Angels of Istanbul (Arising, #2)
This title is #2 of the Arising series.
Wallachian nobleman Radu is recently arrived in Bucharest with his vampire parents. Welcomed as an eligible bachelor, he’s introduced to the enchantress Ecaterina, whose salon is Bucharest’s centre of magical expertise.
But when Ecaterina’s brother dies of a mysterious new plague, it’s clear to Radu that his parents have not been idle. Soon Bucharest is in the grip of an undead epidemic—a less than ideal time for Ottoman Sultan Mahmud, Wallachia’s overlord, to call Bucharest’s nobility to assemble their armies in Istanbul for a holy war against Britain.
The Wallachians have long resented their Ottoman overlords, so Radu seizes the chance to eliminate them while also ridding Bucharest of the undead: he leads an army of vampires to Istanbul and sets them to feed on the Turks.
As Radu’s demons gut the city of Istanbul, their plans become horribly clear. This is only the start. With the Ottoman armies under their control, the undead are poised to suck the life out of the whole world. Radu, his lover Frank, and Ecaterina are appalled at what they’ve unleashed. But they may be too late to stop it.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Wallachia - 1742
As Bucharest’s river Dâmbovița was not navigable even by rafts in the summer, they left the boats at Râmnicu Vâlcea and transferred luggage and demonic passengers into a wagon. Frank was impressed to find that the Văcărescus maintained a town house in this large market town, where a carriage only fifty years out of date waited in a stable block, and servants and horses alike couldn’t quite conceal how astonished they were to be called on for service.
On no occasion during the manhandling of the coffins—now nailed together and disguised as a strangely shaped wardrobe—from barge to town house to cart, did Frank think how easily they might be dropped, broken open, have their dirty secret revealed like a more supernatural version of his own disgrace. These thoughts only came to him at night, when Constantin or Alaya or both climbed effortlessly aboard the moving carriage, wiping their mouths. Then he would remember he had meant to find some way of killing them when they were in the soil and defenceless. He suspected they only allowed him to think it then because it amused them to let him know he was their puppet. But he said nothing, and Alaya smiled sweetly at him, while Radu hunched on his seat like a raptor shivering on a snowy branch and looked at no one.
They took the journey easily, stopping at the inns of post that lined the roads at regular distances. These ranged from posthouses London could be proud of—beautiful white plaster buildings with airy courtyards and polished floors—to small houses with a single dormitory and straw pallets on scuffed planks.
They would draw up to one of these just after dark, have the vehicles taken to the stables. The servants—Mirela among them still, at Radu’s command—would disappear to take clothes to rooms, prepare fires, and eat their own dinner in the kitchen. Frank and the family would gather for rough, peasant stew and mămăligă—a savoury yellow maize paste that seemed ubiquitous as bread. Then he and Radu would drink a glass of wine and talk about history and pride, politics, and regrets.
At some point in this ritual they would look up and find that the strigoi were no longer there. Then the conversation would falter a little as they both tried not to think about what that meant, who they might find dead in the morning. It was worse, Frank thought on these nights, surprised, to bring the demons to little townships that had not had three hundred years of experience with them. Here death would come with horror instead of resignation. Radu’s reluctance to take the creatures out of their native setting seemed wiser now, less like a petty child saying no just because he could.
When they could get a private room, they wedged the door shut from the inside and slept together, because Frank was a new man now and had decided that his time of mourning was behind him, and he would take what was on offer and be glad of it.
“What is there to be ashamed of in this, in comparison to the blight we carry with us in the wagon?” Radu had asked, when Frank was skittish and reluctant at first, and that was God’s own truth.
Afterwards he had continued the thought, hands behind his head, staring up at the lace of dusty cobwebs beneath the sloped roof, “Besides, just think how this must choke them.”
Frank had raised himself to his elbow and contemplated the look of suppressed laughter that he had begun to find familiar on Radu’s face. “What must? They’re getting what they want, aren’t they? Because of me.”
“Not entirely.” The smile came out of hiding, white and sharp. “I understand that the laxity of our morals has been known to distress foreigners. So perhaps you’re not aware that in Romania, even for the highest of the nobility, it is perfectly acceptable to have a son out of wedlock. If the family claims that child as its own, no one can consider him a less legitimate heir than one born into a marriage.”
“So . . .?”
“My parents find me difficult. In my true-father’s day they would have simply said, ‘I wish to go to Bucharest,’ and he would have taken them. His mind was in the palm of their hands. But me, well, they have to persuade me. They don’t like that.”
“I’m not seeing what this has to do with me.”
At the scoff, Frank grinned and pinched his bedmate in the shoulder, with a pressure that would leave a little purple mark in the morning. Frank had still many layers of fragility, felt like a flaky pastry made up of devastation and guilt, but at least one of those layers had hints of contentment in it, and with the revelation of his innocence and the ending of the threat to his life, he had begun to rediscover his own ability to laugh.
“Let me spell it out, then. Suppose I had a mistress or a concubine, or two—sooner or later I would have a child. That child could be their heir. Their future possession of their estates would be secured, and I could be conveniently disposed of. Instead what happens?” He shoved Frank back. “You arrive, and you’re beautiful, and you save me from all of that.”
What had seemed about to devolve into a mock wrestling match sobered and became distressingly sincere. “Every night I spend with you . . .” He bit his lip and went back to watching the ceiling, silent, with his mouth hard shut on secrets he couldn’t yet share.
Frank thought too, giggled, in the end, remembering Alaya’s patient sweetness. It was good to think he frustrated her merely by existing. “Not quite what they wanted, eh? A son is one thing I certainly can’t give you.”
“I don’t want this to continue. I don’t want to bring another child into this situation, hand the family curse on with the estates. But I don’t want to live my life alone. You have . . . You are very . . . useful to me.”
A cold declaration, perhaps. It took Frank a while to set the words in their right context and see how the meanings changed by it. When he considered that with a mother like Alaya, his lover must associate sweet, fine words with insincerity, he gradually found Radu’s declaration reassuring enough. To be useful was good. To foil the plans of the strigoi and save some future child from slavery, and to save Radu himself from cold inhumanity and isolation at the same time—these were admirable things.
“If I can help,” he said, tucking himself back down beside the other man in unexpected satisfaction, “I am glad to.”
* * * * * * *
In Bucharest, the Văcărescu family had a holding and a town house on the east side of the Dâmbovița, among the gardens and the casas of the other nobility. The house was old, with squat, heavy walls that would have withstood the cannon fire of less advanced ages. It glowered over parklands of carefully cultivated lawn, which swept down to the wide, shallow marshland about the lazy river. Under the heat of the last week, the river had all but disappeared, only visible as glints among thickets of lush green reeds.
They had sent a messenger ahead of them on a swift horse, so when they arrived the house was clean, the shutters open, the fires lit, and the servants returned to their duties from whatever private lives they had been living with the family away. A footman took Frank’s bag and guided him to one of the fifteen guest rooms. Unpacking for him, he pointedly did not sniff at his lack of belongings. Frank got the message anyway.
“I was robbed on the road,” he explained, “and I am a foreigner here, who does not know how things ought to be done. I shall need new clothes, a new shaving and grooming kit, new writing equipment. Are there shops I should frequent, or do I send for the makers to come to me?”
The footman smiled, reassured, maybe, by Frank’s peremptory tone, as though he had resented having his lovely clean rooms touched by someone who clearly didn’t belong in them. “Either would do, sir. If you wish to walk about Bucharest and make your own purchases, I will give you one of the boys to guide you. But I think, perhaps, we should summon the tailor here first, so that you may appear to your best advantage when you are seen.”
It occurred to Frank, suddenly, that he had no money. The realization had been slow in coming—he was an earl’s son, and no matter how he mentally cut ties with that life, the habits persisted. Credit should always be forthcoming, and debts wiped out by his father in consideration of his family’s honour.
But he could hardly say as much to Radu’s servant. He nodded and thought viciously that he would have to tap his lover for money like a whore. Not a great start to a new life. “By all means, have the tailor brought here. When can that be done?”
“I should think if I send a boy this morning, he’ll be here this afternoon, sir. Doubtless the lord will wish to see him too. Shall I have a bath brought up for you in the meantime?”
Clean and re-dressed in his castoffs (had the footman noticed the lengthened sleeves, on top of the fact that they were ten years out of fashion?), Frank leaned from his window and watched as the box containing the coffins was wrestled out of the wagon by four stout fellows, and taken to a stone building, chapel or folly, in the grounds, surrounded by marsh on three sides. Swans hissed at the burden as it went in, and from the alder tree behind the building, the doves that had been droning croo, croo, took flight with a sound like applause.
Did the servants know what they were installing? Surely they must guess? Yet the footman had not had the dead-eyed look of the castle’s inhabitants, had seemed on the contrary well pleased with his sinecure of a job. If the family visited their town house once a generation, this was probably the first time he had ever had to work to earn his pay. He would learn soon enough.
The extravagance of the Văcărescu family maintaining all these useless servants, all these empty houses, made him feel better about being one more financial burden. They had money enough to swim in—why shouldn’t Radu spend it on a penniless friend, if he pleased?
With this thought uppermost in his mind, he hunted down his host, found him in the entrance hall scowling between two halberdiers. A man in Turkish dress stood before him, with a white turban, a rose-coloured robe, and a curved sword at his side.
“You will come now,” this gentleman was saying, “as you are.”
“I have only just arrived.” Radu looked shocked, his grey eyes steely with outrage and confusion. “I should be permitted to open my house, to prepare myself in peace. For the voivode’s own honour I should not be dragged before him travel-stained and ragged as a beggar.”
The halberdiers, trying to maintain a dignified air while hiding the fact that they were clearly sympathetic, succeeded only in seeming anxious and apologetic. The official, in his pink coat, was as blank-faced as a statue. He turned a cool examination on Frank. “Who is this?”
“This is Mr. Frank Carew.” Radu paused long enough for Frank to wonder what was coming next. “My secretary.”
Secretary, eh? He could live with that, and request a salary to match. Though he would have to mentally downgrade the requirements of his wardrobe and his toilet. A secretary did not dress like an earl.
“He will come too.”
“He will not!”
The pink-coated official stroked his beard—a fine beard it was, light brown and bushy, substituting width for length. It seemed far too full of vitality for his otherwise pinched and ferret-like face. “My lord, do not trouble yourself with shouting at me. I am but the messenger. I cannot change the order I have been sent to relay. You must take it up with the prince, unless you wish to begin your acquaintance with disobedience?”
“He has begun his acquaintance to me with discourtesy.” Radu’s scowl deepened, but he motioned for a servant to retrieve his outer coat and suffered it to be put on. He beckoned Frank to his side, and together they followed the official, having to walk slowly because of his short strides. Hemmed on each side by the halberdiers, they crossed the Văcărescus’ private bridge—a creaking, slippery thing of old wood—through clouds of droning mosquitos, to the firmer ground where the city rose up on its swell of hill.
By London’s standards it was quaint but beautiful. They meandered on cow paths along the bank of the river, and the noon sun shone on irises and waterfowl and the intricate knotted gardens full of bright flowers of the great houses to their left. After a while the path swung westerly. A larger road crossed the river on a bridge sturdy enough for carriages, and the river had depth enough to slowly turn the wheel of a prosperous watermill.
A little way beyond this, they passed through a gate in the city walls, and the road beneath their feet firmed and gained a welcome bounce. Frank looked down with astonishment, rubbed a circle clear of its thin coating of mud, and saw that the carriageway was made of planks—a road like a ballroom’s sprung floor. “Oh, that’s very fine. Are all the roads like this?”
“Just this one.” Radu unsheathed a smile for him, straightened his shoulders, and began to walk once more as though the tip of his conical hat was all that held the sky up. Frank had long suspected that some of his arrogance was feigned to cover the knowledge of his powerlessness, but he still liked to see it. “This is Mogoșoaia Bridge. The great prince and martyr Brâncoveanu built it to connect the palace of Bucharest with his summer palace at Mogoșoaia, which he also built. His reign was . . .” The smile softened. “A golden age for our country. He was a statesman, a scholar. A great builder. You see that?”
He pointed uphill at something. Frank couldn’t pick out the exact building in the meringue of white walls and cupolas, the pink and grey and green arched roofs. “That’s the hospital he built, and that is the monastery that Bishop Ivireanul built in imitation of him. He had a vision of us as a nation, and he turned that vision into architecture—influenced by the West, your people, the French, the Saxons—rooted in the history of Byzantium, but with our own particular style. Dignified. Forward-thinking.”
He waved sideways at a large, crisply built square building, whose lower story of columns around an inner room reminded Frank of Greek temples. It was built of a ruddy pink brick, the colour of sunset in the mountains. The second story repeated the arches of the columns in a decorative band of white pilasters. Then an overhanging roof waterproofed with verdigrised copper was topped with a tall cupola pierced with a lantern of windows. “That is the institute he built for our scholars to begin the study of natural history. Pretty, yes?”
“It is,” Frank agreed, although pretty wasn’t quite the word. Elegant would be better. Elegant would convey the restraint, if not the reassuring solid strength of the style.
“The scholars never got through the door,” Radu went on, with a sidelong glance to make sure Frank was getting the point. “It’s an inn now. As is the palace of Mogoșoaia. Brâncoveanu was denounced to the Turks, and he and all his sons were executed in Istanbul, his property seized by the state.”
“Brâncoveanu was a traitor.” The official paused between one footstep and the next, cast the observation over his shoulder mildly for all its force. “The sultan crowned him, and he repaid that trust by promising his support to the sultan’s enemies. But I should know better than to expect a boyar of this country to understand anything about loyalty.”
Radu stopped in the middle of the street, and the Jews, who had their stalls in this part of the city, looked up with a well-honed instinct for trouble, and stepped back into their doorways.
“The only reason I am not killing you for that insult is that you are beneath me.”
The official raised the ends of his lips in an unimpressed smile. “My lord, I meant no insult. You must know that, from one horizon to the other, the inconstancy of the boyars is a well-known fact. If you can teach me otherwise, I will hear you.”
Frank remembered what Radu had told him about Vlad Dracul—that his first move in establishing his power as voivode had been to kill off his nobles. He wasn’t surprised, therefore, when Radu could only muster a sullen, “And that has always been our right,” in defence. No Magna Carta here, eh? Or at least not one that stuck. What a country!
They walked in silence after that, passing monastery walls and gates. The roar of city bustle—wagons in the streets, horses and oxen hard driven, iron wheels on hollow timber, street seller’s shouts, and distantly a Roma’s song underscored by a wailing violin—went on beneath ringing bells and the susurration of thousands of monks’ sandaled feet. Here and there, plain chant rolled from an open door as great-bearded clergymen in black returned like crows to the roost.
* * * * * * *
The palace was in the old style, built like a fortress out of grey stone. It seemed very medieval, for all the gilding and the out-of-place, spindly Versailles furniture. There was history in every flagstone underfoot, a history that spoke of long, long ages of warfare, of the readiness to fight and die. Used to the well-proportioned, airy buildings of Cambridge and London—Enlightenment buildings that spoke of reason and balance—Frank found the heavy arches claustrophobic, and the low, white-painted stone walls uncomfortably brutal.
This building was a machine of war, but it was also a theatre. As they entered the final room, Radu nodded to him to indicate that he should fall deferentially behind. He slumped, trying to de-emphasise his height, to hold himself as if he were invisible.
It worked. When they came out onto the floor of the great, bare warehouse of a room, the gazes passed over him indifferently. They fixed on Radu as though the leading man in a well-rehearsed drama had just walked in. The impression was reinforced by the fact that the room was divided like a theatre. In the corner a golden throne, as spiky as a cathedral, held a youngish man with a smooth, round face, a square fur hat, and a coat of heavy velvet so stiff with gold embroidery it might have served for armour.
Beneath the throne, a stagelike dais ran along one wall. There sat the boyars who were part of the prince’s counsel, all of them agleam with jewels and fat with self-satisfaction.
On the floor, in what might be the audience pit, the second rank of aristocracy was drawn up in almost military lines. They, too, were like a hothouse full of butterflies, their silken kaftans contrasting strangely with their beaver-skin hats. Next to this world of opulence, Radu’s travelling clothes, though they were of fine green wool lined with wolf fur, were so out of date, so aggressively plain, that they might have been an intentional insult. More than one onlooker stiffened at the sight of him as though they had been personally rebuked.
Radu reacted to this sudden metaphorical chill by standing up so straight he could have been used as a caryatid. He strode to the foot of the throne and looked up, silver eyes as cold as his reception. Oh, don’t, Frank thought, when the pause stretched on long enough to make it doubtful whether Radu would kneel at all. Was he here to destroy his family in the easiest way possible? To go out in a blaze of defiance and take the Văcărescus with him? It would be like him.
The prince raised a bushy eyebrow. Whispers hissed from the far corners of the room. Frank tried not to think too hard about what being impaled would feel like. And then Radu knelt, punctiliously, as though the excellence itself was a rebuke.
The faces around Frank had all iced over, motionless, their reactions as unseen as winter seeds beneath the snow.
“You were not present at our coronation,” said the prince, in a light, dry voice. His face was soft, rounded and comfortable, but his eyes were as sharp as the strigoi’s fangs.
“No, your highness.”
“We received your gift and your apologies by proxy, and under advisement from our council, we allowed this.”
“Your Highness is most gracious.”
“I am.” Voivode Mavrocordatos gave a wry smile. It was, Frank thought, a meeting between past and present, and Radu represented the past. His was the old, feudal style of the fifteenth century—where power was based on force and threat of force—passed down directly from those who had lived in it. Prince Mavrocordatos, though, was a politician, quiet-spoken, insinuating and thoroughly in charge. A power perhaps more deadly because it no longer showed its face plainly.
“You were told you could make your obeisance to me at your earliest convenience. That was in 1737. It has taken you five years to find it convenient.”
The prince leaned forward, elbow on his knee. Light hit the back of the golden chair and threw a halo around him. “In fact the only reason you are alive at all is that you did not come to the coronation of Mihail Racoviţă either, nor my father, nor that of Grigore Ghica. You are not partisan, at least, in your neglect. What have you been doing up there in your mountains that was more important than your duty to the Porte?”
Some of the frozen faces on the dais twitched, with an emotion Frank couldn’t read. Was it possible they knew? That they too were complicit in hiding the monsters?
“I have been containing a plague, Highness.”
“And now the plague is cured?”
Radu returned the urbane smile. On him it looked less like a scalpel, more like a sword. “After many years, it has finally left our region. That being so, I took the chance of leaving too.”
Perhaps it was the hint of a lie that made the prince’s smile broaden—perhaps it was that Radu was really not convincing at all, and Mavrocordatos had learned to appreciate a vassal so easily read. He raised his head and clapped for a servant.
“I will accept your fealty. You will stay here and make yourself available. If, by the end of the year, you have not proved false, we will find a small position for you to fill. In the meantime . . .”
The servant put a carved chest into the prince’s hands. From the clink and slither, and the way the servant slowly straightened up afterwards, it held quite a weight of coin. Then Mavrocordatos threw back the lid and the burst of light was the colour of his throne. “Take it.”
Radu scrambled off his knees with a hiss. “I don’t need to be bought!”
It took the prince’s laughter to set free the guffaws that were being held in check, but when Mavrocordatos sniggered, a howl of amusement rolled across the chamber, leaving Radu bright red in the middle of the floor.
“Please do not think”—the prince’s soft words silenced the amusement as if he’d waved a hand and cut it off with their heads—“that you can raise the price by some pretence at principle. I know you people better than you know yourselves. Money is all you understand. Take it, then, and remember that I am the fountainhead from which it came. I expect as much loyalty from you as you would give to the man offering the largest bribe.”
The servant lifted the chest from the prince’s hands and held it out to Radu, who slowly paled as he stood, eyeing it the way another man might eye the gift of a poisonous snake. Frank pitied him, at that point. Raised to be lord of all he surveyed, raised to think himself above the normal run of humanity as a predator is above prey, to come here and be so cruelly reminded that he was but an inexperienced pawn in a game of greater men? Radu was proud, but he clearly didn’t know what to do.
As Frank watched the reactions of the courtiers on the dais, one of them caught his eye, nodded at the still tableau where Radu had still not taken the money, and made a tiny shooing gesture with the tips of his fingers. Frank thought it was good advice, and though it went against his every instinct to be the only one to move in that petrified crowd, someone had to. He took a deep breath, pushed himself off the drop—walked forward a step and leaned down to whisper in Radu’s ear. “He’s ordered you to take it. If you don’t, it will be an obvious act of disobedience.”
From the tightening of the corner of Radu’s mouth, he understood this part perfectly. And Frank, though he had little pride of his own, had lived with his father long enough to know that could make a man’s blood boil. He changed tack. “He’s not bribing you . . . not really. He’s testing you. Do you know how to take an order from your prince? Thank him. Take it—you can throw it away later.”
Radu looked up at this, and met the prince’s interested gaze. Then he smiled—coldly. “Your Highness is most generous.”
He took the money, and when waved away, stalked out holding it as though it burnt him. Frank followed, trying not to pant as though he had literally been fencing, and both of them collapsed to a seat in the first empty anteroom they came to.
Silence fell between them, the sounds of discussion and business and rushing feet in another world outside in the corridor. An occasional cough behind a shut white door at the end of the room said that someone important was at work in there, but here in the waiting room there was time and peace.
Radu closed his eyes and leaned his head against the wall. “I don’t think I’ve ever been more humiliated,” he said at last. “You are a visitor to my country. I should not have bared her secrets or her shame to you.”
“I am your secretary,” said Frank, rather stung by this. “And I may not have been born in this country, but she’s been kinder to me than my own. I intend to love her for your sake.”
Radu sighed and sat up straighter, clearly rested enough, ready to go on. “I said ‘secretary’ off the cuff, because I could not think what else to say. But if you want the position, it’s yours.”
Frank laughed, half a release of tension and half a feeling that he had been floating downriver for a long time and had finally come to shore. “I saved your life in there, you know.”
Radu bowed his head, but there was a wariness in his expression. “You did.”
“So can I be your librarian too?”
A soft exhalation as Radu laughed in return, and they were left grinning at each other. Recovered, mostly. “You value my life remarkably little.”
This, Frank thought—though he found it as difficult to judge Radu’s sense of humour as Radu did his, a matter of cultural differences—was meant as a joke. He treated it as one. “If I could spend the rest of my life repairing and translating old books, I would think I was in paradise.”
“Your ambitions are as commendably small as your actions are wise.” The sonorous voice from the doorway startled them both. A man round as a fool’s bladder came in preceded by his stomach, trailed by a cloak of sky-blue silk, lined in sable. It was Frank’s friend from the dais, his expression now open and kindly. He had cut his beard into a severe square, and his homely face was lopsided, with two curved duelling scars puckering one cheek, slicing the end off his right eyebrow. His eyes were the same colour as his cloak.
Despite his friendly air, Frank and Radu both rose automatically at his obvious authority and bowed without thought or regret.
“Decebal Sterescu,” he introduced himself, “by God’s grace stolnic to this court. Come, let us walk a little.”
He punctuated this request by taking Radu by the arm and steering him out of the door, leaving Frank to follow. They threaded their way through passages that opulent tapestries, wood panelling, and golden mirrors could not make less dank. Chandeliers glittered incongruously overhead, though the ceilings were so low that the candles all left sooty marks on the brightly coloured vaulting, and from the massive walls and heavy arches, painted saints regarded them solemnly with crossed arms, green faces, and flat, uncompromising eyes.
Outside, it was a relief to emerge into the warmth of late spring. Sterescu walked quickly for such a large man, oddly buoyant on his feet, guiding them down flagged paths into a walled garden of knot work and cedars centred on a mirror-smooth pool with a wide lip of silvery-grey stone. There he puffed to a halt and sat, making ripples in the reflective surface with his fingertips. “You made quite an impression, young man.”
Radu looked for a seat and, unable to find one, settled for leaning against one of the statues of the four seasons that marked the garden’s cardinal points. Frank supposed he was not entitled even to that amount of comfort, so simply folded his hands and tried to blend in with the brickwork.
“I’m aware.” Radu grimaced. “I would be glad to be banished back to my lands and told never to show my face at court again.”
“Oh.” Sterescu smiled. “What’s even better is that apparently you don’t know what that impression was.”
“A bad one.” Radu rubbed two fingers beneath the brim of his hat.
“Not at all. Shall I tell you? There we all are, drawn up in our silken Turkish finery, lounging on our divans, worrying if we’re five minutes late to the latest fashion, agonising over whether the tone of our recent ‘good morning’ to the prince could be taken as less than perfectly respectful . . . and there you are, dressed for riding, ready to die for honour and choking on a lie? You made us all feel old and ashamed.”
“What’s better is that you did this under the prince’s nose. Either he accepts that you are as you appear—blazing with a rather antiquated honesty—or he suspects you are fiendishly clever enough to use that appearance knowingly, to be playing a deep game.”
“Whereas actually I’m simply a rustic up from the country and finding it hard to adapt.”
Sterescu laughed again, and Frank joined him, rather bitterly, because he had not forgotten that Radu did have secrets, deadly ones, and—whatever Sterescu’s conclusion about the game being played here—he would be very far off the mark.
“Or that’s what you wish us to think.” The big man cut off any objections with a raised finger. “No, I only wanted to thank you for reminding me that we were warriors once, and to invite you to a ball at my house on Friday night. Come meet everyone in a less daunting setting. I can promise a spectacle such as you’ve never seen before. Imagine who I’ve lured to entertain us . . . Gabrielle Giroux, the great illusionist of Versailles! It was difficult to get her to travel so far, but my daughter persuaded her in the end. No one can say no to Ecaterina.” He rose and dusted himself off, his robe making him resemble a great ball swathed in a golden curtain. Sapphires sparkled in his hat. “So you will come?”
“I would be honoured.”
Sterescu darted another meaningful glance at Frank, but this one he couldn’t translate. “Have you decided what to do with the money?”
“I thought I would use it to buy a present, which I could give to the prince.”
The older man laughed again. “Ironic,” he agreed, “but a little too pointed. You could . . . endow a monastery. Build a church.”
Frank was struck suddenly with the thought of the peasants he’d seen, driven off the land, piling all their furniture on wagons and heading for Transylvania, where the taxes were less punitive and they could actually afford to eat.
“Send it home,” he said, astonished it hadn’t occurred to anyone before. “Give it to your people to pay the taxes with. You’ll be giving it back to the prince, in essence, while doing good for your country at the same time.”
The boyars grinned together, and at that moment Frank could see why Radu reminded Sterescu of a vanished youth—there was a fleeting resemblance between them, a marker of a long-shared history. “Perfect!”
“Your servant’s name . . .?”
“Forgive me.” Radu rubbed his smile off with an open hand and winced. “This is the honourable Frank Carew, the son of the English Earl of Hungerford. He has honoured me by agreeing to take a place in my household, but he is my companion, not my servant.”
For all Frank claimed to have no pride, being overlooked and dismissed from a conversation had rankled. This warmed his heart.
It also warmed Sterescu’s expression. “Ah, I should have known that no mere servant could be so wise. Forgive me, sir, and of course you must come to my party too.”
“I cannot think of anything that would please me more,” Frank said truthfully, still glowing a little at the thought that Radu, at least, did not think him suddenly lesser because he had lost his rank. The fact that his father had tried to murder him did not take away his breeding or his upbringing, by which he was Radu’s equal.
That equality seemed suddenly vital to preserve, illusory though it was when Radu was paying his wages—and doing so, moreover, just because he liked Frank’s pretty face. Frank had never quite understood why women made such a great fuss over the desire to possess their own property or make their own wills, but now that he found himself dependent on a lover’s charity it was beginning to become clear.
With his parents, Radu had learned to shrug off insult and powerlessness. Mavrocordatos had certainly not earned his affection, but he was a Greek on a Wallachian throne—he must have known he would never have it anyway. If his test had allowed Radu to appear in good light to the rest of the court, Radu supposed he could forgive it after all.
He had accustomed himself to appreciating the positive surfaces of things. Down in the depths there was usually anguish, sometimes monstrosity. To refuse to look and to concentrate on the pleasant outsides was the only way to keep going. Otherwise one would stop and mourn until one wasted away, and what good would that do anyone?
So, he enjoyed the rest of the week as it came, bringing sunlight to long-closed rooms. The visit of the piano tuner on Monday restored a beautiful harmony to the rounded tone of the piano in the music room, which surely none of the family had ever touched. Frank played a little, picking out snatches of Haydn and curlicue passages from Bach, ornate as the plasterwork of the ceilings.
Hospitality alone, Radu tried to tell himself, demanded that he should make all the sacrifices necessary for Frank’s comfort. Frank was a guest, a foreigner, and a noble one at that. He honoured the family and the country by his presence, and it was no more than Radu’s duty to answer that with as much protection as he could provide.
It didn’t hurt that as he sat amid the gilding of the music room, delicate face gone soft with music, sunlight flooding through the windows in golden lances and turning his hair the same celestial colour, Frank looked like some unearthly thing, angelic, breakable, too fine for this earth.
Radu should have let Frank die—should have let his parents kill him and kept them in their place as a result. He should have sacrificed his lover to keep his country safe, but he hadn’t. It had been selfish, irresponsible of him.
But wasn’t he allowed to be selfish, now and again? What was the point of high birth and power if one could not exercise them every so often, hold on to the things he wanted to keep?
He shoved his doubts beneath the surface as he dealt with the small duties of innocent people. A visit from the tailor, which left him and Frank more up-to-date. Frank had initially asked for a powdered wig and breeches so he could dress as the English gentleman he was, but it would be a crime to cover such hair with horse-pelt, white powder, and pomade. The subject had been successfully scoffed at and dropped, and the tailor had brought trousers and boots and hats fit for a prince instead.
It was pleasant to be well-dressed, to no longer seem an ignorant country cousin. Pleasant too when the fathers of the boyar families began to visit, one by one. Calling cards on the tray in the morning, carriages pulling up on the gravel drive in time for lunch. He took to carrying ţuică in an inner pocket, like a peasant farmer, rather than continually have the servants run back and forth to pour a shot for every visitor.
As none of these new relationships had yet had time to deepen into intimacy, the visits only permitted small talk—asking after the health of one’s family, the prosperity of one’s land. Frequently the marriage prospects of one’s daughters. Radu understood that his appearance, out of seclusion, newly in possession of a considerable gift of money and still single, could only mean to others that he was on the hunt for an appropriate wife. Though this thought, too, trailed off into darkness, it was not an impression he discouraged. Let him act as he was expected to act, let him enjoy the sunshine while he could.
For under all of it, like a stingray beneath a frozen sea, there swam the knowledge of what rested under the floor. For hundreds of years his branch of the illustrious Văcărescu family had dwelled in their mountains, and found a balance that allowed them to be endured by those whom they both protected and preyed upon. He could not imagine how it was to work, how he was to find a balance here. He didn’t know what to do, and therefore he did nothing.
The first two or three nights free of his parents had felt like liberty, like a chance to finally be normal, sociable—human. But as the week wore on without them coming in at nightfall to talk, even coming back before daybreak to gloat, he began to think it was not he who had been released from bondage. The prospect of them unfettered was . . .
Was another thing with which he would not sully his day. He allowed himself to be carefully dressed for Decebal Sterescu’s ball, to enjoy the sight of Frank in a green silk sash and a long, brocaded, brandy-coloured coat. To enjoy the carriage ride through several acres of parkland in which fruit trees were just beginning to drop their petals, a lightly fragranced snow lit up by many lanterns.
Out to a great circular drive packed with conveyances, ambling now as each paused at the wide-open doors of the white house, long enough to disgorge ladies with skirts swaying like cathedral bells beneath exquisite lace aprons, and men sparkling with jewels, as peacock-fine as their wives.
The servant who jumped down from the running board of his carriage to open the door and unfold the steps was that same tall Roma girl he had been offered as a bride back home, and still no one around her appeared to think her presence strange. She’d been offered in place of a Vlach girl, she’d been a boatman, and now she was doing the job of a footman, looking up at him with the beginnings of impudence in her honey-brown eyes.
He wasn’t sure why he had not challenged her the first time. Why he continued to preserve her secrets. Perhaps, the first time, believing she would be dead by the end of the night, it had not mattered so much that no one but he could see the darkness of her skin. The second time, he had been curious, but thought perhaps she had relatives among the boatmen willing to overlook her sex. This time it seemed inconceivable that his well-scrubbed, liveried footmen could see her—in her washing line of mismatched clothes, boatman’s felt waistcoat, shirt over kirtle over trousers, her black tangled hair constrained by neither head scarf nor hat—and mistake her for their own.
He recalled he’d meant to interview her about it, find out what manner of a talent this was, and think how it could best be used. But in the meantime perhaps his staring was drawing attention that she did not need. He pressed a coin into her hand. “Get yourself some proper clothes. I will wish to speak to you on Monday morning.”
She remembered in time not to curtsey, but it was a close and awkward thing.
Frank frowned, his gaze flickering between the two of them.
“What do you see?” Radu asked him, quietly enough so the other men could not hear.
“It’s a footman,” said Frank, shrugging, “the same as the others only a little younger. Pockmarked. Red haired, rusty-green eyes.”
The girl pressed her hand to her mouth as if to stop herself giggling. She might have said something—she was actually reaching out to tug on Frank’s sleeve—when the driver of the carriage behind them flicked his long whip over his horses. They shoved forward into the back of Radu’s carriage, the men on the rear postilion fending them off with open hands. His driver took the hint, moved on, and the girl hopped up easily enough on the footplate and went with them.
How odd. Radu suffered himself to be led into the party, Frank at his side, but just a hair’s breadth behind, as was only right.
“What did you see?” Frank asked, looking about with curiosity and a not-unwelcome awe at the beauties of the Sterescu house. From the main hall, where they handed their outer cloaks to hovering servants and took the first of a series of shots of palincă, four spiral staircases rose to the upper floors, each one so heavily carved and fretted they seemed to mimic the ladies’ lace. Everywhere was colour and ornament, scrollwork, ogees, woodwork like the tangled branches of the deep forest, smoothed and varnished to a deep lustre and touched all over with gold. Such patches of the plastered walls that suffered to be seen through all the ornament were painted robin’s-egg blue, and gave again the impression of a summer sky seen through a tree canopy.
The outside of the house had been a blend of Wallachian and Ottoman styles, but the inside was pure Carpathian. He took note of it, like another secret revealed.
“I saw a Roma girl.” Radu smiled at the other new arrivals, hoping they did not see uncertainty under it. To have peers, all of a sudden—it was delightful, but disconcerting. How did one deal with equals? He didn’t know. “A very impertinent one.”
“Oh.” Frank smiled, nodding. “It must have been Mirela. She does that. Somehow changes her shape, I mean. She was a chambermaid at your house.”
“You saw her on the boat trip down here too. She was one of the boatmen on the raft.”
Frank stopped, and the crush of fellow invitees had to sweep around him, like a river around a small island. “I remember. She was wearing Nicu’s shape then. I knew it couldn’t be Nicu because he was dead, but how could you tell?”
“She always looks the same to me. Scruffy, cocky, half-dressed.”
So Frank saw her differently each time, and he did not. Judging from the footmen’s lack of reaction, they, too, saw her in her disguise. Nor had the boatmen seemed to find her out of place. Nor . . . he revisited the shameful memory reluctantly. Nor had his parents seen anything other than a village girl. Father, indeed, had sworn he would have killed anyone who mocked them by providing a Roma bride.
Had she fooled the villagers who had sent her? Or had they, knowing her talent, sent her in preference to one of their own, hoping she would fool him too?