N. K. Jemisin
The Obelisk Gate
Nassun, on the rocks
HMM. NO. I’M TELLING THIS WRONG.
After all, a person is herself, and others. Relationships chisel the final shape of one’s being. I am me, and you. Damaya was herself
That’s not a spoiler. You are Essun, after all. You know this already. Don’t you?
Nassun next, then. Nassun, who is just eight years old when the world ends.
There is no knowing what went through little Nassun’s mind when she came home from her apprenticeship one afternoon to find her younger brother dead on the den floor, and her father standing over the corpse. We can imagine what she thought, felt, did. We can speculate. But we will not
Here is what I know for certain: that apprenticeship I mentioned? Nassun was in training to become a lorist.
The Stillness has an odd relationship with its self-appointed keepers of stonelore. There are records of lorists existing as far back as the long-rumored Eggshell Season. That’s the one in which some sort of gaseous emission caused all children born in the Arctics for several years to have delicate bones that broke with a touch and bent as they grew—if they grew. (Yumenescene archeomests have argued for centuries over whether this could have been caused by strontium or arsenic, and whether it should be counted as a Season at all given that it only affected a few hundred thousand weak, pallid little barbarians on the northern tundra. But that is
They’re still around, though they’ve forgotten how much they’ve forgotten. Somehow their order, if it can be called an order, survives despite the First through Seventh Universities disavowing their work as apocryphal and probably inaccurate, and despite governments down all the ages undermining their knowledge with propaganda. And despite the Seasons, of course. Once lorists came only from a race called Regwo—Westcoasters who had sallow-reddish skin and naturally black lips, and who worshipped the preservation of history the way people in less-bitter times worshipped gods. They used to chisel stonelore into mountainsides in tablets as high as the sky, so that all would see and know the wisdom needed to survive. Alas: in the Stillness, destroying mountains is as easy as an orogene toddler’s temper tantrum. Destroying a people takes only a bit more effort.
So lorists are no longer Regwo, but most of them tint their lips black in the Regwo’s memory. Not that they remember why, anymore. Now it’s just how one knows a lorist: by the lips, and by the stack of polymer tablets they carry, and by the shabby clothes they tend to wear, and by the fact that they usually do not have real comm names. They aren’t commless, mind. In theory they could return to their home comms in the event of a Season, although by profession they tend to wander far enough to make returning impractical. In practice, many communities will take them in, even during a Season, because even the most stoic community wants entertainment during the long cold nights. For this reason, most lorists train in the arts—music and comedy and such. They also act as teachers and caretakers of the young in times when no one else can be spared for such duty, and most importantly they serve as a living reminder that others have survived worse through the ages. Every comm needs that.
The lorist who has come to Tirimo is named Renthree Lorist Stone. (All lorists take the comm name Stone, and the use name Lorist, it being one of the rarer use-castes.) She is mostly unimportant, but there is a reason you must know of her. She was once Renthree Breeder Tenteek, but that was before she fell in love with a lorist who visited Tenteek and seduced the then-young woman away from a boring life as a glass-smith. Her life would have become slightly more interesting if a Season had occurred before she left, for a Breeder’s responsibility in those times is clear—and perhaps that, too, is what spurred her away. Or maybe it was just the usual folly of young love? Hard to say. Renthree’s lorist lover eventually left her on the outskirts of the Equatorial city of Penphen, with a broken heart and a head full of lore, and a wallet full of chipped jades and cabochons and one shoeprint-stained lozenge of mother-of-pearl. Renthree spent the mother-of-pearl to commission her own set of tablets from a knapper, used the jade chips to buy traveling supplies and to stay at an inn for the days it took the knapper to finish, and bought many strong drinks at a tavern with the cabochons. Then, newly outfitted and with wounds patched, she set out on her own. Thus does the profession perpetuate itself.
When Nassun appears at the way station where she has set up shop, it’s possible that Renthree thinks about her own apprenticeship. (Not the seduction part; obviously Renthree likes older women, emphasis on women. The foolish dreamer part.) The day previous, Renthree passed through Tirimo, shopping at market stalls and smiling cheerfully through her black-daubed lips so as to advertise her presence in the area. She did not see Nassun, on her way home from creche, stop and stare in awe and sudden, irrational hope.
Nassun has skipped creche today to come and find her, and to bring an offering. This is traditional—the offering, that is, and not teachers’ daughters skipping creche. Two adults from town are already at the way station, sitting on a bench to listen while Renthree talks, and Renthree’s offering cup has already been filled with brightly colored shards faceted with the quartent’s mark. Renthree blinks in surprise at the sight of Nassun: a gangly girl who is more leg than torso, more eyes than face, and very obviously too young to be out of creche so early when it isn’t harvest season.
Nassun stops on the threshold of the way station, panting to catch her breath, which makes for a very dramatic entrance. The other two visitors turn to stare at her, Jija’s normally quiet firstborn, and only their presence stops Nassun from blurting her intentions right then and there. Her mother has taught her to be very circumspect. (Her mother will hear about her skipping creche. Nassun doesn’t care.) She swallows, however, and goes to Renthree immediately to hold out something: a dark chunk of rock, embedded in which can be seen a small, almost cubical diamond.
Nassun doesn’t have any money beyond her allowance, you see, and she’d already spent that on books and sweets when word came that a lorist was in town. But no one in Tirimo knows that there’s a potentially excellent diamond mine in the region—no one, that is, except orogenes. And then only if they’re looking. Nassun’s the only one who’s bothered in several thousand years. She knows she should not have found this diamond. Her mother has taught her not to display her orogeny, and not to use it outside of carefully proscribed practice sessions that they undertake in a nearby valley every few weeks. No one carries diamonds for currency because they can’t be sharded for change easily, but they’re still useful in industry, mining, and the like. Nassun knows it has some value, but she has no inkling that the pretty rock she’s just given to Renthree is worth a house or two. She’s only eight.
And Nassun is so excited, when she sees Renthree’s eyes widen at the sight of the glittering lump poking out of the black hunk of rock, that she stops caring that there are others present and blurts, “I want to be a lorist, too!”
Nassun has no idea what a lorist really does, of course. She just knows that she wants very very much to leave Tirimo.
Renthree would be a fool to refuse the offering, and she doesn’t. But she doesn’t give Nassun an answer right away, partly because she thinks Nassun is cute and that her declaration is no different from any other child’s momentary passion. (She’s right, to a degree; last month Nassun wanted to be a geneer.) Instead she asks Nassun to sit, and then she tells stories to her small audience for the rest of the afternoon, until the sun makes long shadows down the valley slope and through the trees. When the other two visitors get up to head home, they eye Nassun and drop hints until she reluctantly comes with them, because the people of Tirimo will not have it said that they disrespected a lorist by letting some child talk her to death all night.
In the wake of her visitors, Renthree stokes up the fire and starts making dinner from a bit of pork belly and greens and cornmeal t ...