Kingdom of the Wicked Page 2

After they devoured their dinner and cake, the twins’ mamma and papa kissed them good night. Tomorrow they’d begin helping in the family restaurant’s busy kitchen, their first real dinner service. Too excited for sleep, Emilia and Vittoria giggled on their shared mattress, swinging their horn amulets at each other like tiny fairy swords, pretending to fight the Malvagi.

“When I grow up, I want to be a green witch,” Emilia said later, cradled in the nook of her sister’s arms. “I’ll grow all kinds of herbs. And have my own trattoria. My menu will be crafted of magic and moonlight. Like Nonna.”

“Yours will be even better.” Vittoria’s grip tightened in comfort. “By then I will be Queen, and I’ll make sure you have whatever you like.”

One night they decided to be brave. Nearly a month had passed since their eighth birthday and Nonna Maria’s dire warnings seemed a lifetime ago. Vittoria thrust her amulet at her sister, her face determined. “Here,” she commanded, “take it.”

Emilia hesitated only a minute before clasping the golden horn in her palm.

A shimmering lavender-black light exploded from their amulets, startling Emilia enough that she dropped her sister’s necklace. Vittoria swiftly fastened it back where it belonged, brown eyes wide as the glittering light abruptly faded. Both girls remained silent. Whether in fear or fascination, they couldn’t be sure. Emilia flexed her hand, trying to work out the pin-prickling sensation crawling under her skin. Vittoria watched; her face hidden in shadow.

Nearby a hellhound howled up at the moon, though later they’d convince themselves it was only the wind snarling through the cramped streets of their quarter. They never told anyone what they’d done, and never spoke of the strange inky-purple light.

Not even to each other. And especially not to Nonna Maria.

Since they pretended the incident away, Emilia didn’t tell her sister she’d been irrevocably changed—from that evening forward, whenever she held her cornicello and concentrated, she saw what she’d call luccicare. A faint shimmer or aura surrounding a person.

The only exceptions being herself and her twin.

If Vittoria also possessed this new talent, she never admitted so. It was the first of many secrets the twins would keep from each other. And would prove deadly for one.


Ten years later

Nonna Maria buzzed around the kitchen like she’d guzzled every drop of espresso in our restaurant. Her mood was downright frantic. My twin was late for dinner service and our grandmother saw it as a portent of doom, especially since Vittoria was out the night before a holy day. Goddess forbid.

The fact that the moon was not only full, but also a putrid shade of yellow had Nonna muttering the kind of warnings that normally made my father bolt the doors. Thankfully he and Uncle Nino were in the dining room with a frosty bottle of limoncello, pouring after-dinner drinks for our customers. No one left Sea & Vine without sipping the dessert liqueur and feeling the utter satisfaction and bliss that followed a good meal.

“Mock me all you like, but it’s not safe. Demons are prowling the streets, searching for souls to steal.” Nonna chopped cloves of garlic for the scampi, her knife flying across the worn cutting board. If she wasn’t careful, she’d lose a finger. “Your sister is foolish to be out.” She stopped, immediately shifting her attention to the little horn-shaped amulet around my neck. Worry lines carved a deep path around her eyes and mouth. “Did you see if she was wearing her cornicello, Emilia?”

I didn’t bother responding. We never took our amulets off, not even while bathing. My sister broke every rule except that one. Especially after what happened when we were eight. . . . I briefly closed my eyes, willing the memory away. Nonna still didn’t know about the luccicare I could see shimmering around humans while holding my amulet, and I hoped she never would.

“Mamma, please.” My mother raised her gaze to the ceiling as if the goddess of sky might send an answer to her prayers in the form of a lightning bolt. I wasn’t sure if the bolt was meant for Nonna, or my mother. “Let’s get through dinner service before worrying about the Wicked. We have more pressing problems at the moment.” She nodded to the sauté pan. “The garlic is starting to burn.”

Nonna mumbled something that sounded suspiciously like “So will their souls in Hell if we don’t save them, Nicoletta,” and I bit my lip to keep from smiling.

“Something’s terribly wrong, I feel it in my bones. If Vittoria isn’t home soon, I’ll go looking for her myself. The Malvagi won’t dare to steal her soul around me.” Nonna brought her cleaver down on an unsuspecting mackerel, its head flopping to the limestone floor.

I sighed. We could’ve used it to make fish stock. Nonna was really getting herself worked up. She was the one who’d taught us the value in using every part of an animal.

Bones, however, could only be used for stock, not spells. At least those were the rules for us di Carlos. Le arti oscure was strictly forbidden. I scooped the fish head into a bowl to give to the alley cats later, banishing thoughts of the dark arts.

I poured some chilled wine for Nonna, adding orange slices and sugared peels to sweeten it. In moments, condensation bloomed like morning dew across the glass. It was mid-July in Palermo, which meant the air was stifling at night, even with our windows open, coaxing a breeze.

It was especially hot in the kitchen now, though during colder months I still wore my long hair up because of the soaring temperatures created by our oven fires.

Sea & Vine, the di Carlo family trattoria, was known across Sicily for our sinfully delicious food. Each evening our tables were crowded with hungry patrons, all waiting to dine on Nonna’s recipes. Lines formed in the late afternoons, no matter the weather. Nonna said simple ingredients were her secret, along with a touch of magic. Both of those statements were true.

“Here, Nonna.” We weren’t supposed to use magic outside of our home, but I whispered a quick spell, and, using the condensation dripping onto the stone, slid the drink along the counter in front of her. She paused long enough in her worrying to sip the sweet red wine. My mother mouthed her thanks when my grandmother’s back was turned, and I grinned.

I wasn’t sure why Nonna was so agitated tonight. Over the last several weeks—starting around our eighteenth birthday—my twin missed quite a few dinner services, and had snuck in well past sunset, her bronze cheeks flushed and her dark eyes bright. There was something different about her. And I had a strong suspicion it was because of a certain young vendor in the market.

Domenico Nucci Junior.

I’d stolen a peek at her diary and had seen his name scribbled in the margins before guilt had overtaken me and I’d tucked it back under the floorboard where she’d hidden it. We still shared a room on the second floor of our small, crowded home, so thankfully she didn’t notice my snooping.

“Vittoria is fine, Nonna.” I handed her some fresh parsley to garnish the shrimp. “I told you she’s been flirting with the Nucci boy who sells arancini for his family near the castle. I’m sure he’s busy with all the pre-festival celebrations tonight. I bet she’s passing out fried rice balls to everyone who’s overindulged. They need something to soak up all that sacramental wine.” I winked, but my grandmother’s fear didn’t abate. I set the rest of the parsley down and hugged her close. “No demon is stealing her soul, or eating her heart. I promise. She’ll be here soon.”

“One day I hope you’ll take signs from the goddesses seriously, bambina.”

Maybe one day. But I’d heard stories about red-eyed demon princes my whole life and hadn’t met one yet. I wasn’t too worried things would suddenly change now. Wherever the Wicked had gone, it seemed to be permanent. I feared them as much as I worried about dinosaurs suddenly returning from extinction to take over Palermo. I left Nonna to the scampi, and smiled as music filtered in between the sounds of knives chopping and spoons stirring. It was my favorite kind of symphony—one that allowed me to focus entirely on the joy of creation.

I inhaled the fragrant scent of garlic and butter.

Cooking was magic and music combined. The crack of shells, the hiss of pancetta hitting a hot pan, the metallic clang of a whisk beating the side of a bowl, even the rhythmic thwack of a cleaver against a wooden cutting board. I adored each part of being in a kitchen with my family. I couldn’t imagine a more perfect way to spend an evening.

Sea & Vine was my future and it promised to be filled with love and light. Especially if I saved enough coin to purchase the building next door and expand our family business. I’d been experimenting with new flavors from across Italy and wanted to create my own menu one day.

My mother hummed along while forming marzipan into fruit shapes. “He’s a nice boy. Domenico. He’d make a good match for Vittoria. His mother is always pleasant.”

Nonna tossed a flour-coated hand in the air, waving it around as if the idea of an engagement with a Nucci stunk worse than the streets of the nearby fish market. “Bah! She’s too young to worry about marriage. And he’s not Sicilian.”

My mother and I both shook our heads. I had a feeling his Tuscan roots had little to do with Nonna’s disapproval. If she had it her way, we’d live in our ancestral home—in our little quarter of Palermo—until our bones turned to dust. Nonna didn’t believe anyone else could watch over us as well as she could. Especially a mere human boy. Domenico wasn’t witch-born like my father, and therefore Nonna didn’t think he could ever fully be trusted with our secret.

“He was born here. His mother is from here. I’m fairly certain that makes him Sicilian,” I said. “Stop being grumpy. It doesn’t suit someone as sweet as you.”

She harrumphed, ignoring my blatant attempt to charm her. Stubborn as a mule, as my grandfather would’ve said. She picked up her carved wooden spoon and pointed it in my direction. “Sardines washed themselves onto the shore. Gulls didn’t touch them. You know what that means? It means they’re no fools. The devil’s stirring the seas, and they’ll have nothing to do with his offerings.”

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