title page for Now I Rise


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First published in the United States of America by Delacorte Press,
an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2017

First published in Great Britain by Corgi Books 2017
This ebook published 2017

Text copyright © Kiersten Brazier, 2017

Map illustration copyright © TK, 2017

Cover art by Alessandro ‘Talexi’ Taini

The moral right of the author and illustrators has been asserted

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN: 978–1–448–19689–0

All correspondence to:

RHCP Digital

Penguin Random House Children’s

80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL

For Christina, who will never have time to
read this book, but who gave me
the gift of time to write it




January 1453

HELL WAS A party.

At least, Radu was fairly certain that whatever hell there was would certainly resemble this party.

Music drifted like perfume on the air, enough to sweeten but not overwhelm. Groups of musicians were scattered across the island; they could be glimpsed among the hardy green that had survived the winter months. Though the main meal would come later, blue-clad servants floated through the crowds with food-laden trays shaped like lily pads. On either side of the island, the Tunca River flowed leisurely by.

Whatever else he had been, Murad—Mehmed’s dead father and Radu’s onetime benefactor—had not been one to skimp on luxury. The harem complex he built on the island had been out of use since his death, but it had not faded in glory. The tiles gleamed. The carved stones of the walls promised luxury and peace. The fountains tinkled in cheery companionship with the surrounding river.

Radu wandered between buildings painted like geometric gardens, pulled along as surely as the course of the river. He knew it was useless, knew that it would not make him feel better. But still he looked.

And there—next to the bathhouse. Radu was drawn to him like a leaf spun on the river current. Mehmed wore his now-constant deep-purple robes and a swirling golden turban. A jeweled chain fastened a cloak around his broad shoulders. Radu tried to remember Mehmed’s full lips parting in a smile, his eyebrows rising in mirth rather than mockery. The two young men, both having finally finished growing, were the same tall, lean height. But lately Radu felt small when Mehmed looked at him.

He would have taken even that today. But Mehmed did not look in his direction, immune to the connection Radu could not escape.

“Truly glorious,” Halil Vizier said to Mehmed, his hands on his hips as he looked up at the new bathhouse complex. Three connected buildings, with domed roofs echoing those of mosques, had been added in the past few months. They were the first new construction anticipating Mehmed’s grand palace complex. It would rival anything his father had ever built—anything anyone had ever built. To celebrate this investment in the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed had invited everyone who mattered.

Ambassadors from various European countries mingled freely with the Ottoman elite. Mehmed stood apart, but was free with his smiles and sweeping promises of future parties at his palace. Along with his usual attendants, he was joined by Ishak Pasha, one of his most powerful spahi; Kumal Pasha, Radu’s brother-in-law; and, as always, like a bitter taste that could not be swallowed, Halil Vizier.

Radu hated thinking of his old enemy Halil Pasha as Halil Vizier. He hated even more that it had been his own plan to put Halil in a place of trust and power to keep a closer eye on him. Maybe Lada had been right. Maybe they should have killed him. Things would be easier, or at least they would be more pleasant. That should be Radu’s place at Mehmed’s side.

As though sensing Radu’s poisonous envy, Halil Vizier looked at him. His mouth curled in a sneering smile. “Radu the Handsome,” he said. Radu frowned. He had not heard that title since the end of fighting in Albania, when Skanderberg, their foe, had coined it. Mehmed glanced over, then away as soon as their eyes met. Like a butterfly alighting on a flower and finding it lacking.

“Tell me,” Halil said, that nasty smile still on his bearded face. “Is your pretty wife aware this is not a functioning harem yet? I fear she has false hopes about entering it.”

The men around Halil snickered. Kumal frowned, then opened his mouth. Radu shook his head, a minute movement. Kumal looked sadly away. Mehmed did not acknowledge the insult—the implication that Radu’s wife would enter Mehmed’s harem to divorce Radu—but he did nothing to refute it, either.

“My wife is not—”

A gentle hand came down on Radu’s arm. He turned to find Nazira. Nazira, who was not supposed to be here. “His wife is not pleased with anyone else monopolizing his attention.” Beneath her translucent veil, her smile was far brighter than the winter sun. She wore the colors of springtime. Still, Radu felt cold looking at her. What was she doing?

Nazira turned Radu away from the men and led him down a path draped in more silk than most people would ever see in their lives. It was extravagant, excessive, absurd, like everything about this party. A reflection of a sultan too young and foolish to think of anything beyond appearances and his own pleasure.

“What are you doing here?” Radu whispered urgently.

“Come on a boat ride with me.”

“I cannot! I have to—”

“Endure mockery from Halil Vizier? Try to regain the favor of Mehmed? Radu, what has happened?” Nazira pulled him into the shadows of one of the buildings. To onlookers it would appear as though he were stealing a moment with his beautiful wife.

He gritted his teeth, looking at the wall above her head. “I have business.”

“Your business is my business. You do not write us, you never visit. I had to learn from Kumal that you have fallen out with Mehmed. What happened? Did you … does he know?” Her dark eyes were heavy with meaning, the weight of it too much for Radu.

“No! Of course not. I— It is much more complicated than that.” He turned away, but she grabbed his wrist.

“Fortunately for you, I am very clever and can understand even the most complicated things. Tell me.”

Radu ran the fingers of his free hand along the edges of his turban, tugging at it. Nazira reached up, taking his fingers in her own. Her sharp eyes softened. “I worry about you.”

“You do not need to worry about me.”

“I do not worry because I need to. I worry because I care about you. I want to see you happy. And I do not think Edirne holds any happiness for you.” She emphasized Edirne, making it clear that it was not the capital she spoke of, but what—or rather, whom—that capital held.

“Nazira,” Radu hissed, “I cannot talk about this right now.”

He almost wished he could. He was desperate to talk to someone, anyone. But no one could help him with that problem. Radu wondered, sometimes, what Lazar could have told him if they had ever talked openly about what it meant for one man to love another. Lazar had been anything but discreet about his openness to something … more … with Radu. And Radu had rewarded Lazar’s loyalty and friendship with a knife. Now he had no one to talk to, to ask these desperate questions. It was wrong, was it not? For him to love this way?

But when Radu looked at Nazira and Fatima, he did not feel anything other than happiness that they had found each other. Their love was as pure and true as any he had ever observed. Thoughts like this made his mind turn around in circles upon itself, until not even prayer could calm it.

Radu looked down at Nazira’s hands on his. “The palace may not hold my happiness. But I cannot look anywhere else.”

Nazira released him with a sigh. “Will you come back with me? Spend some time at home? Fatima misses you. It might do you good to be away.”

“There is too much to do.”

“Too much dancing? Too many parties?” Her voice teased, but her eyes lacked an accompanying sparkle of sincerity. Her words stung him.

“You know I am more than that.”

“I do. I simply worry you might forget. You do not have to do this to yourself.”

“I am not doing it to myself, or for myself. I— Damn. Damn, damn, damn.” Radu watched as a man in naval uniform—a sturdy cape, a tighter, smaller turban than the ones worn by ordinary soldiers, and a sash of Mehmed’s colors—walked past. He was accompanied by one of Halil Vizier’s trusted friends.

“What?” Nazira followed Radu’s gaze.

“I need to talk to that man. Without anyone else being able to hear. It is the only reason I am here.”

She was suddenly excited. “You do? Is he—” She raised her eyebrows suggestively.

“No! No. I just need to speak with him. In secret.”

Nazira’s smile turned into a thoughtful frown. “Can you be seen together?”

“Yes, but it cannot look like we met on purpose or are discussing anything of importance. I was hoping to find some quiet moment, but there are so many people here. He has not been alone since he came to the capital. Halil Vizier has seen to it.”

“Your party attendance is more complicated than I thought, then.”

Radu gritted his teeth. “Much.”

“Well, you are very fortunate you married so well.” Nazira put a hand on his arm and steered him onto the walkway. “Tell me about him.”

“His name is Suleiman, and he is the newly promoted admiral of the navy.”

Nazira laughed. “This will be easy.”

She danced effortlessly from group to group with a coy smile and a word of greeting for all. Radu was on the fringes of these parties lately, a contrast to when he had been a shining focal point. But with Nazira on his arm, more people were willing to stop for a moment of conversation. He craned his neck for a view of Suleiman. Nazira pinched his arm, hard.

“Patience,” she whispered.

After several more stops to chat with the uncle of her deceased father’s best friend, the cousin of Kumal’s deceased wife, and any number of other people Nazira treated with delight and deference regardless of their place in the Ottoman social hierarchy, they plowed directly into Suleiman. Somehow Nazira had managed to turn and walk so that Radu knocked the man over.

“Oh!” Nazira squeaked, putting her hands over her veiled mouth. “I am so sorry!”

Radu held out a hand to help the man up. They had never met before, but Suleiman’s eyes lingered on the boat-shaped gold pin on Radu’s cloak. “Please forgive me.”

“Of course.” Suleiman bowed. “I am Suleiman Baltoghlu.”

Radu bowed as well. “Radu.”

“Radu …?” Suleiman paused expectantly.

“Simply Radu.” Radu’s smile was tight. Lada had left him behind under the mantle of the Draculesti family. But Radu had rejected his father’s name. He would not take it up again, ever. “This is my wife, Nazira.”

Suleiman took her hand, bowing even deeper. “They make wives prettier in Edirne than they do in Bursa.”

Nazira beamed. “That is because the wind blows too hard in harbor cities. The poor women there have to expend all their energy merely staying upright. There is no time left for being pretty.”

Suleiman laughed, a loud burst of sound that drew attention. But the attention was focused on him and Nazira, not on him and Radu.

“Tell me, what do you do in Bursa?” she asked.

“I am an admiral.”

“Boats! Oh, I adore boats. Look, did you see?” Nazira pointed to the collection of delicate boats bobbing in the river. They were carved in fanciful shapes. One had a prow like the head of a frog, and its oars had webbed feet carved into their ends. Another looked like a war galley, tiny decorative oars sticking out both its sides. “Radu is afraid if we take a boat out, he will not make it back to shore. But surely if we had an admiral with us …” Nazira looked up at Suleiman through her thick eyelashes.

“I am at your service.” Suleiman followed them to the dock, helping Nazira into a boat carved like a heron. A head on a slender neck pointed their way forward, and silk wings extended on either side. The tail was a canopy arching overhead to protect passengers from the sun, though it was not quite warm enough to be necessary.

“This is lovely!” Nazira sighed happily, leaning over to trail one hand in the water. Radu was not quite so pleased—he hated boats—but he shared a secret smile with Nazira. She had done his job for him.

Suleiman took the oars. Radu sat gingerly in the back of the small boat.

“I am going to chatter very brightly, waving my hands a lot,” Nazira said as they pulled away from the shore, and away from any prying ears. “In fact, I am going to talk the whole time, and you two will be unable to get a word in edgewise.”

She continued her one-sided conversation—a silent one. Her head bobbed up and down, she laughed, and her hands punctuated imaginary sentences. Any onlookers would see her entertaining Suleiman while Radu tried his best to keep his stomach.

“How soon can you build the new galleys?” Radu muttered, clutching the sides of the boat.

Suleiman shrugged like he was trying to loosen up his shoulders for rowing. “We can build ships as fast as he can fund them.”

“No one can know how many ships we really have.”

“We will build a few galleys in Bursa for show, so it looks like I am doing something. The rest will be built in secret, in a private shipyard along the Dardanelles. But I still need men. We can have all the ships in the world, but without trained sailors, they will be as much use as the boat we are in now.”

“How can we train that many men in secret?” Someone would notice if they conscripted men for a navy. A few new boats could be attributed to a foolish whim of an immature sultan. An armada, complete with the men to sail it, was another thing entirely.

“Give me the funds to hire Greek sailors, and I will give him the finest navy in the world,” Suleiman said.

“It will be done.” Radu leaned over the side, barely avoiding heaving.

Suleiman laughed at some new pantomime of Nazira’s. “Whatever you do, keep this one around. She is truly a treasure.”

This time Nazira’s laugh was real. “I am.”

Radu did not have to feign relief when Suleiman finished their loop around the island and pulled them back to the dock. He stumbled onto it, grateful for the solid wood beneath his feet.

“Your husband has a weak stomach,” Suleiman said as he helped Nazira out of the boat.

“Yes. It is a good thing he is so handsome.” Nazira patted Radu’s cheek, then waved prettily at Suleiman. “Our navy is in most capable hands!”

Suleiman laughed wryly. “My little bird boats will be the terror of the seas!” He bowed theatrically, then strode away.

“Thank you,” Radu said, letting Nazira take him back through the party, then into a secluded corner. They sat on a bench with their backs to the bathhouse wall. “That was brilliant.”

“Yes, I am. Now tell me what is really going on.”

“I am— We are— This is very secret.”

Nazira rolled her eyes, exasperated.

“I am helping Mehmed with his plans to take Constantinople. We have to work in secret so that Halil Pasha—” Radu paused, grimacing. Halil’s new title always tasted foul on his tongue. Why had he insisted Halil be elevated from a pasha to a vizier? “So that he does not discover our plans with enough time to sabotage them. We know he is still in league with Emperor Constantine. My elimination from Mehmed’s inner circle was deliberate. I need to appear unimportant; that way, I can organize things Mehmed cannot be seen to care about, like the navy. Everything we do in public is to divert attention from his true goals. Even this party is a farce, to show that Mehmed is frivolous and cares only about Edirne. Why would he invest so much money in a palace if he intends to make his capital elsewhere?”

“But if everything you are doing is in secret, could you not do all that and still be one of his advisors?”

“My actions would draw too much attention if I were constantly at Mehmed’s side.”

“Not if it were widely known that you were merely his friend. Sultans can have close friends who are not necessarily important, but are merely beloved.” Nazira looked down, her expression pained but determined. “Do you never wonder if, perhaps … Mehmed understands more than you think he does? And this separation is not so much a strategy as a kindness?”

Radu stood so quickly he nearly lost his balance. “No.”

“He is not a fool. If I saw in one evening how you felt, surely he has seen the same over the years you have spent together.”

Radu put a hand up, wishing he could make Nazira swallow the words so they had never been spoken. If Mehmed truly understood how he felt, then … It was too much to think about. There were too many questions that had no answers Radu wanted.

“Maybe your sister was wise to leave. She realized a sultan could never give her what she needed.”

Mehmed’s plan made sense. It was the only path. That was why Mehmed had chosen it. “I am staying because my life is here,” Radu said. “Lada left because she wanted the throne, and she got it.”

Sometimes he wondered what would have happened if he had not pushed Lada to abandon them last year. Because he had chosen that, too. Chosen to say exactly what she needed to hear to decide to leave Mehmed—and Radu. It had been a dark, desperate move. A move he thought would bring him closer to Mehmed. Radu held back a bitter laugh.

He had pushed Lada away, and she had ridden to Wallachia and glory. To everything she had ever wanted, without a second glance for the man she allegedly loved. Or for her pathetic brother. For all his supposed cleverness, Radu could not secure the same happy ending for himself that he had tricked his sister into.

If Lada were still here, would this plan of enforced distance be his life? Or would Lada have come up with another way to subvert Halil? A way that let Radu keep his friendship with Mehmed? A way that did not leave Radu alone every night, wondering when his future would be what he hoped it to be? Wondering what those hopes even were?

Hope was an arrow that never ceased piercing his heart.

Plans notwithstanding, Mehmed could have done things as Nazira said. He could have made excuses so he and Radu were able to speak face to face instead of via covert, hidden messages. There were many things Mehmed could do but did not, and probably never would. If Radu let himself dwell on those things, he would surely go mad.

He avoided Nazira’s gaze. “It is fine. Everything is as it ever was, and as it will ever be. Once we have taken Constantinople, I will be at his side again. As his friend.” Radu’s voice wavered on the last word, betraying him.

“Will it be enough?” she asked.

“It will have to be.” Radu tried to smile, but it was useless to be false with Nazira. Instead he bent and placed a kiss on his wife’s forehead. “Give my love to Fatima. I have work to do.”

Nazira stood, taking his elbow firmly. “Not without me. You need an ally.”

Radu sighed. He really did. He had been so lonely, so lost. He did not want to ask this of her. But then again, he had not asked. She had simply shown up and told him how things would be. That was her signature, he supposed. And he was grateful for it. “Thank you.”

Together, they walked back into the party. It felt less like hell and more like a game. Nazira deliberately greeted the people least likely to speak to Radu now that he was out of favor. She did it to annoy them, and he adored her for it. It was delightful to watch those who had once clamored for his favor and then shunned him squirm as they tried to be polite. Radu was actually enjoying himself. And he had good news for Mehmed, which meant an excuse to sneak into his rooms to leave a message.

He was laughing as he turned and came face to face with ghosts from his past.

Aron and Andrei Danesti. His childhood rivals. Memories of fists in the forest, stopped only by Lada’s ferocity. Radu had been powerless to face them on his own. But he had figured out another way. The last time he had seen them, they were being whipped in public for theft. He had set them up in retaliation for their cruelty.

Time had stretched them, built them new forms. Aron was thin and sickly-looking. His mustache and beard were sparse and patchy. Andrei, broad-shouldered and healthy, had fared better, though there was something wary in his expression that had not been there before Radu’s trick. Radu felt a brief pang of guilt that his actions had carved that onto someone else’s face. Aron smiled, and Radu saw something in the man’s eyes he had never seen as a child: kindness.

But apparently time had been more exacting on Radu than it had on his Danesti foes. That, or his turban and Ottoman dress disguised him completely. Their smiles—Andrei’s guarded, Aron’s kind— held no spark of recognition.

Nazira cheerfully introduced herself. Radu resisted the urge to shield her from them. Surely they were not the same bullies they had been in childhood. “Where are you from?” she asked.

“Wallachia,” Andrei answered. “We are here with our father, the prince.”

A noise like the roaring of wind filled Radu’s ears.

Nazira lit up. “Oh, what a coincidence! My husband is—”

Radu tugged her arm. “Apologies, we have to leave.” He walked away so quickly Nazira had to run to keep up. As soon as he had rounded a corner, Radu leaned against the wall, overcome. Their father. A Danesti. The Wallachian prince. Which meant that Lada was not on the throne.

And if they were here paying respects, Mehmed knew Lada was not on the throne.

What else did Mehmed know? What other secrets was he keeping from Radu?

For once, though, the biggest question did not revolve around Mehmed. All these months, Radu had never written Lada, because she had never written him. And because he hated her for getting what she wanted and leaving him with nothing, as always.

But apparently he had been wrong about that.

Where was Lada?



February 1453

IT TOOK ONLY three fingers smashed beyond recognition before the would-be assassin screamed the name of Lada’s enemy.

“Well.” Nicolae raised his eyebrows, once singular but now bisected by a vicious scar that failed to fade with the passage of time. He turned away as Bogdan slit the young man’s throat. The heat of life leaving body steamed slightly in the frigid winter air. “That is disappointing.”

“That the governor of Brasov betrayed us?” Bogdan asked.

“No, that the quality of assassins has fallen this low.”

Lada knew Nicolae meant to make the situation palatable through humor—he never liked executions—but his words struck deep. It was certainly a blow that the governor of Brasov wanted her dead. He had promised her aid, which had given her the first shred of hope in months.

Now she had none. Brasov was the last of the Transylvanian cities she had tried to find an ally in. None of the noble Wallachian boyar families would so much as respond to her letters. Transylvania, with its fortified mountain cities crushed between Wallachia and Hungary, was heavily Wallachian. But Lada saw now that the ruling class of Saxons and Hungarians treated her people like chaff, and considered her worthless.

But almost worse than losing her last chance at an ally was that this was the most they could be bothered to spare for her: an underfed, poorly trained assassin barely past boyhood.

That was all the fear she instilled, all the respect she merited.

Bogdan kicked the body over the edge of the small ravine bordering their encampment. Just as when they were children, he never had to be asked to clean up her messes. He wiped the blood from his fingers, then tugged his ill-fitting gloves back on. A misshapen hat was worn low, hiding the ears that stuck out like jug handles.

He had grown broad and strong. His fighting was not flashy but was brutally efficient. Lada had seen him in action, and had to bite back the admiring words that sprang to her lips. He was also fastidiously clean—a quality emphasized by the Ottomans that not all her men had retained. Bogdan always smelled fresh, like the pine trees they hid among. Everything about him reminded Lada of home.

Her other men crouched over their fires, scattered in groups among the thick trees. They were as misshapen as Bogdan’s hat, their once pristine Janissary uniformity long since abandoned. They were down to thirty—twelve lost when they had met an unexpected force from the Danesti Wallachian prince as they attempted to cross the Danube River into the country, eight more lost in the months since, spent hiding and running and desperately seeking allies.

“Do you think Brasov is in league with the Danesti prince or with the Hungarians?” Nicolae asked.

“Does it matter?” Lada snapped. All sides were set against her. They smiled to her face and promised aid. Then they sent assassins in the dark.

She had bested vastly superior assassins on Mehmed’s behalf. Meager comfort, though, and worse still that she found it only by remembering her time with Mehmed. It seemed as though anything she might look on with pride had happened when she was with him. Had she been so diminished, then, by leaving the person she was at his side?

Lada lowered her head, rubbing the unceasing tightness at the base of her neck. Since failing to take the throne, she had neither written to nor received word from Mehmed or Radu. It was too humiliating to lay bare her failure before them and anticipate what they might say. Mehmed would invite her to return. Radu would console her—but she questioned whether he would welcome her back.

She wondered, too, how close they had become in her absence. But it did not matter. She had chosen to leave them as an act of strength. She would never return to them in weakness. She had thought—with her men, with her dispensation from Mehmed, with all her years of experience and strength—that the throne was hers for the taking. She had thought that she would be enough.

She knew now that nothing she could do would ever be enough. Unless she could grow a penis, which did not seem likely. Nor particularly desirable.

Though it did make for an easier time relieving oneself when perpetually hiding in the woods. Emptying one’s bladder in the middle of the night was a freezing, uncomfortable endeavor.

What, then, was left to her? She had no allies. She had no throne. She had no Mehmed, no Radu. She had only these sharp men and sharp knives and sharp dreams, and no way to make use of any of them.

Petru leaned against a winter-bare tree nearby. He had grown thicker and quieter in the past year. All traces of the boy he had been when he joined Lada’s company were gone. One of his ears had been mangled, and he wore his hair longer to cover it. He had also stopped shaving. Most of her men had. Their faces were no longer the bare ones that had indicated their station as Janissaries. They were free. But they were also directionless, which increasingly worried Lada. When thirty men trained to fight and kill had nothing to fight and kill for, what was there to keep them bound to her?

She pulled a branch from the fire. It was a burning brand, searing her eyes with its light. She sensed more than saw the attention of her men shift to her. Rather than feeling like a weight, it made her stand taller. The men needed something to do.

And Lada needed to see something burn.

“Well,” she said, spinning the flaming stick lazily through the air, “I think we should send our regards to Transylvania.”


It is easier to destroy than to build, her nurse had been fond of saying when Lada would pull all the blossoms off the fruit trees, but empty fields make hungry bellies.

As a child, Lada had never understood what her nurse meant. But now she thought she might. At least the part about destroying being easier than building. All her time spent writing letters or standing in front of minor nobles attempting to forge alliances had been wasted. It had been nothing but struggle for the past year. Struggle to arrange meetings, struggle to be seen as more than a girl playing at soldier, struggle to find the right ways to work within a system that had always been foreign to her.

They were closer to the city of Sibiu than to Brasov. For efficiency’s sake, Lada decided to stop there first. It took less time to herd hundreds of Sibiu’s sheep into the icy pond to drown than it had for a servant to inform her that the governor would not be meeting with her. The Wallachian shepherds, who would no doubt be killed for their failure to save the sheep, were quietly folded into her company.

That accomplished, Lada and her men passed through the slumbering, unprotected outer city of Sibiu, harming nothing and no one. Ahead of them rose the walls of the inner city, where only Transylvanian nobles—never Wallachians—were allowed to sleep. She imagined they dreamed deeply, pampered and protected by the sweat of Wallachian brows.

They had neither the time nor the numbers to launch an attack on inner Sibiu. And they were not here to conquer. They were here to destroy. As each volley of flaming arrows arced high over the walls and down into the maze of roofs, Lada’s smile grew simultaneously brighter and darker.


A few days later, they waited outside Brasov for the sun to go down. The city was set in a valley ringed with deep green growth. Towers stood at intervals along the inner city walls, each maintained by a different guild. If she were planning a siege, it would be a challenge.

But, as with Sibiu, they did not want to keep this city. They merely wanted to punish it.

At twilight, Nicolae returned from a scouting trip. “Terror spreads faster than any fire. Rumors are everywhere. You have taken Sibiu, you lead ten thousand Ottoman soldiers, you are the chosen servant of the devil.”

“Why must I always be a man’s servant?” Lada demanded. “If anything, I should be partners with the devil, not his servant.”

Bogdan scowled, crossing himself. He still clung to some bastard version of the religion they had been raised with. His mother—Lada and Radu’s nurse—had wielded Christianity like a switch, lashing out with whichever stories suited her needs at the time. Usually the ones about naughty children being eaten by bears. Lada and Radu had also attended church with Bogdan and his mother, but Lada remembered very little from those infinite suffocating hours.

Bogdan must have carried his religion with him through all his years with the Ottomans. Janissaries were converted to Islam. There were no other options. The rest of her men had dropped Islam like their Janissary caps, but they had not replaced it with anything else. Whatever faith they had had in their childhood had been trained out of them.

Lada wondered what it had cost Bogdan to hold on to Christianity in spite of so much opposition. Then again, he had always been stubborn both in grudges and loyalty. She was grateful for the latter, as his loyalty to her had been planted young and deep in the green forests and gray stones of their childhood in Wallachia. Before he had been taken from her by the Ottomans.

Impulsively she reached out and tugged on one of his ears like she had when they were children. An unexpected smile bloomed on his blocky features, and suddenly she was back with him, tormenting Radu, raiding the kitchens, sealing their bond with blood on dirty palms. Bogdan was her childhood. Bogdan was Wallachia. She had him back. She could get the rest.

“If you are working for the devil, can you tell him to pay us? Our purses are empty.” Matei held up a limp leather pouch to illustrate. Lada startled, turning away from Bogdan and the warmth in her chest. Matei was one of her original Janissaries, her oldest and most trusted men. They had followed her in Amasya, when she had had nothing to offer them. And they still followed her, with the same result.

Matei was older even than Stefan, with years of invaluable experience. Not many Janissaries lived to his age. When they had been surprised on the border, Matei had taken an arrow in the side protecting Lada. He was graying and gaunt, with a perpetually hungry look about him. That look had grown hungrier still during their sojourn in the mountain wildernesses of Transylvania. Lada valued that hunger in her men. It was what made them willing to follow her. But it was also what would drive them away if she did not do something more, soon. She needed to keep Matei on her side. She needed his sword and, in a less tangible but just as important way, she needed his respect. Bogdan she had no matter what. Her other men she was determined to keep.

Lada kept her eyes fixed on the walls of the city beneath them, watching as lights appeared like tiny beacons. “When your work is done, Matei, take anything you wish.”

Brasov had sealed its gates, allowing no one in after dark. Matei and Petru led five men each to scale the walls under cover of darkness. After waiting for them to get where they needed to be, Lada lit the base of a bone-dry dead tree. It greeted the flames hungrily, pulling them so quickly to the top that she and her men had to run from the heat.

The bases of the two towers on the opposite end of the city were engulfed in a matching bright blaze. Lada watched as panicked guards ran around atop the tower nearest her and peered over the edge. “Are you Wallachian?” she called out in her native tongue.

One of them shot an arrow. Lada twisted to the side, and it glanced off the chain mail shirt she wore. Bogdan fired a return arrow. The man tipped silently over the tower’s edge.

“Are you hurt?” Bogdan said, voice desperate as his big hands searched for a wound … around her breasts.

“Bogdan!” She slapped his hands away. “If I were, it would certainly not be a wound for you to see to!”

“You need a woman, then?” he asked, looking around as though one would magically appear.

“I am fine!”

Another man waved a piece of cloth above the edge of the tower. “Yes, we are Wallachian!” he shouted, voice quavering.

Lada considered it. “Let us in and you can run. Or you can join us.”

She counted her heartbeats. It took only ten before the tower door opened and seven men filed out. Three skulked silently into the trees. Four stayed. She walked past them and climbed the stairs to the top of the tower. It was circular, with a thick stone railing that she leaned over to view the city.

Already, panic spread like disease within the walls. People flooded the streets, women screaming, men shouting directions. It was chaos.

It was perfect.

Three days later, stray remnants of smoke still wrote Lada’s anger across the sky above the crippled city. She and her men had camped brazenly close by, drunk on soot and revenge, secure in the knowledge that every man in the city was spent with the effort of saving what had not already been lost. They were also more than a little drunk on the cart full of wine that Matei had somehow managed to bring back.

It was there that Stefan slid in, silent and anonymous as a shadow. He, too, had been with Lada since the beginning. He had always been the best at gathering information: a blank and unremarkable face making him a half-forgotten memory even as he stood in front of someone. One day, Lada thought, the world would know she was deserving of an assassin such as him.

“What news from Tirgoviste?” she asked. Her throat was still raw from breathing in so much smoke, but her hoarseness did not disguise her excitement. “Did you kill the prince?”

“He was not there.”

Lada scowled, hopes of announcing her rival’s death to her men dashed. His death would not have meant the throne was hers—he had two heirs her own age, and she still needed the damnable boyars to support her claim as prince—but it would have been satisfying. “Then why have you returned?”

“Because he is in Edirne. At Mehmed’s invitation.”

Though Lada knew her internal fire should have blazed to white-hot fury at this information, she was filled instead with cold, bitter ashes. Her pride had not allowed her to ask Mehmed for help. But all this time she had held him tightly in her heart, knowing that somewhere out there, Mehmed and Radu still believed in her.

And now even that was taken from her.




MEHMED HAD NOT left a letter in the potted plant where they exchanged messages. Radu always took the secret passage—the same one that Lada had run through the night of Ilyas and Lazar’s betrayal. And Radu always wished that this time Mehmed would be waiting in the chamber where Radu and Lada had saved his life. But Mehmed was never there. Radu lived for the few brief sentences he spent in Mehmed’s company. His eyes devoured the aggressive lines of Mehmed’s script, lingering on the few curving flourishes. They never signed or addressed the messages. Radu would have liked to see his own name, just once, in Mehmed’s hand.

But today, the dirt was as empty as Radu’s life. Mehmed had to know that Radu knew about the Danesti prince. Radu had not been technically invited to that party—meeting Suleiman there had been a desperate, last-minute plan—but Mehmed had seen him. And so, rather than leaving his own message about the navy and then slipping away to wait until Mehmed decided to address the matter of Lada’s fate, Radu sat. He hoped that …

Well, he no longer knew what to hope for. He sat, and waited.

As the sun set, Radu tried not to dwell on the horrors this room had held, but with Lada so firmly in his mind he could think of little else. He had been so certain she would take the Wallachian throne, he had not considered the possibility that she might fail. His sister did not fail. Was she even still alive? He could not imagine that Mehmed would withhold news of his sister’s death.

But Mehmed had kept the knowledge of their father’s and brother’s deaths from Lada. Who was to say he was not doing the same with Radu? And if he was, what did that mean? That he was trying to protect Radu? Or that he was trying to keep him focused on their goals with Constantinople and feared what this news would do? Or that Mehmed cared so little that Lada was dead, he had not even found the time to pass along the information …?

No. Radu could not believe the last one.

Unable to settle on any peaceful train of thought, Radu turned to the only solace in his life. He prayed, losing himself to the words and the motion. Whatever else was happening, had already happened, or would happen, he had God. He had prayer.

By the time he finished, a veil of peace had drifted over his harried mind. Drawing it tightly around himself, Radu opened the door and walked into the central hall of Mehmed’s sprawling apartments. He could do nothing to change the past. He could only do what he felt best for the future. And to do that, he needed more information.

All the rooms were dark. Radu found a chair in the corner of Mehmed’s bedchamber. He avoided looking at the bed, which threatened to tear his veil of peace.

Some time later, a girl around Radu’s age came in and lit the lamps, then slid silently back out. Radu was so still she did not notice him.

Neither did Mehmed when he finally walked in. The same girl followed him. Radu would have been afraid of seeing something he had no wish to, but the girl wore the plain clothing of a servant, not the silks and scarves of a concubine or a wife. Mehmed held out his arms and she carefully took off his robes, one luxurious layer at a time. Radu knew he ought to look away.

He did not.

When Mehmed was down to his underclothes, the servant set his robes aside and slid a nightshirt painted with verses of the Koran over his head. Then, bowing, she backed out of the room. As soon as the door shut behind her, the sultan melted away. All the darkness and fear that had nestled in Radu’s heart disappeared along with the sultan. There was Mehmed. His Mehmed, not the stranger who inhabited the throne.

Mehmed rubbed the back of his neck and sighed. Then he sat on the edge of the bed and unwound his voluminous turban. His hair was longer than Radu had ever seen it. Curling toward his shoulders, it was black in the dim light, though Radu knew it would shine with chestnut colors in the sun. Radu did not know what it would feel like to touch it, but he desperately wanted to.

“Is my sister dead?” Radu asked.

Mehmed stiffened, one hand going to his waist, where his dagger would normally be. Then he relaxed, shoulders sloping downward.

“You should not be here,” he said, without turning.

“You should not be meeting with the Danesti Wallachian prince without telling me what happened.”

Mehmed sighed, rubbing the back of his neck again. “She is not dead.”

Unexpected tears pooled in Radu’s eyes as he let out a sharp breath of relief—relief both that Lada was not dead and that his immediate reaction was not one of disappointment. He was not yet so evil, then, that he would begrudge his sister her life. Merely her place in Mehmed’s affections.

“What happened? I thought you gave her the throne.”

“I did. Apparently Wallachia disagreed with me.”

“And yet you support her rival?”

Mehmed lifted his hands helplessly. He was still facing away from Radu. Radu yearned to see his face, his expression. But he could not cover the distance between them. After this long, he did not trust himself to be close to Mehmed.

“What can I do? You know I need all my borders secure. I cannot fight a war on two fronts. If we are to take Constantinople, we need peace everywhere else. Hungary looms as a threat, with Hunyadi harassing me at every opportunity. I cannot afford to lose any territory in Europe, and I cannot start a war there without risking a crusade. The Danesti prince accepted all my terms.”

It made sense. It was a perfect explanation. And yet … Mehmed still would not look at him. “Is that all? Or do you keep Lada from the throne in the hopes that she will return here in her failure?” All Radu’s frustration and loneliness of the past year climbed out his throat, lacing his words with accusation.

Mehmed laughed, darker than the night pressing against the balcony. “Do you see her here? Have you heard from her even once? If she had asked for help, Radu, I would have sent it. I would have gone to war at one word from her. But she left us. She rejected us, and I will be damned if I follow without an invitation.”

Again, the explanation made sense. But none of the information felt as though it should have been withheld like a secret. “How long have you known Lada was not on the throne?”

Mehmed grunted away the question with a noncommittal sound in his throat. “Does it matter?”

“It matters to me. She is my sister. Why would you keep information about her from me?”

Finally, finally, Mehmed turned to him. In the dim light of the lamp, his face was thrown into sharp relief, nose and cheekbones golden, lips teased into view and then tipped back into darkness. “Maybe I was afraid.”

“Of what?”

“Afraid that if you knew she struggled, you would go to help her.”

Radu laughed in shock. “What do you think I could do to help her?”

Mehmed tilted his head to one side, half his face in shadow, the other in light. “You are asking sincerely?”

Radu looked at the floor, intensely uncomfortable. He longed for an answer, and feared one. What if Mehmed could think of no reasons that didn’t sound like anything more than empty words?

“I was always better with a bow and arrow.” Radu smiled wryly.

“Lada does not need a perfectly aimed arrow. She needs a perfectly aimed smile. Perfectly aimed words. Perfectly aimed manners.”

Radu finally dared to look back up. “Her aim in those matters has always been off.”

“And your aim never errs. Do not devalue what you can do merely because it is not what Lada excels at. You two are a balanced pair.” Mehmed stared into the space between them, eyes no longer focused on Radu. “Or you were, at least.”

In that moment Radu knew Mehmed was not seeing him but the absence of his sister. “Do not keep secrets from me,” he said.

Mehmed refocused sharply on him. “What?”

“When you keep things secret, it gives them more power, more weight. I assumed the worst as soon as I discovered your deception. I was willing to risk our friendship being found out simply to talk with you. Be open with me in the future.” Radu paused, knowing he had spoken to Mehmed as a friend and not as a sultan. In the past he would not have noticed. But now—now there was a distance. And he wondered if maybe the pretend distance had grown into something more. Frightened of this unknown element between them, he added a gentle “Please.”

“And you are open with me in all things?” There was a note in Mehmed’s voice, a subtle teasing lilt that terrified Radu in a different way. Was Mehmed asking what it seemed like he was asking?

“I— You know I work only for you, and—”

Mehmed dispelled the terror with one raised corner of his lips. “I know. And I was foolish to doubt your loyalties to our cause. But you cannot blame me for selfishly wanting to have you only to myself.”

“No,” Radu croaked, his mouth suddenly parched. “Of course not.” But the words that wanted to leave his mouth were “I am yours. Always.” He swallowed them painfully.

Mehmed shifted on the bed. “Do you have further plans for this evening?”

Radu’s heart pounded so loudly he wondered if Mehmed heard it. “What? What do you mean?”

Mehmed gestured toward the door. “Any idea how you are going to sneak out without being seen?”

The sweat that had broken out on Radu’s body turned cold and suffocating. He was a fool. “No.”

“I will go out and make certain any guards follow me to the first antechamber. You should be able to slip into the passageway then.” Mehmed stood, and Radu followed. Too close. He bumped into the other man.

Mehmed paused, then turned and clasped Radu’s arms. “It is good to see you again, my friend.”

“Yes,” Radu whispered. And then Mehmed was gone.


A letter from Nazira waited for him on his desk. She wrote that she and Fatima would be staying in the city in the modest home Kumal kept there. And, she informed Radu, he would be joining them for regular meals.

Radu was both annoyed and pleased. She did not need to fuss over him, but it would be nice to have someone to talk with who expected nothing from him. If he imagined the perfect sister, Nazira would be close to what he would create for himself.

The guilt resurfaced. He had been able to dismiss thoughts of Lada because he assumed she had everything she wanted. Now he knew otherwise. With a weary sigh, he pulled out a piece of parchment and a quill.

Beloved sister, he wrote. One of those words was true, at least.


Three days later, Radu walked toward an inn close to the palace, swinging his arms in time to his steps. A gathering of pashazadas—sons of pashas who were unimportant enough to still welcome him—had been talking about a foreign woman trying to be seen by the sultan. They joked she wanted to join his harem and had brought a cart full of cannons to make up for her homely face.

It was the cart that sparked Radu’s curiosity. And his concern. If a foreign woman was in the city with weapons, trying to meet the sultan, Radu wanted to know why. The other men might dismiss her as crazy, but he knew firsthand that women could be every bit as violent as men.

Turning a corner, Radu ran right into a woman. He managed to catch her, but her bundle of parchments tumbled to the ground. She swore loudly and vehemently in Hungarian. It made Radu oddly homesick for his stuffy, stuttering tutor running through their lessons in the middle of a forest. And then he realized this had to be her. The foreign woman trying to meet Mehmed.

“Forgive me,” Radu said, his Hungarian sliding into place despite years of neglect. He practiced his other languages—Latin, Greek, Arabic, anything that Mehmed had learned with Radu at his side—regularly, but Hungarian and Wallachian had not been on his tongue since Lada had left. “I was distracted.”

The woman looked up, surprised. She was young, older than him but only by a few years. She wore European-style clothing, sturdy skirts and blouses designed for travel. “You speak Hungarian?”

“Among other things.” Radu handed her the parchments. Her fingers were blunt and blackened, her hands shiny with scars from old burns.

“I do not speak Turkish. Can you help me?” She said it crossly, more demanding than pleading. “No one in this damnable city will let me have a conference with the sultan.”

Radu felt this wise of the damnable city. “Where are your servants? Your father?”

“I travel alone. And I am about to be kicked out of my inn for just that. I have nowhere to stay.” She rubbed her forehead, scowling. “All this travel wasted.”

“Are you trying to join the sultan’s harem?”

Her look of murderous outrage was so sudden and severe it reminded him of Lada. He liked the woman more for it, and was also alarmed. Maybe she was here to kill Mehmed.

“I would sooner join his stables and let him ride on my back than join his harem and let him ride on my front.”

Radu felt his cheeks burn and he cleared his throat. “Then what do you need?”

“I have a proposition for him. I went to Constantinople first, and they would not see me, either.”