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?”
Pretentious prick. Now Vivia’s temper was actually sparking, although she kept her face bored.
To think that she and this vizer had ever been friends growing up. The Serrit she’d played with as a child was now Vizer Linday, and in less than a year, since replacing his deceased father on the council, Linday had become the worst of the thirteen noblemen standing before Vivia.
Noblemen. Every single one of them male. It shouldn’t have been that way, of course. The Lindays, Quintays, Sotars, and Eltars all had female heirs … who conveniently never wanted to leave their lands. Oh, but can’t our brothers/husbands/sons go instead?
No. That was what Vivia would say once she was queen. Whoever bears the vizerial bloodline stands at this table. But until then, Vivia had to live with the yes passed down by her great-grandfather.
“Now, Your Highness,” Linday went on, offering a smooth smile around the table, “I ran the calculations as requested, and the numbers are very clear. Lovats simple cannot support any more people.”
“I don’t recall asking for calculations.”
“Because you didn’t.” Linday’s smile widened into something crocodilian. “It was the Council that requested it.”
“Highness,” came another voice. Squeaky in a way that only Vizer Eltar could produce. Vivia swung her gaze to the rotund man. “The more people who enter the city, the more we vizers must shrink our portions—which is impossible! We all have our families and staff arriving for the prince’s funeral, and at our current rations, I cannot keep my own beloved family fed.”
Vivia sighed. “More food is coming, Eltar.”
“You said that last week!” he squealed. “And now the funeral is in six days! How will we provide food for the city?”
“Additionally,” piped up Vizer Quihar, “the more people we allow in, the more likely we are to let enemies into our midst. Until we know who killed the prince, we must close the Sentries and keep newcomers out.”
This earned a chorus of agreements from around the table. Only one man stayed silent: the barrel-chested, black-skinned Vizer Sotar. He was also the only man with a fully operational brain in this entire room.
He flung Vivia a sympathetic wince now, and she found it … well, more welcome than she cared to admit. He was so much like his daughter Stacia, who served as Vivia’s first mate. And were Stix here right now—were this Vivia’s ship and Vivia’s crew—Stix would lash out at these weak-willed vizers instantly. Mercilessly. She had the temper that Nubrevnan men respected most.
But Stix was inspecting the city’s watchtowers today, like a good first mate, while Vivia was trapped inside, watching slimy Serrit Linday quieting the vizers with a wave.