Alys may be the acknowledged queen of Women’s Well—the fledgling colony where women hold equal status with men—but she cares little for politics in the wake of an appalling personal tragedy. It is grief that drives her now. But the world continues to turn.
In a distant realm unused to female rulers, Ellin struggles to maintain control. Meanwhile, the king of the island nation of Khalpar recruits an abbess who he thinks holds the key to reversing the spell that Alys’s mother gave her life to create. And back in Women’s Well, Alys’s own half brother is determined to bring her to heel. Unless these women can come together and embrace the true nature of female power, everything they have struggled to achieve may be at risk.
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From the moment he’d seen the results of his aptitude testing at the age of thirteen, Jalzarnin Rah-Griffolm had set his sights on one day being named the Lord High Priest of Khalpar, and he had never for a moment doubted his destiny.
He had been appointed to the office and joined the royal council at the respectable age of forty-five, and the king had favored him with several land grants and titles that he had not even thought to hope for. No life was without its setbacks and disappointments, but Jalzarnin knew he’d suffered far fewer than most. He could almost hear his late father railing at him, urging him to be satisfied with what he had. Lord Griffolm had even gone so far as to accuse his son of impiety for his outsized ambition.
But though he suspected there had been at least a kernel of truth in his father’s accusation—Jalzarnin was admittedly not the most pious man to have held the office of lord high priest—he was not especially inclined to curb that ambition. Which was what brought him here to the anteroom of the king’s private study, when a more prudent man—some might even say a wiser man—would keep a safe distance from a monarch who had a distressing habit of replacing members of his royal council with little to no provocation.
He paced anxiously, awaiting permission to enter as his father’s voice continued to whisper discouragement into his ear. Given that the king was so apt to dismiss members of his royal council, Jalzarnin could never rest secure, unlike the lord high priests who had come before him. If he sat back and enjoyed the privileges of being on the council, he might all too easily find that seat pulled out from under him. There were plenty of other ambitious priests eager for his position.
The study door opened, and the king’s personal secretary stepped out. “His Majesty will see you now,” he said with a sweeping gesture.
Jalzarnin took what he hoped was a quiet steadying breath, pushing any doubts deep inside, where the king could not glimpse them. Then he stepped into the study and bowed low, surreptitiously studying the king’s countenance for some hint of his current disposition.
Jalzarnin wouldn’t be so crass as to describe King Khalvin as moody, but one could never tell which days he would be receptive to the opinions of his advisers. And as Jalzarnin had come with the specific intent of overstepping the bounds of his authority, he risked souring his relationship with his liege if he did not tread with extreme care.
“I hear you wish to speak to me about the appointment of a new abbess,” the king said abruptly, the corners of his mouth tugging down to hint at his displeasure with the topic.
Clearly he was not in one of his more receptive moods, and Jalzarnin fought to hide the flutter of apprehension in his belly. He reminded himself that even when he was irritable, King Khalvin was a wise and thoughtful king. Jalzarnin’s interference in a matter that should be none of his affair might annoy him, but that annoyance would pass if he realized his lord high priest’s suggestion would benefit the kingdom.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” Jalzarnin said.
“Perhaps I am getting forgetful in my old age, but I was under the impression you were my lord high priest, not my trade minister.”
The sarcasm was far from a good omen; any other of the king’s advisers—even his lord chancellor—would have taken the unsubtle hint and found an excuse to retreat. But Jalzarnin had not attained his position by being timid.
“Ordinarily, I wouldn’t think to interfere with the trade minister’s decision,” Jalzarnin said. The trade minister was the lowest-ranking member of the royal council, and it was his job to oversee the Abbey of the Unwanted and appoint a replacement when an abbess died. Overseeing the Abbey of the Unwanted was hardly a glamorous responsibility—despite the substantial income the Abbey provided to the Crown’s coffers—and it should have been beneath Jalzarnin’s notice.
“But these are not ordinary times,” he continued, “and we men of conscience must do whatever needs to be done.”
The king’s frown deepened into a scowl of displeasure. It had been nearly a year since the Abbess of Aaltah had cast the devastating spell that had cursed the Wellspring and changed the very nature of Rho, the element of life. Everything in the king’s neatly ordered world had been turned on its head, all the carefully sculpted rules of society disordered in ways it was still difficult to conceive. There were those who were already beginning to view the current situation as normal. Fixed and unchangeable—and maybe even right. But King Khalvin was not among them.
“I don’t see what that has to do with which whore is in charge of the Abbey,” the king said with a curl of his lip. He was a genuinely devout man, who believed wholeheartedly in the sanctity of marriage vows. The whores of the Abbey were technically supposed to service only unmarried men, but it was an open secret that they would service anyone who had the means to pay. If the Abbey weren’t such an integral part of life for the nobility of Khalpar—and if it did not provide such a ready source of income for the Crown’s coffers—the king would likely have abolished it altogether.
Jalzarnin shifted uncomfortably. The king was in a worse humor than he’d thought. Impatience nearly crackled in his every small gesture, and his index finger was tapping softly on the edge of his desk. Jalzarnin wished he could have presented his proposal at a time of his own choosing, when the king was in a more suggestible frame of mind. But not even members of the royal council could approach the king willy-nilly.
Jalzarnin steadied his nerves by picturing Mairahsol gazing up at him, her eyes full of the calm confidence and strength that had first drawn him to her. She’d been confined to the Abbey since she was nineteen. Her face had been disfigured by an especially violent case of pox—one she claimed was brought on by poison, which Jalzarnin was inclined to believe—and yet she was one of the shrewdest, most intelligent women he’d ever met. He couldn’t honestly say he believed she could undo the Curse, but it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.
“All my research has led me to believe that we will need women’s magic if we are ever to undo the Curse that Aaltah bitch cast,” Jalzarnin said. “And our best hope of finding a cure is to put the most magically gifted woman in the Abbey in charge of the effort. Even if she is not someone who would traditionally be considered for the position.”
The king was singularly unmoved by this assertion. “I still fail to grasp why we are having this conversation. Surely if you feel honor-bound to stick your nose into the trade minister’s business, you should take up the subject with him.”
Jalzarnin wondered just what had put the king in such a sour mood. He was rarely this unpleasant, even when annoyed. “Of course, Your Majesty,” he said with a bow of his head. “I did raise the issue with Lord Prindar, but he was . . . concerned that you would not approve of a break with tradition.” To say the trade minister was “concerned” was putting it mildly. Prindar had flatly refused Jalzarnin’s suggestion, despite the obvious practical advantages. And Prindar would likely have an apoplexy when he discovered Jalzarnin had gone over his head and brought the matter to the king.
“I am a great believer in tradition,” the king said, an unmistakable warning in his voice.
“And if we can but undo the Curse, our longstanding traditions can be restored and life returned to normal.” Jalzarnin was pinning all his hopes on the king’s oft-stated yearning for the old ways.
To his delight, there was a thawing of the peevishness in the king’s expression as he studied the face of his lord high priest. The crease between his brows eased, and there was a spark of calculation and interest in his eyes. Catching the king’s interest was not always desirable, but it was at least preferable to the annoyance he’d radiated previously.
“You have someone in mind.”
It was not phrased as a question, but Jalzarnin answered anyway, fully aware that he was stepping into a trap. “Yes, Your Majesty.”