Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Return of the Exiles

Chapter 7

The next few weeks, after Edward and Kitty’s encounter with the Covenenter, were full of activity as Edward and the other workers put the finishing touches to the uniforms and the weapons for the Rombuli guard of honour. The group were working to a deadline laid down by the Imperial Grandmaster, ready for the day when the troops would parade in a rehearsal for the coming of the Emperor.

Despite all this activity and Edward's work schedule, Kitty made Edward give some of his time to accompany her to a tailor in Nimmar to be fitted with some clothes ready for Edward's formal duties during the Emperor's visit. The clothes Kitty advised him to order made Edward feel over dressed and uncomfortable but at the time, feeling that they knew best, he mentally shrugged his shoulders and bowed to the pressure of Kitty and her father.

Life was so busy, Edward did not have any time to ponder the significance of what the Covenenter had shown him in the old Meeting House. Indeed, he had no time to wonder why the Covenenter had even bothered to show him the symbols of the Rombuli subjugation.

As time passed and Edward's workload seemed to increase, the preparations in Nimmar for the Emperor's visit reached a fever pitch. People vied with one another in trying to obtain invitations to the various functions that were being arranged. Tailors and dressmakers did a roaring trade.

Two weeks before the Emperor's planned arrival in Nimmar, Edward stood with the rest of his team on the approaches to the town behind a line of foot soldiers decked out in their crimson and blue uniforms to watch the rehearsal of the Rombuli troop.

Resplendent in their black uniforms, the Rombuli rode into the Town Square escorting a nearly empty carriage carrying an official representing the Emperor. To Edward there had been a remarkable transformation of his friends in such a short time. From a collection of farmers, shopkeepers and handymen who had left Alskar a few months before, emerged a disciplined troop riding their black horses in almost perfect harmony, their pendants fluttering proudly from their lances. Even Imperial Grandmaster Borovic looked pleased and proud of what his instructors had accomplished.

The day designated for the arrival of the Emperor dawned sunny and calm. At the appointed time late in the afternoon, Edward took his place on the steps of the Nimmar Meeting House in the square facing the road leading into the town from the main highway through Rombuli. He was feeling rather silly in his finery and moving awkwardly trying not to trip over his unfamiliar sword. Kitty smiled encouragement from her place not far away as the cheers of the crowds lining the streets echoed across the river. Imperial Grandmaster Borovic sat his horse in front of the steps, his personal guard behind and a Covenenter at his side.

Looking up the road, Edward caught a glimpse of the Parison colour guard carrying the Emperor's flag, the Imperial Army flag and the Province flag. Then the Rombuli appeared riding in ranks before and behind the Emperor's coach that was drawn by six matched white horses. The coach pulled into the square through the cheering crowds and Imperial Grandmaster Borovic saluted as the Emperor alighted.

While the Emperor was inspecting the Imperial Grandmaster's guard of honour, Edward was able to get his first look at the man who held the Empire under such tight control. Dressed in the full uniform of the Imperial Army, the scarlet plume on his helmet higher than that of any other soldier present, it came as a shock to Edward to discover that the Emperor was not as tall as the Imperial Grandmaster. For some reason Edward had always pictured the Emperor as taller than all the other people in the Empire, an unconscious matching of the power to the size of the person. The Emperor walked however with the assurance of somebody accustomed to being obeyed and hard blue eyes stared out of his expressionless face.

After the welcoming ceremony, the Emperor got back into his coach and followed the Imperial Grandmaster and his escort across the bridge to his quarters in the Mansion. As was the custom on such visits, the Emperor was to spend the remainder of the day resting and in private before the official engagements started the next day.

The following morning all the chief citizens of Nimmar and Rombuli province were presented to the Emperor in the Great Hall of the Mansion. They lined up along one wall behind the line of Imperial guardsmen and shuffled forward until their name was called. Each in turn bowed deeply before the throne before making their way back down the other side of the hall. An aide whispered a few comments in the Emperor's ear as each person bowed before him but hardly any expression passed over his face.

Feeling rather disloyal to his people, Edward took his place in the queue, bowing in a rather nervous fashion as he had been instructed by Kitty. Edward became even more nervous when he saw the Emperor's flicker of a smile at what the aide said and then he saw the Covenenters sitting on chairs below and to the side of the Emperor. A large broad shouldered Covenenter, Latask, was whispering to another, obviously the leader because of the gold trimmings to his robe. He was short and squat but exhuded power. Edward tried to suppress a shiver as black eyes gleamed out from below the golden hood fixing Edward with a hard stare. Tulka, the leader of the Covenent as Edward was later to find out, did not move though Edward could feel the probing of his mind. Putting up his mental defences against the probing, all Edward could do in the circumstances was smile slightly before taking his place with the others in the line.

That evening there was a magnificent feast in the Great Hall with all the important people from Rombuli Province and those who nhad come with the Emporerpresent. To his intense relief, Edward sat near the back of at a table presided over by the Emperor's grandson. The more important the guest, the closer to the Emperor and the more haughtily the guest looked down the hall at those further from the top table than they were. Edward was glad to be a long way down the room away from the gaze of the Covenenter who sat near the Emperor on the top table.

As it was the meal was even more of an ordeal than the first meal Edward had endured on arriving in Nimmar. All the people at the table talked of Imperial matters and of events Edward did not comprehend. It was obvious they were all dazzled by the presence of the Emperor and not a word of criticism was heard. The way in which they referred to the Emperor made Edward wonder whether he was looking at the same person. They gave the impression that they were in the presence of a great hero, bestriding what they thought of as the civilised world. From their words, the Emperor came out like a colossus rather than the short man sitting at the head of the feast. At one point, Edward wanted to cry out that he was only human and not too imposing a one at that but he bit down the desire and stayed silent.

At the ball after the dinner was over, Kitty introduced Edward to Gorlef and Rulask the Emperor's sons. Gorlef was tall and broad shouldered but grim as though the weight of the government was about to fall on his shoulders. He gave the impression that he never smiled. Rulask was not so tall and rather slim, very blond and smiled a lot just like his son Manfred who had headed the table at which Edward had sat during the dinner. Edward liked Rulask instantly but felt a tug of jealousy at the way Manfred whipped Kitty away onto the dance floor. It was a silly sensation and one that Edward had never felt before, but after their unpromising start, a bond of friendship had grown up between Kitty and himself. Suddenly Edward felt he was back where he started, an outsider who found it difficult to mix with the people of the company in which he found himself. All of a sudden, he had an irrational desire to leave, to be anywhere but at the ball.

Walking out into the starry night to get some fresh air, Edward realised he wanted to be with his own kind, with his own people. The feeling grew and, as though a cloud had covered the sun on a summers day plunging the bright land into dullness, the lights of the Mansion became dim and uninviting and he felt he was no longer a part of the party.

Following the road from the Mansion that passed the Temple, Edward walked to the bridge connecting the island to the barracks. It was not until he was approaching the gates at the end of the bridge that he remembered he was not escorted and he almost turned back when the sentry stepped out into the road barring his way. For some reason, after shining a light in Edward's face, the sentry smiled and waved him through the gate.

Across the bridge the barracks was a riot of light, noise and music. As he searched for the Rombuli, shouting issued from almost every door and drunken soldiers staggered across his path. The Army was making the most of its free night before discipline and duty returned with a heavy head in the morning.

Once he had located their rooms by asking as passing soldier and found his way there, the Rombuli pulled Edward into their party like a long lost friend. He sat drinking, singing the old songs and thinking like all around him of home and his family. Although they all longed to go back to their home, in a strange way they were all proud of what they had accomplished. The Rombuli people had not been let down by those so cruelly wrenched away from hearth and home. They could all be proud of the way they had acted. With these sentiments echoing in his ear, waves of sound washed over Edward and the drink made him feel light headed but he was happy.

Some time during the evening after the drink had flowed in a constant stream, Matt appeared and pulled Edward to one side of the room into a quiet corner away from most of the other people. Edward was suddenly very alert because Matt's expression was very serious. Once they were alone, Matt did not appear as drunk as the others did. Matt sat toying with his drink for a while not saying anything and avoiding looking into Edward's eyes. Even after so much drink, it was obvious Matt was nervous about something and it appeared to Edward that Matt was trying to find the right words to begin whatever he wanted to say.

Edward sat back looking round the room letting his friend collect his thoughts. Candlelight reflected on the faces of most of his friends as they drank their ale and talked and sang. The few females from Edward's work group were in demand, one in particular flaunting her body and glowing at the attention she was getting from many of the young men.

Edward's attention was brought back to Matt when Matt cleared his throat and started to speak.

“ Edward Eastland I know it is a strange question to ask but are you still on the side of the Rombuli? ” Matt asked his eyes still fixed on his glass.

“ You are right. It is a strange question to ask me,” Edward retorted, staring at Matt, trying to divine where this conversation was leading. “ Why do you ask? “

Matt looked at Edward sideways out of the corner of his eye, still not turning his head to look directly into his face. “ Your father makes a lot of money out of trading with the Imperial people and is on good terms with many Imperial Officials. Besides which, while we have been here you have not lodged with us but in the Imperial Mansion as a guest of the Imperial Grandmaster. Many people talk about you being seen a lot in the company of the Imperial Grandmaster's daughter since you have been here. It is a fact which we all know that you took her exploring Alskar before coming here.”

Edward did not answer but the hard look in his eyes made Matt rush on, his words tumbling out. “ The others told me that it would be dangerous to sound you out about our scheme but you have been my friend for as long as I can remember so I said we had to consult you before we got too involved in our plans. When we were discussing what we mean to do, I stuck up for you and wanted to sound out your opinion. I told them that you have always given me good advice in the past and bluntly informed them that you were the only one to come to my aid in Alskar that time when the Covenenter attacked me. Because I stuck up for you, they have given this task to me. The problem is, their comments have put doubts in my mind about your loyalties.”

Try as he might, Edward could not keep the anger out of his voice as he snapped back. “ My family has for a long time been in the forefront of Rombuli nationalism, standing out for a fair deal from the Empire. Indeed, my father has always made sure that what he does benefits everybody not just himself. You should know that more than anybody. My relationship with Kitty is my affair and I will not have anybody talk ill of her. Even though I have been a guest of the Imperial Grandmaster, the last few months have not rid me old any desire to see Rombuli free. I was ordered to stay in the Imperial Mansion while I was here. Do you think I should have refused? Do you think I would have been any more successful at refusal than you were? Grow up Matt and face the facts of life as they are. What are you suggesting?”

Matt sighed deeply. “ Edward, as I have said, we have known each other from boyhood, roamed the country round Alskar together and were presented at our coming of age ceremony together. I have always been open with you and I believe you have always been open with me. Even in my worst moment in the square at Alskar when the Covenenter smashed me down with a power I could not fight, you were there by my side. I know that Edward but I still have doubts. Loyalties change and love does strange things to a man.”

Again he stopped and looked deeply into his drink as though he could find the truth in the bottom of his tankard.

Suddenly, he thrust his drink away, the glas making a screetching noise on the wooden top and looked directly at Edward.

Like a dam bursting, the words came tumbling out. “ After the Emperor's visit is over and the Rombuli troops have come back to the barracks to await our fate, a small group of us mean to strike a blow for freedom and our nation’s self esteem. We have heard that somewhere on the island are the old flags of Rombuli and the standard of Derek Gorland, the last Rombuli to fight against the oppression of our people. We mean to get those flags, the symbols of our race and take them back to the next Gathering to be displayed before our people. We know this will not be easy but we have talked about it and are determined to try. In order to do this, we have studied the guards and the walls and we are certain we can get onto the island unobserved. What we need from you, with your knowledge of the island, what you can do for us while we are away, is find out where those flags are kept and how they are guarded. With that information we have a chance of getting them out of the hands of the enemy.”

“ You don't stand a chance! “ Edward shot back into Matt’s face, his voice unusually harsh.

Edward did not get a chance to say any more. Matt's face went purple with rage and he jumped to his feet scattering glasses across the floor. People at the nearby tables stopped talking and turned to look over at Matt and Edward.

“ You have gone over to the other side!” he shouted his finger pointing accusingly at Edward's chest.

“ Sit down Matt and stop making a fool of yourself,” Edward's voice was commanding and Matt sank back into his seat but his eyes still glowed with anger and resentment. “ Just sit there and listen carefully to what I have to say and then make up your mind. You had better listen carefully before your small group is unmasked. All of you may benefit from what I have to say if you will only listen. I have already seen those flags. They are displayed inside the old Meeting House. You remember the Covenenter who laid you out in Alskar? He took me to the Meeting House to gloat over my weakness. Why I said you didn't have a chance was because I have seen the way those flags are guarded not because I have changed sides.”

Matt stared at Edward, his mouth open and the anger vanished from his face. “Tell me how they are guarded and then we can decide how impossible it will be for us to get the flags away.”

Edward shrugged and then related to Matt what had happened when the Covenenter had taken Kitty and him to the Meeting House. When Edward had finished, Matt slumped in his chair looking deflated and defeated.

“ There is a way to get to the flags but it will be dangerous.” Edward smiled to hide his feeling of foreboding that arose as he said those fateful words. “ We could all get hurt or even killed if we make the attempt. On the night we decide, you will have to get your men into the grounds beside the Temple undetected and then leave the rest to me. Before I agree to this, the rest of your group will have to trust me. Trusting me and doing exactly what I order will be your only hope of getting the flags away from the island and to the Gathering. Will the others come knowing they will have to put their lives in the hands of one they regard as a traitor?”

Matt looked worried but forced a grin. “ Edward, they will come if I tell them to, though they will be reluctant to put their future in your hands.”

“ That is not good enough Matt,” Edward barked back at him, his finger poking into Matt’s chest. “ Unless they are fully committed and ready to follow my orders without question, we will fail. Once you are on the island, the danger comes from the Covenenters and not the soldiers. You know how to deal with the soldiers, though even that might be too much for you. You are no match for the Covenenters. Of all people, you must know what they are capable of given any hint of danger to them or the Empire. I am the only one who has a chance against them so I have to be fully in charge once we join forces on the island. Is that agreed or not?”

Matt sat forward on the bench, his brown eyes gazing seriously into Edward's. Screwing his round plain face into a picture of concentration, his hand moved involuntarily to scratch the back of his head as he fought to overcome his confused thoughts.

Suddenly his expression cleared and he slapped Edward on his arm, squeezing fiercely as though the pressure could ring from Edward the assurances he required. “ By our Maker, Edward you are a hard man when it comes to making a bargain. For a long time I have noticed that although you may not be as big as some of us, when you want it, you always end up as the leader. What do you want us to do?”

Edward tried to stay calm but his heart was beating too fast and the palms of his hands were moist. He grimaced at the thought of what he was about to do, of the danger he was about to encounter.

In a soft calm voice, he said. “ All you and your friends have to do, Matt is get onto the island unnoticed by the guards. Leave the rest to me. Somehow when you have returned from escorting the Emperor out of Rombuli, I will get a message to you about when is the best time to mount the raid. After that all you have to do is make sure you are in the place I tell you to be at the right time. One last thing. You will have to think of an escape plan.”

“ Oh that last part is easy, “ Matt grinned showing his relief at Edward's apparent agreement. “ When we have the flags, I will get us back across the wall. We will then ride to free Rombuli and hide. Between us we should be able to come up with a place to hide north of Alskar which is out of reach of the Imperial Army. We can remain there until our triumphant entry at the Gathering.”

“ No Matt not us but you,” Edward said brutally, overriding the startled expression on Matt's face. “ What do you think will happen when the Covenenters find the flags missing? They will come to the barracks to search the Rombuli quarters and will soon find out that you and your friends are missing. If I stay behind, they may try to intimidate me first into telling them where you have gone. If you work out your escape plan without telling me, I will not be able to tell them where you have taken the flags. In addition, if I can hold them up for a little while by refusing to answer, it will give you a little time to get away. Don't protest Matt, it is for the best.”

Matt accepted Edward's plan without any more protest mainly because he had no choice. Edward did not mention his worry that if the Covenenters really wanted information, it would not take them long to get it even from somebody with the resources which Edward possessed. They separated then, Matt back to his friends and Edward back to the Mansion. Edward had had enough to drink and he was scared of what he had committed himself to do when Matt and the others arrived back in Nimmar after escorting the Emperor to the Rombuli border.

It was a long lonely walk back to the Mansion across the bridge and along the path passed the Temple. Edward hardly noticed the nod of the guard on the gate, so deeply sunk in thought, as he struggled with an inner voice which kept telling him he was a fool to get mixed up in such a venture. To get involved in such a futile scheme, what was he thinking about? It took all his strength of character to stop himself from turning round and going back to tell Matt to forget the whole idea. Would it not be far better to develop my relationship with Kitty and the Imperial officials? Would he not gain more influence by doing that and helping him to press the case for greater freedom for his people? Should I let a friend help me throw away all I have gained in the last few months, he asked himself. Matt saw everything in terms of right and wrong without any of the complications which life normally throws up when questions of freedom are considered.

Another thought reminded Edward that in reality he had gained nothing from his stay in Nimmar. You will soon be back in Alskar at your forge, the grandeur of the Emperor's visit and your high life a fading memory. Ha, but what of Kitty the voice seemed to ask. A vision of her face as she danced away with Manfred filled his thoughts. In that one moment his place had been clearly defined. It may have been unconscious on Kitty's part but plain never the less. Kitty had shown he was an interesting diversion while she was in this backwater but once back among her people, he would be quietly forgotten. There was only one way to gain acceptance into the ranks of the Imperial Court and that was to accept their ways, to swear allegiance to their Emperor and finally accept their religion.

Praying silently to his Maker, Edward asked for the strength to carry through the plan and to harden his resolve to help the Rombuli nation reach freedom from Imperial domination. He knew it was a futile gesture, but, shrugging his shoulders he resolved to carry on and help his friends all he could.

The sounds of music were still loud as he approached the Great Hall. For some reason he could not face any more people and he went back into the Mansion by a side door near the wing where his room lay. Half way up the stairs, he met Kitty coming down accompanied by Manfred, both still elegant and smiling.

“ Edward! “ Kitty called, her smile even more sunny than it had been earlier in the evening as she approached. “ We have been searching all over the house for you. Where have you been? “

Edward looked from Kitty to Manfred, trying to keep his face expressionless but Manfred burst out laughing. “ By the Sun God Kitty, I believe your friend thinks he has caught us in dalliance while the ball is continuing next door. Edward, I have known Kitty all my life, her brother and I were inseparable when we were young. After her mother died, she stayed with us in the Imperial Palace while her father was away serving at the far flung outposts of the Empire. It was only natural that she asked me like a brother to come in search of you when she became so agitated because she could not find you among the other guests.”

Edward fought back a blush but failed to hide his confusion. “ I am sorry sir I did not mean to imply....” Edward stuttered and could not find the right words to exptress his thoughts. “ This may seem strange to you but in the middle of the dancing I suddenly had this overwhelming desire to be with my own people. I went to the barracks to have a drink with my friends from home.”

Manfred's face became serious and he stepped closer to grip Edward's shoulder with his hand. “ Please call me Manfred. I understand, as my father would, though not my grandfather or my uncle. They see only duty to the Empire and obedience from all people subjected to Imperial ideals. Any dissenting voice should be silenced or made to conform. In many ways your people, from what I have gathered from my father and from Kitty, are lucky to be on the outskirts of the Empire away from the close scrutiny of the Imperial officials. This allows you a certain amount of freedom. Kitty has learnt a lot from you about your small country and your beliefs.”

He smiled at Edward’s protest. “ No I am not consciously being superior. Even before talking to Kitty today, I have some understanding of your ways from her brother Boric who like Kitty spent some time here with his father. You will like Boric when he arrives in the next few days with the Emperor's barge ready for the journey back to Parison. I have one thing to say to you before we go back to the dance and you take Kitty away from me. Don't tell anybody of what I speak. The Emperor intends to set up his sons as Governors of the provinces which means putting places like Rombuli under civilian rule rather than rule by the Army. Rulask, my father, is to be made Governor of Rombuli. If everything works to plan, he will be setting up an advisory council in Nimmar to help with the administration. This is one of the reasons why I agreed to come and find you with Kitty. My father has asked me to sound you out on the idea of you becoming one of his advisers.”

It was too quick, too outside any thoughts or future plans Edward had made and he found great difficulty in grasping what Manfred was saying. Kitty took his hand and smiled, a soft loving smile that Edward had never seen before. There were forces at work that Edward did not understand.

“ Say yes,” Kitty said her eyes sparkling in anticipation and with a deep secret longing that Edward shrank from.

I cannot answer you on the spur of the moment,” Edward replied truthfully confused by Kitty's looks and uncertain as to how this would effect his promise to Matt. “ I am only a simple provincial blacksmith caught out of his depth in a life style that is utterly alien. Please tell your father that I have to have time to think about my answer.”

The relief was obvious on Kitty's face and Manfred gripped Edward's shoulder fiercely. “ Well said, Edward Eastland. You have plenty of time to think things over. When the time comes, my father will ask you formally. Shall we all go back to the ball?”

Kitty's eyes pleaded with Edward to come back and dance with her but he could not face all those brightly dressed people. “ No. You two go back without me. I need to be on my own to sort out my thoughts. Nobody will notice if I am not there.”

“ If that is what you want,” Manfred said taking Kitty's arm. “ Tulka and his Covenenters will notice. I have heard stories about you. Did you not face down one of their circle, something that has not happened to a Covenenter in living memory? Edward one word of warning about Tulka. He is in many ways, though he does not overtly show this, the most powerful man in the Empire and imposes his values on everything. Your openness about your beliefs, even to praying to your Maker before dinner much to the amusement of others, will not go unnoticed by him. If he adds to that your being able to hold off one of his Covenenters, he will have you watched. Try not to antagonise the Covenent while he is still in Nimmar. I hope we can sit and talk with Boric when he arrives.”

Quickly Kitty kissed Edward on the cheek, too quickly for him to react, and walked on down the stairs leaving Edward to spend a restless night pondering the conflict in the plan he had hatched with Matt and the chance to help his people through the opportunity of sitting on the Governor's council.

The following week passed in whirl of social activities giving Edward no chance to think or talk to Matt again. The Emperor toured the country around Nimmar, conducted audiences with his subjects and held court at receptions given by various people from the town.

Nimmar was filled to overflowing with the people of the Empire. A temporary tented village had sprung up along the road to the White Falls Pass to accommodate those who could not find rooms or accommodation in inns or with friends. Eating places, gambling halls and other businesses did a roaring trade from the crowds who came to see the Emperor. Soldiers from far flung parts of the Empire strutted the streets of Nimmar their shiny breastplates and helmets dazzling the ordinary citizens while merchants and traders from all over the Empire crowded any place where a market could be set up displaying a bewildering verity of goods. All was a blinding mix of colours and of different costumes.

Edward was awe struck and excited, not knowing where to look or to whom to speak. There were so many questions he wanted answered. Never before in all his life had he seen so much stress put on rank, never before had he seen so many people whose whole purpose was to look after the needs of others. There seemed to Edward more people employed to make the few high class peoples life comfortable than people engaged in legitimate trade. Then there was the consumption of food and goods for consumption's sake, enough being thrown away at the end of some receptions to feed his family for the rest of the year. All the talk was of who was in favour at the time, who was the most powerful, who could help who to climb the social ladder, who was the richest and who should be invited to parties.

In a daze, Edward was dragged in his finery from one reception to the next, most of the time the only person from free Rombuli present. His attendance caused passing comment but was soon forgotten as other more important topics took over the attention of the people at the receptions. Once he almost rebelled, telling Kitty rather unkindly that she only wanted him by her side because of the attention this gave her but the tears that sprang to her eyes made Edward relent. All the time this was playing on his conscience, feeling as he did that he was slowly being drawn into the Empire's embrace against his will. When people at parties began to greet him like a friend, to recognise him, to talk to him as though he was one of them he started to think that he was betraying his friends and his people. Yet he could not stop himself enjoying the experience, could not stop himself holding Kitty's hand or of kissing her goodnight. He could not deny even late at night with the smell of Kitty's perfume still lingering from their goodnight embrace, that he was happy and enjoying himself. As he dressed in whatever Tulla put out for him, he left the choice to her knowing she knew just what was required, he was looking forward to seeing Kitty and was becoming very irritable if she could not see him every morning as soon as he left his room.

If he had managed to speak to Matt, to have listened to Matt speaking of the age long yearning for independence and a return to the old ways, Edward may not have had so much trouble to hold onto his self regard. As it was he was pulled more and more into the embrace of the Empire and he began to like the life style. The whole feeling of excitement engulfed him and he had to fight hard to hang on to a glimmering of the Rombuli he was when he first arrived in Nimmar.

In the midst of all the rounds of receptions and parties, Boric Borovic arrived. One morning Kitty burst into his room, without knocking, flung back the covers, put her arms around his half naked body while kissing him fiercely and told him to hurry and get dressed. Rushing out of the door, she shouted for him to meet her in the hall. Once Edward came down the stairs, Kitty grabbed his hand and almost running pulled him towards the bridge over the river leading to the barracks. Just the other side of the bridge from the island was a quay and this is where Kitty stopped.

There were only a few people there but these included Imperial Grandmaster Borovic and his escort in full dress uniforms. Kitty pulled Edward to a place near the troops and Edward recognised Manfred smiling in greeting as he too waited. Towards the quay round a bend in the river Edward could see a barge propelled by oars. The Imperial standard flew at the masthead and the oars glinted in the sun as they came out of the water in unison as though worked by machinery. As the barge manoeuvred alongside the quay, Edward noticed that apart from a small party of Imperial soldiers like those on shore dressed in full dress uniform, the entire crew were Lukic, black bearded men, brown limbed with muscles rippling across their broad shoulders as they lifted their oars to the vertical as the barge came alongside. The Lukic officers wore canvass suits with capes coloured dark blue and carried curved swords at their sides. At each end of the barge bowmen stood ready while beside each rower was an axe the size of which made Edward shudder at the thought of what that weapon could do to a man.

As the barge came alongside, the Lukic jumped ashore disdainfully ignoring the waiting stevedores and, taking ropes, from their colleagues made the barge fast. The Captain, a huge Lukic with a vast black beard and a head that seemed to Edward to come straight out of his shoulders without a neck, stepped ashore as soon as the gangplank was lowered. Imperial Grandmaster Borovic saluted and took a staff from the Captain. Kitty whispered that this was the Emperor's barge which had been manhandled passed the White Falls by convicts and slave labour and that the Captain was handing responsibility for its safe keeping while moored in Nimmar to Imperial Grandmaster Borovic.

The troop of soldiers marched smartly down the gangplank and formed an honour guard on the shore. Edward was not certain but by his look the captain was looking at all the posturing with contempt. He learned much later that the Lukic sailors could not understand this need for ceremonial whenever the occasion demanded, being very practical and reasoning that if something needed to be done, why not get on with it.

An Undermaster of the Imperial guard came down the gangplank next, through the stiff ranks of his men. He stopped before the Imperial Grandmaster and saluted formally handing over a piece of paper. The Imperial Grandmaster saluted back and handed the paper to Under Master Cannoc who was by his side. The likeness between the Grand Master and the Under Master was very striking. The same upright carriage, the same inflexible stiffness and the same piercing grey eyes. Once the formal business was over, they dismissed their guards and embraced.

As they started to walk back over the bridge towards the Mansion leaving the Captain to happily look after his vessel and arrange quarters for his crew, Kitty could no longer restrain herself. She rushed forward and threw her arms around her brother's neck. Boric tried to brush her away, tried to look old and stern but the pleasure shining through his eyes showed Edward it was only an act. They walked together then, father, son and daughter, immersed in conversation of which Edward was not a part. They were for a few minutes oblivious of the rest of the world. Edward hung back trying not to intrude and wondering where else he could go.

As though suddenly returning to the world, Kitty let out a giggle and turned to motion Edward forward.

“ My brother Boric, Edward,” she gushed pushing Edward in front of her brother. “ Boric, this is Edward Eastland from Alskar.”

Kitty did not give Boric any time to reply. “ He has been here to supervise the making of all the uniforms and ceremonial weapons for the free Rombuli force which father had trained to escort the Emperor while he is in Rombuli. You were right when you said that with the proper training and discipline, the Rombuli would make good soldiers as long as everybody stopped thinking of them as simple backward farmers. They have looked splendid when ever the Emperor has needed an honour guard.”

Kitty would have gushed on in her excitement but Boric waved a hand for her to stop. Boric raised an eyebrow at his father but the Imperial Grandmaster smiled indulgently at his daughter and did not say a word.

I am pleased to meet you Edward Eastland,” he said formally. “ We must have a talk about free Rombuli before I leave.”

Kitty took Edward's hand and drew him into the family circle and it wasn't until they arrived at the Mansion that Edward realised they were still holding hands. At a reception that night, Edward made polite conversation for a while with Boric but Manfred was there and the two men were soon inseparable. Edward did not mind, because he then had Kitty all to himself.

The next morning while Edward was eating a leisurely breakfast on a day when the Emperor was resting and there were no receptions or meetings, a message arrived asking him if he could meet Boric when it was convenient. After finishing his breakfast and getting dressed, Edward left his room and after several inquiries, found Boric sitting behind a desk in a room close to the Great Hall.

When Edward was shown into the room, Boric motioned towards a chair and continued to sign some papers for an aide who waited patiently by the desk. His task completed and the aide had marched smartly out of the door, Boric came round the desk, stretched and stood looking out of the window. Turning to look at Edward, the light was at his back and Edward could not make out his expression. This made Edward nervous.

I hear and see that you have become very friendly with Kitty,” Boric began, making Edward even more nervous as he anticipated a strong rebuke from Kitty's brother, even though his tone was friendly. “ In truth, I have not seen her so happy for a long time. Still, Edward I did not ask you to see me to discuss my spoilt sister. I would like you to do something for me. As a fa vour, I want you to introduce me to the free Rombuli troops.”

“ Why? “ Edward asked unable to hide his surprise. “ All you have to do is ask your father to order a parade and you can introduce yourself. You don't need me to set up a meeting for you.”

“ I have my reasons for doing it this way, ” he replied shortly, his eyes hard as though he did not like being questioned. “ It may seem strange but I want to meet them informally and try to get to know them. I have often said, against the feelings of other people, that we have left this province too long as a slow backwater of the Empire. I have argued with my father that the Rombuli would make excellent soldiers and now we have a chance to pull Rombuli truly into the Empire.”

“ What happens if we do not want to be pulled truly into the Empire?” Edward asked smiling but Boric never had a chance to reply.

The door to his office burst open and a sergeant rushed into the room, hot and panting from running. “ Sir there has been a fight in the barracks and you had better come quickly.”

“ Why me?” Boric asked raising his eyebrows. “ There are plenty of more senior officers there who can deal with any disturbance. I told my aide that I was not to be disturbed.”

But sir,” the sergeant insisted. “ The fight was between the Lukics from the Emperor's barge and those ignorant pig rearers from Rombuli. The Imperial Grandmaster's guard and some other Imperial troops are keeping them apart but Captain Smelt is insisting that you come at once. The Rombuli are asking for somebody called Eastland, one of their own pig rearing leaders I suppose. What shall I do about getting hold of him?”

Boric strode from his place by the window and confronted the soldier, looking him up and down.

“ Stand to attention when you are addressing me sergeant!” Boric barked pulling the man's uniform straight. “ As for Mr. Eastland, you had better tell him to his ignorant peasant face, what he needs to know. And remember, he is a guest of my father.”

The sergeant’s face fell as Boric bowed ironically to Edward sitting in a chair watching expressionless at what he was seeing. Shouting for his aide, Boric ordered horses for both of himself and Edward, dismissing the sergeant with orders to tell who ever was in charge at the barracks that he would soon be there.

Boric turned and smiled at Edward. “ Well, Edward it looks as though I will get my wish to meet your countrymen sooner than I anticipated.”

Hadn't you better tell your father?” Edward asked.

“ Knowing my father, he already knows. He has a reputation for leaving things for those in charge reasoning that his presence would only make things worse.” Boric buckled on his sword. “ Besides, Captain Smelt and his crew are my responsibility at the moment. Shall we go and find out what your friends have been up to?”

As they rode across the bridge and into the barracks, they were met by a soldier from the Imperial Grandmaster's troop. He saluted Boric and led the way between the buildings and out onto a flat piece of ground near the river.

In the middle of the ground stood Captain Smelt, his black beard jutting into the face of an Imperial Master and his finger jabbing into the soldier's chest. As Boric and Edward approached, Smelt waved his fist at a group of Rombuli troops surrounded by Imperial soldiers with drawn swords. Near the river a similar group of Lukic sailors were standing behind a barrier of soldiers also with drawn swords. On the shore by the barge, stood a line of Lukic sailors with arrows notched to the strings of their bows ready to fire if the order came. Calmly facing them were a line of Walloon heavy cavalry in their heavy armour, their grey armour contrasting to the ceremonial colour of the other soldiers. The Walloon horsemen had their lances pointed at the chests of the Lukics with their shields ready to ward off any of the Lukic arrows. To the side of the ground was a troop of Parison light cavalry patiently waiting for their officers to give them orders.

“ May the Gods preserve us!” Boric remarked in a low voice to Edward as he took in the scene. “ Parison light cavalry, Bergia foot soldiers, Lukic seamen and Walloon heavy knights all mixed up and ready to fight. Your Rombuli certainly know how to stir up trouble and latent passions. If one of those soldiers makes a wrong move or says the wrong thing, this could be the start of a civil war.”

When Boric and Edward had dismounted, the Imperial Master saluted, his face grave. “ Undermaster, tell this block head to call off his sailors before I order my men to run them down. I don't care what caused this but I mean to have an end to it one way or the other.”

Boric looked at Smelt. “ Captain get your men back on the barge and get them to put their weapons away.”

Captain Smelt started to protest and then, with a strangled oath, signalled for his men to back off. For a moment nothing happened and Edward held his breath but the tension subsided and the Lukic with hate filled glances at the Rombuli backed off and returned to their barge.

Boric sighed audibly. “ Imperial Master you can now get the Rombuli back to their quarters. I suggest you get each side to appoint a spokesman and escort them to my office in the Mansion where you can question them in peace. We have to sort this out or we will have a disaster on our hands. Can you imagine the consequences if fighting broke out when this lot were escorting the Emperor back to the border?”

The Imperial Master barked out the orders and the Rombuli sullenly left under heavy escort. “ Thank you Undermaster Borovic. I knew it was a mistake to let these ignorant Rombuli into the Army. They are too anarchic to make good soldiers.”

“ Maybe we should listen to what they have to say before we take sides and pass judgment on what has happened,” Edward muttered causing the Imperial Master to look questioningly in his direction.

“ Sorry Imperial Master,” Boric purred sweetly. “ I forgot to introduce you. This is Edward Eastland, one of the ignorant anarchic Rombuli you have just prejudged. He is staying as a guest of my father during the Emperor's stay. I asked him to come with me in case he could be of help. Shall we go back to my office?”

Boric was smiling while he mounted his horse, revelling in the discomfort of the Imperial Master. Edward was puzzled at the way in which the Imperial Master treated Boric with deference. Even Edward from the backwater of Alskar was aware that the Imperial Master was the senior officer and as such would have expected Boric to defer to him. I suppose it is Boric's proximity to the Emperor and as the son of the Senior Army officer in the province that makes the situation different, Edward told himself as they rode back to the Mansion. Except for Kitty’s simple explanation, he had no real knowledge of the structure of Imperial society.

Silence reigned in Boric's office while the three men waited for the representatives of the Lukic and the Rombuli to arrive. The Imperial Master of the Nimmar division paced the floor even though Boric had shown due deference to rank by offering the chair behind the desk. The Imperial Master was obviously unsure of his authority over the custodian of the Emperor's barge and the son of the Imperial Grandmaster and military Governor of Rombuli and Sandaria. Boric sat to one side, his hands behind his head and his eyes sparkling, calmly watching the Imperial Master pace the floor.

It was a relief for Edward, uncertain as he was of what he was supposed to do, when he heard the approach of the guards and the door opened to admit a guard escorting a Lukic and Matt. Letting them stand stiffly before him for a while, the Imperial Master seated behind the desk when they entered, pretended to be busy with some papers.

Looking up at last he barked, “ Well?” and then let the question hang in the air, raising the tension.

When both spokesmen started to speak at the same time, he waved them to silence. “ All right one at a time. You, ships store man, what is your version?”

The Lukic burst out. “ We were in town having a quiet drink when these pig rearers came into the bar and started to insult us by saying we were all muscle and no brains. It got rather heated and we were trying to throw them out into the street when the soldiers arrived. We were escorted back to the barge by some Bergia foot soldiers. This morning these Rombuli lined up on the bank challenging us to a fight. We had no choice but to take on their challenge. If you had not arrived with your soldiers, we would have finished them off in a few minutes.”

The Imperial Master shook his head sadly. “ What about you?” he asked looking at Matt.

Matt looked from him to Edward before replying. “ We went into the inn for a drink just as he told you. These sailors started making loud remarks about ignorant, cowardly peasants from Rombuli. They taunted us by saying we couldn't fight and were only fit for rearing pigs. I am afraid we got angry and the fight started. In the morning we found a pig dressed in a Rombuli type uniform outside our quarters so we went down to the river to have it out with them.”

The Imperial Master's eyes looked up at the ceiling and he sighed once again. “So it was an argument about simple honour which almost caused a civil war. How do you suggest we deal with this Undermaster?”

Boric shrugged. “ The only reason I became involved was because the sailors are nominally under my command. On the one hand we cannot let this get out of hand but we cannot clap half the Emperor's escort into jail. What we have to do is find a way of satisfying their honour without involving too much injury or future trouble.”

The Imperial Master replied immediately and professionally. “ Leave it to me. If honour must be satisfied, we will do it in the time honoured way. We will have a contest of some kind to test their skills in the best traditions of the Army. What shall we say? Swords, wrestling and archery should do things. Horse riding may favour the Rombuli too much as the Lukic are seamen. Tomorrow is a rest day before the preparations for the Emperor's departure. We can stage the contest in the afternoon. The Emperor is going to spend a quiet day at an estate in the country and will not need his escort. “

He turned briskly to Matt and the Lukic. “ Three on each side in each event, usual rules and procedures. I will have a promise from each of you that once this is over there will be no more trouble, the contest will finish the matter. If there is any trouble afterwards, the ring leaders will be flogged in front of the whole garrison. Is that understood?”

Matt and the Lukic nodded before turning smartly and leaving the room. The Imperial Master departed after assurances from Boric and Edward that the men would stand by the agreement.

Edward had lunch with Boric and he was soon speaking to him as though he had been a friend for ages. Even when a message arrived for Edward asking him if he would be one of the archery team, Boric merely laughed and remarked that they might find out how good Edward was. It was later at dinner Edward found out that Rulask and Manfred were going to watch the contest and Edward went to bed wishing he had not agreed to take part.

In many ways the contest was surreal because neither side had any chance to prepare and the interpretation of the rules had to take place as the various contests unfolded. It soon became apparent in the sword section that the Lukic were superior making the Rombuli look like the half trained men they were. In the wrestling, Matt proved his worth by winning his bout, not surprising because his father had been at one time the Rombuli champion, and Bruce Overton from Pinaar also won. The score at the end of these two contests was two four to the Lukic with just the archery to come. The vision of those archers standing near the barge made Edward's heart sink but he hid his fears.

Standing on the line testing the tightness of the bowstring, Edward tried to appear calm and to give confidence to his companions. The contest was simple. Three arrows each at numbered targets short, three arrows each at numbered targets long and three arrows each at a moving target long. The aggregate score winning all the points from this contest. For the first time in his life, Edward decided to help his side win. Concentrating his mind, he guided the arrows into the targets as though they had been shot freely by his men. He was surprised how easy this was and resolved to practice this skill as soon as he had more time. The Lukic last man missed the last target and Edward made sure of his last arrow. Essentially all honour was satisfied. The Lukic won two games to one, the Rombuli five points to four.

On the way back to the Mansion, Manfred with a grin congratulated Edward on his excellent shooting, while Rulask appeared to have enjoyed himself.