Ai is taken back to Sassinoth where he is imprisoned. He is treated well, but must be imprisoned partially because he was with Estraven, a criminal, and partly because no one knows what to do with him. He reflects on Estraven’s diaries, in which Estraven wondered why Ai was ashamed to cry. It wasn’t shame, Ai thinks, but fear. Now he is beyond fear, and knows tears will not do him any good.
Estraven’s diaries help Ai feel close to him even in death. They will also be used as a way for Estraven’s family to connect with him, and his life, posthumously. Estraven had suspected Ai didn’t cry because it was not manly. Ai doesn’t deny this, but suggests that it wasn’t shame of seeming feminine, but instead a more general fear of appearing vulnerable.
In Sassinoth, Ai is sent a physician who advises him to rest. Ai tries to sleep, but has nightmares of his time in the truck driving to his Prison Farm. The physician sits with him some nights, and at one point Ai wonders why Estraven did not stop skiing towards the border guards. He wonders if Estraven was trying to kill himself. The physician refuses to believe it, and chastises Ai for speaking ill of his friend.
Ai loves his friend and wants to respect his memory, but he still has much to learn when it comes to Karhidish codes of conduct. He was trying to work out for himself what Estraven’s death meant and how intentional it was, but by considering this, Ai unintentionally insults his friend. Ai had forgotten that on Karhide, suicide is seen as a betrayal of one’s community, whereas in his own culture it is more of a tragic personal choice.
News of Ai’s escape from Orgoreyn is broadcast, as is news of his arrival in Karhide. However, news of his spaceship, and Estraven’s role in his rescue, are omitted. Within ten days both the governments of Orgoreyn and Karhide have fallen. In Orgoreyn this means a new group of Commensals has replaced the old, and the Open Trade faction eventually takes over. In Karhide this means Tibe, cowed by Ai’s new prestige, resigns. He resigned before he even knew of Ai’s ship, but after he heard of Estraven’s death.
Although no one initially believed Ai or wanted to collaborate with him, news of his spaceship has forced the government’s hands. Yet now that Ai is closer than ever to achieving his goal, he is sadder than ever at the death of his friend. Connecting Gethen to the Ekumen was his life’s mission, but trading Estraven’s life for his success doesn’t seem fair to him.
Argaven invites Ai to Erhenrang. Still residually ill from his winter journey, Ai remembers little of the trip. However, when he arrives in Ehrenrang again, he feels stronger, his heart harder. He decides he must “set the keystone in the arch,” and accomplish the task Estraven died for.
Understandably still upset and despondent, Ai feels that he cannot let Estraven die in vain. Just as Argaven laid the keystone in a literal arch in the first chapter, opening up Ehrenrang to trade, Ai must complete his mission and open Gethen to the Ekumen.
In Ehrenrang, Ai meets Faxe again. Faxe has since joined the kyorremy. Ai suspects Faxe only became involved in politics because of fear over Tibe’s governing.
Faxe’s political aspirations are not personal, as Tibe’s were, but instead societal. He wants to do his best to make sure the government is taking care of the people he already personally cares about.
Faxe has heard that Ai’s spaceship is coming, and wonders when it will arrive. Ai realizes he has not set a date, and needs to get to a transmitter to radio the spaceship. Luckily, where Ai was once met with resistance, now he is met with easy cooperation, and is able to signal it that day. The next morning Ai, who previously had waited six months for an audience with the King, meets with him after having waited only day. He reflects, “It had taken Estraven six months to arrange my first audience. It had taken the rest of his life to arrange this second one.”
Ai, formerly perceived as an alien and an outsider, is now treated with great respect. Engaging with him and opening Karhide to the Ekumen is now politically convenient for Argaven, and so Argaven is treating Ai as a man who can do something for him, as opposed to earlier, when he was merely a threat, or possibly just the unwitting tool of a traitor.
During this second meeting, Argaven sits instead of standing. Ai thinks he looks like a parent who has lost his child—which he is. Argaven is no longer afraid of Ai, and comments that Ai has served him well. Ai interjects “I am not your servant.” Argaven wonders why Estraven betrayed him. He sees Estraven’s attempt to get the Orgota government to join the Ekumen as an affront to Karhide and to himself, as its King.
Argaven, like Ai, has personal concerns beyond his primary mission. However, Ai is quick to point out he and Estraven worked for the good of mankind and for the Ekumen, not for Karhide and not for its king. They believed their interests were vaster than a single nation on a single planet.
Ai tries to explain that Estraven knew that if one Gethenian nation joined the Ekumen, others would follow. Ai tells Argaven that Estraven loved his country, but served only one master, the same one Ai serves: “Mankind.” However, although Ai does not say it aloud, he considers it is only partially true to say Estraven served mankind, since Estraven also partially acted out of “pure personal loyalty” towards Ai.
Estraven was not a patriot, and felt no obligation to elevate his loyalty to Karhide above his loyalty to mankind as a whole. However, Ai knows that Estraven persevered in his mission partially for the greater good, but also partially out of a love for Ai. Just as Karhide was built around kemmering pairs who grew into families, the alliance between Gethen and the Ekumen will have begun with two people who loved each other deeply.
Argaven wonders why Ai has only now called down his spaceship. Ai explains that while his survival is unimportant on a personal level, he has called down the ship to ensure he will be able to fulfill his mission. Argaven is happy Karhide will be the first nation to greet the Ekumen. Argaven is also happy Ai has made “liars” and “fools” of the Orgota Commensals. Ai reminds him that both Orgoreyn and Karhide will soon be allies of the Ekumen, though Argaven stresses “Karhide first!”
Argaven still displays the dangerous patriotism that Estraven warned against earlier in the novel. Although Ai is happy Argaven is finally cooperating with him, he seems to be cooperating for the wrong reasons: elevating the status of his own country, and embarrassing his rival nations.
The meeting almost over, Argaven comments that Estraven was a good man. Ai asks Argaven to revoke his exile, but the King will not. Ai leaves upset with himself. He feels he has betrayed Estraven, although he knows that Estraven’s primary wish was for Gethen to join the Ekumen.
Ai feels an obligation to honor Estraven’s last wishes, but in this moment he lets his duty to the Ekumen overpower his duty to his friend.
The next day, Ai’s ship arrives. He finds his colleagues, men and women, strange to look at, with voices either too high or too low. He is grateful to speak to his Sassinoth physician who has come to watch the disembarkment. His face, neither male nor female, seems more “familiar, right.” After three years on Gethen, Ai’s friends seem “like a troupe of great, strange animals, of two different species.” His shipmates are all happy to see Ai, and embrace him.
Ironically, after many years on Gethen during which time he felt lonely and alien, Ai has now begun to assimilate. His shipmates, who were once familiar faces, are now the strange and alien ones, and the faces he finds comfort in are the faces he once found to be “other.”
By the end of the spring Ai’s shipmates have spread across Gethen, working with the governments of all the planet’s nations. Ai has decided to take a vacation to Estre, where Estraven was born. Although Ai could travel more swiftly with flying cards brought from his ship, he walks much of the way.
Although Ai once resented the slow pace of Gethen, and once disliked feeling like an alien and an outsider, he has learned to love the planet. He is comfortable enough in Karhide that exploring it is no longer work, but instead relaxation.
Once in Estre, Ai can see the Kerm Glacier to the south. He recognizes the town is very old, its stone buildings cut out of the mountain itself. Ai knocks on the door of the Hearth and is admitted by a young man named Sorve, who feeds, cleans, and clothes him, before setting him up in a bedroom. Sorve then takes Ai to meet the Lord of Estre, Esvans Harth rem ir Estraven, Estraven’s father. Ai came to Estre for two reasons. Firstly, he hoped for solace, but found none. Secondly, he brought Estraven’s journals back to share with his father. Esvans remains unmoved by the mention of the journals, but Sorve comes forward, angrily. He is upset that Estraven is still called a traitor in Erhenrang.
Even after Estraven’s death, Ai continues to feel an obligation to him, and presumably remains curious about his early life. Ai has brought Estraven’s journals to bring peace to his friend, but also to Estraven’s father and son, both of whom Ai feels connected to through Estraven.
Esvans introduces Sorve as the heir of Estre, and Estraven’s son. Esvans is eager to hear of Ai and Estraven’s journey across the Gobrin Ice. Sorve asks Ai to tell him how his father died, and about “the other worlds out among the stars—the other kinds of men, the other lives.”
Although an alien and a foreigner, Ai’s relationship with Estraven will allow him to forge a relationship with Estraven’s family as well. Additionally, storytelling, manifested both in Estraven’s diaries and in Ai’s recounting of their journey, will help Estraven’s family mourn, and better understand his life and death.