“They also bite when provoked.”
“Do not pretend escorting me to and fro isn’t the highlight of your miserable day. Shame you didn’t do the same for that poor maid. Though I am much prettier to stare at,” Thomas said, running a hand through his dark locks. “At least I know I’m in no danger of being whisked away by a vampire—you’re too busy admiring me. Quite the compliment. Thank you.”
Dăneşti’s grin turned absolutely lethal. “Ah. I have been waiting for this.” He called out in Romanian, and four more guards piled into our now-empty folklore classroom. “Escort Mr. Cresswell to the dungeon for the next few hours. He needs to be shown Romanian ospitalitate.”
I have finally been sprung from the dank hellscape they dignify with the name “dungeon.” Now I’m sat in my chambers, contemplating scaling the castle walls for amusement. I overheard the guards speaking, and it seems tonight might be our best chance of sneaking out to search the woods for whoever was dragged out through the tunnels that night.
Unlike our esteemed headmaster, I do not believe you invented that scenario, and I worry we may have been wrong about Ileana being involved, criminally. She may very well be another victim, but there’s only one way we can be sure.
If you do not hear any more from me, it’s because I am sneaking through corridors, en route to your chambers.
CAMERE DIN TURN
17 DECEMBER 1888
Such a dramatic young man. If Thomas was already in his rooms writing a note to me, that meant he’d spent only a short time in the dungeon. I finished drafting my response and folded it up, adding a bit of red wax and pressing it with my namesake rose seal.
“Please take this to Thomas Cresswell.” The new chambermaid stared. I tried again, hoping my Romanian was accurate. My mind was in several places at once. “Vă rog… daţi-i… asta lui Thomas Cresswell.”
“Thank you. Mulţumesc.”
“Do you require assistance with getting ready for bed?”
I glanced at my simple dress and shook my head. “No, thank you. I can manage.”
The maid nodded, swiping the note up and sticking it under the lid of a tray she was carrying. She exited my chambers, and I prayed she’d deliver it without the guards noticing what she was up to.
I paced along the carpet in my main chamber, mind stumbling and running over every last detail of the day. I scarcely knew where to start with untangling this new thread. Either Radu or Ileana might be the murderer. Radu for his knowledge of poisons. Ileana for her ability to slip them into meals.
But, with little education, did she have the understanding of how to administer such a thing as arsenic? And did Radu have an opportunity to feed it to students? And yet Thomas believed Ileana might be a victim—which left Radu as a prime suspect. Something niggled in my core. I still had a feeling that Ileana was involved somehow. I couldn’t explain it.
I’d taken my riding habit and breeches out of my trunk and didn’t miss the bulk of my skirts as I continued pacing around the room in my new outfit.
Who else besides Ileana would know Thomas would be distracted by the shame of his lineage, though? How did anyone here know him well enough to use that against him and thwart his normally stellar method of deductions? Ileana might have gleaned some information from Daciana; perhaps she’d been using her this entire time. I stopped pacing. That didn’t quite feel right either; a love so powerful could not be easily faked. Which brought me back to our professor.
No amount of research Radu could have done would unearth the secrets of Thomas’s personality. Or perhaps that was simply a spot of good luck, a serendipitous gift. An even better idea: the murderer might be someone we hadn’t interacted with at all. A shiver glided down my spine. Imagining a faceless murderer who was not only skilled but also blessed with luck was especially frightening.
Half an hour scraped by, and still no sign of Thomas. I sat at my writing desk and plucked a pen from its inkwell. I’d promised Father I’d write to him and had yet to send a proper note. I stared at the blank piece of parchment, unsure of what to disclose.
I couldn’t very well discuss the murders. Father’s blessing and encouragement for pursuing my career in forensic medicine went only so far. If he’d known about the body we’d found on the train, he’d have brought me back to London immediately.
A faint scuffling noise dragged my attention toward the window. It sounded as if an animal had scuttled across the roof. My blood prickled all over.
I bolted from my chair and stared out at the snowy world, trapped in darkness. Heart thundering, I expected to see a ghastly face staring back at me, milky eyes unblinking. No such thing happened. It was likely a chunk of snow or ice falling from the roof. Or a bird seeking shelter from the storm. I sighed and sat back down at my desk. I’d never stop creating villains out of shadows.
I rolled the pen between my fingers, trying to think of anything other than ghouls and vampires and people adept with poison. I’d nearly forgotten it was the Christmas season again. The time for joy and love and family. It was hard to remember life existed outside of death and fear and chaos.
I gazed at the photograph of Father and Mother, allowing warm memories to thaw the colder, scientific parts of me. I recalled the way Father would have our cook pack a hamper full of treats, then play hide and seek with us in the maze at Thornbriar.
He’d laughed freely and often back then—I’d never realized how much I’d miss that part of him once it perished along with Mother. He was slowly emerging from that desolate nothingness that follows losing a piece of your soul, but I worried he’d fall into old patterns now that he was alone. From this point forward I vowed to write to him often, to keep him engaged with the living. We were both surrounded by enough death.
I took my brother’s old advice and forgot about murder and death for a few moments, allowing myself to remember that life was beautiful even during the darkest hours. I thought about the magnificence of this country, the history behind its architecture and its rulers. The gorgeous language of its people, the food and the love that went into making it.
The Kingdom of Romania is truly enchanting. One of my first thoughts upon seeing Bran Castle and its spires was of those children’s stories you and Mother would read to us before bed. The tiles on the towers are cut in a way that reminds me of dragon scales. I half expect a knight to come riding in on his steed at any moment. (Though we both know I’d likely borrow his horse on my own to seek out a dragon to slay. If he’s truly a knight and a gentleman, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind.)
The Carpathian Mountains are some of the grandest in all the world, at least what I’ve seen of them. I cannot wait to admire this land during the spring. I imagine the ice-capped mountains must burst with greenery. I believe you would enjoy taking a holiday here.
They have these divine meat pastries—filled with savory mushrooms and all manner of wonderful juices and spices. I have eaten them nearly every day so far! In fact, my stomach is grumbling at the mere mention of them. I must bring some back when I visit.
I hope you’re doing well in London. I miss you terribly and have a photograph of you I often say good night to. Before you inquire, I will say that Mr. Cresswell has been a most perfect gentleman. He has taken his duty seriously and is quite the troublesome chaperone. You would be proud.
His sister, Miss Daciana Cresswell, has invited us to a Christmas ball in Bucharest. If the weather permits, it shall be a lovely time. I do wish I could come home for the new year and visit. Please give my love to Aunt Amelia and Liza. And do take care of them and yourself.
I shall write again soon. I am learning much here at the academy and cannot thank you enough for allowing me to study abroad.
Your loving daughter,
P.S. How is Uncle faring? I do hope you’ve continued to see him and invite him over for supper. It may be forward of me to say, but I daresay you need each other, especially during this trying season. Merry Christmas, Father. And many happy tidings for the new year. 1889! I cannot believe it’s almost upon us. There is something fresh and wonderful about the start of a whole new year. I hope it ushers in the promise of new beginnings for us all. It shall
Ink splattered across the last words on the page, my careful script ruined. I shoved away from the desk so quickly my chair knocked over. Something was on the roof. Even though I knew it was madness, I imagined a humanlike creature, just risen from the grave, the scent of freshly turned earth enveloping my senses, as its fangs shot out, ready to drain my body of blood.
I sucked in a quick breath and darted over to my trunk of postmortem supplies, snatching up the largest bone saw I could find and holding it before me. What in the name of the queen—
Scraaaaaaaaatch. It sounded as if that same something were clawing its way down the red-tiled roof. Again, an image of a strigoi assaulted my sensibilities. A humanoid creature with dead, gray flesh and black claws dripping the blood of its last meal, scraping its way to my chambers to gorge once more. Part of me wanted to dash into the corridor and scream for the guards.
Thump. Thump. Thump. My heart pounded double its normal beat. It was the sound of heavy treading. Whatever or whoever was on the roof was wearing thick-soled boots. Images of vampires and werewolves gave way to the more disturbing thoughts of depraved humans. Ones who had successfully murdered at least five victims.
I backed toward my nightstand, never taking my gaze from the window, and lowered my saw to turn the dial on my oil lamp. Darkness fell, hopefully rendering me invisible to whoever was still slowly crawling down the roof.
I waited, breath caught in terror’s grasp, and watched. At first all I saw were heavier drifts of snow falling past my window. The sounds of scraping and the heavy tread were replaced by a sort of slipping noise.
Then it happened at once.
A shadow blacker than coal eclipsed the snowy world outside. It shook my windowsill with tremendous force, the tiny latch barely staying in place. Fear paralyzed my limbs. Whoever was out there was seconds away from either shattering the glass or the flimsy latch.