Nevare Burvelle, second son of a new-made lord, is getting ready to enter the Cavalla Academy, serve on the frontier and then on to an advantageous marriage. At the Academy he will encounter prejudice from the old aristocracy as well as injustice, discrimination and foul play in a hostile and competitive environment. His world view will be challenged by his unconventional girl-cousin Epiny and by bizarre dreams which come to him at night. He will learn about the Speck people – dapple-skinned forest dwellers, who worship trees and retain the last traces of magic in the progressive and technologised world. Sexual congress with Specks is regarded as filthy – they harbour disease. And then, on Dark Night, the carnival comes to Old Thares, bringing with it the first Specks Nevare has ever seen.