The protagonist and narrator, Mare Barrow, walks through the marketplace of her hometown, the Stilts, picking pockets. It is the first Friday of the month, which means everyone is out of school and work early. It is swelteringly hot, and Mare would rather be in school even though she learns nothing there. Soon, she will no longer be eligible to go to school: at eighteen, everyone who is not apprenticed or employed is drafted into the army.
The fact that Mare is picking pockets suggests that she is among those who are not apprenticed or employed, and who are thus doomed to conscription in her society. This fate awaits her “soon,” meaning that she is near the age of eighteen. Although school is not as fulfilling as Mare would like, she seems to resent that the opportunity to go to school or not will soon be taken away from her by the governmental agency of the army.
Mare’s three older brothers, Shade, Bree, and Tramy, have all been drafted. Upon leaving, each of them left Mare and her younger sister, Gisa, a set of earrings to split to remember them. Mare is saving up to give Gisa a set of earrings next year upon her own conscription. Mare’s family may never be reunited. Her mother always tells her, “Don’t think about it.”
Mare’s age is confirmed to be seventeen by the fact that she will be conscripted next year. Mare and her family have undergone significant trauma every time a child is conscripted. There is tension between Mare’s mother’s approach, which is to live in avoidance of reality, and the children’s approach, which is to give each other tokens of quiet resistance to the idea that they should be okay with their family’s forced separation.
Mare’s “only real friend,” Kilorn Warren, catches up with Mare and shuffles her along to “the show.” Attendance is mandatory for everyone except “essential laborers,” like Gisa, who embroiders silk. Mare and Kilorn enter a massive arena, the largest structure in the Stilts, which is staffed by security guards. The guards are “Silvers,” and Mare reflects that, “We are not their equals, though you wouldn’t know it from looking at us,” except that the Silvers do not stoop under the pressure of hard labor and disappointment.
Mare leads an isolated existence, without many friends. She feels “unessential” both to the government and to her peers. A sense of competition between Mare and Gisa appears here. This section also draws a divide between Silvers and the class to which Mare belongs. Silvers enforce power, whereas Mare’s people labor to produce the riches the Silvers control.
Kilorn, a fisherman’s apprentice whose father died at war (unlike Mare’s father, who came home missing a leg and a lung), wonders what kind of creatures will fight in the arena today. A “strongarm?” A “telky?” These super-powered creatures are all Silvers. While Kilorn enjoys watching them rip each other apart, Mare knows the fights are reminders that her people could never survive conflict with Silvers.
Kilorn has in some ways suffered more than Mare at the hands of the ruling class, but he seems less resentful than Mare of being forced into the arena. Kilorn demonstrates the effectiveness of the Silvers’ means of reminding the lower class that they are inferior: he not only witnesses the fights but also enjoys and even anticipates them eagerly.
The fights, called “Feats,” began as the executions of enemies of the state. Silvers found the Feats entertaining. Eventually, Reds were granted admission, and then arenas were built all over, and Reds’ attendance at the Feats became mandatory. Today’s match is between an incredibly muscular “strongarm” and a weak-looking aristocrat of the type who governs a region, like that of the Stilts, without ever setting foot there.
The Feats serve a sinister double purpose of violence and entertainment. While the original executions seem to have been rebranded as entertainment for Silvers and Reds alike, the fact that Reds must go to them suggests that now it is not captive enemies of the state against which the violence is directed but, rather, captive Reds. The visible mismatching of the opponents shows that administrative aristocratic power can be as dangerous as physical power.
Silver security officers toss bread and electricity rations into the crowd as Mare seethes about how the match is clearly meant to scare the Reds into submission. Kilorn cheers as the match gets underway. Mare knows that he wants to see silver blood. This is what marks Silvers and Reds apart: Silvers have silver blood, while Reds have red blood. “This simple difference,” Mare states, “somehow makes them stronger, smarter, better than us.”
The Silvers act benevolent by handing out bread and electricity rations to the crowd, but Mare’s anger seems in part due to the fact that it is only because of the Silvers’ domineering that the Reds need these things in the first place. Kilorn’s eagerness to see Silver blood upsets Mare because he is buying into the Silvers’ scheme not only to debase Reds but also to make them grateful for that debasement.
It appears that the aristocrat is going to lose soundly to the strongarm. Suddenly, however, it seems that the strongarm begins doing the bidding of the aristocrat. Everyone grows quiet, and Mare speaks what everyone is realizing: the aristocrat is a “whisper,” a person whose power is to control minds. “Whispers,” Mare reflects, “are rare, dangerous, and powerful, even among Silvers, even in the capital.” The whisper makes the strongarm plunge his sword into his own stomach.
The quiet dangers of administrative aristocracy are personified in the apparently weak man who gets his opponent to run himself through with a sword. Everyone is in disbelief because such a power is supposed to be rare, but Mare is willing to accept what she sees before her eyes. Unlike many of her fellow citizens, Mare recognizes the threat of the ruling class.
The crowd, including Silver officers, is shocked because Silvers never die in the arena. “After all,” Mare states, “they aren’t Reds.” The whisper walks out of the arena, unfeeling. Mare contemplates the stories she has learned in school about the kind and loving gods who used to exist. She thinks they still do, only now, “They have come down from the stars. And they are no longer kind.”
The Silvers reveal their own weakness: their sense of infallibility. Still, it would require an organized rebellion on the part of the Reds to take advantage of this weakness, and the Reds seem far from such a rebellion. Mare thus assesses the Silvers as essentially cruel gods who can do whatever they wish to one another and to the Reds.