I did not expect a warm welcome in Tortarven, and I was not given one. I was turned away at the gates of the palace, where I was told that Sarwe would allow me back into the city, but not into the palace to see him. So I stayed with Jazun’s cousin Ravati and his wife instead and listened to them plot. Ravati had been surprised when he first saw me, but I could see the thoughts foaming up in his mind. He told us that Sarwe had imprisoned Jazun’s parents for their obstinance in the tax dispute, that Sarwe was in the grip of despair over my loss and the failure of the auguries, that Sarwe lashed out in anger at anyone who dared to question him.
It was then that Dheukal came to me. I had been speaking with Jazun about Thereus, telling him how I had seen Thereus several times since I left Rhos. Although I know I he didn’t mean it, Jazun’s words stung like nettles. “But he has sent no messages.”
“He is alive,” I said. “I know he is.”
“You are quite correct,” said Dheukal from the open door behind us. He had to remind me that we had met on the ship to Rhos before I remembered him, yet he seemed entirely different, sharp-eyed and clear-tongued now where he had been dull and wandering before. “I am a friend of Thereus, but he needs your help.”
“Where is he?” I asked. “Why hasn’t he come for me?”
“He has been held in prison for these past months, and only recently has he been allowed to leave.” Dheukal was wearing an eye-shaped amulet around his neck, I remember. I have since made inquiries into the symbol: it is associated with the Melai Ratula, a school of philosophy outwardly dedicated to clear thinking and the exercise of the mind, but which was rumored to have a more esoteric purpose. All accounts say that it died out decades ago. “But he will not be able to come to you for some time. He has a task to accomplish for which he needs something that you possess. A golden cloak which protects and shields. It was first made long ago to defend against a council of magicians who held the islands in their grip, and with the passing of millennia it will come back to its old purpose again.”
“How do you know all this?” I asked, taking a step away from him. “And why should I believe that Thereus sent you?”
“Thereus did not send me. I act of my own accord.” Then he took the eye amulet from around his neck and held it out to me. “Take a hold of this.”
Something flashed across my vision when I did and for an instant I saw Thereus lying in a bed, his face pale as he tossed and turned. “Is he ill?” I asked in distress as the image vanished.
“Yes, but he is in no danger from it. Far greater threats lie ahead of him than a passing miasma. You no longer need the golden cloak for yourself; your battle is over. His has not yet begun.”
I shut my eyes to stop their tears. “And he will return when it is over?”
“Who can say with certainty what the future will bring us? Even the seers spoke vaguely.”
“We can say, we who watch the stars.”
“I am a man of the seas, not of the sky. All I can tell you is that a hundred waves threaten to drown us all unless Thereus can be protected by the golden cloak.”
“Why him? He is courageous and honest, but surely someone else could be found better suited?”
“Why Thereus? Why me? Why you? The chosen oar does not question the rower.”
“How can you be sure who is chosen?”
Dheukal looked at me then, mocking me with feigned amazement. “You ask this? You who set out for Meloros because you saw it written in the stars and so doing set Thereus on his path?”
“Yes, I ask this. What do you mean when you say Thereus is chosen? You say yourself you are not a watcher of the stars.”
“The green emerald that you have seen around his neck is the sign. It had been in that hill since one of his ancestors died there fighting the Lords of the Night. He has claimed it again and will fulfill the destiny of his family, the heirs of mist-shrouded Saina.”
“I think you are mad,” I said, and didn’t bother to hide my tears any more, “but I know you are a friend of Thereus. I will give you the cloak and hasten Thereus’s return, or so I hope. Send him my love.”
Dheukal bowed low. “Thank you, my lady,” he said. When he had gone with the cloak, I fell into my chair and rested my head on my arms. Jazun put his hand on my shoulder as if to comfort me, but I was not in a mood to be comforted.
Some days later Jazun asked me if I would try to go to the palace again, to plead with Sarwe on his parents’ behalf. I went, and again I was turned away. So instead I went to Ravati. Now, Ravati has since become one of the chief figures in these Heaven-cursed wars, but when I met him he played for smaller stakes, hoping to extract whatever concessions he could out of Sarwe. It was he who had sent Jazun to kidnap me, but now he had other plans for me.
And, alas, I was too easily persuaded. Ravati spoke of Ler the bard, whose song had wrought so great a change in King Movan. He spoke of Sarwe’s past and present injustices, and I agreed to write satires to spread among the people of Gineadh.
Jazun learned of what I was doing when he found Ravati advising me as I wrote. “What poetry has so pleased my unpoetic cousin?” he wondered, leaning over my shoulder. “Hello, Branwei. Writing about the king, I see. What is Ravati getting you into?”
“I do this of my own accord,” I said. “Sarwe has gone too far.”
“So you have passed from the song of Heaven to this? Are you sure you are doing the right thing?”
“It is not your decision to make, Jazun,” said Ravati.
“How terrible it would be for your plans, I imagine, if she changed her mind.”
“Your parents’ freedom may depend on this.”
“Enough,” I said, irritated by their argument. “Jazun, I see no other course for me to take. But Ravati, it is not your decision either. I am glad to hear Jazun’s concerns.”
Jazun cleared his throat and said, “It is just that it does not feel right. I have a plan of my own, or rather I am devising one, to plead before the throne if necessary. You need not do this. You will cut yourself off forever from Sarwe.”
“So be it. It is no matter to me.” What a terrible lie I was committing. “I am no longer Sarwe’s daughter.” I couldn’t explain to him how Sarwe had betrayed and murdered my parents. I couldn’t explain to him how these dual images of Sarwe, the betrayer and the father, were tearing me in two, and at the time I couldn’t explain to myself how this fracture was pulling my actions. I apologize for this self-indulgence, which may seem to have nothing to do with Thereus, but so many have asked me over the years about what I did or failed to do, and this is the best answer I can make. Thereus would appear to me one more time, as you will see.
Jazun whirled on Ravati. “What game are you playing? You’re using her in some scheme, aren’t you?”
“I wish I could, but she is too strong-willed to be used. I told you that before, and it will take a great deal to change my mind.”
Jazun stared hard at Ravati. “I can never be sure when you are lying. But let’s assume that you want Branwei to write satires on the king. Then what? Sarwe’s heart will be wounded? He will repent of his tyranny? Just who do you want to read these satires?”
“You are moderately clever, neither foolish nor wise. Which means you are a nuisance. Let me put it in these words, and then I will say no more to you, my cousin. The time for small stakes has passed. Now we must gamble everything we have.” His sharp eyes met mine, and he shepherded Jazun out the door, leaving me alone to work.
I fear the place has come for me to explain my actions, and how it was that I failed the test that was set before me. Thereus would have done better. Thereus had been a young man, and foolish in the way that so many young men are: eager to prove himself, eager to impress me, eager to quarrel. But I do not think he would ever betray someone who trusted in him. This is how I know that it was really him who appeared to me, to keep his promise.
Thereus would certainly never have betrayed his father, no matter how much he rankled under him and disagreed with him. But I, wretched bard, blind diviner, wrote satires against my father, and not even of my own will, but at the bidding of a schemer and a plotter. What was I thinking? I was thinking that I could make Sarwe release Jazun’s parents. I was thinking that I could make Sarwe repent of his injustices as I understood them. I was thinking that I could avenge the death of my parents. I was thinking that I could make Sarwe take me back.
And he did in the end, or so I thought. An invitation came for me to attend the First Branch feast in the palace, and I accepted. I remember that the wind was howling as if to tear down the cliffs when Jazun confronted me. “I have no idea what could be going through your mind,” he said. “Except perhaps a longing for martyrdom. The satirist Branwei finally provokes the tyrant to the point that he imprisons her.”
I wasn’t sure how to explain myself, so I could only say, “I will do as you had wished, and plead for your parents. He will not dare to lay hands on a bard.”
The long dining hall was familiar to me, and although I was stepping into the enemy’s lair I knew at the same time that I was coming home. I was seated between two minor nobles, Lord Dhalis and Lady Paseari, and I half-listened to their tedious conversations as I waited for the king. I do not know what has become of those two in the past years.
At last the king, Sarwe, my father, arrived, and my heart skipped a beat. He took his place at the head of the table and raised his hands to Heaven. “Winter has seized the Islands,” he said in Old Esu. Familiar words that nevertheless meant something more to me as he said them. “The sun abandons us to the darkness at the heart of the sea. But this is according to the order of Heaven and by the order of Heaven the light will return to us and the green things of the Islands will flourish once more. Let us praise the order of Heaven.” He lowered his hands back to the table and sat, beginning the feast.
There was savory lamb and mushrooms; fish and kelp; iced fruit and spiced tea. I remember the meal very well, though ate sparingly out of my worry. There was an unfamiliar taste to the tea, bitter but not unpleasant.
“So why were you banished?” Paseari asked me. “Rumor says it was for indiscretions with a kitchen boy.”
“Rumor is ridiculous,” I told her.
“And when you return you stir up dissension against Sarwe with your satires. Very curious,” said Dhalis.
I found no easy answer to this, especially as my head was beginning to ache. Paseari said something trivial, and Dhalis began talking to whoever was on the other side of him, but I was finding it difficult to concentrate on either.
“They say the diviners are all worried dreadfully about some sort of disaster,” said Paseari. “Maybe the stars will fall down upon us and the waters will drown us.” Her words were curiously loud.
The rest of the feast passed in a gray haze for Branwei. I was aware of pain throughout my body and unable to focus on what I had come there for. My memory is hazy, but I do recall stumbling out from the palace, trembling.
The next thing I remember is wrapping my arms around myself because of the cold air and stone beneath me. The only light was dim, from a flickering lamp held out by a man with a mask over his face. “Matsen,” I said.
“Branwei,” he replied, his voice almost a whisper.
“I should have expected Sarwe would betray me.”
“Our king is many things, but he is not as wicked as that. I am the one you should be blaming. I am the one who does what Sarwe cannot. He does not know the tenth of what I do to keep him on his throne.”
“Are you going to kill me?”
“I might. Either way you will never see the sky again. You should not have made yourself into a tool for rebels. Were you that angry at your exile?”
“I would avenge my parents,” I said. The mask of blazing eyes and grimacing mouth seemed to be regarding me closely. “Sarwe turned them to their enemies when he had promised to protect them.”
“I am the one who does what Sarwe cannot,” Matsen repeated.
“How could you?”
“I am damned, and I would heap further damnation upon myself. I will commit sin after sin to keep the land from tearing itself apart.”
“Heaven protect me.” It was if I had been plunged into deep black water without hope of air.
“Heaven did not protect the first woman to stand in my way, and it will not protect you either. With every breath I take I defy Heaven, I defy conscience, and I defy love. All these things I threw away to take my first steps down this road, and I did so rightly. A girl, a pretty girl who kept ducks, wept and clung to my feet. I turned away from her and never looked back. Do you think I will look back from your death?”
It was at that very moment that Thereus faced the Lords of the Night in Nemhir. I wish I could explain the bond of magic that connected us, but it remains a mystery to me. Dheukal knew, I think, but he told very little of what he knew. All I know is that a bright light blinded me and I stood in a tall room, shivering as the cold became far more intense. Before me were eleven cloaked figures seated around a round wooden table at the middle of which was a pool of pale blue water. Their skeletal hands lifted towards me and grabbed at me, and it felt as if they were pulling my very soul apart as emerald flashes covered my vision.
“I faced the High Circle and I will stand against you!” I whispered. From elsewhere, filling me, came the peace of Heaven and a love that centered me and strengthened me. Most of all, hope flowed into me to battle despair. The hands reaching for me slipped away as the cloaked figures wailed loudly, and then I left Thereus behind, and I was in the depths of Tortarven again.
“Branwei! Are you there?” The voice was familiar, and I called out to it.
Matsen jumped back and I heard the sound of a sword being unsheathed. The lamp fell to the ground amid a clatter of footsteps.
“Stand aside by the order of the king!” said the familiar voice.
“The king has no power over me. Turn back!” replied Matsen. Metal clanged on metal once, then came a duller tearing sound and a loud anguished scream. There was silence for a moment. I found the lamp and lifted it to see my cousin Anadiu kneeling by Matsen’s side, holding the mask in his hands.
“I wish I had not killed him,” Anadiu said.
“You had no choice,” I told him. I approached Matsen and held the lamp over his face, which apart from its pallid color was unremarkable, like the face of any other man.
“I always thought he would be deformed hideously,” said Anadiu. “I wonder why he wore it. It is heavy.”
“How did you find me?” I asked.
“Sarwe sent me to look for you in the dungeons. He told me to tell you he was sorry, and then he repeated several times ‘I have lost her.’” Anadiu was shifting from foot to foot. “He told me to take you out of the palace.”
“He is releasing from his cells all of the prisoners he has taken recently, too. Perhaps there was an augury.”
And so I reach the end of my story, for I have no wish to go on to the death of Sarwe and the coronation of Anadiu, to the strife that followed upon the death of Glvath. That would all be years away, in any case. I have only one last thing to recount.
I was walking alone along the side of the cliff outside the city. The air was cold and crisp; the sea lapped at the rocks below. I felt as if I had awakened from a nightmare. I stopped for a moment to look out at the sea, and when I did I was aware that someone was standing at my side.
“I failed,” I told Thereus. “I allowed myself to succumb to the storm of my passions, and I’m afraid I’ve contributed to the evils of our age.”
“You defeated the High Circle,” he replied as if to comfort me.
“Why can’t you come back to me? I loved you, Thereus.”
“And I loved you.” He put his hand on my shoulder. I had thought of a hundred things to say to him when we were reunited, but could find none of them in my mouth then. “Go in peace, Branwei. You’ve done what Heaven asked you and what Krasoa prophesied of you. Lesser deeds await you now.”
“But what about you?” I pleaded. “What can I do now?”
“I go to walk with Heaven. Branwei, beloved, you should do the same.”
He was gone after that, and I was left to walk alone. It would be pleasant to say that ahead of me I saw Jazun in the distance, but I did not.
There is nothing I can add to the legend of Thereus, the great hero of Nemhir, whose name means pearl and who was a precious pearl indeed. My account has wandered and spent far too much time on my own deeds, though I can say honestly that the best of them I would not have done were it not for Thereus. I only hope I have added something to the story of Thereus, the man I loved.
The seventh day of Vrvoal, in the year 8584