After this I set myself to discover the truth of the High Circle Tharo had spoken of. I would like to write that I was beginning to suspect him, but in fact I was driven by nothing more than curiosity. I found nothing, however, in all the libraries of Tortarven, and so I asked Tharo himself. He told me to wait a few days so he could gather his material, so in the intervening time I continued my search, paying special attention to the accounts of refugees from Sotlaci.
He came to me a week later and said, “I am prepared now. But tell me first, what do you find attractive about the High Circle?”
“What sort of question is that?”
“Nowadays we think of knowledge as something that anyone can find and possess. But Theala knew otherwise. Your King Rigen knew otherwise. There is some wisdom that is invisible to all but those whose mind, whose soul, whose whole being is prepared. What is the High Circle to you?” He closed his eyes and seemed to be listening intently.
I didn’t know; I didn’t even know for sure what Tharo was asking, so I simply said, “An answer.” But my response appeared to satisfy Tharo, whose eyes opened and who broke into a grin. He took me through a series of halls in the back of the library, none of which I had ever seen before, ending in a chamber with a bell-shaped roof. There was a great round table in the center of the room with a pool of water in the center, and around it sat twenty or so hooded men and women.
“You have come at last to the heart of knowledge in the islands. Remember the Brotherhood no more. I have brought you to the High Circle,” Tharo said.
I looked to him in amazement, feeling oddly ill with sweet nostalgia. Deep down this was familiar and beloved, but I could not begin to understand why. I still do not.
“I have not been fully honest with you, Branwei,” said Tharo. “I am one of the Circle. I was in Rhos for reasons of our own and you caught my interest. Rarely, a new person is allowed to enter the Circle, and you have been offered this great gift.”
I was hardly able to believe this. “Rarely, you say? How rarely?”
“I am four hundred and six years old. Even death can be conquered with our knowledge.”
“You have awaited this all your life,” said Vrean, his hood falling back. “Welcome, Branwei.”
“I spoke truly when I said the Brotherhood was only our shadow. All the wisdom of Sotlaci is ours, as is all we have seen in the five centuries since. And more than wisdom, we have the ability to wield the forces that lie behind this reality: what was called solív by the Sotlaci and what we call magic.”
It was too much, too much of a gift to be given suddenly. “I need time to consider this,” I said.
“All of time is ours,” Vrean said. “Consider as long as you want.”
I tried to find that room again, later, but have always been unable. I am now certain it was magic, but at the time I was baffled. That night I lay awake for some time puzzling over what I had seen or heard, and just when I was slipping into sleep, I heard Thereus’s voice in my ear. He said only these words: “They are here,” but I knew instantly what he meant. We had wondered and discussed how the Lords of Night might be influencing the auguries from Nemhir, whether they had magic of that power, but now I knew there were magicians here in Tortarven. I went the next morning to ask Tharo outright about the auguries.
He looked at me, and that was all it took to confirm my suspicions. “Yes,” he said at last, “a few of us influence the auguries. We are wiser, or we consider ourselves so. We only nudge, not control. Sarwe is a wise and good king; we only help him to do what is best.”
“And what of the Lords of the Night?”
“Ah, the Crafters. Let me tell you of the Crafters. Survivors of the old age of magic, they emerged to overthrow the corrupt Council of Nemhir, and succeeded not by military force but by persuasion. They did the same in Sotlaci, until the waters swept over it. Understand, corruption had seized all those idealistic nations that emerged from the fall of the Magistrates. Only the immortals kept their ideals strong and unfailing. We are like them in that way, and in Lhaursi our goals align.”
“I cannot believe you,” I said quietly. “The Lords of the Night have done terrible things.”
“Yes, perhaps it is so. Perhaps all noble ideals decay and rot with time. Perhaps new must drive out old forever, as Benac wrote. We need you and your innocence, Branwei, to remind us of what is eternally right. I believe that you can do this. I believe in you.” He stood and brushed my cheek with his lips, then went out.
Even if I had been tempted to trust him, I remembered the vision I had seen at the Black Hill and its feel of sweetly rotten ambition in Lhaursi, a luscious temptation that concealed a mass of horror. Before, I had seen my battle as being against distant puppet-masters. But now I faced a circle of magic in my very home. It was a battle I had no idea how to fight.
I considered telling my father, but what could Sarwe do? What could anyone do against this power? I despaired, wondering if there was no other way but to join it and strive to combat its excesses from within, but knowing that if I did I would be just like them in the end.
I stood at the center of conflicting waves urging me one way or the other, but suddenly all became still. I saw before me a choice: either to risk being raised to a level where my only peers were my enemies and my feeble conscience would be the only guard against corruption, or go to certain defeat.
And it was defeat I chose. I understand myself better than I did then, but nevertheless I perceived why I had seen the High Circle as an answer, linking the wisdom of Sotlaci with goodness and closeness to Heaven. I looked within myself and saw envy, greed, lust, magnified by my trembling imagination. I would die rather than give myself the opportunity to unleash such things.
It was a couple days before I found Tharo again. “Ah,” he said, “are you prepared to join us?”
“No.” As I spoke Tharo’s face darkened and became almost bestial in its outlines. “I have decided that I cannot aid you or your efforts. I am opposed to your High Circle though it offer me my dreams. I am sorry, Tharo.”
“Sorry? No need for that. You will be ours in the end, whatever you say now. You will be ours.” He smiled, his face returning to a normalcy more unnerving than the transformation. “But time grows short even for the immortals. And my patience grows thin.”
“I would rather die.”
“You say you love death, but I doubt you really mean it. Be still, then. Be dead. And we will come for you.” He brushed my lips with his fingers before walking away.
At once I began searching for a way of defending myself against the High Circle, and I quickly found a Sotlaci scroll with the label A Study of Magic. I reproduce the relevant portions below.
The first form of magic is that obtained by commerce with Heaven or intermediary beings. The school of Zeis teaches that the only influence Heaven has on human affairs is to create the dreams of seers, while the school of Manajh believes that it often intercedes invisibly, yet both agree that such aid cannot be predictably sought out.
I have gathered legends of men who deal with lesser spirits, but all of these can be dismissed, for it does not stand to reason that such intermediate beings should exist. [This was followed by a lengthy philosophical discussion with no concrete information.]
The second form of magic is that practiced by the Latiorn savages, which is often called second sight. This is an openness to the future and to other realms which produces visions but also madness in some cases. The unlearned confuse this with the visions of seers, which is like confusing mud with water. [Next came another section that contained nothing of interest to me.]
Third is the true art of magic, as once reigned across all the Five Islands and is still practiced today, particularly by the family of Saina. This magic is in the crafting of artifacts which are imbued with power, especially power dealing with the mind and soul. In Sotlaci the best known example is the golden flag that stands above the towers of Eltarven and protects the island from all disasters. I have myself seen a jewel that changes color with the mood of the wearer and a dagger that can force one to tell the truth. Yet knowledge of this craft fades year by year and I foresee a time when all that will be left of the art of magic will be a few scattered artifacts.
Here I shall lay out what little I know. [And it was indeed a little, but with many words I didn’t and don’t know, no doubt technical terms whose meaning has been lost.]
I should also mention Grulan Cesa, who according to legend was able to absorb these magical artifacts in some manner and incorporate their power into his own body. He boasted of his immortality until he was defeated and killed by the other magicians of the Islands. But this was a millennium ago, and is perhaps nothing more than fancy. [Here the scroll’s style changed considerably.]
I, Ceredem, wrote these words from a fragment I found in the library of Eltarven. The scribe’s predictions have been fulfilled: magic is largely forgotten. I have only seen one such artifact: the golden fabric, which Romureh removed from its place and I have brought here to Tortarven. It will be placed in my mausoleum. The age of magic is gone forever, for it has brought much evil upon the Islands.
Ceredem’s mausoleum is in Tortarven, and beneath it is a secret place where certain symbolic treasures are kept. I had been there once or twice on days of great importance for the Sotlaci, and now I went there again to see if I could find the golden fabric. There was no sign of it, though there was an empty alcove where it may have once been.
I did find a scroll that interested me. I opened it looking for a hint as to the golden fabric, but found instead the notes and lyrics for a song, both of impossible richness and complexity. The lyrics danced between the Sotlaci language, some form of Esu, and a language, or more than one, that I did not know. I didn’t even recognize many of the letters used. It was titled A Song of Heaven and attributed to Ler Vipridan. Prince Ler, who had been king of the united Lhaursi before his half-brother Meselen had usurped the throne and Ler disappeared into legend.
I was startled when Tharo spoke from behind me. “The absurd compositions of a mad scholar, claiming a heritage to which he had no right and visions for which he had no proof. You are curious about the cloak of protection? It is gone, and has been for centuries. Even we do not know where it has gone.”
“Why have you come here now?”
Tharo did not answer, but instead closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Ah, I see now. You despise us because you love Sarwe as a father and we manipulate him.”
“I despise you for many reasons, that among them,” I said. Then Tharo was gone, and yet I had no inkling of what was to come. I made a copy of the scroll for me to study, and when I had finished I brought it to Sarwe.
He told me about his own youthful efforts to unravel the mysteries of the scroll, beginning with its author, whom Sarwe believed to be not Prince Ler but instead Ler the Fool, who had lived several centuries later. I have come to the conclusion since that Prince Ler and Ler the Fool were in fact the same person, a belief that gives me hope regarding Thereus.
We were interrupted by Vrean, who entered with a deep bow and drew close enough to me that I began to be quite worried. “I desire to speak with you, my lord,” he told Sarwe.
“My lord, we diviners are gravely concerned about your decision to ignore the auguries. With the overcast nights we have been having recently, they are our only way to perceive what will be.”
“I have told you that there may be a hostile influence on the auguries,” Sarwe replied, tapping his fingers on the arms of his throne.
“Yes, my lord, so you have been informed. But did you know that Branwei is secretly betrothed?” I remember how I felt at that moment, as if my heart had stopped in my chest. What Sarwe said next was lost on me, but Vrean replied, “Betrothed to Thereus Vineapora, my lord.”
Sarwe rose to his feet, anger blazing from him like heat from the sun. “You dare suggest that Branwei is a spy? I will tear out your tongue for that. I will do more: I will put out your eyes and cut off your hands and see you starving on the streets!”
Vrean did not flinch. “Forgive me, my lord.”
“Get out!” Vrean bowed his way out and Sarwe lowered himself back into the throne, fixing his glare on me. “Is this true?”
“It is,” I said, unable to meet his eyes, regretting then having ever kept Sarwe from my confidences. I was a fool! I hadn’t even considered how Sarwe might interpret my words. The recent auguries had suggested that Sarwe should reject all of Eapora’s proposals, and I, foolish Branwei, had told him to ignore those auguries.
“And you kept this a secret from me. How much trust should I place then in your words about the auguries? What better way to smooth a wedding than with a trade agreement by the parties’ fathers? How could the Lords of the Night influence the auguries here from so far away? It is not reasonable. I should not have been taken in to begin with.”
“There is a circle of magicians here in Tortarven!” I protested.
He waved his hand. “It will not avail you or Vineapora. You expect me to believe in sorcery? Take your fairy tales to the south, to Deavid! Marry Thereus there if you wish, for I will have no more to do with you. Go, Branwei, for I have spoken and it must be so. Never set foot in Tortarven again.”
“If I was your father, you would not have kept these things secret from me. Go!”
I retreated to my room and wept there for too short a time. Tears, I told myself, were of no use against the High Circle, and neither would they call Thereus back to me. Would he be able to find me after I left Tortarven?
I dried my face and went to see Eapora first of all. I found him pacing in his room, and he immediately demanded, “Well, what is it? Has Sarwe decided to give me an explanation for my sudden dismissal?”
“He has sent me away too,” I said.
Eapora snorted. “Well, at least I am in good company. What did you come here for?”
“I wanted to tell you that I am betrothed to your son Thereus.”
He looked at me for some time without saying anything, and I longed for him to tell me that he was pleased and that we would return to Athoros together where I could marry Thereus. But in the end he only said, “My son can find a more useful wife than you. I am sorry.”
“How dare you?” I said in a whisper.
He sighed. “There was once, a long time ago, a boy who saw how much suffering there was around him from want of money and decided that someday he would be rich enough to help. But with time he learned how easy it is to let things slip out of one’s fingers, and with time he grew tight-fisted and wary. Too wary to give his son a disgraced bard as a bride.”
“I understand,” I said, meaning nothing of the sort.
“Seek a different husband, go and find your own happiness, but just leave me now. I am busy. I am always busy.”
Despondent, I returned to my chambers, which had been mine for so many years but soon would be mine no longer. Anadiu was knocking at my door, and when he saw me he stepped aside. “I wanted to say goodbye,” he said.
“Thank you, Anadiu. Goodbye” I kissed his cheek and he blushed.
“You will be missed greatly,” he said, bowing. “I will try to speak to Sarwe. Heaven bless you.”
It was Eambrin who saw me off at the docks when I left a week later. I had turned around to see the walls and tower of Tortarven, and closed my eyes against threatening tears, when I saw her making her way slowly towards me.
“I am sorry, Branwei,” she said sadly. “Perhaps the king will reconsider in time.”
“Perhaps. But I will not be unhappy in Sertarven; there are libraries and scholars there,” I said, hiding my true thoughts.
“I am proud of you,” Eambrin said, and embraced me. “Heaven’s blessings be upon you.”
“Thank you, Eambrin. And upon you.”
“There is one more thing: when you reach Sertarven, seek a woman named Keridwei Mithabax. She was your nurse when you were an infant. Ask her about the troubles twenty years ago. There is something I think has been kept from you too long, and you should have the right to know it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Maybe I am wrong, and I will regret it. But seek out Keridwei.”
“All right. Farewell, Eambrin.” When at last I was aboard the ship as it moved away, I stood and watched until the High Tower itself was nothing more than a faint distant line.
It was in my room on the ship that Thereus first appeared to me. It was in the evening, and I had been reading my copy of Ler’s song of Heaven (this, I think, was significant) when I looked up and saw him. At first I thought he was present in the flesh, and jumping to my feet I threw my arms around him, only to find that they passed through the air. He looked at me with a sad smile, much like his old confident smile but with all the joy drained out of it. “I love you,” he told me. “I will always love you. Be careful to keep your feet on the right path.” Then he was gone.