The main protagonist of the novel is a nameless civil servant, who serves as magistrate to a frontier settlement owned by a nameless empire. The Empire, a vague colonialist regime, sets itself in opposition to the “barbarians,” mysterious nomadic peoples who live in the wild lands bordering the Empire. The magistrate is looking forward to a quiet retirement, and hopes to live out his last years of service without anything too eventful happening—he spends his free time looking for ruins in the desert and trying to interpret pieces of pottery he finds. His life falls into disarray, however, when a Colonel Joll arrives at his fort.
There’s been fear recently brewing in the Empire’s capital that the “barbarians” are plotting a full-scale offensive, and Joll has been sent to investigate whether this is true. But his methods of investigation are brutal, and they deeply disturb the magistrate. Joll employs vicious torture tactics, which seem to force his victims into fabricating information that confirms his hypothesis, just in order to cease the pain. One such victim, a young barbarian girl, whose father died at the hands of Joll and his interrogation assistants, ends up playing a central role in the magistrate’s life. After her release, he sees her begging on the streets of the fort; her ability to walk and to see have been greatly hindered by Joll’s torture techniques.
The magistrate takes the girl in, hiring her as a cook and maid, but their relationship quickly moves from professional to sexual—from being motivated by the good will of the magistrate to more questionable intentions. Over time, the magistrate grows frustrated with the barbarian girl, finding her personality enigmatic and impenetrable. He begins to have anxiety over the meaning of his own sexuality. Eventually, he decides to take the girl back to her people. The magistrate then assembles a team of two other soldiers, several horses, and a stock of supplies, and heads out on a grueling journey into dangerous wintry storms in the desert. Upon returning, and having successfully returned the young girl to the mysterious “barbarians,” the magistrate’s life becomes especially complicated.
An officer (Mandel) has already replaced the magistrate’s office, and the magistrate is taken into custody, being believed to have consorted with the barbarians. Mandel informs him that the Empire is planning a military campaign against the barbarians. The two soldiers who accompanied the magistrate, having witnessed from afar the magistrate’s interactions with the barbarians in returning the girl, confirm this false accusation. The magistrate is imprisoned at the fort, and charges of treason are drawn up against him.
The magistrate, demanding a trial, is never given one, but he’s nevertheless tortured, beaten, and starved; eventually, Mandel sets him free, no longer viewing the magistrate’s keep as a justifiable expenditure. The magistrate then assumes a life of begging, and gradually regains the trust of the village people. Meanwhile, the soldiers, led by Joll to fight against the barbarians, are dying in the desert, their campaign failing, and those who remain at the frontier settlement begin to abuse their authority, ransacking the fort’s shops and causing mayhem.
Eventually, Mandel and most of the soldiers return to the capital, and many of the fort’s inhabitants follow. The magistrate regains his former position, and stability among the settlement returns. One day, a weary Colonel Joll returns to the settlement in a carriage, accompanied by several soldiers, but the villagers throw bricks at them. The magistrate tries to communicate with Joll, but he won’t open the carriage. He and his company quickly leave.
The novel ends as the magistrate tries to write the history of the settlement, but he finds himself unable to. He’s unable to reconcile the horror of the events which befell the settlement at the beginning of Joll’s investigation with the beauty he attributes to the life of the town as a whole—a life whose scale he conceives as being beyond day-to-day historical events, but rather as bound up in the cyclical time of the constantly changing seasons.