Bottles of spirits littered the floor in the tiny cooking area off the main room. Some were broken, and all were empty. Judging from the lack of odor in the air, none of the alcohol had sloshed out, which led me to deduce someone had been drinking quite heavily.
Upon second inspection, the room I’d thought was ransacked had likely just been turned over by whoever had indulged in all those spirits. Perhaps they’d been searching for another bottle to drink and had become enraged when they’d found the house bare. Anastasia located another lamp before setting off to inspect the other rooms.
I picked up a photograph, surprised to find one in a home such as this, then gasped. In the picture, the same young woman who’d been described as missing in the sketch in the dress shop smiled down at a baby. Her husband stood proudly behind them both. Could she have been the one drinking all these spirits? And if she’d been intoxicated and walking through the woods alone…
Anastasia returned, brandishing a book. The cross on its cover indicated it was a religious volume. “No one in the bedroom, but this appeared intriguing.”
“You’re not taking that, are you?” I glanced at the book while she flipped through the pages; it was likely a holy text of sorts. Anastasia’s eyes widened as she shook her head. I set the photograph back down and motioned at the door.
“We should leave,” I said. “It was wrong to sneak in here—I don’t believe this place had anything to do with Wilhelm’s death.”
“Or perhaps it did.” Anastasia held the book up again. “I’ve just remembered where I’ve seen this symbol before.”
“Seems like heavy reading before bedtime.”
I jolted up from the anatomy book I’d practically had my nose pressed into. An entire day had passed since my adventure with Anastasia, and not much had occurred. Thomas and I still hadn’t spoken, Radu was as taken with vampire lore as ever, and Moldoveanu was intent on making my time in the castle as miserable as possible.
I smiled sheepishly as Ileana set down a covered tray, then perched on the edge of the settee. Whatever was under that platter smelled absolutely divine. My stomach grumbled its agreement as I placed my book on the table.
“I asked the cook to make something special. It’s called placintă cu carne şi ciuperci. Like a meat pie with mushrooms only in flatbread.”
She pulled the silver lid from the platter and made a sweeping gesture at the stack of palm-size pies. There were half a dozen of them, more than enough for the two of us. I glanced around for a fork and knife but noted only napkins and small plates. I made to grab for one of them, then paused, my hand hovering above it. “Do we…”
“Go ahead.” Ileana mimed grabbing one and taking a bite. “Pick it up and eat it. Unless it’s too unrefined. Eating with your hands must seem common. I wasn’t thinking. Taking it back to the kitchens is no trouble if you’d prefer something else.”
I laughed. “Not at all, actually. Growing up, we used to eat flatbreads and raita with our hands.”
I took a bite, marveling at the savory tones of perfectly seasoned meat with diced mushrooms as they melted like butter on my tongue. The outer layer of the flatbread had charred bubbles that tasted of wood smoke. It took a great deal of my willpower to not roll my eyes or groan in sheer bliss.
“This is delicious.”
“I thought you’d like it. I bring an entire basket of them when I visit Daciana. Her appetite is almost as hearty as her brother’s.” Ileana’s smile faded a bit, turning more into a frown. I wagered she was sad Daciana was gone. “Don’t let her delicate manners fool you. She’s all steel. I’ve watched her finish the whole basket before a table of nobles. They were scandalized, but Daciana didn’t care a bit.”
The slight frown was gone, replaced by a look of great pride, and I couldn’t stop myself from smiling. I wondered if she and Daciana had met at some nobleman’s home Ileana had worked at, but I didn’t want to intrude by asking. It was their story to tell when and if they chose.
“I could likely polish off the entire tray in front of the queen and not regret one delectable bite myself.”
We ate in companionable silence, and I sipped tea that Ileana had also brought up. She explained that Romanians didn’t often drink it, but she was being accommodating to my English preference for the beverage. I was grateful for the company.
Anastasia had sent a note saying she was staying in her rooms all evening, reading the mysterious religious book. She believed the symbol on its cover was one of the Order’s, but I was skeptical that the missing woman from the village had been part of this ancient chivalric band.
I tore my third stuffed bread into pieces, thinking of how Nicolae had done the same thing a couple of days earlier. I wondered if he’d eaten at all or if he kept consuming grief. To stop those thoughts, I decided rather suddenly to ask Ileana for advice.
“I… find myself uncertain whether I might consider a future with Thomas, given our recent disagreement,” I said slowly. “Does it bother you… knowing a future with Daciana might be impossible?”
“I cannot predict what the future will bring when tomorrow may not come. Any number of things may happen. God may decide He’s had enough of us and wipe the slate clean.” She swept the napkins from the tray, watching as they unceremoniously fell to the ground. “Yes?”
I took a sip of my tea, mulling over what she said as the bright herbal taste trickled down my throat. “Surely it’s prudent to plan for different possibilities for the future. Shouldn’t one have some sort of goal to work toward, even if the path they take is unknown?”
“You should follow your heart. Forget the rest.” Ileana stood and gathered up the used plates and napkins. “Thomas is human and will make mistakes, and as long as he apologizes and it’s something you can live with? It’s worth loving him today. It’s also worth forgiving him, too. You never know when he might be taken from you.”
A tingle of fear worked its way down my spine. I did not want to contemplate such things. Thomas and I were temporarily at odds, and we’d live to resolve our differences. “You and I are quite the serious pair on a blustery night, Ileana. Between my mortuary book and this conversation, I can scarcely wait to see how the rest of the evening unfolds.”
Ileana’s grin was replaced by a more serious expression. “Wilhelm’s family will be arriving in the morning to take their son home for burial. They are quite enraged about his body being… desecrated.”
“How do you know?”
“Servants are to remain unheard and unseen while we take care of the castle and its occupants. But that doesn’t mean we do not see or hear. Or gossip. The servants’ hall is always buzzing with some new scandal. Come. I’ll show you some secret passages. If you’d like, you may sneak about the empty corridors. It’s my favorite part of this job.”
I followed Ileana into the washing chamber, where she removed a key from her apron then pushed on a tall corner cupboard I’d previously paid little attention to. Inside was a door that opened onto a tiny hall that ended with circular stairs. I was intrigued by the thought of hidden hallways. Our own country estate, Thornbriar, had an entire maze contained within its walls, it seemed. If Bran Castle had even a fraction of those hidden spaces, I would be delighted. There was something magical about treading where most would never go, or think of finding anyone else.
After locking the door from the secret corridor, Ileana drifted down the stairs with the ease of an apparition floating through the ether. I had a difficult time not sounding as if I were an elephant crashing through underbrush as I clunked down after her. I’d never thought of myself as loud, but Ileana’s unusually silent tread put me to shame. We descended around and around until my thighs burned. Once we reached the main level, Ileana stalked straight over to a wide column.
I shook my head. I’d walked here several times earlier and had never noticed that what I’d assumed were only pillars ushering students into the main hall actually led to a narrow entrance on one side. Ileana never broke her sure stride as she disappeared into the dark corridor that ran behind the enormous tapestries lining the hall.
An eerie feeling settled in my center. When I’d sneaked through the halls the night I’d left Anastasia’s rooms and ended up visiting Thomas, I’d sworn I’d been watched. I very well might have been. I shivered at the thought.
“Be as quiet as possible. We’re not supposed to talk or make noise back here. Moldoveanu is unforgiving when it comes to breaking castle rules.”
Silently, I bottled up every detail. There were more tapestries hanging on this side of the secret corridor, presumably extras stored here until needed.
We walked quickly enough that I had to gather up my skirts to keep from tripping over them as they wound around my limbs, but not fast enough for me to miss the scenes depicted on the tapestries. Persons being impaled, screaming in pain and terror, adorned one. On another was a forest of the dead, blood dripping from the victims’ impaled mouths. Another showed a man feasting at a table, wine or blood spilled across its surface—it was hard to tell. I was reminded of Radu’s mentioning that Vlad Dracula dipped his bread into the blood of his enemies.
Chills pierced my skin. Between the barely lit narrow hall and the artwork, I wasn’t in the brightest mood. There was a heaviness around my chest, pushing me back. This sinister castle seemed to breathe in my fear with delight. My pulse accelerated.
Ileana came to a sudden stop, and had I not been forcing myself to stare straight ahead, I’d have sent both of us sprawling.
I drew my brows together, noticing the color drain from her face. She jerked her chin forward, hands occupied with the empty tray. “Moldoveanu.”
“Shhh. There.” She pointed to a section of a tapestry where a patch of fabric had been carefully clipped away. I’d never have seen it if I didn’t know to look. I assumed servants used it as a means of checking the public corridors before entering them. A slithering feeling snaked down my spine. I didn’t care for the thought of the walls having eyes. “Through the tapestry.”