Ai plans to leave Erhenrang, and gets advice from his landlady on how to leave and where to go. Understanding that Ai has no shifgrethor, his landlady can give him advice without worrying about offending him. Ai thinks of his landlord as a landlady, because of his soft body and face. Ai has difficulty understanding that this person is a “hermaphroditic neuter,” not a woman, and not a man.
Although it is rude to give advice in Karhide, because it offends the pride of the receiver, Ai’s landlady recognizes that he has no shifgrethor, or pride, and so accepts and appreciates advice. Ai continues to struggle to see Gethenians as they see themselves, seeing each person he encounters as a man or a woman, not both.
Ai listens to the radio in the days before he prepares to leave the city. Tibe, the new prime minister, is often discussed, as is his desire to reclaim land in the contested Sinoth Valley. Ai reflects that anywhere else, this behavior would lead to war, but Gethenians, lacking the capacity to “mobilize” militarily, instead behave “like animals” or at least “like women.” Still, Ai understands that Orgoreyn, the neighboring country, has become “increasingly mobilizable,” and war could be on the horizon if Karhide becomes more patriotic.
Ai injects gender into his analyses of much of the political maneuvering in Karhide. He associates strength and war with masculinity, whereas he associates duplicity and peace with femininity. However, Ai is starting to see what Estraven meant when he referred to the dangers of patriotism. Tibe, who loves Karhide too much, is willing to go to war and kill anyone who he sees as a threat.
Ai rides the landboat for four days. He reflects that while people on Terra feel they need to get ahead, Gethenians are happy to live in the moment. However, even though he understands the cultural differences, Ai is impatient. The ride is uncomfortable, but he marvels at the mountain ranges, and at a tower that functions as a Fastness and is accessible only in the summer. After reaching the summit of the mountain range, the caravan descends, and caravan stops at the city of Rer, where Ai stays for the night before heading south in search of the town of Otherhord, which he knows houses a Fastness.
Traveling the country gives Ai the opportunity to reflect on more cultural differences between the Gethenians and himself. One major difference is the speed at which they move. Gethenians are slow and measured, which allows them to move carefully in treacherous conditions, but which is frustrating to the faster-paced Ai.
Ai hopes to find a Fastness, and to discover more of the Handdara religion, which was not deeply examined by the Investigators. Ai has heard of the Foretellers of the Handdara, who supposedly can see the future, and he wants to verify these rumors.
Although Ai does not have a specific question to ask the Foretellers, part of his job is to act as an explorer and record sights, sounds, and culture.
Ai has decided not to announce himself as Envoy, and present himself as a native Karhider. Although he is taller and darker than most, with a strange accent, there is enough national variety that he will not immediately draw attention. As he is walking in the woods he comes across Goss, a young man who lives in Otherhord. Ai tells Goss he’d like to ask a question of the Foretellers. When Goss asks who specifically he’d like to speak to, Ai admits he’s “exceedingly ignorant,” which he has forgotten in the Handdara religion comes across as bragging.
After spending months in the capital of Karhide, where he was known as the Envoy and treated as a stranger, Ai is excited to be perceived as a native Karhider. However, he immediately misspeaks, showing himself to be — if not an alien — then at least a foreigner. The Handdara strive for ignorance, so by saying he doesn’t know anything about them he is professing that he is very enlightened, which is the opposite of what he intended to convey.
Goss takes Ai to a clearing where two men are practicing Presence, a kind of Handdara meditation. Ai notes that Handdara are “given to negatives,” and so refer to this as an “untrance involving self-loss.”
Handdara is centered around the concept of ignorance and loss of self. Practitioners believe the less you know, the more enlightened you are.
One of the men, who introduces himself as Faxe, comes to greet Ai. Ai finds Faxe very beautiful, and has the sudden urge to use his mindspeech to communicate. He tries, but it doesn’t seem to work. Somehow, Faxe immediately recognizes Ai as the Envoy. He invites Ai to stay with him for a few days until he decides whether or not he wants to ask the Foretellers a question.
Faxe’s beauty makes Ai feel instantly connected to him, but whether or not this is a sexual attraction (because Ai associates beauty with femininity) remains unclear. Although Ai attempted to blend in, to the perceptive, he can easily be spotted as an alien.
Ai enjoys his time in Otherhord. The town and the Handdara help Ai understand Karhide better, especially the “silent…fecund darkness” in its politics and culture. His life is introverted, inactive, and ignorant, according to Handdara values.
Ai finally starts to understand the inner workings of Karhidish politics. Retroactively he begins to comprehend the forces that prevented the King from accepting his proposal.
Ai helps with communal fieldwork and maintenance, and talks with Goss and Faxe. In the evenings there is conversation and music. One night, Ai watches two very old men dance for five hours, displaying dothe, or carefully controlled “hysterical strength,” a Handdara phenomenon Ai has heard of but never seen.
Ai continues to learn about Handdara, and the way in which the Handdara find peace in ignorance. This influences everything they do, as all of their pursuits are intended to clear their mind and allow them to meditate.
Goss helps Ai figure out how to ask the Foretellers a good question. He cautions that “vagueness breeds vagueness,” and some questions are unanswerable. Yomeshta, the other Gethenian religion, famously began when someone asked a group of Foretellers the meaning of life, an unanswerable question. It destroyed the group and killed some of the Foretellers, but gave the Weaver, Meshe, who was the founder of Yomeshta, the ability to see the past, present, and future. Ai still doesn’t fully understand Foretelling, which he had assumed was based on luck, or on mindreading.
Because Handdara is concerned with ignorance, the questions answered by the Foretellers are not intended to give the asker a comprehensive look at the future. Instead, they are meant to illustrate the futility of knowing anything. In contrast, the Yomeshta religion worships a prophet who was able to see the past, present, and future. As a result, practitioners of Yomeshta worship total knowledge, which is associated with light.
Ai picks a question for the Foretellers to answer, and waits until all nine of them can gather together: the Weaver; Faxe; two Zanies, whom Ai diagnoses as schizophrenic; five Celibates, one of whom must be in kemmer for the Foretelling to work; and a Pervert, someone in perpetual kemmer. Although Ai had considered asking a throw-away question, when he realizes it is difficult and dangerous for the Foretellers to answer a question, he decides to ask something more serious. Ai asks if Gethen will be a member of the Ekumen within five years. Faxe tells him his question is answerable, and the Foretelling begins.
Ai chooses to ask a question whose answer he does not know, and whose answer is important to him practically. He has respect for the Foretellers and does not want them to put themselves in danger for an inconsequential answer. His question relates to his mission, which is the most important thing in his life, and drives all of his actions. It is in fact the most consequential question he could possibly ask.
Using the sensitivity that allows him to mindspeak, Ai can feel a spider-web-like connection between the Foretellers. He tries to keep out of their minds, but as he resists he begins to hallucinate. The hallucinations are too powerful and he falls into the Foretellers’ web.
One aspect of Ai’s otherness, his ability to mindspeak, ironically allows him to connect to the Gethenian Foretellers.
Ai feels powerful, confused, sexual forces, which are somehow controlled by Faxe. Times passes, though he doesn’t know how much, and Faxe becomes a woman dressed in pure, burning light. She screams “Yes!” in answer to Ai’s question.
Seeing Faxe as a woman confuses Ai, who has difficulty understanding the fluidity of Gethenian gender. It is unclear if Faxe truly becomes a woman, or if Ai’s perception of him just momentarily shifts.
The circle is broken and the doctor takes care of the Zanies as the rest of the Foretellers slump, exhausted. Faxe wonders if Ai has been answered, and Ai confirms he has been. He considers the “quality” of the answer, which was “not so much a prophecy as an observation,” with the “imperative clarity of a hunch.” He believes it to be true.
Although Ai had been skeptical about the art of Foretelling, he believes in the veracity of the answer he receives. Additionally, because he was mentally drawn into the Foretelling, he believes it to be authentic.
Two days later, as they walk together, Faxe and Ai discuss the Foretelling. Faxe tells Ai that he felt a tenth presence in the room during the Foretelling. Ai admits he was telepathically drawn in. Ai suspects that Faxe is naturally empathic, and possibly telepathic. He offers to teach Faxe how to mindspeak. Faxe doesn’t understand the appeal, even when he learns it is impossible to lie with mindspeak. Faxe declines the offer, saying that his “business is unlearning, not learning.” Also, despite his prediction that Ai will change the world, Faxe wants no part in a world-changing form of communication.
Although Ai is an alien, he was able to mentally connect to the Foretellers, a connection both he and Faxe sensed. Ai, who has been drawn to Faxe since they first met, wants to become even closer to him through mindspeech, which Faxe, in accordance with his religion, finds uninteresting. The Handdara do not like learning new skills or abilities, as they reach enlightenment through active “unlearning.” Learning mindspeech would go against the central tenant of the religion.
Ai wonders why even though Handdara can predict the future there is still conflict on Gethen. Faxe explains it can be hard to know the right question to ask, and for someone like a king, the price would be extremely high, as the “Asker pays what he can afford.”
Certain practitioners of the Handdara religion, although technically able to see the future, aren’t interested in clearly illuminating every (or even any) detail. These Foretellers believe that knowing the future will only complicate the lives of those who have the knowledge.
The Handdara don’t want answers, even though they are the Answerers. Their task is to “exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.” The only certain thing is that everyone dies, and according to Faxe “the only thing that makes life possible is permanent intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”
The Handdara believe that just because a person knows a fraction of what comes next, the knowledge cannot guarantee they’ll be able to use the information in a useful way. For example, even though Ai now knows Karhide will join the Ekumen, he has no sense of how to achieve his goal, only that it will, somehow, be achieved.