The main character in this novel is a landscape painter of the Song Dynasty who is on a journey to deliver a message to the Chinese Emperor. His teacher has instructed him to paint four landscapes, one for each season, during the year it will take him to travel across China to the Emperor’s Court where he is to present the paintings to the Emperor as a gift.

"He then bowed to the blank page as he held the brush over it. He paused, drinking in the radiance and freshness of the blank sheet. It would never be so perfect again. It saddened him that he felt this need to sully its purity. He waited, the brush hovering over the page, waited until the empty space within him gave birth to mountains."