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"Her lucre is poorly hoarded," said Dhole, staring out a wide window at the courtyard below. The wide pool was full of squawking whelps, overseen by parents lounging in the shade of wide-leafed trees. The focus of her attention lay across a long chair, an elegant woman basking in the sunlight and apparently unaware of the attention focused on her.

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

"It is retained in transient numbers," said Dhole, absentmindedly scratching one side of her wooden visage, a mask carved into the face of a hound. "Wealth is false until substantiated in silver or stone."

"Sure," chirped Egret in the pleasant 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 candy bars. 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.

"Really, stop calling the Overseer that," said Egret 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’s on 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." Dhole could tell how little she wanted to speak of the matter by her cheer.

More meetings followed. Some participants were clearly uncomfortable with the locale, while others looked more than happy to linger in bathing suits. Eventually so many passed that they could only be remembered by barest features. Greased hair. Runed necklaces. Bone bracelets. Some held themselves like kings, some 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." Dhole could tell Egret was smiling crookedly without looking. "The Coalition’s still got all their big guns pointing the wrong way up in orbit, 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 tell Sakraya how they would love to toe whatever line she wants."

Dhole sniffed loudly and shook her head. There were plenty such people where she was from, wearing faces of the divine, but bearing the hearts of slugs. "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 crow for it. Even the barking of a dog would have been better. "Do you want to do it yourself, Dhole? Something get your blood boiling?"

"'twas a reasonable question. Your wake invites it."

"Fair enough. She's living through the day as far as I know. We're just 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 getting real antsy about getting 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 made them all get along for years."

"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. After all, 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 despite their shamelessly bare faces. She slunk behind Egret, rough poolside scratching her bare feet, doing her best to not see odd patterns on the tall woman's freckled back. The sun beat down incessantly, low and hot, and even the scant fabric of her swimsuit felt like too much. Their route across the poolside was casual and circuitous, but thankfully shaded by drooping trees. For all the screaming of children, the vacationers looked supremely confident in their safety. Dhole could not share the feeling.

Harm was wished upon her from nearby. The feeling came naturally, just as her judge of worth at a glance. There was caution to the wish, trepidation, but