Source Shintaro Karish and Dunleavy or Lee Mallorough have finally returned from the Southern continent. But thanks to the decree of the Empress, they can't tell anyone what they were doing for all those months away, not even their fellow Shields and Sources. They return to High Scape with a new outlook on life, and a new secret to keep- during their time in the South, they have become lovers. While not strictly forbidden, it is strongly frowned upon by both of their teachers and the Triple S because of the complications it can cause in their work.
The city of High Scape has also been changing while they were away, and the once hot city, volatile with Catastrophes that had to be mitigated and eliminated by the Sources, has been cooling, with very few Catastrophes at all. Because of this, less Pairs are needed to combat the problems in the city, and so they have been being reassigned by the Triple S. For now, though, Taro and Lee's assignment remains High Scape, and the watches that they pull have lengthened from seven hours to eleven, which they must spend in a tiny room with nothing to do.
On their first night back, they go out to eat and on their walk in the city afterwards, they discover some people messing with the copper urns in an ash grove. Ash groves are like cemeteries, where people's ashes are interred in copper urns. It is extremely horrible to try to mess with someone's ashes, but that doesn't stop the people, and even though Taro chases them, he loses them in the darkness. They report what they saw to the Runners, who tell them that more and more people are stealing the ashes of those who led what they consider "lucky" lives, and that the ashes are used in new magic rituals that have become very popular in town since last year's "Harsh Summer", when the crops failed due to the extreme weather.
Taro is so delighted by their return to the normal North, where Sources and Shields need not pay for anything that he decides to go shopping, and he drags Lee with him to do so. In particular, he is interested in jewelry, and he decides to buy them matching jewelry of a type known as "Harmony Bobs". These are wishes for a particular desire, from luck and fertility to knowledge, children and so on. But none of the designs or desires strike him until he discovers one at a stall that stands for "eternity", featuring a design like an elongated figure eight. He wants those, and the merchant makes he and Lee go through a ceremony before he will let them put them on each other. By the time this ceremony has ended Lee feels like a fool and goes back to the Triple S house while Taro does some more shopping for clothes.
Shortly thereafter, Lee once again meets Dorian, the nobleman who she and Taro met and rescued in the last book. Before Lee began her romance with Taro, she was interested in Dorian, and even now that she and Taro are together, she still believes that it's just a matter of time until Taro leaves her, so she tries to remain friends with Dorian. Taro, however, seems angry that Lee is trying to maintain her acquaintance with him, and it causes an argument between them.
Meanwhile, a plague seems to be sweeping the city, centered mostly around the area where the Rivers meet, and while very few people have died, no one is treating it lightly. But no one can figure out how the disease is being transmitted, or even if the sufferers are contagious. When someone else approaches him for healing, Taro agrees to try, as long as he keeps it secret, and tells the man that he can do nothing for him- it's not something that he can treat or heal, but he can also tell it isn't contagious, and neither is it a disease, really, although what it is, he isn't sure.
And a new mayor is being elected, thanks to the removal of the last one for corruption. Lee decides to attend the festivities alone, but the martial music being played by the bands affects her so badly that she can only just keep her composure, and she has to hold on tightly to a piece of wood to do so. A local merchant, and sometime rival of her family helps her out, and reveals that he is behind getting the new mayor elected. She watches the new mayor make a speech, and then cannot stay any longer- she is still not feeling well from the music. But the next morning, she learns that the new mayor was assassinated during the night.
Risa has been trying to find out what went on between Taro and Lee when they were away, and tells Lee that she will get her drunk if it helps her find out the true story about what went on. But the Empress has died, and since her son, Gifford, was still heir at the time of her death, it seems he will be the new Emperor. He summons Taro and Lee to him to grill them about what went on at the party where they ended up saving his life from the Reanists, and about the rumors of Taro's ability to heal, as well as his ability to create Catastrophes that he learned from Creol, but Lee and Taro basically say that there is nothing to the rumors, even though both of them are being less than truthful. They return to High Scape, but Gifford is still suspicious of them and what they can do, and they know it.
As Lee tries to remain friends with Dorian, she agrees to a picnic in the park with him, but is distracted when a house goes up in flames in a puff of purple smoke. She burns her hand on the door handle, but rushes in to try and save the occupants of the house, a woman and her two daughters. She realizes that the house has a magic circle drawn on the floor and that the woman was trying to do magic- and she isn't trying to flee at all. Lee rubs out part of the circle to get past it, and when she does, the fire snuffs out instantly. After that, the woman screams at Lee and the others trying to rescue her to get out of her home. Lee has to go to the hospital to get her burn treated. and when she gets home, she finds that Dorian had come to the Triple S house to find her, and that he and Taro have been talking, and not in a very friendly fashion. Dorian makes his interest in Lee plain, and Taro is offended that she didn't tell him about the picnic- he accuses her of going behind his back, while Dorian points out how a liason with Taro can never last, and that he is the better man for her. Lee manages to break it up, but the argument between Lee and Taro afterwards draws another pair to them, and they point out how such a relationship between Source and Shield breaks the rules, then one of them announces that she is offended by their relationship and stalks off.
Lee is upset- after all, this woman is always flirting with Taro and talking about her many lovers- but her pair partner basically tells them it is talk only- none of it was real or serious, and that while she doesn't consider their relationship an abomination, she also doesn't approve. Things don't get much better for them after that, but Ben, one of the workers at the house, offers to renew the poultice on her burn so that it can heal. Lee thanks him, but reveals some bad news she heard from Risa- his daughter has been arrested for the crime of killing the mayor. Ben is upset, but tries not to show it.
Some days later, Lee finds herself in pain from a bad headache, one that doesn't go away for several days. When she collapses after going to look for him, she ends up in the hospital from an overdose of Nyacin powder, which Ben has been mixing into her poultice. It turns out that some people are very sensitive to it-and Lee is one of those unfortunate people. It's not bad for everyone, and thus he probably didn't know she shouldn't have the Nyacin, but she tells him and has to follow a prescription of drinking a special tea and taking baths to sweat the toxins from her body.
Then more people show up seeking Taro's healing. Despite being unable to do anything for the first man, he actually got better, and credited Taro with making him better, so more people have shown up demanding healing. Again, Taro tells them he can't do anything, but agrees to try and help. But this also makes him seek out what might be making people sick. He asks around the neighborhood of Riverfront, but no one will admit to seeing anything out of the ordinary- until a young boy says there was a woman who comes to the neighborhood wearing a black cloak and that she dumped something into the rivers. But what? Could it be causing the supposed sickness, and why would anyone want to do that?
Meanwhile, Lee's Merchant protector invites her and Taro to a dinner party in his home, and this leads to additional invitations from other diners they meet at the party. But it seems strange- none of them seem to have anything in common except friendship, so why are they so interested in cultivating Lee and Taro? What could they want from them, and is this latest problem with stealing the ashes of "lucky" people, not to mention killing people perceived to be lucky and burning them to get their ashes, a threat to Taro also? And what is going to happen, or not happen, between Taro, Dorian and Lee? Is there any way for Lee to get Dorian to settle for friendship, or is the fighting between the two men souring all their relationships? And when Danger looms for the Pair once again, can Taro and Lee navigate their way out of danger, or will it just be too much for them this time?
Well, this book was an interesting change of pace. Just as Heroes Adrift changed things up by having Lee and Taro removed from their familiar home in the North, their return is just as fraught with change for the two of them. The city of High Scape is changing, becoming less active in Catastrophes, and so some of the pairs there are being reassigned. Plus, now they are lovers, and Lee feels that since she is so boring, any relationship with Taro won't last as long as there are prettier women around to attract him. Taro, though, is very annoyed at her attempts to keep her options open- he seems to view it as a personal attack on him, and given how thin his mask of self-assurance goes, (as revealed in Heroes Adrift) we can see why he feels that way.
And in this book, they must also deal with the censure of their fellows, who don't like the new relationship between the two -it's considered to be dangerous for a Source and Shield to become as personally and romantically involved as they are. Though the book sets up the expectation that once again, Taro is in danger because of who he is, I did like the way this one played out in execution- because Lee is used to trying to protect Taro, she is blindsided by the real danger, and her own illness puts her in danger as well. Once again, the real villain of the piece is in plain sight but concealed until the end of the book, and the illness that afflicts Lee made me think that there was something else wrong with her- constantly feeling nauseous and actually throwing up? For a woman, that's a rather suggestive thing...
Anyhow, I found the ending interesting, as it seemed to have removed one problem for Lee and Taro and replaced it with another, although who knows if the danger from that one source has really gone away? I mean, they were very flat out about what they wanted and what would happen to Lee and Taro's families if they didn't get what they wanted. I wonder if a simple change like what happened would protect them, or just remove the threats for a while. Regardless, this was a good, solid book, and while it's less comic in tone than some of the earlier books, it remained a fast, wonderful read that satisfied my desire for more Lee and Taro.
I loved this book. Even though the tone was more serious than the earlier books in the series (despite the all-business tone of Lee, the book's narrator, the comic possibility of the characters shines through more in the earlier books), it was more than enough to satisfy. The story is just as twisty and Moira Moore hides her villains and their motives well. Highly recommended, as both a book and a series.