The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Twenty-Six
Iella

"They're a bit on the small size," said Tiirau, regarding his newly acquired homespun top and pants dubiously.

"Never mind, at least you'll be warm. This herder's jacket'll cover most of it, and anyway this was all I could find worth stealing. People in these villages aren't very well-off you know. I feel bad enough nicking off with this." Although they were considerably further south, the air was still brisk, and their breath emerged as puffs of steam.

"All right, all right, just my luck to be stuck with a thief with a conscience. How do you put this thing on?" he took the proffered circular garment and turned it round curiously.

"Stick your head through the hole," she informed him, rolling the top of her skirt over and over until it stayed on her waist instead of slipping down.

"Maybe I should wear that," he chuckled.

"Hmm. Does General Tavaala know about this secret urge to cross-dress?"

"Inside every man, 'Rennie, is a little woman waiting to jump out," he adjusted the jacket until its long edge hung at the front, covering the spot where the shirt fasteners didn't quite connect and let his grey I-M tank top poke through.

"Well you can tell yours she'd better leap in the other direction. I've been leapt on quite enough lately, thankyou. There," she pulled her thick woven sweater down and gazed at the lump the bunched skirt had created. "Oh mercy. I look like I've got a bun in the oven!"

Tiirau laughed uproariously. "Looks like one leaper stayed longer than they should have."

Kerensa began to throw him a reprimanding look, and then stopped. "Wait a minute. This is it. This is the answer to our transport problem."

"'Rennie, please stop talking in riddles. My tension circuits are on overload as it is."

"No, no, don't you see. Rural Mantrusia, falling birthrate, babies are more precious than sapphite here. This," she pointed to her belly, "is our ticket to Bakhunia." She smiled up at Tiirau who gazed back blankly. She groaned and shook his arm in frustration, but a ripping noise from the shoulder seam made her stop.

"Hey, keep my shirt on!" he quipped.

"Tayne, try and stop acting the clown for a minute and listen."

"Pretty difficult seeing as how you've dressed me to look like one."

"All right. But try and visualise this," she said rolling up their discarded jackets and fatigues, and her boots, and tucking them under a pile of leaves. "Mantrusia doesn't have much immigration. It's a small planet, and in these rural areas people don't move around very much." She took his arm, more gently this time, and began leading him away from the copse they had found at the back of a cluster of hovels, towards the main settlement. "Consequently, there's what you might call a bit of an inbreeding problem. It's not exactly pointed head territory, but it has produced a bit of impotence. So those who have children are regarded as special, as are the children themselves."

"Ah," Tiirau ducked to avoid a low-hanging branch, "I'm beginning to see the light. You're going to use your -- er, our -- fertility, to blackmail some poor sucker into taking us to Bakhunia."

"Well, I'm certainly going to try. It's a bit tricky you can't speak Mantrusian, but we should be able to cover that up all right." She studied his profile for a moment, and then clicked her fingers. "I know what's wrong -- no earring. Put those flaps on your hat down to cover up your ears then no-one'll notice."

The trees were beginning to thin out, and they could both hear an echo as of a distant voice through a loudspeaker.

"Sounds like something's going on," she murmured.

"Perhaps I could have had a stroke and lost the power of speech," chuckled Tiirau. "I am, as you have noted before, of mature years."

"Possibly. Fortunately there are quite a few matches between older men and young women, so in that sense we won't stand out. I think ..."

"Zdranti, zdranti katoynya!" croaked a loud voice behind them suddenly, making them both jump.

"Spit!" muttered Tiirau, eliciting a warning glare from Kerensa. She placed her finger to her lips, and then turned smiling to see who had spoken. An old man was hobbling towards them, bent over a stick.

"Zdranti kaumack!" she called cheerily. "C vto nazoye!"

The old man stopped and his mouth opened wide. He stared at Kerensa for a moment, and then his watery blue eyes softened.

"Ah! C ste jei kasatch yesa dorni," he sighed, and hobbling forward patted her on the belly. Tiirau's eyebrows shot up and he grasped her arm tightly thinking she might drop him on the spot for such audacity, but she winked up at him and patted his hand.

"N? ste tamasye."

The old man held up one gnarled finger triumphantly, and then added, "C'y bre tamasye, y vre tamasye."

Kerensa held up her hands in wonder. "C ste hran!"

The old man's eyes twinkled, and he reached out and patted Tiirau on the arm, and then placed his finger knowingly beside his nose.

"C ste y ju, kre zdama." He chuckled. Tiirau chuckled too, throwing Kerensa a quizzical look. She nodded encouragingly, so he chuckled again, more raunchily. The old man patted him again, nodded happily and gathering his cloak around him closely, pointed in the direction of the growing echo.

"C vto chiratch, vto, vto. C ju yani tzeni oratzi."

Kerensa frowned up at Tiirau, but he shook his head blankly. "N? niza chiratch," she asked their companion.

He turned to her surprised. "N? ste mye firatzi."

"C kre vansantye," she replied.

"Ah," he nodded. "C chiratch Nerensavi. C bre tchardi, pyor. C po daraye, mre Nerensavi lartachi."

"Ah. Pe kre irani, firatzi."

"C yesa, yesa. Pe ju irani nolye, comaldi samat. Pe kastasye." He held up a hand in farewell, and hobbled away from them amongst the trees.

"What was all that about?" murmured Tiirau.

"He said what great news it was about Nerensai, and how he hoped to live to see the day of her return. He was surprised we didn't know, so I told him we were from the far north. According to him she is to return soon, and they have news about her in the village now. He's going there to meet his daughter and to listen to what they have to say about Nerensai." She paused.

"Anything else?"

"Other than the fact he thinks you're a real man, no."

Tiirau grinned ruefully, and squirmed. "Well, that's very nice of him, but if I stay in these tight pants much longer I think my manhood might be open to contention. Still, it sounds like we picked the right place to land."

Kerensa looked up at him seriously. "I just hope they don't find that ship too soon, and come looking."

Tiirau slipped his arm around her comfortingly. "First they've got to find their gunboat, then they'll have to figure out which way we went. I think we safely have a few hours up our sleeves. And by the time they do get down this way it should be under quite a bit of forest cover. Those avians you convinced to cover it with branches were quite enthusiastic workers." He chuckled and ruffled her hair. "I really don't know how you do all this stuff, 'Rennie. But I'm sure glad you're on my side."

"I suppose, seeing they're Imperials, if they find the pilots they'll punish them for failing."

"Well, with any luck they'll wake up and hide somewhere before they get found. Although I must admit I'm not too concerned about them. They'd kill us as fast as look at us."

"Yes, but we're not like them are we?"

He stopped and looked down at her earnest expression, and then smiled and shook his head. "No, I guess we're not."

He gave her an affectionate squeeze, and then taking her arm he led her out from amongst the final few trees into a clearing. Ahead of them was a rough track at the end of which they could see smoke twirling up from a number of pipes which appeared to be poking out of the ground. Tiirau was learning more about rural life than he expected, one aspect of which was the peasants' method of house-building. Due to the colder Mantrusian climate, and the severe winters, country dwellers tended to build partly underground to utilise the moderating influence of the subsoil. Their houses, which were little more than hovels, were also constructed from natural building materials: sod bricks and wooden tiles. From the air Kerensa had pointed out a number of villages, but he had had to look closely to see them, so well did they blend in with the landscape.

The outskirts of the village were deserted, except for a man working with a set of tongs over a fire bending metal strips to fit over the bows of a small hydropod. He raised his arm in greeting and pointed towards the central cluster of shacks from where the loud voice seemed to be emanating, but kept to his task. Curious, and also yearning to feel some warmth from the inviting flames of the fire, Kerensa walked over, pulling Tiirau with her.

"You look busy," she said in Mantrusian.

"Busy," he grinned through broken teeth. "I ain't never been so busy in all me life. Everyone wants a hydropod so's they can either get to the pageant, or at least so's they can get to somewhere where they can see it. I tell you, a pod-builder is a good job to have these days. You tell your hubby, he ought to give up herding and take up pod-building. Make you a rich lady."

"We were hoping to get to Bakhunia," said Kerensa demurely. "But I suppose it might be difficult to find transport if everyone else is going too." She sighed, and rubbed her belly.

The man put down his tongs and regarded her kindly. "You look tired little lady -- what's this man of yours doing making you walk." He reached over and gave Tiirau a push. "What's the idea making this pretty little thing walk, ya big muffin!"

Tiirau bristled, and frowned desperately at Kerensa. She giggled and clasped her arm around him, and mentally dug deep into the various things she had learned from her grandmother during the years she had spent with her after her parents' death.

"No, no. He's doing what the tzensentye said to do. My baby's in the wrong position, but she says that if I walk he might go head down like he should. So I walk."

"Ah," nodded the man. "Tzensentya. Good women."

"Yes," said Kerensa. "Our tzensentye, she has a mother in Bakhunia. That's why we're going. The mother is an expert mid-wife, and I want her to deliver my baby. They say she's so good, she could deliver one standing on her head."

"Ah," the man nodded again. "She could do it too. These tzensentya, they're wonders." He sat back on his heels and peered up at Tiirau. "Your man, he don't say much do he?"

Kerensa smiled mischievously. "Words aren't his thing. He's more a man of action."

The man chuckled raucously. "You ain't as innocent as you look are ya?" He laughed some more, nodding appreciatively. "Tell you what little lady. I like you, and I'd like to help ya -- partly coz I don't see many pretty ladies like you around here, and partly coz of that little one you're carrying." He indicated with his arm to somewhere beyond his house. "I got a couple of hydropods which I rent out sometimes, but I tell ya, I'm feeling generous today. It ain't often I get to help a lady have her baby, and well this news about Queen Nerensai, it's made me feel good. So I'm gonna loan you a hydropod. No," he held up a hand to prevent the refusal he expected when he saw her mouth drop open. "I insist. It'll be my present to the little one. All I want in return is for you to come and show him to me on your way back. That'll be reward enough. My lady and I, we've been married for thirty cycles now, but we ain't been blessed like you two have."

He stood up, and dusted the soot from his tunic, and beckoned to them to follow. "If I were you I'd get away before that there messenger's finished, coz I can tell ya, when he is, everyone's gonna be taking to the river."

"I ... don't know what to say," mumbled Kerensa, this time in all seriousness.

"Well then, don't say nothing. It sure seems to work for that man of yours."

"Will ... will you be going to the pageant?" she asked tentatively.

"I tell ya, I was. But folks've been keeping me so busy fixing and building hydropods that I think I might just go where you're going and watch it there. They reckon they're gonna put up the big holoprojectors in the park like they did for the Jubilee. I figure once Queen Nerensai's back in her rightful place, then it ain't gonna matter where you are: things'll start to get better, specially for us villagers."

"Do you really believe she will return?"

The man turned to her, and ran his hand over his heart. "I know it. I don't need no messenger to tell me. Folks've been having visions, and I heard someone who'd seen it on the holonews that Nerensai's been seen near her old palace."

"Perhaps we should go and listen to the messenger?" Kerensa turned to Tiirau, who gazed back at her blankly, unable to comprehend what she was saying.

"I'd get going if I were you," said the man, as they stopped at a small jetty which was nothing more than half a tree trunk poking out on supports into the Bovrin. "I heard him yesterday downstream of here when I was getting supplies. Ain't no different to what we all know. Queen Nerensai's gonna return when the time is right, and most people think that that'll be at the pageant."

He helped Kerensa up on to the wooden ramp, and hauled the hydropod closer so she could step in. "When the people cry their need with one voice, that's the legend. Well what better time to cry together than at the pageant. Stands to reason, don't it?"

Kerensa gave Tiirau a worried look, but then realised he wouldn't understand why.

"There now, little lady, you climb in." The man held the pod steady as she settled on the curved seat.

"This is awfully kind of you," she said earnestly.

"You just remember to bring that little one to see me," he grinned, his blackened face crinkling. "And you, ya big muffin. Maybe I should try some of this silent stuff, eh!" he prodded Tiirau in the ribs as he climbed aboard. "The wife probably wouldn't complain either. She reckons I talk too much."

"Well, I think you're wonderful," smiled Kerensa.

The man blushed and he proffered a semi-salute. "You just remember old Jastani," he grinned, and closed the dome of the hydropod over them. "Pe kastasye!" he shouted and waved.

"How do you drive these things?" Tiirau asked, waving and smiling back dutifully.

"Push that button," she said, "and then steer with stick. Pretty basic, up is forward, and down is back."

"Got it," said Tiirau and grinned as the pod's repulsors roared to life. Kerensa waved at the man as Tiirau steered the pod away from the jetty, and pointed them downstream.

"What was that worried look for?"

"They're having a big celebration soon, and the message seems to be getting around that Nerensai is going to appear there somehow. Obviously someone is doing some stirring, and reminding everyone about the legend."

"What legend?"

"Well, according to my grandmother, when Queen Nerensai was defeated a belief grew up that she wasn't actually dead, and would one day return to Mantrusia as its ruler. That man thinks that she's actually going to come back at this pageant thing that's planned, and I doubt if he would think that unless someone had given him the idea."

"By someone, I presume we're talking about Kuzhak."

Kerensa frowned. "I would have said that yesterday. But who's this Truin and what's his interest in all this? And come to think of it, why would Kuzhak be interested in some old legend? I mean what can he gain from making a promise he could never keep? There's no way Nerensai can really return, that would be daft."

"Well, I guess if he can use the legend to create the unrest, he could use the unrest as a means of undermining the control of the council." He paused in order to negotiate a path between two larger pods. "This little thing's quite zippy," he said admiringly.

"So what you're saying is that he's engineering a peoples' revolt to gain power, and using their superstitions to fuel it?"

"Basically."

"Well if that's his game he's playing with fire."

"What makes you say that?"

"Because, if the people expect Nerensai, and she doesn't turn up, there'll be a revolt all right, especially if they think they've been tricked. We'll have to find out when they're holding this celebration, and where."

She reached down into the soft hide of her stolen boots and began counting the coins she had stashed there. "It's just as well those pilots had some money in their pockets, because I doubt I would have found any where we got the clothes. We've got enough here for a little food. I think as soon as we reach Bakhunia we should find a place to eat; partly because it will give us a chance to talk to people and partly because we need to get some real food down us instead of those awful energy bars."

"You're the boss," grinned Tiirau.

"Rubbish, darling, you wear the pants."

"Only just," he chuckled.

To Chapter Twenty-Five | To Chapter Twenty-Seven

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