Raven Stratagem (The Machineries of Empire, #2)(6)

Her palm hurt. Khiruev discovered that she had been jabbing herself with a screwdriver and stopped. Briefly, she considered removing her weapons so that formation instinct didn’t compel her to commit suicide rather than put her plan in motion, but that wouldn’t work. It would raise suspicions at high table. Her glove had a small tear in it, which knit itself back together as she watched.

The best way to proceed, it turned out, was to break down the task of assembly into the smallest imaginable subtasks so that she didn’t have to think about the end product. (She tried not to think about who she’d learned that from.) She had to scratch out some of the intermediate computations for the correct numerical resonances on a corner of her workbench, an endeavor complicated by the bench’s tendency to heal itself after a few moments. At least it got rid of the immediate evidence. It wasn’t hard to read the marks out of the material’s memory—she could do it herself with the right kind of scanner—but you had to know to do it in the first place.

Khiruev’s chest hurt, and she paused. Her hand ached from how tightly she was gripping the screwdriver. She brought it up so the blade pointed at her lower eyelid. It wouldn’t take much force to drive it into her eye.

She was a traitor no matter what she did. There was no way to be loyal both to Kel Command and to her general. She angled the screwdriver so it—

I have to kill him, Khiruev thought desperately. She couldn’t leave the swarm in the madman’s hands, not when it was needed to defend the hexarchate against the Hafn. Khiruev forced herself to lower the screwdriver. Then she dropped it with a clatter and put her head in her hands, breathing hard. She had to complete the assassination drone no matter what.

The drone, when she finished it, wasn’t one of her better efforts. It looked like nothing so much as a sickly cockroach. She rigged the needler unit using seven-and nineteen-circuits scavenged from a music box, of all things, instead of the preferred semiprime circuit, but it couldn’t be helped.

The next step was programming the drone to recognize its target. Triggering it manually would have been better, but if she’d had the ability to do that, she would have been able to shoot Jedao in the back in the first place. The drone had a basic optic system. She’d cribbed from the mothgrid for the leanest pattern recognition routine she could load into its processor and given it the videos from Captain Cheris’s profile. She had a bad several moments when her own vision shorted out while she was feeding the drone the data. Luckily, the process didn’t require much more intervention on her part. By the time it was done, she was drenched in sweat, but her vision had mostly returned.

No wonder the Shuos had never gone in for formation instinct. Not being able to assassinate their own hexarchs, historically a popular Shuos pastime, would have driven them up the wall.

Khiruev gritted her teeth and shoved the drone into her boot. With any luck it wouldn’t shoot her foot by accident. Only forty-nine minutes until high table. Had it really taken her that long? But she knew the answer to that question. She spent fourteen of those minutes taking a shower, which did not relax her at all, and twenty-nine minutes putting everything away. The shelves looked like a war zone, but that was normal.

Her left boot felt disproportionately heavy all the way to the high hall, even though she knew the drone’s mass to an improbable number of significant figures. She arrived six minutes early, no more and no less. It didn’t reassure her that she arrived within sixteen seconds of General Jedao. Commander Janaia showed up two minutes after that, but she had always been slightly lackadaisical.

“Good to see you, General,” Jedao said, as though a normal working relationship was possible. “Shall we?”

Jedao took his seat at the head table. Khiruev sat at his right hand, Janaia at his left, Stsan at the other end of the table. The senior staff officers arranged themselves after a moment’s hesitation.

Servitors were bringing out the food in trays. Janaia wasn’t paying any attention to them, instead casting surreptitious glances at the cup Jedao had brought to high table, even though one had been provided for him, after modern tradition. The fact that Jedao had remembered the tradition was more important than the cup itself, a plain metal affair. Morbidly, Khiruev wondered if the cup had belonged to Captain Cheris.

Jedao inclined his head to the servitor that delivered his chopsticks and spoon. Curious: Khiruev had never seen an officer do that before. Or anyone, for that matter. The servitor, a birdform with extra limbs, made a cautious quizzical sound. It probably knew as much about Hellspin Fortress as any of the humans, although it had never before occurred to Khiruev to wonder how much machine sentiences cared about history. Jedao cocked an eyebrow at it. The servitor chirred thoughtfully and went on with its work.

“All right,” Jedao said in a voice that was clearly audible without being too loud, “this didn’t matter aboard the needlemoth, but I’d be much obliged if someone would tell me if there are any crashingly important rules for how to eat this stuff. Especially the rolled-up seaweed things. Do I use my fingers or what?”

Janaia was startled into a laugh. “We’re not Andan, sir. Getting it into your mouth without dropping it is the important part.”

“The ‘rolled-up seaweed things’ are mostly vegetables and fish inside,” Khiruev felt obliged to add, “unless the servitors are feeling experimental.”

“Good to know,” Jedao said. “At least you can’t do creative experimental things to chopsticks. I recognize those.” He took the water pitcher, filled his cup, and sipped. All the Kel watched him intently. He had to be aware of it, but his expression was serene.

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