‘I’ve got a fair idea of who’s going to ascend the holy throne when dear Parok leaves us,’ Jalkan declared.

3

As it turned out, however, things didn’t go exactly as Hiera Jalkan and Adnari Estarg had been most certain that they would. All right-thinking men know that mighty Kaldacin is the very center of the universe, and that Divine Amar had intended it to be so since the beginning of time.

There were heretics, however - mostly in the southern reaches of the Empire - who steadfastly refused to accept the desires of Divine Amar. Rational men knew that Divine Amar had, in his infinite wisdom, chosen Adnari Estarg to succeed Holy Parok VII as Naos of all the world, but the heretics of the south turned away and, without consultation of any kind, they elevated a little-known Oran named Udar to the holy throne of the Naos.

The churchmen of mighty Kaldacin thought that was terribly funny, and they laughed long and hard at this colossal absurdity.

The laughter faded, however, when twelve armies marched up from the south and surrounded mighty Kaldacin.

The citizens of Kaldacin didn’t think that was very appropriate, so they turned to the various armies whose compounds lay within the city walls.

The armies, however, followed the advice of the well-known Commander Narasan when he declared, ‘We don’t get involved in religious squabbles.’

‘But what are we going to do?’ the civil and religious authorities wailed.

‘I’d strongly advise capitulation,’ Narasan replied. ‘That’s entirely up to you, though.’ And he turned around and walked away.

The imperial government collapsed about then, and the armies of the south met little resistance as they marched through the gates. They occupied the imperial palace and the holy convenium of the Amarite church. The heretics of the south delivered several ultimatums to the true church hierarchy. The ultimatums were couched in formal terms, of course, but the meaning was fairly clear. ‘If you don’t do exactly as we tell you, we’ll kill you,’ gets right to the point.

The ceremony that elevated the little-known Udar to the position of Naos took less than half an hour, and the acceptance speech of Naos Udar IV took even less time. He said, ‘Divine Amar has sent me here to cleanse the church, and I will obey him. If anybody here gets in my way, I’ll trample him into the dust.’

A sudden chill came over Jalkan at that point.

‘Will anyone here speak in the defense of this foul miscreant?’ the ornately robed Amarite judge demanded, giving the chained prisoner Jalkan a look of profoundest contempt.

Jalkan cringed, looking hopefully at his friend, Adnari Estarg.

Estarg however, turned his eyes away, and Jalkan’s last hope faded.

‘I didn’t really think so,’ the judge declared. ‘Unfortunately, church law forbids a sentence of death for any member of the clergy - even one of such low rank as the accused. It is therefore the decision of this court that the accused shall be taken hence to a public square and there he shall receive fifty lashes and then be stripped of his membership in the clergy. Let it be known further that no adherent of the Amarite faith shall have any contact with this vile beast, nor will shelter or food be made available to him for so long as he lives. Now get this trash out of my sight.’

The Regulators stripped Jalkan down to his loincloth, chained him to the post in the middle of the square, and then flogged him to within an inch of his life with long whips, ignoring his screams and shrill cries for mercy.

He was blubbering and bleeding profusely when they unchained him. He snatched up his clothes and fled with the mocking laughter of the crowd of commoners who had gathered to watch his punishment following him.

He went into a secluded alley and pulled on his clothes, muttering curses all the while. Everything had been going so well, and then that cursed Udar had usurped the divine throne of the Naos, and Jalkan’s world had all gone to pieces.

Adnari Estarg had betrayed him to protect himself, but the high churchman probably hadn’t had much choice in the matter.

Right now, Jalkan had something much more important to attend to. It was absolutely essential for him to return to his cell in the church dormitory to gather up his clothes and other belongings before word of his ejection from the church became general knowledge. Far more important than clothes, however, was the carefully concealed purse under his cot. In his present circumstances, that money was an absolute necessity. Without the purse, he’d be a pauper with no prospects whatsoever.

As luck had it, the novice who was guarding the door of the church dormitory was half-drunk, and he waved Jalkan through without any questions. Jalkan nodded briefly and went directly to his cell.

He heaved an enormous sigh of relief when he entered. Nothing had been disturbed - yet. He was certain that when word of his recent dismissal got out, people would be standing in line waiting for the opportunity to rummage through his cell. Wincing in pain, he crawled under his cot and retrieved the worn-out old shoe lying against the back wall. The weight of that discarded shoe brightened an otherwise gloomy day.

Jalkan discarded his clergyman’s robe and garbed himself in his best clothing. Then he took the heavy purse out of the tired old shoe and tucked it down into the top of his boot. He gave his cell a final look. All in all, his career in the church had been quite profitable, but it was obviously time to move on.

The recent refusal of Commander Narasan to become involved in church squabbles raised an interesting possibility. Jalkan was fairly sure that his purse filled with gold crowns would get Commander Narasan’s immediate attention, and a career as an army officer might be even more exciting than a career in the church. ‘I guess it’s worth a try,’ he muttered to himself as he left the dormitory. ‘I think I’ve just about exhausted the possibilities the church has to offer, and I was getting more than a little tired of all the praying and groveling anyway.’

4

Jalkan had a bit of trouble adjusting to military life. There hadn’t been much physical activity involved in being a member of the clergy, so he wasn’t really in very good shape. Running five miles before breakfast every morning corrected that after a few weeks, but he still didn’t like it very much.

Then there’d been his training in swordsmanship, and after a very short time he’d come to hate the balding officer named Gunda, who was his instructor. Jalkan had assumed that his very expensive commission as an officer in Commander Narasan’s army had bought him a certain amount of respect, but Gunda didn’t seem to understand the meaning of the word ‘respect’, and his vocabulary was quite colorful. Every time Jalkan made the slightest mistake, Gunda showered him with curses and ridicule.


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