“After anatomy class, the twins found her in the corridor outside the science wing. Apparently they were hurrying back to their rooms for lunch. That’s when they found her body. Said she was paler than Wilhelm. No postmortem lividity present.” Noah swallowed hard. “She also had no outward signs of trauma. No obvious wounds besides two punctures in her neck. Strigois might be myth, but whoever’s killing these people doesn’t seem to know or care.”
“I believe the murderer is using a mortuary apparatus,” I said. “Does the headmaster take inventory of the academy’s equipment?”
“Don’t know. If he does, I’m sure he’s already investigated, though.” Noah closed the book he’d been reading and eyed the librarian, who’d come in and taken a seat behind a large desk. He slid his gaze over each of us, smiling politely. Noah dropped his voice and leaned in. “Though I doubt he’d tell us if one was missing. Moldoveanu isn’t really the sharing type. If someone sneaked into the academy and stole a device that’s being used in murders…” He lifted a shoulder. “That wouldn’t be a popular thing for people to know. The academy would be ruined.”
As we all considered the new information, the librarian caught my eye again and smiled.
“Bonjour,” he said. “Je m’appelle Pierre. May I help you find anything?”
“No, thank you,” Noah said, shouldering his satchel. “I’ll see you both in class. Whenever that is. This assessment course might get canceled. At least that’s the rumor.” He shook his head, disappointment etched into the movement. “I traveled a long way to get here, and pretend vampire or not, I’m not giving up on earning one of those spots yet. Like I said, Erik, Cian, and I are studying later—you’re both welcome to join.”
“Thank you.” I smiled. It was a sweet offer, but there was no way I’d be permitted to stay in a room full of young men for an entire night, no matter how innocent the reason. I could see Aunt Amelia crossing herself at the mere thought of my sullied reputation.
Thomas bid Noah good-bye and inspected the librarian with microscopic precision. He was a slender man with curly brown hair and wore an oversize jumper. “Where might we find a book on the Order of the Dragon, marked with Roman numerals in any way?”
Pierre steepled his fingers, gaze calculating before he stood. “This way, please.”
A stack of books sprawled over nearly each inch of the aisle Pierre had instructed us to search. The librarian reminded me of a hermit crab, reluctant to come too far out of his shell before retreating into its depths. I had a suspicion that he hid from Radu whenever he heard him coming.
Thomas flipped another tattered text shut, sneezing at the handful of dust motes shooting into the air. Undeterred, he selected another. We’d been doing the same thing for hours. Sitting quietly, sneezing, and scanning each old journal. There must have been hundreds at my feet alone. We were more determined than ever to tie some of these seemingly random clues together. Someone was quite gifted with peppering the trail with false leads.
“Let’s pretend as if we’re in Uncle’s laboratory, Cresswell.”
Thomas glanced up, bemused. “Shall I don spectacles and mutter to myself, then?”
“Be serious. I’ll offer my thoughts and theories regarding the murderer first, all right?”
Thomas nodded, though I could see he wished to be the one to act out Uncle’s role. If given an opportunity, he would have rushed to his rooms and donned a tweed jacket.
“I believe our killer has a very good grasp of forensic practices and how to cast suspicion elsewhere,” I said. “The manner in which the crimes have been carried out suggests meticulous planning, or more than one killer. Which then leads us back to the Order of the Dragon and their potential involvement. But why them? Why would they stage vampire crimes?”
Thomas shook his head. “They’ve been around for centuries, and from what little I know, they have had lots of assassination practice passed down through their ranks.”
“Perhaps they murdered the missing girl from the village to use her home for its proximity to the castle. Or maybe her death was ritualistic in nature.”
Thomas considered that for a moment. “But why would the Order of the Dragon want to hunt students at the academy? If they were created to protect the royal line, why destroy members of it?”
“I can think of one reasonable explanation,” I said. “What if they’re loyalists who want to put Dracula’s heir back on the throne? Maybe they are slowly working their way through anyone with a claim to the throne, distant or otherwise.”
Thomas blanched. “It’s a good theory, Wadsworth. Let’s see what else we uncover about them, though.”
We went back to pulling books we could find off the shelves—the Order’s association made obvious by their multiple insignias and crosses. Their sigil was a dragon coiled around itself, and a recurring theme was a cross with flames. There was something familiar about that, but I hadn’t a clue where I’d have seen it before.
I kept thinking about the latest death. If my science-minded classmates were beginning to fear vampires, I couldn’t imagine what the superstitious villagers would think once they discovered that another bloodless body had been found. In Vlad Dracula’s castle, no less.
“This is an impossible task.” I stood, brushing down the front of my plain dress. “How are we supposed to find out who’s in the Order now?”
“Roman numerals weren’t built in a day, Wadsworth.”
I sighed so deeply I practically needed a fainting couch. “Did you honestly just utter that abysmal pun?”
I didn’t wait for his response, fearing it would be as stellar as the last one. I drifted toward the aisle labeled poetry across the way.
“Perhaps we should investigate the food stores tonight.”
I jumped, scowling at Thomas, who’d sneaked up behind me.
“Then we could prove if Moldoveanu was lying,” he continued.
“Oh, yes. Let’s sneak about outdoors. I’m sure the headmaster would be quite kind if he caught me again, doing the very thing he warned me against. If the vampiric murderer or rogue chivalric group wandering the halls of this castle don’t get to us first, that is,” I said. Thomas snorted, but I ignored his dismissal. “Do you believe our headmaster knows precisely who’s murdering students and staff? That he’s possibly responsible? I don’t want to risk expulsion if we’re wrong.”
“I believe he’s too obvious,” Thomas said. “But I’m not as convinced that he’s completely ignorant of the strange occurrences in the castle. I wonder if he’s sympathetic to the Order. Though I do not believe he’s a member. He doesn’t have the birth rank. In fact, I believe we’ve both been distracted by other truths.”
“Are you suggesting the Order isn’t involved at all, then?” My mind churned with several new ideas as I removed the Order of the Dragon from the equation. “It very well might be someone pretending to be them. Perhaps that’s why we’re unable to discover a true connection to the Order. What if they in fact are playing no part in this case?”
“They might simply be an elaborate distraction created by the murderer.”
“It would explain how you haven’t managed to deduce or concoct a theory in that magical way of yours.” I narrowed my eyes. “You haven’t read scuff marks on boots and sacrificed something to the math gods to solve the case, have you?”
“This may be hard to believe,” Thomas said, voice suddenly grave. “But I have yet to tap into my psychic powers. I do, however, have questions and suspicions I cannot ignore.”
“You’ve intrigued me. Do go on.”
Thomas took a deep breath, steadying himself. “Where has Anastasia been? I’m afraid we’ve both been ignoring facts. Ones that have been blinding in their obviousness.”
My blood prickled. Thomas was being overly cautious. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d told me to suspect those closest to us, and yet part of me knew Anastasia had secrets. In fact, if I were being truly honest with myself, I knew Ileana had them, too. I had known someone else who’d harbored secrets.…
I shut my emotions off, not allowing devastation to cloud any more of my judgment. I would neither be willfully blind to the truth nor keep my suspicions to myself from this point forward, no matter the cost to my heart.
“I also haven’t seen Ileana in two days. Which was the evening before the body was taken from the tower morgue.”
Thomas nodded. “And? What else? What else doesn’t quite add together?”
I thought back on all the times we’d spoken about strigoi. About how she’d change the subject before Anastasia could ask more questions. How superstitious she’d been about the bodies. “Ileana’s from Braşov. The village where the first murder occurred.”
“She’s also aware that Vlad Dracula’s blood runs through my sister’s veins.”
I knew it wasn’t medically possible, but I swore I felt my heart stop beating. At least for a moment. I stared at Thomas, knowing our thoughts were straying to the same horrid conclusion.
“Do you know where Daciana is now?” I asked, pulse racing. “Which city she was visiting next?” Thomas slowly shook his head. A darker feeling tugged at my core. “Are you certain she left the castle? What about the invitation to the ball?”
“Daci is a bit of a planner; she’d probably have written it out ahead of time. The invitation could have been sent through the post by anyone.” Silver lined the edges of Thomas’s eyes, but he quickly blinked the liquid away. “I never saw her off in her carriage. She slipped away with Ileana. I didn’t want to intrude. I thought they wanted a bit more time alone.”
The body stolen from the tower morgue—was it Daciana’s? I could barely breathe. Thomas had already lost his mother; losing a sibling was as close to a mortal wound as one could withstand. I forced my brain to move through its grief and connect any dots or clues. What did we know about Daciana’s last days or hours at the castle? Then it struck me.