Bound By Flames Page 74

Samir had also tried to kill Maximus on sight, proving that we had a lot of work to do before people knew what had really happened. I intended for that to be sooner rather than later. Maximus deserved to be recognized for his bravery and loyalty. Not reviled for crimes he hadn\ committed.

But first . . . ’’Now what?’’ I asked as we crossed over to the bridge.

Vlad scanned the island, which looked deserted since Petre had been making sure that tourists left while also keeping police and any other interested parties away.

’’Now I do what I should have done many years ago,’’ he said, closing his eyes. ’’Destroy the past.’’

From our distance, the subsequent explosions felt like a series of percussion grenades going off. I couldn\ see the flames that Vlad ravaged the former dungeon with, but from the power pouring off him, he was converting all of the awful memories this place held for him into fierce, destructive fire. It was obvious when those explosions set off the bombs that Szilagyi had lined beneath the tunnels. The ground shook so hard that the tall, triangular tower fell, landing in the first of many deep impressions that began to snake across the ruins. Soon, the rest of the few remaining monuments crumbled into the deep, sunken patches of earth around them, until not a single structure from the former palace remained standing.

I waited until the flames extinguished from his hands, signaling that he finally was done with this dark, brutal chapter from his past, before I took his hand.

’’Now what?’’ I said once more, very softly.

His smile was faint, but after everything that had happened tonight, I was grateful that it was genuine.

’’We return to Romania. What has been destroyed can never be resurrected, but it can be rebuilt, so that is what we will do, Leila. Rebuild.’’

I squeezed his hand, tears of happiness stinging my eyes. ’’Then let\s go home and get started.’’

Epilogue

We returned to Romania, but our first stop wasn\ the castle we\d lived in that Vlad had burned to the ground. It was another castle he\d destroyed, only we didn\ go up to the top of the mountain to see the crumbled ruins of Vlad\s former home when he was a human prince. We walked along the banks of the Arges River instead.

I didn\ notice the small stone cross in the tree line along a sharp curve in the river until Vlad pulled back the brush to reveal it. The inscription had weathered off until it was unreadable, which was a good thing. Otherwise, Clara Dracul\s grave would have been desecrated decades ago, her remains on display for tourists along with all the other pieces of ’’authenticated’’ Dracula history.

Vlad traced his hand over the stone and a myriad of feelings began to interweave with mine. Regret, as well as a wave of remembered love that was as poignant as it was difficult for both of us to feel.

I braced myself for what I\d see once I touched her bones, which was why we were here. I didn\ know which would be worse for Vlad to discover from what I found: if Szilagyi had told the truth and murdered Clara? Or if she had jumped to her death of her own free will, as he\d believed for so long?

’’You don\ have to be the one to dig her up,’’ I said quietly. ’’I can do it.’’

He looked at me, a rueful, almost self-deprecating smile curling his mouth.

’’Neither of us is digging her up. Back at the island, I decided to let Clara rest in peace. If she jumped of her own free will, I forgave her for it long ago. If Szilagyi pushed her, she\s been avenged. However her death occurred, much like my time in those dungeons, it needs to remain in the past.’’

I was so relieved to hear that, and not just for selfish reasons. Yes, it would have been hard for me to relive parts of Clara\s life through her bones, which would have been necessary for me to find the events of her death. I didn\ want to see Vlad through her eyes, whether she\d loved him unconditionally or had been driven by inner demons to commit suicide. The Vlad she knew wasn\ the man I loved. Our pasts might shape us, but they weren\ the end sum of us.

Most of all, I was glad Vlad\s decision meant that he was letting go of pain that had haunted him for too long.

’’If Clara could whisper through eternity, I bet she\d tell you she was happy that you\ e letting her go,’’ I said, wishing the inadequate words could express how proud I was of him.

He let out a short laugh. ’’Probably, though she\d also tell me that I had taken far too long to do it.’’

’’Wives are usually right,’’ I said with a smile.

He laughed more naturally this time, touching the headstone once more before turning and briskly walking away. I followed him, not saying anything. The sounds of the forest and the winding river were the only noises around us, and they were as soothing as whispered reassurances in the dark. This place deserved a little peace after its long, bloody history, as did the man striding by my side.

After several minutes of walking in silence, Vlad\s emotions became tinged with steely resolve, as though he were bracing himself to do something truly painful.

’’I didn\ only bring you out here to witness my saying goodbye to Clara for the last time,’’ he said. ’’There\s something I need to tell you, and this is a remote enough area that it won\ be overheard by anyone else.’’

I cast a glance at the seemingly endless forest and river. No, no one could overhear us out here. We were the only two people around for miles.

’’So . . . what did you want to tell me?’’ I asked tentatively.


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