Broken Branch: Chapter 10

This is my confession. It is not my confession to the priests; they have forfeited that right by their venality and treason, with some few exceptions. It is not my confession to the king or his judges; I have already received a pardon, unworthy though I be. It is not my confession to Heaven; I make that daily and privately. What is this confession, then? It is a confession to the world.

My sins began in the great library of Rhos, a moment I would remember at times with thankfulness, regret, or a third feeling altogether. I was studying a scroll when Helore approached me and asked if I knew where Hoada’s map of the region of Thangar was. She was tall and stern-faced, but even at the start I was drawn to her.

As it happened, Hoada’s map was at my elbow, and I offered her a chair so she could study it alongside me. If you have not seen it, it is large enough for four people to examine it at a time, and is filled with detailed sketches and comments. I was particularly interested in what Hoada had reconstructed about Mealeaki’s invasion that blighted the land, but found myself glancing at Helore almost as much as the map.

I introduced myself, giving my name but nothing else: any fool could tell from my robes and shaved head what my occupation was.

“I am Helore,” she replied. “a scholar in the service of the king.”

I wondered, naturally, if King Hearaklakain was interested in reclaiming Thangar, but supposed that the priesthood would learn of it soon if he was. Although there is no real connection between Heaven and magic, many people seem to assume that all things unseen are similar.

“What brings you to study Thangar?” she asked me.

“I am interested in magic, I suppose, particularly that which arises from one man,” I told her. “Before Mealeaki there was no such power in the Islands, and after his defeat it was lost. Where did it come from? That was many centuries after the age of magic had ended. The Lords of the Night and their attempt to conquer Nemhir interests me too, but there is little information on that. Forgive me if I ramble.”

“No, these are things I have always been fascinated by as well.”

“And yet, despite their magic, both failed.”

Helore smiled at last and made a final note in her book. “A priest with such interests is one I would like to speak more with.” She, at least, did not identify the invisible with Heaven. “There are few enough who care to discuss such things with me. Perhaps I will arrange to come back here soon.”

That evening I returned to my home in the priests’ section of the hill of Rhos. I had then an enviable collection of books and scrolls, some my own, some copies I had made, and some I had purchased or inherited from my parents, scholars both. Looking upon that evening I found myself strangely unsatisfied, though I wasn’t able yet to put a name to my dissatisfaction.

The next day I walked to the Thiapol with my friend Plago, talking about the mundane affairs of the priesthood. He congratulated me, having heard rumors that I was to be elevated to the rank of Elder Priest soon. I rebuked him lightly for his proselytism on behalf of the Tikivs (and let this be my readers’ first warning of my hypocrisy).

“I teach with the approval of Arkein,” Plago told me. “You’ve heard of him: the High Priest. As I’ve told you before, Heaven and the Tikivala are perfectly compatible.”

“Worship of the Tikivala was dead long before even the time of Romureh. What hope do we have of resurrecting it properly? But never mind. We have debated this before and arrived at no conclusion.”

We seated ourselves near the top of the arena to hear the bard performing in honor of the fifty-third anniversary of Hearaklakain’s coronation. Hearaklakain had ruled for a long time, but it was surely the blessing of Heaven. He was loved by most in Thalata, except perhaps the nobility, whom he frustrated constantly. Their power waned to its lowest ebb since their establishment.

“I’m surprised you haven’t joined Krasoa’s party,” Plago said.

“My mind is not yet that settled,” I replied. “There is much I would consider yet before making a final decision. Krasoa claims strange things sometimes. He says the Tikivs were a fraud concocted by Romureh, but I have found references to the Tikívi in older texts.”

“He is a seer,” Plago said solemnly.

“And he takes that as license to argue with Arkein at every turn. But perhaps he is right. Perhaps Arkein is right. I do not know.” Too many things were unsettled in my mind at that time, but I was sure, at least, that I wanted to see Helore again.

It was that desire that brought me to the library again and again the next few days, though I pretended to myself that I wanted to clear up a question I had about Sotlaci verbs, then that I was interested in the development of the liturgy. My self-deceit was rewarded at last, and in the course of our renewed conversation I asked Helore what it was like to be in the direct service of the king.

“Not the direct service,” she answered. “But I know that he is a great man who has done innumerable things for the good of the Islands.”

“All the Islands? Not just Thalata?”

She smiled. It was a very attractive smile that I would like to describe, but I dare not let myself remember those days with any pleasure. “What is done in one place affects another. Hearaklakain has accomplished more than most know.”

Often in these conversations she would mention something I had never heard of: a golden cloak that had protected Sotlaci in the Millennial Deluge, a woman who had convinced Mealeaki to give up his pursuit of power, a small group of isolationist rebels over a thousand years ago in Nemhir. I asked her where she read this and she dodged the question each time. Despite my gnawing curiosity I enjoyed our conversations and was regretful when we parted.

I imagined foolish things sometimes but said nothing foolish. I learned that Helore’s parents were small merchants in Rhos, and that she had a brother who was also a scholar, and I told her that I was the only child of deceased parents. “You must feel alone, at times,” she said. “I do not know if I could manage without my family.”

“It is not so bad. I have many companions among the priests, and, of course, my books are companions in a way,” I would reply.

It was not difficult for me to draw the obvious conclusion. A scholar patronized by the king, knowing things I didn’t but refusing to give details. I finally asked her if she belonged to the Brotherhood of Theala.

“Yes, I am,” Helore answered, with a touch of pride in her voice. “I know some priests accuse us of vile things. I hope you are not one of them.”

“I have no opinion on the Brotherhood.”

“To be silent is to be wise, Xratoa said. Theala wrote a rebuttal of that, which I believe went to ten thousand words.” She laughed, a delightful sound. I still hear it in my ears at times. “It is true that need not believe in Heaven, but some of us do. What is important is that we believe in the five elements and all the ways they mingle.”

“Yet you will not allow priests as Brothers,” I said.

She looked at me; I could not read her eyes. “Not all of us would have it be so.” She gathered her book and writing kit and stood to go. “Not all of us.”

The Brotherhood of Theala was a secret society, but everyone knew that it existed, that King Hearaklakain favored the Brotherhood and gave them rooms in the Halls of Akain, and most regarded it as a strange eccentricity. I hadn’t given much thought to it before. But now I thought of Helore when I thought of the Brotherhood, and both were often in my mind. There were of course no copies of Theala’s Essays on Nature in the library of Rhos, but I found one or two works on the Brotherhood. Both were written by priests and were not favorable towards the society.

When, hungry for knowledge, I mentioned this to Helore, she brought me a book, the Essays on Nature themselves. Foolishly I asked if this were allowed, and her eyes laughed at me. “I decide for myself what is allowed,” she said. “It would be a pity for you not to learn what Theala wrote.”

The essays are disconnected, covering topics from the shapes of the planets to the color of hair. The common theme is Number and Element. In its abstractness it reminded me of some writings by priests from Karei which I had been shown once. I was captivated.

“You seem distracted lately,” Plago said to me one day. “Did some woman catch your heart in a net?”

“I hope so,” I told him. But it was more than Helore’s beauty that had captured me, it was Theala’s essays and the things hinted at in those pages. They are lost now, and I have written more of them in another place. He and his teachings have been unfairly maligned for many years, though they are not entirely innocent. A certain atheism lingered around its teaching and practices, to the extent that priests could not join the Brotherhood, yet even so, while assisting with the sacrifices my mind was not on Heaven but on Helore and the Essays.

A hook had been planted in me with regard to the Brotherhood, and I added more impossible dreams to those I had already built for myself. “I would give anything to gain more knowledge,” I confessed to Helore one day, about a week after the Feast of the Four. A confession not of contrition, but of unrighteous desire.

“Would you give up being a priest?” she asked me, and I said I would not. “We are alike then. There are things we will not surrender. Perhaps soon a crisis will come and force us to choose what is in fact most important.”

“And what is it that you won’t give up?”

“The Brotherhood itself. Tell me, do you play tasoth?”

“Sometimes. I prefer to study the symbolic meanings of the game.”

“Oh? And what would those be?”

I began explaining how each piece represented a different stage in the soul’s ascent to Heaven, but she hid her face and laughed. “I thought symbolism was important to the Brotherhood,” I said, offended.

“It is a different thing. Observe,” she said, opening her writing kit and dipping pen in ink. “There are six rows and twelve spaces in each, making seventy-two total spaces. The factors of seventy-two are thrice two and twice three, the sum of which makes twelve, the perfect number.”

“I see. What is the point of it?”

“Numbers are all. Haven’t you read those essays yet?” Obviously I had, and her words gnawed at me.

“And what of the soul and its concerns?” I asked bitterly.

“When one is in accordance with the order of nature, all else follows.”

“What is this order of nature?” This, at least, had not been in the essays.

“You don’t expect me to tell you the secrets of the Brotherhood, do you?”

“But you do expect me to learn them, by being initiated. Don’t you?”

“Do you wish to enter the Brotherhood?”

“Yes, if it were possible.”

“Priests cannot normally be initiated, but I have asked Paida, our leader, for an exception to be made. He agreed to consider it if you come to be interviewed tomorrow evening. Meet me outside the Halls of Akain.”

We are fools, all of us; we walk blind in the storm and then, when we open our eyes, we choose to step off a cliff. The wind drove me to my death and I was not unwilling to go.

She was there waiting for me, wrapped in a cloak against the autumn wind, and led me into the hall and to a door which she unlocked. Paida was waiting for me in the room beyond. He was a stocky man with a withered leg; from what I understand, the weakness of his body had led him to the exercise of his mind. Certainly he was one of the most learned men in the islands at the time.

“Priest Luxan,” he said. “You have been given a great honor. Welcome to the home of the Brotherhood. I am Paida, and I understand from Helore that you would study and seek with us.”

“I would,” I said, and I tried to hide my excitement and nervousness. I dreaded the idea that I might not be accepted, that they might judge me unworthy.

“I understand as well that your reputation is for your learning rather than your piety, not that I cast aspersions on the latter.”

“My father was a priest; he and my mother were scholars in a way. I admired them both greatly when they were alive and I try to emulate them to the best of my ability.”

“Tell me if you know, if you are wise. What are the three forms of government in the islands?”

“First rule by a single king, as in Lhaursi and Karei, second rule by a king and a council, as in Thalata, and third the manner of government of the primitive tribes of the Latiorn.”

“What are the three scholarly tongues?”

“The High Speech of vanished Raghjan, the language of lost Sotlaci, and Old Esu.”

“What is seven times nine?”

“Thrice thrice seven is thrice twenty-one, which is sixty-three.”

The questions went on, questions of history, philosophy, and arithmetic, until Paida was satisfied at last. “Knowledgeable you are indeed, Luxan. You may go now, and await my answer.”

I thanked Paida and left. I was relieved to be done at last and desperate to know if I was to be found acceptable. At that time I cared more about what Paida and the Brotherhood thought of me than any priest or even, I am sad to say, Heaven.

On my way to the Thiapol the next morning, I was met by Krasoa. I did not know him well, for I admit I distrusted him and his visions. He claimed to have insight from Heaven, but what he wrote was always confused and impossible to interpret or judge.

“Luxan,” Krasoa said to me. “I noticed that you have become withdrawn lately, spending a great deal of time in the library. You are attending to your proper duties at the sacrifices?” I told him I was. “Good. I suspect you will go far in the priesthood of Thalata if you are not led astray. This is not foresight, of course. It is just my intuition.”

“Thank you, Elder Priest.”

“Be wary, Luxan. Do not seek after the moon when you can train your eyes to gaze on the sun.”

I did not know what that meant, though I think I do now. “I will try to fulfill my duty to Heaven and to Thalata.”

“Heaven’s blessing upon you, then.”

When my duties for the day of fetching water, reciting prayers, and speaking to supplicants were done, it was late afternoon, and I descended the hill towards the greater city. In the shadow of the library I saw Helore, who stepped forward and wrapped her arms around me when she saw me. I could not tell before she spoke if she meant to congratulate or console me.

“Paida refused you, Luxan. He is wrong, horribly wrong. But you cannot be a Brother.”

This is what I thought at that moment. I felt something murky wrap around my heart and I held Helore tightly to me. Her eyes were dark and sad and angry, and fixed on my own. The thought went through my mind, for just a moment, that the Brotherhood would regret their mistake, and it left in me a terrible wrath that mingled with fierce desire until I could no longer tell one from the other.

And so I committed two sins that evening. I committed fornication with Helore (uncleanness of this type was not uncommon among the priests of Rhos, to our shame), and I allowed myself to be rotted by anger until I was ready to fall. And in my fall I would destroy not only myself but many others.

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