Commander Narasan, however, refused to uphold the law, and he even went so far as to revoke the commission Jalkan had bought and paid for.

Jalkan protested vigorously, but Commander Narasan ignored his fully justified protests, and then, to Jalkan’s utter disbelief, Narasan ordered Padan to chain him and take him back to the harbor where the fleet was anchored to await a final decision.

The thing that none of them seemed to realize was that Jalkan’s comments had been intended as compliments.

6

The rank injustice of the entire affair filled Jalkan with a sense of outrage. His rights and privileges as an officer had been violated again and again, but not one fellow officer had come forward to lodge a protest.

It was quite obvious by now that Narasan had agreed to sell Jalkan his commission only to get his hands on all that gold, and he’d seized on the opportunity in Veltan’s palace to revoke the commission and keep the gold for himself. Now Jalkan was filled with a towering resentment and a hunger for revenge.

He considered the matter, and he soon realized that there was an extremely simple solution. He was very familiar with certain high-ranking members of the Amarite clergy, and he was certain that the word ‘gold’ would get their immediate attention. The only problem there lay in the fact that sooner or later he’d have to show them gold to gain their support. That wouldn’t be much of a problem, though. He knew exactly where he could get his hands on more gold than any churchman had ever seen all at one time.

He was still chained up in the hold of the ship that served as Commander Narasan’s floating headquarters, but that wouldn’t really be much of a problem. During his novitiate in the Amarite faith he’d frequently dealt with locked doors, and the lock on the chain that held him wasn’t all that complex. Despite Padan’s thorough search of him when he’d been confined here in the hold of this Trogite ship, Jalkan still had several small weapons concealed about his person, and the little stiletto tucked away in his boot had unlocked any number of doors during his early years in the church. Freedom was within his grasp.

Freedom here in the Land of Dhrall wouldn’t mean very much, though, but the solution to that problem was anchored not far from his prison. Jalkan smiled. There was a certain kind of justice involved. Veltan hadn’t stepped in or objected when Narasan had violated Jalkan’s rights, and Veltan was very proud of that little sloop of his.

Jalkan waited for a few days, and then he pulled off his boot, took out his hidden stiletto, and unlocked the chain that held him. He put his ear to the wall of his temporary prison and listened to the gradually diminishing sounds of activity. When all seemed quiet, he opened the door and climbed the ladder to the upper deck. He crouched in the shadows for a while longer, and then he moved on silent feet toward the stern and Commander Narasan’s locked cabin. He probed at the lock with his little stiletto and he was soon rewarded with a loud click.

The trunk at the foot of the bed was still unlocked, and Jalkan felt around in the trunk until he found one of the blocks Narasan had casually stored there.

Then Jalkan agonized over a cruel decision. He knew that he was going to have to swim to reach Veltan’s sloop, and gold was very heavy. There was just no getting around the fact that he couldn’t possibly take all the gold, since that much weight would pull him under. The decision to take only two of the blocks made him almost break down and cry.

Cursing under his breath, he left the cabin, unrolled one of the rope ladders, and silently climbed down.

The water was very cold, and the weight of the two gold blocks made it extremely difficult to keep his head above water. He was shivering violently with cold and exhaustion when he reached the sloop. He climbed on board and lay panting on the deck until he got his breath back. Then he sawed at the thick anchor-rope with one of his small, concealed knives for almost a quarter of an hour. When the rope finally gave way, Jalkan felt a surge of elation. He was finally free.

He sat on the bench in the center of the sloop, put the oars in place and rowed in the general direction of the open sea.

It was almost dawn before he was far enough away from the anchored fleet to feel at least partially safe, and the light breeze coming down from the north allowed him to set aside the oars and raise the single sail.

The Empire lay to the south, and Jalkan settled himself at the tiller, steering in the direction of incalculable wealth.

Adnari Estarg sat in stunned disbelief as he hefted the gold block Jalkan had just given him. ‘Why do they cast their gold in blocks like this, Jalkan?’ he asked. ‘Wouldn’t coins be more useful?’

‘They don’t use it as money, Your Grace,’ Jalkan explained. ‘They’re primitives, and as far as I was able to determine, they don’t really understand what gold is worth. They’d make fairly good slaves, though.’

‘Converts, Jalkan, converts,’ the Adnari corrected.

‘Doesn’t that mean the same thing?’

‘It sounds nicer, and if we keep waving the word “convert” around, it’ll justify what we’re doing in the eyes of Holy Udar IV.’

‘Is he still alive?’ Jalkan asked with a certain surprise. ‘I heard some rumors before Narasan’s army sailed off to the Land of Dhrall - something to the effect that the higher clergy had decided to eliminate him.’

‘He’s surrounded by fanatics, Jalkan. Our assassins can’t get anywhere near him.’ The Adnari squinted thoughtfully. ‘I think this Land of Dhrall you’ve described might just be too good an opportunity to pass up. There’s gold there - and thousands of potential slaves. That’s all very nice, but I think “distance” might be even more important.’

‘I don’t quite follow that, Your Grace.’

‘The Naos has his hands in every churchman’s purse, and he’s robbing us all blind. I suppose he’s entitled to a fair share, but his definition of “fair” goes way beyond what’s always been customary. Worse yet, he’s got spies everywhere, so it’s almost impossible to hide our profits from him. From your description, this Land of Dhrall is far enough away to keep his snoops out of our hair. We’ll see how it works out, but I’m beginning to catch a strong odor of “separation” here. We’ll still worship Amar in our new church, but we won’t be sending any of our money back here to Kaldacin. The merchants and traders will be very welcome, but the agents of Holy Udar will start having unfortunate accidents when they come to visit. After a decade or so, we’ll cut all ties with the church here in the Empire and strike out on our own.’

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