‘I tried that one time,’ Veltan said, ‘but the stars didn’t pay the least bit of attention to me.’

Keselo blinked and then he stared at Veltan in awe.

‘That was quite a long time ago, Keselo,’ Lady Zelana explained. ‘Our baby brother offended Mother Sea, and she sent him off to the moon to learn better manners.’

‘I was only teasing her, Zelana,’ Veltan protested.

‘We’re straying here,’ Dahlaine said firmly. ‘From what you’ve told us so far, Keselo, I’d say that the early church of Amar was fairly simple and basically designed to make people feel more comfortable. What went wrong?’

‘I don’t think I could actually pinpoint the time - or the event that altered the Amarite church, Lord Dahlaine,’ Keselo replied. ‘I’d say that it was most likely a gradual change. The early priests of the faith were primarily paupers whose lives depended on the charity of the faithful. As time went on, though, contributions became increasingly mandatory, and the clergy more greedy. The way things stand right now, the higher-ranking members of the clergy are the wealthiest men in the Empire, but they still want more.’ He smiled faintly. ‘There’s a tired old joke in the Empire that says that church doctrine requires everybody in the Empire to contribute everything - and then some - every time the collection plate goes by.’

‘Well, hallelujah, Jalkan!’ Gunda said with a broad grin.

Padan laughed. ‘Nicely put there, old friend,’ he said.

Keselo smiled. ‘Sub-Commander Gunda was just joking, I think, but what he just said comes very close to being an accurate description of the current clergy of the Amarite church. Jalkan is probably the greediest man in the whole world - right up until you take a look at the higher members of the clergy. They take greed out to the far edge. They believe that everything in the entire world belongs to them - even the people.’

‘And that brings us face to face with slavery, Lord Dahlaine,’ Narasan added grimly.

‘I was just about to raise that question,’ Dahlaine said in a bleak tone. ‘Was slavery a part of the original Amarite doctrine?’ he asked Keselo.

‘Most certainly not!’ Keselo exclaimed. ‘The original church denounced slavery as an abomination.’

‘It would seem, then, that holy old Jalkan and his friends have strayed from the path just a bit,’ Padan suggested.

‘Maybe we should correct that,’ Sorgan Hook-Beak declared. Then he grinned wickedly. ‘I’ve always enjoyed correcting people when they’re wrong.’

‘It’s our duty, friend Sorgan,’ Narasan said blandly.

‘You’re going to be busy with the bug-people, Narasan. I’ll take on the chore of whomping the church people.’ He put on a woeful face. ‘It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s going to have to do it.’

‘Do those idiots in the Trogite church actually believe that they can own people?’ Dahlaine demanded.

‘I’m afraid so, Lord Dahlaine,’ Keselo replied, ‘but the church very seldom keeps the slaves. They sell them to the slave-dealers, who turn around and sell them to people who own vast amounts of territory but would sooner die than farm it themselves. Over the centuries an occasional emperor felt much as you do about slavery, and he issued an imperial proclamation abolishing the institution, but he almost never lived for very long after that proclamation, since if the church didn’t kill him, the rich landowners did. There’s a lot of money to be made from slavery, and the people who deal in slaves and the people who buy them aren’t about to let anybody interfere.’

‘I think we might have a bit of a problem here,’ Dahlaine said then. ‘If the church is corrupt, doesn’t that mean that the church soldiers are as well? How can we trust people like that to do what we want them to do?’

‘Who said anything about trusting them, big brother?’ Zelana retorted. ‘Somebody, whom I dearly love, has taken the matter completely out of our hands by turning vast amounts of ordinary sand into something that looks like gold.’

‘I think you’re just making this up,’ Zelana’s sister declared, sounding more than a little offended. ‘Nobody could have done that.’

‘You’re wrong, sister,’ Lady Zelana disagreed. ‘Somebody did. I don’t know who - or how - but she’s obviously trying to help us, and we need that help.’

Aracia glared at Lady Zelana and then abruptly turned and stalked away.

‘What’s your sister’s problem, Lady Zelana?’ Sorgan Hook-Beak asked bluntly.

‘She’s just been outdone,’ Zelana replied with a faint smile, ‘and Aracia can’t believe that anybody’s capable of that. She’s also having trouble with Keselo’s description of the Amarite church. There’s a goodly number of fat, lazy people in her Domain who spend hours every day telling her that she’s beautiful and all-powerful. Aracia loves to be adored, but Keselo’s story just raised the possibility that her priests are glorifying her just to keep their positions in what they call “the Church of Holy Aracia”, so that they can avoid honest work.’

‘Isn’t that all sort of silly?’ Sorgan asked.

‘ “Silly” comes fairly close, wouldn’t you say, Dahlaine?’ Lady Zelana asked her older brother.

‘Not right in front of Aracia, I wouldn’t,’ Dahlaine replied with a faint smile. Then he straightened. ‘Let’s get back to business here,’ he said firmly. ‘If those church armies are, in fact, coming here to help us - even though they don’t know it - I think we’d better do all we can to help them.’ He looked at Padan. ‘How are they progressing?’ he asked.

‘They’re doing a little better now that we’re providing them with building materials. They’ve still got some distance to go, though. I think our major problem’s going to be the width of that ramp they’re building. It’s only about ten feet wide, and that’s not wide enough to get a significant force up here in a short time.’

‘And,’ Torl added, ‘as soon as any of them get up here and see all that pretty sand, they’ll start running toward it just as fast as they can. If they dribble on down to the Wasteland in twos and threes, the bug-people will have them for lunch.’

‘That’s where we come in, cousin Torl,’ Sorgan said. ‘Our trenches and barricades will definitely slow them down until their friends can catch up with them.’

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