18

With some difficulty, I herded him before me up the tiny stairs and back to his master’s side. I waited behind, ready to scurry back to my bolthole should anyone notice Tycho’s reappearance. I had noted the time, and the rest of the castle household ought to have been at supper. I could not wait until they were all abed; I must take my chances now, although I dared not contemplate my fate should I be found wandering at liberty.

I made my way slowly, one step, one breath, at a time until at last I reached the top of the stairs. There was a tapestry here as well, and I hesitated on the other side. Tycho had slid his lithe body into the room, and it occurred to me that anyone who did not know the secret geography of the castle would assume he had been behind the tapestry the whole time, perhaps snuffling out mice or old bones.

I stood behind the tapestry a long time, listening to my own heartbeats drumming in my ears, but no other sounds penetrated the thick wool. At length I steeled myself to peer around the edge, and I gave a little sigh of relief. The count was tucked into his bed and was alone in the room, save for Dr. Frankopan, dozing quietly on the sofa in front of the fire. I dared not dwell upon the count, for the sight of him, swathed and stitched and lying motionless, had nearly caused me to cry out. The great bed and the perfect stillness of his repose bore too near a resemblance to a corpse laid out for burial; he wanted only a funeral wreath to complete his paleness. But his chest rose and fell with perfect ease, and I forced myself to carry on.

Dr. Frankopan slept as well, his slumbers punctuated by odd fits and starts and little snorts, and I was terrified lest he waken. The journey from the tapestry to the door seemed an eternity, but it could only have been a second or two before I had slipped through and gained the stairs without detection.

My hands sweated and the knob had been slippery in my palm, but I had managed it, and once outside, I hastened down the stairs as quickly and silently as I could. As I reached the bottom, I heard voices-Cosmina and Charles, and I froze, my very marrow stilled within my bones.

In a moment they would reach the corner and see me, exposed and defenceless upon the stairs, and all would be lost. Unless…

In a blind panic, I darted into the garderobe. There was not time enough even to draw the door closed behind me, so I threw myself behind it, counting upon the shadows to conceal me.

I heard them pass, so near I could have touched them, and I dared not even breathe until they were well upon the stair and out of earshot. They chatted seriously to each other, and I made a note of the fact that the countess and the Amsels would still be about, as well as the servants.

I crept from the garderobe to make my way to Frau Amsel’s room, but even as I did so I turned my steps towards another. I could not say what diverted me, but I walked as a lost soul, wandering in the night, will walk towards the faintest glimmer of light. Even then, I did not know what I would find when I reached my destination, but as I crept ever closer, I considered the question of trust, and where mine had been misplaced.

Charles and Cosmina were my friends, I reasoned, and yet when I heard them coming, I had instinctively hidden myself. Had I thought the matter over coolly, dispassionately, I would have reassured myself that neither of them would have betrayed me. But my basest instinct, the part of myself that was scarcely better than animal, desperate to survive, had fled from them.

I had been afraid. And as I moved through the shadows of the castle, I realised I always had been. I understood then that affection and fear can be entwined as tightly as lovers.

At last I came to the chamber I sought. It was empty and illuminated only by the light of the fire. I moved quickly, for I had little time, and my hands trembled as I searched. Fear and a rising hysteria were almost my undoing as I scoured the room and found nothing. But as I reached under the pillow, feeling blindly, my fingers closed over a piece of paper and something else, something smooth and cool that clicked softly between my fingers, and a third item I could not identify. I withdrew them all, and an eerie, unnatural calm settled over me. I understood, as I had not before, and I cursed myself for a fool.

“Have you found what you were looking for, my dear?” came the voice from the doorway.

I started, but Dr. Frankopan’s expression was kindly.

“I was just waking when I saw you leave the count’s room. I thought to follow you and see what you were about,” he told me.

“Where are the others?” I asked.

“With the count. He will waken soon, I think. But I had to look to you as well. What fresh mischief brings you to this place?”

He came closer and I held out the things I had found.

“These are mine. She had no right to them, and yet here they were, under her pillow.”

He took them from me. “A letter and a rosary?”

“The rosary was my mother’s. I lost it, or thought that I did, when we were at school. Cosmina has kept it all these years.”

He looked briefly at the letter. “It is a love letter,” he said softly. “But it has been torn to pieces.”

“And stitched back together,” I noted. The paper had been destroyed and then carefully mended, held together by black silk stitches that ran like scars between the beautiful words. “It was taken from my room before I even saw it. I think,” my voice broke upon the words, “I think she attempted to kill the count. She may even have killed Aurelia as well. Here, I believe this is proof of it.” I proffered the third object and he took it from me with a pointed reluctance.

He sagged into a chair, his face very white, his spirit defeated. “Oh, dear little Cosmina. What have you done?” he murmured.

He said nothing for a long moment, and neither did I. We were both of us mourning the loss of the girl we had known and reconciling ourselves to the fact that in her place was a monster-a creature who stole and lied and destroyed. I thought of the odd little rages to which she had been prone as a girl. I had thought her willful and obstinate. Now I saw she was something far more dangerous.

Suddenly, Dr. Frankopan roused himself. “You must forgive me, my dear. I should not have doubted you, not for a moment.”

“Of course,” I told him, blinking hard against the sudden tears that sprang to my eyes. Someone else believed me. The relief was almost too much to bear.

“But you are not safe here,” he said, pushing himself out of the chair. “No, you are not safe. Cosmina is a clever girl, and we do not know what tales she may spin to persuade the count and the countess that you have wronged them. We must get you right away, tonight. You will come to my cottage, and I will keep you safe until morning. If we are quick and quiet, no one will even know you have gone. I will bring word to Mr. Beecroft, and he can join you tomorrow. Thence, to Hermannstadt, and the obergespan, for the sheriff will know what to do. The time for pretending these things have not happened is past.”

He thrust the objects into his pocket for safekeeping. “Come, child, come. There is no time to lose. They will not keep long to his room. We must flee now, while we have the chance.”

He snatched up a cloak of Cosmina’s for me and we hurried from the room. I followed him blindly, my hand clasped in his, and I felt such a welling of emotion, I could hardly endure it-relief at my liberation, and sorrow at what I had discovered about Cosmina’s duplicity. But mantling it all was an overwhelming feeling of despair that I would not see the count again, for even as I fled my thoughts were entirely of him.

We gained the courtyard quickly and Dr. Frankopan pointed to the moon. “We do not even need a lantern. Gentle Selena lights our way,” he said solemnly.

But as we picked our path carefully down the Devil’s Staircase, I realised the implications of the full moon. No sooner had we left the safety of the castle than I heard the howling of the wolves, the eerie sound carried on the wind.

“Make haste, make haste,” he advised, springing down the steps with the speed of a man half his age. I followed, still clasping his hand, and more than once I would have fallen had he not righted me. At last we reached the village road, and I was not surprised to find the entire hamlet tucked snugly away for the night. Here and there a bit of woodsmoke escaped from a chimney, casting a hazy cloud over the face of the low-hanging moon. Little light spilled from the windows as they were shuttered tightly against the night and all that roamed abroad.

I clutched his hand even more tightly as we made our way along the forest path, for it was very dark, and the trees pressed in against us, breathing upon us in the shadows, it seemed. I heard rustling, but Dr. Frankopan told me it was only the wind; I saw eyes, but Dr. Frankopan told me it was simply the reflection of the moon upon the stones. I wanted to believe him, but when we reached the clearing and saw the cottage, warm light glowing from every window, beckoning us to safety, I nearly wept from relief.

He took me inside and shut the door, helping me out of Cosmina’s cloak. “There, there. You have had a nasty shock. Go and sit by the fire. I will bring you some p?link?. It will warm you through.”

I obeyed, feeling so cold throughout I thought I should never be warm again, as much from misery as the wind.

“Here we are, here we are,” he said, bustling in a few moments later with a tray and glasses. He poured out a generous measure for me and a smaller one for himself.

“Drink it up, child. You will feel warm soon. I daresay you are cold now from the shock of it all.”

“I am,” I told him, taking the p?link? gratefully. I sipped it, but it was bitter and though I tried not to pull a face, little escaped Dr. Frankopan’s attention.

“You do not like our local delicacy?” he chided with a smile. “No matter. It will do the trick, I promise you.”

I took another sip. “I simply cannot take it in. Cosmina. All these years she was not the person I knew, the person I loved.”

He nodded sorrowfully. “It is a difficult thing to have the scales drop from one’s eyes.”

“Yes, that is it precisely. I feel such a fool. She always used to say she was going to marry the count and live in the castle as his countess. I ought never to have believed her when she said that she was relieved when he refused her. She must have been so angry, so shatteringly angry.”

“At him, for scorning her, and at you, for attracting his regard.”

I think I coloured slightly at his last words, but there was frankness between us and I would not demur from the truth. “Yes. Any woman would have been angry, I think. But Cosmina was always possessive of what she cared for.”

“Perhaps that is why she kept your rosary, a reminder of the friend she loved,” he suggested.

I sipped again at the p?link?. It was better, smoother and easier to drink now I was accustomed to the taste of it. “Perhaps. I remember we had a row that day. She was angry because I spent so much time discussing poetry with Fraulein M?ller. I thought her silly at the time, but now I believe she was jealous. She never liked me to have other friends, you know-none that were as close as she.”

“And her feelings would be compounded if you formed an attachment with the man who refused to marry her,” he concluded.

“Yes, of course.” I subsided into silence and continued to drink, feeling warmer and a little light in the head.

“Why do you think she would have killed Aurelia?” he asked. “Do you not believe in the strigoi?”

“No. It is a faery story, meant to frighten children,” I said, my voice louder than I had intended. “There is something more sinister afoot in that castle-a mortal murderer.”

“You are certain?” he asked, his eyes suddenly shrewd.

“I am,” I told him. “Someone killed Aurelia, someone attempted the count’s life and meant me to hang for it. I believe that someone is Cosmina.”

He said nothing, but merely watched me as I sipped at my drink. I continued on, warming to my theme. “Cosmina bore a grudge against the count and against me. What better revenge than to kill him and make me the scapegoat for her crimes?”

“But what motive would she have had for killing Aurelia?” he asked blandly.

I thought for a moment, but my mind was fogged with shock and fatigue and strong drink. It was difficult to put the pieces together, but I attempted it. “Aurelia carried a possible heir to the Dragulescu estate. If the count was killed, the child might stand to inherit, particularly if it were a son. Aurelia could have made an excellent case for Count Bogdan’s estate to pass to his natural son rather than to the niece of his wife.”

Dr. Frankopan said nothing, but sipped his own drink, letting me prattle on. “And another bird might well have been felled with the same stone. The rumours of a strigoi began with the death of Aurelia. Perhaps Cosmina meant to establish a perfect scene for Count Andrei’s death. Everyone speculated that the revenant had returned to destroy his own son. If Aurelia was found foully slain by a vampire, and then Count Andrei suffered a similar fate, folk would merely put it down to the strigoi.”

“Now that is a fanciful tale,” Dr. Frankopan said, suppressing a smile.

“But possible. These mountains are thick with legends and ghosts. Everyone was ready to accept that Aurelia was slain by a strigoi. Why not Count Andrei as well?”

“I suppose,” he said reluctantly. “It would have been a clever plot.”

“Very,” I agreed. “And she only altered it to put the blame for Count Andrei’s death upon my head after she discovered the letter. That was when she decided to include me in her revenge. At one stroke, she would have been rid of me and of Andrei and ensured her own inheritance to the castle.”

“And you are certain of this?” he asked, watching me closely.

“As certain as I am of my own name. It must be so, and I will see her brought to justice,” I told him, heady with vindication.

He paused, then finished his drink. “That is unfortunate,” he said finally. “If you had entertained the slightest doubt, there might have been hope for you. But not now.”

“What do you mean?” I demanded.

His expression was sorrowful. “My dear child, I am fond of you-fond of you, indeed. But you cannot imagine I would ever let you do anything to harm Cosmina.”

“But she is a murderess!” I protested.

“And she is my child,” he countered.

I sat, stupefied, while he went to fetch a box upon the mantel. He returned to his chair and opened it, drawing out a miniature. He passed it to me, and I saw at once that it was the beautiful girl whose painting hung in the countess’s bedchamber.

“This is the countess’s sister,” I exclaimed.

“My beloved Tatiana.” He took the miniature from my nerveless fingers. “We met in Vienna. I saw her across the ballroom where she was dancing with one of the Emperor’s nephews. She danced right out of her slipper and I brought it to her and drank champagne from it. It was the only time in my life I have been dashing,” he added, a trifle ruefully. “I was her elder by some years, but she loved me, can you believe that? Ah, do not reply. It seemed a miracle to me as well, but love we did. My family would not agree to the match. They did not think minor Roumanian nobility was exalted enough to marry into the family of the Frankopans, not even Tatiana, the lovely Tatiana. She was an heiress, the eldest of the beautiful sisters Dragulescu, but even she was not worthy. We trace our lineage back to a senator of the Roman Empire, and we were expected to marry better.” His voice betrayed no bitterness at the memory, only profound sadness. “I was sent away to recover from my disappointment, a sea voyage that lasted three years. When I returned, I learned that Tatiana had borne my child in secret. At first all was well enough. She had placed the child with a family outside of Vienna to foster it, and she visited, bringing presents and pretty clothes. But she grew sad and thin because she could not raise her own daughter, and because I never wrote to her.”

He fixed me with a steely eye. “I did write to her, of course. But my letters were intercepted. Every last one of them. Tatiana had nourished herself on hope, you understand. Every month, she promised herself that I would come and marry her and claim her child. And every month, when I did not come, she slipped further into her sadness. Until at last, she no longer knew what was real and what was not. She was locked away in an asylum.”

He paused and just when I thought he would give way to his emotion, he mastered himself and continued on. “I visited her, just once. She did not know me. She sat in her tiny cell, picking flowers only she could see and petting a pillow she said was a cat. She seemed happy enough, if one can be happy in that state. And you see, that is the real reason my family would not let me marry her. They knew there was a weakness in the blood of the Dragulescu women, a tendency to madness.”

He waved a hand. “The countess is sound enough, for all her little hysterias. Her weakness is in her lungs. They are not sound, and she is not long for this world. But Cosmina, I thought she had escaped the troubles. She seemed so very normal. I used to visit her from time to time. I told the foster family I was a friend of her mother’s for I was not permitted to take the child. How could I? I was a bachelor. I knew nothing of the raising of children. I had no money beyond the income my parents gave me. I was entirely dependent upon them. But I persuaded them to permit me to study medicine and to come to live here. And I worked upon Eugenia, finally convincing her to take Cosmina as her own, to raise her in the castle where I could see her often. Eugenia agreed so long as I promised never to reveal myself as Cosmina’s father, for she wanted no interference. She has cared for her as tenderly as any mother, seen to her education and accomplishments. Did you know every penny has come from Eugenia’s own pocket? She vowed to keep Cosmina’s inheritance intact for her when she marries or reaches majority. She has done more for her than propriety and the law demand. She could not have loved her more wholly if she had borne her herself, and I could not grieve the woman who has reared my child by giving trouble. And so I promised, and it was a pact with the Devil, I think, for it has been the sharpest torment, to be so close to one’s own flesh and blood and never to be allowed to reveal the connection. Never to take her hand and tell her the truth, never to look after her and protect her as a father should.”

His eyes narrowed as he looked at me. “But I can protect her now. From you. I would never have moved against you had you not become her enemy. You have left me no choice, child.”

“She is a murderess. I believe it and I know it can be proven,” I said stoutly. “You must do what is right and let justice take its course.”

“Justice? How is it just for that child to suffer for the sins of her fathers? If she is not wholesome in the mind, it is not her fault. She must be cared for and watched, which I can do. But I will not let her be taken to the sort of place where her mother yet lingers, not yet dead but neither wholly alive. That is no just fate for anyone,” he returned, his face flushing with anger.

I made to rise, but suddenly the room began to spin and pitch. “I have drunk too much,” I murmured.

But even as I said the words, I realised that strong drink was not the trouble.

“You have poisoned me,” I said, gripping the arms of my chair.

“It is only a sedative,” he corrected. He reached down and gathered me up, and I was astonished at the strength in him. I had thought him old and a little feeble, but he lifted me as easily as a dried leaf upon the wind. I wanted to protest, but I could not summon the energy.

“You will fall gently asleep and I will take you into the forest. The wolves will do the rest,” he said softly. “Sleep now.”

And then all was blackness.

I was cold, desperately cold, but apart from that I was not uncomfortable. I floated, neither here nor there, and waited for what must come. I did not want to die, but I had not the strength to resist it, and I lay upon the ground, my cheek pressed to the earth, the sharp scents of pine and leaf-mould filling my head. It was not a difficult way to die, I thought slowly. If only I could manage it before the wolves came. I imagined them, catching my scent upon the wind, creeping closer, ever closer, slavering jaws snapping down upon my bones and grinding them to dust.

I heard the howling then. They were calling to each other and to me. I could hear them, almost upon me, so near that I could smell the rough, animal scent of them. I wanted to scream, but the sound would not come. Something crept near to me, pressing a muzzle to my face, sniffing. I felt the snap of teeth upon my skirts and the slow, relentless pull as the animal began to drag me along the ground. And then nothing more.

I awoke to find myself in my room at the castle. I was restored to my prison then, I thought with resignation, but I could not be anything other than fervently grateful that I had escaped death. I opened my eyes to find Charles slumbering in a chair at my bedside. The curtains had been drawn, but I could see from the warm golden light at the edges that dawn had broken.

“Charles,” I said, and my voice sounded like a rusted and unused thing.

He sprang to his feet, bending over me. “My God, you gave me a fright. How do you feel?”

“Bruised,” I said, forming the word slowly.

He nodded. “Yes, well, you can blame Tycho for that.”

“Tycho?”

At the mention of his name, the dog sprang up, placing his large head upon my bed. With a tremendous effort, I managed to put my hand upon his head.

“He found you before the wolves did. He would have dragged you entirely up the mountain, I think, had we not trailed him.”

I moved my hand a little to stroke him behind the ear, but the effort was tiring and he seemed to sense it, for he licked my hand once and settled back on his haunches, watching me closely.

“You came to find me?” I asked. Talking was proving rather difficult as well, and my eyelids began to droop.

“Florian and I, at the count’s insistence,” Charles told me.

My eyelids flew upward and I winced against the light. “He is awake?”

Charles gave me a small, regretful smile. “Yes. And suffered no ill effects from his accident, it seems. He rages rather impressively, so I think he will be as he ever was. Aside from the scars, of course.” A lesser man might have savoured the thought, but Charles was a stranger to smugness, and he had no pettiness within him.

“Where is he?” I asked, and Charles knew that I did not mean the count.

He hesitated. “You ought to sleep now. You are quite safe. He is not to be found. He fled as soon as he left you in the forest. Oh, Theodora, why did you run away?” he asked, his voice anguished.

I wanted to tell him, but my eyelids drooped again, and as I succumbed to sleep, I could not dismiss the notion that Charles was glad of it.

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