The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Five
Kerensa sat cross-legged in the corner of her grandmother's kitchen plaiting the long ear-plumes of the pet denghi against whose fat flanks she was leaning. She watched as the old lady worked at her table, grinding the tulo'o fungi Kerensa had collected for her into a fine paste with a wooden pestle.
"It's all very strange, anyway. I mean why this sudden, almost religious interest in some crazy old queen who's been dead for a thousand years? Some people have been making pilgrimages to her palace and there's a very lucrative trade broken out in relics, everything from jewels purported to be from the gowns she used to wear, to pieces from her private space liner. I tell you, mackshi, the whole planet's gone completely mad!"
"I wouldn't exactly describe Nerensai as crazy," said Hazita, peering up from her bowls and bottles of coloured solutions.
Kerensa glanced back at her with interest. "Do you know about her, mackshi?"
"I only know what I've been told, and I think a lot of it is legend. But I do know that she wasn't mad. She was a very powerful and calculating woman."
"Is it true that she ruled for two hundred years?"
"Oh yes. She united the Mantrusians and had built a small empire for herself before she was defeated."
Kerensa stood up and walked over to sit down at the table, her expression serious.
"Mackshi," she said. "I'm not really supposed to talk about the details of my work, as you know, but since my last visit to Mantrusia I've had this unsettling feeling that something unpleasant is brewing there. In fact I'd even go so far as to call it something evil. My superiors are getting really edgy and, even though he would never admit it, I think Chief Elozhi's worried. The problem is, I don't think anyone can work out exactly what's going on." She leaned forward, and fixed her grandmother with a searching gaze. "How much do you know about Nerensai?"
Hazita caught the gaze briefly, and then focused her attention back on her grinding. She was silent for a few seconds, and Kerensa noticed a frown pass across her forehead.
"As I said, I only know what I've heard. I don't know how much of it is true." She lapsed into silence again.
Kerensa watched her curiously as she began to knead the mixture in the mortar. It was not like her grandmother to refuse a good chance to gossip about something Mantrusian.
"She must have been a real old hag by the time she died," she said musingly, watching the face opposite her carefully.
Hazita peered up at her in irritation. "I know what you're doing and it won't work."
"Please mackshi, please, please, please, tell me what you know. The tiniest, most unimportant bit of information would help, even the size of her knicker elastic."
Hazita's annoyed expression crumpled. "You're a wicked girl, Kerensa, to manipulate your old grandmother like this." She paused, amused but still obviously hesitant. "Nerensai was never a hag, she was an incredibly beautiful woman by all accounts."
"How did she live so long? Was she from another more long-lived race?"
Hazita squirmed uncomfortably and cleared her throat. "No, she was Bakhunian. Her father had been king before her but had no male issue, so on his death his oldest daughter became queen. The legend is that Nerensai had her sister killed and took over the throne."
"Yet another power junkie," mused Kerensa.
"She was and she wasn't, that was what was strange about her."
"How do you mean?"
"Well she could be unbelievably cruel, but she could also be extraordinarily charitable. Her own people loved her, and when she was defeated, a legend grew up that she had not been killed but had simply disappeared, and that one day she would return."
Kerensa felt her mouth drop open. "In all my history lessons about Mantrusia, I've never heard that!"
"That's because you were educated here," Hazita reminded her. "You forget that in Mantrusia legend and fact are sometimes hard to separate." She watched her grand-daughter's thoughtful expression as she picked long strands of denghi fur from her grey fatigues.
"Is it true she was a witch?" asked Kerensa.
Hazita hesitated. "I'm not really sure," she said finally.
"I suppose people tend to call any woman with unusual powers a witch," Kerensa mused. "Women get called witches, and men get revered as Emperors. Pathetic, isn't it?"
Hazita regarded her sadly. Since the death of her family on Alderaan, Kerensa had developed not only a hatred towards Tarkin and Palpatine and all those she regarded as responsible, but also towards the Force itself, reducing it to the level of common sorcery. Hazita herself was old enough to remember a time when the Jedi had been bastions of justice, but she knew from experience it was useless trying to talk the girl out of her opinion. She also felt that it was healthier for Kerensa to focus a large part of her negativity on the power which had caused the tragedy rather than the people, although she had been surprised that her grand-daughter had reacted the way she had.
Still, Kerensa had always been a complicated little bundle, even as a small child. Hazita could remember a number of occasions when the little girl had confounded her with her observations and her extreme self-confidence, not to mention her ability to manipulate her parents to the nth degree. That was one thing the girl had been unable to do with her, but there again Hazita had to admit that since the Alderaan tragedy Kerensa had been different: still independent and self-reliant, but a lot less self-centred.
"Well revered or hated, he is no longer of any concern," she said softly. "You will take care won't you chuckshi. I worry about you having to deal with all this military nonsense."
"It's not nonsense, mackshi, it's actually quite interesting. And anyway when I go to Mantrusia it's in my capacity as translator, so it's more diplomatic than military.
Hazita sighed. "I would still feel a lot happier if you had taken that scholarship the University of Mesotonia offered. You're a bright girl, you could do anything you wanted. Instead of which you're off wandering around Mantrusia, and probably getting yourself into all sorts of danger."
"But this is what I want. University is all theoretical stuff, whereas at I-M it's more hands on and learning to use your initiative." She had walked around the table to stand behind her grandmother, and she slipped her arms around her neck. "Dad always told us that when we find our talent we should put it to the best use possible. And I honestly believe that's what I'm doing."
"You have other talents, chuckshi," the old lady said quietly.
Kerensa sighed, hugged Hazita again and walked over to the window, where she stood watching the late afternoon shadows muting the harsh glare of the surrounding obsidian peaks.
"I know. But I have to do what I think is right," she said finally.
That's what I'm afraid of, thought Hazita.
* * * * *
"I cannot believe my people have been treated like this," Nerensai's voice echoed around the chamber, the disbelief in it serving to make its husky tone even more compelling. "Does this man not understand that left to their own devices they are like unruly children, squabbling and disagreeing. They need a firm hand, and someone who is willing to make their decisions for them."
"To be fair, ma'am, I don't think we can lay the blame completely at Elozhi's feet." So easy to sound magnanimous when the mud has already been made to stick, thought Kuzhak. "He is simply fulfilling his role, a role which was determined by the Old Republic when it chose to impose this particular form of government on Mantrusia after your assumed demise. In keeping with their belief in equity they tried to encourage the Mantrusians towards democracy."
"Democracy will always fail, Governor Kuzhak, because it is disorderly and indecisive. The only effective system is that in which one person is responsible for making the decisions."
"Yes, well history has certainly proved you right there. The Old Republic became, as you say, disorderly and indecisive and was taken over by Palpatine."
"And yet now this Palpatine is dead?" the question hung in the air, tantalising him with its implications.
Kuzhak nodded slowly. Since their discovery of Nerensai's hiding place he had made regular visits, answering her many questions about the state of Mantrusia and the galaxy at large. Once he had considered her up to pace with the historical facts, he had begun the more difficult task of insidiously colouring them with the necessary bias.
"Who is running his Empire at the moment?" she asked curiously.
"At the moment, one of his advisers: a man called Sate Pestage."
There was a silence and then the voice sounded again, its tone low and almost confidential. "And you foresee a change to this arrangement?"
"Pestage does not possess the Emperor's foresight, or his power. Ultimately he must fail, just as Elozhi is failing."
"And when they fail, who will rise to fill their places?"
The expression of concern which Kuzhak had carefully maintained dissolved, and he raised his wide blue eyes to the beautiful face regarding him regally from the screen.
"I can only think of one who can fill both roles; one who can not only restore Mantrusia to its rightful glory, but also to a position greater than any it has held before," he replied with manufactured emotion.
The black eyes beamed down at him benignly, and almost, he hoped, fondly. "And is this why you sought me so diligently, Governor?"
Kuzhak dropped to his knee and bowed his head. "You are the only one, ma'am, who has the power." He turned his face up to gaze at her, ensuring there was an expression of quiet despair in his eyes. "Being merely a man of no great power and limited knowledge, and possessing only the desire to see order prevail, I am unworthy of your forbearance. But I am willing to be your servant and aid you in whatever way I can to bring about your return. Mantrusia needs you. The Empire needs you."
I need you. I need your abilities and I need your ... Kuzhak felt an internal jolt at the word which rose unbidden in his mind. Consciously he had intended to mention Nerensai's fleet in his list of necessities, but his unconscious had provided an alternative. He swallowed quickly, blinking as the image on the screen tilted its head, while the soft eyelashes fluttered down acknowledging his obeisance. He shook off the unfamiliar flickering of emotion and concentrated his attention on the careful deployment of his plan.
"Mantrusia is my first love," she said. "But it was always my intention to reward my people for their loyalty. I wanted to make them the inheritors of an empire which would provide them with wealth and would allow them to surround themselves with beautiful things. That is what a parent must do, after all. The doyens of the Old Republic failed to understand this. Their vision was always limited by political considerations." She sighed. "There is so much more to life, Governor Kuzhak, than politics."
"Yes, ma'am," he agreed dutifully.
"The people should not need to worry about such banalities. They should be able to live life to the full: eat well, love, enjoy good music and fine art; produce what they can, buy what they need, sell what they have in abundance. This Elozhi and his predecessors have not been good custodians. They have stifled my people, and forced them to live a hand-to-mouth existence. If I had known my people would be treated like this I would have remained and fought. It would be better for them all to have been annihilated than live like paupers and dependants. But ... I was a fool," her eyes had misted over and Kuzhak could see she was gazing into the vast distance of the past. "I didn't want to live without Patal, and yet I didn't quite have the courage to destroy myself completely. C sro tzen, radyezh."
Kuzhak nodded. His father, Lyem, had lived by that philosophy, although expressed in Basic it was more: where there's life, there's hope.
"So I elected to live like this, on a plane where the pain of his loss wouldn't every minute bore into my heart. Grief is tenable when its teeth can leave no fleshly mark." She paused, and slowly her gaze refocused from past to present. She turned to Kuzhak again. "I accept your promise of service, Governor, and I in turn can promise you more than just my powers."
Kuzhak bowed his head again quickly, ecstasy rising within him in an overwhelming wave. More than just her supernatural powers? Yes, he thought, her military power as well.
"But in order to begin this process, I must achieve physical form again. The Force needs a presence in the material world through which to operate, as does the power of a tzensentye."
Kuzhak gazed at her intently, admiring again the perfection of her features which looked more like those of a woman in her twenties than one over two hundred years old. It was a shame in some ways that Professor Sulaili had not lived long enough to learn that his theory about the source of Nerensai's powers had been correct, for the old man would have been gratified to feel that those years of extensive genealogical surveys had been worthwhile. Most Mantrusians believed that Nerensai was some sort of witch, and that her ability to remain young and healthy was due to magic. It was due to Sulaili's painstaking analysis of the legends about the various miracles she was said to have performed, that he had been able to show that certain of them sounded similar to those attributable to the Jedi, while others matched the capabilities of Mantrusia's natural healers, the tzensentya.
Nerensai caught his expression and smiled. "It pleases you that I have managed to maintain my youth."
Kuzhak dragged his eyes away from her face and was trying to force his thinking back to the task in hand when he remembered Palpatine and his search for an end to his deterioration.
"Is it true that any strong Force adept can self-heal in this way?" he inquired.
"Self-heal, yes. But healing implies organic damage. Ageing is a natural process, and to prevent it requires control of the processes of nature itself. The ability to heal is, as you may realise, available to a tzensentye through her ability to tune herself into the natural cycle. But to one like myself with both powers, it seems to manifest itself as a means of self-restoration. In my case it was so strong that I could restore others as well. At least, I could up to a point ... " her voice faded and her attention drifted away from his face into the distance again.
Kuzhak knew that look meant she was back mentally with Patal again, and he remained silent, intending that she interpret this as a sign of his respect for her loss. In actual fact he found her reminiscences about the pirate rather aggravating.
"Unfortunately even my abilities could not reassemble a body which exists only as a cloud of atoms." She sighed, and her gaze refocused on Kuzhak.
"I believe that certain uses of the Force can lead to physical deterioration," he commented idly.
"In a Jedi, yes, the use of the Dark Side will lead to organic decay, because its energies are corrosive. But a tzensentye can isolate the disruptive fields within the body, and I quite simply learned to create protective fields around them so they couldn't harm me."
"Could you have created these fields in someone else?" he asked, feigning intellectual curiosity.
"Of course," she replied blithely. "Although at present I could not, because I lack a physical presence."
Kuzhak smiled inwardly at the way she had manipulated the conversation back to her own personal need.
"What can I do to help you find this physical presence?"
Her dark eyes gazed intently into his, and her mouth curved up slowly. "It should not be a difficult task, Governor. Not for you anyway, for I sense you are a man of great resourcefulness, and imagination ... " The smile became decidedly seductive. "In order to achieve my former power, I must have the body of a woman who shares my dual inheritance. For if my psychic potential is not balanced by the particular rhythms of the physical body, then I will be powerless. And it will doubtless destroy the body of the candidate," she added, implying the latter to be of minor significance.
"And," she continued, "I would prefer her to be beautiful. A little vain of me, I realise, but we all have our foibles."
The two sets of eyes, dark and ice-blue, regarded each other for a moment in silence. Then the blue eyes dropped, and Kuzhak bowed.
"I will find such a woman," he promised. When he raised his head again the screen was blank, but he could feel Nerensai's presence around him.
"Pe kastasye." The words formed in his mind, but he was unsure whether he had heard her speak, or whether he had simply felt them in the echoes of the empty chamber.
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