Kingdom of the Wicked (Kingdom of the Wicked #1)(5)

Sciacca—a port town facing the Mediterranean Sea—was almost directly south of us. It was a little jewel on an island filled with visual treasure. I couldn’t imagine a murder there. Which was ridiculous since death didn’t discriminate between paradise and hell.

“That’s awful.” I set my knife down, pulse pounding. I looked at my grandmother. “Were they . . . human?”

Nonna’s sad look said it all. Streghe. I swallowed hard. No wonder she was carrying on about the Wicked returning. She was imagining one of us discarded in the streets, our souls being tortured by demons in Hell while our blood slipped through cracks in the stone, replenishing Earth’s magic. I shuddered despite the sweat beading my brow. I didn’t know what to make of the murders.

Nonna often chided me for being too skeptical, but I still wasn’t convinced the Malvagi were to blame. Old legends claimed the Wicked were sent to make bargains and retrieve souls for the devil, not kill. And no one had seen them wandering our world in at least a hundred years.

Humans murdered each other all the time, though, and they definitely attacked us when they suspected what we were. Whispers of a new band of strega hunters reached us last week, but we’d seen no evidence of them. But now . . . if witches were being murdered, I was more inclined to believe human zealots were to blame. Which meant we needed to be even more careful to avoid discovery. No more simple charms where we could be seen. I tended to be overly cautious, but my sister was not. Her favorite form of hiding was not hiding at all.

Maybe Nonna was right to be worried.

“What did you mean about the Malvagi coming to collect?” I asked. “Or it being foretold?”

Nonna didn’t look happy about my line of questioning, but saw the determination in my eyes and knew I’d keep asking. She sighed. “There are stories that claim the Wicked will return to Sicily every few weeks beginning now, searching for something that was stolen from the devil.”

This was a new legend. “What was stolen?”

My mother stilled before shaping the marzipan again. Nonna sipped her wine carefully, gazing into it as if she might divine the future in the pulp floating on the surface. “A blood debt.”

I raised my brows. That didn’t sound ominous at all. Before I could interrogate her further, someone rapped on the side door where we brought in supplies. Over the chatter in the small dining room, my father called to Uncle Nino to entertain the dinner guests. Footsteps thudded down the hall and the door creaked open.

“Buonasera, signore di Carlo. Is Emilia here?”

I recognized the deep voice and knew what he’d come to ask. There was only one reason Antonio Vicenzu Bernardo, the most newly appointed member of the holy brotherhood, ever called on me here. The nearby monastery relied heavily on donations and charity, so once or twice a month I made dinner for them on behalf of our family restaurant.

Nonna was already shaking her head as I wiped my hands on a towel and set my apron on the island. I smoothed down the front of my dark skirts, cringing a little at the flour splattered across my bodice. I looked like a queen of ash and probably stank like garlic.

I swallowed a sigh. Eighteen and romantically doomed forever.

“Emilia . . . please.”

“Nonna, there are already plenty of people in the streets celebrating before the festival tomorrow. I promise I’ll stick to the main road, make dinner quickly, and grab Vittoria on the way back. We’ll both be home before you know it.”

“No.” Nonna was out of her chair, ushering me back like a wayward hen toward the island and my abandoned cutting board. “You mustn’t leave here, Emilia. Not tonight.” She clutched her own cornicello, her expression pleading. “Let someone else donate food instead, or you’ll find yourself joining the dead in that monastery.”

“Mamma!” my mother scolded. “What a thing to say!”

“Don’t worry, Nonna,” I said. “I don’t plan on dying for a very, very long time.”

I kissed my grandmother, then snatched a half-formed piece of marzipan from the plate my mother was working on and popped it into my mouth. While I chewed, I stuffed a basket with tomatoes, fresh basil, homemade mozzarella, garlic, olive oil, and a small bottle of thick balsamic Uncle Nino brought from his recent visit to Modena. It wasn’t traditional, but I’d been experimenting and loved the flavor of vinegar lightly drizzled on top.

I added a jar of salt, a loaf of crusty bread we baked earlier, then quickly ducked out of the kitchen before I was wrangled into another argument.

I smiled warmly at Fratello Antonio, hoping he couldn’t hear Nonna condemning him and the entire monastery in the background. He was young and handsome for a member of the brotherhood—just three years older than Vittoria and I. His eyes were the color of melted chocolate, and his lips always hinted at the sweetest smile. He’d grown up next door to us, and I used to dream about marrying him one day. Too bad he’d devoted himself to chastity; I was certain half the Kingdom of Italy wouldn’t mind kissing his full mouth. Myself included.

“Buonasera, Fratello Antonio.” I held my basket of supplies aloft, ignoring how odd it felt to call him “brother” when I had some very un-sisterly thoughts about him. “I’ve been experimenting again and am making a sort of a caprese-bruschetta combination for the brotherhood tonight. Does that sound all right?”

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