"That ring bears the Corvinus family coat of arms. The last time I saw one like it was on the hand of Mihaly Szilagyi."
"The man the sketch resembled," I said slowly. "You told me you burned him to death, but the coincidences are piling up."
"Yes, they are." His voice was tight. Then his gaze raked over me. "Dress warmly. We're going out."
After more than an hour of flying, I thought I'd figured out the trick to it. Don't look down: The icy wind was hell on my eyes. Keep both arms around Vlad: Not because he'd drop me, but because the warmth emanating from his body kept my hands from feeling like ice packs. Keep my legs around him for same reason. Pretend it was a roller-coaster ride: That helped with the fear when he made an unexpected roll or descent.
I figured out the most important tip when he finally set us on the ground: Don't try to walk right away. My frazzled equilibrium made my legs feel like they were different lengths and I misjudged my steps. Had Vlad not righted me, I would've fallen face-first into the snow.
"Why didn't we take the limo again?" I muttered.
He looped my scarf back around my neck. At some point during our flight, it had ended up halfway down my coat. "Because if someone's watching the house, we don't want them to follow us and see where we're going."
I finally looked around and my breath caught. Strategically placed lights illuminated the remains of an ancient castle, church, courtyard, and tower. Some of the structures looked fully restored, like the brick-based pale tower, but others had crumbled. Railed walkways and signs showed that these ruins were a tourist haunt, but the modern insertions looked out of place amidst the aged brick and stone. I could almost feel the ancient remains throb with the essence of thousands of memories, but I didn't reach out. I stayed still, drinking in the beauty around me, the wind and noises from the nearby highway the only sounds aside from my fog-flumed breaths.
"The Royal Court of Targoviste." Something lurked in Vlad's tone that I couldn't put a name to. "I never thought to return here, but this is where I buried Szilagyi's remains."
I stared at Vlad, thinking how right he looked in these surroundings. His lean, rough handsomeness, wind-whipped dark hair, and determined expression held as much barbaric splendor as the former medieval palace. In many ways, Vlad reminded me of these ruins; an untamed slice of the past amidst the veneer of modern civilization.
"This was where you lived when you were prince?"
He gave me a brief, jaded smile. "Not for long. My time as voivode was spent trying to keep Wallachia from falling prey to her enemies. It left little room for relaxing at court."
Then he started walking toward the tower, hopping over a half-crumbled wall and holding out his hand to me.
I gave him a look as I ignored his hand and leapt over the wall with the same ease as him. "Former gymnast, remember?"
Another sardonic smile. "I do, but not because you told me. You never speak of your time before the accident."
Walked right into that one, I thought as I picked my way through the dilapidated courtyard. Earlier, he'd offered to answer any question I asked him. Too late, I realized that offer came with hooks. But if I was willing to do the asking, I couldn't chicken out on answering when it was my turn.
"As a child, I was very good at gymnastics." He'd already filched this from my mind, but it seemed he wanted to hear it the regular way. "So good that when I was thirteen, I won the chance to compete for a spot on the Olympic team. Problem was, at the same time, my dad got a change of duty station to Germany. He could go unaccompanied for one year, or take all of us with him for three years. If we went, I'd lose my coach, my training facility . . . basically my best shot at the team."
We were at the perimeter of the tower now. Signs around it advertised in Romanian and English that inside was the "real" story of Vlad Dracul, complete with a picture that looked nothing like the man standing next to me. Vlad went around to the back of the tower, beckoning me to follow.
I did, tucking my hands into my coat. Even through my gloves, the cold was biting. Vlad knelt at the base of the tower, running his fingers along the faded bricks.
"Szilagyi's sword struck here when he attempted to take my head off," he said, indicating a crack that I hadn't noticed until he tapped it. Then he rose, pivoted, and took six long strides in the opposite direction before kneeling again.
"And here is where I buried him." He began clearing away the snow. I was about to ask why he hadn't brought a shovel when he shoved his hands through the frozen earth with enough force to make the ground shudder.
Yeah, a shovel would be a little redundant.
I watched him dig with a sense of relief that ended when he said, "And then what?" in a tone that dared me not to answer.
My snort blew out a plume of white. "You want to dig up the past metaphorically and literally at the same time?"
His eyes glowed green through the veil of his hair as he glanced up at me. "Call me a multitasker."
It wasn't because he'd offered to tell me anything that I answered him. It was because he hadn't shied away from his darkest sin when confronted with it, so how could keep refusing to talk about mine?
"I begged for him to take the one year unaccompanied, or to let me live with my aunt Brenda so I could still compete in the tryouts. Making the team was all I cared about, and I was so mad that my dad would let his job ruin everything." Bitter sigh at how stupid I'd been. "My mother refused both options, said that nothing was more important than our family sticking together. That's when I told her what I'd found a week before when I rummaged through my dad's foot locker looking for camping gear."
Vlad had dug more than three feet down, piles of earth he tossed aside dark smudges against the snow. As soon as I stopped speaking, he paused, that commanding stare leveled on me.
"For a smart man, he was dumb for leaving a crumpled-up letter from a woman he'd slept with at the bottom of his duffel bag," I continued. "I told my mom about dad cheating-not because I thought she had a right to know, but as revenge on him for ruining my Olympics dream, and on her for refusing to let me stay at my aunt's. That's who I was. A pathologically narcissistic bitch."
Vlad hadn't resumed digging, but he still knelt in the snow, staring up at me with the oddest expression. It took me several seconds to realize what. Sympathy. No wonder I hadn't recognized it. I'd never seen him show that emotion before.
Choked laugh. "This is what you finally feel pity over?"