Part One: The Loyalist, Chapter 1: Four Years Later

            Lieutenant Belihn Tjashensi ran his eyes critically over the company of new recruits.  They were baby faced and scruffy, mostly commoners with little prospects outside of the armed forces, but they stood at complete attention, their eyes focused directly ahead, their shoulders thrown back.  There was pride and desire in their stances.  Good, hardy food and clean water would do much to put weight on their frames and the bloom of health on their sallow cheeks.  Two or three had soot on their faces.  Belihn knew several had been arrested for theft and had been given the option of joining the military or rotting in some jail cell.  They had chosen wisely, but he worried those few lacked loyalty and might be full of resentment.  He shrugged his shoulders.  He knew all about resentment, didn’t he?  
            The clip of hooves on the cobblestone bailey floor drew Belihn’s attention to his Commander’s arrival.  Commander Nyal Kia’guh slid from the saddle of his stunning bahil and handed the reins to his other Lieutenant, Kurk Deshon.  Lieutenant Deshon saluted Commander Kia’guh then strode away, leading the Commander’s mount towards the castle stables.
            Commander Kia’guh raked his eyes dismissively over the troops.  His lips faintly curled as if he smelled something rank.  “Are these our new men?”
            Belihn stiffened and swallowed audibly.  “Yes, sir.”
            Commander Kia’guh nodded and sighed.  “Where did we scrape this lot from, do you suppose, Tjashensi?  The Underground City?”
            Belihn bit off the smart retort and bowed.  “More than likely, sir.”
            Commander Kia’guh gave a bark of mirthless laughter and turned to the company.
The Commander turned to face the troops.
            “I am Commander Nyal Kia’guh,” he stated loudly.  “I am your father, your mother and your god.  From now until the day you leave the army or you die, I am the hand that feeds you, disciplines you, advances you.  Look at my face and memorize it.  Now, call out your names and ages, starting in the far south corner.”
            Each young man called out his first and last name and age.
            When they were done, Commander Kia’guh nodded.  “Lieutenant Belihn Tjashensi here will be the liaison between you and myself.  You go to him first with your concerns and he will bring them to me.  He is in charge of your wellbeing and your placement.  You are infantry from now on.  He will get your uniforms doled out and show you to the barracks.  Questions?”
            One pale young man on the third row lifted his hand.
            Commander Kia’guh raised an astounded eyebrow.  “Yes?”
            The young man cleared his throat.  “No one has defined our wages, sir.  What are we going to be paid?”
            Commander Kia’guh snorted.  “Do I look like I give a good damn, sonny?”  He looked at Belihn.  “Come and see me when you are done here.”
            The young man gaped but said nothing as the Commander turned smartly on his heels and strode away.
            Belihn sighed and shook his head.  “You’ll be paid in tin’kahls and tin’solhs, soldier.  You’ll be given a salary of 100 tin’kahls a week.  That is the base pay.  Any questions?”
            Another young man raised his hand.  “That is most generous, sir.  Are we expected to pay for our uniforms?”
            “Yes,” Belihn replied.  “The cost will be deducted from your salary. I recommend you take advantage of the army’s free university courses and learn a trade.  You can serve your ten conscripted years and then found a business.”
            He had a captive audience now.  
            “We can study for free?” a sooty faced youngster prompted.
            “Yes.  There is a limit of three classes school quarter and you’ll have to study on your off time, but I can grant you time off to correspond with your class schedule.”
            They crowded around him, even though he had not dismissed them.            
            “Do we rent our cot in the barracks?” another boy asked.
            “No,” Belihn replied.  “You can expect to clear 90 tin’kahls a week.  Food is free, as is lodgings.”
            They murmured among themselves for a few minutes.  When they fell silent once more, Belihn continued.
            “I recommend you save half of your money and send your family the rest,” he told them.  “Open a bank account in town.  You’d be surprised how much you can save in 10 years.”
            Lieutenant Deshon returned and came to stand next to Belihn.
            “Listen to Belihn,” Lieutenant Deshon murmured.  “Being one of 15 siblings has made him a good investor, since he gets nothing from his family.”
            Belihn grimaced and rolled his eyes.  “That’s not true, but I have learned to save my money and I have investments in businesses that are doing quite well.  I can teach you all about investing, but I learned from a class at university when I first joined the army.”
            An eager youth pressed closer.  “Are you studying?  What are you studying?”
            Belihn cleared his throat.  “I always take business courses and investment courses.  But I also take courses to learn about history, art and music.  Things that are interesting.”
            “I want to be a university professor,” a youth said from the rear of the company.
            Belihn nodded.  “Then find what you want to teach and follow your passion.”
            “I just want to be a soldier,” another boy said.  “It’s all I’ve ever wanted to be.”
            “Then be the best soldier you can be,” Belihn told him.  “And save so you can marry and have a home in town.  And for bride prices for your daughters.”
            The boys shuffled and giggled.  
            Belihn smiled.  “Lieutenant Deshon here will take you to the commissary, where you’ll be provided three uniforms and two pairs of boots.  You are expected to wash your uniforms every week and to shine your boots.  Commander Kia’guh does not tolerate a slovenly appearance.  You will be awakened in the pre-dawn hours, and you will exercise and then you will wash up and dress in your pristine uniform and shiny boots and braided hair.  Do I make myself clear?”
            The boys shifted and nodded.
            “Good,” Belihn said.  “I expect nothing less than perfection from you.  Today you will receive your duties.  Tomorrow, go to university and sign up for classes.  Bring me your class schedules and I will arrange your time off.  Questions?”
            No one said anything.
            Belihn nodded again.  “Dismissed then.”
            He watched Lieutenant Deshon lead them to the commissary at the southern end of the bailey, then he headed for the Officers’ House, a three story brick house.  The first floor of the house was filled with offices, while the two other floors were sleeping quarters for single officers.  Belihn was a young lieutenant, so his room was on the third floor, next to Kurk’s.
            Once in the Officers’ House, he walked down the long corridor to Commander Kia’guh’s office.  Captain Oltan Asjur, Commander’s Kia’guh’s secretary, was behind his desk, going over paperwork, when Belihn stepped into the office.
            Captain Asjur glanced up and grinned.  “Belihn!  How are the new troops?”
            “A bit on the skinny side, sir,” Belihn answered honestly.  “But they seem eager and willing.”
            Captain Asjur rose from his chair.  “That is what matters then, isn’t it?  We’ll fatten them up.”
            Belihn bowed.  “Yes, sir.”
            “What can I do for you, Lieutenant?”
            “Commander Kia’guh wanted to see me once I dismissed the new troops, sir.”
            Captain Asjur nodded.  “Let me see if he’s free.  Give me a moment.”
            Asjur turned and knocked on the door leading to the inner office.  He opened the door after a few seconds and stepped inside, closing the door behind him.
            After a few minutes, the door opened and Asjur stepped outside once more.  “He’ll see you now, Lieutenant.”
            Belihn entered Commander Kia’guh’s office and paused, looking around the well lit, warm office.  It was a large office, as befit a member of the aristocracy, with a fireplace against the far wall, a large eishano wood desk, two armchairs facing the desk, and two walls filled with military and history books.  The floors were strewn with soft area rugs to add warmth to the large space.  Since it was high dibasj, the fireplace was cold and the glass paned windows were thrown open.  The breeze filtering in through the open windows smelled faintly of the musk of flowers from the house’s backyard, which was filled with crops and large flowering bushes.  
            Commander Kia’guh signed a paper with a flourish and glanced up.  “Sit, Lieutenant.”
            Belihn saluted and sat down.
            Commander Kia’guh shuffled some papers on his cluttered desk and sighed.  “Look, I’ll come to the point.  Your father wants you promoted because, even I have to admit, you distinguished yourself at the border during the last war with the Isemi.  The problem is that I don’t hold with promoting half-commoners in the armed forces.  So, I am having you transferred to Commander Thul Ethael’s company.  He’s of the mind that it doesn’t matter your family’s history, that you can rise to any goddess-damned rank you well please!”  He slammed his hand on the desktop, rattling the inkwell and pens in their holder.  Commander Kia’guh took a deep breath and released it.  “I won’t promote you above the rank of lieutenant, but I also won’t fight someone who will.  You may remain in the room you are now living in now or move, I don’t give a damn.  Report to Commander Ethael as soon as possible.  Dismissed.”
            Stunned, Belihn slowly rose and left the office without saluting.  Commander Kia’guh was not even looking at him; his eyes fixed on his desktop.
            Outside the office, Belihn closed the door.
            Captain Asjur rose and handed him a sealed envelope.  “Here are your orders and new post.”  He grinned.  “Congratulations, Captain Tjashensi.”
            Belihn took the envelope and grasped the hand Asjur held out to him.  “Thank you, sir.”
            “Don’t ‘sir’ me, Belihn.  We are of equal rank now.  Let’s have lunch some time?”
            Belihn swallowed. “Of course.  You name the time and place.”
            Asjur nodded and released Belihn’s hand.  “Consider it done.”
            Belihn left the office and hurried down the hall to Commander Ethael’s office.  Commander Ethael was short a secretary, Belihn knew, so he went to the door leading into the inner office and knocked.
            Belihn opened the door and saluted.  “Lieutenant Tjashensi reporting for duty, sir!”
            Commander Ethael was a handsome man in his early thirties.  He was fit and tall and broad, with light gray eyes and black hair.  “Ah, Belihn!  Come in, come in.  Shut the door, will you?”
            Belihn shut the door and stepped up to the desk, handing Commander Ethael the envelope.  
            Ethael nodded and indicated the armchair near Belihn.  “Have a seat, son.”
            Belihn saluted and sat down.
            Ethael threaded his hands and leaned his forearms on the desktop.  “I will be blunt, Belihn.  I need a secretary and, with the rank of captain, you can act as such.  I have been watching your rise through the ranks and I like what I’ve seen.  I would like to groom you to succeed me one day, so I expect loyalty and hard work.  Is this amenable to you?”
            Belihn swallowed.  “Yes, sir.  Thank you, sir!”
            Ethael sat back in his chair.  “I realize you like to lead men, to groom them, but I need you here.  I have enough sergeants and lieutenants.  I travel extensively and I would require that you travel with me.  Once you marry, your wife will have to put up with your traveling about.  My wife complains a lot, but she has no say.  This is what she signed up for.  Do you have a girl you are thinking of marrying, son?”
            Belihn blushed.  “No, sir.”
            “No one your mother is culling for a wife for you?”
            Belihn’s blush deepened.  “She was thinking of an heiress to a shipping business, sir.  But there has been no formal negotiation.”
            Ethael tapped on the desktop with a finger.  “You can marry whenever you like, son, but the girl will have to be accepting. My recommendation is you get her with child as soon as you are able to.  Once she is occupied with children, she won’t nag you like my wife does me.  Our children are almost grown, you see.  Recently she has gotten involved in charity work, which I hope means she’ll leave me alone.”
            Belihn bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing.
            Ethael sighed and shook his head.  “I’m sorry you had to serve so long under Kia’guh, son.”
            “He’s a good commander, sir.”
            “He is,” Ethael agreed.  “But his prejudices keep him from greatness, I’m afraid.  He balked at the idea of promoting you, even after your fine showing at the border.  He got into a monumental argument with the King, but there was little King Kah’len can do.  He may be Warlord, but he can’t be seen punishing Kia’guh for his outdated belief system and for your benefit, you understand.  Nepotism and all that.”
            “Yes, sir.”
            “I don’t hold with Kia’guh’s beliefs, son,” Ethael murmured.  “But many others still cling to outdated mores.”  He sighed.  “So, you can choose a room on the second floor or remain with lesser ranked men on the third floor.  It’s up to you.”
            “I’ll remain where I am sir,” Belihn told him.
            “Good, good,” Ethael murmured.  “So, rise, Belihn.”
            Commander Ethael rose and walked around the desk.  He opened a glossy wooden box and pulled out a silver pin.  He turned once more to face Belihn and pinned the pin to Belihn’s chest.   That made four pins of different metals, designating Belihn as a Captain.
            Commander Ethael stepped back and saluted, fist to chest and bowed.  “Welcome to my company, Captain Tjashensi.”
            Belihn’s swallowed past the lump in his throat, saluted and bowed.  “Thank you, Commander.  I shall endeavor to make you proud.”
            “You’ve already done that,” Ethael assured him.  “Just do your best.  Now, I expect you in this office first thing in the morning.  Your schedule will be from sunrise to sunset, six days with the seventh day off.  Will that suffice?”
            Belihn saluted again.  “Yes, sir!”
            Ethael clapped him on the shoulder.  “Nicely done, Tjashensi.  Now, take the rest of the day off and inform your family of your promotion.”

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