Morning in Istanbul, and Hungary was escaping from the harem again.
(“Don't misunderstand,” the Ottoman Empire said, the first day he threw her in here. He gripped the back of Hungary's tunic and was forcing her to walk forward by lifting her straight up whenever she stopped. Her throat was red and raw. “I've met your kind before. You're not a woman any more than you are a person, or a child. This is just convenient.”)
As long as she was decent about it, and she didn't get caught, didn't break Ottoman's things, didn't steal a horse and ride out of the city after setting fire to a few market stalls, the Valide Sultan permitted an escape about once a fortnight.
“What do you do out there, little girl?” one of the concubines asked her. Even with her chest still barely swollen, there was no hiding what she was in the harem, in this country where women wore tents and people learned to identify gender by thumbs and ankles.
Hungary gave her a wild barbarian smile. “Eat candy,” Hungary said. “Play with the horses. Drink raki. Once I made the guards chase me all the way to the Bosphorus--” And she stuffed sweets into the girl's hands and wove a great story about humiliated eunuchs and tripping over misplaced chickens in the streets of Istanbul.
It wasn't entirely a lie. She'd done those things, when she was newly captured and much more certain of escape or rescue.
Hungary found the door she was looking for and slipped through it. The room was empty, except for a pallet, piled high with pillows, and a boy perched on top. There was a pointed window splashing light down on him. From the odd angle of the pallet, Hungary guessed he'd dragged it into the sunshine. He was flicking through a book with no sign of interest.
“Hey, Bulgy,” she said, and the boy on the cushions didn't move. She frowned. “Bulgaria?” No response.
She stomped across the room and kicked the pallet, hard. “Jibrail.”
The boy jumped and turned over. “Hey, what--” Hungary dropped one knee on the pallet, grabbed his collar, and twisted.
“You're Bulgaria,” she hissed.
“I know that,” he said. “I just didn't hear you.”
“Liar!” She tried to shake him, but they were about the same size these days. “You heard me say Jibrail!”
Bulgaria stuck his thumb in her eye. Hungary dropped him immediately, and he shoved her while she was off balance. She landed on her elbows on the tiles, impact jarring her shoulders.
“You don't know what it's like out here!" He grabbed a pillow and started yanking at the tassels, not looking at her. Strategically a bad move, she reflected. She rubbed her watering eye. “You don't have to see him all the time. Knowing your land is inside him. And you say--you say, there's a famine in Sredec, and he just says I know, and he does." He threw the pillow at Hungary's face. "I'm being consumed, while you're playing with concubines!"
She threw the pillow back. “At least you know what's going on! Nobody tells them anything. Every morning I look for new bruises and try to figure out how many of my people are dead!”
Bulgaria flopped back onto the pallet and put his hand over his face. His hair was brown and thin, spread over the cushions behind him like the halo in an icon. “You know, I'm almost glad you're here,” he said. “I never feel more Bulgarian than when I'm hating you.”
“Ha.” Hungary sat up and hugged her knees to her chest. “Maybe next time Sadiq threatens you, you should just think about the way I beat you up in Transylvania.”
He snorted into his fingers. “Don't stop. It's like I'm an empire again.”
Hungary put her chin on her knees, rubbing her shins with her palm. “Remember when Gavril stupid-name married one of my princesses?” Bulgaria grunted. “And we all thought it was peace on the Danube, forever after, and then you ruined everything by backing the rebellion?”
Bulgaria braced himself on his heel and thrust against the air, wriggling his hips obscenely. “By the Church, that's some delicious--” Thrust. “--Bulgarian--” Thrust. “--hatred.”
Hungary pushed her scarf back and shook her hair out. It was long enough to fall onto her shoulders now, dense and curling and softening the sharp thin edges of cheekbone and jaw. (She couldn't get enough to eat, these days; someone was burning fields.) “Bodony. “ She took a little hitching breath. “C-catholicism.”
“Ivan Sratsimir,” Hungary whimpered. Bulgaria grabbed the sheets by his hips and pumped energetically.
“Can you feel that patriotism?” he said. “Oh, yes, right up your Danube.”
Hungary pressed her knuckles into her lips, snickering.
“Oh, oh--” Bulgaria moaned, then, sudden, sharp, his foot sliding off the pallet and hitting the floor. “--Oh!”
He curled in on himself like an orange peel, arm clutched to his chest. One of his fingers swelled and darkened, violet flowers opening under his skin, and Hungary felt an answering pain skewer through her left knee.
“Janissaries,” Hungary said. Pain filmed her vision for a second, turning everything to an oily dimness. She blinked hard and pressed the heel of her hand against the cramp. “Janissaries,” she repeated. “You think?”
“Shouldn't count,” Bulgaria said. “If there was anything fair or right in this world those traitors wouldn't count as mine anymore. --And don't you say anything, Bulgarians invented cynicism.”
“If you find the lost gospel of nations that explains how this works, I'll give you Wallachia,” Hungary settled for saying. She stood up and gently eased her weight onto both feet. Her knee throbbed like a drumbeat, but held. “Let's go.”
Bulgaria rolled off his pallet and followed her out of the room.
“Tell me more about Vidin, she-wolf.”
“You mean Bodony?”
“God, that's good.” Bulgaria carefully straightened his fingers. “Why is it always my good hand?”
“Because God disapproves of you touching yourself?”
* * *
Bulgaria handled the map. Hungary handled Greece.
“This is because I'm a girl, isn't it,” she said. Greece's head was a warm and drooling weight on her shoulder, nose squashed against her neck.
“It's because you're a sucker,” Bulgaria clarified. He deployed the weights gently on the corners. “Really working this new gender thing, aren't you?”
“It has few enough other benefits.”
“You're just too stupid to use it,” he said. “If I were a girl, I'd have Sadiq on his knees.” He paused. “Of course, I'm Bulgaria, so I'd be prettier than you are.”
“Yes,” Hungary said. She shifted Greece onto her hip. He cooed in his sleep. “I was just thinking about how attractive I find you.”
“Please don't scare me like that, I used all of my Holy Water on Romania.” He gave the map a final smooth with his uninjured hand. “He awake?”
She tousled Greece's hair and gave it a gentle tug. “Kid?” He mumbled and grabbed her vest, rubbing his face on it. “Kid?”
“M'awake.” He turned his head and rested the side of his face on Hungary's shoulder. She knelt down.
There was a silence, thin and stretched and breathless.
Greece's shoulders jerked, once, twice, and he turned his head back in. Her vest crumpled in his fists. “Take it away.”
“No,” Bulgaria said. His swollen fingers hovered over the map, almost touching. “Look, Greece. There we are. Right there.” One fingertip brushed the coast of the Black Sea. “There's my house.”
“Stop it,” Greece said. “Just--stop it, it's not real. That place doesn't exist.”
Hungary said nothing. She looked at the map. We grow wheat there. And there, there they make wine. And there, Corvinus's pretty Italian wife planted onions for the first time, and there is Lake Balaton, where I fell in the water and a man pulled me out and laughed and called me little fish--
She found she was touching the paper. Bulgaria's face was rapt and eager and devouring.
“Look at it,” she said, and later she would be ashamed at the way her voice sounded. Hungary lifted her hand and grabbed Greece's face. He resisted her pulling, neck muscles straining. “Look.”
His eyes finally caught again on the map, and he did not look away. She tapped a spray of blue-green, and felt his shuddering up her arm and through her chest.
“Please put it away,” Greece whispered. He shoved her chest, writhing. She squeezed him until he went still.
“Say it,” she said.
“Vtorо Bălgarskо Tsartsvo,” Bulgaria sighed, thumb ghosting across the Balkans. He rested his head on his good hand.
“I hate you,” Greece said furiously. He rocked back and forth in her arms. “Why can't you leave me alone?”
“Say it once, and I'll put you down.”
He tried to get down again, but Hungary had been an independent nation much more recently than he had. She held on. He glared at her, futile and furious and trapped, and spat out, “Hellas.”
Greece kicked the table over.
Hungary dropped him.
“Ungrateful brat,” Bulgaria said, after their captive had fled the room in tears. Hungary righted the table base and dropped the detachable top back on it with a little thud. Bulgaria picked up the map. He sighed, fingering a tear in the top corner. “Why'd you want him to come, anyway? You know how he gets.”
Hungary played with the table top, lining the corners up perfectly, shifting its balance minutely.
She sighed and let go. “I don't think I'm staying here much longer.”
Bulgaria looked up sharply.
“No, not that. I--” Hungary looked away. “You know he's fighting again.”
“He's always fighting. So?”
“I think I'm winning, Bulgaria,” Hungary said. He snorted. She stared at the lamp in the corner until her sight filled with shining spots, bobbing like little boats. “I don't know for sure. I'm starving, I can feel them dying, but I know that Ottoman is losing. This morning I couldn't remember how to put on a headscarf. I can't remember the Turkish word for please.”
Bulgaria was silent. He stared at the map in his hands and set it back on the table, smoothing out the folds and finding the little weights that had scattered across the room.
“Lütfen,” he said, when he was done. He sat back and looked at her. “It's lütfen. As in, lütfen, Sadiq bey, do not beat this crazy girl. Lütfen, Sadiq bey, she is driven mad by the heat; beat Romania instead.”
“I think I'm winning,” she said again, and pressed her fingers to her kingdom.
Magyar Királyság, she thought, and her knee throbbed, and the words for thank you and bracelet and horses slipped from her.