The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Thirty-Two
Iella

"It would be rather risking fate, but I'd still prefer to come with you," said Leia to Han, as they walked slowly across the landing field.

"Yeah, well I guess without the Falcon we'd be less likely to arouse suspicion," Han conceded. "But Ackbar is right -- there can't be too many man, woman and Wookiee trios on the Imperial wanted lists, so together we do stand a reasonably high chance of being spotted, especially on an Imperial world like Hocqyellen."

"I gather Chewie will be staying on the ship?"

Han made a sour face as he regarded the vessel that she was indicating. "If you can call it a ship. Looks more like a flying bathtub. About the same size as one, too."

Leia laughed. "Odd-looking vessels seem to be your thing," she said affectionately.

"Yeah? Well odd-looking disguises seem to be Tavaala's thing." Han held his arms out to display his grey coverall bearing the insignia of the Tyroveran Metalworkers' Guild. "If he wasn't a dyed-in-the-hide military type, I'd suspect he had some sort of lucrative deal going with the Tyroveran garment industry."

"I think he's just very thorough -- which is good. At least it means your ID will be reliable."

"There's no doubting his thoroughness, just his taste," grinned Han as they reached the pug-nosed cargo ship the Iicini'ian commander had designated as his and Chewie's transport. A frustrated roar from inside made him poke his head up the hatch. "Yeah, I know it's a bit small, Chewie," he shouted. "I don't think the Tyroverans had Wookiees in mind when they designed it." He turned back to Leia. "Ah well -- off we go to see what this Truin's up to."

"General Madine was saying that Colonel Fa'arika has a contact there who might have some information."

"Yeah, he might be able to give us the picture on recent fleet movements. Fa'arika's given me fairly clear directions on where to find him. He's in some city called Starrich. Big industrial place apparently."

Another more exasperated roar filtered down through the hatch entrance. Han rolled his eyes. "I'd better go before he does some damage. Just as well this is going to be a fairly short trip."

"Well, good luck," said Leia reaching out to Han just as his arms reached for her and pulled her into a tight embrace. A tender expression softened his craggy features for a moment before being replaced by his more habitual cocky look, and he kissed her with a certain rough passion, grinned and strode up the hatch.

"Never one for mushy farewells," Leia laughed to herself, and headed back towards the hangar.

******

"This is idyllic," Wedge sighed, stretching lugubriously and folding his arms behind his head so he could settle back on the soft turf.

Beside him, Kerensa gazed up through the sparse foliage. "It is, isn't it. I often come here and sleep when it gets too hot. I like being able to drift off under the stars."

Sometimes, as the marma faded, it would muster its dying energy into one final humid blast. Such had been the case that day. On their return from the base, they had found the damp heat so cloying that they had bundled up some fruit salad and a large jug of juice, and found a sheltered eating spot beside the tevathors' pool. Then, while the tevathors enthusiastically cleaned up the remains of their dinner with much clacking and lip-smacking, they had taken to the calm blue-green depths of the pool, following the curved shoreline until it led them to the base of the low hill Kerensa called the Karakis' nest.

"Don't worry, they won't be here," Kerensa had grinned at Wedge's edgy look when he sighted some of their huge aquamarine plumes lying on the forest floor. "They migrate south during the marma. And anyway, they wouldn't hurt you -- they're vegetarians."

"I dunno," Wedge had chuckled slyly. "My experience with vegetarians is that they're pretty dangerous."

"Only when provoked," she had burst into giggles, and raced ahead of him up through the trees. From a distance, Wedge had thought, she looked like a forest sprite from some of the old Corellian legends, and he had paused before pursuing her to admire her particular blend of athleticism and grace.

"And I like drifting off beside you," she added softly, tickling his chin with a small feathery yellow flower.

"Me too. Although of course you realise there are times we're going to have to be apart." Wedge reached up with his hand to stroke her cheek. "And there won't be much opportunity to do things like this."

"Mercy," she said, her eyes glinting mischievously. "First he encourages me to develop a taste for it, and then he tells me won't be able to do it very often."

Wedge smiled, but his brown eyes remained earnest. "You know what I meant."

"Yes, I know. You're just making sure I'm sure about what I'm getting into, and that I realise that life with the Rebel Republic will be fairly uncertain, and there won't be many planets like Iicini'ia or houses with gardens or chances for romance and sleeping out under the stars," she snuggled into the curve of his arm as she spoke. "I do know all this, Wedge, and I've weighed it all up. I know what I want." She paused, and he felt her lips twitch into a smile against his neck. "Of course, having to do without my garden nearly swung the balance against you, but I guess you have a few qualities that are more interesting than flowers and vegetables."

"Hmmm. I can see I'm going to have to do something about this insubordinate streak," he murmured. He felt her smile briefly again, and then she lapsed into silence. After a while he glanced down, thinking she might be asleep, but she was staring pensively at some vague point in the distance.

"Chitza," she said. "What am I going to do with Chitza?"

Wedge pondered the problem for a moment, and was about to give up when a thought occurred. "Maybe when all this fuss is over, we could take him to that place you and Tayne found and reunite him with his long lost relatives."

"Yes, that is a possibility," she nodded, "assuming they are his relatives." A frown creased her brow slightly, and her gaze slid up to the stars. Suddenly she sat up and began tracing a pattern in the air with her finger. "That's what was wrong with that star chart or whatever it was," she said excitedly.

Wedge sat up slowly beside her, fighting off his mental lethargy in order to puzzle out what she might be referring to. "You're talking about that place in the mountain?" he asked tentatively.

She gazed back at him, her eyes glittering like polished ebony. "I thought at the time the patterns looked familiar, but that there was something odd about them. I've just figured it out -- they were back to front. What goes from right to left here, there went from left to right, like a mirror image."

Wedge gazed from Kerensa to the sky and then back again, but no useful explanation suggested itself. "If it was a painting, maybe the artist was dyslexic," he offered lamely.

Kerensa looked hopeful for a moment, and then shook her head and sighed. "Would that it were that easy," she said glumly. Then she chuckled. "Dyslexic." She shook her head again and reached up to kiss him. "I'm sorry. I guess that place is going to keep bugging me. Just bash me on the head next time I mention it."

"I don't fancy myself as a wife beater," Wedge said circumspectly. "I'll just try and distract you," and he pulled her down beside him again.

She laughed. "You won't have to try hard to do that."

"In that case we have a lot in common," he murmured into her hair. "I'm going to miss you while we're on Cuvor."

"If I didn't have to hang around in case Elozhi calls on us, I'd be stowing away on your ship," she murmured back.

"If Tavaala's right, and Elozhi does call for help, I want you to promise me that you'll be very, very careful. There's something weird going on here, and there are a number of things that don't add up."

"Don't worry. General Tavaala won't get talked into anything dodgy. Anyway, it's me who should be telling you to take care. You're the one doing something adventurous. I'll just be translating."

"Possibly, but I'm still uneasy about all this." He almost added, "I don't want to lose you now I've finally found you" but decided that would have sounded trite, especially as he had already been through the process of thinking he'd lost her and having her turn up unscathed. Instead he smoothed the copper wisps of hair from her cheek. "Just promise me you'll watch your back."

"That'll be tricky. Maybe I could borrow Chitza's extra set of eyes."

Wedge shook his head resignedly and snorted back a chuckle.

"It's okay, Wedge," she smiled, sliding her arms up over his shoulders and around his neck. She studied him for a moment, and her eyes lost their mischief. "I admit this situation is a bit of a puzzle, but I also have great confidence in General Tavaala and Admiral Ackbar. I'm sure between the two of them, they'll soon have it all sorted out. After all, it isn't like this is on the same scale as fighting a Death Star, nor is this going to mean an end to fighting."

"No," Wedge conceded. Technically she was right, but he still couldn't rid himself of a faint sense of disquiet. Rather than let it ruin the moment, however, he banished it to the back of his mind. Tomorrow he would be reporting early to HQ for a final briefing before his trip to Cuvor, the aim of which was to contact the mysterious Professor Sulaili, the sector expert on Mantrusia and Nerensai. Tonight he had moonlight, the peace that came from knowing that his comlink was lying safely in his pocket at the edge of the pool, and the luxury of the girl he loved in his arms. We won't have too many moments like this in the next few years, he thought.

"You're right," he agreed, admiring the way the moon shadow added even more mystery to her eyes.

"I know," she replied impishly, "and I love you for acknowledging it."

*******

"I think you picked the long straw this time, Chewie - this place is about as appealing as Mos Eisley in a dust storm." Han made a show of giving his nose one more rub while Chewie ululated a sardonic acknowledgment. "You won't hear from me for a while, pal -- got strict orders to maintain comm silence. Don't have too much fun by yourself."

He heard Chewie respond with his distinctive Wookiee chortle, and then he palmed the comlink back into the front pocket of his cloak. Initially hesitant to shell out the seven Imperial credits solicited by the stocky and rather intimidating humanoid just outside the spaceport, he was now grateful that he'd let her convince him to buy the cloak. It not only afforded him protection from Starrich's grit-bearing winds, but its bulky greyness worked to camouflage his human shape and make him look more like the other squat citizens in the street.

In order to give Chewie something to occupy him while Han was contacting Fa'arika's watcher, the Corellian had suggested his companion log into any of the known Imperial channels that their craft's communications system would access, and record anything that sounded useful. He didn't fancy the thought of a bored Wookiee taking out his frustration by performing some unnecessary modifications to the ship. The sooner he made contact, the sooner they could leave, and he wanted to avoid anything that was going to slow that process down. Ideally he wanted to be back at I-M before the pageant, which was scheduled for the next day.

He and Chewie had already established that sizable portions of the Circle's available fleet complement were sitting out beyond the fourth planet of the system, because their jump from Iicini'ia had ejected them at a point close enough to give their external holocam a reasonable view of the assembled ships. Han decided that on the way out he would angle their approach to the exit point to try and record some clearer holo-shots. Engrossed as he was with these thoughts and with the process of following Fa'arika's directions, he had missed noticing the gradual deterioration in the general appearance of the buildings he was passing. It wasn't until he registered that the echo of his footsteps in a dingy alley between two warehouses was, in fact, not an echo but a set of pursuing feet, that he suddenly became aware of his unfavourable circumstances. Purposefully he slowed down, gauged the moment when the owner of the feet would be within reach of a swinging punch, and began to execute the turn that would bring his fist into contact with whoever was behind him. He had time to register an impression of a thin face with green eyes shadowed under the hood of a cloak like his own, before the world dissolved with a strange hissing sound into first a haze, and then blackness.

To Chapter Thirty-One | To Chapter Thirty-Three

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