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 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?
But when Radu looked at Nazira and Fatima, he did not feel anything other than happiness that they had found each other. Their love was as pure and true as any he had ever observed. Thoughts like this made his mind turn around in circles upon itself, until not even prayer could calm it.
Radu looked down at Nazira’s hands on his. “The palace may not hold my happiness. But I cannot look anywhere else.”
Nazira released him with a sigh. “Will you come back with me? Spend some time at home? Fatima misses you. It might do you good to be away.”
“There is too much to do.”
“Too much dancing? Too many parties?” Her voice teased, but her eyes lacked an accompanying sparkle of sincerity. Her words stung him.
“You know I am more than that.”
“I do. I simply worry you might forget. You do not have to do this to yourself.”
“I am not doing it to myself, or for myself. I-- Damn. Damn, damn, damn.” Radu watched as a man in naval uniform--a sturdy cape, a tighter, smaller turban than the ones worn by ordinary soldiers, and a sash of Mehmed’s colors--walked past. He was accompanied by one of Halil Vizier’s trusted friends.
“What?” Nazira followed Radu’s gaze.
“I need to talk to that man. Without anyone else being able to hear. It is the only reason I am here.”
She was suddenly excited. “You do? Is he--” She raised her eyebrows suggestively.
“No! No. I just need to speak with him. In secret.”
Nazira’s smile turned into a thoughtful frown. “Can you be seen together?”
“Yes, but it cannot look like we met on purpose or are discussing anything of importance. I was hoping to find some quiet moment, but there are so many people here. He has not been alone since he came to the capital. Halil Vizier has seen to it.”
“Your party attendance is more complicated than I thought, then.”
Radu gritted his teeth. “Much.”
“Well, you are very fortunate you married so well.” Nazira put a hand on his arm and steered him onto the walkway. “Tell me about him.”
“His name is Suleiman, and he is the newly promoted admiral of the navy.”
Nazira laughed. “This will be easy.”
She danced effortlessly from group to group with a coy smile and a word of greeting for all. Radu was on the fringes of these parties lately, a contrast to when he had been a shining focal point. But with Nazira on his arm, more people were willing to stop for a moment of conversation. He craned his neck for a view of Suleiman. Nazira pinched his arm, hard.
“Patience,” she whispered.
After several more stops to chat with the uncle of her deceased father’s best friend, the cousin of Kumal’s deceased wife, and any number of other people Nazira treated with delight and deference regardless of their place in the Ottoman social hierarchy, they plowed directly into Suleiman. Somehow Nazira had managed to turn and walk so that Radu knocked the man over.
“Oh!” Nazira squeaked, putting her hands over her veiled mouth. “I am so sorry!”
Radu held out a hand to help the man up. They had never met before, but Suleiman’s eyes lingered on the boat-shaped gold pin on Radu’s cloak. “Please forgive me.”
“Of course.” Suleiman bowed. “I am Suleiman Baltoghlu.”
Radu bowed as well. “Radu.”
“Radu . . . ?” Suleiman paused expectantly.
“Simply Radu.” Radu’s smile was tight. Lada had left him behind under the mantle of the Draculesti family. But Radu had rejected his father’s name. He would not take it up again, ever. “This is my wife, Nazira.”
Suleiman took her hand, bowing even deeper. “They make wives prettier in Edirne than they do in Bursa.”
Nazira beamed. “That is because the wind blows too hard in harbor cities. The poor women there have to expend all their energy merely staying upright. There is no time left for being pretty.”
Suleiman laughed, a loud burst of sound that drew attention. But the attention was focused on him and Nazira, not on him and Radu.
“Tell me, what do you do in Bursa?” she asked.
“I am an admiral.”
“Boats! Oh, I adore boats. Look, did you see?” Nazira pointed to the collection of delicate boats bobbing in the river. They were carved in fanciful shapes. One had a prow like the head of a frog, and its oars had webbed feet carved into their ends. Another looked like a war galley, tiny decorative oars sticking out both its sides. “Radu is afraid if we take a boat out, he will not make it back to shore. But surely if we had an admiral with us . . .” Nazira looked up at Suleiman through her thick eyelashes.
“I am at your service.” Suleiman followed them to the dock, helping Nazira into a boat carved like a heron. A head on a slender neck pointed their way forward, and silk wings extended on either side. The tail was a canopy arching overhead to protect passengers from the sun, though it was not quite warm enough to be necessary.
“This is lovely!” Nazira sighed happily, leaning over to trail one hand in the water. Radu was not quite so pleased--he hated boats--but he shared a secret smile with Nazira. She had done his job for him.
Suleiman took the oars. Radu sat gingerly in the back of the small boat.
“I am going to chatter very brightly, waving my hands a lot,” Nazira said as they pulled away from the shore, and away from any prying ears. “In fact, I am going to talk the whole time, and you two will be unable to get a word in edgewise.”
She continued her one-sided conversation--a silent one. Her head bobbed up and down, she laughed, and her hands punctuated imaginary sentences. Any onlookers would see her entertaining Suleiman while Radu tried his best to keep his stomach.
“How soon can you build the new galleys?” Radu muttered, clutching the sides of the boat.
Suleiman shrugged like he was trying to loosen up his shoulders for rowing. “We can build ships as fast as he can fund them.”
“No one can know how many ships we really have.”
“We will build a few galleys in Bursa for show, so it looks like I am doing something. The rest will be built in secret, in a private shipyard along the Dardanelles. But I still need men. We can have all the ships in the world, but without trained sailors, they will be as much use as the boat we are in now.”
“How can we train that many men in secret?” Someone would notice if they conscripted men for a navy. A few new boats could be attributed to a foolish whim of an immature sultan. An armada, complete with the men to sail it, was another thing entirely.
“Give me the funds to hire Greek sailors, and I will give him the finest navy in the world,” Suleiman said.
“It will be done.” Radu leaned over the side, barely avoiding heaving.
Suleiman laughed at some new pantomime of Nazira’s. “Whatever you do, keep this one around. She is truly a treasure.”
This time Nazira’s laugh was real. “I am.”
Radu did not have to feign relief when Suleiman finished their loop around the island and pulled them back to the dock. He stumbled onto it, grateful for the solid wood beneath his feet.
“Your husband has a weak stomach,” Suleiman said as he helped Nazira out of the boat.
“Yes. It is a good thing he is so handsome.” Nazira patted Radu’s cheek, then waved prettily at Suleiman. “Our navy is in most capable hands!”
Suleiman laughed wryly. “My little bird boats will be the terror of the seas!” He bowed theatrically, then strode away.
“Thank you,” Radu said, letting Nazira take him back through the party, then into a secluded corner. They sat on a bench with their backs to the bathhouse wall. “That was brilliant.”