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Nassun cuts off her own hand.

This ought to have been difficult, as many terrible things should be, but are not; a child taking out her feelings on substance that will not shatter. But Naussun knows stone in every way that is possible. She can only sess from a distance now, touching but not grasping, not changing. But she grew up in a knapper’s workshop, and there are other tools available to her: a sharp mind and a steady grip.

She does it cleanly, one strike shearing off the calcification at her wrist. The lump of rock that was formerly a hand is still frozen in a gesture she’s decided not to make again, a flat-palmed push that would have thrown the world away. She cannot change the shape of her stiffened fingers, but sometimes context is everything. She leaves it next to her mother, cupped up towards the endless bowl of the sky.

It’s the day after Schaffa died. Maybe this matters. Maybe she’s been carrying her stone hand cupped like a baby against her too-young chest because she mistook it for the weight of her imminent loss. The kind of thing you do without considering the meaning.

If so, she knows better now. A pound or so of stone is nothing compared to the crushing press of grief.

Tonkee notices the change in her posture, the stumped-off wrist. She catches Nassun’s eye like she thinks that’s enough to prompt an explanation. Waiting for a reaction that doesn’t materialize. Nassun has already begun to realize this is what being close to her mother’s friends will always feel like: sideways looks and wrong-footed pauses. Not exactly wary (she’s lived with that so long now, it would actually feel closer to right.) Expecting something of Nassun she doesn’t know how to give, because she isn’t the right person.

It’s been awkward, realizing they knew her mother better. Or . . . differently, which might be stranger, because growing up Nassun saw two faces from her mother: one act and one truth. In her eyes they were both inflexible, immutable reality. That Essun— Syenite— whoever she was might have been something else to her daughter but chose not to still hurts even now, though at the moment that thought’s subsumed in the rawness of loss.

Nassun is an orphan three times over. She’s lost the father she wanted too much, the mother she didn’t know she wanted, and the guardian she chose, not with a child’s love, but with an adult cautiousness— an adult callousness. If nothing else, she thinks that should have bought her time. This last loss should have come to her much later. But it’s here, now, and she lives it as she lives everything these days. As a woman grown before her time.

Tonkee, who either doesn’t know how to read people or else doesn’t care to, Nassun still isn’t sure which, talks to her about how to relearn balance. Because of the stupid hand— as if Nassun were’t off-balance in about a billion other, more fundamental ways. But this is the visible irregularity, the one that relates to her body and brain sending out-of-date signals, her muscles not knowing how to compensate. Tonkee is as interested in anatomy as she is in any other machine (and not more than that, unless the body is Hjarka’s), so this is the advice Nassun is handed.

“I was almost in the same position once,” Tonkee tells her, mouth turning down in a scowl and opening to bark a laugh at more or less the same time. Like she can’t decide if this should be funny by now, or if she’s not ready yet. “Guess who put me there?”

Nassun can guess. But she plays along, asks anyway. In spite of herself she’s become curious again, in the wake of Essun’s sacrifice.

This is how she begins to know her mother. To learn that while she will never like her, she might love her.

A story about love might be worth the time it takes to tell.


***

Castrima not the right place to begin. It should be— it’s a comm growing into a city, supposedly lifted by the hands of orogene leaders instead riding of their broken backs.

The problem is that they have something to lose now.

Nassun might trust Tonkee. The innovator doesn’t think about the cost of failure, even now, because she’s too busy slaking her own selfish thirst for success. Which is more endearing than it sounds, if only because she’s so rusting enthusiastic about it. Everyone else here has their fingers curled up close, ready to make a fist if they think that their lifeline is about to slip away. Maybe you shouldn’t blame a person for that. It’s still a hostile gesture.

This is why Tonkee is the one who tells Nassun how the city is powered. She doesn’t see it as a dirty secret, but a problem, a puzzle, one that she will likely spend her life trying to solve. The idea excites her; all the more because it will likely be a long, drawn out process, tough meat to sink her teeth into and gnaw at until her belly’s full, and never mind where it came from.

Nassun has never had to be a man-eater. Maybe this is why she’s repelled.

She doesn’t tell the story in Castrima. Maybe the others will do it for her, and maybe they won’t. This is the closest thing her mother had to a new home— it's right that it rise or fall in her memory.


***

It’s the down and out comms, the raider camps, that are the place to talk about a rogga’s sacrifice and still be heard.

Nassun had always wanted to be a lorist. Now she takes on the mantle with none of the training, not with pride, but because she finds that it affords her entry. There’s almost always place at the fire-pit for her— at least as long as she’s brought her own food —and she’s more likely to get a chance to speak and be heard.

She doesn’t like hiding her part in the story. It feels too much like her mother, keeping to the crèche, pushing down brutality and smoothing it over with a smile. But she knows it would be dangerous to do otherwise. Sometimes even the little she says is too much, and she can see the faces around her shutter closed. This is when she lays out her bedroll but doesn’t sleep in it, hand on a knife in the dark.

But on other nights there are nods, a shift in the crowd that reminds her of calling the silver to help and heal. Circumspect glances at certain members of the comm; the ones who might have had a hand in why the approach to the front gate is so jagged and toothed with ugly sharp rocks, or the plots furthest from the walls still have enough good soil for a few hardy plants to dig their roots in and thrive. Sometimes she’ll catch a man’s hands rubbing at fingers that must once have worn rings, or a mother relaxing her grip on a son who had been carefully watched in the presence of an outsider until now.

Some parents lift children into their laps, safe and warm in a gentler circle.

From her place outside the ring of its light, this love is still as painful as it is beautiful to see.


***

Years— while her feet grow calloused and her hair turns permanently dusty and her breasts never do fill out. Walking the road means she will never have enough to eat, even now that the season is, impossibly, beginning to wane.

She begins to think about Safe. Like mother, like daughter, it changes its colors when it’s introduced to something new. Nobody ever blames the cup for that. They grimace at the taste of chalk, and then they swallow, trust and truth.

She stops feeling guilty for the way the tale has evolved and grown. Somehow, there is more of herself in it than ever.


***

When Nassun finds herself following the story instead of leading it that she knows this is working. Things get easier from there: now she just has to confirm the facts, tame the rumors. Or, sometimes, to encourage them.

It’s cautious hope— more of a seed rattling in a jar, saved for the planting, than anything ready to put out roots. But it’s a start. At the most prosperous comm she visits that year, a particularly belligerent strongback is actually hushed by his husband. He sits down, arms folded but ready to keep listening.

There's no doubt that the pockets of hatred are still there, but they’re becoming less deep. Pockmarks instead of open wounds.


***

One day Nassun will be telling this story for the thousandth time, or the tenth-thousandth. She will open her mouth and the words will shake free at last. Like stone shifting, like magma rising. Like the moon, coming home to orbit.

I am her daughter.