He winked at me like we were the oldest of friends sharing a secret. Wrath caught the look and stared until his “associate” shrugged and started walking across the square. I waited until he was out of earshot before turning to Wrath.
“Are you going to try and convince Valentina to go to the underworld with you?”
“I swore I wouldn’t do anything but offer the bargain. And I will keep my word. However, once we get her to safety, I’d like to see if she’d be willing to help us draw out the murderer.”
“You’d like to use her as bait.”
“Yes. Someone is doing their best to ensure Pride doesn’t break the curse. I intend to discover who and why before anyone else dies. Then I’ll offer a bit of retribution of my own.”
I shivered. It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting him to say, but I appreciated his honesty. “I know Valentina’s family very well. I’m going to tell her to decline Pride’s bargain,” I admitted. “I hope you understand.”
Wrath’s gaze clashed with mine. “Do what you must. The final decision will be up to her.”
While we hurried to Valentina’s home, Anir told me about his life prior to leaving this world for what he called the Kingdom of the Wicked. He was the only child of a Tunisian father and Chinese mother—and had been playing in a nearby olive tree during the brutal slaying of his parents. His father had witnessed a crime and was going to tell authorities what he saw. Before he could do that, they were killed.
Anir said the scar came later, once he’d grown into the sort of young man others feared. Wrath found him traveling through South America, fighting in underground rings, bruised and bloodied. Some battles were a fight to the death and paid handsomely. Anir was a reigning champion for more than a year when he’d been offered employment in House Wrath.
I stopped listening to them bicker over how many years passed—apparently time moved differently in the demon realms—as we turned down the next street and slipped into a darker, narrower alleyway. A strange tug I’d felt before took control of my senses, drawing me down a second side street.
I glanced around, recognizing the neighborhood, and a terrible feeling settled in. I took a few more steps and stopped, unsurprised by the body. I’d grown suspicious before we’d rounded the corner, and the slumped silhouette was all the confirmation I’d needed.
I scanned the area.
Laundry hung from one crammed building to the other over our heads, and snapped in the breeze like teeth. It might’ve stricken fear into my heart before, but now it seemed like the perfect cover for a crime. There was no evidence. Nothing to waste time sorting through. It was a targeted job—the killer had gotten in and out, leaving nothing but the body behind.
Wrath abruptly stopped walking.
Anir noticed the victim a moment before tripping over her. He shot the demon an irritated look, and sidestepped a growing lake of blood. “Next time, a little warning would be nice.”
“A little less insubordination might make me more amenable to common courtesy in the future.”
Anir narrowed his dark eyes. The movement made the scar on his cheek stand out more. Wrath went to step around the body when his associate yanked him to a halt. I watched it all happen as if the scene was playing out on a stage, far from where I actually stood. I couldn’t believe another body lay brutalized at our feet. Bile slowly rose. Wrath seemed entirely unaffected, as if coming across maimed bodies was part of his daily life.
The demon turned on his heel, gaze locked onto the human’s hand. “What?”
Anir jabbed a finger toward the cooling body. “Aren’t we going to send for help?”
“What do you propose we do? Call for human authorities?” Wrath didn’t give Anir a chance to answer. “If you were them, would you take our word as good Samaritans and let us be on our way? Or would you look at your demon-forged blade, and my devilish demeanor, and toss us in some shit-filled cell and throw away the key?” Anir pursed his lips but didn’t say anything. “Do you have any more noble suggestions, or can we leave?”
“Sometimes you really are a heartless bastard.”
Wrath glanced down at me, his brows drawn together. “Are you all right?”
No, I was most certainly not all right. The body of another murder victim was lying at our feet. And I’d just gotten a look at her face. She was my best friend’s cousin. I stared in horrified silence at her broken body. I still couldn’t understand how this scene was real. My head spun with shock. Claudia wasn’t close with her cousin, but would still feel her loss greatly. I shoved the heels of my hands into my eyes.
I shrugged away from Wrath’s touch. “That is . . . was Valentina Rossi.”
“I assumed as much.”
I couldn’t believe another witch had her heart ripped out. This brought the death toll up to five. I fought the bile searing its way up my throat again. Seeing something so horrific . . . I’d never get used to it.
Francesco, the treacherous human messenger, didn’t know the name of the next bride, only the meeting location for Anir. And I doubted Anir would betray Wrath, which meant the information had gotten out some other way. I was nauseated for a new reason—I’d tortured a man for nothing.
“There must be a spy in the kingdom,” Anir said, putting my thoughts into words.
I imagined he’d seen his share of horrible things, but he still looked shocked. He pulled his dark hair back, and tied it with a string of leather he ripped from his wrist.
Wrath paced around the alley, careful to avoid stepping in the blood. I averted my gaze from the gore. We needed to send word to the authorities. Valentina couldn’t just lay there, cold and alone. The demon stopped close to where I stood, shielding my view of the body. “Which means one of my brothers is responsible. Somehow, some way.”
My earlier encounter with his brothers sprang to mind. “Greed and Envy are both here.”
Wrath shook his head. “Envy wouldn’t chance a fight with me. Greed . . . I still can’t see him jeopardizing his House. Not after he’s built a formidable stronghold.”
“Either way, the implications of a betrayal within the Seven . . . forget the curse, your highness,” Anir said. “Personal feelings about witches aside, finish the marriage bond with Emilia and secure your own House before war comes. You’ll need your powers at their fullest. Whoever is organizing this must have killed Pride’s wife.”
It felt like I’d been drenched in an ice bath. “What marriage bond?”
Anir missed the note of panic in my voice. “The one you started when you bound the prince to you.”
Wrath stopped moving. Stopped breathing as I gaped in horror. Time seemed to freeze as I silently repeated what Anir said. I wanted to shout that it wasn’t true, but Wrath’s reaction said otherwise. The demon prince didn’t break my stare. “How?”
“Leave us.” Wrath barely spoke above a whisper, but Anir jumped to obey the command. Once he was gone, the demon nodded toward our matching tattoos. “Your protection charm wasn’t a bond of protection like a guardian to their ward. The translation of aevitas ligati means ‘bound forever’ as in holy matrimony. It wasn’t needed for the summoning to be successful.”
“Are we . . . are you saying we’re betrothed?” I waited, heart pounding, but Wrath said nothing. He didn’t need to. The truth was there in his eyes. He’d known all along what I’d done. No wonder he’d looked so horrified that night. I’d basically ripped him from Hell, and forced him into a betrothal. Forever. “When were you going to tell me?”
His voice came out soft. “This doesn’t change anything . . .”
“Everything’s changed.” A violent shudder tore through me as the demon continued to hold my unflinching gaze. This was all too much. The body of my best friend’s cousin. My accidental engagement to Wrath. “What happens if I don’t want to marry you? Will you force me to rule beside you in Hell?”
“Emilia . . .”
“Don’t you dare.” I shook my head. “Will I be forced to go there?”
Right. Demon laws were based on civility. Forcing someone into marriage probably broke all of their strangely rigid rules. But I bet he’d fashion a wicked bargain for me and make it so good, so tempting, I’d never say no. Especially if the marriage bond helped give him more power like Anir claimed it would. I locked my hand at my side.
“What did Anir mean by securing your House before there’s war?”
A muscle in his jaw ticked. “I cannot share that information with you.”
“Then we’re through.” I clutched my sister’s amulet. “Te libero. I release you from whatever bond we have. When I marry, it will be for love. Not love of power or whatever other depraved thing you desire. And love is something you soulless, despicable creatures know nothing about!”
If he called out to me, or flinched, I wouldn’t know. I turned and fled as far from the demon prince and the newest murder victim as I could. I wanted nothing more to do with the cursed creatures who’d brought this suffering on my family and my city.
From this point forward, I’d find out who murdered my sister on my own.
And Wrath could simply crawl back to Hell and rot with the rest of them.
I sat at a table facing the sea, sipping water with a slice of lemon. I’d left an anonymous note for the police with the location of Valentina’s body, and still hadn’t gotten over the horror of the night. I wanted to rush to Claudia’s, but had to wait until the police told her cousin’s family first. If they were already mourning when the authorities showed up, they’d start asking questions. Waiting invited all sorts of thoughts I didn’t want to think about. Not now, or ever.
I couldn’t believe I’d been so stupid as to accidentally betroth myself to Wrath, and he hadn’t let the secret slip sooner. He must have absolutely loathed it. Especially with what Anir said about him hating witches. I fought the urge to bury my face in my hands. Knowing that he was fully aware of my error while I’d thought I was in control . . . it was humiliating. I didn’t want to consider other missteps I’d taken that he’d been too polite to point out.