Lyric Pentar's life as a scion of the ruling Pentar nobility, has so far been carefree and idle. Because of his father’s common blood, he’s so far down the line of succession he feels certain he’ll never rise out of tiny home of Alaveth. That is fine with him, he loves its hills and valleys.
Lyric has little in common with his father, a rough man who bought his way into the nobility through the dowry paid for his wife and has had little use for his son since her passing. When a large contingent of royal troops arrive unexpectedly and Lyric is summoned to greet them, he soon suspects that his father has reached some type of deal to send him to away that will change his comfortable life for the worse.
From his Uncle Thom’s stern old steward, Palin, Lyric learns that his uncle and cousin have both recently died of illness, leaving open the title of Marquess of Malaray. Against all odds, it appears that the council of elders have appointed Lyric as heir.
Upon arriving in his new city, Lyric discovers that it is no longer the booming industrial center he had heard tell of but a dying place; run down, polluted, and slowly wasting away from sickness. He quickly realizes why others who ranked above him did not choose to accept the honor of being named Marquess.
A spreading the plague is the main threat to the city. However, Thom’s head doctor, Maulkin, seems quite capable and is working hard to discover a cure. It appears that instead of focusing on this problem, the late Marquess had become obsessed with strange studies in his final days that Palin and the others disapproved of—they mutter his work involved some type of dark magic.
Lyric’s decides to uncover the reason for Thom's studies and his inspection of his uncle’s library introduces him to Nola, a librarian with whom he quickly falls in love. This is soon noticed by Palin and the old man warns him against the impropriety of being seen to have a relationship with a Felle servant, for Nola is one of the small, swarthy-skinned servants that populate Malaray.
Lyric is not inclined toward such prejudices and he is surprised by the strength of Palin’s objections, as well as some of his outlandish claims about her race.
He and Nola work through his uncle’s notes growing closer and slowly uncovering the surprising cause for the city's ills and the true history of her people.
Without really thinking, she reached her arm out to touch the flames. The blaze soon turned hot against her palm and she winced. Suddenly, she felt a hand on her shoulder, pulling her back.
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