Raven Stratagem (The Machineries of Empire, #2)(5)

Mother Ekesra let go. The corpse-paper remnant of her husband drifted to the floor with a horrible crackling noise. But she wasn’t done; she believed in neatness. She knelt to pick up the sheet and began folding it. Paper-folding was an art specific to the Vidona. It was also one of the few arts that the Andan faction, who otherwise prided themselves on their dominance of the hexarchate’s culture, disdained.

When Mother Ekesra was done folding the two entangled swans—remarkable work, worthy of admiration if you didn’t realize who it had once been—she put the horrible thing down, went into Mother Allu’s arms, and began to cry in earnest.

Khiruev stood there for the better part of an hour, trying not to look at the swans out of the corner of her eye and failing. Her hands felt clammy. She would rather have hidden in her room, but that couldn’t be the right thing to do. So she stayed.

During those terrible minutes (seventy-eight of them; she kept track), Khiruev promised she wouldn’t ever make either of her mothers cry like that. All the same, she couldn’t stand the thought of joining the Vidona, even to prove her loyalty to the hexarchate. For years her dreams were filled with folded paper shapes that crumpled into the wet, massy shapes of people’s hearts, or flayed themselves of folds until nothing remained but a string-tangle of forbidden numbers.

Instead, Khiruev ran toward the Kel, where there would always be someone to tell her what to do and what was right. Unfortunately, she had a significant aptitude for the military and the ability to interpret orders creatively when creativity was called for. She hadn’t accounted for what she’d do if promoted too high.

As it turned out, 341 years of seniority rendered the matter moot.

KHIRUEV WAS IN her quarters, leaning against the wall and trying to concentrate on her boxes of gadgets. Her vision swam in and out of focus. All the blacks had shifted gray, and colors were desaturated. With her luck, her hearing would go next. She felt feverish, as though someone was using her bones for fuel. None of this came as a surprise, but it was still a rotten inconvenience.

After quizzing everyone about the cindermoth, the swarm, and the swarm’s original assignment, and making Khiruev relay his latest orders to the swarm, Jedao had retired to quarters. This had occasioned a certain amount of shuffling, since Jedao was now the ranking officer. Khiruev didn’t mind. The servitors had done their usual excellent job on short notice. But Commander Janaia, who liked her luxuries and hated disruptions, had looked quietly annoyed.

Five hours and sixty-one minutes remained until high table. Jedao had scheduled a staff meeting directly after that. Khiruev had that time in which to devise a way to assassinate her general without resorting to the Vrae Tala clause. Vrae Tala was more certain, but she thought she could get the job done without it. She wasn’t eager to commit suicide.

If she hadn’t been a Kel, Khiruev would have taken the direct route and shot Jedao in the back. But then, if she hadn’t been a Kel, Jedao wouldn’t have been able to take over so easily. Presumably Kel Command had no idea that Jedao was walking around in Captain Cheris’s body, or they would have issued a warning in response to Khiruev’s earlier inquiries.

As it was, it would be difficult to get into position to shoot Jedao without formation instinct asserting itself. Contemplating the assassination was already agonizing, and Jedao wasn’t anywhere in sight. And Khiruev was a general, nearest in rank. She was the only one with a chance of resisting formation instinct. The effect would strengthen with more exposure. If she was going to pull this off, she had to make her attempt soon.

Khiruev had always liked tinkering with machines, a pastime her parents had tolerated rather than encouraged. When on leave, she poked around disreputable little shops in search of devices that didn’t work anymore so she could rehabilitate them. Some of her projects came together better than others, and furthermore she was never sure what to do with the ones she did succeed in fixing. Currently her collection contained a frightening number of items in various stages of disassembly. Janaia had remarked that the servitors scared baby servitors by telling them that this was where they’d end up if they misbehaved.

The important point was that she had access to components without having to put in a request to Engineering. She had considered doing so anyway, since dubious military equipment was two steps up from dubious equipment she had bought from shopkeepers who beamed when paid for shiny pieces of junk. Still, she couldn’t risk arousing the suspicions of some soldier in Engineering who would report her to Jedao.

Khiruev nerved herself up, wishing she didn’t feel so dreadful, then gathered the components she needed. Small was good; small was best. It took her an unconscionably long time to lay everything out on the workbench because she kept dropping things. Once a nine-coil rolled away behind the desk and it took her three tries to retrieve it, convinced all the while she was going to break it even though it was made of a perfectly sturdy alloy.

The tools were worse. She could halfway convince her traitorous brain that she was only rearranging her bagatelles. Self-deception about the tools was harder.

She had to finish this before high table, and to make matters worse, she also had to allow for recovery time. She wasn’t confident that Jedao wouldn’t see through her anyway. But the alternative was doing nothing. She owed her swarm better than that. If only Brezan had—but that opportunity had passed.

Khiruev reminded herself that if she had survived that biological attack during the Hjong Mu campaign, the one where she’d hallucinated that worms were chewing their way out of her eyes, a minor physical reaction shouldn’t slow her down. The physical effects weren’t even the issue. It was the recurrent stabbing knowledge that she was betraying a superior.

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