Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Return of the Exiles

Chapter 8

That night the Rombuli troops of the Emperor's escort held a party in their quarters to celebrate their contest with the Lukics. As the party progressed, Matt was in fine voice which became louder as the drink flowed faster down his throat, boasting to anybody who would listen about how his men had overcome the Lukic and won honour for the Rombuli. Anybody could easily see that Matt was happy, basking in the glow of what was, for him, the first real blossoming of the free Rombuli spirit after so many years of being cowed by the Empire and all the Empire stood for. What to Matt made it so significant was that it had been achieved in front of the elite of the Empire not in some hidden comer of free Rombuli with only local people for an audience. Matt was proud to have been watched by the proposed Governor of Rombuli and his son, making him feel that the Rombuli at least were now noticed. One day, he kept saying to himself, we will be strong enough to throw of the yoke of our oppressors, to go back to looking after our own affairs.

The party was in full swing when Edward joined them later after spending the rest of the day after the contest with Boric in his office discussing the free Rombuli and what Edward considered they wanted from the Empire. During his discussion with Boric, Edward had found it difficult to explain the concept of Rombuli freedom away from the Empire. Try as Edward did to explain, Boric could not seem to grasp that any sane person would want to leave the order and protection of the Empire. When it came to Edward explaining the basis of the Rombuli religious beliefs, there was no meeting of minds at all.

After leaving Boric's office late in the evening, Edward had dinner with Kitty, Manfred and Boric. For some reason which he could not explain but which he reasoned might have something to do with the incomprehension of Boric, he felt out of touch and a little distant from his friends. He felt uncomfortable coming straight from the Mansion to join his friends and his thoughts were of Kitty rather than the Rombuli. Kitty was now back in the Mansion with Manfred and Boric and not being with her made Edward irrationally angry. Soon after he arrived in the Rombuli rooms, Edward grabbed Matt by the arm and pulled him into a quiet comer.

What the hell do you think you are up to?” Edward lashed out at Matt, glaring into his eyes and gripping the front of his coat. Matt stood a good four inches taller than Edward, was much broader built but all those years working in the forge gave Edward a great deal of strength and Matt stepped away putting back against a wall.

“ I was celebrating our triumph,” Matt answered his face startled with surprise at the way Edward had grabbed him. “ It is not often the Rombuli have been able to hold their heads high in the company of the other races of the Empire. You know as well as anybody how we have been the butt of all their jokes about the way we live. All the time we have been here they have been making fun of our beliefs and the way we live. Besides that, for centuries we have been made to act like servants and bow meekly whenever they have demanded it from us. Today we showed what we are capable of and how we are equal to them. Doesn't that make you feel proud?”

“ You are an idiot!” Edward said in a quiet, menacing voice, pushing Matt even harder against the wall. “ In Alskar, before we came here, you marked yourself out as a rebel that day in the square. Right in front of Imperial Grandmaster Borovic while you were acting the part of a hero, I had to show the Covenent that I had some power to resist their power. All right you acted instinctively but one of the reasons I am here is so that they can keep an eye on me. Rather than leave me in the country out of sight, they concocted this theory that I am the most competent of the Rombuli blacksmiths. Therefore they brought me here to be in charge but they are keeping their eye on me make no mistake. Matt there are any number of blacksmiths in Rombuli who are more qualified than me and better at managing the work we have been doing here. Since we came, I have managed to build a certain amount of trust and found out a great deal about the way the Empire operates. Since the training started, you have acted like a model soldier, so much so that those in power are impressed with your ability. Do you know they are considering making you the first Rombuli officer in the Imperial Army?”

Matt's eyebrows lifted in surprise. “ I had never thought they were that impressed. All I have wanted to do since we arrived is go back to my wife and daughter in Alskar. I do miss them so much. That was until we heard about the Rombuli flags which changed everything.”

Oh yes! In the midst of all this you came to me with some hare brained scheme to get back our flags, which you had heard were hidden somewhere on the island.” Edward went on in measured tones, punctuating each word by shaking Mat against the wall. “ You must have caught me on a bad day when you suggested this mad idea to me at the party. Somehow knowing where the flags were kept and how difficult it will be to get them away from the Covenent, I agreed to help. It seems to me, though I have no experience of this, the first law of any conspiracy is to act naturally and not draw too much attention to yourself. Not you, ho not you! Instead of keeping a low profile, you go and pick a fight. 0h what a fight! Not with any old soldiers, not a small fight of drunken bravado, not a fight over women but over the honour of the Rombuli. On top of that you go and pick the elite crew of the Emperor's barge to fight. No quick bash for you and back to barracks to lick your wounds overnight to get ready to face the next day. Oh no Matt, you keep it going the next day. Then it spills over until you have elements of each section of the Imperial Army involved. Do you know how close you came to starting a civil war right here in Nimmar? Then it has to be settled in broad daylight in front of many of the Emperor's court. That's not all is it Matt? To cap all that you have to get me involved as well even though I was not a party to the original fight. Now they know that I have some power to stand up against the Covenent and that I am the best bowman in this part of the world.”

Matt dropped his eyes and looked at the floor. “ Come off it Edward, you can't very well blame me for all of that. We were only trying to uphold the honour of the Rombuli.”

Edward let his arms fall to his side and sighed deeply. “ All right Matt what is past is past and can't be recalled. It would have been easier if you hadn't picked that fight with the crew of the Emperor's barge but you did and the consequences followed. I suppose we had better try to forget any likely consequences and look to the future. Now listen to me carefully if you still want me to help you get those flags. From now on I want you to act as though you have learnt your lesson and that goes for your friends as well. No more getting into trouble with the Army, no more fights and no more demanding satisfaction of your honour. All you have to do is carry out your orders and duties like any good soldier. When you come back from escorting the Emperor to the border, I will let you know what we will have to do. Are you quite clear about this?”

“ Yes Edward, “ Matt answered meekly. “ We will be model soldiers until we get the message from you that it is time for us to go and get the flags.”

The feeling of wanting to be with his friends had vanished along with his anger. Edward looked Matt up and down as though to reassure himself that Matt meant what he said. Turning on his heel, Edward left the room and made his way back to the Mansion and Kitty.

The Emperor's stay was coming to the end and a great feast was planned for the evening before his departure. On the afternoon of the last day, the Emperor addressed the gathered aristocracy of Rombuli Province from the throne of the Great Hall. There was great excitement and jostling for position among the Imperial hanger on.

Once more Edward found himself decked out in his finery standing with the Imperial Grandmaster's household listening to the Emperor. As he stood in the audience before the dais holding the throne, Edward was wondering what he was doing attending a speech by his oppressor in the Great Hall of the Mansion. Once more he was being beset with doubts about his role, doubts which surfaced on the ideas that he was selling out to the Empire. What can I do, he asked himself but though there was no real answer, he could not shed the feeling that this was not what he should be doing. Then he thought of Matt and what was proposed after the Emperor had left. It is important for me to stay and not cause anybody to question my staying if only for Matt’s sake, he again justified his actions.

The speech by the Emperor was not very inspiring, being dull and predictable or so Edward thought. The Emperor praised the work of the Imperial Army in keeping Rombuli peaceful, praised the merchants of the Empire for exploiting the potential of the area and talked at length about the vast benefits the Empire had brought to the people of Rombuli. It left Edward rather cold, with a sense that against the might and the patronage of the Imperial Government, Rombuli would never know freedom again.

His mind drifted away from the words of the Emperor and he began to doubt whether efforts to keep alive the traditions and separate identity of the Rombuli people were worthwhile. Would it not be better if we joined in whole heartedly with the Empire? he asked himself. Would we not secure a better measure of control over our future by joining the Empire? Indeed, would I not gain more influence on behalf of my people if I became part of the Imperial hierarchy? Edward glanced along the line at Kitty standing beside her father and his heart missed a beat. Kitty's eyes were sparkling as she listened attentively to what the Emperor was saying, her body was erect and the jewels at her throat twinkled in the shafts of sunlight streaming through the windows high up in the room. She is beautiful, he thought, but so much a part of the Imperial court. How can I ever hope to have a future with her?

Edward's attention was brought back fully to what the Emperor was saying when the Emperor's tone changed. “ For many years the Empire has been administered by civilians at the centre but the outlying provinces like Rombuli have been run by the Army. I am proposing to change this by utilising the sons of the great families of the Empire. They will be appointed to govern these regions.”

Holding out his hand to his oldest son Gorlef, the Emperor smiled slightly as he drew his son to his side. “ As a first step, I am appointing my eldest son Gorlef to be governor of Seatland.” Gorlef smiled and bowed deeply.

Of more importance to you, ” The Emperor continued. “ Rulask my second son will become Governor of Rombuli taking effect from the time I leave tomorrow. As with all the civilian governors, he will be empowered to appoint an advisory council from the people who live in the province and to rule through them. Thus the Army will come under civilian control even in the outlying districts of the Empire. The Army will be empowered to carry out the orders of the Governor and be expected to recruit a proportion of their strength locally. It is my intention to set up an elite guard from these provincial troops to serve in Parison as a palace guard. To this end, after long and distinguished service in the outlying districts of the Empire I propose to elect Imperial Grandmaster Borovic as the head of this palace guard. After clearing away his remaining obligations, he will travel back to Parison and begin planning this guard. In his place I appoint Grandmaster Orsovic as the head of the Army in Rombuli. Undermaster Borovic will be promoted to Master and will remain in Rombuli as the army liaison officer, one of whose duties will be to recruit elements of Rombuli into the Imperial Palace guard. This I propose. Long live the Empire!”

“ Long live the Empire! ” all those present responded, saluting by banging their fists on their chests.

Thus it was done. The administration of Rombuli was changed at the whim of the Emperor from Army to civilian rule. No consultation with the Rombuli people, no real discussion within the Empire. My son Rulask will be your Governor whether he is fitted for the post or not. He is the Emperor's son and therefore I have a right to appoint him. With a glance at the Covenenter Tulka sitting below the throne on a chair flanked by the other four Covenenters, the Emperor emphasised where the power lay and what guarantee he had that his wishes would be followed without question. Once again Edward felt those Covenenters, in their white robes looking in his direction and made sure his mind was closed off from their probing. Latask, the senior Covenenter below Tulka actually smiled when Edward's and his eyes met.

The grand feast which followed the Emperor's speech that evening was even more grand than any which had preceded it during the Emperor's stay in Nimmar. The guests vied with each other in their dress and their splendour and in their efforts to get as close to the top table as possible or their rank demanded. Before and after the meal, everybody of importance living in Rombuli or Sandaria was trying to ingratiate themselves with the Emperor's party or with the group congregating round Rulask. Most of the guests went out of their way to be seen talking to the people from the Emperor's party by the other guests at the dinner. Dressed in his sober black and silver, Edward felt rather withdrawn and apart from all these posturing guests. There was nothing that could make him push himself forward in this way, it was completely against his nature. Once the meal was over, Kitty gently drew Edward into the crowd around Rulask and Manfred and Edward started to feel submerged in her world.

Kitty was in her natural element surrounded by these people, the low cut blue dress showing off her golden skin and silvery hair. She smiled with pleasure at everything and Edward was soon captivated by her. In a daze, she led Edward onto the dance floor and through the intricate steps of a formal dance that she had only recently taught him. He danced as though some invisible golden thread bound them together, as though they were a part of each other. He started to relax and really enjoy himself.

The whole evening became a riot of whirling music, a wash of changing colours and a heady mixture of laughter and warmth. Despite his reservations, Edward was slipping into their world, feeling comfortable and relaxed, a part of their culture. For once conscience played no part, nothing could dampen the sense of floating through the evening on a tide of good living and pleasure.

Always Kitty was there beside him, holding his hand, smiling into his eyes, even looking across the people on the dance floor to find his eyes when she had to dance with somebody else. When Edward finally went to bed, Kitty's farewell kiss still hot on his lips and the feel of her body still imprinted on his mind, all thought of rebellion, all the pain of a suppressed people crying out to be left to live their lives how they wished to live their lives, had vanished in those waves of perfume, wine and happiness. If he had been able to think straight he would have come to the conclusion that he was in love.

Conscience struck the next afternoon when Edward stood on the quay side watching the Emperor board the Imperial barge to begin the journey down the river to the White Falls and out of Rombuli. Apart from the small Rombuli colour guard led by Matt, Edward was the only Rombuli present. The rest of his countrymen were either far away in Alskar or forced to line the banks of the river away from the dignitaries on the dock. Anger suddenly lay at the pit of his stomach as he witnessed this foreign head of state inspect the troops and step aboard the barge after saying farewell to his son, who he was leaving to impose himself on the Rombuli nation. No Rombuli to say goodbye but another foreign import left here to rule over his people.

The flags snapped proudly in the breeze above the Mansion and the barracks but these were Imperial flags where Rombuli flags should have been. Edward wondered whether last night he had sold his country short by getting so involved with the enemy. He wanted to cry out that one day the Rombuli flag would fly above these buildings but he was stopped in his thoughts by the approach of Tulka.

Feeling the probing of his mind, all Edward could do was raise his mental defences and smile sweetly in Tulka's direction. Tulka paused in his walk along the quay, smiled thinly in return and turned away to board the barge. Then the Emperor was gone, the barge sailing out into the river and round a green clad bend. Rombuli was left as a backwater of the Empire once more the only difference being the imposition of the Emperor's son as Governor. Not even the Emperor even knew how this would work out.

All was relatively quiet over the next few days while Edward supervised the clearing of the workshops and made arrangements for his group to go home. With a heavy heart, torn between his desire to go home and see his family and his need to stay so that he would be here when Matt returned, he went to see Imperial Grandmaster Borovic and learn what was to happen to him. On the way through the Mansion, he suddenly realised that it was not so much the need to be here when Matt returned which made him want to stay but the fear of having to say goodbye to Kitty.

Imperial Grandmaster Borovic was sitting in an office next to his quarters approached through the Great Hall, deserted now and rather frightening in it's echoing emptiness. The Imperial Grandmaster was busy signing papers seated at a desk when Edward entered and Edward waited patiently for the Imperial Grandmaster to look in his direction before saying anything. When the Imperial Grandmaster did look up, the smile he gave Edward was so out of keeping with his usual stem facade that Edward relaxed.

“ Edward Eastland!” Borovic exclaimed, rising from his chair and coming round the desk to grip Edward's arm. “ Let us order drinks and go out onto the terrace in the fresh air. It gets very stuffy in here writing reports. You can then tell me what you wanted to see me about over a glass of wine. Come on don't look so worried. You have given me the perfect excuse to leave these papers and relax for a moment. “

After giving orders to a servant for drinks to be brought to the terrace, the Imperial Grandmaster led the way out into the sunlight. Once they were seated under the dappled shade of a silver beech tree, he indicated that Edward should begin.

All I really came to ask was when my services to you are finished and when I can go home,” Edward began tentatively but was halted by the loud laugh of the Imperial Grandmaster, his usually dour face almost sunny. Edward was struck by how like his son he looked when he smiled.

As far as I am concerned, my boy, you are free to go home now.” Borovic replied, placing his arm round Edward's shoulder in a gesture of friendship. This was so unexpected that Edward could not hide his surprise. “ I am in the process of handing over my command of the Army in this province to Orsovic and the government to Rulask. Therefore, in reality, I no longer have any hold over you. Unfortunately there are four other people who will have a say on your future. So, before you dash off back to your little forge in Alskar, I would have a word with them.”

“ Who are they? “ Edward asked genuinely puzzled. “ I thought as you were the one to bring me here, you would be the one to give the order for me to return home.”

“ Can't you even guess who they are? “ Borovic asked, laughing brightly again. “ Rulask has already made tentative gestures towards you regarding his advisory committee.”

“ Yes but I thought I would be able to go home first, “ Edward replied rather lamely. “ In fact I would like to discuss his offer with my father.”

“ Rulask is only the first. My son Boric was only saying to me the other day that if you stay as a member of Rulask's committee, he would like you to help him and his staff recruit men into the Rombuli Corps of the Imperial Army. “ At the mention of his son, Borovic's face glowed with pride. “ That is two. Then there is Latask. He has been left here by the chief Covenenter Tulka to keep his eye on what you are up to. Don't look so alarmed. You have rather shaken the Covenent over the last few months.”

“ How could I, a simple blacksmith shake up such a powerful body as the Covenent?” Edward asked innocently though he already knew the answer.

Imperial Grandmaster Borovic was instantly serious, his eyes bright and hard. “ Listen to me Edward and listen very carefully. Your future may depend on how well you learn the lessons from what I am about to say. In the Empire there are many sources of power. There is the Emperor and his circle of officials. There is the Army and the powerful families who supply sons to make up both spheres of power. These sources of power are entwined and it is through their balance that the stability and the strength of the Empire flows. Through their politics and their intrigue, the system works but they are not the only source of power. Over the centuries in times of peace and in times of war, the Covenent have provided backing for the ruling elite.”

Obviously choosing his words carefully, Borovic went on after a pause during which the very air on the terrace seemed to Edward to stand still and watchful. “ Some people whisper, never openly, that the Covenent is really the Empire and it is they who choose each Emperor. I am only a soldier who does not have much patience with politics but I have been around the Imperial Palace circles long enough to have observed the interplay of these political forces. If the Covenent want a man to do their bidding, I have no doubt they have the power to make him do what they want. Many times I have stood on a platform in part of the Empire and watched them control men's minds, to sway crowds to their bidding. I do not know how they do this but they can do it believe me. Nobody can hope to challenge the Emperor or elect a new Emperor without first gaining the acceptance of the Covenent or overcoming the will of the Covenent. There is no other power base in the Empire that I know about which can challenge the Covenent. Over the years they may have become complacent because they are rarely opposed, thinking that they do not have to overtly wield their power. Because of this too many people ignore them but at their peril. In a crisis like that of the revolt of Margarn Littletree in the Hollious Hills forty years ago, the Covenent showed what they could do with their power. Three Covenenters rode out into the hills with only a handful of troops and crushed the enemies of the Empire in only a few days. It is said that they cornered Littletree and his men in the hills, told the troops to wait and then rode into the hills on their own. They used their power to make over a hundred men come out and then blasted them with the power of their staffs. Hollious has remained loyal to the Emperor ever since! Edward, with that sort of power, the Covenent have nothing to fear.”

Once more he paused, looking at Edward with a strange expression on his face. “Now things are a little different. In a little known and little regarded part of the Empire where serious revolt is unknown or has been non existent for centuries, where the people seem content with their quaint religion and annual nostalgic pilgrimage, among people sneered at by most of the elite of the Empire, a Covenenter was faced down by a blacksmith. Oh yes, Edward to your people only a simple blacksmith but to the Covenent a matter of grave importance. They had been led to believe that over the centuries all mystical power in the Empire had been absorbed into their ranks. Every time they came across a source of power as the Empire expanded, they have either squashed it or brought it into their ranks and discipline. They thought they had done this here but in the dust of Alskar in the spring, a man stood in front of a Covenenter and did not bow under the mental bombardment. He stood tall and withstood a Covenenter. Can you imagine what a shiver that sent down the collective spine of the Covenent? Can you imagine the anxiety the events in Alskar square sent through their ranks? That man was you Edward and from the little that Kitty has told me, you have done the same here since you arrived. Oh yes, she told me about your little adventure in the Covenenters enclosure just after you arrived. Do you know, even I have never been invited into their living space. They must be worried about you to have let you down into their part of the island. Beware of Latask Edward Eastland. He is far more powerful than you imagine. He is the next in line to Tulka in the Covenent. The only reason for him being left behind here is to keep an eye on you and find out if there are more like you in this province. I would be very careful with who you associate while you are here because Latask is going to investigate all your friends. Be very careful what you do and say when he is close.”

Borovic smiled and the sun was once more in the heavens." That makes three."

Edward sat staring at Borovic for a long time, not really seeing the man sitting next to him. He was trying to absorb what Borovic had been trying to tell him and at last he replied. “ All I want is to go back home and resume my normal life. Why have you warned me like this? “

Imperial Grandmaster Borovic's smile was now gentle and kindly. “ Mainly because I like you and while you have been here you have carried out my wishes to a very high standard. As well as that, I think it is time the Rombuli came out of their provincial sleep and played a part in the workings of the Empire. Then there is the forth person I counted, my daughter Kitty. I have seen my daughter transformed from a spoilt brat who looked down on anybody or anything she considered lower than herself and that in reality means only the ruling elite families of the Empire were her equals. Now she is somebody who takes an interest in other people and their customs. It has amazed me that she no longer condemns people because they are not of her circle. Only since you came into her life has this transformation taken place and I think you will have to get her permission before you return home. Well there it is Edward. You will have to search for your answer to when you can go home in other places than with me. I wish you well in the future. I must get back into the office and confront all that paperwork!”

In a very thoughtful mood, Edward went back to his planning of the Governor’s tour of Rombuli. All he wanted to do was to go home and at least see his family even if that meant he would have to return here later. He was however, powerless to influence events and so decided to wait patiently for the opportunity to broach the subject to Boric presented itself.

He did not have long to wait for an answer concerning Kitty and her plans. The next day Kitty came to see Edward in his office and Boric, with a wide grin when he sensed Kitty’s mood, told Edward to take the rest of the day off.

Side by side, they went for a walk along the river. It was one of those glorious late summer days with the insects chirping and buzzing over the grass and the sound of the river tinkling over pebbles at the waters edge. The sky was a deep blue, the few clouds like cotton wool floating across the sky and the sun reflected silver and gold in the ripples of the current.

At first Kitty did not talk as they walked beside the water, seeming to be content to hold Edward's hand and breathing deeply of the balmy breeze. As they walked, Edward wanted that moment to last forever but he was conscious that though she was outwardly smiling, inwardly she was troubled. He could feel this in the small quiver of her hand, in the glances she cast in his direction and in the way she bit her lip.

As though by instinct, they stopped by a willow, its overhanging branches dipping into the water and providing shade from the morning sun. Sitting by on the river bank, Kitty dipped her hand into the water and sat watching a handful of pebbles slowly drop through her fingers and back into the stream. Waiting for her to speak but not wanting to hear what she had to say, Edward idly watched a loaded barge pass, the creaking of the oars loud in the stillness.

For a time it was as though the world had stopped but he still stayed silent waiting for her to put her thoughts into words. With very little effort he could have spoken for her, having anticipated what she was going to say from the way she sat thinking beside him. She was going to thank me, he thought, for the good times we have had together since meeting on the road to Alskar but now her father had been recalled, it was time for her to return to her people, to the place she knew as home.

Deep in his subconscious for a long time, Edward had known this time would come, indeed he had told Kitty this many times. For reasons he could not articulate, he felt it was now too soon. Sitting there by the river smelling her scent, Edward did not know how to react. He looked at her hair only inches away from his face, smelled the faint bloom of her perfume and had to resist the desire to reach out and run his fingers through those golden strands.

Then Kitty looked up into his face and he was surprised to find that her eyes were full of moisture and that she was very close to tears. “ Edward? ” she said her voice shaking and stumbling over the words. “ Edward what am I to do?”

Edward did not at first understand why it was a question but her distress was obvious. “ You will be going back to Parison with your father and once more resume living in the Imperial Palace. That should make you happy because you are forever telling me how you hate the Rombuli and this country. You will be happy there so why the tears? “

“ That is just it,” she replied, kneeling in front of him with the reflection of the sun on the water forming a golden halo round her hair as she brushed it back out of her eyes. “ The thought of going home to Parison excites me but then I think of leaving you and my world seems to be falling apart.”

“ There is nothing you can do about that because you are a servant of the Empire. Besides I am only an ignorant, simple provincial who has no concept of the glory of the Empire.” Edward said this more harshly than he intended, shrugging his shoulders as though to convey his acceptance of what was bound to happen.

Two angry red spots appeared on her cheeks, her mouth creased into a thin line and she raised her fists as though she was going to strike Edward. Then she collapsed forward, burying her head in his chest. Her shoulders shook and when she looked up again tears streaked her face falling from her very wide eyes. “ You are a fool Edward Eastland and a blind fool at that. I know our relationship did not get off to the best of starts but it has got better since I met you on the road outside Alskar. When we went for those rides in the country round Alskar, I began to see you as a person rather than an outline of a peasant built up by my own prejudices. Since we went to look at the Gathering Fields, we have been happy together especially since you arrived here. Now, when I get up in the mornings all I look forward to is seeing you no matter what else I have to do. When you have to do other things and leave me on my own, I am unhappy all day. Even when I was surrounded by the grandees of the Imperial Court, I could not stop my eyes searching for you in the crowd. Though at times, I must admit you seem dull beside the colour and pomp of some of the other young men, there is a solidity about you which I have come to admire. Edward don't you see what I am trying to tell you? I have fallen in love with you.”

Her eyes were wide open when she said this and she was trembling in his arms as though the shock of actually saying those words had left her bereft of all defences, brittle and vulnerable to his reply. Edward's heart lifted and beat faster but he tried to keep his face expressionless. Wild hope surged through him, a hope that he had kept submerged and never fully confronted even to himself in private. For a brief moment a vision arose in his mind of Kitty dressed in a plain woollen dress coming out of the house in Alskar and towards the forge carrying a tray with bread, beer and cheese in her hand. Then this was replaced by a vision of Kitty as he had seen her over the past few weeks. This was Kitty in a ball gown and jewels, laughing at the words of an overdressed courtier, glowing with happiness as she danced away with Edward in the background in his sober clothes. A cloud seemed to replace her smile and a cold hand clutched at his heart.

Choosing his words very carefully, Edward tried to answer the obvious invitation implicit in her words. “ Kitty you must stop this now before it goes to far.” Edward winced inwardly at how harsh his voice sounded but he plunged on, not looking at Kitty. “ You are a very beautiful girl raised in the inner most circles of the Imperial Court and daughter to one of the foremost Imperial soldiers. Because of this, you are sought after by all the young men of the great families of the Empire to become the wife of one of their sons. You are wealthy and have the best connections and ready for a life full of the good things the Empire can give you. I, on the other hand, am a simple provincial blacksmith from a small town on the edge of the Empire with none of the wealth, connections or manners of the society of which you are a part. With me as a husband all you could look to is a life in a quiet backwater as a blacksmiths wife far away from the glamour and splendour of your natural place in society. Not only that but you would have to live among people who resent the very idea of what you stand for. Life would be very difficult for both of us. I am afraid you would not last five minutes in that situation even with our love to sustain us.”

Tears poured unnoticed down her cheeks, glistening in the light of the sun but she did not move. “ But Edward, you are not going to be just another provincial blacksmith anymore. Rulask Merivic wants you to be a member of his governing committee and that means you will be staying in Nimmar. It means you will have a certain standing in the community and the differences in our backgrounds will be forgotten. Besides, I want to be with you so much, if it came to that, I could easily come and live with you in Alskar.”

“ Kitty,” Edward said, his tone now as gentle as the tears which started to run down his cheeks. His hand smoothed the hair that lay against his chest and his mind screamed at him to answer her and say yes. Holding her by the shoulders, Edward forced her to look straight into his eyes. “ It is not up to you and me I am afraid. There are many other people involved who will have a say in what happens to you and me in the future. There is Rulask, your father and your brother to name a few. Do you think, though they might like me, they will let you give up all of your position in their society to settle down with me? No the whole idea is impossible.”

Kitty pushed herself away from his arms and jumped to her feet, the tears still coursing down her face. “ Why are you saying these things to me? I have told you that I will give up everything for you but you stubbornly refuse to listen. Why do you react like this?"

Edward sat and stared at her through a curtain of mist from the moisture in his eyes. He was longing to reach out and draw her back into the circle of his arms but he kept his arms at his side. He wanted to tell her that he loved her, that he would be devastated when she left and that their love could overcome all the obstacles in their way but he knew this was not true. Letting his eyes fall, he looked into the water not seeing Kitty and desperately trying to stay calm.

As gently as he could, he replied. “ Kitty, you must try to understand what I am trying to explain. There are too many factors that are against our ever living together, as much as we might wish to live a quiet life in each other’s arms. I am trying to be as gentle as I can but it is not easy for me. It is because of how I feel about you that I am acting as I am. Kitty, I love you and I want you to be happy. Kitty, I want you to be my wife but I have to be logical about things. Marrying me is impossible for you. Our lives and backgrounds are so different.”

“ You will see!” she flung at him. “ I will find a way!”

“ No Kitty,” he sighed. “ When you get back to Parison you will find somebody more suited to your place in the Imperial society and then you will forget me. I will go back to Alskar, to my forge and my friends but part of me will always remember this summer.”

With a cry torn from her very soul, Kitty rose to her feet and fled, back towards the island leaving Edward staring into the water. A part of him had been rent open by her flight leaving a sense of terrible loss in his heart. Even though the sun shone brightly, the day had taken on a dark hue plunging him into the depths of depression. If he had been free, he would have gone straight away, saddled a horse and left all this behind to return home. A voice though warned him that he could not go even if everybody said he could. Matt and his friends were relying on him being here when they got back and he would have to endure the agony in silence while he waited. All he could do was sit by the river staring into the current and whisper over and over again, “Kitty I love you.”

The next few weeks passed slowly for Edward while Rulask Merivic drew to himself all the powers as Governor invested in him by his father. Some people stayed on in Nimmar to pay their respects to the new Governor but most began to drift away as the routine of government took over and their long neglected farms, estates and businesses called for urgent attention. A large part of the Army also departed to other parts of the Empire leaving the barracks rather empty and echoing in the winds that swept down from the hills.

Imperial Grandmaster Borovic departed for Parison lovingly seen off by his son and daughter after being given a civic ceremony in the Town Square. That Kitty did not accompany her father puzzled Edward but Boric informed him that Kitty was staying for a little while to act as a maid of honour to the Governor's wife who was even then journeying from Parison to live with her husband in Nimmar. What a maid of honour was Edward had no idea but he thought it must be important to make Kitty stay behind after her father had gone back to Parison.

Plans were being made for the Governor to travel round Rombuli to meet the people and get at least an overview of what the province was like. Edward found himself attached to Boric and given the task of drawing up the itinerary. He found it very strange to sit in an office making lists and pouring over maps while his hands longed for the feel of his blacksmith’s tools rather than the writing implements he now had to use.

It was while he was engaged on this task that Boric made him start taking lessons in the use of weapons from a person Boric described as the finest fighter in the whole of the Empire. It seemed, Tag as he was called, was part of the Army but not the uniformed part. He was a Ranger who scouted for the Army, Boric told Edward, and dressed in nondescript clothes. He was also the trainer of the Governors bodyguard and it seemed an unlikely friend of Boric. Edward had the impression that something had happened in the past to bind these two people, one from one of the aristocratic army families, the other from some obscure province. Edward did not ask why they were friends, just took his lessons every day. In fact he found himself stiff and bruise after each session but he started to understand how to use different weapons correctly. Only in the use of the long bow did Tag concede that Edward was a match for him.

During this time Edward avoided Kitty as much as possible. He was conscious, as no doubt she was, that whenever they were in the same room together they could not avoid looking into each other’s eyes. Whenever they did attend the same function everybody assumed they were a couple and seated them next to each other. They became ultra polite to each other and avoided talking about what had happened by the river. Edward found himself longing to get back to the relationship as it had been before but could not bring himself to think differently about what he had said to Kitty that afternoon in the sun by the river.

After almost a month had passed and the autumn was approaching, there was a sudden burst of excitement in the Mansion as what everybody called the dark of the moon approached. It appeared that on that night when there was no moon, there was to be a service in the Temple at which all the important citizens of Nimmar would be present. Edward knew as soon as he heard of this service, that if Matt had returned in time, this was the night they should try to regain the lost treasures of the Rombuli. All the people and more importantly the Covenenters would be in the Temple concentrating on the service and would pay little attention to a band of dissident Rombuli.

As soon as Edward found out that the Rombuli troops had arrived back in the barracks, he sent word to Matt setting out his plans. He detailed what he expected from his friend, where to meet and then sat back to wait for the night to arrive.