The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Eight
When Tsarkoni finally reached Moff Hoziak's presidio on the outskirts of Starrich, he felt both relieved and irritated. His relief was attributable to the atmosphere inside the building, which had been carefully adjusted to suit Hoziak's human retinue. The air was filtered and the furnishings and decor were calming on the eye and nerves. There were no buffeting winds blowing grit and grime from the numerous smelters and other industrial plants which contributed to Hocqyellen's impressive economy. Nor was there the uniform buff colouring of the surrounding factories and landscape. Obviously the natives of Starrich, who belonged to the dominant racial group on Hocqyellen, possessed no aesthetic sense; although the thought did occur to him that maybe they hated their environment as much as he did, but had no choice other than to accept it.
Although the indigenous inhabitants of Hocqyellen were not human, they were humanoid: generally short and squat, and immensely strong, with enhanced endurance due to their efficient metabolisms. They were ideally suited to their age-old role as the most efficient furnace operators and processers of ore in the Circle. Their tough hides allowed them to endure the high smelting temperatures, and their thick shutter-like eyelids protected them from the glare of blue-hot ingots and the high concentration of grit in their atmosphere.
Tsarkoni's irritation was a result of the discomforts he had suffered on his trip from Port Starrich to the presidio. The ride in an open hovercar had rattled him considerably, and he felt as though he'd been dragged through a coalfield. Kuzhak had always impressed on him the importance of first appearances, and Tsarkoni was uncomfortably aware that he looked more like a wild creature from the wastes than a civilized envoy. He brushed off the spots and cinders from his dark blue jacket, and dabbed at his face with the handkerchief that he had folded to poke elegantly out of his breast pocket. So much for style, right now he'd be quite happy with simple cleanliness.
He relaxed a little as the pleasant micro-climate in the high-roofed entrance corridor to the Moff's audience chambers began to erode his ill-temper. The Imperial protocol droid insisted he wait in an ante-room for quite some time. Normally this would have put him on edge, but the piped bavlanika music and the soft pastels of the exotic traladon-hide settles and whispy syplex drapes made him feel quite mellow. By the time Hoziak stood greeting him in his spacious office, Tsarkoni had mentally organized an order of business for the points Kuzhak wished confirmed. It was with some surprise, therefore, that he found another man in the office with the Moff: a younger man, with shrewd eyes and a lean, hungry expression, the complete opposite of Hoziak in every detail. As he studied the man, the latter gazed back at him, and Tsarkoni realized with a start that he too was being analysed. It also occurred to him that this man reminded him of Kuzhak, he was about the same age and he possessed the same aura of arrogance and power.
He turned his attention back to Hoziak, and responded to the initial formalities which the occasion required. While he passed on Kuzhak's good wishes, he couldn't help noticing the Moff's spreading waistline and slightly sloppy appearance: little details like the loose epaulette, and the unpolished boots, which suggested a man who no longer possessed the pride in his position which was the mark of a good Imperial servant.
Hoziak introduced the younger man as Admiral Truin. Tsarkoni met the man's appraising gaze again. The thought passed through his mind that Truin, in his spotless Imperial grey uniform with its peaked cap and dashing ceremonial olive green cloak, might himself be only too pleased to see a lazy and ineffectual governor such as Hoziak removed. That calculating curiosity in the eyes was Kuzhak to the tee. He wondered offhand if Truin was as successful with the ladies as his own chief. The combination of power, elegance and seeming affluence seemed to be a sure method of attraction; something which Hoziak in his present state of dissipation was in danger of losing, if he hadn't already.
Although now he thought about it, it occurred to him that lately Kuzhak's romantic dalliances had become conspicuously less of a problem. True, he had dismissed yet another mistress; but Tsarkoni was positive there had been no-one waiting to take her place. In fact, he had the fleeting realisation that since Nerensai's appearance Kuzhak seemed to have lost his normal interest in romantic intrigue; but at that point Tsarkoni didn't have the time to ponder it further. There was business to which he must attend.
"Governor Kuzhak felt it appropriate that I discuss the details of his plan with you in person. The I-M military have our sub-space transmissions tapped, and although our normal encryption methods are reliable, we don't want to push our luck. I also have here the details on the Rebel fleet, which our informer says is on its way." He handed the Moff a sheet of flimsy, and Admiral Truin stepped behind the governor's chair to peruse the list.
"Just the two capital ships. Still, quite a lot of firepower there with those corvettes and gunships," the younger man muttered. "Technically two of our dreadnoughts should be sufficient. But I'm well aware how easy it is to underestimate these people."
"Yes. I'm quite convinced our beloved Emperor never believed that with a Death Star and the Executor at his command that he could fail," agreed Hoziak. He pushed the wisp of sand-grey hair, which he had combed carefully over his balding pate, back in place and gazed up at Tsarkoni.
I wonder if Palpatine had made any contingency plans, thought the Mantrusian drily, recalling Kuzhak's comments about the what-ifs. "We certainly have no intention of misjudging their abilities, Admiral," he said. "Our decision to ask for your co-operation should tell you that."
"Your decision, yes. I must admit it does interest me somewhat."
"Oh?" Tsarkoni's thin eyebrows disappeared under the furrow on his brow.
"Why request help from the Empire, when your world has always been independent?" Tsarkoni was aware that Truin was regarding him closely.
"As Governor Kuzhak explained to Moff Hoziak here - because your Emperor has funded this enterprise right from the start. It was he who encouraged us to seek Queen Nerensai and her fleet, and the more Governor Kuzhak and I worked with him, the more we felt that Mantrusia would benefit from joining his New Order. It was just tragic that he died before the search achieved its objective."
This was the line that Kuzhak advised they take. In actual fact Palapatine had never mentioned the fleet. His primary concern was his physical deterioration.
"Yet your current leader doesn't quite share your enthusiasm?" Truin's thin lips stretched into what Tsarkoni assumed was a sly smile.
"Mantrusia has no single leader as such," he corrected, "more an elevated governor with the power of veto. The council oversee the running of the country, but like most situations where endless compromise is involved, it's highly inefficient."
"And you felt it was time for a change?"
"We know it's time for a change, and the enthusiasm of the people for a return to a more direct form of government has confirmed that." Two sets of eyes, green and watery grey, challenged each other across the desk. Finally Truin nodded, still with a faint smile of what may have been satisfaction, or simply amusement, on his lips.
"Hmm. I'm afraid I'm going to have to leave the discussion at this juncture, gentlemen." Moff Hoziak heaved himself to his feet suddenly. "But now you have the size of the Rebel force, Admiral, I'm sure you'll be able to decide on the appropriate vessels to send, so I'll leave it in your capable hands." He turned to Tsarkoni, tugging his grey jacket down over his distended belly. "After you and the admiral have finished, I hope you'll be able to join me at dinner." He nodded brusquely and departed.
Truin must have caught their visitor's confusion, for he moved a settle over and indicated for Tsarkoni to sit down. Truin seated himself in the Moff's chair, and Tsarkoni noted rather uncomfortably that he looked completely at home there.
"Dinner," he explained laconically, "is an important part of the Moff's daily routine."
"Ah," murmured the man in blue.
Truin held the sheet of flimsi in his long fingers, studying it curiously. "I get the impression from this that the Rebels are not really expecting serious trouble." He paused. "Which is good. Because as you probably realise, Mr Tsarkoni, the Imperial Military Command is in the habit of concentrating its newer vessels in the more habited central sectors. Our fleet is, I can assure you, an efficient unit, but our equipment is what I would call 'well-used'. On the strength of this information, plus our knowledge of the current Iicini'an fleet numbers, I would commit three of our dreadnoughts along with the normal combat complement of frigates and assault vessels."
He paused again, and fixed his shrewd green eyes back on Tsarkoni's face. "However, these are not the only vessels at your disposal."
"Our own resources are minimal, Admiral."
"I know. But I believe Queen Nerensai's are somewhat more impressive," and he withdrew a plastine document cover from a large pocket inside his cloak. "Moff Hoziak provided me with this just prior to your arrival. It's the copy your Governor Kuzhak provided with the specifications of Nerensai's fleet."
Tsarkoni hesitated. Kuzhak had always said that the most difficult part of their plan was the timing involved: using Hoziak's fleet as a stop-gap while waiting for Nerensai to provide them with access to hers. This required letting Hoziak believe that they were in possession of her fleet, while convincing him to send Imperial support for the takeover. Kuzhak had maintained that Hoziak would be relatively easy to deal with. Truin, however, looked as though he might be a little more difficult. Tsarkoni gazed at the wallet which he knew contained the list Kuzhak had copied from a document Ban had unearthed. It was a description by a pilot of a Tyroveran reconnaissance vessel of the Mantrusian ships as they closed in on Tyrovera.
"That's true, Admiral. But if we show the Rebels our full military capability too soon they'll have time to counter us. We won't need her fleet to take over Mantrusia - the place is ripe for the picking - and as long as yours is there we can cheerfully ignore any objections the Rebels might think of making. The likelihood of them attacking Mantrusia is laughably low, especially when it can be proven that the people welcome the takeover with open arms. When we strike out at Iicini'ia, Cuvor and the nearest independent planets, however, we intend to use her capacity to the full. Then once this sector is secure, we can begin the move against Pestage."
Truin glanced across the untidy desk speculatively. "What's this woman really like, Mr Tsarkoni? Was she worth the Emperor's while?"
"She has amazing abilities," he replied.
Truin rested his chin on his hands thoughtfully. "The rational side of me used to doubt such things, until one of my previous superiors displeased Lord Vader while helping him quash a rebellion on Geytokin." He screwed up his face. "It was not a pretty sight."
Tsarkoni nodded wryly, relieved that Truin hadn't questioned him further about Nerensai. Kuzhak had only allowed him in to see her the once, and Tsarkoni had been so nervous and overwhelmed by the power of the woman's presence, that he had been unable to make anything approaching a cool appraisal.
"So you have her fleet secure and well away from prying eyes?"
"Most definitely," lied Tsarkoni. Then in a fit of uncustomary inventiveness he added. "Of course this is also allowing our crews time to acquaint themselves with the idiosyncracies of the equipment." Masterly, he thought proudly.
Truin raised his eyebrows. "I see," he replied, and appeared to regard the desk for a moment before looking back up. "So what sort of time scheme are we looking at here. One: our fleet is to aid yours in securing Mantrusia, a process which I gather this queen will consolidate from within. Two: we all move immediately against Iicini'ia, destroying the Rebel fleet in the process. Then three: once Iicini'ia has succumbed, we add her military resources to our arsenal, and set out on a series of rapid strikes until all of Tarsus belongs to the Empire."
Tsarkoni nodded, feeling a sense of rising excitement. Kuzhak's tendency to live life on the edge was beginning to affect him too. "The more planets we take, the more firepower we'll have at our command, and Pestage will be unable to avoid acknowledging our achievement," he paused. "At which point Queen Nerensai will direct her considerable Force powers to hasten his demise."
"At which point," said Truin quietly, "we divide the spoils."
Tsarkoni jumped inwardly, but was reasonably confident that his forced outer calm remained undisturbed. "Considerable spoils," he grinned, hoping the show of discoloured teeth looked as sly as he intended it to. He fought the compulsion he had when nervous to fiddle with his belt buckle.
"A planet, a sector and an empire," the speculative green eyes studied him, glittering with perverse humour. "I wonder what Queen Nerensai expects for her involvement?"
"She is crucial to our success," Tsarkoni reminded him.
"Oh I agree. I'm just curious as to whether she will agree to assign reward according to effort, or if other factors might come in to play."
Tsarkoni regarded the man for a moment, uncertainly, head on one side. "That is something we have not as yet discussed in detail," he replied rather stiffly.
"Of course," Truin's eyes lost their gleam, but he seemed unphased by the rebuff. It was obvious to Tsarkoni that this young admiral was not only ambitious, he was unafraid to push his case. He must warn Kuzhak that dealing with the Imperials might not be as simple as he seemed to envisage.
"There are two more things we need from you," said the Mantrusian, keeping his tone business-like. "First, the I-M surveillance post is a thorn in our flesh, especially as we are soon going to be communicating with you frequently. We cannot be seen to be involved with anything underhand at this stage, and especially once the Rebels are here, so ... "
" ... so in order to keep your noses clean, you need us to do the dirty work."
"Is the post armed?"
"That we don't know, I'm afraid. But the team who operate the post use a Y Wing as transport, and that has the usual ion cannons and proton torpedos. We're not sure exactly where the station is, but it should be possible to attach a homing beacon to the Y Wing, if you can provide us with one of the newer models. I believe the older variety can be picked up as interference by the modern sub-space transceivers."
"Yes they can, but I'm sure we have plenty of the undetectable ones."
"Governor Kuzhak also suggests you use a disguised ship. The longer we can keep our doings in the dark, the better."
"Sounds like a simple enough operation," mused Truin, stroking his chin; then he stood up, adjusted his cloak and gazed down benignly at the lean man opposite. "I think it might be appropriate to stop at this point and take up Moff Hoziak's invitation to dinner, while there's still some left," he added significantly. "We can discuss the second matter later. But it sounds like this might provide the ideal chance to practise our timing for the main venture."
Tsarkoni followed him up the vast corridor, noting the alcoves containing various art works from the different worlds in the Circle, and the extensive landscaping outside the transparisteel walls which gave the visitor the impression he was walking through a paradise of exotic flowers and waterfalls. The soothing sights and sounds should have calmed him as before, but instead they now served to make him more aware of a sense of threat, a feeling exacerbated by Truin's appraising glances and secretive smile. The sheer audacity of Kuzhak's scheme, and the blatant callousness of the people they were dealing with, demonstrated here in the contrast between Imperial extravagance and the servitude they inflicted on those they had conquered, suddenly weighed down on Tsarkoni. He gazed down to find his nervous fingers seeking the reassuring cool metal of his belt buckle. He let them rest there until Truin opened a set of grand doors, and he found himself in the sumptuous elegance of the Moff's dining room. When he returned to Mantrusia, he would warn Kuzhak. The thought of returning warmed him considerably.
* * * * *
After Tsarkoni had retired for the night, Truin returned to his office in the Admiralty building, activated the security locks on his doors, and proceeded to key in the opening sequence on his private safe. He withdrew a grey box of tooled Tyroveran thak hide which he opened reverently, and carefully took out a tiny holocube. He pressed a dimple on one of its faces and the air above the translucent cube shimmered, the twinkling light patterns gradually forming themselves into a representation of a miniature fleet of ships. Truin gazed at the holograph studiously and then took the plastine wallet from his cloak, from which he extracted a document. He frowned as he read through the description, looking up every now and again to count the numbers of various types of ship. A reptilian smile spread slowly over his lips, and he nodded to himself.
"Interesting," he murmured. "But I think I prefer to believe Patal's estimation of his fleet capacity. I applaud your cheek Governor Kuzhak, although I think you might be playing rather a dangerous game."
He stared thoughtfully into the distance, and then chuckled knowingly. Yes, it was interesting all right, he thought, especially when you consider certain other little inaccuracies: Mr Tsarkoni, for instance, implying that Palpatine had been interested in the fleet from the start. Truin's own inside knowledge of the project suggested that Palpatine's initial interest in Nerensai was because of her longevity and restorative abilities, and although he could accept that the man was power hungry enough to have speculated about the legendary strength of her military resources, he knew it was his own information that had sparked Palpatine's more serious consideration on the subject.
It amused him somewhat to realise that Governor Kuzhak was probably playing a similar game as himself, and he wondered as to what his unwitting ally had been offered and had received in return for his services. For showing Palpatine the holocube and letting him make a copy of it, Truin had been rewarded with a vice admiralship. Initially, when he had learned where his post was to be held, he had felt angry and betrayed, the fact that he was powerless to object making it worse. The Circle was one of the border zones, from where those assigned seldom made it back to the more populous sectors.
After a year, however, the admiral had retired and Truin was dutifully advanced to take his place. His duties were far from onerous, and he had gradually adapted, and even begun to enjoy the position. He had realised a number of years before that his dreams far outstripped his capabilities, and although he felt the information he had given the Emperor deserved a greater return, he was practical enough to know that the post was more than he would have achieved by raw effort. After about five months into his service as admiral he had received a message from Palpatine, stating that the search for Nerensai was progressing well, and if his information about her fleet proved to be accurate, he could expect to receive further honours.
Palpatine's death at Endor had been a shock, and Truin had assumed the Nerensai project to have died with him. It had come as a complete surprise the previous day, therefore, when Moff Hoziak had briefed him about Kuzhak's co-operative project with Palpatine, his recent discovery of Queen Nerensai, and his plan to use the woman's power to remove Pestage. It was common knowledge in the Circle's military establishment that Hoziak was one of a growing group of Imperials who regarded Pestage as a usurper, an opinion with which Truin concurred. His brain was still whirling with the possibilities, but the main thought which kept returning was that he was being given another chance to realise the dreams invoked so many years before by the little box.
For the moment he had decided to play along with whatever Hoziak suggested, but this meeting with Tsarkoni had raised a number of questions which demanded careful consideration. One thing was obvious. Either Kuzhak was purposely exaggerating the size of Nerensai's fleet, or he hadn't as yet actually seen it; which in turn suggested two further possibilities: he hadn't found her, or he had found her, but she had her fleet in hiding. If she was as astute as Truin expected her to be, she would probably keep it hidden in order to keep Kuzhak in her thrall, in case he try to steal it from her. He carefully returned the cube and the box to its hiding place and left quietly, rechecking the security screens as he left. Tomorrow he would organise sending an observer to Mantrusia to keep an eye on Kuzhak. He would also organise a quick trip for himself to Cuvor. Maybe the Historical Research Centre held files which would be able to throw some definitive light on the size of Nerensai's fleet.
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