Actions

Work Header

Search the Darkness

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

Search the Darkness

"Life's water flows from darkness.
Search the darkness don't run from it.

Night travelers are full of light,
and you are, too; don't leave this companionship."

-"Search the Darkness", Rumi



 

Chapter 1: One Too Many Times

"For even he who is most greedy for knowledge can achieve no greater perfection than to be thoroughly aware of his own ignorance in his particular field. The more be known, the more aware he will be of his ignorance." -Nicholas of Cusa


 

"Hold the candle."

"I'm not a stranger," Lisa protested.

"You're not family: you hold the candle," Mirela insisted.

The corpse lay before them on the worn pallet. Tradition was tradition and the candle was placed in Lisa's hands. The only thing the tallow candle would successfully accomplish was smoke up the room, but she did not dare put it down. The doctor said nothing: it was the least she could do after everything.

"Ah, Tudor," Mirela lamented in a whisper, hanging a pair of fresh trousers for the eventual burial over the back of a chair. "You couldn't wait until harvest time ended."

Lisa stared at the dead man's weather-beaten face. Her hand had just brushed his eyelids over his glassy stare. She'd liked the farmer. He was one of the few who defended her in Lupu.

Ioana burst through the front door.

"Father Vasile is here."

Lisa examined the wiry girl: Ioana has been bursting through front doors quite a bit today— including earlier, when she'd fetched Lisa, begging her to trudge the three miles from her one-room cottage to the farm:

"Come! Come! He has been asking for you and we don't know what else to do!" In Ioana's statement, a veiled insult. The doctor had learned to rise above those and consider the more pressing desperation, instead.

"How bad is it?" Lisa pulled her worn cloak tightly around her.

"Very bad—two nights ago he started coughing up blood."

"Two nights!" Lisa scolded her. "Why did you wait so long?"

"Mother wanted to call Father Vasile today to administer the Last Rites." Ioana took galloping, hurried steps up the lane. "But I—I am not ready to give up yet!" The sharp glance she shot Lisa was enough: it revealed a tenacity and defiance she could appreciate. Both women fell into silent complicity and picked up their pace.


The expression of pious pity Father Vasile was wearing when he crossed the threshold soured upon finding Lisa there. Lisa suspected that in his eyes, at that moment, she embodied every poisonous accusation he'd ever conjured of her: she was disheveled, shabbily dressed, haggard, and wielding a candle while standing over a corpse. She couldn't have looked more in character than if she had actually been a witch. Of course, when his eyes landed on the water pail by the hearth and found it covered with a cloth ("the heavy mantle of superstition!" he liked to preach), as the custom to usher the dead dictated, he would undoubtedly blame her wicked influence and counsel.

If only he understood the irony of such an accusation against me, of all people. I suppose he doesn't bother wasting time in distinguishing among everything he dislikes. Lisa stood straighter, gripping the malodorous candle. Prig, she thought fiercely, fully meeting his disdainful gaze.

She remained still through the priest's administration of Extreme Unction, only raising her eyes slightly when he smeared a dab of oil on Tudor's forehead.

"Per istam sanctan unctionem et suam piissimam misericordiam, indulgeat tibi Dominus —"

Lisa tore her gaze away, stung by the realization that she knew the words by heart.

Our paths cross far too often. Her eyes trailed the hem of the priest's gown.

She had exhausted her small arsenal of remedies—an arsenal she struggled constantly to keep replenished, that she was often replacing or discarding according to observations, studies, and the too-rare exchanges with the occasional healer traveling through the region. She had optimistically believed Tudor could recover. Had it been belief? Or just hope? Earlier on in the evening he appeared to take a turn for the better: his waxen face regained color and he had even asked for something to eat. Had she been less experienced, she could've forgiven herself for failing to acknowledge the obvious: it was merely that curious phenomenon of lucidity so many of the dying experienced moments, sometimes even hours, before their bodies failed terminally.

And the end had been harrowing: Tudor had suffocated. He'd faded into unconsciousness gasping for air, his eyes bulging wide, terrified and pleading.

And what had she done as his body turned on him so viciously and he struggled to inhale lungfuls of air? The only thing she could think of: prop him up, circle his heaving chest with her arms, and violently thrust him upwards, as if there were anything to dislodge from the man's airways, as if she could expel illness through force and will alone. He did not fight her as she tried—he believed in her. Or perhaps he took comfort in her efforts—at least it was something concrete that didn't consist of murmured prayers that sought to appease a convulsing body.

She let her head hang with shame. When it had been needed the most, when it had mattered, her knowledge had been paltry. In the end, she shuddered, she'd been as useful as the priest.


Lisa was too tired and defeated to walk back home. The windows of the tavern at the inn on the outskirts of the village blazed brightly against the night sky, beckoning her to stop for a spell.

"Give me a cup of palincă."

"Are you paying in aspiri or something else?" The innkeeper barely looked up at her.

She fingered her meager coin pouch: she was always broke in any currency, but she would rather go hungry for a meal if it meant some consolation that evening. She slapped a silver coin down on the countertop.

Loud, raucous laughter erupted behind her.

Best to stay here and avoid trouble.

"Rough night?" he asked, setting down a generous cup of amber liquor before her.

"Mm." The cup reached her lips and her mouth and throat were aflame after a few sips. Ah, I do need this very much right now.

"Aren't you that healer woman?" He squinted at her.

She nodded once.

"What brings you this way?"

"You mean 'who'." She put the cup down. "I was tending to Tudor, the farmer."

"How is he?" The innkeeper folded his arms over the counter and leaned toward her just as one of the villagers traipsed closer to the bar, the handle of his empty tankard dangling from his hand.

"Good bashtard, that Tudor—'aven't sheen 'im in a while!" the man slurred loudly.

"He died just an hour or so ago." She cupped her drink between her hands. "I'm sorry," she added perfunctorily.

"Dead?" the drunk grumbled. "But how?…He was jusht 'ere! Jusht…a week ago?" He turned unsteadily toward the room and boomed out his announcement to the remaining patrons, "Tudor'shs dead."

The tavern fell silent at the news, card players placing their decks face down and turning their heads toward the bar.

"God rest his soul," someone declared.

Some hands flew up to cross themselves and the drunk swayed, growing visibly melancholy.

Lisa pressed her lips.

"Tell me something.' She turned around, addressing the men. "Those of you who had seen Tudor recently: try to remember. How was he?"

The men exchanged puzzled glances.

"I don't know…He was just…Tudor."

"Why do you ask?" one of the card players asked her more pointedly.

"I wonder what Mirela is goin' to do now. An' right durin' harvest time," the drunk bemoaned, plunking down his tankard. "Ah, Tudor, Tudor…"

"Did he look well? Was he coughing?" Lisa pressed on.

The men searched each other's faces as if trying to jar one another's memories.

"He was complaining about a having caught cold." A stout gambler pat his chest.

"Yes, yes: he was coughing. Remember? Whenever he laughed too hard."

A cold…a lingering cough. The infection lodged itself in Tudor's lungs. Why, Lisa? He was always outdoors—a robust old goat.

"It was the woods," the drunk confided, tapping his finger knowingly below his eye. "The woods are curshed."

The revelation hung heavily in the room despite the drunken drawl—the men turned away, unwilling to comment.

"What curse?" Lisa provoked.

"The fire-fallow," the drunkard began, "the Voivode…he shaid to clear the land. Nobody! None of us wanted to do it!" He teetered to the side, brushing against the bar, his eyes swimming, unfocused. "Tudor did it, though. He went—shtayed through it all until the shwidden was ready."

"They're old woods. Should've let them be." The innkeeper shook his head.

"Curshed," the drunkard mouthed. "To the grave."

Lisa thought she was beginning to understand what had happened. It was the smoke. Tudor probably inhaled too much and it irritated his lungs even more.

"It was not a curse." Why did she feel the need to provide those folk with an explanation? "It was the smoke from the fire-fallow—it made his sickness worse.

"It is a cursh," the drunk insisted.

Why did such statements feel like a call to arms? She did not want to be dragged into that argument anymore. Cursed woods and wishful thinking. How could people live like that? Satisfied with so much ignorance and easy credulity. She was not going to succeed in undoing centuries of ignorance in one night in a tavern full of men in various states of sobriety. And yet…she was determined to make her point.

"It was just smoke." She held her ground. The drunk blinked at her.

"Did the shmoke kill him?" He squinted.

"It certainly didn't help him."

"An' where did the shmoke come from?" he challenged her.

She grimaced, unsure of where that rambling would take them.

"From the trees—" she began.

"The trees!" The drunk nodded gravely. "The trees: the trees are curshed!" His eyes widened dramatically before he stabbed the counter with his index finger. "Another round."

Lisa took another swig of her drink, deep exhaustion overcoming her.


"Lisa!" one of the men called after her when she stepped out of the tavern and took to the road. A long walk waited ahead of her. Even with her dagger's pommel firmly pressed into her hand she was uneasy. But unlike her fellow villagers, she didn't worry about devils, strigoi, or other malevolent creatures lurking in the dark.

Her fear was of the living.

So, when the man called her and breached the distance between them, she stiffened, on alert, and wary of who'd be seeking her out at that hour.

"What can I do for you?" she asked gruffly, despite the pounding in her chest.

"You don't remember me?"

She barely slowed down to make out his features. With a brisk shake of her head she resumed her quick step, acutely aware they were alone.

"It's Andrei— Andrei, Florin's son?" he insisted. "You healed me. A sword wound." He tried to keep up with her as she scuttled down the road. "It festered, remember? You healed me."

Of course she remembered. Andrei was one the young men in the village who'd been pressed into fighting during a border skirmish between boyars—he'd been stabbed during combat and someone had staunched the bleeding from his abdomen with a filthy saddle blanket. By the time she'd been called, the wound had grown infected. Only an ointment made of honey succeeded in staving off the infection and kept it from spreading and poisoning his blood. It had taken a while, but he'd made a complete recovery.

"I'm glad you are well," she told him more gently.

"I was the one who told Ioana to go get you."

She turned to look at him more carefully.

"I told her this, 'Ioana, your father is asking you and I am going to tell you now and you better believe me when I say: if it hadn't been for Lisa, I would have died.' I said it just like that, because, you see, she wouldn't have gone to get you: her mother thinks what the priest thinks."

Her heart sank a little. As grateful as she was for his trust, she had failed.

"That's very kind of you to say, but the truth is, I wasn't able to help Tudor."

"Ah, that: those two, they're two mules! They waited too long." He continued walking alongside her. "Of course, I didn't say that to Ioana," he admitted sheepishly.

She smiled sadly.

"I don't think that is the only problem. Sometimes there are illnesses I recognize but that I do not know how to cure." She yanked the strap of her satchel over her shoulder roughly. "I just don't know enough." At his silence, she added, "I wish I did. I wish I were of greater aid. I wish there was somewhere I could go to learn."

"Go to…Targoviste! Apprentice with a master."

"Ah, Andrei." She stared ahead. "It's not possible."

"What about the midwife?"

"I trained with her—but there are more people in addition to birthing women who need help. I want to be able to treat anyone in need: women, men, children, the elderly…"

"And fools with swords?" he asked playfully.

He was sweet. She smiled again.

"I'll just do my best, right?" That matter was her problem: she didn't have to burden the young man with it.

He continued walking by her side.

"Lisa," he began slowly. "And if there was a way for you to learn more…would you be interested?"

"I told you already: I can't—"

He spoke in a hushed voice even though they were alone.

"I know where you can go."

She inhaled deeply. It was a conversation she'd held often before. It was usually some version of the same well-intentioned but tired advice: go to one of the bigger cities, seek out a certain master or a specific school. She had grown weary of repeating how she was too old to be apprenticed to anyone, how she could not afford such an endeavor, or how most of those institutions did not accept women, and even if they did, she suspected, they weren't that advanced in their understanding of how the human body reacted to various illnesses and conditions. Even her cherished and prized copy of Hildegard von Bingen's Physica, a precious gift she had inherited from her mentor and teacher, was not something she followed blindly.

"It might not be easy, he began."

Lisa listened mostly out of a sense of gratitude: it wasn't often that people appreciated her efforts and services.

"In fact, it will probably be very risky."

"Really?" Lisa humored him.

"My grandfather used to tell us stories. They were about a great…I don't know if he was a warlord—but folk claimed he was powerful and immortal and knew all of life's secrets."

Her heart sank, but she wouldn't interrupt him.

"Where did this great lord live?"

"Oh, in a big castle. It was said to be filled with the world's greatest wonders."

The real wonder is how a grown man can believe in such fairytales

"My grandfather was never certain where the castle was. Sometimes he thought it was somewhere near Brașov, but other times he claimed the castle's location…could shift; it would appear or disappear on a whim…"

"Is that so?" She smirked. "That could make visits difficult, no?"

"It's somewhere in the mountains. Further south, as far as Wallachia." He waved his hand across the air. "And my grandfather said it had hundreds and hundreds of rooms filled with rare books."

"Ah!" That sounds lovely. At least this is a pleasant legend.

"It was said the lord had a gold and silver…" Andrei paused, searching for the word. "Like a big…cannon. But it wasn't a cannon. You could peer into the sky through it and see the stars and the moon so close, you'd think you could just reach out and pluck them from the sky!"

"Like magic." She sighed.

"It was a clever thing—it was filled with special glass that made everything look bigger and came from as far away as Constantinople."

Her head snapped up.

Curious.

"And he said the warlord could pull down a lever to create lightning that danced in an iron cage."

Lisa's brow furrowed. That was no ordinary magical fairytale. It had echoes of something far more interesting.

Science.

"Andrei, walk me home and tell me all you remember about this castle."

Chapter Text

"When I investigate and when I discover that the forces of the heavens and the planets are within ourselves, then truly I seem to be living among the gods." -Leon Battista Alberti


There it was, in all its sinister glory.

Lisa had initially convinced herself that Andrei's tale was simply a fanciful story that had been embellished over the years. But there were things she knew a serf could not have concocted out of thin air. Had the story been merely the whimsical and wondrous fantasies of a poor man, then the story would have remained focused on lavish banquets, opulent surroundings, perhaps beautiful ladies—a catalogue of longing: of things poor servants could never achieve. Instead, Andrei's accounts, however, were all about strange contraptions found in the castle. The large tube to peer into the sky intrigued her: not because of its lofty aim—to peer into the heavens as if it were the eye of God—but because it had been explained to her not as some magical artifact, but as a clever tool made of glass that had been shaped and curved, she remembered, to reflect and project… And the lightning—it danced along a metal cage, sparked into existence not by fingers snapping but by a lever and pistons. Everything that had materialized before Andrei's grandfather's eyes had not been done through conjuring or spell casting, but through clever, mechanical devices.

Legend often possessed a kernel of truth, Lisa knew. While she dismissed the bit about the immortal lord, she wondered hopefully if hidden in the Carpathians she'd find a fellowship, an order, a group of scholars whose advanced studies had to remain hidden from the Church's scrutiny.

Andrei's story lingered in her thoughts long after the night of Tudor's death. Lisa often thought of it after a long day of tending to the sick, collecting herbs, or studying her few books at candlelight long into the night. When Father Vasile was called to Gresit to serve as bishop, something shifted within Lisa. She grew restless. As much as it was a relief to have the man gone from Lupu, she couldn't let go of the conviction that if he grew more powerful in his command of the faithful, so should people like herself, to combat ignorance and superstition.

To leave everything behind to chase a legend was counterintuitive—practically a rift in her logic. All she had to go on were stories: a castle somewhere in the mountains, marvelous devices that conformed to the laws of the nature… But even if it wasn't as true as Andrei had said, perhaps what she would find would bring her solace. Or at least settle the mysterious matter once and for all.

At best, she hoped she would find herself among those who shared her thirst for knowledge; she would be among kindred spirits.

Perhaps, she thought, quickly dismissing the sadness that surfaced at the thought, she would no longer be alone.


Lisa paid to travel with small merchant caravans. There was safety in numbers and she was grateful for the campfires at night that provided her with warmth and shelter. Her trusty dagger remained within reach at all times.

On the third day of travel, early in the morning, she made out the solitary outline of a gargantuan castle in the morning fog. It was unlike any of the castles and estates they had passed during their crossing.

"What is that?" she pointed toward the horizon, asking one of the leaders of the caravan. He peered into the distance and stared for a moment.

"Strange." He dragged his finger over his map. "I don't remember ever seeing this before."

"It's probably been hidden by the fog," someone else remarked.

"Let's go." The caravan leader shivered.

"This is where we part ways." Lisa hauled up her satchel and waved.


The castle loomed in the distance, towering, soaring up impossibly. She'd spent the entire day slowly descending the mountain toward the valley leading to the eerie peak the castle perched on, entrenched in the rock, its narrow steps hewn into the stone.

It had taken her longer than she expected to reach the valley. She moved slowly, mindful of her footing so she wouldn't trip and end up hurtling down the jagged rocks. When the sunset tinged the sky in vermillion streaks and luminous gold, Lisa knew there was no turning back. Her canteen had run dry an hour earlier and the sky would turn dark soon. The castle would have to be her shelter for the night—whether or not it was inhabited.


What transgressions could ever warrant this? she shuddered, walking along the long black pikes adorned with impaled skeletons. They lined the desolate path with no end in immediate sight. The pikes grotesquely skewered the skeletons through ribcages, eye sockets, and gaping maws. It was a tableau of agony…and ruthlessness.

Where am I?

Warlords had always plagued the land—their history was a compendium of invasions, power struggles between Ottomans, Saxons, Hungarians, and Wallachian boyars who ensured that people accepted their lives on the path of war.

The shadows of the pikes grew longer as the sun began its final descent into night.

I shouldn't have come.

She gasped when a sharp screech burst overhead and a breezy rush passed her, close to her head. A black blur dipped out of her sight further ahead. A second one immediately followed and Lisa cringed.

Bats.

Bats flew past her on the right and Lisa raised her arm to shield her head. Several more coursed by her left side. She grit her teeth as they poured into the valley, weaving above and around her in a black cloud that darkened the sky.

Even if I had any plans to retreat, she peered over her shoulder at the now distant forest entrance, I would have just been forced to forfeit them. The only path she could follow was forward— to the castle's imposing entrance.

She stepped forth steadily, head ducked, her cloak wrapped tightly around her. The bats narrowly avoided her in their frantic rush to take to the night. Her feet negotiated each narrow stone step leading up.

So many steps, she groused.

The cloud of bats gradually thinned— their sharp screeches fading. She was relieved that none but one had tried to latch onto her, clawing at her shielding arms. She'd been forced to draw her dagger and stab the creature to stave it off.

The others had long flown off as she stared at the dead bat, its small, beady eyes glassy and blood red.

"Ugh," she grumbled softly, reaching for an astringent she kept in her satchel. She checked her arm for any wounds and was grateful for her cloak, threadbare as it was. She poured a bit down the blade, washing the stains of blood off onto the stone landing. When she raised her eyes, she caught the last of the swarm dispersing, their oppressive cloud thinning.

She'd been so focused on making her way up the steps that she hadn't had time to process how daunting her mission had just become. She stood in awe before a massive, arched stone door, etched with deep grooves. It soared above her endlessly, it seemed. If she tipped her head further back, she could take in the last rays of sun lighting the sharp, horizontal architecture of the castle: towers sat in the air, apparently weightless, and arches curved into the clouds. Candlelight danced behind the latticed windows, blurry and ghostly.

She stared for a moment, feeling her resolve wane. Lisa was acutely aware of her fear.

What am I afraid of? As far as I can see, my life is in no imminent danger.

It must be fear of the unknown, she surmised.

Her brow furrowed.

Well, there is only one way to remedy that! What is unknown must become known, she concluded. I will not allow ignorance to defeat me.

She inhaled deeply and curled her fingers into a hard fist to strike the door, letting the sound reverberate, hoping it would echo into the massive building.

She swallowed with a hard gulp.

There. Now it is too late to turn back.

Before she could lose her nerve, the doors cracked open, creaking heavily. Snapping hinges groaned and the heavy clang of what she presumed were weights resounded. She stood before the open passage ushering her in. She clutched her dagger and boldly stepped forward.


He had been aware of her presence the moment she entered his domain.

He had a million eyes throughout the valley, inside and outside the castle, reporting back to him in hushed awareness.

One solitary woman. He exhaled heavily. What did this one seek? Revenge? Riches? Power? He'd lost track of the days, the weeks, the months in that suspended state he lingered in. He could not recall the face of the last mortal who'd crossed his threshold.

If he closed his eyes, he could watch her approach the castle—a grown woman in a heavy traveler's cloak, her disheveled hair hanging in a loose plait framing a grave face. She had armed herself—with a… dagger! he noted with twinge of wry amusement. She was either a fool or an optimist, although time had taught him that one was indistinguishable from the other.

He would receive her, he decided. I will meet this one. If only for his own sport. After all, it would break up the monotonous cycle of those infinite days slipping into even longer nights.


Lisa's eyes grew accustomed to the gloominess of the stately hall the further she wandered inside. Candelabras lined her path down a sleek, polished stone hall as she stepped over a long red and gold runner leading up to an elaborate stairwell. She peered about in awe, finding herself surrounded by a cold, stern opulence. As she made her way down the hall slowly, she could not shake the ominous impression she was being observed.

She was jolted from her thoughts as the massive doors behind her shut—quicker and more silently than when they had parted earlier.

No way out. She clenched her teeth and raised her dagger. Her eyes searched the darkness until they found a large, ghostly figure towering overhead, peering down at her from the stairwell.

She froze, her eyes blinking incredulously. Andrei's voice came back to her, almost tauntingly: …old stories of a great lord who has understood all of life's secrets.

From where she stood, she could only make out a large stately form swathed in black. For a brief moment, she believed she had been startled by a statue.

Lisa very deliberately made a show of taking her dagger and sheathing it. It was a gesture of appeasement she hoped wouldn't end up costing her too dearly.

"My name is Lisa," she declared in a clear, steady voice. "I am from the village of Lupu." At the unnerving silence she was met with, she continued. "I want to be a doctor."

The figure shifted, sleek as smoke. Her eyes followed it until it seemed to vanish. She continued to search the stairwell for a sign until she was startled by a deep voice just above her. It reminded her of the low warning growl of wolves and she stiffened in alarm.

"You bang on my front door because you want to daub chicken blood on peasants," he accused in a hushed tone. He moved fluidly, gracefully, fading again from her sight before she could examine him closer.

How?…she puzzled. Wait…Daub chicken blood on peasants? She gathered her wits and her brow furrowed again. Her indignation was a powerful antidote against any apprehension. He had not even listened to what she had to say and already he passed judgment on her. That wouldn't do.

"Don't mistake me for a witch!" she warned. "Everybody out there already does that!" She clenched her fist. "I believe in science, but…" The rustling of fabric alerted her to a presence lurking to her left. "I need to know more," she asserted.


He balked, sensing an interesting shift in his visitor. He knew fear, had become familiar with its stench, had reveled in evoking it, only to extinguish it. What he sensed was different, interesting. He recognized it, as well: audacity.

Her words lingered between them, full of defiance.

And there was something else there, too. A plea. It was subtle and delicate, masked by a certain wariness. She had asked him to hear her out, to withhold judgement.

How bold of you…

Very well: let me see what you are made of.


"I've exhausted my other options," she proceeded, her mind suddenly far away, back in Lupu, thinking of Tudor, of the unctuous priest, of all her lost battles. "And all the stories say the man who lives here has secret knowledge."

She froze in place when the tall figure stepped out from the shadows behind her and leaned closer. He spoke into her ear, his breath tickling her neck.

"I am Vlad Dracula Țepeș," he announced. "And I do not get many visitors. What do you have to trade for my knowledge, Lisa from Lupu?"


It was a wicked weakness, he knew, one he liked to tease himself with—a delicacy. His acute senses honed on the warm scent emanating from her skin, the steady pulse, the thrumming of her heartbeat. He raised a menacing hand in the shadows, ready to seize her by the shoulder, the tips of his sharp teeth brushing against his lower lip.

It wasn't an unpleasant way to die, he knew. He'd grant her that much, at least.


Perhaps it was exhaustion verging on the feverish, but she stepped away from her host to whirl around and face him.

Wise hermit though he may be, a dearth of visitors is no excuse to forget one's basic sense of decency and hospitality.

"Perhaps I could help you relearn some manners!" she scolded him, for a moment too incensed to make note of how he towered over her, how his eyes gave off an unsettling red hue, his pallor reminiscent of alabaster.

She was, after all, quite tired from her trip.

And from everything else.


What is this? He straightened up, mystified, peering down at that insolent mortal woman.

No fear.

"I've crossed the threshold of your home, and you haven't offered me a drink or even to take my coat."

Such pique! He hadn't expected it from her. She demanded he extend to her the simple rites of hospitality—as if he were what? A mere, simple—

An ordinary man.

Not the infinitely ancient and cursed fiend who'd lived too long and learned too much. Armies had crumbled at his feet, conquerors of empires once groveled before him begging for a modicum of mercy.

And here was an uppity peasant woman lecturing him about the finer points of hospitality. Did she not realize who he was? The complete abyss she was standing before?

He could not decide if what he felt was outrage or awe. He'd become unaccustomed to either.

Ah, Lisa of Lupu, he marveled. I think I'm enjoying too much the way you see me, the way you talk to me.

"What if I took a drink from you?" he stepped forward. "Or have you loaded yourself with silver, crosses, and garlic in superstitious fear?" he challenged her.

At last he saw unease flash across her clear blue eyes. Her hand flew up to her lips. Ah. Perhaps I was right about you after all. You are just another foolish—

"I might have eaten some roasted garlic earlier," she admitted worriedly, her hand shielding her mouth.

He blinked in surprise.

"Was that rude?" She appeared so distraught at the realization. "I-it was all I had left."

Ever curious. Her mortification touched him as much as it amused him. He found he could not avert his eyes from her for even a moment. He chuckled lightly, the edge of his lips curling into a half grin.

"I'm really not interested in superstition, or being some muttering wise woman." He began to circle her slowly, fascinated by his visitor, "or cheating people with boiled nettles and entrails." She paused, pressing her lips tightly. "I want to heal people," she declared at last. "I want to learn." She turned those limpid eyes to him and in them he saw an enticing depth. "Will you help me?" she asked, with devastating earnestness.

Their gazes locked and he contemplated her thoughtfully.


Simple enough. Yes or no, she thought nervously. He doesn't have to agree, but at least he'll understand who I am and why I came here.

That he understand had suddenly become very important. She did not want him to have the wrong impression of her. It was very important. She suddenly could not bear that such a remarkable, impressive man, who undoubtedly possessed knowledge the likes of which would expand her own, should think she was nothing more than a superstitious spell caster or some greedy fortune seeker creeping about ruins for abandoned treasure.

Lisa wanted him to see her as an equal: a fellow scientist.

She held her breath, watching him pace about her, his long black cloak trailing over the rug.

She endured his hard scrutiny as he clasped his hands behind his back.

"You are definitely different to most humans I have met in recent times."

What do you have to trade for my knowledge? he'd asked her earlier.

"Maybe I can teach you to like people again," she suggested. But that would be a difficult task, she realized. She often felt it was a losing battle herself. "Or at least tolerate them," she quickly amended.

He remained in silence.

People irked her, but nevertheless, she would never…

"Or stop putting them on sticks!" she chastised him.

At that he finally laughed, turning away.

"I gave that up a long time ago."

For a moment, she believed he was going to hide again in the shadows as he moved forward. Instead, he stopped, addressing her.

"Where is Lupu Village?" he wondered.

She scrambled to follow him.

"You don't travel much," she remarked.

"I can travel. This entire structure is a traveling machine." It was a strange but intriguing statement. She let her eyes glance about once more. When her gaze finally alighted back on him, she noticed that behind the stern face was a lingering heaviness…a sadness.

"But…you don't. Do you?"

Granted, he'd been asking about Lupu and Lupu wasn't Targoviste: one of the jokes in the region was that when Ottoman soldiers arrived at Lupu, they marched past it because they thought the entire village had been ransacked already… But still. She had the distinct impression Țepeș was a lonely, solitary man.

Perhaps it was a good thing she had gone there after all. She did not espouse such flighty notions such as fate or destiny: those belonged in the province of superstition and chicanery. But she was starting to believe that their meeting was something very fortuitous. She imagined that maybe she could help the solitary man reemerge into the world, find the good she sought to save and preserve.

If she could share that with him…It was worthwhile.

"Maybe you should. The world is changing. Travel like people do: you might like it!" she encouraged him.

He gazed at her inscrutably before sighing deeply.

"I've known you two minutes." He turned his head and stared forward. "And you offer for me to walk the earth like an ordinary peasant while I give you the knowledge of immortals." They had halted and he gallantly extended his arm toward a door, the room behind it slowly coming into view. "The true science."

She didn't know what thrilled her more: the room filled with beautiful contraptions, his indirect admission that he would take her on to study with him, or the playful reproach in his tone as he addressed her. Overhead she recognized a model: a simulation of the heavens. Her breath hitched. It was the Ptolomaic model, too: it did not place the earth at the center. Her heart soared.

She stepped about the room, overwhelmed, her eyes rapidly jumping from one object, one station, to the next. Her eyes brimmed with tears when she glimpsed the long, tubular device in gold, the large rod-like object aimed toward the sky. It is true. All of what your grandfather said was true, Andrei. She let her fingers lightly brush over the surface of the long table holding many glass jars, beakers and alembics employed in distilling formulas into receivers.

If she had to describe what that first impression had been like, she would have only been able to liken it to the description of mystics in ecstasy over spiritual communion. It was dizzying, beautiful, full of hope.

It was the truth. At least, the truth she believed in.


He had acted on impulse, but he did not regret it or take on such responsibility lightly. He observed Lisa wander about the laboratory with a look of utter delight and amazement. Her excitement was contagious. He found himself beginning to stir, awaken, his mind shaking off the torpid stillness it often slipped into. He thought of how he should begin—what he could show her first. An introduction. He needed to assess what she knew—after all, if he was going to shatter her assumptions, he had to understand what they were.

He liked that feeling. Of purpose, of importance.

"My," she uttered, dazzled, seeking him out. In her expression, a warmth and joy he could not remember ever been the recipient of in his long life. "They won't be peasants anymore if you teach them. They won't live such short, scared lives if they have real medicine!" she emphasized. She looked at the model of the heavens hanging overhead, the spheres swaying in their gentle orbits. "They won't be superstitious if they learn how the world really works."

An old defiance reared its head within him. He scoffed, his laughter less mirthful.

"Why should I do that?"

She approached him. She was revealing herself to be willful, indomitable.

"To make the world better," she decreed, unwaveringly.

"Start with me, she challenged him, raising her hand to her chest. "And I will start with you," she declared.


It was the fervor in her eyes, her unwavering faith in what she believed was unerringly right and just. She had come to him to ask him for something, but not for her own vain, self-aggrandizing purposes. It was "to make the world better." It was naive and idealistic, he knew. He had seen too much, learned otherwise. But…she had entered his home as if carried by the wind and disarmed him like the most potent storm. If he had learned anything from studying the world, its forces, laws, and rules, it was that all that was needed to unseat a hypothesis was one occurrence of something that contradicted everything observed and believed true until then.

And there she was: a lovely contradiction of everything dark and base he believed about humanity looking him in the eye and challenging him to change.

Such a chance did not offer itself too often anymore. His expression softened for the first time since she had arrived.

"I think I might like you." He politely bowed to her.

An alluring flush rose to her cheeks as she smiled to him, barely containing her excitement as she stepped further into the laboratory. He watched her, charmed, following slowly in her wake.

A night creature drawn to the light, he mused.

Chapter Text

"If it were customary to send maidens to school and teach them the same subjects as are taught to boys, they would learn just as fully and would understand the subtleties of all arts and sciences."- Christine de Pizan


Țepeș showed Lisa to her quarters. He escorted her down a long, silent hall until they reached a tall arched doorway. The hour was late, and while she did welcome a respite from all the discoveries she'd begun delving into with him that night, she regretted the evening had gone by so quickly. Țepeș, since her initial rebuke, had revealed himself to be a proper host, after all. He had brought her to a large dining room where she had her fill of roasted wild boar and red wine. She accosted him with questions throughout the meal on the different apparatuses she had seen and only noticed he had not partaken in any of the food laid out once she finished and glanced at his empty plate.

"I can at least help put these away," she offered, reaching for his dish. "As an apprentice, I should earn my keep, after all."

"Leave everything as is," he instructed her. "You aren't just an apprentice; you are my apprentice," he clarified. "Your time and energy will be spent elsewhere."

She released the edge of the plate uneasily; it struck her as odd that the dining room had been ready for them as if they had been expected. Yet, she hadn't seen a single servant announce his or her presence throughout the evening. She also noticed that each hallway, every stairway they took had been lit in anticipation of their visit.

The door opened into a large bedroom, its stone walls adorned with somber tapestries. A dark canopied bed, large and heavy, sat facing the wide hearth. A deep red coverlet lay beneath a heap of furs. Candles flickered and the hearth roared. The room was larger than her cottage back in Lupu, Lisa realized, as she caught Țepeș' gaze, ever watchful of her and her reactions.

"Is it to your liking?" He paced about, surveying the room.

"It is larger than any home I've ever had," she admitted. She wandered to the windows, popping open a latch and peering out into the crisp night. A brilliant waxing moon lit the landscape far below. She deliberately gazed toward the mountains, avoiding the valley, not wanting to see the impaled warriors.

"What's the nearest village?" she wondered. There were no signs of towns in any direction she searched.

He stepped up beside her; he appeared to be searching—probing his memory.

"Zerna?" he guessed uninterestedly.

"Never mind traveling the world—let's begin with leaving the castle grounds!" she teased him.

"And you would endeavor to be my guide?" He blinked slowly at her.

She grinned. "It'll be the blind leading the blind, in that case. I am not quite sure where I am."

He returned his impassive gaze to the night sky.

She leaned slightly forward. The thin wind blew icily against her fingers and cheeks. Standing there, beside him—she was acutely aware of Țepeș' imposing presence. He towered over her and she noted that the top of her head barely reached his shoulders. She glanced furtively at his elegant profile—she stared at the full lips beneath his mustache.

He is an interesting man, she decided. The next surreptitious look she attempted backfired, as she found Țepeș peering back at her, his eyes lighter in the glow of the firelight.

The flush coursing up her spine was not entirely unpleasant. It was, however, inappropriate and bothersome and she immediately stepped away from the window.


He found Lisa's presence soothing. He had enjoyed her company throughout the evening: she was witty, sharp… and surprising. He appreciated her inquisitiveness and how her need to understand, obtain a satisfactory answer superseded the traditional formalities between those of a different rank and gender. He was well aware he'd come under her scrutiny, sensing her probing gaze. Warmth rose enticingly from her skin along with a quickening heartbeat. When he caught her staring at him, she had averted her eyes, rapidly retreating into the room.

"I will take my leave now." He walked to the threshold. "Is there anything else?" he asked, turning away.

"No," she managed to reply. "And…good night," she added.

"Good night," he echoed.

Although he had not caught it, Lisa had smiled gently.


Țepeș was an unyielding and demanding taskmaster, Lisa realized after a few days.

She found the wonder she had initially been struck with become tempered by the enormity of the ambitious goal she had set for herself.

She had no complaints, however. She relished the challenge. If she ever felt her determination flagging, she simply imagined the pleasure of surprising Țepeș, of surpassing his expectations. He was still trying to gauge how quickly she learned and how much she could undertake.

On the first morning after her arrival, she had found a note slipped beneath her door. The succinct message informed her she would find food in the kitchen. He expected her to meet him in the laboratory for their first lesson at sundown.

She had ventured downstairs, unsure as to where to find this elusive kitchen he wrote of, disoriented by the many twists and turns of the castle.

"I need a spool of thread like Theseus, just to make my way around here," she huffed upon walking into a second dead-end.

She could find no servants, no other inhabitants whatsoever in the castle. The dining room from the previous night she managed to find by retracing her steps— but it sat empty: the long formal table sat bare, devoid of any trace of their presence the previous night—not even ash littered the hearth.

She didn't find the kitchen until much later— early in the afternoon. She expected to find some sign of activity—but all she discovered was another gloomy room: stony and cold and much older and unkempt than any of the other rooms she had glimpsed. The large fireplace loomed over the room undisturbed—an empty pot enmeshed in dusty cobwebs dejectedly tipped on its side at its center.

I suppose there must be another kitchen, she concluded. But the food Țepeș had promised her was there: a hearty loaf of bread, a tray of smoked meats, and some freshly picked berries. A goblet of mead sat before the serving plate. She fell upon the repast hungrily—the meals she had enjoyed there so far were more satisfying than any of the ones she had managed to scrape over the course of…a very long time.

Some of the doors she came across would not budge open and she wondered what mysteries hid behind them. She was glad to find the laboratory open—but, to her disappointment, none of the devices were operational. The cage of lightning stood abandoned, a stark tangle of metal and mesh. All the alembics had been cleared away and the apothecary's counter was laid bare.

She wandered to one of the many bookshelves in the room and perused the titles. Her fingers brushed over the spines of books bound in soft, weathered leather. Some titles she could not make out: they had been written in alphabets she recognized but could not read: Arabic and Hebrew. There were others, too, that swooped and curled gracefully or crossed in brisk, sharp strokes. Most, fortunately, were in Latin or Greek.

A lifetime and more, she thought. It's how long she would need to read all those books.

She stood before one of the shelves, her arms akimbo.

Well, then: I better get started.

But where to begin?

She predicted Țepeș would probably indicate which texts she should begin with, so she avoided titles that alluded to any scientific enterprises: no studies, no treatises, and nothing whatsoever containing the word "medica." She talked herself into dutifully shelving Avicenna's Canon, a hefty and beautifully illuminated manuscript. She consoled herself with the realization that it was likely she would consulting it regularly. She skipped the hagiographies, of which she was surprised to see several—in fact, Țepeș' library featured a large amount of religious texts. She found that peculiar.

Rustichello da Pisa—she recognized the name as if whispered to her from long ago. Il Milione-The Travels of Marco Polo: it was perfect, she thought, wresting it from its tight fit on the shelf.

I know someone who might benefit from reading this.

She imagined it might yet instill a certain wanderlust, a desire to explore the world from beyond the confines of a book's pages in her reclusive teacher. She cradled the tome in her arms along with a respectable history of Byzantium and a volume of traditional folktales. Perhaps, she thought with amusement, there will be something here about Țepeș and his castle.

Lisa could have whiled the rest of the day there, but the room was too cold. Although the lights in the laboratory glowed more warmly than the white ones emanating from the overhead fixtures in the main hall, they lacked the warmth of candles. The fireplace lay undisturbed and no wood or kindling had been stacked within sight. She chose instead to carry her pile of books up to her room.


 

The history of Byzantium had been yawn-inducing. Lisa flipped through the pages, unimpressed.

Too many dates and names.

Her eyelids grew heavier when she attempted to read the Rustichello book, her eyes skipping to the beginning of the page again and again as she curled cozily over her bed. She valiantly switched to the folktales, but had barely managed to crack the cover when she surrendered to sleep.


Lisa's cheek was still pressed over the first page of the book when she was abruptly jolted out of her slumber by a knock to the door. She raised her head, squinting in the direction of the disruptive knock.

"Yes?" she uttered sleepily.

"Lisa from Lupu, you are late for your first lesson—the lesson you braved coming here for and bargained for so dearly," he noted sarcastically. "Am I to believe you have had a change of heart and I am released from our agreement?"

She bolted out of the bed. Outside, night had fallen.

"I apologize—I will be down immediately."

She tossed her messy braid over her shoulder and searched the room hurriedly for her discarded cloak, finding it pooled on the floor between the windows and the bed. She draped it around herself carelessly and then wasted a few precious seconds teetering between rushing out and returning the books.

I'll return the history. I'll swap it for something else.

How sad, she scolded herself. I am assuming that after tonight, I will not be free to read for leisure for a while. I wasted precious time. She scooped up the tome. On an impulse, she also reached for the Rustichello.


Țepeș waited for her at the door, his large frame practically blocking her passage out.

"I hope this will be a one-time occurrence." He eyed her with cool disapproval.

He could not convey to her how disappointed he'd been to arise after the long day and find she was nowhere she should have been. He had suffered a restless sleep, all in anticipation of meeting her again, engaging with her.

"I hope so as well," was her insolent reply.

He walked ahead, but listened for her footsteps catching up to him.

"Did you spend a pleasant day?"

"Yes." She fell into step beside him.

"What did you do?"

They began to descend the staircase toward the main hall.

"Let me see…I spent the first part of the day involuntarily exploring your castle."

"Involuntarily?" he peered down at her. A stack of books was lodged between her arms, he noticed.

"Yes—involuntarily. All I really wanted was to find the kitchen."

"Ah."

"I found it, by the way. Thank you for the food and drink."

He tipped his head forward, politely.

"And then?"

"Then I found my way to the laboratory. It was still too early, so I choose a few titles to pass the time until we met again."

Her revelation gave him pleasure: perhaps she had anticipated their meeting, too.

"I see. And what did you choose?"

"A very dry tome on the history of Byzantium—really, it is merely a catalogue of dates and names."

"And what else?" he encouraged her.

"A collection of folktales…And I also chose a title for you!"

He turned to face her, his cloak swishing softly.

"For me? You are giving me a book I already own?" he teased.

"There is an old saying that states that it is not the gift, but the intention of the giver that matters," she countered.

"And what is this book?"

She plucked it off the top of her pile and handed it to him. He read the title and arched an eyebrow.

"For inspiration." She stared at the leather cover, a hint of mischief in her eyes. "Someday you might be penning your own account of travels to faraway lands."

He smirked. "Do you know why it is called Il MilioneThe Million? It is in honor of the million lies Polo tells. In that case, I wouldn't have to leave my domain at all."

"Perhaps you are right," she conceded. Many of the tales were farfetched, difficult to accept as the complete truth. If not outrightly lying, she would argue Polo and Rustichello had greatly embellished the truth. "But I always thought the title was a veiled reference to the Polo family's use of the surname "Emilione" to distinguish their clan from the other Polos in Venice," she argued.

The smirk eased into a smile. No, she would not presume the worst of others, would she?

"You 'always thought'? And how does a girl of peasant stock become so well-read, Lisa from Lupu, to 'always think' such thoughts?" he asked, simultaneously provoking and admiring her.

"My father was a smith—and a widower. As a girl, I was barred from learning the family trade. I was sent off to a convent to work."

"Ah. And how is it that despite being sent to a nunnery, you emerge as a doctor and not an ordained sister?" he puzzled.

She grinned.

"I didn't become a healer until much later, but you could say the sisters initiated me." She paused. "They taught me the forbidden arts," she revealed in a whisper.

"Is that so?" his eyes narrowed.

"Yes: reading, writing, Latin and Greek, some arithmetic…"

"Corrupted your very soul." He raised his eyebrows.

"Ruined me for marriage, at least; that is certain."

"Marriage to a simpleton, perhaps," he remarked slyly. "Not to a thinking man."

That alluring flush he had provoked in her before surfaced over her once more.

There. He took pleasure in flustering her.

"A thinking man," she mused, quickly recovering. "I have heard of those…Ah, yes! In the book of folklore," she retaliated.

At that, he conceded defeat and laughed heartily.

Chapter Text

"What is better than wisdom? Woman. And what is better than a good woman? Nothing." —Geoffrey Chaucer


There were rules, Țepeș told Lisa early on.

There were rules they would both have to agree to.

"I will give you the knowledge you seek—but I must also forewarn you."

She was off wandering, entranced, among the large glass domes, trying to piece together what purpose they served. Her fingers trailed over the surface of the long apothecary's counter: glass tubes, containers, and small tins had been lined up, ready for that evening's lesson. In the background, a set of pistons pumped rhythmically.

"To seek knowledge, regardless of your aim, is always an enterprise fraught with danger," he continued, his eyes trailing after her.

She lowered her head as she listened to him speak. Țepeș' voice reminded her of a shadowy rustle: velvety and enveloping. Although he maintained a guarded and serious façade in her presence, his voice betrayed him: there was an intensity, a spiritedness she detected in him. She wouldn't go as far as saying that the aloofness he often displayed was affected; she had already surmised that within him were hidden depths, an alluring complexity, a—

"Are you listening?" he scolded her.

"I—No," she admitted, stirring from her thoughts. "I grew distracted for a moment. I am sorry." She turned to face him and found him at the opposite end of the apothecary's counter, his arms folded, his expression filled with censure.

"You should be. I am not in the habit of repeating myself."

"Knowledge is a dangerous endeavor, yes…But, Țepeș: isn't living itself a dangerous endeavor? Our chances of having a better life, of assessing those dangers and risks improve if we are armed with knowledge." She raised a container filled with a viscous green solution against the light.

He remained silent and she basked in her small triumph: she had grown to recognize those moments when she succeeded in giving him some pause for thought.

"I believe that's the very purpose of life. To seek… clarity. Even creation stories are imbued with that directive—'Let there be Light,'" she continued, squinting at the opaque solution and beginning to swirl it.

She startled when he appeared to materialize beside her and his hand stilled over her wrist, halting her swirling motion.

How does he move so lithely. She caught a flash of the dark crimson sash tied over his fine tunic, his black cloak parted to offer her a glimpse of his regal, broad frame. He always dressed as if he were about to hold court with his vassals.

"Yes—but don't forget how those stories end: they are cautionary tales, Lisa. They are stories of excessive pride, of unforgivable transgressions. It must be said: not all truths warrant knowing." He placed the container back on the countertop.

She worried for a moment that he was trying to convey something to her—explaining in a veiled manner that perhaps he no longer wished to be her teacher?

"What would you have me fill the gaps in my knowledge with, then? Superstition? Blind faith?" she challenged him, tilting her head.

"There is no such dichotomy, Lisa. It is far more complex than that."

He might tire of this. He might find it dull not to speak about these matters with a learned equal. And for a moment, the multitude of books surrounding her felt oppressive rather than thrilling.

The sleeve of her coarse dress caught her eye. She'd brought along two dresses, three blouses, one skirt. Her leather boots were new: the one item she had gladly splurged on once she had sold her possessions back in Lupu in order to afford that impulsive trip. Compared to him, she was well aware she cut a shabby figure. He was a Wallachian noble, a warlord, a man who despite his reclusiveness possessed an understanding of the universe she could only scrape the surface of.

But I am here to learn. What do I care?I did not come here to parade or display myself coquettishly, she consoled herself.

"Those dangers…Those are a risk worth undertaking," she told him bluntly.

"I would expect no less of you…And in undertaking such risk, you ask too much of me: I would not see you in danger," he told her in a quieter tone.

She braced herself.

I've come this far.

"Tell me what I can do better, so that you will agree to continue teaching me."

His eyes shone, wine hued, warm, as he contemplated her.

"You are dedicated and you are intelligent. I am not casting any doubt over your competency. And at no moment did I say I was ready to conclude our…apprenticeship."

She visibly relaxed at his words.

"I do want you to know there are subjects and arts I will not delve into with you."

"Such as?" She couldn't resist asking. He looked askance at her before replying.

"I will teach you about the natural world. I will reveal to you all that I know—the laws that bind and rule nature and matter. You may explore those topics as deeply as you please. But nothing more," he warned.

"But, Țepeș: what else is there? You are offering me everything I could possibly want!" she cried delightedly.

He appeared almost amused at her widened eyes.

Although she was far from being ignorant, he envied her for a brief moment.

Once, I, too, could close my eyes and merely sleep, he lamented.

He'd pursued threads of knowledge with the lofty ideal of unraveling mysteries. Instead, the man he had once been was unraveled by them.

I regret nothing.

He often wondered when Lisa would take pause, when she would take proper notice and admit how there was so much about him that defied the realm of the natural world. That was not to say that the arcane, more hermetic forces he commanded were any less of a science and not bound by laws or properties; the chthonian realm he ruled was orderly: tediously so.

But his wisdom and immortality had been achieved at a bitter, costly price. Nevertheless, he had forged himself to endure it and how it had transformed him. He wielded his power with strength and mastery.

With unapologetic pride.

There will come a time when you will run out of excuses to justify all you see here, Lisa. When no rationalization will stand up to me. I will have to breach the divide between us when that time comes, he realized, and it might untether you enough so that you will flee from me… But you will not course down the same dark roads I followed, he promised.

You, my Lisa, belong in the light, he thought tenderly, watching her move in his laboratory with such conviction, such enthusiasm.


Lisa leaned over the ancient book, her finger marking her place on the yellowed page. She wracked her brain for the word's meaning. Her knowledge of Greek had been the Greek of the New Testament that she had been taught at the convent. The book Țepeș had placed before her that evening was in Classical Greek: a dense, archaic piece by a man called Democritus on how everything in the universe consisted of a minuscule element called atomos.

When she raised her eyes tiredly from the difficult text, she found Țepeș sitting across the table, appraising her.

"I trust the value of this text will be revealed soon?" she asked, blowing away strands of hair that had spilled over her cheek.

His laugh was silken.

"The world's greatest scholars believe the text you hold between your hands destroyed. Your eyes have the privilege of unlocking words—and knowledge—long thought lost to humanity," he explained. "If you wish to understand the natural world, then you must understand the concepts of its basic composition."

He steepled his hands before him.

"I am sure it is of value," she proceeded cautiously. "If you insist on it being so, how could I, who have only begun my initiation into such arts, contradict you?"

A pleased grin emerged over his lips.

"At least, not for the next…" She leafed through the next few pages. "Five pages. I will give this book five more pages before I surrender."

The grin faded.

"Lisa, the concepts I wish to show you next are better grasped if you have a foundation in the early philosophy of materialism—"

She gently pushed the book toward him.

"And I do not object to that. But perhaps you would kindly translate this for me?"

Despite the disapproving stare, she rotated the book so that the text was facing him.

"After all, you already know Classical Greek, and can thus spare me. It would far more expedient. I trust you are familiar with the old adage: O khronos éinai akrivos."

Time is precious, she remembered from one of the primers she had copied over and over at the convent.

He inhaled deeply, his eyes narrowing before he took the edge of the book and pushed it slowly right back toward her.

"Indeed, I am quite familiar with the saying," he stated with strained patience. "And as long as we are on the subject, allow me to introduce you to another saying, one I am fond of: Akamátis néos géros diakoniáris."

The flush of embarrassment rose as far as to the tips of her ears.

Lazy youth begging of old age.

Țepeș must have noticed how disconcerted she was, she surmised, given his self-satisfied expression. She could sense his pleasure over lording his impressive knowledge over her. Despite the sting of his reproach, she boldly leaned forward and to his utter disbelief, pushed the book—less delicately this time—back toward him.

"Kakoú kórakos kakón oón!" she stated rebelliously.

A bad egg comes from a bad crow —she was certain he would recognize the reference to the tale of Corax of Syracuse and his student, Tisias: in essence, the quote meant poor students had poor teachers.

His sole reaction was to glare alternatively at her and at the old book. She did not waver and clasped her hands before her, expectantly.

I do not know how to read Classical Greek well and I can't do it expediently simply because he wills it!

For a moment she thought he would relent; she could have sworn he had suppressed a grin. Instead, he pushed his chair away from the table, and rose. Her heart sank at seeing him lean over the table in her direction, as if incensed, as if he were about to sentence her for her crimes.

"Ópou spérnei i orgí, therízei i metánoia," he uttered.

She blinked nervously, clasping her hands tighter.

"Where…something is sown…" She repeated the phrase, staring down at the table. "Orgí…" She sighed in frustration. "Dander?"

He flashed a wolfish smile and gripped the back of his chair, dragging it noisily to her side of the table. He sat down beside her and reached across the table for the wretched book, his arm brushing over hers. The brief touch sent a jolt through her.

"Rage," he corrected, in a more appeasing tone. "Where rage is sown—"

"—Repentance is reaped," she completed, deflated she had failed the test.

"It is good advice: if you are going to exhibit a bad temper, make sure you are immune to regret," he provoked.

He positioned the book before them, scanning over the lines. "Here." He tapped over the sentence in tight, faded letters. If she was having trouble deciphering the text earlier, his proximity was making it nearly impossible to focus.

"Aphtartos," he read. "Even if you don't know exactly what it is, you can use what you know of prefixes to make a guess at the meaning."

"The 'a' is usually contrary to the word it precedes…So, something contrary to phtartos," she concluded. "But that doesn't help me much if I don't know what phtartos means to begin with!"

"It is not a wrong guess. Only an incomplete one."

She glanced at him, finding his attention completely turned on her. They locked gazes for a moment.

She cleared her throat and began to read slowly. Halfway through the halting sentence, his hand brushed her braid off her shoulder, his fingers lightly grazing over her neck.

Lisa raised her eyes to him questioningly.

"I can't see your face with all your hair in the way," he explained in a hushed voice. "Go on," he encouraged her. "You may yet infer the meaning by reading the rest of the passage."

"You are far more generous than my teachers at the convent. The nuns were ruthless instructors. They never would have forgiven me such a lapse," she joked gamely, trying to steer the conversation away from the turmoil he was stirring in her.

His lips parted in another smile.

"And who says I have?"

She refocused her gaze on the Greek words, feigning serious concentration while trying to calm her racing heart. He startled her with a chuckle.

"Ah, Lisa from Lupu… Only you would dare compare me, Vlad Dracula Țepeș, to one of your nuns!" he mused, shaking his head in mild astonishment. "And on top of everything else, you would have me become your Greek tutor!"

She sniffed affectedly.

"Alas, this Greek grows more ancient by the minute, the longer you take to tell me its meaning." She tapped her finger over the text.

"Here," he murmured at last, taking her hand and guiding it over the elusive word. "Aphartos," he repeated more seriously. She held her breath at his touch, afraid to betray how his closeness was affecting her. "It means 'indestructible.'"

He let his gaze wander over her face, her tousled golden hair, those luminous blue eyes. Had he a pure soul to wager, he would have gladly traded his for endless nights by her side. The hearth crackled nearby, bathing the room in a warm glow. It had been so long since he'd had the pleasure of sharing and speaking of the knowledge he'd so jealously acquired over years and years. Lisa was dedicated, eager, and profoundly intelligent. She learned quickly. He appreciated her perceptiveness, her cleverness. And he enjoyed her sharp wit—especially when it was directed at him.

"You see, Democritus was convinced the atomos never perished and could never be divided."

"Was he right?" She rested her elbow over the table and leaned her head against her fist.

"In some ways." He glanced at the old text—the last copy known to exist in the world—in a tome carefully transcribed from ancient scrolls from the permanent collection of the Royal Library of Alexandria long before its catastrophic destruction. It had been one of his first acquisitions…many, many years ago, before he had accepted his inevitable descent, believing his thirst for knowledge something virtuous. "Certain bonds, connections…are inviolable."

She had, from the moment she had crossed his threshold, faced him with an undauntedness that seduced him as much as it worried him. He recognized, beneath all that he had become over time, the original spark that had ignited his own fire: an intrinsic need to know. To decipher. To understand.

To master.

Except I did not know when to stop.

He recognized in Lisa an earlier version of himself. Perhaps a version of what I could have been. Though as kindred as he found them to be, he wondered at an aspect of hers he could never have claimed to possess. Why was it that she cared so deeply for others whose lives were meaningless and insignificant? Why did she seek so keenly and devotedly to end their suffering?…That was not something he had ever aspired to.

He had sought for power only conferred to those who successfully unveiled secrets, breached boundaries, courted the forbidden. He was certain Lisa would bear the burden such an undertaking would unleash: and not for her gain directly, but as a boon to bestow upon others.

To make the world better.

Hers was a futile crusade.

And yet…she has made my world better.

It pleased him to observe her fascination, the complete, devoted attention she gave him when he spoke of science to her.

Infinitely better.

"But everything must change," she argued. He noticed how her eyes grew heavier, fighting the inevitable pull of sleep. He could feel the ache of dawn in his bones and knew they would have to end their lesson soon.

"I never said it wouldn't," he reasoned, closing the tome slowly. "I merely said the atomos cannot be destroyed. The atomos can be changed, shifted… But despite any transformations, it remains whole in essence—it endures."

He contemplated her as he rose from his seat and offered her his arm, an unspoken offer to escort her back to her room.

"So they would be aidios?" she risked. "Eternal?"

"Athánatoi," he suggested.

"Deathless?" she puzzled. She rose and slipped her hand around his arm. He liked holding her close as they walked together, well aware that despite all his power, he had become hopelessly enthralled by a mortal woman.

"Immortal," he completed.

Few things were truly immortal in the world anymore: atomos, God, the devil…

Himself.

And perhaps, he thought, as he basked in Lisa's attention while he squired her up the stairs, her hand firmly gripping his arm, if he were to believe the poets:

Love.

Chapter Text

"We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become."

-Clare of Assisi


Țepeș' eyes opened to the enveloping darkness he slumbered in, cognizant of the fact he was no longer alone in the solitary chamber he retreated to during the daylight hours. He sensed movement and while he could easily navigate in the pitch black of the room, he wished to see what had been waiting for him, soft breath rising and falling close by.

Cold lights flickered on. He did not startle at the sight, as surprised as he was.

It was only a matter of time, he realized, before those who served him would seek him out, demanding his attention and favor again. And they would do so by latching on to his desires.

None other than Lisa stood waiting for him in the spartan chamber.

So clever, he thought, frowning. And daring.

He approached her and hooked a finger under her chin, raising it to better examine her.

It was an almost perfect replica of Lisa, down to the details: from the darning on her modest dress to the loose strands of golden hair poking out of her unkempt braid. He turned her face to and fro, ignoring the sly, uncharacteristic grin he was being offered. Her height was wrong—she was too tall—and that unnatural facsimile's eyes suggested a deviousness absent in the original; Lisa's eyes sparked with intelligence. With life. The apparition's skin was stony beneath his fingers, whereas Lisa's was warm and supple…

He released her, turning his back to her.

"Go away," he ordered dryly, reaching for his cloak.

"Vlad," she uttered softly, suggestively.

At the sound of his given name, so long in disuse, he faltered.

The voice, its timbre, had been mimicked perfectly. He turned to gaze upon her again. The unnerving apparition ran her hands provocatively down the front of her simple dress, undoing the buttons until she was able to tug it down over her breasts, past her hips, until it lay pooled around her feet.

He beheld the naked succubus with little more than curiosity. Her symmetry and nakedness had been carefully calculated to better entice and lure her prey. He finally averted his eyes when she loosened the braid, letting her hair cascade freely over her shoulders. That, he realized, had been the only believable gesture he could imagine Lisa engaging in.

Everything here is an expression of my will and desire. Do I blame these beings for yearning to serve their master well?

The succubus approached him sultrily and when her arms slipped around his shoulders and she pulled herself up against him, his hand slid across her back, holding her. When she sighed and tipped her head back, Țepeș' eyes darkened, the allure of the offering practically irresistible: her slender neck, its graceful curve. He crushed her against him, burying his face in the crook of her neck, his lips grazing her flesh.

Her cold flesh—no pulse, no yielding softness.

What he held in his arms was nothing more than a hollow projection of yearning.

He released the succubus, stepping away.

"I told you to go. And don't take her form again," he warned.

At his words the creature hissed, furious at being spurned. Another glance revealed eyes that glowed with demonic fire, an unnaturally wide mouth and mottled skin from the strain of holding a foreign shape.

Of course she would feel scorned—she was unaccustomed to his restraint. He stared icily, his displeasure at being challenged evident and menacing. The succubus cowered, crouching submissively at the withering glare, her demonic form now fully revealed, and backed away, slinking into the shadows.

The longer Lisa remains here, the more she becomes a part of this dark apparatus, of everything I have unleashed and set into motion, he thought.

Those who served him would not dare harm even a hair on her head. But they would start trailing her from the darkness; they were intrigued, perhaps even alarmed by the new inhabitant he had allowed to dwell among them. They knew, however, that their very existences hinged on complete surrender and unquestioning obeisance to him. He would know the instant a treacherous impulse was conceived in them—and they all feared fates worse than oblivion.

He had to be careful. Lisa had awakened a deep-rooted, essential longing he had believed dead inside him. It was akin to hunger.

And in her presence, he was growing ravenous.


Although the castle seemed eerily abandoned, its emptiness had begun to play tricks on Lisa's senses: the echoes of her footsteps, out of pace with her own, unnerved her, causing her to believe she was not alone. Yet, even as she whirled around to confront her would-be stalkers, she was met with silence. From the shadows, she was convinced at times that she had heard a soft rustle, the faint whisper of exhaling breath, or even a light groan.

Țepeș had observed her interestedly when she told him that night of the unsettling noises. Far from evincing concern, however, he was more intrigued by her response to it.

"Are you frightened, Lisa?" he asked, eyeing her shrewdly.

She didn't like the implication. Fear alluded to a certain ignorance…a weakness she refused to succumb to.

"It isn't fear as much as being unsettled and startled. You told me there is no one here other than you and I and your many mechanical devices. But I wonder: are you certain we dwell alone here? This castle is endless—I cannot make heads and tails of it still. Perhaps there are other people?"

"There aren't other…people," he stated curtly.

"Evidence," she stated, leaning forward, a twinkle in her eye, "indicates otherwise."

"This isn't a theory that requires experimentation to ascertain the truth. This castle is my domain and nothing occurs without my knowledge… or consent," he retorted edgily.

"But what if there was a situation where I needed aid? Where could I find… you?" It was a sincere question.

He'd closed his eyes at her words, listening intently.

"Know that I am never far," he told her in a low voice. "You needn't worry.

Despite her attempt to introduce some levity to the conversation, she could see she had breeched one of their unspoken boundaries. He quickly grew guarded when she questioned him about certain aspects of the castle and himself: the absence of servants, his unwillingness to eat in her presence, where he went for so many hours of the day. He became evasive and taciturn, withdrawing from her. Sometimes, if she had pushed him enough, he would carry a book to dinner: a clear sign that she had gone too far and there was to be no further casual conversation between them for the remainder of the night. As much as she wished to press him further, she understood that it also caused him distress. Besides, she hadn't gone that far to spend her time prying like a common gossip. She was an apprentice and he was her master. As a master, Țepeș was unparalleled. Not that she had ample experience to draw from to compare, but until meeting him, no other teacher had exhibited so much knowledge or put understanding into practice, resulting in so many creations and inventions. Until meeting him, her most trusted teachers had been books, their writers reaching across time to share their wisdom. It had been, she had to admit, a very one-sided exchange. With Țepeș she could question, challenge, argue, propose, and explain. And as gruff as he could be, that aspect of their rapport he nurtured and encouraged.

He was a moody man, she came to learn. On some nights they sat together analyzing and discussing various works and theories until dawn. On others, he taught her how to use different equipment and tools to make her tasks easier or more precise. Occasionally, he would emerge in the laboratory under what she could tell was one of his mercurial spells. He would not entertain questions, engage in conversation, or even respond to her attempts to prod him back into a more congenial mood. On those nights he gave her cumbersome tasks or readings. He would declare his expectations and then wander off into the laboratory, reacquainting himself with his own books and contraptions.

He never failed to appear, night after night, regardless of his mood, though. And while she chafed at his apparent indifference, she noticed he remained close. Sometimes she would raise her eyes from her task and catch his gaze across the room. It irked her that it was precisely when he was most withdrawn that she wished to seek him out the most. She didn't like that about herself. She didn't like the sweet ache that bloomed in her chest when she caught his stare, when their hands inadvertently touched, or when they walked beside each other each night when they returned to her room.

It is very inconvenient, she thought, scolding herself. And foolish.

How disappointed would he be in me if I proved myself to be flighty, sentimental, and fulfill every unflattering assumption about my sex? I cannot show him I am not worthy of his time and efforts.

She glanced down at the task Țepeș had asked her to conduct that evening. It was a complicated experiment and she wasn't sure how to achieve its outcome. Her spirits sank as he'd issued his directive and turned away from her with apparent indifference, leaving her to her own ingenuity. It had felt initially like a punishment.

But at the end of it all, who determined that particular scenario?

Don't see it as a punishment: see it as a test.

And since when had challenges ever deterred her?

The thought revived her, imbuing her with a new burst of resolve.

I came here to become a doctor—the most learned doctor in all of Transylvania, Wallachia, and Moldavia.

And I will.

Someday I will leave these halls and step back into the world again, she thought, resolutely. And perhaps, armed with knowledge and tools, I will finally be respected and allowed to perform my work without suspicion. And slowly, when confronted by such irrefutable proof, all the backwardness and superstition would recede. Then, others may come and wish to learn, too. And there would be less suffering, less grief.

She glanced up to find Țepeș at the furthest end of the apothecary's counter, hands clasped behind his back. She did not avert her gaze from the serious, handsome face that contemplated hers.

You should come with me. You cannot fight it once you experience it: the compassion among people who join in solidarity in a moment of sorrow. And when you succeed, when you have a precious triumph, when you are able to help—there is nothing like the joy, the hope. I may be the healer, but I often believe I am the one healed by those I meet, by their courage at their most vulnerable. Once you help usher a new life into the world, once you learn you can help restore the dignity and humanity of those who ail with kindness, by not recoiling from their deformities or illnesses, you can't avoid being touched by how profoundly we can ease each other's suffering; by how much we truly need each other in life. Perhaps I will help you see it yet, she thought hopefully, grinning.


"Why are you grinning like that?" he wondered, raising one of his eyebrows at her.

"You have given me a difficult task," she began, indicating the counter and the many small containers of reagents lined on top of it. "And negligible help—"

"I would argue I have given you more than enough help—" he interrupted tersely.

"—So, I initially thought you were disappointed in me. I thought it was a reprisal of sorts…But I suspect it is really a test. I think I understand." She crossed her arms with satisfaction.

"No: I do not think you do." He extended his hand, pointing at the containers. "Those aren't the required reagents for this experiment. Mix those with even a drop of water and you will set off an explosion. "

Brief panic flashed across her eyes, but she quickly recovered, examining the containers she had selected. Her brow furrowed in that way he found so endearing as she leaned over the book he had left open on the nearby lectern. After a few moments, as she mumbled under her breath, he watched her crouch before the shelves beneath the counter, perusing their contents and selecting new containers. He saw her head bob up and down while she lined them along the counter, considering her choices, and then swapping them out with some of the containers she had selected originally. When she finally sought him out, her expression hopeful, he couldn't help feeling a surge of affection begin to thaw his foul mood.

She stood expectantly, hands on her hips.

"I am determined—" she began.

"Determined to fail, perhaps…" he provoked. "Mix those together and you will be creating a frothing toxic mess."

Undaunted, she simply picked a few containers out of her lineup.

Where does it come from? This drive. This fire within her. I was a prince, a man, one unaccustomed to having my will opposed, he thought. When confronted with obstacles, I sought to conquer them, destroy them. But she?

She wishes to find harmony in the face of dissonance.

"If science has taught me anything, Țepeș, it is that failure lies not in erring, but in giving up." She arranged the containers again on the counter and searched his face for signs of a verdict.

It was wrong, he realized with a pang of sympathy. Again.

He shook his head. She pressed her lips tightly before diving below the counter again, noisily searching through the shelves.

"It is a noble sentiment, Lisa, but the truth is you don't know what you are doing and failure can have consequences." Her fingers gripped the edge of the counter and her head emerged from behind it, her blue eyes sheepishly peering back at him.

She stood up, brushing her hands over her skirt and trying to tame some of the wayward wisps of hair that refused to lie flat. His gaze wandered over her downcast, long-lashed eyes, delicate features, slender— but thankfully, no longer emaciated— figure. Her beauty was guileless.

"I may not know what I am doing to achieve the intended outcome…But! In the process I have learned how I could potentially create an explosion and unleash…How did you put it?" She cracked a winsome grin. "A frothing toxic mess…How can that count as failure?"

He couldn't help but return her grin. How strange to see the world through your eyes, he thought, giving in and approaching the assortment of containers. I wish I had met you a long time ago.

"Here—learn these well. This is what you need—" he pointed at a container filled with what looked like small shredded bits of something fibrous. "It is derived from the barks of willows and is at the foundation of recipes for treating pain and inflammation. Use too much, however, and it will have the opposite effect, causing bleeding and irritation."

She nodded, falling silent and reaching for the charcoal pencil she used to jot down her notes. A sooty smudge smeared her cheek and he just barely stopped himself from brushing his thumb over it. He could sense how he affected her; he could read the shifts within her—her heartbeat, her scent, even her warmth— when he stepped closer, when they touched, and it was dangerous: he wasn't in the habit of denying himself. He felt everything intensely. He allowed his emotions to consume him, believing that the more he unleashed them, the more powerful he grew. He had wrought plenty of devastation and destruction in their grasp, he acknowledged. He was feared and even revered for it.

But looking at Lisa right then, he realized that it wasn't only rage that could take such a powerful hold within him. When she had knocked on his door that fateful evening, she had not come seeking the monster. She hadn't come to extract revenge, she hadn't come to flatter him in exchange for favors like the devil was purported to do. She had come looking for the man. At the core of everything he had become since those long-gone days was still a man: one who had been transformed—some would argue even desecrated— in myriad ways, whose soul and flesh had withstood the abuses and mortifications of all his pursuits and ambitions. He'd believed all traces of that other life, that other existence gone until she crossed his doorway and entered his world.

At one point of his explanation, she put down her charcoal pencil. She had stood beside him, watching him as he measured different powders into medicine. He became conscious of her stare and did his best to act aloof.

"I hope you are taking note of everything I am explaining. There is a fine line between a good apothecary… and a good poisoner."

"I did!" she assured him, revealing her notes, taken in small, sprawling writing. "But I was wondering…"

"About?" He wiped his hands on a linen towel.

As she didn't answer, he finally turned to glance at her.

"You call it a failed attempt, but I call it one of many ways of how not to do this recipe," she explained, staring at the containers on the counter. "I would still be very interested in seeing how one could achieve that explosion you mentioned earlier…"

He wanted it all: the warmth, their complicity, her trust.

"What do you say, Țepeș?" she prodded, trying to downplay her eagerness. "Could you show me?"

"Vlad," he corrected her gently. "Call me by my given name." The name he went by long ago and allowed only a chosen few to call him.

"Very well," she acknowledged. "Vlad," she uttered, her face flushing, her scent growing headier, sweeter to him, almost irresistible.

"Were you this impossible back at the convent?" he scolded her affectionately, aroused by the sound of his name upon her lips.

"Oh, I assure you I was not!" she told him, splaying a hand over her chest. "But, I most certainly would have been, had you been there."

He grunted dismissively but she had caught him grinning.

"So, you would blow up my castle," he sighed, his heart aching at her closeness, at how easily he could simply bend her to his will if he so desired, but, ironically, how that would completely destroy what made her so beloved and alluring to him.

"Oh! Perhaps just a tiny bit—just a small tower? This castle is so vast, I suspect no one would notice," she teased, affectedly rolling her eyes before erupting into laughter once he confronted her with an indignant look.

He had tried very hard to put some distance between them for her own sake, sought to disengage from that effortless closeness they had fallen into, to impose a more formal rapport between them…But he could not resist her. He would never deny her free will, agency…but he was not in the habit of suppressing his, either.

He wanted her like he had craved few things in his long life.

And, he thought, his gaze growing inscrutable, he always got what he wanted.

I don't know that I will be able to let you go when the time comes, Lisa, he realized warily. No, the real danger to you isn't this castle or even the darkness that serves me.

It is I.


Chapter Text

"If a man wishes to be sure of the road he's traveling on, then he must close his eyes and travel in the dark."

-Saint John of the Cross


Lisa raised her eyes from her book half amused, half exasperated.

"Even Herophilus?" She couldn't disguise her disbelief.

Țepeș restlessly tapped his fingers on the chair's arm.

"His efforts as an anatomist were remarkable, but there are blatant imprecisions in his work."

She blinked at him a few times before shaking her head and placing the large tome back on the respectable pile they had built over the course of a few evenings.

"What do you wish me to tell you, Lisa? Herophilus made mistakes. And worse: his reputation was such that no one questioned his findings, and as a result, his mistakes have become medical dogma."

"But apart from that, we can laud what he did accurately identify and explain. It served a noble purpose: to advance the field. We cannot discount his contribution—"

He shifted in the chair, his annoyance evident. He reached over the table abruptly and began stacking books in a careless, haphazard way. Lisa finally sat back, her expression of bewilderment eventually giving way to one of resignation.

"Here." He indicated the unsteady tower of books he had assembled. He stared at her intently as he tossed the final volume on top. She tentatively raised a hand toward the teetering pile in anticipation of the impending catastrophe. The tower collapsed thunderously: books tumbled over the tabletop and onto the floor.

"Would you trust anything built upon a faulty foundation?" he provoked.

"I see your point."

She pushed away from the table and bent down to collect some of the fallen books. As she placed one of them back on the table with a heavy thud, she looked at him pointedly.

"What is it?" he finally asked.

"This metaphor isn't going to pick itself up. Come," she beckoned, indicating the books nearest to him.

He remained seated for a moment, irked, until her persistent stares ruffled him. Wordlessly, he bent down and gathered the tomes by his feet.

"Is there any thinker or scholar still unscathed by your contempt?" she wondered, tucking a wayward lock behind her ear.

"Galen—" he began.

"Finally!" Lisa interjected.

"You did not allow me to finish!" He leaned forward and rested his elbows on table. "Galen of Pergamum, canonical as he may be in the field of medicine, is responsible for propagating Herophilus' erroneous observation: humans have no rete mirabilis."

Lisa remained on the ground, her legs folded beneath her, a soft leather-bound book clasped against her chest.

"You judge their mistakes too harshly— they are worthy of some indulgence, no? After all, they dared to chart the uncharted and their mistakes were honest. Their efforts should be admired, not condemned. Even faulty foundations can be repaired, reinforced, even rebuilt!"

He smirked, holding his tongue.

In my searches, in my exploits, there was no room for mistakes, for miscalculations, or taking chances. Had I faltered, I would have been vanquished. I have little sympathy for the bumbling trial-and-error of mortals.

Still, he couldn't help being drawn to her persistence, to the many ways she was not discouraged by imperfection or defeat. He loved the way she adapted to challenges and often marveled at how their minds sought similar paths and solutions. He watched her out of the corner of his eye, clasping the book to herself: a shield, her armor. She sat on the floor, her gaze faraway, lost in thought as she gently rubbed her cheek against the top edge of the book. It was a candid, unguarded gesture, so true to her nature. He averted his eyes, his longing threatening to overpower him.

"Why do you think these mistakes, these misconceptions endure for so long?" she asked him at last.

"Papal bulls like the 'Detestande feritatis' are partially to blame," Țepeș announced, seizing another tome off the floor and seeking its home on one of the bookshelves.

"But does the bull extend to the healing arts?" she questioned. She handed the book she had been clasping to him. "I understand that it is gruesome that soldiers dismember their fallen comrades to transport them back home. I can't deny how disturbing the practice of boiling the flesh off a corpse's bones for the purpose of travel is. But…all of those are matters concerning burial. It has more to do with all that…pageantry…surrounding death. Physicians can still conduct dissections. I was told that in Bologna, Montpellier, and Salerno, scholars have been given dispensations to study cadavers."

He perused the shelf, his long nails grazing the spines of old books.

"And where do you find yourself right now, Lisa?"

She huffed softly.

"Not in Bologna or Montpellier." She couldn't even bring herself to mention Salerno again—it had been the focus of so many dreams, as it was one of the only schools that would train women in medicine.

Țepeș halted his inspection and turned around to eye her shrewdly.

"Ah. Do I disappoint so much?"

"That's not what I meant!" she protested, quick to placate him. She never wanted him to think she was not dedicated to her studies, that she did not appreciate his taking her on as an apprentice. "I was lamenting the fact that opportunities to study are so limited!"

"We are beyond the scrutiny of the Church here; my will is the law of the land here."

He extended his hand, inviting her off the hard floor. She clasped it, pulling herself up. Their hands lingered longer than necessary.

Țepeș finally stepped away, leaning his shoulder against the bookshelf, his brow furrowing.

"You must be careful. People are ignorant and fearful; they will judge a woman's pursuit of knowledge differently than a man's. The papal bull, the spirit of the law, and those who interpret it are often distinct from each other. And when it comes to mortal remains…Blood, especially…Any handling of such properties is shrouded in ritual—"

"In superstition, you mean." She clasped her hands behind her .

He was tempted to reveal more.

"Do not dismiss it so blithely. There is more to the veneration of blood than vulgar credulity. The reverence has existed since time immemorial. Blood is the primordial elixir that binds life itself. Think—it is true in every culture, every religion, Lisa: blood consecrates, seals pacts, initiates rites—it is upheld as the axis mundi between body and spirit. It is deemed the only suitable offering to the gods." She peered at him curiously, seriously. "And it is the currency exchanged for power, protection, and knowledge."

It is at the core of immortality.

He stopped, wary that he had revealed too much.

"It is strange to hear you speak about such a topic."

Yes, and a dangerous topic, at that. Merely speaking of it stoked his craving for her. Even from where he stood, he easily honed in on the pulsing of her heart, on the almost imperceptible throb beneath the skin of her neck. His nostrils flared.

"Why do you say that?"

"It reminds me of alchemy." She gave him an uneasy smile.

"And what do you know of alchemy?" he teased.

"Very little." She stepped toward the fire, bracing herself. "I am interested in the true science, you see," she retorted.

He chuckled at her barb.

"So much disdain for such a vast field. And yet, it is a venerable ancestor, the first science. You may think it applies only to those seeking to transmute base metals into gold—and I won't deny that such pursuits are the sole goal of many…But it also concerns itself with… much more."

She rubbed her arms vigorously.

"I don't begrudge alchemists for their pursuits. I believe anyone should be allowed to search for the answers they seek. But another part of me has little patience for such…whimsy? It seems wasteful. Even selfish."

"Al-kimiya…Do you know what it means?"

She shook her head, her eyes trained on the fire.

"The word is Arabic by way of the Greeks: khemia. Literally, from the black earth—another name for ancient Egypt—the Egypt of the Nile Valley, not the red desert. But alchemy is older than that...And hails from lands even farther and more ancient."

"I'm sorry: the field doesn't appeal to me."

"Good," he concluded, deciding to say nothing further.

They remained in silence, the fire splintering the wood in the hearth.

"But your interest in it interests me," she issued cautiously. Her eyes gazed over the shelves of books throughout the room. "You have a great many number of books on the subject of religion."

He lowered his head, his gaze veiled from her scrutiny. The fire cast long dancing shadows around the room.

"And why shouldn't I? I have many interests. You didn't voice such concern over my interests in different scientific disciplines."

"It strikes me as curious."

"Why is that?"

"I can't imagine more disparate fields. My understanding is that science concerns itself with what is tangible, measurable, observable…replicable! No believers are required for it to be truth: it simply is…Compared to religion, something that has always seemed to me like…A form of fear…A desire for reassurance and control in the face of life's uncertainties. It binds one to follow it through guilt and requires an unquestioning docility in the face of the improbable."

It was definitely a dangerous conversation: a crossroads. He had to decide which course he wished to take. Should he keep everything as it was, as if under a spell, continuing to play his role as her solicitous master, the unfathomably wise man whose vast knowledge excused all manner of incongruence?…He could leave everything as it was and return, night after night, like in the Ottomans' tales of the Sassanid Shahryār, the king who night after night, for more than a thousand nights, was told stories by his clever bride.

Except in my castle, I must be the storyteller.

And his stories were his revelations about science, about the natural world, and they would be as numerous as the stars if it meant keeping her always there by his side.

The toppled tower of books caught his attention, still scattered across the table.

Would you trust anything built upon a faulty foundation? he'd asked her.

He was growing tired of concealing all his facets.

She should see. She should know...and decide.

If he was going to inspire any feelings in her, they had to be based on truth, he decided.

Esse quam videri.

To be, rather than be seen.

Even if that 'to be' meant she would flee from him.


"I am curious about a great many things, Lisa." He paced alongside the shelves slowly.

"Don't misconstrue my remarks: I am not judging you—I only want to understand."

"Understand what? That I hunger for…knowledge? Can you decide what is worth knowing and what isn't?"

She bristled at his prickliness.

"If you think you can, you won't be too different from the Church, with its endless decrees on what can and can't be studied, read, written, and even thought," he warned.

"I saw no harm in asking and thought I could share my thoughts freely with you. All I am saying is that I find this particular interest of yours intriguing. Perhaps even surprising. I never would have thought it of you," she insisted.

"You presume to know me well." He turned away from her, his cloak swishing softly in the wake of his footsteps.

"Now who is being presumptuous!" She approached him. "I presumed no such thing! It was an observation, not a crime!"

"An observation that one would verify, confirm, or dispel through experimentation?" he taunted.

"No! You are not an experiment!" she cried, stepping around him, planting herself firmly in his path. Her eyes sparked with indignation. "But perhaps you are correct: I may very well be presumptuous, as you say!"

He raised an eyebrow.

"I did presume…Presumed we were…" She paused.

That heady rush of heat flushed over her skin and all he wanted was to reach out for her, bring her close to him and finally claim the desire he aroused in her, that belonged to him.

"I thought we could speak freely to each other. I thought that we could dispense with all contrivances."

"Why should I make an exception for you? Because your aim to help wretched humanity is so noble?" He couldn't help the sardonic tone in his voice.

Her lips parted and for a moment she was speechless; his words had hurt her, he could tell.

"No. Not at all." She shook her head. "I thought…You and I: we are… friends." She spoke decisively to him, but her voice quavered slightly when she uttered "friends."

He briefly closed his eyes at her words, touched deeply by the delicate, sincere emotion behind them.


"I am no one's friend, Lisa." He circled slowly around her. "And I cannot be what you think I am."

She remained still, deeply pained at his words, at that unfamiliar facet of his.

Why is he doing this? Why is he acting like this?

"Look around you." He extended both hands, indicating his laboratory, his castle. "Perhaps I haven't taught you as well as I thought I had."

Her eyes widened.

He continued to pace about. "To question, to seek—those are all qualities of a thinker, of a scientist." He halted in front of her. "Look," he invited her.

How they had reached that strange point from an innocent, unguarded comment, she couldn't understand. The evening had begun as it always had, but veered off into something that felt almost threatening for reasons she couldn't quite grasp.


"See what I am," he challenged. The expression on his face was almost grim.

"You are my teacher, my master," she replied simply.

"Is that all?"

She was still upended by his earlier provocations.

"It is more than sufficient: I would not expect more." She rubbed her arms, the fire suddenly not sufficiently warm.

He smirked. For all her talk of egalitarianism, she wouldn't expect "more" from him...Nor that he would seek it. She had, after all, sought him out to learn how to become a doctor. The "more" he'd perceived was what she couldn't hide, couldn't help betraying.

And he wanted it.

My will.

"I must instruct you further."


He brought his face close, his eyes searching hers, their gleam vivid, bright that evening. She lowered her gaze, blinking rapidly.

"Look at me," he ordered her in a low voice, urgency in his tone.

She took a deep breath and faced him, taking in the deep red of his pupils.

It's unusual…a medical condition— the eye's blood vessels—and a lack of pigmentation. The ears…they taper off —a hereditary defect —as well as the sharp canines…she tried to persuade herself.

He was agitated, but not angry. Through it all, she distinguished a familiar echo: a melancholy, a deep-rooted anguish.

Sometimes I think I can read you better than I can read your old books, she realized, meeting and holding his gaze unflinchingly.

"I see…" She could not deflect the scrutiny of his intense gaze. He demanded a reply. "Behind the knowledge and wisdom, an insatiable desire to unveil the unknown, the ability to understand the laws of nature, an uncanny knack for imagining beyond what is now to what could be."

She squeezed her fist tight.

"That's what you think, not what you see," he chided her. "Be objective…"

"I don't know what you expect me to say!"

"It's very simple: the truth."

"Then tell me which one!"

"Oschi, oschi, Scaraoschi!" he whispered.

His words had the effect of a sharp gust of wind, chilling her to the marrow. Her brow furrowed at his quoting the opening line of the old vrajă to ward off the devil. What was he trying to tell her? Visions of the pikes lining the road to the castle, scraps of sun-bleached fabric flapping in the breeze, an eerie forest of death and bone, an image straight out of a gruesome folktale, an account she would have never believed unless she'd seen it for herself came to her mind. His name, Țepeș—impaler. It was likely he was warning her about his past, about his violent deeds as a ruthless, sanguinary warlord.

Dracula—son of Drac: 'dragon'. It is likely a title given by a military order, some "secret" society nobles make such a spectacle of belonging to.

Drac: 'devil', came the unbidden reminder.

Perhaps it was something darker, larger than she could fathom.

The discarnate whispers, shadows that stir out of the corner of the eye but disappear when confronted… Țepeș moves as if he could dissolve into air. Her mind reeled. Saints, faith, alchemy… A castle that has no servants but never appears to need any…

"Look at me." His voice was now steely. The air grew colder, the darkness around them encroaching, menacing. Țepeș was simultaneously light and dark, swathed in his cape, sleek black hair framing his pale, aristocratic features. What inner tumult was causing him to behave in such a manner?

And still…

I see a man who despite his jadedness, pride, and wealth is not above offering me aid. He has been nothing but generous and solicitous. I don't know what manner of horrors he has perpetrated during his life, but I know that for him to be so tormented by his conscience, so burdened, means that he cannot be completely devoid of any goodness.

She wished she could convey her thoughts to him, but a surge of emotion overcame her. She did not curb the instinct to raise her hand and gently cup his cold cheek. He stiffened at her unexpected touch, but did not recoil from it. Emboldened, her expression eased and she caressed his face, his hair.

He seized her hand roughly, bringing her knuckles to his lips.

"Your lack of fear is a problem," he said softly, almost pained.

His lips felt cool but his breath was warm and the hairs of his mustache tickled her skin. He kissed her hand with a respectful affection she found endearing, but when he peered again into her eyes, there was an unguarded depth to his gaze that ignited all the feelings she had tried so carefully to hide away. In his expression, an unmistakable invitation: a summons she was unwilling to resist.

"What do I have to fear?" she asked. He turned her hand over, kissing her palm. Her breath hitched. His lips brushed over her skin, halting over her wrist to place another kiss, inhaling deeply. He glanced at her to gauge her reaction, his eyes pulling her in like the tide. His caresses, his kisses, quickened her pulse until her whole body throbbed with heat and need all at once.

"More than not accepting what I am, you might not forgive me for what I am—or that I even exist," he continued in that enticing low voice, a half-whisper that was as tantalizing as his caresses. She was jolted out of that pleasant haze when he suddenly released her hand.

"What's wro—"

Before she could finish, his strong arm wrapped around her and pulled her against him. He gazed at her with hooded eyes as his hand brushed strands of hair off her cheek, her forehead. His long fingers trailed down her face with a feathery touch, grazing over her lips, tracing the fullness of her lower lip with his thumb. They traveled down her chin, her neck. His lips were but a tilt away from hers, so close she could feel their breaths mingle.

"Once we are welcomed, those of my ilk no longer acknowledge any boundaries. I should warn you now, before it is too late: is this what you want?"

"Yes," she whispered, certain.

His lips grazed against hers.

"Lisa, Lisa…You wander into this with your eyes closed. But I can't stop you. I do not want to." He kissed her again: once, twice— soft, tender kisses. He kissed her with seductive restraint, languorously: he was savoring her and the moment completely—their closeness, how she fit in his arms, her scent, her taste.

"With my eyes closed, perhaps—but in certain matters, the heart sees far more clearly," she replied, following his lips, aching for his touch.

Chapter Text

"Ah, child and youth, if you knew the bliss which resides in the taste of knowledge, and the evil and ugliness that lies in ignorance, how well you are advised to not complain of the pain and labor of learning."

-Christine de Pizan


Sunlight streamed through the latticed window pane and Lisa raised her head from her pillow. She'd forgotten to draw the curtains before falling into bed. Her irritation at being awakened was short-lived, though. Once awake, memories of the previous evening returned. She lightly touched her fingertips to her lips; despite the tantalizing kisses and caresses they'd exchanged, Țepeș had not pressed her for more; instead, he accompanied her to her room at the end of the evening as always.

"Good night," he bid her, nuzzling her ear, sending shivers down her spine. She grasped his shoulder tighter, unwilling to see him go. When he kissed her neck, his breath hot, she sighed softly. When their eyes met, his expression was guarded.

"Sleep well, my Lisa," he uttered, kissing her forehead.

Even when disappointment struck her, as she watched him disappear down the long shadowy hallway, she couldn't help grinning. The restraint and the respect he afforded her were quaint, chivalrous. Had he sought to go further with her, she wouldn't have been able to deny him. She refused to engage in any of those tedious mores that tyrannized what she saw as a perfectly natural expression of desire between lovers.

If he persists on being so prim and proper with me, I might have to convince him to behave otherwise, she thought, amused, her spirits lifting, inundated with a happiness she hadn't experienced in a long time. Perhaps…

Ever.


He ruminated in the darkness of his quarters.

It had taken a monumental degree of self-control not to give in to the fierceness of his want. She hadn't made it any easier, either: he almost abandoned any resolve not to venture any further with her when she sighed at his touch. Any evidence of her arousal was a tantalizingly sweet invitation.

And possibly her undoing.

Lisa was too impulsive and brash. Although she was a woman of science, she did nothing without passion.

She was coursing down a risky path.

He could not—would not— return to his previous existence now that he had met her, earned her friendship, trust, and even affection. He'd never realized how truly alone he was until she filled his evenings with her musings, her questions, her laughter…Herself.

He could not let her go.

Ever.


The swarm of bats took wing at dusk, casting a shadow over the valley. Lisa noticed the rush, as she did every evening. She hurried down the stairs to the laboratory, the hour marking the end of her long wait. She'd anticipated that evening, working it into something precious in her thoughts. She'd been unable to focus on much throughout the day. Every corner of that castle breathed Țepeș' essence until his absence became a constant presence. She wondered what they would say to each other, what they would do when they met again. Her mind was adrift, lost in pleasant scenarios. As she rounded the turn down the last flight of stairs, a heavy thud reverberated through the gloomy hall.

Lisa froze, startled by the deep, dull sound.

When it struck for the second time, there was no doubt what the sound meant. The ground shook under her feet and shouts echoed outside.

We are under siege.

Before she could decide whether to retreat or move toward the door, a thick black cloak rustled past her and Țepeș emerged from the shadows.

"Stay back," he warned, blocking her path.

"Are we under attack?" Her heart tightened.

"Perhaps." His voice was ominously low, reminding her of the night they'd met, when he was still unsure of her intent.

He headed to the entrance.

"What are you doing? You cannot be thinking of opening that door!" she called after him.

He glanced back at her over his shoulder. "Your concern is misplaced." He faced forward again. "Go to the laboratory and wait there."

She didn't move.

"Don't open that door."

"Go to the laboratory," he ordered her tersely.

Another crash shook the door violently.

"Very well: I tried to warn you."

Țepeș disappeared from sight.

"Don't!" she pleaded, glancing about, dread overcoming her.

The doors creaked open and the hall was flooded with the last fading streaks of daylight. Lisa instinctively sought shelter from their assailants behind one of the large pillars lining the hall. She had no idea what she would do if Țepeș was attacked. Her hand rested over her dagger's hilt. It was a symbolic gesture, she knew. She was no fighter, not even a decent brawler. But she was not about to leave him alone to face such a fate.

Torchlights burned outside the door and she could make out the iron-tipped battering ram further ahead. As if under a spell, the soldiers holding it fell silent at the sight of the open doorway.

To her horror, Țepeș stepped into their path.


He recognized them for what they were immediately: two conjurers leading the men who'd foolishly come to his door. He deeply despised the varied brotherhood of conjurers, sorcerers, and augurs. They were the sort of inconsequent adventurers who fancied themselves as scholars and tampered ignorantly with the occult with just sufficient competence to unleash calamities: such men neither understood nor were capable of mastering the discipline they claimed to be such great practitioners of.

Reckless, he thought contemptuously. A few occasionally managed to find their way to his castle.

How much blood did you spill to chart a course to this valley?

Less than you will have to shed to make it out.

"Voivode Vlad Dracula Țepeș: names have power, names are binding! I hereby bind you to do our biding—" The first conjurer was a squat, stocky man clad in a solemn black-hooded robe. His stubby hand was splayed flatly over what Țepeș quickly identified was a Liber Juratus Honorii- a weathered black-bound grimoire. The man declaimed loudly, theatrically.

Does this ridiculous man truly believe he can bend me to his will with a few seguloth, by evoking Raziel, or threatening me with the wrath of Moloch and Baal?

Here is yet another man making the case against humanity, Țepeș glared disdainfully at the arrogant, disrespectful mortals under the delusion that a few dried herbs, some hard-to-pronounce phrases from a molding tome, and determined hand waving would be enough to tame him.

"Rise and serve the people of Wallachia once more—"

"I serve no one but myself," he rasped, assessing the pathetic party that had dared to violate the peace of his fortress. The man paused, momentarily confused, before raising his left hand once again and aiming it squarely at him.

"The people of Wallachia—"

"—Are wasting my time." He glowered at the second conjurer, also dressed in a laughable costume, four soldiers whose arms were wrapped around a battering ram, and a half dozen warriors in full plate armor awaiting below. The fire burned brightly off the grease rags tied to their torches. Rivulets of black smoke spiraled into the air.

"Who dares disturb me?" He did not need to raise his voice; a confounded silence had fallen over the party.

The arrogant conjurer finally dropped heavily to his knees. It was a spectacle he'd witnessed far too many times. That same conjurer, just seconds before, had arrived at his castle with the intent of subduing him. Since that hadn't worked, he had chosen to grovel for his worthless life instead. At the end of the day, despite all their claims of greatness, mortals were bound to their basest instincts: eat or be eaten, conquer or be conquered.

He stared at the hunched over man.

"Voivode, we humbly—"

Țepeș scoffed loudly. Humbly!

"We beseech you! Lend us the power of your army, of your command, as you did in the past. Our land is once again in grave peril."

"By whose authority do you come here to negotiate with me?" he asked gravely.

"We come in the name of Lord Iancu de Hunedoara!"

He let out a mirthless laugh. The defender of Christendom himself? Madness. Those conjurers and their secret societies took care to hide their blasphemous activities from the Church. In truth, though, conjurers and priests differed little from each other. Lords and princes were not beneath consulting one party when the other had failed them.

"You do not."

"We come in his name in spirit! We make our plea on the behalf of our people, the good Olati!"

"You evoke the name of those you do not represent in a bargain you cannot make." He paced along the landing. A low-stirring wind rose over the dusty ground.

The second conjurer, who had remained quiet and observant for most of the exchange, finally stepped forward.

"Please, aid us! The boyar entered a border dispute and in exchange for military aid from the Ottomans, he is forcing us to pay tribute and offer our sons to the Janissaries. The people cannot pay the tax to both the boyar and the Ottomans. It will kill us!"

Who has struck the most dangerous deal?…

"I care nothing for your wars, for your disputes."

"Please!" the man beseeched him, falling down to his knees alongside his colleague.

"Listen well: even if I am to give you aid and defeat the Ottomans, your boyar, and his enemies: there will be no peace. It is impossible. You are incapable of it."

"We implore you! We will do anything, but please turn your gaze upon our enemies! Aid us!" the man continued.

Țepeș' expression was still, smooth as a mask and just as revealing.

This is how lives are forfeit, bondage established, an eternity of servitude, portals into hell. I was sure it happened because men were proud—because they possessed an unwavering faith in their capacities, in what they could sustain through willpower alone…But now I know it is stupidity: a stunning lack of imagination.

These men do not know their place: they have forgotten what I truly am.

And I can only blame myself for that. I've been absent from the world for far too long.

"Anything, you say?"

"Decree the terms, my Lord."

Their unctuousness did little to fan his vanity—he saw it for what it was—shallow strategizing, desperation: a means to an end. Such men who surrendered so easily, that gave themselves up eagerly and unknowingly, nurturing the delusion they were on equal footing to bargain with him, deserved to lose everything.

Even themselves.

"I shall," he announced shrewdly, his hatred for men, for their machinations and bids for mundane power at the expense of their brethren a powerful justification for what he was about to do.

He turned his eyes upon the soldiers, staring at him, mouths agape, their torches firmly ensconced in their firsts. His cape wrapped his menacing frame. From the distance it resembled large black wings folded against a somber omen, an avatar of death. His teeth glistened, sharp against his full lips.

No…They will not leave this valley alive.


The doors dragged behind him heavily, scraping the ground. Just as they were about to shut, sealing the men's fate, Țepeș caught movement out of the corner of his eyes—a slender silhouette weaving a path between the stone.

Lisa.

She stood behind him, wary of those emissaries.

He did not want her there, as a witness to what he was about to do.

It was one thing to know.

Another to see.


A lifetime of being caught between shifting alliances among the boyars had taught Lisa that those who paid the highest price for warlords' claims to land and demands of fealty and tribute were the Olati, the people. She had seen the aftermath of bloody battles: she had cared for too many soldiers. Often freshly emerged from boyhood, they were lads like Andrei: more skilled at wielding farming implements than hefting up swords and polearms. She was haunted by the milky, vacant stare of corpses piled on the ground. She had coursed down ditches in fields with the sisters in search of survivors, listening intently for signs of life: groans and cries, any movement, while chasing off ghoulish scavengers who profited from the dead, armed with small paring knives to sever tendons and bone for the sake of a ring.

The unclaimed bodies of men and boys rotted under the sun, bloated and putrid, blood coagulating over the land, the poison of men's ambition festering and seeking to claim more dead. Barricaded roads and plundered treasuries all presaged long, ill-fated winters.

The wind rose and the torches flickered. In the air, a rash of sparks flew. An incendiary redness agonized in the horizon.

Țepeș had told Lisa to stay inside. He was her master, her teacher.

And yet, what good was all she had learned if she couldn't put it into practice? Didn't it add up to vanity if she merely accrued knowledge she did not employ?

He had given her a direct order. And she had blatantly disobeyed him, chasing threads of a conversation she had not been invited to participate in.

She was willing to incur his displeasure, his anger.

"How far away are the Ottomans?" She stood beside him.

One of the conjurers peered up, eyeing her curiously.

"A two-day march away, headed our direction from Dragoslavele."

Lisa crossed her arms. Two days was plenty.

"And what are you doing here?"she wondered in a tone of deep annoyance.

The conjurers exchanged wary glances. Țepeș observed the scene inscrutably, his face cast in shadow.

"Stop wasting time and move your people," Lisa stated.

"The boyar has ordered us to stay under penalty of death."

"Penalty of death! Your boyar is waiting to be deposed if he has to rally a foreign army to fight his skirmishes!" she cried. "But you prefer to stay and pay off a bad lord's debts?"

One of the soldiers shifted his stance, his gaze resting inquisitively on the conjurers.

"Listen to me: flee! Gather your people, load your carts: women and children first, boys at the age of tribute should follow, militia and men cover the rear if the boyar's men come in pursuit!" she insisted.

"What good will that do us?" one of the conjurers wondered, his eyes never leaving Țepeș' shrouded figure. "The only thing that can ensure our safety is protection given by the Dragon." He bowed his head at him.

In the background, Lisa's eyes briefly ventured across the field of pikes and bones.

"The only thing that will ensure your safety is using your heads! Don't you think your boyar's foes will take advantage of the situation? Especially if the Ottomans are at their doorsteps? There is nothing to be gained by remaining now! If it's not war with the Ottomans, it'll be war with the boyars."

"Where will we go?"

"Away!" she interjected impatiently. "You'll have a fighting chance if you leave! Ask for temporary sanctuary elsewhere!"

"And leave our lands, our homes? This is tantamount to a death sentence!"

"No! If you stay, then it'll be a death sentence! Think! Whoever secures power will find your lands useless without vassals to work it, without trade! You can negotiate better terms! Use this to your advantage!"

The soldier watched her intently.

"I must relay this to my lord," he announced to the conjurers. "We will depart."

One of the conjurers protested and they began a heated back and forth which Lisa did not wish to follow any further. She had made up her mind.

She would have to take her leave.

It was time to use her knowledge to help others.


Disobedience was rebellion. He never allowed anyone to question his orders, in the battlefield or anywhere else, in that plane or any other. The men departed his valley in silence, hurriedly, under the cover of dark night, headed back to their miserable villages and towns, laden with bad news.

But with their lives.

And those worthless creatures had no idea that the only reason they were allowed to continue to draw their feeble breaths, tread the earth like the plague they were, had been thanks to Lisa. She might as well have stilled his hand herself.

He was irritable—who was she to thwart his plans, the just meting of punishment for transgressions? Those conjurers and their half-digested knowledge of the arcane deserved no mercy. One did not venture into the hermetic arts without the prerequisite caution and reverence. They should have allowed him to end their existences right there. At least he wouldn't have made them linger. They now risked opening unknown passageways, ushering in unintended guests, being fooled and tricked into great misfortune and suffering. For men could not disguise their unworthy intentions in the face of great power: they needed to circle it, bask in its proximity, and like the scavengers they were, wait for the opportunity to possess it.

Lisa remained beside him, watching the men's flags undulate in the wind.

"Would you have aided them if I hadn't said anything?" She raised her eyes questioningly at him.

"Their worldly affairs don't concern me," he uttered coldly. "And they should not concern you."

She furrowed her brow in confusion.

"Have you forgotten what I came here for?"

He turned around, entering the castle. She hurried to follow him.

"And have you forgotten why I allowed you to stay?"

"I have seen the results of these conflicts. There are never enough healers: people die needlessly, usually of sickness, infection. I cannot simply remain hidden away here. I am needed."

It was as if she had issued a threat. Anger surged through him.

"Are you so vain that you believe yourself capable of preventing the inevitable misery of hundreds, perhaps thousands? You? Only one small human?" His tone was uncharacteristically harsh. "You leave this place before finalizing your apprenticeship, the terms of our agreement broken. You propose to abandon your training, in defiance of my wishes. Your word is not to be trusted. You dishonor yourself. You dishonor me, Lisa from Lupu."

That formidable temper of hers was bound to surface in response to his imperious rebuke. He remained stoically poised to engage in a fight, prepared to shatter her arguments. Instead, however, she walked up to him, perching both her hands on the arms he'd crossed before his chest.

"Come with me," she asked gently, standing on her toes and brushing her lips across his cheek. "We can go together." He betrayed no emotion. "I know I cannot stop the war, I cannot end illnesses, I do not know how to thwart death—that was never my intent. But," she continued, raising her hand to caress his face as she nuzzled it tenderly, her breath warm against his cold skin. "If I can alleviate even one person's suffering, then I will have made all the difference for that one person. I harbor no delusions of my own worth or greatness, Vlad."

He closed his eyes at the sound of his name from her lips.

Names have power, names are binding, the conjurer fool had recited earlier.

Without intending to, this woman has ensorcelled me: I am at her feet, he thought, finding his heart breaking, his fury weakening at her touch.

"I know I can learn much: I am dedicated, I am good at what I put my heart and efforts into. With your guidance I know I will be a great doctor someday—but I seek no greater glory than to serve others."

"Why?" he asked. Why bother with lowly beings whose lives were brief, whose understanding was so limited? Why did she care so deeply? What did she see in those wretches that was so precious? Humans roamed the earth wreaking destruction, defiling and plundering, murdering and cheating. All for the sake of a short-lived, miserable life. If God had created man in His image, Țepeș had reinvented himself in response to man's vile nature, in defiance to the silence of that same absent God.

She smiled sadly.

"Because I can…And because I can, I must. It is as simple as that." She kissed his lips. "Will you come with me?"

The force of his yearning cracked his cold facade. He kissed her back, savoring the feel of her body against his. "No," he lamented.

"Please come with me." She squeezed his arm. "I have every intent to fulfill my end of our bargain."

"Are you that eager to conclude our agreement? To be rid so completely of me?" he accused, even as he wrapped his arms around her.

"No." She smiled again, shaking her head. "I've never experienced so much, lived as fully or felt so deeply since I entered this castle. I think you and I know that I could never repay you for what you have given me."

"Then stay," he uttered. She faced him helplessly before burying her face in his chest. "Stay with me."

"It would be my heart's desire to remain here, like this, with you," she told him after a moment. "But I can't stay and still be true to myself, to everything I believe is right."

He stroked her hair as she held him tightly, struck by the gamut of emotions coursing through her. In the midst of it all, what impressed him the most was her compassion—a constant— the true north of her moral compass, steering her forth, even through waters unknown. Her faith in the inherent, universal goodness of humanity was something he'd long thought of as untenable.

She is stronger than I ever imagined. Unlike me, she does not succumb to hate. She rises above the morass.

He touched his forehead to the top of her head.

Where were you when no hope remained?

Before I damned myself to this existence?

"I promise to return." She peered up at him, her eyes bright. "It will be a brief leave."

He took in her words, weighing the unspoken threat contained in them against the certainty of holding her right then. She offered him a promise beyond her control. Did he even trust that backwards world with her?

His expression darkened.

"I will agree to this under one condition."

She eyed him with cautious relief.

"You say I have given you much." He waited until she nodded in agreement. "Now, I ask you to grant me something in exchange."

She searched his face.

"What is it?"

"Since you step back into the world with something of mine, then I must remain here…with something of yours."


He would not resent her for leaving.

She could not describe what peace that gave her. The thought of offending him, hurting him, of appearing ungrateful, unappreciative of all his efforts upset her deeply.

And she intended to return, to resume her studies with him. And she also wished to return for her own sake: to be at his side again. Despite all her early denial, her imperatives to remain focused, she could not stem the fledgling love that was taking root within her.

"What of mine could you possibly want?" she asked. "What could I ever give you that would be commensurate with all your knowledge, all your wisdom?"

"Do not question your worth," he whispered into her hair. "What I desire from you cannot be measured." They walked toward the laboratory together. "And it must be granted freely."

She tilted her head, eyeing him curiously as they entered the room. Was it a roundabout way to get an invitation to her bed?

He walked about the laboratory distractedly.

"What if I told you there was a way I could learn whether you were well, whether you were in peril even when we were apart?"

Her eyes widened.

"I would want to know all about the ingenious invention you have devised!"

"What would you be willing to do to attain such knowledge?" He observed her closely for her reaction.

"It depends on the benefit such knowledge would bring."

"A benefit…That is a subjective thing. Knowledge is merely a tool. Its value, thus, rests on the mastery and intent of those who wield it."

"I can't deny I am curious." Her eyes searched the laboratory for any signs of a new contraption or anything new she may have missed in her many nightly visits.

"Very well." He walked toward her, his eyes fixed on hers. "In exchange for revealing my secret to you, I will need some of your blood."

She stiffened visibly at his words.

"Are you frightened now?" he asked in a half whisper.

Lisa squinted at him.

"No. But I am intrigued."

He stepped back exhaling loudly, clearly frustrated.

"Why do you trust me so? You truly fear very little—you have burdened me with the task, instead!"

"Should I be frightened?" She examined him, how imposingly he stood before her.

"Yes," he uttered.

Her expression grew serious.

"But I know, regardless of your past deeds, that you do not seek to hurt me," she challenged him.

"No," he agreed, dropping his gaze. "But I will."

More than fear, she was assailed by a sense of concern, of worry. That odd exchange clarified nothing.

"I don't understand what you are trying to tell me, Vlad."

He took her hand, holding it between his. For a brief moment he appeared unbearably tired.

"I do not like change, Lisa. It is in part why I am how I am: I seek constancy, the solace of immutability." The smile he offered her was wan, almost sad. "I have a formidable foe in Time." He caressed her hand, stroking her skin delicately.

"What is it that you want from me?" She needed to end that strange conversation between them.

"More than anything?" He encircled her waist, pulling her up close to him. At the gesture, it was as if all her misgivings crumbled.

He is hurting: he does not want me to leave.

"I seek your understanding," he completed. "So that when you return to me, you will do so fully aware…and freely."

"Ah, but it is now you who are too trusting," she joked, trying to ease the tension between them. "How do you know I'll be returning to you and not to your marvelous laboratory, instead?"

"Alas—you cannot have one without the other," he spoke softly.

She grinned.

"As far as conundrums go, this is a pleasant one!"

He leaned in to kiss her with an ardor she had not sensed in him before. The temperateness from the previous evening had all but disappeared. As his kisses grew more urgent, his touch bolder, she reciprocated, flushing with the arousal he'd awakened in her.

"Will you accept the risk?" he asked.

It was exasperating how he questioned her, doubted her.

"There is always a risk—it's part of the price one must pay when setting out to learn, isn't it? Your understanding of the world, perhaps even of reality, might shift and change," she argued.

"Then…you agree?" He peered intently at her.

She nodded.

"Yes."

To her surprise, he wordlessly lifted her up into his arms and carried her out of the laboratory, up the stairwell, toward her bedroom.


She held on to him tightly, in anticipation. He deposited her carefully over the bed once they entered her room.

"Do you trust me?" he asked her, slowly undoing the clasp holding his cloak over his shoulder. He tossed it over a chair and approached the bed slowly. Lisa realized she had never seen him without his cloak. Țepeș was a large, vigorous man, and even in all his finery—a dark tunic with red and silver accents tied around his waist with a crimson sash—she could see the fierce warrior.

"You have never given me reason not to," she replied earnestly.

"And I never will. That is a promise, Lisa."

He sat beside her on the bed and she fell eagerly into his arms. His hand sought the buttons on the front of her work dress, plucking the top ones open. Her breath hitched when he yanked the dress down past her shoulders. Her skin glowed warmly in the firelight. She pulled at his sash and he grinned against her lips when her ineffective attempt at undressing him became more urgent.

"Such level of complexity is not necessary. I do not know what to make of the fact you didn't simply presume we'd end up like this after last night," she teased him tenderly, releasing the tight knot and allowing him to work it loose. She took over when it came undone, unwrapping it from around his waist. She contemplated his tunic with a troubled expression. "Honestly, it is a wonder you nobles haven't died out already—by the time you finish removing your cumbersome clothes, I'd imagine all your lands would be good and conquered," she protested gamely. He chuckled, enamored with her and her guileless seduction. He helped her again, pulling the long, heavy tunic over his head.

"Then consider me conquered—vanquished," he whispered in her ear, guiding her over the bed, against the pillows.

He breathed in sharply when her arms embraced him, their bare skin finally touching. His hands coursed over her body reverently, fighting the awareness of how she responded to his touch, how intimately she wanted him. His lips coursed a trail of kisses from her ear to her cheek, across her jawline, down to her smooth neck. She closed her eyes and he kissed it slowly, savoring her scent. She let a faint moan escape and he gripped her tighter, kissing her neck again, sucking the flesh lightly, gauging her reaction. She stirred under him encouragingly, trying to wrest the top of her dress down further. He assisted her, growing distracted by what a lovely vision she was, lying over the bed, her simple dress unbuttoned down to her waist revealing her small breasts, her nipples taut and flushed a deep pink. She smiled almost shyly, her eyes limpid as she beheld him, her tousled braid draped over her shoulder.

He contemplated her with hooded eyes, unwilling to wait any further. She was inebriating.

"This will hurt at first, but then, I promise, you will only feel pleasure," he murmured, his fingertips stroking her delicate neck.

He was startled by faint laughter.

"Vlad, my timing might be disastrous, but you should know that you do not need to proceed with such prudence. Consider that I am much older in years than most apprentices…and no longer a maiden."

His fingers halted their caress and he was dumbstruck by her words, especially since he had not been alluding to taking her virginity. Her expression clouded.

"I hope this isn't too great a disappointment to you," she proceeded, unsure of his reaction.

He raised an eyebrow.

"No." He kissed her lips as one of his hands palmed one of her breasts. "But I do wonder what on earth was happening at that odd convent of yours," he provoked.

He chuckled again as he caught the adorably appalled expression on her face. Before she could argue in her defense, he placed his lips on her breast, sucking on the warm, yielding skin, teasing her nipple bud, his tongue savoring her sweetness. His restraint was fraying rapidly at her undisguised pleasure —he needed her to be his right then. When she let another moan escape, he raised his head, relieved her eyes were shut so she would not witness the raw, unchecked look in his blood-red eyes. He positioned himself over her better, burying his nose in the crook of her neck, allowing the intensity between them to build. He turned her head to the side gingerly, away from him, letting the tips of his teeth slightly graze her skin. The sensation caused a gasp to escape her lips. Her pulse throbbed promisingly against his tongue. His hand slipped over her palm, and they laced their fingers together lovingly, tightly, moments before he clamped his mouth over her neck, the sharp tips of his canines piercing her flesh.

She cried out in alarm, her eyes opening wide, and he squeezed her hand, trying to convey reassurance as his mouth filled with blood. It was as exhilarating as it was terrifying, and he drew her blood slowly, measuredly, despite his feral thirst. Her emotions soon flooded his mind and her terror rushed through both of them. Her heartbeat galloped in her chest so violently, it caused him to gasp momentarily for breath. He took her hand and rested it over his bare chest, splaying it over his heart, holding it securely in place. It was all he could do to soothe her.

Feel it, Lisa: our hearts beat as one.


Her shock gave way to a strange, contradictory calm. The sharp pain that had torn into her so unexpectedly subsided into a dizzying, intoxicating haze. She found it was even…pleasant. Any will to resist, any impulse to push him away, even to strike at him or defend herself, faded after the initial burst of pain. She drifted off, her mind muddled from the surge of emotions. She was jolted out of that hypnotic reverie only when the cold air stung her skin. She drowsily opened her eyes, meeting his deep red gaze.

His tongue flicked over his lips, sated, unwilling to squander even one drop of her blood. Even as she blinked at him, disoriented, he leaned over again, running his tongue between slow kisses over the two small puncture wounds he'd created until he was satisfied that they'd been cleansed and practically healed over. He watched her uneasily, though. He was acutely aware of her emotions, feeling them stir as if they'd been born of his own heart.

"Lisa," he whispered, stroking her hair, lying alongside her. "Do you understand now?"

She looked at him silently. After a moment, she tried to sit up, her hand flying to her neck, searching for the wound he'd inflicted.

"Do not try to get up," he warned, stopping her. "Not yet."

She let herself drop back over the pillow, lightheaded, faint.

Her eyes fluttered shut, exhaustion overcoming her. He lay behind her, his arm protectively wrapped around her. It was how she fell asleep, preferring a brief reprieve into oblivion to the confusion and turmoil rising within her.


He would remain by her side until dawn, until the last possible second by her side. Nothing he could say at that point would mend things between them. He had asked her to take a leap of faith—and she had consented. But she never could have imagined leaping into that abyss…

He had stared into her soul that evening, pried open all her secrets. He had violently claimed her innocence.

He had also been moved by and reassured of the strength of her love— so pure and unwavering; it coursed through his own veins, lush with her essence.

But he had seen more: he had learned that she would flee in the morning. She would try to escape his grasp, go beyond his reach. He was well aware of the harm he had inflicted, of how he had demolished the pillars of her reality.

An all-consuming ache enveloped him. Right then, he realized, she could not answer him truthfully whether or not she would ever return to him.

He stared at the shadows flickering on the wall, the pain of his imminent loss crushing.

At least when I was mortal, I knew my suffering to be finite.

He clasped her against him, letting only the awareness of the singular pulsing of their hearts, steady and strong, chase away his sorrow.

I will let her go: but she will never be far, as long as her blood courses through me.


 

Chapter Text

"I am possessed by memories of her and I am in exile from myself."

-Petrarch


Lisa rushed down the castle's steps without a backward glance. Her satchel contained all her belongings and nothing more despite the tempting offer she'd found in her room: a pouch of coins sitting on the letter that bore her name in fluid, scholarly writing. In the succinct letter that made no allusion to what had occurred the previous evening, Țepeș had predicted her intent to depart that morning and urged her to accept the gold to secure lodgings and perhaps bargain for safe passage. He'd concerned himself with the smallest details of her trip: that she should take provisions from the larder, that she was welcome to any books or scrolls she wished to take. Reagents and medicines from the laboratory were at her disposal, as well.

At the end of the letter he had written:

You need only say my name and I will come to you.

She crumpled the letter although it hurt her viscerally to watch his words of admonition, concern, and generosity disappear under her angry fist. As much as she wished it were otherwise, the feelings she nurtured for Țepeș could not be as expediently discarded as the letter. Still, the gesture was unequivocal: it solidified her intent to leave.

Upon awakening in the darkened room that morning, she had grappled with the coherence of the previous night as if the events had leached themselves into her memory from a strange, hallucinatory dream.

Was any of it real? She examined her neck in a small mirror, turning her head to and fro. Although the skin was tender, there was nothing that betrayed the violence of her recollection of the previous evening. Her fingers prodded the aching area lightly.

A shiver coursed over her at the memory of his breath, his full lips shaping kisses over her neck, his tongue flicking over the raw skin soothingly until the sting he'd inflicted earlier all but faded.

She stared long and hard at the gold on the table as she stood by the open door, her satchel slung decisively across her shoulder. It was a rare instance where her pragmatic side was trumped by pride. She slammed the door shut on her way out of the room and down the staircase, avoiding the kitchen and its larder. When she coursed down the main hall, the awareness that she had decided to leave for good did cause her to falter. When she slipped out the door into the blinding light of day, she braced an arm across her abdomen to prevent herself from doubling over with grief.

As she climbed up an incline that would bring her back to the road she had wandered off of to reach the castle, she finally turned her head to stare at the castle.

He had tried to warn her, she realized. From the beginning. All those conversations they had had about the risks of knowledge. But it hadn't been enough.

What would you be willing to do to attain such knowledge? Will you accept the risk?

The questions acquired a taunting timbre in retrospect.

He had unsettled her to her very core. Sorting through all her jumbled emotions only revealed a multitude of unraveled threads—she would have to contend with everything: from what to believe in moving forward to whether he had preyed on her. She rubbed her neck as if stirring up the courage to follow through with her decision.

And still, despite everything, she could not quell the profound, hollow ache that struck her when she tore her gaze from the solitary castle in the distance.


"How much?" Lisa took offense at the innkeeper's straight face as he announced the cost of lodging at his modest establishment for a night. She amassed some of her coins in her palm and presented them to him. "This is all I can offer. Will it do?"

He examined her money with poorly concealed disdain. He flicked two silver coins aside.

"Hm. We do not accept aspri here."

Lisa frowned.

"But what about the rest?"

The man shrugged.

"That won't even buy you a stall in the barn."

"Be reasonable now: where am I supposed to go? There is nowhere else!" she argued incredulously. She tried not to let thoughts of Țepeș' pouch of coins, abandoned in the comfortable room she'd left behind, taunt her.

"Aah! You can go the devil, for all I care!" The man finally snapped impatiently, tired of Lisa's persistent haggling and turning his attention to the prospective patrons lined up behind her.

Some might say that's where I have just come from, Lisa thought sullenly, stepping off into the muddy street.

Refugees from the south had flooded the town in a desperate scramble to outrun the Ottomans and she was sure the innkeeper would be able to make better-heeled folk pay his opportunistic rates. The town was only a day's trip away from Făgăra and its famous walls, where the Wallachian boyars were rumored to be amassing their forces to fight the Ottomans.

Outside the town walls, people pitched makeshift camps for the night with whatever they had. Lisa carefully wandered among the tumultuous scene, wary of sprawled bodies and outstretched limbs over limited space. There was a general sense of confusion—the outskirts of town was hardly a place to find any respite from the chaos. Lisa walked out further, closer to the edge of the forest, where the crowd had thinned out. She approached a smaller encampment—what appeared to be a sălaşe of nomadic Rom. She made her presence known by nodding as she walked past the small band huddled around the fire. A quick glance tallied at least two children running around a tent and an older man speaking to six or seven hooded figures. They all fell silent as she passed, observing her deposit her belongings on the ground nearby.

Her shabby cloak was a flimsy barrier, but protection nevertheless, between the damp ground and herself. She propped her head on the satchel; it was a familiar routine by then. Soon after she curled into herself, the Rom eased back into their interrupted conversation. She couldn't begrudge them their wariness. She blinked sadly into the starless sky: her decision to leave the convent had been spurred in part by the fact her abbess had seen no contradiction between preaching the Gospel and keeping Rom slaves.

The older man's voice had a soothing quality. Lisa tried to eavesdrop only because she felt lonely, but found that she had settled too far away from the group to maintain any sustained comprehension of the conversation unfolding. She pulled her cloak tighter around herself as if trying to stave off the unease that awaited her.

She couldn't help being acutely aware of the passage of time. She had been forced to ignore the first stirrings of that familiar restlessness that surfaced when day slipped into dusk.

Old habits are the most difficult to conquer.

When she began to wonder about Țepeș, what he was doing in his immense fortress at that moment, she rose into a sitting position, bracing her legs and burying her head in her arms.

Who are you? She thought, pained. How can you exist—how can you even be? You go against everything…Everything YOU taught me. She winced. So many questions that only you can answer…I do not know where to begin.

I've lost my direction, my path.

I've lost you.

If she whispered his name, would he know?

Would he come?

If he came to her, would it be a summons? Would she be, at last, a witch for conjuring…Never mind that! For consorting with—

Oh, Father Vasile would finally be vindicated, she thought, defeated. I can't even begin to imagine…What if everything the Church has been preaching is actually truth…?

She groaned audibly despite herself and the voices further down from her fell silent again.

"Hello?" a firm, melodious voice called out.

She raised her head. The older man was waving his hand, beckoning to her.

"You," he called out. The hooded figures had turned to look at her. Even the children had stilled their game of tag around the tent. "Do you wish to join us?"

She stared for a moment, uncertain.

"Are you unwell?" the man called out. She heard the rustling of robes; two of the figures had begun to move in her direction.

"I am fine!" She did not want them to approach any further.

"We heard you cry out," a woman's voice replied. "Are you in pain?"

"It is nothing."

"Perhaps we can help?" the suggestion was tentative, almost timid.

"Thank you, but I assure you: nothing is the matter." She took a deep breath. "I would know: I am a…healer."

"Heh! Some of the worst patients we have ever had were healers," the older man stated. She could hear the smile in his voice. "Come join us, regardless. This is no place for those traveling alone. There is safety in numbers."

"Come warm yourself by our fire," the woman's voice called encouragingly. "We have some wine and palincă."

Well, that may be just what I need, Lisa decided, standing up and brushing the grass and dirt off her cloak.


"Oh, you think we are Rom?" the older man uttered with surprise after some introductory conversation. "No, no—we are not Rom. Although we often cross paths, as fellow nomads, we are not Rom ourselves." The man gazed into the fire. "Theirs is not a lot we envy. We hope to do them justice in our tellings."

Lisa took a swig of palincă, grateful for the unexpected companionship, for the way the biting astringent taste of alcohol chased away the sharp fragments of her disparate thoughts.

"Tellings? Are you performers?" Perhaps, she thought, they were mummers.

The man grinned.

"We are performers…of a sort, you could argue. Except that the stories we tell are the stories of the people of Wallachia."

Lisa passed the bottle of palincă to the man sitting beside her.

"We are called Speakers," he continued. The others around her nodded. "Have you ever heard of us?"

"I may have, but I regret that I don't really remember," she admitted apologetically.

"It is all right. There aren't many of us, which makes our mission all the more urgent."

"So, you are storytellers."

"More like history tellers." The man smiled. "We preserve the stories and oral traditions of the people…for the people."

"You travel about collecting stories?" she wondered.

"We collect stories, traditions, genealogies, songs…and we keep them. We teach them formally to our children, who will succeed us someday, so that the chain is never broken. I am the Elder of this clan," he explained. "I am Mircea." He briefly bowed his head at her. She returned the gesture.

"Lisa from Lupu."

"Ah! Elisabeta?" the man asked.

"No…Just Lisa. My mother was Elisabeta."

"Elisheva, Oath of God," he entoned softly. "An auspicious name."

His gaze probed her.

"This is my wife, Sypha." He indicated the woman beside him. She lowered her cowl and nodded at Lisa. Her dark hair flecked with white was shorn close to her head, giving her a definitively more masculine appearance. Her features, however, were delicate.

"Nice to meet you."

"Sitting beside her is my future son-in-law, Radu." He pointed to the young stout man with short, sleek blond hair. "Radu was named after Radu Negru. A stunning likeness, no?"

The group laughed and Lisa joined the brief moment of detente with a smile. There was nothing negru, or black, about the young man. She imagined it was something he was teased about often.

"And then, sitting beside him, is my younger daughter Sypha." The young woman also lowered her cowl. Like her mother, she wore her hair cut short. Her light blue eyes were large and expressive. Elder Mircea went about the small circle introducing her to the remainder of the group: Florica, Dorinel, Liviu, and the two boys, Eugen and Matei. He introduced the final figure. "My mother-in-law." He leaned in closer to Lisa. "Care to venture a guess at her name?"

The older woman turned her head toward them, her gaze frosted white with what Lisa recognized was suffusio, the ailment that afflicted the lenses of the eyes, resulting in impaired sight.

"I…" She glanced around the fire at the friendly faces observing her. "Sypha?"

Laughter broke out again and the youngest Sypha crossed her arms crossly.

"Tata, I'll have you know that if Radu and I someday have a daughter, we will name her Sypha, as well!"

Sypha's betrothed turned a bright shade of crimson while the party's laughter grew louder. The Elder raised his hands appeasingly.

"Yes, yes—and an excellent name it is! As the saying goes: good things are meant to be repeated."

Lisa welcomed the bottle of palincă when it was passed around again.

"Lupu, Lupu…You are quite a ways from home! What brings you all the way here, if I may ask?" the Elder asked.

The same that prompts your questions: curiosity.

"I was completing my apprenticeship," she stated vaguely.

"A healer is it?" the woman named Florica quickly interrupted. "I am a healer, as well!"

Lisa smiled. "Any interests or specialties?"

The woman grinned.

"Midwifery."

Lisa fought back the urge to repeat her question. As a woman, Florica's interests and what she was allowed to study might not have always aligned.

"Will you stay here or will you travel further north?" she asked them.

The Elder glanced at his companions, as if silently gauging the group's consensus.

"We follow history. We witness the events that shape our identity as a people. The upcoming battle is a curious one, with so much at stake on all sides. You see, its outcome will seal the fate of the last heir of a great house. It may also give the Ottomans a new foothold in our lands. But it could result instead in a thunderous defeat and redefine the position of various nobles in Wallachia. We identify such moments as crossroads of fortune. Here we must remain."

"We also must remain for those who have no voice, for those who may need aid in harsher times, in any shape we can offer." Liviu, large but soft-spoken, explained. Lisa nodded.

"Yes. I understand." She fingered the strap of her satchel pensively. "I think I will remain here as well. This battle sounds larger than I imagined. I am sure the town will need all the aid it can obtain."

She engaged in friendly conversation with them, surprised by how far and wide the Speakers had traveled. She found herself growing silent and listening more as their stories grew more fascinating, often digressing into the past to make assorted connections. The palincă helped dull some of her thoughts and put her more at ease. She knew eventually she'd have to confront what had happened, but right then she chose to be lulled by the Speakers' tales, by places she had never seen, people she had never met— and never would— and it mattered little because they brought her such solace, invaded the space of her mind, pushed back all that would inevitably catch up to her, earning her a small reprieve.

When she peered up again from lingering in her thoughts, she met the oldest Sypha's cloudy gaze.

She stared back, unsure of how much the woman could perceive behind the veil of her damaged eyes. Perhaps it was a deep-seated compunction that prompted her to politely smile at the woman. She did not respond. Instead, she remained still, alert, as if her senses were attuned to cues of a more subtle nature. The opaque eyes darted, as if trailing invisible movement.

"Răscruce," she uttered. Crossroads.

Lisa imagined that perhaps all that talk of battlefields, fate, and crossroads was unsettling the older woman, even if she was a Speaker. "Răscruce," she repeated to Lisa, more urgently.

Her daughter, the second Sypha, reached for the woman's wizened hand.

"Ssh, Mama," she called gently.

"The She-Wolf who hails from the north will, to the Land, the Great Darkness call forth. Lady of the Crossroads, heed our plea, only you can lock the gate, only you can turn the key. For you alone are the seal, you alone can heal," the woman recited the words in the same fervent but soft breath rosaries and prayers of supplication were declaimed in.

She concluded her strange prayer with a fretful cry.

Lisa blinked in mild confusion.

"Mama!" In the Elder's wife voice, a tone of concern and admonition.

The other Speakers exchanged bewildered looks.

"I apologize if she has startled you. All this traveling must wear on her bones—and yet, we know there is nowhere else she would rather be than with us," the Elder's wife quickly interrupted the strange silence that had gripped them.

"If she is unwell, I would be happy to be of aid," Lisa offered, her mind easily overcoming the slight torpor of drink, recalling what she had learned: Galen had referred to "morosis", one of the symptoms of advanced age, and one of Țepeș' books had mentioned how it was related to cerebral atrophy—

"That would be very kind of you. Perhaps tomorrow—although I am hoping some sleep will help restore and settle her." The woman cast a meaningful glance at her daughter. "Sypha, help me with your grandmother. It is late."

The woman might as well have issued an edict: the remainder of their band began to take leave for the evening. As they retreated into the closely erected tents, the Elder remained in the circle, stoking the fire, prodding the logs with a long stick.

"I hope my presence isn't an imposition." Lisa felt somehow she was to blame for the evening's abrupt ending . The Elder beheld her with kindly eyes.

"We do not believe in things such as impositions. We believe everything has a time and reason for happening…and sometimes, we are offered glimpses of what prompts those fateful workings."

He dislodged one of the logs burning beneath the pile, poking it toward the side of the burning heap. A spray of embers flew up into the air.

"Sometimes, we are offered glimpses of those fateful workings because there just may be an opportunity to change the course of certain events."

"Răscruce?" Lisa asked with the same measure of affability. "As travelers, I suppose the symbolism of such places, between lands, neither here, not there, would permeate much of the Speakers' imaginations."

The Elder chuckled.

"Well…Yes…I suppose you are right. We do meet an ungodly number of crossroads during our travels, and if we're lucky, Radu will read the map correctly." He winked and it was her turn to smile, more at ease.

"I do not believe in fate," Lisa continued. "I believe that what you call fate is merely an effort to create a coherent narrative of all the choices and decisions one makes while living."

"That is not incorrect," the Elder nodded. "But Time is as mysterious as it is wondrous." His expression grew more serious. "Did you say you are from Lupu?"

"Yes."

Mircea did not raise his eyes from the fire.

"It's interesting."

Lisa tilted her head, waiting for his explanation.

"Doamna Sypha doesn't speak very often. But when she does, we listen." He contemplated her curiously. "What she recited is what we've always believed is a very old rugăciune. It is something those among us believed came from the Romans, because of the reference to the She-wolf, you see. But now…I am not so sure."

Lisa shifted uncomfortably.

"I wonder if we have not confused rugăciuni with profeții."

Prayers and prophecies…Lisa closed her eyes. Only a day before she would have easily ascertained those were two things she did not believe in. Instead, the fissures in her certainty only widened.

"I wonder," he repeated pensively.

"I regret I cannot be of help in this matter: I know very little of how such things work. And forgive me if I seem rude, but my skepticism is such that I am inclined to think of such things as coincidences."

"There are no co—"

"No coincidences. Yes, you've told me as much. In this matter, we'll simply have to agree to disagree," she offered amiably.

"Events have been set into motion regardless of what we believe. The signs have been posted; they billow in the winds of memory." He contemplated her with fatherly concern. It touched her just as it made her wary. "I can't help thinking…A few among us sensed you bear a burden—which is why we felt we needed to reach out to you. But now, if I think more carefully, perhaps we are merely performing the steps that have been laid out for us by those with the gift of foresight. It's fortuitous that we should cross paths, Lisa of the northern village of the Wolf: could this prophecy be about you?"

She could feel her heart sink at his words, the long-believed convictions she clung to about the world crumbling, turning to ash.


It wasn't the darkness or the silence that were oppressive.

It was he and his awareness of himself.

His eyes shot open at the first signs of dusk, as they had for so very long. It was a summons he no choice but to heed.

He moved heavily, lethargically. He consulted his mind's eye, aware that he was so ancient, so powerful, there were no other beings he needed to confer with, no demiurges to strike bargains with in order to see his heart's desire. He was absolute. The vision was summoned quietly, from within him, as he prodded the strong link he had established between Lisa and himself by consuming her blood. Night creatures stirred throughout the castle, reclaiming their realm, no longer constrained to the shadows.

Lisa had rejected his peace offerings: the pouch of coins had been left untouched on the table, his letter crumpled up beside it.

But worry tempered his wounded pride.

He learned exactly where she was as the flashes of her surroundings flooded his plane of vision as if he were seeing out of her eyes.

And there was more; there was more he was able to sense.

The confusion she harbored only increased. The more she attempted to make sense of what had transpired between them, the more distraught she grew.

What if everything the Church has been preaching…?—her anguished thoughts echoed poignantly from the distance to him. She had so many questions. When he searched deeper, the revelations were bittersweet—they were as painful as they were tender: she still loved him, even as she fled from him.

Ah, Lisa—we are the answers to the questions we never knew we had before.

He recalled her vivacious sky-blue eyes, the fair hair that glinted like his last memories of sunlight.

Say my name. He stared into the dark, starless night. Call me to your side.


 

Chapter Text

Don't depend too much on anyone in this world because even your own shadow leaves you when you are in darkness.

— Taqî ad-Dîn Aḥmad ibn Taymiyyah


"Perhaps we should speak of this in the morning?" The Elder sat back, satisfied the campfire was well stoked. "Rest: sleep. Tomorrow break bread with us and then we'll be able to decide where to go."

But Lisa knew there would be no sleep. Not only because her body had become unaccustomed to retiring at that early hour of the evening after all those late nights with Țepeș, but because she was wary of being left alone with her thoughts.

"Why do you think this prophecy is about me?" She was determined to obtain at least one answer to an unpleasant question.

"Because instead of coincidences, we believe in signs. Your presence triggered a vision in a Revered Speaker—"

"Yes, I come from the village of Lupu. And Lupu means wolf, but," she challenged him, leaning forward, facing the Elder across the orange glow of the fire, "how do you know that by merely mentioning I am from Lupu earlier I did not trigger your Revered Speaker's memory?"

Mircea nodded sympathetically.

"Could be, could be."

"I am a woman traveling alone. You met me as I settled among refugees in a field: it is quite natural to surmise that I, like most of the people with nowhere to go, am 'burdened', no?"

"Absolutely," Mircea agreed in a sanguine tone.

Lisa eyed the man suspiciously. He was being agreeable: even reasonable. But she had the feeling he was not one bit deterred from his thinking by her observations.

"Absolutely…But?" she added, expectantly.

"I do not know what you expect me to say." He shrugged.

"You still believe…?"

"Lisa, you are a healer, yes? As such you know, better than most, that certain symptoms may indicate an illness, but that sometimes more observation and more time may be required."

"Yes…" she acknowledged.

"Prophecies are the same: I can't be certain of anything, but I have my presentiments. And I am willing to consider what they may lead to. Signs are not always clear—or better: the designs of the Universe are clear, but our abilities are limited. After all, we have only one body and one brain with which to experience all of life. It is easy for impressions to be tainted by fears and other prejudices. It is why sometimes it is difficult for us to distinguish reverence from fear or why there is little difference between the physical manifestations of a mystic's ecstasy during spiritual contemplation and a lover's blissful release during the sexual act."

Lisa turned her face away. The Elder quickly cleared his throat.

"Forgive me." He clasped his hands over his knees. "I got carried away and committed a terrible mistake for a storyteller: I failed to consider my audience's sensibilities. I did not mean to discomfit you. I only meant to speak to you as an equal, as a learned companion. Perhaps, though, as we have only recently met, I ought to choose my words and examples a bit better." He offered her a small, polite nod. Lisa's brow furrowed.

"I am no prude: what you said did not offend or shock me." She could not reveal, however, that his words had brought back memories of that strange night, of the intense, exquisite pleasure shimmering through her body, numbing awareness of Țepeș' teeth piercing her flesh, draining her blood—just the thought made her shudder. Such violence occurred simultaneously, alongside the tender way he held her, in how he clasped her palm against his chest. In her delirious, muddled mind, she dreamed she had coaxed a bloom of warmth, of life, from cold, indifferent stone. For a brief moment of dizzying clarity, she no longer knew what boundaries existed between her and Țepeș. It had been intimate— more intimate than any physical experience she had ever exchanged with any lover. It was a sensation of wholeness, of profound oneness, at once exhilarating and peaceful.

…et ne nos inducas in tentationem: sed libera nos a malo…Lead us not into temptation: but deliver us from evil…The supplication echoed in her mind. Why was it that despite all her attempts to cling to reason, to logic, it was thoughts of the many prayers and incantations she'd been taught as a child and surrounded with all her life that presented themselves to her aid, to scatter her confusion? All those beliefs heeded the warnings: of the devil's guile, of the illusions he was capable of unleashing. It was the province of craven superstition assailing her, threatening the orderly universe she had so defended and loved.

"Lisa?"

The voice called her gently, but when she raised her eyes, the entire world appeared to blur. It was only at Mircea's interjection of concern that she realized her cheeks were bathed in tears.


Forces hailing from Făgăras began to move south in the morning, unwilling to grant the Ottomans further territory and the possibility of defeat and loss of a major stronghold. Soldiers rode south, preparing to face the Ottomans in an open battlefield. The town, and its Saxon walls, less massive and imposing than Făgăras', would serve as the Wallachians' fortress.

Carts creaked noisily as townsfolk fled northward. War was imminent as the armored horsemen rode past the town hoisting the standards of noble houses Lisa did not recognize.

In the afternoon, a telltale stillness hung in the air; it was akin to the moroseness before a menacing storm. In the distance, columns of smoke rose into the sky.

"Should we move north as well?" the Elder's wife asked. Their belongings awaited, neatly bundled, ready to be carried out at a moment's notice.

"We stay," Mircea decided.

Lisa glanced toward the desolate, rocky countryside, fierce determination on her face.

Then I will stay, too.


The first wave of soldiers returned at daybreak, bringing the survivors of the first clash of battle—at least, those who were fit enough to ride or withstand being hauled over a horse. Lisa presented herself at the church, where pews had been pushed away and the nave cleared to house the wounded. Three other Speakers went with her: the Elder's wife, Sypha, and Liviu.

At the church she encountered the usual assortment of battle injuries, which she quickly began to treat. She struggled to find a balance between honesty and encouragement. It was exhausting work she performed with conflicting emotions: it brought her thoughts closer to the man who had imparted so much wisdom to her. She couldn't help being touched deeply by the wounded. To the boyars, those soldiers were merely numbers: bricks in a wall they hoped would hold. But she felt compassion for the sorrow of her patients, many of them untried soldiers, finding their first taste of battle a sobering rather than a glorious one. She had treated an ashen-faced man gripping an arrow's shaft, its head firmly lodged in his shoulder, his lips pale and quivering. Another lad with haunted eyes sat dejectedly on the ground, clasping his abdomen as if trying to hold in his entrails; despite the superficial wound, he wept as bitterly as if he had been struck mortally. Lisa worked with quiet efficiency, with the confidence of a seasoned healer bolstered by the knowledge she had acquired. She held shaking hands, stroked sweaty and grimy foreheads, listened to tearful regrets and unrestrained resentment. A boy no more than fourteen had died in her care: he had squeezed her hand fearfully until a terrible quiet overcame him. Nameless and small, she had held him as she imagined his mother would have wanted her boy to be consoled, trying her best to impart to him, somehow, that he was not alone as his grasp on life waned.

Other healers watched her interestedly and heeded her recommendations: buckets of fresh, clean water were hauled in for the frequent washing of hands, cloth wraps boiled in a cauldron at the nearby smithy, and needles were run through flames before stitching wounds. It was far from ideal, Lisa knew, finding herself at the helm of that improvised infirmary, but the odds were better than they would have been without those rudimentary cares.

Liviu had become her shadow. He was no healer, but he was large and eager to help. He hoisted pails of water, carefully relocated the wounded, and delivered her instructions to their helpers. A Speaker's memory was useful, Lisa found, when keeping track of detailed directions and to whom to give poultices, salves, balms, extracts, and tinctures. She found she only needed to repeat herself once with him before he ventured forth, a gentle giant among ailing men.


"Come. Now you must rest."

Lisa peered up from her patient at Sypha's benevolent expression. It was early into the evening of the second day.

"But there are so many wounded!"

"You will be of no use to anyone if you give in to exhaustion or fall ill." Sypha crossed her arms authoritatively. She was small and her closely-shorn hair reminded her of a sprinkling of ashes, but Lisa had met similar women at the convent. They were accustomed to issuing their orders in the guise of suggestions. She smiled wanly before hoisting herself up from the ground, where she had been sitting, keeping watch over a soldier whose high fever had finally broken. One was wise to heed such "suggestions".


When Lisa finally departed the church, she moved swiftly through the narrow streets, her gait broad and confident despite the unease the soldiers camped out on the town square caused in her. She rushed past bands of men who were distracted enough by her solitary figure to eye her with suspicion, resentment, or, what caused her step to quicken, interest. She had pulled her hood over her head, trying to deflect any unwelcome attention to herself.

A pair of bleary eyes followed Lisa through the square gradually registering recognition. After she turned down a street, the man jutted his chin in her direction contemptuously.

"Vrăjitoare," he uttered before spitting on the ground.

He hoisted himself off the ground unsteadily, his tabard featuring a black Tular and a crescent moon stained with the rusty hues of mud and blood.

He knew what he had seen and to whom he'd have to report it to.


The Speakers had taken shelter in an empty stable inside the town. The stale odor of livestock permeated the small building, but it was a dry roof over their heads, something she was grateful for when thunder began roiling in the distance. The town had been practically deserted since the last two days and Lisa was grateful she had taken up with such a welcoming band of travelers. Her tense expression eased when she met Radu's earnest face at the door. Safety, at that point, was an illusion. She understood that wars all had an unpredictable order of their own, eschewing laws and other quaint constraints imposed on men during saner times. But she took solace in the illusion, believing that among experienced wanderers such as the Speakers, she was protected. They had seen and experienced so much: surely they would recognize signs of danger to themselves. The charms they wore and placed throughout their campsites did not irk her so much: they were proof of watchfulness. Lisa fell asleep, exhausted, her cloak spread over clumps of hay, the sound of dripping water coming from the back of the stable lulling her into a dreamless slumber.


The knock fell hard against the door, rattling it and causing a general sense of alarm and confusion among the Speakers. The Elder emerged from a darkened corner, wiping bits of hay off his long blue cloak. Dorinel followed him cautiously while the others retreated further inside. Lisa watched the menacing men approach the door when she heard a sharp hissing sound behind her. With a glance over her shoulder, she noticed the small fire had been completely doused. Her eyes narrowed—there was no one close enough to douse it. A confused glance toward Florica was met with a conspiratorial nod and a finger poised over her lips in a gesture of silence as she sat beside the oldest Sypha.

It was still dark outside, but the entrance became flooded with the foreboding flicker of torchlights. She burrowed deeper in the hay, hoping she was not conspicuous.

"We are searching for a woman," a booming voice declared. Lisa frowned. Something about it sounded familiar. "She was seen headed in this direction from the church earlier in the evening."

Mircea replied. "Here you will find Speakers and while some of ours are at the church to help with the wounded, none of them has returned yet."

Lisa couldn't help a faint grin. The Elder hadn't lied: he'd merely worded his response very strategically.

"We'll verify that for ourselves." A figure clad in a dark hood stepped inside and turned toward them. Lisa's eyes widened. She was finally able to place him: he was one of the conjurers that had visited Tepes' castle. Sheer panic coursed through her.

"Please do. And sit with us to tell us how the battle with the invaders goes."

As if on cue, a strong, pungent stench arose from the nearby bays. Florica stepped forward, dutifully.

"Tea?" she proposed.

Eugen and Matei began a childish, melancholy wail and Radu punctuated it with a loud and splintery cough.

Mircea remained standing, his hand outstretched in the gloom of the barn. Florica scurried as if trying to start a new fire. Lisa held still, holding her breath, watching only Florica's fluid movements—the rattling of a pot, the failed spark of a flint strike.

The conjurer also held still, a gradual expression of disgust winning over his curiosity as the odor grew more putrid and the wailing tiresomely shrill.

"We must continue our search. Be on the lookout," he warned them.

"For a solitary woman?" Mircea wondered."What crime could she have possibly—"

"She is a witch."

"A witch? What kind of witch?"

The conjurer smirked.

"She spies on us— she reports back on our losses."

"To what purpose?" Mircea appeared doubtful.

"Not to what purpose: to whom," he revealed ominously. "She serves the Dragon himself. Once the defender of our people, the Dragon would now see us fall to a fate as grim as Constantinople's."

It was as if the air had been sucked out of the room. Florica stopped her busy rifling and Radu halted mid cough. Only the whiny cries pierced the silence. Lisa felt any hope dissipate; her lot had been cast without her even realizing it the moment she had sought out Țepeș.

"Surely, you realize the Dragon was never a friend of the people," Mircea finally spoke. "To seek his aid is to invite disaster to strike. This is a grave matter, indeed."

"Yes: you would know, wouldn't you?" the conjurer added, his resentment over his futile expedition to enlist Țepeș rekindled. He raised his hand to his nose, trying to break the waves of nauseating stench. "Inform the authorities should you come across her. She is tall, fair haired," he warned. "There is a reward for her capture." His eyes surveyed the room's darkness. "Remember there is punishment for those aiding and abetting a witch."

"No doubt. And just what do you plan to do once you capture the Dragon's servant?"

The man smiled grimly.

"Why, render the Dragon deaf and blind, of course! If he will not aid us, then he has no business here. After all, 'Maleficos non patieris vivere'," he quoted with an oiliness that made Lisa grit her teeth from the blatant hypocrisy.

"Yes, yes." Mircea feigned awe as the conjurer stepped out.


After the door slammed shut and was secured tightly again, Mircea let out a long sigh.

"Florica…You can make it stop now."

At the sound of his voice, the petite woman sprang into action. Lisa was able to perceive, behind the hands she'd loosely clamped over her eyes, a flash of bright light. Compelled by the brightness, Lisa removed her hands to find the fire glowing once more and the hideous stench gone.

"Lisa, you can come out now," Mircea called. "We must talk."

She gazed down at her satchel.

"Yes. I understand. I will take my leave. I do not wish to place you all in danger."

Mircea let out a soft huff.

"Danger? We can handle arrogance and ignorance. We have had lifetimes of experience. The danger you need to concern yourself with is of a different ilk. A far more different ilk."

He peered about the stable, spotting the solitary loft.

"Come up. We must speak."

"Very well," she agreed warily.


Mircea sat on the floor stiffly. Lisa took his arm gently, but he waved her away with mild impatience.

"The day I cannot do these things for myself is the day I need to step off the road. I am not ready for that yet." He grinned.

"The Speakers tell stories, some so old they have transcended history and become legend. We tell them. It is not our purview to decide on their veracity. We are merely their stewards. We tell the stories. And a story differs very little from a spell. A story can heal…and it can harm."

Lisa shifted uncomfortably.

"I will admit to being entranced by a good story, but as to spells and magic…"

"You've made it abundantly clear: you reject magic."

She did not shrink from his gaze.

"Although my beliefs have been challenged, I feel I must."

"Why?"

"I am a woman of science. I believe…in the forces that govern nature. In their fixed and predictable order. Magic is simply—"

"Another branch of science?"

Lisa shook her head.

"It is born of a desire to thwart and overpower, to usurp and change. It proposes to violate the forces of nature, and therefore, I cannot believe…It is merely wishful thinking!"

"Lisa, a practitioner of magic must study as carefully as any disciple of the natural sciences."

"To consort with demons? To compel them to do their bidding? That is just preposterous and a disgraceful excuse to exempt one of responsibility! So, if a man in a fit of anger murders his wife, he can blame it on demons, on black magic, and be absolved?"

Mircea pondered it.

"Only if, in fact, demons were involved."

Lisa let out a frustrated growl.

"I will admit: most are ill-equipped to assess such matters. How does one know, Lisa?" He shrugged. "You are a doctor. How do you know whether an illness is one thing or another?"

"Aah! I have procedures to follow and tests I can conduct to observe and come to conclusions. It is all there—not always plain for the eye to see, but if the right experiments are done, I will be able to ascertain—"

"And what happens if you do not fully understand what you are supposed to do? What happens if you err in a step or administer the wrong treatment?"

"People can be harmed…Perhaps even die."

Mircea nodded, satisfied.

"Yes, yes. It seems we have a common enemy."

Lisa tilted her head.

"Ignorance," he revealed.

"Very well. Let us assume then that magic," she paused briefly to let the absurdity of it all settle in, "is, as you propose, a science. It just seems to be very arbitrary and dependent on the powers and skills of so-called conjurers. In theory, anyone can study science and come up with the same observations and results. Not so in the field of magic."

"Mm…I will grant you that magic is more selective. Not all are are capable of practicing it. Not all are born with the talent or predisposition." He grinned again. "But I am sure there is a scientific reason for that."

She shook her head tiredly, unable to even crack a grin.

"Let me ask you this: what is the definition of a fundamentalist?" Mircea wondered.

"From what I've observed, it is someone who will interpret dogma literally and not consider any other interpretations or possibilities that would threaten their beliefs, to the point of embracing irrational and improbable stances."

"Ah. Would you say that is a good definition of your attitude toward magic?"

Lisa's brow furrowed in immediate indignation.

"The difference is, I'm not burning other people at the stake for having opposing beliefs!"

"No, you aren't. But the very nature of a scientist is to remain inquisitive and open to various possibilities, always striving to chart the unknown, isn't it?"

"This is different!"

"Is it? You are being as dogmatic and as intolerant, in some ways, as the blindly pious. All that differs are your beliefs— but the contempt, the assumption of being right, the assumption of moral superiority—are all there. Be very careful, Lisa, for if we aren't watchful and honest, we often become what we hate."

She remained seated before him, stunned. She was overcome by a dizzying sense, a free fall through a gaping hole. She recalled Țepeș back in the laboratory talking to her about alchemy and how the occult was a science of its own. "The first science," he'd uttered. She had been disinterested, unwilling to entertain it at all.
Vlad was trying to tell me then, she realized with a pang of sadness.

What would have happened instead if I had listened? Where would we be now? she thought with a surge of longing.

Mircea had prodded at something profound, however: she immediately rejected any conversation that hinted at anything supernatural with the same disdain and outrage she observed and resented when the faithful doubted her medicine, her scientific methods.

He is right. I have not approached any of this with an open mind. In some ways I have been no different than the faithful, blind in their devotion and rabid in their rejection of anything that is different from their faith.

"Your dedication to science needn't be lessened by accepting that magic exists. It merely broadens your own understanding of the universe," the man reasoned.

Lisa looked up, troubled.

"There is much to ponder."

"Good! That's more than I could ask for." Below, all they could hear was Florica's soft singing to soothe Eugen and Matei. "Now we can have an earnest conversation about your master, the Dragon."

Chapter Text

"To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible."

-Thomas Aquinas


Țepeș focused his sight inwardly as he sat in the gloomy laboratory. He'd been trying to discern Lisa's surroundings for the better part of the evening with mixed results.

She would, Țepeș reasoned with irritation, wander straight into a band of Speakers and their archaic protection spells that nevertheless remain surprisingly efficacious.

His bond with Lisa remained intact—still potent—a vivid, physical memory. But as he sought to envision and sense her, it was as if he were behind a heavy locked door. He perceived her essence through the thick spell, but was thwarted from summoning a clear vision and a precise location. At first the interference had mystified him. Then it enraged just as it offended him. Finally, it began to trouble him. It was possible to thwart such simple, elemental magic, but it would require him to make his presence known, something he was sure would go against Lisa's wishes and beyond his professed claim that he would merely use the bond to ensure she was safe. He was well aware she resented him enough as it was.

There was little to distract his mind in her absence. Even the unfolding battle against the Ottomans held little interest; when armies united under a common cause but not a common leader, there was little hope for victory. It was a tired scenario: petty rivalries took precedent and while foolish men squabbled over rank and authority, the ruthless Ottoman army would gain a greater foothold in the region.

Let them destroy each other, as they are so keen on doing. One empire over the other: it matters little. They are all of the same inferior ilk.

His thoughts touched on the conjurers whom he'd released much against his better judgment. Nothing those charlatans managed to conjure would award them anything close to the victory they sought. Only he could unleash forces powerful enough to devastate one of the world's greatest armies—the army that had conquered and mercilessly desecrated thousand-year old Constantinople herself. An old yearning reared its fierce head and he acknowledged that despite the passing of the years, the fire to wage war and assert his supremacy would not be easily quelled.

War had been, after all, what had sealed his fate. Before anything else had transpired, he'd been at the helm of battle as a warlord. He'd been no stranger to the unique maneuverings, schemes, and strategizing those with the power to command thousands of men tangled with.

Men's ambitions led him to become what he was and he became what men deserved. They and their boundless greed had brought this upon themselves. He would never yearn for a time when he was weaker, vulnerable: when he counted himself among their ranks.

He had explored every facet of human existence in search of a greater authority: from the pageantry and reverence of idolatry to primal depraved violence devoid of any semblance of humanity. He had annihilated life needlessly to explore the consequences of such a transgressive act. No matter what morally untethering acts he committed, he'd been allowed to forge ahead, undeterred, encouraged, and at times enraged by the divine silence his deeds had been met with, concluding that he acted in an indifferent universe, before an absent, impotent deity. In the depths of the destructiveness he had unleashed he sought to become a replacement and subversion of that god men had glorified.

Non habebis deos alienos coram me, he had blasphemed on battlegrounds, furious and omnipotent, drenched in the blood of the vanquished as he paraded before trembling men. For I: I am a jealous god.

As long as he had existed, he had understood something dark and unfavorable about humanity.

There is no purity, no goodness.

Innocence is ignorance.

Knowledge is corruption.

Even the so-called altruism of the great saints of the age was motivated by fear of divine retribution or hope of heavenly reward. At the end of it all, men were loathsome and fearful and would serve those who held power over them. How many souls had he broken, tempting them with the smallest rewards, watching them surrender their most cherished beliefs for promises of wealth, of influence, of carnal pleasure? And he had wrought their ruin with their their consent, watching them descend into depravity until he tired and deemed them unworthy, unfit to continue polluting the earth.

At the end of it all, humans were selfish.

Humans were self-serving.

His belief had been confirmed too often for him to see otherwise. When he'd surrendered all hope—when the smallest vestige of defiance to that gaping abysm had waned, he retreated into the shadows.

And then Lisa appeared from nowhere on his doorstep. He had been skeptical about her at first, believing she sought fame for herself, that she had embarked on a vainglorious, self-aggrandizing mission to perform great deeds.

Not very different from himself.

But despite his watchfulness, despite his waiting for her to falter and reveal her corruption, he had failed.

Lisa did not believe in the rewards of heaven or the punishments of hell like the faithful did, and yet… she understood devotion. He found in her a profound reverence for life. She sought to honor it, without the goal of attaining divine favor, without any fear of sin or other charges against humanity. She did it for the sake of the human spirit. For its potential. For the great beauty and goodness she believed lay in the most ordinary beings. And despite so much evidence to the virulent nature of humanity, her faith did not waver.

She does it because she believes it is right.

She decreed her own moral imperative and answered to her own conscience.

And what did it mean that she would turn her eyes upon him? Eyes filled with boundless kindness, burning hope, with that gift he had never possessed— to see goodness in everything that surrounded them.

He'd been loathe to admit it, but that gaze had been devastating. If such eyes could look at him and not recoil from the corruption they found, if such eyes could behold him without fear or hate or craven ambition…If she could look at him and see him for what he truly was and—still!—face him with that unwavering resolve…

And if she could even love him? The possibility unearthed an ache he had long thought impossible to experience.

What did we each do in the absence of a god?

I lacked imagination and resolve.

I turned to hate and violated every holy tenet.

She?

How simple her answer.

She chose to hope and to love.

Lisa, you may not count yourself among the faithful, but you are holier than most men of the cloth.

He grew agitated at his restless thoughts and cast his sight forth again. Once more, he could barely discern shadows.

He growled in frustration and covered his face with his hands, contemplating his own misery.


Lisa found herself struggling not to interject with her usual cynicism during that strange conversation with Mircea about magic. Once she had agreed to contemplate the possibility of a universe where magical laws coexisted and overlapped with natural ones, she understood that she needed to quell that impatience that swelled within her at the mention of what she had previously deemed impossible.

"I am no one's servant," she clarified to Mircea. "I merely sought out a man rumored to be very learned. In fact, when I set out to find him, I did not exactly know whom I was looking for. I had entertained various possibilities: a hidden order, perhaps a wealthy noble who had amassed a great deal of books and artifacts…"

"What was your intent?" Mircea's intense gaze probed her.

"I was frustrated. Despite my best efforts, my patients kept dying of ailments I knew were preventable or treatable."

"I see. So you were looking for a way... to thwart death?"

Lisa balked.

"No! I merely wanted to learn what I could about medicine, about the human body, so I could give my patients an opportunity to better fight illnesses and wounds. When that is not possible, I should like to ensure that my patients' final moments are not wracked with needless suffering. When I met—"

"Do not say his name!" Mircea quickly interrupted, raising his hand in a warning gesture. Lisa blinked a few times, mystified.

Say my name and I will come to you.

"The Dragon," she completed more cautiously.

"Do you know who he is, Lisa? What he has done?"

Unease stirred within her. Flashes of the pikes surfaced to her memory. A forest of barbarous violence, the fruits of wrath.

"He did…He did allude to his past as a warlord."

"A warlord! A warlord would be the great Patriarch of Constantinople compared to the Dragon!" He eyed her curiously. "You do not know who he is, do you?"

She almost stroked the tender spot on her neck before catching Mircea's bitter expression.

"During the course of his long life, the Dragon has been called many things: a demon, the bearer of the mark of Cain, an accursed Dacian king, an errant and doomed Crusader. Others tell that he was an adventurer who sought forbidden knowledge, undeterred by the immorality of the pacts he forged and acts he committed to achieve it."

"Which version of the story is correct, then? We never spoke of such matters: we spoke instead of science, of medicine, of literature..."

"I had hoped you would be able to tell me," he lamented, accepting she would not help elucidate further on any details. "Little is known of his origins. Even less is known about how he contracted his curse."

"His curse?"

"The Dragon has achieved immortality…but at a terrible cost." Mircea revealed. "But perhaps…you already know this much?"

"Lisa, you could be in mortal danger. The curse risks being spread to you."

She experienced a flood of unpleasant emotions: betrayal at the forefront.

I am not cursed, she calmed herself. She could not believe Țepeș would foist such a burden upon her. Of all the accusations that could be hurled against Țepeș, "liar" was not one. She believed, with deep conviction, that he had not deceived her so. And she truly believed he had not sought to harm her, despite his past.

"What if I told you there was a way I could learn whether you were well, whether you were in peril even when we were apart…" had begun the dire offer.

"He is a beast— a monster. He preys on the living, draining their blood to prolong his unnatural life."

She closed her eyes as if that would lessen the blow of the Elder's words—words that only days earlier would have been met with her customary dismissiveness. Strigoi, moroaice, vârcolacul, pricolici…A world that had only existed previously by the light of the fire, in tales spun during long winter nights as the wind whistled through the cracks of her father's shabby cottage had overtaken her reality. All those creatures were, she used to believe, personifications of the unknown: figurative, symbolic—a representation of misfortunes and hardships…Not their cause.

A monster.

She listened to Mircea describe the carnage wrought in the battlefields after Țepeș' unholy armies claimed victory, of how he went from an ally to devastating foe on a whim. He was ruthless, merciless, filled with hatred—he spared none his wrath. He had the ability to summon and unleash infernal creatures, hell-born beasts: a catalogue of mythical nightmares sprung to life.

"The Dragon is the embodiment of evil, Lisa. Evil is self-serving. It is his sole guiding principle: to please himself and only himself, with no concern for the wellbeing of others or for life. He is judge and executioner."

" In that, then, he is not different from boyar and voivode," she interrupted. "Perhaps his unnatural condition makes him stronger…but it seems that it is those most human pursuits to secure power that make him truly monstrous."

"Lisa!" Mircea rebuked her, a mix of worry and frustration eking into his tone. "Do not try to absolve him from his actions! Monsters like him have wrought destruction on the earth since time immemorial! These beings can only entrench themselves in this plane at the cost of others and blood has always been the gateway for such transgressive pacts."

An axis mundi, she remembered.

Even that much Țepeș tried to explain to me.

Lisa and the Elder sat in silence, presumably to allow all the gravity of his revelations to take root.

I have questions. So many questions.

Rain began to drum noisily on the roof. Thunder rumbled in the near distance.

Only one man can answer them: I must see for myself, with my own eyes, hear his words with my own ears.

You wander into this with your eyes closed, he'd warned her the night she had boldly caressed his face and sought his lips.

And how often you tried to open my eyes, she thought sadly.

Her expression hardened with nascent determination.

I need clarifications, explanations…She ventured a quick brush of her fingers across her neck. And reassurances.

I can't keep running away.

We must meet, she decided.

She found Mircea's expectant gaze upon her.

"I am going to return," she announced, unsure of how her decision would be received.

The Elder nodded in agreement.

"Yes, you must. Răscruce," he reminded her in a whisper. "The prophecy. It is clear to me, especially now. You have come to fulfill it. But…not like this. It is too dangerous. We must secure aid, first."

"Aid?" Lisa leaned forward, mystified.

"We can only assist you so much. We, Speakers, do not believe in violence. We are not warriors." He glanced over his shoulder, grimacing. "Although at times, I think some of us forget that," he muttered. "What I meant is that we must seek out those who have the strength and experience to deal with such…creatures."

Lisa felt a squeeze to her heart. A creature. A monster. She could not reconcile the description of the blood thirsty fiend to the man she knew—a brooding, difficult and temperamental man, one who she had guessed early on carried a heavy burden—but certainly no monster. The thought was interrupted by another realization.

There were those who hunted such beings.

What have I inadvertently set into motion?

A chilling fear overcame her. There would be no favorable outcome to such an endeavor.

I am a healer. I do not want innocent blood on my hands. That is not why I left my home behind and ventured into the world.

What have I done?

The Elder gripped her shoulder approvingly. "'Only you can lock the gate, only you can turn the key,'" he recited softly. "I have faith that with aid, you will seal away the fiend and his abominations forevermore."

In her mind a gruesome vision flashed:

She envisioned a killing blow struck against Țepeș. He placed her hand over his chest as blood bloomed from his wound.

Cold and still.

The only heart beating was hers.

It repulsed her viscerally. "I must leave," she muttered, suddenly filled with a panicky dread.

Mircea seemed to take her urgency to depart as a sign of eagerness to fulfill her role in that forsaken prophecy.

"I understand, Lisa: but you must wait. The guards are searching for you." Thunder exploded overhead. "Take shelter here with us tonight. Give us time to send word to a potential ally: Lord Belmont."

She pondered it, but the unsettled feeling only grew stronger. The witch-hunting conjurers, Mircea's stories, that horrid vision, were all overwhelming. She wanted to flee, collect her thoughts.

Lisa went through the motions of preparing to go to sleep, laying her satchel aside, settling over the hay, her cloak sheltering her against the damp cold. She waited patiently, eyes closed, letting her mind drift off into a light slumber. She waited a couple long hours until the voices in the stable became hushed, movement ceased, and the fire began to flicker. As quietly as she could, she stood and hauled up her awaiting satchel. She hoped the Speakers would not see her as ungrateful for leaving that way—without a thank you or a farewell. She regretted she would have to leave the stable door unlocked, but at that hour, it was unlikely anyone would be wandering about the town. She lifted the wooden beam carefully, gritting her teeth at every creak that eked from her dislodging it. Outside, the night was crisp and a light mist fell over the muddy streets. As she prepared the slip out the door, she ventured a quick glance back toward the Speakers to assure herself that all was well. To her surprise, one figure sat at attention, her filmy eyes glistening in the faint light.

Lisa froze, wary that the oldest Sypha would sound the alarm. What did she fear from the Speakers exactly, she did not know. She knew, however, that she did not want to play a role in anyone's demise. The old woman appeared to stare past her.

"Go," she muttered so softly, Lisa would have not understood if it hadn't been for the nod toward the door. "You alone can heal," she whispered.

Lisa was struck still, staring at the beam she was holding up and ventured a sad grin. Did she mean help Țepeș? Or did she mean any action she perpetrated against him would be healing—as in stopping him from committing further atrocities?

The oldest Sypha bowed her head briefly toward her before curling back into her coarse blanket.

Lisa rested the beam against the stable wall before slipping out the door. Once outside, she took care to shut the door as quietly as she could. The cold air chased any somnolence away and renewed her resolve.

Her small precautions, though, were all for naught. The moment she stepped away from the stable, a searing pain swept through her so fiercely that she dropped to her knees. When she managed to catch her breath, she attempted to push herself off the ground, finding that she was trembling, her sight clouding.

What is this?

She summoned all her strength to haul herself off the slick, muddy ground pelted by the falling rain.

Voices on alert resounded and she thought perhaps she had finally betrayed herself and awakened the Speakers. A surge of shame ran through her when she thought of how she would explain her ill-fated escape after all their kindness. But the hand that fell on her shoulder and gripped it roughly was not Mircea's. Before she could make sense of what was happening, she was yanked up from the ground, another pair of hands clutching her arms tightly.

"Here! Here! It is as the Master said! The witch!"

Lisa's eyes widened at the unfamiliar voice and its triumphantly vicious tone.

Echoes of the damning chorus spread through the group of men that had rapidly assembled around her.

"The witch!" they repeated, to her terror, as her vision was almost completely obscured by a hood partially pulled over her head. Her arms were yanked back and the rough bite of coarse rope encircled her wrists.

She recognized the conjurer who had gone to Țepeș' castle as he emerged among the armed men. His bloated face approached hers, examining her appraisingly, his waxen countenance made even more grotesque by his rotting grin.

"You tripped my ward," he uttered delightedly. "Proof," he continued, breaking eye contact with her to address the soldiers, "that she has been tainted by the Dragon's curse," he declared. Without a further word, he forced a balled up rag into her mouth before tugging the hood down completely over her head.

"To the church," he commanded. "With haste. I would imagine the Dragon knows by now that we have something of value to him: let us not make it easy for him to retrieve."

She was spurred forward by a sharp blow aimed between her shoulder blades, causing her to cry out as she stumbled forth into darkness.


Chapter Text

"Any man who tries to be good all the time is bound to come to ruin among the great number who are not good."

-Niccolo Machiavelli


 

Large hands gripped Lisa's arms, pushing as much as steering her forward through the streets. In the darkness she'd been plunged into, the ground became treacherously uneven, causing her to often stumble. Her escorts roughly hoisted her back to her feet, indifferent to her pleas that she be allowed to see where she was walking. Rain seeped through her cloak and her skirt clung, clammy and cold, against her skin.

She lost her footing as they began to climb steps.

"Up!" a harsh voice would command.

"It is only right that the witch should fall in defeat before the house of the Lord," she heard behind her. Despite the ache radiating from her ankle, she grew alert at the man's words.

We must have arrived at the church.

She listened to her surroundings acutely.

Perhaps someone inside will speak up and stop this madness.

In her mind, a wild, desperate hope: that the people she had aided and worked with would speak up and come to her succor.

A heavy door opened and she was ushered inside.

"Here," someone called out.

She was paraded down what she suspected was the church's nave. Her head turned to and fro. Hushed whispers erupted around them as they passed.

"Isn't that the healer?"

"Is it? But she was here earlier, tending to our wounded!"

"Where are you taking her?"

"Lisa!" she heard a call further down, closer to the altar. She recognized the voice: it was Sypha, Mircea's wife. "Lisa!"

She heard a small tumult. The hands clasping her released her for a moment and she took advantage of the oversight to shake off the hood. With further effort she was able to dislodge her gag with her tongue and spit out the rag on the ground. The gloominess of the old church greeted her ominously. She had barely gotten her bearings when she saw that both Syphas had been barred from approaching her by the bruisers escorting her through the church. Liviu stood behind the women; on his earnest face, an expression of confusion.

"You must have made a mistake! This woman is innocent!" the youngest Sypha cried out.

"Don't take her away" Sypha's mother pleaded. "What harm has she done? She is an angel- helping tend to the wounded!"

A few townsfolk began to assemble beside them.

"It is true! She has been treating the injured and the sick."

"She is wise in the healing arts," someone added in a tone of awe.

"See? This must be a mistake," the older Sypha continued artfully. "Release her to us." She approached the soldiers, but they narrowed their circle around Lisa.

Another figure loudly entered the church moments after them. The hooded figure caught the exchange, noting the growing agitation among the people.

"An angel?" he declared in a firm voice. The hood dropped and the conjurer who'd been present at her capture strolled up to Lisa until they were face to face once more. "You are right that among us is one who consorts with powers that transcend our world's...But she does not evoke the forces of heaven!" he accused. "Behold: before you stands a known witch!" his voice flooded the church, echoing through the large room. "Her wisdom? Trickery. Illusion. A calculation to secure your trust." He turned about the room, addressing the group of both healers and the few wounded who were able to stand and listen attentively. "Her so-called 'cures' may actually hasten your demise!" he warned.

A few cries and gasps rose from the crowd and Lisa shook her head vehemently, incensed.

"It is not true! Everything I did, all that I shared is no supernatural, hermetic secret! It is honest medicine-founded on solid scientific principles," she began.

"Name your master, witch!" he bellowed angrily.

Lisa's lips quivered. She'd been outwitted. There was no way she could tell the truth and not condemn herself before the crowd.

"I see you dare not say his name in this holy house of God!" he continued, satisfied, taking advantage of her silence.

Still…that stubborn spark, that defiant spirit, rose within her.

"Know this: I have many masters," Lisa countered boldly. The conjurer faltered briefly before eyeing her with disdain. "All those who came before me and dispelled ignorance and superstition with knowledge!" At his signal the soldiers approached menacingly. "Hippocrates! Agnodike!" she declaimed. "Dioscorides, Maimonides, Hildegard of Bingen-"

Once again, the coarse hands encircled her upper arms, jostling her off her feet.

"A litany of pagans and heathens who turned away from the true God? Those are your masters?" He addressed the crowd again. "She cannot conceal her corruption to save herself, even!"

He glanced at the altar, long stripped of its riches at the threat of the Ottomans.

"Do not fear for your souls: I have secured the aid of the good brothers of Sfântu Gheorghe. They will pray for the salvation of all who have been touched by the witch's black magic," the conjurer announced. Three monks quickly stepped out from behind the group of soldiers toward the people. At the sight of the holy men, voices in the crowd issued mournful pleas for their blessings. Lisa could sense the fear in the people's faces as they cried out for the monks' attention. Her expression hardened.

"Why would you add to these people's suffering? Why would you burden them with the threat of damnation?"

She was yanked toward the altar.

"Take her to the crypt. Cosmin awaits," he muttered impatiently to one of the men.

"Where are you taking her?" Sypha called out, despite the tumult in the church.

"Those who stand in the way of the Church will be considered her enemy," the conjurer warned warily, eyeing the Speakers. "This woman has been accused of performing witchcraft and consorting with the devil."

"It is a mistake!" Sypha continued valiantly. "Please let her go! Look at her! She is innocent!"

She was unceremoniously ignored as one of the monks swung a censer and another sprayed holy water into the crowd. The third pulled off desperate hands that grabbed at the hem of their long robes.

Lisa turned her head to look at the Speakers, helpless, trying to hold them in her gaze for as long as she could, clinging to the bit of kinship she'd found before she was plunged further in hopelessness. Sypha grasped her daughter's hand, her serene expression now ashen and pained, as the soldiers marched Lisa down a set of steps leading to a crypt beneath the church.

Just as she began to descend into the narrow passageway, a loud crash resounded behind her.

To her surprise, Liviu breached part of the modest balustrade, knocking it to the ground and rapidly drew nearer to the landing.

"Let her go!" Liviu demanded. "God does not will vulgar persecution!"

A flash of silver caught her gaze as one of the soldiers unsheathed his sword.

"Stand back!"

"Liviu! Don't!" Lisa cried out.

Before she could issue further warning, the soldier intercepted his path and plunged his blade forcefully through the robust Speaker.

Liviu's expression crumpled into breathless bewilderment. His eyes grew wide and he staggered backward, shaking, until a filament of blood began to spill from his lips.

"Liviu!" Lisa screamed, a surge of despair possessing her. She tried to wrest herself from the grasp of her captors with such might, she managed to steal a few steps toward the agonizing man before she was seized again.

She searched the crowd for the healers she had worked shoulder to shoulder with. Surely someone would intervene and offer aid.

"Remember: those who seek to aid a witch risk far worse punishment than death," the conjurer warned smugly as the soldier sheathed his bloodied sword. "Who would compromise their immortal soul?"

No one dared to move even as Liviu's large frame lay on the ground gasping feebly.

"Please! Let me see him!" Lisa pleaded, as she was wrested away. "Let me tend to him!" she begged. "Show some mercy! Please! Let me help him and I will go peacefully!"

"As if you presented a great challenge," he scoffed. Yet, the soldiers escorting her past the iconostasis hesitated. "Are you considering her request?" the conjurer fumed at them. "Go!"

The last sounds Lisa heard from the church as the heavy stone slab sealed the small opening above them were the disconsolate wails from both Syphas.

"How can you do such a thing? How can you call yourselves men of God?" her voice quavered.

"Why is she still talking? Who removed her gag?" the conjurer complained. A faint glow emanated from the bottom of the steps. "Men should not sit and listen to a woman . . . even if she says admirable things, or even saintly things, that is of little consequence, since it came from the mouth of a woman," he huffed.

Lisa recognized Origen of Alexandria's vitriol and fell quiet at the implied threat.


 

The crypt was a musty, shadowy place despite the hundreds of votives burning along the stone ground..

"Go and guard the entrance to the crypt," the conjurer ordered his soldiers. "I will take care of things from here on." With that, he unceremoniously tugged Lisa along with him toward the further end of the crypt.

"Cosmin!" he called out. "I have her."

Lisa recognized Cosmin as the younger of the two conjurers and found him on his knees, busily etching something onto the floor.

At the sound of their approaching footsteps, the younger man dropped the pouch of ashes he'd been pouring and tracing out a series of circles and lines with. Bleary-eyed, he blinked for a few moments before turning around to gape at her.

"Is this— ?," he stated, in a tone she could only classify as awed.

"Aye. It was as we suspected; she was hiding among the Speakers."

"By all the saints, Bogdan— do you realize what you've done?" Cosmin raised a slender hand to shield his mouth.

The conjurer cast a wary glance at her before addressing his companion.

"She is just an ordinary woman. As far as I can see, she possesses no great ability or skill." He clucked his tongue loudly.

Cosmin stared uneasily.

"Are you sure this is she? The one who we saw with the Dragon?"

"This is she! The one and the same!" A surge of irritation compelled Bogdan to turn Lisa's head to the side brusquely. She grimaced, pained, as the large meaty hand secured her head in an uncomfortable position. Cosmin drew closer, interested. "See? She bears his mark."

The younger man grew agitated and began to pat his pockets beneath his robe. After a moment, he retrieved a small object.

"Hold her down if she should try to flee."

Lisa flinched, but Bogdan positioned himself behind her like a pillar, placing a hefty arm across her collarbone while the other hand took a firmer grip of her head by clawing into her hair and yanking her head down the side further. She tried to shake herself free, fearing a knife or some similar weapon, but out of the corner of her eyes she could make out what Cosmin brought up closer to her: a silver reliquary cross pendant, its large suspension loop and pins securely pinched between the man's sooty fingers.

She wondered why he was wielding the cross so tentatively; both men observed her reaction as he dangled it before her face curiously.

...Have you loaded yourself with silver, crosses, and garlic in superstitious fear…

She remembered Țepeș' mocking distrust when they had first met. In such close proximity to both men, she could discern a mix of unpleasant odors-sweat, grime, and the acrid, peaty stench of garlic cloves.

"Hmm. She is not cowed," Cosmin remarked.

"Press it into her skin," the other man encouraged him.

When she squirmed, Bogan secured her firmly.

Cosmin slipped the cross over her forehead, eyes, and rested it for a moment over her lips. She tried to evade his obtrusive touch, but was held in place by Bogdan's unyielding grip.

"No reaction. Not even the smallest blister."

"There!" Bogdan persisted. "Place it over the mark!"

Lisa felt the metal glide down her jaw to her neck. She worried for a moment that something catastrophic would happen at the cross' contact against her flesh. But to her relief and the men's disappointment, nothing happened.

"It is so very faint," Cosmin lamented. "How can you be sure that it is the Dragon's mark?"

"It was enough to trip my ward. Is that proof enough?"

Bogdan finally released her, shoving her aside. She sat further away, her hands still tightly bound behind her.

"I wonder," Cosmin muttered.

"You are questioning my competence to identify this curse?" Bogdan crossed his arms. Cosmin scratched his head.

"No, no. It is not that. This just defies what I know."

"This is not some shrewd Scholomance initiate we are up against," Bogdan reminded him. "This is the Dragon. We have set out to accomplish what no other man has ever achieved."

Lisa stared at the strange circle, her mind reeling from how she had been sucked into that eldritch vortex so completely unintentionally. She heard the men bicker behind her as her eyes remained fixed on Cosmin's work: a large circle, overlapped with a square; smaller circles inside the square were decorated with six-pointed stars, coarsely drawn crosses surrounded with tiny dots, which she recognized symbolized Christ's puncture wounds, and various names written forward and backward in large Greek letters.

So-called witchcraft, she recognized. These men shamelessly accuse me of a crime they are guilty of.

"Are you sure we will be safe?" Cosmin murmured.

"Remember what Psellus wrote. The Dragon is Lucifugous—he fears light."

Cosmin tossed his arms into the air.

"Psellus! Please, Bodgan-now you sound like a Scholomance upstart! Psellus, master of the obvious! We do not need to know what sort of demon the Dragon is-only how to defeat him-"

Bogdan raised a warning finger at him.

"No-not defeat. Harness his power. Subjugate him."

"I think we may be in over our heads," the younger men lamented, leaning against the wall.

Bogdan cast him a withering glare.

"I have worked too hard to have the Ottomans disrupt everything. Do you feel like starting over? Wasting precious time discerning who is friend and who is foe?"

"I might prefer that than risking the wrath of-"

"Do not be foolish, Cosmin. We must hold on to what we have secured. The clergy holds greater and greater power over the lords and the Church grows ever less tolerant of those who…How shall I put it? Endeavor to explore Creation's darker and outer provinces…"

Lisa cast a furtive glance toward the other end of the crypt. Perhaps if she could take advantage of the gloominess of the room and the men's ongoing argument, she might be able to make her way up the steps. There would be guards to contend with at the entrance, but she was no longer able to contain the panicked impulse to flee at once.

"Look at what happened to the Belmonts!" Bogdan continued. Cosmin grumbled, but nodded. "It didn't matter that they employed their knowledge and power for the sake of Christendom and to fight the forces of evil-they were excommunicated all the same! We must tread carefully, secure our supporters and patrons wisely. You know how long it takes, the effort, the sacrifice...The Ottomans must not succeed."

The older man dropped a heavy hand on his fellow conjurer's shoulder.

"These are difficult times for those of us who practice these arts. Do not be mistaken, friend. This is an unabashed bid for power by the Church. Those who do not wield our gifts seek to nevertheless declare themselves greater than we, only by proxy of their God."

Lisa backed away, inching quietly and slowly toward the stairs, her eyes fixed on the pair further away.

"At the end of it all, the Dragon is merely a conduit—a force to be subdued. And you know what those forces are. They are, in essence, elemental, and like the elements, can be bound to our will."

"Why the Dragon, though?" Cosmin protested morosely. The heel of Lisa's hand hit the first rough stone step.

"Because he is the most powerful. He walks among us," Bogan uttered gravely. "So let us see this circle of yours. Did you evoke all the names properly?"

Cosmin appeared to revive somewhat, crouching over his work with Bogan.

In the distraction, an opportunity. Lisa crawled up the stairs backwards, slowly, shrouded in shadows.

Just as she contemplated the stone slab and how she was ever going to unseal the entrance, she heard a small commotion below.

"Where is she?"

"She is gone!"

"Damn her!"

"She is a witch after all!" Cosmin cried out fretfully.

"Stop that—she is around here somewhere. There is no way she could have escaped this crypt."

She took those words as the threat they were and frantically began to push against the slab with her shoulder. Meanwhile, the men slipped in and out of different side vaults in the crypt.

"Not there?"

"No. Not here either?"

"Where could she be hiding?"

"It is best you reveal yourself, whore," Bogdan called out in a sinister tone.

Perhaps curious about the movement against the slab, the soldiers above began to slide it open. Lisa readied herself to spring up and run. She planned to use surprise in her favor and take advantage of the confusion her unexpected appearance would evoke. It was a poor plan that reeked of failure, but if there was even the glint of a chance to escape…She remained focused despite the roar of rage she heard approaching her below. As the slab finally shifted, Lisa made the motion to lunge forward, but her momentum was interrupted by a fierce cuffing of her ankle. She was pulled downward, losing her footing and crashing heavily over the stone steps. Her vision darkened for a terrible moment when her forehead cracked against the stone. A sharp pain radiated from her chest and the pain only grew more excruciating as she gasped for air. The hand around her ankle did not relent—it yanked her down, the friction against the coarse stone making the skin on her temple and cheek raw.

"Seal that immediately!" Bogdan's angry voice boomed upward. "And only open it when either myself or Cosmin tell you to! We are dealing with a witch and any interference could be deadly!" Lisa tried to push herself into a sitting position, but the pain was too excruciating: it grew stronger with every movement, every breath.

I must have fractured a rib, she realized. Her face burned and stung where the skin had been scraped.

The slab covered the opening and she was enshrouded in the crypt's darkness again.

"Get up!" Bogdan roared, gripping her by the arm and forcing her to her feet. The sudden yank caused her to twist her torso and she screamed from the pain.

"Easy!" Cosmin protested. "She is injured!"

"Then you better hurry and perform that damned ritual already!"

Tears coursed down Lisa's face and she could tell as they dropped , even in the dimness of the chamber, that they were tinged with blood.

"The Dragon may be more willing to aid us if we keep his servant alive," Cosmin scolded him.

"Initially, perhaps…But I have no intention to let him dictate any terms! All we need is for him to agree to fight the Ottomans. Should he even think of coming here, he will be entrapped."

"Are you sure?" Cosmin wondered in a weaker voice, after a brief silence. Lisa hated how vulnerable she was right then—teetering side to side in Bogdan's vise-like grip, her pain escalating with each tug and yank.

"Yes! Now: let us begin the summoning ritual."

"We must open the first portal. We must burn the first offering—something to bind the Dragon to this place."

Even in her disoriented state, Lisa understood that Bogdan had released her. She collapsed on her knees with a pathetic cry. He unsheathed his dagger and reaching down, unceremoniously yanked back her braid. His blade sat practically against her neck and she steeled herself for the final blow, her heart heavy.

She thought of Țepeș.

I longed to see you again, she mourned.

Bogdan tugged the end of her braid until it was taut and with one fell swoop, chopped half of it off.

"Here!" He tossed the heavy bundle of hair at Cosmin. Cosmin missed the awkward toss and it fell to the ground.

Wordlessly, the man picked up and placed it inside the circle. With a long piece of kindling he set the braid aflame. Black smoke curled toward the crypt's ceiling, a sharp stench. She leaned forward in an attempt to shelter her eyes and nose from the acrid smoke.

"And now?" Cosmin asked weakly.

"Curb your fear, Cosmin. It has begun. Perform the ceremony."

"Are you sure?" The man continued to seek reassurance.

"Look at where we are! We are at Sfântu Gheorghe!"

Lisa's eyes obligatorily followed Bogdan's sweeping gesture toward the walls behind them.

Over an archway, in fading pigments was a fresco portraying an image she had seen throughout her life. In her childhood, it had been the source of curiosity and excitement. In adulthood, it had symbolized a life and time left behind. It was merely folklore and tradition. But right then, doubled over in pain, assailed by the stench of her own burning hair, the image acquired a tragic hue.

It was a painting depicting Saint George in full armor, on his horse, wielding his lance straight through a black dragon.

Despite the deep piercing pain that surfaced with every breath, she finally succumbed to her despair.

The men ignored her wracking sobs, standing before their circle, declaiming arcane verses of profane incantations.

It has all gone so wrong, she thought, remembering poor Liviu heaving on the church floor above. Killed. Because of her. For nothing. How I wish with all my heart this wasn't how it ended. She rolled to the side, lying on the dusty ground.

"Vlad Dracula Țepeș," she whispered so softly she could barely hear herself over the din the conjurers were making. "I do not know if you can hear me right now...But if you can, know this: I never wished for it to be this way. I wanted to see you, to speak to you, to understand what you had been trying to tell me all along. My life is forfeit, but if you can hear me, do not come to this place. These men have devised a trap for you. Do you understand? Do not come here. Please be safe."

She stared back at the Byzantine boggle-eyed saint and let her gaze land on the dragon, his expression fierce even in the throes of death.

"I so wished to see you again, Vlad," she murmured, shivering.


It was all he needed.

After trying without success to discern Lisa's precise location through the Speakers' dense charms as if peering out over a misty lake, catching only subtle flashes, at the uttering of his name the bond reignited. It was as if it had been drawn taut, stretching across the countryside. It was as clear as a summons.

He snarled at the burst of pain he felt alongside her, and the complete terror and sorrow that wracked her.

Even when facing the end, her thoughts were of others:

Guilt and remorse over a dead Speaker.

Her worry and concern for his own safety.

After everything.

What did I expect? he stormed forth, stirring and rousing a swirl of primordial blackness in his wake. I should not have relented, should not have been swayed by Lisa's piety. I should have crushed those men like the cowards they are when I had the chance.

Something else caught his awareness—it was the inklings of an old spell. It was an intrusive, invasive one that clumsily clutched at him, wispily attempting to engulf him. He curled his lip in deep contempt, recognizing the feeble attempt at a summons and entrapment.

How dare they.

Who do they think they have chosen to match their wits and strength against?

Behind him, a burst of thunder rumbled: his rage incarnate.

The air wavered as if heat were rising and a tall black gateway materialized before him.

His eyes flickered with hate and he raised his hand, clenching it into a fist. The gateway collapsed, the echoes of an incantation fading as it did so.

Oh, we shall meet, he thought cruelly. You shall see me. Your efforts have not been in vain.


 Cosmin dropped his arms, flummoxed.

"I don't understand."

Bogdan lowered his arms as well.

"Did we miss anything?"

"No. No." He approached a large tome sitting over a sepulcher and peered into it, briskly leafing through some of its pages. "It is as exactly described in the Liber incantationum."

Lisa turned her head feebly toward the men.

Good! It didn't work! She gathered with a twinge of satisfaction. Let this all end here.

Her mind relentlessly sounded the alarm: A fractured rib-or ribs?-if the fracture is severe enough... Haemothorax. Other blood vessels damaged? It was hard to say. Her thoughts grew sluggish. A concussion—she was sure of it. The pain, the blurred vision, the nausea…

"I felt it, Bogdan-we summoned the gateway. But then…"

"I felt it too," Bogdan concurred. "It was gone suddenly."

They both stared at the book, troubled.

"Perhaps we need something stronger—for the Dragon such commonplace anchors might not be sufficient."

He turned, seeking Lisa on the floor.

"He is opiri. We snare him with blood."

Cosmin's head snapped up.

"Blood? A… sacrifice?"

"Yes."

Cosmin nodded.

"Yes...yes. That…It may be the answer."

Lisa closed her eyes tightly.


 In the dark, a cold hand settled over her brow. It was jarring at first, but became soothing against her feverish skin—then something soft but prickly touched her forehead.

A dream, Lisa reasoned. It must be.

Sleep, a deep voice commanded gently, irresistibly, immersing her mind in peaceful silence and thick, blissful night.

 

Chapter Text

"You shine into my soul
Like the sun against gold."

-Mechtild von Magdeburg


Sultan Mehmed's envoy, Bekir bin Hassan, pressed his heels hard into his horse's flank, leaning forward and urging the animal to race faster over the dirt road. He rode with a small detail—four soldiers in full battle armor—in what was a final attempt at diplomacy.

This entire endeavor has been a wretched one from the beginning, Bekir thought glumly.

Nothing had gone as expected: that boyar they had allied with had assured them there would be no resistance, no interference whatsoever once their army marched north. Instead, the Ottomans soon understood that the boyar wielded far less power and influence than he had led them to believe. His own nobles mounted a resistance against his orders.

The Sultan will not be pleased with this.

The borders between Ottoman and Vlach lands had been clearly drawn before that, but the promises made by the scheming boyar had tempted the Ottomans with an opportunity to expand that northern border and to stage a greater incursion into that much-contested land.

Instead, we must now resolve this blunder.

A general unease had settled in Bekir's gut the moment he'd been called upon to act as the envoy for their forces. The Ottomans had staved off the Wallachian and Transylvanian forces thus far and expected much-needed reinforcements pouring in from Tarnovo. Rumor had it, however, that Hunyadi had mobilized an army in Bucharest. Another rumor—more concerning, too— had King Corvinius, who was always vying for more land himself in the guise of strengthening his offensive against the Ottomans, instructing his Black Army to engage in an offensive against them.

That's too many fronts. Such a scenario, alas, we had not anticipated.

It would be a miracle if they were able to negotiate with the rebellious lords.

His military escort was a subtle reminder that the might of the Ottoman empire lay only a few miles south, waiting for a command to engage. He was certain they would look intimidating enough. He refused to consider the alternative: that they would be held captive for ransom…Or executed.

"Hızlan!" he shouted, snapping his reins, prompting his horse to gallop even faster.

"Hassan Agha," one of the men called out, trying to keep up with his frantic pace, "we'll reach the town once we crest the hill."

Bekir reined in his horse and raised an arm to his companions until they had all slowed down to a canter. It would not do to be shot down by jumpy watchmen before delivering their message. Instead, he collected himself by uttering a soft münācāt under his breath—a heartfelt prayer, hoping that he would live another day to declaim the glory of the Sultan and the Empire.

Once they reached the hilltop, the horsemen halted, yanking their horses' reins so violently, a couple of the animals reared up in protest. Bekir's eyes widened at first in confusion and then in horror as he scanned the dismal landscape. He checked his companions and found in their expressions a grim confirmation of his.

Before them, stretched across the fields and surrounding the fortress were hundreds of fully armored soldiers impaled on pikes.

The Ottomans dared not venture further before the grisly scene. As the sun rose, the carnage came into full focus.

The eerie silence that had gripped them was interrupted only by the caw of carrion birds and the buzz of flies.

They remained frozen, in stupefaction, before the nightmarish scene, their eyes unable to see past all the mayhem: the rows of pikes were long. Too long. They greeted them ominously. One, in particular, stood out as the first pike rising from the beginning of the path to the town. It stood as a fiendish road marker guiding them to the gates of hell. Two black-robed carcasses, mangled beyond recognition, the flesh tacky with coagulated blood, kept their garrish watch over those fields of death. They had been impaled one over the other, the sharp pike springing forth from grotesquely parted jaws. Bekir thought he could almost hear their anguished screams as he stared at their clouded eyes, gaze fixed toward the sky, their faces contorted in supplication and pain.

Still smoldering at the end of that particular pike were the remains of a heavy leather-bound tome, its pages turned to ash so crisp that soot flaked off into the breeze.

Nausea took a hold of him once the wind shifted and bore the cloying scent of death's decay to them.

"Turn back," he ordered.

Bekir shook his head, shivering, guiding his horse around, eager to put that entire scene behind him even though it would haunt his memory for as long as he lived.

"We go no further. This is the domain of the Kaziklu Bey."

His men visibly stiffened at the unholy name.

Have mercy on us, Bekir thought fearfully, before launching into a recitation of the asmāʾu llāhi lḥusnā with an fierce desperation he, a man of faith, had seldom ever experienced in his life.

The devil himself walks among us.

Again.


Rain.

Drops drummed persistently against Lisa's dangling arm. In that strange stupor she found herself in, she believed she was floating. Her head lolled back and the cold rain pelted her cheek. Before she could truly awaken, before she could attempt to make sense of where she was and what had happened, she was jostled gently. Her arm was folded gingerly across her torso and she was enveloped in the thick folds of a heavy cloak. Powerful hands clasped her firmly so that she was effortlessly hoisted back up into the lull of weightlessness in strong arms.

Pain radiated from her entire body. She struggled slightly against those arms, seeking to find relief from her discomfort. It was only when she rested her head against a robust shoulder that she finally settled and surrendered to exhaustion.


Marcu Livádi's family's history and legends did not factor in his thoughts when the fateful knock reverberated throughout the old fortress' courtyard.

"Only bad news makes itself at home at such an hour," he surmised, eyeing the gate suspiciously from the main house's doorway, surrounded by some of his men.

The watchmen on duty that evening had not signaled that there was any trouble, but who could he really trust those days? The Livádis have seen better days and counted on better friends, he thought sullenly. Now, he was less than a cneaz; he was merely a strongman, a steward of contested dwindling ancestral land holdings. He was not sure which would drive him to an early grave first: the relentless battlefield or his shallow coffers.

He noticed a small commotion as one of the soldiers tried to catch his attention from the gate.

"What is it?" he shouted back, his wariness making his tone harsher than intended. One of the lads jogged spryly back to him.

"Two envoys," he explained. "But we're not sure what they want."

"Finding out whose envoys they are might be a good start." Marcu's eyes narrowed.

"Oh, for sure they are not from around here! Never seen the likes of them before. They claim to be the envoys of the Dragon."

"What Dragon? Is this a joke?" Marcu snapped, his eyes darting about the torch-lit courtyard.

"They keep asking for an audience with the Spătar. We told him there is no one here by that title."

Marcu might as well have been lanced through the gut. Color drained from his stern features.

The stories had been told so many years ago, he had rarely thought of them. The topic of the fabled Dragon had been a preoccupation of his grandfather and then his father's, but he'd relegated the content of such tales to the haunted ramblings of old, dying men.

"If someday you are ever summoned by the Dragon, you must heed his call," the stories invariable concluded. "It is our duty—your duty someday, as head of the Livádi. We are the descendants of Orlok, who first pledged undying fealty to the great Dragon. And we remember: we are his loyal vassals even in absentia."

"This again! What vassals? Orlok died…What?…Centuries ago? And there is no Dragon anymore. Not here. Not in Wallachia. Hasn't been. In ages. If ever!" He'd tutted his father once he'd grown into a sullen man rattled by his first battles.

"The Dragon's realm is not of this world," his father had muttered feebly. "I hope you never find out for yourself. But heed his call, if it comes: for your fortune, your life—, your very soul, will depend on it."

If he is not of this world, I do not think I need to worry about him…It is the reign of men that concerns me most, Marcu had decided.

But Spătar! How strange! He hadn't heard his family name tied to the dusty Byzantine title beyond the annals the family had zealously kept over the centuries. Sometimes, the realization that the Livádi had been fighting as warriors for so many centuries gave him some consolation. Other times, it filled him with deep hopelessness.

This endless misery over and over again: every generation.

But now, two men stood before his dilapidated fortress, summoning him with a long lapsed title.

Is this a prank? Or a trap?

He took a deep breath and with broad strides made his way to the gates to see what that matter was all about.

His men cleared a path for him to walk through, torches flickering in the soft mist. When he reached the gates, he was met with the spooked expression of his Portar. The man stepped aside, letting his liege come face-to-face with the two intriguing envoys.


An unpleasant shiver coursed down Marcu's spine as he glanced upon the two. Heavily cloaked, their faces were obscured by night and black hoods. But what Marcu could glimpse of the envoys filled him with foreboding and an ever-growing impression of being in great peril. The envoys were tall. Unusually tall. And gaunt. The bit of flesh he laid eyes upon was unnaturally pale and their lips were tainted red, as if smeared with carmine. A primal panic seized him, as strong as it had once been when he'd been nothing more than a boy who fully believed in evil that lurked in the shadows rather than in the courts of men. His younger self trumped the sensible, skeptical man he'd become for a fleeting moment.

If I didn't know any better, I would swear upon everything holy that before me stand two wraiths.

"Marcu Livádi, Spătar of the Dragon: your lord calls upon your house to fulfill its duty."

The voice was practically a whisper, but the envoy might as well have shouted his summons, such was the effect of his words upon an astonished Marcu.

Now, how can this be? The Dragon is merely a tangle of old legends.

"What would the Lord Dragon ask of me?" Marcu finally replied, overwhelmed by fear and the memory of his long-buried dead.

The envoys simultaneously faced each other and between them passed a silent understanding. They both turned to him again. He could have sworn the one who addressed him suppressed a sharp, cruel grin.

"Domnica," the man whispered, exhaling his daughter's name slowly, to Marcu's complete terror.


The words Marcu uttered to help summon courage in his daughter's heart might as well have been for himself.

Come now: duty demands it.

Marcu's wife had had to be restrained by her maids. He'd been unable to face her after the announcement; he'd been pained by her shrieks lashing him with recrimination.

I must honor our vows. I am only fulfilling our duty. He was bound to an oath of fealty he had never uttered. Duty demands it, he repeated to himself. And fear, if he were honest.

The Dragon's realm is not of this world.

In his father's words, a warning. One that grew more and more shrill as the envoys awaited.

His men watched warily as he gave the order that Domnica was to be ushered to the gates, ready to depart.

"What for? Where am I going?" the young woman had insisted sleepily.

He'd retorted gruffly and tersely to mask his grief. He could offer her no further clarity, no resolution, except that she was wandering into the realm of legend with an uncertain ending to her tale.

When he'd walked his only child to the envoys, he braced himself and struggled to remain impassive at her visible reticence. She, too, had heard the echoes of the old stories.

"You are the last of the Livádi lineage. Remember our honor now rests on your shoulders," were his only words to her as she stepped out of the fortress that had been her only home and into the dark, cold night with two strangers.

Marcu hoped with all his weary warrior's heart, as his daughter and the sinister envoys were engulfed by blackness ahead, that those words would not be his last to her.


Țepeș lay Lisa down on the large canopied bed and examined her bruised face. A large contusion marred her forehead and left temple. The skin along one side of her face down to her jawline had been scraped raw. He noted that her soft golden hair had been hacked off. Still, spread over the pillow around her head, it reminded him of a gold-leaf halo. He raised his hand to caress her bruised cheek; it was a spontaneous, tender gesture. He was relieved at her return— but he quickly interrupted the motion, unsure whether it would be welcome at that point...or ever again, after all he had done.

"Domnica." The petrified lass behind him stirred.

"My lord," she barely managed to utter.

Daybreak approached; he had little time.

"Your family has served me well over the years. I expect the same of you," he stated inscrutably.

She lowered her head, hands anxiously clasping each other.

"As you wish."

"You have trained in the healing arts."

Domnica raised her eyes and nodded briefly.

"Yes. Midwifery."

"Have you trained as a lady-in-waiting?" he wondered.

"No, my lord. There haven't been any ladies to wait on back home in a very long time. Besides, my father's rank—"

"Will be justly restored," Țepeș stated quietly. The young woman's eyes widened, even as she trained her gaze back on the ground. Outside the diamond-shaped latticed windows, a grey, murky light emerged. His bones creaked, his senses ebbed. He resented that intrusion of dawn just when he wished to defy it the most.

"You are to wait upon my lady," he declared, turning his gaze to a sleeping Lisa. "You must tend to her, see to all her needs. Fulfill your duty, and house Livádi shall be richly rewarded."

He turned around, large and imposing, passing Domnica silently.

"Fail to follow my orders and your suffering will be a curse extended beyond the realm of the living." He looked down upon her from his height, his features cold, his lips parted to reveal a sharp grimace. "I will see to it myself."

Domnica barely managed to stutter a perfunctory "Yes, my lord!" before Țepeș disappeared.


Lisa awoke only because of her broken rib. As she attempted to roll onto her side, the jolt of pain caused her to utter a small protest. With sleep gradually wearing off, she took in her familiar surroundings.

"You are awake?" a timid voice inquired. Still disoriented, Lisa sought its source and found a woman sitting stolidly in a chair at the foot of her bed.

"I am. To my surprise, as well." Lisa attempted to sit up in the bed, but winced at the discomfort of attempting such a maneuver. The woman seemed to hesitate before approaching her.

"Who are you?" Lisa wondered interestedly.

"The Lord Dragon—"

Her brow furrowed.

"—Has charged me with your care."

"Where is he?" Her eyes searched the large gloomy room.

"That, I cannot say. He last came to see you yesterday evening."

"Yesterday?" She had lost track of what 'yesterday' could even be anymore.

"You have been unconscious for almost two days."

Lisa blinked at the fire tiredly.

"I see."

"You had a high fever. The Dragon brought in an assortment of vials and powders to treat you with."

At the mention of vials and powders, Lisa glanced at the bedside table with a twinge of curiosity. Before she could say anything, Domnica reached behind a pitcher of water and pulled out a carefully folded parchment sealed with hardened, lustrous red wax.

"He instructed me to give this to you once you were awake."

With a shaky hand, Lisa grasped the note and cracked the seal. She smoothed the parchment over her lap and the edge of a white ruffle-edged sleeve caught her eye as she brushed her hand over the note. She pinched and slightly tugged at the front of her chemise for closer inspection before looking up curiously.

"It is very fine, my lady," Domnica offered, as if guessing her thoughts.

"I am no lady."

Domnica pressed her lips together and fell silent.

Lisa turned her attention back to the note and its black letters in tight but fluid script.

Lisa,

I did not know where else to take you under these circumstances, nor was I willing to trust your care to unknown and less capable hands. Domnica is the daughter of a loyal vassal family and has been trained in the healing arts.

You have suffered several injuries.

Lisa gripped the note tightly, blood roaring through her ears in a deafening surge. She read over the detailed account of her injuries, and how he proposed they be treated in that elegant, succinct style she had grown to admire.

You need not worry: I will not impose upon you. I am well aware I have returned you, perhaps against your will, to the very place you sought to flee from.

Be reassured that you are free to leave at any time: you are no prisoner, no hostage, in my home. I do not hold you to any promise or contract. I ask one thing of you, however: that you depart only once you are fully healed. In the meantime, I extend to you all my hospitality. Domnica has been instructed to see to all your needs and wishes for as long as you please.

The note ended abruptly, with no closing: only a signature. Her fingertips traced the dark swoops of his name, following where the nib had scratched the surface of the parchment with ink.

"Thank for your good care." Lisa watched Domnica pour out a goblet of water. "I am very grateful."

Domnica lowered her brown eyes.

"The Dragon has given me strict instructions to follow. I am quite glad you have awakened, as I was dreading telling him that you had been unable to eat nothing for yet another day. And there is such good food here and in such abundance!" The words were scarcely out that she quickly cupped her hand over her mouth. "Oh, my lady—pardon my indiscretion."

"I am no lady," Lisa reassured her. "You may be quite at ease with me."

Domnica nodded her head dutifully. "But the Dragon refers to you as his lady."

Lisa flushed at that revelation.


As the day progressed and Lisa slowly regained her strength, and more importantly, her wits, she sorted through the small containers and vials concluding that the concentrations of medicine Țepeș had left for her needed to be greater. Despite Domnica's protests, she sat up in the bed, swinging her legs over the edge, ready to march down to the laboratory and measure the amounts she required herself. Upon standing, though, her sight darkened and she immediately fell seated again, a dizzy weakness rushing through her limbs. Her broken rib throbbed.

"Perhaps we ought to double the dosage?" Domnica wondered, eyeing the medicine containers stacked on the small table.

"The problem is that I need a stronger concentration, not necessarily a greater amount: otherwise, it could trigger internal bleeding or damage my liver," Lisa explained. Domnica nodded again, troubled.

"The Dragon said he would come by to check on your progress tonight."

Lisa startled, lying back in bed.

"He is coming?"

"Oh, he said so last night. He said to say to you that he would not impose upon you during your convalescence. And if you need anything, you may do so through me." And with that, Domnica crossed her arms.

"I do not like this. If anyone is being imposed upon, it is you. Are you even here by your own volition?" Lisa cast a surreptitious glance at Domnica's neck. Her neck—and she, overall—seemed unharmed.

"You are kind for asking. But you must know: very little in my life is of my own volition. Besides, I know better than to cross my lords: my father or the Dragon. You see, there were many stories about the Dragon in Sighișoara. Sometimes they were of a great warlord. Stories about how powerful he was, how afraid men were of him. There was one story, in particular, that I always found fascinating: it was said that the Dragon kept such a firm grip on his fiefs that no one dared disobey him. It was said that visitors to a well in one of his villages could drink cool, fresh water out of a golden goblet that no one dared to steal. When one foolish thief deigned to snatch it, it was said the Dragon had him hunted down and executed for his crime."

Domnica took Lisa's silence for interest and drew her heavy chair closer to the bed.

"Other stories told of a ruthless prince who sought to become the greatest ruler. It was said that in exchange for power and wisdom, he forfeited his very soul."

Lisa shuddered slightly.

"There are other stories, too. But those aren't very nice ones, though." Domnica sniffed. "But those usually are the most interesting ones," she continued conspiratorially. "There are rumors of a dark prince—but not of any land on the earth. The prince wanders among men to prey on them, turning them into strigoi who mercilessly attack good Christians. They are devils who lure innocents to their demise," Lisa felt a twinge of anxiety at Domnica's probing gaze. "My father told me about how one of my ancestors made a pact with the Dragon. He became his man-of-arms, a loyal vassal. They fought together many times and celebrated great victories."

"And what happened to him?"

"The annals don't say. They stop abruptly. But others say that since tjose times long ago, the Livádi began their slow decline. My mother says it is as if we have been cursed: every generation is a little worse off than the next."

Lisa let her eyes wander to the fire in the hearth, searching in the wavering flames for inscrutable shapes.

"And what do you think of the Dragon, now that you have met him for yourself?"

Domnica sucked her tooth noisily. She reached for some of the bread on the tray she'd brought in for Lisa earlier.

"He's obviously not that Dragon," she finally offered with satisfaction. "You know: of the legends."

"Why not?" Lisa asked gently.

"Well, for one," Domnica began, tearing off a small hunk of bread and placing it in her mouth. "I notice the details. This Dragon? He must be a descendant. He does not look centuries old! The devil has horns like this!" She placed her hands, fingers pointing up, over her head and began to chuckle at her astute observation. Lisa couldn't help smiling as well.

"This castle, though…This castle is so very gloomy. I could believe it is older than God," she continued, buoyed by Lisa's candid reaction. "This place is very dark and sad…but I have meals aplenty, and while he is intimidating, the Dragon has been courteous enough to me these past days—or rather, nights. I never see him during the day. Oh, I must say: I am relieved that you are awake now. The days have passed so slowly here."

One of the logs in the hearth crackled, just as a solid knock reverberated throughout the room.

Domnica's eyes widened and she leapt up, frantically wiping her hands on her dress. Lisa gripped her bed covers tightly, stirred by both a desire to see Țepeș and a need to buy herself more time.

Domnica opened the door halfway, leaning her body out to address her visitor. Lisa waited, as if time had frozen and would only resume its passage once Țepeș crossed the room's threshold. At one point, Domnica peered back at her and with a reassuring gesture, stepped out of the room.

She emerged minutes later, carefully shutting the door behind her.

"The Dragon came to inquire about you. I told him you had awakened, but he refused to come in. He asked about your general state, if your fever had broken and if the bruises and wounds looked as if they were healing well."

Lisa raised her hand to her face, suddenly realizing that perhaps she hadn't grasped that her injuries were as Țepeș had said: plentiful.

"He refused to see me?" she asked, trying not to betray her disappointment.

"Yes," Domnica sighed with contented relief. "He said to keep him informed of your progress. He said that I should go down to his study if I need to update him."

Lisa couldn't quite explain the nature of the turmoil afflicting her at that moment. Țepeș had stated he would not disturb her and make her uncomfortable with a visit— and she appreciated the gesture, especially in light of everything she had—and was still—uncovering about him.

A small part of her, however, could not let things be.

I have questions, came the persistent thought. Questions neither one of us should run away from. I cannot accept you are made solely of darkness, she thought. I grasped it ever so briefly, that small glimmer within you. And it fills me with hope.

"Domnica, could you please tell him that I require stronger medicine?"

The young woman's relaxed countenance sobered into a troubled one.

"Oh, yes. I had forgotten."

"You would do me a great kindness if you requested this of him," Lisa insisted, sincerely.

That perhaps he would finally come minister to her care himself was simply another lingering hope.


When Domnica returned, she carried a small pot and appeared winded.

"I thought we had the most stairs ever back home." She plunked the pot down, tugging a sheet of folded parchment from her sleeve. "Now I know I was wrong." She cleared her throat. "My lord sent you this medicine and another note."

Lisa quickly eyed the pot before unfolding the note.

Lisa,

I am heartened to hear of your recovery. I am not surprised to hear of your discomfort, now that you are more conscious.

He went on to detail the concoction he had sent her, how it had properties to prevent infection and ease the pain. In his explanations and tight script, she could almost hear him speaking to her, the intensity of his gaze as he taught her so much, so dedicatedly.

If there is anything you desire, convey your wishes through Domnica.

Again, the brief ending and florid signature.


Even later, as the medicine began to take effect, Lisa was almost disappointed at the seemingly aloof cordiality of the missive. She let her mind wander. Right then, at that very moment, while she stood in a shallow basin of sudsy water as Domnica prattled animatedly, helping her wash herself, delicately dabbing the soapy washcloth over her bruises and scabbing wounds, Țepeș roamed, perhaps indifferently, in his laboratory below.

When Lisa was given a fresh nightshirt, just as fine as the first, and tucked into her bed with a goblet of water and another dose of the medication Țepeș had sent her, she was assailed by restlessness and dissatisfaction.

Memories haunted her dreams when she slipped into a slumber: Liviu's pained expression as life drained from him was perhaps the most harrowing. Bogdan and Cosmin's arrogant faces emerged unbidden. Sometimes she awoke with a start, a shout freezing over her lips. She was afraid to learn what had happened that night in the catacombs. What had they been doing? Had her words summoned Țepeș, after all? Her fingers glided across the skin of her neck seeking out the healed skin. What had it meant?

Where do I begin?

Every noise, every creak, filled her with anticipation that was quickly thwarted…leaving a frustrating, unfulfilled longing in its place.

Another night passed and he had not come.


Țepeș folded his pale hands over the desk and contemplated the blank parchment before him. Lisa's presence filled his castle, his mind, his thoughts with a bewildering array of emotions. The anger that had overcome him had not subsided completely, not even after he had cut a bloody swath through the army of insolent and weak men: if not for the urgency in tending to Lisa's wounds, his thirst for vengeance would have led him to raze that wretched Gehenna to the ground, to oblivion. Alongside his fury lay his wounded pride: he was resentful for having to emerge from his voluntary exile, reawakening dormant forces, all for the sake of a mortal woman who had willingly eluded him, fleeing from his grasp. Their bond remained powerful, but with such proximity he had difficulty discerning between her and himself. He could not trust that the sharp yearning that had lodged itself in his chest was hers as much as his.

He missed her terribly and while he knew he could easily go to her bedside to verify her state himself, he could not bear to see the reproach in her eyes. He could not accept the possibility of not slipping back into that closeness they shared, that cherished intimacy that had emerged so effortlessly between them. That sobering thought quelled his impulsive nature the most.

None of his powers, none of his riches, could assure him that she would willingly return to his side— much less to his arms.

All that he could do, in the face of that quandary, was demonstrate patience…and wait.

Have faith, the thought seized him.

He settled more comfortably into his chair and after a few moments of silence, let out a bitter, confounded laugh at the irony of such a thought.

Faith! Lisa from Lupu, what are you doing to me?

 

Chapter Text

"Books have led some to learning and others to madness."

-Petrarch


It's gone!

Lisa scanned the room one final time in vain hope that perhaps, through some minuscule good fortune, her satchel had been salvaged. The satchel itself was worthless: it was weathered and worn out. But it had contained the one belonging that she treasured more than anything. Her precious copy of Physica was gone. She was filled with anxious grief to imagine that the beautifully illuminated book was lost, perhaps even destroyed.

I seem to be a harbinger of misfortune, she thought with frustration, sitting down heavily at the edge of her bed, fighting the tide of self-pity that welled inside her.

Domnica emerged at the doorway, a platter covered with a dishcloth in her hands.

"Here: eat now. Do not worry any further: I will ask the Dragon about your satchel tonight.

Although Domnica had meant nothing by it, Lisa bristled at her words. Domnica gave Țepeș nightly reports updating him on her condition, but he appeared to be avoiding her. Any communication between them was one-sided. His notes were impersonal; conclusions on ailments and treatment as if she were a case study and not the living, breathing woman he had held—

I extend to you all my hospitality, Lisa recalled the polite words he had written her and placed between them as a barrier.

Your understanding of 'hospitality' right now leaves much to be desired, she exhaled.

"It is a small matter: please do not trouble him with it." She curled over the bed despondently, her back turned to the doorway.

She braced the pillow and stared at the darkening sky beyond her window. She had been there—how many days now?—and he hadn't even deigned to see her since she had awakened. Instead, he had foisted her off on a poor girl, passing her off like an undesirable burden. Her hand wandered to her scratched cheek, where she traced the rough pattern of scabs. When she had first seen her reflection and taken in her bloodied and bruised face, her reaction had been one of disbelief and outrage towards the men who had done such a thing to her. But it wasn't until she saw that Țepeș had become elusive that she had begun questioning if he now viewed her as less worthy, since her appearance had been altered. Perhaps, she concluded, carding her fingers through the unevenly cut hair, I misunderstood everything and any fascination I may have possessed in his eyes went no further than skin deep.

The realization should not have wounded her so deeply, but she found the hurt impossible to dismiss.

"Do not trouble him further, he has done more than enough for me," she stated quietly to Domnica, before closing her eyes.


"What do you mean?" Țepeș leaned forward in his chair as Domnica demurely clasped her hands, standing before him.

"In very low spirits, my lord."

Țepeș ran his hand over his mustache pensively.

"She asked me to say nothing to my lord, but I—I never said to her I wouldn't!" Domnica quickly offered.

Țepeș leaned back and folded his hands over his lap. The gold signet ring with the dragon symbol etched in the likeness of an ouroboros glinted in the candlelight.

"What an unfortunate conundrum," he commiserated in his condescending manner. "Whatever you choose to do, you will risk displeasing your lord or your lady. I suggest you choose wisely."

Oh, it is definitely better to displease the lady! Domnica decided without hesitation. The lady is more understanding and forgiving.

"She is saddened because she lost something very precious to her. We have been searching for it and I told her I would ask if my lord had seen it, but she told me not to bother—"

"And what preciosity did she lose?" he asked, suddenly interested.

"It was a book that was in her satchel. She told me it had been a gift from someone who had been like a mother and instilled a love of learning in her."

He cast her a shrewd look.

"Perchance…would you know the title of the book?"

"It was…" Domnica paused to search her memory. She grimaced and squinted toward the ceiling for a few seconds. "It was something…Something in Latin."

Țepeș nodded tersely.

"Ah! That certainly helps." In his voice, ill-concealed irritation.

Domnica held still, unsure if she had been helpful. She, herself, did not know how to read well and did not concern herself with books and such too much.

"Go to her and only come back here when you are able to tell me the name of the book," he ordered.

And with that, he returned his attention to the heavy tome opened on the table before him.

When she glumly began to depart the room, Țepeș called her sharply and without another word, pointed at a container on the countertop where several empty glass beakers and alembics sat. She dutifully took it and slipped out the door.


When Domnica entered Lisa's room, her cheeks were ruddy from the effort of quickly climbing the many stairs.

"My lady—"

"Just Lisa, please."

"My lord sent you this."

"What is it?" Lisa wondered, approaching her and eyeing the small container in her hand. Domnica despaired: she had forgotten to ask him what the contents were, so mortified was she every time she was in the Dragon's presence. But for once, she had the spark of a brilliant idea.

"I will return to ask him!"

Lisa opened the container and sniffed at the small bundle of dried herbs.

"Oof! No need: it's valerian root." She thrust the container under Domnica's nose. It smelled ghastly. Domnica grimaced comically and Lisa couldn't help smiling.

"Not a scent one can readily forget, is it?" she commiserated.

"Still, it is best I confirm its intended purpose, no?"

"It's not necessary—"

"And what was the name of your missing book? Maybe I will find it while I am wandering down the halls again!" she offered eagerly.

"It's just a small leather-bound book."

The young woman squinted, feigning deep concentration.

"Yes, but the title, so I can tell it apart from any other books I may come across."

"In the hallways and stairwells?" Lisa grinned. "Have things fallen into such chaos and disorder?"

At Domnica's expectant stare, she finally relented.

"It is called Physica, by Hildegard von Bingen."


"Hilda? Illda?" Domnica winced, wringing her hands.

"Hildegard," Țepeș corrected her with unsuspected gentleness for once, rising from his chair and wandering toward his wall of bookshelves. She watched him peruse a few shelves, his long, pale fingers skirting over titles, searching. At last, he pulled a book out and after examining it and brushing his hand carefully over the cover, handed it to Domnica.

"Here. Tell her it is a gift." He thought back to that evening when they had only just met and she had gifted him a book from his own library. A smile crossed his lips. "Tell her I am gifting her a book she already owns."


Now, that went well! Domnica leaned against the parapet overlooking the stairs to catch her breath for a spell. She was halfway up to Lisa's room when she realized she hadn't asked Țepeș about the herbs in the container. She eyed the handsome book in her hands.

Oh, well. Perhaps it won't matter, once I give her the Dragon's gift!


Domnica burst through the door, clearly winded. Lisa sat up, concerned.

Despite the fact she had overexerted herself, the young woman had a cheerful, mischievous expression as she approached Lisa with her hands behind her back.

"And what do you have there?" Lisa played along.

When Domnica brought her hand forward, she extended the beautifully bound book to her mistress.

Lisa took it and gazed upon the blind-tooled calfskin cover aged to a deep, tawny hue and undid its delicate metallic clasp. The pages were of fine vellum and upon leafing to the title page, she found the word Physica in dark gold letters.

"A gift! From the Dragon, to you, my lady." She even felt the need to punctuate her pantomime with a low curtsey, slightly losing her balance and teetering to the left in the process.

When she looked up, instead of finding a radiant smile, she found a heartbreakingly pained look on her mistress' face.

"It is very kind, very generous…But I…I cannot accept this." Her hand shook as she returned to book to Domnica.

"Please give it back to him next time you speak to him." Lisa crossed her arms over her chest and abruptly turned away.

Could you not deliver it yourself? Do you think me so easily mollified, my sentiments so bland? Lisa lamented.

Oh, Blessed Mother, have mercy on us, sinners! Domnica thought miserably. The Dragon would chop her up into tiny little bits if she returned to the laboratory with his rejected gift—she was more than certain of it.

But perhaps there was hope: she could broach the topic subtly. She would ask about the blasted herbs first and somehow work the book in.

It will be fine, she told herself repeatedly, bunching up the side of her skirt in one hand as she braced herself for the long descent.


"It is a ceai, obviously," Țepeș replied aloofly without looking up. That suited Domnica just as well because she was leaning against the entrance wall trying to catch her breath. It was as if fire coursed up her muscles. "You toss it into a kettle of hot water. That is all. And you can do that much, can't you? Surely your training in midwifery went beyond just fervently praying for Saint Anne's intercession." His tone was prickly with contempt.

Domnica nodded contritely, the book held firmly behind her back.

"Ah, my lord…Also…Your lady sent me down with a message."

"Ah! Did she?"

Domnica pressed her lips tightly, ordering herself to move and get the entire ordeal over with.

"Do feel free to tell me what it is— at your leisure," he provoked, turning to contemplate her.

She approached the table slowly and once she was standing before him, extended her hand, placing the book on the tabletop.

He stared at it wordlessly. When he directed his gaze back at her, she fully expected to be turned into stone or incinerated into a pile of ashes, but what she saw instead confounded her deeply.

It was fleeting, but unmistakable, terrible in its rawness: he was hurt and the hollow ache was laid bare in his features. Domnica would have felt great empathy for her imperious lord if she wasn't already brimming with pity for herself and her own perilous circumstances.

"Leave," he commanded brashly.


"It's a simple ceai! Look at that! You were right!" Domnica cried out with forced verve before she slid down the wall into an exhausted slump on the ground.

Lisa turned from the window after latching one of the panes shut.

"Yes. But thank you for confirming it. You are always so very careful and I do appreciate all your care toward me." Lisa made an effort to grin.

"I also returned the book to my lord, as you asked."

"Oh." Lisa sat by the fire, reaching for the poker to hook under the kettle's handle. "Thank you, Domnica."

Oh, good. Now that whole matter was settled! No more scuttling up and down the stairs for a bit.

She rested against the wall watching Lisa silently hoist up the kettle and place it on the hook over the fire. She noticed Lisa had placed two cups on the room's small table. She was always generous and thoughtful like that. She gladly shared her food, insisted Domnica got rest and set her chores aside, and argued with her, trying to talk her into allowing her to convince the Dragon to send her home.

That night Lisa appeared so fragile and so…sad.

The same pain she had caught in the Dragon's eyes lingered in Lisa's.

Ah…Domnica rubbed her face. This is not my business, this is not my business, this is not my business…

"My lady," she began timidly.

Lisa looked up. She seemed so dejected, she hadn't even bothered to correct Domnica. "The Dragon was very pained when I returned the book."

"I doubt it." Lisa averted her gaze and stared at the kettle. "He possesses so many books: it is nothing to him."

"No, no, he was distraught. I could tell."

Lisa tipped her head to the side.

"Distraught? That can't be. That doesn't sound like—"

"My lady, I fear a grave misunderstanding between you both."

Lisa fell silent.

"Perhaps it is time you made him privy to your thoughts," Domnica suggested tentatively.

How, when he will not even look upon me? Lisa despaired.

"You write him a note!" Domnica clasped her hands with delight at her own idea.

Lisa blinked a few times before nodding slowly.

"All right. Perhaps we could engage in a correspondence."

He may prefer that…It may be a start.

She wiped her hands, walking over to the desk and instinctively opening one of the drawers. Of course, she realized, upon finding the empty drawer, that along with her book, her small journal and writing stick had been lost with the satchel.

Lisa shook her head.

"Domnica, things only appear to get worse," she lamented. "My journal with all my notes—so much learning—is also gone. I am afraid I lack the writing implements now, but most of all, the resolve to—"

Domnica heroically pushed herself off the ground.

"Leave it to me, my lady! I'll fetch whatever you need."

And before Lisa could protest, the young woman had stumbled back out into the hallway.


Halfway down the stairs, Domnica had a disturbing premonition:

If I fetch parchment and writing implements from the Dragon, I suspect I will spark even more trips up and down these wretched stairs as I carry their missives back and forth.

This will not do.

She pondered her options. Would she be lying if she said what she intended to say to her lord?

No. It is not. It is the truth. After all, suffering can affect both the body and the spirit.

When she burst through the door, she did not give her master any time to rebuke or censure her. He did cast her a profoundly exasperated look, but before he could issue any taunt or insult, she spoke with a great sense of urgency:

"My lord: it is your lady! She is not well. She needs you. Now!"

Țepeș stood immediately. Without any further questions, he pushed past her as swiftly as a breeze, disappearing into the dimly lit hall.

Domnica hoped she wouldn't be in too much trouble after her little ruse. Her father, after all, had always told her that there was nothing more dangerous than becoming embroiled in the capriciousness of nobles; it was best to stay out of it.

Finding the laboratory suddenly pleasantly quiet and empty, Domnica plunked herself down on the rug before the fireplace and endeavored to take a well-deserved break.


 

Chapter Text

"Listen and attend with the ear of your heart."

— Benedict of Nursia


A small filament of steam spiraled up from the full teacup. Lisa lay the heavy kettle on an iron trivet and settled on the large chair before the table. She had been mentally composing the note she wished to send Țepeș, attempting to wrangle her words and thoughts from her emotions and digressing into memories. She would often find her gaze drawn to the door, expecting to find Domnica emerging from her latest errand.

When the door finally creaked open, Lisa's greeting died on her lips. Instead of the good-natured young woman, it was the solemn figure of Țepeș that stood imposingly at the threshold, gazing down at her with an inscrutable expression.


The rush of emotion caused Lisa to remain momentarily speechless. He wasted no time in addressing her.

"I did not mean to startle you. I was led to believe you were unwell," he stated in his reserved manner. With a curt nod, he grasped the door handle and retreated into the hall.

Lisa clenched her fists. He had taken his leave and would be gone. As if we were nothing more but indifferent acquaintances standing on ceremony.

"I am much less startled by your appearance than you seem to be irked by mine!" she called out, surrendering to her disappointment and hurt.


Lisa's words gave him pause. In her indignation, an inadvertent confession: she had misunderstood his absence as a rejection. A surge of tenderness struck him and he found himself irresistibly drawn, wanting to soothe all her worries away.

Still, her words contained the sting of an accusation he was not guilty of.

He would not be perceived as superficial or capricious.

It would not do.


He walked once more into the room.

"Explain yourself," he demanded.

She crossed her arms tightly at his scrutiny.

"I am merely wondering why you have not come by to speak to me even once since I've awakened."

"I explained why I wouldn't come to see you in my first letter," he countered coolly.

"And you also explained your purpose in bringing me here: to heal me. For your intervention I am very grateful. But I have to wonder why you have resorted to issuing prognoses based simply on hearsay."

"You would have me play many roles: teacher, physician, host… I was merely being cautious and considerate. I did examine you—I've shared my findings and treatment with you. But I can hardly be scolded for keeping a distance. Would I be entirely at fault for presuming you may be my unwilling guest? After all, it was you who fled without as much as a farewell, much less an explanation." He contemplated her sternly. "You assume I have judged and rejected you, yet it is I who underwent such punishment, given your hasty escape."

"An explanation? And what explanation would you have me give?" she argued, growing incensed, "Do you recall what transpired when we were together last and how you chose to reveal certain truths to me?"

"Truths you insisted on learning, despite my repeated warnings of the risks involved in pursuing such knowledge!"

Her blue eyes narrowed.

"I could not have begun suspecting the nature of what you revealed to me—nor did I expect what you did to me!"

He stepped forward, straining at his own impatience.

"Nor did I lie or mislead you. You were the one eager to undertake risks for the sake of knowledge! You accepted the danger, even when I insisted you did not understand what it comprised!" His expression had grown hard and cold despite the dry exasperation in his tone. "Besides, I doubt you would have believed me had I merely told you what I am."

"You did not even try!"

"I explained what my intent was when I proposed our…exchange: I was concerned for your safety." He paused, contemplating the bruise over her forehead, now a mottled yellow and fading purple. "Apparently, rightly so!"

She bridled at his temper.

"Allow me to repeat that I am most grateful for your aid. I sincerely regret that you were inconvenienced by having to offer it!"

"Do not be coy!" He swooped down, roughly grasping the edges of the table as he leaned forward, coming face to face with her. "I told you I would come to you if summoned—no conditions whatsoever. I admit my motivation to reveal my nature to you was selfish: once you voiced your intent to leave this castle, I sought to establish a bond between us." He peered into those eyes that were so limpid, so clear, that face he had recalled and evoked again and again through all his yearning. The impetus, however, came from a much deeper, intimate sentiment, he thought, dropping his gaze to her lips.

"How do you think I could have ever predicted or foreseen such a—"

"That is precisely why you wished to know, wasn't it? Did I not warn you of the lure of knowledge? Of such unbridled curiosity? That the cost and toll of such matters should be clearly known before attempting to attain greater wisdom?"

"How callous of you! I did not seek to know simply because, as you imply, I was curious! I wished to know and let you lead because I trusted you!" She bent forward as well, defiant and righteous, her eyes unflinchingly holding his.

"Then tell me how I betrayed that trust. I held up my end of our bargain."

Her brow furrowed and she blinked nervously.

"You asked too much of me at once. I did not—still do not!— know what to think! You have completely altered my understanding of the world, of reality. You have left me with more questions than—"

"Ah, but I never left you!" he interrupted, incensed. " You left me," he accused, in a harsh tone. "I was prepared for your scrutiny, to answer your questions!"

Lisa's brow furrowed.

Your anger does not frighten me. It tells me more than your words do. And what it says, cuts me to the quick.

"I had made up my mind to return here. To meet with you. So we could talk," she admitted in a quieter tone. "Before my capture, that is."

His expression immediately softened at her admission.

"I decided that leaving the way I did…It did not make anything better. Because…We need to speak! It is the reasonable, logical thing to do. I have all these questions I wish to ask you, Vlad."

He stood up straight again, towering over her.

"Yes," he stated in a more conciliatory tone. He pulled out the chair opposite her and sat down.

"Here is what I propose: you are still convalescing and the hour grows late. You have suffered a concussion—you understand that you are not to exert yourself. I will not address more than one question tonight."

She raised an eyebrow at him in that insolent way he found so exasperatingly dear.

"Oh, but surely you must know I have more than one question," she teased.

"You may ask all the questions you wish. I will return night after night until you have exhausted your questions and are satisfied with the answers," he vowed.

She rubbed her chin gently.

"So…One question?" In her heart, relief and delight. He said he would return: he would no longer stay away.

And if she had learned anything, amidst all those bewildering discoveries, it was that Țepeș was true to his word.


He prepared himself for the onslaught.

He knew how formidable his pupil was, how eager and tenacious she could be. He would have to be careful so that his answers would not entice her to explore what should remained buried, unspoken, hidden. He waited as she collected her thoughts, her eyes downcast as she sought to ask her first question.

What are you? He expected. What hellish fiend? He was distracted from his mounting impatience when his gaze roved over her beloved face, her slender neck…

"Very well: I have it."

He almost startled, tearing his eyes from the soft, rosy skin of one of her exposed shoulders in the gauzy nightdress.

"My question is: can you give Domnica her freedom now?" she asked softly.

Along with surprise, he met her words with affection.

One question.

He had anticipated revealing his secrets to her…but instead of asking about something for herself, for her own knowledge and satisfaction, she sought to help another.

Prove me wrong. Prove me wrong about my long-held beliefs about human nature…and in the process, transform me.

This is the true alchemy, he mused.

"That is hardly a question," he countered, touched. "That is a request."

"In the form of a question," she insisted. "Oh, do not be tiresome. You said it yourself: I am convalescing and should not overexert myself. So: can you let her go?"

"Why should I?"

"Because being here is not her will."

"Has she complained of her circumstances?" His expression grew stern once more.

"No—but even if she had, she would have been within her right!" Lisa added. "She has been nothing but helpful and cheerful."

"Then, my answer is no," he answered simply.

"Please," she entreated him, placing her hands on the table. "It is not right."

"Domnica is my vassal. She understands her obligations toward her lord."

"I don't understand why this is necessary—"

"It is simple, Lisa: I cannot be present to oversee your needs in the daytime."

She fell silent, the echos of the old Psalm rushing to her memory.

eius non timebis a timore nocturno…Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night.

She contemplated him, his large frame occupying the chair, his red eyes meeting hers. In folktales, monsters always emerged to prey after dark, in the cover of night. Mircea had referred to him as a "creature" and a "fiend". He was considered inhuman and dangerous. Evil incarnate.

And yet…It appeared that the entire world, except for herself, feared "the Dragon."

I was just arguing with him about semantics: teasing him about the difference between a question and a request. I have often disobeyed his orders, spurned his concerns, defied his warnings, and dismissed his advice.

"I can fend for myself now," she persisted.

"I have no doubt you believe that…and perhaps you can. But… I am not willing to take anymore chances," his tone was authoritative, decisive.

At her expression of displeasure, he exhaled heavily.

"No more chances. Not when it comes to you. One of us has to be concerned for your safety and well being."

She averted her eyes, overwhelmed by how deeply his words affected her.

"I do appreciate all you have done for me, all your care."

He offered her his customary polite nod, an acknowledgement of her words.

"Let Domnica go. Please."

"Once you are well."

"That is not right, Vlad."

He rested his chin over his fist.

"It is not up for discussion."

"But you must release her. Do not keep her here for my sake."

"You needn't worry: Domnica knows she will be rewarded for her trouble," he stated, emphasizing the last word for her benefit while shooting her a pointed glance. "But right now," he pushed his chair away from the table and stood, the folds of his black cape tumbling softly to the ground, "I will leave you so you may retire for the night."

Lisa made to pull away from the table as well, but he indicated her cup of tea.

"Drink: it will help you sleep better."

She wrapped her hands around the warm cup.

"Where do you…retire for the night?"

At his silence, she risked raising her eyes at him.

"Do you sleep during the day?"

His lips curled into a small grin.

"Ah—those are questions. And I only agreed to one question tonight," he told her in that sanguine, silken tone of his that implied he had no intention of compromising over anything.

"An agreement implies negotiations and there were none! You agreed to nothing! You are the one who defined the terms of our exchange tonight!" She crossed her arms, but there was a familiar lightheartedness to her tone. "It simply is not fair."

"It will have to do. For now." He walked to the great wooden door, the grin still lingering on his lips.

"Vlad," she called out.

He turned to find her taking a tentative sip before sitting the cup back on the table. "There is much that I wish to understand. Much that I still do not know…About the world…About you. I am still unsettled…and do not know that I will like or easily accept all you have to tell me." She focused her gaze on the clear amber tea in her cup. "But come what may…I sincerely hope that from now on we are always able to… speak sincerely and reasonably to each other about any differences," she completed.

That he should inspire such a conciliatory sentiment despite everything…

"It is a promise," he replied.

"Thank you." She smiled at him and it stirred that deep longing inside him, a desire so absolute, consuming, yet, so universal…So…

Human.

How strange to have those voids in his soul filled in once more.

"Let me leave you with one more answer," he began, taking in her luminous eyes, warm and intelligent, peering back at him. "To a question you did not ask: I am ancient, Lisa. I have been on this earth many lifetimes and over," he stated softly, seeing her expression shift to one of keen interest. "There is nothing about human nature that eludes me." He let his gaze brush tenderly over the blemished face, the choppy hair that fell unevenly over her shoulders. "I have existed long enough that I can discern between beauty and youth." Her expression grew guarded, as if she were bracing herself for an argument. "True beauty transcends temporal constraints and is far more complex, far deeper than one's exterior, bruises and all."

"When I said what I said earlier, about my appearance…I didn't mean to imply—" she quickly retorted, flustered, "I was not fishing for a compliment: I only hoped you had not been avoiding me because my bruises and wounds are so…" She fell silent, earnestly surprised by the magnitude of her own need. "I appreciate the compliment," she finally offered, trying to compose herself. "But I will evoke the wise words of Albertus Magnus who wrote, 'everything that actually exists participates in the beautiful and the good.'"

He lowered his head, in thought.

Yes, you are an alchemist: transforming into gold all that is base and ordinary…

And what has long been considered cursed and forsaken.

"I do not agree with Magnus; my experience has taught me otherwise. But I do know this, without any doubt: you are beautiful, Lisa. To me, infinitely so," he concluded gently, standing and taking his leave of her for the night.


 


 

Chapter Text

"How the time passed away, slipped into nightfall as if it had never been!"
—"The Wanderer", Author Unknown


"Domnica," Țepeș uttered dryly.

The young woman huddled on the ground before the hearth stirred, mumbling softly before curling into herself further.

He contemplated the slumbering figure and his growing irritation.

Insolent, lazy… and a liar.

"Do not think that because the outcome of your act of deceit was fortuitous that you have been absolved," he whispered ominously.

He glanced around the laboratory, taking in all the machinery and equipment housed in the large room.

"I have no patience for anything… or anyone… that does not meet my expectations."

Her breathing was deep, measured. She did not stir at his reproach or the long shadow he cast over her.

He noted for the first time the youthful face speckled with a smattering of freckles, still rounded with the soft contours of childhood. He found his rage gradually abating the longer he contemplated her.

She is just a simple, country girl.

"Count yourself fortunate you have somehow earned my lady's favor and loyalty. I will not risk her displeasure by disciplining you." He hesitated no more than a few moments before turning away. "This time," he amended, as an afterthought.

"Acta deos numquam mortalia fallunt," he muttered resignedly, stepping away as dawn loomed on the horizon.


"It is nothing more than will made incarnate," Țepeș explained in the dim room, the storm outside rattling the window panes, thick ribbons of rain streaking the glass. Lisa listened intently, sheets of paper scattered over the table in her room. "Some manage to achieve it through brute force, others through shrewd intellect, a few through the harnessing of theurgical forces…An even select fewer achieve all three."

"A few such as...you?" she asked softly.

He nodded.

"And though few…There are others?" she wondered.

"There always have been," he declared quietly.


He had reached her room earlier, not a moment past dusk, finding that she, as much as he, had been wrestling with anticipation of their meeting, as both engaged in studied formality in an effort to counter the turmoil that being in each other's presence unleashed within them.

"I hope you don't mind, but I wrote some questions down."

His eyes were drawn from her face to a modest pile of parchment sheets placed on the table.

"Ah. I see you have revised the Corpus Juris Civilis," he teased, taking a seat.

She lowered her eyes even as she grinned.

"Had I undertaken such a task, I would still be at it, agonizing over whether you violate the laws of heresy or paganism," she countered.

You dispel my loneliness, now even more so, as you see me truly, he thought, settling comfortably in the chair.

"I am at your disposal," he offered.

The room grew silent and he waited while she perused her notes, pondering, her fingers tracing the edges of the parchment.

"Is there a God?" she finally asked.

He laughed loudly— an interjection of surprise.

"It is a valid question! If you exist, then…It is not a leap to surmise… I only ask because I seek to understand," she rapidly added, flustered by his reaction.

"No—I was not mocking you," he reassured her, his arm reaching across the table, his cold hand slipping over hers, his long tapered fingers pressing gently into her skin.

His touch ignited a bloom of warmth through her.

"I should have known you would strike decisively." He grinned, releasing her hand and recomposing himself.

"Well?" she demanded.

"That would depend on what your definition of 'God' is. If there is a supreme being who has shaped the universe, I cannot affirm… nor deny it. Such an entity remains elusive, beyond my perception," he admitted. "I cannot say; I do not know."

And many of my travels and studies were in pursuit of henosis. When I did not find Him in His cathedrals and temples, when He did not answer to prayer, supplication, or offering, I sought to stir Him from whatever demiurgical slumber He had slipped into through the desecration of His tenets—spiritual and material—and found nothing but the remnants of elemental and spiritual forces and potencies, once great enough to shatter nothingness and piece it into being, unmastered and amoral, too great, yet drifting, seeking to be harnessed and woven into the fabric of creation … he thought darkly.

A couple hours into their conversation, he found himself explaining to her, goaded by her questions and interest, about the roots of magic, the origins of such power through its many incarnations, a history unraveled through etymology, etched in the margins of scrolls by scholiasts, about the ancient practitioners of goēteía, the Medes, the Chaldeans, even the shrouded, contested origins of the legendary Dáktuloi.

She listened, fascinated, mesmerized, held in thrall by his words, his careful revelations, a reality that gradually took root and unfurled in her mind. Her countenance did appear to grow wan to him as time passed, however, and he leaned forward to confirm his suspicion. He examined her with concern.

"We stop here tonight."

Her expression appeared almost pained at his words.

"But the night is only halfway through and I still have—"

"So many questions," he completed, sympathetically. "I know."

"Everything you have told me…It is a facet of the world that has always appeared antithetical to everything I've believed."

He rose slowly.

"Not antithetical— the dichotomy you perceive is based on misinformation propagated by those who only possess partial knowledge and no abilities whatsoever to discern and control such forces and entities. The truth is much richer and the differences complementary."

"I wonder how it affects and changes what I thought I knew of healing, of the body…of life." She remained seated, a finely woven blanket she'd plucked from her bed wrapped around her snugly.

"It merely affords you a different dimension of understanding. It does not supplant your knowledge or challenge your abilities. You are not a conjurer, a practitioner of the Hermetic arts—your talents lie elsewhere. Besides, both the known and the unseen worlds adhere to rigid laws and principles. The study of one over the other triumphs only in regards to one's interests, talents, and abilities," he concluded.

She nodded slowly.

"I will call Domnica to assist you." He moved toward the doorway.

"No!" She couldn't imagine disturbing Domnica so late into the night. "Let her sleep. I can manage on my own."

He peered at her over his shoulder, hoping his expression conveyed his disapproval.

"I will not tolerate unnecessary risks. Should you falter or need aid, Domnica—"

"—Will be half asleep if dragged out of her bed at this hour and likely to fall to the ground with me…Or perhaps on top of me." She grinned imagining the humorous—and very possible—scenario as Țepeș glowered. "Let her rest. If you are so concerned about me, then stay a moment longer. Be assured and see for yourself that I can handle the arduous task of putting myself to bed," she joked.

He clasped his hands behind his back.

"As you wish."

"We can continue our conversation while I prepare to retire for the night," she suggested, turning away and slowly pouring water into a porcelain basin.

He narrowed his eyes at her, an arch grin on his lips.

"In that case, I wouldn't put it past you to prolong your routine until dawn."

She laughed lightly and cupped her hands in the water, bending over the basin, splashing water over her face, rubbing a bit over her neck. His eyes followed, mesmerized.

"As you can verify, evidence confirms that I am quite capable of performing basic tasks by myself," she announced, shooting him a furtive glance before reaching for a small pot of salt with minced sage and a thin strip of linen. "You really should let Domnica go, Vlad."

"She and I have an agreement. I will discuss this no further," he replied briskly, pretending to take a sudden interest in a sheet of parchment she had furiously scribbled notes on earlier. He raised his eyes after a few moments and watched her run her fingers through her hair. The gesture triggered a visceral hatred within him as flashes of finding her unconscious on the ground, helpless, the acrid, smokey stench of her burning braid hanging cloyingly in the desecrated crypt, flooded his memory…

One death was not enough for those men, he thought coldly, running the tip of his tongue over the sharp points of his teeth.

Lisa turned around and unwrapped herself from the blanket, folding and draping it over the back of her chair.

"What will you do for the rest of the night?" she wondered.

Her long chemise was sheer, offering him a generous view of her graceful figure: the curve of her waist, swell of her hips, the silhouette of her breasts, taut nipples pressing against the fabric. The moment was rendered even more seductive by the fact she was unaware of offering him such a sight. His lips parted and he drew a sharp breath. He tore his gaze away to stave off the overwhelming desire to take her in his arms, kiss those lips, feel her soft skin against his…

"I will wait," he replied, hearing the bed creak and the sheets rustle as she settled beneath the covers. "Until we can meet again."

Chapter Text

"What is the body? That shadow of a shadow

of your love, that somehow contains

the entire universe."

- Rumi


For several nights, Lisa listened to Țepeș tell her stories, unveiling that world that only weeks earlier she had believed impossible to exist. From him, the implausible acquired a logical and realistic hue. He bridged the chasm between crass superstition and science.

"Why silver?" she wondered, as they wandered together down a long hall of the castle, deep in conversation. "The folk stories always mention the importance of artifacts made of silver," she emphasized.

He walked beside her in the cool glow of white-headed lamps that revealed the soaring vaulted ceilings and stark pillars lining the passageways and curved stairwells.

"When facts are not fully understood, they are conveyed incompletely and inaccurately altered during subsequent retellings. Superstition is a simplification, albeit a distorted one, of reality. It's an opposite…an inversion, like a mirror image, for like science its aim is to explain, predict, and sometimes even control various phenomena," he mused.

She smiled: she enjoyed hearing his explanations, his elegant thoughts, realizing he had pondered all those same questions long before her.

"Yes, but what is the truth behind silver warding off evil?"

"It depends."

"Now you are being elusive." She chastised him teasingly.

"It is all in how you approach the question—whether scientifically or metaphorically."

"Metaphorically?" Her brow furrowed as she began to consider that unexpected angle.

He offered her a grin before he opened the large door lined with filigrees of geometric motifs at the end of the hallway. The chamber was cavernous: stark, cold, and gloomy.

"Where are we?" She turned about, surveying the room.

Țepeș appeared to turn a brass knob on the wall and a mechanical whirring broke the silence. Large panels began to rise, creaking, unveiling long windows that spanned almost the entire height of the walls. Placed so close to each other, the windows offered an almost continuous, unimpeded view of the valley below. A ghostly, silvery light flooded the rounded room.

A tower room, she gathered, approaching one of the windows under Țepeș' watchful gaze. Beyond the glass, a full moon loomed overhead.

"Silver has long been associated with the moon," he began, startling her from a momentary reverie. "Early alchemists noticed that silver requires the shroud of night for reactions to take place. Its derivatives—solutions and salts—must always be stored in darkness, sealed away in opaque containers, or they will spoil in the daylight."

Lisa strolled slowly along the windows, mesmerized by the view, her fingertips trailing over the cold stone parapets.

"That makes sense: most supernatural beings are said to be nocturnal." She peered over her shoulder, searching his face. "But if silver shares properties with the moon and nighttime, why is it so effective against night creatures? Don't they share the same propensities, if not properties?"

He let out a quiet laugh.

"No: it is not the metal that affects them, you see. A sword, a dagger—all those are effective weapons, regardless of what they are made. Most night creatures can be felled by someone determined and skilled enough. If the weapons are made of silver, all the more...poetic. Sometimes, knowledge that a weapon contains or is made of silver is what imbues a reluctant warrior with courage in the face of staggering odds."

She nodded slowly. "I see."

"But there are also other reasons silver is considered effective against evil." He leaned against the stone wall by the door, his eyes never straying from her. "Silver possesses properties that purify and cleanse…More interestingly: it has been used by nobles to—"

"—Indicate the presence of poison in food!" Lisa turned around, excited. "Hence silver plates, spoons, goblets," she marveled.

"Yes." He grinned again. "Although it is not always effective…poisons can be concocted from so many different reagents…However, silver tarnishes when putrefaction is present."

"Of course! It reacts to sulfur," she completed, pleased at having found the connection. She took a few steps back to lean against the opposite wall. "Brimstone," she murmured. "Evidence of the devil's presence."

They fell silent for a moment.

"And is it true?" Lisa asked in a tone that was as playful as it was provocative.

"What is?" he finally asked, uncertain of what she sought from him.

"Does the devil smell of sulfur?"

Țepeș spanned the short distance between them in the blink of an eye.

"Verify for yourself," he invited her, leaning close to her. "What is your conclusion?"

"I think you flatter yourself," she retorted smirking, crossing her arms, although her heartbeat had quickened at his sudden closeness. "You are not the devil," she stated pointedly.

His expression grew somber and for a moment he appeared lost in thought. He stood straight again, but did not step away. Instead, he glanced out of the nearest window.

"Besides, is there such a thing as the devil?" Lisa asked.

"As much as there is a God. But there have been many contenders for the title," he retorted brusquely.


Her question fueled his apprehension.

He was the Dragon, perceived as the devil himself among those folk and his legend cast a long and sinister shadow across the land. If she hadn't paid it heed before, she would be unable to avoid it then.

A hollowness threatened him. She was ignorant of what atrocities he had perpetrated during her rescue that night. Perhaps she believed his sanguinary ways had been banished to the past, to long-gone days as a warlord, to the days when he was a ruler of men, to an existence in which he had abandoned such savagery as he grew more enlightened and learned. She had an incomplete, inaccurate understanding.

He had thought it would be enough for her to know what he was, that it would quell the demanding disquiet within him.

She remains here in this castle, believing me her savior, her rescuer. But when she learns the truth of what I have done…What I am capable of…

And what can I say in my defense? I regret none of it.

His expression hardened.

She will leave me once more.

This time, forever.


Lisa's gaze lingered over his strong profile, the sleek black hair that grazed his broad shoulders, the somber handsomeness of his patrician face.

Creature, monster…devil.

I cannot, perhaps to my detriment, reconcile this man to the idea of pure evil. He has said it himself: the reality is far more complex.

He is flawed, as we all are—and, despite the entrapments of power, earthly and otherwise, still fundamentally a being I recognize all too well:

I see a man.


"Am I under scrutiny? Are you searching perhaps for my horns?" The question was insolent, but his tone was sharp, filled with derision.

She bristled, hating that he could withdraw like that from her, recognizing behind his words the deep melancholy that held him in its thrall. She feared he would become unreachable…and always when she suspected he needed her most.

"I'd be more prone to believe in hooves!" she finally answered, exasperated. "Your manners and attitude at times make me wonder if you were raised in a barnyard!" she scolded him. He eyed her bewilderedly as she continued. "You promised we would discuss matters in a civil, honest manner—seeking comprehension rather than stirring ongoing misunderstandings. When you act this way—"

"You seek directness and honesty? You are the one circling evasively around me, avoiding hearing what you fear."

Her eyes widened and she pushed away from the wall.

"I do not fear you!"she declared.

"Then ask the questions you know you ought to be asking me. The ones you are avoiding because you fear the truth contained in my answers."

"I am nowhere done asking anything!"

"Here: ask me what happened the night I found you in that crypt."

Her stomach sank.

"I arrived prepared to wage an old war."

Despite the tightness in his chest when she backed away from him, her expression grief-stricken, he could not stop that downward fall. He revealed how he had found her wounded and unconscious on the floor, how the conjurers, daggers unsheathed, preparing to bleed her, despaired and frantically tried to banish him when he stepped between her and them. He did not spare her the violence of their demise nor the pleasure he took in executing it. At the sound of their shouts and shrieks, soldiers had moved the slab over the opening, and poured into the crypt. Upon sighting him, they had charged him, weapons drawn. At the end of the onslaught, the walls bled and the air had grown foul, reeking of slaughter. He had pursued the monks, who had frantically attempted to scurry away like the vermin they were when he emerged from the ground, determined and focused in the meting of his wrath. They had believed their hysterical and fervent pleas for God's intervention would be deterrents against his fury.

Even when the tears sprouted and her hand cupped her mouth, he did not spare her the description of how he had marched triumphantly through the church destroying anyone who stepped into his path. He extended his deadly campaign, flinging the church doors open, summoning nightmarish creatures from the recesses of his rage to aid him in wreaking destruction on the town. A warning cry echoed throughout the streets and he had relished it. Any armored fool that rushed him he had severed from life as brutally and as gruesomely as he could.

"Men are all alike: vainglorious, unworthy, and doomed," he uttered, lost in the hellish scene summoned by his memory.


Lisa's chest heaved at his words. She took in the extent of the horror he had perpetrated.

In my name.

Because of me.

First Liviu.

I do not know how to bear the burden that I was the reason he was killed.

And now…how many more?

She began to tremble when he finished his story, his final words echoing in the empty room. It had grown smaller, oppressive.

"You killed them…All?" she asked incredulously. "Destroyed the entire town?"

"Tell me Lisa: I showed those men mercy before, against my best judgment, and they took it as a sign of weakness. They sought to use you to ensnare me. They had no regard for you, your humanity. Why should I have any regard for theirs? If they died, it wasn't for a lack of warning but because they struck against me and suffered the misfortune of not killing me first."

Tears blurred her sight.

"But a foot soldier merely follows orders. Those soldiers did not deserve—"

"What will it take," he cried, "for you to see that whether those wretches live or die, it makes no difference? Their lives are insignificant! Worthless! Their demise is the only thing notable about their existence. Vile beings: 'es quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris," he rasped between his teeth, echoing the curse he'd uttered as he'd departed the smoldering agonizing village.

"All those people," she continued quietly. "You slaughtered even the helpless, those not responsible for anything that had happened? Why, Vlad? For what purpose? How is that just?" she pleaded. He stood before her, immutable, as formidable as when she first sought to convince him that he should share his wisdom and knowledge to dispel ignorance and superstition in the world.

He had balked at her back then as well.

"Those conjurers declared war against me. Do you think they would have spared you? Do you have any concept of how necromancers extend a sacrificial offering's suffering? How they abuse a corpse? And you would ask me to forgive them? Spare them?"

Her mind raced. Conjurers, necromancers, prophets and Speakers…Magic suddenly permeated everything. Mircea had told her about another facet of the world where people consorted and trafficked in magic…

Magic is just a tool. Like science, it can be abused. It is only as noble as those wielding it, she realized.

"There were innocent people seeking shelter in that church. There were wounded soldiers and healers aiding them. There were people there I had only met briefly, but whom I considered friends already," she told him, tears rolling down her cheeks. "No one deserved to die: that will never amount to justice, in my eyes."

"Those wretches—I made no note of them!" he declared.

She brushed her sleeve over her eyes.

"Are you saying you spared them?"

"Unless they tried to attack me, I left them be."

"And the Speakers? Did you—" she wondered.

"I do not recall encountering any of them, those propagators of lies. They are the record keepers of misguided and false glory."

Hope seized her.

"Vlad! Are you telling me you spared the non-combatants?" she prodded.

He said nothing.

"Did you?" she asked imploringly. "Tell me, please."

"If you seek to find a modicum of solace in the assumption that I took pity on those people, allow me to dispel that immediately: I am telling you that the only reason there isn't a crater in the ground where that cursed town sits is because tending to your injuries was more urgent."

He drew his cloak around himself, towering over her in his blackness.

"Do you still believe I am not the devil? That I am unworthy of the title?" he challenged her.

She rubbed her temples, troubled.

"It was my fleeing in the first place that brought this all about," she admitted miserably.

"You would shoulder such a burden? Or feel any semblance of remorse over those miserable people's demise? Perhaps the blow to your head was more damaging than I surmised."

"Perhaps in striving to help me understand you, you have neglected your efforts in trying to understand me: I have told you, time and again: I cannot remain indifferent to suffering. I will never condone it, never, as long as I live, Vlad!" she cried.

"Not even your own suffering? Those cowards earned their sentences the moment they believed they could best me!" he raged. "You would have denied justice its course?"

"For me to look at anyone and wish death upon them…" her voice trailed off. "To decide they do not deserve to walk this earth. To deny them the right to live and experience life in all its plenitude— I do not see myself as any better and, if anything, I remain more committed than ever to share what I know, to help those who need aid. My foes aren't people, Vlad, but the intrinsic beliefs, superstitions, and ignorance that menace our world, our very existence. I am convinced such thinking, such beliefs are what prompt people to behave so cruelly toward each other. Such a mindset…It is something that can only be dispelled with patience, with time…with knowledge… and kindness. And it may not always be welcome or understood…but at the end of it all, I do not believe that my efforts are wasted."

"You are wrong."

"Perhaps I am…But I prefer to inhabit the world I believe in than the one you believe in."

Her words struck him.

"In time you will see all your care and concern wasted, turned against you," he warned bitterly.

"You speak as if I sought a reward. I seek none except to live my life as truthfully as I can and to alleviate suffering. And now I must somehow contend with all that I helped set into motion, the consequences of my disastrous acts…And they are not few. I cannot change what happened, undo what has been done. You were wrong to lash out so violently." She shook her head sadly and he closed his eyes when she turned away from him.

He recalled his prescient words to her not too long ago, when she had asserted, with so much conviction, that he would never hurt her.

He had agreed, but uttered, "But I will."

Now she would leave his side, any good he had ever offered her, abandoning him for the endless ages with his hatred, his only constant companion, as she went forth into that world, vulnerable and fragile as were all mortal beings, with that numinous light she possessed that would undoubtedly be misunderstood, regarded with suspicion, arousing fear and envy…

"…But I do not believe you to be the devil, Vlad," she continued, turning around and approaching him after a moment, a tinge of emotion in her voice. "You have a deep awareness of what the boundaries of good and evil are, even as you willingly cross them. I do not know that an agent of true evil would care to make such a clear distinction, to be so meticulous in choosing its targets. If anything, you have demonstrated a fierce, if not overzealous, sense of justice."

He lowered his eyes.

"You are woefully mistaken," he announced.

"Then it is fortuitous, for you, that I am...That I disagree with your perception."

She sought his hand, clasping it tightly. He allowed it, unable to foist her hand off his, craving her closeness. Their fingers entwined tightly. "Your deeds may have been monstrous…but you, Vlad: you are not. Your wrath, all this death—it does not need to be so. This is not a path you need to trail any further."


She remembered Mircea urging her to heed the prophecy, depositing so much faith into the ancient words, trusting that they possessed the secret to help them chart the course to right the world.

The Lady of the Crossroads, the one who can seal away the Dragon's wrath and all the danger he represents to our world…

Mircea had led her to believe that fulfilling that prophecy would require a confrontation…and ultimately, Țepeș' demise.

But right then she believed she understood that prophecy in a way that had eluded Mircea…but perhaps not the oldest Sypha.

You alone can heal, the old woman had insisted on that fateful night. Heal herself of that stubborn blindness of all that she refused to see and believe in…But there was more.

I am the seal: as such, I must hold and contain, protect and preserve.

I have this, now—this life I must live fully and give meaning to.

One lifetime to help heal him: to change how Țepeș saw humanity. And that would be how she would stay his hand, quell his wrath. That was the path she would choose to travel, wherever it led.

No more bloodshed, no more violence or hatred.

In that way, she would fulfill the prophecy.


They stood in silence, in reverence for the feelings their touch had summoned. His thumb caressed the back of her hand.

"Lisa," his voice was almost a whisper. "I have roamed this earth over several lifetimes. I am immortal, but never has that weighed on me as a penance as much as it has now."

She sought his eyes, their sheen otherworldly in the dark room.

"Why? What do you mean?"

"The thought of my ongoing existence is unbearable if you are not by my side," he confessed.

She released his hand only to touch his cheek, caressing it tenderly with the back of her fingers. He closed his eyes, mystified by the intensity of his emotions.

"Stay with me, Lisa of Lupu," he asked in a hushed voice, savoring her delicate touch.

Yes: one lifetime, she thought, moved by the admission contained in his words.

I would like to share it with him. A gift to each other.

"I am with you already, Vlad Țepeș Dracula—you are always in my thoughts," she murmured. "And in my heart."

At her words, he would no longer hold back; he stepped forward and cupped her face with both hands, tilting it upward, seeking her lips, hungrily, urgently.


The large hands pulled off the blanket she had wrapped about herself like a shawl. It dropped to the floor where his heavy black cloak had fallen moments before with a muffled thud. She stood in a daze before him as he impatiently wrested off his sash, his tunic, and sat down on the edge of the bed to remove his boots. He began to unlace his trousers and she let her eyes rove over the pale broad shoulders, the muscular arms, the chiseled chest. She ventured a small caress, running her fingers down the cool, taut chest. His head snapped up at her touch, his lips parting, his eyes peering at her, hooded. He tugged her closer, kissing her again, finding that rather than satisfy that longing, with each flicker of his tongue, those tender kisses only grew bolder: from a sweet profession of affection to an expression of desire.

Their lips clicked softly, their breaths mingling tantalizingly. He spread his legs wider so she could stand between his thighs, against him. He held her tightly, burying his face in the soft chemise, inhaling her warmth as she wrapped her arms around his shoulders. He reached lower, for the hem of the garment, raising the skirt up slowly, his hand trailing up languorously while he kissed her breasts over the gauzy fabric, feeling her quiver in his arms when his mouth grazed her nipples, how her knees buckled slightly and she leaned into him when his fingers brushed past her thighs. She helped him yank off the chemise over her head. He took a moment to lean back and admire her before grasping her by the waist abruptly. When he tried to pull her down to the bed with him, she winced slightly. His brow furrowed in confusion before his gaze grew serious once more.

He placed his hand carefully beneath her breast and traced the outline of the large fading bruise over her ribs. He cast her a contrite glance.

"I am sorry," his voice was low.

She ran her fingers through his hair reassuringly.

"Here—"

He lowered his head and reverently placed a kiss on the mottled skin over the injury.

At the seductive touch of his lips on her bare skin, she shivered.

He leaned back into the bed and as she attempted to lie beside him, he deftly maneuvered her so she was lying on him.

"What is this?" she protested amusedly as he clasped her close. "You would have me repent for three years?"

He grinned and kissed her instead of replying—a deep, provocative kiss that she broke away from with a sharp breath as his hand began to tug off her modest undergarment. He adjusted himself beneath her, his hips pushing lightly into hers as he finished undoing his trousers. She could feel his length, strong and virile, against the heat of her own throbbing sex. Her legs parted slightly, searching for more.


She straddled him, hands splayed over his chest, their bodies moving in unison, in a slow, hypnotic rhythm. He steadied her, a hand spanning over her thigh, the other slowly stroking her between her legs, so soft and silken against his fingertips even as he felt himself enter her in that tantalizing caress that only grew more intense with each steady thrust. Her eyes fluttered shut and his own lust heightened in response to her. But when he nuzzled her ear and his lips suckled her neck, she tensed instinctively.

He immediately released her and they held still for a moment, both their chests heaving.

When she saw the unchecked devotion in that dark gaze, she relented.

You will never hurt me. What matters is not who you were, but who you are. Now.

She embraced him tighter as they lost themselves again in those fervent kisses, the rocking of their hips against each other. When his tongue lightly flicked at the base of her neck in a languorous kiss, she tilted her head back, unafraid.


He sucked her skin, the old, savage thirst dogging him initially, but easily thwarted by a far more profound need.

Her trust and faith are a reclamation, he thought, mesmerized, desiring to be worthy of them, of her, to claim her love, overcome by the magnitude of his feelings, his impending unraveling spurred by her own.

Lisa's back arched as she was seized by the intensity of her release, her body pulsing, a burst of pleasure surging and coursing through her. He drew in a sharp breath, seduced by her flushed, parted lips, the faint, breathy keening, just before he closed his eyes, holding down her hips firmly and bucking into her harder until the first blissful, ecstatic shudder overcame him.


"Do you not sleep?" She lay nestled in his arms, her head resting on his shoulder.

"It is not quite sleep…By any means." He brushed willowy strands of golden hair off her face.

"How much longer do we have?" she whispered.

"The night will not last much longer," he lamented, slowly stroking her back.

"Where will you go?" She raised her head to search his eyes.

He looked at the face he loved so completely, that had eluded all the misgivings, precautions, and distance he had sought to impose between them.

"I will show you," he assured her. "But not tonight."

"Is it somewhere I can go with you to?" It touched him that she was missing him before he had even left.

"No," he stated, heavy-hearted at the thought of having to leave her side and that sweet intimacy they had finally secured, to venture into those foreboding depths beneath the castle. "It is no place for you."

I accept that darkness is mine, and mine alone, to bear.

Chapter Text

"We were two and had but one heart between us."

— François Villon


How strange that we are here, where we have engaged in so many conversations, in this space that has been both a meeting place and a familiar refuge to both of us, Lisa thought. And now, everything feels markedly different.

They had agreed she should resume her studies. It had been a small gesture, an attempt at reestablishing a semblance of a routine since that first night she and Țepeș had spent together. For several nights since, Lisa had to admit, they had not ventured much farther than the bed.

Țepeș was examining the bookshelves on the upper floor of his library and as she contemplated his handsome profile, her resolve began to weaken. The fact he was so engrossed in his task only made her desire for him stronger.

She had never considered sex immoral and found the way the Church encroached on and attempted to regulate such an intimate act under the pretense of salvation absurd and perverse. Still, she had thought of the act as nothing more than an expression of affection. Țepeș had shown her it was much more—between them, it took a deeper meaning. He was a patient, generous lover, deriving his own pleasure in part from the many ways he found to unravel and seduce her. He demanded she surrender without shame, not to hold back, encouraging her to caress and touch him, rewarding her with a dizzying, satisfying pleasure she had never known possible. It had been almost disconcerting at first, to be the focus of so much sensuous attention, to reveal herself so completely, to allow him to savor her so intimately, his fingers, lips, tongue, coaxing her to complete ecstasy. As the nights passed, he did away with her self-consciousness, his attentiveness toward her shifting in tone as he read her with uncanny precision. During those weeks, when he'd return to her at the first sign of dusk, she found herself feverish, eager for him, for his touch.

"What is the book's title?" she finally called up to him, in an attempt to shake off the tantalizing memories of his breath trailling down her skin, the lusty rasp in his voice when he'd roughly demand she kiss him. "Perhaps it is among the books down here?"

Far from settling the turmoil inside her, their attempt at engaging in a simple and regular routine was failing.

How did we go about such mundane matters so naturally? She shook her head, slightly mystified. What is this restlessness? she puzzled. She recalled in amusement all the philosophical teachings that prized grace and reticence in romance. They did not translate well to reality. Everthing between them— the simplest gestures, glances, exchanges— had become charged and acquired unspoken meaning.

"De Arte Phisicali Et de Cirurgia," he muttered, browsing the shelves. "I remember seeing it up here recently."

Behind her, loud clattering reminded her they were not alone: Domnica was going about her tasks diligently, stacking a bowl, plate, spoon, and cup she had brought down for Lisa's dinner on a tray.

"Please leave it, Domnica." Lisa placed a hand on the young woman's arm. "I feel well enough to take it up myself now."

Domnica hesitated, but the timid smile that had emerged at Lisa's offer faded abruptly when she glanced up at the balustrade and found Țepeș looming over them, gripping the wooden railing with his pale, long-taloned hands. He scowled and the girl promptly leaped into frenzied activity.

"It is no bother, my lady! Think nothing of it!" she replied, quickly hoisting up the tray and exiting the room in a hurry.


"You know, I really am well now…" she argued once Domnica left, turning to address the imperious figure above.

"Let her perform her duties. If you don't, you will only cause her anxiety. She is here for one purpose and if she cannot fulfill it, she will worry about her fate."

Lisa stared over her shoulder at the door. There was truth to what he was saying, she understood, but she also knew that Domnica would never express her needs and feelings openly.

It is not fair. She will have to answer to so many masters throughout her life: her father, perhaps someday a husband, always the Church, lords…There is no chance for her to separate her own will from her imposed obligations.

She braced herself to argue the topic further, but when she turned, she became alarmed to find Țepeș standing right before her, offering her a dusty book.

"Here: John Arderne," he announced. "I think you will appreciate his insights on surgery and anesthetics far more than de Chauliac's."

She took the book and braced it against her bosom uneasily. His brow arched inquisitively at her reaction.

"What is…? Did I startle you?" he wondered.

She flashed him a skittish grin.

"I'll admit you surprised me."

"I will be more cautious, then," he stated softly, approaching her.

"I am sure that over time I will grow used to these…abilities…of yours."

He gripped the book, wresting it slowly from her arms and laid it on the counter before slipping his arm around her waist, drawing her against him.

"It is my hope that over time you will be completely at ease with me—in every way."

He leaned down to kiss her, his tongue briefly flicking over hers, eliciting a faint whimper that betrayed all her futile efforts at maintaining composure. He paused, evidently delighted by her heady reaction. Without a further word, he hoisted her up with ease, seating her on the apothecary's counter. In his eyes was that undisguised craving she had learned to recognize as a declaration of devious intent. This was confirmed when his hands began to draw up her skirt, baring her thighs even as his eyes remained languidly fixed on hers, gauging her response to his boldness. He sought another kiss, this one slow and deep as he suggestively parted her knees. His thumb raked over her mouth and he drew his hips flush against hers. Her breath hitched quietly upon feeling him, how aroused he was, the cloth of his trousers straining against the flimsy barrier of her linen underclothes. She squirmed, spreading her legs wider, moving herself closer to the edge of the counter, seeking to feel him better against her, unable to disguise what she wanted right then. She knew it would only fuel his determination to seduce her right there, on that counter where they had spent so much time exchanging thoughts and knowledge before. His fingers tugged and undid the delicate ribbons fastening her underclothes until he was able to glide his hand between the cloth and her warm skin. Lisa sighed at his touch once he began caressing the soft curls, eventually letting his fingers lightly graze her tender nub. Her entire body was pulsating, melting where he touched her. It was too much, she thought, unable to resist, taking consolation in the fact that later on she would be able to remind him, at the close of another night ending too soon, that he had been the one to break their bedroom truce, thwarting their well-intentioned efforts to return to a routine. She placed her hand over his, guiding him in eager encouragement. He uttered a low growl, satisfied with her forwardness, catching her breathy moan hungrily with his lips, both of them lost in each other.

Just then, the laboratory's door handle turned and the lock clicked noisily. Domnica peered into the room cautiously.

Țepeș protectively pulled Lisa against him, drawing his cloak around them while casting a withering glare at the young woman.

"Pardon me, my lord, my lady," she began timidly, her round cheeks soon turning a bright shade of red upon realizing her presence was very much an unwelcome interruption. "I think I left the water pitcher behind when I took the tray earlier," she explained in a wisp of a voice.

"It's all right." Lisa tried to sound reassuring.

She wandered about the entrance of the room in a slight dither before bumbling toward the door again.

"Domnica," Țepeș growled.

She froze at the doorway.

"Your prized pitcher." He indicated it as she was about to leave it behind for the second time. "You may—no: must— retire for the rest of the night."

She tittered nervously before seizing the pitcher and dashing out the door.


Lisa buried her face in Țepeș' chest, chuckling. He peered down at her.

"I fail to see what is so amusing." But in his tone only a passing hint of the annoyance he'd evinced so menacingly seconds before remained. He stroked her hair, his lips grazing the top of her head.

"I don't know who was more flustered—Domnica or you—"

"Servants ought to knock—"

"She ought to nothing, Vlad." Lisa shook her head bemusedly. "She has been cast in an unfamiliar role: reap your reward! She's trying to fulfill her duties the best she can. Just let her go. Please," she asked earnestly. "If only not to be caught again in a compromising position with your apprentice," she teased.

He took a step back and swept her bunched up skirt back down. Clasping his hands behind his back, he paced toward the glowing fireplace.

"You must realize by now that you are more than my apprentice," he insinuated. "Much more." He cast her a warm glance.

At his words, a flutter in her chest.

He paused before the fire.

"I think you will enjoy Aderne," he finally uttered, recomposing himself. "His understanding of human anatomy is far more enlightened than de Chauliac's, who tends to ramble on with ignorant laudings of venesections. At the end, the only surgeries he performed were autopsies on dead popes," he scoffed.

"What I do know of him is that he spoke up in defense of the Jews in Avignon when everyone wished to blame the Plague on them," she retorted, discreetly adjusting her underclothes and hopping off the counter. She stood before the book and began to leaf through its colorful pages.

"Yes. You would take note of a noble act, but of what value is such valor to an agonizing man in need of surgery?" Țepeș gaze grew lost in the flames.

"He did the best he could with the best he had."

"A fitting epitaph for failure," Țepeș countered.

"Not all healers have your knowledge or skills." She paused over one of the many colorful illustrations in the book, distracted by a sudden thought. "Your skills…Tell me: are they unique? Do others like you share the same abilities, too?"

She noticed he had stiffened, his back still turned to her.

"What do you even…call yourselves?" she wondered, shutting the book's cover.

"Many different names, throughout the world, over thousands of years," he uttered, staring into the fire. "We've been known since the dawn of mankind. Ekimmu, Uruku among the Akkadians, Ubyrs to the Tatar warriors…" he mused distractedly. "The Israelites included a veiled warning against us in their Vayikra."

"And here, in Wallachia?" She wandered to his side.

"The names matter little. They change, depending on where one lives or to whom one's lords have pledged fealty to…" he concluded, recalling all the titles and insults he'd amassed over the ages.

"And you? What would you be referred to as?"

He peered down at her, finding that spirited, inquisitive gaze upon him, flashes of the night they'd first met, when she had processed down the main hall of his castle, dagger unsheathed, her expression rendered fierce with determination, crossing his long memory.

"'Dracula'," he asserted. "I am not to be confused with those who misuse the power given them, who are consumed by its myriad demands.

"But who are they? Where are all these others?"

"We are reclusive by nature," he replied evasively. "Yet, we have always existed alongside humans. The ancient ones among us are fewer as time passes," he remarked. The fire crackled and a rash of fading sparks billowed upward. "This existence is not something borne lightly, Lisa. Its demands are an inescapable burden. In the impulse to consume, there is the threat of being consumed instead by one's own unchecked hunger. There are too many vulgar creatures roaming through the world, attacking without discernment. They do not understand the difference between immortality and invincibility. Those beings succumb early enough, crushed beneath the weight of our…condition."

"And the ancient ones?"

"Blood has always been our bounty, our claim. Some prefer a proper sacrifice—a tribute paid in exchange for protection or to prevent impending disaster. Some take their fill through violence and force, others by guile and seduction, and a few fulfill their needs through protracted occult ritual. We have been mistaken for gods, holy and profane, because of the hunger that sustains our immortality and how willing—or unwilling— our prey are to surrender. It is not a mistake in perception many of my brethren seek to correct."

He had told her during some of their early conversations that he needed to feed little to maintain his strength and that the blood of practically any living animal sufficed. Still, at his mention of 'prey', a chill ran up her spine.

"Prey?… I never thought of myself that way."

His brow furrowed at the perceived slight in her tone.

"I do not think of you as prey, Lisa. But… it doesn't change that prey is exactly what you humans are to us. We are, by necessity, by our very nature, hunters."

She finally nodded.

"Still, it seems unfair. You are so much more powerful than we could ever be." She raised her eyes to him. "What chance do we humans have against your kind?"

"None," he agreed curtly.

"And yet," she began, "we, although held in such little regard, considered mere prey…Hasn't your kind made us the very crux of your existence? It is no different than the gods of old searching their altars for offerings. For all your power, you cannot exist without us. It seems our trajectories are intertwined."

Even though they had grown closer, she was not sure how much she could pry, how much she could push. He had always sought to set clear limits when it came to certain inquiries, to the extent of her curiosity.

"You are not wrong, but the dynamic is more complex than that. The forces we channel, the abilities we master and train our bodies to endure define us. Perhaps humans contributed to how we have evolved, but our purpose is not merely to hunt…but to survive. And we must be capable of stopping those who would destroy us—both human and otherwise—for existing. "

Lisa remembered Mircea's words, his plea that she return accompanied by Lord Belmont: someone "who had experience" with such "creatures".

"I wonder: Vlad, have you ever heard of a Lord Belmont?" she asked.

He turned to her and she startled once more at the expression she could not read precisely. It was akin to revulsion and anger.

"Where did you ever learn that name?" he demanded.

She was assailed by a stab of uncertainty, an uneasy suspicion that she had made a mistake by telling him what she had heard.

"The Speakers mentioned—"

He hissed, looking away.

"What did you say to the Speakers? What did you tell them about me that would evoke the mention of such a cursed name?"

"Their Elder wanted me to return to you in the company of this Lord Belmont—" she began.

His eyes at that moment grew piercing and cruel.

"And what did you say? Did you invite my enemies to my doorstep?" he rasped in restrained fury, his eyes awash in red. "Have you abused my trust? My love?"


Such words stung her painfully not only from his unnecessary display of anger but from the hurt concealed in his tone. How could he leap to the assumption that she had been deceitful when he hadn't even let her explain what had transpired? Her own gaze hardened.

They stood before each other in a strange impasse.

"Of course not! As if I even had to state I haven't! You may be the most knowledgeable man to walk this earth, but how poorly you judge and perceive what is right before your eyes," she stated passionately, taking a step away from him.

Her words and outrage appeared to have a sobering effect.

"You truly believe me to be so insincere? That everything that has transpired between us…" her voice faded, unable to find the words to convey her disappointment. She dropped her hands and stared at the stern, serious face. "I have only ever asked one thing of you, Vlad: that we be able to speak sincerely, reasonably, about our misunderstandings. That involves trust." Lisa let her eyes wander around the beautiful laboratory, planetary spheres dangling over them, locked in their heavenly trajectories. "If we cannot do that, if there is no trust, this between us cannot be."

He had contemplated her haughtily as she'd spoken.

"Understand this: you may see trust as a desirable virtue, but in my circumstances it is a vulnerability to be exploited." He remembered those men, those base conjurers, scheming to subdue and shackle him to their wills, believing they could lure him to their summoning circle through Lisa.

"I trust you, Vlad. Completely." It was an admission as much as a challenge.

He smirked.

"I have never given you any reason to do otherwise,"

"Look at it from my perspective, though: here you are, far more powerful than I—in almost every way. You are a lord, a prince, I am the daughter of peasants. You are a man, I am a woman. You are an immortal being…And to your kind, by your own admission, I am merely…prey," she concluded. "Furthermore, I am well aware that should your disposition change toward me, I am completely at your mercy." She crossed her arms.

He took umbrage to her words.

"I should hope you would think more highly of me."

"I am still here, aren't I? Never doubting your better nature. It is my hope that you extend me the same courtesy."

He said nothing.

"Tell me this: how does your kind hunt?" she continued.

"Successfully," he answered tersely.

"If I wished to flee and you were in pursuit—"

He huffed with irritation.

"I told you already: I would never—"

"Indulge me: if I tried to depart against your will, and you were predisposed to prevent my escape—how far would I make it before you… stopped me?" she insisted.

He remained silent, his eyes fixed on the door left slightly ajar by Domnica's dithering exit.

"The main hall?" she wondered following his stare, "Perhaps the front gate to the castle? Or even—"

His expression darkened.

"This room," he interrupted. "You would not make it past that door." He nodded toward the entrance.

She blinked, surprised. Raising her eyebrows, she took a daring step toward the door.

"Really? That quickly?" she marveled. "Show me."

"No—" he replied sharply. "I will not indulge this scenario further. It is enough that I tell you that it is so. This is not a contest of wits, Lisa. It has little to do with intellect and everything to do with instinct and abilities. In this aspect we are, indeed, greatly mismatched. You cannot possibly believe you can elude me. Not here, of all places: in my castle, my own domain."

"Then allow me to explain to you my understanding of belief and trust, Vlad: I believe you. And I also trust you. Although I may startle, evince surprise at your actions, in my heart there is no doubt: no matter how different we are, regardless of your past, I know you are a reasonable, brilliant, rational man, who thinks—and feels—deeply. And I know, too, that you would never hurt me. Even though you could—formidably so, in myriad ways."

He blinked slowly, taking in her words, contemplating her argue her thoughts so fervently.

She taunted him with a mischievous expression and turned toward the door. "So: will you show me? You know I am not afraid."

Before she could even take a step forward, the flames in the hearth flickered and the door slammed shut violently as if moved by an abrupt gust of wind.

A predator, she thought, freezing in place. A deadly one. When she turned around again, ready to concede her defeat, he was nowhere to be found.

"Vlad?" she called out, her eyes scanning the room. She raised her gaze to the balustrade above and found it vacant.

She called to him once more, this time her tone more pleading. She heard a soft rustling of cloth behind her before a large arm braced itself across her waist, pulling her back forcefully. She cried out as she was drawn against him. But rather than recoil or attempt to escape his grasp, she leaned against him, resting her head on his chest, sliding her hands over his arm, securing it in place.

"Do you understand now?" she whispered. He wrapped both arms around her tightly. "I am fully aware of how much power you command, how much destruction you are capable of…But I believe in your love. I trust you completely—with my life, even."

"Very well. Point taken," he offered appeasingly.

She spun around and encircled him with her arms. He released her suddenly, though, and made his way further into the room, absorbed in some impenetrable thought.

"Vlad?"

He ignored her as he rummaged through the laboratory, but it seemed to her that it was done out of distraction rather than any disdain. When he finally returned, he held what looked like a long, slender wooden post in his hand—it ended in a sharply carved point.

"I trust you as well, Lisa." He presented himself before her solemnly. "And you are not as defenseless as you imagine."

Her brow furrowed as he placed the smooth stake in her hand.

"May you never find yourself in need of using such an implement." She puzzled. "But if you do, remember this: our strength ebbs at dawn and when we slumber, we are powerless," he revealed.

Lisa's eyes widened. He wrapped his hand around hers, ensuring that the stake was ensconced in her fist like a dagger's hilt. Wordlessly, he raised it up to his chest. Lisa gasped, but he held her hand in place, the tip of the stake resting over his heart. "Here," he instructed her, slowly. "Strike at the heart," he whispered. "At the right moment, drive it through the flesh—it'll be enough." He mimicked the motion, drawing her fist away and then back again with a forward thrust, the tip lightly piercing his tunic.

An unpleasant lightheadedness overcame her and she stood in that state for several moments, mystified. A prickling, uncomfortable tingle rose through her body as if she were freezing, crystalizing from within.

Răscruce.

Were she superstitious, she would had interpreted the moment as a sign, the fulfillment of fate. The Speakers' Elder would have seized the moment as a unique opportunity: humanity's one perfect chance to rid the earth of the scourge that was the Dragon, to end his reign, to avenge the dead. She could practically hear Mircea pleading with her.

Now, Lisa.

You can choose to end it.

Without realizing it, she had begun to breathe rapidly, her hand shaking. When she raised her eyes, Țepeș met her gaze serenely. He held her hand steady, the stake aimed for the deadly strike.

"Do it quickly, forcefully. You will only get one precious chance. Do not waste it." His tone was stoic, matter-of-fact, but in his eyes were the traces of a sadness she could scarcely bear to see.

She winced, trying to wrest her hand away, but he gripped her wrist firmly.

"What are you saying?"

"I am saying that if you are willing to thrust this stake through my heart, then… You must. I will not fight you," he whispered.

She stared at him wild-eyed.

"If you ever undertake it to destroy me, I might as well be dead: I am unwilling to live in a world without your love," he murmured softly.

She finally yanked her hand away, the stake falling to the ground with a loud clatter before she threw her arms around him, holding him tightly to her. The realization that he was not invincible was as terrifying as her understanding of how deeply, how completely she loved him.


Lisa had tried valiantly to remain awake, but Țepeș could see the strain of those late nights on her.

"But there is still time," she had protested sleepily, drawing closer to him, unwilling to let him leave their bed just yet.

"Rest," he reassured her. "I will stay with you until dawn."

"I am sorry," she lamented."It feels wasteful to sleep when you are here."

"No: I am the one who regrets you must turn your nights into day for my sake. It is unnatural." She raised her head from his shoulder, keenly attuned to the shift in his tone. "Because of me, you exist in this…half-life, living between worlds."

When he met her eyes, he couldn't help grinning. She stared at him with an expression that despite its disapproval struck him as disarmingly sweet.

"Need I remind you that it is a life I have freely chosen?" she scolded him.

"But for how long will you be satisfied with it?" He stroked her back as she curled into him. "Everything changes."

She considered his words and the anxiety they contained.

"Yes. I know that." She understood they would not be able to remain that way, as if suspended in time, existing solely for each other indefinitely. "But we can mediate those changes as they surface," she suggested.

He knew she was being sincere, but he also knew what she couldn't fathom: that their time together, while a lifetime for her, would be a brief reprieve— a spark of light and warmth that would haunt him throughout the abyss of his immortality.

"I know we cannot remain this way forever," she agreed, carefully choosing her words, feeling his shrewd gaze upon her. She nuzzled his cheek tenderly. "But not all changes need to be bad. For example, first I was your apprentice and you were my master—and now we are—"

This is real, it has meaning, and the world—above and below— needs to know, he thought, anguished.

He shifted, sitting up, taking her hands in his.

"Lisa, will you be my wife?" he asked.

She had intended nothing more than to suggest they had become lovers. She stared down at their hands, his large and smooth, as elegant as they were powerful.

"I don't know if that would change anything between us." When she raised her eyes once more, she found him watching her expectantly. "I am happy, Vlad. A formal marriage would serve no purpose: a marriage to me would offer you no advantage. There is no need to formalize anything."

"It may be safer for you if it is known that you have a husband who offers you protection."

"It might be more dangerous for me if it is known who that husband is," she retorted, amused. "Besides, would either one of us acquiesce to standing on an altar to profess vows before a priest?" She cast him a doubtful look.

"I am the law in my domain—all that is required is your consent."

"What we have is enough," she insisted. "I don't see the advantage—"

He could sense her apprehension, her wariness. It was only natural that she would balk. What he saw as a reassuring bond, she saw as a crippling restriction.

"If we were to be wed, what would your terms be?"

Her eyes widened in surprise.

"Well, I already told you that I would like us to always be able to speak to each other earnestly. For there to be trust."

He nodded seriously.

"…And I…I wish to practice my profession."

"Are you afraid I would prevent you from exercising medicine? That I would restrict your freedom?"

She said nothing and he understood he was right.

"What else?" he encouraged her.

"I wish to live among people," she revealed.

His expression darkened and he released her hands.

"But you are safer here."

She grinned sadly.

"I don't even know where 'here' is. You have lived in isolation in these walls for so long—"

"It is a choice I made long ago."

"I understand. But it is not my choice. And you are the one insisting that I name my terms. I am merely being honest."

He remained serious, but she recognized his sorrow.

"You wish to leave me," he concluded. It was stated calmly. This time, she took his hands into hers.

"No. That is not the reason. I do not wish to leave you: I love you."

The cold hands pressed hers firmly.

"And I love you," he began, in a urgent tone. "I want to make you my wife. What do you wish from me?"

Lisa took a deep breath.

"If you would love me as a man, then you must live as a man."

She caught the flash of unease in his eyes.

"You have buried yourself here for too long, Vlad. Come with me, see the world: that is my wish. Those are my terms."

He contemplated the room, thinking of his castle, his fortress and haven for all those years. She would forsake the opulence, the comfort, and safety for a life of uncertainty, risk, and perhaps hardship.

A fortress and a haven, yes...But also a prison, a mausoleum. How is this a semblance of life, in this time-defying stupor?

To take on the pilgrim's staff, to tread the roads in search of wisdom was something he had not done in a long time…Perhaps she was right.

You might like it, Lisa had said to him.

How has the world changed since I stopped watching, since I stopped caring? The question niggled at him and filled him with a nascent restlessness and wanderlust.

"I agree to your terms," he declared, after a long silence, "Will you accept my proposal and become my wife?"

He would never forget her smile, the glow in her eyes, the fervor in her embrace as her arms wrapped around his neck.

"Yes," she replied, joyfully. "Yes!"


"A witness?" Domnica repeated at Lisa's invitation. "But it does not seem right, my lady. A proper wedding requires Nași."

"It is merely a formality, Domnica. You only need to witness us sign the register."

"No party? No banquet?" she asked, somewhat deflated. "No lăutari? No taraf to sing pretty wedding songs?"

"I'm sorry—it won't be that kind of celebration."

Domnica sighed loudly for effect.

"Well…They do things differently in Wallachia, don't they?" She tried hard to conceal the look of pity for her lady. No feast, no guests, no candles, no crowns and especially no dancing—there was no salvaging that wedding, in her opinion.

"I think there is one thing about the wedding you might like, though, " Lisa confided. "You will go home to your mother and father afterward, Domnica: your obligation to your lord has been fulfilled, and fulfilled well," she revealed, smiling affectionately.

Domnica nearly knocked Lisa's breath away with the barreling hug she gave her.


Țepeș leaned over the lectern in the laboratory and dipped the long quill in the inkhorn before raising the nib to the vellum page. Lisa turned the new golden band around her finger as she watched her bridegroom examine the page with customary scrutiny, his face serious, yet serene. He was dressed regally, a true voivode in a finely brocaded tunic in tones of black, silver, and crimson beneath the long cloak. As he held the book in place, etching his name, Lisa caught a glimpse of the ring around his finger. She blinked slowly, mesmerized by what was transpiring. The silence of the laboratory was as reverent as that found in any church, she thought; the only sounds came from the nib scratching the surface of the vellum and the firewood crackling in the hearth. A surreptitious glance at Domnica, who stood to the side and behind Țepeș, revealed the young woman clasping her hands modestly, although her eyes shone brightly as she risked a furtive grin at Lisa. Lisa returned the grin before Țepeș lifted the quill from the page and gallantly stepped aside, extending his hand with courtly formality to lead her toward the lectern.

The page before her was a long tangle of lines drawn in black ink. She became momentarily lost in a sea of names dangling from ever-cascading rows that forked and sprawled over the page. Țepeș indicated a line with a space beneath it among the long procession of names under the red sigil of a dragon, his nail raking lightly over it. For a moment, the cadence of old tales came to her memory: an agreement between man and the devil, one of the oldest stories told. As the quill traced the shape of her name, she thought of the sealing of pacts, her signature a binding, irreversible gesture. Such thoughts all dissipated, however, once she peered up and met that loving gaze that chased away all her unease.

I vow to love you for the rest of my life, she had professed earlier, as she slipped the ring over his finger.

I vow to love you forever, he promised, when he placed the ring on her finger.

On that page of the registry book, her name inked beside his, bound by a tight line, they were now each the halves that completed the new entry.

Husband and wife.

He peered down at the signatures with her.

"It is done," he stated, the timbre of his voice warm.

Domnica clapped her hands, delighted.

"Proud bride with flowers," she began singing merrily, if not off-key, "Take your mind off all others…"

Lisa let out a quiet laugh, recognizing the old folk song as Țepeș' eyes grew steely at the sound of Domnica's voice.

"Keep your mind on your husband," Lisa joined in softly with the young woman, holding his gaze mirthfully. "To him you are married now." She took his hand, squeezing it tightly and smiling.

He brought her hand up to his lips, kissing it devotedly.

My beloved, beautiful and radiant: now it has been recorded for time immemorial that such is this love between us: you are my wife, and I, your husband, he thought, struck by the power of such a simple rite; the only one, he comprehended with devastating certainty, in either world—mortal and immortal—that possessed the power to disperse his loneliness and heal his heart.