Once Burned Page 21

’’Yeah, that's it. I thought the thing in the bird's beak was a twig, but now I see that it's a little hoop.’’

Vlad muttered something in Romanian. From his tone, I guessed that it translated into several four-letter words.

’’What's wrong?’’ He'd recognized the symbol, so the ring was a lead. That was a good thing, wasn't it?

He stared at me, and the expression on his face was so fierce, I almost took a step backward.

’’That ring bears the Corvinus family coat of arms. The last time I saw one like it was on the hand of Mihaly Szilagyi.’’

’’The man the sketch resembled,’’ I said slowly. ’’You told me you burned him to death, but the coincidences are piling up.’’

’’Yes, they are.’’ His voice was tight. Then his gaze raked over me. ’’Dress warmly. We're going out.’’

Chapter 28

After more than an hour of flying, I thought I'd figured out the trick to it. Don't look down: The icy wind was hell on my eyes. Keep both arms around Vlad: Not because he'd drop me, but because the warmth emanating from his body kept my hands from feeling like ice packs. Keep my legs around him for same reason. Pretend it was a roller-coaster ride: That helped with the fear when he made an unexpected roll or descent.

I figured out the most important tip when he finally set us on the ground: Don't try to walk right away. My frazzled equilibrium made my legs feel like they were different lengths and I misjudged my steps. Had Vlad not righted me, I would've fallen face-first into the snow.

’’Why didn't we take the limo again?’’ I muttered.

He looped my scarf back around my neck. At some point during our flight, it had ended up halfway down my coat. ’’Because if someone's watching the house, we don't want them to follow us and see where we're going.’’

I finally looked around and my breath caught. Strategically placed lights illuminated the remains of an ancient castle, church, courtyard, and tower. Some of the structures looked fully restored, like the brick-based pale tower, but others had crumbled. Railed walkways and signs showed that these ruins were a tourist haunt, but the modern insertions looked out of place amidst the aged brick and stone. I could almost feel the ancient remains throb with the essence of thousands of memories, but I didn't reach out. I stayed still, drinking in the beauty around me, the wind and noises from the nearby highway the only sounds aside from my fog-flumed breaths.

’’The Royal Court of Targoviste.’’ Something lurked in Vlad's tone that I couldn't put a name to. ’’I never thought to return here, but this is where I buried Szilagyi's remains.’’

I stared at Vlad, thinking how right he looked in these surroundings. His lean, rough handsomeness, wind-whipped dark hair, and determined expression held as much barbaric splendor as the former medieval palace. In many ways, Vlad reminded me of these ruins;an untamed slice of the past amidst the veneer of modern civilization.

’’This was where you lived when you were prince?’’

He gave me a brief, jaded smile. ’’Not for long. My time as voivode was spent trying to keep Wallachia from falling prey to her enemies. It left little room for relaxing at court.’’

Then he started walking toward the tower, hopping over a half-crumbled wall and holding out his hand to me.

I gave him a look as I ignored his hand and leapt over the wall with the same ease as him. ’’Former gymnast, remember?’’

Another sardonic smile. ’’I do, but not because you told me. You never speak of your time before the accident.’’

Walked right into that one, I thought as I picked my way through the dilapidated courtyard. Earlier, he'd offered to answer any question I asked him. Too late, I realized that offer came with hooks. But if I was willing to do the asking, I couldn't chicken out on answering when it was my turn.

’’As a child, I was very good at gymnastics.’’ He'd already filched this from my mind, but it seemed he wanted to hear it the regular way. ’’So good that when I was thirteen, I won the chance to compete for a spot on the Olympic team. Problem was, at the same time, my dad got a change of duty station to Germany. He could go unaccompanied for one year, or take all of us with him for three years. If we went, I'd lose my coach, my training facility . . . basically my best shot at the team.’’

We were at the perimeter of the tower now. Signs around it advertised in Romanian and English that inside was the ’’real’’ story of Vlad Dracul, complete with a picture that looked nothing like the man standing next to me. Vlad went around to the back of the tower, beckoning me to follow.

I did, tucking my hands into my coat. Even through my gloves, the cold was biting. Vlad knelt at the base of the tower, running his fingers along the faded bricks.

’’Szilagyi's sword struck here when he attempted to take my head off,’’ he said, indicating a crack that I hadn't noticed until he tapped it. Then he rose, pivoted, and took six long strides in the opposite direction before kneeling again.

’’And here is where I buried him.’’ He began clearing away the snow. I was about to ask why he hadn't brought a shovel when he shoved his hands through the frozen earth with enough force to make the ground shudder.

Yeah, a shovel would be a little redundant.

I watched him dig with a sense of relief that ended when he said, ’’And then what?’’ in a tone that dared me not to answer.

My snort blew out a plume of white. ’’You want to dig up the past metaphorically and literally at the same time?’’

His eyes glowed green through the veil of his hair as he glanced up at me. ’’Call me a multitasker.’’

It wasn't because he'd offered to tell me anything that I answered him. It was because he hadn't shied away from his darkest sin when confronted with it, so how could keep refusing to talk about mine?

’’I begged for him to take the one year unaccompanied, or to let me live with my aunt Brenda so I could still compete in the tryouts. Making the team was all I cared about, and I was so mad that my dad would let his job ruin everything.’’ Bitter sigh at how stupid I'd been. ’’My mother refused both options, said that nothing was more important than our family sticking together. That's when I told her what I'd found a week before when I rummaged through my dad's foot locker looking for camping gear.’’

Vlad had dug more than three feet down, piles of earth he tossed aside dark smudges against the snow. As soon as I stopped speaking, he paused, that commanding stare leveled on me.

’’For a smart man, he was dumb for leaving a crumpled-up letter from a woman he'd slept with at the bottom of his duffel bag,’’ I continued. ’’I told my mom about dad cheating-not because I thought she had a right to know, but as revenge on him for ruining my Olympics dream, and on her for refusing to let me stay at my aunt's. That's who I was. A pathologically narcissistic bitch.’’

Vlad hadn't resumed digging, but he still knelt in the snow, staring up at me with the oddest expression. It took me several seconds to realize what. Sympathy. No wonder I hadn't recognized it. I'd never seen him show that emotion before.

Choked laugh. ’’This is what you finally feel pity over?’’

’’You were a spoiled child who did a cruel thing. You deserved to be beaten and confined to your room, but you didn't deserve to lose everything.’’

I swiped at the sudden wetness near my eyes. ’’Oh? I wanted to stay with my aunt, and I got my wish. My mom, sister, and I moved in with Aunt Brenda when she told my dad to go to Germany unaccompanied while she figured out what to do. Then a month later, tornados knocked a bunch of trees down in our neighborhood. Afterward, I heard a dog whining in the yard. It was so weird;the dog just sat there, tree limbs all around him. I didn't see the downed power line. I went to clear the debris away . . . and the next thing I knew, I woke up in a hospital.’’ Harsh sigh. ’’The doctors said I was lucky the shock knocked me across the yard. Otherwise, I'd have burned to a crisp while stuck to that power line. But what no one could explain was why my mother died from the leftover voltage in my body when she tried to help me, yet that same voltage didn't kill me.’’

’’Why?’’ Vlad's lips curled, his sympathetic expression gone. ’’Some things just are, Leila. You survived. She didn't. Wondering why is as irrelevant as it is futile.’’

After everything I'd experienced, I knew that to be true. Yet it didn't make the pain of my mother's death go away, let alone my guilt over how I'd ripped my family apart.

Vlad began digging again. Either he was impatient or the ground wasn't as frozen farther down because his progress was faster.

’’Again you're being naive. Your father's infidelity ripped your family apart. You were merely the messenger.’’

I'd never told anyone this next part, and it took two tries before I could force the words past my newly tight throat.

’’He wanted to work things out. He cheated on my mom, but he still loved her, and when she died . . . part of him blamed me so much that he avoided me. He never said that, but I saw it when I touched him.’’ My voice cracked. ’’It's his worst sin.’’

Vlad abandoned his digging and rose, but I held out a hand. ’’Don't. Right now I need you to be cold. If you're not, then I have to remember how much that hurt, and I don't want to.’’

The words were ragged, but I'd managed to stop the tears, at least. Vlad stared at me for a long moment, his expression unreadable. At last he knelt and began digging again. A few minutes and a taller pile of dirt later, he let out a grunt and then pulled something long and whitish from the hole.

A bone.

’’Right where you're supposed to be,’’ Vlad muttered.

It did seem to be undeniable proof that Szilagyi couldn't be the puppet master, but I came closer, holding out my hand.

’’Let's make sure.’’

His brow arched, but he placed the bone in my right hand.

At once, echoes of the man's agonizing last moments washed over me. He'd been burned to death, which I expected, but I didn't see Vlad's face through the flames. I saw the puppet master's, his face haggard and gray-streaked hair much longer, but his features were unmistakable. Another jumble of images replaced those in rapid succession, showing a benign sin, long days spent farming the land, and small children playing by a mud-walled house. A name kept reverberating throughout the memories. Josef. This was all wrong.

When I clawed my way back to that fiery death again, I saw what I'd missed the first time in the jumble of pain and panic. The puppet master was wearing the ring I'd seen when he ordered my attack, only here, he was doing his own dirty work. The man buried here was named Josef, and he'd been burned to death by the same vampire who had recently tried to kill me.

Chapter 29

Once again, I found myself surrounded by vampires while trying to find a killer through the essence trail left from the man he'd murdered. But this time, I wasn't being forced. Despite the late hour and being exhausted, I wanted to find this bastard now, not later. I would've started looking next to that grave except Vlad insisted that we return to his castle.

When I found the essence thread leading to Josef's murderer, I followed it. The tapestry room with its large fireplace and exquisite wall coverings fell away, replaced by what looked like the inside of a cement box. With the all-gray colors of the room, for a second, I thought I'd stumbled upon a past memory. Then I saw the brown wooden door with thick black iron hinges. Color images, no haziness. That meant I was in the present. In the corner of the drab room, underneath a blanket-sized fur pelt, was the elusive puppet master, asleep.

Or, if my guess was correct, Josef's murderer and the orchestrator of my kidnapping was Mihaly Szilagyi-the vampire Vlad thought he'd killed centuries ago.

’’Got him,’’ I said out loud.

The vampire's eyes snapped open, deep brown and piercing. Now that he was in color, I saw that the streaks in his hair were blond, not gray. The lines in his face also looked less pronounced, but maybe that was because he wasn't scowling like the other times I'd seen him. His complexion was typical vampire pale, but his cheeks held a faint tinge of color. He must have fed recently. Marty had always looked flushed after a good meal.

’’How unexpected,’’ the puppet master drawled with the same faint accent that Vlad had.

I glanced at the wooden door, but it was still closed. Prickles of fear danced up my spine. Vlad would have told me if he was a mind reader, I tried to reassure myself.

The vampire stretched as though waking up from a nap. ’’Much can change in three hundred years, my little psychic spy.’’

Oh, crap! ’’We have a problem,’’ I said out loud. ’’He's like you, Vlad. He can hear me in his head.’’

Vlad muttered a curse, but I seized upon the only defense I had. At once, I began to mentally blast the most annoying eighties song I could think of. The vampire winced.

’’Stop that.’’

I turned up the volume in my head instead. Thank you, Bones! ’’Mihaly Szilagyi,’’ I said aloud, ’’you've been found out in more ways than one.’’

I was guessing, but thanks to that song blasting away in my mind, the vampire didn't know that. He threw aside his blanket, revealing that he wore black sweat pants and a thick pullover sweater. Then he got up, a mocking smile on his lips.

’’Capturing you has surely backfired on me. At least now I know how Vlad located you so quickly. I worried that I had a traitor in my midst, but your abilities are truly extraordinary.’’

’’So I've been told,’’ I replied, still mentally jamming out.

Another wince. ’’Must you keep thinking of that wretched song? It was unbearable even when it was new.’’

’’How'd you do it?’’ I asked, not really expecting an answer. ’’Survive Vlad? He normally leaves behind nothing more than a pile of ash.’’

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