Someone sneezed several aisles away, the sound echoing in the vast chamber. My body froze. We weren’t doing anything wrong, yet I couldn’t stop my pulse from accelerating at the thought of encountering anyone.
“This way,” Thomas whispered, guiding me in the opposite direction. As if breaking from a trance, I moved forward, drinking in each aisle of books, shoving the vicious attack from my mind. They weren’t simply regular rows either: There were shelves from floor to ceiling crammed with tomes of every shape and size.
Thick books, thin ones, leather-bound and soft-cover: they were stacked together like cells composing a body. I wanted to run down each aisle to see if there was any end to them.
We could spend the remainder of eternity and not read every book housed there. Though, on a normal day, it would have been magnificent to simply sit with a cup of tea and a warm blanket and pluck new scientific adventures from the shelves like inked petits fours to savor.
There were books written in French, Italian, Latin, Romanian, English.
“I haven’t the slightest idea where to begin,” Thomas said, startling me from my book Utopia. “They’ve got the sections labeled, at least. It’s not much, but it’s a start. Are—” He waved a hand in front of me, lips curving upward as I swatted it away. “Are you paying attention to a word I’m saying, Wadsworth?”
I paused at an aisle labeled ştiinţă.
“Look at the science section alone, Thomas!”
I selected a medical journal from the nearest shelf, flipping through the pages and marveling at the anatomical drawings. An article by Friedrich Miescher caught my attention. His work with nuclein was fascinating. To think there were phosphorus proteins in our blood cells we’d yet to name!
“This is what they should be teaching us. Not vampire lore regarding a man who died centuries ago. Do you think it’s medically possible to open my cranium and stuff the pages inside? Perhaps the ink will leach in and create some sort of compound reaction.”
Thomas leaned against a shelf, arms crossed. “I’m strangely intrigued by that notion.”
“You would be.”
I shook my head but continued walking down the aisles. poezie. anatomie. folclor. Poetry. Anatomy. Folklore. Plush leather armchairs were set up in nooks with little tables meant to either write notes on or hold more reading material. It took every ounce of my will to not get distracted by the overwhelming urge to simply curl up in one of them and read about medical practices until dawn dragged itself across the sky.
“I know what to gift you with this coming Christmas,” Thomas said. I spun, skirts wrapping around my legs as if they were an ebony cocoon. His eyes glittered. “Medical journals and leather-bound tomes. Maybe I’ll throw in a shiny new scalpel, too.”
I smiled. “I’ve already got a few of those. I will gladly accept any and all books, however. A person can never have too much reading material. Especially on a fall or winter evening. If you’re feeling extra generous, you may include tea. I love a unique blend. Really sets the atmosphere for medical study.”
Thomas trailed his gaze up and down the length of my form, pausing until I finally cleared my throat. A bit of color rose around his collar. “Audrey Rosehips.”
“I’ll have a signature blend made for you. A bit of English rose, perhaps some bergamot. A hint of sweet. And definitely strong. It’ll need petals, too.” He smiled. “I might have found my true calling. This is quite a moment. Should we commemorate it with a waltz?”
“Come on, tea connoisseur.” I nodded toward the waiting aisles, heart fluttering pleasantly. “We’ve got a lot of investigating to do if we hope to find any books with the layout of the castle.”
“And its many secret tunnels.” Thomas swept his arms out. “After you, dear Wadsworth.”
“Goodness! You scared me!”
Professor Radu emerged from the adjacent aisle, sending a shower of books to the floor. He swooped down to retrieve them as if he were a pigeon pecking at crumbs. “I’ve been searching for a particular tome on the strigoi for class tomorrow. Blasted library is too large to find your own nose in. I’ve been telling Moldoveanu for ages that we need to hire more than one librarian. That malingerer Pierre is never to be found!”
I was still steadying my nerves. Radu hadn’t made a sound—an impressive feat for the clumsy professor. I retrieved a book titled De Mineralibus from the floor and handed it to him, noting its gnarled leather and old script. “Here, Professor.”
“Ah. Albertus Magnus. One of our next lessons.” He paused, large eyes blinking behind spectacles as he added the tome to his armful of books. “Have you seen Pierre, then? Perhaps you’ve sent him off for a book of your own. I did not mean to interrupt. Though this is precisely what I mean. More librarians, more knowledge. Why Moldoveanu insists on one is…”
Radu was so upset that he unthinkingly started to gesture with his arms, forgetting about the books currently occupying them. Thomas lurched forward and secured the stack before it collapsed on us.
“Blasted Pierre is never where you need him to be. Tell him I’ve found my own material, no thanks to him. Next I’ll be doing both his job and my own.”
Radu tottered off, mumbling to himself again about his lesson plan being in complete disarray and how he’d be speaking to the headmaster about multiple librarians.
“At least he didn’t ask why we’re out of our rooms unchaperoned at this hour,” Thomas said. “Poor librarian, however. He’s got his work cut out for him. Tending to an entire academy and Radu.”
“He’s fascinating.” I watched our professor walk into a stone column and bounce off it, arms too full to gesticulate wildly at the inanimate object. “I wonder how on earth he managed to get a position here.”
Thomas turned his attention back to me. “His family has always been involved with the castle. Generations back, from what I recall. The academy keeps him on because it’s tradition and they believe the locals enjoy knowing one of their rank can climb the social rungs.”
I knitted my brows. “But if that’s true… then his family has been doing this for hundreds of years. The academy hasn’t been around that long.”
“Ah. Let me amend. I believe his family has been involved with the care of the castle. His teaching position is new to their line. An honor and inspiration.”
“Why wasn’t he offered the position of headmaster? Surely that would send a more positive message than hiring him as a folklore professor.”
Thomas lifted a shoulder. “Unfortunately for Radu, I’m sure the academy is wrong. I doubt most villagers in our generation care as much as those in the past. They likely think of him as they think of the rest of us here. Blasphemous evildoers who should be ashamed of turning this holy castle into a place of science. Ah, look.”
Thomas pointed to a secluded section near a blazing fireplace. At first I thought he was being improper, suggesting a place where we would have privacy. But for once, he was focused on our mission. A sign in English hung proudly at the end of the aisle: building & grounds.
“Today might be our day after all.”
I set off for the massive aisle of books dedicated to the castle, hoping this was another of those times Thomas was right.
Tonga bat. Colored etching by S. Milne and Turvey.
CAMERE DIN TURN
5 DECEMBER 1888
Ileana stood on a rickety stool, dusting the crammed bookshelves in my sitting room when I finally made it upstairs shortly before midnight.
A pair of my boots—shining as if they’d been freshly polished—sat on the windowsill, but I didn’t have the energy to ask why. Our grand foray into the master library to see what information we might glean about where the two tunnels possibly led had been fruitless. The only things we’d discovered were that Radu was even more clumsy than originally thought and that he enjoyed reading old German texts.
The Building and Grounds section had obviously not been well maintained—there were books of poetry and journals with silly tales regarding the castle and the surrounding area, but nothing useful. Not that I’d expected us to simply waltz into the library and walk off with a book neither the headmaster nor the royal guard could locate.
I closed the door behind me with a soft click. Without turning, Ileana paused, hand mid-swipe with the dust-coated rag, the wood creaking beneath her feet. The dirt on the bottom of her embroidered apron made it appear as if she’d been trudging through wet earth. I didn’t want to think about what dank part of the castle she’d been forced to clean. If it were anything like the passage we’d been in, it was most decidedly wretched.
“I’m—I’m very sorry for earlier,” Ileana burst out. “Thomas asked for help and I couldn’t—I couldn’t… I didn’t want to say no to Daciana’s brother. I told him it was an awful idea, but he was desperate. Love makes fools of the wisest. I can leave if you don’t wish to speak with me.”
“Please don’t trouble yourself. I’m not upset with you. It’s been a long day, is all.”
Ileana nodded and went back to carefully wiping down the bookshelves. I flopped onto the settee and rubbed my temples, hoping for a bit of serenity to fall from the sky and splatter across my soul like a cleansing rain shower. If only I’d simply been upset by Thomas’s attempt at reclaiming our friendship. His feigning of death felt as if it had occurred millennia ago. We had much bigger problems to contend with.
Though the bats were terrifying, I knew they weren’t responsible for Wilhelm’s blood loss. He certainly would have had discernible scratches on his person if they had been. Which made me all the more confident that his blood had been removed with a mortuary apparatus.
The bite wounds on my hands still burned. I wanted to soak in the tub and cleanse the lingering bat saliva and never think about those grubby little monsters again. Father would start abusing his laudanum once more if he ever found out about my exposure to such potentially disease-spreading creatures.