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

As it turned out, things were about to get worse.

“Sir, a needlemoth is requesting permission to land,” Communications said to the general. “The transport bears one Captain Kel Cheris for transfer.”

Who the hell was the captain that she rated a needlemoth, anyway? Brezan had never seen one in person, although they turned up all the time in spy dramas. Scan had put it on the central display. It looked like it’d hold a person and a half, if the scale was to be believed.

“Not late yet,” Khiruev said with an equanimity Brezan wished he shared. “Colonel Brezan, make the arrangements.”

“Sir,” Brezan said. He dispatched instructions to the mothgrid to be passed on to the captain. She’d be staying in one of the nicer guest rooms rather than with the command moth’s infantry complement, as befitted her courier status.

Just then they received a report that a Hafn swarm had been spotted on the way to the Fortress of Spinshot Coins. Like Scattered Needles, Spinshot Coins was one of the hexarchate’s nexus fortresses, which maintained calendrical stability throughout the realm. Unless everyone adhered to the high calendar and its associated systems of behavior, the hexarchate’s exotic technologies—most notably the mothdrive that permitted fast travel between star systems—would cease to function. The nexus fortresses had been designed to magnify the effect of calendrical observances.

The Hafn, not being stupid, were focusing their efforts on the fortresses. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the Hafn had demonstrated that their exotic technology functioned in hexarchate space, where the high calendar was dominant. It shouldn’t have been possible, yet here they were. Still, the general had orders to protect the nexus fortresses at all costs. Who knew what the Hafn would be able to pull if they got calendrical terrain lined up on their side?

“Scoutmoth 19 says there are possible scan ghosts,” Communications was saying when someone entered the command center.

Brezan started, mainly because he had studied Cheris’s profile extensively. While he expected her to report to the command center, the newcomer didn’t move like her. The medical records and kinesthetic data had showed that Cheris had the standard body language that Kel infantry were imprinted with in Academy. This woman moved with the deceptive efficiency of an assassin. Brezan began to snap a reprimand. Instead, the words stuck to his teeth.

Captain Kel Cheris was short, with yellow-pale skin, an oval face, and black hair worn in a regulation bob. Those weren’t what surprised him. At least they matched the profile.

Besides the jarring body language, he noticed her uniform. Kel black-and-gold, like that of almost everyone in the command center, except her insignia should have been a captain’s talon. Instead, she sported a general’s wings. Beneath the wings was a Shuos eye. To say nothing of her gloves, Kel-black, but with no fingers.

Brezan froze up. He knew what the insignia meant, what the fingerless gloves meant. Occasionally the Shuos, who specialized in information operations, were seconded to Kel service. They wore the ninefox eye to indicate their faction of origin. But no Shuos general had served among the Kel for four centuries.

No living Shuos general, anyway.

General Khiruev had risen from her seat. “That joke’s in terrible taste, fledge,” she said in her mild voice. Nevertheless, people flinched from ‘fledge’: the Kel only said that to cadets, in public anyway. “Fix the insignia and take off the gloves. Now.”

During his lifetime, General Shuos Jedao had been one of the Kel’s best officers. Then Hellspin Fortress had happened. Brezan considered it proof of Kel Command’s psychosis that their response to Jedao going comprehensively insane was to stick him in an immortality device to repair his mind, then add him to the Kel Arsenal on the grounds that Jedao was scarier than they were, so why not weaponize him?

The half-gloves that Jedao had worn in life had been out of fashion in the hexarchate for a good four centuries, and with excellent cause.

“Oh, come now,” Cheris said. She spoke with a drawl.

A terrible suspicion curdled in Brezan’s mind. Granted, the hexarchate was home to a staggering number of low languages in addition to the high language, but Brezan made a point of getting to know people’s origins, even when those origins were as hopelessly obscure as that of the Mwennin. He’d listened to samples of Mwennin poetry-chants—he didn’t even like poetry when it was in one of his native tongues—and they had, if anything, sounded like rapid torrents of sibilants. It was possible that the Mwennin had multiple languages themselves, but he doubted any sounded like Jedao’s native drawl, which he remembered from the archive videos he’d viewed in academy.

“Doctrine,” Khiruev said, “escort her out of the command center and lock her up. I’ll deal with her later. If Kel Command intends this as a puzzle, it can wait until things are less hectic here.”

The Doctrine officer got up.

Cheris didn’t even glance in their direction. “General Khiruev,” she said, “I believe you’ve served at your present rank for fifteen years.”

Brezan’s suspicion sharpened.

The muscles along Khiruev’s jaw went taut. “That’s correct.”

“I’m Shuos Jedao. I’ve held the rank of general for a good three centuries and change.”

“That’s not possible,” Khiruev said after a second.

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