The Mantrusian Affair: Chapter Thirty-Nine
It wasn't often that Atanei found himself speechless, but he had to admit that the few times he had found himself in that state it had usually involved Kerensa Kalichi. Now here she was doing it again, recounting the events that had transpired on the other side of thing that she referred to as the portal, and rendering him incapable of any sensible response. He'd been astounded when Luke, in the process of sweet-talking him into piloting the Falcon, had explained about her Force abilities; but now he felt as though someone had hit him with a stun ray. It was a relief to feel the solidity of the control console beneath his fingers as he navigated the void between Mantrusia and his home world the cool touch of metal and ceramoplast was a welcome anchor to reality.
He glanced at Luke and Leia, noticing that Leia's face betrayed the same feelings he was experiencing: disbelief fluctuating with incomprehension. Luke, however, was listening carefully, his pale blue eyes focussed on some point beyond Kerensa's as if tracing the patterns inside her mind.
I wonder what it's like to be constantly in touch with a plane of existence that few others can visualise, let alone access?
For a moment, despite the various forms of frustration that Kerensa had provoked in him in the year and a half he had known her, he felt a wave of sympathy.
"Well, it certainly proves your instinct was right about the complex providing clues to the current situation," said Luke. "It also gives us an advantage in that we have actually found Queen Nerensai, and that so far we are the only ones who know about the portal."
"But we still don't know how it opens," Atanei reminded him. "Or why it only lets Kerensa through when the other similar devices admitted all of you."
"Yes, but the other doors, or whatever they are, only let us through because we were with Kerensa," said Leia. "So maybe it's some Mantrusian genetic thing."
Atanei thought about that for a moment and then frowned. "Except that you said the door you were working on seemed to be trying to open for Luke, and he's not Mantrusian."
"True," she sighed.
"It's a pity you didn't think to ask the old girl about it, Kerensa," said Atanei.
Kerensa rubbed her eyes wearily. "Surprising though this may sound, Atanei, I was a little bit overwhelmed by the whole experience, not to mention gobsmacked at discovering I'd been transported into another universe." A puzzled expression drew frown lines on her forehead, which then gave way to wry humour. "I can't believe I can say those two words another universe in a sentence and think it sounds so normal."
"Maybe the old biddy was lying," Atanei grunted.
Kerensa shook her head. "I'm pretty sure she wasn't. I couldn't sense any deceit in her."
"So you could sense her in the Force?" Luke studied her quizzically.
Kerensa rolled her eyes. "So much for my pledge. I seem to be using it more and more."
"I wasn't trying to put you on the spot," said Luke gently. "I was confirming that she existed in the Force as opposed to being some kind of illusion."
"Oh, she was flesh and blood all right, right from her pointy pumps to her wrinkled old brow. And the garden where she lived was as real as this ship." She stretched out and patted the wall. "Ancient she may be, but she's as alive as you or me."
"You're sure the garden wasn't just another part of the Halpurnia complex itself?" asked Leia.
"I did consider that possibility, but Nerensai let me wander round. The plants and the building material were like nothing I've ever seen before, and the climate and time of day were all wrong. And then there are the records she has from the witches and their machines. They're ..." She held up her hands as if attempting to trace their appearance in the air, but then wearily let them fall to her side. "They're amazing," she murmured.
"Were they real witches?" asked Leia.
Kerensa shrugged. "I don't know. I'm simply repeating what Nerensai called them. There's no doubt they had mystical powers, and they must have ruled the other Mantrusia for an awfully long time, so I guess witches is as good a name as any."
"What sort of mystical powers?" Luke prompted.
"They could control the natural forces in their environment and the stronger ones could affect body processes so they could heal or destroy both people and animals. They were also pretty adept technologically, but that might have been just superior intelligence." She paused briefly and sighed. "If we weren't facing a potential war, I'd be beating a hasty path to the University of Bakhunia with all this."
"The average Mantrusian may not appreciate learning their antecedents were criminals," suggested Atanei dryly.
"True. Although it does explain a number of idiosyncratic things about Mantrusia."
The Iicin'ian glanced up from the course adjustments he was keying into the navicom, and threw her an amused look. "And about certain Mantrusians," he added laconically. "Even if they do have the benefit of some Iicini'ian genes."
"That's us. Nothing but thieves and swindlers," Kerensa retorted.
"The main worry in all this as far as I can see," said Luke, "the fortress. If Nerensai is correct and we have to assume that if anyone knows about Mantrusia's secrets it would be her and Kuzhak has discovered ... Patal was it?" He threw Kerensa a questioning look that she responded to with a nod. "If he's found Patal's old hideout, then he may have access to a lot of information about Nerensai as well as the witches and this ancient universe-hopping civilisation."
"Nerensai has all the witches' records. She came back to Mantrusia after the battle with the Old Republic and collected it all, and then destroyed the entrance to the fortress."
"Why?" Leia asked, dumbfounded.
"She was angry angry that her plans had failed. And grief-stricken that Patal had died. It took her a long time to get over that."
Leia studied the girl's face curiously. "You sound like you sympathise with her."
"I don't know what to think any more. The history I was taught represented her as a witch and a monster and yet the average native Mantrusian seems to regard her with a mixture of awe and affection."
"What's your feeling about her," asked Luke quietly.
Kerensa met his clear gaze. "She's old and tired, and terribly, terribly lonely," she replied.
Luke nodded slowly, and couldn't negate the strange feeling that Kerensa's description of Nerensai was partially true of her, too. He tried to analyse why he'd received that impression, but no answer was forthcoming.
"I think we need to examine all the facts we've learned so far," he said, "and see what we've got, going right back to what we were told at the start. Leia you met with Mon Mothma and Admiral Ackbar when the Iicini'ian Council first contacted us. What did they tell you?"
"Okay," said Leia, and began counting the points on her fingers. "One, they said that Palpatine had an interest in Mantrusia and was possibly dealing with Kuzhak through Professor Ban. Two, that Kuzhak and Ban had been involved in the excavation at Nerensai's old palace, but they'd stopped and moved to Secheniz. And three, that Kuzhak or someone had been using an old smugglers' system to communicate with Coruscant. But after Palpatine was killed, the communications stopped for a while and then recommenced with someone on Hocqyellen."
She paused to take a breath and recheck the accuracy of her memory before continuing. "At that point the general opinion was that they were looking for some artifact associated with Queen Nerensai, and obviously they'd drawn a blank at the palace."
"So why did they move to Secheniz?" asked Luke.
"When they moved there, Ban was still alive, so everyone assumed that he was making the decisions."
"So therefore he must have known about Patal's fortress," said Luke. "But would he have known it was built on top of one of the old cities?"
"No." Kerensa shook her head. "Nerensai said that the only two people who ever knew that the truth about the complex beneath the hideout were herself and Patal. It was their closely guarded secret."
"So what led Ban, and by implication Kuzhak, to Secheniz was their interest in Nerensai and whatever it is they're seeking in regard to her?"
"But surely they would have found the old city if they dug deep enough?" Leia frowned.
"Finding it and realising what it is are two very different things," said Luke. "The most important point is that they were not actually seeking the city, because they were only concerned with Nerensai herself. And their interest was quite obviously sparked in the first place by Palpatine."
"I know he had a team of researchers investigating unusual events throughout the galaxy," agreed Leia. "Partly to identify if Force-sensitives were involved so he could track them down, but also because he appeared to be curious about anything to do with the supernatural."
"Presumably he heard the legends about Nerensai, and something about them provoked him to start all this." Luke scratched his chin.
Leia turned to Kerensa. "What do the legends say?"
"That Nerensai was a witch, that she possessed perpetual youth and beauty, and according to my grandmother, that she would one day return to rule Mantrusia again."
Luke saw his sister's eyes widen, but for the moment he was occupied with the unwelcome image of the Emperor that had popped into his internal vision. He could see the man's sunken eyes and his cadaver-like features as clearly as if he was standing in front of him, and suddenly he was confident he had the answer.
"I'd say he wanted to learn about whatever it was that kept her from deteriorating," he said. "The one thing that all his dark side ability couldn't provide him with."
"Along with friends and a pleasant personality," Leia reminded him with a cruel smile.
"Then why is Kuzhak interested?" Atanei interposed. "He doesn't appear to have any deterioration problems not in any of the holos I've seen of him anyway."
"Kuzhak's into power," said Leia. "I think he's latched on to the idea of using the legend to incite people so they'll do his dirty work for him. And so far he's doing quite a good job, because Elozhi won't listen to anyone who tries to speak ill of him."
"So I wonder where the Hocqyellen connection comes in?" Luke mused.
"Funding," Leia replied quickly. "When Palpatine died, Kuzhak lost his financial support." She leaned forward in her seat, an intent expression on her face. "This is what I think has happened and feel free to interrupt me if you think I'm off target. Kuzhak's an ambitious man, so when he learned that Palpatine the ultimate in terms of power had tried to visit Elozhi, he decided to find out why, and if there was any way of turning it to his advantage. Palpatine decided Kuzhak would be useful, and no doubt he promised him something for his cooperation. He sent Ban to coordinate the search for Nerensai and probably also to keep Kuzhak in line. When Palpatine was killed, Kuzhak realised he was going to get nothing for all the trouble he'd gone to unless he capitalised on what he had. And what he had was quite a bit of knowledge about Nerensai, a fortress in Secheniz and possibly some Imperial resources men and equipment. He saw an opportunity to use the Mantrusians' belief in the old legends to create unrest so he can step in as the strong leader with the means to quell it."
The cabin was silent except for the thrum of the Falcon's engines. Leia glanced across at Luke to find him nodding pensively. He caught her eye and smiled, but Atanei was the first to speak.
"I'll buy into that theory." He nodded his dark head and threw Leia a nod of approval. "What you're saying is that Kuzhak's struck some deal with the Imps on Hocqyellen something along the lines of I'll give you guys Mantrusia if you let me govern it."
"It fits," nodded Leia. "And maybe he's going to let them use Mantrusia as a base to strike out at Iicini'ia and some of the other planets in this sector in order to gain Pestage's attention."
"And approval," added Luke.
"Makes sense," grunted Atanei, turning back to the console to respond to the proximity alert. "I guess the Empire would encourage any victory at the moment to make up for their failure at Endor. We'll be passing Besh Base in three minutes." He checked his wrist chrono. "Still time to get to that beach party and grind some Rogue asses into the sand."
Leia glanced at Kerensa expecting some acerbic retaliation, but the girl merely rolled her eyes. "Small things ..." she sighed.
"Well," said Atanei flashing a smile full of white teeth. "I guess you'll be getting used to things in that category, Kerensa."
She glared back, but appeared to bite back a response. "I guess I'll concede this round," she said breezily, "in recognition of your getting us there and back safely and for not damaging Han's ship."
Atanei's eyebrows rose in surprise. "My, my, you must be whacked," he said. "That's the closest thing to a compliment you've ever given me."
"Well, note it down, because it'll probably be the last."
Atanei chuckled, and set about the task of acknowledging the entry vector the controller at Besh Base had assigned them. Leia threw Kerensa a sympathetic look to which she replied with a wry grin.
"Are you sure you're okay?" Leia asked her quietly noting the girl's still pallid complexion.
She nodded. "Just really tired," she explained. "I'll be fine. Just need a sleep." She let her eyes drift up to the viewport apparently engrossed in the transition of the emerald and aquamarine ball into a world of oceans, verdant forests and cloud-piercing mountain ranges.
But Leia couldn't help thinking that Kerensa's apparent fixation with the image of Iicini'ia was her way of avoiding further conversation, and there was something about her expression that bothered her. It wasn't until later, when she was reviewing the scene, that she realised what it was. It was the look in the girl's dark eyes not the wistful and worried expression. That she could understand. No, it was the other one fleeting and almost well concealed. The look of despair.
As soon as the Falcon set down, Kerensa used exhaustion as an excuse to retreat home. She craved Wedge's presence and the comfort of his arms, at the same time realising that having him there would have created problems more difficult than she felt capable of dealing with. Although she hadn't been lying to Leia about her exhaustion, more than sleep she needed time to think and to try and answer the questions racing around in her head. By now Elozhi's pageant would have finished, and doubtless the people would have fulfilled the holographic Nerensai's demands. How soon would it be before Elozhi wanted to speak with Leia? How soon would she have to accompany her to Mantrusia?
And would she have the courage and the self-discipline to carry out what the ancient queen was asking her to do?
Especially when she knew what it was going to cost.
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