There were well-supervised children’s playrooms inside the buildings that housed the officers’ families, but after the children reached a certain age, the boys no longer played in the same rooms with the girls. Officers’ wives had opinions about that, for some reason.
It was perhaps for the same reason that the outside playgrounds for the children had always been somewhat separated from the drill fields and practice grounds of the soldiers. Mothers found some of the language used by soldiers very offensive, so they went to great lengths to protect their young.
Narasan and his friends spent most of their time playing soldier during their early years, armed with wooden swords and shields and under the watchful eyes of old disabled veterans who gave them instructions in marching and swordsmanship and kept them from hurting each other with their toy weapons.
Narasan’s closest friends during his boyhood had been Gunda and Padan, the sons of a couple of sub-commanders in his father’s army. Gunda was somewhat stout, and even as a child he’d demonstrated a fair degree of skill with his toy sword. Padan was more lean than Gunda, and he seemed to find amusement in things that Narasan didn’t think were very funny at all. Narasan decided quite early that he shouldn’t make an issue of his father’s rank as the three of them played soldier. It seemed to him that waving his father’s status in the faces of his friends would be highly inappropriate - and maybe even just a bit dishonorable.
In time, Narasan began to realize that their playground in the shadow of the large, white-walled officers’ quarters was not all that much different from the drill-fields of the regular soldiers. In a very real sense, army children played at being soldiers until they were old enough to become real soldiers.
That seemed very appropriate to young Narasan.
‘My papa didn’t tell me how it happened, Narasan,’ Gunda said one frosty morning when they were out on the playground. ‘All he said was that Padan’s papa got killed during this last war down south. That’s probably why Padan hasn’t been around for the past few days.’
Narasan was stunned. He’d known that soldiers sometimes were killed in wars, but this was the first time anything like that had ever happened to the father of one of his close friends. ‘What do you think we should say when Padan comes back, Gunda?’ he asked.
‘How should I know?’ Gunda replied.
‘Maybe we shouldn’t say anything about it at all,’ Narasan said a bit tentatively.
‘Talk about the weather, or something?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe we should talk to one of the sergeants about it. People do get killed during wars, I guess. That’s what wars are all about, aren’t they? I’m sure it’s happened before, so some old-time sergeant could tell us the best way to handle it.’
‘You’re probably right. Those old sergeants know just about everything that has to do with wars. After we grow up, though, maybe we’ll be able to come up with some way to pick a fight with the army that just killed Padan’s papa. If we stomp all over them, that might make Padan feel better, don’t you think?’
‘You might be right, Gunda,’ Narasan agreed. ‘I’ll find out which army did it, and we’ll get back at them when we’re the ones in command.’ He squinted across the playground. ‘I don’t know that we need to tell anybody about it, though. They might not think it’s very honorable to hold grudges like that.’
‘That’s all you ever think about, isn’t it, Narasan?’ Gunda said. ‘I suppose we should be sort of honorable, but when somebody hurts one of our friends, honor goes out the window, and getting even takes over.’
‘You’re probably right,’ Narasan agreed, ‘but I don’t think we should come right out and say that’s what we’re doing.’
‘You’re going to be the commander, Narasan, so we’ll do it any way you want us to.’
‘It was - oh, maybe fifty or sixty years ago - when the armies decided that they didn’t want no more part of workin’ for the Emperor or the silly Palvanum - all them Earls and Barons that spend all their time makin’ speeches,’ the wrinkled old Sergeant Wilmer told the boys one rainy afternoon when it was too wet to go outside and play. ‘It all started, I bin told, when them thick-headed Palvani all put their heads together and decided that us soljers was gettdn’ paid way too much. Of course, it was peacetime back then, so the soljers didn’t have nothin’ to do except polish their swords and play dice. The Palvani didn’t like that one little bit, so they ups an’ cut the soljers’ pay in half - and then, as the soljers found out later, the Palvani decided that they warn’t gettin’ near enough pay fer all that speech-makin’, so they got together one night an’ gave theirselves a whoppin’ big pay-raise - which it was as they kept purty much a secret.’
‘Can they do that?’ young Padan exclaimed. ‘Can they just reach in and take as much money as they want out of the treasury?’
‘Well, it seems as how they thought they could. When the army commanders got wind of it, though, they all got together and decided that workin’ fer the gummint warn’t no fun no more, so they all just upped and quit. They did hang onto the army compounds, though. Well sir, things was a little tight fer a while, but then some dukes an’ barons in the eastern provinces decided that they didn’t want no more part of the Empire, so they quit payin’ taxes, slammed their borders shut, and hung every tax-collector they could lay their hands on.’
‘Isn’t that sort of against the law?’ Gunda asked.
Sergeant Wilmer laughed. ‘The gummint didn’t have no armies no more, boy,’ he said. ‘There warn’t nobody around to go to them eastern provinces an’ tell them dukes an’ barons an’ such that they was a-breakin’ the law. Well, now, the Palvani all started a-makin’ speeches an’ scribblin’ out orders tellin’ the armies t’ run over to them eastern provinces an’ whomp on them dukes an’ barons until they started payin’ their taxes again, but the army commanders told them gabby Palvani what they could do with them orders, an’ the armies just sat tight an’ waited.’
Narasan and the other boys all laughed.
‘Well,’ the sergeant continued, ‘it didn’t hardly take no time at all fer them dummies in the Palvanum t’ figger out which way the wind was blowin’, so they come here to the army compounds an’ tole the soljers that they’d be more’n happy t’ go back t’ payin’ ‘em what they’d been a-payin’ ‘em back afore the pay-cut, but the soljers said no. Then they said that it’d take about twice as much t’ make ‘em even a little bit interested. Let me tell you, you ain’t never heard so much screamin’ an’ yellin’! Them half-wit Palvani jumped up an’ down makin’ threats an’ tryin’ t’ order the armies t’ obey them there wrote-down commands an’ all sorts of other foolish stuff, but the soljers just slammed the gates shut an’ wouldn’t even answer when the Palvani started a-poundin’ on them.’