Carnelian is of the Masters, cruel beings who rule their kingdom from an earthly paradise hidden in a crater that is the navel of the world. Soon after he is born, Carnelian's father takes him across the sea to an island in the colourless north. Far from the Crater's rituals and pomp, their household is allowed to become a family to the boy and the world of the Masters fades to alluring fairy tale.
In deepest winter, years later, a ship comes riding before the gales, three Masters her only cargo. As these giants remove their masks of gold, Carnelian is awed by the light that seems to radiate from their skin. In formal conclave they ask Carnelian's father to end his exile and return with them to oversee the election of a new God Emporer. His father's agreement feeds Carnelian's longing for the world beyond the sea, but as the days pass Carnelian watches with growing horror as the ship's needs devour his home. The Masters are indifferent, imperious, concerned only with their blood politics, their majesty. As his father becomes strangely powerless, Carnelian strives to save his people, but when the ship turns her pro towards the stormy sea he knows that he is abandoning them to famine among the ruins of his former home.
This is the beginning of Carnelian's journey. The terror of the tempest yields to the weary grind along the road, the climb up the forbidding cliff wall to the Guarded Land and then the frantic rush into the deep south. Carnelian's education, which began with the starving of his people, proceeds with bitter lessons in bloodshed, intrigue and betrayal. When they finally reach the Canyon of the Three Gates, which leads into the Crater, Carnelian finds both love and treachery, but it is here within the Heaven Wall that he will set in motion the concluding events in a story already ten thousand years old.