Lada Dracul had cut through blood and bones to get the castle.
That did not mean she wanted to spend time in it. It was a relief to escape the capital. She understood the need for a seat of power, but she hated that it was Tirgoviste. She could not sleep in those stone rooms, empty and yet still crowded with the ghosts of all the princes who had come before her.
With too far to go before reaching Nicolae, Lada planned to camp for the night. Solitude was increasingly precious-and yet another resource she was sorely lacking. But a tiny village tucked away from the frosted road beckoned her. During one of the last summers before she and Radu were traded to the Ottomans, they had traveled this same path with their father. It had been one of the happiest seasons of her life. Though it was winter now, nostalgia and melancholy slowed her until she decided to stay.
Outside the village, she spent a few frigid minutes changing into clothes more standard than her usual selection of black trousers and tunics. They were noteworthy enough that she risked being recognized. She put on skirts and a blouse-but with mail underneath. Always that. To the untrained eye, there was nothing to mark her as prince.
She found lodging in a stone cottage. Because there was not enough planting land for boyars to bother with here, the peasants could own small patches of it. Not enough to prosper, but enough to survive. An older woman seated Lada by the fire with bread and stew as soon as coins had exchanged hands. The woman had a daughter, a small thing wearing much-patched and too-large clothes.
They also had a cat, who, in spite of Lada’s utter indifference to the creature, insisted on rubbing against her leg and purring. The little girl sat almost as close. “Her name is Prince,” the girl said, reaching down to scratch the cat’s ears.
Lada raised an eyebrow. “That is an odd name for a female cat.”
The girl grinned, showing all the childhood gaps among her teeth. “But princes can be girls now, too.”
“Ah, yes.” Lada tried not to smile. “Tell me, what do you think of our new prince?”
“I have never seen her. But I want to! I think she must be the prettiest girl alive.”
Lada snorted at the same time as the girl’s mother. The woman sat down in a chair across from Lada. “I have heard she is nothing to look at. A blessing. Perhaps it can keep her out of a marriage.”
“Oh?” Lada stirred her stew. “You do not think she should get married?”
The woman leaned forward intently. “You came here by yourself. A woman? Traveling alone? A year ago such a thing would have been impossible. This last harvest we were able to take our crops to Tirgoviste without paying robbers’ fees every league along the road. We made two times again as much money as we ever have. And my sister no longer has to teach her boys to pretend to be stupid to avoid being taken for the sultan’s accursed Janissary troops.”
Lada nodded as though hesitant to agree. “But the prince killed all those boyars. I hear she is depraved.”
The woman huffed, waving a hand. “What did the boyars ever do for us? She had her reasons. I heard-” She leaned forward so quickly and with such animation half her stew spilled, unnoticed. “I heard she is giving land to anyone. Can you imagine? No family name, no boyar line. She gives it to those who deserve it. So I hope she never marries. I hope she lives to be a hundred years old, breathing fire and drinking the blood of our enemies.”
The little girl grabbed the cat, settling it on her lap. “Did you hear the story of the golden goblet?” she asked, eyes bright and shining.
Lada smiled. “Tell me.”
And so Lada heard new stories about herself, from her own people. They were exaggerated and stretched, but they were based on things she had actually done. The ways she had improved her country for her people.
Lada slept well that night.