And I Darken Page 6

Lada watched the whip with a calculating look. “Still,” she said. “Fists are faster.”

1446: Curtea de Arges, Wallachia

DURING THE HEIGHT OF the summer of Lada’s twelfth year, when plague descended with the insistent buzz of a thousand blue-black flies, Vlad took Lada and Radu out of the city. Mircea, their torment of an older brother, was in Transylvania soothing tensions. Lada felt gloriously visible riding by her father’s side. Radu and the nurse and Bogdan rode behind them, and her father’s contingent of guards farther back still. Her father pointed out various features of the countryside—a hidden trail up the side of a mountain, an ancient graveyard with long-forgotten people marked by smooth stones, the way the farmers carved out ditches to pull water from the river into their crops. She drank in his words with more thirst than the greedy soil.

Stopping briefly in the small green city of Curtea de Arges, they paid their respects at a church her father had bestowed his patronage on. Normally, Lada chafed under religious instruction. Though she attended church with her father, it was always a political duty of being seen, being observed, allowing one family or another to be closest to them as a matter of prestige. The priests sang soporifically, the air was cloying, and the light was dim, oppressively filtered through stained glass. They were Orthodox, but her father had political ties to the pope through the Order of the Dragon, so it was even more important that she stand up straight, listen to the priest, do everything exactly as it needed to look to others.

It was a performance that set Lada’s teeth on edge.

However, here, in this church, her father’s name was carved into the wall. It was covered in gold leaf and positioned next to a massive mosaic of Christ on the cross. It made her feel strong. As though God himself knew her family’s name.

One day she would build her own church, and God would see her, too.

They continued traveling along the Arges River, which sometimes was narrow and violently churning, sometimes as wide and smooth as glass. It snaked through the land until reaching the mountains. Everything was a green so deep it was nearly black. Dark gray stones and boulders jutted out of the steeply rising slopes, and beneath them the Arges wandered.

It was cooler here than in Tirgoviste, a chill that never quite burned away clinging to the rocks and moss. The looming mountains were so steep that the sun shone directly on the traveling company for only a few hours each day before shadows reclaimed the passes. It smelled of pine and wood and rot—but even the rot smelled rich and healthful, unlike the hidden rot of Tirgoviste.

Late one afternoon, near the end of their journey, their father reached up to an evergreen tree that was growing sideways off a boulder. He broke off a sprig, smelled it, then passed it to Lada with a smile. It was a smile that made her feel as full and dizzy as the mountain air did. A peaceful smile. She had never seen such a smile on her father’s face, and being the recipient of it made her heart beat with a frenzied happiness.

“We are that tree,” he said, then rode ahead.

Lada pulled on the reins to make her horse, a docile and dull-brown creature, pause. She studied the tree squeezing life out of stone. It was twisted and small but green, growing sideways in defiance of gravity. It lived where nothing had any business thriving.

Lada did not know whether her father meant the two of them, or whether he meant all of Wallachia. In her mind, the two had become indistinguishable. We are that tree, she thought, holding the richly scented sprig to her nose. We defy death, to grow.

That evening they came to a village snuggled between the river and the mountains. The homes were simple, spare, nothing compared with their castle. But children ran and played in the lanes, and bright bursts of flowers were nurtured in tiny plots. Chickens and sheep roamed freely.

“What about thieves?” Radu asked. In Tirgoviste, their animals were kept carefully penned, with someone assigned to watch them at all hours.

Their nurse made a sweeping motion with her arm to encompass the whole village. “Everyone knows everyone. Who would steal from their neighbor?”

“Yes, because they would be immediately found out and punished,” Lada said.

Radu gave her a frowning sort of smile. “Because they care about each other.”

They were served food—warm, round loaves of rough bread, chicken blackened on the outside and scalding hot on the inside. Perhaps it was the travel, or the smell of green things all around, but even the food here tasted richer and more real to Lada.

The next morning Lada woke early, the straw under her cot poking through her shift and into her back. With the nurse snoring, and Bogdan and Radu curled up in the corner like puppies, Lada slipped out the window.

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