Broken Branch: Chapter 4

I suspect that there are more rumors surrounding the Brotherhood of Theala than any other aspect of Thereus’s life. It was a secret society, after all, and one that was slandered unceasingly in its last days; yet there was in truth a darkness at its heart. Where shall I begin? A little of its history, perhaps, presented as simply and blandly as possible, as the tortoise shell is smooth before the fire cracks it. Theala Virakla was a philosopher of Thalata a little over a hundred years ago who believed above all else in systematic inquiry into nature and its workings. He believed that Heaven had established the world through numbers and through numbers man could understand Heaven. Some say there was a mystical aspect to the higher levels of initiation, but I can only recount what I myself experienced.

I was invited into the Brotherhood by a young woman named Amfeari. My fame had spread, it seemed, and the Brotherhood was curious as to what lore I might have brought from Lhaursi. So Amfeari brought me to their academy in Rhos, to their governor, who was lame in both legs and whose name was Paida. He offered me hidden knowledge, treasures of wisdom that no one possessed save the Brotherhood of Theala itself, and with such a prize offered me, I could not but accept.

“If indeed, Branwei, you wish to join us,” Paida told me, “there is an oath that must be taken, and I fear that you do not fully understand what your choice entails. To begin with, for five months you must stay in Rhos, which is the heart of the Five Islands.”

“I seek knowledge above all else,” I said, but my heart was torn, for I longed to see my home again.

“Very well. Do you swear by whatever you hold highest to never reveal the location of the Brotherhood of Theala or the identity of any of its members?”

“I do so swear by Heaven.”

“Then by fire, water, treasure, stone, and earth I say that you are a Sister of Theala, and I welcome you to the heart of all the Islands.”

The Brotherhood consisted of a hundred or so, men and women alike. Amfeari became a friend of mine, together with her fiance Seadeis, both of them young (weren’t we all, though?) and eager to learn as much as possible. Both were escaping overbearing families (as you will perhaps discover shortly) and had found in the Brotherhood and in one another a sort of haven, much as the seaborn lords fled the ruin of Sotlaci to find Lhaursi a haven. I also met Tharo, a man who impressed me with his knowledge of Lhaursi history and his interest in divination. Then, of course, there was Helore, Paida’s sister, who watched over us all with embittered eyes.

“She knows far less than she think she does,” Tharo told me. “Be careful around her.”

The Teachers are no more and Helore is dead, so there is little risk I will offend anyone by giving my honest opinion of her. She was jealous of her brother at the same time she scorned him for his lameness. She was sensitive to anything that could possibly be interpreted as a slight to her and felt no compunctions about slighting others. Even so I find the allegations that Luxan makes about her hard to believe. Surely no one could be as hateful and as envious as he claims?

Of course, he makes similar claims about himself. And yet his was the third face in Thereus’s amulet, as Thereus told me in surprise when we heard him delivering one of his harangues against the Brotherhood.

“We must all mourn the death of King Hearaklakain. The Tikivs smiled upon his reign, but now they frown and shadows gather around Thalata. Some sin, some wrong, has led to all the misfortunes Thalata suffers. A sin of desire? A sin of neglect? A sin of pride? All three, I fear. We are well known among the islands for our greed, and we certainly have forgotten the Tikivs.

“And there are those among us who are far worse in their depravity. Men and women who blaspheme both Heaven and the Tikivs, think themselves superior to all the rest, and long to dominate Thalata. Forget tales you may have heard, the truth is more real and more dangerous. I speak of the Brotherhood.

“It was founded a hundred years ago by Theala Virakla, a man who believed the soul was merely a conglomeration of certain numbers, that Heaven was a lie and the Tikivs superstitions. His goal was to seek and collect knowledge, some say to release it to all in the end. But now the Brotherhood is dedicated to the keeping of secrets and mysticism, and of gaining power over Thalata. They will have their fingers and eyes in all the royal houses soon if they are not forestalled. I warn so that the Tikivs may not abandon Thalata wholly to the waves or the ice, as they did Sotlaci and Nemhir. Let us look into how this may be prevented.”

We know how Luxan wanted to prevent this! I will rebut these lies now, even if I was too afraid back then. It was the Lords of Night who brought misfortune on the islands, both the misfortune they willed and the misfortune that came as punishment for their evil. It was they, not the Brotherhood, who exalted themselves above the common lot of mankind. Theala was no atheist, as the merest glance at his surviving writings will reveal. As for the Brotherhood’s supposed hunger for power, it is nonsense. The Brotherhood had no interest in activity beyond learning and study; maybe it would have fared better if it had! Alone among the powers wrestling with one another over Thalata and the islands, the Brotherhood kept to itself and its own concerns.

I am surprised, thinking back, to find that I miss my days in their company more than any other part of my life.

I brought him a copy of a letter that Helore had given me (gloating in her advantage) when I asked her about the Lords of the Night. It concerned Walhu prince of Lhaursi and his doomed journey to Nemhir, and I have reproduced it below.

The words of Prince Walhu Vipwin of Lhaursi:

It is said that the island called Sotlaci has for decades been slowly overwhelmed by the sea on account of the blasphemies and depravity of its people. Whether or no this is true, the last Masters of the Island are three, and master of the other two is Romureh. He came in a boat to the north of Sotlaci as one asleep or dead, but was revived and went to Eltarven their great city and within ten years became the mightiest power in the island. Romureh it was who began the worship of the Tikivs and the spread of luxuriousness, and some say the riots that send blood pouring through the streets.

This touches on Lhaursi in two regards. Many have fled Sotlaci to come here and have enriched us greatly. But much of our realm called Mathlax, recently taken by rebels, has been drowned, and many have spoken of what they perceive to be the cause. Some attribute it to the rebels, who slew their lord, but lords have been treacherously slain before. Some attribute it to a lack of regard for Heaven, but my father was the most pious of kings and my brother is hardly less so.

I believe it follows naturally from the drowning of Sotlaci, and the cause must be sought there, with Romureh. He has unnatural power over the mind of man, it is said. Searching through the histories we find this power shared with the Lords of Night. Some of those who had high rank in Sotlaci have said he spoke often of “nightfall” and “the dark”. There are many symbols the two used in common.

Perhaps scanty evidence, but some hand has touched my home now and I will learn why. And besides all this the mystery of Nemhir still exists. Anar tells me few enough attempts to go there have been made before. An exiled general from Thalata was the latest, and he never returned. I shall see if a prince of Lhaursi can do any better.

I, Anar, wrote these letters.

So I sealed Thereus’s fate and my own sorrow. He kissed me and thanked me. I cannot be sure whether he was planning even then to go to Nemhir, but I doubt it. It had only been a few days earlier that he had told me he wanted to accompany me to Lhaursi when I left, that he wanted to marry me. We had gone then to the Thiapol, to the top of the hill of Rhos, to look out over the city, my arm in his. I mourn for the future that I imagined and for the happiness that I saw, which has all turned to ashes. Whatever happiness I’ve found since then has been of a different kind.

It was the Feast of the Four when it all came crashing down over our heads, striking the Brotherhood of Theala especially. Heaven had a different fate in store for me, and so I was sipping tea in the common room of the inn when I heard a noise that I took at first to be thunder. But it was coming nearer, and in it were the sounds of human voices.

I did not even hear of the disaster that had overtaken them until Thereus found me. Let me tell you of Thereus’s heroism, with your indulgence if I grow tiresome. This was, after all, the last time I saw Thereus in the flesh, sweat on his brow, clever and handsome and brave.

It seems that he, Areis, and Eakeas, another merchant acquainted with them, had joined together to find the Brotherhood. Areis was Sedeis’s brother and Eakeas was Amfeari’s, and both came to Rhos to seek their missing kin. I never learned how Thereus came to know my association with the Brotherhood, but thinking back I realize how much my constant distraction and frequent absences must have worried him.

I will describe Eakeas quickly. I had met him a handful of times and been irritated by his endless flow of speech and his casual attitude towards cheating his buyers. Thereus didn’t like him either, but neither of us had the opportunity to witness his heroism, when he attacked a crowd of violent men, holding nothing more than a dagger, to give Amfeari the opportunity to escape. Let this be a warning against judging a man too simply.

Luxan had given the three of them the location of the Brotherhood, so that evening they had gone there and confronted Amfeari and Seadeis. But before anything could be settled between them, something slammed into the door, and someone outside cried “Traitors!” Then the door shook again, and again, until on the fourth time it broke, and an ocean of screaming people with clubs and daggers poured into the room. Thereus and Areis were swept along with the members of the Brotherhood as they fled in panic to a stairway in the back, emerging on the roof. Brothers and Sisters were scattering in different directions across the roof, but Seadeis was struggling with Areis, trying to go back down the steps, shouting for Amfeari, who was still below.

“I see two choices,” Thereus said. “We could fly across the street over there or we could jump down into it and break our legs.”

“We keep ladders on the roof,” Seadeis said numbly. “See, they’re climbing down already.”

“We have to summon the guard,” Areis said. Thereus nodded and ran to the ladder, where he did what he could to help the panicked Brothers climb down without falling or pushing one another off. As the mob emerged from the stairs, Areis let Seadeis go and drew his sword, which gave the mob pause for just a few seconds, long enough for Areis and Seadeis to scramble down the ladder, the last to do so. Areis pulled the ladder down and they followed Thereus and the five or so of the Brotherhood who had escaped by the roof.

They passed one junction, but at the second encountered a group of ten armed men, led by one with a heavy beard and a brutal face. There was confusion on both sides for a second, then the bearded man demanded to know who they were.

“We are hunting traitors,” said Thereus fiercely. A brave attempt, but one of the men recognized them and cried out for their deaths.

“Run,” Areis told the others. “I’ll follow.”

But Areis did not follow. Thereus never saw him again, nor Eakeas. He led his group of survivors to the city guard, who had come out to restore the peace, but far too late. Then he went back to the inn to find me, and when he did he nearly wept for joy and told everything all that had happened.

There were not many who survived the destruction of the Brotherhood, but I do not know the exact number. Seadeis and Amfeari, whose brother died saving her. Helore, of course. And, unfortunately, Tharo.

We decided that it would be best for me to leave Rhos immediately, that it was too dangerous for me to stay. “I’ll join you in Tortarven soon,” he said. I cannot forget these last words we shared, and Heaven knows I have tried.

“You aren’t coming with me?” I asked. I was fighting tears.

“Not right away. I want to see if Areis and Eakeas made it out somehow.” They were dead! Why did you have to stay?

We kissed and embraced. I didn’t want him to let go, wanted him to hold me forever, but too soon he broke away.

“Tortarven,” he said again. And he left me.

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