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Full plot summary - SPOILERS!

Jhal was born a member of the Metalworker Caste on the remote Taysan colony world Anhual, destined to spend his life making buckles and mending swords and amour for the Swordbearer Caste elite. Until Shiell, a young priestess, is assigned to the local temple, and takes an interest in him – in more ways than one. Although the strict rules and customs of Taysan society forbid such liaisons, Shiell seduces the sixteen year old Jhal – who prefers to call himself Jay – tutors him, and encourages him to have impossible ambitions. When she is arrested for unchastity with another priest, Shiell manages to leave Jay the means to make his escape.

Disguised as a member of the Priest Caste and going by the name of Jhannon, Jay boards a liner for Taysar and never looks back. After some years he grows bored with pretending to be a priest, stages a disappearance, and contrives to establish yet another identity – this time as a swordbearer, Jhaval.

Jay is happy and successful in the Swordbearer Caste, rising rapidly through the ranks to Commander. He seeks an unpopular assignment to the chilly moon of Car’a’vil, a backwater of the Empire where life has barely changed for a thousand years; castes are segregated, a single clan dominates, women are excluded from active service as swordbearers, and the clan chief General Carral rules like a warlord of old. Jay sets about making some changes, including recruiting swordbearer girls into the ranks. He clashes with Commander Saghat, an older swordbearer and another outsider, who was passed over for command of the battalion. He earns the respect of Carral’s young cousin and heir. And he starts a highly illicit and incredibly dangerous affair with Dazil, Carral’s unhappy, younger second wife.

Things start to unravel when Dazil claims to Jay that Carral intends to murder her. She is convinced that Saghat killed Carral’s first wife on his orders, because the marriage was childless and he wanted a son. Dazil has not had children either, and she is terrified that Carral intends to use his henchman to dispose of her and marry a third time. Jay doesn’t really believe her, although he suspects that Saghat is capable of violence and may have been exiled to Car’a’vil in an attempt to make him someone else’s problem. Dazil begs him for help, but he makes preparations to leave the whole situation behind by seeking another assignment. When she finds out, Dazil – who has guessed the secret of his origins – betrays him to the Swordbearer Caste authorities.

Jay is arrested for fraud and deception, and thrown into prison on a nearby colony. There, he is violently assaulted by Saghat, who seems to know the truth about what happened with Dazil. Jay nearly dies, but his life is saved by a mysterious swordbearer from the Capital, whose personal medic tends to him. Once sufficiently recovered, Jay is taken to see the exalted visitor – General Salthar, head of the Tayshak, effectively the Taysan secret service. Salthar is always on the look out for potential recruits, ‘sociopaths’, people with the unusual ability to lie and deceive convincingly, those who could be trained to hold their own against the spiritually less evolved Earthers and Darians. He offers Jay a choice between joining the service, and prison.

Jay expresses concern about Saghat, wanting to protect Dazil. Salthar tells him that Saghat has been dealt with. And he is also told that although General Carral was considered barren for many years, his wife is at last to have a child. Salthar forbids him from having any contact with anyone he has ever known, and suggests that any further incidents of this nature will not be overlooked. Jay accepts the inevitable, and plans to give up women forever.

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