And I Darken Page 69

“I could do it.”

Huma tilted her head, considering, then sighed. “No. I do not doubt you could get a knife into the chasm between his ribs, but you could not get out alive. That is not a real victory for you. Stay with Mehmed, help him. He is our best hope. We must protect our investment.” She put a dry, cold hand on Lada’s cheek, her face almost tender. “Marry him, too, if you wish. I was wrong to warn you away. Carve out a life for yourself however you can. No one will do it for you.”

She nodded toward a group of turbaned and caped young men standing in a cluster near Mehmed’s enclosure. Radu stood in the center, laughing, sharply outlined even amid the incense haze. “Your brother, though. People will pluck out their own hearts to create a place for him. He will never have to get his hands dirty.”

She held her hands beside Lada’s and smiled. “But hands painted red are hands that do what needs to be done.” She straightened, letting the mask of playful sensuality fall back onto her face, though it did not fit as well as it had the last time Lada saw her. Then, in a whisper of crimson, she drifted away.

Mehmed was inaccessible as the weeks dragged on. They were now four weeks into the wedding and Lada did not know how they had not all died of excessive enjoyment. Even Radu would have been an acceptable distraction at this point, but he was always at the center of gatherings or simply gone. She did not know where he disappeared to. Probably celebrations of the celebration, where even more glittering people would fawn over him and his clever, beautiful mouth.

Huma’s words had stuck with her. Mehmed’s position was as precarious as it had ever been, if not more so. And Lada could not forget what had happened the last time they were in Edirne. She still awoke with the taste of blood in her mouth sometimes, the memory of bone beneath teeth, her hand curled around a dagger that was not there anymore.

Nicolae, recently off duty, sighed as he walked with her. The barracks were dark, and they stopped to lean against a wall. Floral perfume hung heavily in the night, but at least out here Lada could breathe. She liked the dark better than all the forced, false light of the wedding nonsense.

Nicolae took off his white Janissary cap and rubbed his sweat-slick hair. “I understand why you are concerned about Mehmed’s safety, and I agree. But there is a difference between the last time Mehmed was here and now.”

“And what is that?”

“Before, he was under the guard of the old Janissary corps. They had been stationed in the city forever. They have their own politics, their own allegiances, none of which were to him, leaving him vulnerable. This time, he is under our guard. We have been with him for years. And he is no longer an insufferable zealot, a brat we cannot respect and care nothing for. We have fought under him, and we will fight for him. You will not find a traitor in our ranks. You know that, Lada.” He clapped her on the shoulder. “Let Mehmed worry about pleasing his pretty bride. Let us worry about keeping him safe.”

“And what am I to worry about?”

“Nothing! Get some sleep, little dragon. That is an order.” He walked into the barracks, joining his fellow soldiers, and leaving Lada alone with her worries. They were poor company, nagging and tugging, pulling her hair and whispering in her ear.

Mehmed dead. Mehmed in love. Mehmed forgetting she existed. Everyone forgetting she existed. Continuing to exist in a world that cared not one whit whether or not she did. Continuing to exist in a world where she would never be kissed again.

Caring whether or not she was ever kissed again, damnable Mehmed and his lips and his tongue and everything that came from them!

She needed a job, something real, something she could focus on and channel her energies into. Nicolae did not think Mehmed was in danger, because he did not see how Mehmed could be a threat to anyone. Murad was back, the country was stable, everyone was happy. But as long as Mehmed was alive, there was the promise of him coming to the throne. Who would be threatened most by that?

Halil Pasha.

Halil Pasha! Lada latched onto him as a new goal. He had always been a menace, had probably even been behind the first assassination attempt. Surely he was still a danger to Mehmed. Lada would follow him, shadow him, see any threat before it even approached Mehmed. Energized by her newfound purpose, she had no time to waste. She stopped at the harem building, lit up like a bonfire against the night, and asked the eunuch guarding the gate to speak with Huma. Lada had not seen her at the day’s celebrations, and this late many guests would already be home and in bed.

The eunuch frowned, considering her. “Huma is not well.”

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