These were all excellent questions, but ones for which Jana had had no answer. After their ancestors’ final use of the city, it had been sealed off. No records left behind, no clues to follow.
There was one question, though, that Vivia had never dared to ask: Will you ever show this to Merik? She hadn’t wanted to know the answer, hadn’t wanted to risk putting the idea in her mother’s head. This had been their space, mother and daughter.
And now this was her space. Vivia’s. Alone.
She stepped lightly to the lake’s edge. Green light splayed across the surface, dancing in time to the water’s flow. Flickering with the occasional fish or shell creature. The strength of the water poured into Vivia before her toes even hit the edge. Her connection to the ripples and tides, the power and the timelessness.
The lake embraced Vivia instantly. A friend to keep her safe. The waters cooled her toes, and as she dipped her hands into the vastness of it all, her eyes drifted shut. Then she felt her way through every drop of water that flowed through the plateau. This was her power. This was her home.
Vivia’s magic snaked through the lake, bouncing over creatures that lived for all eternity in this dark world. Over rocks and boulders and treasure long lost and long forgotten. Upstream, her magic climbed. Downstream, her magic swept. Time melted into a lost thing—a human construct that the water neither cared for nor needed.
All was well with the lake. So Vivia shrank back into herself, loss brushing along the edges of her being. It always did when her connection to the lake ended. If she could, she would never leave. She would plant roots in this lake and fall into it forever—
Vivia shook herself. No. No. She had to keep moving. Like the river, like the tides.
With her arms hugged tight to her chest, she stalked from the water. In moments, her boots were on—wet toes curling in dry leather—and she was scooping up her lantern once more. Yesterday, she had explored a series of caverns that spiraled above the lake. They’d ended at a cave-in, and on the other side, Vivia had sensed water. Moving water, like the vast floods that cleaned the Cisterns.
She wanted to try to clear a path through the cave-in’s rubble, for though churning rapids might wait on the other side, churning rapids were no barrier for a Tidewitch.
Vivia was almost to a key split in the tunnels, when something landed on her head.
She flinched, hands flinging to her scalp. Legs, legs, legs spindled over her hair. She swatted. Hard. A black spot flew to the cavern floor.
A wolf spider, monstrous and fuzzy. Its legs stretched long as it scampered away, leaving Vivia to catch her breath. To slow her booming heart.
An almost hysterical laugh bubbled in her throat. She could face down entire navies. She could ride a waterfall from mountain peak to valley’s end. She could battle almost any man or woman and be named victor.
But a spider … She shivered, shoulders rolling high. Before she could resume her forward, upward march, she spotted movement near her feet. Up the cavern walls too.
The wolf spider wasn’t the only creature scratching its way to the surface, nor the only creature shaking with terror. A centipede—no, tens of them—curled out of crevices near Vivia’s feet. Salamanders slithered up the walls.
Blessed Noden, where were all these creatures coming from?
And more important, what were all these creatures running from?
Half a day of walking.
Half a day of thirst.
The walking had been easy enough. Somehow Safi had lost her shoes in the surf, yet even barefoot, Safi had trained for this. And even with her foot smashed by an iron flail two weeks before, she could march for miles.
But the thirst … That was a new experience, and it was made all the worse by the endless brackish water slithering through the mangroves, none of it drinkable.
Neither Safi nor the empress ever spoke. Not that it mattered. The jungles of the Contested Lands made enough noise for them both.
For hours, they trekked southwest, away from the shore. Away from any Cartorran armada that might be hunting or any assassins still on the prowl. They crossed mud that sucked them to their knees. Mangrove roots and cypress knobs. Vines that snagged, thorns that cut, and insects that clicked and feasted.
Until at last, they needed a rest.
Vaness was the first to sit. It took Safi several dragging steps to even notice the sudden silence behind her. She snapped back her gaze. Empty jungle, and green, green shadows. Her heart lurched into her throat. Vaness had been right behind her.
There. Safi’s eyes caught on a hunched figure atop a fallen mangrove. The black of Vaness’s gown blended into the leaves and shadows.
Safi’s heart settled. “Are you hurt?”
“Hmmm,” was all the empress said before her dark head drooped forward, sweat-soaked hair cascading across her face.
Safi turned back. Water, water—that word pounded in her mind as she approached the empress. Vaness needed it, Safi needed it. They could go only so far without it.
Yet it wasn’t dehydration she found shuddering through Vaness’s small body. It was tears. The empress’s grief was so pure, it sang off her. Hot, charged waves that kissed true-true-true against Safi’s skin. She could almost see it—a funeral dirge to spread through the forest, rippling outward and growing perfect black roots.
She reached Vaness’s side, but no useful words rose in her throat. This … this was too big for her.
Iron was not meant to weep.
Vaness seemed to understand. Shackles clanking, she cupped her face. Rubbed and swiped and erased the tears before saying, “They were my family.” Her voice was thick. Almost lost in the jungle’s endless cry. “The Adders. The sailors. I have known them my entire life. They were my friends … my family.” A crack in her throat. A pause. “I did not think war would return so soon. The Truce only ended two weeks ago…” Her voice drifted off, leaving an unspoken truth to settle through the trees.
I ended the Truce by claiming you in Nubrevna. I brought this upon myself.
Then Vaness straightened, and like the iron she controlled, her posture steeled. When she met Safi’s eyes, there was no sign tears had ever come—and there was certainly no sign of regret. “I will kill the Cartorrans who did this, Domna.”
“How do you know it was Cartorra?” Yet even as Safi asked this, she knew the empire of her childhood—the empire that had sent an armada after her—was the only logical source of the attack.