A young woman named Syenite sits drinking safe at a meeting with her “assigned senior,” an older woman named Feldspar. Syenite has just been given an assignment—which involves shattering a coral reef—that she considers to be “shit” and beneath her skills. She doesn’t say any of this, and both she and Feldspar speak delicately and politely despite knowing the reality of the situation. Syen (Syenite) thanks Feldspar for assigning her a mentor, and though Feldspar knows that Syen isn’t actually happy about this at all, Feldspar assures her that no one will think less of her—especially because this new “mentor” is a “ten-ringer.” Syen herself wears four rings.
Syenite’s story is also in a different timeline from Essun’s, as she is not experiencing an apocalyptic event. The fact that Syenite has been assigned to shatter a coral reef implies that she is also an orogene, and it seems that the particular group she’s a part of shows their rank by wearing rings, with one ring being the lowest and ten rings being the highest. As Syen and Feldspar speak, they don’t speak of harsh realities—it seems that they’ve been taught to hide everything behind politeness and formality.
According to Feldspar, Syenite will be traveling with the “ten-ringer” to a town called Allia, where the quartent governor has requested that they do something about a blockage of coral in the harbor. Syen can tell that Feldspar has been annoyed by the governor’s insistence, but as a Fulcrum orogene, she has learned to always be polite and never show strong emotion, lest she make the “stills” nervous and afraid. Syenite wants Feldspar’s job for herself eventually, and so she knows that she’ll need to work on her own professionalism.
“Still” is a somewhat derogatory term for a non-orogene, used only by orogenes among themselves. The Fulcrum’s policy about orogenes remaining polite and non-emotional contrasts with the dramatic scene of the previous chapter, when Essun let her emotions run wild and killed many people in the process. Syenite herself seems to have trouble remaining polite and proper, though she knows that she is supposed to if she wants to keep ascending the ranks.
Syenite asks about the ten-ringer, and Feldspar says that he is in his room in another part of the Fulcrum. He was asked to attend this meeting, but he might be tired after traveling alone. Syen is surprised to hear that he was traveling alone at all, and Feldspar explains that five-ringers and above do not need a partner or Guardian to accompany them outside of the Fulcrum—at that point they are considered “stable enough in [their] mastery of orogeny” to be allowed some freedom. Feldspar confirms that it will just be Syen alone with the ten-ringer on their journey to Allia, as they have “found that arrangement to be most effective in circumstances like this.” Syen prepares to go see the man, and as she gets up, Feldspar tells her that she herself has six children. Syen finishes her safe and leaves.
Neither character says it out loud here—they are being polite and subtle, as is the Fulcrum way—but Syenite is actually being assigned to bear a child to the ten-ringer. While this assignment is wreathed in formalities and Fulcrum tradition, at essence it is a policy of breeding human beings like animals, a sinister hint that even the most powerful Fulcrum orogenes are still treated as slaves. Notably, the person assigning Syenite this task is also an orogene who herself has been forced to bear children. In this way, the Fulcrum feeds its own dehumanizing policies from within, with orogenes making other orogenes continue to participate in the systems that oppress them. At the same time, the Fulcrum encourages orogenes to continue to move up the ranks so that they might earn a small amount of freedom like that enjoyed by the ten-ringer, who is at least allowed to travel without a Guardian.
Syenite walks through the grounds of the Fulcrum, which is itself like a city contained within the walls of Yumenes. As she crosses the gardens, Syenite sees other ringed orogenes, as well as young “grits” who haven’t yet passed their first-ring test. She also sees a few Guardians, dressed in burgundy as usual. Syen briefly goes to her own room before heading to “Shaped Prominence,” the building where the ten-ringer is housed. At the top floor, she is pleased to experience something rarely allowed to her: silence and solitude. She realizes that the man has the whole floor to himself, and that this (along with the autonomy that Feldspar mentioned earlier) is the reward for achieving such a high rank. Syenite wants this more than anything.
It is the nature of oppressive systems to keep their participants struggling for something that they can never achieve. Even as Syenite prepares to be bred like an animal, she also longs for the solitude and autonomy that a higher-ranked orogene enjoys. Yet notably, even the ten-ringer is being forced to have children against his will, showing just how shallow his façade of freedom really is. As a city within the walls of Yumenes, the Fulcrum’s structure also shows how orogenes are always kept separate from “stills” and are expected to be wholly self-sufficient even as they are made to use their power to help the world at large.
Syenite realizes that she knows very little about this man except that he has achieved the highest rank possible for a Fulcrum orogene, and that he will have total power over her if he wants to. She sighs and knocks on his door. The man who answers is younger than she expected—in his forties, while Syen is in her twenties—and he looks grumpy and tired, not even wearing his ten rings. He snaps at her and starts cursing in another language, and then he says that he told Feldspar that he wasn’t to be disturbed. He tries to send the shocked Syen away several times, until she finally forces her way in and angrily says that she’s here to “fuck [him].” The man finally quiets and lets Syenite into his room.
Syenite knows that she is totally powerless in this situation, but this is a condition that she has come accept as a reality of life for an orogene, and she must simply make the best of it. She is used to the formalities and euphemisms that are common in the Fulcrum, and so she’s surprised into her own outburst by the man’s irritability. Neither of them is especially good at the tightly-controlled demeanor that their peers encourage, and this makes them immediately feel antagonistic to each other.
The man seems nervous now, and he purposefully sits as far away from Syenite as possible. He says that this isn’t the first time that he’s had to do this, but he didn’t expect it to happen again so soon. He also admits that the first few times, he thought that the women were genuinely interested in him. For her part, Syen now allows herself to accept the reality of her mission: she is supposed to have a child with this man. She starts to undress, and though the man protests that they don’t even know each other, she states straightforwardly that she wants to get things over with. The man tries to back away, and Syen is almost relieved to see that he is the powerless one in this situation, despite his high rank.
As a ten-ringer, the man wields incredible orogenic power—but as a human being, he’s powerless in this situation. He admits that he has been made to sire many other children before, again showing how he, too, is a slave in the Fulcrum’s orogene-breeding system, even if he’s the highest-ranked slave of all. Syenite again shows her tendency to dispense with politeness and get right to the point.
The man now says that as a ten-ringer, he can refuse, but Syenite tells him not to—she knows that for her, this is a best-case scenario, and she would be killing her future career if she angered her higher-ups by failing this assignment. The man still seems tormented and won’t look at her. Syenite is confused—she knows she’s not especially attractive, especially by “Equatorial standards,” but neither is he. The man has exceptionally dark black skin and is very lean, exhibiting none of the “physical superiority” associated with Sanzed ancestry.
The man is given another semblance of freedom with the “privilege” that he can refuse this mission—but he and Syenite both know that, realistically, he cannot do so without consequences. Like seemingly everyone in the Stillness, Syenite judges people based on their racial characteristics, but what is notable here is the reference to the Sanzed race’s supposed “physical superiority.” Sanzed traits have been deemed superior and are thus supposed to be attractive and desirable.
The man stews silently to himself, and when he looks up, Syenite sees hatred in his face—but not directed at her. He says that Syenite must not be from Yumenes and reveals that he himself was “bred to order,” a product of careful orogenic breeding. Syen, on the other hand, is a “feral.” Syen has never heard this term, but she assumes that she should be offended by it, and the man clarifies that it’s what “they” call her.
Syenite had assumed that this man would be like other Fulcrum leaders, carrying out even unsavory tasks without criticizing the system or naming the darker realities behind them. But the ten-ringer clearly is willing to speak the truth, which is that he was bred like an animal and is now expected to continue to father more children with partners specifically chosen for their orogeny.
Ferals are frightening to the rulers of the Fulcrum, because they are proof that orogeny is unpredictable and not subject to all of their rules and science—rather, it can pop up anywhere. Syenite lets herself think about this for a while, first feeling somewhat pleased that she was found worthy of breeding with a ten-ringer even as a “feral,” but then catching herself “trying to find value in degradation.”
The nature of orogeny itself remains mysterious, as here it’s explained that it can be bred for genetically but also can appear at random among the children of stills. Syenite “trying to find value in degradation” is a tragic but typical side-effect of many oppressive systems. The oppressed can operate only within the hierarchy that dehumanizes them, and so they naturally want to better themselves even within that hierarchy.
The man finally sighs and agrees to get the deed over with. They go into his bedroom and have perfunctory sex, neither of them enjoying or wanting it. Afterwards, the man asks for Syenite’s name, but she cuts him off before he can tell her his. They tersely make plans to leave the following day, with Syenite having to remind him of their “bullshit mission” to clear Allia’s harbor of coral.
Syenite doesn’t even want to know the man’s name, as she is determined to keep their sexual relationship entirely impersonal. She also recognizes that the long journey to Allia to clear its harbor is just an excuse to make her travel with the ten-ringer and keep trying to get pregnant.
Syenite leaves, dreading the coming month on the road but also trying to justify it to herself as a necessary sacrifice for civilization. She won’t have to raise the baby once she gives birth, and it will be a necessary step on her way to her fifth ring and being allowed more freedom. Back in her room, she packs up and showers, scrubbing her skin until it burns.
Syenite is still buying into the mindset that the current system is the best possible one, and so she sees her enforced pregnancy as necessary for her own future and the maintenance of civilization itself. Despite her attempt to justify it to herself, however, she cannot help feeling physically violated and unclean because of what she is being forced to do, suggesting that this action she is being forced to take isn’t something “civilized” at all.
The chapter ends with a quotation from a Sanzed emperor thousands of years in the past. Referring to an unnamed group of people, the emperor says to “tell them they can be great someday, like us. Tell them they belong among us, no matter how we treat them. […] Then they’ll break themselves trying for what they’ll never achieve.”
This quotation is a crucial one: the emperor speaking here is presumably referring to orogenes, but it could be applied to almost any oppressed group that is kept separate from those in power yet made to believe that they can “belong” if they just work hard enough or do everything right. This is why orogenes like Syenite are willing to uphold their own oppression, as they are made to hope that if they sacrifice enough, then one day they will actually be free. The quote is about establishing a false meritocracy as a way to coerce those within it to act in the ways that the actually powerful people want.