The spring after she had nearly lost Radu to the icy river, Lada lay on her back, staring at the leafy branches overhead, boughs laced together so tightly everything was filtered through vibrant green. Their tutor droned on—Latin, today—and Radu dutifully repeated everything. He was almost twelve years old, and she nearing thirteen. Something about the passage of time and the addition of years to her name filled her with dread. She was not enough. Not yet. All this time and still she had so far to go.
But after seven years of study—seven years in this city, in the castle—she could read, write, and speak Latin as well as anyone. It was the language of contracts and letters and God, formal and stiff in her mouth. Wallachian was considered a low language. It was a spoken language, rarely written.
But oh, how lovely it tasted on the tongue.
“Ladislav,” the tutor prompted. He was a young man, clean-shaven because he did not own land and thus was not allowed to grow facial hair. Lada found him insufferable, but her father insisted she be educated alongside Radu. In fact, her father’s exact words had been It is a waste to educate the mewling worm, but at least we can include Lada, who has a brain worth shaping. Pity she’s a girl.
Smarter, stronger, bigger. She had never forgotten the reasons her father listed that she could not have hoped to beat him all those years ago. Her goal since then had been to earn his love, to show him that she could be all those things. It was a challenge she chased relentlessly. Because on the other side of that challenge—when she had achieved smarter, stronger, bigger—she was certain her father would look at her with more pride and love than he ever directed at her older brother, Mircea. He was twenty now, a grown man, and her father’s heir. Mircea campaigned when battles called for it, soothed tension between boyar families, ate with her father, planned with her father, rode with her father. He was the right hand of Wallachia; it was his hand that was always pulling hair, pinching skin, finding little ways to hurt someone that no one else could see.
And someday he would be prince.
If he lived that long.
But before then, before it was too late, Lada would take Mircea’s place in their father’s heart. That day he had returned the knife to her and pronounced her the daughter of Wallachia had been the first time he had ever truly looked at her, and the memory of that was both a pleasure and an agony she had been nurturing ever since.
She repeated the last sentence her tutor had said in Latin, then said it in Hungarian and Turkish for good measure.
“Very good.” The tutor shifted uncomfortably on the wooden stool he carried with him. “Though we would all be better served learning indoors.”
Her last tutor had slapped her for demanding to go outside. She broke his nose. This tutor never did more than make gentle suggestions, which were summarily ignored.
“This is my country.” Lada stood, stretching her arms over her head, stiff sleeves straining against her movements. She did not like staying in the castle to study. Every day she made them ride out from the walled inner city, past the smaller homes and then the hovels and then the filthy, seedy outskirts of life clinging to the capital, into the fresh, green countryside. The horses were left in fields brilliant with purple flowers, while she and Radu studied in the shade of dense, pale-barked trees.
“The country is not yours.” Radu scraped a stick against the ground to write out his Latin verbs.
“Is this not Wallachia?”
Radu nodded. He had a smudge of dirt on his nose. It made her brother look small and ridiculous. It irritated Lada. He was always with her, an appendage to her life, and she never could decide how to feel about him. Sometimes, when a smile broke across his face like sun reflecting off a stream, or she saw him relax into sleep, she was filled with an unaccountable sort of ache. It terrified her.
“Sit up straight.” She tugged on his chin and wiped his nose with her shirt so viciously that he cried out and tried to get away. She gripped his chin tighter. “This is Wallachia, and I am the daughter of Wallachia. Our father is the prince of Wallachia. This is my country.”
Radu finally stopped struggling, glaring at her instead. Tears pooled in his big eyes. He was so pretty, this brother of hers. His was a face that made women stop in the lanes to coo at him. When he flashed his dimpled smile, the cook gave him extra servings of whatever he loved best. And when Lada saw him hurt, she wanted to protect him, which made her angry. He was weak, and protecting him felt like a weakness. Mircea certainly suffered no such weakness on her behalf.
She let go of Radu’s chin and rubbed the back of her head. Last month Mircea had yanked her hair so hard he had left a bald spot, which only now was starting to fill in. Girls should know their place, he had hissed.
Lada lifted her face to a ray of sunshine fighting its way through the leaves. This. This is my place. Her father had given it to her, and Wallachia would always be theirs.
Radu kicked at his scribblings in the dirt. “Not everyone wants the country to be ours.”
“Can we return to—” the tutor started, but Lada held up a hand, silencing him.
Dropping to a crouch, she picked up a round stone, one perfectly fitted to her palm. Balanced. Heavy. Spinning, she launched the stone through the air. A thud was followed by a sharp cry of anger, and then laughter. Bogdan stood from where he had been creeping along the ground, trying to sneak up on them.
“Try harder, Bogdan.” Lada’s sneer shifted into a smile. “Come sit. Radu is mangling Latin.”
“Radu is doing very well.” The tutor frowned at Bogdan. “And I am not employed to educate the son of a nursemaid.”
Lada stared down at him with all the cold, imperious command she was born to. “You are employed to do as you are told.”
The tutor, who was very fond of his straight, unblemished nose, sighed wearily and continued the lesson.
“Now in Hungarian,” Lada commanded Bogdan, her walk R quick and assured down the hallway. Tirgoviste was set up like a great Byzantine city: castle in the middle, manors of the boyars circling it, dwellings of the artisans and performers who earned the patronage of the boyars circling that, and then, outside the massive stone walls, everyone else. Within the walls, homes were painted a dazzling array of reds and blues, yellows and greens. Riots of flowers and tinkling fountains competed for attention. But the stench of human waste lurked beneath everything, and the poor and sick masses seemed to creep ever closer to the inner city. Lada had even seen their shacks built against the wall itself.
Lada and Radu were not allowed to spend time in the outer rims of Tirgoviste. They were bundled and rushed through the streets whenever they left the city, catching only glimpses of ramshackle homes and suspicious, sunken eyes.
They lived in the castle, which, for all it tried, could not pretend at the splendor of Constantinople. It was dim, dark, narrow. The walls were thick, the windows slits, the hallways labyrinthine. The castle’s construction proved the pools and gardens and brightly clothed bodies were lies. Tirgoviste was no glittering Byzantium. Even Byzantium was no longer Byzantium. Like everything else this close to the Ottoman Empire, Wallachia had become a stomping ground for stronger armies, a pathway smashed by armored feet again and again and again.
Lada put her hand against the wall, feeling the cold that never quite left the stones. The castle was both the goal and the trap. She had never felt safe here. She knew from the snapping tone and tense demeanor of her father that he felt constantly threatened, too. She longed to live somewhere else, in the countryside, in the mountains, somewhere defensive where they could see their enemies coming for miles. Somewhere her father could relax and have time to speak with her.
Two Janissaries walked past. They were elite Ottoman soldiers, taken as young boys from other countries in the name of taxes, trained and groomed to serve the sultan and his god. Their ceremonial caps, bronze with flowing white flaps, bobbed as they laughed and talked, perfectly at ease. Her father insisted the castle was a symbol of power, but he refused to see the true symbolism of Tirgoviste. It did not give them power—it gave others power over them. They were trapped here, prisoners to the demands of the powerful boyar families. Worse, despite her father’s anointment to crusader by the pope, they were still a vassal state to the Ottoman Empire. Her father sacrificed money, lives, and his own honor to the Ottoman sultan, Murad, for the privilege of this throne.
Bogdan babbled on in the language of their Hungarian neighbors to the west, telling Lada about his day. She pushed into the grand hall, occasionally correcting his pronunciation. The two Janissaries were there, lounging against a wall. Lada spared them only a brief glare. They were like a rock in her slipper, constantly irritating.
Bulgaria and Serbia had similar arrangements with the sultan, paying money and boys to the Ottoman Empire in return for stability, while Hungary and Transylvania fought to avoid being vassals. The tension between borders demanded Vlad’s constant attention, forced him to leave for weeks on end, and gave him pains in his stomach that made him nasty and irritable.
Lada hated the Ottomans.
One of the Janissaries raised a thick eyebrow. Though he looked Bulgarian, maybe Serbian, he spoke Turkish. “Ugly thing, the girl. The prince will be lucky to find her a match. Or perhaps a nunnery with low standards.”
Lada continued as though she had not heard, but Bogdan stopped. He bristled. The soldier noted his understanding and stepped toward them in interest. “You speak Turkish?”
Lada grabbed Bogdan’s hand, answering with perfect pronunciation. “One must learn Turkish if one is to command the castle dogs.”
The soldier laughed. “You would be right at home with them, little bitch.”
Lada had her knife out before the soldier or his companion noticed. She was too short to reach the man’s neck, so she satisfied herself with a vicious slash across his arm. He shouted in pain and surprise, jumping back and fumbling with his sword.
Lada gestured, and Bogdan threw himself at the soldier’s legs, tripping him. Now that he was on the floor, his neck was an easy target. Lada pressed the knife beneath his chin, then looked up at the other soldier. He was a pale, lean man— almost a boy, really—with shrewd brown eyes. He had one hand on his sword, the long, curved blade favored by the Ottomans.
“Only a fool would attack the prince’s daughter in her own home. Two soldiers against a harmless girl.” Lada bared her teeth at him. “Very bad for treaties.”
The lean soldier took his hand off his sword and stepped back, his smile a perfect match to his weapon. He bowed, sweeping out an arm in deference.
Bogdan jumped up from the floor, trembling with rage. Lada shook her head at him. She should have left him out of this. Lada had a sense for power—the fine threads that connected everyone around her, the way those threads could be pulled, tightened, wrapped around someone until they cut off the blood supply.
Or snapped entirely.
She had few threads at her disposal. She wanted all of them. Bogdan had almost none, and what threads he did have were his simply by virtue of his being a boy. People already respected him more than they did his mother the nurse. It made Lada’s jaw ache, the ease with which life greeted Bogdan.
She jabbed her knife, poking the prone soldier once more for good measure, but not quite hard enough to break the skin. Then she stood straight, smoothing the front of her dress. “You are slaves,” she said. “There is nothing you can do to hurt me.”
The lean soldier’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully as he looked over Lada’s shoulder, where Bogdan loomed. She grabbed his arm and walked out of the room with him.
Bogdan was fuming. “We should tell your father.”
“Why? He should know how they disrespected you!”
“They are beneath our notice! They are less than the mud. You do not get angry at the mud for clinging to your shoe. You wipe it off and never look at it again.”
“Your father should know.”
Lada scowled. It was not that she feared punishment for her actions. What she feared was that her father would find out how the Janissaries viewed her and realize they were right. That she was a girl. That she was worth less than the castle dogs until the day she could be married off. She had to be the smartest, constantly surprising and delighting him. She was terrified that the day she stopped amusing him would be the day he remembered he had no use for a daughter.
“Will we be punished?” Bogdan’s face, as familiar and beloved as her own, wrinkled in concern. He was growing like a spring shoot, so much taller now. As far back as she could remember he had been at her side. He was hers—her playmate, her confidant, her brother in spirit if not blood. Her husband. Where Radu was weak, Bogdan was steady, strong. She tugged one of his big ears. They stuck out from his head like handles on a jug, and were more precious to her than any of the fine things in the castle.
“The Janissaries have only what power we decide they do.” She meant it as a reassurance, but her mind stuck on the curved sword that hung above her father’s throne. A gift from the sultan to her father. A promise and a threat, like most things in Tirgoviste were.
The next morning Lada awoke late, eyes heavy with sleep and mind muddled by nightmares. There was a strange noise, a hiccuping sort of moan, coming from the other side of her bedroom door. Angry, she stomped out into the chambers that connected her room to Radu’s, where their nurse slept.
The nurse had all her soft parts hidden as she held herself, rocking. She was the source of the noise. Radu patted her back, looking lost.
“What happened?” Lada asked, panic rising in her chest like a handful of bees.
“Bogdan.” Radu held up his hands helplessly. “The Janissaries took him.”
The bees turned into a swarm. Lada ran from the room, straight to her father’s study, where she found him bent over maps and ledgers.
“Father!” It came out breathless, desperate. Small. All her efforts to force him to see her as something other than a little girl unraveled in that single word, but she could not stop herself. He would help. He would fix this. “The Janissaries have kidnapped Bogdan!”
Her father looked up, setting down his quill and wiping his fingers on a white handkerchief. It came away smudged with black, and he dropped it to the floor, discarded. His voice was measured. “The Janissaries told me they had some trouble with one of the castle dogs. An injury to a soldier. They requested we supply a replacement who had been taught Turkish. It is a fortunate turn of events for the son of a nursemaid, is it not?”
Lada felt her lower lip tremble. That feeling she got in her heart when her father looked at her—that frantic, desperate pride—twisted and soured. He knew what Bogdan was to her. He knew, and he let the Janissaries take her dearest friend anyway.
He did not care. And now he watched for her reaction, weighing her.
She clenched her shaking hands into fists. She nodded.
“See that the dogs behave themselves from now on.” Her father’s eyes cut straight through her, releasing the bees and leaving her echoing and empty inside.
She curtsied, then walked stiffly out, collapsing against the wall and shoving her fists against her eyes to push the tears back inside.
This was her fault. She could have walked away from the Janissaries. Radu would have. But not her. She had to defy them, had to taunt them. And one of them—the thin one— had known just by looking at her the best way to hurt her.
All her tiny threads snapped and circled back around her heart, squeezing too tightly. This was her fault, but her father had betrayed her. He could have said no—should have said no, should have stopped it, should have shown the Janissaries that it was he, not them, who ruled Wallachia.
He had chosen not to.
Her mind stuck on the image of his discarded handkerchief. Dirtied and dropped, forgotten now that it was not pristine. Her father was wasteful. Her father was weak.
Bogdan deserved better.
She deserved better.
Wallachia deserved better.
She went back to the mountain in her mind, stood on its peak, remembered the way the sun had embraced her. She would never toss aside her country the way her father had. She would protect it.
A small sob threatened to break free. What could she do? She had no power.
Yet, she vowed. She had no power yet.