Zoe finds out she has a magical affinity with water which makes her the Prime (or Head) of Lalindar House (essentially, the house of water magic) and she moves to the Capital to live with the King and help him uncover and resolve a political intrigue that has been stirring up dangerous suspicion among the nobles. Zoe Ardelay is just a regular young girl living in a small village at the outskirts of the Kingdom of Welce until one day, she receives a missive that demands that she must go to the Capital to become the King's fifth wife. The story begins with Zoe having to attend the funeral for her father's death. He died of natural causes but before his death, asked that Zoe return to her mother's side of the family where she will be taken care of. She and her father had been living in a small rural village for many years because her father fell out of favor with the King due to some mysterious circumstances. Once her father passed away, Zoe is visited by a man named Darien Serlast who has been sent by the King to fetch her to become his fifth wife. Since Zoe sees no way out of the situation, she agrees. On the trip to the Kingdom's capital, Zoe gets to know Darian a bit more and finds out that after her family fell out of favor with the King, his family rose in favor. Zoe can't decide whether she likes Darien or not because he is very secretive and mysterious about his motivations and intentions.
When they almost reach the King's palace in the city of Chialto, their vehicle is caught in traffic due to an overturned cart blocking the road. Zoe takes this opportunity to make her escape into the crowded marketplace. She purchases a bedroll and some candied sweets which she decides to try to sell to earn some money to sustain her new life as a beggar on the streets until she can figure out what to do. She befriends other vagabonds who share their campfire by the city's river. Because of her cultured voice, one of her new friends helps her get a job as a sales lady in a shoe shop.
One day, Zoe consults with the Three Sisters, who are three old women that trade in information. Apparently the three old women know information about everyone who lives in the city and for a small fee they will answer three questions. Zoe learns from one of the old women that her father fell out of favor with the King due to a political argument that became heated and resulted in his exile. She also learns that the King's four wives don't want the King to take a fifth wife. Finally, she learns that Darien Serlast is some sort of agent to the King, someone who is powerful and trusted enough by the king that he can sign contracts on behalf of the King himself. Over the next few days, Zoe learns about the five important families that have immense influence over politics. Each family is blessed by one of the five elements: air/soul, wood/bone, fire/mind, water/blood and earth/flesh. The King and most of the citizens of the kingdom of Welce believe that the five families must be balanced in order for there to be harmony within the government and in the kingdom.
The months pass and Zoe settles comfortably into her new life. One day, the King and his convoy (which includes Darien) travel by the riverbank and Zoe thinks Darien saw her. A few days later, the King comes to the shoe shop where Zoe works to order a new pair of leather heeled shoes and this time Zoe is certain that Darien knows where she is. She is confused as to why he revealed her identity to the King, yet.
One day, Zoe is making her way back home when she is robbed by a beggar boy. She chases the beggar and ends up being confronted by a gang of mean looking thugs. In her desperation to escape them, she jumps into the river that runs through the city. For some strange reason, she is able to stay underwater and coax the water currents to bring her back to her camp by the river. After the incident, Zoe thinks something weird is going on as, even though people are blessed with certain affinities for the elements, they can't do the impossible, like hold their breath underwater for more than ten minutes. She consults with one of the Three Sisters who tell her that only the leader of the family – called the Prime – has actual abilities with the elements. In terms of the element of water, only the Prime of the Lalindar family has water-related powers. Zoe figures out that she's the rightful heir of the Lalindar family, a family that has been without leadership since the death of the previous Prime. She tells the Three Sisters to spread the word that the Prime of Lalindar has arrived.
Zoe travels to the Lalindar estate. She is related to the Lalindar family through her mother's side. Everyone at the house was expecting her to appear, having heard the rumors spread by the Three Sisters. Over the next few days, she reunites with her cousins and people she knew from the courtly life she led long ago, before her and her father's exile. One day, Darien visits. Zoe learns that the whole affair of trying to get her to marry the King was all just for show. Darien's plan was actually to show the world that the King has control of the newest Prime. Zoe is angry that so many secrets were kept from her. Darien insists that it's just part of his job and he also tells Zoe that she no longer has to be the King's wife but she is still needed in the King's court as a representative of the Lalindar family. Zoe finally agrees to make her appearance at court.
Zoe meets the King's four wives, first. She proves to be very perceptive of each of their personalities, despite finding it hard to not act like a country bumpkin in their presence. She learns that all the wives want their children to become the King's heir and are willing to use even Darien's influence to get their way. Later on, she and Darien have another argument as she feels like, even though Darien apparently doesn't require her to be the King's wife, he still wants something from her but is unable to tell her in clear terms. Zoe finally also meets the King himself, and she finds that she likes him.
During a boat race, the young daughter of one of the wives ends up being trapped in a furious current that rushes towards a waterfall. Zoe uses her powers to calm the waters and steer the boat to safety. This requires so much of her energy that she faints. Later on, there is a conspiracy that the other wives may have hired sailors to pretend to ditch the boat due to a catastrophe but with the intent of abandoning the child on the boat. Later on, as Zoe learns more about this little girl – named Josette – she finds out that Josette is actually her half-sister. She realizes that the King is actually infertile and that the King's trusted advisers (including Zoe's own father) had been used to impregnate his wives to make it seem like he is capable of producing legitimate heirs. Zoe finally understands that her father was exiled because someone discovered this information and the government feared that her father would try to vie for power.
After extensive observation and information from Darien, Zoe finds out that one of the wives – a woman named Alys – has been responsible for trying to orchestrate Josette's death because Josette is seen as the most likely candidate to become heir after the King passes. In her anger, Zoe confronts Alys and nearly uses her powers over water to kill Alys. She stops herself just in time and decides to leave the palace life, as she is tired of all the scheming.
Later on, Zoe finds out that the King has been taking special herbs to increase his virility and that he has successfully impregnated one of his wives. Zoe thinks this will finally put an end to all the backstabbing and scheming as now there is truly a legitimate heir to the Kingdom of Welce. Before things can sort themselves out, however, the King pulls the rug out under everyone's feet and announces he will marry a child-bride from the neighboring kingdom of Soche-Tas. It is such shocking news to everyone and especially to Zoe since she does not like the barbaric ways of the Soche-Tas who can force children to marry. In fact, Zoe is so shocked that she inadvertently swells the river and floods the palace. After quieting the river, Zoe is so horrified by what she's done that she leaves the palace. Darien eventually finds her and tells her that there was not much harm done, overall. The story ends on a bit of a cliff-hanger as Darien and Zoe wonder how they will be able to smooth things over in the kingdom.
Best part of story, including ending:
I like how Sharon Shinn created a world where people are blessed by the nature of air, wood, fire, water and earth. At every milestone in their lives, a person can receive blessings by wandering the streets and collecting three blessings from the first three people they meet. If that person has a strong affinity with a certain element, they will receive blessings to do with that element. For example, Zoe, who has a water affinity would receive blessings like "change", "swiftness" and "flexibility". I thought this system was neat and very unique.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene was when Zoe escapes from the thugs by jumping into the river and staying underwater for so long and then asking the water currents to carry her home. I thought that scene was very well written and gives a good impression about how Zoe's water "magic" works.
Opinion about the main character:
I like that Zoe adjusts well to every new situation she encounters. Though she is a noblewoman and used to living in excellent conditions, she is unafraid to roll up her sleeves and do menial labor as a vagabond on the streets if that's what it takes to survive and lead an independent life.