Home > The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth #3)(5)

The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth #3)(5)
Author: N. K. Jemisin


She’s pulled the cloth wrapping off the lower half of her face. Beyond her gray-and-kohl eye makeup, which not even the end of the world will stop her from wearing, you can’t make out her eyes behind her makeshift goggles – a pair of spectacles that she’s wrapped rags around to keep ash out. “Shit,” she says to Hjarka. “You’re never going to let me hear the end of it, are you?”


Hjarka shrugs. “Not till you pay up, no.”


You’re staring at Ykka, the tentative little smile freezing off your face.


“She’ll probably make a full recovery,” Lerna says. His voice is neutral in a way that you immediately sense is careful. Walking-over-a-lava-tube careful. “It’ll be a few days before she can keep up on foot, though.”


Ykka sighs, putting a hand on her hip and very obviously rifling through a series of things to say. What she finally settles on is neutral, too. “Fine. I’ll extend the rotation of people carrying the stretcher. Get her walking as soon as possible, though. Everyone carries their own weight in this comm, or gets left behind.” She turns and heads off.


“Yeah, so,” Tonkee says in a low voice, once Ykka’s out of earshot. “She’s a little pissed about you destroying the geode.”


You flinch. “Destroying —” Oh, but. Locking all those stone eaters into the crystals. You meant to save everyone, but Castrima was a machine – a very old, very delicate machine that you didn’t understand. And now you’re topside, traipsing through the ashfall… “Oh, rusting Earth, I did.”


“What, you didn’t realize?” Hjarka laughs a little. It’s got a bitter edge. “You actually thought we were all up here topside, the whole rusting comm traveling north in the ash and cold, for fun?” She strides away, shaking her head. Ykka’s not the only one pissed about it.


“I didn’t…” You start to say, I didn’t mean to, and stop. Because you never mean it, and it never matters in the end.


Watching your face, Lerna lets out a small sigh. “Rennanis destroyed the comm, Essun. Not you.” He’s helping you shift back down into a prone position, but not meeting your eyes. “We lost it the minute we infested Castrima-over with boilbugs to save ourselves. It’s not like they would’ve just gone away, or left anything in the territory to eat. If we’d stayed in the geode, we’d have been doomed, one way or another.”


It’s true, and perfectly rational. Ykka’s reaction, though, proves that some things aren’t about rationality. You can’t take away people’s homes and sense of security in such an immediate, dramatic way, and expect them to consider extended chains of culpability before they get angry about it.


“They’ll get over it.” You blink to find Lerna looking at you now, his gaze clear and expression frank. “If I could, they can. It’ll just take a while.”


You hadn’t realized he had gotten over Tirimo.


He ignores your staring, then gestures to the four people who have gathered nearby. You’re lying down already, so he tucks your stone arm in beside you, making sure the blankets cover it. The stretcher-bearers take up their task again, and you have to clamp down on your orogeny, which – now that you’re awake – insists upon reacting to every lurch as if it’s a shake. Tonkee’s head pokes into view as they start to carry you along. “Hey, it’ll be all right. Lots of people hate me.”


That is entirely unreassuring. It’s also frustrating that you care, and that others can tell you care. You used to be such a steelheart.


But you know why you aren’t, all of a sudden.


“Nassun,” you say to Tonkee.




“Nassun. I know where she is, Tonkee.” You try to raise your right hand to catch hers, and there is a sensation that thrums through your shoulder like aching and floating. You hear a ringing sound. It doesn’t hurt, but you privately curse yourself for forgetting. “I have to go find her.”


Tonkee darts a look at your stretcher-bearers, and then in the direction Ykka went. “Speak softer.”


“What?” Ykka knows full well you’re going to want to go find your daughter. That was practically the first thing you ever said to her.


“If you want to be dumped on the side of the rusting road, keep talking.”


That shuts you up, along with the continued effort of restraining your orogeny. Oh. So Ykka’s that pissed.


The ash keeps falling, eventually obscuring your goggles because you don’t have the energy to brush it away. In the gray dimness that results, your body’s need to recover takes precedence; you fall asleep again. The next time you wake and brush the ash off your face, it’s because you’ve been put down again, and there’s a rock or branch or something poking you in the small of the back. You struggle to sit up on one elbow and it’s easier, though you still can’t manage much else.


Night has fallen. Several dozen people are settling onto some kind of rock outcropping amid a scraggly not-quite forest. The outcropping sesses familiar from your orogenic explorations of Castrima’s surroundings, and it helps you place yourself: a bit of fresh tectonic uplift that’s about a hundred and sixty miles north of the Castrima geode. That tells you that the journey from Castrima must have only just begun a few days before, since a large group can only walk so fast; and that there’s only one place you could be going, if you’re headed north. Rennanis. Somehow everyone must know that it’s empty and habitable. Or maybe they’re just hoping that it is, and they’ve got nothing else to hope for. Well, at least on that point, you can reassure them… if they’ll listen to you.


The people around you are setting up campfire circles, cooking spits, latrines. In a few spots throughout the camp, little piles of broken, lumpy Castrima crystals provide additional illumination; good to know there must be enough orogenes left to keep them working. Some of the activity is inefficient where people are unused to it, but for the most part it’s well-ordered. Castrima having more than its share of members who know how to live on the road is turning out to be a boon. Your stretcher-bearers have left you where they dumped you, though, and if anyone’s going to build you a fire or bring you food, they haven’t started yet. You spot Lerna crouching amid a small group of people who are also prone, but he’s busy. Ah, yes; there must have been a lot of wounded after Rennanis’s soldiers got into the geode.


Well, you don’t need a fire, and you’re not hungry, so the others’ indifference doesn’t trouble you for the moment, except emotionally. What does bother you is that your runny-sack is gone. You carried that thing halfway across the Stillness, stashed your old rank-rings in it, even saved it from getting scorched to powder when a stone eater transformed himself in your quarters. There wasn’t much in it that still mattered to you, but the bag itself holds a certain sentimental value, at this point.

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