1435: Sighisoara, Transylvania
VLAD DRACUL’S HEAVY BROW descended like a storm when the doctor informed him that his wife had given birth to a girl. His other children—one from his first wife, now nearly full grown, and even a bastard child from his mistress, born last year—had been boys. He had not thought his seed weak enough to produce a girl.
He pushed through the door, into the close, heavy air of the tiny bedroom. It stank of blood and fear and filled him with disgust.
Their home in the fortified hill city of Sighisoara was a far cry from what he deserved. It sat next to the main gate, in the suffocating press of the square, beside an alley that reeked of human waste. His retainer of ten men was merely ceremonial, rendering him a glorified placeholder. He might have been the military governor of Transylvania, but he was supposed to be the ruler of all Wallachia.
Perhaps that was why he had been cursed with a girl. Another insult to his honor. He was in the Order of the Dragon, sanctioned by the pope himself. He should be the vaivode, the warlord prince, but his brother sat on the throne, while he was governor of Saxons squatting on his own country’s land.
Soon he would show them his honor on the end of a sword.
Vasilissa lay on the bed, soaked in sweat and moaning in pain. Certainly the weakness that took root in her womb had been her own. His stomach turned at the sight of her, princess now in neither demeanor nor appearance.
The nurse held up a squalling, red-faced little monster. He had no names for a girl. Vasilissa would doubtless want something that honored her family, but Vlad hated the Moldavian royals she came from for failing to bring him any political advantage. He had already named his bastard Vlad, after himself. He would name his daughter the same.
“Ladislav,” he declared. It was a feminine form of Vlad. Diminutive. Diminished. If Vasilissa wanted a strong name, she would have to bear him a son. “Let us pray she is beautiful so we can get some use out of her,” he said. The infant screamed louder.
Vasilissa’s royal breasts were far too important to suckle from. The wet nurse waited until Vlad left, then held the babe to her common teats. She was still full of milk from her own child, a boy. As the baby latched on with surprising fierceness, the nurse offered her own prayer. Let her be strong. Let her be sly. She looked over at the princess, fifteen, lovely and delicate as the first spring blossoms. Wilted and broken on the bed.
And let her be ugly.
VLAD COULD NOT BE bothered to be present for the birth of his second child by Vasilissa: a son, a year younger than his sister, practically chasing her into this world.
The nurse finished cleaning the newborn, then held him out to his mother. He was tiny, perfect, with a mouth like a rosebud and a full head of dark hair. Vasilissa lay, glassy-eyed and mute, on the bed. She stared at the wall. Her gaze never even drifted to her son. A tug on the nurse’s skirt brought her attention downward, where tiny Lada stood, scowling. The nurse angled the baby toward his sister.
“A brother,” she said, her voice soft.
The baby started to cry, a weak, garbled sound that worried the nurse. Lada’s scowl deepened. She slapped a dimpled hand over his mouth. The nurse pulled him away quickly, and Lada looked up, face contorted in rage.
“Mine!” she shouted.
It was her first word.
The nurse laughed, shocked, and lowered the baby once more. Lada glared at him until he stopped crying. Then, apparently satisfied, she toddled out of the room.
IF VASILISSA SAW HER daughter wrestling on the floor with the dogs and the nurse’s son, Bogdan, the nurse would lose her position. However, since the birth of Radu four years ago, Vasilissa never left her rooms.
Radu had gotten all the beauty their father had wished on his daughter. His eyes were framed by thick lashes, his lips full, his gentle curls kissed with a hint of Saxon gold.
Bogdan screamed as Lada—Ladislav, now five, refused to answer to her full name—bit down on his thigh. He punched her. She bit harder, and he cried for help.
“If she wants to eat your leg, she is allowed,” the nurse said. “Quit screaming or I will let her eat your supper, too.”
Like her brother, Lada had big eyes, but hers were close-set, with arched brows that made her look perpetually cross. Her hair was a tangled mass, so dark that her pale skin appeared sickly. Her nose was long and hooked, her lips thin, her teeth small and—judging from Bogdan’s angry cries—quite sharp.
She was contrary and vicious and the meanest child the nurse had ever cared for. She was also the nurse’s favorite. By all rights the girl should be silent and proper, fearful and simpering. Her father was a powerless tyrant, cruel in his impotence and absent for months at a time. Her mother was every bit as absent, withdrawn and worthless in their home, incapable of doing anything to help herself. They were an apt representation of the entire region—particularly the nurse’s homeland of Wallachia.