Broken Branch: Chapter 3

There are two great shames of my life, and they are kin to one another, which only proves I could not learn from my mistakes until it was too late. I beg my readers, don’t let our mistake in Rhos make you think less of Thereus. I am to blame.

We discussed what we should do, Thereus and I. He told me how the political situation lay in Thalata at the moment. King Hearaklakain was of the Akain family, which competed with the Radanth and Mina families in a triangular system that dated back to the wars after Lirsan Kur’s death. Political battles had replaced violent ones, so that now, even as Heraklakain lay on his deathbed, the three families connived and conspired against one another to establish their own heir as king. Already Iksan Radanth had been banished for some financial matters that Thereus explained in tiresome detail.

Thereus and his family were supporters of the House of Akain and favored Rotha as the next king. “Gamna is ambitious and manipulative, while Prince Areis is well known for his weakness of mind. He will be a tool of those who have true power in his house,” he told me.

“Should I say what I saw in the throne of Mealoros?” I asked him. “I may not be believed. We were certainly not the first to brave the dangers of the Black Hill, and I know of no account of anyone having seen visions such as mine.”

“Then you’ve truly been chosen by Heaven,” said Thereus cheerfully. “But you may be right. You’re a diviner, and what’s more, a diviner from Lhaursi, the center of the art. Why don’t you imply you’ve learned all this in your divination?”

And I agreed that this would be an excellent idea. I was the song to fight, and yet I fear I did more to deceive.

Thereus showed me the jewel he had found in Mealoros and told me how it reflected three human faces in its emerald depths. I saw no faces, but he insisted that he could see me on one side, Vin on another, and a man he didn’t know on the third. To this day I am not sure what they meant, though I have my suspicions.

We met a friend of Thereus’s on the boat ride down the river to Rhos. His name was Areis Vinekthara, and he was looking for his brother, who had failed to return from the capital city at the appointed time. He was a large, friendly man, and though I never got to know him as well as I did Seadeis, it was obvious how much he cared for his family and his friends. He deserved better than his ultimate fate.

Now, alas, I must confirm the darkest rumors of those dark days. There are many who deny that the priests of Thalata ever set their knives to cut human flesh, but I saw it with my own eyes. We heard the echoing words of the priest as we approached the Thiapol at the heart of the city. But it was not a sacrifice day and the words were not those of the traditional liturgy. Indeed, they were in the Sotlaci language, not Old Esu. A beautiful language, but not used for sacrifices!

Ri tlócala tes zitúsala siláh tárjun garám tári tarcáv siláh run. So that you will give roots and leaves to us, we will give blood to you.

Tára silá lih saríl. I give with this blade.

Ijó. Atikívala, sarátotl dárenda tarcávenda. It is done. Tikivs, drink from his blood.

Notice that the word was dárenda, not líhenda. It was the blood of a human being. And I can only cry, “Tára surá. I weep!”

“I cannot believe the king allows this,” Areis said. He had run on ahead to get a better look. “It was High Priest Arkein himself who drove in the knife.”

“The king is dying,” Thereus replied, shaking his head.

“If that is the kind of priesthood there is in Rhos, it would be better if Lirsan Kur had never laid the first brick,” said Areis, and clenched his fists.

Legally, I believe, the sacrifice was an execution. The victim was Iksan’s partner in crime, one Diaonu Radanth. That must be how Arkein persuaded the senate to allow it, but since when have priests been executioners? Since when have deaths been consecrated to the Tikivs, to the cruel ice spirits that our fathers knew not?

We spoke first with Rotha Akain, who expressed his sympathy but directed us to Senator Theaden as a man who would be better able to help us. But Theadean only evaded our questions and told us in sad tones that some things were necessary, no matter how cruel they may seem, given the kelp blight that was afflicting us, or words to that effect. I was too angry to remember them well.

Things took a turn for the better, or so it seemed, when Thereus received a letter from Rotha requesting another audience. This time Rotha was accompanied by Grai, an elderly lady of the Radanth house, who told us this in between sips of tea. “Against the shadow we face, noble houses must put aside their old enmities, and so I have come here to Akain. And now the powers of gold and of augury have joined us. It will be a hard battle, but now I believe I see some hope for the future of Thalata. Let us discuss what is to be done.”

“Surely there must be priests opposed to this sacrifice to the Tikivs,” either Thereus or I said.

“I would wager there are many,” said Rotha, “but Krasoa was Arkein’s main opponent, and now that he is dead a new leader must emerge. And schism within the priesthood would be a dreadful thing in their eyes. Royal houses may bicker and nobles may rebel, but for the priests to be divided? Better to sort things out in quiet. No, this must be solved politically. If my father dies, I would be a candidate for the crown. Gamna would be my only real opponent, as I gather that House Radanth is embroiled in troubles. That will be a fine battle.”

“I believe there to be three ways we can approach this. Through the senate, the priesthood, or the common people.”

“The commoners?” Rotha asked, wrinkling his forehead. “What good is that?”

Thereus smiled. “Good enough.”

“So far Rotha and I have been considering the senate alone,” Grai continued. “We believe we can muster enough votes to condemn human sacrifice, once it is put in those terms, but it may be difficult to initiate such a vote without outside support. I propose accusing Arkein of blasphemy against Heaven.”

“You are not serious,” Thereus said. “The cult of the Tikivs is almost as popular as that of Heaven, and they are never viewed as conflicting.” My readers today may find it difficult to understand just how widespread the Tikiv cult was before Luxan’s preaching and the revelation of the Lords of Night.

“Can one who is not a priest accuse someone of blasphemy?” I asked.

“Do not forget our allies in the priesthood,” Grai said. “And Thereus, it is true that the cults did not conflict. Until recently.”

“What of the common people?” Rotha asked again.

“People don’t know what to think of the sacrifice,” Thereus put in. “Some are appalled, some approve, but most, I believe, are numb.”

“We will need to stir them up against Arkein. Difficult, true, but our diviner is also a bard.”

This startled me. “An apprentice only. Surely you do not expect me to sing?”

“To write. Most people can read, these days,” said Grai. “Write your poetry, and make the people see that this wickedness cannot continue.”

“I suppose I can do that. Yes, I can do that,” I said. Indeed, I had already been making some small efforts along those lines.

“If you think it is necessary,” said Rotha.

“Why is your father a great king?” Grai asked. “Because he loves Thalata. Don’t you think there is more to Thalata than the priests and the nobles?”

“Ah yes, the doctrine of old Sothuru. We shall see, I suppose.”

“Then may luck be with us all. The battle for Thalata is beginning.”

Thereus was silent as we walked back to the inn where we were staying, and when we sat in the common room for our meal, he spoke to me, saying, “Branwei, we don’t have to stay here any longer. I have finished my business. We can go to your home if you want. If they are trying to destroy Lhaursi as well, I don’t expect you to just stand by.”

“King Sarwe is a good and noble man,” I replied. “The north at least is safe as long as he rules. Besides, I have always wanted to try my hand at satire.”

“But he knows nothing of what they are doing! Wouldn’t it be best to return to your home as quickly as possible, to warn them? Why do you stay in Thalata? I tell you that I will go with you.”

“I linger because in Lhaursi I had never seen a priest kill a man and dedicate his death to the spirits of winter. If I can do anything to fight against that, I will. Tell me, what is this High Priest Arkein like?”

“The best way I can put it is that he seems to exist in a different world altogether. He doesn’t react to things the way most people do, as if nothing affects him.” Thereus hesitated before adding, “I had an impression that agreeing with Arkein was almost more dangerous than disagreeing with him.”

“How did he become High Priest?”

“I wouldn’t know. He’s been in that position for as long as I can remember.”

I asked more questions, about the priesthood in general, about Dioanu and Iksan, about the spread of the Tikiv cult, and dear Thereus answered them all. Sometimes he read and sometimes he walked the streets of Rhos, occasionally returning with a gift for me. One day he returned and there was a harrowed look on his face. I questioned him about it and he took a long time to answer. It was a complicated story he told, but I trust I can relay it correctly.

When he was in Mealoros he had seen a strange man in brown robes gesture to him and lead him up a stairway to a small side room. He tells me he felt no fear, as if he knew the man somehow. When he reached the top the man was gone, but there were two skeletons. One was seated in a chair and wore a robe of glimmering scales, while the other lay on the ground. It was upon the breast of this second skeleton that he found the green jewel he brought out of the hill.

At the time he had no notion of who the bodies were or how the jewel had come to Mealoros. But then he met Dheukal, a friend of his family, an old sailor who was so much more than that. I met Dheukal briefly on the voyage from Athoros, and thought him rather feeble-minded, I admit. Yet Thereus described him as having changed suddenly, as if he had been putting on an act. Sharply and rapidly he spoke to Thereus, telling him many strange things.

He told the story of how one of the Lords of Night had come to Mealoros, that place of power, to spin out its dead souls as phantoms of fear throughout the island. But the last heir of an ancient tradition of magic in Saina was aware and set out to stop him. His name was Dealthesus, and he deserves to be remembered alongside his wife, Peari, who would have joined him had she not carried a child in her womb.

It was Dealthesus who perished destroying the Lord of Night and it was his amulet that Thereus wore now, the same amulet that had protected Dealthesus from the Lord of Night’s power. It was Dealthesus and Peari, it seems, who were the ancestors of Thereus, so you see that he was destined for greatness from his birth. They were associated somehow with a secret society that survived to this day, but Thereus did not fully understand that part of Dheukal’s story and so neither do I.

This story troubled Thereus, and he spoke with me about visiting Saina to learn what he could about its magic, but he eventually decided against it. Saina is in Thangar, and these were the days when its rot lay heavy upon it.

I began spreading the words I had written against Arkein, delivering them to Grai and Rotha to be distributed. Though we soon learned that I was not the only one writing propaganda. A bard appeared in the common room of our inn singing about the glories of the house of Mina. As for the priesthood, I turn now to Luxan.

I do not deny the respect and admiration that so many have for Luxan, but to me he will always be little more than an example of Heaven’s grace. To his credit, he has never sought to hide his crimes, but it is so, so easy for his devotees to overlook them. I first saw Luxan when he was addressing a crowd in Rhos, praising not Heaven but the Tikivs.

“All across the islands things are bleak,” he said. “In Karei there is rebellion and murder and unnatural cold, in Deavid there is anarchy in all but name, and here in Thalata we have blight and treachery.” (Here I admit I felt a sort of pride that Luxan didn’t mention my own home, Gineadh). “Why is this? Why do we suffer? Dark enemies plot our destruction unseen, I fear. Heaven shield us, but Heaven is far.”

“Ice-worshiper!” someone called from the midst of the crowd.

Luxan looked pained. “Understand this, the Tikivs are far greater than ice. They are spirits, not coarse matter. You say I worship the Tikivs. I say, where should we seek help but from the Tikivs? They guide the winds and the waters. Yea, since the days of legend, since the Magistrates fell from their rule of the islands, the curse of the Tikivs has been upon us. Let us remove that curse and seek to live by the order of Heaven and under the good grace of the Tikivs. We can do both, as was shown by the execution, and – far nobler word – the sacrifice, of Dioanu. I, at least, am not the enemy of Heaven, and neither are the Tikivs.”

You see how the Lords of Night were feeding him his words?

Not long after I began writing, King Hearaklakain of Thalata died, and mourning filled all of Rhos. We spoke of it together, Thereus, Areis, and I, of how the senate would now meet to choose which of the three noble candidates would be raised to kingship. Oh, how we hoped that it would not be Gamna Mina who was chosen, for he was an ally of Arkein.

But now I must write of the Brotherhood of Theala.

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