Now I Rise Page 41

“I do not care what you needed! He was supposed to be here, with me! Or at the very least at your side during the siege, where he would no doubt be perfectly safe.”

Mehmed sat up, too, eyes flashing dangerously. “What do you mean by that?”

“I mean that wherever you are during the siege will be the safest place in the world. Which is where my brother should be as well! How could you throw him into so much danger?”

“It was the best choice.”

“For him, or for you?”

“For the empire.”

“Oh, for the empire! Well, that makes everything better.” Lada threw back the blankets and got out of bed. She began tugging her discarded clothes on.

“Radu will be fine. He is smarter and stronger than you have ever given him credit for,” Mehmed said.

Lada jabbed a finger against his bare chest. “Do not dare tell me you know my brother better than I do.”

Mehmed laughed. “But I do.”

Words she knew she would always regret saying halted on the tip of her tongue. If Mehmed did not know how Radu felt about him, he would not learn of it from her. “You ask too much of him.”

“I ask only what he is willing to do. Nothing more.”

“Then I do know him better, you fool. Radu would do anything for you.”

Mehmed looked away, a dark flush spreading across his cheeks.

“You know …” Lada’s eyes narrowed to thin slits, her fists clenched so tightly they ached. “You know that he is in love with you.”

Mehmed tilted his head to the side, as though brushing something off his shoulder. “Your brother is very important to me.”

“But he will never be as important to you as you are to him. Mehmed, release him. You must release him from this false hope he carries.”

He shook his head. “I cannot. I care for Radu. And I need him.”

“But you will never love him the way he loves you.”

Mehmed stood, reaching for Lada’s fisted hands. “How could I? I love you.”

Lada closed her eyes against the way his words struck her. Radu felt like a ghost in the room, looming in the whisper of a breeze against the back of her neck. She had what he wanted, and she did not even know what to do with it.

“Bring him back. He could die.”

Mehmed released her hands. “I have no one else better suited to the task. It is a risk, yes. But it is an acceptable risk. He knows the dangers, and he agreed. He cares as much as I do about Constantinople.”

Lada let out a harsh bark of laughter. “No one cares about anything so much as you do that accursed city.”

“You care about Wallachia that much.”

“Because it is mine! What claim do you have to Constantinople that justifies risking Radu’s life?”

Mehmed shook his head. He sat on the edge of the bed, shoulders curved inward as he ran his fingers through his hair. “I promise Radu will come out unharmed. And then we will all be together.”

“You cannot promise that. And how will we be together? He will always choose your side over mine.”

“Not if my side is your side as well.” He smiled up at her, exhaustion pooling in the hollows beneath his eyes. “I cannot do this alone. You were right to leave before. I did not know your value, and I would have left you behind. But I know now.” His smile turned tender. “And you know now, too. I need you with me. I want you with me. Stand by my side at the walls. Help me claim my destiny. And then … rule it. With me. As empress of Rome.”

Lada took a small step back, overwhelmed. “Empress.”

Still naked, Mehmed stood before her, completely open and vulnerable, with his hands out, palms up. “Take the city with me. Take the crown. Take me, Lada.”

A memory long since forgotten played out in front of her. Huma, Mehmed’s terrifying mother, telling her the story of Theodora. The actress, the prostitute, the powerless woman who found the love of the emperor and rose to be emperor with him. Saving him and the city, changing everything to her vision of how it should be based only on her strength.

And the strength of the man who loved her.

Could Lada be that woman?

But Mehmed had not said emperor. He had said empress. Emperor consort. She would still owe her power and her position to a man. And she was no lowly prostitute, no actress. She already had a birthright of her own.

“What about Wallachia?”

“Forget about Wallachia! Why be vaivode of a worthless country when you can be empress of the greatest empire in the world?”

She stepped back from him. “Because if I do not lead Wallachia, no one will.”

Mehmed brushed a hand through the air. “We will make certain Wallachia is always taken care of.”

Lada shook her head slowly. The offer was tempting. But she was so close to Wallachia. She could feel it nearby, just as she had Mehmed. She could not turn her back on her country now. “Where are the troops? I can—we can discuss this after. When I have Wallachia secured, and you have Constantinople, then … then, I do not know. Maybe there will be a way for us. After we have accomplished what we need to.”

Hurt reshaped Mehmed’s face into something younger, softer. “Is that the only reason you came?”

“Of course it is!” Lada snapped.

His vulnerability was replaced with cold, stony features and imperious brows. He grabbed his nightshirt and pulled it over his head. “There are no troops.”

“What do you mean?”

“I need every man I have. I cannot spare them to destabilize a country I already control. I have a treaty with the Danesti prince.”

Lada staggered back. “But you could spare men to harass Hunyadi. You did not need to do that. You could have trusted me and given me those forces instead. Were there ever any troops? Did you ever mean to help me?”

“I am helping you! You are destined for bigger things! With me.” He stepped toward her and she put her hands up.

“You did not write me. Not once, not until after I wrote Radu about having Hunyadi’s trust. You saw an opportunity, and you used me. I betrayed Hunyadi for you.” In all her life, Lada had never felt as small and miserable as she did then. She had sold Hunyadi’s kindness for nothing. All her justifications and rationalizing amounted to nothing. She was no closer to Wallachia in spite of all her sacrifices. “You tricked me.”

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