Raven Stratagem (The Machineries of Empire, #2)(11)

“Let me put it this way,” Zehun said. “You’ll know immediately if you lose.”

No one else had a question.

“All right,” Zehun said, “in you go.”

The door opened. It was impossible to see what lay beyond it. Brezan saw in the shimmer-haze his signifier, the Ashhawk Sundered, with the headachy sensation that meant that everyone was seeing something different, probably their own signifiers. He was reminded that his older sister Miuzan had fetched up with a much more respectable Ashhawk Vigilant, although the last time they’d both been home, their oldest father had told Miuzan to shut up about a stupid personality test done up in pictures and go clean the family’s staggering collection of antique guns. In retrospect, he should have gone into sound engineering like his oldest sister. Then he wouldn’t be here sweating over a Shuos’s sense of humor, which was bound to have teeth in it.

The line was moving. Brezan clenched his jaw in spite of himself when his turn came. Astonishingly, it didn’t hurt to cross the threshold, although he had braced for it. For a scrabbling moment he couldn’t tell where his hands and feet were in relation to the rest of his body. He knew better than to freeze, though. Who knew what happened to people who got stuck in the door. Then he rediscovered which way was up and which was down, and he was standing alone in the room.

The room had walls of glassy black brick, if anyone made bricks that gave the impression of great unfolding wings when you looked at them out of the corners of your eyes. Brezan shook himself out of gaping at the walls—careless, he ought to know better—and approached the desk. The desk and its accompanying chair were, to his relief, ordinary. He took up the envelope, which was of pale, creamy paper. The moment he touched it, he knew something was off. Who the hell wasted mulberry paper of this quality on a training exercise? On the occasions that the academy used actual paper instead of gridpaper, it favored the slightly waxy stuff made to be used with grease pencils.

The first item in the envelope was a map of the city and its garrison, both undoubtedly fictional. Of course, there were a lot of lonely cities on isolated moons in the hexarchate, so who knew. The map had been copied out by hand by someone with an artist’s sensitivity. The envelope also contained two more maps, thankfully just printouts, giving estimated dispositions and a terse rundown of critical installations. Any moment now he was going to blink and they would turn into treasure maps written in ghost ichor, like in his bunkmate’s adventure stories.

The next set of papers talked unhelpfully about the insurrectionists—dubbed the Purples, for obscure reasons—and the Purples’ first move. They had assassinated a visiting Andan potentate. He was probably not the only one thinking good riddance, although the Andan in question had to be fictitious, too. Kel-Andan relations had been strained for the past decade.

After that came the rules, including a reminder that a turn lasted six minutes. He was to keep the maps and other materials. There was a single sheet of blank paper. He could address his move to a single unit or to a fellow cadet, and it all had to fit on the sheet. The rules said nothing about how legible your handwriting had to be. Moves had to be stuffed back into the envelope before turn’s end. The envelope would scan and convey the sheet’s contents to the instructor. A bell would tell him when to open the envelope for the next move.

Then he reached the final instruction. It was on a smaller sheet, on even nicer paper, and it had been calligraphed beautifully. Brezan had taken the obligatory calligraphy lessons and was only passable with a brush, but he knew beauty when he saw it. For a moment the aesthetics distracted him from what the instruction said.

You are the crashhawk, the sheet informed him. It gave the rules by which he could give orders to Purple units and what he was allowed to do to the Kel. The rules were succinct, elegant, and brutal. He had no idea what roles had been assigned to the other cadets, but he could already see ways to maneuver to find out.

“Fuck you,” Brezan said out loud, although it was certain that he was being monitored. He wasn’t going to be a traitor.

He had gone through First Formation like all the other cadets after the initial injection of formation instinct, but he had barely passed. Not a crashhawk, a formation-breaker, but the next best thing to one. Had Shuos fucking Zehun assigned him the role on purpose, as a test?

I am going to beat you, Brezan thought. But he had to do it by the rules. He wouldn’t cheat the way a Shuos might. Tempting as it was.

Six minutes couldn’t have elapsed already, assuming Zehun had told the truth about that. Brezan’s hands were sweating. He knew what he needed to do. No sense in delaying.

If he was the crashhawk, then technically he was a Purple unit.

He picked up the pen and wrote, Order for Rhezny Brezan, Purple unit. Assist any Kel unit that contacts you to the best of your ability.

Brezan stuffed the paper in the envelope. There were ink stains on his thumb and forefinger. He had a fit of anxiety over whether he’d written neatly enough, but he refrained from reopening the envelope.

There, he thought savagely, and waited to be booted from the exercise.

It wasn’t long in coming. Five moves in, a slip of paper informed him that he’d died in a Purple bombing of a university while directing a Kel squad working as riot police during a demonstration. Vidona work, except in the exercise there were not enough Vidona to be had.

There was a knock at the door. “Come out if you’re done reading your fate,” a voice said. It was Zehun. “You can bring the materials or leave them, your choice.”

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