Are you enchanted by fantasy novels, fascinated with mafia families, and always on the look out for original queer love stories? Then there is a new young adult book with your name on it hitting shelves this fall: Amy Rose Capetta's The Brilliant Death, out this October from Viking Books. A unique mashup of fantasy, historical fiction, and queer romance, the latest from the author of Entangled and Echo After Echo sounds like the kind of book you won't be able to stop talking about. Bustle is excited to reveal its stunning cover and exclusive excerpt from the upcoming YA novel, below.
Set in a magical variation of 19th-century Italy, The Brilliant Death tells the story of Teodora DiSangro, a mafia don's daughter and a strega — wielder of magic — who uses her powers to secretly turn her family's enemies into decorative objects. Teo keeps her true identity, and her true abilities, hidden from the world, but when the new ruler of Vinalia sends poised letters to the heads of the five families that have controlled the land for generations, including her own father, the young woman is forced to act. In order to save her beloved father, Teo must travel to the capital as a DiSangro son, but a disguise isn't going to cut it. She has to actually transform into a boy.
That's where Cielo, a shape-shifting multi-gendered strega who becomes Teo's magic tutor, comes in. Together, they journey to the capital as Teo struggles to simultaneously learn how to master her powers and kept her growing feelings for Cielo at bay. The closer they get to their destination, the stronger Teo's love for Cielo goes, but she won't let her feelings for the witty strega distract her from her mission to save her family and reveal the truth about what is really happening in their beloved country.
The Brilliant Death hit shelves until Oct. 30 and is available for pre-order now, but you can get an exclusive look at the book's breathtaking cover and read an exciting excerpt from its first chapter, below.
When I was a little girl, I thought my father was the king of Vinalia.
Our family lived in a round-walled castle that seemed to grow from the mountainside. Father’s favorite chair had been carved out of a black walnut tree. When I squinted long enough, it became a throne.
The first time I saw him kill someone, it made perfect sense. A king had to protect his family and his mountains.
I shouldn’t have been out of bed that winter night, but I traveled down to the kitchens, feet soft brushstrokes on cold stone, and stole a glass of milk. When I turned to leave by the back stairs, two men blocked my path. Father stood on the lowest step with his arm fastened around a stranger’s neck. Snow clumped wetly on the man’s shoulders.
"The first time I saw him kill someone, it made perfect sense. A king had to protect his family and his mountains."
I didn’t dare move closer. If I’d been in a white nightgown, Father would have seen me by now, but the di Sangro family wore red, so everything I owned was a deep shade that turned black in the moonlight.
I watched as cold beads slicked the outside of my glass, a pretty thing that had been handblown in the city of Amalia.
Father’s grip tightened on the man’s neck while my grip weakened. Father grabbed a knife from his sleeve and stabbed the man’s side.
I dropped the glass.
The moment became a small eternity, giving me time to fear what came next. Father’s anger. My punishment. I closed my eyes tight, twisting the story in a new direction. The glass will dissolve into a pile of sugar. The milk will turn into a white, white moth and fly away.
When I opened my eyes, the snow light coming through the window caught on a pair of wings. Pale wings. A moth fluttered, gone before I could be sure of what I’d seen. I pushed one toe past the hem of my nightgown; it found no shards of glass. I knelt, licked my fingertip, and touched it to the stone. It came back gritty with crystals. I brought them to my tongue. Sweet.
Father turned toward me, finished with his business. His brown eyes held only torchlight. “Wait here, Teodora,” he said, shifting the dead man’s weight against his shoulder. Father opened the heavy door and disappeared into the kitchen gardens for a long mire of a minute.
I burned to ask about magic, but I knew what he would say. A strega is an old woman who has listened to too many stories. When he came back to the doorway, his shirt blotched with damp, I lit on a new question. I had to speak quickly, before my boldness faded into the shadows. “Was it your fate to kill that man?”
I was only Niccolò di Sangro’s second daughter and had no right to ask. I thought he would wave his hand vaguely, sending me back to bed. Father sat down at the coarse wooden table and patted the chair next to his.
“That’s Beniamo’s seat,” I whispered. As if my older brother, asleep in the North hall, might be able to hear us from inside his dreams.
“We won’t tell anyone, will we?” he asked.
I shook my head. Sat down. My feet swung lightly, inches from the floor.
Father reached into his sleeve and withdrew the knife. As he placed it on the table, I drank every detail: a spiral handle; a swerving crossbar; a long, thin blade that looked harmless until my eyes reached the point. I couldn’t find a single drop of blood. Father must have stabbed the snow outside to clean it.
The knife was sharp. The knife was lovely. I could see both of those truths, twisted together.
Father marked my reaction. “You don’t reach for it, but you don’t shy away.” He sounded pleased, but then his eyes pinched. “Why are you downstairs?”
"The knife was sharp. The knife was lovely. I could see both of those truths, twisted together."
So he had not seen the glass, the milk, the magic. “I was thirsty.”
I wondered how far the white moth had flown.
Father nudged the knife toward me. It lifted easily, much lighter than I had expected.
“You truly aren’t afraid, are you?” he asked.
“What is there to be afraid of?”
He chuckled, the sound as heavy as wet snow. “Well, I was younger than you when I learned what it means to be a di Sangro.” Father cupped his hands around mine like he was teaching me to pray. “You asked me if it was my fate to kill that man.” His eyes went dim. “Family is fate.”
Chapter One: Seven Years Later
One perfectly ripe summer day, I left the castle wearing a clean red dress and carrying a basket. I told a man from the village that I wanted to have supper in my favorite field, and he should join me. I’d been working to copy my older sister’s smile, the one she used to make men say yes without thinking. And that was what Pietro did.
We set off up the mountain, talking of small things. His trip to the Violetta Coast, the new grapes he would harvest this year. He had no reason to suspect that the basket swinging from my arm was empty.
The hike from the village started out hot and stayed hot. By the time we reached the crossroads, Pietro and I were shedding drops of sweat as fast as the earth could drink. We crested a ridge and I came to a stop. “This is your favorite field?” Pietro asked.
“Yes,” I said, clutching at a breath. “Isn’t it perfect?”
The flowers were wilted and as white as old bone. The grass had given up and matted itself in defeat. Pietro gave me a look, one I had seen on dozens of different faces in Chieza. People thought I was odd. Not a liar, a strega, or a thief of men’s lives.
I spent my days with my half brother, Luca, or I wandered the mountain alone. Odd. I hadn’t made friends with the girls in the village. Odd. If I wanted to live among the people on this mountain, I would have to keep earning that title. I couldn’t have anyone scratching to see what was underneath it.
“Where would you like to eat?” Pietro asked.
"Odd. If I wanted to live among the people on this mountain, I would have to keep earning that title. I couldn’t have anyone scratching to see what was underneath it."
I led him to a spot with fewer spiking weeds. The gentians and poppies that warred brightly on other slopes were missing here. I loved this field, not for its beauty but for where it sat on the mountain, tucked out of sight.
Pietro shaded his eyes against the sun and gave me the wobbly smile of someone who thinks he might have made a mistake but still hopes to gain from it. I put down the picnic basket and wiped the sweat from my palms. It was time to work.
First, I took Pietro’s measure. He was older than me by half a lifetime, and I could see years of sun and wind trapped in his warm brown skin. He worked grape fields that had been owned by his father—now his. He had a number of lovers besides his wife. She probably kept her own, but she didn’t get to boast of them in town, lilting their praises over cheap wine. And then there were Pietro’s children, two little boys with hazelnut eyes. I had seen them hanging off him like a coatrack.
I wanted to dislike him. It would make the rest of this easier.
I’d been staring for a while—one benefit of being the odd di Sangro girl—when Pietro stepped in to tuck a bit of wayward hair behind my ear. He pitched his voice low, a bit rough, a bit gentle. “You look hungry, Teodora.” This wasn’t the first time a man had brought his own ideas up the mountain. Having a father in the castle meant all I had to do was say no to make this attention dissolve like snow at high summer.
This time, though, I hesitated. I had always thought Pietro was beautiful. Whenever I saw him across the square in the village, my eyes danced after him. Now I let myself imagine what it would be like to take him as a lover. There would be kisses like moonlight, soft and brilliant. I would let him touch me with his practiced hands. I would keep the one rule of the village girls—I wouldn’t let him inside. But everything else would be allowed. Everything else would be encouraged.
A flare from the white sun slapped me awake. I was not some silly girl who wanted silly things. I was a di Sangro.
“I think we should talk,” I said.
“Yes,” Pietro agreed, not moving away. His voice was warm, spreading.
"A flare from the white sun slapped me awake. I was not some silly girl who wanted silly things. I was a di Sangro."
I backed up, and a little distance broke the spell. “Now,” I said, “would you like to tell me the story of how you are cheating my father?”
Pietro went a shade lighter than the dead grass.
“No? Then I will have to tell it myself.” I knew by then that Father was not the king of Vinalia, but he was an important man. We might have a new Capo, a son of the famously decadent Malfara family who loved to brag about bringing the country together under one flag, but the true power in Vinalia still sat with the five families.
I circled Pietro, the dry ground knocking like hollowed wood beneath my boots. “Your grape arbors have been under the protection of the di Sangro family since your great-great-grandfather’s time, but in the two years since you inherited them, money has gone missing. Not ragged chunks of the profit. A quiet sum. We trusted you to stop, but it has gone on and on. Maybe you have fallen in love with the gambling tables in Prai. Maybe you have a girl who aches for the newest fashions from the north. Maybe you thought we wouldn’t notice, and you love the idea of fooling us. Do you see the dangers of letting someone else tell your story?” I twirled my fingers lazily. “I can twist it in any direction I like.”
Pietro fell to his knees, wrapping his sweaty arms around my middle. I should have hated his weakness. I should have pushed him away. Instead I sank my hands into his loose, dark curls.
His voice doubled in thickness, becoming a sob. “I love my wife, Teodora.”
“Really?” I asked. “Because you seemed ready to—”
“That money is for our children,” he said, shaking me off the subject of his lust. “The five families have no right to it.”
"I should have hated his weakness. I should have pushed him away. Instead I sank my hands into his loose, dark curls."
“We are not the Palazza,” I said, as hard as unfinished stone. “We don’t claim a right. We earn that money.” Father worked to keep the Uccelli—the poorest region in Vinalia— from falling into complete ruin. I had seen how difficult that task was, how it had turned him old before his time.
I touched Pietro’s chin and tilted his face up—not to me, but to the blank white eye of the sun. “Don’t we make sure that your fields aren’t set on by vandals?” Pietro nodded hastily. “And aren’t there fair prices and people lined up to buy your wine?” He nodded again, a swallow held captive in his throat. “And when there is a siege, where does your family take shelter?” All the people of the Uccelli could fit inside our castle walls, which was a good thing considering how often Vinalia was invaded. That was part of the false logic of unification— if we stood tall together, we wouldn’t fall prey to the stronger powers of Eterra. But we had already weakened ourselves in long battles, including the ones the Capo waged against his own people.
“The new taxes from Amalia are too much,” Pietro said. “We can’t pay both.”
I twisted my lips as if I’d been sucking on lemon rinds. The Capo had claimed a man’s loyalty in less than a year, when we had worked countless generations for it. Either Pietro trusted the new government in Amalia more than the di Sangro family, or his fear of the Capo was greater. Neither of these messages would delight my father.
I knelt down in the dead grass. “Niccolò di Sangro is not here today. You are in the hands of his odd little daughter. Thank God for small mercies.” I shoved Pietro’s curls out of his eyes and asked, “Would you like to be a bookend?”
He squinted at me like I was a word in an impossible language. “What?”
I sighed. “I’m trying to give you a say in your future.” Some of the men I came for were murderers. Others had taken women without their permission, and I had little problem plucking such men from the world. Pietro was nowhere near the worst. I wondered if there was any way we could let him pay the family back, quietly. But Father had said it so many times, I heard the words in his voice, like dark jagged stone. The moment we let people think we can be swindled, we will be always swindled.
I touched Pietro’s forehead and thought about how soon he would be different. How quickly things changed. “The di Sangro family will look after your wife and children,” I promised. “And your grape arbors.”
The magic came when I called for it. I closed my eyes, breathing in air laden with heat. Turn him into something pleasant. I thought.
I opened my eyes and walked to the place where Pietro had stood. A glass and metal box sat at my feet, with a barrel at the center covered in raised dots, and a small hand crank on one side. I wound it tight and nestled the box in one hand. Notes came fast and clear. It was a complicated weaving. The song of a man who kept a wife and lovers, who worked hard, stole often, and had two boys with hazelnut eyes.
"The magic came when I called for it. I closed my eyes, breathing in air laden with heat. Turn him into something pleasant. I thought."
I picked up my new trinket and placed it in the empty basket.
Halfway down the mountain, cool air pressed on my skin, lifting fine hairs. I looked to the peaks behind me to see if bad weather was moving in. A solemn gray cloud perched over the mountaintop—and then a wind chased it away, leaving the day vivid and blue. Where the cloud had been a moment ago, someone walked toward me down the slope.
The Uccelli only boasted a few passable roads, and the nearest ran five miles to the south. This traveler must have been skirting rocks and ravines for hours, yet his steps were light. Or her steps. From a distance, I couldn’t tell if I was looking at a man or a woman. The stranger had skin so pale, I thought of the wine casks in our cellar, hidden away from the sun. A sheet of black hair shimmered to the beat of each step.
I studied the person’s clothes for a clue about which part of Vinalia they came from. Black trousers, brown boots laced above the knee, and a white shirt, all of basic stock. The cloak demanded more interest. Its fabric gripped both light and shadow. From some angles the fabric seemed rich green, and from others I could have sworn it was purple.
I told the magic to be ready, though I hoped I wouldn’t need it. I had never transformed two people in the same day.
“That’s a lonely walk,” I called out. “Have you seen anything interesting?” Another one of Father’s tactics. Get a man talking, and he will hand you a weapon. Keep him talking, and he will show you where to point it.
"I told the magic to be ready, though I hoped I wouldn’t need it."
“I’m glad you asked,” the stranger said, walking fast, speaking in a half-shouted voice as the distance between us closed. “I have seen three and a half interesting things today. The first was a tree that had swallowed another tree whole. Have you ever seen that? I had to wonder what the little tree had done to offend the big one.” When I answered with a swath of silence, the stranger said, “Moving on. The second interesting thing was my foot, the left one, which turned a shade of purple I have never seen before.”
With one more stride, the stranger and I were on the same patch of the mountain, close enough that I could make a full inventory. Here was a long nose, a set of greenish eyes, cheekbones like two dangerous ridges.
The stranger circled me slowly. I countered the circle, as if we were caught up in a dance, or a duel. “The half of an interesting thing was a rabbit I nearly ate. But then it told me a funny story, and I had to let it go. I guess you could say the story was interesting, but only to a rabbit. When I let him run off, my stomach informed me I had better find something to eat. So you can imagine my excitement when I caught sight of one final interesting thing. Supper.”
He—for I had started to think of this person as a young man, though his voice had the songlike quality often found in women—nodded down at the basket I was holding. I clutched the handle tight enough that the rough weave marked my fingers.
The stranger held out a long, flat palm. “May I?”
I let a moment sit between us, unraveling, before I held out the basket. There could be no real harm in it, I told myself.
The stranger accepted the handle with great care, knelt on the grass, and plucked out the music box. For a hungry person, he didn’t seem disappointed to find a metal contraption instead of a hearty supper. I felt the slight shadow of a touch as he stroked the side of the glass box. He applied his long, pale fingers to the little crank.
“What’s your name?” I asked at last. If this was a dance, I had fallen three steps behind.
The stranger ignored the question, taking in the tinny sounds of the music box as a person savors a fine meal. He even closed his eyes, and I found myself staring at marble eyelids that looked cool to the touch. The stranger’s mouth stretched into a dreamer’s smile, private and satisfied.
It made me feel as though I had trespassed, even though this person stood on di Sangro lands.
I reached to snatch the music box away just as the stranger’s eyes snapped open. He angled his face up, and in the full light of the sky, his eyes were blue and brown as well as green. The swirl of colors felt impossible to name.
“It’s a fugue.” He handed the music box back to me with a deepening smirk. “Aren’t we all.”
The magic spiked inside me. Did it want me to stop this stranger before he could bring trouble to the Uccelli? I wasn’t doing my di Sangro duty. I was allowing a pale, perfectly molded stranger to dance circles around me.
“What do you want here?” I asked.
"The magic spiked inside me. Did it want me to stop this stranger before he could bring trouble to the Uccelli?"
He stood and picked up my basket, lingering over its emptiness. “I thought you might have something for me. Perhaps those briny olives, the green ones that have been well soaked so the salt stays on your lips?” I was suddenly aware of my own lips. I glared at the stranger, certain he’d done that on purpose.
He took a step closer, tighter than any of the dances I knew. I found a new color in his eyes. Yellow. “You can tell me,” he said. “It’s safe.” His breath was soft on my skin. His words slipped past my mind, straight to my magic.
It didn’t wish to change him into a red ribbon or a bone knife or a stamp for sealing letters. It didn’t wish to change anything.
A cloud of disappointment slid through the young man’s eyes, turning them almost gray. “There’s nothing you wish to tell me?” He seemed to be waiting for a specific answer, though I couldn’t imagine what words he thought I would hand over.
I gave my head a tiny shake.
With a hard sigh and a long stride, the stranger headed down the mountain. At the crossroads, he turned toward Chieza.
The magic said follow.
But I would already be getting home late, and I had failed spectacularly to find out this person’s name and purpose. The least I could do was attend the rest of my afternoon lessons. I’d promised Luca I would be there. And I wouldn’t feel better until I had Pietro settled. My di Sangro duties stretched out, as long and treacherous as a mountain range.
The stranger turned into a speck in the distance. Above him, clouds gathered and trotted like dogs at his heels.
I turned and headed back toward the castle.
I found my father and brothers in the torture chamber.
It was buried under the castle, deep in the muscle of the mountain. I had to walk through near-endless wine cellars to get there, and my candle had dripped down to a fat waxen thumb by the time I arrived.
“Ah, Teo,” Father said. Torchlight picked out the first silver hairs that had crept in among the brown.
Beniamo turned to me, his eyes shining like the moon on dead water. “Go back up and help Fiorenza with dinner. You won’t like what we’re talking about.”
I crossed my arms over my body and held tight. “When have I ever skipped a lesson?”
“When you forgot because you were out on the mountain,” Luca muttered without looking up from the notes he was inking.
My little brother was my greatest ally in the castle, and I had let him down. The failure sat like a stone in my shoe, rubbing against the larger discomfort of meeting that stranger on the mountain. “When have I ever skipped a lesson because I was too delicate to stomach it?”
“You have nothing to fear, Teo,” Father said, patting my shoulder. “I won’t get into the worst of the details today.”
"My little brother was my greatest ally in the castle, and I had let him down. The failure sat like a stone in my shoe, rubbing against the larger discomfort of meeting that stranger on the mountain."
“Don’t water the wine because I’m drinking it,” I said, frowning up at him. Father gave the boys lessons in politics, history, land ownership, anything he thought would profit a di Sangro son. I had started paying attention when I was ten because the magic loved the sound of Father’s voice. Soon I had learned all of the best ways to intimidate a person, to turn his own ideas against him. Everything I’d done to Pietro—besides one brief moment of magic—I had learned at Father’s knee.
I sat down, wedging myself between the chair and the desk, and grabbed at paper, an inkwell, and a pen. “Well, then,” Father said roughly. “If we’re all settled. We’ll begin where we left off. At the Well of Blades.” He pointed to a deep pit at the farthest corner of the room.
“Does it work?” Beniamo asked, sitting forward.
“Are you asking if it can still send someone to a slow and miserable death? No. The glass was removed years ago. This dungeon hasn’t held prisoners for generations.” Father stared down Beniamo. “This is a history, not a practical guide.”
Father moved on to other tortures. A pole that could be tied to women’s hair, to tear the scalp free. A pot for boiling. As the list grew, my stomach rioted. The di Sangro family didn’t rely on torture anymore, but that didn’t mean we had turned our backs on violence. We treated it like an old friend, one we visited whenever things grew difficult.
I couldn’t help thinking that magic was the best solution to our problems. I didn’t have to kill anyone. I could simply stopper them as though I were putting them in a collection of small bottles.
But you can’t turn them back, the magic whispered. How is a music box better than a hole in the ground?
"I couldn’t help thinking that magic was the best solution to our problems. I didn’t have to kill anyone."
It was true that I didn’t know how to change people into human form again. But I could always learn.
When? the magic asked. How?
I shifted under the unfair weight of the question. I had no idea if I would ever learn more about the power that lived inside me. It wasn’t as if my di Sangro duties included daily magic lessons.
“What was the first instance of torture used against heretics within the five families?” Father asked.
Luca answered Father’s question, and the next one. His intelligence rushed ahead of mine, which was stuck in muddy thoughts of my day on the mountain, and Beniamo’s, which had never been able to keep pace. Beniamo’s body shifted into hard ropes of anger as Luca proved, over and over, that he was the smarter of the two brothers.
When no one was looking, I kicked Luca in the ankle and mouthed, Slow down.
Luca tilted his chin away, ignoring my good advice.
My eyes went to every little scar and burn on his skin. I didn’t want a new one to tend to. Since we were young, Beniamo had punished us when he thought life had treated him unfairly. That included any moment when Father favored Luca, heaped praise on Mirella, or showed me affection. It began in the nursery, when Beniamo would corner us and tell us our crimes. The runners of rocking horses crushed our forearms. Wooden swords bruised our stomachs. Metal pieces from the Game of the Goose were heated in fireplace ashes and set to our skin.
“What is the swiftest method of bloodletting?” Father asked.
“Arteries,” I said, leaping in before Luca could. “Preferably in the neck.”
“That sounds simple enough,” Beniamo said, looking me over as if seeking a good place to cut.
My voice prickled in my throat, but I knew that if I told Father about what Beniamo was doing, my older brother would deny it now and double the punishment later. And he had moved beyond nursery games.
I took Beniamo’s measure quickly, the same way I had with Pietro. The magic whispered, He would make a nice pair of boots. I clamped my teeth, grinding the idea to dust. It was one thing to change our enemies. It was another to use magic against family.
Father asked a new question, but I barely heard it before Luca’s voice rang out with the answer.
Beniamo’s eyes cut a rough line to our little brother.
After a long day of magic and dungeons, my bedroom promised relief. I knew every pockmark in the stone, every trinket on the shelves. It would have been a perfect sanctuary if Luca hadn’t plunked down on the edge of my bed, punishing me with his saddest stare.
“You left me there for an hour while Father stuffed my head full of bloody history. He’s nicer when you’re in the room. Less like a commander in some invisible war and more like . . . well . . . a father.”
I was so often jealous of the way Father treated the boys that it rarely occurred to me there might be jealousy flowing in the opposite direction. I let out a small “Hmm,” but I was distracted.
I needed to find a spot for Pietro.
"I was so often jealous of the way Father treated the boys that it rarely occurred to me there might be jealousy flowing in the opposite direction."
I’d already covered nearly every surface in the room with ornaments. I tried setting Pietro next to porcelain dishes, a decorative fan, a set of red prayer beads, a compass with a cover of dull gold. I kept picking him up again. Pietro didn’t sit near the top of the ranks of terrible men. He deserved a special place.
My brother paced, his body a cup spilling discontent everywhere. “Did you hear what I said?” He tossed a pillow at my stomach to get my attention, not knowing that the pillow had once been the baker’s son.
“How are your experiments coming along?” I asked in a naked attempt to change the subject.
Luca’s expression opened like a book. His fascination with the natural world encompassed every leaf and star and vein of crystal he could find in our mountain’s dull rock. Now it seemed he had fallen in love with something called electricity. “Even you will be impressed, Teo. Light without flame! It’s magic.”
My own magic perked at the use of that word. But if I told my brother the truth—that I’d been able to transform people and objects since I was nine—he wouldn’t understand. Luca believed he was a modern Vinalian. How could I explain magic to a boy who worshipped science and reason? If I had learned one thing in seven years, it was this: magic is not reasonable.
“I told Father about electricity too,” Luca mumbled.
“Ah,” I said, finally digging up the roots of Luca’s foul mood. “And what did he say?”
"My own magic perked at the use of that word. But if I told my brother the truth—that I’d been able to transform people and objects since I was nine—he wouldn’t understand."
“He growled something about torchlight being good enough for our fathers,” Luca said, tossing his hands in the air. “I told him that other family heads are heeding the future. Altimari and Moschella sent their sons to university.”
“Fourth and fifth sons,” I reminded, not liking how easily Father’s side of the argument flew out of me.
“I looked at universities in Eterra,” Luca said, scowling down at his hands, which he did whenever he didn’t wish to face the truth. “Of course Vinalia has the best work in the sciences, a long tradition of advancements, even if the rest of Eterra thinks we’re backward. I told Father I want to go to Gravina. Soon. And that’s when he told me he needed me to stay here while he travels across the mountains for Mirella’s wedding, as if that makes any sense.” My little brother was writhing against his fate like a fish in a net. He would never go off to the famous universities at Gravina to learn about science, any more than I would leave the mountains and study magic.
I passed the music box from hand to hand and observed Luca, his skin touched with red at the neck, the first place where his anger showed. His complexion was a touch lighter than my own summer-browned and beauty-mark-dappled shade of olive, but we had the same dark brown eyes. All around his, Luca’s face had started to change. Round cheeks gave way to sharp bones underneath. He had recently grown one blasphemous inch taller than me. When I looked at him, I saw the boy he had been a few years ago, and the man everyone wanted him to be now. Time blurred, the past and the future sliding against each other unpleasantly.
He caught me staring. “What are you doing, Teo?”
“Didn’t you pay attention this afternoon?” I asked. “I’m torturing you. It’s an ancient technique.” I thought I would win a laugh, but Luca winced. The di Sangro lessons troubled him deeply. Each step down this path carried my brother further away from himself. “I’ll talk to Father.”
“You will?” Luca asked, flinging his arms around my neck.
I finally set the music box on my bedside table beside a potted rose that never stopped blooming. “Anything for you,” I said. My eyes skimmed over Pietro, all the men I had changed. “Anything.”
At dinner, I ate as if I were inventing the concept. I started with three pieces of bread and then moved on to white beans with rosemary, rabbit stew, a course of cheese and olives. When the brine hit my tongue, I recalled the stranger on the mountain. His hands all over my basket. Or her hands. Either way, they hadn’t found what they were searching for.
I pushed the olive dish away.
“You have an appetite,” my stepmother said approvingly, noting the ruins on my plate.
I took another bite of stew, sopping it with more bread. “I missed supper.”
Fiorenza took in my words, and then the rest of me with a single glance. “Where were you?”
“I went to the village to see if I had a letter from Rosina.” She was a girl from the far side of the Uccelli. A girl who hadn’t caught word that I was odd, whose father or cousin I hadn’t changed into a clock. We met in Chieza on a market day. She walked at my side, sifting her fingers through snowfalls of linen, stirring barrels of dried beans, so gentle with everything she touched. She never took her eyes off me.
At the end of the day, at the fringes of the woods, she asked me to come with her to a barn at the edge of the town where young women brought their lovers. The idea startled me so much that it pried open my lips.
I didn’t say a thing. I only kissed her once, as hot and swift as a fireplace poker, and ran off.
Rosina and I had never exchanged letters. Even if I’d known where to send one, I had too much to say, and no words that would change anything. It was no great secret that a man might choose to kiss another man, and certain women took women to their beds, yet these things were rarely spoken of, and never seen. I could kiss Rosina at the frayed edges of the woods, but when the time came, I would have to marry a man.
I could not pretend Rosina and her dark eyes out of the world, though, so I had invented a friendship with her to explain the baubles in my room. “She sent me a music box,” I said. “It plays a lovely tune.”
"I could kiss Rosina at the frayed edges of the woods, but when the time came, I would have to marry a man."
Fiorenza gave me the sort of look that always followed such an announcement, as if she’d taken a bite of her frangipane and found the almond gritty. But I couldn’t let Fiorenza think the trinkets in my room were gifts from men. And I couldn’t tell her the truth.
“I heard a bit of news when I was in Chieza,” I said over the sound of my little sisters arguing, Father and Luca arguing, Fiorenza and Mirella arguing, all of them adding layers to the din. “It was about Pietro, that farmer with all of the grape arbors.”
Father and Beniamo swung toward me, and I savored the moment when I knew I had their attention.
“Well? What has become of our good friend Pietro?” Father asked in an unmistakable tone. Everyone at the table knew that when he spoke the word friend with such a lingering bite, he didn’t mean someone close to his heart.
“Pietro didn’t watch his step, it seems,” I said. “He fell into the Storyteller’s Grave.” The ravine to the west of the village had earned that name because men from Chieza drank and stumbled to its edge, shouting stories into the darkness. The least fortunate fell in. With so many missing men to explain, the ravine had become useful to me.
Father hung his head and said in a half-chanting voice, “God’s will be done.”
Echoes ringed the table, but I didn’t dare let those words touch my lips. What had happened to Pietro on the mountainside wasn’t God’s will. It was mine.
Beniamo shifted in his chair. “This keeps happening. It can’t be chance. Someone is doing away with our enemies.” His forehead shone, his breath sour with wine and disappointment. My brother wanted to be the one doing the killing.
“If a person is ridding the world of our troubles, shouldn’t we thank them?” I asked.
Father pointed his fork at me, the tines catching a glint of light. “Teo is right.”
For that, I received a pinch on the leg that would have made a less prepared girl scream. Above the wooden surface of the table, Beniamo gave no sign he was hurting me. I tried not to imagine what he would do if he found out I was the one stealing his excuse to hurt those men. I twisted and breathed slowly, willing time to pick up like a river and rush me to the end of this.
Talk moved away from Pietro, landing where it always did, on the subject of Mirella’s wedding. She went silent at the attention, slowing the prim dance of her fork. My own food writhed in my stomach. Father talked about the alliance with the Otto family as Beniamo dug at my leg. His ragged, bitten nails pressed through the sturdy cloth of my dress.
“May I take the little girls to bed?” I asked hoarsely.
"I tried not to imagine what he would do if he found out I was the one stealing his excuse to hurt those men. I twisted and breathed slowly, willing time to pick up like a river and rush me to the end of this."
“Yes, yes,” Father said, turning his fingers into a broom and sweeping his young daughters away from the table. “This is not a matter for wildflowers.” That was what he called Carina and Adela, though I could remember a time when I had been the wildflower. Mirella had always been a rose, trimmed and perfect.
I rushed away from the table, limping slightly. When we reached the nursery, I had to shake my little sisters from my limbs as they asked for a story.
“The Pear Girl,” Carina said.
“The Castle without a Soul,” Adela countered. She was only eight, but that commanding tone had already earned her the name “Little Tyrant.” Carina had a wilder nature, and a smile as pink as strawberries.
I settled them both onto Carina’s bed. “In that time,” I said, starting neither of the stories they had asked for but an old favorite of mine, “there was a strega who could change into a scrap of wind, or a drop of water, or the sunlight that kisses a pretty girl’s cheek.” Carina giggled and held her hands up to her own face. Adela nodded sagely.
The stories were an escape from the bruise ripening on my leg, but they brought their own pain. The same one, every night. What if I was the only strega in Vinalia? These tales were as old as starlight—I had never heard of a new strega story. I had taken over the telling from Fiorenza when I’d turned twelve. Father had always disliked this particular chore, although he wouldn’t say why. Maybe he thought strega tales were too common, too whimsical for a di Sangro child. Maybe his life was so gray that their bright colors seemed a lie. I had always loved them. But as the years went by, their words seemed less like a promise and more like an ache.
“Another,” Adela demanded as soon as I finished.
"The stories were an escape from the bruise ripening on my leg, but they brought their own pain. The same one, every night. What if I was the only strega in Vinalia?"
“I have to go see Father.” I had given Luca my word.
“Another short one,” Adela said, squinting shrewdly. She had already learned to bargain, and her di Sangro lessons hadn’t even begun.
“Once there was a strega,” I said, and Carina and Adela looked off into the distance, as if a strega were the most far-flung, impossible thing. As if they didn’t have one sitting right in front of them.
Istood in front of the open door to Father’s study, shifting on restless legs. Something about lingering in his doorway turned me nine years old, as easily as flipping the pages to an earlier chapter in a book.
“Come in, Teo,” Father said. I crossed the stone floor of the room Father called his study. This castle had been built centuries ago, not as a palazzo for a fine family but as a stronghold to protect the mountain. A black walnut chair and a desk laden with papers didn’t change the nature of it, any more than a pair of pants would change a wolf into a prince.
Still, Father had covered the walls with books. He had the most thorough library in the Uccelli, shelves bricked from top to bottom with tomes, and not one held the words magic or strega. It was like staring at the world’s largest collection of mirrors and not seeing your own face.
Father finally looked up from his letters. News came to us in a slow pour of honey, from other family heads and from Father’s brothers and cousins who conducted di Sangro business throughout Vinalia. Then there were letters asking for help and favors, written by anyone in the Uccelli who could scrape together a sentence. Father entered everything of importance into an endless series of ledgers. Births, deaths, matters raised and settled, visitors from across the mountains.
“Look at this,” he said, slapping a piece of paper down on the wood. “A man who thinks I should kill his cousin over a goat. As if I should sharpen my knives because the cheese is a little chalky. He’s been loyal to the family, so I will have to scare off the cousin. But no killings. I don’t trade in men’s lives for so little.”
I wanted to ask: How little is too little? Did Pietro really have to be done away with? How do you know? Is there a feeling that pairs with such a truth? A moment when the world tips and can’t be righted any other way?
But I had built a neat cage for questions like those long ago. When I didn’t speak, or leave, Father asked, “What do you want?” in the same flat tone I had heard him use on squabbling villagers and desperate merchants.
“It’s about Luca. He wants—”
“Things he can’t have,” Father said, cutting me off. “Like any young man. Is this about the wedding? I told him I need him here.” When Father made up his mind, the result was a current in a fast-moving river. People crossed at their own peril. “It will be good for Luca to see how it feels to be in charge, don’t you think?”
I thought Luca would rather tumble down the mountain headfirst.
“Well, Teo?” Father asked, his forehead crimping with concern. He could do this in a single moment, change from a family head who declared things to a man who begged opinions from his daughter. I longed to tell him he was right, because it would make us both happy. But tonight I gave him something that, over the years, had become rarer than any spice or metal traded in the ports along the Violetta Coast. I gave him the truth. “I wanted to go with you over the mountains. To Mirella’s wedding.”
“And why shouldn’t you?” he asked, everything about him sharp again, down to the scratch of his ink on the ledger.
“Luca needs me.” I couldn’t leave my little brother alone in the Uccelli. What if trouble stirred while Father was gone? Luca had no idea how to run things. His mind, though keen, was a compass needle pointed firmly in another direction.
Father flicked through a few more letters. “That’s all?”
I thought about Pietro, the music box, the collection upstairs that grew and grew.
“That’s all,” I said.
Father picked up a letter, not from the top of the pile. He’d set one aside. “We received a summons with the Malfara family crest.” He showed me the icon of the running wolf, stamped into a blister of red wax. Father shook one hand in a rude gesture he rarely used. His disdain for the Capo in Amalia was as rich as the rabbit stew we’d eaten for dinner. All I knew about the youngest son of the Malfara family was that he’d raised his own army to unite Vinalia, often by force, and then declared himself our glorious new leader. Father didn’t like to speak of the man. The Capo was a sickness he was ignoring, hoping it wouldn’t fester or grow worse.
Father tapped one finger against the envelope. “Will you read this for me?”
I could sense he wanted to give me some little task, to make me feel important. Apparently, Father felt like I was nine years old tonight too. I almost grabbed the letter, but the magic rushed to stop me. It wanted to hear Father speak. After all of the ways I had displeased it, I couldn’t deny it such a small thing. It craved his voice, the way I craved the sight of green after the white plague of winter.
“You read it,” I said. “I’ll advise you.”
Father smiled and reached for a knife as thin as a feather, working it along the top of the envelope. My thoughts slid to the other knife, the stiletto with the twisted handle and the killing point. The one undoubtedly hidden in his sleeve.
The seal broke, dead flakes of wax falling away. Father pulled the letter from the envelope. The paper was as thick and creamy white as besciamella, a gold edge spun all the way around. Father scowled. “Men who waste money on beautiful things . . .”
“End up decorating the gutters,” I finished.
Sometimes Father felt more like a collection of favorite sayings than a person, but anyone who looked around the castle would see that we lived by his words. Whatever the di Sangro family had was put to use, including children. Luca would travel, like Father’s brothers, doing the family’s work in other towns, other cities. Mirella’s marriage to Ambrogio Otto, a family head in the making, would forge a strong alliance between the Otto and di Sangro lines. Beniamo was being groomed to take over from Father.
I had made myself useful too.
"Sometimes Father felt more like a collection of favorite sayings than a person, but anyone who looked around the castle would see that we lived by his words."
Father held up the letter, and I snapped to attention. “‘The great and noble di Sangro family,’” he said, reading in the pompous voice the villagers used when they put on puppet shows. “‘The head of your family is now dead.’” His voice tripped, fell flat. “‘A representative must . . .’”
He lost his grip on the paper as a tremor worked its way through his muscles. One hand reached for me, tossed by an invisible wind. It dropped, and he followed, sliding to the floor as I ran around Father’s desk.
I knelt, afraid to touch him as he writhed. I reached for the magic, begging it to do something. But changing Father into a decorative box or a brush to sweep ashes wouldn’t help.
I needed help.
“Please,” I cried, but the word didn’t go far. My voice was a bird with broken wings. “Mother!”
Father curled on his side, breath scraping the air.
I capped my mouth with both hands, afraid more useless words would fly out, battering my heart as they went.