The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Thirty-One
Iella

Tsarkoni peered out the side viewport as Kuzhak's shuttle pilot made a slow sweep over the construction site in the Capitol's main plaza. The temporary performance area was ready, and the early morning rays of sunlight glanced coldly off the recorder cables that dangled from platforms high above the stage like the dismembered tentacles of some multi-eyed sea beast.

"That was a good job you did with the holograms, Tsarkoni, by the way," Kuzhak turned to him briefly, and then refocused his attention on the still scene below. "I gather the exercise wasn't too costly bribe-wise."

"Not really. Garnitz was the most expensive as we had to use a private residence, but with most of the others we worked a favours system. The Grajitzis were quite happy with us doing the necessary paperwork to free up a consignment of holovids that Customs had impounded a few months ago."

"I see," smirked Kuzhak. "How true blue of them."

Tsarkoni studied his chief's profile guardedly. He was a little uncertain as to how to interpret Kuzhak's apparent air of calm, for he knew that the capture of the girl was essential to the success of their plan, and therefore in reality her escape was nothing short of catastrophic. Other than a faint tic at the side of the mouth, however, caused most likely by a spasmodic clenching of the teeth, Kuzhak seemed normal. Too normal. Tsarkoni couldn't help wondering if the man knew more than he was letting on. His watery eyes slid to the viewport again, and he watched the landing pad on top of the Council Hall growing closer.

"With any luck, we may find when we arrive that Security have picked this Kalichi girl up at one of the spaceports," he prompted.

Kuzhak shook his head. "No, I think you'll find she's long gone, Tsarkoni. She's partly Mantrusian, so she'd blend in quite easily, and she obviously uses her powers. The fact that we discovered no overt evidence of this in our investigations suggests she's good at masking them, which makes her a formidable challenge. However, now we know what to expect we will plan accordingly."

"How did Nerensai react?"

A faint frown passed across Kuzhak's face. He was still a little bemused by the woman's reaction, and he couldn't shake off the niggling feeling that she knew something he didn't. Pity I don't have the Force, he thought, then I'd be able to see behind those hypnotic eyes and find out what it is.

"She was of course angry, but she's confident that we'll have her soon. She seemed buoyed by the wretched girl's apparent abilities." He paused as the whine of the repulsors increased, and the pilot maneuvered the shuttle into one of the docking bays.

"I suppose if you've been waiting a thousand years for something, a few more days isn't going to make much difference," mused Tsarkoni.

Kuzhak didn't reply. The smaller man glanced across and saw that he was staring blankly at the forward viewport. He studied his chief's profile for a moment, until the sound of the hatch opening stirred Kuzhak from his reverie. As Tsarkoni followed him out, he found himself pondering yet again the recent changes in the man's behaviour. There was definitely something going on behind that controlled facade, and he had a strong suspicion it was connected with Nerensai. It was a pity Ban wasn't still alive. If he was, Tsarkoni would have been tempted to inquire if it was at all possible the woman had bewitched Kuzhak somehow.

"Ah well, I suppose I'd better get myself in wheedling mode," said Kuzhak, squaring his shoulders breezily. "I'm sure Elozhi will have heard about the rallies by now."

"There's no chance he'll cancel the pageant, I suppose?"

"Absolutely no chance at all. Elozhi can never be wrong -- one of the man's prime failings." Kuzhak stepped on to the moving walkway that took them down into the interior of Mantrusia's seat of administration. "However, he will be conducive to my entreaties to go to the Rebels for help if there is trouble, especially if he thinks it might get up the Iicini'ians' noses. I know there's no love lost between Elozhi and Manalooa, and if Elozhi thinks he can openly show favour to the other's allies while snubbing him personally, he'll be all for it."

"We made it absolutely clear to the troopers that we wanted the crowd kept away from the plaza. So there was no damage done there."

"I noted that. And I shall certainly use that as proof that the gods are smiling on the pageant idea, should the need arise. But I doubt it will. The rallies were controlled perfectly, and the lack of ensuing chaos will convince Elozhi that the Constabulary are sufficient to the task."

"Hmm, the only reason they didn't have trouble was because the speakers convinced the people to save their anger for the pageant."

Kuzhak gave Tsarkoni a sarcastic stare. "You don't honestly think Elozhi will have lowered himself to find that out. That would entail approaching the man on the street." He shook his head and smiled a self-satisfied smile. "No. All we have to do now is to show our concern for his welfare and for the welfare of Mantrusia, and prepare him to approach the Rebels. Then when he does, we will make sure he invites them here, and snap! We will have our little Ensign right where we want her."

Tsarkoni followed Kuzhak as he stepped off the walkway and set off across a palatial courtyard surrounded by basalt columns. The plans concerning the girl had been Dravet's portfolio, but Tsarkoni had helped him gain access to the Bakhunian registry files when they were beginning the search for suitable hosts for Nerensai. He remembered being struck by her youth, and apparent fragility.

"Her family will find it perplexing, having her back only to lose her again," he mused aloud. Like Kuzhak, he was certain that nobody in Iicini'ia realised the content of their plans for her.

"Rest easy, Tsarkoni. Her parents died on Alderaan, and all she has left in the way of family is a grandmother, whom she apparently visits every now and again. She lives by herself and has no attachments to anyone. Other than her acquaintances at work, there is no one who will miss her." He swung the massive tzati wood doors open with a flourish, to let Tsarkoni through. "No one at all."

* * * * *

Wedge awoke, suddenly aware that the warm body that had been nestled against him when he fell asleep had disappeared. A movement of air, not cool but carrying the fragrance of flowers, alerted him to the open door. He sat up and peered out the window. In the pale moonlight he saw Kerensa. She had pulled on her green shift and was perched on the log under the trellis, arms wrapped round her legs, seemingly lost in thought. He slipped out from under the light sheet, and had taken a step towards the source of fresh air, when it occurred to him that Chitza was probably lurking somewhere. He stepped back and extracted his pants from the pile of clothes. No point in tempting fate, he thought grimly, remembering the way the huge beast plucked at anything resembling what might constitute a tasty snack.

Kerensa looked up as he approached. "Sorry, Wedge," she said softly. "The moon shining in the window woke me up and I couldn't get back to sleep. I was trying to avoid disturbing you, you looked so peaceful."

"That's probably because I feel peaceful," he said, settling beside her on the log, and sliding his arm round her. She turned her face up so he could kiss her, and he noticed her vaguely troubled expression.

"You're not having second thoughts?" he asked quietly.

She gazed up in surprise. "About us? Mercy, no." She reached up and stroked his cheek. "Though it is going to take me a while to get used to being around a pilot who doesn't seem to assume he's naturally irresistible."

"Oh, I think you'll find I have an ego as big as the next man," Wedge assured her laughingly.

She giggled. "Well, as I told you earlier, I'm a novice at this, so I wouldn't know if you compare or not."

He chuckled and nuzzled her hair. "So, why the worried look? Is it something you want to talk about?"

He felt her sigh quietly to herself, and when he looked down he could see she was staring thoughtfully at some distant image visible only to herself.

"It's that place in the mountains. It bothers me." She lapsed into silence again.

"I think Tayne found it fascinating, too. He seems to think it's some alien construction."

"Yes, I think it is too. That's part of the problem."

"There's a lot of places like that left around the galaxy by ancient civilisations," Wedge reassured her, "we used an old temple as a base for a while once on Yavin Four."

"Yes, but this place felt familiar," she insisted. "Not in the sense of having seen it before or dreamed about it or anything. It just felt ... oh, it's hard to explain. It felt like I belonged there. And, you've got to admit, those funny lens doors opening for me is decidedly strange."

"Yes, I admit that does take some explaining," frowned Wedge.

"And the animals -- whatever they are -- they behaved as though they'd been waiting for me, and they gave me the impression they expected me to take them to some garden place."

"You didn't mention that before."

"No, I know. I thought I might have been imagining it, but now I've had time to go over things a few times, I'm sure I wasn't. That was definitely the message I got from them. And the thing that really bugs me is the voice."

"Voice?" Wedge knew his own voice sounded a little weak.

Kerensa looked up at him earnestly. "You see now why I felt it necessary to divulge my weird inheritances. You're going to have to put up with this sort of thing regularly. A sensible man would flee now while he still has a chance."

"So, I'm a masochist," he grinned. "Tell me about the voice."

The seriousness faded slightly. "There were several of those funny door things, and at one of them I could hear a woman's voice calling to me. She used my name, too."

"Did you recognise the voice?"

She shook her head. "Now I'm here telling you this, it seems strange, but at the time it felt normal, almost natural."

"If it's a Force thing maybe Luke can help you with it," he suggested.

"If that's what it is, yes." She paused. "I suppose I'll have to get used to being open about the Force now. I owe it to General Tavaala, and to Admiral Ackbar too, I suppose. It is, after all, the main reason they offered me the transfer."

"I think that's a good decision," Wedge nodded. "Any more concerns, worries, niggles?"

"Mercy, no," she smiled.

"So ... how do you say I love you in Mantrusian?"

"Well, you can say C ju s'natchi."

"Sssjoo snatchy," he tried to mimic her intonation, making her laugh.

"Almost."

"How else can you say it?"

"I think I prefer the way you said it earlier," she replied mischievously. "Remember? After you said we needed to talk, and I thought to myself, he's got a funny way of talking."

"Oh." Wedge felt the soppy grin spreading across his face again. "Well, as Tayne pointed out, I believe, I'm not the most articulate of people."

"Tayne's wrong. I think you're very articulate. And I agreed with every word you said."

"Ah, well you won't want to hear it again then," he teased, drawing her into the circle of his arms.

"It isn't what you say, Wedge," she murmured happily, "it's the way you say it."

To Chapter Thirty | To Chapter Thirty-Two

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