After her mother and only protector dies, young Kira must fend for herself among the villagers with whom she lives. Kira has reached puberty, but as she has a twisted leg that causes her to limp, she is of little value to the villagers. Her special need will keep her from becoming a mate, and it limits her ability to work.
Kira is gifted at embroidery, but there is little need for beautiful clothes when no one can afford to buy them. Kira hopes she can convince the villagers to allow her to continue to clean the weaving hut and possibly learn to use the looms when one becomes available. Until then, she will try to build a hut to live in, as hers was burned to keep the illness that killed her mother from spreading to the other villagers.
Matt, a young boy around 8 years old, is one of Kira's few friends. He lives in the poorest section of the village, the Fen. When Kira returns from holding vigil at her mother's grave, Matt informs her that Vandara, a woman in the village, plans on casting Kira out. Vandara and others want to use the plot of land where Kira's hut used to stand. They want to build a pen that will hold their children so the kids don't have to be watched while the mothers work.
As Kira approaches the burnt remains of her home, Vandara and the other women confront her. Armed with rocks, they tell Kira to leave the village because she isn't welcome anymore. Kira remembers the rules of their society. Any conflict that may result in death must be brought before the Council of the Guardians. Vandara agrees to bring charges against Kira the following day.
Kira appears at the Council Edifice. It is the only building to have survived the Ruin and is an impressive stone structure. No one is alive now that remembers the time before the Ruin, but the history of her people is kept alive by the yearly Gathering, during which the Singer, whose only job is to sing the ancient stories, performs. After Vandara presents her charges against Kira, the girl is given a defender, a man named Jamison. He strikes down Vandara's claims one-by-one, finally offering Kira the chance to live in the Council Edifice as the Threader. She will live there and work on the Singer's special robe. It is work Kira's mother did, but only in the weeks leading up to the Gathering. Kira's skill as an embroiderer exceeds those of her mother, so Kira will work on the Robe daily. She will repair it, restore it and eventually create a new picture of her people's history on the remaining cloth.
Life in the Council Edifice is far grander than anything Kira has experienced. She has a bed, plenty of food and a private bathroom with running water. In the room across the hall lives a boy named Thomas. He is the Carver. He carves the Singer's wooden staff that also tells the history of their people. Thomas has lived in the Edifice since his parents died when he was very young. Like Kira, he has been gifted since a toddler with his special talent.
Jamison instructs Kira to take the path to Annabella's hut, far into the woods. Annabella was the Threader until her eyes weakened. The old woman is supposed to teach Kira how to dye the threads she'll use for the Robe. A boy named Matt accompanies Kira to Annabella's hut because wild beasts fill the woods. One of these beasts killed Kira's father before she was born. Jamison insists that Kira will be safe as long as she stays on the path.
Kira settles into her new life, enjoying her time with Annabella and her new friendship with Thomas. The Carver also aids Kira by writing down the knowledge Annabella gives her about which plants are used to make what colors. Girls are not permitted to learn to read or write, but Kira soon begins to pick up on what different letters mean.
One day, Kira and Thomas convince Matt not to try and follow the grown men out into the forest on the hunt. They give the young boy the gift of a bar of soap and explain that a gift is something you give to someone you like very much. That night, she and Thomas discuss how they each have a special item from their childhood. Thomas' is the first piece of wood he carved. Kira's is a scrap of cloth with a design she embroidered without understanding how she did it. Both items seem to warn their owner of danger by sending out tiny vibrations that they can sense. Thomas asks if Kira has heard a child crying in the night, but Kira has slept soundly.
Some days later, Kira is surprised when Annabella tells her there are no beasts in the forest, so she doesn't need to be afraid to walk the path alone. Kira is confused as Jamison claimed to have seen Kira's father dragged away by beasts. Annabella also says that there is a plant that can make a beautiful blue thread, but "the others" have it. She won't tell Kira who or where the others are, only that they live a great distance away.
The following day, Kira can't walk to Annabella's as it is raining. She, Thomas and Matt explore the Council Edifice, searching for the source of the crying that Thomas hears in the night. In the hall below their rooms, they hear a girl singing beautifully. When the singing stops, Jamison's voice can be heard harshly reprimanding the girl.
Kira and her friends hurry back to their rooms. Matt informs them that he recognizes the voice as that of Jo, a very young girl whose parents recently died. Later that day, Kira tells Jamison about Annabella's claim that there are no beasts in the forest. Jamison seems angered by the news.
When Kira sets out again for Annabella's hut, Matt stops her. He explains that the old woman has died and has been carried off into the fields. Kira struggles with the news as Annabella seemed healthy just days before. Kira sets out to find Jamison to talk to him about Annabella's death, but instead finds herself in front of Jo's door.
She speaks with the little girl through the door, promising to return in the night to keep her company, but Jo must keep Kira's visit secret from Jamison. Thomas admits that he has a key that will open the girl's door. They talk with Jo and show her a way that she can signal them if she needs help. Back in her room, Kira comes to the realization that even though her door is unlocked, she is a prisoner in the Council Edifice, too.
Kira and Thomas search for Matt when their young friend doesn't visit for several days. His brother tells Kira that Matt has gone to get her a present. He's gone to gather blue for her to use as dye. Kira and Thomas prepare for the upcoming Gathering. The villagers make their way to the Council Edifice for the event. The Singer arrives. Kira and Thomas notice a strange sound as the Singer approaches the stage. During his song, Kira sees Matt sneaking up the aisle toward her. He is carrying something, but she can't make out what it is.
During their lunch break, Kira, Thomas and Jo meet Matt in Thomas' room. Matt gives Kira a square of blue fabric. He tells her another present is on its way for her. Matt says that he traveled for many days to find the blue, and he encountered no beasts on the way. The people that have the blue are not afraid of any beasts. Crippled people and those with special needs are allowed to live and work in the faraway village. When they return for the second half of the Gathering, Kira is appalled to discover the noise she hears when the Singer approaches the stage is from the chains that bind his ankles. The chains keep him from escaping.
After the festival is over, Kira returns to her room to find Matt's second gift. A blind man is in her room. He is one of the others, and it was from his shirt that Matt got his blue fabric. They have brought Kira the plant from which she can make blue dye. When they are alone, the man tells Kira that he is her father. He wasn't killed by beasts but attacked by Jamison, who wanted his position on the Council of Guardians. The attack left him blind.
The others took him back to their village and healed his wounds, but couldn't heal his sight. Kira believes that the Guardians also killed her mother so that Kira would be forced to use her gifts to improve the Robe. Her father wants Kira to return to his village with him, but Kira knows she must help Jo and Thomas first. She chooses to stay behind and try to change her village. As her father must return to the others, Matt will act as a go-between so they can stay in contact.