In time, however, Jalkan became more proficient, but he still couldn’t see why it was necessary. He was an officer, after all. He was supposed to give orders, not become involved in the actual business of killing people. That was the job of the ordinary soldiers, not the officers.

It was about a month after Jalkan had bought his commission that Commander Narasan’s army had been hired to take part in a small war off to the East of the empire. The officer named Padan referred to the war as ‘a slight unpleasantness’. Padan, Jalkan felt, had a very warped sense of humor. To Jalkan’s way of looking at things, ‘unpleasantness’ was a gross understatement.

After a year or so, Jalkan became better adjusted to the life of a soldier, and he even began to enjoy it. Because Commander Narasan was perhaps the finest and most skilled strategist in all the Empire, the various wars his army was hired to undertake were usually quite short, and the eventual outcome was quite predictable - so predictable, in fact, that it was not unusual for the opposing army to capitulate as soon as they realized that they’d be fighting against Narasan’s army.

Jalkan definitely approved of that. The pay was good, and there wasn’t much danger involved. It occurred to him that the time he’d spent as a clergyman had actually been wasted. He was born to be a soldier.

It was during Jalkan’s third year in Narasan’s army that the father of young Keselo purchased a commission for his son. At first, Jalkan was quite sure that he and the rather stuffy young aristocrat would become close friends, but Keselo remained aloof. Evidently, Keselo’s years as a student at the University of Kaldacin had given him an exaggerated opinion of himself. Jalkan had encountered that often during his years in the Amarite church. Some men simply could not accept the fact that their education had not really ennobled them. Jalkan turned his back on Keselo at that point. He didn’t really need friends anyway.

Then in the spring of Jalkan’s fifth year as an officer in Narasan’s army, a duke from the southern part of the Empire approached Commander Narasan with a very generous offer. As nearly as Jalkan was able to determine, an old baron had recently died without an heir, and the rulers of two nearby duchies had been squabbling for almost a year about which one of them should annex the barony as ‘a protectorate’.

The duke who’d approached Commander Narasan had evidently grown tired of the endless argument, and he’d decided to take a more direct approach.

The money was good, and Commander Narasan had quickly agreed.

Jalkan, however, had a few doubts. The southern reaches of the Empire had given rise to the heresy that had placed the usurper Udar IV on the holy throne of the Naos of the Amarite faith, so Jalkan had good reason not to trust anybody who came from that region.

As it had turned out, Jalkan’s doubts had been even more valid than he’d thought. The opposing duke had secretly hired three armies to oppose Commander Narasan’s force, and the results had been disastrous.

Jalkan never fully understood Narasan’s reaction to the unfortunate events in the south of the Empire. Twelve cohorts had been slaughtered during the battle, but very few officers had fallen. The vast majority of the casualties had been common soldiers, so they weren’t really all that significant. Narasan, however, had gone into deep mourning. Then he’d broken his sword and left the army compound to take up begging in a scruffy part of the city of Kaldacin.

That raised a number of very interesting possibilities. There were several officers who outranked Jalkan, of course, but that wasn’t really a major obstacle. Jalkan knew quite a few professional assassins who normally worked for the higher-ranking churchmen. Once Gunda, Padan - and most certainly Keselo - were out of the way, Jalkan would be the logical successor to Narasan.

That lit a warm little fire in his heart, and he began to work on his agenda. Quite obviously, the common soldiers in the army were being grossly overpaid. Once Jalkan assumed command, his first order of business would be to reduce those wages by half at the very least, and after he’d made examples of the more vociferous objectors, the rest of the army would accept the decrees of their new commander. If everything went according to his plans, Commander Jalkan would soon be collecting as much or more money than even Adnari Estarg had been raking in.

Jalkan felt that was only right and proper. His future was beginning to look brighter and brighter.

Some months later, the cursed foreigner Veltan arrived in Kaldacin, and in less than a week Jalkan’s grand plan tumbled down around his ears. Commander Narasan returned to the army compound and snatched Jalkan’s glorious future right out from under him.

Jalkan tried his best to conceal his disappointment, but when he was alone, he spent much of his time inventing new curse-words.

5

Jalkan had been quite certain that the foreigner Veltan had deceived Commander Narasan during their negotiations, but when the advance force reached Castano after the long march from Kaldacin, Veltan sailed into the harbor in a rickety fishing sloop and delivered ten blocks of what appeared to be pure gold.

That definitely got Jalkan’s attention, and he made a point of being in Narasan’s cabin on board the large Trogite vessel Narasan had hired to carry most of the officers off to the north when the commander carried the blocks on board. Jalkan definitely wanted to know just exactly where that gold was located.

Commander Narasan put the blocks inside the large trunk at the bottom of his bed almost indifferently, and then handed a large map to Jalkan. ‘Give this to Gunda,’ he said. ‘It’ll show him the path to follow that’ll get the fleet through that belt of ice-floes lying between here and the Land of Dhrall.’

‘Yes, sir!’ Jalkan replied crisply, coming to attention and saluting smartly. He was fairly certain that a pose of strict military behavior was appropriate just now. A number of very interesting possibilities had turned up, and Jalkan thought it might be best to keep his interest in that gold strictly to himself.

After Commander Narasan and Veltan had sailed north in the fishing sloop, Gunda took charge of the advance force and they made preparations to sail from Castano.

Jalkan agonized over the monumental choice that was facing him at that point. He knew exactly where those ten blocks of gold were stored, and Commander Narasan hadn’t even bothered to lock that trunk. On the other hand, Veltan had told them that the Land of Dhrall had whole mountains of gold just sitting there waiting for somebody to gather it up. To be sure, Jalkan could quite easily appropriate those ten blocks and be gone before anyone noticed, but that would forever put the mountains of gold in the Land of Dhrall beyond his reach. A kind of paralysis came over him, and he was unable to make the choice.


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