And I Darken Page 89

Most of the time it made her want to pitch him off the cliffs.

“And who told you the spahis were lazy, fat pigs? Have you fought them?”

“Why would I fight them? We are on the same side.”

Lada and Nicolae shared a glance. Perhaps Petru would need to be released from her regiment. “Are the spahis forbidden from growing beards?”

Petru scoffed. “No.”

“And yet you are permitted only a mustache.”

“If he can ever manage that,” said Matei, a wiry man with a perpetually hungry look whom Lada had recruited from his corps in Edirne. Petru threw a rock at him. All together Lada had ten men, varying in age from eighteen to mid-twenties. There were few Wallachians to choose from, the Ottomans preferring other nationalities as making smarter and better soldiers.

Fools. Lada squinted, looking for which houses could be blown up with the stores of Janissary gunpowder to most effectively block the roads to the keep. “And are the spahis forbidden to marry and have children?”

“No.”

“Another thing our Petru could never manage,” Nicolae said cheerfully.

Lada waited for the laughter to die down. “And are the spahis slaves, stolen from their homelands and brought here to serve another man’s master and another man’s god?”

She was met with silence. “The spahis resent our growing power. They resent our organization, our skill in battle, our position closest to the sultan and the sultan’s heirs. Do not ever think you are on their side, because they are not on yours. They fight to gain land, prestige, and wealth. We fight because it is the only thing given to us.”

She waited for a few moments, then continued. “Who organizes a city’s defenses?”

“The spahi in charge.” Petru sounded focused as he crawled next to her to look over the city.

Lada traced the line of the river as though it were a serpent. “Cut off the head in your first strike, and the body is powerless before you.”

Matei continued sharpening a dagger on a whetstone where he sat on a fallen tomb marker. “Much as I would enjoy cutting off the heads of a few spahis, I am not certain I have time to set fire to the city tonight.”

“Planning imaginary destruction is my favorite training game, though.” Nicolae stretched long, rolling onto his back. “It is so very restful.”

Lada pushed herself up, dusting off her tunic and adjusting the white cap she now wore. “Is Ilyas Bey on duty?”

Stefan, a quiet man whose face was a cloudless sky—devoid of emotion and impossible to read—nodded. He spoke little, but Lada had found he had a mind like an ant colony, constantly bringing in bits of information to feed itself.

She nodded in return. “Good. Time to assassinate Mehmed.”

Nicolae groaned. “That is so much less restful.” But the other men were already packing up, anticipation lighting their faces. As they wound their way down the mountainside toward the fortress, they made their plans. Stefan ran ahead to spy whether Mehmed was outside or inside. He could usually determine it solely by the presence of guards in certain areas.

If Mehmed was outside, they would launch a sneak assault over the wall, firing arrows as fast as possible. If he was inside, Matei and three others would get as close as possible, hoping no one noticed that they were not on duty, while Nicolae scouted for Mehmed’s location and signaled from a turret where he was. That would leave Lada, Petru, and four other soldiers light and strong enough to climb the outer walls of the fortress.

They needed only one person to get close enough. One shot, one dagger, one chance was all it would take to kill the heir.

Stefan met them at a gnarled pine that grew sideways out of the rocks. Lada always chose this as the meeting spot, though it made her heart hurt with long-distant and time-poisoned memories of happiness.

Stefan’s face was, as always, unreadable. But there was something defensive in his stance that put Lada’s teeth on edge. She knew what he would say before he spoke, and she also knew that he knew it would upset her, which was almost as bad.

“Janissary presence at the gates to the harem, two eunuchs on duty at the doors.”

Her men let out a collective breath, whether in relief or frustration she did not know. Nicolae’s voice was deliberately bright. “Well, that signals the end of today’s game. We cannot very well launch an assault on the harem.”

“And why not?” Lada’s jaw ached. She focused on that concrete, specific pain. Since she began training her men, she had seen little of Mehmed. And, when he did see her, it was always dark corners, stolen kisses, desperate hands.

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