Before I could have him clarify, the driver loaded up the last of our trunks and climbed aboard. He said something quickly in Romanian, and Thomas responded before leaning back to me, his breath coaxing gooseflesh to rise. I shivered at the unexpected thrill. “Next stop, Bran Castle. And all the delightful miscreants who study there.”
“We’re about to study there,” I reminded him.
He sank into his blanket, doing a poor job at hiding his smile. “I know.”
“How do you know Romanian so well?” I asked. “I was unaware you were fluent in anything other than sarcasm.”
“My mother was Romanian,” Thomas said. “She used to tell us all sorts of folktales growing up. We learned the language from birth.”
I frowned. “Why not mention it sooner?”
“I’m full of surprises, Wadsworth.” Thomas pulled his blanket up over his head. “Expect a long life of unraveling these sort of delights. Keeps the mystery and spark alive.”
With a snap of the reins we were off, gliding over the snow as new flakes whipped past us. Icy wind stung my cheeks, forcing tears out in glistening rivulets, but I couldn’t stop watching the forest flash by through slitted eyes. Every once in a while I swore something was keeping pace with us just inside the woods’ border, but it was becoming too dark to be sure.
When I heard a low howl, it was hard to tell if it was the wind or a pack of hungry wolves chasing their next warm meal. Perhaps the living, breathing murderer and ghosts of Vlad Dracula’s victims weren’t the only fear-inspiring things to worry about in this country.
Time passed in frozen minutes and darkening skies. We traveled up steep mountain slopes and down into smaller valleys. We made one stop in Braşov, where—after great debate on the questionable suitability of arriving at the academy without a chaperone—Thomas assisted Mrs. Harvey with securing a room in a tavern, and we said our good-byes to her. Then we climbed our way from the village toward the top of the greatest mountain I’d ever seen.
When we finally crested its summit a while later, the moon had fully risen. In its light I could make out the pale walls of the turreted castle that had once been home to Vlad Ţepeş. A jet-black forest surrounded it, a natural fortress for the man-made one. I wondered if that was where Vlad had acquired the wood he’d needed for the victims he’d impaled.
Without worrying about being untoward, I inched closer to Thomas, leaching his warmth for several reasons. I hadn’t thought about it earlier, but Braşov was very close to our school. Whoever had murdered that first victim had chosen a place near Dracula’s castle.
I hoped it wasn’t a sign of worse murders to come.
“Appears as if someone’s left the light on for us.” Thomas nodded toward two glowing lanterns that could be proclaiming they were the gates of Satan’s lair, for all I knew.
Winding our way along the narrow path that led from the woods and across the small lawn, we finally pulled to a blessed stop outside the castle. Fingers of moonlight reached over the spires and slid down the roof, casting the shadows of the sleigh and horses in sinister shapes. This castle was eerie, and I hadn’t even stepped inside.
For a brief moment, I longed to hide under the animal furs and travel back to the well-fortified, colorful town whose lights winked like fireflies in the valley below us.
Perhaps traveling back to England with Mrs. Harvey wouldn’t be such a wretched thing. I could meet my cousin in the country. Spending time together talking and sewing items for our hope chests couldn’t be that terrible. Liza made even the most mundane tasks a grand romantic adventure, and I missed her dearly.
A pang of homesickness hit my center, and I struggled to keep myself from doubling over. This was a mistake. I was not ready to be thrust into this academy built for young men. Bodies lining tables and surgical theaters. All of them reminders of the case I couldn’t get past. A case that had destroyed my heart.
“You are going to dazzle them all, Wadsworth.” Thomas gently squeezed my hand before releasing it. “I cannot wait to see you outshine everyone. Myself included. Though do be gentle with me. Pretend as if I’m wonderful.”
I shoved my nerves aside and smiled. “A monumental task, but I will try to go easy on you, Cresswell.”
I emerged from the sleigh with renewed strength and made my way up wide stone stairs as Thomas paid the driver and motioned for our trunks to be brought up. I waited for him to reach me, holding my skirts above the gathering snow, not wanting to step beyond that bleak threshold alone. We were here. We’d face down my demons together.
A massive oak door was flanked by two lanterns, a giant knocker set directly in the middle. It looked as if two C shaped serpent bodies had become one brooding face.
Thomas smiled blandly at the knocker. “Welcoming, isn’t it?”
“It’s one of the most ghastly things I’ve ever seen.”
As I lifted the dreadful thing, the door groaned open, revealing a tall, thin man with silver hair that fell in a sheet about his collar and a deep-set scowl. Fire crackled behind him, gilding the edges of his narrow face. His dark skin glistened with a thin sheen of perspiration that he didn’t bother dabbing away.
I didn’t dare guess what he’d been doing.
“Doors lock in two minutes,” he said in a thick Romanian accent. His upper lip curled as if he knew I fought the whispered urge to step back. I could have sworn his incisors were sharp enough to pierce skin. “I suggest you hurry inside and shut that mouth before something unpleasant flies in. We have a bit of a bat problem.”
ACADEMY OF FORENSIC MEDICINE AND SCIENCE
INSTITUTULUI NAŢIONAL DE CRIMINALISTICĂ ŞI MEDICINĂ LEGALĂ
1 DECEMBER 1888
I snapped my mouth shut, more out of shock at such an egregious welcome than compliance.
What a dreadfully rude man. He inspected Thomas with an equally patronizing sneer plastered across his face. I tore my attention from him, afraid I’d turn to stone if I stared too hard. For all I knew he was descended from the mythical Gorgons. He was certainly as charming as Medusa—which, I realized, was exactly what the door knocker had reminded me of.
We stepped through the doorway and waited quietly as the man walked over to a maid and began instructing her on something in Romanian. My friend shifted from one foot to the other but remained silent. It was both a small miracle and a blessing.
I glanced around. We were standing in a semicircular receiving chamber, and several darkened corridors stretched to our right and left. Straight ahead, a rather plain staircase split in two, leading to both upper and lower levels. An enormous fireplace offset the stairs, but even the inviting ambience of crackling wood couldn’t stop gooseflesh from rising. The castle seemed to chill in our presence. I thought I’d felt a gust of arctic air blow in from the rafters. Darkness clung in areas the fire didn’t reach, heavy and thick as a nightmare one couldn’t wake from.
I wondered where they kept the bodies we were to study.
The man lifted his head and met my gaze, as if he’d heard my inner thoughts again and wished to mock me. I hoped trepidation didn’t show through the cracks of my tarnished armor. I swallowed hard, releasing a breath once he’d looked away.
“I have the strangest feeling about him,” I whispered.
Thomas allowed his focus to drift to the man and the maid, who was nodding along to whatever he was saying. “This room is equally charming. The sconces are all dragons. Look at those teeth spitting flames. Bet Vlad had them commissioned himself.”
Torches were lit and spaced evenly throughout the receiving chamber. Dark wooden beams edged the ceiling and doors, reminding me of blackened gums. I couldn’t help feeling like this castle enjoyed devouring fresh blood as much as its previous occupant enjoyed spilling it. It was an abysmal setting for any school, let alone one that studied the dead.
Lemon and antiseptic cut through the scents of damp stone and paraffin. Cleaning materials for two vastly different purposes. I noticed the floor in the receiving chamber was wet from—I assumed—other students arriving in the storm.
Wings flapped from the cavernous ceilings, drawing my attention upward. An arched window was set high up on the wall, cobwebs noticeable from here. I didn’t notice any bats but pictured red eyes glaring down at me. I hoped to avoid seeing such creatures during my time here. I’d always been afraid of their leathery wings and sharp teeth.
The maid bobbed a curtsy and scurried down the corridor on the far left.
“We weren’t expecting a spouse. You may stay two floors up to the left.”
The man dismissed me with a flick of his wrist. At first I had thought him old because of his hair. Now I could see his face was mostly unlined and much younger. He was likely around my father’s age, no more than forty.
“Forensic students are in the east wing. Or should I say, students vying for a spot in our forensics program are this way. Come”—he motioned toward Thomas—“I’m heading there myself. I’ll show you to your chambers. You may visit your wife only after classes end.”
Thomas got that obnoxious glint in his eyes, but this wasn’t his battle to fight. I took a small step in front of him and cleared my throat. “Actually, we’re both in the forensics program. And I’m not his wife. Sir.”
The nasty man stopped abruptly. He slowly spun on his heel, a high-pitched screech issuing from the soles of his shoes. He narrowed his eyes as if he couldn’t possibly have heard me correctly. “Pardon?”
“My name is Miss Audrey Rose Wadsworth. I believe the academy received a letter of recommendation from my uncle, Dr. Jonathan Wadsworth of London. I’ve been apprenticing under him for quite some time now. Both Mr. Cresswell and myself were present during the Ripper murders. We assisted my uncle and Scotland Yard in the forensics investigation. I’m quite sure the headmaster received the letter. He responded.”
“Is that so.”
The way he said it wasn’t a question, but I pretended not to notice. “It is.”