17

I did not feel it when the countess slapped me, for I had gone quite numb, and it was only distantly that I heard Charles remonstrate with her angrily. The room spun and jerked around me, faces swam before my eyes, and the only constant was my own voice, repeating over and over again, “But I love him.”

It was Charles who finally guided me away and took me to my chamber, and when we reached the room, he wrenched open the window and pushed my head outside, forcing me to drink in great draughts of the cold, crisp air until my head cleared. At last he drew me back in, and pressed a flask upon me.

“Good Scottish whisky,” he said firmly. I drank deeply of it, and the room cleared at last.

“I do not understand,” I said, my voice thin and feeble.

“Neither do I,” he told me, his expression grim. “But it is best to stay here quietly until someone comes.”

I did as he bade me, sitting upon my hands to stop them shaking and listening to the little clock tick off the hours. The night was half gone when there was a rap at the door and Dr. Frankopan entered, his cuffs folded back and smeared with blood. His blood, I thought wildly, and for an instant I was certain the doctor had come to tell me he had died.

“Is he dead?” I demanded.

Dr. Frankopan gave me an odd look. “Dead? Of course not. He suffered a dislocation of the shoulder and some rather severe cuts and bruises, but nothing he cannot overcome with rest and good care.”

I sagged into my chair, murmuring an Ave under my breath. If nothing else, the Carpathians would teach me religion, I thought wildly.

Dr. Frankopan drew a chair next to me and motioned for Charles to sit with us as well. “I have spoken to the countess, for it is she who rules during her son’s indisposition. She apologises for her outburst and begs you will understand a mother’s hysteria.”

“She does not think me responsible then?” I asked, dizzy with relief.

Dr. Frankopan’s response was carefully phrased. “She does not know what to think as yet. She wishes to make no decisions until her son has regained consciousness and can speak for himself as to what happened upon the observatory walk.”

“Tereza!” I said suddenly. “Tereza must have seen that I was not there when the count fell. She may absolve me.”

Dr. Frankopan shook his head sorrowfully. “Tereza saw nothing. I questioned her closely, and she saw nothing but the count.”

I lapsed back into my chair, feeling a thousand years old. “What am I to do until the count rouses and can clear my name?”

He shrugged. “It would be best for everyone if you were confined to your room. It would bring a greater ease to the family if you were not at liberty.”

“I am to be held prisoner until he wakes?” I asked, incredulous. It seemed impossible, and I looked to Charles to support me.

“I think it is for the best,” he said, to my astonishment.

“Charles! You cannot think that I-”

“Of course not,” he was quick to reply, using the same tone one might to soothe a fractious horse or a fretful babe. “But this is a necessary expedient. I must insist that Theodora not be locked in without visitors,” he said firmly to Dr. Frankopan. “She will receive regular visits from me, and writing materials and books besides. And anything else she should require for her comfort,” he finished.

“Naturally, naturally. The countess wishes her to think of herself as a guest still,” Dr. Frankopan said, his relief almost palpable. He had expected a fight then. But I had none left in me to give him, for all that mattered to me in that moment was that the count should live.

“Very well. I will sit quietly until I am bade to leave,” I promised.

Dr. Frankopan took his leave then with Charles, and after the door was shut, I heard the turn of the key in the lock, the loneliest, most frightening sound I had ever heard. I was a prisoner in the Castle Dragulescu.

Charles was the first to break in upon my solitude the next day when he carried in my breakfast. I had finally lapsed into sleep just before dawn, and it was very nearly noon before he roused me.

“You needed your rest,” he explained, when I scolded him for not waking me sooner.

“I know. And I know you are the only friend I have at present. Pay no mind to my churlishness. I do not mean it,” I finished helplessly.

He said nothing, but busied himself uncovering dishes and pouring out strong black coffee. The smell of it turned my stomach to water, but he had brought tea besides, and a cup of that with a nibbled bread roll comprised my breakfast.

“How is he this morning?” I asked finally. I had hesitated, both from the fear that he should have taken a turn for the worst, and out of the concern that speaking of him would grieve Charles. It is no easy thing for a man to measure himself against another and be found wanting.

But Charles was more a gentleman than I had credited him, for he brought me news of him and delivered it without resentment. “He does well enough, although he has not yet roused. Dr. Frankopan stays with him, and the countess comes and goes. Cosmina has been there as well, doing what she can. There is naught to do but wait until he wakes. His pulse is strong and his colour good, and although it was a shock of some magnitude to his mother to find that he is an opium-eater, Dr. Frankopan does not think the habit is of long enough standing to have damaged his constitution.” Charles hesitated, then took a breath and plunged on, speaking rather more hurriedly. “He murmurs a good deal in his sleep, and once or twice he has called your name.”

I finished my tea before I could master my tears enough to speak. “Thank you for that. It could not have been easy to tell me, but I am glad to know it.”

“Do not thank me. Half of them seem to think it proof of your guilt-as if he speaks your name to accuse you. Still, I know you are guiltless, and so will everyone else once he wakes.”

A sudden chill ran through me, stiffening my hand so that I nearly dropped the cup. “Charles, I am innocent, but someone else is not.”

“What do you mean?”

I replaced the cup carefully onto the saucer and rose to pace the room. “They think I pushed him, but we know I did not. What if he did not fall or fly of his own accord? What if he was pushed, but by someone else?”

Charles absently took a sweet from his pocket and sucked at it, furrowing his brow. “I did not think on that. I suppose it is possible.”

“Of course it is possible. Charles, I have been on the observatory walk. He did not fall. He was never careless and he is surefooted as a chamois goat. I would wager my life upon it-either something supernatural has attacked him or there was a deliberate and malicious attempt upon his life by someone in this castle.”

“Perhaps the same person who killed the maid Aurelia?” Charles offered.

“Yes!” I whirled to face him, my conviction rising. “I am certain of it. The peasants would say it was his father, Count Bogdan, who tried to destroy him. But what if the superstitions and monsters are merely a diversion? What if there is nothing afoot here more sinister than simple human evil?”

“And whom would you suspect of the deed?”

I stopped pacing and thought, turning each of the castle’s inhabitants over in my mind. “Frau Amsel,” I said. “Aurelia carried the late count’s child, a possible successor to the Dragulescu name and fortune. She was slain with her unborn child. If the present count died, who then would benefit? The countess would want a male to inherit, it is the way of things here. And who better than Florian, Frau Amsel’s son, who already has a grasp of things and would keep the estate under the countess’s rule? There would be no other direct heir of the Dragulescu line. She would have only to adopt him, and such things are easily arranged.”

“Possibly,” Charles said, his voice tinged with doubt.

“And she loathes me. It would give her great pleasure to dispatch me at the same time by putting my shawl in such a place as to implicate me. She could easily have slipped into the garden to retrieve it. And it was she who named me in the count’s workroom when she retrieved my shawl.”

I was hungry then, suddenly and ravenously hungry. I sat to eat the other things Charles had brought, dipping my spoon into the bowl of m?m?lig?.

Charles said nothing, turning my pretty theory over in his businessman’s mind. At length he nodded. “It is a sound enough suspicion, I suppose. Although I notice you do not entertain the notion that another, even likelier suspect may have done the deed.”

I took another spoonful of the hearty porridge. “Who?”

Charles sat back, managing to look simultaneously smug and uncomfortable. “The count himself.”

I put down my spoon. “You think Count Andrei did this to himself? You are mad.”

“Am I? Or perhaps you are simply unwilling to consider all possibilities.”

I folded my arms and when I spoke it was with a stranger’s voice, clipped and cold. “Go on.”

Charles leaned forward. “You said yourself that the maid Aurelia carried a rival claimant to the estate. Who better to resent this than the sitting count?”

“Precisely,” I replied by way of retort. “The sitting count. He had no need to put Aurelia’s child out of the way. He had secured his inheritance as his father’s lawful heir.”

“But was he? How easy might it have been for the girl to produce a piece of paper, a bit of forgery with Count Bogdan’s signature upon it, claiming responsibility for the child and naming it his heir? You said there was a quarrel between the countess and her husband. He meant to put her away and marry the girl. Perhaps he had taken steps to do so, irrevocable steps that would have disinherited your paramour.”

I flinched at his use of the word “paramour” but I did not rise to the bait. “Surely the fact that Count Bogdan was dead put paid to whatever schemes the girl might have had to see her illegitimate child established as a Dragulescu heir.”

Charles shrugged. “If she was cunning and ruthless, she might well have gambled upon her child’s blood. Think how easily one might bribe a country priest or solicitor to draw up a bit of paper to stake her child’s claim. She could promise them a hearty share of the estate upon settlement. Many a villain has been bought with less,” he said sagely.

“I suppose it is possible,” I admitted, though grudgingly so.

“Or perhaps the count simply bears the hot blood of his ancestors,” Charles mused, “and thought to answer the insult done to his mother by dispatching the maid and her offspring. A colder plot, to be sure, but not impossible.”

I did not answer this; I could not. Was it possible? Could he have killed the girl with no greater provocation than the knowledge that she had supplanted his own mother in his father’s affections? It was monstrous; it could not be so. And yet, the possibility of it lived, like a monstrous thorny weed, pricking at my convictions.

“You are angry with me,” Charles said at last.

I stirred the m?m?lig?, but it had gone cold. “I am not angry, only heartsick and longing to go from here.”

He reached a hand to cover mine. “I will take you, as soon as it may be arranged, wherever you wish to go-to England to see Anna, to the Highlands, to Timbuktu. I will make it so.”

His hand was warm and comfortable over mine, but I was no longer the girl who could reasonably contemplate warm and comfortable. Still, I managed a smile and thanked him, and soon after he left me alone with my thoughts.

That evening it was Cosmina who brought my meal. She entered quietly and put the food upon the table and opened her arms. I went to her, resting my head upon her shoulder.

“I am glad to see you,” I told her, my voice muffled. She put a hand to my head, cradling me close as one might a beloved child.

When she drew back, there were tears standing in her eyes. “I am so sorry, Theodora. I ought never to have brought you here. I hesitated to come tonight because I feared you would be angry with me.”

“Angry with you? Whatever for?”

She grasped my hands in her own. “For inviting you to this place. For this,” she said, taking in my little prison with a glance.

I had not drawn the curtains yet, and she walked to the window where the setting sun had already dropped beyond the mountains and the long shadows of evening were beginning to lengthen.

“There is a Scottish word for this time of day. You told me once, but I cannot remember it.”

“Gloaming,” I told her, coming to stand beside her at the window. “When the light has fled but the stars have not yet shown themselves. That is the gloaming, the loveliest and saddest hour of the day.”

A ghost of a smile touched her lips. “And I thought only in Transylvania was there such poetry.”

“It is a poetic place,” I agreed.

“I hope you will remember it with affection,” she said, her brow furrowing anxiously.

“Remember it? Shall I be permitted to leave then?” I asked her, a tinge of hysteria sharpening my tone.

She hastened to soothe me. “Of course! Oh, my dear, you must not believe this is anything other than the most fleeting of circumstances. Andrei began to stir this afternoon. It is only a matter of hours before he wakens and speaks the truth. Then you will be freed. It is simply that the countess is too fearful for his life to take any chances he might be attacked again.”

“And she thinks I am a threat to him?” I asked evenly.

“She does not know what to think. In fact,” Cosmina hesitated, biting at her lip, as if considering whether to share a confidence. “In fact, she fears it is Count Bogdan who has tried to destroy their son.”

“Then why keep me here, locked away like some villain?” I demanded.

Cosmina spread her hands. “She is ill and confused and afraid. She believes the strigoi has attacked Andrei, but she also realises the truth may be more mundane. She will take no risks with his life, and even though she fears the strigoi, she must listen to the Amsels filling her ears with poison against you. Pity her, my friend. She only wants to protect her beloved son. Surely you can understand such a thing.”

I relented a little. “Of course. But why should the Amsels have taken against me? And why do they say I would have done this terrible thing to the count?”

Her eyes slid away from mine and back to the view of the mountains. A single star shimmered low in the sky, and I knew it was Venus, shedding its benevolent light over lovers in the valley below.

“Frau Amsel says that you were driven to attack him when he spurned you after you enticed him to your bed.”

I caught my breath against the wave of pain that washed over me. Whatever became of us, I had thought to have at least the memory of that night to console me in my loneliness. And now Frau Amsel had spoiled it for me, twisting what had been natural and pleasurable into something sordid and indiscreet. I could guess well enough how she had pieced the story together. The matter of the pedlar’s fabric would have raised her suspicions. They could have been confirmed by a quick coin to Tereza, for the girl took away soiled linen and returned it clean. She was privy to all the secrets of the castle, I thought bitterly.

“It is true then?” Cosmina asked softly. She did not face me, perhaps to make it easier, or perhaps because she herself did not wish to see the truth of it writ upon my face.

“No,” I told her, for that shoddy version of the facts would never be true to me.

“But you said you love him,” she protested gently. “When he lay unconscious and bleeding. You said you loved him.”

“Did I? I hardly remember now. But it does not matter. My feelings are my own. I do not speak for him. I can only vow to you that I would never have harmed him.”

She turned to me then, her face half-shadowed and half-illuminated, a living silhouette. “I believe you, my friend.” Her voice was firm, stalwart even. “I will be your champion,” she vowed.

She embraced me again and gestured towards the food. “Eat. You must keep up your strength. I will come to you as soon as I have news of him.”

And with that she left me, turning the key in the lock behind her.

I sat, although nothing tempted my appetite. I thought of what she had told me of the countess’s fears, and I understood them perfectly. Had I too not wrestled with the question of whether something supernatural was afoot in the castle? Had I not swung wildly between the prosaic and the fantastic? I thought how much stronger my emotions would be were a beloved child at risk, and I forgave her then. I forgave her suspicions and her precautions; I forgave her my small prison and my large worries.

I even forgave her my dinner, I thought wryly as I picked over the meat. Frau Graben must have been distracted, for the joint was overcooked and leathery and bloodless. I pushed the food aside and closed my eyes, forcing myself to think calmly and logically. I returned to the beginning, to the death of Aurelia. I imagined the maid, lured to the room with the promise of what? An assignation? A bribe? Something had enticed her there; someone had preyed upon her avarice. Once there, had she known she was in danger? Had she attempted to flee? Or had she no sense of it, even to the moment when she was struck down? Had she been bled by a human hand or fed upon by a vampire’s monstrous need? I imagined her lying upon the cold, stone floor and someone bending to take her life.

And upon this point my imagination failed me. I could not see the figure looming over her to finish the deed. Was it the seemingly gentle Florian? The stout and malicious Frau Amsel? Was it the count?

The question came unbidden to my mind, but once there, I could not dismiss it. Charles had roused my doubts, and logic prevented me from brushing them aside. I must face the possibility of it squarely. I knew so little of him. I had believed in the goodness in him, buried and blunted as it was. I had been so certain that there was honour in him, and a sort of old-fashioned courage that was so seldom seen in our modern times. He was a throwback to an age of mystics and warrior kings, imperious and implacable. And yet I had credited him with goodness as well, with a tender heart that was capable of being moved. Had he not undertaken to improve the lot of his people once he had been made aware of their need?

And yet I could not silence the small voice that whispered, He only did so as a means to an end. The work would have cost him a few coins, a small enough price to woo a woman into his bed.

I pushed the food aside and dropped my head onto my folded arms. I was tormented by doubts and questions, and until I had answers, I would not be free. What if he did not rouse? And if he did waken, I wondered with a horrible, creeping doubt, what was to prevent him from casting the blame upon me? If Charles was correct and the count’s hands were stained with Aurelia’s blood, what would prevent him from affirming Frau Amsel’s tale that I had attempted his life? Perhaps it was a conspiracy amongst them all, I thought wildly. I was a stranger here, and a girl was dead. How much easier for them all if I were to shoulder the burden of blame.

This then was my darkest hour. The blue shadows of the gloaming had faded into the black and unforgiving night, and I sunk into a misery of the sort I had never felt before. It seemed hopeless in those dark hours, and I had no one to comfort me, not even Charles, for he did not come to me and I was alone with my fears. At length I gave way to tears, weeping into my arms, wetting the sleeves of my gown.

So bowed was I by my wretchedness, that I did not realise I was no longer alone until Tycho thrust a wet nose into my hands. I started, then began weeping afresh.

“Tycho, I do not know how you have come here, but I am glad to see you,” I murmured into his fur. He turned his head and licked the tears from my cheek, and as he did so, I began to think more clearly.

“How are you come here?” I demanded, and so strange and fantastical were the things that had happened in that castle, I would not have been surprised had he made me a reply. But he merely continued on, licking my cheeks.

I rose and took him by the collar. “Lead on,” I urged.

He turned and went directly to the tapestry stretched along one wall.

“No, I have not been so stupid as that!” I exclaimed, realising I had in fact been very blind indeed.

Tycho nudged at the tapestry and I pushed it aside, finding a doorway set into the stone. A tiny corridor led the way to a twisting stair carved from the rock-to the count’s room, I had no doubt.

“Of course,” I said, as much to Tycho as to myself. “The counts have always used the rooms above and would wish to visit their wives privately. A secret stair for the convenience of the master,” I added with a rueful shake of the head. But this was not the time to ponder the implications of why I had been placed in this room, or the strangeness of my nocturnal visits. A more important development had occurred-Tycho had just revealed to me the path to freedom.

Contents

Обращение к пользователям