The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Eleven
By the time Kerensa arrived and parked her speeder in its allotted space it was only five minutes before their proposed assembly time. Silently she cursed Chitza, for typically he had managed to entangle himself in one of the nets she had placed over her kyeroa bushes to protect the ripening fruit from the greedy avians, especially Tutti and friends. Rather than lie quietly and await help, he had panicked and wound himself up so thoroughly that she had been forced to cut him free. By the time she had showered, dressed in her grey ultra-plain diplomatic shift and arranged her hair in the neat topnot that General Tavaala preferred, she had been so late that she had raced up the water course in record time. Pooh, pooh, Luke Skywalker and all this Force nonsense. That was pure skill.
The reason she had wanted to be early was because of Wedge. Yesterday she had received the impression that he was working himself around to asking if he could meet her for lunch, but as her diplomatic duties precluded it she had chosen to ignore the overture. Now she regretted it, and that surprised her. That and his humility. As the old saying she had quoted at Luke implied, the great leaders were the most selfless; but such virtue was in her experience seldom applicable to pilots. She had hoped to catch up with him in order to hint that she was interested, presuming he still was, of course. I just hope I haven't frightened him off! She bent down to adjust her long, diplomatic shift so the seams lay straight, and a large shadow loomed over her. Sithspawn, she thought, this is all I need.
"You're looking unusually docile this morning, Kerensa," the man said, grinning slyly. "Associating with Rebels seems to have a calming influence on you."
"Maybe it's because they know where to keep their hands," she retorted.
"I could elaborate on what they do with their hands, but I'll resist," the grin widened.
"Well you should know, Atanei, being a man with a firm grip on yourself."
"Very good. One up to you," he returned, leaning against the side of the old SoroSuub. "I must admit, it's the sparring I enjoy more than anything. It's very ... stimulating."
"Is there a point to this discussion, Atanei? Unlike you, I actually have some work to do today. And I'd appreciate it if you'd quit using my speeder as a prop."
"Touchy," he reprimanded.
"No, just selective," she said breezily, and went to set off towards the shuttle station. The man stretched out a muscular arm and took hers in a grip that was light but firm.
"Don't go off all hoity toity," he teased. "I came to apologize."
"What's the point? I won't be going out with you again. If I wanted to fight with a creature with six arms, I'd leap in the Great Equatorial Ocean." She shrugged her arm out from his tanned fingers, and brushed off her sleeve.
Atanei placed his hands on his narrow hips and gazed down at her, an irritated expression on his handsome face.
"And you can stop flexing your muscles. I could beat you in a hand-to-hand any day," she said shortly before he could come out with a suitable rejoinder.
He maintained his pose defiantly, nodding slowly, but his eyes lost their cocky expression. "OK, Kerensa, if that's the way you want it. But don't bother to look my way when these X Wing jocks leave. The truth is," he said confidentially, "you just don't know how to have a good time."
She glowered after him as he swaggered off, the temptation to play one of her old Force tricks on him almost too tantalizing to resist. Good time, my foot, she thought furiously, setting out across the hangar towards the shut-tle station. Become another notch on the bedpost, more like it! The truth of the matter was that she wasn't the slightest bit interested in X Wing, Y Wing or A Wing jocks, in fact she'd had a surfeit of all varieties of jock. If she hadn't noticed Atanei yesterday watching her surreptitiously while he was talking to one of the Rogue pilots nearby, she probably would have given Solo and Wedge the brush-off too. Two things made her bite her tongue: the prospect of getting one back at Atanei, and Wedge. It was obvious from his uncomfortable look that Solo had dragged him over, and the fact that he was so reluctant to approach her made him interesting. At last a man who didn't think he was some sort of irresistible god.
She had already begun the evasive maneuver when she heard a shout from above.
She grabbed the metal vent out of the air, glanced up and grinned. "I'd prefer credits next time please, I've already got plenty of these."
The brown-eyed pilot slid to the ground beside her, blushing, partly from the humidity but mainly from embarrassment.
"Sorry," he said. "I thought my R5 unit was there. I told him to stand beneath the starboard engine."
An indignant beep and warble issued from the other side of the X Wing. Wedge looked up at his fighter, and the blush deepened. "Oh," he muttered.
Kerensa laughed. "If you mount those things backwards, can you fly backwards too?"
Wedge chuckled weakly. The truth of the matter was that he had heard the old SoroSuub's arrival and had turned to try and catch sight of Kerensa. He had just been wondering about the significance of her long dress and deciding whether or not to try and talk with her again, when the cocky commander of I-M's elite A Wing Squadron, Captain Neekau, had appeared. He had been at Endor; Tycho, who had also flown an A Wing in the battle, remembered him. Neekau had in-troduced himself yesterday after Rogue Squadron's meeting with Admiral Ackbar. Well, perhaps 'introduced' wasn't quite the word; and now the scene he had just witnessed suggested an explanation. The body language between Neekau and Ker-ensa had made him decide to stay put, and he had been so preoccupied watching the contretemps, that obviously he had forgotten he was facing backwards and issued the wrong instruction to the droid.
"There have been times when I wished I could," he said. "You, er ... ," he waved a hand at her dress, "look very nice." He cringed. How pathetic can you be, he thought.
Kerensa glanced down at herself then back at Wedge. "Nice grey, isn't it?" she smiled cheekily.
He gazed back, the blush deepening even more. "Do you sometimes wish the floor would open up and swallow you whole?" he said.
"Depends where I'm standing at the time," she replied thoughtfully. "Where you are now I'd say you'd probably end up in General Tavaala's office, which would be OK because right now he's up here counting how many minutes late I am. You can come to the flogging if you like."
Wedge grinned, glanced quickly at his boots and then back up to her face. Now or never, he thought. And I just hope I've read the meaning of that exchange with Neekau right.
"Um. If you're in a fit state after that, would you ... like to have dinner?" He reeled the final phrase off as nonchalantly as he could, and then found he was holding his breath.
"I would," she said tentatively.
Wait for it, he thought. Now comes the but.
"But I put dinner on slow-cook at home before I left. How about you having dinner with me?"
Wedge thought he covered his surprise quite well, although he half bit his tongue when he closed his mouth to prevent it from gaping open. "Great," he affirmed, ignoring the smarting sensation in his tongue.
"I have a debriefing at 17.00, but it shouldn't take long. Meet about an hour later, by my speeder?"
"Sure," Wedge nodded vigorously as she backed away.
"Must go, see you later," she threw him a final smile and dashed off, disappearing between the rows of Rebel fighters.
"Interesting ploy," came Tycho's voice from the cab of the neighbouring vehicle. "I wonder what I'll catch if I throw my exhaust vent down." He glanced down just in time to catch Plourr's sarcastic glare.
"More than you can cope with," she grinned caustically.
"Sometimes being with you guys is decidedly claustrophobic," sighed Wedge.
"Well it won't be claustrophobic tonight by the sounds of it, more like intimate."
"Intimate?" interjected Wes as he appeared from behind Plourr, "who's being intimate?"
"I'll show you how you do it, Wes," called Tycho. "You pull off one of your exhaust vent face-plates and throw it down, like this." He let the piece of metal drop just as Chewie stepped from between his and the neighbouring vehicle. The Wookiee roared in pain and shook his fist up at the surprised pilot.
"No, Celchu," said Plourr, "that's intimidate. Has an extra id for idiot."
Wedge chuckled as he climbed back up on to his lower foil.
"Ow!" Tycho rubbed his jaw where the face-plate had hit him on its return trajectory. "It was an accident. Wes, tell him ... hey, take it easy!" The Wookiee banged his fists against the kills painted on the fuselage.
"I think he's saying that he'll kill you next time," Wes translated with infuriating calm.
Wedge heard Plourr's voice. "Celchu, throw another one ... please!" He grinned again and glanced down the aisle to where the old SoroSuub sat, then set about the tedious task of degunging his exhaust vents with rare cheerfulness.
Leia dutifully took her position between President Manalooa and Luke. General Tavaala and Admiral Ackbar stood a few steps back, as the military was regarded as less important in the welcoming protocol. Kerensa had explained the procedure during their trip in the shuttle, but even so Leia felt herself jump a little when the girl's clear voice rang out with the seloy zdratya, or opening greeting. After the prayer for peace, Elozhi's aide, a large, well-fed looking man with a baby-pink face, answered with what Kerensa had said would be an acknowledgment of their greeting and an account of Elozhi's genealogy. Leia studied the Chief carefully, aware that beside her Luke was doing the same. She wondered idly if she had assumed that, or if she knew because of the twin connection between them, a link no doubt enhanced by the Force.
Leia still found the knowledge of her background a hard pill to swallow, and when Kerensa had asked her for a brief outline of her ancestry, Leia had felt no hesitation in giving the girl the authorized version. She was Leia Organa, daughter of Bail Organa, and a child of the Royal House of Alderaan. She noticed that Luke had also avoided the connection with Vader, and after some discussion with Kerensa on what was appropriate for such occasions, the two had agreed to emphasize Luke's Jedi inheritance. She also sensed a faint tension between Luke and Kerensa, and she made a mental note to ask him about that, too. Not that she had had many opportunities to talk to Luke lately. He did seem to be more relaxed than before they left for Iicini'ia, but he was still keeping to himself, choosing to go off on expeditions of his own rather than joining in with those of the others.
Chief Elozhi and his aide had moved into the centre of the chamber while Kerensa presented first Leia and Luke, then Manalooa and the two military men. From the place references which remained untranslated into Mantrusian, Leia understood that Ackbar was being presented in terms of his military achievements. Hearing them recounted with such formality made her realize afresh just how far the Alliance had come, and how determined she was to prevent the galaxy from sliding into the complacency which had allowed Palpatine to assume control. With Palpatine dead and the threat of Bakura fading into memory, that was a danger, as was the look of pompousness and condescension on Elozhi's face. This was exactly the type of unguarded self-satisfaction that had allowed the Empire to gain a hold in a number of regimes.
"Nat skuchno sri, nat skuchno srati, nat skuchno n'mirz," the aide intoned, and Leia followed Manalooa's lead and bowed her head in response. Kerensa stepped up beside Chief Elozhi, her diminutive form making him appear massive by comparison. She led him to a carved bench in the semi-circular conference area at the far end of the room. The transparisteel wall was screened to prevent glare, and the shimmering patterns of blue sea and silver light promoted an atmosphere of quietude. The heat of the marma had already induced a fine film of perspiration on the old man's face and bald head, so Kerensa filled a goblet of water for him from a blue stone jug.
"I'm glad we can have this meeting, Excellency," began Manalooa once everyone was seated. "It allows you to meet at last with our new allies, as well as pursue some of the concerns we discussed six weeks ago."
Elozhi listened with his head on one side as Kerensa provided him with the translation, and nodded graciously before offering her his reply.
"I am honoured to meet your esteemed political colleagues, President, but I am a little confused to hear you refer to them as allies. Surely they are your superiors and protectors?"
"The Alliance does not operate on those lines," Manalooa corrected him. "Worlds retain their autonomy. The Alliance is more of a confederation united by entente and common commitment to freedom."
While Kerensa translated, Chief Elozhi gazed at Manalooa sagely, his paternal expression suggesting he had heard it all before. No wonder this Kuzhak has been able to involve himself so easily with Imperials, Leia thought. Elozhi would have been so busy gazing benignly into the distance and being aloof, that anyone could have smuggled in a whole army of stormtroopers right under his regal nose.
"One of the advantages for us in joining the Alliance is the military co-operation. Emperor Palpatine, as you know, deprived us of the bulk of our defence force," said Manalooa.
Elozhi considered Kerensa's translation for a moment.
"Mantrusia has always maintained a policy of non-alignment, one of the advantages being that we avoid such questions of ownership. What is ours may be less than we would wish, but it is unmistakably ours," he replied proudly.
Leia felt her cheeks begin to flush as pink as his, and she exchanged a mutual rolling of eyes with Luke.
"Well, I'm pleased to say that we now have a vastly improved fleet, and in return for providing our friends here with a suitable venue for shore leave and vessel maintenance, they have agreed to offer their services in some simulated battles to test our skill levels." The President waited for Kerensa to finish before continuing. "When we last spoke, Excellency, I expressed concern about the involvement of known Imperials in various enterprises on Mantrusia."
"And I explained that there are a large number of private companies who have trading agreements on Imperial planets. I still feel, President, that your unhappy experience with the Empire has made you over-sensitive."
Manalooa paused, planning his response carefully. "I would accept your analysis on the basis of our previous discussion, for I realize that I offered you no substantive proof. This time, however, I would like to provide more detailed information, for my colleagues here assure me that they perceive a real threat in the current situation on your world."
For the first time Elozhi looked discomfitted. "I presume you mean the unrest?"
"The people's behaviour is perplexing, but I fail to see how it can be connected with the Imperial activity you speak of."
"Excellency," said Ackbar gravely, sitting upright in his seat, "one of the Imperials' favourite ploys is to work from within to destabilize a government, and then simply take it over."
"But Admiral, Mantrusia is so small, and we are no great power." Elozhi continued shaking his head while Kerensa translated his words.
"But you were once," said Manalooa quietly. "And to whose era do your people think they want to return?"
"Nerensai was a most unusual woman, with amazing powers. I too find the civil strife disturbing, but it is explicable if you understand Mantrusian history and the Mantrusian psyche." The pompousness had returned to Elozhi's expression.
"May we offer you some facts to back up our case?"
Leia turned to Luke and saw him studying the old man curiously. Elozhi's flabby lips tightened and he glared at General Tavaala as he spoke. "It still disturbs me to think you have been prying into Mantrusian affairs."
"Not Mantrusian affairs, Excellency," replied Tavaala calmly, "more the affairs of one particular man."
A glimmer of confusion shone on Elozhi's blue eyes, and the skin on his forehead furrowed upwards, puckering the pink flesh on his bald pate. Manalooa and Tavaala had chosen up until now to refrain from implicating Kuzhak directly in their discussions with Elozhi. This was mainly because there was no explicit evidence connecting him with the transmissions: not once had his name, or Ban's or Hoziak's, been mentioned in a single recorded message. Also Tavaala had wished to avoid announcing his suspicions too soon, in case Elozhi decided to question Kuzhak directly. This might make him become more secretive, or worse, act before the Iicini'ians had help at hand.
Before Kerensa could utter the one word equivalent in Basic, Tavaala had begun his reply. "Governor Vadeem Kuzhak of Bakhunia Province."
The questioning furrows on Elozhi's forehead rippled downward into a frown. "Governor Kuzhak is one of the most efficient governors we have. Bakhunia is the most populous, and historically the most contrary of all the provinces. He manages it well." His brow cleared. "I really think, General, that your people are seeing mountains where there are only dutzi mounds."
"May I ask, Excellency, when the unrest began?" Leia asked, leaning her slim form forward in her seat.
The old man nodded at her as Kerensa transposed her question.
"May I say what a pleasure it is to meet such youth and beauty. And may I express my great sympathy at the destruction of your world: such art, such wonderful music to be destroyed is terrible, but for millions to suffer is too much to comprehend."
"Thank you," she replied, at the same time feeling tempted to point out that some of the instigators of the deed were alive and well, and still active in places like Mantrusia. She caught Kerensa's eye and could have sworn the girl half winked at her. The trip in the shuttle hadn't afforded them time to discuss anything other than the protocol requirements, but she had been able to confirm her original impression that Kerensa had inherited her father's shrewdness.
"In reply to your question, Princess, the unrest is a recent problem."
"Did it start before Palpatine's death, or after?"
"Definitely after." Elozhi gazed at her quizzically. "Surely you don't think the two are connected?"
"Not in the sense of cause and effect. But I believe that Palpatine was interested in your world, for he did attempt to approach you."
"That is correct," agreed the big man, and a stubborn look crept into his eyes. "But I refused to see him."
"Well, it seems he spoke to someone, because he sent one of his researchers to your planet several times, and while there he resided at the Governor's residence." She waited while Kerensa translated before continuing. "This man, Professor Syen Ban, was the head of a group whose job it was to investigate instances of the paranormal. Palpatine had a special interest in the subject."
"I have met the professor," said Elozhi hesitantly, "when he gave me a tour of the excavation of Nerensai's palace. But he is on the staff of the Encyclopaedia Galactica. In fact he sent me a copy of the entry he wrote."
"Kuzhak's covered his tracks well," muttered Tavaala to Ackbar.
"Chief Elozhi," said Luke gazing into the old man's face. "Can you recall what he said in the article?"
"N? ste punami, davidi vre t'arinyiva," came Kerensa's interpretation.
Chief Elozhi's eyes focused on a point in the distance while he thought. "It had a strong anthropological bias," he said finally. "Very much an account of customs of the time based on the features of the palace, and the various artifacts discovered."
"There was no mention of Nerensai's powers?" asked Luke.
"There was little mention of her at all. The emphasis was on the palace as time capsule."
"Rather curious from a man whose job was the study of the paranormal," said Luke provocatively.
"Perhaps Professor Ban is not whom you think," suggested Elozhi.
"No," said Leia firmly, "General Tavaala has shown me holographs of the man. I remember seeing him in Palpatine's company. There is no mistake."
Elozhi placed both pudgy hands on the table, a huge amber and black ring caught the sunlight making the stone glitter like a sinister eye.
"It appears then that the Emperor may have sent this man to Mantrusia. But I find it impossible to implicate Governor Kuzhak. It seems plausible that this professor is acting without the governor's knowledge, possibly abusing his hospitality." There was another pause while Elozhi's words were translated.
"Governor Kuzhak was one of the first to suffer at the hands of the cultists, his palace was damaged and covered in painted slogans, and members of his staff were stoned. His aide informed me that he and the governor were lucky to escape unharmed."
Luke and Leia exchanged cryptic glances.
"Someone in Bakunia has been in regular contact with Coruscant, but since the Emperor's death they have been communicating with Hocqyellen," said Tavaala.
"To which I reply with my previous observation: Mantrusia deals constantly with a number of Imperial planets. And most of the larger companies have their headquarters in Bakhunia."
"Yet it is rather coincidental, don't you think?" Leia knew she was perilously close to over-stepping the mark, but Elozhi's intransigence was beginning to irritate her.
Elozhi gazed at her in surprise, but he licked his lips, and considered her statement for a moment.
"If you are to point the finger at Governor Kuzhak, Princess, you must have irrefutable evidence. Can General Tavaala state unequivocally from where in Bakhunia the transmissions are coming? Is he absolutely positive they were going to Coruscant? I'm no expert on sub-space technology, but surely another planet on the same vector as Coruscant could just as equally be the destination."
He paused while Kerensa conveyed his argument. Leia noticed the girl's dark eyes growing almost black, but her tone remained neutral. She was impressed at Kerensa's cool professionalism, but she could also see a passionate streak, and she couldn't help warming to the girl.
"And what is the content of these messages?" he asked.
"They are heavily encrypted." Tavaala decided not to add 'with company information' as that would have backed up Elozhi's opinion. "They indicate payouts and supplies of equipment."
"That would make sense. Mantrusia is mainly a primary producer and has to purchase most of its machinery," Elozhi's thick lips curved up in satisfied smile.
"I'm sorry, Excellency, but when you combine the sequence of transmissions with our observations of Governor Kuzhak's involvement with Ban, and his trips off system it paints a definite picture of suspicion," said Manalooa.
"Not to me," Elozhi stated firmly.
Manalooa sighed and nodded, gazing at the Chief coolly. "And now you have this unrest," he said quietly.
"I made the point just a moment ago that our economy is based on primary production. Since the death of the Emperor, the ensuing political confusion has affected the main markets and caused a period of retrenchment. Our export figures plunged quite drastically and a number of companies have been forced to lay off workers. It's a case of idle minds I'm afraid, President, to which can be added the typical Mantrusian tendency to look to the past."
He pulled himself upright as Kerensa conveyed his words, as if trying to loom over the meeting.
"I do understand your concern. We are all, after all, products of our various histories. But I've set some processes in motion to control Mantrusia's civil problem," he said grandly. "I think you'll find that your suspicions of Imperial provocation are unfounded."
Manalooa gazed at him levelly, but his lips formed a tight line. "Should your processes fail, Excellency, I offer you the use of our military resources. But I strongly advise you to take our suspicions about Governor Kuzhak seriously."
"I accept your offer of aid, President, but I think you will find that our next meeting will see the status quo returned."
"I sincerely hope so, Excellency."
There was an awkward silence after the translation of Manalooa's finishing statement, filled with various non-verbal interchanges which would have warmed the heart of any student of body language. Manalooa glowered at Elozhi, his bristling grey eyebrows somehow conveying the intensity of his contained frustration. Tavaala half-turned to Ackbar who had bowed his head dolefully and seemed to be shaking it in disbelief. Leia stared fixedly at Elozhi, her cheeks rigid because of the clenched teeth inside them. Luke was staring at the old man too, his eyes half closed in concentration.
Kerensa glanced at Elozhi's aide, eyebrows raised, and received an answering nod. She rose gracefully to her feet and held up her hand over the group. "Tordzye sri, tordzye srati, tordzye n'mirz," she chanted. "Chastenya," and she ran her hand diagonally over heart, followed immediately by Elozhi and his companion.
"Chastenya," repeated Manalooa and Tavaala, dourly.
The Iicini'ians rose and waited while their two Mantrusian visitors did the same, albeit more slowly. The rustling of their ample linen tunics and pleated pants failed to quite cover the cracking of stiff limbs, which was accentuated by the cold silence of the chamber. Leia, Luke and Admiral Ackbar quickly followed suit, and Elozhi bowed to them graciously, then walked with Kerensa sedately out of the room.
"What's your reading of Chief Elozhi?" General Tavaala asked Luke curiously.
Luke frowned thoughtfully. "He was genuinely surprised at your accusation of Kuzhak," he replied slowly, "but there's a lot of pride there, and I sense, at least I think I sense, hurt."
"What, hurt that we're poking our noses in?" Manalooa asked wryly.
"No," said Luke distantly. "It's more personal: as if he feels he's been let down. It came through strongly when he mentioned about the behaviour of the people being perplexing. I think he sees it as an insult, and a lack of gratitude on their part."
"Interesting," muttered Ackbar. "This inability to look beyond self."
"It's a very insular society," Manalooa informed him, "always has been. It's stuck in a time warp. We'll just have to hope that Elozhi mulls this over and maybe makes some connections."
"I wonder what he meant by 'processes to control the unrest'," Tavaala sounded uneasy.
"I was afraid to ask," said Manalooa. "My self-control was on overload. I think I could do with some lessons from the young Jedi here."
Luke smiled self-consciously. "It doesn't always come easily," he smiled wryly.
"What's your feeling about Elozhi?" Leia asked Kerensa quietly as they remounted the hatchway into the shuttle.
"He needs to get out and walk amongst the people. If he did, he would recognize the evil that's there."
Kerensa shrugged. "I can't explain it, but you can sense it. It's like there's a dark shadow lurking somewhere, waiting to extend its influence. Mantrusians tend to be superstitious and a bit light-fingered and lazy, but they're also open and friendly. Recently though I've noticed that there's a growing section of the population, in the city anyway, who are nothing more than out and out crims. They'd probably stab you in the back as soon as look at you. If he saw this he would come down off that lofty pedestal and do something to stop it."
"Have you ever met this Kuzhak?" asked Luke, who was walking behind them.
Kerensa shook her head. "Nor do I want to," she said grimly.
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