I was grateful for the fireplace. It thawed my nerves. Even in the cramped space, the heat made me feel as if I were on an island in the tropics as opposed to a lonely tower in an icy castle, hearing things that weren’t as terrifying as my own imagination.
I rubbed small circles around the center of my brow ridge. Memories of Jack the Ripper’s final moments in that godforsaken laboratory as he flipped the switch… I stopped myself right there. Grief needed to release me from its stubborn embrace. I could not keep doing this to myself night after night. Jack the Ripper was never coming back. His experiments were over. Just like his life.
The same held true for this castle. Dracula lived no more.
“Everything’s so bloody difficult,” I swore to myself as I plopped onto the settee. At least I thought I was alone, until someone choked back laughter from behind a closed door. My cheeks flushed as I grabbed the large candelabra and rushed to the barely lit water closet. “Hello? Who’s there? I demand you show yourself at once.”
“Imi pare rău, domnişoară.” A young maid stood abruptly from her place near the tub, apologizing as her cleaning rag plunked into a bucket. Gray eyes stared back at me. She wore an off-white peasant blouse tucked into a patchwork skirt with an embroidered apron. “Didn’t mean to eavesdrop. My name is Ileana.”
Her accent was soft and inviting—a hint of summer whispering through a desolate winter night. Black hair was braided and coiled under her maid’s cap, and her apron was smudged with ashes, presumably from the blazing fireplace she’d stoked before I’d entered the room. I released a breath.
“Please don’t bother calling me ‘miss.’ ‘Audrey Rose’ or just plain ‘Audrey’ is perfectly fine.” I glanced around at the newly cleaned washroom. Liquid flames reflected off each dark surface, reminding me of spilled blood catching the moonlight. Like the bodily fluids leaking from Jack the Ripper’s double-event victims. I swallowed the image away. The castle was wreaking havoc on my already morbid memory. “Are you assigned to this tower?”
Color blossomed across her skin as she nodded, noticeable even under layers of ash and grime. “Yes, domnişoară… Audrey Rose.”
“Your English accent is excellent,” I said, impressed. “I’m hoping to improve my Romanian while here. Where did you learn the language?”
I snapped my mouth shut after asking. It was a dreadfully rude thing to comment on. Ileana simply smiled. “My mother’s family passed it along to each of their children.”
It was an odd thing for a poor family from the village of Braşov, but I let it pass. I did not wish to insult a potential new friend any further. I caught myself fiddling with the buttons on the side of my gloves and stopped.
Ileana hoisted a bucket on her ample hip and nodded toward the door. “If I don’t finish lighting fires in the boys’ rooms, I’ll be in a world of trouble, dom—Audrey Rose.”
“Of course,” I said, wringing my hands. I hadn’t realized how lonely I was without Liza, and how much I wanted a girl friend. “Thank you for cleaning. If you leave some supplies, I can help.”
“Oh, no. Headmaster Moldoveanu wouldn’t approve. I’m to tend to the rooms when they’re unoccupied. I wasn’t expecting you for a few more moments.” My face must have displayed my disappointment. Her expression softened. “If you’d like, I can bring breakfast up to your rooms. I do it for the other girl here.”
“There’s another girl staying this winter?”
Ileana nodded slowly, her smiling growing wide to match my own. “Da, domnişoară. She’s the headmaster’s ward. Would you like to meet her?”
“That sounds wonderful,” I said. “I should like it very much.”
“Do you need assistance changing for bed?”
I nodded, and Ileana got to work on my corset. Once she’d worked it off and I was standing in my chemise, I thanked her. “I’ll handle it from here.”
Ileana nudged the door open with her hip, then bid me good night in Romanian. “Noapte bună.”
I glanced at the washroom, realizing that she’d also filled the tub with hot water. Steam rose in tendrils, beckoning me in. I bit my lip, contemplating the warm bath. I supposed it would be too improper to march into Thomas’s chambers this late at night, and I did not wish to be ruined in society’s eyes because of my impatience. And the drawing of the dragon would still be there in the morning…
I slipped out of my underclothes, feeling the warmth of both the water and friendship sink into my weary bones.
Perhaps the next few weeks wouldn’t be as horrid as I’d thought.
CAMERE DIN TURN
2 DECEMBER 1888
Mist rose from the trees around the castle and settled over the mountains like fog in London alleyways as I perched on the settee, trying not to fidget.
Ileana said she’d return for breakfast, but it was nearly sunrise and I still hadn’t seen her. For all I knew, she might have been detained in another part of the castle. My foot bounced in place. Headmaster Moldoveanu would lock me out of the dining hall if I showed up late. My stomach grumbled its own disapproval as I waited. I decided I’d give her two more minutes before setting out to the dining hall. I’d need to be fortified if I were to survive the next few weeks and keep my wits about me.
I walked into my sleeping chamber and fussed with the few personal items I’d brought with me; in particular, a photograph of Father and Mother, taken long ago. I set it on my nightstand, feeling a little less alone in this strange place.
A knock came promptly at my door as the sun gilded the mountains outside the window in my tower chambers. Thank the powers that be. I moved quickly to the other room and ran a hand over my winter-green skirts. Whispered voices hushed the moment I opened the door.
Ileana carried a covered tray and smiled at the young woman beside her. “This is Miss Anastasia. She is the…”
“The ward of Headmaster Moldoveanu, or, as I enjoy calling him, the Most Uncharming Man in the history of Romania.” She waved her hand around and walked into my chambers. Her accent was slightly different from Ileana’s but retained a similar essence. “Honestly, he’s not as bad as all that. He’s simply… how do you say…”
“Crotchety?” I supplied. Anastasia laughed, but didn’t comment.
Ileana smiled. “I’ll set this here.”
I followed her over to the little settee and table while Anastasia inspected my shelves. She was plain but pretty, with wheat-colored hair and bright blue eyes. She certainly knew how to use her assets to her advantage, especially when she flashed an infectious grin.
“Are you searching for something in particular?” I asked, noticing the methodical way her focus swept over the spines.
“I’m so pleased you’re here. The boys are… fără maniere.” She lifted a shoulder, noting the confusion that must have shown on my face. “Most aren’t very pleasant or polite. Perhaps it’s the lack of oxygen. Or females. The Italian brothers are the biggest disappointment. Their noses stay stuck within their books at all times. They do not even glance in my direction! Not even when I show off my most prized attributes.”
She grabbed a book from the shelf and pressed it, open, against her face, walking about in exaggerated fashion, giggling. Ileana dropped her attention to the floor, her smile wide.
“I was hoping for a gothic novel to pass the time when you’re in your classes,” she said, tossing the book aside. “Of course Uncle Moldoveanu wouldn’t keep any such frivolity here. Did you bring any gothic novels, perchance?”
I shook my head. “Will you be taking classes as well?”
“Of course not. Uncle believes it’s unbecoming for a girl of my station.” Anastasia rolled her eyes and plopped onto the settee with a huff. “Though I don’t care. I will be sitting in on some classes, if only to spite him. He cannot be everywhere at once.”
“Has everyone else arrived?”
“All the ones who are from important families have, I believe. It’s a small group this time. Uncle is said to be… out for sânge, they say.”
“Why would they believe he’s out for blood?” I asked. Ileana lifted the lid of the tray, revealing pastries and meat pies, her attention now glued to them. I politely took a bite of a savory meat-filled piece of bread and then tried not to devour it whole. Whatever these were, they were delicious.
“Castle gossip I’ve learned while bored to near-death. So far everyone who’s in this course is either nobility or peasants with rumored links to nobility. Bastard-borns. No one knows what the point of all the royalty is, if there even is one. Don’t even ask about the Italian brothers. They have not spoken to anyone but each other. I have no idea what their history is.”
Anastasia popped a bit of bread into her mouth and groaned in pleasure.
“Though some believe it’s part of your test,” she continued. “Uncle enjoys games and intrigue. Finding common factors that may be beneficial when tracking murderers is a skill he believes all forensic students must possess.” She gave me an appraising look. “You’re obviously highborn. What is your family name?”
“Wadsworth. My father is a—”
“No ties to Romania?”
I blinked. “Not that I’m aware of. My mother was partly of Indian ancestry, and my father is English.”
“Interesting. Perhaps not everyone is descended from this region.” Anastasia bit into another piece of bread. “I heard you arrived at midnight with a young man. Are you betrothed?”
I nearly choked on my next bite of breakfast. “We’re… friends. And work partners.”
Anastasia grinned. “I heard he was quite handsome. Perhaps I shall marry him if you’re only work partners.” I’m not sure what she saw on my face, but she quickly added, “I’m teasing. I’ve got my heart set on another, though he pretends I don’t exist. How was your trip here?”