And I Darken Page 113

Lada could not have anticipated that an even more odious and discomfiting task than watching the endless coronation lay ahead. Mehmed, in the outer chambers of Murad’s apartments, met with each of his father’s wives and concubines. As per Lada’s demands, there were two guards stationed at each door, and one of her own men in the room with Mehmed at all times.

Today, that was her role. As woman after woman entered, starting with the lowliest who had only recently moved from servant to full harem member, Lada was forced to acknowledge the reality of this part of the throne. Her hand constantly twitched over her sword. She was not certain what, exactly, she wanted to kill.

A trembling concubine left, to be replaced by a woman Lada knew. Mara still wore clothes unsuited to the courts—a full, intricately embroidered dress with no veil. Her hair was pulled back and elaborately curled. There was no touch of Ottoman style in her entire ensemble. She did not bow to Mehmed, merely raised an eyebrow. “Good morning.” She spoke Latin instead of Turkish.

He smiled, bemused. “Mara Brankovic.”

“My fame precedes me.” Sweeping her skirts out, she sat on a sofa parallel to Mehmed’s chair, rather than cowering in front of him.

“I am glad to see you well.”

“Widowhood suits me.”

Lada snorted a laugh. Mara acknowledged her with a glance, smiling coldly.

Mehmed cleared his throat, trying to regain Mara’s attention. “I am not certain what to do with you.” Most of the other women were being sent to various estates, depending on their rank within the harem and whom they were related to. Daughters of important families were returned, some with marriages already prearranged by Mehmed and their fathers. Radu was, even now, discussing a match with some important pasha on Mehmed’s behalf. Like coins exchanged, the women passed from one hand to another.

Lada’s fingers tightened around her sword hilt.

“I have had an offer of marriage from Constantine,” Mara said.

Mehmed could not hide his surprise. “Constantine?”

“I suspect he thinks it will soften your alliance with my father and Serbia, since it was in large part due to my influence that my father stayed out of the conflict at Varna. Losing Serbia as a vassal state would be a blow to your empire, and an embarrassment to your recent ascension to the throne. Europe does not expect much from you.”

Mehmed nodded, his face now carefully impassive. “I am surprised at his boldness. And his speed. Though I wonder at your wisdom in telling me.”

Lada did not question it. Mara had something behind this. She was too smart to let an opportunity go to waste.

Mara shrugged, tilting her head. “God has freed me. I will never marry again. I have already written Constantine a refusal, which I will sign and send as soon as I am on my way home to Serbia.”

Mara had no sword, but she had effectively used herself as a weapon. Mehmed could not harm her without risking his alliance with her father; and if he angered her, he risked strengthening Constantinople’s chances at more allies. She would not be used in any way other than the one she chose.

A sudden, fierce envy seized Lada. All Mara’s patience had paid off. She had written her own fate, free of the men who tried to engineer it for her.

Mehmed stood and inclined his head respectfully. “I shall make the arrangements immediately. We will have you on your way in the morning with gifts for yourself and your father, and a renewed peace treaty to deliver with my blessing.”

Mara stood, dipping into a graceful curtsy. Her smile for Lada this time was genuine. Then, without expressing gratitude for the escape she had crafted all on her own, she walked from the room.

“I will miss her,” Lada said.

Mehmed laughed. “That does not surprise me. She always was the most fearsome of my father’s wives.”

“And with fearsome wives on our minds…” Lada nodded toward the door, where Huma waited, supported by a eunuch.

“Concubine. Never a wife.” Huma spoke with a tremble that had not been there before. Her skin was a shade of yellow that made Lada want to look away, the full body she had been so proud of before now wasted beneath her slack robes.

“Mother.” Mehmed rose to help her sit. “You did not need to come.”

“Of course I came. You are my son. The sultan.”

Lada had expected pride, even exultation, but the words sounded as though they tasted bitter on Huma’s tongue.

“But there is no question of your future,” Mehmed said. “You will stay here, in the palace.”

“It is not my future that concerns me. We need to discuss plans. We got you to the throne; now we must ensure that you keep it.”

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