Raven Stratagem (The Machineries of Empire, #2)(10)

“You have my service, sir,” Khiruev said, “as long as you require it.”

Jedao smiled brilliantly at her, and Khiruev knew then how completely she’d been defeated.


WHEN RHEZNY BREZAN was a third-year cadet at Kel Academy Secondary, he learned why Exercise Purple 53 was listed as Purple Paranoia. His class had known that the exercise was coming, although not how bad it would be. A few years back, one class had drawn the one that involved lots of orbital bombardment. The consensus was that no one else would get as lucky so soon. Besides, two years ago, a new commandant had been appointed, and she had a reputation for designing no-win scenarios over breakfast.

The usual instructor was a stocky, graying man who never smiled. Brezan, sitting in the classroom with the other cadets, noticed the gleam in his eyes. Not a good sign. Next to him, Onuen Wei was taking slow, deep breaths, which meant she had noticed, too.

A slim manform entered the room. Brezan recognized the alt, who had worn any number of faces, all of them cheerfully ugly. The sight of their naked hands made Brezan’s stomach knot with revulsion. None of the cadets wore Kel gloves; they’d only earn that right upon graduation. But the newcomer’s unostentatious bearing gave the impression of great experience. The manform wore no faction or rank insignia. They didn’t have to. No one here dared cross them.

The room went dead silent.

“For this exercise,” the instructor said, “I’m handing you over to a guest instructor. Shuos Zehun is on loan to us from the Shuos hexarch.” Zehun was Hexarch Shuos Mikodez’s personal assistant, one of the few Shuos scarier than the hexarch himself. Zehun had switched to this face several months ago; it had been impossible to escape the news. “I expect you to accord Zehun the same respect and obedience you would myself or any Kel superior.” The instructor’s not-smile turned fiendish. “There’s every possibility that they know more ways of dismembering annoying cadets than I do.”

The threat wasn’t necessary. Everyone had heard about how Mikodez had assassinated two of his own cadets on a lark shortly after he rose to power.

“Pleased to meet you all,” Shuos Zehun said. Their voice was quiet but not soft.

The regular instructor nodded to them and walked out, whistling pointedly.

“All right,” Zehun said. “Come with me.”

They filed out after Zehun, walking down a long hall and through several passageways until they reached the variable-layout sections of Citadel 9. From that point on, Brezan concentrated on not looking too closely at the walls, whose angles seemed to be on the verge of shattering apart, or the floor, which put him in mind of great and restless snakes. Brezan’s bunkmate, an engineering candidate, liked to read trashy adventures set in the bowels of the campus. They inevitably involved rogue killer robots, the occasional talking ferret, and plucky cadets who never ran out of ammunition. Brezan had tried some and found them unnaturally compulsive reading. Of course, most of the adventures had happy endings. Nothing involving a Shuos could possibly have a happy ending.

At last they reached a door. Brezan’s eyes refused to focus on it, so instead he looked at the Shuos. The fact that Zehun’s right hand never strayed from their side was unreassuring. Brezan couldn’t spot a weapon, but that didn’t mean anything.

“You’re wondering why you’re having a fox lobbed at you,” Zehun said. “I’ll be frank. Your commandant lost a bet with my hexarch. For reasons beyond my understanding, my hexarch is letting her off light.”

This didn’t make Brezan feel better, either.

“That being said, we might as well make the most of the situation. When I give you leave, you’ll enter the door single-file. Inside, you’ll arrive at a desk with an envelope on it and a pen to write with. I advise opening the envelope straightaway, because while this scenario is turn-based, the turns are timed. Six minutes per tick, to be exact.”

Brezan thought for a moment. “Sir, a question.”

“Your name, fledge.”

Aggravating to be addressed thus by a non-Kel, but as a guest instructor, Zehun was within their rights. Not to mention that it would be suicidal to cry insult against a hexarch’s assistant. “Cadet Rhezny Brezan, sir.”

“Your question.”

“Is there a clock in the room?” He’d noticed that his augment was being uncommunicative.

Zehun smiled suddenly. “No.”

Wonderful. Brezan decided that he could wait to find out more rather than sticking his neck out any further. He tried not to think about what his Kel sister Miuzan would have said. Her “I’m going to be more Kel than everyone” taunt had been the bane of his existence when he was little.

“Most of the instructions will be in the paperwork,” Zehun said, “but the scenario is basically this. You’re part of a Kel task force sent to deal with an insurrection at an isolated city. You’ve been given information that one of you is a crashhawk working with the insurrectionists, but the informant died before being able to finger the traitor. Good luck figuring out the situation.”

A crashhawk: one of those rare Kel for whom the injection of formation instinct failed. Brezan’s lip curled in distaste. He was looking forward to a chance to smash the traitor.

Wei wanted to ask a question, and received permission. “Sir, what is the win condition?”

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