Earthling Sutty has been living a solitary, well-protected life in Dovza City on the planet Aka as an official Observer for the interstellar Ekumen. Insisting on all citizens being pure "producer-consumers," the tightly controlled capitalist government of Aka--the Corporation--is systematically destroying all vestiges of the ancient ways: "The Time of Cleansing" is the chilling term used to describe this era. Books are burned, the old language and calligraphy are outlawed, and those caught trying to keep any part of the past alive are punished and then reeducated. Frustrated in her attempts to study the linguistics and literature of Aka's cultural past, Sutty is sent upriver to the backwoods town of Okzat-Ozkat. Here she is slowly charmed by the old-world mountain people, whose still waters, she gradually realizes, run very deep. But whether their ways constitute a religion, ancient traditions, philosophy, or passive, political resistance, Sutty is not sure. Delving ever deeper into her hosts' culture, Sutty finds herself on a parallel spiritual quest, as well.