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 visits to the prostitute. The Magistrate learns that the government plans to launch an offensive against the barbarians in the spring.
In early March, the Magistrate sets out with three men to return the girl to the barbarians. On the journey, they suffer from treacherous terrain and bad weather. They finally encounter a group of barbarian men. The Magistrate asks the girl to return to the town with him, but she refuses and leaves with the barbarians.
Upon his return, the Magistrate is met by an officer named Mandel who accuses him of treason and imprisons him in the building where the other prisoners were tortured. The Magistrate feels that he is becoming like an animal. Escaping, he eventually wanders out to the excavation site in the dunes, but since he will die if he remains outside the walls of the settlement, he finally returns to his cell on his own.
Joll returns with a group of barbarian prisoners who are tethered together with a wire that runs through holes in their hands and cheeks. As the townspeople crowd around the spectacle of torture, the Magistrate comes forward and yells, “No!” Soldiers strike him to the ground, breaking his arm.
The next day, Joll summons the Magistrate and asks him to read the slips of wood. The Magistrate pretends to read the slips, making up a story that indicts the Empire. Then, he says that the slips are a kind of allegory; they can be read in many ways. Joll mockingly calls him the “One Just Man” and turns him over to Mandel, who tortures and humiliates him over a period of weeks. Finally, Mandel forces the Magistrate to wear a woman’s dress and hangs him from a tree, stopping just short of execution. One day, Mandel unexpectedly tells the Magistrate that he is a free man.
Rumors circulate about the second expeditionary force, which has failed to return. Many townspeople are leaving. Resentful soldiers are breaking into the empty houses and looting them. In time, two soldiers from the expedition are...
(The entire section is 1,249 words.)