Raven Stratagem (The Machineries of Empire, #2)(7)

Khiruev had the urge to fish the drone out of her boot and confess everything. Jedao, however, was passing the cup her way. The cup felt like an ordinary object in her hand, and the water was the same clear, sweet water she was used to drinking. In a just world it would burn out her throat—Stop that, she told herself. She passed the cup to her right, her fingers numb.

Janaia persisted in trying to make small talk. “I don’t suppose military food was any better in your day.”

Jedao’s mouth quirked. “You were made a moth Kel directly, weren’t you, Commander?”

“That’s correct, sir,” Janaia said. “I got lucky. Don’t care for dirtside all that much. Flowers are nice, but you don’t need a whole planet to grow them.”

Khiruev couldn’t fault Janaia. The Kel in the high hall were terrified. Hardly anyone was talking, and everyone was fixated on Jedao’s table. Janaia knew as well as anyone what kind of threat Jedao posed. She was also doing her best, by acting as if nothing was out of the ordinary, to keep people from panicking entirely. Khiruev should have been doing the same, no matter how rattled she was.

“I ate some awful things when I started in the infantry,” Jedao said. “When I was a lieutenant, we were once trapped behind enemy lines. Eventually I had to shoot two people for fighting over who got to eat the maggots.”

“We don’t have maggots that we know of,” Stsan said, “but some of the servitors enjoy hunting. Captain-engineer Miugo tells me that they sometimes leave their kills at her door, like a cat might. Thankfully Miugo has a strong stomach.”

“Point them out to me?” Jedao said.

“Rakish-looking man over there,” Janaia said, waving her spoon, “hair pinned up in braids.”

“Ah, I see him.” Jedao turned to the rest of the table and invited the staff to introduce the rest of themselves more fully. He learned that Lieutenant Colonel Najjad of Logistics had three children, and either found it genuinely interesting that the middle child was a researcher in comparative linguistics, or was faking it very well. The acting head of Intelligence, Major Lyu, was drawn into a friendly debate on some opening gambit in an obscure Shuos board game. Only Operations remained uncommunicative, but Jedao seemed amused rather than offended.

For her part, Khiruev wondered how the history lessons that had gone into such loving detail on the tactics that had won the Battle of Candle Arc could have failed to mention how chatty Jedao was, to say nothing of the astonishingly filthy Andan jokes he knew. Upon reflection, Khiruev realized she had only the haziest notion of how the black cradle provided immortality. It had always been rumored that the device acted more as a prison than anything else. Maybe Jedao was starved for conversation after centuries.

The high hall became, if anything, more tense over the course of the meal. The Kel were waiting to find out just how Jedao meant to massacre them. I’m going to fight the Hafn, Jedao had said. How serious was he? Even if he had good intentions, an unlikely proposition, he had to know that Kel Command was unlikely to allow him to run around unmolested.

Jedao had only eaten half his rice by the end of high table. He set his chopsticks down and said, “We may as well head straight to the meeting. I trust you all know what to do.” He drained his cup, stood, and nodded to the officers at the table before heading out of the high hall with the cup hooked to his belt.

The Kel watched him go in silence. “Commander,” Khiruev said politely to Janaia before filing out of the hall with the staff heads. She had to admit she had no idea what Jedao intended for her specifically. It hadn’t escaped her attention that Jedao had fished for little of her personal history, although there had been no other sign of disfavor, and Khiruev didn’t like talking about her family anyway. Even so, she ached with the desire to make herself useful to her superior.

She couldn’t afford to think about what she was going to do next. Her vision was faltering around the edges again. And her left foot cramped. She clenched her jaw and walked on.

The designated conference room wasn’t far from the high hall. Khiruev caught up to Jedao mainly because Jedao kept pausing to admire the art on the walls: ashhawks rising from devastated cities, ashhawks nesting on improbable spires, ashhawks tearing through storm clouds. Khiruev had come to take Kel decor for granted years ago, but now that she looked at it anew, she admitted it was on the gaudy side, with flourishes in couched gold thread and beads of amber. For that matter, she had no idea how the Kel had decorated their moths during Jedao’s lifetime, but given how many times he had allegedly been revived, surely the hangings couldn’t be that much of a shock?

“I should stop gawking or I’m going to be late to my own damn meeting,” Jedao said to Khiruev as she fell into step half a pace behind him. “Did you know I used to wear a watch? I haven’t seen one of those in a couple centuries. Er, you probably have no idea what I’m—”

This was getting into uncomfortable territory. “I’ve seen a few,” Khiruev said. “Antique stores, with the guts removed so they’ll be in no condition to do anything heretical to the calendar.”

Jedao snorted. “Why am I not surprised.”

The conference room’s door slid open at Jedao’s approach. Irrationally, Khiruev was surprised that the far wall was still imaging the last thing she’d set it to, an ink painting of a gingko tree. The original was attributed to General Andan Zhe Navo, although it was anyone’s guess as to whether she had really painted it.

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