For the past two weeks, the girl had talked endlessly. And for the past two weeks, Merik had listened. In fact, more often than not, Merik had found himself clinging to those moments when he could lose himself in Cam’s voice. When he could ride the crests and waves of her story and forget, for just a few breaths, that his life had been swept away by hell-waters.
“The streets are crawling with soldiers now, sir. But,” Cam finished, flashing one of her easy smiles, “with the rain going like this, I can get us into Old Town unseen. You gotta finish eating first, though.”
“Hye, hye,” he muttered, and though he would have preferred to savor the feel of food down his gullet—Noden’s breath, it had been so long—Merik choked down the final smoky mouthful of lamb. Then he pushed to his feet and offered a gruff, “Lead the way, boy. Lead the way.”
* * *
Vivia Nihar stood before the Battle Room’s massive doors, the grain in the pale, unpainted oak blurring like the clouds that gathered outside. Voices hummed through, serious and low.
No regrets, she thought, tugging at her navy frock coat’s sleeves. Just keep moving. She smoothed her blouse underneath. It was the same set of phrases she thought each morning upon waking. The same phrases she had to recite to get through the day, through the difficult decisions. Through the hole that lived forever just behind her breastbone.
No regrets, keep moving … Where is the footman? The princess of Nubrevna was not meant to open her own blighted door. Especially not when all thirteen vizers of the High Council waited on the other side, judging her every move.
All day long, she was hounded by palace staff or city officials or sycophantic nobility. Yet now, when she actually needed someone to help her, no one was near.
With a frown twitching on her lips, Vivia squinted at a patch of light at the end of the long, dark hall. Two silhouettes fought to close the enormous doors—a sign that the clouds outside would soon thicken to a storm.
Oh, hang it. Vivia had too much to do to wait for footmen and thunderheads. As the king always said, Sitting still is a quick path to madness.
The oak creaked; the hinges groaned; the vizers in the long hall silenced. Then Vivia was inside, and thirteen pairs of eyes were shifting from the single long table at the room’s center …
To her. Just staring like fools, every one of them.
“What?” She let the doors groan shut behind her. “Did Noden answer my prayers? Have the Hagfishes finally claimed your tongues?”
One of the vizers choked. Eleven snapped their gazes away. And one—the one who always opposed Vivia the most—simply picked at a hangnail.
Vizer Serrit Linday. Ever unimpressed. Ever unamused. Ever an urchin spine in Vivia’s heel.
Her fingers curled, heat rising up her arms. She sometimes wondered if this might be the famed Nihar temper that her father so desperately wanted her to have.
But no. No, it wasn’t. The flame was already dying, her mask already teetering at the edges. Just keep moving.
She set off for the head of the table, clicking her boot heels extra loud, extra hard on the flagstones. Let them think she was reining in her temper.
Clouded sunlight sifted into the Battle Room through a single glass window. It beamed onto the limp banners from generations past and highlighted just how much dust coated everything.
One of the window’s dozen panes was broken and boarded up, leaving Vivia with a crude shadow to march through before reaching the table’s head.
Six of the vizers saluted at her as she stalked by; seven did not.
Resistance. That was all Vivia ever met these days, and her brother had been the worst of them. He had argued her every command and questioned her every move.
Well, at least he was no longer a problem. Now, if only the High Council would join him.
Will she become her mother, the vizers all wondered, the queen by blood but with madness in her head? Or will she become her father, the Nihar vizer who now rules as regent and for whom command comes as easily as breath?
Vivia already knew the answer. She knew it because she’d decided long ago to be a Nihar through and through. She would never become her mother. She would never let madness and darkness claim her. She would be the ruler the High Council expected.
She just had to keep acting. Keep moving. A little bit longer, and with no looking back. No regrets. For even if the High Council finally handed over the title she was born to, they could always snatch it back—just as they had done to her mother in those final days thirteen years ago.
Vivia reached the end of the table, with its worn finish and chipped corners. Thick vellum maps covered the time-pocked surface. Nubrevna, the Sirmayans, the Hundred Isles—all of the Witchlands could be examined at the stretch of an arm.
Right now, maps of the city lay open with fat rocks weighing down the curling edges. Curse them. The bastards had started the meeting without her.
From war to waste removal, nothing happened without the High Council’s input. Yet all final decisions fell to the King Regent.
Or now, since Serafin rarely left his bed, the final decisions fell to Vivia.
“Princess,” Serrit Linday crooned, leaning onto the table. Even though he was only a few months older than Vivia’s twenty-three years, he wore old-fashioned robes. The kind Marstoki scholars and ancient spinsters favored, and like all Lindays, he wore the Witchmark of a Plantwitch on the back of his hand—a hand he was currently flexing as he rapped impatiently at the table.
“We were just discussing your plans to repair the dam, and we feel it best to wait. At least until after the funeral. The dam has lasted several years—what will a few more matter?”