Ai wakes up the morning of his meeting with the King and nervously reviews his notes on Gethenian psychology and manners. He reminds himself that his job as Envoy is designed for a single person, and he doesn’t need Estraven’s help to succeed. He reasons that “one voice speaking truth is a greater force than fleets and armies” if given enough time—and time is a resource the Ekumen has an endless supply of, even if he, personally, does not.
Ai is loyal to the Ekumen and believes in his mission, although he is shaken by what he sees as Estraven’s betrayal. By reviewing Gethenian customs he hopes to make a better case for himself and the entity he represents. He realizes that there is much he doesn’t understand about Gethenian politics, but hopes his message of truth and unity, will nevertheless break through to the King.
Ai arrives at the palace, finally calm, but becomes immediately nervous when he is made to wait alone in an anteroom. A radio in the room plays a news bulletin, and Ai is shocked to hear that Estraven has been exiled for treason, and must leave Karhide within three days. The radio continues, saying that Estraven has been conspiring against the King, trying to sell out Karhide’s sovereignty to a Union of Peoples, which in fact does not exist, and is a fiction created to undermine Argaven. Ai begins to panic, but before he can do anything he is called in for his meeting.
Listening to the radio reveals why Estraven refused to continue advocating for Ai with the King. Estraven has been declared a traitor for conspiring with the “Union of Peoples,” a fictional entity, which nonetheless seems to point to the Ekumen, and Ai’s mission on Gethen. Estraven saw that if he were declared a traitor, his support for Ai would only damage Ai’s cause, which is why he prematurely withdrew his support. Ai, however, has yet to fully see this.
Ai joins Argaven in his immense reception hall. Ai sits while Argaven stands. Ai asks about Estraven, and the King reveals that Estraven has been advising him not to meet with Ai, while at the same time Estraven was promising Ai he was arranging a meeting. Argaven tells Ai he doesn’t see him as a traitor, just a tool of a traitor, and warns Ai to trust no one.
The picture Argaven paints of Estraven is unflattering, and makes him look like a traitor both to Karhide and to Ai. However, Estraven’s motivations are simple enough: he fought for a meeting with the king when he thought the time was right for Ai, and backpeddled when it became clear he, and Ai by extension, were falling out of the King’s favor.
Ai wonders if Argaven believes he is an alien, and Argaven says he does. Argaven doesn’t understand what Ai wants, even as Ai explains that he wants to add Gethen to a vast trade network coordinated by the Ekumen. Argaven is used to speaking politically, where every conversation is a verbal duel. Ai, speaking plainly about the universe and the exchange of knowledge and goods, cannot get through to him.
Ai and the King have difficulty communicating with each other, because although they speak a common language, the subtext behind their speech is entirely dependent on culture. Ai is speaking straightforwardly, but the King assumes there are layers to his speech. Meanwhile the King is trying to win an argument against Ai, whereas Ai is attempting to compromise.
Ai tries to soothe the King, explaining that all the people of Ekumen, 3,000 nations across 83 planets, are “all sons of the same Hearth.” He shows the King images of people from across the universe. Gethen’s sexual development is unique, and Argaven is disturbed by photographs of men and women, people who he perceives to be “perverts.” Argaven wonders “why human beings here on earth should want or tolerate any dealings with creatures so monstrously different.”
Ai hopes to appeal to the King’s humanity, and his love for mankind as a whole. Unfortunately, just as Ai sees the sexual development of Gethenians as strange and alien, the King sees the sexual development of the people of the Ekumen to be strange and perverted. He cannot see his common humanity with them because he is barely able to see them as human.
Argaven wonders what will happen to Ai if he refuses to join the Ekumen. Ai explains to him that due to the mechanics of space travel he (Ai) could spend what would feel, to him, like a few hours on a spaceship, and generations would pass on Gethen, at which point he could return and try again. Argaven sees this, together with Ai’s ansible communicator, as forms of trickery, which he distrusts.
Argaven doesn’t understand Ai or his mission. Because Argaven is paranoid and aggressive, he assumes the Ekumen must be as well, and expects them to take Karhide by force. Instead the Ekumen will happily wait, and can take however much time is needed to persuade Karhide to join it. Argaven sees this ability to outwait him as a trick, and distrusts Ai because of it.
Argaven does not feel obligated to believe or even listen to Ai. He says Karhide is uninterested in worlds of “monsters.” Karhide is on the brink of its own “great new age,” and needs no help. Argaven admits he is threatened and made fearful by Ai, even though he is a single man. He fears “liars,” “trickers,” and “the bitter truth.” He believes his fear makes him a better ruler, and while he fears Ai he has always been afraid. In Karhide, “fear is king.” Unsuccessful, Ai is dismissed from his meeting.
Once again, Argaven’s patriotism blinds him to the benefits of the Ekumen. He sees the Ekumen and its people as “monsters,” who have nothing to offer him and his country. He is unable to see the ways in which people unlike him could still share a common humanity. He sees his fear as an important component of his political strategy, and refuses to reconsider his decision.
As he walks home Ai, feeling like a failure, wonders what is true and what is false. Estraven is apparently exiled because he advocated for Ai, but the King claimed Estraven spoke against him. Ai is not sure whether he can trust Estraven, but he finally realizes that Estraven has been trying to warn him to stay safe. Ai thinks he will eventually go to Orgoreyn and try to work with the government there, but he has more business in Karhide, outside of Erhenrang, first. He will continue to gather information, specifically about the Foretellers.
Ai finally realizes that Estraven has not been exclusively working against him. Still, he is confused by his motivations, and does not fully trust him. Ai understands that the Karhidish government is not currently open to his mission, and after his meeting with the King understands why, if not how to change its mind.