When I was a little girl, my father’s tours of Vinalia carried him far from home. While he conducted di Sangro business in the darkest corners of the finest palazzos, I sat on his black walnut chair, a crown of violets in the bramble of my curls, and made decrees.
I told my brother Luca that he was the bravest young man in my kingdom, which was true—my kingdom was no wider than Father’s study, though it ran as deep as my stepmother’s old stories.
I told my little sister Carina, barely born, that she must be a great strega. With her pickled face, solemn eyes, and perfectly timed wails, she seemed both young and old, wise and wicked.
I told my older sister, Mirella, that she’d been declared the queen of a neighboring kingdom, and I would trade with her if she had my favorite almond paste sweets.
I did not tell my brother Beniamo anything.
One day at the turn of winter, as the cold made its first advances into the castle, I sat alone at Father’s desk, working on a scrap of Mirella’s drawing paper with a stick of charcoal from the kitchen fire. I wrote out rules for my subjects, my hands smudged black, my mind burning with the bright frenzy of creating a kingdom. The magic inside me liked this business as much as I did.
It had been with me for nearly a year, since the night I went downstairs for a glass of milk and saw a man murdered on the stairs. The magic I’d inherited from this stranger ached to be used, but I couldn’t transform objects openly. My family might be frightened or jealous; they might scoff at me or stubbornly choose not to believe. So instead of showing them the whole of who I was, I snuck to the fields on the mountainside, changing ice to white linen sheets. As summer breathed hot down our necks, I turned white poppies to snow that melted in my hands and trickled it down the back of my stuffy red di Sangro dresses.
The scrape of a foot against stone pulled my attention up from the papers on Father’s desk. I’d been so deep inside of my schemes that I hadn’t heard the door as it opened. Beniamo stood on the threshold, watching me. Honeyed light from the hallway clung to his dark curls, and if I did not know him a bit, I would have thought he looked like a saint.
“What are you playing, Teodora?” he asked.
I wasn’t playing a game. I was perfectly serious.
He’ll hurt us, the magic whispered. Stop him.
I’d never changed a person before, and my magic was suddenly hungry to try it. But if I changed Beniamo, Father would disown me: strip me of my di Sangro name, send me away from the home and family that I loved.
“Not now,” I whispered hotly to the magic.
“Are you talking in church words?” Beniamo asked. I hadn’t known I was doing that until he pointed it out.
“You wish to be a priest and a king? Isn’t one stupid dream enough to fill your day?”
I shoved the magic down. Shame and anger rose to fill its place, a natural spring pushing up to my cheeks. I vowed that I would never speak aloud to my magic.
“You know you can’t rule anything, don’t you?” Beniamo asked, his voice burning low and steady. He waited for me to give an answer that he could transform into the proper punishment. I wondered what a queen would do.
“This is my kingdom,” I said in an ironclad whisper.
“Yours? What if it’s invaded?” Beniamo crossed the room swiftly. Things were moving now, and I could not slow them, could not stop them. I locked my legs around the posts of the chair, edges biting through my stockings and into my skin.
Beniamo pushed me, toppling the black walnut throne.
I rolled free, and Beniamo kicked me in the chest. Once, twice. I curled around the broken feeling, gathering the pieces. It wasn’t safe to cry out. Beniamo would enjoy it too much. He would kick me harder, to hear me shout again.
I watched from my place on the floor as his boots strode toward the crown of violets that had fallen from my hair. Beniamo smashed the deeply blue flowers beneath his heel. I had spent hours on the mountainside picking the ones with perfect cups of black in the center.
“You have been unseated, sister,” Beniamo said, laughing as he dropped the ruined crown back on my head. He stepped back and studied me with a flat expression. “I’m only preparing you for the rest of your life. You should kneel and thank me.”
I must not have acted quickly enough, because he kicked me once more, a sharp toe to the shins.
I whimpered, stuffing a louder cry back down my throat.
“Go on,” he said.
I pushed the heels of my hands against the floor. My knees scraped the stone as I shifted, and because I could not look at his face without giving away the force of my hatred, I stared at my brother’s stomach, thinking about how soft and unprotected it looked. “Thank you,” I spat, the words as bitter as blood in my mouth.
And I started counting the days until I would never have to kneel again.
The Storm of Life is hitting shelves January 28th!