Rebellious crown prince Errol has committed the biggest sin, he's fallen in love with a male. As the son of a great goddess, Errol’s love affair with Simon has violated the social order--females rule and men must worship and love them alone.
Childhood friend Shar has three days to save the love of her life, Errol, from certain death. When Errol and Simon approach Shar with a way to do that, she must rebel against her clan, her brother, and her entire way of life.
Will she be willing to do the unthinkable and embrace this love at all costs?
A light breeze passed through the lounging garden. Stark ice-glazed tree limbs shuddered against the gentleness of the wind, as if seeking warmth of their own. The nearby songbirds accented what should be a serene place, one at harmony against the snow-covered island landscape. All around, the land lay shrouded in ivory beauty, except for a shock of crimson. Bella looked her part as she leaned back against the curved stone rest: a tranquil and alluring ideal. But looks can be deceiving.
“Errol won’t last until Silver Solstice, Shar,” Bella began, but hesitated at the expression on her best friend’s face. “The assembly of goddesses won’t allow it. Errol’s behavior won’t be tolerated. To refuse a goddess’s rule is to refuse life itself. A goddess’s rule is law. To rebel against law is death.”
“And once I called you friend,” Shar replied breathlessly, her dreadlocks spilling over her shoulders and shielding her face from Bella’s view. Recoiling into her embroidered gown, only her fingertips showed from the fall of crimson fabric. “You used to care about people—about me. His behavior shouldn’t mar him, but set him apart as a free thinker.”
Bella snapped, “I do care about you, Shar. That’s why we’re having this conversation.” Sighing, she added, “Errol is a menace, a brute, but above all, he is in violation of our code. His actions are vile and unspeakable. If the assembly allows this to continue, think of the ripples. Think beyond your needs, your desire for him, Shar.”
I am. Shar paused, allowing the thought to zip through her and be finished before speaking, or else it would slither from her lips like a serpent and bite into Bella’s pride. Though it was something her good friend could use right about now.
“He’s lonely and misunderstood. If the assembly would just talk to him. Explain things to him. Or better listen for once! Goddess, if only they’d listen to someone else for one blessed second...” Shar tried to pull the anger rolling out of her back in, but she succeeded only in releasing it in a long drawn out sigh.
“Why do you continue to protect him?” Bella asked with feigned disinterest. Her slanted gray eyes seemed to glow in the candles’ soft light. The shadows scattered around the two of them, leaping and dancing as the breeze tickled the candles’ wicks. “What has he promised you? Done to you? Did he kiss your nether lips? Shove his tongue deep inside your core?”
Shar’s cheeks grew hot. Furiously, she watched her friend avoid her stare as if afraid she’d be burned by the intensity. What did Errol do to inspire her loyalty to him? Good question. Bella hadn’t been elevated to priestess because of her beauty—though that had helped. The girl could see through people sometimes, and the assembly valued that insight, especially about those who disobeyed.
Nothing I’m willing to divulge to you, Bella.
Shar cleared her throat and ignored the question. “Clearly the man has made a grave mistake, but it shouldn’t cost him his life. Honestly, Bella.”
“It isn’t for us to decide,” Bella pointed out with an aura of finality. Rising, she turned to light one of the candles in the massive pewter candelabra that shot upward from Goddess Lali’s altar. Circling the altar was a pristine pool that failed to be disturbed by the slivers of icy wind slipping between the doors and windows. Considered to be blessed by Lali, those who sipped the cool water soon conceived a child, or sometimes several.
“His father would be angered enough he might take measures,” Shar threatened, while knowing Errol’s father wouldn’t like being mentioned in this kind of conversation.
Bella snorted. With arms crossed over her robust bosom and feet planted beside the spotted sacrificial altar, she shot Shar a smirk and licked her full lips. “A mere human amongst goddesses. And though Errol’s mother is a goddess, Lesedi’s power of the peridot isn’t nearly as strong as that of the other four.”
“His father is also king, so obviously the power of the peridot won out over the competition,” Shar argued, but the words failed to penetrate Bella’s superior smirk. “The Silver Solstice is just around the corner, and no gem can withstand that of silver on its night.”
“A king is not a god,” Bella retorted and set about lighting the rest of the candles. “And Lesedi’s powers are pathetic compared to the great goddess, Lali. Even if he tried to override or disobey the assembly’s decree, he’d be slain. Lesedi would be powerless to stop it.”
“How can you speak such words? They are grounds for your death!”
Again Bella smirked, touching one topaz-decorated ear. “Not here in these sacred walls. Lali protects her priestesses, and you should know the topaz rules all others. It’s obvious you are not ready for the ritual,” Bella said with a deep exhale, ignoring the rest of Shar’s words. “Meet me again at dawn. Truth is absolute and freeing. Embrace that truth, Shar. Errol’s behavior violates our way of life.”
Shar cared nothing for what the goddesses wished. She snatched up her satchel and stalked out of the opulent temple, leaving Bella to her prayers, chants and other duties worshipping her goddess.
Hot with anger, Shar fumed and realized she didn’t understand Bella at all. The same age and gender, they had been friends since their childhood, born into a life filled with happiness, but few men. Perhaps it was only Shar who felt how small the island had become.
The king had been named so only because he had impregnated the queen, the goddess of hot, sweltering lust, Lesedi. Unfortunately, the baby had been born male, and as such, Errol, wasn’t given guidance, attention or love from his mother or her female servants until he’d come into his manhood. Not to be outdone, Lesedi had tried again, even with other men, to sire a daughter.
Without success. Somehow, she only managed to give birth to males. Lesedi would pass the newborn off to one of the attending wives without so much as a blink to be reared by some lesser human female. Daughters. The goddesses only wanted daughters.
Now, the king clung desperately to his position, but all knew his days were numbered. Errol’s fate as the prince would dissolve and he’d be removed from the castle, just as Lesedi’s others sons have been discarded in favor of a female heir. In the wake of failures, Lesedi would be voted out by the assembly of goddesses which rule the island, and the torch would be passed to the next goddess, Bella’s choice, Lali.
“There you are,” came a deep ripple across the frosty air. “Been looking all over for you.”
Shar turned to face her brother, Priest Shimha. Taller than she by several inches, he seemed to tower over every other male. Perhaps the illusion of more height came from the fact that Shimha held himself up higher than any man in their village. Smooth dark skin gleamed beneath the starlight and he grinned. As strange as it was, for women ranked above the men and carried the power to pass on the goddesses’ abilities and gems from which they derived their power, Shimha wielded great influence.
She automatically returned his smile. If he knew her attempts to derail his mission, he’d be forced to turn her in and she’d be killed.
“I was talking to Bella,” Shar informed him, turning her voice light and shiny. “It’s time for my ritual.”
Her brother halted. “Is it? Which gem do you seek?”
She nodded, ignoring his question about the gem. Ritual came only once for each woman and it meant joining with the goddess of desire. Soon she’d be taken into her plane of existence and taught in the ways of love so that she could be wed to a man and produce more daughters. But first, she had to take a gem, choose a tribe—and a goddess.
“I’ve got four days until the solstice,” she said instead, sidestepping him.
Shimha scowled while he adjusted his robe, yanking it up the shoulders and smoothing it out with his hands flat while avoiding her eyes. Solstice meant a new beginning, and most of the island’s of-age females would select a tribe and undergo the ritual, abandoning family in the hopes of starting a new one.
“Seems too early,” he mumbled at last, his focus directed at something off in the distance.
Shar rolled her eyes and said tartly, “It’s not. And the gems pick the woman, not the other way around, remember?”
At her tone, his eyes zipped to hers. Not liking what he saw there, he gave her a nervous smile and said, “I should be about seeking a suitable male for you then. Which gem do you want to embrace?”
“I can do that myself,” Shar retorted, hands on her hips. “And not before the choosing. I don’t want my communion tainted.”
Shimha’s eyebrows shot into his own mass of dreadlocks. “I suppose you can.”
“Relax, Shimha, you’ll still be the primary male within our clan.” As if the power he derived from his goddess wasn’t enough, he wanted to push his will across Shar’s life too to gain more.
He nodded, but looked ill as he started about his way, his spear swinging from his back, suspended by rope. His booted feet fell flat against the snow-dusted trail.
Letting out a sigh of relief, Shar leaned against the short stone wall that separated her clan’s farm from the priestesses’ palaces. As her breath escaped in puffs of cloudy frustration, she contemplated her brother’s actions. He said he had been looking for her but didn’t say why. Her comments about the ritual had bothered him, but surely he saw her, knew her body had changed and could smell the first brushes of heat upon her. Surely. Every male she passed on the roads turned and grinned loosely at her, like animals scenting a female in heat.
Most females allowed the males in their families to seek out their potential mates. Due to this positioning, the ritual fell to mere formality, lacking the religious power and convention the goddesses desired. It also allowed clans to create alliances when none had existed before, something the goddesses didn’t like either. For all their careful planning, political maneuvering and the like, the goddesses hated it when the humans did the same. Do as they say, not as they do.
At the moment, Shar realized she couldn’t be worried about Shimha’s loss of stature once she went through the ritual. She couldn’t focus on anything except Errol. Chills blanketed her arms and legs, so Shar pushed off the stone and headed toward home. As she walked, frozen grasses crunched beneath her booted feet, and Shar could smell the approaching storm. The hanging silver stars and gems would sparkle all the more after a bath of fluttering snowflakes. Ever since she could remember, all she longed for in life was a joining. Yet, being tethered to a sole male didn’t quite appeal to her. Shimha wouldn’t be able to handle such a thought.
“Besides,” Shar said against the cold wind, “Errol is going to come to heel beneath my aching want, or Goddess Lali is going to get one hell of a sacrifice.”
No, all Shar cared for was Errol. Three days was all she had been granted by the goddesses’ emissary.
She had three days to save Errol’s life.