Gall, Gulls, Gallows

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"Her lucre is poorly hoarded," said Dhole, staring out a window at the courtyard below. The wide pool was full of squawking whelps, all overseen by parents hiding in the shade of wide-leafed trees. Her gaze focused squarely on one elegant woman reclining on a long chair. She appeared utterly composed, as if to defy her observers' ominous presence.

"Tell me about it." Egret held watch over the same woman through a pair of binoculars. Her short, mud-brown hair stuck out at odd angles, and she still reeked of sleep’s sweat.

"It is retained in transient numbers. Wealth is false until substantiated in silver or stone."

"Sure," chirped Egret in the sweet tone that was a mask of its own. "I keep telling my accountant, 'substantiate my wealth!' She just won’t listen to me."

The two of them watched wordlessly out the window, intermittently drinking water and eating trash. A television blared behind them, telling tale of sordid affairs, herbal remedies, and would-be rulers of the place called Florida. The target of their surveillance stayed in place all the while. Others came and went from the chair next to hers, stopping long enough to hold short conversations, but none stayed for long.

"Who is this Sakarya, to so vex our houndmaster?" asked Dhole, scratching the side of her canine mask absentmindedly.

"Really, stop calling the Overseer that," said her unpleasant companion around a mouthful of candy. She loudly chewed a few more times. "Anyway, aren’t you the expert on nature? You tell me."

"Her shadow stills in shifting light. She thinks herself a fortress."

"Sounds about right." Egret tossed the empty wrapper aside and downed most of a bottle of water in one long drink. "She chairs the Ethics Committee. Gives the yearly address. Tells everyone they’re all doing good things and to not worry over it."

"Do you doubt her?"

"We got different speeches in Alpha-1."

More meetings followed. Some visitors were clearly uncomfortable with the locale, while others looked more than happy to linger in their bathing suits. Eventually, so many passed that they could only be remembered by barest features. Greased hair. Runed tattoos. Bone bracelets. Some held themselves like kings, others like peasants. All came to kneel in Sakarya’s makeshift court.

"They grovel well, do they not?"

"They’re scared. Lots of important people have been disappearing lately. Big holes opening up." Egret's crooked smile was apparent in her tone. "The Coalition’s still got all their big guns up in orbit pointing the wrong way, and the Autumn Firm don't get their hands dirty anymore, so who else could be responsible but the big, scary Foundation? They’re all coming to beg off our list, not that she can help."

Dhole sniffed loudly and shook her head. She knew the type too well. "A magister should not seek to rule swine, no matter their number."

"Yeah, I don’t think the Overseer likes her much either."

"Will she die today?"

Egret laughed, and sounded all the more like a songbird for it. Even the barking of a dog would have been better. "Do you want to do it yourself? Something get your blood boiling?"

"'twas reasonable to ask. Your wake invites it."

"Fair enough. She's living through the day as far as I know. We're here to deliver a message."

"A return to my question, then."

"Not that kind of message. Sakarya's getting important enough to be trouble. The Overseer wants her to understand how things really work. Problem is, Alpha-1's being real antsy about standing between the Council and the Committee. Bunch of cowards."

"So, a message."

"Right. Just a quick talk."

"Have you given thought to your knotted empire?"

"Don't need to. The Overseer will work things out. She's managed until now."

"The past is a poor sage. History a famous liar."

Egret said nothing to that, but she hardly needed to. Dhole knew well enough what would happen when their master's plotting finally collapsed. A bloodless coup was but a fantasy of plotters and schemers. To overturn was to cause disorder, and to cause disorder was to do violence. The form of that violence may differ, but she had no doubt that she would be thrust into its midst.

Dhole avoided the notice of the uninitiated as well as ever. It was a necessary thing, when so many in this world viewed her as an oddity. She slunk behind Egret, rough poolside scraping her bare feet, doing her best to not see odd patterns on the tall woman's freckled back. The sun beat down incessantly, and even the scant fabric of her swimsuit felt like too much. No one else seemed as abused by the heat. For all the screaming of children, the vacationers looked supremely confident in their safety. The feeling was not mutual.

Harm was wished upon her from nearby. The sensation came naturally, just as her judge of worth at a glance. There was caution to the wish, trepidation, but harm all the same. A quick look to each side revealed nothing. Was a sunbather armed? A parent? A child? The nature of the threat eluded her, as did its source. The sensation had never been sharper, save the day her life fell apart. Surviving another collapse would be one miracle too far.


"I know."


"I know."

"Then bare your own teeth! What other merit has a mongrel?"

"You're the one attracting all the attention. Take off the stupid mask already."

"As soon as you strip face from skull."

Dhole jerked back as Egret swatted blindly behind her. Truly a brute in every way. They rounded the corner of the poolside toward the sovereign's seat. The creeping chill of a threat grew into the tingling touch of anticipated ruin. A drawn blade. A caressed trigger. She could not quench the feeling. Egret's leisurely pace could only be a result of her blindness to the danger. Her lithe movements a sign of numb ignorance. A leering gull squawked loudly at her. Never had an omen been so clear.

Sakarya's throne sat under a cluster of drooping palms. The shade was not absolute, beads of sunlight drifted back and forth, tracing irregular paths between blades of grass and over her reclining body. Reclining was not the right word to describe the sleek woman. Lounging, perhaps, in the style that demanded supreme confidence. A master of her surroundings, like a stray perched atop an overfull dumpster. Like someone soon to be chastened by fate. She lifted her mirrored glasses long enough to show dark, demanding eyes. Undoubtedly, a form made to match spirit.

"You aren't on my schedule," she said with all the finality of a royal hangman.

"You can make room," said Egret with all the unflappability of a gallows' survivor.

No bodyguards intervened to break the tension between them. No knights rode to the defense of their liege. Even the tingling sensation failed to rise higher up her spine as Egret sat down on the spare lawn chair that had seated the endless stream of supplicants. They made for an odd sorting of power. Dhole, who knew herself to be entirely without might, stood tall behind Egret, who herself overflowed with personal violence. Though arrayed beneath them both, Sakarya was clearly mightier by far. She was armored in the iron of an institution. She bristled with all its ire. Small wonder so many chose to grovel.

"Five minutes," she said.

"My employer wants to commend you," said Egret, repeating the words she had been practicing late into the night. "You're truly impressive, Chairwoman. You've risen quickly. Unified your people. A real leader is something rare. Take it as a compliment from someone who has struggled to do the same."

"I appreciate that. I might appreciate it even more if I knew my admirer's name."

"Put some of those impressive resources to use if you're curious. What's the point of poaching them from the rest of the Foundation otherwise?"

"You've got an odd way of asking for help."

"We're not here to grovel," chirped Egret, clearly pleased at a chance to steal Dhole's phrase. "You heard my employer's compliment, now listen to their offer. Your influence in the Foundation has grown. Their influence has always been wide. They say a partnership for stability would behoove you both."

Sakarya raised her glasses again, and for the first time truly seemed to be looking at the two of them. The claws of danger dug a little deeper into Dhole's back. "It behooves me to carry on. Whoever your employer is, they can rest easy. I don't plan on changing anything that doesn't need it."

"My employer would prefer if you didn't muck around more with anything at all. You lifted up the Ethics Committee, good. My employer knows they can do important work. Now leave well enough alone. Do that, and you can have anything you want."

The silence that followed was immediate and uncomfortable. Sakarya stretched and shifted, Egret flexed her fingers against each other, and both seemed to consider the other an unworthy opponent. A joint popped, a sigh escaped, and Dhole could not help but feel like each had misjudged. The thug in making every word a threat. The ruler in not considering the offer behind the words. She could not speak to the state of the mysterious Foundation, but a brokered peace must be better than a needless war.

"Don't be in such a hurry," said Egret. "Your plans are going to ruin everything."

"What do you know about my plans?"

"Me? Nothing. My employer knows about everything."

"They should have come in person, then."

"They're too busy for that. Busier than you, if you've got time for vacations. You don't need to answer today. Consider the offer: a powerful friend and anything you could want, all for a little bit of patience."

"I don't have time for this." Sakarya shooed Egret away with a casual wave of her hand. "I won't report you to your superiors in Alpha-1. Tell the Council not to send anyone else. They're already on my list."

"Do I look like I work for them? Would I be dragging around this weirdo? Dhole, show her." Was she supposed to roll over and play dead? Beg for treats? Still, if this was what it took to walk away from the tense conference faster…

Dhole pulled a single coin from her hoard. It was old silver of a denomination that escaped her memory. The stern face carved into one side was quickly buried by more and more coins, until she held a tiny mountain of precious metals in her hands. It was a comforting weight. Still, she cast it back into its rightful place as soon as the point was made.

"A nice trick," said Sakarya.

"You know better than that. Especially you," said Egret. She seemed to weigh the next words on some invisible scale. Balanced against what though? Spite? Malevolence? Obligation? A decision was made regardless. "How's a wizard's kid not going to recognize magic when she sees it?"

One corner of the woman's mouth drew back and open, exposing a bare glimpse of perfect teeth. An unpleasant expression on a pleasant face. A revelation of a single mar in a sterling history. The sudden stillness in the air was a sign of its magnitude. The sudden quiet, a sign of its truth. Chairwoman Sakarya, leader of the Ethics Committee and a star ascendant, raised a firm hand from her side into the air. The amorphous danger in the air tightened to a tight bead at the center of her Dhole's back.

"You know that won't help," said Egret. "Blow my head off, sure. Who do I represent though? Who comes running after? Worse, who hears about your secret? Think you can keep your job ethically after that? Conflicts of interest are scary things."

Sakarya paused, and for a moment she seemed ready to finish her signal all the same. It would have served Egret justly, death for taking such joy in this affair. To have the act finally reciprocated upon herself. Dhole tensed, and fully expected to die first. Why shouldn't it, when nothing else had been right in this world? The ominous hand lowered, the threat disarmed.

"Leave. Now."

"Just think on the deal. My employer would have ruined you already if they wanted to. Your goals aren't any different. Keep the peace. Protect humanity. This doesn't need to be a war against the world unless you make it one. My employer can help, if you let them."

The elegant woman turned her head away, and the matter was clearly done. Egret stood, and Dhole followed her back along the poolside. She had been used for base deception. Worse, her life had been put in peril for that poor veil. All the same, she found herself unable to summon up scalding fury as they padded through the hotel's carpeted corridors. It flickered, sputtered, and finally burned out. Anger was born of shock, and Dhole had none left for her life's handling. Egret would spend it on nothing at all if given the chance, just as easy as she pushed coins into the vending machine across from their room.

"Twix?" asked the fang given flesh. "Snickers?" asked the weight and chain dragging her deep into the world's morass.

"You would have seen us slain, in her place," said Dhole, from her seat in the burgundy sedan as it crawled down the crowded highway. The sun was low, the scrublands' shadows long, and the world itself seemed to be dozing serenely.

"Oh, definitely," said Egret.

"Then why risk an appearance before her?"

"Some messages have to be delivered in person."

"Will she agree?"

"Who knows? Ego gets in the way for people like her. Worst case, we'll have to send a different kind of message. She'll follow the Overseer eventually. You'll see."

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