The Last Magician meets A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue in this thrilling tale filled with magic and set in the mysterious Carpathian Mountains where a girl must hunt down Vlad the Impaler’s cursed ring in order to save her father.
Some legends never die…
Traveling with her treasure-hunting father has always been a dream for Theodora. She’s read every book in his library, has an impressive knowledge of the world’s most sought-after relics, and has all the ambition in the world. What she doesn’t have is her father’s permission. That honor goes to her father’s nineteen-year-old protégé—and once-upon-a-time love of Theodora’s life—Huck Gallagher, while Theodora is left to sit alone in her hotel in Istanbul.
Until Huck arrives from an expedition without her father and enlists Theodora’s help in rescuing him. Armed with her father’s travel journal, the reluctant duo learns that her father had been digging up information on a legendary and magical ring that once belonged to Vlad the Impaler—more widely known as Dracula—and that it just might be the key to finding him.
Journeying into Romania, Theodora and Huck embark on a captivating adventure through Gothic villages and dark castles in the misty Carpathian Mountains to recover the notorious ring. But they aren’t the only ones who are searching for it. A secretive and dangerous occult society with a powerful link to Vlad the Impaler himself is hunting for it, too. And they will go to any lengths—including murder—to possess it.
I STOOD IN STOCKINGED FEET WITH my hands up in the air, like Napoléon surrendering after the Battle of Waterloo. Outside the narrow stockroom—the scene of my current humiliation—the bustle of afternoon shoppers in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar echoed down arched stone corridors perfumed with wisps of fragrant smoke and spices. A crowd was gathering near the jewelry stall. One would think they’d never seen an American girl strip-searched by the merchant’s wife.
Better to be remembered than forgotten, I supposed.
If you’d asked me two weeks ago how I imagined I’d be spending my time in Istanbul, being arrested for shoplifting wouldn’t have been at the top of the list. Yet here I was, accused of stealing a gold ring and close to having a stroke at the tender age of seventeen. A crying shame. I had so much to give this world.
The dark-haired woman kneeling in front of me didn’t care about my impending death in a Turkish prison. She was too busy aggressively patting down every inch of my body, from the neck of my striped top to the hem of my black gored skirt, with the gusto of an angry lover. She’d already looked inside my shoes, emptied my handbag, manhandled my prized Leica camera inside my camera case, and turned out the pockets of my coat.
“I think you missed a spot,” I joked when she brusquely lifted my calf to inspect the bottom of my foot while I hopped on one leg.
Unsatisfied, the merchant’s wife sighed and stood up, giving me another critical once-over as she wiped her hands on the long folds of her billowing red dress. Her eyes fell on the silver charm that hung around my neck: a nearly fifteen-hundred-year-old coin stamped on one side with a crowned, haloed woman: Byzantine Empress Theodora. Daughter of a bear trainer. Renegade. Prostitute. Spy. Queen. Heretic. Saint. All-around-fascinating female. The coin came from a hoard my parents discovered near the Black Sea on the day my mother found out she was pregnant with me, hence the namesake . . . maybe one I subconsciously tried to live up to. It’s good to have goals.
“Not on your life!” I said, covering the coin with my hand. “I told you already, my late mother gave me this. You’ll have to kill me to get it. And I mean that quite seriously.”
The merchant’s wife rolled her eyes at me but lost interest in my coin charm. Hopefully now that she’d found nothing in her humiliating pat-down of my entire body, she also understood that I was not the pickpocket she’d thought I was.
“Bulmaca yüzük?” she said for millionth time, which I believed meant “harem ring” or “wedding ring.” It was a Turkish novelty ring made of interconnected bands, and the story behind it was that if the wife took it off to have a tryst, she wouldn’t be able to reassemble the bands and would be caught by her husband. A flawed concept, if you asked me. One, it assumed the wife couldn’t reassemble the puzzle rings, and two, she needn’t even take the ring off to bed a lover in the first place. Why does the entire world think the female species possesses brains made of cotton candy?
Insulting is what it was. Much like this farcical strip search . . .
“Like I told you a hundred times, I’m not a thief,” I said. She muttered something under her breath that I couldn’t interpret and exited the tiny stockroom, slamming the door shut behind her. A loud clicking noise caused my pulse to rocket.
I jiggled the locked handle vigorously and pounded on the door. “Hey! You can’t lock me in here. I’ve never stolen anything in my life. I was only taking a photograph. You do realize what you’re doing to me now is kidnapping, right? Can someone please call my hotel, as I requested? The woman I’m traveling with—my tutor, Madame Leroux—she speaks Turkish. Is anyone listening? Hello . . . ?”
In frustration, I kicked the door and stubbed my big toe, shouting an unladylike expletive, which briefly halted the muffled squabbling on the other side of the door.
Good profanity is never lost in translation.
But, sadly, it wasn’t getting me out of this stockroom. I quickly slipped my black Mary Janes onto my feet and buckled the thin straps, miserably wishing I’d taken the time to learn more Turkish before this trip. If I had, then I wouldn’t have needed stupid Madame Leroux and could have fully understood what was being said outside. Had they summoned the market’s guards? Or were they going straight to the police? I told them the hotel staff would vouch for me. Hopefully? The concierge wasn’t overly fond of me. Neither was my tutor, frankly. The more I thought about it, the more I worried that there was no one in Istanbul who’d stand up for me. . . .
Things hadn’t always been this miserable. My first week in Istanbul was delightful: palm trees, the Hagia Sophia, the blue water of the Golden Horn. Minarets for days. Endless kepaps and strong Turkish coffee. I’d been having such a good time, I’d almost forgiven my father for leaving me behind with a hired tutor—“for your safety,” his standard tired excuse—while he trekked across Turkey hunting treasure. But as often happened on our trips, things rapidly deteriorated. . . .
First of all, Father was supposed to return from Tokat and collect me three days ago; we were to head to Paris together to see a friend of the family. Not only had Father failed to arrive, but he hadn’t telegrammed to say why he was delayed. And while I worried myself to death, waiting to hear from him, I managed to get food poisoning. Then the rains came—apparently there’s a rainy season here. Who knew. And now, when I was only trying to make the best of things, when I dared escape my stick-in-the-mud tutor and the hotel room in which I’d been cooped up for days, I ended up . . . well, in these dire straits.
I glanced around the tiny stockroom. Too tiny. My breaths quickened.
“Steel spine, chin high,” I whispered to myself, a mantra my mother would repeat to fortify and hearten me when I was upset. If she were here—Elena Vaduva, a woman who’d never been afraid of anything—she wouldn’t be panicking. I lifted the ancient coin around my neck that she’d given me and kissed it for good luck. Then I strapped my brown leather camera case across my body and swept my scattered possessions back into my handbag.
As I slipped into my coat, something changed in the chatter outside. I stilled and listened. After a few moments the lock clicked and the stockroom door flew open. My hired tutor blinked at me in the doorway.
“Thank the gods,” I said, sagging in relief. The merchants must have telephoned my hotel after all.
“Foolish girl!” Madame Leroux scolded in French. Elegant hands trembled beneath the cuffs of her traveling coat. Her pin-straight blond hair was in disarray below her hat, as if she’d rushed here after being woken from a nap. “What did you do this time?”
“Nothing! I was only taking a photograph. I swear. The jewelry market is rumored to be haunted just around the corner of this stall, and there are some strange symbols painted on the wall—”
“Miss Theodora Fox,” she said, voice thick with disappointment.
“I just wanted to photograph it, you know, so that I could study the symbols, and the next thing I knew, I was being accused of stealing a golden harem ring, which is ridiculous, of course, because I don’t have a harem.”
She didn’t find this amusing. “And you broke a lamp?”
“Barely a crack, and that was an accident,” I argued. “I was trying to get a good shot of the wall—that’s where people say they’ve seen jinn. Or ghosts. Either way, it’s supposed to be haunted, and I was only trying to photograph it to see if anything interesting would show up on film.”
Madame Leroux squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head.
“Look, I know you don’t believe in magic or anything supernatural, but I do—” I began to say, but she cut me off with the sharp flick of a hand that motioned for silence.
“They found the ring under one of the display cases,” she said coolly.
Relief surged through my limbs. “Really?”
“Apparently, you knocked it to the floor when you were pretending to be a bull in a china shop, so they’ve agreed to let you go if we pay for the broken lamp.”
That was it? After being treated like a common criminal?
No matter. I’d been proven innocent.
“Come,” she commanded. “Before you embarrass yourself any further.”
Feeling a thousand pounds lighter, I rushed to follow my tutor out of the horrible stockroom, through the cramped jewelry stall, and past the crowd of gawkers who’d gathered in the market corridor with uniformed guards. Madame Leroux said something in halting Turkish to the merchant couple and handed them a signed traveler’s check from the booklet that my father had left in her charge. Satisfied, the merchants accepted the payment and made a shooing gesture in my direction.
Glorious, sweet freedom!
I let out a long breath as the guards dispersed the crowd. Nothing to see here. The humiliation of a teenage girl was now complete; thank you for coming. In mere seconds it was as if nothing had ever happened.
“Whew! What a day!” I said to my tutor. She didn’t answer or acknowledge me. She merely marched away from the glinting gold of the jewelry section of the market. I trotted to keep up, and we merged into the fringes of pedestrians strolling under vaulted ceilings. On either side of us, merchants bargained with locals and tourists alike, selling stacks of patterned cloth, rugs, food, spices, and copperware—just about anything you could want. Unless you were a girl with a camera, apparently.
I tried a second time to break Madame Leroux’s icy silence.
“I’m really, truly sorry you had to come down here,” I told her. “I know you’re probably pretty peeved at me right now—”
She stopped suddenly, swinging around to point a finger in my face. “No. I am furious. And tired of making apologies for you. I was hired to accompany a well-bred, studious lady through Europe. You, Miss Fox, are no lady! You’re a she-demon who attracts anarchy and bedlam.”
“Everyone has a talent?” I said sheepishly with a strained smile.
“You ruined a priceless rug in the middle of the hotel lobby—”
“But I had food poisoning!”
“—and you have the entire Pera Palace staff smuggling newspapers into the hotel for that insatiable habit of yours.”
“Crossword puzzles, Madame Leroux. You’re making me sound like a drug fiend. There’s not a daily crossword in the Cumhuriyet.” And if there were, I couldn’t solve it, because the clues would all be in Turkish.
“You caused that poor maid to have a breakdown, reading those devilish books of yours.”
“It was the Egyptian Book of the Dead—an ancient funerary text. I was practicing writing hieroglyphics.” But to be perfectly honest, I’d also been reading a rare translation of Hammer of the Witches, which detailed a selection of medieval magical spells, a subject I found endlessly fascinating. Had I known the housekeeping staff at the hotel was a gaggle of fainting Victorian ladies in need of smelling salts, I would have been more discreet with my personal reading matter.
Madame Leroux, however, had no sympathy. Right now she was shaking her head, eyes squeezed shut, as if somehow in the few short weeks I’d known her, I’d managed to become the biggest disappointment in her life. Well, I had news for her: it takes years for me to properly disappoint someone. Just ask my father . . . whenever he decided to show up.
“I promise to stay in the hotel until Father returns,” I told Madame Leroux. “Cross my heart, fingers, and toes. Does that make you happy?”
“Do what you want. I cannot stop you. I quit.”
“What?” I glanced around, aware that we were attracting attention.
“You heard me,” she said, long fingers straightening the brim of her hat. “I am done. I quit.”
“You can’t quit. Father has the return train tickets to Europe.”
She tugged down the hem of her jacket. “I’ve been invited to travel through the Middle East.”
I paused, brow wrinkling. “With the hotel’s lounge singer?”
They’d been secretly meeting up after I went to bed. He bragged constantly that he was touring regional hotels, making gobs of money crooning sentimental love songs to drunken tourists.
“Your father will return soon,” she said.
“You’re . . . leaving me? In the middle of a foreign city?”
She shrugged and waved a hand. “You are no little mouse. Have you not traveled the world with your scoundrel of a father?”
“Hey!” I said sharply. No one gets to besmirch my family but me. “He’s a distinguished adventurer and historian. He’s been hired around the world by dukes, sultans, and contessas.”
“Yes, I know,” she said, voice sodden with French sarcasm. “You boast of all the places you’ve been with him. Am I not your ‘hundredth’ tutor, useless and interchangeable, as you so often remind me?”
Yikes. “I don’t think I’ve ever said that.” I had. Yesterday. During our last argument. “And of course I need you. You speak the local language, and—”
She snorted. “Obviously you are comfortable storming through the city alone like a typhoon. And the hotel staff will cater to your every whim, so it’s difficult for me to feel sympathy. Goodbye, Miss Fox. I hope our paths do not cross again. Ever.”
She marched away, blending into throngs of pedestrians ambling down the market’s corridor, while I stood rooted to the floor in shock. It took me several panicked heartbeats to realize that she carried the book of traveler’s checks; all I had was a few bills in my handbag, enough for a taxi back to the hotel and little more. I called out to her, snaking my way through the crowd. “You have all the money!” I shouted.
“Consider it my severance fee,” she shouted back before her head disappeared in a throng of shoppers, leaving me behind.
In a foreign country.
With no money.
And no word from my wayward father as to when he’d return.
Jenn Bennett is an award-winning author of young adult books, including: Alex, Approximately; Starry Eyes; and The Lady Rogue. She also writes historical romance and fantasy for adults. Her books have earned multiple starred reviews, won the Romance Writers of America’s RITA® Award, and been included on Publishers Weekly’s Best Books annual list. She currently lives near Atlanta with one husband and two dogs.