Broken Branch: Chapter 1

It is not easy to sit down and write this. It has been ten years since I knew Thereus, ten years in which I seem, in my own eyes at least, to have become an entirely different woman. I have given up trying to read the future, I have given up the palace at Tortarven, and most painfully of all, I have given up Thereus, but I think I have gained something in return. I was foolish then but am wiser now.

I met Thereus’s father before I met Thereus himself. Eapora came to the palace to negotiate with the king regarding kelp rights in Lhaursi, or something along those lines. He was not a likeable man, sharp of eye and sharp of voice, and his manners were those of Thalata, unrefined and simple. He did not mention his son once, though he frequently mentioned his daughters, no doubt endeavoring to create common ground between him and the king. Sarwe was childless, of course, but had adopted me to be raised in the palace as a symbol of unity between the seaborn aristocrats and the commoners.

It was then that I saw the falling star that would bring me to Thereus and bring us all to our destinies. Vrean dismissed it as he did most astrological predictions, for obvious reasons (Vrean was a member of the Verin Oc, the High Circle). But Sarwe thought it notable enough to allow me to go to the place indicated by the star accompanied by two guards. The place was Mealoros, the famed Black Hill. As for the guards, better they be forgotten. Our itinerary would take us from Tortarven to Athoros, from Athoros to Rhos, and from Rhos to Mealoros.

I was translating Odhureus’s Eight Seas at the time, and found myself reciting it as I looked at the fields and hills around Athoros, our ship bearing us away. There was a young man standing at the railing nearby, a strikingly handsome man with a pointed beard and a preposterous walking stick. This was Thereus Vineapora, and I fear I startled him when I recited the words about Odhureus, but with the aplomb that always characterized him he recovered and introduced himself.

“I am Thereus, a merchant out of Athoros,” he said.

“I am Branwei, apprentice diviner from Tortarven. I apologize for interrupting your meditations, but that verse came into my mind,” I replied. We were so cautious with one another. We always would be, I suppose. I wish I had been given more time to know him better, but the stars were not right.

“Odhureus’s Eight Seas?” He smiled at me, that marvelous charming smile. “That’s usually where I stop reading. I don’t find it as interesting when the hero goes east, away from his home. But the translation I read didn’t rhyme.”

“It’s my own translation,” I said. “I set down that part only this morning. The original work has a rhyme scheme, and I wanted to bring that into modern speech.”

“So you are a bard as well as a diviner.”

“My guardian wants me to be skilled in many arts,” I said.

“My father concentrates on business alone. Poetry is not something he encourages.”

Thereus told me later that he was afraid that if I knew who his father was, I would judge him for it. But compared to his father he was like a young green tree next to a dried stump. He was alive and bold, and I thought then that I had never met anyone like him before and never would again.

The next day, when we were in Putha, a deerblood brought us both letters from the seer Krasoa. At the time he was not as famous as he would later become, but everyone knew that there was a seer in Rhos whose dreams foretold the future. Despite what rumor says, the letters told us nothing specific, only to come to Rhos to speak with him as soon as possible. Thereus and I argued about the matter: he was skeptical, as was only wise. There are many who have claimed to be seers, and many frauds among them. The latest who was acclaimed by all as genuine was Sanum, who lived five hundred years ago. Whether Krasoa was genuine or a fraud, we agreed to visit him and see for ourselves.

My guards didn’t approve of Thereus much. (I should mention that by this time his parentage was no secret, though I don’t recall from whom I first heard it.) Their suspicions were natural and I shared them to some extent, though I was also swayed by Thereus’s charms. I reasoned with myself that if a seer had called us both, Thereus must be trustworthy. Of course, I had not yet met Luxan. By the time we reached Rhos, Thereus and I were on friendly terms, and agreed to go together to meet Krasoa.

It was obvious by now that he had fallen in love with me. I still remember the way he looked at me when I sang a song of my namesake, Branwei Mifedrin, and how it impressed and flattered me. He hardly even touched his food! How far were our thoughts from the story I was telling then, the story that would bind our paths so cruelly. My readers will forgive me if I give no more than a brief summary of it here. The last time I sang Branwei’s Lament in full was in the court of King Glvath, and I will never sing it again.

Branwei Mifredrin was the wife of Walhu prince of Lhaursi. This was at a time when the Lords of Night were attempting to bring Lhaursi under their rule and the land of Mathlax was drowned under the sea. Walhu went to Nemhir to confront the Lords of Night, but he was betrayed and slain. So Branwei followed him to the land of eternal ice and cold, where she stared upon the spires of ruined Joteim and wept for her husband.

She wept, and I still weep.

In Rhos we ascended the hill at the center of the city to the beehive homes of the priests, but there we learned that Krasoa was dead. He had been murdered only the previous day, leaving behind him some notes and a storm of rumors. Some suspected it had to do with the king of Thalata, who was then on his deathbed. Some said that Krasoa had been killed to stop his dreams from coming true, which would make the killer a fool. Thereus and I talked the matter over as we descended the hill again, him making extravagant promises to protect me, which must have amused and irritated my guards.

A few evenings later a deerblood approached me as I was retiring to my room. He had a message, he said, from the Council of Nemhir.

“What do you desire above all things? Love? Fame? It can be yours. The Councilors have great power. They are called the Crafters because they craft whatever future they wish, and the Lords of Night because they rule in the shadows. All you have to do to command your future is make a simple promise. Don’t look so afraid. Nemhir will aid you if you aid it in return.”

“What sort of promise?” I asked.

“Go back to Lhaursi. Tell King Sarwe you failed. Have nothing more to do with Thereus Vineapora. It is as simple and harmless as that. Those who dwell in the cold do not ask for ritual murders or the loss of your soul, whatever the lies of old women say.” The deerblood smiled, stretching his emaciated face. We do not have deerbloods in Lhaursi; we have never trusted the ichor. It may take away all need for sleep or rest, but only Heaven knows what else it does. And besides, we have bad memories of the conqueror Lirsan Kur who first used deerbloods to carry his messages.

“No,” I said. “I refuse.”

“I’m afraid I missed that. Speak up, and remember that the coming of winter cannot be stopped. It would be wise to prepare for the cold.”

“You want me to betray my king and father? No, not in a hundred years.” My own words!

“I prefer to kill when there is no warning. Next time we meet there will be none. I hope to see you soon, Branwei Lisarwe.”

I immediately told my two guards, of course, and they made an excellent show of concern. It transpired the next day that the deerblood assassin had visited Thereus and Vin as well and brought them each a similar warning. But I see I’ve forgotten to mention Vin. I think Thereus was a little jealous of him, absurdly. All the people of Karei can attest that Vin is a good man, but at the time he impressed me as cocky and gauche. Then we knew him only as a shepherd from the rustic island of Tarea Tealeanu, who swaggered as if he were something more. We’d met him at the same inn where we were staying and played some games of tasoth with him, but it wasn’t until the deerblood spoke to us that we realized he was a third to whom Krasoa had sent a letter.

The branch, the song, the ring, the knife. One to loose, one to fight, one to find, one to heal.

I was the song and Thereus, of course, was the branch. A branch flowering and broken.

One more, unpleasant, thing to mention before we set out for the Black Hill, Thereus, Vin, and I. I am not certain whether my guards were in the employ of the Lords of Night directly, but now that I had refused the deerblood’s offer, they turned on me. It was early in the morning when they brought me to a deserted place in the city, full of ramshackle buildings and abandoned carts, and threatened me with death.

“Money can do many things,” I was told. “It can turn friend against friend, brother against brother, servant against mistress.” You see that it was greed that corrupted them, not ideals or curiosity.

I would have died there, I imagine, had it not been for Thereus. When I didn’t come to our appointed meeting, he went looking for me, gathering up some of the city guard on his way. Absurd, foolish, and yet it saved my life. My erstwhile guards were taken into captivity; they would be killed by the deerblood assassin not long afterward.

I was beginning to understand just how long the reach of the Lords of Night was. I was also beginning to believe that Thereus Vineapora would always be there to help me.

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