The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Fourteen
Iella

Chief Elozhi nodded to the gathered members of the Mantrusian Council of Governors and settled himself on the upright chair at the head of the table.

"I'm glad that you were all able to attend at such short notice, gentlemen," he began. "But as you realise, the situation in Mantrusia is becoming more untenable every day and I have decided that the time has come for us to be proactive rather than reactive." He turned to a thin, fair-haired man to his left. "Are you going to be comfortable with that leg, Governor Thand? Or can we provide you with a chair to rest it on?"

The man shifted awkwardly, and Kuzhak gazed across rather disinterestedly at the duraplast sheath around Thand's thigh.

"No, no," said Thand, "but next time my palace is attacked I'll know to make a rapid exit out the back. Trying to reason with the crowd is obviously dangerous for your health."

"Once they have worked themselves up to a frenzy, yes," agreed Elozhi. "However, if we were to control the circumstances of their coming together, I think it would be possible to reason with them."

"I don't know," rumbled a bulky man with a large red nose, "shouldn't we be trying to prevent them getting together? I was going to suggest we invoke the old penalties against illegal assembly."

"Oh, I agree, it is imperative we take steps to prevent further incidents such as Governor Thand experienced. And Governor Kuzhak, I believe you too were besieged in similar circumstances."

"Yes, your excellency," Kuzhak rubbed his chin, his wide blue eyes perplexed. "We've been having problems in Southside, as you've seen on the holonews. Usually the crime syndicates pretty much cancel each other out, but now they seem to be uniting. The other day it was ... well, it was very frightening I can assure you."

Elozhi studied the face of his youngest governor. Were the Iicini'ians correct in their suspicions about this man? He had spent the previous evening revising the governor's past behaviour, and, other than the young man's well-known predilection for beautiful women, had found nothing sinister. What seemed to be counting against him was his self-confessed fascination with unusual business ventures, which meant that he was in regular communication with a number of different planets.

"That's the thing that concerns me," said Thand, "the way all the factions are uniting. In the past, Garnitz has had the odd group of malcontents: the miners, the Protectors of the Forest, the Society for Home Rule. But now all I hear everywhere I go are calls for world monarchy, and more often than not, it's this Nerensai who's being touted as future queen. It's bizarre."

"What does the Home Rule group think about that?" asked the red-nosed one wryly.

"Their leader is one of the most vociferous. He was raving on about the glories of the age of monarchs last week in the local holobulletin. Anyone would think it was all his idea. Unfortunately, he's such a persuasive speaker, people are prepared to accept his change in agenda without question."

"I had the Secheniz Miners' Guild telling me how they were one of the privileged groups in the good old days," said a short dark man with a bristling moustache, "in other words suggesting that I should be privileging them now." He turned to Kuzhak curiously. "How're your miners? Have they gone all militant too?"

"No," replied Kuzhak, who had been listening to Thand with a speculative gleam in his eye, "but there again, most of them know they're lucky to have work. And that northern Secheniz ice and snow isn't exactly conducive to massed rallies."

The dark man chuckled, and smoothed his moustache fastidiously.

"You have a mining venture, Governor?" asked Chief Elozhi with interest.

"Yes, Excellency," he replied with enthusiasm. "Most interesting. A gem buyer on Hocqyellen told me how years ago he had some dealings with one of the smuggler groups in Tarsus. Apparently they used to have a hideout up there, and when they were digging out one of the caverns to extend it they hit a vein of sapphite. He said they reckoned it ran through that entire northern mountain chain, because apparently they found a similar vein in another abandoned den. The Empire's clampdown on smuggling dried up the market, but also increased the demand."

"So you and the buyer formed a company to look for it?" finished Thand.

Kuzhak raised his hands and shrugged innocently. Elozhi relaxed back into his seat. I wish that pesky General Tavaala was here so I could say I told you so, he thought.

Thand rolled his eyes humorously. "You and your business ventures, Vadeem."

"Well, Kardoc is a partner as well," he waved his hand airily towards the moustachioed Secheniz governor.

"Ah yes, but my only risk was granting the mining rights," the man boasted.

"And soon I hope to surprise him with the fruits of our efforts," the younger man nodded smilingly. Then his smile faded. "But in relation to the discussion about trouble - my main problem groups are the students and the unemployed. I wish I had more enterprises like the Secheniz mine to get a few work schemes going."

"These are the sorts of things I think we need to talk about," said Elozhi nodding his approval. "Work schemes to keep the idle minds busy, curfews. We may have to consider martial law."

"If it gets any worse I don't think we'll have any choice," said a nondescript man wearing the distinctive silver orchid earring of Vosk Province. "I've been reading up about this Nerensai woman, and I think she was a complete and utter nutter. Some of the things she did ... well, put it this way, if the people knew the facts rather than their own fancies maybe they'd think twice about referring to her age as glorious."

"Well this is the problem we're faced with isn't it?" said the Secheniz governor. "They're all caught up with this monarchy thing, and Nerensai is just an appropriate symbol. They don't really know what they want, they just want everything different from what it is."

"Well curfews and martial law would certainly provide an interesting change. I'm for the idea," stated Kuzhak firmly, nodding at Chief Elozhi.

"I also feel that we need to remind the people about their heritage. As you say, Governor Bremp, the people have no comprehension of Nerensai's rule. They have been free for so long they have forgotten the privileges of freedom. I have devised a spectacle in which we remind them of these privileges, and present a few of the facts about the past."

"A holo-presentation, you mean," said Bremp uneasily.

"No no, governor. A pageant, with morality plays and live friezes showcasing Mantrusia's history, like we had at the Jubilee ten years ago. It will be a celebration of the present. We will, of course, broadcast it planet-wide. In fact I am considering setting up giant projectors in each of the main cities."

There was a stony silence.

"I, er, really don't think that's a good idea, Excellency," said Thand hesitantly. "The one thing we want to avoid is bringing people together."

"I disagree, Governor. Under the conditions I am suggesting, in other words carefully controlled venues with a strong military presence, I believe it will work. The people need a lesson, and history has shown that they respond to a firm hand."

"Hence their fascination with monarchs," growled the bulky man.

"If we show them a firm monarchical hand for a while, maybe they'll lose their taste for it," wheezed the governor of Azand Province.

"Yes," Governor Yenul rubbed his nose irritatedly, making it glow even redder. "Then they can organise some rallies to return to democracy."

Bremp snorted sarcastically. "They will too, fickle lot."

The chamber was silent for a moment, except for the rustles of governors fidgetting or thoughtfully stroking chins, noses and moustaches.

"Well, we could give it a try," murmured Thand resignedly. "I guess with a few days of curfew and control beforehand, things might just quieten down enough to make people willing to listen."

"I agree," said Kuzhak firmly. "And I'd like to suggest we start moving constables from the smaller towns to the main centres now, so they're familiar with any problem areas, and can act as back-up to the army if it proves necessary." The more massed transports there are, the less obvious my transferral of troublemakers will be. This plan of Elozhi's, although a surprise, was already beginning to evoke a number of tantalising possibilities, not the least of which was the realization that it would be the ideal occasion for Nerensai's first appearance. He turned to Elozhi with a worried look on his face. "Are you planning to have the pageant in the Capitol?"

"Definitely," the big man replied.

"Excellency, I strongly advise you to ship in some reinforcements for the Guard."

Elozhi shook his head, his chins wobbled stubbornly. "I appreciate your concern, Governor Kuzhak, but the Guard are more than capable of controlling the rabble element."

"I don't know, Excellency, they haven't had much practice at this sort of thing."

"No, Governor. I do agree, however, with your suggestion to reinforce the urban constabularies. We must aim at a policy of local containment, beginning tomorrow with the establishment of the curfew and the threat of martial law if the unrest continues. Are we agreed on this?"

There was a solemn nodding of heads around the table.

"I intend to make a special appearance on M-Holo One in place of their breakfast news programme. after which we will insert a segment in which each of you appear to reinforce your specific instructions to your provinces. No-one will be in any doubt that we mean to deal with further unrest very seriously."

"We're going to need plenty of time to distribute our troops," said Governor Yenul. "Since the Targhush Transporters' Union went on a go-slow we've been having major distribution problems."

"Now we are agreed on this, I will inform General Yades to begin mobilising the forces to control the pageant, and preparing the militia should we decide to impose martial law. I want to hold the pageant in five days time, short notice I realise, but I have chosen this time for two reasons: one, it is exactly one thousand years to the day since the Battle of Mantrusia, and Nerensai's defeat; and two, it is too short a time for any trouble-makers to become too organised."

Elozhi pursed his chubby lips and gazed around stubbornly at the other governors. Some still looked hesitant. "The organizer of the Jubilee has informed me that we still have a number of the props and costumes from the historical items from that event, and some of the scripts, in storage at the Theatre of Mantrusia. The Actors' Guild are willing to put in a full-on effort to have these items ready. Plus, I have the theatre director coming here this afternoon so we can co-ordinate it and add a final scene which reinforces the advantages of the current system. The organiser is also going to approach a few of the villages who contributed cultural displays ten years ago, and invite them to do so again."

"Let us pray for the success of this venture," murmured Thand running his right hand diagonally over his heart. "For if this fails we may all be facing complete and utter chaos."

The others around the table repeated his gesture.

"Have faith, gentlemen," said Kuzhak folding his arms and gazing around with an expression of youthful optimism. "I'm certain things will work out in Mantrusia for the greatest good."

* * * * *

"I haven't been to the beach for ages," said Kerensa, "so I hope it's still the same. But when I did last come here, this beach was nice and peaceful. No crowds like on the others." She turned to Wedge suddenly uncertain. "Unless you prefer crowds?"

He shook his head. "Peaceful sounds good to me."

"You're definitely not the argumentative type are you?"

"Not in this heat," he grinned.

She laughed and guided the old SoroSuub up the dunes until the horizon burst into view, a line carefully etched as if by some great artistic hand, which separated azure sea from haze-blue sky. To their right, beyond a promontory of buff cliffs, stretched a long undulation of rust-coloured sand decorated with clusters of jaunty beach bubbles. The scene resembled one of the Corellian artist Goozli's famous surreal holographs, which Wedge remembered an art appreciation teacher trying to explain to him once. Wedge's preferences had always remained firmly entrenched in the real, but suddenly he saw what Goozli had been trying to capture: the hidden pattern in any random scattering, the orderliness of the disorderly. The amusing thought came to him that Kerensa's influence was turning him into an aesthete.

The speeder settled in a niche between two sandhills, under the shade of a broadleafed kooli palm. Below them the waves curled on to a wide crescent of empty sand.

"This beach is a bit dangerous for swimming because of the rips," she explained, jumping down from the cab.

"Do you want to take this or leave it here?" Wedge indicated the insulplast basket of food she had packed.

Kerensa shook her head. "Leave it here where it's cool, unless you want to eat now?"

Wedge jumped down to join her. "No. Wow, sand! I haven't felt sand for ages."

"Take your shoes off," she said, pulling off her own and throwing them back in the speeder. "It's almost sacrilege to walk on the sand in shoes."

Wedge chuckled. "Well," he said following her example, "I guess we'd better not offend the gods."

She took a few steps towards the beach and then turned back. "Last one to get their feet wet buys the icies!" and suddenly she was off like tracer from an ion cannon, giggling as she flew over the sand.

"Unfair contest," he protested when he caught up with her as she paddled at the water's edge. "You had a head start."

"Come on Mr Aeroball Player, since when do games have to be fair."

"Good point," he acknowledged, and as the next wave rolled in he reached down and splashed her, leaping out quickly before she could retaliate.

She laughed. "You can come back in. I won't splash you back."

"Promise?"

She nodded innocently. He regarded her circumspectly, and then stepped back beside her. Deftly she dipped her hat in the water, scooped it up and dumped it on Wedge's head.

"I only promised not to splash your back," she chuckled, and gasped as a wave of Wedge-directed water hit her in the face.

"You know you're the cheekiest girl I've ever known," he laughed, swinging to avoid a retaliatory wave.

"I thought rogues liked cheeky girls."

Wedge took off the hat and scooped it full of water again, grinning meaningfully. Kerensa squealed and took off, but an incoming wave slowed her progress. Wedge, not expecting to catch her so quickly, grabbed her arm, but his momentum pushed her over, and they fell together on the sand as the wave pulled back leaving its foamy watermark.

"We seem to have a propensity for getting wet," said Kerensa.

"Yeah, we do don't we," he murmured, feeling a warm wave rising within him.

She reached up and pushed his wet hair off his forehead. "You know, I don't know what the sea's like on Corellia, but here every eighth wave ... ," there was a woosh, and a wall of water broke over them, "... is extraordinarily large," she finished gasping.

Wedge rolled over and lay on his back spluttering with both laughter and an excess of sea salt. "Funny," he said when he was finally able to sit up. "Somehow I should have been able to predict that something like that would happen."

"You must have been born in a water year."

"Ah, so it's my fault is it?"

"Well, it can't be mine," she took her hat and shook it vigorously. "I'm fire."

Wedge chuckled. "Now why does that not surprise me?"

"Now who's the cheeky one?" She plopped her hat back on her glistening ringlets and began walking along the tide line. "Ah well, it's still hot, so we'll soon dry out."

Wedge reached out tentatively and took her hand. She glanced up at him and smiled, and in response to her encouraging squeeze he grasped it firmly, intertwining his fingers with hers.

"There's something calming about the sea," she bent down and picked up a whurli shell, the discarded home of one of Iicini'ia's native crustaceans. "Do you get shells like this on Corellia?"

He nodded. "There are some," he replied, "that are about three times that size. They belong to a giant mollusc, fairly rare now I believe, found on the Cirrillian Islands. The islanders use them as instruments, and they make this sort of mournful sound." He stopped.

Kerensa looked up and saw his distant gaze. "You miss Corellia." It was not a question. He glanced down at her quickly, and she noticed a tinge of sadness in his brown eyes.

"Yeah, I guess I do sometimes."

"Well, it was your home, your roots. The Mantrusians call it chtan fanechdac - the land in the people. Which is a bit crazy I suppose because they're not natives of the land themselves, they were transported there from somewhere else."

"What, you mean sent there as colonists?"

"I'm not too sure really. There are several theories as to where they came from. Some say from an ancient civilization; my grandfather always reckoned they were from another galaxy, but I think he only said that to annoy my grandmother."

Wedge chuckled. If Kerensa's grandmother was anything like her, he could understand the man's sentiments.

"Were you born in Mantrusia?"

"No, but mackshi was. Her family were with the circus originally."

"The circus! Now that's something different." Now she mentioned it, he remembered seeing the Great Mantrusian Circus once in a children's holovid. The animal acts were incredible.

"Yes. She left though when she was quite young. She was bright, you see, and the family sent her to stay with some relations in Bakhunia - that's the provincial capital - so she could study medicine. That's how she met my grandfather. He was visiting the University for some student symposium, and they fell madly in love; the family objected, so they eloped and came back here." She glanced up curiously. "Why did you leave Corellia?"

Wedge paused. The past was not something he could discuss readily. Kerensa noticed his hesitation, and the tightening of his cheek muscles.

"I'm sorry," she said softly, "I didn't mean to stir up unpleasant memories."

"It's OK," he slid his arm around her waist, remembering Luke explaining that Kerensa's role as translator had been inherited from her father, who had been killed. No doubt she had had her share of sorrow.

The beach ended in a rocky cliff. Wedge followed Kerensa as she climbed to a sheltered vantage point, and sat beside her.

"Isn't this view fantastic?" she said contentedly, waving her arm to encompass the immense patchwork quilt of the sea which lay at their feet. "There's a famous poet, from Chad I think, who used to write about the sea. He said in one poem - I forget the exact words - that looking at the ocean makes him feel enlarged and diminished," she paused. "Enlarged and diminished. I know just what he means.

"Yeah," mused Wedge. "I know the poem you mean. I always thought I'd get the same feeling in space, but I don't." He shrugged. "I guess the sea has a romance about it that space doesn't."

"Maybe that's because space, for you, has always meant fighting."

He nodded slowly. "Could be."

"When I die, I'd like to have my ashes sprinkled over the sea," she murmured, almost to herself.

"Come on. It's a bit early in the day to be thinking about death!"

She turned to him, her eyes shadowed under the wide brim of her hat, giving them the appearance of polished jet. "You must think about it, when you're up there."

Wedge grinned wryly. "I try to concentrate on the other guy's rather than mine."

She turned back to the ocean; the movement made the earring she wore swing vigorously. Sitting as close as he was, Wedge noticed its considerable detail for the first time. He reached out and tilted it up to the sunlight.

"That's rather beautiful," he said. "Is it some kind of token?"

"Mmm. It's the emblem of the old Royal House of Bakhunia. Way, way back in history each of the Royal Houses had its own emblem, and every child was given the appropriate earring on their naming day. Even though the Houses are long gone, the tradition remains. My father clung strongly to his Mantrusian ancestry, even though he was born here, and he insisted that my brother and I had one."

"It's jade isn't it?"

"Yes, with the curling frond of the young radyech fern on it. It's meant to represent hope, aspiration and continuance." She sounded a little distracted, and he wondered if his proximity had the same effect on her as hers did on him. Although not intending to test his theory directly, he found himself drawn, when he released the earring, to let his fingers trace the graceful line of her neck. She turned and looked up at him, and a tendril of copper hair blew across her cheek. He bent towards her, but she placed a finger gently over his mouth to prevent its contact with hers. He stopped in surprise.

"Wedge," she said quietly. "It's not that I don't want you to kiss me, because I do. But I think you need to know something about me before we take this friendship any further."

"Don't tell me. You've got a two-metre tall, 150 kilogram husband, and he's on his way here now," he replied, feeling a little embarrassed at the rebuff, but aware of the serious expression in her eyes.

A faint smile touched her lips, and she shook her head. "No, nothing as simple as that I'm afraid."

"You call that simple?"

"Well, it is compared to my problem. I ...," she stopped and looked at him helplessly. "I, um, guess I'm trying to say that ... well ..." The helplessness turned into hopelessness, and she sighed. "The problem is ... I'm not a proper Jedi like Luke or anything, but I can use the Force. Have used it that is."

Wedge gazed at her for some time, unable to think of a suitable response.

"I haven't told anybody this before," she continued, her voice low as if she feared the wind would spread her secret. "But Luke figured it out, and although I swore him to secrecy, I guess the thought of him knowing more about me than you makes me uneasy. I'm sorry," she raised her dark eyes to his again, "I didn't mean to ruin the moment, but I felt you had to know."

The copper tendril had blown back on to her cheek. Wedge smoothed it away again, and slipped his hand down to rest lightly on her shoulder. "I'm kind of getting used to people with weird powers," he smiled.

"Well, I don't want to have weird powers, but you don't seem to get much choice in these matters. However, I don't use the Force now. I stopped using it some time ago."

"Why?" Wedge found her attitude perplexing. It seemed to him that it would be a great boon to have such a power at your fingertips.

Kerensa chewed her lip nervously and gazed down. For a moment he thought she wasn't going to provide an answer, but eventually she glanced up at him again.

"Because I used it for selfish reasons, against my friends and family to get my own way. And when you use the Force badly then you're using what they call the Dark Side, and that's dangerous: that's what Vader and Palpatine did. But the problem with the Force is that even when you don't actively use it, it still affects you. I see things sometimes, and feel things that other people don't. I guess I just don't want you to think I'm strange or anything."

"Well, if you're strange, Luke's a madman," he said reassuringly.

"Luke's a very good man, and I wasn't very nice to him. But I know my own limitations, and the further the Force and I stay apart the better."

"Luke's very aware of his responsibility as a restorer of the Jedi."

"He's very persistent about it, too."

"I'm afraid persistence is what you might call a general Rebel failing."

"Oh?" She gazed at him a little surprised as he removed her hat. Then he bent down and placed his mouth on hers where it stayed for some time.

"I wouldn't exactly regard it as a failing," she said finally.

"You know the really amazing thing about that?"

Kerensa shook her head.

"No animals - no water," Wedge held up his hands in amazement. "Every time I've wanted to kiss you so far they seem to have appeared from nowhere."

"I think you spoke too soon," she smiled, lifting a long scaly insect with unpleasant-looking mandibles from the top of his head.

"What in the Sith is that, and does it bite?" he asked screwing up his nose.

"It's a beachhopper, and yes. You don't usually see them during the day though, poor thing must be hungry." She carried the struggling insect over to a tuft of spiky loosh grass with fat purple seed-heads. "They're not poisonous, they're actually quite useful scavengers."

Wedge reached up for her hand as she returned and drew her down beside him again. "Can we try it again without the animal just to see if it is actually possible?"

She giggled. "You don't have to have an excuse. Anyway the only one around here who'll find you delicious enough to want to nibble is me, so you're perfectly safe."

"Now that is an encouraging thought," he grinned.

To Chapter Thirteen | To Chapter Fifteen

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