HELL WAS A party.
At least, Radu was fairly certain that whatever hell there was would certainly resemble this party.
Music drifted like perfume on the air, enough to sweeten but not overwhelm. Groups of musicians were scattered across the island; they could be glimpsed among the hardy green that had survived the winter months. Though the main meal would come later, blue-clad servants floated through the crowds with food-laden trays shaped like lily pads. On either side of the island, the Tunca River flowed leisurely by.
Whatever else he had been, Murad—Mehmed’s dead father and Radu’s onetime benefactor—had not been one to skimp on luxury. The harem complex he built on the island had been out of use since his death, but it had not faded in glory. The tiles gleamed. The carved stones of the walls promised luxury and peace. The fountains tinkled in cheery companionship with the surrounding river.
Radu wandered between buildings painted like geometric gardens, pulled along as surely as the course of the river. He knew it was useless, knew that it would not make him feel better. But still he looked.
And there—next to the bathhouse. Radu was drawn to him like a leaf spun on the river current. Mehmed wore his now-constant deep-purple robes and a swirling golden turban. A jeweled chain fastened a cloak around his broad shoulders. Radu tried to remember Mehmed’s full lips parting in a smile, his eyebrows rising in mirth rather than mockery. The two young men, both having finally finished growing, were the same tall, lean height. But lately Radu felt small when Mehmed looked at him.
He would have taken even that today. But Mehmed did not look in his direction, immune to the connection Radu could not escape.
“Truly glorious,” Halil Vizier said to Mehmed, his hands on his hips as he looked up at the new bathhouse complex. Three connected buildings, with domed roofs echoing those of mosques, had been added in the past few months. They were the first new construction anticipating Mehmed’s grand palace complex. It would rival anything his father had ever built—anything anyone had ever built. To celebrate this investment in the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed had invited everyone who mattered.
Ambassadors from various European countries mingled freely with the Ottoman elite. Mehmed stood apart, but was free with his smiles and sweeping promises of future parties at his palace. Along with his usual attendants, he was joined by Ishak Pasha, one of his most powerful spahi; Kumal Pasha, Radu’s brother-in-law; and, as always, like a bitter taste that could not be swallowed, Halil Vizier.
Radu hated thinking of his old enemy Halil Pasha as Halil Vizier. He hated even more that it had been his own plan to put Halil in a place of trust and power to keep a closer eye on him. Maybe Lada had been right. Maybe they should have killed him. Things would be easier, or at least they would be more pleasant. That should be Radu’s place at Mehmed’s side.
As though sensing Radu’s poisonous envy, Halil Vizier looked at him. His mouth curled in a sneering smile. “Radu the Handsome,” he said. Radu frowned. He had not heard that title since the end of fighting in Albania, when Skanderberg, their foe, had coined it. Mehmed glanced over, then away as soon as their eyes met. Like a butterfly alighting on a flower and finding it lacking.
“Tell me,” Halil said, that nasty smile still on his bearded face. “Is your pretty wife aware this is not a functioning harem yet? I fear she has false hopes about entering it.”
The men around Halil snickered. Kumal frowned, then opened his mouth. Radu shook his head, a minute movement. Kumal looked sadly away. Mehmed did not acknowledge the insult—the implication that Radu’s wife would enter Mehmed’s harem to divorce Radu—but he did nothing to refute it, either.
“My wife is not—”
A gentle hand came down on Radu’s arm. He turned to find Nazira. Nazira, who was not supposed to be here. “His wife is not pleased with anyone else monopolizing his attention.” Beneath her translucent veil, her smile was far brighter than the winter sun. She wore the colors of springtime. Still, Radu felt cold looking at her. What was she doing?
Nazira turned Radu away from the men and led him down a path draped in more silk than most people would ever see in their lives. It was extravagant, excessive, absurd, like everything about this party. A reflection of a sultan too young and foolish to think of anything beyond appearances and his own pleasure.
“What are you doing here?” Radu whispered urgently.
“Come on a boat ride with me.”
“I cannot! I have to—”
“Endure mockery from Halil Vizier? Try to regain the favor of Mehmed? Radu, what has happened?” Nazira pulled him into the shadows of one of the buildings. To onlookers it would appear as though he were stealing a moment with his beautiful wife.
He gritted his teeth, looking at the wall above her head. “I have business.”
“Your business is my business. You do not write us, you never visit. I had to learn from Kumal that you have fallen out with Mehmed. What happened? Did you … does he know?” Her dark eyes were heavy with meaning, the weight of it too much for Radu.
“No! Of course not. I— It is much more complicated than that.” He turned away, but she grabbed his wrist.
“Fortunately for you, I am very clever and can understand even the most complicated things. Tell me.”
Radu ran the fingers of his free hand along the edges of his turban, tugging at it. Nazira reached up, taking his fingers in her own. Her sharp eyes softened. “I worry about you.”
“You do not need to worry about me.”
“I do not worry because I need to. I worry because I care about you. I want to see you happy. And I do not think Edirne holds any happiness for you.” She emphasized Edirne, making it clear that it was not the capital she spoke of, but what—or rather, whom—that capital held.
“Nazira,” Radu hissed, “I cannot talk about this right now.”
He almost wished he could. He was desperate to talk to someone, anyone. But no one could help him with that problem. Radu wondered, sometimes, what Lazar could have told him if they had ever talked openly about what it meant for one man to love another. Lazar had been anything but discreet about his openness to something … more … with Radu. And Radu had rewarded Lazar’s loyalty and friendship with a knife. Now he had no one to talk to, to ask these desperate questions. It was wrong, was it not? For him to love this way?