Syenite wakes up to a cold wind, the taste of dirt in her mouth, and the feeling that her whole body is bruised. She opens her eyes and looks around, trying to figure out where she is—somewhere next to the ocean, and near to Allia but much colder and rockier. She tries to sess the tectonic plate beneath her but finds that she can hardly feel anything. Then she notices Alabaster curled up nearby, alive, and a white-robed woman standing beyond him, looking away.
Syen is entirely confused about what is going on, and she cannot even rely on her orogeny to situate her in the aftermath of the Guardian’s attack.
Syenite speaks to the woman, who doesn’t turn to face her. The woman says that they are on an island a hundred miles off the eastern coast of the Stillness. Syen is terrified to hear this, as she has been taught that islands are deadly places, constantly in danger of tsunamis. She stumbles to her feet and walks closer to the woman to see that they are atop a cliff over the ocean, with no other land in sight. The woman says that she brought them here, and Syen turns to her angrily only to fall silent in shock. The person next to her is more like a block of stone carved to look like a woman, entirely pale with black and red hair and eyes—a stone eater.
The stone eaters now start to take a more prominent role in Syen’s story as well. Syen immediately turns to the knowledge of stonelore that she has been taught her entire life, which says that islands are deadly places and no one sane would ever live there. The “Interlude 1” chapter also noted that most people on the Stillness never even consider that there might be islands other than the single continent itself.
Behind them, Alabaster groans, and Syenite asks the stone eater why she brought them to this island. She responds that she did it to keep Alabaster safe. Alabaster now slowly wakes up, cursing in another language, and when he sees the stone eater, he immediately seems to recognize her. He asks her what she’s done now, and she says that she saved his life. The stone eater then points westward, out to sea. There is nothing on the horizon but a single point of reddish glow and smoke. This is Allia, the woman says.
Whatever Syenite did when she reached into the obelisk’s power seems to have caused a major catastrophe in Allia, likely killing everyone in the city. Syenite is dealing with power that she doesn’t understand, and when she cannot control it, it can be catastrophic in its destruction.
As Syenite and Alabaster recover their strength and examine the island further, they find that there is a village carved into the face of a cliff lining the island’s harbor. They discover a set of stone steps leading toward it and begin to walk in that direction. As they walk, Alabaster tells Syen that the stone eater doesn’t have a name, but he calls her Antimony, which she has agreed to answer to. She has now disappeared, but Alabaster says that he knows she is nearby. Syenite asks why she brought them here, and Alabaster admits that no one knows a stone eaters’ motives, though Antimony has been visiting him for the last five years. She tells him only that she is “here for him.”
If Hoa is indeed a stone eater and has attached himself to Essun, it seems that Antimony has similarly taken an interest in Alabaster, though she has not made herself seem human for his sake. The existence of the carved village seems to indicate that the general belief that no one lives on islands is just one more incorrect thing about what is accepted as fact among the people of the Stillness.
Alabaster says that the stone eaters can move through rock as if it were air—Antimony is back in the earth right now—and that this is also how she must have brought him and Syenite to the island and away from Allia. Syenite doesn’t like thinking about this. She finds the existence of stone eaters unnerving, something that defies reason like orogeny or the obelisks. She then tells Alabaster about the stone eater in the obelisk and says that she saw it move and speak. Alabaster pauses, and then says that what Syenite did with the obelisk should have killed her, and it would have if the obelisk hadn’t itself been broken.
Antimony carried Alabaster and Syenite through the earth beneath the ocean in order to save them from the disaster at Allia and bring them to the island. Jemisin deepens some of the novel’s mysteries here, adding further complexity to the world she has created with hints about the stone eaters and the obelisks. She also reminds the reader that orogeny itself isn’t understood either, even by the people who have seemingly mastered its power.
Still frustrated and confused about everything, Syenite asks Alabaster to explain what happened with the Guardian back at Allia. Alabaster admits that he doesn’t have all the answers, but he can tell her his best guesses. He thinks that a mysterious “someone”—likely a faction within the Guardians—knew about the obelisk in Allia’s harbor, and suspected that a ten-ringer like Alabaster would be able to find it. Syenite is surprised to hear that there might be divisions among the Guardians, but Alabaster reminds her that this is the case in any group. He continues, saying that this is probably why they tried to have Alabaster killed, and then tried to kill Syen when they learned that she was the one who moved the obelisk.
Alabaster continues to expand Syenite’s limited worldview, as she has never even considered that there might be hierarchies and divisions among the Guardians (or the stone eaters). Clearly, the power of the obelisks and their connection to orogeny is something that the Guardians badly want to keep secret, as they are willing to kill anyone that might even get close to the truth. This also means that Syen’s ability to connect with the obelisk is something that threatens whoever is in power.
Thinking again about how Alabaster used the obelisk to remove the poison from his body at the inn, Syenite asks him if anyone knows what he’s really capable of. He says that even he doesn’t know, and that at some point, he had to move beyond the Fulcrum’s teachings and into uncharted waters. If anyone else knew what he could do, Alabaster says, the Guardians would have killed him long before. Syenite questions him further, and Alabaster admits that he even doesn’t know whom the Guardians answer to—some think it’s the Emperor, or the Yumenes Leadership families, or the Fulcrum.
This question of whom the Guardians answer to—essentially, the villainous force behind the current social order in the Stillness—is left unrevealed in this first book of the Broken Earth trilogy. Even Alabaster doesn’t know exactly who the enemy is, but he does know that the system itself is cruel and oppressive. He also knows that the Guardians are willing to kill anyone that might threaten that system in even the slightest way.
Alabaster goes on, explaining that Guardians are all children of roggas but not roggas themselves, and there is an operation performed on them where something is implanted into their sessapinae. This gives them the ability to negate others’ orogeny, among other things. Hearing this, Syenite’s hand hurts in memory of an old injury. She asks about the knife that Edki used to stab Alabaster, and Alabaster says that it was another Guardian specialty, designed to negate an orogene’s power. He then assures Syen that both of their orogeny will come back in a few days.
Syenite’s memory of an old hand wound connected to the Guardians is a hint that she might actually be an older Damaya, whose hand was broken by Schaffa. The Guardians have been perfectly designed to be able to control orogenes, but how or why is not explained, as more of the Guardians’ secrets are revealed in the trilogy’s second book.
Syenite asks why Alabaster warned her not to let the Guardian’s skin touch her, and he falls silent for a while. Finally, he goes on: at the Fulcrum, he was trained by another ten-ringer named Hessionite. He implies that they were in love and says that one day, they were looking for privacy when suddenly they were confronted by a shirtless Guardian. The Guardian grabbed Hessionite, grinned in delight, and then murdered him in a horrible way—somehow a Guardian’s skin turns an orogene’s power inward, Alabaster says, forcing all that incredible strength back on the orogene’s own body. His story trails off here, and Syenite doesn’t ask him to continue.
This is another incredibly traumatic experience that Alabaster has lived through and that has shaped the person he is today—someone bitter against the world and its cruel treatment of orogenes. Orogeny is not understood even by orogenes themselves, and the Guardians can apparently affect it in even stranger and more horrible ways.
After a moment, Alabaster suggests that they continue on to the village and Syenite reluctantly agrees, despite their currently negated orogeny. As they approach, Syenite thinks about how the village might survive tsunamis, and she notices several boats docked in the harbor below, though their design is entirely foreign to her. People are working on the docks, and others have already seen Alabaster and Syen—a large group has gathered to meet them at the first of the village’s cavern entrances.
As is usual for someone from the Stillness, Syen’s first thought on coming to a new place is how it would fare in the case of a natural disaster. The island town seems especially vulnerable, and its very existence goes against the stonelore’s traditional wisdom.
Syenite greets the villagers, but none of them respond. Examining them, she thinks that they are “Eastcoasters,” tall and dark like Alabaster. A man who seems to be the leader approaches and speaks in an unfamiliar language—the same one that Syen has heard Alabaster use on occasion. Alabaster responds to the man, and everyone seems to laugh and relax. They continue to speak, with Syenite standing by in frustrated silence as Alabaster translates when he can. The comm is called Meov, he says, and the headman he’s talking to is named Harlas. They make their living by piracy.
Alabaster has not been to Meov before, but he does know their language and seems immediately more familiar with the townspeople than Syenite is. He’s also more willing to question accepted knowledge and consider viewpoints other than those he has been taught.
Later the people of Meov have invited Alabaster and Syenite into their comm, and Alabaster continues to explain to Syen everything they’ve told him. Piracy is the only way they can survive, as nothing grows there. The entire village exists within the cliff, some of it carved by ancient and unknown methods. Alabaster and Syen have been put up in a “guesthouse” cavern, where Syen now watches Alabaster tend to his wounded shoulder and continue to talk. The Meovites have nothing to trade with the mainland, he says, so they attack vessels on trading routes or extort coastal comms for protection from pirate attacks, even though they are the pirates all along.
In the Stillness, everyone survives as best they can, and the people of Meov have found that piracy is their only real option. The fact that the village is seemingly ancient suggests that people have lived on the island for a very long time, however, so it might not be the death trap that traditional wisdom makes it out to be (which once again raises the question of the accuracy of traditional wisdom in the Stillness, or the way that traditional wisdom is used to control the people).
Syenite asks why anyone would live on an island, and how they’ll survive if there’s a Fifth Season. Alabaster says he doesn’t know, but the Meovites are aware of all the dangers and choose to stay here where they are free of Sanze. They claim that Meov and some other island comms have been around for thousands of years, since even before the Sanzed Empire began. Sanze doesn’t know or doesn’t care about their existence, and they were never annexed into its empire. Syenite can’t believe this, and she still thinks that anyone would be crazy to live here.
Meov’s existence goes against the accepted wisdom of stonelore and Sanze’s history of itself, so Syenite—who continues to cling to the knowledge that she has been taught—is naturally skeptical of it. It seems like things have always been the way they are, but Alabaster tries to show her that the world is larger and older than Sanzed society—and that some people are willing to risk their lives just to be free of that society.
Alabaster says that part of how the Meovites have survived is because life in the ocean doesn’t die out during a Season the way that land or rivers does. But the main reason, he says with a grin, is that the Meovites don’t kill their roggas—instead, they make them their leaders. The chapter ends with a quotation from stonelore saying that “the stone eater is folly made flesh,” and to “learn the lesson of its creation.”
This is a further blow to Syen’s worldview—killing and oppressing orogenes isn’t the only way that a society can function, and the proof of that is Meov itself. Orogenes are not just treated as human beings here, but as especially valuable ones.