Jeremy Voss parted the bushes in front of him and pointed toward the tavern half a kilometer away. His friend looked at it, shook his head and retreated further into the thick brush lining the road. Jeremy followed, a frown creasing his brow.
He looked down at his dark haired friend. "What's the matter, Scott? Don't we deserve a little rest and relaxation?"
The shorter youth adjusted his beret and shrugged. "What if we get caught, Jer? You know how the Commandant feels about bothering the locals. This is bigger than putting a smoke bomb in Lieutenant Reily's drawer."
"We're not going to get in any trouble. We'll just go down and see what the locals are really like. Haven't you ever wanted to meet these mysterious Highlanders?"
"What's mysterious about them? They're almost de-civilized, barely above barbarians. They sound like a quick way to get killed."
"That's not what the classified section of the library says." Jer smiled at Scott's look of astonishment, knowing his small friend would never dream of cracking the security around that section of the library files. "According to the files I scanned, these Highlanders are as civilized as we are."
"I don't believe it. What if you accessed the wrong files?"
Jer shrugged. "Then it's just a tavern filled with ordinary men and women. We're being trained to be Suto Warriors, to be rulers of the Empire. I think that qualifies us to handle any trouble some locals may cause."
Scott tugged at the edge of his green tunic. "I don't know, Jer. We've only got a few hours until evening formation."
Jer swatted a leaf with his open hand. "At which point they discover we aren't there and check the computer log. That'll tell them we're out working on our survival skills, just as I programmed it to, and they'll think nothing more of it. Now, are you with me or not?"
Scott shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "What can the locals offer us that we can't get at the Academy? I mean, what makes it worth all this trouble?"
Jer straightened and stepped back from his friend, then turned and pushed his way through the bushes. "Freedom," was his only reply.
Jer stepped aside from the door and waited for his eyes to adjust to the dim light of the tavern, forcing down the uncertainty and fear that suddenly filled him. The air was still, filled with the scent of sawdust and spilled beer. His spirits rose as his vision improved. A long bar filled the wall to the right, balanced by a huge stone fireplace to the left. The space between the two was filled with tables and chairs, only a few occupied. Without knowing why, he decided he liked it.
"Grab a table, Scott, and I'll get the beer." Before his friend could respond, he stepped up to the bar and hailed the large bartender. Within a moment, he had two large mugs of dark ale.
"I told you it would be all right," he said as he sat down across the table from his friend.
Scott gave a light snort of disbelief and eyed the large man behind the bar. "What's that he's wearing? It looks like a skirt."
"No, it's a kilt. And, if you get the next round, you'll note that the thing in his sock is a knife." Jer smiled at Scott's worried look and took a long pull on his beer.
"The locals originated on a place on Old Earth called the Scottish Highlands. Evidently, it's a traditional garment they brought with them when they moved here. If it wasn't all sewn up with pleats it would be termed a plaid. They're supposed to be made of enough cloth to fully cover a man at night; kind of like a ready-made sleeping bag."
Scott shivered, as if thinking of a cold night spent outside. "I can think of a few exercises where that would have been nice to have." He took a sip of his own beer and then smiled. "So, how did you learn all about these Highlanders?"
"I told you, I took certain liberties with the security software in the library. How did you think we got those floor plans for the instructor's hall?"
"But why? You could have pulled off those gags without screwing with the computer."
Jer took another long pull on his beer. "Yeah, but when we came up with that plan, I already had access, so I figured I might as well use everything at my disposal."
Scott's eyes narrowed, his thick eyebrows bunching together above his nose. "How long have you had access to the classified sections?"
Jer shrugged and took another drink. "Half a year, maybe a little longer."
Scott gasped. "Why? Why'd you break in?"
Jer clenched his jaw, holding distant feelings in check. "I had to find out what happened to someone. It was classified." He shrugged.
Scott sat back in his chair for a moment. "Half a year, that was just about the time of the last trials. Who did you want to track down?"
Jer made a fist beneath the table. "Drop it, Scott. I've got access, and that's all you need to know."
"Bullshit. You've involved me in a serious crime. I'm not talking about pranks anymore, Jer. They're going to be seriously pissed if they find out about it. I want to at least know why."
Jer forced himself to relax, pushing away the memories of pain and anguish. "Do you remember Sheila Norcross?" Scott nodded. "She was the one I was looking for. I had to find out what they did with her."
"Why? Once someone goes to the trials and becomes a Suto, it doesn't matter where they go. She's probably in some troop out in the Empire."
Jer shook his head. "Don't you ever wonder what happens to the ones that don't make it through the trials?"
Scott frowned. "What are you talking about? Everyone with a great enough psycho-potential to be sent to the Academy has enough strength to make it through the trials. That's what they train us for, to survive the trials and become a fully operant Suto."
Jer gripped his empty mug and looked his friend in the eye. "They lie to us. Only a little better than half of the people who go to trials succeed."
"How do you know?" Scott asked, reaching for his own beer.
"Sheila and I were out one night, looking for some excitement, and we followed an instructor to a meeting. It turned out to be the selection board for the trials. Her name was picked."
He didn't mention that his own had been discussed at some length. "She was pretty excited. Three nights later they sent for her. I happened to be with her. I don't know how they missed catching me, but they did, and I followed them and watched the trials."
Scott took a gulp of his beer. "What was it like? What did they do?"
Jer shook his head, refusing to discuss the painful memories. "It was too intense to describe. It was--" His voice caught for a moment. "Sheila didn't pass the trials. The last time I saw her, she was on her knees sobbing, begging for another chance. The Commandant walked up to her and stared at her for a moment. She stopped crying, and almost smiled. Then an attendant led her away. The next day I broke into the system to find out what they did with her. She was listed on an outbound ship to Asgard. A month later, I learned she was a bureaucrat on the capital, nothing but a fucking servant. I wrote her a letter and she replied with a note that she did not know me; that I must have gotten her confused with someone else."
Scott finished his beer and shook his head. "Maybe she just wanted to put it all behind her."
"We were lovers, damnit! We meant more to each other than that. She wouldn't have sent that note."
Scott glanced around the room. "So what are you saying?"
"I'm saying that the Commandant reprogrammed her mind when she failed. He's a full Suto. He could do it as easily as I could rewrite a piece of code."
"But why would he do that?"
Jer waved two fingers at the barman and then truned back to Scott. He smiled with cold humor. "What's the motto of the Academy? 'Loyalty.' If she remembered her shattered dreams of being a Suto, would she stay loyal to the Empire? Would she be a productive member of society? Now, she has no choice in the matter. She's loyal and supporting the Emperor to the best of her abilities. I doubt that she even remembers her life here."
They sat in silence until the barman walked up to their table and placed two more drinks before them. Jer paid him with an Imperial mark.
Scott smiled his thanks and took a sip. "So what do we do about it? It's not like we can go somewhere else. I'm not even sure I would want to if I could." Jer frowned at him. "I mean, we're being trained to become the rulers of the Empire. You said as much yourself. If we do make it through our trials, we'll be the leaders of millions of people. We'll have mental powers unequalled by normal men. Isn't that worth the risk and pain?"
"We'll be slaves of the Emperor, you should say."
"Everyone's a slave in one sense or another, Jer. Being a Suto is a much better lot than many others I can think of."
Once again, Jer stared into his mug and then looked up. "If it's such a good life, why do you jeopardize it by coming around with me?"
Scott flushed, then grinned. "Okay, maybe I dream of something different too. That doesn't mean I'm not going to make the best of what I've got and enjoy it as much as I can."
Jer smiled back. "Then what do you say we stay here tonight and see what the locals are really like?"
Scott looked at the barman and then at his beer. "Are you really sure about fixing the computer log?"
Jer grinned and raised his glass in a toast. "As sure as I am of anything, right now." The two friends laughed and turned their conversation to lighter topics as a fiddler across the room struck up a tune.
Rashid Denera, Commandant of the Imperial Academy, looked out the door field at the rows of cadets lining the parade ground before him. The ranks and files neatly meshed with the smooth symmetry of the quadrangle that was the focus of the Academy. He took a great deal of pride in that symmetry; the blending of a multitude into a single organism with one purpose and goal. Filled with the warmth of satisfaction that the evening parade always brought, he stepped out into the chill air of the drill field. The pine scent filled his lungs and he let himself relax as muster reports cascaded up the chain of command.
"Nursery Regiment, all accounted for," a senior responsible for infants called out. It would be silly to have the babies trundled out of their creches every day.
"Youngster Regiment, all present or accounted for," reported another.
"Junior Regiment, one unauthorized absence. Cadet Pierson, sir," called a third voice.
"Senior Regiment, one unauthorized absence. Cadet Voss, sir."
Symmetry crumbled. He waited a moment, received the official report from the Cadet Corps Commander, and then returned to the warmth of his office.
"Captain," he called as his door field closed behind him.
"Yes, sir?" his adjutant's voice replied through the computer link.
"Bring in the files of Cadets Voss and Pierson. I want their readings as well."
"Right away, sir." A moment later, a young man stepped through a door field across from the Commandant's desk. "It's all right here, sir," he said as he crossed the room and slipped a disk into its niche in the Commandant's screen.
The Commandant quickly scanned the data. "I thought so. This isn't the first time Voss has been in trouble. In fact, it seems that he's believed to be responsible for quite a few shenanigans."
"But sir, if you look at that last entry--" the adjutant pointed to the screen-- "it says they're both out practicing survival exercises."
The Commandant snorted. "It also documents the fact that Voss has had over two hundred hours of survival skills practice. Doesn't that strike you as a bit odd?"
The adjutant flushed. "Um, yes, sir, now that you mention it."
The Commandant touched the screen, scrolling past volumes of records to get to the cadets' mental readings. He took in the figures with a glance and converted them to images his mind's eye could search for. Forcing relaxation, he closed his eyes and began to scan the countryside.
In his mind, he soared high above the forested slopes the Academy rested on. Slowly, sparks lit the landscape as he touched minds far below. Yellow marked the minds of cadets and staff, white those seven other Suto allowed on Highland with him, and two distant sparks of red told him where the missing cadets were. Satisfied with himself, he withdrew from the search and refocused on his surroundings.
His eyes snapped open. "They're in a local pub just outside the southern boundary of the Academy. It shouldn't be difficult to find them and bring them back. Use a troop of the staff and make certain you don't antagonize the locals."
The adjutant swallowed hard. "Yes, sir."
The Commandant looked at the screen again and then leaned back in his chair. "And when they do return, bring Voss to me. He's been a bad enough influence on other cadets already. It's time we take some action to turn him around."
"But, sir," the adjutant said. "We can't do anything too drastic or we'll risk upsetting his psycho-potential. Surely you know how delicate his balance is at this age. If we handle this in the wrong manner, we may loose the opportunity to bring him to operancy."
"I don't care about his psycho-potential." He slapped his palm sharply on the desk to accent his words. "I don't care if he has the potential to become the most powerful Suto in history. He's worth nothing to the Empire if he has no discipline. That's what our job is here, instilling discipline, not coddling young rebels." The Commandant stood and paced the length of the room once. "When those two return, bring them to me. I'll get to the bottom of this lad's problems. It may destroy his chances of operancy, but he will still be able to serve the Empire in some loyal fashion."
The stress on the word loyal did not go unnoticed by the adjutant.
Jer motioned at the growing crowd in the tavern. "See, Scott, I told you it would be all right." As he looked over the mass of locals at the tables around them, a harpist joined the fiddler and they began to play a lively tune. Jer turned back to his friend.
"Now all we need to do is meet some of these people." He shot an appreciative glance at the young ladies in modest white blouses and brightly colored skirts, many with matching scarves, as they were escorted onto the dance floor.
"I don't know if that's such a good idea, Jer. Besides, how are we going to approach them? They barely speak Standard."
Jer laughed. "They speak just fine, if you take the time to decipher their accent." Seeing Scott's apprehension as he looked around the room, understanding began to dawn in Jer. "Don't tell me you still haven't gotten over the spring dance."
Scott flushed and stared at his beer. "There was nothing to get over."
Jer reached out and hit him lightly on the shoulder. "That's the attitude." Scott looked up. "That's not what I meant. You know how they arranged dates for most of us?" Jer nodded. "I was sent with a Senior Cadet."
Jer grinned. The Academy only had one reason to match a Junior with a Senior--for experience, and not the kind of experience that could be taught in the classroom. "It must have been fun."
Scott scowled. "It was a disaster."
Jer looked away from his troubled friend. "That doesn't mean tonight will be."
"Oh, she and I performed just great, but I thought it meant more than ... I tried to see her again the next week. She laughed at me. I don't want to go through that again."
Jer stood up and looked down at his friend. "Look, Scott, there's only one way to get over that sort of thing, and that's to get right back into the thick of it."
"You mean give it the old academy try?"
Jer ignored the sarcasm in Scott's voice and grinned. "Now that's the right attitude, Cadet." He glanced toward the bar. "I'll tell you what, since we seem to be sitting at a table for four, I'll go find two young ladies and ask them to join us. Then we can dance with them or just talk." He turned and headed for the bar.
Jer slid up next to a lovely young lady as the bartender spoke to her. "Ah, Barbara, is your father nae comin' t'night?"
"No' this evenin', Charles," she said in a cool, airy voice.
Jer looked her over out of the corner of his eye--green eyes, a small, pointy nose, and dark brunette hair pulled back into a thick pony-tail.
"When I ge' home an' tell him o' this crowd, he'll probably wish he hae come."
Jer waved four fingers at the barman. She was wearing a simple outfit, a red and green plaid skirt, a white blouse with loose sleeves and a modestly high neckline, and a scarf matching the pattern of her skirt draped across her right shoulder.
"I just wish Rachel an' I could find a seat."
"Aye, there is nae a seat left in the place." The barman did not sound truly disappointed at the large crowd. He placed four beers in front of Jeremy without really looking at him.
Jer picked up the mugs and turned toward the girl. "I'd be most honored if you and your friend were to join my friend and I at our table, miss."
Barbara turned to him and smiled. For a moment, she looked him up and down and Jer wondered what she thought. Hope nearly died as he caught sight of the badge securing her scarf to her blouse--a round tower of white with "Virtue Mine Honor" on the encirling belt.
Just as he thought she was going to say no, she nodded. "We'd love to join yea."
Jer smiled and pointed over the crowd toward the table.
Before he could say anything, she laughed and patted his arm. "O' course we know where yea be sitting. It's no' like the room is full o' Imperials." Jer smiled at himself as she turned away and he made his way back to the table.
"Yea hae' no business 'ere, Imperials."
The Commandant's adjutant went cold at the sound of the voice in the darkness. "We mean no harm. We're looking for two lost cadets."
A large man stepped into the road, his hand resting on the hilt of a long sword. "They are no' lost. They be up the road a bit, enjoying a pint or two."
"But they belong back at the Academy."
"Tha' is for them to decide, just as i' is for you to decide if yea shall break the treaty. Is tha' what yea wish, Imperial?" His voice was filled with menace.
The adjutant was about to argue further, when the bushes rustled on each side of the road and a dozen additional men stepped into the scattered moonlight. Swallowing, the adjutant turned around and motioned his men back toward the Academy.
"Is it always this crowded?" Scott asked. The musicians had stopped, taking a much deserved break after an intricate piece the girls had called a hornpipe.
"Oh, no," Rachel replied with a smile. Scott realized that he might be just the slightest bit drunk when he caught himself hoping that she was smiling for him. He chastised himself for the thought. What would such a lovely woman want with the likes of him? It was not as if he was the dashing, recruiting poster type, like Jer. He took a pull on his beer and then returned his gaze to Rachel.
He had to admit that she was a striking girl. Not beautiful in the classical sense, but very pretty. She had eyes of the darkest brown and a quick smile filled with beautiful teeth. Her hair was flaming red and fell with reckless precision to accent her neck. Her skin was lightly tanned with an abundance of freckles, and Scott thought they looked just perfect on her. Her figure was just a little bit fuller than Barbara's, but Scott barely noticed Barbara, even as she began to reply to his implied question.
"Tomorrow's a gathering, so there are a lot o' people in the area who are coming ou' tonight."
"A gathering? What's that?" Scott asked as Jeremy returned with another round of drinks.
"Twice a year, all the people in the area ge' together for a huge feast an' party. I' starts tomorrow. The last gathering I went to lasted for nigh on three days."
"That sounds like fun," Jeremy said as he took his seat. Barbara turned toward him and smiled a thank you as he slid her beer in front of her.
"Oh, i' is fun. You and Scott should come an' see," Rachel said with a soft, yet penetrating voice that demanded attention.
"I don't think so," Scott said even as Jeremy motioned for him to be quiet. Rachel frowned at Scott.
"Why no'?" Rachel asked.
Scott took a deep drink of his beer and stared across the table at Jeremy, hoping he would say something. Finally, Scott said, "Because Jer and I are going to be in enough trouble when we get back as it is. They probably won't let us out of their sight for a month." Jer 'humphed' at Scott's understatement.
"Then don' go back," Barbara said softly as she placed her hand on top of Jer's.
"It's not that simple," Scott began.
"Sure it is," Jer interrupted as he entwined his fingers with Barbara's. "We can find some place to stay tonight. We don't have anything better to do tomorrow. Why don't we?" It was more of a challenge than a question.
Scott could tell that Jer planned on staying whether he did or not. He frowned and tried to think of a way to talk his friend out of such foolishness.
He was still trying to muster the courage to stand and leave when Rachel placed her hand on his forearm. "If you're going to ge' in trouble, yea might as well 'ave some fun first," she said.
Scott felt her hand softly stroke his forearm and inhaled deeply to smell her light perfume. When he thought about what was going to happen when they got back, whether tonight or tomorrow, he decided it was no decision at all; this was the first time he had been happy in years.
"You're right." He stood up and looked across the room at the musicians. "Hey, how about some music." His shout met with immediate approval from the crowd, and much to his disbelief, he soon found himself guiding Rachel around the dance floor.
"I've no' ever met anyone like yea before, Jer," Barbara said as she matched his stride and nestled herself into the hollow of his shoulder.
Jer took a deep breath of her honey scented hair and gave her an impulsive hug. "Surely I'm not that different from your local boys."
They walked on a few steps before she answered. "In many ways, no, but in others, yes. Yea seem so full o' life, unafraid o' wha' might happen to yea."
"So reckless?" he asked.
She laughed. "No, no' reckless. I've the feeling tha' yea think ou' everything, but weigh the risks less than most folk."
Jer smiled, surprised at how close she was to his very method of determining what course to follow. "It's not that I don't think of them, I do. I just can't see why risk should stop me."
"Even a foolish one?"
"If the reward is great enough," he responded.
They walked on until they reached a small rise in the road. Together, they turned and looked back at the tavern. "We should head back and get Rachel and Scott," Jer said softly.
Barbara turned to face him. "Let's give them a little time together." Slowly, she rose on her tiptoes and leaned into him. Their lips met, at first tentatively, and then with greater force. Jer pulled her closer. After a moment, they separated, both with a smile.
"Yes, let's give them a little time together," he whispered.
Barbara laughed and stepped back. "Tell me wha' it's like a' the Academy. Do yea hae a girl?"
"No, I've no girl back there."
"Good. I've no intention o' sharing yea wi' another." She darted forward for another light kiss. "But wha' is i' like, at the Academy?"
Jer shrugged and pulled her closer once again. "I've nothing to compare it with. We spend our lives learning to use our minds and bodies in service to the Emperor. We study and train and study some more."
"Tha' sounds terrible." Her hand stoked his shoulder.
He brought his hand up to stroke her neck, and then her cheek. "In many ways, it is terrible. I feel that I've no control over my life while I'm there. That's why I'm here now. When I'm breaking the rules, I know that I'm doing something for myself, something free of control."
"But wha' o' the price?" she asked as her fingers brushed his jaw.
"Once, not long ago, I thought I'd rather die than continue on at the Academy. Then I realized that nothing they did to me could be worse than wanting death. It gave me a new outlook on life."
"I never knew they were so cruel." A shiver raced through her.
"You're cold," Jer said. "We'd better head back."
Barbara nodded and slipped under his arm once again. "Do yea think I'm a great enough reward for a foolish risk?"
Jer hugged her to his side and turned to kiss her ear. "You're the greatest reward I can imagine, but what's the risk? A boyfriend?"
Barbara laughed and hugged him back. "No, I've no boyfriend, but I do hae a fearsome father. My Da' may no' be to keen on my bringing a cadet home."
"Then I'll have to be on my best behavior."
She kissed his hand as it rested on her shoulder and then smiled at him. "If yea are, I'll be truly disappointed."
"Furthermore," Commandant Denera dictated, "while the treaty defines certain limits for both parties, it also implies certain obligations. It is my belief that under these obligations I am fully justified in demanding the return of Cadets Voss and Pierson to the Academy. Signed, Rashid Denera, Commandant of the Imperial Academy."
The Commandant punched the stop button and waited for the transmittal copy to be displayed on his screen for proofing. "It's just this type of foolishness that leads to problems," he muttered to his adjutant sitting across from him. "It was a similar incident, just before I took over, that lead to the Battle of Maclean's Rock, and the modification of the treaty."
The adjutant leaned forward in apparent interest. "I don't think I've heard of that battle, sir. Where was it fought?"
The Commandant looked at him in surprise, and then let his features soften. "No, I don't suppose you would have heard of it. Several cadets went over the hill and the locals would do nothing to stop them. We decided to increase the Suto presence here to help restrict the cadets. Well, the Highlanders didn't like that at all. Maclean's Highlanders took the field for the first time since the Wars of Federation, but this time in opposition to the Suto, not as allies. A full troop of Suto could barely hold them off. After a week, the treaty was modified, and the Suto withdrawn from the planet. Since then, we've been limited to eight Suto here as Academy staff."
"What did we get in return, sir?"
The Commandant snorted. "Not enough, that's for sure. Maclean, the chief of the land all around the Academy, agreed to pull all of his people away from our borders, to limit the attractions cadets have a habit of finding. That tavern those cadets went to tonight was a good twelve klicks past the border."
"Will this letter to the Planetary Council have any affect?"
The Commandant looked out the window and shrugged. "I hope it does, or we'll have more trouble on our hands than I'd care to handle. After the last time, the Emperor said he would not tolerate any further interference here. I don't think it was an idle threat."
"Yea're a beautiful sleeper," Barbara said as she stroked his chest with a delicate hand.
Jer smiled and kissed her. "But you're beautiful all the time."
She smiled and returned his kiss. Then, with a touch of cold air, she slipped from the bed. Jer watched her hurry across the room to the fire. She seemed as unconcerned about her nudity in the cold as she did about her father sleeping down the hall. She returned to the bed with a small hop and snuggled against him beneath the heavy blankets.
The log she had thrown on the fire caught, filling the room with warm light. "We hae modern heaters," she said. "But I like the fire so much more. It's more romantic."
"You make it sound as if you've had a lot of romantic experiences."
She laughed softly and kissed his shoulder. "Only enough to be thankful tha' yea are less than a perfect gentleman."
Jer stroked her long locks of thick hair and chuckled. "If your father hadn't been asleep already, I don't think I'd have had the courage to come in."
"What? A risk too great for the reward?" she asked, brushing her breast against his side.
"Well--" he paused to kiss her-- "you might have convinced me, if we had enough time."
Her lips traced a slow line from his ear to his throat. "Aye, but we've no' much time left. Soon, I'll hae to be off to my own bed." Her hand traced a spiral across his stomach. "But I'll be thinking o' yea 'til dawn."
Jer rolled on his side to face her, slipping his hand to the small of her back as their nipples grazed beneath the covers. "Tell me what it's like to live here, in freedom."
The warmth of her hand descended to his hip. "We're no' entirely free. We hae obligations to our family and clan. Sometimes it can be a heavy burden. Mostly though, we are happy, but no' so much because o' what we hae. We're happy because we need or desire so little. Yea probably think us crude, but we'd never live any other way, e'en if yea offered us an easier life."
"Your way of life seems wonderful to me," he said.
She smiled. "And yea seem wonderful to me."
Jer fell back and pulled her onto him, kissing her hard on the mouth. She melted against him, and then slipped away, sliding from the bed. "I've got to go," she said as she wrapped a spare blanket around her shoulders. She bent over him and kissed him one last time. "I hope yea believe the reward worth the risk in the morn."
"What do you mean?" Jer asked as she stepped back and stooped to retrieve her clothes from the floor.
"In the morn, you'll meet my Da', Chief of Clan Maclean."
Before Jer could ask another question, she was gone. As he pulled the covers up to his chin, he wondered if he had finally gotten himself into too much trouble. As he lay there, surrounded by Barbara's scent and comforted by the soft crackle of the fire, he decided that where Barbara was concerned there was no trouble at all.
Scott slipped from the warm bed and retrieved his trousers from a nearby chair.
"Is tha' it then?" Rachel asked.
Scott turned, startled. "What do you mean?"
Rachel sat up, letting the covers fall from her body. "Did yea just plan on 'aving a little fun wi' some local girls?"
He stepped back toward her. "You don't understand." He turned and sat, afraid to face her moonlit form. "Jer doesn't even understand. I have to go back. The Academy is all I know. It's my chance to succeed."
"An' success is everything to yea?"
"It's what I've been trained for." His answer sounded hollow in his own ears. "My earliest memories are of the Academy. I remember the warmth of the creche after a winter afternoon's excursion, the games in the nursery barracks, the feelings of belonging while growing up in those halls. The Academy has been my world for seventeen years, and now my only true friend seems hell bent on dragging me from my place in the world."
"Your place in tha' world?" Her voice was stiff. "Tha' world where a computer chose your name and sang yea lullabies of loyalty? Is tha' really where yea belong?" Her hand touched him softly on the shoulder. "Or, do yea belong with a gentle woman who could love yea?"
Scott shook his head. "I don't know anymore."
Her hand traced a soft zig-zag down his spine. "I think yea do know, if you'll just listen to yourself. I've known yea for less than a day, and I can tell wha' yea want."
He turned toward her, but she shook her head. "But, yea'd no' believe me. Yea must learn it from yourself, by yourself."
Slowly, he nodded and then stood. A few moments later, he was dressed. He paused by the door, wanting to say something, or maybe be called back, but silence filled the room. As the door closed behind him, he heard a muffled sob. He froze in the dark hallway.
He waited a moment, scarcely breathing, until a second sob reached him through the thick door panel. A shiver raced through him and he knew the truth of Rachel's words. He did not really want success so much as he feared failure. Strengthened by the naming of his fear, he turned back to the room. Silently, he entered and crossed to the bed to take her in his arms. Without a word, he kissed the tears away from her cheeks and then pressed his lips to hers.
"Would yea sleep the day away, then?" Barbara asked as she closed the door behind herself.
Jer grinned back at her, and swung his legs from the bed. "Where's my uniform?"
She hurried to his side, pressing her legs against his. "Och, no, yea canna' wear your uniform today. At a gathering, yea must wear a kilt."
Jer wrapped his arms around her waist and hugged her. "I've no idea how to wear a kilt, but if it'll make you happy, I'll try."
She kissed the top of his head and then turned away to pull a bright tartan from the closet. "Tis easy to wear, an' far more comfortable than tha' silly uniform." She laid it beside him on the bed. "Put it on as best yea can, an' I'll be back in a minute to help yea adjust it."
"It would be more fun if you helped from the start," he said as she paused by the door.
She turned and smiled. "No' with my father waiting outside."
True to her word, she returned a few minutes later. She shook her head, frowned and then adjusted the lay of his kilt. After another five minutes, she decided he was presentable, kissed him, and lead him from the room.
Jeremy grinned at the sight of Rachel and Scott sitting possessively close to one another. Then he saw Barbara's father with his massive shoulders, thick red beard and mustache, and colorful, ornate kilt.
"Da'," Barbara said. "This is Jeremy Voss." The big man stood and seemed to grow larger as he looked Jer over. It was obvious now where Barbara got her green eyes from as Maclean locked gazes with Jeremy. The man's expression was hidden by his beard, but a fine network of wrinkles around his eyes tightened as he slowly extended his hand.
Jer took it and swallowed as pain shot up his arm. He tightened his own grip and continued to look the bigger man in the eye; refusing to be daunted by him. The handshake lasted for an agonizing minute, then her father relaxed his grasp and motioned for them to sit.
"I'd like to thank you for letting me stay here last night, Mister Maclean."
The man smiled and pushed an ornately carved bowl filled with some smooth golden liquid across to Jer. Sensing a further test, Jer lifted the bowl to his mouth and downed a gulp of the rich fluid. The burning sensation from the liquor spread down his throat to his stomach with the speed of honey, but Jer refused to stop before the bowl was empty. Once again undaunted, he licked his lips and smiled as he lowered the empty bowl.
Maclean returned his grin and pushed a large flagon of ale across the table. Jer glanced at Barbara and saw a worried look on her face. With as much gusto as he could muster after the previous night's drinking, he upended and drained the flagon.
"Now that's 'ow a man should take a drink," Maclean bellowed with a smile and a hearty laugh.
Jer was surprised to see the man extend his hand again. This time the handshake was only firm, but it carried with it a feeling of respect.
"I was more than a bit worried when my Barbara said tha' she 'ad brought home a cadet from the Academy. It looks like they still hae a few good men o'er there."
Jer smiled and risked a wink at Barbara as she brought food to the table. He decided that whatever the outcome, it would be an interesting day.
Jer whistled softly as he looked around the gather field. Tents circled the bowl-shaped field and people dressed in a multitude of colored kilts thronged about them. The gentle breeze moved the pennants atop each tent and carried the tantalizing odors of cooking food through the crowd. Across the bowl a cluster of pipers began to wail a tune.
"What are those?" Jer asked as the melody of the pipes carried across the field.
"Those are the Piob-mh˜r. Yea know, bagpipes. They're playing Birlinn Thighearna Cholla--that's our clan's salute. Whene'er there's a gathering they play it as a salute to my father."
Jer listened intently for a few minutes and then smiled. "I like it."
Barbara laughed and then gave him a light kiss on the cheek. "I had a feeling yea might like the pipes, an' they're just the beginning o' the fun."
Jer took her hand in his and smiled. "Then lead me on to the rest of this fun."
"Aye, I will, but I must warn yea..."
"Another minor risk?" he asked playfully as she lead him further into the crowds.
"I hope it's minor, but yea best be careful anyway."
Jer saw her look of concern. "What do I need to be careful of?"
"I was foolish an' proud when I put yea in my family's tartan. Many o' the young men ou' here will see yea as an intruder trying to steal me away. You can expect a few challenges for that. Yea'll hae to take them."
Jer pulled her to a stop and turned to face her. "Do no' worry about me, lass," he said in a fair imitation of her brogue that made her smile return. "Last night I satisfied yea. This morn, I satisfied your Da'. Today, I'll satisfy the whole o' Clan Maclean."
Barbara laughed. Jer gave her another quick kiss and they turned back toward the center of the field. Across the field, the pipes struck up a new tune.
Jer looked across his outstretched arms at his opponent as his fingers probed for a weak spot in the man's arms. They had been locked together for minutes; statues of living flesh. Jer saw the other's eyes shift and instantly stepped in and pulled with all his might. The highlander yelled in surprise and tried to shift his balance to compensate. Jer reversed his pull and threw his leg behind his opponent. They both fell to the ground, but Jer maintained control. A moment later, he felt a gentle tap on his leg and released his hold.
Jer brushed the dust off his legs and offered a hand to his opponent. "My name's Jer," he said.
"Aye, I've heard." The highlander took his hand and rose. "My name's Henry. Tha' was a good move yea used."
Jer smiled and nodded toward a keg of beer on the sidelines. "I guess I remembered more than I thought I did. I'm not much of a fighter."
Henry drew two mugs of beer and handed one to Jer. "Yea and your friend hae caused a bit o' excitement 'ere."
"Well, Barbara and Rachel invited us and we didn't have the heart to say no."
Henry smiled. "Aye, few lads hae the heart to say no to Rachel. I'm surprised a man finally got her to say yes."
Jer took a pull on his beer. "What do you mean?"