Now I Rise Page 89

“Not yet.” He pulled out the Ottoman flags they had stolen from Orhan’s tower. They ran through the echoing palace, climbing and climbing until they reached the top. From there they heard the sounds of dying, the clash of metal, the screams of fury.

They tore down the emperor’s flag, and in its place they hung the flag of the Ottoman Empire. Splitting up, they found every place they could hang a flag where the combatants would see it, finally meeting back on the wall above the gate that Radu had left open. He waved the last flag he had, before draping it over the wall above the way in.

He looked, then, at where Constantine stood between his city and destruction. Though it was too dark and Radu knew it was not possible, he felt as though they locked eyes one last time. A cry went up among the men; the desperate push at the gate to the city intensified. They thought the Ottomans were inside, and would abandon all to go save their families, or die alongside them.

Radu turned away. He had done his part. The pendulum had swung in Mehmed’s favor and would never return to the defenders’. He had managed to kill Constantine after all. But too late to be merciful to any of them.

“What now?” Nazira whispered.

“Cyprian,” Radu said.

They clasped hands and ran from the palace into the dark city, racing against the coming flood.








THE BODY OF Lada’s brother Mircea rotted in a shallow grave a short ride from Tirgoviste. He had been heading for Snagov, the monastery island where their father had once taken them. He had not ridden fast or far enough to find sanctuary. Where he lay, the earth was nearly indistinguishable from that around it. Lada had only found his body because one of the soldiers who had run him down was now hers.

Ah, the loyalty of men.

She dismounted and kicked idly at the finally thawed ground. The morning mist had settled in the depression, softening everything. It was a beautiful morning, damp, with the slow promise of heat on the way. Petru and Bogdan stayed on their horses, scanning the field and distant trees for threats. Lada was prince now, which made her an even bigger target. But this was something she had felt she needed to do.

She could not share her victory with the brother she loved, so she would resolve the fate of the one she had hated.

Now that she was here, she did not know what she had expected to accomplish. Rebury him? Bring his remains back to the castle? Say a prayer over his body, one that might as well be blasphemy for all the sincerity it held? She finally had to admit that she had seized on this adventure mainly as a way of escaping the city. Toma had been pestering her, wanting to talk about various Danesti boyars and their loyalties—how to gain them, why she needed them, what marriages might cement them. The other boyar lines were not thrilled with her ascension, but they would not object as long as they profited. The Danesti lines took it personally, though. Toma never passed up an opportunity to circle back to the subject of marriage with a Danesti, dangling the possibility in front of Lada with all the subtlety of a noose.

Finally she had told him she would meet with every Danesti boyar at the same time, and left him to plan it for her. She was certain his letter-writing skills far surpassed her own; he would know what to say to get the boyars to come. Her idea had been to tell them to come or forfeit their land and their lives. Toma had laughed like she had made a wonderful joke.

At least Mircea was dead, and she did not have to listen to him. That made him preferable to Toma. “How did he die?” she asked.

“He died well,” the soldier said, voice tight as he stared straight ahead.

Lada snorted. “You are a liar. My brother was a bully and a coward. He would not have died well. He would have died fighting, or begging for his life. Which was it?”

The soldier shifted uncomfortably. “He died fighting.”

“If he died fighting, why did you not say that to begin with?”

The soldier swallowed, saying nothing further.

“Dig him up.”

The man finally met her eyes, horror shifting his dull expression into something childlike. “But—”

“Dig him up.”

The man looked from the grave to Lada, then back again. “But we have no shovels, no tools.”

Lada reached into her saddlebag and pulled out a hard loaf of bread. She broke off pieces and passed them to Bogdan and Petru. They dismounted and dragged an old stump over for Lada to sit on. She made herself comfortable. The soldier still stared dumbly. Lada pulled out a knife, setting it on the stump. “You have your hands. For now.”

The man began digging.

The sun was directly overhead by the time he finished. His fingernails bled and he cradled his hands to his chest as he backed away from the body he had unearthed. Lada held her cloak over her nose. It would have been better had she taken the throne in the winter. It was warm enough now for her to smell him.

But that was not the troubling part. Her brother—Mircea the cruel, Mircea the hated, Mircea the dead—did not stare up at her with the accusing eyes of the dead. He did not stare up at all.

She was looking at the back of his head.

“Turn him over,” she said.

Gagging, the soldier reached into the grave and maneuvered the corpse so it was faceup. Mircea’s skin was waxy and thin where it had not been eaten away to the bone. His fingers, too, looked like the soldier’s—nails broken and caked with dirt. Mircea’s mouth was open in a scream, black with rot. Lada leaned closer. No—it was black with dirt, all the way down as far as she could see.

“You buried him alive,” she said.

The soldier shook his head frantically. “I had nothing to do with it. It was Hunyadi’s men and the Danesti prince.”

“But you were there.”

The man shook his head, then nodded, foolish tears of desperation leaking from his eyes. “But I did not kill him!”

Lada sighed, kicking the corpse of her brother back over so he could not see her. It was a terrible way to die. She imagined him twisting and turning, the weight of dirt suffocating him as he grew more and more disoriented. In the end, he had been clawing deeper into the earth, instead of toward the sun and freedom.

She wondered how her father had died. No one in Tirgoviste knew where he had been killed. Or, if they did, they were smart enough to say nothing. And she wondered about her own loyalty—and disloyalty—to Hunyadi, the man who had helped the Danesti boyars kill both her brother and father. The boyars whose support she was still courting. Guilt and regret warred with resigned exhaustion. She did not know how to feel about this. Why could she have no easy relationships? Why was there no man in her life she could feel only one way about?

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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