The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Thirty-Five

Kerensa felt her mouth drop open and wouldn't have been surprised to be told her eyes were standing out on stalks. A myriad questions whirled around inside her head and then a sudden realisation hit her like the flash that had brought her here. The woman not only knew her name, she was speaking Mantrusian. She looked past the old lady to the familiar giant shape waiting motionless as if on guard, and her eyes tracked slowly to the left, taking in the soft greens and browns of the leaves, turf and trees, and the vibrant colours of flowers and fruit.

This could be my garden and that could be Chitza. A chill ran down her spine. What if I've travelled through time, and that old lady is me?

She spun back to the woman in the chair and studied her closely, frowning. It's possible. Shrivel me up like a dried pitaro, blow most of my hair away and I probably would end up looking like that. But then, how could I be expecting myself?

"You're very analytical, my dear," the old woman said, nodding sagely. "No panic, no racing around screeching for someone to come and help you. Not that anyone would, of course." She burst into a cackle of amusement at her own joke and then sighed contentedly. "I definitely made the right choice." She leaned forward, peering at Kerensa with unabashed appreciation and nodding as if she was cataloguing each feature.

"Definitely," she sighed again, and rested back in her chair. "But here I am forgetting the basic rules of Mantrusian etiquette. Arnush!" The huge animal behind her stirred and lumbered heavily up to her chair. "Our little visitor is in need of food and refreshment. Tell Lenya to prepare us something."

"No." Kerensa held her hand up to halt the beast, her sense of reason returning. "I won't be staying, so there's no point." She turned to the mysterious woman. "Look, I don't know who you are or what game you're playing, but I've got some friends who may need some sort of help. So if you don't mind I'm going back through this ..." She turned and paused in front of the lens-like device, gesticulating at it as if trying to conjure its correct designation out of the air.

"Portal," interjected the old woman.

Kerensa regarded her again, feeling her frustration levels rising. "Whatever. I need to find them."

She stepped up to the portal steeling herself for the expected flash, but nothing happened. She stood for a moment gazing into the inky blackness, and then turned slowly, seething with anger but feeling the cold fingers of fear tugging at her insides.

"Okay. You seem to know who I am, and apparently you've engineered getting me here. What is it you want?"

The old woman tipped her head on one side, the wrinkled lines on her forehead sliding up in a way that suggested she was raising her now non-existent eyebrows.

"I want you, my dear," she said as if the answer was obvious. "I need you to save Mantrusia for me and return it to its former glory." She paused. "I am Nerensai."

The tremor that ran through Kerensa's body was so strong that she thought for a moment that someone had exploded a concussion missile nearby.

"But ..." She closed her mouth with a snap before any other lame comments could filter out, and tried to think logically. She focused her attention on the woman, comparing her with the mental image she had of Nerensai that was based on history and legend. This is not a woman who looks like she could kill at a glance or who would blithely take on the might of the old Republic. And anyway -- how could she still be living? She'd have to be over 1000 years old! But then ... She studied the unmistakeably noble bearing and the long silvery gown with its inset panels of lace. What she had originally identified as embroidered dots and flowers revealed themselves on closer inspection to be multi-coloured jewels painstakingly woven into the threads of lace, and the lace itself was exquisite. The woman's shoes were daintily pointed and made of a plush silver fabric. Kerensa searched her memory for the pictures of the witches and wise women she had seen in the old Mantrusian legends her father had read to her, and she shivered. The images bore an uncanny verisimilitude with the old woman before her.

She shifted her gaze to her surroundings. The garden stretched away in a profusion of trees, shrubs and plots of various sorts and colours of vegetation. In the distance, two of the huge Chitza-like animals were hoeing one of the plots. She could see the one called Arnush plodding unhurriedly towards a long low building which bordered the garden for some distance. Above this rose a treed slope. Kerensa followed the line of the slope with her eye, moving round on the spot in a circle as she did so. Beyond the upper rim of the tree-line there was sky, and in the distance shimmered the peaks of mountains.

"Mercy," she murmured to herself. "I think I've somehow popped out on to the mountain itself." She considered this idea for a moment, but then rejected it. It definitely looked like Secheniz, but if it was it had undergone a radical change in climate. Then Nerensai's reply to her question replayed itself in her head.

"What do you mean -- you want me to save Mantrusia for you?"

"Exactly what I said." Nerensai's eyes flashed like beads of polished jet. "I need you to save my people and give them back their heritage."

Kerensa knew her eyes were bulging like a tevathor's, but what little motor control she'd managed to hold on to now slipped beyond her mental grasp. It seemed implausible enough that she was accepting that this woman was Nerensai, although at the back of her whirling thoughts she could hear her grandmother's voice explaining the legend of the queen's expected return. But that this ancient leader expected her, Kerensa Kalichi, a lowly ensign ... No not even an ensign now that she was transferring into Alliance ranks! That Nerensai expected her to put Mantrusia back on the rails again was completely batty. She tried to devise an appropriate response, but all she seemed capable of doing was standing there dumbly.

"You are an extraordinarily powerful young woman, Kerensa -- a worthy inheritor of the knowledge of the ancients. But there is so much you need to know. Come." Nerensai leaned forward and slowly levered herself up from her chair. "The sun will soon be fading, and although I hate to admit it, I have been noticing the evening chill of late."

"But -" Kerensa stopped, stunned. How could the sun be setting when it was only early afternoon? A sense of disquiet snaked its way into her mind. "Where am I?" she blurted out, resisting Nerensai's attempt to take her arm.

"Why, my dear, you're in the home of your ancestors."

"My ancestors?" Kerensa paused uncertainly. "My Bakhunian ancestors?"

"In a manner of speaking," the old woman replied breezily. "Think of them more as the ancestors of your Bakhunian ancestors -- the people who settled Mantrusia way back in its earliest days."

Kerensa thought of her grandfather's jokes about the origins of Mantrusia, and she suddenly felt as if her legs would no longer support her.

"Oh mercy! Oh mother of meteors. I'm in another galaxy!"

"No, no." Nerensai took her hands and patted them reassuringly. "Not another galaxy -- that would be ridiculous." She chuckled quietly to herself. "Another galaxy! What do they teach them in schools these days." She regarded Kerensa fondly. "This is the original Mantrusia."

"Original Mantrusia." Kerensa tried, but she could manage no more than a hoarse whisper.

"Yes, my dear." Nerensai's face broke into a radiant smile. "You've travelled to another universe."

To Chapter Thirty-Four | To Chapter Thirty-Six

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