“I wouldn’t be surprised if Nicolae was responsible for sending those threats,” he said. “But the why is a bit buried. I’ll have to watch him in class. Pick up on any tics or hints.”
“Regardless,” I said, “I have a theory someone is hunting Vlad’s bloodline. Making a statement. To what purpose, I’m not sure. In two of the murders it appears as if there’s a vampire hunter. The other murder definitely has the marks of a vampire attack. I think Prince Nicolae might be in danger. Unless he is the one who’s sending out the threats. What is the common bond amongst the victims? And how does the woman from the tunnels figure into it all?”
“Nicolae’s technically not one of Vlad’s descendants.” Thomas stared directly into my eyes, but I could see he was on another continent. “He’s part of the Dăneşti line. The Dăneşti and Drăculeşti families were rivals for many years. I’d say someone is targeting the House of Basarab—both branches of the family. Or perhaps one family line is being portrayed as vampires, and the other as the hunters.”
“So Dăneşti the guard is related to Prince Nicolae?” I asked. “I’m a bit afraid to ask how you’re so well versed on a medieval family.”
“There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.” He inhaled deeply. “I’m Dracula’s heir.”
I was grateful I was already leaning against the wall for support. I stared at him, trying to unravel the confusion surrounding such a simple statement. I couldn’t possibly have heard him correctly. He waited, not uttering another word, tensed for my response.
“But… you’re English.”
“And Romanian, remember? On my mother’s side.” He offered a tentative smile. “My mother was a cel Rău, a descendant of Vlad’s son Mihnea.”
I rolled that information around my mind, choosing my next words with care. “Why haven’t you mentioned Dracula’s lineage before? It’s quite an intriguing topic.”
“‘Cel Rău’ means the Evil One. I wasn’t keen on exposing that. In fact, your friend Anastasia cornered me the other week and accused me of bringing this blood curse to the academy. She said Dracula’s last remaining male heir should not have come to this castle, unless I harbored a grandiose scheme of taking it over, or some other such nonsense.”
He dropped his gaze to the carpet, shoulders curving inward. My heart sped up. I realized Thomas believed that foolish moniker. Worse, he believed I’d think that of him, too. All because of which family he’d been born into. I had no idea how Anastasia discovered the truth of his lineage and didn’t care at the moment. I touched his elbow, gently encouraging him to look at me.
“Are you sure it doesn’t translate to the Foolish One?” He didn’t so much as crack a smile. Something in my core twisted. “If you’re an evil one, I’m equally so. If not worse. We both carve the dead, Thomas. That doesn’t make us damned. Is that why you didn’t tell me sooner? Or were you afraid your princely title would change my… feelings?”
He slowly lifted his gaze; for once he didn’t hide his emotions. Before he responded I saw the depth of his fear sketched across his face. All posturing and arrogance gone. In their place stood a young man who appeared as if the world might be breaking around him and there wasn’t a thing he could do to save himself. He’d fallen over a cliff so high all hope of survival had perished before he’d hit the ground.
“Who would blame you for not speaking to me again? The unfeeling monster who’s descended from the Devil himself. Everyone in London would love it. An actual reason for my reprehensible social behavior.” Thomas ran a hand through his hair. “Most people find me hard to be near under the best of circumstances. I was, if I were being honest, terrified you’d see what everyone else does. It’s not that I don’t trust you. I am selfish and don’t want to lose you. I am heir to a dynasty drenched in blood. What could I possibly offer you?”
There were a thousand things we needed to focus on. The possibility of the impostor Impaler being close to the academy. The growing number of murders. Our suspicious classmate… And yet, when I stared into Thomas’s eyes and saw the agony behind them, I could think of only one thing. I moved closer, heart racing with each step I took toward him.
“I don’t see a monster, Thomas.” I paused with a few inches between us. “I see only my best friend. I see kindness. And compassion. I see a young man who’s determined to use his mind to help others, even when he fails miserably at emotional matters.”
His lips twitched, but I still saw the underlying worry in his countenance. “Perhaps we can stick with all the ways in which I’m wonderful…”
“What I mean to say is, I see you, Thomas Cresswell.” I placed a gloved hand to his face in the barest hint of touch. “And I think you are truly incredible. Sometimes.”
He remained perfectly still for a few, taut moments, his focus sliding over my features, gauging my sincerity. I kept my expression open, allowing the truth to reveal itself.
“Well, I am charming.” Thomas ran his hands down the front of his waistcoat, his tension ebbing with the movement. “And a prince. You were bound to swoon. Though Prince Dracula is the very gothic opposite of Prince Charming. A minor detail, really.”
I laughed full and rich. “Aren’t you technically from a displaced family? You’re a prince without a throne.”
“Deposed Prince Charming doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, Wadsworth,” he said, huffing faux exasperation, though I could see the twinkle now gleaming in his eyes.
“I’m charmed all the same.”
A different sort of light sparked in his gaze as it slowly traveled to my mouth. Very carefully, he stepped forward and tilted my chin up. I realized—even through ups and downs and mistakes—it wouldn’t be a terrible way to go through life, having him by my side while the world went mad around us. My eyes fluttered shut, ready for a second kiss… that didn’t come. Thomas’s hands were suddenly gone and my skin instantly missed his warmth.
“How inconvenient.” He stood straighter, nodding at the door, and stepped away. “We have a guest.”
The maid I’d sent out with Thomas’s note earlier flushed so deeply I could see the dark hue from where I stood as she entered my chambers. It was not the first time I wished for Ileana to return. I had the urge to melt into the floor, positive she’d read the tension between Thomas and me, even though we were now a respectable distance apart. She lifted the wooden buckets she was carrying in response.
She mumbled apologies half in Romanian, half in English, but I understood.
“No, no, it’s quite all right. You weren’t interrupting anything,” I said, moving toward the now-open door. I did not want her making the wrong assumption. Or the right one. The scandal of Thomas standing in my chaperone-free rooms was already enough to ruin me were news of it to get out. Would this quiet girl ever do such a thing? The way she lingered at the perimeter of the chambers, not quite able to meet my gaze, was enough to incite panic. I did my best to speak in as much Romanian as possible: “We were on our way to the library. Please tell Ileana I’d love to speak with her later.”
The young maid kept her head down, nodding. “Da, domnişoară. I’ll be sure to tell her if I see her.”
I felt Thomas’s attention drifting toward the new maid but didn’t want to draw any more attention to our inappropriate position. I smiled at the girl, then walked with Thomas as swiftly as I dared to the library. We had a case to solve. Now armed with the knowledge of Thomas’s lineage, I feared Nicolae might not be the only one in danger, if my suspicion of Vlad’s bloodline being targeted was correct. Then again, perhaps Thomas was even more in danger since he was Dracula’s heir.
If one branch of the family tree was being impaled and the other drained of blood, neither was safe.
14 DECEMBER 1888
“Couldn’t stay away from me, now, could you?” Noah beamed at me from behind a large tome standing upright on a small desk. “Why weren’t you in anatomy class?”
I exhaled. “Our mutual friend may have caught me outside after curfew.”
Noah shook his head and chuckled. “I hope whatever lured you outside was worth it. That man is more terrifying than any vampire haunting the academy.” Seriousness quickly replaced the levity in his tone. “You’re lucky Moldoveanu found you last night. That maid wasn’t as fortunate. Something got her.”
Thomas and I blinked at each other, and dread pooled in my veins. I hadn’t seen Ileana all morning. In fact, I hadn’t seen her in nearly two days.
“What maid?” I asked, stomach twisting. “What was her name?”
“One of the girls who was assigned to Prince Nicolae’s and Andrei’s chambers. Moldoveanu and that guard are questioning them both right now. Canceled both Percy’s and Radu’s classes this afternoon and everything. We’re supposed to be back in our rooms by three.” Noah eyed us. “I’d consider listening to the headmaster today. Erik, Cian, and I are locking ourselves in to study. That maid’s body was drained of blood. I’d like to keep mine.”
“You don’t truly believe a vampire attacked her, do you?”
Noah shrugged. “Does it matter if it was a real vampire or a fake one? Either way, she’s dead and her blood is gone.”
I couldn’t corral my thoughts fast enough. If now both this maid and the girl from the tunnels had been murdered, perhaps I’d been wrong in my assumption that only members of the royal family were being targeted. The village girl didn’t have any apparent royal ties, and I still didn’t believe she was a member of the Order, regardless of Anastasia’s cryptic note.
“How do you know the blood is missing?” Thomas folded his arms neatly against his chest. “Did anyone see the body? Where was it discovered?”