The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Twenty-Eight
Iella

"River traffic's increased quite a bit, 'Rennie. Do you think we might be approaching Bakhunia?" When there was no reply, Tiirau turned, thinking she might be asleep, but she was staring into the distance lost in thought. "Credit for them," he nudged her.

Her gaze lighted on his face, and she blinked. "Sorry. I was thinking about that poor man."

"Which one. Thanks to you there's quite a few in that category back there."

"Don't remind me," she said glumly. "I was actually meaning Jastani. I feel really bad, because he sort of lent us this boat on the grounds that I'd take this so-called baby back to show him. He's soon going to realise he's been hoodwinked."

"Well, you'll just have to have a real one, and take it back to show him." He grinned mischievously. "I'm sure Wedge wouldn't be averse to lending you a hand."

"Tayne!" the pink in her cheeks turned to red, then she sighed. "I don't think there's much chance of that now, not after the way I treated him. And anyway, when you analyse it, there's no future for us. He couldn't stay here even if he wanted, and I doubt that he'd want to, not when you consider the importance of what he does."

"No-one is indispensable, you know."

"I used to think that, but I don't any more. People like Luke Skywalker and General Tavaala and Wedge are indispensable, at the moment anyway." She sat up and gazed out the pod's side window. "Looks like we're coming into Bakhunia."

"I think you take things a bit too seriously, 'Rennie. The older I get, the more I adhere to the philosophy that because you're a long time dead, you might as well enjoy it while you're here."

"But you have to be true to yourself, otherwise you just feel guilty."

"You also have to realise that none of us are perfect," he reminded her. "How serious are you about this guy?"

She watched a larger hydropod as it glided past them, its repulsors lifting its flat bottom well clear of the streams of spray its thrusters produced.

"To be perfectly honest Tayne, I think I'm in love with him, but as I've never been in love before I don't know if I am or not. And I keep thinking that I can't be really, because I've only known him a few days. I always thought love was like a saloni tree -- you know -- it doesn't grow till its roots are well established."

"I used to think that, until one day I saw my wife in a crowd at a Starboys concert."

Kerensa turned to him, and a smile slowly dispersed her serious expression. "Well, well, at last. The living proof that the Starboys do have some purpose in this universe." She squeezed his arm. "Come on, time to stop being maudlin. We need to do some fact-finding, and then we need to get out of here." She pointed to a small rather broken-down jetty in front of a ramshackle tapcafe. "There, that looks like it might be in our price range."

* * * * *

"Well that was not exactly a resounding success," said Wedge looking back gloomily at the ornate collection of towers and domes which comprised the Governor's Palace, and the guards standing at strategic points around it. Since the place had been attacked about a week before, the public gallery had been closed, and all access to the art collection sealed off.

"It wasn't a resounding failure either," Luke replied quietly. "I'm pretty sure they're not there."

Wedge studied his friend's expression carefully, then he shook his head and a slight grin lightened his expression. "I keep forgetting that you're not subject to the same limits as the rest of us. What did you make of the guard?"

"Which one?"

"The second. Reckon he was telling the truth about Kuzhak being out of town."

"I didn't sense any deceit. But I'm also sure he wasn't Mantrusian. He spoke Basic too well, and he didn't have one of those earrings."

Wedge nodded. "He wasn't slouching either. Five to one he's a stormtrooper."

"Risky odds to hazard on a man's posture?"

"Well actually," Wedge threw him a sly look, "that blaster poking out from under his tunic had the Imperial crown on the butt. I've seen a few too many of those things at close hand not to notice."

"I'd be curious to see Chief Elozhi's reaction to that news. He seems to be determined to believe that the only Imperial connections in this are business ones."

"There are none so blind," murmured Wedge. He raised his chin and sniffed the air. "Mmm, if I'm not mistaken I'd say there's a market around here somewhere. Fancy a snack before we decide where to try next?"

"Wouldn't mind actually. Somehow in all the excitement I think we missed out on breakfast." They rounded a corner and found themselves on the edge of small plaza filled with an assortment of stalls. Luke gazed uncertainly at some of the offerings, but finally his eyes lit upon the familiar shapes of pastries cooling on trays. He nudged Wedge, and they pushed their way past a group of small children watching a young woman bending herself into impossible shapes.

"N? cheta rsa," asked Luke, pointing to a cluster of glistening doughboys and trying to emulate the way See Threepio had aspirated the vowels.

"C'ifa klarinya," replied the woman at the pastry stall. Then in response to Luke's blank look, she held up four pudgy fingers.

"Sote, yeo, rotu, ifa," she chanted rather rudely, pointing to each finger in turn. Wedge and Luke exchanged wry glances and Luke handed her the four Mantrusian coins.

"I strongly suspect we've been had," he muttered as they ambled away. "Pity we couldn't have brought Leia. She's an expert haggler."

Wedge took the bun Luke offered him, and checked his friend's expression before speaking. Over the last few months, he had noticed that the way Luke behaved towards Leia had changed, and this was the first time he had had the chance to ask about it.

"She and Han seem to be becoming something of a couple," he said tentatively.

Luke nodded, but continued staring curiously around the market. "I think they're making the most of the time off. Not that it looks like it'll last much longer."

"I, er ... I always rather had the feeling that you were fond of Leia, " Wedge prompted.

Luke's pale blue eyes focused on his face, and to the Corellian's surprise, a small, almost tender smile touched his lips.

"I am," he said simply. "She's my sister."

Wedge's brown eyes opened wide. "Sister!" He stared some more, and then shook his head. "I never knew."

"Well, actually," Luke went on quietly, "I didn't find out until a few months ago myself." He smiled again, and took a bite of pastry. "Your feeling was right. I did used to think I stood a chance with Leia, but as usual things never turn out as you expect. Now I'm glad it did remain a distant hope. Anyway, I don't really think relationships are appropriate at the moment. If you can't give it the time it needs, it's not really fair."

"Yeah, I know what you mean," mumbled Wedge miserably.

Luke looked up quickly. "I was meaning from my point of view," he said earnestly. "I wasn't talking generally."

"No, you're right. I just wish you weren't."

"Look, Wedge. Forget I said it, OK. I guess Bakura's still weighing a bit heavily on me. I don't know if you knew or not, but I met a woman there I really felt a rapport with, and I've spent quite a bit of time wondering if we could have built some sort of relationship. I think if I'd stayed, we could have. But I couldn't stay, so it's really all elementary. That's why I think for me it's better if I just forget about it for a while."

"I didn't realise you'd met someone there."

"We hadn't been out together or anything, in fact we spent most of the time disagreeing. I just felt there was a spark."

Wedge sighed. "When I'm with Kerensa I feel a raging fire, and the problem is I think I'd quite enjoy getting burnt. But it would be wrong. It wouldn't be fair, on either of us. I guess I'm just stupidly pretending that this business will go on forever, so I don't have to think about leaving."

"Maybe she feels the same. Maybe she'll come with you."

"She's pretty dedicated to the cause here."

"Things can change," Luke said reassuringly.

"Yeah, I guess," said Wedge, his dejected expression lifting a little. "Well, where do we look now?"

Luke took out a small datapad and checked the list Tavaala had given them. He had just begun to run through the possibilities, when a group of rough-looking men surged in front of them, pushing him back. They were shouting something, and two were thrusting up a banner as they marched. Voices in the crowd repeated the slogan, and as the two Rebels watched, a number of people fell in behind them, thronging across the square towards one of the narrow alleys leading off it. Wedge cocked his head towards the group and raised his eyebrows at Luke.

"Do you think we should follow?"

Luke slipped the datapad back inside his Tyroveran smocktop. "Most definitely. Perhaps it's this celebration thing that Han and Leia heard about."

Wedge looked around as he followed Luke towards the alley. "We're certainly not the only ones interested," he commented, watching as people looked up at the banner, and immediately left what they were doing to join in behind it. "Did you see what was on that banner?"

A distant expression came into Luke's eyes, but his expression was impassive. "There was a picture of a woman with some strange lettering under it."

"Obviously not Chief Elozhi they're celebrating, then," said Wedge wryly.

Luke stared ahead at the swelling throng, the shouting echoing around the narrow alley made it impossible to reply, but Wedge could see he was frowning.

"Do you think it's this Nerensai cult that Tavaala mentioned?" he asked loudly in Luke's ear. Luke glanced up, and then his face seemed to clear.

"Yes, that must be what it is," he nodded, and then grimaced as the crowd roared again in response to the upthrusts of the banner.

* * * * *

"Find out anything useful?" Tiirau asked when they had finally managed to extract themselves from the attentions of the tapcafe's cook, who hadn't let them leave until Kerensa had agreed to accept the package of sticky-looking cakes and over-ripe fruit the woman kept pushing at her.

"Mye, mye!" the woman had waved her hands furiously when Kerensa tried to pay. "C mi chucksta, jei kartye." And she had taken the girl's face in both hands and beamed at her fondly. Judging by the number of times the word chucksta had been mentioned by the cook, and the group of women who had descended on them while they were eating, Tiirau had decided that he knew the meaning of at least one word in Mantrusian.

"Quite a lot," his companion replied, surreptitiously hooshing her chucksta back into position. "Not the least of which is the extent of the Mantrusian baby fixation. Do you realise that if you turned up here with your three kids you could practically begin your own cult."

Tiirau chuckled. "Well, I wouldn't complain. So far it's got us a free trip and a couple of free meals. Food wasn't bad either, I'm actually beginning to feel functional again."

Kerensa giggled, and set out towards a narrow alley. "There are a sizeable number of Mantrusians who don't doubt your functional ability, Tayne. However, back to the serious issues. The pageant is apparently planned for the day after tomorrow, and it's intended as a sort of celebration of modern Mantrusia. It sounds like it's going to be a bit like the Jubilee, which my father brought me and my brother back to see ten years ago, except with more emphasis on the present. One of the women said that their village had been asked to perform the dance they did at the Jubilee, but the people refused because they reckoned they didn't have anything to dance about. She looked up at him suddenly serious. "There's a lot of discontent, more than when I was here a month ago. The country people seem to think that the council are only interested in what's going on in the towns, and the town people reckon that all the money's being tied up in a few enterprises, which curiously belong to the governors themselves. Everyone agrees that the council are out to line their own pockets, and they think Elozhi's lost it."

"What do you think?" Tiirau took a bite from one of the cakes the cook had given them, and offered her the other.

"I actually agree with them, about Elozhi anyway," she said slowly. "My father always said he was a bad choice for Chief, because he's not a man of the people, he's an intellectual, and although he understands the Mantrusian temperament, he doesn't quite know how to manage it. In the old days, you see, the Chiefs used to get out amongst the people and hold these sessions where the people could go and express their concerns, and even if nothing was done, at least they felt they'd had their say. Plus, of course, it kept the Chief in tune with the streets, so if the council were planning something which he knew wouldn't go down well with the people he could veto it. He was seen as a sort of voice for the little man and woman. But Elozhi's turned the role of Chief into more of a lofty and distant overseer."

"Yes, well, it certainly wouldn't do him any harm to come and have a wander through here," mused Tiirau gazing at the shacks crowding the sides of the squalid alley, in some places built at crazy angles one on top of the other. "This is hide-your-wallet territory."

"What I can't understand is, if Kuzhak's behind this unrest, what does he hope to gain from it? The level of feeling amongst those people back there against the council was pretty high. It's almost as though he's biting off his own nose to spite his face."

"Yes, it's queer all right," murmured Tiirau.

"Something else they said might be worth looking into," she mumbled, her mouth full of cake. "They reckon that there's going to be some sort of rally here in Southside, illegal of course, because apparently the authorities have cracked down due to the unrest and banned all meetings. But the women back there had heard a rumour about it, and that's why some of them had come to town." She stopped suddenly and cocked her head on one side, listening. Tiirau turned towards where he, too, thought he heard an intermittent roaring, as of voices.

"Do you think that's it?" he asked.

"Without a doubt. Come on," and she started to run, and then stopped. "Whoops, I forgot about my lump. Better stay in role for a bit longer, we might need it to help us steal a spaceship."

"Are all Mantrusians such proficient thieves?"

"'Fraid so. They're renowned for it. I think it's coming from over there," and she took his arm and led him across a piece of open ground lined with piles of decaying refuse, and through a maze of alleys until they emerged at what looked like a former park. The buildings around its exterior were taller than those near the river, and looked like they had once been reasonable apartments. Now they were painted in garish colours and some carried a strange insignia.

"They belong to the Grajitzi family," Kerensa explained. "They're one of the big crime syndicates here."

Tiirau ran his eye over the crowd which was growing visibly larger every minute. "We'd better stay back a bit," he warned her. "I don't want us to get mixed up in any trouble."

"True."

"Can you hear what he's saying?" he cocked his head towards a figure who had climbed on top of the broken base of a statue, and was gesticulating at the crowd.

Kerensa's eyes narrowed in concentration for a moment, and then she nodded. "He's doing the greeting." She paused, listening again, and then tilted her mouth up to Tiirau's ear. "He says that the fact there are so many here willing to brave the wrath of the authorities shows how little power they actually have, that this is a sign that ... this is a sign that things are about to change. When the people cry together, Nerensai will return. Soon we will cry, but not yet. First we must ... prove ourselves."

"Don't like the sound of that," he murmured.

"We must prove our loyalty," she continued the translation, "and our courage. If we think we deserve better than we have we must ... be prepared to act. When the people cry together Nerensai will return. Soon we will cry, but not yet." She gazed at him ruefully. "He sure knows how to use the slogans."

A banner appeared from an alley opposite them, followed by streams of people shouting and waving. The speaker shouted something else and the crowd picked up the cry.

"Trust in the promise," she whispered as the sound of thousands of voices reverberated around the grimy faces of the surrounding buildings. Tiirau pulled her back towards the alley from which they had come, and they pushed themselves back against a wall as another group flooded past them into the square.

"That was one very successful rumour. I'd say there's over five thousand people here already, and more on the way," said Tiirau.

"Don't you think it odd that there's no sign of the constabulary. If I was governor I'd have stationed them in all the likely gathering spots."

Her partner's green eyes glinted speculatively. "Only if you wanted to stop all this." She looked up, and they nodded at each other grimly, and then turned their attention back to the speaker. His voice had dropped, and after a minute or so the excited roaring faded and the crowd became strangely quiet and still.

"We have groaned together for a long time, my brothers and sisters," Kerensa shielded her mouth so as not to be heard in the sinister hush. "Laboured, suffered, ... all to butter the bread of those in power." The speaker's voice began to rise again. "Do we have butter for our bread? Some of us barely have bread. Many of us have no work. Was this so when our beloved Nerensai was queen?"

There was a long silence, broken only by muffled whisperings and rustling as people shook their heads. "She who was our mother. She who was our servant. She ... who gave us not only what we needed, but more. Dignity. Power. Loyalty. Yes loyalty my brothers and sisters. And now she asks for our loyalty." Kerensa threw Tiirau a grimace and gazed around at the crowd as they stood stock-still, hanging on the speaker's every word. "Are you prepared to offer her your loyalty and become a true follower?" They watched as the man stepped down from the statue and approached someone at the front.

"He's asking him if he's ready to be a follower?" she whispered.

"The individual approach. He obviously knows how to work a crowd. Know who he is?"

She shook her head. "Could be one of any number of stirrers. Mantrusia's always been prone to weird cults and pressure groups. Usually they balance each other out."

The man returned to his broken rostrum and stretched his hand out to various others, repeating his question. The cries of Li! Li! filled the air. The man held his arms up and raised his face to the sky.

"Hear us, mother. We, your loyal followers grow weak, sucked dry by those who have been chosen to lead. Yet hear our pledge of loyalty. Hear it, oh mother. Hear us!"

Suddenly a burst of light shot up from above the shoddy roofs to their left and a collective sigh escaped the crowd of watchers. Voices called out, but not in fear. Even Tiirau with no Force sense could feel the excitement which bordered on ecstasy in their tone. The shifting beams slowly formed into an oval, which itself resolved into the shape of a human body, and the name Nerensai echoed from ten thousand lips.

"Can you see where it's coming from?" Kerensa asked Tiirau, stretching up on to her toes to see above the closest row of buildings.

"Somewhere at the back of the Grajitzi family's turf,' said Tiirau laconically. "Come on."

They skirted the rear edge of the crowd, and pretended to walk nonchalantly down an alley that ran beside a grey and purple building which looked more like a tottering tower of mismatched cubes. At the end of a spiked adobe wall, another narrow walkway disappeared under the murk of overhanging balconies, winding out of sight towards the hologram which had stabilised into the representation of a woman in queenly robes. Once out of sight of the crowd, they began to run.

"It's a bit disconcerting doing this," puffed Tiirau, craning up at the image in order to establish from where it was being projected. "I feel like I'm peering up her skirts."

"Golly, I hope she was in the habit of wearing knickers," Kerensa said wryly, and threw him a cheeky grin when he turned back to her reprimandingly.

"I can see you take the legend seriously."

"I think the whole thing's completely mad, but I also think the people playing around with it don't realise what they're doing." She stopped and looked up, breathing deeply to get her breath back and gazed around again. Tiirau pointed to a tall building with a flat roof which rose from behind a burnt out row of what might have once been shops.

"That's where it's coming from," he said firmly, and jogged towards the corner. "Round here," he beckoned, and they picked their way over charred beams and the muddy remains of bricks until they reached a rotting ramp. Tiirau peered up. The building looked like an old warehouse, and the ramp led up to the second level.

"It's a bit too open here for my liking," she said.

"You're right," grunted Tiirau, and followed her underneath the ramp to a gaping hole which had once been a door. They crept along the corridor and up a narrow flight of stairs. The place smelt musty, and the odd pile of blankets in some of the second level rooms they passed suggested it was used at night by squatters.

"How many levels do you reckon this place has?" murmured Tiirau as they stopped, listening carefully, at the beginning of another flight of stairs.

"Six. We're on fo... ," she stopped, and swung back. "There's someone coming!"

"I heard it. Come on!" he pulled her back to what had once been a storage space, and they pressed themselves into the recesses on each side. Above the sound of her racing heart Kerensa could hear a husky voice booming, slightly distorted by its echo but still understandable.

"You have nothing to celebrate, my people, unless you find peasantry a suitable state in which to live. Your leaders have failed you. I can restore you to the life you deserve. But first you must prove yourselves worthy."

It all seemed so incongruous. The dingy broken down warehouse, the squalor in the streets, and this phoney bejewelled queen looking down on it all and blabbering on about promised glories. Kerensa felt a wave of pity for the people, not because they were being manipulated, but because they were going to be horribly let down. They not only believed in Nerensai, they wanted to believe. And the fact that somebody was willing to build up their hopes and then crush them, in order to fulfil some private agenda, filled with her a burning anger. It was petty, it was cruel, and it was wrong.

A faint rustle caught her attention, and she pulled herself back into the wall, holding her arm across her bulging middle. Whoever it was was obviously trying to make no sound, which probably meant that she and Tayne had been spotted, and were being stalked. The presence of two consciousnesses suddenly penetrated her awareness, and she closed her eyes and found herself reaching out to them.

Her eyes flew open, and she stared across at Tiirau with an expression of utter astonishment.

"What?" he mouthed. She placed a finger over her lips, and frowning, tilted her head on one side, seemingly listening to something too distant for his own senses. He saw her shake her head in disbelief, and then to his horror she poked it surreptitiously around the edge of the cupboard, just as a pair of pale blue eyes peeped around from the other side.

"Luke?"

"Kerensa?"

"Skywalker!" Three mouths dropped wide open.

Another figure, slightly taller and darker stepped into view.

"Hells bells!"

"Kerensa?"

"Wedge?"

They all gasped in unison.

"I can't believe this!"

"Wedge!"

"What are you two doing here?" Tiirau whispered hoarsely as Kerensa threw herself into Wedge's waiting arms.

"What are you doing here, you mean?" snorted Luke.

"I don't believe this!" came a voice muffled by copper hair.

Luke and Tiirau stared at one another, shaking their heads in amazement. Kerensa slid her arms from around Wedge's neck and gazed up at him with a mixture of disbelief, joy, and relief.

"I can't believe this!" he murmured again dumbly, but grinning from ear to ear. Outside there was a sudden roar as the voice of the crowd responded to something.

"Are you here to find out about all this?" asked Tiirau quietly, waving his thumb back in the direction of the square.

"We're actually here to find you two," replied Luke, "but we got caught up following the crowd. What are you doing?"

"We were on our way home, but we heard about this rally and thought we'd better take a look." He grinned. "Quite glad we did, now."

There was another roar, this time so loud that it made the timbers tremble beneath their feet.

"How did you fathom out we'd be here?" asked Tiirau curiously. "We sent off a holo of the attacker, but we didn't know where he came from. Did you manage to track him?"

"Sort of," said Luke mysteriously. "It's a rather complicated story though, as well as a long one. Suffice to say we decided you must be in Mantrusia somewhere, and Bakhunia seemed a good place to start looking. Now, seeing we all want to find out who's producing this hologram, I vote we might as well carry on. Are we agreed?"

"Definitely," said Tiirau.

"Might as well," said Wedge. His brown eyes slipped to Kerensa's and he hugged her again. "I still can't believe this."

"You seem to have a predilection for men with limited language facilities, 'Rennie," Tiirau grinned at her teasingly, eliciting a quizzical look from Wedge. "We'll explain later," he whispered, and fell in behind Luke as he moved towards the stairs.

Suddenly the young Jedi stopped, and cocked his head. "Do you hear what I hear?"

"They've stopped," said Kerensa.

Luke peered up the stairs and listened. "Did anybody notice if there're any other ways of getting to the top of this place?"

"This is definitely the only access," replied Wedge.

"I think I can hear something," murmured Luke, and his face took on a distant expression. "Yes, they're coming. Better get ahead of them, come on." He led the way back along the narrow corridor and down the stairs. Wedge reluctantly relinquished his contact with Kerensa in order to follow at the rear, realising that neither she nor Tiirau were carrying weapons. At the door, Luke gesticulated to everyone to stop. He poked his head out cautiously, and Wedge took a few steps back towards the stairs to listen for footsteps. He heard a creak, and although it sounded distant he glanced back to warn Luke in time to catch him beckoning them out. He breathed a sigh of relief and followed gratefully. The air outside, although cold, felt like a fragrant garden after the dank, decaying odours of the old building.

"We'd better get back to the alley," he called, catching up with the others as they hurriedly picked their way through the burnt out remains of the shop. "Make it look as though we've come from the crowd." He tucked his blaster back under his top and reached out to take Kerensa's hand when a burst of fire echoed up the alley, followed by cries and shrieks and another burst.

"Well, well. Looks like the authorities have finally reacted," said Tiirau sarcastically.

"Elozhi's invoked a law against assembly," Kerensa explained to Wedge, seeing his puzzled look. "But we thought the militia's notable absence a little strange." A small group of people appeared around the corner, and shouted as they ran past. "Trasti? Stonye, stonye!" she called back gratefully. "Yes, they've arrived and are in the process of dispersing the crowd."

"Good," said Luke, who had been watching the doorway, "that'll give us a bit of cover. There they are!"

Four men, dressed in the normal tunic and pants of the average townsman, emerged and kicked their way nonchalantly through the charred debris. A large group of people hurried up the path, catching up with Luke and the others, and passing them, and the men fell in with them. After a few minutes, the path joined an alley. Most of the group turned left towards the central areas of Southside, but the men opted to take the opposite direction.

"Do you know where we are?" Wedge murmured to Kerensa.

"We're heading away towards the palace and the university," she said. She smiled up at him and then her eyes slid down to his clothes. "I like the new look, by the way, especially the smocks. Although the tight pants are quite titivating."

"Don't you start," he warned. "Us arty types are a little sensitive. And anyway," he cast a meaningful look at her lump. "I get the impression you and Tiirau have been fairly innovative with your disguises, too. Who thought of this?"

"Oh you know how it is. It just sort of happened," she grinned up at him, and turned to check on the men. "Where've they gone?"

"It's OK," said Luke, pointing to the far side of a row of street stalls. "They're across there."

"This looks a bit more affluent," commented Tiirau, slipping back to walk beside Kerensa and Wedge. "I feel a bit conspicuous in these old threads."

"Don't worry," Kerensa patted his arm. "A fertility symbol can wear whatever he likes."

Wedge threw first Tiirau and then the girl on his arm a curious look. "I'm not too sure I want to find out about all this."

"Believe me, Wedge. It's quite a story. Suffice to say that I owe Kerensa my life."

"Oh rubbish, Tayne. I couldn't have done it without you."

Above her head, Tiirau fixed his green eyes on Wedge's and shook his head slowly. "Not true," he mouthed the words distinctly.

"What's that grey building, Kerensa?" Luke asked, indicating a low rectangular building with an ornate stone frontage at the far corner of the plaza into which they had just emerged.

"That's the State Constabulary headquarters," she replied.

The men ambled across towards it, and then disappeared down a walkway at the side.

"Come on," urged Luke, breaking into a brisk trot. He stopped at the top and gazed down, and then turned to the others as they caught up. "Interesting," he mused, and pointed to an arched entrance at the far end. "They went in there."

"That's the barracks," Kerensa gazed at him, her expression serious. "So the constabulary are not only turning a blind to the stirring, they're in on it too."

Luke nodded, and stared back down the alley thoughtfully.

"We'd better move, we're attracting attention," warned Wedge, nodding towards a uniformed guard who was approaching.

"Ka! nyal tirani," the man waved his arms at them.

"Privya, privya," called Kerensa apologetically, clutching her belly. "C chucksta tzirchi."

"Ah!" the man nodded, and grinned at her fondly. "Chucksta. Yesa, yesa." He watched, still nodding, as they turned back across the square.

"Chucksta very useful," chuckled Tiirau, while Wedge and Luke threw each other puzzled looks.

"Yes, but his mummy wants to go home," said Kerensa, reaching out for Wedge's hand. "She has a lot of apologising to do."

"I think I'm the one who should be apologising," he slipped his arm around her, and hugged her against him.

"No, I was the one lost their bottle," she sighed.

"Yes, but I was the one being stupid," he corrected her.

"Look you two," said Tiirau, stepping in front of them. "Take it from me. You both need your heads banged together. Now let's get out of this place and get home. Everyone agreed?"

"Most definitely," said Luke. "Mission definitely accomplished."

"OK, bossy boots. But on one condition," said Kerensa, gazing up at her superior mischievously. "I want a divorce."

To Chapter Twenty-Seven | To Chapter Twenty-Nine

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