Now I Rise Page 42

“I did you a favor! Even if I sent you the troops, even if you took the throne, you could never keep it. They would never follow a woman as prince. Abandon this delusion, Lada. It will destroy you. Come with me. Fight at my side. I trust only you with my life.” He pointed at the slit in the tent wall. “I could die without you.”

Lada raised an eyebrow. “I suppose that is an acceptable risk.”

Mehmed threw his hands in the air and started pacing. “I am offering you so much more. I am offering you the world. I am offering you myself.” He pointed angrily at the bed. “You were happy enough to accept it a few minutes ago.”

“That was different! You promised me soldiers.”

Disgust squeezed his words. “Was this merely a transaction for you?”

Lada slammed her fist into his stomach. He doubled over, and she spoke right into his ear. “Do not ever talk to me that way.” But his words had struck too close to home. Angry tears filled her eyes. She had not sold her body to him, and she hated him for thinking she had used it to manipulate him. But she had sold her determination to gain the throne on her own, as well as her relationship with Hunyadi. All for the false promise of a few hundred men.

Mehmed caught her hand and pressed it against his cheek. “Whatever else you believe, know that what I did, I did out of love. I love you. I have always loved you. Will you still choose Wallachia?”

Lada yanked her hand away and retrieved her knife from the floor. “You betray my brother with your feigned ignorance of his feelings. You betrayed me. But I will never betray Wallachia.” She lifted the knife, pointing it at him. “If you set foot on Wallachian soil again—my soil—I will kill you.”

Ignoring Mehmed as he shouted her name, she left the tent through the same cut she had entered it. This time it seemed much deeper.






Early April


IN THE CLAMMY morning fog, Radu sweated. He leaned against the stone steps for a few breaths, then continued climbing. The awkward shape of the tombstone chunk he held made his fingers cramp. When he finally reached the top of the wall, he staggered to the mound of stones and added his own.

“Funny, using tombstones of the dead to repair the walls.”

Radu looked up into the well-worn but cheerful face of Giovanni Giustiniani, the Italian man from his first, and so far only, meeting with Constantine. Giustiniani was tall, broad-shouldered, even powerful in the way he moved. A deep line between his brows made them look set in a permanent scowl, but all his other wrinkles told of smiling and laughter.

Radu wiped his forehead with the back of his arm and straightened. He was only a couple of inches taller than the older man. “Well, it is the least those citizens could contribute to the city’s defense.”

Giustiniani laughed, a sound like a cannon shot. He clapped a hand on Radu’s shoulder. “I remember you. You brought us news of the infidels’ preparations.”

Radu nodded. It was always jarring to hear the Ottomans referred to as the infidels, since that was what they called the Christians. “I wish I had come armed with better tidings.”

“All information, good or bad, helps us.” Giustiniani sighed and turned toward a group of men shouting at each other. “The dead contributing their tombstones may yet do more than the living who cannot stop fighting with each other.” He strode away, toward the fight.

Radu leaned over the edge of the wall and looked out onto the plain beneath. It had been cleared of anything that could hide the Ottoman forces. In front of them was a fosse, a large, deep ditch meant to slow down attackers and make them easy to pick off. Constantinople’s defenses of a fosse, the outer wall where Radu stood, and an inner wall had repelled all attackers for more than a thousand years.

But none of those attackers had been Mehmed.

“Radu!” The voice triggered a wave of happiness even before Radu realized who had called to him.

Radu turned to find Cyprian walking next to the emperor. Radu bowed deeply, trying to look surprised, as though he had not overheard Cyprian saying that he would be touring the walls with Constantine today, as though Radu had not deliberately stationed himself at one of the weakest points of the wall, knowing that the two men would end up here sooner rather than later. Cyprian had been so busy that he and Radu barely saw each other, even living in the same house.

But going out of his way to run into the other man was tactical. It was not because he was lonely for conversation with anyone outside of the bedroom he shared with Nazira. She, too, was frequently gone, making social calls and leaving Radu with far too much time to think.

“Have you seen Giustiniani?” Cyprian asked.

“You only now missed him. There was a fight, and he went to see about it.”

Constantine leaned out over the wall, itching at his beard. “If the Italians send us nothing else but Giustiniani, they have still done more to help than anyone. I cannot keep the Genoese from fighting with the Venetians, who fight with the Greeks, who suspect the Genoese, who hate the Orthodox, who hate the Catholics. Only the Turks under Orhan seem to get along with everyone.” He smiled wryly at Radu.

“Orhan is still here?” Radu was surprised that he had not fled the city in advance of the siege.

“He has nowhere else to go. And I am glad for his help, and the help of his men. He is no Giustiniani, but no one is. Except perhaps Hunyadi.”

Radu was eager to contribute to a topic he knew something about. “I had never heard of Giustiniani before, but if he is anything like Hunyadi, the Ottomans will fear and hate him.”

“They fear Hunyadi that much?”

“He is a specter that haunts them. Even their victories against him count for little when stacked against how much he has cost them. His name alone would cause problems for Mehmed.”

Constantine nodded thoughtfully. “He should have been here by now. I am afraid we have lost him.”

“But you have more Venetians?” Radu hoped it sounded like he was trying to be positive rather than fishing for more information.

“Only a handful. We hope more are coming. Galata, our neighbor, will send no men. They are too afraid of being caught in the conflict. They are everyone’s allies, and thus no one’s. It was all we could do to make them attach the boom across the horn.”

The giant chain that closed access to the Golden Horn bay was strung from Constantinople to Galata. Sitting along the swift water leading to the horn, Galata lacked Constantinople’s natural defenses. If Mehmed attacked the city, it would fall. But he did not want to waste resources on Galata. If he took Constantinople, Galata would effectively be his.

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