The city of Darien stands at the weary end of a golden age. Twelve families keep order with soldiers and artefacts, spies and memories, clinging to a peace that shifts and crumbles. The people of the city endure what they cannot change. Here, amongst old feuds, a plot is hatched to kill a king. It will summon strangers to the city - Elias Post, a hunter; Tellius, an old swordsman banished from his home; Arthur, a boy who cannot speak; Daw Threefold, a chancer and gambler; Vic Deeds, who feels no guilt; and Nancy, a girl whose talent might be the undoing of them all.
The news from the north is grim. An army is massing under the new king of Feal. They head towards Darien - city of the Twelve families - demanding allegiance, or war. Tellius, Speaker to the Council, knows this divided city will never stand against such a terrible foe. But Tellius has a plan. He will assemble a band of heroes. Men and women who once before aided Darien in her time of need. They will come if he calls. The army approaches. The trumpets of war sound. A great city holds its breath. And a desperate plan unfolds.
In Shiang, the young king rules without dissent. Mazer swordsmen stand watch on every corner, looking for the first sign of rebellion. This city is a place of quiet dignity, like a man eating rice with a razor pressed against his throat. Yet with one sharp movement, order is overturned. The balance of centuries is undone in the sudden spill of blood - and in the darkness, something terrible returns to Shiang. Far to the west, four Shiang masters approach the city walls of Darien. The sword saint and his companions have crossed a continent to bring an old man home for punishment.