Percy stopped pacing and bent to examine the body himself. He inhaled in small intervals as he moved from the mouth to the stomach. He shook his head and addressed the class.
“In the case of ingesting toxic substances, you’ll note a stronger scent in stomach tissues. Which is precisely what I’ve noticed here. The garlic odor is overwhelming near the victim’s stomach. Does anyone know any other signs associated with intentional or accidental poisoning?”
Vincenzo raised his hand so violently he nearly knocked himself over the railing. His brother latched on to his arm, steadying him.
“Yes, Mr. Bianchi?”
“More… er… mucus will be evident,” he said, Italian accent strong as he searched for the English words. “As the body’s natural defense against… a… foreign attack.”
“Excellent,” Percy said, gathering up toothed forceps and passing them to Noah. “Where else might one find indications of poison?”
Cian cleared his throat. “The liver is another good place to check.”
“Indeed.” Percy motioned for Noah to remove the organ in question and handed him a specimen tray. I knew what it felt like, sticking one’s hands deep within the abdominal cavity and coming away with a liver that squished ever so slightly between one’s fingers. The weight of it was difficult to manage with only forceps. Noah showed no emotion, though his hands weren’t as controlled. The liver slid onto the tray, smearing it with rusty liquid. I swallowed revulsion down.
Percy held the tray up, then walked slowly down the line of students, allowing each of us an opportunity to inspect the organ from our first-row seats. “Note the color. Yellow is commonly found after exposure to…”
My heart sped up with my thoughts. “Arsenic.”
Percy beamed, tray of liver proudly displayed before him as if he were serving us tea in fine china. “Very good, Miss Wadsworth! Both the garlic odor and presence of yellow liver tissues are indicative of potential arsenic poisoning. Now, before anyone jumps to conclusions, it would behoove you to note the following: arsenic is found in most everyday items. Our drinking water contains trace amounts. Ladies used to mix it with their powders to remain youthful in appearance.”
I gripped my hands together, mind churning with this new information as I thought back to the first victim we’d encountered in Romania—the man on the train. His mouth had been stuffed with garlic, but the smell was too overwhelming to have resulted from such a small amount of the organic substance. I should have investigated that further. The murderer clearly used real garlic to mask the telltale scent of arsenic.
I focused on breathing correctly. Inhale. Exhale. The steady flow of oxygen fed my brain. I thought of Wilhelm’s symptoms. How quickly he’d gone from a healthy seventeen-year-old to a cadaver lying beneath my blade in the laboratory. Highly unnatural.
No cause of death had been noted in Wilhelm’s case. The missing blood served as a distraction. And it was a good one, too. I’d been so preoccupied by the thought of scientifically proving vampires impossible, I’d never checked his liver. Percy, too, had let the obvious drag his attention away from inspecting other organs.
I thought of other symptoms of arsenic poisoning. Discoloration or rashes on the skin. Vomiting. It had all been there, present and waiting for someone to add up the symptoms. A simple math equation, nothing more.
Whoever had planned these murders had done so brilliantly. Even Thomas hadn’t found the thread binding it all together. The culprit likely knew Thomas would not be as sharp as he normally was, the fear of his lineage being exposed hindering him in a way he was unused to. My head spun. This murderer was more cunning than Jack the Ripper.
We hadn’t examined the maid’s body, yet apparently she’d also shown no outward signs of murder, according to the Bianchi twins. It wasn’t hard to deduce that she’d also been poisoned.
Anastasia. Wilhelm. The man from the train. The maid. All seemingly unrelated because of the outwardly different causes of death—impalement and blood loss. Those were both simply provocative distractions, created either postmortem or close to death to inflame emotions in a highly superstitious community.
We did not have more than one murderer. We had someone blessed with a knowledge of poison and the opportunity to offer it to each victim. I swallowed hard. Whoever had done this was smart and patient. They’d been waiting a long time to execute their plan. But why now…
I jolted into the present, cheeks burning. “Yes, Professor?”
Percy studied me closely while threading a large Hagedorn needle. “Your stitches the other day were exemplary. Would you like to assist with closing up the cadaver?”
The class didn’t so much as breathe. It was a far cry from the sneers and snickers of earlier days. We were now bound together through loss and determination.
I glanced down at the girl who’d been my friend and stood. “Yes, sir.”
CURS DE FOLCLOR
17 DECEMBER 1888
Guards stood outside the classroom, eyes fixed on nothing and yet alert enough to strike at any moment, though Radu paid them no notice. He continued with his folklore lesson as if the castle weren’t being overrun by royal guards and missing or murdered students. Either he was extraordinarily talented at appearing unaffected, or he truly was lost within his own imagination, trapped somewhere between myth and reality.
Two days had passed since the discovery that Anastasia was the victim from the tunnels, and the headmaster practically had the castle swarming with guards. I couldn’t tell if their presence comforted or frightened me more.
“In light of recent findings, our next lesson is on Albertus Magnus, philosopher and scientist. Legend says he was the finest alchemist who ever lived. Some believe he possessed magic. Magie.” Radu flipped through pages in the old book he’d taken from the library days earlier, De Mineralibus. “He studied Aristotle’s work. Fine, fine man he was. He’s said to have discovered arsenic.” Noah bravely raised his hand, and Radu hopped in delight. “Yes, Mr. Hale? Do you have anything to offer on the subject and legend of Mr. Magnus?”
“I understand discussing arsenic because of the murders, sir, but how, exactly, does this relate to Romanian folklore?”
Radu blinked several times, mouth opening and shutting. “Well… it’s foundational to understanding certain legends involving the subject of today’s lesson: the Order of the Dragon. During its prime, the Order did quite well in places such as Germany and Italy. Some believe the rise in their nobility ranks was due to the secret practice of using arsenic to slowly poison their targets.”
I raised a brow, intrigued. Arsenic was known as “inheritance powder” in England, so called for its use by noblemen who wanted to attain a title faster than natural death allowed.
“Are you suggesting the Order were a group of noble alchemist assassins?” Cian asked. “I thought they were supposed to fight perceived enemies of Christianity.”
“My, my, my. Someone has been doing some research! I am impressed, Mr. Farrell. Very good.” Radu puffed his chest out and walked up and down the aisles. “After Sigismund of Hungary died, the Order became vastly important in this country and its neighbors. Less so in western regions of Europe. The Ottomans were invading, threatening the boyars… er, yes, Mr. Farrell?”
“What exactly are the boyars, sir?”
“Oh! The boyars were the highest-ranking members of the aristocracy under the Wallachian princes. They were feuding over whom to name as the prince, and our ruling system was hopelessly corrupt.”
“Shouldn’t the title of prince be passed along to the next in the family line?” I asked.
Andrei snorted, a bit halfheartedly by his usual standards, but I ignored him. He might know the particular rules of his country, but I didn’t and felt no shame in inquiring.
Radu shook his head. “That wasn’t the way things were done here during medieval times. Those born illegitimately were able to claim the title of prince. In fact, most everyone who’d been born of either Dăneşti or Drăculeşti seed was legitimized when the boyars appointed them to the throne. They did not need to be pure-blooded to rule; they simply needed the might of a fierce army. Much different than what you’re used to in London. It often led to a lot of relatives murdering each other for the right to rule.”
Not so different from England in that sense, I thought.
“Those who were opposed to the in-feuding and corruption swelled the ranks of the Order,” Erik said, Russian accent prominent. “I assume they were afraid of losing their culture to invading forces.”
“Ai dreptate. You’re correct. The Order, though they’ve never called themselves by any name as part of their secrecy, banded together, fighting for their freedom and rights. Legend says they were fierce, taking it upon themselves to eradicate threats from both inside the kingdom and out. In fact, there are stories that suggest they wanted to unify the country by eliminating the infighting within the two royal lines.”
Thomas and I glanced at each other. My senses perked up at this revelation. It was precisely what I had worried about. I raised my hand.
“Oh! Yes, Miss Wadsworth? What do you have to add to this discussion? I cannot tell you how pleased I am by everyone’s interest in today’s lesson. Much more lively than our lesson on strigoi.”
“When you say ‘royal family,’ in this instance you’re referring to the House of Basarab, correct? Not the current royal family of the court?”
“Another fine detail. The current royal family—the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen dynasty—is not related to the House of Basarab in any way. For our purposes, when I say ‘royal family,’ I’m discussing the lineage of Vlad Dracula and his ancestors. I enjoy keeping our lessons focused on legends surrounding our illustrious castle’s medieval history. We mostly deal with the Drăculeşti line. Vlad Dracula’s descendants last ruled in the 1600s. People have been led to believe his direct descendants are all gone.” His focus slid in Thomas’s direction. “There are still those in Romania who recall the truth, however.”