And all these years, Merik had tamped down the anger in an attempt to be as unlike Vivia as he could be, yet where had it gotten him?
It hadn’t saved Kullen from his own storm.
It hadn’t saved Safiya fon Hasstrel from the Marstoks.
And it sure as Noden’s watery Hell hadn’t saved Nubrevna from starvation and war.
So Merik embraced the rage. He let it course through each of his breaths. Each of his thoughts. He could use the anger to help his hungry city. To protect his dying people.
For although the holiest might fall—and Merik had fallen far, indeed—they could also claw their way back up again.
* * *
The fourteenth chimes were ringing on stormy winds by the time Vivia found a moment to herself to trek beneath the city, deep into the core of the plateau.
Vivia had come here every day, without fail, for the past nine weeks. Her routine for each visit was always the same: check the lake, then search the tunnels for the missing, mythical under-city.
Vivia had left the Battle Room to find chaos. Wind-drums pounded the alarm for help in Judgment Square, and a full riot was under way by the time she arrived.
After an hour of ineffectually trying to wrangle escaped prisoners back into the irons, the sky turning darker and darker each minute, Vivia had ordered the soldiers to stop.
There was no point, not once the rain began to fall. Most people in the irons had committed crimes solely for the purpose of getting arrested, led by some misguided belief that if they could somehow get into prison, they could enjoy two meals a day. But the Lovats prison was already full, and so these fake, desperate criminals were left to time in the irons instead—where, of course, there was no food.
Still, a few dangerous convicts remained on the loose. Not to mention this new beast of a man who had freed the prisoners in the first place.
“The Fury,” Vivia whispered to herself as she hiked deeper underground. It was such a stupid thing to call oneself, and just begging for the Hagfishes’ wrath. While those people in Judgment Square might have been gullible enough to believe Noden’s vengeful saint had come to rescue them, Vivia knew whoever he had been, he was just a man.
And men could be found. Arrested. Hanged.
She stalked faster. This far beneath the surface, the air never warmed and few creatures lived. Vivia’s lantern light crawled over rough limestone tunnels. One after the next. Nothing like the symmetric brick-lined Cisterns above, where sewage and Waterwitched plumbing moved. Whenever Vivia hauled herself back to the surface, dust would streak her skin, her hair, her uniform.
Which was why she always kept a spare uniform waiting in her mother’s garden, tucked in a dry box. She also always worked alone, for these honeycombing caves were forever empty, forever secret. As far as Vivia was aware, she was the only person alive who even knew this world of magic and river existed.
Or so her mother had told her before bringing Vivia down here fifteen years ago. Jana had still been queen then, ruling and in power. The madness—and the High Council—had not yet taken her crown. This is the source of our power, Little Fox, she had told Vivia. The reason our family rules Nubrevna and others do not. This water knows us. This water chose us.
Vivia hadn’t understood what Jana had meant back then, but she understood now. Now, she felt the magic that bound her blood to these underground waterways.
She marched into the final tunnel, where an ancient Firewitched lamp warmed her vision. Brighter than her lantern, it made her eyeballs pound.
Keep moving. At least here, she wanted to keep moving. Here, she could stare into the darkness beyond, and it didn’t matter if her mother stared back.
Inky water spanned before Vivia for as far as her squinting eyes could see. A vast lake where miles of underground river fed and flowed, a heart inside the Lovats plateau. This was where Nubrevna’s true power lay. This was where the city’s pulse lived.
On the lake’s shore rested the skeletal ribs of an ancient rowboat, where Vivia always set her lantern and draped her clothes—and where she did so now, starting with the linen strip of iris-blue wrapped around her biceps.
Protocol demanded all men and women in the Royal Forces wear these mourning bands until the funeral, but they were a nuisance. A lie. Most of the troops had never known their prince, and they’d certainly never cared for him. Merik had grown up in the south, and unlike Vivia, who had risen through the ranks by her own sweat, her own strength, Merik had been handed a ship, a crew, and shiny captain’s buttons.
Then, a few years after that, in the ultimate insult to Vivia, Merik had been handed the admiralty. Though Vivia had appreciated the indignation of her fellow sailors and soldiers at the time—the men and women she’d trained with—it hadn’t made the pointed oversight by Serafin any less stinging.
Easy, easy. Everything in Merik’s life had been easy.
In a rough burst of speed, Vivia finished her partial undressing, yanking off her boots and peeling off her coat. Then she began her routine as she always did: she hissed, “Extinguish.”
Darkness snuffed across the cavern, and she held her breath, waiting for her eyes to adjust … There. Starlight began to twinkle.
Not true starlight, but streaks and sprinkles and sprays of luminescent fungi that offered more than enough light to see by once Vivia’s vision adapted. Four main spokes crawled across the rock, meeting at the ceiling’s center. Foxfire, her mother had called it.
There should have been six spokes, though, and there had been six spokes until nine weeks ago, when the farthest stripe—at the opposite end of the lake—had winked out. Leaving five lines for another three weeks … Until another rivulet had vanished too.
Never had the light died in Vivia’s life, nor during Queen Jana’s. In fact, it had been at least two centuries since any of the six spokes had winked out.
It was a sign that our people were too weak to keep fighting, Jana had explained. And it was a sign that the royal family was too weak to keep protecting.
So the city’s people had hidden underground, in a vast city carved into the rock. Where more foxfire grew in such huge magical masses that it was enough light for plants to grow—or enough light so long as Plantwitches were there to supplement and support.
The under-city is as big as Lovats above, my Little Fox. Powerful witches, the likes of which we no longer have today, built it centuries ago as a hiding place to keep our people alive.
Vivia had wanted to know more. How was the city built, Mother? Why aren’t there powerful witches like that now? How does the foxfire know we’re too weak? And where is the city?