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Ruined Kingdom
Author: Natasha Knight

 

Prologue

 

 

Amadeo

 

 

15 Years Ago

 

 

* * *

 

Hundred-dollar bills float to the peeling linoleum floor. Five. Ten. Fifteen. Fifteen-hundred dollars. It’s what a life is worth to them.

My mother can’t stop sobbing. She’s going to choke on her tears. My father stands defiant, his hands fisted at his sides.

Fifteen-hundred dollars lie on the old green-and-yellow floor. Does he expect us to drop and rush to collect them? Thank him for his generosity? He’s going to be disappointed if that’s the case.

Lucien Russo moves to his father’s side, inadvertently stepping on one of the bills with his polished, expensive shoes. Or maybe it’s not so inadvertent. I ignore him, though. He doesn’t matter. Not now. He is not the one in control.

He whispers something to his father while I take in the cut of the older man’s suit. The scent of their combined cologne permeates the air in the small room as if syphoning out the oxygen. As my father instructed me to, I keep my gaze low and memorize the ring on Geno Russo’s finger. The insignia. Lucien has one too. It looks out of place on his hand, though. Like a boy wearing a man’s ring. He’s new to his family’s business with hands like that. His father’s hands are dangerous. Violent. Although I know the damage Lucien can do. Today is evidence of it.

“No hard feelings, Roland,” the older Russo says.

My father clenches and unclenches his hands. I shift my gaze up, just for a moment. I want to know if Russo has seen that fisting and flexing. That barely pent-up rage.

He has.

“You won’t make trouble, Roland,” Russo says, and I realize he hasn’t missed my glance either because his eyes meet mine.

I step forward, flanking my father’s right.

“Amadeo.” My father says my name like a warning. He’s still looking at the older man, who smiles a cunning, terrifying smile as he lays a heavy hand on my head.

“Amadeo,” Russo repeats. “Your son is brave,” he says to my father, then shifts his gaze to Bastian, who peers out from behind my father’s back. “Tell me, are you as brave?” he asks my younger brother.

My mother swallows back a sob.

“They are children,” my father responds, and it sounds like they’re having a different, parallel conversation alongside the spoken words. The undercurrent of danger is undeniable.

“Two boys. Boys who will grow into men.”

No one says a word for a long minute as the unspoken threat hangs between us. My mother’s crying is the only sound in the room.

“We had a sister, too,” Bastian says, his voice high. He’s not yet a man.

They all turn their attention to my brother, and I know this is a fatal mistake. This moment.

Just then, the door opens, and we all turn to it, surprised when a little girl comes hopping into our small, ugly kitchen. She’s softly singing a Disney tune and seems oblivious to the tension as her eyes quickly scan the room and land on Geno Russo. She smiles a huge smile.

“Daddy,” she says. “Look what I picked. Daffodils.” They’re actually dandelions. She holds her bouquet up to her father.

Her father.

A man comes running in after her, expression hurried, frazzled. “I was… She…”

Russo gives him a deadly look that lasts an instant before he bends to scoop up his little girl. “So pretty. Go pick more for me, will you?”

She nods, but she’s sensed something is off. I see it in her expression. And as he carries her toward the door, she catches my eyes on her before my mother’s cry steals her attention. She tilts her head in confusion. “Daddy?” she starts, a dandelion dropping from her hand. But a moment later, she’s gone, and the door closed.

My father pushes me backward with a heavy hand when Russo returns his full attention to us. Dad steps between the older man and me. And I know everything has changed. We’re down to the real business of his visit now. I wonder if Bastian hadn’t spoken, if I hadn’t defiantly met the older man’s gaze, what happened next would have gone differently. Would they simply have left? Hadn’t they done enough damage?

“I won’t make trouble,” my father says tightly. “Neither will my boys.”

Russo smiles, glances at us, then at his men. He nods almost imperceptibly, and my mother screams, throwing herself at his feet.

The rest happens so quickly. Someone drags my mother away. Her screams keep coming even after a bedroom door slams shut. Two men grab my father. Another takes my brother and me by the arm. Russo and his son step backward and watch as kitchen drawers are opened and rummaged through. Bastian cries beside me, and all I hear are my father’s pleas telling him we’re just boys. Children.

A soldier comes out of the back of the house. He’s been in my room. I know because he’s carrying my baseball bat.

“Dad?” I find myself asking as one of the two men holding him snickers. It’s the same time another soldier—how many did he bring into our small house—approaches my brother and me with the kitchen knife my mother uses to peel apples for pie. It’s sharp. We’re not allowed to touch it.

Bastian screams, and I don’t know what is more terrifying, the sight of the bat being raised high then brought down on my father’s knees, the sound of his scream, or my own as that razor-sharp knife carves a line into my face from my ear to the corner of my mouth. That of Bastian’s as they slice him next. And blood. So much fucking blood soaking our socked feet. The money on the floor. Blood pooling around the tiny, wilting dandelion the little girl dropped. Blood dirtying expensive shoes as Russo and his son walk out, Russo adjusting his jacket, his diamond cuff link glinting as it catches the bright noon sun coming in from the open door.

And we’re left lying in heaps, broken. All of us broken.

 

 

1

 

 

Vittoria

 

 

Present Day

 

 

* * *

 

Incense burns like perfume. My father always loved the smell of it. When we went to Mass on Sundays, he’d always inhale deeply as it poured out of the small church before the doors were even opened.

Organ music vibrates low and constant. I feel it under my feet as we approach the cathedral entrance. People have gathered at the square. Word got out. Of course, it did. An unnatural silence falls over the space as they lay eyes on the casket. On me. The eldest daughter of Geno Russo. His only child in attendance. I escorted his body on its final journey from New York City. My brother was too much of a coward to come if you ask me. But then again, what do I know? I’m a woman in a man’s world. Perhaps my father would have wanted that. For him to stay out of reach. Safe. He is my father’s successor.

I lead the procession toward the open doors. Guards stand sentry around the square to keep people back, but I don’t think it’s necessary. They keep their distance, the women making the sign of the cross and kissing their rosaries as I pass as if I’m a vampire. Like they’re warding off the bad luck I’ll bring. The evil that surrounds me. My father was too young to die.

The cool darkness within the cathedral walls is a stark contrast to the brightness of the day outside. The sun shines brighter here. Dad was right. We lead the procession forward, my heels a soft click on the stone floors where the dead rot beneath. The man holding the camera turns into the center aisle.

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