“Thomas!” I whispered harshly, horrified by his impropriety.
He pointed to the oversize sword dangling from the young man’s hip, amusement scrawled across his features. Right, then. My cheeks warmed as Thomas tsked. “And you say I’m the one whose mind is in the gutter. How very scandalous of you, Wadsworth. What were you thinking of?”
The guard turned a severe look on Thomas, eyes widening briefly before he reset his jaw.
I glanced between them while they sized each other up, two alpha wolves circling and nipping for dominance in a new pack. Finally, the guard inclined his head slightly. His voice was deep and rumbled like a steam-powered engine. “Please return to your rooms, Alteţă.”
Thomas stilled. It was a word I was unfamiliar with, as I’d only recently began studying Romanian, so I’d no idea what the guard had called him. Perhaps it was something as simple as “sir” or “you arrogant fool.”
Whatever the insult, my friend did not remain frozen with surprise for long. He crossed his arms as the guard stepped forward. “I think we’ll stay and inspect the body. We’re quite good at prying secrets from the dead. Care to find out?”
The guard’s gaze drifted lazily over me, no doubt thinking a young woman in a lovely dress would be the complete opposite of useful. At least where science or amateur sleuthing was concerned. “It’s not necessary. You may leave.”
Thomas straightened to his full, impressive height and stared down his nose at the young man. He hadn’t missed the intent behind the guard’s scan either. Nothing good ever came out of his mouth when he took that stance. I chanced indecency and grabbed his hand. The guard curled his lip, but I didn’t rightly care.
We were no longer in London, surrounded by people who could assist with getting us out of trouble should Thomas aggravate the wrong person by using his usual charm. Ending up in some musty Romanian dungeon didn’t rank high amongst my plans for this lifetime. I’d seen the bleak interior of Bedlam—a horrid asylum in London whose name had become synonymous with chaos—and I could imagine well enough what we might encounter here. I wanted to study cadavers, not different species of rats in some forgotten, subterranean cell. Or spiders. A rivulet of fear slid down my spine at the thought. I’d rather face my hauntings than be trapped with spiders in some small, dark place.
“Let’s go, Cresswell.”
The young men stared at each other a beat more, silent arguing taking place in their rigid stances. I wanted to roll my eyes at their ridiculousness. I’d never understood the male need to carve out little plots of land and set up a castle to lord over them. All the posturing over every inch of space must get exhausting.
Finally, Thomas relented. “Very well.” He squinted at the guard. “What’s your name?”
The guard flashed a cruel smile. “Dăneşti.”
“Ah. Dăneşti. That explains it, doesn’t it?”
Thomas turned on his heel and disappeared inside his own compartment, leaving me to wonder not only at the body outside my door but the strange aura that had enveloped us since we’d entered Romania. Who was the menacing young guard, and why had his name evoked such aggravation in Thomas? Two more royal guards flanked Dăneşti, who was seemingly in charge, as he barked out orders in Romanian and motioned toward the body with precise movements.
I took that as my signal to leave. I closed my compartment door and halted. Mrs. Harvey was lying down, chest rising and falling in a steady rhythm that indicated a deep slumber. But it wasn’t her position that startled me. A piece of crumpled parchment lay on my seat. I might be seeing phantom things every now and then, but I was certain there hadn’t been any parchment in here before we’d discovered the body outside my door.
Chills took the liberty of crawling over my skin. I glanced around my compartment, but there was no one there besides my sleeping chaperone. Refusing to let fear overwhelm me, I marched over to the paper and smoothed it open. On it was the image of a dragon, its tail coiled around its thick neck. A cross formed the curve of its spine. I’d almost mistaken it for scales.
Maybe Thomas had drawn it, but I’d have noticed him doing so. Wouldn’t I?
I dropped onto the seat, puzzling everything out, wishing myself back to the time when all I was concerned with was Thomas’s incessant tapping. I couldn’t be certain of anything, it seemed. Outside my compartment I heard the corpse being dragged down the corridor. I tried not to think about how the guards were destroying any clues that might have been present as the sounds of his shoes sliding over the carpet faded into nothing.
If someone other than Thomas had created the image of the dragon, how he had sneaked into my compartment and vanished without Thomas or me noticing was another mystery.
One that chilled me to my core.
Bran Castle, Transylvania, Romania
1 DECEMBER 1888
The Clarence—often called a Growler for all the noise it made—was as comfortable as a carriage could be while bumping and jostling for hours over uneven terrain and climbing the steep mountains and hills leading out of Bucharest.
Out of sheer boredom, I found myself entranced by swaying gold tassels that pinned back the deep purple curtains. Golden dragons were stitched into the fabric, their bodies serpentine and elegant. Mrs. Harvey, miraculously awake for the last half hour or so, grunted as we bounced over a particularly large dip in the road and tugged her blanket back up.
My brows practically raised to my hairline when she removed a flask from her fur-trimmed cloak and swigged deeply. Clear liquid sloshed onto her, filling the small space with a sharp scent of what could only be strong alcohol. Her cheeks flushed a vibrant red as she dabbed at the spilled liquid, then offered the engraved flask to me. I shook my head, unable to keep my lips from twitching upward. I liked this woman immensely.
“Traveling tonic. For motion-related illness,” she said. “Helps with a fragile constitution. And miserable weather.”
Thomas snorted, but I noticed he checked her freshly changed foot brick to be sure it still produced heat. Snow was coming down a bit heavier the higher we climbed in the mountains, and our carriage was quite frigid.
“Mrs. Harvey also uses her traveling tonic before retiring to her room. Some nights after I come in from Dr. Wadsworth’s laboratory there are fresh biscuits laid out in the foyer,” he said. “With little recollection on her part of how they were made.”
“Oh, hush,” she said, not unkindly. “I was prescribed this tonic for the trip. Don’t go spreading half-truths, it’s unbecoming. I always recall my baking and only take a nip afterward. And I make those biscuits because someone has quite the sweet tooth. Don’t let him tell you otherwise, Miss Wadsworth.”
I chuckled as the friendly old woman took another sip of her “traveling tonic” and shifted back beneath the thick wool covers, her lids already drooping. That explained her awe-inspiring ability to sleep through most of this journey. She would get along with my aunt Amelia quite well. Aunt was rather fond of sipping spirits before bed herself.
Thomas stretched his limbs out across the way, encroaching on my bench seat, though for once he seemed unaware of his transgression. He’d been uncharacteristically quiet most of the ride. Traveling never sat well with him, and this part of our excursion wasn’t doing him any favors. Perhaps I needed to slip him some of Mrs. Harvey’s tonic as well. It might offer us both a bit of peace before we arrived at the academy.
I studied him while he was otherwise preoccupied. His eyes had a far-off glaze to them—he was here with me, yet his mind wasn’t anywhere close. I was having a particularly difficult time not thinking about the victim from the train myself. Or the strange drawing of the dragon. I wanted to speak to Thomas about it but didn’t want to do so in front of our chaperone. The last thing poor Mrs. Harvey needed was to be exposed to any more frightful situations. When we’d stopped to refresh our horses and have a quick luncheon a short while back, she’d hardly eaten a thing and flinched at each noise from the inn’s busy kitchens.
Thomas stared at the woods and the falling snow outside. I wanted to gaze out at the massive trees but was afraid of the images my disturbed mind might conjure up. Animals loping through the underbrush, decapitated heads stuck on pikes. Or other horrid tricks and illusions.
He flicked his attention to me. “Is that your way of saying I don’t appear my best?”
Without meaning to, I dropped my gaze to his cutaway coat. The midnight hue of both it and the matching waistcoat offset his dark features well, though I had a feeling it was something he was quite aware of. The way his own gaze lingered on my lips confirmed that thought.
“You seem off, is all.” I didn’t bother pointing out that it was freezing in our rented Growler and, if he wasn’t sick with fever, he ought to wear his overcoat instead of using it as a blanket. Letting that observation go, I lifted a shoulder and proceeded to ignore him. He shifted forward, focus drifting away from Mrs. Harvey.
“Haven’t you noticed?” He tapped his fingers along his thigh. I could have sworn he was creating some epic saga using Morse code but didn’t interrupt him. “I haven’t touched a smoke in days. I find the excess nervous energy to be… a nuisance.”
“Why don’t you try to sleep, then?”
“I can think of a few more intriguing things we might do to pass the time other than sleep, Wadsworth. Braşov is still hours away.”
I sighed heavily. “I swear, if you came up with something a bit less repetitive, I’d kiss you for the intellectual stimulation alone.”
“I was speaking of something else entirely. Something of myths and legends and other noteworthy topics to assist with your Romanian studies. You’re the one who assumed I was talking about kissing.” He sat back with a satisfied grin and resumed his inspection of the forest as we slowly ambled by. “Makes one wonder how often you’re thinking about it.”