Treachery's Devotion

By: Mari Carr & Lila Dubois

Masters’ Admiralty, book 1

Prologue





The scent of death lay over every surface and permeated the air. Three bodies, three different methods of murder, but the reek lay over, in, and on every molecule in the cave, binding the horrifying tableau together.

“Don’t look at them.” Her brother, Antonio Starabba, cupped her elbow, turning her away from the bodies. The cave had once been natural, but humans had lived, loved, and died on these lands for thousands of years, and the cave bore the scars of human use—the floor had been leveled, niches carved out of the walls, and steps cut into the crevasse that served as entryway into the cave.

Antonio steered her past two people who were quietly photographing and processing the scene. One looked up in time to see her face—or what there was to see of it between the mask and the hood of the all-white disposable coveralls she’d put on before entering.

It should have rendered her anonymous, but the woman recognized her.

“Principessa,” she murmured quietly, bowing her head.

Antonio led his sister to the far side of the cave, where rough shelves had been cut into the walls. The shelves were filled with what a lay person would have called a treasure-box decorated with rough-cut jewels that indicated they had been made long before the refined tools jewelers used today were available. A stone bust from ancient Greece, as well as two paintings on the floor, leaning against the walls, both impressionist-style paintings of the Italian countryside, all burnt orange and shades of yellow and citrine.

As lovely and interesting as all those things were, the vast majority of the treasure on display—and despite her training, she couldn’t help but think of this as treasure—was coinage. Gold and silver coins, most with the rough, thinned edges of ancient currency.

For the most part, the coins were simply loose on the stone shelves, except for three stacks on the right-hand side of the top shelf. Each stack had nine coins.

Three bodies. Three stacks. Nine coins. All multiples of three.

She stepped back to look at the paintings. One had three oaks in the foreground, the other had three plump sheep in a field.

“Whoever this is, they know,” she said.

Antonio nodded. “Yes. You will handle the art?”

“The art, the jeweled box, yes. But I’m not a coin expert.”

“Get one.”

“There’s someone in England.”

Antonio frowned, his dark brows drawn down over his gold eyes. “The country or the territory?”

“The territory. He’s one of us.”

“Merda. I don’t want this spreading outside of Rome.”

“Now is not the time to play games.” She had very little patience for the political games the territories played. She understood them, but that understanding didn’t mean she shared her brother’s—or father’s—suspicious and secretive policies. The boundaries of the nine territories had been drawn and redrawn, existing entirely separately from the national boundaries of the countries of modern-day Europe.

“Do you really think a stranger would have found this place, on this land?”

Antonio shook his head, but he said, “It is possible.”

“Who is going to handle…” She couldn’t stop herself from looking over toward the bodies. Her gaze fell first on a severed limb. With a shudder, she forced herself to turn back to the little cache of art and coins.

“We will.”

“Antonio,” she protested. “You cannot.”

“We can, we will.”

“We do not have what the Polizia di Stato do—the labs, the tests.”

“The Carabinieri do.”

“We do not—”

“Not your division.”

The Carabinieri, one of Italy’s two police forces, were technically members of the military and older than the modern country of Italy. But they didn’t deal with homicides the way the polizia did, and were better known for responding and providing support after major events like earthquakes than for taking on barbaric killers.

“We will not involve the polizia.” Antonio squeezed her shoulder.

“You are a fool.” Her brother surely had to see that this was not something they could hide from the normal authorities.

“Tell me the name of the coin expert you need. I will contact England.”

“Antonio.”

He turned away.

“Coglione,” she muttered under her breath. Her brother was a moron. She cast one last look at the three stacks of coins. She would make sure they weren’t moved, not until the coin expert got there. If this was meant as a clue, then everything about the coins could be a clue, not just where they were from or their value, but their condition—which side was faceup—and even their relation to each other.

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