Essun, Hoa, and Tonkee have finally reached the place where Hoa could sense all the orogenes gathering, but at first glance it seems like an entirely abandoned comm. The road fades away as it approaches the town, which is unwalled and its buildings are constructed in wildly different ways. The three of them walk through the empty place, Tonkee now holding two knives that she produced from somewhere. Hoa assures Essun that this is the right place. A comment from Tonkee makes Essun realize that they’ve been traveling for two months.
After two months on the road during a Fifth Season, the group has learned to be wary of anything and everything that they come across. If Hoa’s instincts were wrong in leading them, then Essun may have traveled all this way for nothing—a devastating prospect.
Suddenly, a door of one of the buildings opens and three women come out onto the porch. One is holding a crossbow, though not pointed at them—she is white, blond, and small, and Essun internally judges her according to what the “average Equatorial” would condemn about her breeding. The woman next to her looks Sanzed and is very intimidating: she’s wearing dark eyeliner and a thick fur vest, and her eyes seem especially fierce and piercing. Essun can also sense immediately that she is an orogene, and that she recognizes Essun’s orogeny as well.
Again, Essun’s perspective shows the reader how people in the Stillness are immediately judged by their racial characteristics and appearance. She cannot help internalizing the prejudices she has been surrounded by her entire life, even when they lead her to dehumanize herself.
The intimidating woman introduces herself as Ykka Rogga Castrima, and Essun and Tonkee are both surprised to hear “rogga” used as a use-caste name, considering its negative implications. Tonkee, clearly fascinated by Ykka, also comments that Castrima is not a recognized comm name. Ykka then looks at Hoa, and Essun realizes that he is glaring with hatred at the third woman on the porch. Essun finally examines her: she has red hair and is clearly a stone eater. This woman seems to smile, and Hoa hisses and smiles in return.
Ykka taking “rogga” as a use-caste name suggests that she is trying to reclaim the slur and show that her orogeny is something to be proud of, not a source of shame. Every comm and use-caste is supposed to be officially recognized, so the fact that both “rogga” and “Castrima” are unfamiliar to Tonkee suggests that they are now dealing with a group living outside the usual hierarchies of the Stillness.
Essun now realizes that Hoa has never showed his teeth before, and though they are the color of human teeth they are faceted like crystals. The woman’s teeth look similar but are transparent. Ykka suddenly steps forward and addresses the stone eater woman, telling her to stop. Essun then realizes that the woman and Hoa weren’t smiling at all but baring their teeth in a kind of threat display. Both of them close their mouths at Ykka’s words, and then Ykka invites them all inside. Both Tonkee and the blond woman with the crossbow suggest that this might not be a good idea.
Apparently, there are divisions among the stone eaters as well, as Hoa and the mysterious woman immediately react as if they are known enemies to each other. The display of their crystal teeth highlights just how little Essun and the reader actually know about the stone eaters and their true nature. And if they don’t understand anything about the stone eaters, how much can they understand of their entire world
Essun thinks of the real reason she is here and asks Ykka if a man and a nine-year-old girl who resembles Essun have passed through here. Ykka seems surprised at the question and says no, they haven’t, and by her transparent confusion Essun can tell that she isn’t lying. Essun is suddenly struck with emotion and falls to her knees. She really has been expecting to find Nassun all this time, she realizes, but now she curses herself for daring to hope when she’s “just another filthy, soul-rusted rogga” who never should have had children at all. She feels Tonkee pulling at her arms and realizes that she is weeping and screaming. Essun feels that she should be dead instead of her children, and that she should have died before ever having them.
Essun has still been trying to keep herself from fully thinking about and processing the reality of her situation, and so here she is struck by the bad news all at once and overwhelmed by emotion. In her grief, she lashes out at herself, turning to the familiar idea that she is an evil monster because she is an orogene, and that all of this must therefore be her fault. This internalized prejudice causes her great suffering and self-hatred. At the same time, because of her orogenic power, losing control like this could mean danger for those around her.
Suddenly Essun feels a wave of some kind of orogeny sweep past her, and it reminds her of the day she quieted the massive shake from the north to protect Uche’s body. This seems to dispel her rising panic, though, and Essun looks up to see Ykka standing in front of her—she is the one who just did something to stop Essun from destroying them all, using a kind of orogeny that Essun has never felt before. Ykka asks if Essun is okay now and warns her not to lose control again.
This will be further explored later on, but here Ykka shows that she can use her orogeny to do things that Essun has never seen before—like helping to calm her down—even though Ykka is much less powerful and skilled than Essun is in general. Ykka has recognized the danger that Essun poses when she loses emotional control and implies that if she does so again, Ykka will not be so gentle next time.
Ykka now turns to Tonkee and Hoa and again invites them to come into Castrima, but she warns them that this is a comm unlike any other. If this Fifth Season is short, then Sanze will surely destroy them soon enough, but she doesn’t believe that the Season will be short. Ykka looks at Essun, who reluctantly confirms what she’s known all along—that this Season will probably last for thousands of years. Ykka says that there are currently 22 orogenes in Castrima, and more keep coming. Tonkee, who was first horrified to hear Essun’s prediction, immediately becomes fascinated by this and declares herself totally willing to live beside orogenes.
Essun hasn’t admitted what she knows about the length of the Season to anyone else yet, but here she finally says the horrifying truth out loud: this Fifth Season will last for thousands of years, so there is essentially no hope of humanity surviving it. This is the ultimate disaster, and once this fact becomes clearer to everyone else, it will lead to an existential crisis about how to live in a world without hope for the future. Meanwhile, Castrima immediately reveals itself to be unique in that orogenes and “stills” live alongside each other there.
Ykka then turns to Hoa and tells him that there are other stone eaters here as well, and Hoa says that there are more than even Ykka knows. Ykka tells him that he isn’t to fight with the other stone eaters, and that if he disobeys her, she will tell everyone what his kind is “really up to.” Hoa seems to deflate and agrees to Ykka’s rules. Ykka continues, saying that since the Season began, they’ve been taking in people from all over, as long as they’ve been able to prove their worth. Essun decides that she wants to meet these people and hopes that Jija and Nassun really are here but in disguise, or that someone here has at least seen them. She must cling to any hope she can. Ykka tells them to follow her.
Castrima’s population jumbles the usual divisions and hierarchies of the Stillness, as orogenes, stills, and stone eaters all live together in one place (though it’s not yet clear if they do so peacefully or not). At the same time, Ykka has been forced to maintain some of the usual restrictions necessary for survival in a Season, like turning people away (and thus likely condemning them to death) if they don’t have anything valuable to offer the comm. After her breakdown, Essun tries to find another spark of hope to give her a reason to keep going.