Now I Rise Page 82

“How?” one of the men asked.

“Because anyone who opposes me will be dead. Those are my terms. They will not be offered again.”

The gate opened.

Several men fell into line with her own as they rode into the city. “You,” she said, pointing at one of them. “Deliver my terms to every guard you meet.”

He sprinted eagerly ahead of Lada’s troops. They continued at an unhurried pace. The streets were narrow, like spokes in a wheel going toward the castle. She looked back only once, to see her party stretching back to the gate and beyond, everyone squeezing in to follow. Their numbers had swelled to more than double the soldiers. Men, women, even children. The children danced and laughed in the torchlight like it was a parade. The men and women were warier, but an intensity shone in their eyes that had not been there before. She had done that.

She faced forward again. She had not romanticized Tirgoviste when she lived here, but after all these years and her time in the Ottoman Empire, it was not only smaller than she remembered, but also dingier, bleaker. Even the manors were pale and haphazard imitations of stateliness. Paint had chipped away to reveal the brown and gray stone skeletons of houses like flesh rotting from bone.

No one exited the boyar manors to join the procession. Their windows were curtained and shuttered against the night. Against Lada. They passed a fountain that she remembered running with clear water. She had dunked her head there once, trying to wash away the fear that living in the castle had bred within her. Now, fetid water lay still and stinking in it. But she was not afraid anymore, and had nothing to wash away.

The gates to the castle wall were open. Guards stood to either side, eyes on the ground, heads lowered as she passed. Nicolae and Bogdan looked around rapidly, shifting behind her, but she had no fear of assassins’ arrows. Just as Hunyadi had ridden into the city wearing his confidence and rightness around him, so would she. No one could shoot her. No one could stop her.

She nodded toward the door to the castle. The guard who had run ahead opened it for her. She rode her horse straight through, its hooves clattering against the stone floor. No pretty tiles here, no rugs, nothing between the teeth of the castle and the people it devoured.

She liked it that way. Her horse plodded forward, tentative in the narrow halls with their burning torches. Behind her, she heard Bogdan and Nicolae trying to calm their horses. She did not stop or wait for them to reassure the nervous beasts. The throne room was ahead of her. The last time she had been here, she had watched her father pretend he had any power left as he addressed Hunyadi.

It felt right that as she entered high on the back of her horse, the Danesti prince sat stiff and sweating on the throne. A phantom memory of the scent of her father’s beard oil teased her nose. She wished for one heartbeat that the man on the throne were her father. That he could see what she had become, in spite of him. Because of him.

The Danesti was saying something, but she had not bothered to start listening. Her eyes were caught on the curved length of the Ottoman sword still hanging above the throne. It was framed by two torches, flickering hypnotically. She guided her horse closer, entranced.

“I said, explain yourself!”

Startled, she looked down at the sputtering prince. His face was red, a sheen of sweat making his skin glow. She did not remember him from her time here as a girl. He had not mattered to her then, and he did not matter to her now.

She glanced around the room. There were several guards, but none moved toward her. She heard voices in the hall, someone swearing about a horse. She was alone.

It did not matter.

She addressed the sword. “I have delivered my terms already.”

“I have heard no terms!” the prince huffed.

“They are not for you. They are for the Wallachians in this room. Land and wealth for those on my side. Death for those opposed.”

“You have no right to offer them such things!”

She nudged her horse forward so that the Danesti had to scramble to the side of the throne to avoid the horse’s long, velvety nose. Lada stood in the stirrups, reaching for the sword on the wall. She tugged it free, pulling it out of its sheath. It was dimmed by age but sharp enough. The sword of their enemies. The sword of their vassalage. The sword of their weakness.

Her sword now. She lifted it in the air, turning it to play with the torchlight. “I have the only right there is.” She put the sword through the usurper’s chest before he could answer her. He had nothing to say she cared about. She turned her horse, pulling the sword free.

“It is going to be a nightmare to clean that throne,” Nicolae said as he walked into the room, followed by Bogdan and the rest of her men.

Lada smiled. “I am the throne. Put his body on a stake in the square as proof that I keep my promises. Loyalty rewarded. Cowardice cut down.”

The gate guard ran forward eagerly, dragging the body from the throne. It left a trail of blood, black in the dim light. The only legacy this prince would ever have, his weakness written across stones as testament to Lada’s superiority.

Bogdan took a knee, his deep voice booming through the room. “All hail Lada the dragon, prince of Wallachia!”

Lada’s horse shifted, putting her directly in line with one of the narrow, high windows. Through it, perfectly framed, the falling star finally burned out. She lifted her face, closing her eyes, as her mother blessed her. A warmth settled deep inside, and she clutched the locket she always wore.

She was home.






May 25–26


“DO YOU THINK he will recover?” Radu asked, pacing anxiously. He had half carried, half dragged Cyprian back to the house. Though Cyprian did not appear to have suffered any significant visible damage, a cut on his head bled freely, and he had not yet woken up.

“Time will tell.” Nazira finished cleaning up the blood. She gave Radu a concerned look that managed to pull her full lips nearly flat. “Sit down. You cannot worry him back to health.”

Radu collapsed into a chair and put his head in his hands. “I know we greased the poles of the icon. But the way it refused to be picked up again—and then the storm. I have never been in a storm of such sudden fury. They brought out the Hodegetria to guide them, and instead they were swept away, carried off in the middle of a tempest.”

“This city is getting to you, Radu. Even you see signs in everything now.”

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