He collapsed to the ground, chest heaving with effort. The prince wasn’t pretending to be injured—he was near death. I dropped to my knees, lifting his head into my lap. His eyes were glassy, unfocused. I would’ve wagered anything he’d been given arsenic. We needed to get him out of these tunnels and to a doctor immediately. “Thomas… lift him by the…”
Then, as if a nightmare was given permission to be born of this world, a figure rose from the blood-filled bath. I blinked, barely understanding the absurdity of the ruined drinking straw that fell to the ground, so horrific was the sight before us. Blood so dark it was nearly black coated every inch of its face and body. Hair dripped crimson back into the tub, slender fingers covered in it. I could scarcely breathe. Thomas held his arm out, as if he might be able to keep this monster from seeing both Nicolae and me.
Its eyes opened wide, the whites a stark contrast to the crimson surrounding them. Everything came to a crashing halt within my mind. I could not tell who it was from here, but it was most certainly a woman. We’d been correct after all, but was it Ileana? Or could it possibly be… Daciana?
The blood-soaked nightmare kicked one leg from the tub, making a grand show of stepping out of the bath. Blood splashed onto the ground and splattered against the bones nearby.
Whoever she was, she wore a gossamer gown, its dripping red length trailing behind her like a sodden wedding-day curse as she moved toward us. As she bent down near a heap of bones, I considered running. I longed to grab Thomas and flee this crypt and never glance back. But there was no way out and we couldn’t leave the prince. The living nightmare stood and pointed a small ladies’ revolver at us.
She drifted forward, the countess of blood, a grisly smile exposing the white of her teeth.
“Extraordinar! I’m so glad you both made it. I was worried you’d not arrive on time. Or that you’d bring Uncle and that annoying guard.”
I stared at the girl before us, blinking disbelief away. It could not be, and yet… her voice was unmistakable, her Hungarian accent slightly different from the Romanian one.
“Anastasia? How… this cannot be real,” I said, unable to accept this truth. “You died. We saw you in that room—those bats.” I shook my head. “Percy inspected your body. We autopsied you!”
“Are you certain? I expected you to catch on, prietena mea.” Anastasia smiled again, those teeth shining too pleasantly against the blood. “When you mentioned the shutter in the village, I nearly fainted. I had to run back and stage the room before we investigated that night. Nervii mei! My nerves were a wreck.”
I could not fathom how this could be real. I forced my mind past the panic threatening to drop me to my knees. We needed to keep Anastasia talking. Perhaps we’d come up with a plan on how to maneuver out of this. “Why did you allow me to live?”
“I considered killing you that very night, but I thought he,” she nodded toward Thomas, “might leave before I was ready to strike. Come, now, my friend. I know you’re smarter than those boys. Tell me how I did it. Uh, uh, uh!” She waved the gun at Thomas. “Not a word from you, handsome. It’s impolite to interrupt a lady.”
I wanted to vomit, but I forced my mind into action. Anastasia wished to be rewarded for the brilliance of her game. That need for recognition might be her very undoing. I swallowed hard, ignoring the revolver now pointed at my chest. Little oddities suddenly clicked into place.
“The missing girl.” I closed my eyes. Of course. It all made sense. It was brilliant in the most horrible way. “You used her body to stand in for your own. Planted her in the tunnels to coincide with your disappearance. You knew her face would be too marred to be identified. Her hair and body measurements were similar enough. Facial features, too. I’d even thought she looked like you when I saw her in that sketch. The resemblance was striking enough to fool the class and our professors.” I paused as the full horror set in. “Even your uncle believed it to be you—one of the best forensic academics in the world.”
“Excelent.” Anastasia grinned, her teeth now red-streaked. It was terrible. Feral. The cunning present in her eyes made the deepest parts of me shiver. “Our hearts are curious things. So sentimental and easily misguided. Pull the right strings or snap the correct cords, and poof! Love strangles intelligence, even in the best of us.”
I did not wish to speak on matters of the heart with a woman who was drenched in the blood of innocents. I noticed Thomas shifting ever so slightly beside me and fumbled for another distraction. “How did you remove Wilhelm’s blood so quickly?”
“With a stolen mortuary apparatus. Then I dumped his body out the window.” She took a step toward Thomas and paused, inspecting him as a cat might consider an injured bird hopping about. For some reason, she inclined her head in a show of respect. “Are you impressed, Alteţă? Or should I say Prince Dracula?”
Thomas stopped moving and grinned lazily. I noticed the tautness in his muscles, though, and knew he was anything other than a relaxed, bored member of the House of Dracula. “Very charming of you, but bowing before me is entirely unnecessary. Though I do understand the urge to do so. I’m rather regal and impressive. Prince Dracula, however, is not my true title.”
I could not believe his posturing appeared to be working. Anastasia swallowed, focus following Thomas’s hands as they adjusted his ruined shirt. He almost convinced me that he had donned royal robes and was worthy of being bowed before. Instead of standing in the sodden, filthy clothes he’d been dragged through Hell in.
Anastasia shifted her revolver, aiming directly at Thomas. “Do not mock your own bloodline, Mr. Cresswell. Bad things happen when one turns against their own. It is time to come forth and accept your destiny, Son of the Dragon. It is time for us to merge our bloodlines and reclaim this entire land.”
“I don’t understand,” I said, glancing between them. “Who are you descended from?”
Anastasia threw her shoulders back, head held high. It was an impressive feat considering the gore smeared all over her; yet she did possess a regal air.
“Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed.”
“Of course,” Thomas muttered. “Also known as the Countess Dracula.”
For a moment no one spoke or moved. I recalled the brief mention of the countess in Radu’s class and fought a shiver.
“So you know it’s fate.” Anastasia’s eyes glittered with pride. “You see, I hail from a house equally known for its bloodlust, Audrey Rose. My ancestor bathed in the blood of innocents. She ruled with fear.” Anastasia pointed to Thomas. “He and I? We were destined to meet. As we are destined to produce heirs more fearsome than their ancestors. Destin. I had no idea the stars had so much planned! You are a minor inconvenience. One easily taken care of.”
I didn’t so much as breathe. So Anastasia was a displaced heiress in search of her birthright. And she did not care how she reclaimed it, through force or love. If she thought she could hunt Thomas, coerce him into marriage, and murder me in the process, she’d no idea who I was.
I clenched my fists, more determined than ever to keep her talking while I plotted our escape. “How did you murder the man on the train—and why?”
My former friend stared at me for a beat, eyes narrowed. I silently prayed that her need to boast would be tempting enough for her to answer my questions without seeing my true motive. “The Order of the Dragon lives. I wanted to cleanse their ranks. These days, they are mostly composed of that inconsequential Dăneşti line.”
She pointed the revolver toward where Prince Nicolae lay, limp as a rag doll, skin discolored from what I assumed was arsenic, punctures now visible on his neck. It appeared as if she’d used his blood the way her ancestor had—by bathing in it, leaving barely enough to keep him alive. If he even still lived. His chest no longer appeared to be rising and falling with breath.
“The man from the train was a high-ranking member. I slipped him a lethal dose of arsenic, then impaled him as he gasped for breath.” Anastasia sounded as if she were recalling a dress she had made from fine silks. “I had no idea it was outside your compartment. A happy coincidence. I then raced back to my room. No one noticed the girl with dark hair. Wigs are distracţie excelentă. I worried that Wilhelm might eventually recognize me, though. He needed to be dealt with immediately.”
A memory of that morning flashed across my mind—I had seen a girl with dark hair. She’d cried out for a doctor. I’d been so consumed with the chaos that I hadn’t paid attention to her face.
Thomas crossed his arms over his chest, taking on that bored tone once more. “Where is my sister?”
“How should I know? I am not anyone’s keeper.” Anastasia jerked her chin toward me, then gestured at a weapon on Nicolae’s belt. “Give Dracula’s heir the knife.”
Thomas’s eyes widened as he glanced in my direction. I nearly cried with relief. In her fervor to unite their bloodlines, she hadn’t realized that she’d just handed us a way to defeat her. My palms grew slick with the rush of nerves.
I pressed the small jeweled dagger into Thomas’s hand and held my breath, worried any show of excitement might alert Anastasia to her grievous mistake. She grinned, attention latched onto the blade now residing in Thomas’s steady grasp.
“End him,” she said to Thomas. “Do it quickly.”
“Why poison?” I asked, stalling. There had to be a way out of this that didn’t involve murdering Nicolae.
Anastasia pointed the revolver at my throat. It seemed my former friend had considered mutiny after all. She walked to Nicolae and nudged him with her foot, gun still aimed at me.
“Arsenic is a wonder.” She bent down, brushing strands of dark hair back from the prince’s face. “It’s tasteless, colorless, and can be slipped into all manner of food and drink. A young prince never turns down wine, it seems.”
“If you’re attempting to instill the same fear Vlad Dracula did in his opponents,” Thomas said, “poisoning Nicolae and the others hardly seems frightening.”