The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Twenty-Seven
Kuzhak paced up and down in front of the window in his office, working himself into the right frame of mind to face the tasks which required his attention. He had long exhausted his list of curses, both Guylean and Mantrusian. His usual procedure for disciplining those responsible for the failure of the enterprise was an unavailable option, due to the fact that most of them were either already dead, wounded, or suffering from hypothermia. With the limited medical facilities in Secheniz, their current suffering was punishment enough. Although he could blame Truin for the inadequacy of the shuttle team, and Dravet for their initial failure to locate the lost shuttle, he only had himself to blame for the failure of the recovery team. The thought that he had been outfought and out-thought by one man and one eighteen-year-old girl had forced his face into a tight impassive mask, inside which his teeth remained permanently clenched. Soon he was going to have to contact Truin with some rational explanation as to why the coup was not going to occur during the pageant, but of more immediate concern was the fact that he would have to face Nerensai and inform her that her expected meeting with her future host body would be somewhat delayed.
Strangely it was not so much the girl's escape that concerned him, as the effect this failure would have on his relationship with Nerensai. Over the last few months he had worked hard establishing himself as a suitable successor to Patal. He knew he was physically attractive, urbane, and, like the pirate, he enjoyed the taste of danger. The fact that Nerensai had not mentioned her old lover in their last few conversations was, he considered, a definite sign that he was winning her over. That as well as the innuendos she had been making about their futures as being shared rather than separate. Somehow he was going to have to behave as though the current situation was a mere hiccup, for that is no doubt what Patal would have done.
Fortunately Kuzhak's former boast to Tsarkoni about contingency plans was not an idle one, and he had already considered the ramifications of an escape, albeit not very seriously. He had spent the last few hours, therefore, after he had mastered his initial bout of panic, revising and initiating the key stages in Plan B. The only contingency he had no way of covering was the girl's death, but the circumstances of her escape suggested that this was indeed only a distant possibility.
He poured himself a measure of khamira and sat down, letting the conformatic chair absorb some of his tension. He pondered again the accounts of the gunboat crew, and gradually the tightness in his face muscles began to dissipate. From a certain perspective, one could regard the girl's exploits as curiously encouraging. She didn't seem to be the sort who was phased by the odds, and she was obviously prepared to take risks. If he could be regarded as another Patal, she was certainly a valid choice for Nerensai, and he found himself beginning to anticipate their eventual meeting with something akin to excitement.
His original plan had required that his rabble-raisers build the people up to expect Nerensai's appearance at Elozhi's pageant, and a number of clandestine rallies had been planned in the main centres to encourage this. According to the council's invocation of the law against assembly, it was now illegal to hold any sort of meeting. But as the main stirrers worked for him, the legal issue had become elementary. Now, however, it was obvious that those rallies would have to be used differently, and the message his team of holo-fakers had put together, using edited portions of recorded conversations with Nerensai and an expanded hologram of her, was undergoing a few changes. Instead of informing them of her intention to appear at the celebration, she was inciting them to use it as an opportunity to unite, and to free themselves of the regime which maintained them as little more than peasants. She would accept their successful overthrow of their keepers as the proof of their loyalty, and when they had proved themselves sufficiently loyal she would return. This would give Kuzhak a few more days to capture Ensign Kalichi and turn her over to Nerensai.
Kuzhak nodded to himself. After his meeting with Nerensai, he would visit the Capitol to express his concerns about the pageant, and encourage Elozhi to avail himself of the aid of the nearby Rebel luminaries if things got out of hand. Thanks to Agent Shenkle, Kuzhak knew that Elozhi had already met with the Rebel leaders once; and although he had been unable to discover the content of their conversation, he was sure that it centred around the Iicini'ians' paranoia about anything which carried the vaguest hint of Empire, and Elozhi's own concerns about the growing unrest. As soon as the jubilee erupted into mass riots and hysteria, he would see Elozhi again and beg him to call for help, on his knees if necessary. Being Elozhi's favourite, he was sure he would have his way. And as Ensign Kalichi would have to be involved as translator, she would walk straight into his trap. Except this time, he wouldn't fail.
He breathed deeply, and composed himself. He had had setbacks in this project before -- the failure to find Nerensai at the first excavation site, the death of Palpatine. Through it all he had managed to maintain an implacable calm, and he was convinced that his men saw him as unflappable. Foresight and luck, he thought. In all my ventures they haven't failed me, and I see no reason why they should fail me now. Surely such constant success proves I have right on my side.
He drained the last few drops of amber liqueur from the tumbler, pushed himself out from the comfort of the chair and stood up, squaring his wide shoulders and smoothing out the creases from his tunic. As always he would turn the situation to his advantage, and as a result Nerensai would be in no doubt that he was worthy of her trust, and her affection. He just wished that faint niggle of uneasiness would go away.
"Hopefully this time we're away," said Wedge as he settled into the co-pilot's couch and reactivated the yacht's ignition sequences. He glanced up at Luke, expecting a response, but the young Jedi was gazing fixedly out the viewport at something.
"Oh, no. Don't tell me," groaned Wedge in frustration, and he stood up and peered in the direction of Luke's gaze. A lithe woman in grey fatigues had just stepped off the hatchway of a small four-seater sub-atmospheric shuttle, and was helping an elderly woman wrapped in a pale blue shawl across the field. As Wedge watched, General Tavaala appeared and took the old lady's arm, while the woman returned to the shuttle. He stared at Luke who was following the older one's progress with a frown of concentration. Just at that moment she looked up.
"Oh, that's Kerensa's grandmother," said Wedge in surprise, recognizing the still striking features from a holocube which Kerensa had shown him. Luke gazed up at him with interest.
"I suppose Tavaala will have to tell her about Kerensa's disappearance," added Wedge. One of the more unpleasant tasks of leadership, he thought. I suppose that's something I'll have to get used to doing. Luke turned back to the viewport and watched silently until the two figures had disappeared, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.
"Has Kerensa spoken about her at all?"
Wedge was surprised by the question, but he dutifully thought back. "Yes," he replied slowly, "a bit. Why?"
"Well, it's a funny thing, but she has a strong effect in the Force. It's not exactly the same or as strong as Kerensa's, but it has the same wavering feel." He stared into the distance thoughtfully, and then glanced up at Wedge. "Sorry, I guess that sounds like mumbo jumbo. But Kerensa creates a strange Force pattern, not one I've encountered before, and her grandmother seems to have one that's similar, although like I said not as potent. They sort of fluctuate." He looked up at Wedge again, and seeing the blank look shook his head and sighed. "Oh I don't know. Maybe this atmosphere of weirdness is getting to me, and I'm beginning to sense things which aren't there."
"I doubt you would somehow, but whatever it is I think it's going to have to wait. Thanks to that mechanic we're hours behind schedule, and we've still got to get through Mantrusian Port Control before we can land. I can't think off-hand of anything useful that Kerensa's told me about her grandmother, certainly nothing about the Force anyway, but if I do I'll tell you. How's that?"
"Thanks, Wedge." Luke sat down and keyed on the navicom, waiting while the various lights winked on. "It's a pity they're not going to be able to learn anything from that mechanic. It would be useful to know how much information he's actually passed on."
"Yeah," Wedge muttered. "Pity no-one thought to check him for suicide dots before they let him out of the restrainers. Star Wanderer to Aureg Base, are we cleared for take-off?"
"Informing Besh Base of your departure, Wanderer. You have the all clear."
"Quite a good system having the two separate space stations monitoring traffic," commented Luke.
"It certainly makes it a bit safer for civilians if they don't have to worry about getting caught up in some military operation. The Iicini'ians are tidy thinkers, even if they're not particularly lateral."
"Not that we seem to have come up with any useful ideas," Luke reminded him, guiding the old yacht up until it was well clear of the base's barriers.
"True. All the more reason to make sure we succeed on this exercise. I've still got Tavaala's disapproval ringing in my ears."
"He was impressed with the way you uncovered their spy," Luke reminded him. "He admitted that the guy wasn't even on the suspect list."
"No, well apparently he'd swapped a couple of shifts with someone else, but they hadn't bothered to alter them on the roster. And as the investigators were working from the rosters, they assumed he hadn't been on the shift that worked on either the X Wings or the A Wings. Sneaky."
Luke relaxed back in his seat and watched the I-M space station grow from a dot to a sizeable ball in the forward port. "Wedge, don't answer this if you think I'm out of line, but do you think Kerensa uses the Force?"
Wedge studied Luke's earnest expression for a moment and then stared back out the viewport. Besh Base grew to full size and then slid away to port as they passed on into interplanetary space.
"I honestly don't know, Luke, and I have to say I don't really care. But I guess that's not what you were hoping to hear. If you're talking about actual instances of her using it, the only time I would be willing to say she might have was when she took her speeder down a precipice at a speed which I can only say was unnerving." He thought for a little longer and frowned slightly. "Although now I come to think of it, the animal thing is a bit strange."
"Yes," agreed Luke, "it's almost as if she can talk to them."
Wedge turned to him in surprise, and before he could use the Force to control his impulses, Luke blushed.
"Have you been seeing her?" the Corellian's eyes narrowed a little.
"I did go to her house," Luke explained quickly, "but only because that was the only place she agreed to talk with me about the Force. I sort of put her on the spot in the hangar, not realizing that she'd kept her ability a secret, and she was scared someone might hear."
Wedge went to speak, and then stopped suddenly. "Was that mechanic in the shed when you spoke to her?" he demanded.
Luke threw his mind back, mentally invoking the pictured scene. "No, I'm reasonably sure he wasn't. It was pretty much empty."
"But you're not absolutely certain?" his friend insisted.
Luke shook his head. "Are you suggesting someone wants her for her Force ability?"
"It's a possibility. It would certainly explain why she was captured rather than simply destroyed."
"What about the partner?"
"Did you see him in the vision?" Wedge asked quickly. Luke lapsed into thought again. "No," he said finally, "but there again, I didn't sense sadness or despair either."
"Sithspawn, this is frustrating!" groaned Wedge. "Give me a nice clean fight with a TIE any day, at least I know what I'm up against! No matter what possibilities I come up with, I can think of as many things to confound them."
"Well, hopefully, once we're in Bakhunia we'll at least feel we're doing something active about solving some of these puzzles," Luke reassured him.
The icy silence in the chamber augmented the frozen fingers Kuzhak could feel gripping his heart, and he remembered the stories he had heard of Lord Vader's strangulation grip. Thank goodness Nerensai's powers were currently limited, otherwise he might imagine she was doing something similar now. Reason intervened and informed him that he had simply stopped breathing himself, out of nervousness. He rectified the situation immediately.
"I am most displeased, Vadeem, and also disturbed by this news," the image glared at him coldly, its strange dark eyes seemed to be sucking him into them as if they were black holes. "I have spent the time since our last communication in joyful anticipation that my long wait had come to an end, and at last I could meet my people face to face once more. And now you come here and inform me that you have failed, my precious little host is off wandering around who knows where, and my wait is to be extended."
"Not for too much longer, ma'am," he said reassuringly. "In a few more days we will have her, and your new reign will begin."
"But what if some ill has befallen her, what if she also crashed into the river. It's possible her craft was damaged while battling the gunboat."
"Er, ma'am, they didn't actually battle the gunboat," Kuzhak stifled his rising irritation at Nerensai's almost maternal concern for the girl's welfare, especially as she cared not a jot for the fact the girl had wiped out nearly thirty men, destroyed two ships and four AT-ST walkers, and run off with another ship. "They did something to the tractor beam and blasted the ship into the river. And we know the vessel they escaped in was all right, for the gunboat survivors saw it fly towards Mt Halpurnia and then fly downstream."
"Ah, that's all right then," purred Nerensai. "How fascinating." She paused. "How clever altering the tractor beam." Suddenly to Kuzhak's consternation a ripple of laughter filled the room. "I do believe, Vadeem, that you will have your work cut out capturing this young woman. I should have warned you to take more care, but obviously she is stronger than even I suspected. In many ways it will be a shame taking her personality and replacing it with mine. She sounds ... interesting."
"Dangerous!" snorted Kuzhak before he could stop himself.
"Exactly," the screen image nodded contentedly. "A woman after my own heart." The reddish haze of hair jiggled as she lapsed into giggles again. "Except of course that I am after hers." She paused. "I wonder if she has a lover. I'm sure she would. What man could resist such a lovely, dangerous little creature?"
Kuzhak managed to curb the temptation to walk up to the wall and bang his head against it a number of times. He had learned to expect Nerensai to be unpredictable, but this sudden change from barely concealed contempt to merry speculations about the girl's private life was almost too much for him. He pinched himself savagely on the thigh instead, and reminded himself that at all costs he must carry out his intention to remain calm, and behave as though the girl's escape was a mere hiccup. Like Patal, he had to take disaster in his stride and be prepared to laugh in the face of danger. Time to reinforce that notion, he thought.
"What man indeed, ma'am. And although her beauty doesn't quite approach yours, her escape only goes to prove her suitability for the task. If we had wanted proof, this would have been the ideal test.
"My sentiments exactly, Vadeem. I gather you have a plan to recapture her. A foolproof one this time," the emphasis on the word fool was too obvious to miss, and her tone had changed yet again and become business-like.
"I do indeed, ma'am. And this time I shall oversee it myself."
The image tilted and regarded him speculatively, but when it spoke its voice was husky and enticing. "You won't underestimate her will you, Vadeem. You know how important this is to me, and to ... our future."
Kuzhak's heart leapt, and he felt a warm wave envelop him. He went to reply, gulped and quickly cleared his throat to cover his whirling emotions. This is excellent, he told himself, there is no doubt she sees our futures intertwined.
"I won't let you down, ma'am," he promised staunchly. "In a few days you will be in your rightful place, and Mantrusia will once again become great."
"A good queen always rewards her servants according to merit, Vadeem. Remember that."
The image faded, leaving Kuzhak staring dry mouthed at the screen. He reached up to wipe his forehead, and gazed in surprise at the glistening sweat on his fingers. His skin felt as icy as the air in the chamber, but he felt heat like a lava flow searing his insides. If this was the effect her cybernetic image could invoke, what was in store for him when she became flesh and blood? He pondered this for a while, and then left, still trembling, for the familiar passionless world above her room.
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