Sian Sayre Chamblin rushes south to meet with Arik, King of Columbyana, to bring him a prophecy from his deceased grandfather, passed on to Sian on his deathbed. The prophecy is dire- unless Sian can find the firstborn of the "three fine women" and help the warriors overcome the darkness that plagues Columbyana, the kingdom, and its King- is doomed.
The King is concerned, but when Sian expresses frustration over finding the "Three Fine women", the emperor suggests that Sian's grandfather meant the "Three Fyne Women", witches who only a generation ago saved Columbyana from Emperor Sebastyen, a cruel and hateful ruler. And the firstborn of one of them he has already met, Ariana Varden, Arik's healer, who Sian dismissed as a bit of fluff when he first met her, thinking her the Emperor's concubine. Instead, she is his savior, as Arik is dying and it is only Ariana's knowledge of Herbs, Healing and healing skill that is enabling her to keep him alive.
Sian is definitely taken aback- he saw the offspring as warriors, and to him, no woman can be such a warrior. And Ariana is only a healer. How can she defeat the evil assaulting Columbyana? But her ability to heal without herbs or medicines shows she might have some magical ability, and so Sian becomes her tutor in the magical arts. He does tell her of the darkness assaulting the Kingdom, but keeps to himself the detailed knowledge of the prophecy, thinking that it will keep her from quailing at the fate it fortells for her- dying in battle and being stricken with doubts.
But Ariana has definite feelings about where the evil threatening the kingdom is birthed. She suspects it came from the castle itself, since the evil deeds occurring in the Kingdom have all been equidistant from the castle in Arthes itself. The two most potent possibilities for evil are the first level of the castle - the very top, or the pit, the very bottom, the thirteenth level. When her look at the first level proves unfruitful, they go down to examine the thirteenth, a level Sian claims doesn't exist. But Ariana knows better- her own aunt was thrown there long ago.
Down in the level below, Ariana senses a great evil, and also, something else, something waiting in the dark that she can almost touch- this turns out to be the spirit of Queen Diella, one of Sebastyen's queens thrown in the pit for her addiction to Panwyr, a narcotic drug that ramps up the sex drive, and her sating of this sex drive with any male in reach. In exchange for a kiss, she tells Sian the true source of the trouble, an Isen Demon who lives in Arik's son, Prince Ciro. The demon was put into him by a mage named Fynnian, and who has raised tbe boy in his home while feeding the demon's appetites for blood, souls and Panwyr. So far the demon can only feed on tainted souls, but the more souls he eats, the easier he will find it to take pure and good souls- like that of Fynnian's daughter, Rayne.
Ciro has plans for Rayne. He will take her soul and make her his empress, impregnating her with his child and allowing demon and human to come together at conception. He looks forward to eating her soul and making her his creature. Rayne can feel his malevolence, which frightens her, but she is a dutiful daughter and obeys her father rather than running in fear. Ciro and Fynnian also have plans to conquer Columbyana and put Ciro on the throne, with Fynnian in control of Ciro- little does he know that the demon is only biding his time to get rid of the mage as well. And when Ciro becomes powerful enough to demand Fynnian bring Ciro the soldiers he promised him, the mage realizes he has lost control and becomes frightened. He does as Ciro asks.
Back in the Palace, Ariana has returned to herself and Sian teaches her as much as he can. But it turns out that Diella has never really left Ariana's body and fights with her for control. When Diella tries to seduce Sian, he puts her off, and helps Ariana regain control of her body. But the urges Diella feels are also her own, and she can taste his mouth in hers, even though it was Diella that he kissed- in her body. Already attracted to her, when she reveals to Sian that she wants him, too, he cannot resist her and they become lovers.
But when he refuses to divulge the full prophecy, they have a falling out, and she can no longer trust him. She leaves the castle at the head of a band of Sentinels- the warriors of the palace guard and armed forces of Columbyana. Her troops are going to fight Ciro's, as Ciro has left Fynnian's home, imprioning Rayne in the depths of the castle, and marched to bring evil and death to the otherwise defenseless citizens of Columbyana. The only one who can stop him is Ariana... and unbeknownst to her, Sian can't leave her to die alone. He's joined her group of Sentinels with the hopes of saving her from her fate. But when she and her company are ambushed on the road, can Sian really save her? And what will he do... how will he survive, if she really does die?
I liked this book, even though the hero of the story is pretty much pegged as an asshat- he's pegged Ariana as a woman of loose morals the first time he sees her- even though she's just a healer, and most of the time, he thinks she just can't hack it when it comes to fighting against the evil plaguing Columbyana. Even as he learns better- that Ariana is uncommonly strong and isn't going to crumple like a bit of tinfoil if she's seriously in trouble, he's still acting like an asshat in keeping the details of the prophecy from her- she asks him at least twice, and he's all "No! She wouldn't be able to take the truth!" and keeps it from her.
Her reaction when she finally does read the prophecy shows he was completely wrong about her- she doesn't get upset or break out into tears, and the cool way in which she tells him she can no longer trust him makes him humbled and afraid for her once again- and this time, instead of dismissing her as a woman, he wants to save her because he's fallen in love with her, but he's also afraid that she'll die- just like his wife, who died in childbirth, along with his son. And while I thought he went a long way towards being redeemed, I also thought he was still hanging out there in asshat territory somewhat. And when the story ends, it's not so much an ending, because it leads into the second book of this trilogy.
I did like this book, but the ending isn't really the ending, because apparently the hero and heroine will continue to be somewhat developed through the other stories in this series. Heck, Ariana hasn't even found the crystal dagger that it will be her job to wield, according to the prophecy, in the pages of this book. I do hope Sian gets some more "screen time" as it were, because I don't think he's been allowed to suffer amply enough for being such an idiot at the beginning of this one... yet. Other readers may feel differently, of course. But I did enjoy the book and am looking forward to the next one, Prince of Fire.