So, I’m working on the revision of The Obelisk Gate, now that I’ve gotten my editors’ notes. And as I work on it, I’m reminded of changes that I made to The Fifth Season, in turn. Like this whole chapter that I removed, which would’ve been chapter 5. This was when I was playing with having Alabaster’s PoV included in the story — something I ultimately decided against, because I wanted TFS to thematically be Essun’s story. Note that all of this is non-canonical; I changed some names of places and concepts, some customs, etc., as I revised. So, spoilers, sorta!
In the welter of agony and confusion that inaugurates his new existence, the man who has destroyed the world thinks blearily, I was beautiful once.
I was nine years old when I understood what it meant to be orogene.
On one level I knew already. It meant that I had no family. Someone had named me Alabaster when I was born; I would never know who. It was the only name I had. If I worked hard, I might earn a comm name — probably Yumenes — at death so that I could at least be buried like a man. But before death, no community would claim me or fight for me, or shelter me should the world break.
In that year I thought little of such things — or anything really. I hardly had time. All day I trained in the Fulcrum’s crucibles, practicing alongside my fellow grits. It’s easy to move mountains; orogene children do that all the time. What’s difficult is learning not to. So for the safety of all, that was the first and most important thing we were made to learn.
In the evenings after practice there were more classes — history and rhetoric, mathematics and literature, languages and basic geomestry. These were not taught to us by the Fulcrum instructors, who went home at dusk. The teachers for these classes were our fellow orogenes, those who were further along in their training or who had already begun earning their rings. They were much harder on us than the official teachers, but we knew better than to complain. “No one else believes in you,” they would say, usually after one of us had dared to shed a tear. “Be grateful we push you. They think you’re nothing but a rock-smashing animal, but if you work hard, you can be more.” And they would beat us like animals, too, if they had to — but we learned. And we were grateful, every time some upstanding, well-adapted citizen expressed amazement that we degenerate creatures could sound almost as smart as them.
I was grateful, anyhow. I thought this was what it meant to be orogene.
I had a friend that year. Loke Threeleaders Ragros — a boy my own age, whose balls hadn’t even dropped, but he’d already been accepted into his parents’ comm. He was clever and fast and he played with us grits like we weren’t students and he wasn’t the son of a teacher. Natural charisma; those three comm leaders in his lineage. He would bring us things we couldn’t get on the Fulcrum grounds: gum and sweets and little toys that snapped and cranked. And we loved him for it — mostly. He liked to make jokes, see. Tell stories. “Hey, did you hear? When people arose from the bedrock, roggas weren’t there. They popped out of the mud nearby, and that’s why they’re all shaky!” “What do you call a rogga who walks on two legs? Good boy!” Hilarious, that one. But I laughed, because it was so nice to have a friend who was normal.
They grated, though, all the little jokes. He grinned and giggled so much when he told them that I started wanting to say something back. Something that would make him see how it felt. So when I overheard a joke that the other boys were whispering in the barracks at night, I remembered it, and threw it at Loke the next time he decided to tell me all about roggas. “Hey,” I said back, “you know how many roggas it takes to save a city full of stiffs from a shake?”
Loke drew back at this, frowning a bit. I was already in trouble for that “stiffs” crack; if the Fulcrum instructors didn’t punish me for it, our night teachers would, because they always punished “attitude” when they saw it. None of us could afford it. But I pushed ahead anyway, because the joke was just so good. I needed to tell it. So I finished: “Two! One to save the city from the shake, and the other to send away the stink after all of you shit your pants!”
Three days in the box for that one.
Afterward, when I’d worked out the kinks from sitting cramped for three days, and shaken off the hallucinations that all started with Loke crying in front of his father and pointing a finger at me, and once I’d recovered from the fever and had enough water that my tongue stopped bleeding and the blisters started to heal… one of the night teachers, a woman named Mica, came to visit me in my barracks bed. She asked how I was doing, and when she was sure I was all right, she leaned over and slapped me in the face. “Don’t ever be that stupid again,” she said.
And I never was.
There are hands on him, under him. The pain has not faded, but it is less demanding. The man who has destroyed the world can stay in the present now, and has less need to flee into memory.
“Never?” someone asks. He isn’t certain who. He isn’t sure he cares.
“Never,” he croaks in reply. “I was a good little weapon for years after that.”
“And then you weren’t.”
He tries to nod and finds this difficult. His head feels very heavy. It rests against something too hard to be strictly comfortable. “I was still a weapon then,” he says instead. “Just not for them.”
“You defied them in the end.”
“That wasn’t defiance. That was… waking up from stupidity.”
“Which was the stupidity? Obeying? Or fighting back?”
The man who has destroyed the world sighs. He wishes he could sleep. “Being born.”
Silence falls, punctuated by rhythmic pain. The man wishes his companion would say something else. And then, as if she has read his mind, she says, “What happened to Loke?”
“The boy who was your friend. Did he ever apologize?”
“For getting you into trouble. For causing you pain.”
The man sighs. “You really don’t understand us, do you? Humans, I mean.”
The arms that hold him tighten, just a little. In spite of everything, and even though it hurts, the man finds himself obscurely comforted. She means well. It isn’t her fault that she doesn’t understand.
“I’m sorry,” she says, and he suspects she means it on behalf of Loke. Who never apologized, because Loke understood how the world worked even then. Masters did not apologize to slaves.
The man grays out for awhile. But when he recovers, and remembers what she said, he responds as if hours have not passed in the interim.
“Don’t be,” he says. “Fucker burned with all the rest of them, probably.”
“No,” she says. “I meant, I’m sorry I wasn’t there when you needed me.”
The man blinks in surprise — or at least, he thinks he does. He isn’t certain he has eyelids left. But there is enough of him left to feel warmth, for which he is grateful. It is nice, not to be alone at the end.
He leans his head against her hard, cold breast, and she trudges on.