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 1442THE 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.
“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.”
“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!”
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.
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.”
“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.
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 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?”
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“He was vajda of Transylvania.”
“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.”
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.”
“What 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!”
“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.
“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.
In Wallachia, as in Transylvania, survival depended on such choices.
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.