The narrator, the Magistrate, administrates a town on the frontier of an unnamed empire. He looks forward to a quiet retirement and spends some of his free time excavating the site of an old town buried in the dunes, where he has found a cache of wooden slips covered with mysterious writing. Colonel Joll travels to the Magistrate’s town from the imperial capital to investigate attacks by indigenous people whom the empire calls “barbarians.” Joll interrogates and tortures two prisoners captured on the road, a boy and his grandfather. After killing the grandfather, he continues the torture until the boy confesses that his people, the barbarians, are preparing an attack against the empire. Troubled by these acts of torture and skeptical about the barbarian threat, the Magistrate gives Joll supplies, men, and horses to conduct a raid on the nomadic barbarians.
Joll returns with more prisoners, whom he interrogates over five days. The Magistrate spends his nights with a prostitute, but he is troubled by dreams. Joll eventually returns to the capital, and the Magistrate releases and feeds the brutalized captives.
The Magistrate takes in a young barbarian woman who was maimed and partially blinded by the interrogators, then left behind by the surviving barbarians. He initiates a nightly ritual in which he rubs her body with oil until he falls asleep. The girl works as a kitchen maid in the Magistrate’s house during the day and comes to his rooms every night. The Magistrate is fascinated by the scars left by the torturers.
The Magistrate begins to have a dream that recurs later, in which he approaches a group of children playing in the snow. He associates one of the children with the barbarian girl. In waking life, he finds the barbarian girl impenetrable—a blank surface—and wonders if that is what the torturers felt as well. Through the girl, he begins to discover his complicity with the torturers. Failing to find the desire to have intercourse with the barbarian girl, he resumes his...
(The entire section is 828 words.)