No Antonio. Or any other member of the holy brotherhood. Thank the goddess. We rushed down the shadowy halls, and didn’t stop running until the monastery was a speck in the night.
From the comfort of our home kitchen, Vittoria gathered blood oranges, limoncello, red wine, and a bottle of prosecco. I watched from the island as she methodically added everything to a pitcher. A cup of this, a splash of that, a few sugared peels—potions and perfumes were where her magic shined brightest, and it often translated to drinks. It was one of the few times she was entirely serious, and I loved watching her get lost in pure happiness.
My mouth watered as she sliced oranges. This was my favorite drink by far—Vittoria was inspired by sangria, which in recent years had also become quite popular in France and England. Some English families who’d moved to Palermo brought their recipes with them, adding to our already eclectic history. Nonna said the Spanish had actually been influenced by an Ancient Roman spiced wine called hippocras. No matter where it originated, I simply loved the taste of orange juice mixed with the wine and the fizzy bubbles created from the prosecco.
Vittoria dipped a spoon into the mixture, stirred vigorously, then tasted it before pouring a generous glass for me. She swiped the bottle of limoncello and motioned us up the stairs.
“Hurry, Emilia, before anyone wakes up.”
“Where were you earlier?” I quietly shut the bedroom door behind us. “Nonna was one step away from using all of our olive oil to see if evil entered Sea & Vine, and probably the rest of the island if she could.”
Vittoria collapsed onto her mattress, bottle of limoncello in hand, and grinned. “I was summoning the devil. An ancient book whispered its secrets to me, and I’ve decided to take him as my husband. I’d invite you to the wedding, but I’m pretty sure the ceremony takes place in Hell.”
I gave her a sharp look. If she didn’t want to tell me the truth, fine. She could keep her secret romance with Domenico to herself for however long she liked. “You need to stop drawing so much attention to yourself.”
“Or else what? The Malvagi will come and steal my soul? Maybe I’ll just sell it to them.”
“Or else things will end badly for our family. Two girls were murdered last week. Both were witches. Antonio said people in the last town he visited were talking about shape-shifters. Now isn’t the time to be joking about the devil. You know how humans get. First it’s shape-shifters, then demons, and then it’s only a matter of time before witches are targeted.”
“I know.” Vittoria swallowed hard and looked away. I opened my mouth to ask what she’d been doing at the monastery, but when she turned back around, her gaze sparkled with mischief. “So. Have you had any special wine or spirits lately?”
I let my interrogation go. “Special wine or spirits” was her code for “supernatural witch sense.” She often used code to discuss topics we wanted to hide from humans, or nosy grandmothers. I nestled against my pillow and drew my knees up. Before I told my story, I whispered a spell of silence to cover the sound of our voices. “Well, the other night I dreamed about a ghost . . .”
“Wait!” Vittoria set her limoncello down and grabbed her diary, pen in hand and ink pot at the ready. “Tell me everything. Every last detail. What did the ghost look like? Did you see any shimmering outline or shadow, or was it more like a thing you sensed? Did it speak to you? When did this happen, right as you fell asleep, or later in the night?”
“It was closer to the morning. I thought I was awake at first.”
I sipped my drink and told her about the strange dream—the disembodied voice whispering too low to hear anything other than what sounded like the nonsensical language of dreams—believing it had only been my overactive imagination at work, and not the first signs of the horror to come.
I quickly broke down fish carcasses for stock, ignoring the muffled crunch of bones. We were already deep into prepping for dinner service when I realized I’d forgotten my basket at the monastery. Since it was a holy day and crowds were already out en masse, I had to wait until Sea & Vine closed to retrieve my things.
Maybe it was a blessing from the goddess. Since the brotherhood would be out celebrating La Santuzza—the Little Saint—I wouldn’t have to worry about seeing Antonio. I really didn’t want to run into him after Vittoria’s mortifying charades last night. She could get away with being bold and brazen, and people adored her for it. Unfortunately, it was a skill I hadn’t mastered.
I looked over at my sister who’d been unusually quiet all morning. Something was troubling her. After I told her about my dream last night, she seemed on the verge of confiding in me.
Instead of talking, she’d set her diary aside, turned over on her mattress, and went to sleep. I wondered if she’d gotten into a fight with her secret boyfriend. Maybe she was supposed to meet him in the monastery and he didn’t show.
“I know we’re going to be busy tonight,” Vittoria said suddenly, breaking into my thoughts, “but I need to leave a little early.”
Nonna scooted past my mother—who was making espresso to serve with the dessert—and hoisted a wicker basket full of tiny snails up onto the island, and nodded to my twin. “Here. Boil these for the babbaluci.” She swatted at my twin’s hand. “Not for too long. We don’t want them turning to rubber.”
I raised my brows, waiting for Nonna to forbid my twin from leaving. She said nothing. While Vittoria quickly boiled a few handfuls of snails at a time, Nonna minced garlic and set a pan of olive oil on the fire. Soon we were all in a rhythm, and I pushed whatever was bothering my sister aside in favor of mastering my fish stock. I’d make her tell me everything later.
Vittoria scooped snails out, Nonna added them to the oil and garlic, lightly fried them and finished them off with salt, pepper, and fresh parsley. She whispered a blessing over the plates, thanking the food for its nourishment and the snails for their sacrifice. It was a small thing, and not necessarily magical, but I swore it made the food taste better.
“Nicoletta?” Nonna called. My mother set her last tray of dessert aside and tossed a cloth over her shoulder. “Bring your brother this bowl of babbaluci, and tell him to go outside and give a bite to anyone who looks hungry. It will help with the line.”
And it would draw more people into our trattoria. Nonna might not use magic directly on customers, but she was skilled in the art of luring humans in by using their own senses. One whiff of the fried garlic would have plenty of hungry patrons gracing our tables.
Once my mother was gone, Nonna pointed her carved wooden spoon at us. “Did you see the sky this morning? It was as red as the devil’s blood. Tonight is not a night to be out. Stay in and work on your grimoires—sew dried yarrow inside your skirts. There’s plenty to do at home. Are you wearing your amulets?” I pulled mine from under my bodice. Vittoria sighed and did the same. “Good. You haven’t taken them off, have you?”
“No, Nonna.” I ignored the heaviness of my sister’s gaze as it landed on me. I wasn’t technically lying. She’d taken her amulet off when we were eight—I’d kept mine on. As far as I knew, neither one of us had ever removed them again.
Nonna took a deep breath, seeming pacified. “Thank the goddess for that. You know what would happen otherwise.”
“Our world will turn to nightmares and ash.” Vittoria held her arms straight out like she was a slow-moving demon and staggered forward. “The devil will roam free. We will be bathed in the blood of innocents, our souls cursed to Hell for eternity.”
“You shouldn’t irk the goddesses who’ve sent signs, Vittoria. Those amulets could set the demon princes free. Unless you’d like to be responsible for the Malvagi entering this realm after La Prima locked them away, I’d heed the warnings.”
Any bits of lingering humor left my sister’s face. She turned back to the next batch of snails, and gripped her cornicello tightly. I swallowed hard, recalling the hellhound we’d heard that night so long ago. Nonna had to be wrong—her warning was more superstition. The devil and his entire demon realm was imprisoned. Plus, Nonna always said our amulets couldn’t be brought together. I hadn’t let them touch—I’d just held my sister’s while still wearing mine. The princes of Hell were where they belonged. No demons were roaming Earth. All was well.
Still, when our grandmother’s back was turned, Vittoria and I shared a long, silent look.
I stared at the dark monastery, unable to shake the feeling that it was staring back, its fangs bared in a vicious sneer. Which was a sign Nonna’s superstitions had managed to unnerve me after all. Unless a powerful witch had cast an unheard-of spell to animate limestone and glass, it was only an empty building.
“Grazie, Nonna,” I said under my breath, not really feeling thankful at all.
I headed for a wooden door set deep within shadows. Thick iron hinges groaned in protest as I slipped inside. Somewhere in the rafters above, a bird took flight—its wings beating in time with my heart.
The Capuchin Monastery was less than a mile from our restaurant and was one of the most beloved buildings in Palermo. Not due to its architecture, but because of the catacombs located within its holy walls. I liked it well enough during daylight, but couldn’t shake the chill clinging to me in the dark. Now that it was completely empty, an eerie premonition crawled over my senses. Even the air felt strained—like it was holding its breath from some wicked discovery.
Nonna’s cries of demons continued to haunt me as I crept deeper inside the silent monastery, and steeled myself against a growing sense of dread. I really didn’t want to think about red-eyed, soul-stealing monsters invading our city, especially while I was alone.
I hugged my arms to my chest and walked briskly down a darkened corridor lined with mummies. They’d been posed in standing positions, dressed in garments of their choosing, their clothing dating back hundreds of years.