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Twelve-year-old Montego al'Bou is an orphan, a provincial peasant boy left alone by the recent death of his grandmother. Possessing nothing more than his grandmother's cudgel, he strikes out to the capital where the influential Grappo have offered to bring him up in the luxury of an Ossan guild-family. He finds his welcome frosty, his new home full of confusing responsibilities.
He quickly discovers that the greatest sin in the capital is to be born without money, and the classist elite will not hesitate to remind him of his humble origins. Montego dreams of being his own man, of making it in the cudgeling arenas of the Empire's deadly spectator sport where even a provincial can be worshipped like a god. But skill isn't the only barrier for a wannabe cudgelist. Without allies, cunning, and a helping of daring, he can't hope to make it in the capital.