Now on the road toward Allia with her new “mentor,” Syenite finally learns that his name is Alabaster. As they travel, he often falls asleep in his saddle, and he snaps at her when she points this out, reminding her that they still need to have sex every night. Syenite wonders about his constant tiredness until about a week into their journey, when she notices that Alabaster is constantly quieting all of the tiny unnoticeable earthquakes in the area around them. Syenite is confused by this, as the Fulcrum has taught her to redirect the earth’s energy, not halt it altogether, lest the “microshakes” lead to something bigger in the future.
From the start, Alabaster questions the Fulcrum’s teachings and Syenite’s own expectations. His questioning indicates to the reader—if not yet to Syenite—that he understands at least to a degree the nature of the Fulcrum’s role in the larger Sanzed abuse of orogenes. Nonetheless, his understanding doesn’t give him a way out: he, too, has seemingly accepted the reality of their situation—that they will bear a child together according to the Fulcrum’s wishes—though he isn’t happy about it either.
Syenite thinks about this mystery for a few days as they travel along the Yumenes-Allia Highroad, an old Imperial Road that is safe and efficient but that she also finds incredibly boring. Any travelers they meet avoid speaking to them when they notice Syen and Alabaster’s black Fulcrum uniforms, and every night the two have sex for a few minutes and otherwise spend the time in silence. Finally, one night, Syenite asks Alabaster why he is quieting the microshakes, and he is surprised both that she can sense him doing it and that she hasn’t asked before. The two bicker some, and then Alabaster reveals that he’s doing it to give the “node maintainers” a break from their work.
Orogenes rarely leave the Fulcrum, and when they do, they must identify themselves with their black uniforms. Other people purposefully avoid them, then, considering them non-human and something to be hated and feared. This society always makes sure to identify orogenes as an “other.”
Syenite thinks of what she knows about the node maintainers: nodes are outposts placed at certain points across the Stillness that have been deemed important as hot spots or as being near fault lines, and a Fulcrum-trained orogene is assigned to each outpost. Their job there is to keep the surrounding area stable from earthquakes. Syenite doesn’t know of anyone who has been assigned to be a node maintainer, but she imagines that it must be an incredibly boring job. She says this to Alabaster—that maybe he should let the node maintainers do their jobs to keep them from dying of boredom—and then it takes her a moment to see that he is staring at her with hatred.
The nodes are an example of how orogenes use their power to protect the Stillness, keeping everyone safe from earthquakes across the continent—and how despite this, they are still treated as enemies and slaves. Syenite doesn’t know much about the nature of the nodes, however, and Alabaster’s look of hatred suggests that she might have spoken too flippantly.
Alabaster asks Syenite if she has ever been to a node, and she responds that of course she hasn’t. Alabaster says that every “rogga” should visit one. Syenite is surprised to hear him casually use this word, which is usually an insulting slur. Alabaster also says that if Syen can sense him quelling the microshakes, then she can probably do it as well. At first, she questions why she would ever want to do this, but then she agrees to help, at least as something to pass the time. Alabaster then says that there is a node station two days away, and that they will go to visit it next.
Alabaster doesn’t shy away from the harsh truth of this world and society, and in this vein, he uses the word “rogga” instead of the more polite “orogene.” He is not trying to insult himself or Syenite, but he implies that if they are going to be treated like something inferior then they shouldn’t try to gloss over this fact in their language. Clearly, he thinks that seeing a node is something very important, as he is willing to go days out of their way to do so.
Syenite is enraged to hear this—as it’s significantly out of their way—but she also knows that her hatred of Alabaster is irrational, and that she should be trying to get on his good side, as he is by far the highest ranked living orogene. At the same time, all of the tricks of flattery and politeness that she’s learned at the Fulcrum don’t seem to work on Alabaster at all, so she finds herself being honest with him—which means being angry. She snaps at him and then they go to bed. As she reaches for him to have their usual perfunctory sex, he stops her, reminding her that her period is late but also saying that this doesn’t necessarily mean anything yet. Syen is embarrassed to realize that he has been keeping track and waiting for a break from having sex with her.
Everything about Alabaster confuses and irritates Syenite at this point. Nothing that she has learned at the Fulcrum seems to work on him, and he doesn’t act like the highly ranked master that he supposedly is. He even seems to actively dislike having sex with her. This does at least allow Syenite to be more honest in expressing her emotions around him, though these emotions are usually negative ones.
The next morning, the two have sex, and afterwards Alabaster asks Syenite why she seems to hate him so much. Syen knows that if he were a usual Fulcrum elder, she would lie and be polite, but instead she says, “I just do.” Alabaster then suggests that she doesn’t really hate him, but rather the world and the way that it treats orogenes. Syen tries to argue that the way things are is the only possible way, but Alabaster goes on, saying that other empires besides Sanze must have been successful, and there must be other ways of treating orogenes besides their current system of either slavery or murder. As an example, he gestures to a nearby forest, where an ancient ruin rises up beyond the trees.
A major conflict in the book is whether “the way things are” is really the best way for everyone or just for those in power. After years at the Fulcrum, Syenite has come to assume that the Sanzed system is the best one—but Alabaster questions this at every turn and brings up historical facts that Syenite was never taught. Unlike others in the Stillness, he even seems to notice things like the obelisks and ancient ruins that others have learned to ignore. He also makes the point that Syenite isn’t really angry at him, but at the fact that he points out what the real wrongs are—things she has learned to suppress her anger about.
Syenite argues that those other civilizations failed, and so they must have been wrong, but Alabaster counters that “survival doesn’t mean rightness.” He suggests that society could instead let orogenes be in charge of things. Syenite scoffs at this, but Alabaster says that people only hate and fear orogenes because centuries of stonelore have taught them that all orogenes are evil monsters. Syenite says that stonelore can’t change, but Alabaster says that in fact it changes all the time: Tablet Two, for example, has been damaged seemingly on purpose. Furthermore, other tablets have been excavated from a dead city that contained stonelore very different from what society now teaches. Even the rule against changing stonelore might be a recent amendment, Alabaster says.
Alabaster continues to upend Syenite’s ideas of history and what she believes to be literally set in stone. This echoes arguments about scripture in the real world, and ancient discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls that might corroborate or contradict what is accepted as truth in the present day. Alabaster suggests that history is written by those in power, and that it can be changed and manipulated in order to uphold whatever status quo the powerful want to maintain. Even the Sanzed idea that “survival equals rightness” serves to uplift the powerful and condemn the powerless.
Syenite is shaken by this, but she still tries to cling to the idea that “stonelore is as old as intelligence” and that anyone who tries to go against it inevitably fails. She asks Alabaster where he heard about the ancient, excavated tablets, and he says that he has been going on missions outside the Fulcrum for 20 years and has friends all over the continent. Syenite can’t believe that an orogene would have friends beyond the Fulcrum, especially people willing to talk about heretical things like this.
Syenite is also blinded by the idea that orogenes and stills fundamentally cannot mix, though Alabaster has apparently made friends with people not officially sanctioned by the Fulcrum. She tries to compare stonelore to human intelligence itself, but Alabaster’s arguments have at least planted a seed in her mind—that stonelore and knowledge itself are subjective and open to manipulation.
Syenite starts to ask Alabaster another question, but then she notices that he is suddenly distracted. She follows his attention and realizes that there is about to be a massive earthquake beneath the town of Mehi, which is about 200 miles away. Alabaster falls to his knees, and Syen can feel the force of his orogeny speeding off into the distance, toward the hot spot. Suddenly Syenite feels her own orogeny being “grabbed” by Alabaster’s and dragged along toward Mehi. She tries to resist and break free but cannot, and soon they reach the hot spot, which is truly massive. Alabaster begins diverting the force of the magma and earth, using Syenite’s power to help him.
Orogenes are not supposed to be able to work together in unison, so what Alabaster does to Syenite here is inexplicable to her. This is the first time that his true power is revealed, as he immediately shifts from a hypothetical argument about history to performing feats that Syenite considers miraculous, like sending his powerful orogeny off hundreds of miles in the distance and dragging her own along beside him.
Suddenly Alabaster uses his orogeny to make a kind of “punch,” and Syenite can feel all the pressure of the magma bubble release. Alabaster then pulls them out and back to the surface of the earth, and suddenly she feels like “his strength is at her disposal,” and she uses it to complete the work of ensuring that no small earthquakes destroy anything and that a fault line isn’t created at this spot. With Alabaster’s power, she can sess the earth better than ever before, and the work is easy. As soon as Syen is done, she finds herself back in her body, with Alabaster curled up next to her and a circle of frost surrounding them.
Jemisin manages to make orogeny feel visceral and real even though everything happening here would be invisible from above ground, and Alabaster and Syenite aren’t doing anything with their physical bodies to make it happen. Alabaster uses Syenite’s power to quell the hot spot, but then he allows her to use his power to finish the work—he has incredible control over his strength.
Shaking, Syenite crawls over to Alabaster to see that his body is clenched, but he is alive. Syenite tries to understand what just happened—enormous hot spots like that don’t just spontaneously explode. Further, it’s supposed to be impossible for two orogenes to work together, as the weaker one will burn out—but none of that explains what Alabaster just did.
Alabaster has questioned Syenite’s ideas about history and the role of orogenes—but in his actions here, he also upends everything that she has been taught about the limitations of orogeny. This also raises the question of why Fulcrum orogenes are taught to limit themselves so much.
Syenite sits gathering her strength and then gets some food out and waters the horses. She crawls back to the bedroll and falls asleep beside Alabaster for a while. When she wakes, he is awake too, and he says that they have to go the node station immediately. Syenite argues that they’re too tired, low on supplies, and shouldn’t ride in the dark. Alabaster curses to himself and gets up, suddenly urgent about the need to leave right now. He says he’ll go without Syen if he has to and gets angry when she tries to stop him again. Syenite feels like something is wrong with Alabaster, or he’s gone crazy, but she finally manages to convince him to wait until morning.
Alabaster frustrates Syenite by rarely explaining his reasons for acting as he does, and this passage is no exception. She cannot understand why he suddenly needs to get to the node station so urgently when it seems like a suicidal endeavor.
Alabaster stops his preparations and gazes off into the distance for a while, still seeming agitated. Finally, he explains why he feels the need to get to the node immediately—as Syenite already thought, hot spots like that never come out of nowhere, and the center of the big one in Mehi was the node station itself. Syen finally realizes that he means that the node maintainer himself must have set off the hot spot. Using so much power also must have iced the entire town, she realizes, but she also has no idea why the node maintainer would do such a thing.
The mystery of the node maintainers deepens, and it becomes more important than ever that Syenite visit a node for the first time. This is another reminder of the awesome power that orogenes wield, as a single node maintainer almost set off a volcano and likely a new Fifth Season.
Alabaster plans for their trip—they’ll leave before dawn, he says, and push the horses as fast as they can, but he at least agrees to rest for the remainder of the night. Before dawn they saddle up and head toward the node station. On the road, people actually seem relieved to see them, as even “stills” could have sessed the disaster that almost took place and they are grateful to see Fulcrum orogenes now. That night, Syenite and Alabaster stop and sleep for a few hours before setting out again. The next day they finally reach the node station, which consists of a large central pyramid, three smaller ones, and a flimsy metal wall.
Previously, the stills on the road avoided Syen and Alabaster—but when they need their power, the stills look grateful. In this way, the orogenes are treated always as weapons or tools—sometimes useful or lifesaving ones—but never as human beings.
Alabaster immediately notes that no one has come out to meet them, and he can’t hear anyone inside. Syenite asks who usually lives at a node station, and she is surprised to learn that node maintainers don’t have Guardians but do have live-in doctors. She assumes that everyone must be dead from the “torus” of ice but also realizes that the surrounding forest should be iced as well, and it isn’t. Alabaster rides up to the gate and somehow creates a torus with a center outside of himself—something that Syen had no idea was possible—and uses it to freeze and break open the gate. He dismounts and immediately hurries inside.
Syenite assumes that the node maintainer must have created a huge torus to draw in the energy needed to create the hot spot, which itself would have killed everyone in the area. Alabaster’s comments about the node maintainers continue to confuse Syen, as she suspects that all of her assumptions are wrong. Alabaster again exhibits power that Syenite never knew even existed according to her Fulcrum lessons.
Syenite ties up the horses and then follows Alabaster, though he’s out of sight by now. Beyond the gates, everything is silent and seems abandoned—until Syenite sees a horse shed and looks inside to see three dead horses, all of them completely frozen. She heads toward the central pyramid, assuming that Alabaster and the node maintainer will be there. She lights a lamp and goes inside, and soon finds the frozen bodies of several soldiers and workers. At the center of the pyramid is the node chamber, which is large and empty except for what seems to be a chair made of wires and straps, with the node maintainer inside.
The node maintainer did indeed make a torus, but it was much smaller than Syenite expected and only iced the immediate vicinity of the node station rather than the surrounding town. What she finds here is like nothing she anticipated.
Syenite approaches and examines the chair, noticing that Alabaster is there as well. When she realizes what she’s actually seeing, she curses to herself. The body of the node maintainer is small, naked, and attached to a series of pipes and wires. She understands what the node maintainer really is—an orogene kept alive but entirely “immobile, unwilling, indefinite.” A shelf nearby is full of medicine, which Syenite assumes must be necessary to keep the node maintainer alive. She lets herself truly understand that the node maintainer is a child—a child with Alabaster’s features. In an emotionless voice, Alabaster explains that sometimes a “rogga” can’t learn proper control, but “Mother Sanze can always find another use for them.”
This horrifying discovery is a turning point for Syenite, the harshest blow yet to her sense of the way world works. Node maintainers aren’t bored orogenes given bad jobs, but lobotomized children made into thoughtless slaves of “Mother Sanze.” Syenite’s perspective goes from detail to horrible detail, also noting that the child looks like Alabaster—implying that it might be one of the children he was forced to sire. She is learning quickly that the entire Fulcrum system of rings and assignments is really just a façade for the enslavement and genocide of orogenes.
Syenite is shocked and horrified. Alabaster shows her something else—a scar at the base of the node maintainer’s neck. Orogenes’ sessapinae are larger than other people’s, he explains, and the node maintainer has been operated on to remove its self-control but keep its instinctive orogenic power. Syen knows that even a baby orogene can quiet an earthquake, so the system is horribly ingenious. She wants to vomit.
There is a highly scientific aspect to this fantasy world as well, as people have clearly experimented on orogenes in horrible ways to discover this monstrously efficient system. Orogeny is directly connected to the sessapinae in a mysterious way, and the sessapinae are physical organs that can be manipulated.
Alabaster explains that the problem must have been that someone let this node maintainer wake up. He says that some people have a fetish for the node maintainers and pay to have access to them but want them to be awake and aware of what’s happening. The node maintainers are normally kept sedated because using orogeny causes them pain, so when they are allowed to wake up, they experience terrible suffering—this must have led to the sudden creation of the hot spot. Hearing this, Syenite finally stumbles away and vomits.
Reality grows even more disturbing as Alabaster reveals the whole truth here. The node maintainer almost killed thousands of people, but in actuality, it was just a child reacting instinctively to a horrifying situation over which they had no control. Syenite’s body finally cannot handle this barrage of traumatizing facts, and she vomits.
Alabaster says that this is why he was so insistent that every orogene should see a node in person. Syenite says that she had no idea about any of this. Alabaster’s voice is cold and full of suppressed hatred as he says that “they” would do this to every orogene if they thought it was more useful. They see all orogenes as just weapons and monsters to be used, just like the node maintainers—all just “fucking roggas” in the end. Syenite lets this sink in and realizes that he’s right—orogenes like her and Alabaster are just “dressed up” versions of this tortured and mutilated child.
This is why Alabaster calls orogenes “roggas”—if they are going to be treated like roggas, then they shouldn’t be referred to as something more polite. Syenite now realizes that even oppressive systems that seem humane and necessary—like the Fulcrum—are usually rooted in more horrifying realities such as the treatment of the node maintainers.
Alabaster and Syenite make camp in the node station’s courtyard. They sit beside the fire for a while, staring into the flames in silence until Alabaster starts to speak. He says that he thinks he has 12 children in all, but he doesn’t know where most of them are. Syen remembers that the node maintainer looked just like Alabaster. She tentatively asks about their own future child, and Alabaster says that it might become a node maintainer, but it also might be trained by the Fulcrum and become a successful orogene.
There is little to say in the face of the awful things Alabaster and Syenite have seen this day and the reality of the world that they must endure. Alabaster knows that the node maintainer was likely his own child, yet there is nothing that he can do about it—for all his power and decorated status, as an orogene he has no real freedom or choice.
Syenite, now using the term “rogga” because “orogene” feels like a falsehood to her, says that they could also have a “still” as a child, and then it could grow up to be seen as a real human being. Alabaster says that he still wouldn’t want a non-orogenic child. No comm would accept them, he says, assuming that they still carry the curse of “Father Earth”—instead, they would be made into a Guardian. After saying this, Alabaster suddenly looks up and tells Syenite that she has to forget everything she saw today. When she makes her report, she should refer to the node maintainer as nothing more than a resource, and she must affirm that it existed for the good of the world. Now angry and cursing at Alabaster for this callousness, Syenite considers killing him in his sleep. Then, Alabaster starts laughing.
Alabaster hints at the origins of Guardians: they are the children of orogenes who are not orogenes themselves, and then have something mysterious done to them that makes them into Guardians. For years Alabaster has known everything that Syenite learned today and he has had to quell his own anger and sense of injustice, even referring to his own children as mere resources to be exploited. For Syenite, however, this is all very sudden, and she lashes out at Alabaster once more in her anger at the unjust world.
Alabaster’s laughter lasts a long time, to the point that Syenite can feel the earth moving with the rocking of his body. She realizes that what Alabaster really wants is to destroy the world, and that he is probably capable of doing it. When his laughter finally dies away, Syen asks him where his Guardian is. Alabaster says that she’s not dead, but he did something to her to make sure she was no longer a threat to him. Seeing the terror in Syen’s eyes, Alabaster apologizes, smiles sadly, and then gets into their sleeping bag.
Alabaster laughs to keep from going mad because of all the horrors that he’s seen and experienced. But the laughter also makes him seem unstable and dangerous to Syenite, especially now that she has seen his extraordinary power firsthand. Her thought that he wants to destroy the world hints that Alabaster might have been the unnamed man at the novel’s beginning, who used his orogeny to break the continent. If this is true, then Syenite’s storyline is taking place before Essun’s.
After a while Alabaster speaks again, saying that he knows he’s crazy, but that Syenite will become crazy too if she stays with him and sees and understands more things like she did today. He tells her that she would be doing the world a favor if she killed him. Syenite thinks about this for a long time and then gets into the sleeping bag as well. As she drifts off, an obelisk floats by in the distance. The chapter ends with a proverb saying that after Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall, Death is the fifth season.
Alabaster seems to recognize his own instability and how dangerous that is when combined with his great strength and all the injustices that he must bear daily. The proverb here seemingly gives the source for the term “Fifth Season”—it is the season of death, which exists outside of the other four seasons.