Once verdant with water from a magical Well, the land is drying up, and no one remembers the magic needed to keep the water flowing. If a new source isn’t found soon, the people will perish. Jae doesn’t mind, in a way. By law, she is bound by a curse to obey every order given her, no matter how vile. At least in death, she’ll be free.
Elan’s family rules the fading realm. He comes to the estate where Jae works, searching for the hidden magic needed to replenish the Well, but it’s Jae who finds it, and she who must wield it. Desperate to save his realm, Elan begs her to use it to locate the Well.
But why would a slave—abused, beaten, and treated as less than human—want to save the system that shackles her? Jae would rather see the world burn.
Though revenge clouds her vision, she agrees to help if the realm’s slaves are freed. Then Elan’s father arrives. The ruler’s cruelty knows no limits. He is determined that the class system will not change—and that Jae will remain a slave forever.
"Ferocious and intelligent." —Kirkus Reviews
"Allen’s lush debut mixes current, pressing questions with fantasy while exploring systematic injustice and historical oppression...readers will clamor for the sequel." —Publishers Weekly
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Sometimes, when the sun made her dizzy and her skin burned and peeled and there was no water to spare, Jae thought about revenge. She was in charge of the estate’s grounds, and here in the garden, a cactus loomed over her work. Decades old, it overshadowed everything but the fountain. Back when it still rained, the cactus had grown enormous red flowers. Now there was no rain, there were no flowers, but the spines still grew, some of them as long as Jae’s hand and as thick as her finger.
She tossed weeds into a sack so she could drag them out back, but she eyed the cactus for a long moment before turning away. She’d never be able to get her hands on a real weapon, but if she ever had a few minutes of freedom from the Curse, she could do damage with one of those spines.
“Jae? Jae! There you are! Don’t move!”
Jae’s body went stone still at the unexpected order, which locked her in place where she knelt. She could only shift her gaze to look up. Lady Shirrad was already moving away from the window she’d yelled from, leaving the faded gold curtains swaying in her wake. So Jae waited, using the moment to catch her breath. As orders went, just waiting wasn’t so bad. Not yet, anyway. Though if Lady Shirrad was looking for her, it was to give Jae yet another task.
The Lady strode into the courtyard a minute later, the scent of noxious perfume accompanying her. That meant bad news. Lady Shirrad only covered herself in perfume when there wasn’t enough water to bathe. That meant there would be even less water for Jae to use in the garden this evening--and less for Jae and the other Closest to drink.
The sneer on Lady Shirrad’s face made her look older than seventeen. She and Jae had been born within a day of each other, but that was all they had in common. Lady Shirrad’s features were softer, her skin a lighter brown, and she wore an embroidered red robe with sandals, where Jae had only a stained, shapeless tan dress and bare feet.
Hand on her hip, Lady Shirrad declared, “This garden looks horrible--like it’s dead.”
Jae just waited, still kneeling. The Curse didn’t allow her to speak in front of anyone Avowed unless it was to answer a direct question. Lady Shirrad was right, though. The courtyard garden wasn’t much to look at anymore--an open, square space in the middle of the building, with red and orange rocks ringing the cactus and a few scraggly bushes. The bushes’ leaves were brown now, dying, just like the few tufts of grass that had fought their way up through the stones and sand.
Jae could just remember the way grass had covered the whole courtyard when she’d been a child, and that there had been real flowers. Those had died off years ago. Years before that, according to her mother, the fountain set back in one corner of the courtyard had actually worked, with fresh water flowing down into its trough, free for anyone to drink--even the Closest. Now the fountain was just an oddly shaped sculpture of four columns overlapping one another and linked together in the middle, representing the four elements that mages had once called upon for magic.
“I have guests coming, and it can’t look like this when they arrive. What can you do about it?” Lady Shirrad con-tinued.
Jae braced herself as she answered. The Curse forced all of the Closest to tell the truth as well as they knew it, but the truth didn’t always make Lady Shirrad happy. This certainly wouldn’t: “Without more water, I can’t do anything at all, Lady.”
Lady Shirrad narrowed her eyes, an expression that was usually accompanied by a sharp slap. But thankfully, she only said, “Then use what you need to, but don’t you dare waste a single drop.”
The weight of the order gripped Jae like stone sandals, so heavy that she’d barely be able to trudge forward until the order was completed or lifted.
“I can’t have Aredann looking like this when they arrive. I don’t even want to think about it. Do you understand?” Lady Shirrad demanded.
“Yes, Lady,” Jae said, understanding what mattered: the order she’d been given, and that Lady Shirrad would be even more frantic and impossible than usual until her guests had come and gone again. Lady Shirrad had been Aredann’s Avowed guardian--its absolute ruler--since her father had passed away when she was thirteen, and she hadn’t had many visitors since. No one seemed to want to travel as far as Aredann, especially during the drought.
“Good. Now get to it.” Lady Shirrad started back to the arched entryway, but then paused, her hand on her hip and her sandal tapping against the floor. “Do you know where your brother is?”
A bone weariness, worse than any day under the sun, wrapped itself around Jae’s shoulders at the thought of Tal and Lady Shirrad. At least this truth came easily. “No, Lady.”
Lady Shirrad gave her one last scowl at the negative response, then swept out, her swirling robe kicking up dust. Jae finally straightened up, her body protesting the change in position. She took a moment to stretch as she decided how she’d go about her work. The Curse would give her that much freedom, at least. As long as she was working, obeying Lady Shirrad’s orders, she could do what she wished.
She stooped to pick up the last few weeds that had escaped her, annoyed at how those could grow even ages after the last proper plants had died. She’d want them all gone before she claimed one of the clay water jugs from the basement to use on the bushes and grass. There was no point in watering weeds.
At least Lady Shirrad had allowed her the water she needed. After a year of giving Jae only smaller jugs or water skins, barely enough to keep the garden alive, Jae could now use whatever she required. But rather than being a relief, that tiny bit of freedom left Jae dry, brittle. More water for the garden meant less for the livestock and the fields, less for cooking, less for bathing and cleaning. Less to drink. There simply wasn’t enough to go around, and Lady Shirrad’s order meant she cared more about impressing her guests than she did about keeping the Closest slaves from getting sunsick as they worked.
The garden’s life was more important than Jae’s own. Jae glanced at the overgrown cactus again as she hauled the sack of weeds out, stooping under the weight of her orders, and under the weight of the Curse of obedience that compelled all Closest.
The sinking sun stained the garden bright orange, and Jae shielded her eyes. Even her dark skin practically glowed under the intense light as she set about watering the garden, trying to save the dying grass.
In a landscape of unbroken browns and tans, under a sky that was endless blue all day and star-speckled black at night, green was the color of wealth. Green meant thriving plants, which meant thriving people.
The grass was brown. Jae frowned at it, dizzy for a moment, and sagged against the fountain until the spinning sensation passed. She heaved a deep breath, willing herself to move, to just get back to work. She had to return the rest of the water, the little bit that sloshed at the bottom of the massive jug. But the water was so tempting. . . .
A shadow flickered at the arched entryway into the courtyard. She reached for the jug, willing whoever it was to go about their business and not bother her. But the person stepped into the garden silently--barefoot, not causing the pebbles to grind. Jae’s gaze flicked sideways, and she was relieved to see it was only Tal, her brother.
He caught her glancing, and smiled, then waved with an open hand, which signaled that no Avowed were near enough to see or hear him. It would be safe for them to talk. Even so, he walked toward her silently, and then stopped next to her on the path, brushing his hand against her elbow in a silent greeting.
They were twins, but he moved through the world with an ease she’d never mastered. It was in the way he glided from the doorway to join her; it was how he sat near her, light and relaxed, as if the Curse didn’t weigh him down at all.
He nudged her elbow again, and when she glanced down at his hand, he opened his palm to reveal a date. He pressed it into her hand and murmured, “You look exhausted.”
She had to lean in to hear him, and she chewed the fruit for a second before answering, “I’ve been outside all day. Be careful. Lady Shirrad was looking for you.”
“I know, but she just keeps missing me.” He gave Jae a sideways smirk. Lady Shirrad adored Tal, treated him with kindness she never bothered to show anyone else. He was the only one of the Closest who ever ate or drank his fill, a privilege he earned by smiling to Lady Shirrad’s face and saving his scorn for when her back was turned. But he used her favor to get away with scrounging up the few scraps he could, and he shared these first with Jae and then with the other Closest. Sometimes Jae thought his position as the most favored of the Closest was the only thing that had saved her from dying of exhaustion or sunsickness.
“Lucky you,” she said. She didn’t know how he managed it. The Curse would never allow them to lie with words, so Tal used his body instead, acting for all the world as if he adored Lady Shirrad. His smile was his only weapon, but he wielded it ruthlessly.
She didn’t have Tal’s advantages. They looked similar enough, but the sharp features that were handsome on him were awkward and boyish on her. Tal was gorgeous and knew it; Jae was a mess of scraped hands and gangly limbs. Where he wore his hair in long curls, bound at the nape of his neck, she kept hers cropped almost to her scalp. Considering that she was nearly as flat and curveless as he was, only the fact that she had a dirt-stained dress instead of loose pants made it clear from a distance that one of them was a girl.
She stood and took a step toward the jug, but the dizziness hit again. She paused, waiting for the sensation to pass, but Tal was at her side this time. He guided her back to the fountain carefully, his hand gentle on her arm. While she waited for the world to stop spinning, he grabbed the smaller water skin she’d been using for the plants and held it out to her. He pressed it into her hands, urging her to drink.
She tried to push it back, turned away, as if not seeing it would suppress the longing. “Not allowed,” she said, mouthing the words because her throat was too dry to do much else.
He understood anyway, frowned, and didn’t let her release her grip on the skin. “Tell me if the Lady actually said that.”
She didn’t have to obey an order from him, another Closest, but if she didn’t answer, he’d ask it as a question. The Curse would force her to answer that. No matter who asked, the Closest were compelled to answer all questions. So, to spare herself, she said: “She ordered me not to waste any. Tal, I have to work.”
“I know, I know,” he said. “Traitor’s blood means a lifetime of toil. But you can’t toil if you die of sunsickness. So you have to drink. She might as well have ordered you to.”
Jae shook her head. If Tal explained that to Lady Shirrad, the Lady would laugh and let him drink what he wanted. If Jae tried to explain it, the best she could hope for was that Lady Shirrad would roll her eyes and tell her to get back to work. Jae knew full well what the lady had meant by her order.
But Tal was right. Lady Shirrad hadn’t actually ordered her not to drink, and Jae couldn’t work like this. If she got dizzy again, she’d probably spill all the water she had left, and that really would be a waste.
Hands shaking, she brought the skin up to her lips, telling herself that Tal was right. If drinking allowed her to obey, then drinking was obedience.
The Curse allowed her to drink. When it didn’t immediately punish her, she swallowed greedily, nearly draining the whole thing before she stopped. It was like breathing for the first time all day.
When she was done, Tal pulled the skin closed and set it aside for her. She shot him a grateful look but said, “I still have work to do. The front path is a mess.”
“The Lady will see you out there,” Jae said.
“She’ll find me eventually anyway,” he said, his head so close, it nearly touched hers. “I might as well help you in the meantime.”
Jae hesitated, torn. She wanted the help, anything to make the work go faster. Anything that would keep Lady Shirrad from deciding that Jae hadn’t done a good enough job. But at the same time, she knew what Lady Shirrad wanted Tal for. The same looks and charm that won him relative freedom came at the price of him having to hold his smile when she brushed her fingers over his cheek.
Tal caught her gaze, gold-flecked eyes sincere. “Don’t worry about me. I can handle the Lady,” Tal said, then stood and offered Jae a hand up.
She ignored it and stood on her own, guilt warring with anxiety in her gut. Accepting Tal’s help would practically offer him up to Lady Shirrad for the evening, but without his help she’d be working all night. All she wanted in the world was to rest. But Tal was her brother.
“Jae,” Tal finally said, barely audible. He wasn’t smiling at her, pretending things were fine. He was as tired as she was, but he was still waiting for her. “Ask me if I mind helping you.”
She shook her head. She didn’t have to ask; he wouldn’t have offered to answer if he didn’t mean it. And while he might find ways to twist the words of his answers when Lady Shirrad asked him questions, he wouldn’t do that to Jae, so she nodded, trusting him.
Tal helped her for as long as he could, until Lady Shirrad came out to find him and lead him away. He brushed a hand against Jae’s shoulder as he left, a silent goodbye. That left her on her own, working until the moon rose and the temperature dropped, and finally there was nothing else that had to be done immediately and the Curse would allow her to rest.