Friday, 23 July 2010

Return of the Exiles

Chapter Two

Early the following day, Edward rode out of the yard by the forge and down the street into the Alskar town square. People waved as he passed and his friends called out greetings but he waved back abstractly, his mind on other things. He hardly noticed the Meeting House dominating one side of the square as he crossed towards the broad avenue that led out of town towards the Fort.

The sword, wrapped in a velvet cloth and strapped to the saddle by his leg, dominated his thoughts. He was a little nervous as he considered the likely reception he would get when he arrived at the Fort. Would his work be good enough to satisfy the Imperial Grandmaster? Repairing the sword was the best work he had ever done, he realised from his experience of making weapons. He was confident that the sword was now as good as when it was first made but he still wondered at the reception he would get when he got to the Fort. As he rode away from the town, the Fort came to dominate the landscape and Edward's thoughts as well.

He had passed this way on many occasions either when visiting friends on the farms that surrounded Alskar or when delivering repairs to farmers after completing the work in the forge. However, he had never been inside the gates of the Fort and the thought of passing through those gates added to his sense of heightened tension. In the same fashion as he had problems crossing the bridge into subjugated Rombuli, which had filled him with dread yesterday, now the thought of crossing into another alien place made him apprehensive. The Fort was built of grey stone and had loomed over the area around Alskar for generations. To Edward and all the other Rombuli living in Alskar Province, or Free Rombuli as the Imperial Officials always called it, the Fort was a fact of life. The massive iron bound gates glowered at those who approached but most Rombuli gave the building a wide berth, unless they had business inside. To the Rombuli it was there, solid and immovable like the river which flowed through the town, a fact of their everyday lives. Nobody could ever imagine this towering grey presence not being there above the town. For Edward, there was no conception of a time when the Imperial Army flag did not fly above the gate of the Fort.

The Fort squat above the town, plainly visible to any traveller using the road, huge solid and indestructible. To Edward's father and the other Rombuli who cared, it was a stone symbol of what they called the repression of their people. It was a constant reminder that the Rombuli living in Alskar were not really free even though Imperial officials referred to the province as Free Rombuli. From out of those massive gates rode forth companies of soldiers to guard the roads, patrol the towns, escort Imperial officials and subjugate the population. At any sign of trouble in this province, the soldiers stationed in the Fort were ever ready to intervene. Orders issued by the Army Commander in the Fort had to be obeyed even if they were against the understanding said to have been negotiated by Derek Gorland when the Rombuli had been defeated by the Imperial Army. All this outward sign of power was designed to show the Rombuli they had very little control over their own affairs but deep down for people like Idris Eastland, this bred a sense of frustration even though he had become a wealthy man under the Empire.

The Fort had grown over the centuries, features slowly added as each Army Commander tried to make it more comfortable for the officers and travellers and more impressive to the population in the area around its prominent position. Each extension took away more land from the citizens of Alskar, the walls of the Fort eating more and more into the very fabric of the neighbourhood. It was loathed by a few, it frightened many but most people living in Alskar and the surrounding countryside, tried to ignore it as they went about their day to day business.

Ancient tradition, forgotten by many people but handed down from generation to generation of those trying to keep alive the sense of being Rombuli, claimed that the building of the Fort in this place was a violation of an intensely symbolic Rombuli custom. It was said that before the coming of the Imperial troops and the building of the Fort, the hill where the Fort now stood had been a Hill of Peace where any person could bring their problems and joys in silent contemplation before their Maker. In the shadow of the hill, had been built the Meeting House where the local council met, where the ancient traditions and skills were taught and where the ancient Books, The Book of Guidance and The History of the Rombuli People, could be read, studied and copied. This place, like similar places near all the great towns of the nation, had been in ancient times the main focus of the town. Now that had been violated and the symbols of the Empire represented by the glowering presence of the Fort had taken its place.

Edward had often heard Idris Eastland speak in ringing tones to any who would listen of these ancient traditions and how they should be observed even under the oppression of the Empire. He had watched his father at town meetings, at the Gathering and to friends who came to visit, speak of one of the greatest crimes committed by the Empire. On these occasions in a voice ringing with emotion, Idris would declare that the Empire had levelled the Hill of Peace, pulled up the sacred groves and hedges and built on the site a monument to war, repression and subjugation.

Edward remembered these words of his father as he came closer to the Fort and the resentment of the domination of his life by the Empire filled his thoughts. Actually, in quiet moments, Edward would have to admit to himself that the Empire had very little contact with his life. Indeed, yesterday had been the first time that he had had any real contact with the Imperial Army because any contact between his father's business and the Imperial Officials was usually handled by his father.

Maybe it was the pull of the old Hill of Peace or the effect of the clear spring day but Edward found himself asking his Maker why the Rombuli, who over the centuries had tried to follow His guide to living, should at this time be so down trodden. No direct answer came but it did cross Edward's mind that there was no passage in the Book of Guidance about keeping His followers free from domination by other men. The Book was about how men and women should conduct their lives so that all would live in peace not about some omnipotent God who would look after His followers every waking hour.

As he came closer, Edward could see the gates of the Fort were open. Inside was a flat sandy parade ground and he could catch glimpses of people and horses moving about inside the walls. The sentries on each side of the gate stood rigidly motionless in their spotless blue uniforms, their breastplates highly polished and their golden helmets glinting in the sun. They sprang across the gate swords drawn when Edward came close, barring his way. Pulling his horse to a halt, Edward waited for one of them to speak.

“ What is your business at Alskar Fort? ” the sentry on Edward's right barked never taking his eyes from Edward's face. Why do they all have to shout? Edward thought thinking of Cannoc the day before at the forge.

“ I have an appointment with the Imperial Grandmaster, “ Edward replied nervously while trying to sound important.

“ Dismount and remain here! ” the sentry ordered, turning and marching smartly through the gate.

He returned quickly, nodded to his companion and they returned to their places beside the gate. Edward was left to wait ignored by the sentries.

He stood by the side of the road holding the reins of his horse, seemingly forgotten even by the sentries. For a wild moment he thought of testing their attention by trying to walk through the gate but decided like a coward to wait where he was. All he could see from where he stood were glimpses of soldiers, some on horse back, some on foot, marching or riding across the small patch of parade ground. From the cries of the officers, these men were being drilled. The shouts and commands echoed off the walls, the sand spattered from the hooves of the horses and every so often soldiers in grey uniforms came into view dragging rakes over the sand to make it smooth.

After a while, Undermaster Cannoc strode through the gate and smiled in greeting as though seeing a friend, “ Hello Eastland. The Imperial Grandmaster will see you in his quarters. I have been sent to show you the way. “

Turning without another word, Cannoc led Edward through the gate. Shouting to a soldier standing nearby, Cannoc ordered Edward's horse to be taken away and then strode across the parade ground Edward following.

“ I am sorry about the manner in which I treated you yesterday, ” Cannoc said over his shoulder in a rather formal tone. “ I was under a great deal of strain and pressure from the Imperial Grandmaster. This is my first tour of duty as an aide to such an exulted person. I felt I had failed in my duty because the carriage had gone off the road. When I came to ask you for help, I was trying to get back in his good books by giving the impression that I had everything under control. Actually, I think in the end he was not mad with me but secretly worried about his daughter. I have the feeling he is regretting ever agreeing for her to accompany him on this mission.”

Cannoc talked non stop as he and Edward crossed the parade ground. It was as though the Undermaster had been deprived of companionship for a long time. I suppose I am about the same age, Edward thought as they walked through an archway and along a shadowed passage between two buildings. When they came out into the light again, Edward stopped with a gasp of surprise. Instead of the barren functional flat sand of the parade ground, he saw a garden with shrubs covered in bloom and yellow spring flowers nodding in the breeze in carefully attended flowerbeds. At the end of a twisting path between the flowers and the shrubs, fountains splashed beside a pathed patio in front of an imposing house. He had never suspected that a dwelling like this was hidden behind the walls of the fort.

This was the Emperor's Guest House, or that was how Cannoc described it. It had been built to accommodate important travellers visiting this part of the Empire and contained several large suites of rooms. Cannoc informed Edward as they approached that Imperial Grandmaster Borovic usually stayed in the Commanders quarters in the fort proper but had taken up residence in the guest house because he was accompanied by his daughter.

Cannoc ushered Edward, without hesitation, through the solid oak door, flanked by guards in ceremonial uniforms and held open by a uniformed servant, into a marble floored hall. Leading from the hall to the upper stories of the house was the widest staircase Edward had ever seen. The staircase split in two halfway to the upper floor, the curves joining a gallery that encircled the whole of the upper floor. This made the hall even more imposing, because the ceiling, held up by beams curving together to form a dome, was high above the upper floor. Without slowing, his heels clicking on the marble floor, Cannoc saluted the guards at the base of the stairs and started to climb rapidly. After looking round briefly, Edward had to run to catch Cannoc half way up the stairs.

In this gleaming interior, with its marble statues and paintings on the walls, Edward felt very rustic in his homespun brown woollen jerkin and trousers. Even the uniforms of the soldiers were splendid and made of richer cloth than his clothes. His sense of pride in being Rombuli and not wanting to appear overcome and intimidated by his surroundings, forced Edward to lift his head and fight against the desire to look at the floor. A rather unexpected thought occurred as he walked round the gallery above the hall. All this splendour is here to make ordinary people like me feel inadequate, to feel small in the face of the wealth and power of the Empire. As he was to learn later, such thoughts were nonsense. Though appearing grand to him now with his limited experience of anything but Alskar, he was to come to realise this was only a modest house on the outskirts of the Empire. It was not built to impress anybody but to accommodate Imperial nobles in the style to which they had grown accustomed.

The two sentries standing outside a door the other side of the gallery from the top of the stairs, sprang even more rigidly to attention when Cannoc approached. The door between the sentries opened silently without an audible order as far as Edward could detect and a servant dressed in white ushered them into a small hall. Knocking at one of the doors leading from the hall, he pushed this open and announced Cannoc and Edward to whoever was in the room.

The room they entered was bright with sunlight, facing south towards the great swamp and looking over the vast curve of the Alskar river as it turned towards the east and Nimmar. The ground dropped away from the house, giving an uninterrupted view and looking down on the outer defences of the fort. Couches and chairs were scattered as though randomly around the room on top of a carpet into which Edward thought his feet were going to disappear. A fire burnt low to one side of the room and landscape paintings of what Edward took to be scenes of different places in the Empire lined the walls. Dominating the whole room from the place it hung above the fireplace was a large portrait of the head and shoulders of a middle aged man with greying blonde hair, shaggy eyebrows and steel set lips. It was Edward's first glimpse of likeness of the Emperor.

“ Do you have to invite them in here? “ The petulant voice came from somebody hidden behind the back of one of the settees and was meant to be overheard by those coming into the room.

As Edward walked across the room, Kitty lounging on the settee came into his view. Her blonde hair recently brushed reaching in a cascade to her shoulders, the plain blue of her dress highlighting the golden colour of her skin. Her face glowed without makeup making her look younger than her eighteen years.

She glowered at Edward, her lips pouting and her eyes hard blue. “ You could have met them in the Commanders office and then I wouldn't be disturbed.”

“ I thought you were going to be more sociable this morning Kitty, “ Imperial Grandmaster Borovic remarked with a long sigh. “ Eastland has business with me and there are reasons why I do not want every common soldier in the fort to know what that business is. You can always go back to your room while Eastland is here, if that is what you want.”

Turning to Edward, and in that gesture dismissing his daughter, Imperial Grandmaster Borovic raised his eyebrows but only said, “ Well? “

Without a word, Edward unwrapped the sword and handed it to the Imperial Grandmaster. In his nervousness he glanced at Kitty only to look away quickly to stop any reaction to her fixed stare and what appeared to be obvious dislike. For the second time Edward was struck by the thought of how beautiful and attractive Kitty was behind the superior look she threw in his direction. He tried to hide any trace of interest in Kitty as a woman that might have showed on his face but did not know how successful he was. No mater how objectionable she was, he had to admit that she was very attractive.

Looking less imposing without his breastplate and helmet, the Imperial Grandmaster studied the sword minutely by the light from the window. Holding it loosely in his hand, he tested the balance and went through, what to Edward appeared to be a series of complicated manoeuvres which entailed lifting the blade with a stiff forearm from his side, straight up in front of his nose and straight out from the shoulder at arms length among other actions.

“ It feels good, young man, ” the Imperial Grandmaster commented as he placed the sword in it's scabbard. He rewrapped the velvet cloth and placed this on a table. “ Will you join us for lunch and then stop to watch the parade? ”

For a moment Edward was on the verge of accepting the Imperial Grandmaster's invitation because he was intrigued at the thought of lunching in such exulted company and then watching the Imperial Army from close quarters. One glance at Kitty's expression on hearing her father’s invitation and the plainly audible sigh that escaped her lips, made Edward change his mind. The thought of having to spend time in the company of Kitty Borovic made Edward inwardly shudder even though he still did in a strange way find her very attractive.

“ I am sorry to sound discourteous sir but I must get back to the forge. We have a lot of work to do checking and mending equipment for the farmers just before planting at this time of year. I know you must think my reason is rather trivial but I am no soldier and the planting is more important to the people round here than my watching the Imperial Army.” Besides, Edward thought but did not speak aloud, I have no desire to spend any more time than I have to in Kitty Borovic's company or being the butt for her acid comments or the means for her to take out her frustration on her father.

“ A pity, “ the Imperial Grandmaster murmured, looking rather surprised at Edward's refusal. “ Show Eastland out, Undermaster Cannoc. When I have something else for you to do, I will be in touch. You did a good job with my sword and I have a feeling I can trust you.” He picked up his sword and strode from the room.

Edward rode back down the hill wondering whether he had made a mistake in refusing the Imperial Grandmaster's offer to stay for lunch. What would my father have done in my place? he found himself wondering. His spirits however lifted as the brooding bulk of the Fort receded behind his horse and the familiar houses of Alskar surrounded him. He wondered anew, whether it was the glowering presence of Kitty, her obvious attractions as a woman which confused his sense of rightness as Rombuli or the overriding sense of power lying behind those walls which had sent him scuttling away as quickly as he could move. There was no real answer to the question because he had to admit it was a small part of all those things.

The Rombuli are a very proud people, he thought as he turned for home out of the Town Square. We are proud of our rites that come to us from deep in our history. We are equally proud of the story of the long march that enabled us to arrive in this country all those centuries before. Now we are bereft of our nationhood by the unwanted yoke of the Empire. Now we live under the hidden threat of a forceful compulsion to follow the path of the people of the Empire. This is what makes many people conform to an alien ideology or at least keep as low a profile as was possible. Am I running away in much the same spirit? Edward asked himself.

Inwardly, Edward acknowledged that the Rombuli in Alskar Province were left to get on with their ordinary lives in their own way, allowed to hold their own beliefs about life and to carry out their own rituals concerning their Maker as long as this was done in private. Edward was no fool. He knew, like all the Rombuli, if the Empire desired change in the way in which they ruled free Rombuli, the Imperial Army had the resources, the ruthlessness and the absolute power to enforce the change. For the time being, it suited the Empire to let the Rombuli remain as free as they were but that could change with the any change in the centre of power. How could a rag bag of contradictory individuals steeped in the rhythms of farming, used to waiting patiently for the right weather and the rolling seasons, hope ever to challenge the authority of men like Borovic and the might that backed up that power. The power, represented by what was in the Fort above Alskar, had seeped into Edward's consciousness and by the time he reached home, he was once more rather depressed by the thought of how helpless the Rombuli really were.

Two mornings after his visit to the Fort, what Imperial Grandmaster Borovic had in mind for further service from Edward materialised outside the forge. Edward was concentrating so hard on his job that the first hint he had of something happening was when Chuck's eyes widened as he looked over Edward's shoulder towards the door of the forge. Edward turned to watch Undermaster Cannoc and six soldiers ride into the yard and dismounted. Sitting in their midst was Kitty Borovic. She was dressed in a brown riding habit, her blond hair was tied back behind her ears and she was looking as though she had entered an alien place. If she could have held her nose with dignity she would have, Edward thought.

After dismounting and handing his horses reins to one of the soldiers, Cannoc walked to the entrance to the forge. To Edward, he looked rather embarrassed but his military training came to the fore.

“ Edward Eastland, ” he said rather formally. “ Imperial Grandmaster Borovic asked me to escort his daughter Kitty here. He requests that you ride with her and show her some of the countryside around Alskar.”

Anger was Edward's first reaction, anger at the high handed way the request was being made. Even though Cannoc's request was in the form of an appeal, there was no doubt that he expected Edward to obey. Then, remembering his father had always instructed him to try to be civil to the Imperial Army, Edward managed to submerge his urge to ignore Cannoc. Putting down his tools and wiping his hands on a rag, Edward walked out of the forge into the sunlight.

“ It is a bit inconvenient at the moment, “ he said to Kitty feeling rather foolish talking to her by craning his neck to look up to her sitting on her horse. “ I have a lot of work to do. There are people calling out for .........”

Edward never had a chance to finish what he was going to say. Kitty pouted, frowned and then interrupted in a loud voice.

“ Cannoc has a written order from my father in his pouch but he thought it best to appeal to your sense of duty rather than a written order. If you disobey that order, I could get these soldiers to arrest you.” There was no mistaking the steel in her voice. “ Cannoc thought there would be no need to order you and I must admit I thought you would jump at the opportunity to enhance your reputation by riding with the daughter of the Imperial Grandmaster. Now get your horse and let us go!”

Edward looked at Cannoc and raised his eyebrow in question. Cannoc could only shrug in reply. Turning back to Kitty, Edward stood gazing up into her blue eyes for a moment, letting the silence lengthen between them. When she looked away, he smiled and shrugged.

“ I suppose it is a waste of time standing here arguing with you and an even greater waste of effort making your escort take me back to the Fort. If you will wait a little longer, I will have to go and tell my father where I am going so that he can arrange for my jobs to be covered. You can dismount and come into the kitchen to have a drink while you wait. “ With a smile to himself, Edward helped Kitty from her horse, took her into the kitchen and went to find his father leaving his mother to fuss over Kitty.

Idris Eastland was sitting at his desk in the office at the front of the warehouse going through some papers when Edward found him. He smiled at his son and pushed the papers aside as though welcoming the interruption.

“ Why the thunderous expression Edward?” Idris asked. “ You look as though the job has gone wrong or something equally tragic has happened to you.”

“ I have the Imperial Grandmaster's daughter waiting for me in the kitchen,” Edward growled back. “ She has an order from her father telling me to accompany her on a ride around the district. I told her we were busy but she insisted I carry out her father’s orders. Shall I tell her to go away and let me get on with my work?”

“ Edward, calm down,” his father advised him mildly. “ I have been telling you for I don't know how long we must avoid antagonising the Imperial Army. Go and get your horse and take Miss Borovic on a tour of the countryside around Alskar. I will make sure your work is covered. You never know you might even enjoy yourself.”

Edward stared at his father for a moment unable to understand the calm with which his father greeted the order. With a resigned shrug, Edward strode out of the room and back into the sunlight to fetch Kitty from his mother.

Edward and Kitty rode out of Alskar towards the north, two soldiers riding ahead, two just to the rear and two more some distance back. As they rode through the town, Edward was very conscious of these soldiers surrounding him but Kitty ignored them, used as she was to their constant presence whenever she ventured out. Edward soon became aware of the glances people gave the group as they passed and of the looks of resentment on the faces of people forced to get out of the way by the soldiers. There was obvious resentment at Kitty and her escort in the attitude of the people. What hurt Edward even more were the looks of surprise when they recognised him riding beside Kitty with an Imperial Army escort. He could sense in those looks puzzled doubt as to what he was doing with the daughter of the head of the Imperial Army and it became plain they questioned his motive for being with Kitty. Those looks and the hostility from people he knew began to worry Edward. It was the first time Edward had ever felt vulnerable and had ever experienced open resentment directed at him rather than other people. He began to realise how difficult his position could soon become among the people of Alskar if too many of the towns folk saw him with Kitty and read too much into what they saw.

As they rode, Edward tried to talk, to get Kitty to say something in reply but with very little success. Even his description of the places they passed was met with a stony silence. With a sense of relief, Edward noted noon approaching and turned off the path through some woods to a grass covered clearing bordering the river. It was a favourite spot for young people to come for picnics when they were free during the holidays and when the weather was dry.

Helping Kitty from her horse, Edward said, “ This is a good place to stop for our lunch. It is sheltered from the wind and there is plenty of fresh water.”

“Tell the escort to unload the food here and spread my blanket over there,” Kitty demanded even though the soldiers were already unloading the horses. Edward did as he was told and the soldiers drew away spreading themselves out around the clearing as though to make sure nobody could approach undetected. They were obviously well drilled in this duty.

When Edward returned from making sure the horses were secure, Kitty was sitting on the blanket, her back against a tree making no attempt to get the food from the basket. “ Get me some water in that bowl so that I can wash my hands, “ she ordered not looking directly at Edward. “ When you get back you can sort out the food.”

Edward bit back a reply that sprang to his lips and took the bowl to the river to get the water Kitty demanded. What followed was one of the most miserable meals Edward had ever eaten. Kitty sat upright by the tree, issuing instructions and ignoring all Edward's attempts to talk. In the end Edward lapsed into silence and concentrated on eating.

When they finally arrived back at the forge late that afternoon, waves of relief washed through Edward. He had the feeling of an awkward job well done. This feeling quickly vanished at Kitty's emphatic statement that she would be back the next day to explore the country in the other direction from Alskar to where they had explored that day.

That evening over dinner while his mother and Morag looked on, Edward had a heated argument with his father.

“ I will not go riding with that insufferable woman tomorrow,” Edward stated flatly, after relating the events of the day to his family. “ It was the most harrowing experience I have ever had to endure in my life. You cannot imagine what it is like spending all day in the company of somebody who will not talk to you. All she is capable of doing is issuing orders and criticising whatever I do for her. Nothing is right as far as she is concerned. I will not go out with her tomorrow and that is final.”

“ Oh yes you will Edward,” stated his father equally bluntly. “ Edward we are in a very delicate position here. We have some freedoms in our day to day life but we must never forget that the Empire is in control. Though we may wish we were, we do not have the strength or the courage to openly flout their orders. Therefore it is your duty to the Rombuli people to go through with this so that the rest of us are left in peace.”

“ Duty! Duty! ” Edward raged. “ You were not there father. It was agony. No I will never willingly go for a ride with that girl again.”

“ Yes you will for your family's sake,” his father smiled. “ We have to avoid any specific attention being drawn to us. Look at it this way, Edward. Slowly I am leading our people towards the greater freedom without compromising our independent nationhood. We are doing this without having to become one of them. If you stir up trouble by disobeying and insulting the Imperial Grandmaster's daughter over such a small thing as taking her for a ride, all that I have accomplished over the last ten years could be in jeopardy.”

“ But father, the towns people are giving me strange looks,” Edward protested loudly, his voice rising in volume. “ I get the distinct impression they don't like seeing me with the Imperial Grandmaster's daughter. If this goes on too long, I am going to lose all my friends.”

“ Leave that to me my son, ” Idris said. “ I will let all the towns people know you are acting under orders from the Imperial Grandmaster.”

They continued to argue fitfully for the rest of the evening but with no real passion. Deep down, Edward realised his father was right and he would have to ride out with Kitty the next day. His fathers parting words, said with an amused smile as Edward went to bed, brought him no real comfort. " Of course the decision is yours at the end of the day Edward."

And so the next morning, gritting his teeth and determined that this would be the last time he had to endure this humiliation, Edward rode through the town towards the south of Alskar as he had promised. Kitty was as silent this day as the day before while they rode through the town and beside the river. The people they saw stared at Edward, some showing open hostility but for the most part they soon turned away indifferently, to go about their more important business. For some reason Edward could not quite grasp, he reasoned that Kitty's silence was different. For one thing she appeared to be listening to what he said and looked around as though with interest at the places they passed which he was describing. Every so often he caught the back end of her glances which she directed in his direction but obviously tried to hide by looking at him when she thought Edward's attention was elsewhere.

Once more about noon, Edward found a sheltered spot out of the wind in the lee of a rocky outcrop and some trees. A stream full with the water of the heavy spring rains flowed over some rocks in a miniature waterfall into a small pool, sending spray into the air filtering the sunlight into a rainbow as the water drops were carried away on the breeze. The stream gurgled away from the pool through its banks over a pebble and rock strewn bed making pleasant murmuring sounds as it disappeared into the trees. It was an ideal spot for a picnic, sheltered but bathed in sunlight.

Dismounting, Edward helped Kitty from her horse prepared to silently go through the agonising ritual of the day before. To his surprised she collected the food from the escort and sent them away out of sight further along the stream. Laying the blanket on the ground, Edward left her sitting on the blanket while he went to the stream to fetch some water for Kitty to wash her hands. By the time he returned, Kitty had the food spread out on the blanket and was sitting waiting.

She looked up as Edward placed the water by her side and smiled shyly for the first time since they had met. With that look, Edward suddenly realised how young and vulnerable she was. She is only a girl a long way from home, the thought suddenly struck him as he sat beside her on the blanket.

“ Sit down and let us eat, ” she said almost tentatively as though she did not know what Edward's reaction would be.

They ate in silence but not the silence of tension but of almost companionship. All through the meal, Kitty kept glancing in Edward's direction, smiling whenever their eyes met. When the meal was finished, Kitty helped Edward pack up the remains, went down to the stream to wash her hands and then came back to sit on the blanket with her head resting against the rock. The sun shone in her hair that blew around her face and she flicked it away from her face with a quick gesture of her hand. Not for the first time Edward noticed how beautiful she looked and how young.

After a time she looked up. “ Thank you for taking me out for rides like this around the land, ” she said, her voice hesitant as though she was still frightened of Edward's reaction.

“ I didn't have much choice did I? ” Edward snapped but the hurt expression that crossed her face made him wish he hadn't spoken so harshly. “ I am sorry I spoke like that. It was not necessary. ”

“ It is all right Edward, ” she replied mildly, making an effort to stop Edward's remark ruffling her pride and sense of superiority. “ I must apologise for being so withdrawn and distant yesterday. No, I suppose I must admit I was being very arrogant and superior. Sometimes I cannot stop myself from acting like that when I am with people like you. At times I tend to forget other people have other concerns than looking after my every whim. The trouble is we Borovic’s belong to one of the high families of the Imperial Court and are used to people bowing before us. As a family, the men have always been soldiers and the women marry into the top families of the Empire. You have to realise I have spent almost all my life at the Imperial Court or with my father in some Army outpost. ”

Kitty paused and looked into the distance at the stream and the shrubs, but her eyes were unfocused as though she was seeing pictures from far away. “ You have no idea what kind of a life that is. We do not have to bow before anybody except the Emperor. We always sit at the top table during state banquets and are surrounded by servants. When I am at home, I am always surrounded by other young people like me in Parison at the Imperial Palace. We have nothing to do but look for pleasure. I have never done what you would call work in my life. ”

She looked back at Edward her eyes now focused. “ It is rather different when I come away with my father on one of his appointments away from the Imperial City. He has been the military governor of this province for the last ten years and has been here a few times before that. When I first came here to join my father last year, my brother was here and I had somebody to talk to. He went back to Parison to join the Emperor's personal guard and since then, I have felt all alone. There are a few girls in Nimmar who I meet but they are so provincial. Besides I think they are only friendly with me because of my position and the influence their parents think they will be able to wield by claiming my friendship.”

“ Why did you come to Alskar with your father when you hate the place so much?” Edward asked shaking his head. He truly did not understand. “ Why did you come to Rombuli in the first place when you find life in Parison so wonderful? You must have known you would be on your own a lot of the time and people would try to use you for their own ends. I have never been to Nimmar in my life. Indeed the only time I have ever ventured across the river was when I came to help you last week. Nimmar sounds to me a grand place especially from what I have heard my father's wagon drivers say. But to you it must seem small and dreary. Then to come to Alskar which is even smaller and backward in relation to the rest of the Empire than Nimmar. The only excitement that happens round here are the village fairs and the annual Gathering. ”

“ Now I realise how simple life is here in Rombuli but when my mother died, I thought my father would need me to take her place,” Kitty grimaced. “ I had this vision of grand balls and entertainments with me as organiser and hostess in my mother’s place. Maybe not on the same scale as those in Parison but at least some sort of social round. I know now how wrong my dreams were. When I was in Nimmar before with my parents, I was very young and did not take too much notice of what was going on around me. It was only when I came back after mother died that I found there was very little social life in the provinces. Since I came to Rombuli there has only been one ball and I had to teach most of the local girls how to dance to the latest music, they are so backward. At least some of the young officers had semi competent partners to dance with. ”

Kitty smiled ironically as she continued. “ It was becoming so boring for me in Nimmar, I thought a trip to Alskar with my father would be something new and a diversion from the stifling atmosphere in Nimmar. ”

For the first time since they had met, it was Edward's turn to laugh. “ Now you are finding things even worse out here? Grand Balls, what ever they are, and a social round in Alskar. The high point of the year is the mid summer break, with dancing and eating in the town square. What boring lives we must lead in comparison to yours. ”

“ That is an understatement, ” Kitty too laughed ruefully. “ My father is so busy holding meetings and riding out for consultations, he has no time to talk to me except over an occasional dinner. There is nobody of my rank around for me to mix with except that insufferable ass Cannoc. That is why when father suggested I go for rides round the country with you. I agreed. As you see it is not easy being the daughter of an Imperial Grandmaster especially since my mother died.”

Edward stared at Kitty, his face pulled into a frown. “ I can hear what you say but find it hard to understand. Except for the merchants, officials and the army, who visit my father on business from time to time, I have had very little contact with the Empire. I do not know what the right place everybody holds in your society or how people connect socially to other people. I imagine, to you we are a very simple ignorant people living very narrow lives and not knowing our true place. To most of us though people are people and important as people. We do not care what position they are born into but only what their worth as people now. Obviously there are people like my father who are, because of their wealth or abilities, seen to be more important than say one of his wagon drivers but the wagon driver would think it strange if he was made to bow to my father. It is hard to explain to somebody like you how our society works. Why don't you spend a day with my sister Morag? She is about the same age as you and would love to put you right on why the Empire should depart and leave the Rombuli alone.”

“ If Morag is the girl who hit me when she was looking after that injured soldier, no thank you, ” Kitty exclaimed ruefully. “ That is the first time anybody has hit me like that. Is she always that fierce when she is angry? “

“ Oh come now, how am I supposed to answer that? “ Edward remarked wide eyed but smiling. “ She is my sister and I think she is the most gentle person you could meet. Well she is rather passionate about everybody having the same rights as everybody else especially when they are ill. She has hit me before now when I have said the wrong thing to her. The way you treated me the first few times we met, you and Morag should get along famously! ”

“ You are funny, Edward Eastland, ” Kitty said looking at Edward with wide blue eyes. “ Even though you made it quite plain to me that you did not want to come riding with me, you came out of some sense of duty. I have never come across that before. In my limited experience, there have only been two types of people from the lower orders of society. There are those who do as they are told because they hope to gain something from their obedience and there are those who obey because of fear. The first types do as they are ordered while bowing and scraping, the second just do as they are told. Yesterday was a shock to me. You stood in front of me and made it quite plain you were not afraid. Nor did you give me the impression that you hoped to gain anything from escorting me. I have gained the distinct impression that you came with me not out of any duty to me but out of a duty to your father.”

“ We are a proud people the Rombuli with very strong family ties, “ Edward replied quietly. “ Though you obviously do not believe it, we are a people with a long history of our own. Because of our recent history and our standing with the Empire, my father thinks now is not the time to stir up trouble or unwarranted strife between the Imperial officials and us. You came and asked me to be your guide and made it quite plain you would not take no for an answer. To avoid unpleasantness I agreed to be your guide. I must admit my father did have to persuade me a little.”

Kitty smiled, making her face soft and inviting. “ What you have just said is too simple Edward Eastland. I ask my father about the Rombuli when I got back last night after spending the day with you. I could see he was surprised by my sudden interest but he spoke at length about some of your history, as he understands it. For the first time since I arrived as young lady in Rombuli, I have begun to understand that every peoples have a history beyond the Empire even though we may regard them as ignorant peasants.”

“ If we have the time I would like to take you to the Gathering Field,” Edward said hesitatingly. “ There I could explain more fully about our history. ”

“ I would like that, “ said Kitty. “ I will ask my father if it is possible. “

“ We would have to be away for two nights so it may be impossible to arrange. He might not like to leave you in my care for that length of time,” Edward replied.

“ Leave things to me and I will ask my father. He will let me go if he thinks it is safe,” Kitty said grinning at Edward. “ Do you know you have just confirmed that you came with me not out of any sense of fear. If you had really wanted to refuse to come with me, you would have stood your ground and taken the consequences. Once again I thank you Edward Eastland for coming with me and being so patient.”

Kitty jumped to her feet, bent swiftly before Edward could move and kissed his cheek. Calling for her escort, she started to collect the blankets and place the picnic things into the basket.

On the way back to Alskar, the atmosphere between them was entirely different. All the time they talked as though they had never been anything but friends. Kitty chatted away about her life as the daughter of an Imperial Grandmaster, about living in the Imperial Palace in Parison and what it was like to be part of the Emperor's court. Edward listened fascinated by her tales of grand balls, of the great state occasions and, to Edward, the obvious enormous wealth that surrounded her all the time. It was like a fairy story to Edward and he absorbed all the details, though he could not comprehend some of the things she described.

By the time they reached the forge and the escort rode on with Kitty to the Fort, Edward realised how he had enjoyed their ride home and how he was looking forward to meeting Kitty again.