If Vasilissa saw her daughter wrestling on the floor with the dogs and the nurse’s son, Bogdan, the nurse would lose her position. However, since the birth of Radu four years ago, Vasilissa never left her rooms.
Radu had gotten all the beauty their father had wished on his daughter. His eyes were framed by thick lashes, his lips full, his gentle curls kissed with a hint of Saxon gold.
Bogdan screamed as Lada—Ladislav, now five, refused to answer to her full name—bit down on his thigh. He punched her. She bit harder, and he cried for help.
“If she wants to eat your leg, she is allowed,” the nurse said. “Quit screaming or I will let her eat your supper, too.”
Like her brother, Lada had big eyes, but hers were closeset, with arched brows that made her look perpetually cross.
Her hair was a tangled mass, so dark that her pale skin appeared sickly. Her nose was long and hooked, her lips thin, her teeth small and—judging from Bogdan’s angry cries— quite sharp.
She was contrary and vicious and the meanest child the nurse had ever cared for. She was also the nurse’s favorite. By all rights the girl should be silent and proper, fearful and simpering. Her father was a powerless tyrant, cruel in his impotence and absent for months at a time. Her mother was every bit as absent, withdrawn and worthless in their home, incapable of doing anything to help herself. They were an apt representation of the entire region—particularly the nurse’s homeland of Wallachia.
But in Lada she saw a spark, a passionate, fierce glimmer that refused to hide or be dimmed. Rather than trying to stamp out that fire for the sake of Lada’s future, the nurse nurtured it. It made her feel oddly hopeful.
If Lada was the spiky green weed that sprouted in the midst of a drought-cracked riverbed, Radu was the delicate, sweet rose that wilted in anything less than the perfect conditions. Right now he wailed at the nurse’s pause in spooning the thin gruel, sweetened with honey, into his mouth.
“Make him shut up!” Lada climbed over her father’s largest hound, grizzled and patient with age.
“How should I do that?”
“Lada! Bite your tongue. He is your brother.”
“He is a worm. Bogdan is my brother.”
The nurse scowled, wiping Radu’s face with her apron. “Bogdan is not your brother.” I would sooner lie with the dogs than your father, she thought.
“He is! You are. Say you are.” Lada jumped onto Bogdan’s back. Though he was two years older and far bigger, she pinned him to the ground, jamming her elbow into his shoulder.
“I am! I am!” he said, half giggling, half crying.
“Throw Radu out with the chamber pots!”
Radu wailed louder, working himself up to a fit. The nurse clucked her tongue, picking him up even though he was much too large to be carried around. He put a hand in her blouse and pinched her skin, which was loose and wrinkled like an old apple. She sometimes wished he would shut up, too, but when he did speak it was always so sweet it made up for his tantrums. He even smelled nice, as if honey clung to his mouth between meals.
“Be a good boy,” the nurse said, “and you can go sledding with Lada and Bogdan later. Would you like that?”
Radu shook his head, lip trembling with the threat of more tears.
“Or we could visit the horses.”
He nodded slowly and the nurse sighed with relief. She looked up to find Lada gone. “Where did she go?”
Bogdan’s eyes widened in fear and indecision. Already he did not know whose wrath to fear more—his mother’s or tiny Lada’s.
Huffing, the nurse tucked Radu onto her hip, his feet bouncing against her legs with every step. She stalked down the hall toward the narrow stairs leading to the bedrooms. “Lada, if you wake your mother, there will be—”
She stopped, holding perfectly still, her fearful expression matching Bogdan’s own. From the sitting room near the front of the house, she heard voices. Low voices. Men’s voices. Speaking in Turkish, the language of their oftentimes enemy, the Ottomans.
Which meant Vlad was home, and Lada was—
The nurse ran down the hall and burst into the sitting room to find Lada standing in the middle of the room.
“I kill infidels!” the child snarled, brandishing a small kitchen knife.
“Do you?” Vlad spoke to her in the language of the Saxons, the tongue most spoken in Sighisoara. The nurse’s Saxon was crude, and while Vasilissa was fluent in several languages, she never spoke with the children. Lada and Radu spoke only Wallachian.
Lada waved the knife at him in answer to the question she did not understand. Vlad raised an eyebrow. He was wrapped in a fine cloak, an elaborate hat on his head. It had been nearly a year since Lada had seen her father. She did not recognize him.
“Lada!” the nurse whispered. “Come here at once.”
Lada stood as tall as her short, stocky legs allowed. “This is my home! I am the Order of the Dragon! I kill infidels!”
One of the three men accompanying Vlad murmured something in Turkish. The nurse felt sweat breaking out on her face, her neck, her back. Would they kill a child for threatening them? Would her father allow it? Or would they simply kill her for being unable to control Lada?
Vlad smiled indulgently at his daughter’s display, then bowed his head at the three men. They returned the bow and swept out, acknowledging neither the nurse nor her disobedient charge. “How many infidels have you killed?” Vlad’s voice, this time in the melodic romance language tones of Wallachian, was smooth and cold.
“Hundreds.” Lada pointed the knife at Radu, who hid his face against the nurse’s shoulder. “I killed that one this morning.”
“And will you kill me now?”
Lada hesitated, lowering her hand. She stared at her father, recognition seeping across her face like milk dropped in clear water. As quick as a snake, Vlad snatched the knife out of her hand, then grabbed her by the ankle and lifted her into the air.
“And how,” he said, her upside-down face level with his, “did you think you could kill someone bigger, stronger, and smarter than you?”
“You cheated!” Lada’s eyes burned with a look the nurse had come to dread. That look meant injury, destruction, or fire. Often all three.
“I won. That is all that matters.”
With a scream, Lada twisted herself up and bit her father’s hand.
“God’s wounds!” He dropped her on the floor. She tucked into a ball, rolled out of his reach, then crouched, baring her teeth at him. The nurse cringed, waiting for Vlad to fly into a rage and beat Lada. Or beat her for her failure to keep Lada tame and docile.
Instead, he laughed. “My daughter is feral.”
“So sorry, my lord.” The nurse ducked her head, gesturing frantically at Lada. “She is overexcited upon seeing you again after so long an absence.”
“What of their instruction? She does not speak Saxon.”
“No, my lord.” That was not quite true. Lada had picked up Saxon obscenities and frequently yelled them out the window at people in the busy square. “She knows a bit of Hungarian. But there has been no one to see to the children’s education.”
He clucked his tongue, a thoughtful look in his shrewd eyes. “And what of this one? Is he as fierce?” Vlad leaned in to where Radu had finally peered outward.
Radu immediately burst into tears, burying his face once more in the nurse’s shoulder and shoving his hand beneath her cap to wrap it in her hair.
Vlad’s lip turned up in disgust. “This one takes after his mother. Vasilissa!” he shouted, so loud that Radu was terrified into silence interrupted only by hiccups and sniffles. The nurse did not know whether to stay or leave, but she had not been dismissed. Lada ignored her, wary eyes fixed on her father. “Vasilissa!” Vlad roared again. He reached out to snatch Lada, but this time she was ready. She scrambled away, crawling under the polished table. Vlad rapped his knuckles on it.
“Very good. Vasilissa!”
His wife stumbled into the room, hair down, wrapped in nothing but a dressing robe. She was worn thin. Her cheekbones jutted out under grayed, empty eyes. If the birth of Lada had nearly killed her, Radu’s had drained whatever life she had left. She took in the scene—Radu tearstained, Lada under the table, and her husband, finally home—with a dull gaze.
“Yes?” she asked.
“Is that how you greet your husband? The vaivode of Wallachia? The prince?” He smiled in triumph, his long mustache lifting to reveal thin lips.
Vasilissa stiffened. “They are making you prince? What of Alexandru?”
“My brother is dead.”
The nurse did not think Vlad looked much like a man in mourning. Finally noticing her daughter, Vasilissa beckoned to her. “Ladislav, come out from under there. Your father is home.”
Lada did not move. “He is not my father.”
“Make her come out,” Vasilissa snapped at the nurse.
“Can you not command your own child?” Vlad’s voice was as clear as a blue sky in the freezing depths of winter. The sun with teeth, they called those days.
The nurse shrank further into herself, shifting so that Radu, at least, was out of Vlad’s sight. Vasilissa looked frantically to either side, but there was no escape from the room. “I want to go home,” she whispered. “Back to Moldavia. Please let me.”
Vasilissa’s tiny frame trembled. Then she dropped to her knees, lowered her head, and took Vlad’s hand in her own. “Please. Please, I beg of you. Let me go home.”
Vlad put out his other hand and stroked Vasilissa’s lank, greasy hair. Then he grabbed it, wrenching her head to the side. She cried out, but he pulled tighter, forcing her to stand. He placed his lips against her ear. “You are the weakest creature I have ever known. Crawl back to your hole and hide there. Crawl!” He threw her down, and, sobbing, she crawled from the room.
The nurse looked steadily at the finely woven rug that covered the stone floor. She said nothing. She did nothing. She prayed that Radu would remain silent.
“You.” Vlad pointed at Lada. “Come out. Now.”
She did, still watching the door Vasilissa had disappeared through.
“I am your father. But that woman is not your mother. Your mother is Wallachia. Your mother is the very earth we go to now, the land I am prince of. Do you understand?”
Lada looked up into her father’s eyes, deep-set and etched with years of cunning and cruelty. She nodded, then held out her hand. “The daughter of Wallachia wants her knife back.”
Vlad smiled and gave it to her.