The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Four

Tsarkoni attempted to maintain a casual expression as he hurried across the courtyard towards the tower turret where his superior's office suite was situated. The sun was shining but still the air was bitterly cold, matching the icy chill Tsarkoni could feel permeating his insides. He reached the warmth of the stairwell mounting it rapidly, knocked briskly on Kuzhak's door and waited for the command to enter. He found the governor sipping a small tumbler of liqueur and keying through the latest report from the excavation team. Kuzhak eyed him with curiosity, noting the faint flush on his sunken cheeks and the wafer which was trembling slightly as he held it.

"You look a little red my friend, are you feeling all right?"

Tsarkoni went to speak but only a dry cough emerged. He stared hopelessly at Kuzhak and handed him the wafer. "I, uh, I think you'd better read this," he managed to rasp.

Kuzhak's eyebrows rose and he accepted the piece of plastine, placing it in his console and keying the start button. Tsarkoni watched as his chief's blue eyes grew wide, and waited for the display of despair and frustration. To his surprise Kuzhak's expression seemed to freeze for a moment, and then slowly it shaped itself into an ironic smile.

"Well," he said slowly, "this does place a new light on things."

Tsarkoni stared at him in consternation. "But ... how can we continue now? The purpose of this enterprise was to provide this woman for the Emperor." He faltered. "Now the Emperor is dead ... " he shook his head. "What point is there?"

Kuzhak walked casually over to an exquisite ceramic stand with an inlaid top of ash-coloured heart tzati wood. He opened the slender bottle of khamira liqueur and poured a small portion into another tumbler, offering it to Tsarkoni who stared up at his chief in surprise.

"This is not unexpected," he said.

Tsarkoni felt his mouth drop open, but he took the glass and let the contents warm then burn his throat. The stinging made him feel strangely better. It was a sensation which had meaning, one with which he could deal, unlike Kuzhak's behaviour.

"Well, I certainly didn't expect it," was all he could say.

"Of course you didn't Tsarkoni," said Kuzhak smoothly. "It is your job to follow orders, and you do it very well. In fact without you I doubt that this operation would have continued as smoothly as it has. My role, however, is to think, to co-ordinate and to extrapolate. And although it may surprise you, this is a possibility, albeit a distant one, I had taken into account."

Tsarkoni shook his head, mainly to rid himself of the sudden red alcoholic haze which had descended over his vision. He had never had much of a capacity for drink.

"No, no, it's true," continued Kuzhak good-humouredly, misinterpreting the shake for disavowal. "When I made the decision to intertwine my destiny with that of Palpatine, so to speak, I considered all possible what-ifs. What if Palpatine lost interest, or discontinued funding, or failed to fulfil his side of our agreement? Before I agreed to co-operate with Ban, I had a number of contingency plans already prepared. And so, my friend, let us drink to contingency number four - what to do if Palpatine dies or is removed from the scene."

He turned back to the bottle of khamira and poured another half-finger into Tsarkoni's glass, then raised his own. "The Emperor is dead. Long live Nerensai!" He sipped daintily and smiled. Tsarkoni stared at him astounded that he could be so calm, and the unnerving thought passed through his mind that perhaps his chief had snapped. A rhythmic chiming interrupted the silence.

"Kuzhak," the governor responded. Suddenly his expression became business-like. "Have you sealed the room?"

Tsarkoni heard what sounded like an affirmative.

"I want that whole level sealed now, and the men who found this isolated. What? Yes, in the cool room on level four. I'll be there directly." As he glanced down at Tsarkoni his eyes glinted like the ice on the razor-teeth of the surrounding peaks, which were now reflecting the dying sun's rays. "Come, Tsarkoni. It seems Nerensai heard our toast."

The smaller man gazed up at his chief, his brain feeling like a computer about to signal overload. Kuzhak laughed and patted him on the back.

"Come, my friend. The Queen of Mantrusia, and consort to the new Emperor awaits!"

Nobody knew much about the first human settlers of Mantrusia, except they had arrived at some stage during the time of the Old Republic. The most extensive research on them had been performed fifteen hundred years before by an ancient historian from Caamas, and it was his findings which had been included in the Encyclopaedia Galactica. Forty years before the events at Endor, the then editor of the Galactica had ordered a revision of some of the older material and consequently had ordered one of his ethno-historical research team members to Mantrusia. When the man tried to contact a more recent source of information he ran up against two difficulties: first the Mantrusians refused to allow his translator and cataloguing droids on their soil, and second he found it nigh on impossible to separate the fact from the legend in what they did condescend to tell him.

His knowledge of their language was sparse, being peppered with the usual tourist phrases such as N? sro djati for those moments when nature called, and N? cheta rsa when trying to buy food in the market. Mantrusian had a complex system of particles to compensate for the lack of tense and mood auxiliaries in their verbs. The man found one academic at the University of Bakhunia willing to communicate with him in Basic, but as his area of teaching was music he was not much help. The researcher came away with an extensive history of Mantrusian greeting chants, but little in the way of new information on its history, although he was able to add a few succinct comments on the relationship between their language and their general perspective.

The lack of distinction between past and present in their verb formation exemplified the semiotics of their world view. To the average Mantrusian, time was not a progression but a sphere: for them to try and plot a time-line of historical events would have been impossible, for linear history did not exist. The long greeting chants, or zdratya, with which one visitor introduced him or herself to another on formal occasions were a case in point. To an outsider they told the listener very few specifics about the actual individual before them, instead they recounted the person's ancestors and their deeds. To a Mantrusian, however, these were the very elements which helped them understand the individual before them, and to place him or her in relation to themselves. Every individual was perceived as an accumulation.

Nobody told the researcher about the ancient cities in which the first Mantrusians had been forced to live, because they belonged to a society and technology which had been rejected. A psycho-therapist would have given this an elaborate name - such as subliminal repression, or suppression of racial memory. The Mantrusians had quite simply forgotten about the cities because they had no relevance in their lives. What did exist for them was their connection with the land beneath their feet: it housed the bones of their forebears, fed them and provided them with articles of trade. The cord linking them to the old cities had been severed ten thousand years before when their metal caregivers, who had inexplicably replaced their human ones, had suddenly abandoned them leaving them confused and helpless. The process by which they had given birth to their own society and culture, and eventually a meaningful system of government, was the only reality which was worthy of their consideration.

One subject about which he had discovered a wealth of opinion was the life and times of Queen Nerensai, although he had been confounded by the intertwining of fact with myth. The average Mantrusian was prepared to live quite happily with the confusion, and the researcher never managed to produce a coherent account on this subject. Governor Kuzhak, however, was not an average Mantrusian, and possessed a curiosity about such differences.

Kuzhak's father, Lyem, was born on Narouan, a planet in the old Senex Sector. He had been a bit of a renegade, running away from home when only fifteen and joining the Guylean Smugglers who plied their trade in the quadrant which included Senex and Tarsus. As he matured, he worked his way up the chain of command, and his charisma and extraordinary good looks enabled him to add client after client from the ranks of wealthy Senex families. This, plus his redoubtable ability with the vibro-blade, allowed him eventually to take over the leadership. One day, however, in doing a deal for one of his clients he found himself in Mantrusia in the home of a merchant of naturopathic remedies. As was normal with the Mantrusian trading process, the woman seemed to have been suddenly afflicted by amnesia regarding her fluency in Basic, and Lyem was about to give up when the woman's daughter came to his aid. The daughter was beautiful, and Lyem was as enchanted with her as she was with him. When he left, she went with him.

The two were together for ten years, and for the first five Lyem managed to remain faithful to her. Old habits died hard however, but he still managed to keep his dalliances a secret until eventually the inevitable happened and one of his spurned lovers informed on him. The woman left, taking their six year old son Vadeem with her back to Mantrusia.

Kuzhak had enjoyed his life with the Guylean Smugglers and had liked Lyem, although he regarded him more as a fun-loving stranger than a father. He was an adaptable boy and proved himself to be quite intelligent. He attended the University in Bakhunia, acquitting himself well in political and media studies and ethnography, after which he entered the office of the provincial governor as media co-ordinator. His instructors at University had drilled into him the necessity of thorough and meticulous research, and in his position within the Bakhunian political machine he applied this to both the job in hand as well as the people with whom he dealt. He rose as rapidly as his father had within the smuggling ranks. The greatest advantage he had over his compatriots was his natural ability to think more as an outsider than a native, and he soon learned how to exploit the weaknesses in the Mantrusian psyche.

From his father he had inherited his ambition and his appreciation of a free and easy life-style, and lacking personal wealth he used his most obvious assets to achieve this. The circumstances of his childhood had forced him to become self-reliant, but in Kuzhak this trait soon became twisted into a self-serving compulsion which was amoral in its intensity. He responded to all the normal human needs without experiencing their attendant emotions. An artist would have represented him as a man standing slightly to the side of his life and looking on: a distanced, dispassionate observer.

When he had heard his own media co-ordinator describing an incident he had witnessed concerning the Emperor at the Capitol's space port, he had digested the details with interest. His subordinates' reaction had been typical serves the old idiot right for assuming himself to be above the protocols of Mantrusian diplomacy. Kuzhak's reaction was one of curiosity. Why would such a powerful man suddenly pay a visit to a planet completely outside his jurisdiction or influence. Kuzhak was drawn to power like a mynock to a power coupling. He mulled over the possibilities for a few weeks and then left ostensibly on holiday. His staff thought he was on Alakatha, only Tsarkoni knew his chief was visiting Coruscant.

None of his research had prepared him for the discovery of one of the ancient cities, and it had taken him a while to realize that he had in fact discovered it. Initially he had assumed, as the diggers and his general staff still did, that the complex system of levels beneath Patal's den belonged to the original fortification. It was only when the retired Cuvorian professor, who had put them on to the location of Patal's den in the first place, pointed out the differences in construction material and basic technology, that they both realised the import of what they had found.

The only other person whom Kuzhak had let into this secret was Tsarkoni, partly because he was confident that his subordinate lacked the imagination to use the information for personal gain, but mainly because he was aware that Tsarkoni had an interest in things pertaining to Mantrusia. He had also noticed that the little man was much happier dealing with state affairs in Bakhunia than with the more duplicitous requirements of the Secheniz operation, and since Captain Dravet's arrival there had been a gradual separation of duties. Dravet's concern was with security and intelligence, and he had no interest in the historical implications of the project. Kuzhak had considered telling Ban, but then decided that this was information that the Emperor didn't need to know. Palpatine's interest in Mantrusia was with Nerensai, not with the possible implications of a technology obviously superior to their own.

He had kept his communications with Coruscant to the minimum, for although the operative Dravet had managed to install at the I-M Base had been unable to confirm whether the Iicin'ians were aware of his transmissions, he had decided to play safe and carefully tailor the messages to look like harmless business memorandums. Even so, he still doubted they would be clever enough to work out that he was using an old smugglers' system he remembered from his childhood.

The deeper the excavation had ventured into the depths of the frozen Secheniz mountains, the more Kuzhak had begun to get the distinct feeling that he was getting closer to his goal. The upper levels of the dig had proved to be an extreme challenge, partly because of the cold temperatures in which the diggers and equipment had been forced to work, and partly because of the efficiency of the bombardment which had destroyed the pirate's hide-out. Even Sulaili was surprised at the extent of the attack, especially as there was no reference to it in any of his information sources. Blizzards delayed the work for over a month, and in order to keep to his projected time schedule Kuzhak had been forced to request help. Ban had managed to convince Palpatine to reassign one of the companies of stormtroopers on duty on Hocqyellen to Mantrusia. The men had been somewhat bemused initially to have their familiar white armour confiscated and to be expected to adopt the dress of the people with whom they had to work. But there was no way Kuzhak could risk showing any obvious signs of Imperial involvement.

As they had tunnelled down, the work had become easier and the signs of destruction grew less obvious. Lighting in the alleyways of the lower levels was provided by huge glow panels, many of which still worked, their on-off circuits appearing to respond to air disturbance. The air was surprisingly fresh, and Kuzhak suspected that there were recyclers somewhere, possibly behind or within the porous material which lined the dome ceilings of the courtyards which each of the three lower levels possessed. When they had cleared the debris from a collapsed alley and discovered yet another level, Kuzhak had become confident that they must be nearing an end. As he and Tsarkoni coaxed the two-man hovercar along the now sterile alleyways of the old city, and across the hollow space which had once been a courtyard, or possibly a park, he knew that confidence had transformed itself into reality.

He passed the old cool-storage room where he hoped the team foreman had placed the digging team. He had decided early on in the project that all the Mantrusian workers involved directly in the actual discovery of the woman would have to be removed, as any information leaks would ruin his credibility. He knew enough about the Mantrusian psyche to realize that they would not willingly give up one of their own to an outsider such as Palpatine. Now that the Emperor was dead, however, it was even more imperative that her discovery be kept secret. As yet, Kuzhak had not developed an itemized plan to cope with the change in circumstances, but, as he had boasted to Tsarkoni, he did have a general idea as to how he could use Nerensai to his own advantage. The basis of this would be to convince the population at large that their rulers had failed them, and to remind them of the legends which promised Nerensai's return.

They reached the lowest level of the city, edged through a narrow section where the walls had collapsed inwards, and approached the temporary duraplast doors the foreman had installed to seal off the area as requested. Kuzhak turned to Tsarkoni, a slow smile oozing across his lips.

"I'd like you to stay here, old friend, because I trust you to make sure no-one enters without my permission. This is a moment I believe I deserve to enjoy to the full."

Tsarkoni stared at the doors, and something akin to a wistful expression flickered over his thin face. Then he turned to Kuzhak, his mouth set itself into a resolute line and he nodded. Kuzhak's gaze lingered on him for a moment longer. A true blue servant, he thought. But that is all you'll ever be, Tsarkoni. You lack the vision a leader requires, and you are too much the Mantrusian, entrenched in superstition and believing implicitly in a hundred strange legends, without ever stopping to analyse their possibilities. Unquestioning belief could be a dangerous thing, but sometimes it could prove useful. Kuzhak had a feeling it was about to become very useful.

Being such a sceptic, Kuzhak had initially been surprised at Palpatine's interest in the Nerensai legend. But the more he learned about the Emperor and the strange Force power he possessed, the more he began to realise that there were at least a few mysteries about which one could willingly suspend one's disbelief. Of one thing there was no doubt, and that was that both Palpatine and Ban believed in Nerensai's existence. Eventually Kuzhak had come to accept it too.

He turned towards the door of the room and noticed his breathing was beginning to sound very slightly uneven. Excitement, he convinced himself. He had spent long hours imagining how Nerensai would appear to them: perfectly preserved in one of the hibernation trances about which Ban had informed him, or encased in a material such as carbonite. Maybe even as when she had disappeared, although that possibility seemed less plausible, despite a few old legends telling of sightings of a woman believed to be Nerensai on Mt Halpurnia in the northern reaches of Bakhunia Province. He placed his hand over the heat sensor and the ancient door slid open.

His breath caught in his throat. In an alcove at the centre of the back wall stood a towering humanoid resplendent in a glimmering coat of gold. Connected to it stood a row of shining machines, gleaming and alien in conformation. The only familiar feature was a screen set beneath the robot's jewelled head-dress, where its face should have been. Its surface was blank with the kind of matte blackness which seemed to absorb light, and Kuzhak felt himself drawn inexorably towards it. He frowned, and in spite of his feelings of victory he felt a shiver start at the bottom of his spine and work slowly upwards, until he could have sworn it disturbed the stylish cut of his light brown hair. The silence in the room was tangible.

A sudden flash of golden light in his periphery vision caught Kuzhak's attention. He frowned again. Surely that finger had not been pointing in his direction when he had looked at it the first time? He began to take a step towards the robot when the hand moved silently and purposefully up in a gesture signifying that he halt. He stared up at the black screen face searching for some sign of sentience, when a voice boomed around him.

"Who are you that deem to disturb my repose?"

Kuzhak gazed around the room in an effort to identify the position of a speaker or transmitter Again he found his eyes drawn towards the screen which gazed back at him, impassive and yet strangely magnetic.

"My name is Vadeem Kuzhak," he said overcoming the faint tremble that was threatening to undermine the confidence of his reply. "Governor of Bakhunia Province."

"Governor," repeated the voice. "I do not deal with mere governors. Where is your king? Or queen?"

Kuzhak cleared his throat. "We have no such position any more. The last person to possess the title of queen was the great Nerensai, one thousand years ago."

The silence that ensued seemed to Kuzhak about to extend interminably when the room echoed with a sigh. If Kuzhak had been capable of sentiment, the poignancy would have tugged at his heart-strings.

"One thousand years," the voice whispered, and Kuzhak could almost feel its breath on his ear. The voice seemed to be emanating from the humanoid, but he could have sworn he felt a presence beside him. "My people have been leaderless for so long?" the voice registered amazement, and to Kuzhak's surprise, pity.

"They have had leaders, but they have been more concerned with propagating a culture of mediocrity, than in returning Mantrusia to the heights of its potential."

The room fell silent again, or was the silence just within his mind. It felt to Kuzhak as though her presence had withdrawn from him. Presently he felt the prickling in his scalp again, and the air seemed to move around him.

"You criticize, yet you have done nothing to correct this situation?" Kuzhak felt her condemnation like a blow within his brain, and he controlled the urge to vindicate himself. He was under no illusions as to Nerensai's power, and he intended to be as honest as he could, but he was confident that she wouldn't be able to delve into his mind too deeply. Ban's research into other instances where a proponent of the Force had left its original body had suggested that the subject's power was reduced, in some cases quite severely. In addition to this, Kuzhak knew that years of having to dissemble in order to achieve his ends and cover his tracks had given him plenty of practice in the field of mental control.

"No," he replied with disarming openness. "There are external circumstances which have kept Mantrusia weak militarily. And the system of government imposed on it by the Old Republic has lulled the people into inactivity. They have forgotten the golden age."

"They have always been indolent," she said, but Kuzhak felt no sense of criticism. Rather the voice sounded fond. "They are like children, Governor. They need a strong parent. For two hundred years I was that parent."

There was a pause, and again Kuzhak felt his attention drawn to the screen. Slowly the blackness resolved itself into grey, and in turn the grey dissolved into a swirling mass of points of light. Kuzhak blinked, and in the instant of his eyes being closed a face appeared, rivetting his returning gaze.

"Iam Nerensai."

Kuzhak stared back, feeling the jubilance rising within him. The face was stunning, the skin like the fragile pale-pink petals of hybellia flowers and the jet-black eyes framed with perfect eyebrow arches and long soft lashes.

"Your majesty!" Kuzhak dropped purposefully to one knee. "I welcome you in the name of your people."

* * * * *

The silence of the night was disturbed only faintly by the sound of blaster fire emanating from Southside. No doubt another scuffle between rival syndicates, or perhaps some of the security forces on a routine sweep. Kuzhak stood on the balcony of his private suite in the Governor's Palace, but he was only half-listening to these familiar evening noises. He had matters with far more import to consider than the petty power struggles between gangs.

His mind drifted back to the day over four years ago when he had stood in the Emperor's meeting chamber, hearing the man telling him about Nerensai, and offering him the chance to enhance his own power by joining them in their search. Being initially a little dubious, Kuzhak had requested three months to consider the ramifications, and also to perform a little research of his own. By the end of that time he had developed a definite interest in the project. But Palpatine had been distracted by the loss of the Death Star and the subsequent offensive he had launched against the Rebels. It was not until nearly a year after their meeting that he had sent Ban to Mantrusia to confirm Kuzhak's co-operation, and to brief him on his requirements.

Most histories of Mantrusia maintained that Nerensai was a witch, who had attempted to build an empire in Tarsus, but had eventually been defeated by a huge Old Republic fleet. Her body however had never been officially identified, and it was the lack of evidence of her death, in addition to the legends about her longevity and promised return which had provoked Palpatine's initial curiosity. When Ban's research suggested that she was not only able to keep herself alive, but also maintain her youth and health with no sign of physical crepulence, the Emperor had developed a definite interest. When he discovered that she had managed to bestow this power on others, in this case her lover, he had decided to approach the Mantrusians. Nerensai, it seemed, might hold the answer to his deterioration problem.

Kuzhak suspected that there were additional reasons which made Nerensai so tantalisingly interesting to Palpatine, and the more he studied the histories Ban had unearthed of her campaigns, the more curious he had become too. None of the accounts could agree on the size and specifications of her fleet of ships, although they were described in terms such as strange and alien in appearance. Nor were any of the strange vessels captured, and one theorist noted that they seemed to have been fitted with self-destruct devices, and that once their sensors deemed them damaged beyond a certain point they automatically obliterated themselves.

Another point which fascinated Kuzhak, and which he noticed Ban pursued with considerable interest too, was the fate of the fleet. According to most military histories, the Old Republic united against Nerensai after her defeat of Tyrovera, and engaged her in the encounter which was thereafter known as the Battle of Mantrusia. However, although the result was recorded as a victory to the Republic, there was no adequate account of what had happened to the defeated. Most agreed that Patal himself had died when his ship was destroyed in the latter stages of the battle. Some believed that he and two other ships had staged a last ditch attack which allowed Nerensai to escape with the rest of her ships. But other than the common supposition that her people had simply committed suicide out of loyalty, and one wild claim that a fleet matching the description of hers had been seen dangerously close to the worm-hole known as the Tsu'por Anomaly, no one account provided a reliable theory about its disappearance.

Initially the Old Republic had maintained a close watch in the Cini System, in case the Mantrusians' belief that Nerensai would return became fact. But as the years rolled by, and neither Nerensai or her fleet had reappeared, the battle and even the woman herself became simply names in the history files of the Tarsus Sector. The fact remained however, that just as there were no references to Nerensai's death, neither were there any to the destruction of her remaining ships. And to Kuzhak's mind it seemed logical that if Nerensai had survived, then probably her fleet had too.

The discovery of the old city had seemed to Kuzhak initially to be an unexpected aspect of the Nerensai project, but again the more he thought about it the more he was becoming prepared to reconsider. Maybe the discovery of the city had been the starting point for Nerensai's schemes. The frozen, inhospitable northern wastes of Mantrusia had been a favourite refuge for various pirate guilds for thousands of years, and when Patal took possession of his fortification, Kuzhak thought it unlikely that he realized its technological implications. He did know, thanks to Sulaili's research, that Nerensai had not begun to extend her influence beyond Mantrusia until after she and Patal had become romantically linked, and it now seemed likely that the key to her success lay within this ancient and alien technology.

With Palpatine alive, Kuzhak had been assured of being rewarded with the governorship of the Circle, the name assigned to the ring of Imperial space beginning outside the boundaries of the Tarsus Sector. Most of the inhabited worlds in Tarsus were independent, some being quite backward technologically. A few like Iicini'ia had belonged to the Old Republic and had become adherents of the New Order when Palpatine took over, but the relative paucity of Imperial property in Tarsus had caused the Emperor to include it within the constituency of the Circle. The current governor, Moff Hoziak, was generally regarded as lax and more concerned with enjoying a luxurious lifestyle than actually governing. There were therefore many who would have approved when the Emperor awarded Kuzhak control of the Circle and the Imperial property in Tarsus.

With the Emperor dead and Nerensai at his side, Kuzhak could see possibilities for himself far more ambitious than simply becoming a Moff, and he was confident there would be few willing or able to interfere with his schemes. Initially he would require Hoziak's co-operation, necessitating a quick trip to Hocqyellen, probably later in the week. Eventually, however, Nerensai's abilities would render any outside aid superfluous.

The very first step however would be to remind Mantrusia about its heritage, and with the growing number of unemployed people prepared to do anything in order to put food on the table, it wouldn't be difficult to begin the insurrection. The odd report of strange phenomena at the site of her palace, maybe even interviews with people who claimed to have seen her would do nicely for a start. Next, the Imperial troops disguised as locals would add the essential discipline to the rebellion, and by the time Kuzhak had finished there would be nothing Elozhi could do to prevent the Mantrusians placing themselves in the hands of their beloved Nerensai again. A thousand years ago they had referred to her as the Sounih. Without its upper case designation sounih was the name most Mantrusian children applied to their female parent -- mother.

Once Mantrusia was returned to its former glory, Kuzhak was confident that Nerensai's proven hunger for power would make her his willing ally in the next stage of his plan. But for the moment that could wait. It was important now that he win her confidence and trust, and to do that he realized would be the greatest challenge he had faced so far. But the thought filled Kuzhak not with apprehension, but with a wild exhileration. Playing fast and loose was not so much a way of life as an integral part of his personality. Anything that can be achieved easily, he sighed dismissively, simply isn't worth doing.

To Chapter Three | To Chapter Five

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