Heart of the Impaler
by Alexander Delacroix
Published by: Swoon Reads
Publication date: December 7th 2021
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Alexander Delacroix’s darkly romantic debut Heart of the Impaler is perfect for fans of Kiersten White’s And I Darken. Vlad Dracula has long lived in the shadows cast by his bloodthirsty father, the voivode, and his older brother, Mircea. Despite their cruelty, Vlad has yearned to prove himself worthy of the throne his whole life. In the cold halls of the voivode’s palace, Vlad can only rely on his cousin and closest friend, Andrei Musat. When Vlad and Andrei meet Ilona Csáki, the daughter of an influential boyar, they each find themselves inextricably drawn to her. But then Ilona is betrothed to Mircea as part of a political alliance, and Vlad’s resentfulness of his brother begins to seethe into something far darker. Ilona has no desire to marry the voivode’s eldest son, but love and marriage are the least of her worries. The royal family’s enemies have already tried to put an arrow through her back—and if anyone discovers her blossoming feelings for Andrei and Vlad, she may just wish they’d succeeded. Beneath the shadow of impending war, the only battle that will be deadlier than the one for Ilona’s life will be the one for her heart.
Târgoviște, Winter 1442
THE SUN HADN’T SET, BUT THE MOON HOVERED OVER THE CUR- tea Domnească like a curious orange eye. It seemed almost as interested in the two boys’ antics as Ilona and the rest of their all-female audience. The boys unsheathed their Magyar long- swords, wiped the blades on their shirttails, and swiped the weapons experimentally through the air. Both paused to cast sidelong glances at the watching girls. The boyars’ daughters obliged their hopes with flirtatious laughter.
Ilona watched the girls lean close and whisper to one another behind their hands. They were as duplicitous as the courtiers in Transylvania and twice as vicious. Ilona’s family had been guests of Vlad Dracul’s court for only a few short weeks, but in that time she’d learned to carefully guard her thoughts and her words.
Something tugged at her embroidered sleeve. Ilona wiped the scowl off her face and looked down at her younger sister.
“Which one is the voivode’s son?” Gizela asked. “The shorter one.” “What’s his name?” “Honestly, Gizi, we’ve been here for weeks. He’s the one who’s named after his father. Vlad. Vlad Dracula.” Gizela giggled. “Dracula. That means ‘little devil.’ I think I’ll marry him. I want to be a prince’s wife.” “If you want to be a prince’s wife, you’ll have to marry someone else.” Gizela frowned. “Why?” “Because the voivode’s eldest son—Mircea—is next in line for Wallachia’s throne.” “Then I’ll marry him.” “He’s eighteen. I don’t think he’s interested in seven-year- olds.” Gizela thrust out her lower lip and petulantly crossed her arms. “I’m nearly eight and very mature for my age!” Ilona laughed, which drew the attention of the boyars’ daughters and the sword-wielding boys. Vlad clearly decided Ilona’s laughter was for him; he grinned and bowed, his wavyhair falling over his eyes. He wasn’t heart-stoppingly handsome, Ilona thought, but he wasn’t unattractive either. And he was funny. The other day she had watched from a corner as he mocked the boyars behind their backs. He had mastered Grand Boyar Golescu’s scowl and Boyar Văcărescu’s pompous strut. He didn’t fear any of them, although perhaps he should have.
Vlad Dracul II was a powerful voivode, Wallachia’s princelywarlord, but the boyars were powerful landowners with soldiers and alliances of their own. Dracul only maintained power by keeping a slim majority of the aristocracy on his side.
Up to this point, Ilona had only exchanged a few words with Vlad in passing, so she didn’t know why she blushed now at his unexpected attention.
Vlad’s tall, quiet companion stared too, but when Ilona looked back, he quickly lowered his gaze. He was Vlad’s cousin Andrei. The boyars’ daughters had been whispering his and Vlad’s names ever since they entered the courtyard. Two of the three girls now stared daggers at Ilona.
Despite what they might have thought, Ilona wasn’t seeking Vlad’s attention—she had no interest in climbing the social ladder. But when he addressed his audience, his gaze lingered on her.
“Andrei and I are training to be knights,” he said. “We’ve already fought Wallachia’s enemies at the border, and the next time they dare to set their worthless feet on our soil, we’ll be there to stop them again. Isn’t that right, Andrei?”
He clapped a hand on Andrei’s shoulder, and Andrei nodded.
“I’m already a member of Sigismund’s Order of the Dragon,” Vlad said. “I’ve been preparing my entire life to lead Wallachia’s armies.”
The boyars’ daughters responded with appropriate nods and smiles. Vlad beamed and Andrei blushed.
“These are sharpened,” Vlad said, brandishing his sword. “One false move and Andrei or I could lose a hand.”
A pretty girl with a long braid falling down her back pre- tended to swoon into one of her companions’ arms. It earnedanother coveted grin from Vlad. Ilona bit her lower lip. The pretty girl was Golescu’s daughter. Grand Boyar Golescu was possibly the most powerful boyar in Wallachia. This, in and of itself, made his daughter particularly dangerous.
“Are you ready?” Vlad asked, returning his attention to Andrei.
Andrei didn’t seem as enthusiastic as Vlad, but he mumbled an acknowledgment. Vlad moved into a ready stance. Neither boy wore protective armor; both had stripped off their fur-lined coats and now shivered in their linen tunics.
This exhibition was foolish. An adult would put an imme- diate end to it, but all the adults were in the banquet hall. Ilona knew she should say something, but fear of how the other girls would react kept her quiet. She was already enough of an out- sider here at court.
The boys bowed and crossed their blades.
“Începe!” Vlad shouted. His sword met Andrei’s, and a metallic clang rippled off the courtyard walls. Vlad—clearly the more aggressive—lunged at his cousin, forcing Andrei to hastily swat Vlad’s blade aside. Undeterred, Vlad came at him again. And again. And again . . . It took Andrei seven tries to finally catch Vlad’s blade against his own spade-ended cross guard.
“Good one,” Vlad grunted.
Andrei nodded. He shrugged Vlad’s ringing weapon aside, and the mock battle resumed. Strike. Block. Strike.
Ilona again considered creeping back to the banquet hall to find her father, but self-doubt held her in place. Vlad and Andrei were skilled. Maybe they did this often. Maybe they knew how to handle a sword without harming each other. Vlad was better, but it was a friendly match. Nobody was going to get hurt.
Despite her worry, the longer she watched, the more impressed Ilona became. Vlad played swords the way Ilona’s father played rithmomachy—a mathematical board game similar to chess, but far more complex. Like Ilona’s father, Vlad used just the right amount of strategy and reckless aggression to intimidate his opponent. It was working on Andrei. Step by step, Vlad forced his cousin backward.
And then Andrei surprised everyone. He struck Vlad’s swooping blade with a heavy blow that nearly sent it flying; Vlad fought to maintain his grasp. One of the boyars’ daughters cheered, and Vlad’s jaw tightened.
Ilona saw a change in Vlad’s eyes. They grew darker. His swordplay became less restrained.
Gizela clapped. “This is exciting! Who do you think will win?”
Ilona pushed her sister behind her. It was time to go for help. She stepped toward the nearest corridor, but she was too late. Andrei slipped on a patch of icy snow and Vlad’s razor- edged blade carved a crimson path down the left side of his face.
Blood. Everywhere. The boyars’ daughters shrieked, Andrei dropped his weapon,
and Vlad staggered backward with a horrified look on his face. Ilona didn’t remember moving, wasn’t sure how she ended up between Andrei and Vlad, but sticky blood oozed between Ilona’s fingers where she pressed her handkerchief against
Andrei stared at her. Behind her, Vlad stammered, “I . . . I . . .”
She looked at Vlad. He looked away. “WHAT’S GOING ON OUT HERE?” The words thundered off the courtyard walls. Vlad dropped his sword, and Ilona jumped and turned her head toward the voice.
A fierce man with a drooping mustache swooped toward her and Andrei. The man wore a red velvet cap and an ermine-fringed coat. A dragon-shaped medallion bounced against his chest.
Vlad’s father. Vlad Dracul the Second, Prince of Wallachia.
The voivode forcefully pulled Ilona’s hand away from Andrei’s face and examined the damage inflicted by the younger Vlad’s sword. Ilona crept back to Gizela, reaching for her sister’s hand, but drew back when she saw the blood on her own.
The voivode turned away from Andrei. He saw the dropped swords and kicked them across the cobbled courtyard.
“I asked what’s going on here.” His words were for Vlad, but Vlad didn’t answer. The voivode glared at Andrei. “Find Raluca. Tell her to clean that up.” Andrei nodded and wiped the back of one hand across his face, which only made his wound look worse. He ducked past the voivode and disappeared down a corridor.
Dracul turned his attention back to his son. “Is this what I pay that tutor a small fortune for? Train you to strut like a cockerel in a henhouse to impress a few empty-headed girls?”
His hand flew out, and Ilona bit back a startled cry as his open palm met the side of Vlad’s face. The slap rang across the courtyard. Vlad staggered but didn’t make a sound.
“Come with me!”
The son fell into obedient step behind the father, and the voivode’s bodyguards closed in around them as they exited the courtyard. The silence that followed was uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as what came next.
“You’re Nicholas Csáki’s granddaughters.”
Ilona turned. The girl with the braid stared at her, arms crossed, a smirk on her face.
“We are.” “He was vajda of Transylvania.” “Yes.” “And your uncle Ladislaus ruled after him.” “You know a great deal about our family. I can’t claim the same about yours.” The braided girl smiled. “I make it my business to know everything about any family that thinks it’s good enough to worm its way into the voivode’s court, but even in Wallachia the Csáki name is famous. Famous for suffering history’s most humiliating defeat.”
Gizela stiffened and frowned, mirroring Ilona’s own actions. The braided girl saw this and sneered.
“Your family was shamed during the Peasant Revolt. You’re the laughingstock of all Transylvania.”
One of the girl’s companions—a tall, gaunt girl with too- angular features and too-shrewd eyes—snickered at the vicious comment.
“We’re richer and more important than any of you,” Gizela said hotly. “You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
Ilona bumped Gizela with her elbow, and her sister glared at her.
“Ow, Ilona! What was that for?”
“Ilona?” the braided girl said. “What a pretty name! I’m Daciana. This is my cousin, Sorina.”
She gestured toward her tall, unattractive companion. Her other companion, a round-faced, hazel-eyed girl, cleared her throat.
“And this is Magdalena.”
The third girl had friendlier features than the others and looked uncomfortable about what was happening, but she couldn’t feel anywhere near as uncomfortable as Ilona did.
“It’s such a pleasure to meet all of you,” Ilona said, forcing her words through clenched teeth. “But as stimulating as this conversation is, Gizela and I must be going.”
“Of course,” Daciana said. “Naturally you wish to be at the banquet to get a good seat for the big announcement.”
“Oh, my! You don’t know!” Daciana turned to her compan- ions. “The poor dear! She doesn’t know!”
“What announcement?” Ilona repeated, clenching her teeth again.
Daciana’s smug smile grew larger. “Tut, tut. I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise.”
“You’re just jealous!” Gizela said. “Jealous that Vlad likes Ilona more than he likes you!”
That comment struck a nerve. “Jealous?” Daciana spat. “Jealous of a pair of paupers who wouldn’t have a crust of bread on their plates if not for the voivode’s charity? Your family was flung out of Transylvania like a chamber pot emptied into a gutter. Thrown out like slop to a swine!”
Gizela glared and Ilona pressed her lips tightly together as Daciana and Sorina flipped their hair and strode away. Mag- dalena hesitantly followed. Ilona remained rooted to the spot until the boyars’ daughters and their mocking laughter faded.
“Don’t pay them any attention,” Gizela said. A fierce look darkened her seven-year-old face. “They’re just jealous because they’re not as pretty or as smart as you.”
“You’re the smart, pretty one, madárka. Smart and pretty like Mother.”
It was still painful to mention their mother, but the compli- ment brought a smile to Gizela’s face. Ilona smoothed back her sister’s long dark hair. Unlike Ilona, who looked far too much like their father, Gizela possessed their mother’s grace and beauty. Perhaps that was why Gizela had always been Father’s favorite.
“Do you think they’ll have chimney cakes at the voivode’s banquet?” Gizela asked.
“I hope so. It seems like forever since I’ve eaten a good kürtőskalacs.”
“Last Christmas, Mama let me have as many as I wanted.”
Ilona felt a stab in her heart. That was enough talk about their dead mother.
“Come on, madárka. We need to find Father.”
She straightened her black skirt and realized her hand was still sticky with Andrei’s blood. She would have to do some- thing about that before they returned to the voivode’s great hall. Father would never forgive her if she disgraced him by showing up unpresentable.
Alliances. To him, everything was about forming alliances. First impressions—especially bad ones—could undo his efforts to restore his lost honor by making a place for himself in Wallachia. To that end, Ilona’s father could be downright ruthless.
Like Daciana. Ilona already hated that girl! Daciana knew about alliances, and if Ilona was going to survive in Dracul’s court, she would need to form a few alliances of her own. It was what her mother would have done. The question was, who would Ilona ally herself with, and how would she do it?
In Wallachia, as in Transylvania, survival depended on such choices.
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Alexander Delacroix earned Masters degrees from Brigham Young University and Western Governors University. As an undergraduate he majored in French, Russian, and German but ultimately became a Language Arts teacher. In his spare time, he enjoys reading and writing. Heart of the Impaler is his debut novel. Author links: https://www.alexanderdelacroix.com/ https://www.facebook.com/alexander.delacroix.3114 https://twitter.com/alxdlcroix https://www.instagram.com/alx_dlcroix/