1446: Tirgoviste, Wallachia
Radu tasted blood in his mouth. It mixed with the salt from the tears streaming down his face.
Andrei and Aron Danesti kicked him again, their boots sharp against his stomach. Radu rolled onto his side, curling in on himself, trying to become as small as possible. The dried leaves and rocks littering the forest floor scraped his cheeks. No one could hear him out here.
He was used to being unheard. No one heard him in the castle, which, after six years, still felt like a home only when he was in his room with his nurse. His tutors were engaged in a constant power struggle with Lada, and Radu’s exemplary work often went unnoticed. Lada was always either studying or off with Bogdan, and she never had time for him. Their older half brother, Mircea, forced Radu to seek out hiding places to avoid his blunt comments and even blunter fists. And his father, the prince, went entire weeks without acknowledging his existence.
The pressure built like steam until Radu did not know whether he was more terrified that his father would never notice him again, or that he would.
It was safer to go unnoticed.
Unfortunately, today he had failed at that. Aron Danesti laughed, a sound sharper than his boots. “You squeal like a piglet. Do it again.”
“Please.” Radu covered his head as Aron slapped his cheeks. “Stop. Stop.”
“We are here to get stronger,” Andrei said. “And no one is weaker than you.”
At least once a month, all the boys ages seven to twelve from boyar families—boyar was a word for nobility, to be said with a twist of the lip and a sneer if Lada were speaking— were left deep in the forest. It was a tradition, one most of the adults laughed at indulgently. A game, they called it. But they all watched with narrowed eyes, seeing who emerged first, looking as though he had been merely out for a stroll rather than tired and scared like a normal boy.
The Danestis, who had traded the throne back and forth with the Basarab family for the last fifteen years, were particularly interested in how Aron and Andrei, both a year older than Radu, fared. They were not overfond of the Draculesti usurpers.
Radu was the son of the prince, a Draculesti, the smallest boy and the biggest target. He was never the winner. And today, for the first time, he wondered whether he would make it back at all. Terror clawed in his throat. His breath came in short, painful gasps.
Andrei grabbed Radu, fingers digging into his arms as he dragged him up to stand. His mouth was against Radu’s ear, breath hot. “My mother says your father wishes you had never been born. Do you wish that, too?”
Aron hit him in the stomach, and Radu gagged.
“Say it,” Andrei commanded, his voice cheerful. “Say you wish you had never been born.”
Radu squeezed his eyes shut. “I wish I had never been born.”
Aron hit him.
“I said it!” Radu screamed, coughing and struggling for breath.
“I know,” Andrei said. “Hit him again.”
“My father will—”
“Your father will do what? Write the sultan to ask permission to scold us? Ask my family to donate to the throne so he can afford a switch to whip us with? Your father is nothing. Just like you.”
Radu had braced for another blow when Aron’s shout made him open his eyes. Aron was spinning in a circle, trying desperately to dislodge Lada. She was not supposed to be here, but somehow her presence was unsurprising. She had jumped on the boy’s back, clasping her arms around him and pinning his arms to his sides. Radu could not see her face through her tangled drape of hair until Aron twisted to the side, revealing Lada’s teeth sunk into his shoulder.
Andrei shoved Radu away and rushed forward to help his cousin. Lada released Aron, jumping off his back and crouching down. Her eyes narrowed. Andrei was eleven, the same age as Lada, but bigger than she was. Aron stumbled to a tree and leaned against it, crying and clutching his shoulder.
Lada smiled at Andrei, her teeth coated in blood.
“You demon girl, I—”
Lada stood and slammed her hand into Andrei’s nose. He screamed, dropping to his knees and sniveling. Lada walked after him, then kicked his side so that he fell onto his back. He stared up at her as he choked on the blood streaming from his nose. She put her foot on his throat and pushed, just enough to make his eyes bulge in panic.
“Get out of my forest,” she snarled.
She lifted her foot and watched, eyes hooded, as Andrei and Aron put their arms around each other, all traces of bravado gone. They ran.
Radu wiped his face on his sleeve, leaving behind a mess of blood and dirt. He looked at Lada, standing in the middle of a shaft of light that filtered through a gap in the thick branches. For once in his life, he was grateful for her vicious temper, for her strange instinctive knowledge of the best way to hurt someone with the least amount of work. He was so tired and so scared, and she had saved him. “Thank you.” He stumbled toward her with arms outstretched. When he was hurting, his nurse folded him into herself, sealing him away from the world. He wanted—needed—that now.
Lada hit him in the stomach. He doubled over in pain, sinking to his knees. She knelt next to him, grasping him by the ears. “Do not thank me. All I did was teach them to fear me. How does that help you? Next time you hit first, you hit harder, you make certain that your name means fear and pain. I will not be here to save you again.”
Radu trembled, trying not to cry. He knew Lada hated it when he cried, but she had hurt him. And she had tasked him with something impossible. The other boys were bigger, meaner, faster. Whatever made Lada better than them had skipped him entirely.
He spent the long, miserable walk out of the forest trailing his sister, wondering how he could be like her. The boyars sat waiting under tents, gossiping as servants fanned them. Mircea was there, talking with Vlad Danesti, and his expression when he saw Radu’s face indicated that he approved of the damage to it. And, perhaps, he wished to do more.
Radu stepped more fully behind Lada; all other eyes were on her anyway. The boyars were astonished to see the prince’s daughter walk out of the forest with her head held high. No one was surprised to see Radu filthy and bloodied, although he wasn’t as bloodied as Aron and Andrei. In their haste to flee Lada, the Danesti cousins had gotten lost and had to be rescued.
After that, the forest lessons were canceled, and the boyar families whispered among themselves about the prince’s daughter. She had always outpaced the boys her age with riding skills and demanded to be taught everything her brother was, but this was far more public. Rather than scolding Lada, their father laughed and boasted of his daughter, as wild and fierce as a boar. If it had been Radu who had come out of the forest victorious, would he have even noticed?
Radu heard it all, hiding behind tapestries, waiting in dark corners. He had seen Aron and Andrei watching him, but after two weeks they had yet to catch him alone. When adults were present, Radu could smile and charm and remain safe.
Lada had been right. She had not saved him. The looks in his enemies’ eyes when they saw him made that clear.
So he waited, and he hid, and he observed. And then, one crisp autumn evening, he made his move.
“Hello,” he said, voice cheery and bright enough to light up the twilight.
The servant boy startled, jumping as though struck. “May I help you?” His shirt was nearly worn through. Radu could see the sharp lines of his collarbones, the brittle length of his skinny arms. They were probably the same age, but Radu’s life had been much kinder. At least as far as having enough food.
Radu smiled. “Would you like something to eat?”
The boy’s eyes widened in wonder. He nodded.
Radu knew the value in being overlooked, because he himself was so often unseen. He led Emil, a servant so lowly he was invisible to the boyars he worked for, to the kitchen.
A rash of thefts plagued the castle. After every feast attended R by the boyar families, someone would notice a necklace, a jewel, a personal token of value missing. It reflected poorly on the prince, so Vlad declared that whoever was discovered to be behind the crimes would be publicly lashed and indefinitely imprisoned. The boyars muttered angry, ugly things beneath their breath, and Vlad skulked through the castle, eyes narrowed and shoulders stooped beneath the weight of his shame at being unable to control his own home.
Several weeks later, Radu stood on the inner edge of the crowd as Aron and Andrei, faces covered in tears and snot, were tied to a post in the middle of the square.
“Why would they have stolen those things?” Lada watched, her mouth turned down in curiosity.
Radu shrugged. “All the missing items were found under their beds by a servant.” A servant who was no longer painfully underfed, and considered Radu his best and only friend in the world. Radu smiled. There had been no real reason to wait as long as he had, delaying the punishment of his enemies and prolonging his father’s embarrassment. The anticipation had been delicious, though. And now, the reward.
Lada turned to look at him, suspicion drawing her brows together. “Did you do this?”
“There are other ways to beat someone than with fists.” Radu poked her in the side with a finger.
She surprised him by laughing. He stood up straighter, a proud grin at having surprised and delighted Lada bursting across his face. She never laughed unless she was laughing at him. He had done something right!
Then the lashings began.
Radu’s smile wilted and died. He looked away. He was safe now. And Lada was proud of him, which had never happened before. He focused on that to ignore the sick feelings twisting his stomach as Aron and Andrei cried out in pain. He wanted his nurse—wanted her to hold and comfort him—and this, too, made him feel ashamed.
Lada watched the whip with a calculating look. “Still,” she said. "Fists are faster."