirsted for our blood.
In fact, I would prefer to never set eyes upon Prince Dracula.
Anastasia had been right; the sky was clear of both clouds and snow for once, and the moon was so bright that we didn’t require a lamp or lantern. Moonlight glinted off the blanket of snow, glittery and shining in spots.
The temperature, however, was even colder than the laboratory in Uncle’s basement where we inspected cadavers. We hurried along the well-worn path that connected the academy to the village below, our procession mostly quiet save for the occasional sounds of nature, our skirts swishing across the packed snow, and our breath steaming out between huffs. We were keeping up a brutal pace, hoping to move away from the castle as quickly as possible.
Shadows flickered above our heads as tree branches creaked and groaned. I tried ignoring the hair standing upright along my neck, and the feeling of being closely inspected. There were no wolves. No hunters keeping pace with us, immortal and feral. No one to delight in mauling our flesh and tearing us into unrecognizable shapes. Blood swooshed in my head.
For the second time that evening, a horrid image of Miss Mary Jane Kelly’s corpse crossed my mind, as it often did when I imagined something truly brutal. Her body had been destroyed by Jack the Ripper until it barely resembled anything human.
I closed my eyes for a moment, willing myself to remain calm and steady, but the feeling of being watched persisted. The forest was charming during the daylight hours, but at night it was forbidding and treacherous. I vowed to never leave my rooms in the dark again.
Werewolves and vampires are not real. There is no one hunting you… Vlad Dracula is dead. Jack the Ripper is also deceased. There is no…
A branch snapped somewhere close by, thudding to the ground, and my entire body went numb. Anastasia and I sprang together, clutching each other as if we might be torn apart by a malevolent force. We listened in silence for a few beats, straining to hear any other sounds. All was still. Except for my heart. That was galloping through my chest as if being chased by supernatural creatures.
“The forest is as wicked as Dracula,” Anastasia whispered. “I swear something is out there. Do you feel it?”
Thank goodness my mind wasn’t the only one conjuring up starving beasts tracking us to the village. The skin on the back of my neck prickled as the wind picked up.
“I’ve read studies that claim human instincts are heightened in times of duress,” I said. “We become attuned to the natural world in order to survive. I’m sure we’re just being silly now, though Radu’s lessons seem much more plausible under a cloak of darkness.”
I noticed that my friend didn’t comment further, but she also didn’t relinquish her grip on me until we’d made it safely into Braşov. As I’d expected, the village was quiet—all its occupants fast asleep within their pastel-painted homes. A lone howl echoed in the distance, its mournful note finding another singer farther away. Soon a chorus of wolves disrupted the stillness of the night.
I pulled up the hood of my cloak and glanced at the castle standing guard above us, dark and brooding in the moon’s silvery light. Something was out there, waiting. I could sense its presence. But what was hunting us? Man or beast? Before I could lose myself in worry, I led Anastasia to the place where Wilhelm’s body had been discarded.
“There.” I pointed to the house that bordered the murder scene and its window, whose shutter was now fastened tightly in place. “I swear the shutter was loose the last time I was here.”
Anastasia pursed her lips and focused on the dark home. I felt ridiculous, standing there in the night, as reality struck. I couldn’t be certain the shutter had ever truly been loose, or that I’d ever witnessed a silhouette watching the crowd from the window. For all I knew, it might have been another phantom dreamt up in my imagination. Hysteria, it seemed, was the trigger for each of my episodes.
“I apologize,” I said, motioning toward the perfectly unremarkable building. “Seems I was mistaken after all. We traveled out here for nothing.”
“We might as well be sure there’s nothing to see,” Anastasia said, tugging me toward the front door. “Describe what happened again. Perhaps there’s something we might start with there.”
An idea slowly took shape as I fixed my attention on the door, head tilted to one side. I removed the hat pin from my hair, knowing I was about to cross a moral line I’d never before considered crossing. But Anastasia was correct; we’d come all this way, risked the wrath of Moldoveanu, potentially jeopardized my place in the academy, and still had to make it back to our rooms in the castle while avoiding snarling wolves and headmasters.
No matter the consequences, I could not go back to the academy without knowing. My heart raced, not in fear now, but excitement. It was very troubling, indeed.
I stepped forward and gripped the doorknob in one hand, sticking the hat pin inside the lock and twisting the tumblers around until I heard a beautiful click.
“Audrey Rose! What are you doing?!” Anastasia said, focus darting all around us, voice scandalized. “People are likely asleep inside!”
“True. Or we may find it abandoned.” I said a silent thank-you to my father. When he’d been consumed with laudanum last year, he’d often misplace keys, forcing me to learn the art of lock picking. Before tonight, I hadn’t thought about using my hat pin for such purposes in a while. I replaced the pin in my hair and paused, waiting to be discovered, pulse roaring inside my veins.
One way or another, we were going to solve at least one mystery tonight. I had witnessed someone staring out that window, or I hadn’t. Which meant there either were clues to be found, or there weren’t.
Regardless, I could not continue running from shadows any longer. I took a deep breath, commanding my body to relax. It was time to embrace the darkness and become more fearsome than any vampire prince hunting the night. Even if that meant I had to sacrifice a bit of my soul and good morals to get there.
“There’s only one way to be sure,” I whispered before tiptoeing over the threshold and disappearing into the dark.
4 DECEMBER 1888
Inside the tiny home, no fires burned and the air was nearly as frigid as the outdoors.
Frost crept up the windowpanes and my spine as I made my way toward the solitary shaft of moonlight streaming in. Even in the near complete darkness I could see that the living space was a wreck. A chair was upturned, papers scattered about, drawers turned out. It appeared as if someone or a few someones had ransacked the place.
Anastasia inhaled sharply behind me. “Look! Is that… sânge?”
I spun around and stared at the large rust-colored stain on the carpet. Chills slowly trailed down my body. I had an awful feeling we were standing in the very place where Wilhelm’s blood had been forcibly removed. My heart beat double time, but I forced myself to investigate as if I were Thomas Cresswell, cool, detached, and able to read the pieces left behind.
“Is it?” Anastasia asked again. “I may be ill if it is blood.”
Before I could answer her, my attention landed on a broken pitcher. I carefully picked up a piece of its glass, and stuck my finger in a dark crimson spot. I rubbed it between my fingers, noting the stickiness. My pulse throbbed throughout my body, but I tasted the dried liquid, fairly confident of what I would find. Anastasia’s lip curled as I grinned up at her.
“It’s juice of some sort,” I wiped my hand down the front of my cloak, “not blood.”
My friend was still staring at me as if I’d crossed some line too indecent to even comment on. I searched myself, finding that tingling thrill still lingering below the surface—an undercurrent of electricity making me feel more alive than I had in ages.
“What do you believe happened here?”
I glanced around the space again. “It’s hard to surmise anything for certain until we find a lamp.”
I pulled the curtains back on the window, allowing more moonlight to spill in. Anastasia crossed the room swiftly and plucked up an oil lamp that hadn’t been destroyed in the chaos. With a quick hiss, yellow light filled the space, and a tragic story unfolded.