While walking unafraid through the awful slums of the great semi-medieval city Matik, Sistére Graice Nínjìng encounters a man unlike any she has met before. Holder’s ‘aura’ shines brilliantly but she is unable to read his thoughts and emotions in it, something which has never has happened before. Astoundingly, Graice’s ‘effect,’ her ability to control everyone else, has no power over him. Intrigued, she takes him to meet her mentor Sybille and the two women discover he lost his memory after a head injury and does not even know who he is. Sybille hires him as a guide for a journey she and Graice must make, partly so they can keep him close until they discover his secret. As they travel, Graice tries to help Holder recover his memory. While he is in a drugged sleep, she ‘sees’ into his mind and discovers small fragments of past events, all involving a beautiful golden-haired woman. When he wakes, Holder still does not remember the scenes Graice visualized but she gains clues about his identity. The women now know who he is (or was) but do not tell him. He must remember on his own for the recovery to succeed.
In the backwaters of the land meanwhile, a boy age thirteen travels with his mother’s older sister (his sole remaining relative) hiding from enemy spies. Moving constantly helps them stay unrecognized as do false names and disguises. The aunt even wears men’s clothes and pretends to be his father. When he complains that he knows nothing about his parents, she reveals his family name and bits of its history. Their surname is an old and great one and his predecessors helped keep peace throughout the land for ages. Later, she gives him an amulet and implies he will wear it someday. It’s an Emblem of High Duty, she says. His grandfather and mother had held two of the three High Duties before they died. Then enemy soldiers close in and the boy and woman flee for their lives.
A girl named Caelia, also thirteen, hides from the same enemy; she lives with her parents and many other refugees in a cavern where her father searches for secrets of the Anziên people, a civilization which collapsed 3,500 years earlier. Named after a legendary heroine from antiquity, she is unusually bright and mature for her age and her shining red-gold hair sets her apart. Girls with that hair color are born once in a millennium, people say, and everyone in the community loves Caelia. When she wants to leave the cave on an adventure, everybody objects but no one can say no to her. She gets her way and departs with a trading expedition.