In a world of intrigue and danger and the threat of war, Valerius II of Sarantium and his brilliant Empress find themselves contending with pagan Bassanids to the east, barbarian tribes to the west and north, and the plots of their own bejewelled court. The Emperor, subtle and ambitious, seeks to expand his Empire, recapturing lost homelands to the west. He also intends to build the largest, most sumptuous holy Sanctuary the world has ever known, a monument to his reign and to the glory of the one God - although his soldiers would rather he paid them. Meanwhile, in scarcely subdued provinces of the Empire, policed by these same restive soldiers, savage pagan rites - illegal and heretical - continue to be paracticed in the dark forests.
Onto this stage steps Caius Crispus, known as Crispin, a master masaicist from the west, making the long, perilous journey through windswept wilderness to the vast triple walls of Sarantium, city of cities. It is an open question in his own mind where the greater dangers lie. Among other things, he carries a secret message, and travels under a false name - having undertaken the journey instead of his summoned older partner in response to an imperial search for artisans. Men have died for less than either of these things. And before Crispin can even reach Sarantium he will have to deal with being in the heartland of pagan rituals one bleak morning on the Day of the Dead.