The ship’s captain, Tuvey, is Sardia’s middleman. The artist, Cornelius, lives on Ath, a world in The Rift, and only Tuvey knows how to find it. He will not reveal the coordinates, which is why they must travel with him. Ath’s residents are divided into two classes: the Choud and the Ohrm. The Ohrm have little responsibility or ambition, and do most of the “real work”, although they have far more freedom and a much higher standard of living than any servant class Dumarest has encountered on any other world (think 21st century American “service economy”).
The Choud are all quintessential “renaissance persons” who are highly accomplished at nearly all arts and sciences and who all mysteriously refuse to ever leave the planet. As a result, they are all terminally bored, and only a few (like Cornelius) actually stick with a vocation (or even a single project) for very long. They have two main means of relieving boredom. One is “the guesting” in which the residents bid for the chance to play host to interesting new people from off-world (Dumarest is hosted by a beautiful and strong-willed woman called Ursula, while Sardia manages to get herself hosted by Cornelius). The other is Tekoa, a locally grown plant which produces an extremely potent, safe and non-addictive euphoric drug. You didn’t think Tuvey was so secretive just because of an artist whose works might or might not ever catch on with the rest of the galaxy, did you?
When Earl mentions Earth, Ursula piques his interest by quoting enough trivia to prove she knows quite a bit about it without giving any real clues to its location. The increased attention he shows Ursula to milk more information from her doesn’t help the initial resentment Sardia and Ursula felt for each other. It boils over as the women try to out-dance each other at a dinner hosted by one of the other bored residents. Sardia naturally wins, but Ursula’s performance is technically outstanding though a bit “mechanical”. Afterwards Sardia continues to try to enter into a business relationship as the exclusive agent for Cornelius’ work, while Earl continues to try to get Ursula to tell him more about Earth. These efforts are interrupted by the untimely eruption of a revolution among the Ohrm. The Choud are in continual denial that the Ohrm would have any reason to revolt, or that they would have any chance of success, until Dumarest takes charge of the counter-insurgency efforts and figures out what’s going on.
It turns out Balain, one of Tuvey’s crewmen, wants the Tekoa monopoly for himself, and has conned the Ohrm into revolting. Dumarest deduces the single factor that makes the Choud seem intelligent to the point of omniscience, makes them feel invulnerable, and ties them so tightly to the planet, as well as why Balain thinks he can get away with it. The Choud’s brains are all connected in a wireless network to a central computer called Hury, which Balain plans to destroy. Balain’s plan succeeds, and in the attempt to stop him Ursula is killed before Duamrest kills Balain. The Choud are devastated because, previously having any skill or knowledge they desired instantly downloaded into their brains, they never bothered to actually learn anything themselves. The gullible Ohrm are equally useless without leaders, realizing too late that they were far better off under the Choud than they would have been under Balain. Dumarest doesn’t really care because he’s too busy kicking himself for not realizing that any one of the Choud could have told him about Earth, not just Ursula, and now the information is gone. Any reader who complains that Earl is too perfect, there’s a nice little screw-up for you.
Without the computer transmitting the technique required to set the images in his head to canvass, Cornelius is painting at a kindergarten level. Sardia decides to stay on Ath and teach him how to paint, because (unlike Ursula’s dancing), his talent was genuine even if he has to relearn the technique of how to do it, and she feels his genius may eventually re-emerge. Tuvey feels a tiny bit guilty that one of his crew has basically destroyed an entire advanced world, and offers to bring some Monks of the Universal Brotherhood to assist with the reconstruction, as well as do what he can to help by providing cheap transportation of supplies and equipment. Of course, he can afford to, since he has maintained his monopoly on Tekoa. At least he offers to take Earl with him when he leaves. All in all, a perfectly cynical, depressing ending befitting a Dumarest book.