Ileana turned to the next page. On it, drawn with great care, was the image of a girl wearing an apron splattered with gore, an autopsy blade poised above stark white flesh. I tore my gaze away. The cadaver was male, and no cloth covered his nude form. Heat flashed over my cheeks.
I hardly knew what to make of the crude drawings.
“There’s more.” Ileana showed me image after image. Each featuring me as a beautiful creature delighting in blood and death. The way the prince had captured me, it was as if he’d turned me into an immortal being, a little too perfect to be human. A bit too cold and hard for this fragile world. The flames in the fireplace flickered wildly, its heat suddenly sweltering. I longed to fling my windows wide, letting the cold wind of the Carpathians cleanse this space.
One final image had me sucking in a gasp. It was hard to tell exactly who the male was—either Thomas or Nicolae—but he and another Audrey Rose stood side by side. The young man wore a suit made of bones, holding an ivory skull as if it were an oracle to divine from. My bodice hugged my frame. The illustration was gorgeous, despite the large anatomical heart and circulatory system that branched from my chest, then wound its way down my arms and ran fingers to my skirts.
The black gloves in the drawing caught my attention next. Lace and swirls covered my arms as if they’d been inked permanently onto my skin. Ileana watched closely before pointing to the design on my arms. “Prince Nicolae’s arms are covered in ink. Not so delicate as these. But I’ve seen them when he rolls his sleeves back.”
I raised my brows. How intriguing. I’d read that many aristocrats had gotten themselves tattooed over the previous several years. Once magazines had announced how fashionable it was, nearly one in five highborn ladies and gentlemen, it was estimated, had them secreted on their bodies. They were also growing in popularity in the royal courts. It made sense that the prince might dabble in something such as tattooing. It added to his mystique. I imagined many young women would be more than delighted to unwrap his layers for a peek at what he was hiding.
“What are his of?”
Ileana pushed herself up from the settee, then took back the journal and motioned toward the door. “It’s late. I polished your boots and left them for Moş Nicolae. You should get some rest so he has time to deliver his winter gifts.” She smiled at my confusion. “I believe your version of Moş Nicolae is called Father Christmas. It’s a tradition for him to bring sweets. If he shakes his beard and snow falls, then winter may truly begin. Sleep now. Tonight is Magic Night. Maybe he’ll leave you a trinket.”
Sleeping was the furthest thing from my mind, especially when someone else named Nicolae might be prowling about the castle, delivering “gifts,” but I bid her good night. I pressed my fingers against my eyes until flashes of white streaked across them like stars shooting against the sky. In one day, I’d thought Thomas was dead, found a secret passage, been attacked by blood-leeching bats, discovered another body, and now had become acquainted with Nicolae’s disturbing illustrations. The dark prince very well might be the person we were searching for. He had the opportunity to send illustrated threats to family members.
Perhaps it was an attempt to secure the throne for himself.
I couldn’t help but wonder if Nicolae might also be responsible for his cousin’s death and, if I continued to unearth his secrets, that something worse than a threat might befall me soon. Thinking what morning would bring was enough to weight my lids against their better judgment. I removed my layers and slipped beneath chilly covers. The last image I remembered before falling into darkness was of an unearthly young woman with tattoos swirling over her arms, her lips twisted into a feral grin as her incisors sank into her own blood-soaked lips. If Prince Nicolae truly thought I was cursed, perhaps he’d crafted that illustration as propaganda. He’d certainly turned me into Princess Dracula.
I hoped no one would seek to stake me through the heart.
If you’re reading this, then you likely came by my chambers. I apologize for leaving without saying goodbye. I found a connection between the Order and the goodbye. I found a connection between the Order and the murders—I told you I recognized that book! Trust no one. I swear I will return in one week with more information. I believe that young woman staged the scene in her home.
I did some investigating in the village and discovered her husband was the victim the newspapers first reported on! (Unfortunately, her child had passed away a few months prior.)
Uncle Moldoveanu believes I’ve rushed to Hungary to assist with an urgent personal matter. P lease don’t say otherwise; I do not wish to alarm him or be punished unjustly.
Do not travel into the village again. It’s not safe. Eyes are everywhere.
P.S. P lease burn this letter. I suspect the servants have a habit of acquainting themselves with personal belongings.
13 DECEMBER 1888
The afternoon after our discovery of the tunnels, Thomas and I had sent Moldoveanu an anonymous letter with directions on where to find the corpse. We hadn’t heard a thing regarding it for days. I’d no idea if he’d sent someone to check, and I hadn’t had an opportunity to sneak down there myself. More and more guards seemed to be filtering into the nearly empty academy, intent on keeping us locked in tight.
Frustrated, I sent another note. I sincerely hoped the headmaster had taken it seriously. I hated thinking of the body being left to rot. Any potential clues would be lost forever. Not to mention the thought of leaving a person in that state… If I didn’t hear anything by this evening, I swore to myself, I would drag the headmaster down into the tunnels single-handedly.
I quietly popped a piece of hard candy into my mouth, thanking whoever had played the part of Moş Nicolae in the castle for the treats. They—along with Ileana’s company between tending to her duties—had been the most pleasant part of a very long week. Anastasia still hadn’t returned from wherever she’d traveled to. Something about the rushed nature of her letter hadn’t sat well with me. What had she discovered about the Order of the Dragon? Ileana hadn’t thought Anastasia’s exit from the castle was suspicious, and I was loath to worry her by voicing my fears.
Midweek, Radu had successfully lulled Vincenzo to sleep while stuffing us to capacity with local folklore about bodies being burned to ash, then ingested. Then we’d all taken turns in Percy’s surgical theater, removing organs and learning the intricacies of death, trying to outshine our peers and secure our place in the assessment course.
During Percy’s lessons, we all feasted on the knowledge being served to us. The subtle details of murder and its many markings. How to read a body’s language for definitive proof of cause of death. I loved those lessons, and gradually felt myself becoming stronger around bodies. Though the nightmares of the Ripper murders were still lurking near the surface of my mind.
Moldoveanu’s lessons were always conducted with precision, and though I didn’t enjoy his company, he was exceptionally gifted at both anatomy and forensics. I noticed no one dared speak out of turn for fear of being expelled on the spot.
No one had spoken of Wilhelm or uttered a mention of his untimely demise after his family collected his body. It was as if time had heaved itself up from falling to its knees, and carried on as if it weren’t scraped and bruised.
Thomas and I had tried sneaking back into the tunnels at odd hours, but had been thwarted by a contingent of royal guards. Moldoveanu took our new curfew seriously, and had more guards posted throughout the halls than I imagined were at the royal court of Romania.
By the end of the week, a letter arrived for me, postmarked London. A new chambermaid had brought it to me along with news that Ileana would be tending to other duties for a while. I was sad to lose companionship at night, but the letter warmed me. I knew precisely who the sender was and couldn’t wait to tear into it after class. Radu chattered on and on about this being some unholy night. The prince cracked his knuckles, Andrei’s head drooped, yet the twins and even the brooding Cian were wholly engrossed by this particular tale. I shifted in my seat, praying for the courtyard clock to toll the hour.
“It’s rumored to have its base in Roman culture,” Radu continued. “A sacrifice is made. Then animals speak to us. Whether it’s through our language, or through theirs, no one is sure.” He shoved his glasses further up his nose and peered at the classroom. “Blasted Mr. Hale. Where is he? Did he leave class early?”
Noah fidgeted uncomfortably and raised a hand. Radu walked right past him, attention torn between the other students and his notes.
“Mr. Hale is sitting right there, Professor,” Nicolae drawled. “Perhaps that veil between worlds has already thinned enough for you to misplace reality.”
Radu snapped his attention to the prince, gaze hard. “You’d all do best to stay locked in your chambers tonight. The dead will rise and seek out those foolish enough to wander outside. Spirits will inhabit those they do not feast on. Even princes are hunted.”
The remainder of class went on in much the same manner until the tolling clock finally released us from Radu’s folklore grasp. I lingered in the hallway outside our classroom, but Thomas was engaged in a mild dispute with Radu about the origin of the holiday, and it was as entertaining as waiting for a blade of grass to erupt from the ground over several days. The letter in my pocket nearly burned a hole through my skirts. I needed to read it or I’d surely combust on the spot. Thomas nodded in acknowledgment as I motioned toward the corridor.
I managed to slip outside and nestle into a corner of the castle’s walled courtyard; I had a bit of time before our next lesson began. It was the one place where I was free from the prying eyes of students, professors, and an unwanted army of men. Guards patrolled the turreted roof above but didn’t bother walking in the courtyard below.
From the comfort of my spot, I released the tension I’d wrapped myself in, one twist of my shoulders at a time.