To some degree, perhaps, that blank spot in the minds of the outlanders could have grown out of their lack of awareness - or interest - in the extensive education Omago had received from Veltan since his early childhood. He was fairly sure that no out-lander from the Trogite Empire or the Land of Maag had ever had a god for his teacher. The ‘connections’ which had come to Omago had been second nature, actually. Omago habitually moved from ‘effect’ to ‘cause’, and that seemed to be unnatural for the outlanders. They always seemed to think in the opposite direction. Evidently it had never occurred to them that the source of most inventions was ‘I need something that will do that,’ not ‘I wonder what I’ll be able to do with this thing if I make it.’

Omago was forced to concede that he had made a serious blunder, however. Jalkan’s insult had been a perfect opportunity to eliminate what might well turn out to be a serious danger down the line. ‘I should have killed him right there on the spot,’ Omago muttered regretfully. ‘Narasan even went so far as to offer me the opportunity, and I passed it up - probably because I didn’t want to offend the Trogites. I’m almost certain that we haven’t seen the last of that foul-mouthed lecher.’

Then a peculiar notion came to him. Could it be that Ara had deliberately instilled that lust in Jalkan? Omago was almost positive that she could have done that. She’d certainly done it to hint when they’d first met in his orchard. Just the sight of her had made him her captive. If she had, in fact, set Jalkan’s mind to moving in that direction, it was quite obvious what she’d been after. Omago cursed himself. He’d failed her. She’d almost certainly have wanted him to respond in the most primitive way - bashing Jalkan’s brains out or ripping him up the middle with that iron knife.

‘If that’s what she really wanted, I wish she’d told me what she had in mind.’ He shrugged. ‘Ah, well,’ he sighed. ‘Maybe next time.’

The Betrayal

1

Jalkan of Kaldacin was the sole remaining member of a once-J prominent family of the Trogite Empire. Many of his ancestors had served with honor and distinction in the Palvanum, and others had been advisors to historically significant emperors. The family had accumulated wealth, prestige and power over the years, and the names of several members were prominently displayed on various public monuments.

In the past century, however, Jalkan’s family had gone into a steep decline. Various ne’er-do-wells had squandered away the family’s wealth in wanton debauchery, gambling and drinking to excess. Moneylenders pursued them, and a fair number of Jalkan’s recent ancestors had spent their final years in assorted debtors’ prisons.

By the time Jalkan himself reached maturity, the family’s reputation had been irrevocably tarnished, and there were very few career opportunities available to him.

He considered the possibility of joining the ranks of the assorted Trogite syndicates that were currently amassing vast fortunes in the Land of Shaan. The notion of swindling ignorant savages out of their gold had a certain appeal, but he quickly discarded that idea when word of a colossal disaster reached Kaldacin. Evidently some idiot, far gone in drink, had boasted about his success in the wrong place and in front of the wrong people, and the natives of the Land of Shaan had gone on a rampage, slaughtering (and feasting on) every Trogite they could lay their hands on.

Jalkan, now facing the prospect of hard, honest work for scant pay, turned instead to the last refuge of the scoundrel. Dressed in his most sober clothing and wearing a someberly pious expression, he began to attend holy services in the local Amarite convenium three or four times a day.

In due time, one of the minor Hieras in the hallowed convenium noticed Jalkan and brought him to the attention of the Oran as a potential member of the clergy. The Oran interviewed Jalkan and enrolled him as a novice, demanding scarcely more than a third of Jalkan’s very limited remaining assets as a sign of good faith.

Jalkan winced, but finally agreed.

His first few months as a very junior member of the clergy were moderately unpleasant, since the Amarite hierarchy devoted much effort to weeding out apprentices who were excessively unworthy. Jalkan was clever enough not to steal too much and to discredit those of his fellow novices who were overly honest or obviously more clever than he was.

His cunning was noted by his superiors, and it generally met with their approval.

Jalkan’s most immediate goal as a novice had been to take the next step up to the rank of Hiera. A Hiera in the Amarite faith was not required to do much hard labor, and he was even assigned his own room. The rooms of the Hieras were called ‘cells’, and they were very tiny, but they were far better than the rank-smelling first-floor dormitories where the novices were crammed together like cattle.

Because he was marginally literate, Jalkan’s duties as a Hiera were largely limited to administration, and he was somewhat startled to discover that nearly half of the Empire belonged to the Amarite church. The vast church estates produced much of the Empire’s food - for a handsome price - and the annual rent on various buildings in the capital city of Kaldacin brought in staggering amounts of money.

It was on a gloomy afternoon in late winter that Jalkan came across an ancient document that gave an account of the closing of a rundown convenium in one of the poorer districts of the imperial city of Kaldacin. If the time-faded document was correct, the structure had been closed for nearly a century, and the financial records of the church showed that it had not brought in so much as a single copper penny in all those years. If that were indeed the case, Jalkan realized that he could very well be the only man in the world who even knew of the existence of the building.

Overcome with curiosity, Jalkan bundled himself up in his heavy cloak and walked across town to the district where the convenium was supposedly located.

There was a crumbling old stone wall surrounding the tired-looking structure, and the building itself was quite nearly hidden by trees and bushes.

Jalkan was very disappointed. He’d hoped that the abandoned convenium might prove to be of some value, but it was quite obvious why the place wasn’t bringing in any money. A good sneeze would probably bring it tumbling down.

Then, even as he was turning away in disgust, his eye caught a faint glimmer of light coming through a crumbling board that partially covered one of the windows. Unless it happened to be on fire, the ancient building was obviously not as deserted as it had seemed at first glance.

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