The Brilliant Death – Amy Rose Capetta

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. 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. I gasped. 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?” 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.” One The Least of Many Wrongs 1 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. 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. 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 greatgreat-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.” “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. I picked up my new trinket and placed it in the empty basket.

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