President Brownwing took the high pedestal, the lofty podium of the highest stone before the pond. The old mallard cleared his throat.
"Thank you, Representative. The Blueridge chapter has always been on my side, a paragon of wisdom in these trying times." Woorond Wood nodded in acknowledgement as he set a deliberate pace. From the water two ducks in black feathering surfaced, a secret paramilitary project. Behind them they pulled a sturdy broadleaf soon occupied by Representative Wood. It had only been nine days since the armistice, and speed was imperative.
"President Browning, the Adirondacks request the address include reference to the Northern Geese." His mate whispered from behind. "We need their support." Even in age the voice reassured him, but Avia Banks as he married her had ever been the voice of all hens, from the Black Bellied Whistlers of the West to the Hook Bills across the ocean, the Tsaiya in lands far beyond.
"Drakes and hens of the Great Duck Confederation, as President of the Convention I address a nation that rises from the ashes of war, on to greater heights of prosperity." The crowd gathered was slight, but already in throes of passion. He could but imagine the vigor with which the couriers would relay his speech to the chapters and townships and woods and lakes. "Should it be a thousand winters pass and drake and lesser beast call the victory of our sons nothing more than an armistice, we alone shall know the truth, and that knowledge will drive our beating hearts! For in this brief period of struggle, we remember our champion, Phoenix, who in his suffering filled our breasts with fire and fear!"
A great quacking came from the assembled as Browning paused. The war with the Doge had been a grueling and bloody affair, the sons of his closest friends valiantly laid out by the vicious hero of the dogs. The mere mention of Spot's name was enough to drive hatchlings to tears, so great were the horrors of the battle where at last the combined air squadrons Black 39 and Grey 22 succeeded in gouging out the great beasts eyes and tearing its throat as it flailed blindly.
"There is no treaty that will pass before the eyes of drake or the fire above or lake below that will repay the toll of this war." The President began once more as the clamor subsided, the assembled eager to hear further. "But in our very lives, some small part of the world has answered the call of freedom. These compassionate birds are our greatest allies and closest friends, and our union will be made eternal this very day." As he spoke, the cracked bill of Edmonton Canadensis poked through the crowd. The long black neck reached upward as the Grand Minister of the Northern Geese approached the stone to speak. Browning remembered the myriad of occasions in which the two of them had strategized, discussed, and even argued through the long war.
"My old friend, this is a happy occasion for the both of us. Dissidents abound, as always they must, but our nations will work together in peace as they have for so long in war. For what defines us as species, or perhaps one species now, is a shared love of liberty, like our ancestors in the distant past. Let this not be merely the union between two great nations but the first between many." His remarks were short, but cordial. Browning knew the bird must return to his nation, as must he to his.
"Time grows short as I speak. The changes we shall be facing are mere policies, matters that can be compromised and adjusted as the seasons wax and wane. Our principles, shared or otherwise, will remain the same. For though there are many who say we can only base law on the core tenants of our values, new issues arrive with the passing year, problems to which we must respond with a deft wing and an open mind." The applause was deafening, and the President was more than happy to have an excuse to leave. He had spoken with the Convention and the Grand Minister for much of the past nine days, and it contented him to know a break was on its way. Only one matter remained before he would be allowed his respite, and that was the briefing.
Briefings were long ordeals under the Great Charter of the Confederation, usually taking place directly before a vacation, giving the President of Congress time to think of how to respond to the matters brought to light. Accompanied as always by the Guard, a small unit of drakes with sharpened bills and stones at the ready, Brownwing took flight for the wood, heading to the dark circle within. He lived at the beautiful pond with its quaint lily pads and variety of insects, grasses and small fish, but there were times he was called to work in secret, away from the eye of any passing drake or lesser beast. Pecten of the Plains was the first to speak.
"The active threats have been silenced, Chief, but war rages far from here. In the dry continent, we have received reports that the Ant Empire has renewed its conflict with the Spider Queen. The front lines of both armies meet at the equator, where Ornith Sky had been lost for a full year. The Arachnids have given us no official cause, but warn the world that their forces will not distinguish between collateral damage and regular damage."
"Where are we in this one?" Brownwing asked the Secretary of Diplomacy, Ruby, known to many as "The Interpreter". She spoke with an easy tone, pleasant to him, but he would never forget the many instances when the cold truths of the world and its nations were brought before him, when she presented him with impossible choices and had him decide. Avia reminded him The Interpreter did no more than her duty, and that a hen must be as cold as ice to enter his world.
"We have already expressed that the war should not range beyond the sea, no matter the colonies and nests itching to kill each other. We have politely warned both sides that the crocodiles are occasional allies, and have no wish to see trading routes compromised."
"How do we stand on the Squirrel situation, Secretary Plume?" The Secretary of International Trade, quacking in the same tired voice, began his short speech on the Squirrel officer.
"The High Hundred Heads tell us they face a long-due recession. Acorn production and export is coming in at startlingly low figures. Squirrels everywhere are losing their trees, and this will almost certainly impact our own egg market, as the citizenry has begun to save rather than spend."
"Have you determined the cause?"
"Damn." He turned once more to Secretary Ruby. "How are the markets affecting our stance on the elephantine crisis?"
"Whatever impact they may have had is now irrelevant. The one they call 'Brunhoff' has broken free from a trap in a land far north of his race and returned to them at last. I deal only in fact, but the rumors indicate that soon he will be declared their universal king." It was clear from her speech she thought it a poor decision, but he remembered her trust in diplomacy and democracy. Brownwing responded with a simple nod of understanding.
"Is it unprecedented for the elephants to ignore diplomacy?" He vaguely remembered another instance in which they declared ivory 'untradeable'.
"No, unfortunately." She answered, visibly annoyed at such an idea. "Brunhoff comes from a long line of tyrants, and is no stranger to abusing natural rights to expand his own."
Something in her response hung with him as he waited for someone else to speak. Some ineffable thought, some point of confusion-
"Our scientific achievements are second only to those of the Ass Association." The voice belonged to Secretary Flu. "They refuse the residency program we offered in exchanged for land grants."
"Refused it- They refused it how?"
"They called it asinine."
"Well, what field is it where they've improved?"
"Astronomy. They have intuitively proven the world to be entirely round."
"Now that's asinine if I've ever heard-"
"President!" All heads turned to respond to the new arrival. The face was familiar, but he knew not the name. "Representative Wood has arrived safely at the first checkpoint. The convoy will rendezvous and set across the ocean at first light." Those gathered breathed a sigh of relief. It was not unheard of for a duck to mysteriously die in mid-autumn, but it was best not to dwell on such matters.
After the discussions of minor matters, the meeting was entirely adjourned. One by one secretaries and representatives left until it was at last the two Brownwings, silently waiting in the wood. The sky had darkened and the crickets once more opened up their communication network, using airways over which they competed with the Cicada tribe. It was a peacetimes conflict brought to his attention multiple times, and one about which neither he nor any of his predecessors could be persuaded to give a damn.
"Natural rights…" It came to the Presidents mind amidst the confusion as though some great secret were whispered in the inane jabber of the media interests of insects. "Avia, do you ever think about natural rights?" He remembered she had once studied politics, but from a more theoretical approach than his methodology schooling.
"How do you mean?"
"What are they? What are the limits of natural rights?"
"I cannot be sure. Come to think of it, the concept has been tossed around so much… one wonders if any one idea exists."
"Well, it's really nothing, just something that bothered me momentarily." He said, shaking his long neck. "We shouldn't concern ourselves with politics over the next few days." He pecked her on the side of the bill. "These days are for us."
Blood dripped from the mouth of the Doge as he spoke, and already the carp in the pond enjoyed his company. All her life she had lived among the complacent and the ignorant, and here was the Doge of the Serene Republic of Dogs, his golden hair stained red with the blood of a duck, mostly about his mouth.
"I have considered your proposal, and the old dominion of Swamp Lords can count the Republic as an ally." In the dark swamp, many creatures were present, but most only just visible. A black snake spiraled about a tree, a frog's eyes only just poked above the surface and small birds with wings dark as night stared down from the trees.
"The Scaleless will be pleased." By rights the swamplands were represented by the Low Council, but all creatures knew the Scaleless had the final word, for it was he in charge of all the tradition of the Swamp Lords, the last among them. Crucia left the golden dog to his prize, swimming through the murk to find the ancient court.
At last she found the massive white fish, its skin poisoned and odious to see, its length of twice that of a cattail, and it spoke to her in its deep and dark voice as she approached.
"There are those who say it shall never be that I die."
"It is the wish of all fish."
"The Tuna Territories? The Aquatic Admiral? Surely a strong and terrible leader such as myself has made enemies in the eyes of other creatures of the deep.
"Your enemies are scattered as you would have them. In the petty words they utter, they are invalid. You alone carry the ancestral tradition. You are wiser than all."
"Tell me, Crucia of the East, what came to pass at the Low Council?"
"As you predicted, the snakes have once more recognized the water snakes. Their bond is a strong one, though their distance great. They will aid us in what may come to pass."
"What of the crows and the ravens?"
"They have put aside their differences with the assistance of the union of Duck and Goose, the union you foretold. Nevermore will there be murder among them."
"Tell me of the Doge."
"His Serenity wholeheartedly offers his allegiance, and having spoken I can assure you the golden beast is all but serene. There is within him a fire that we melancholy and phlegmatic entities have but imagined. If we fail and die in this war, it will not be his doing, but because we attempted the impossible." The ends of the wide whiskered mouth of the Scaleless turned upward only just, indicating great pleasure.
"Then a war we shall have. Muster the forces, call all oaths to be honored, all debts paid, the final hours of the elephants are come."
The senator scurried through the jungle along the exposed earthen ground, the events of the past six minutes racing again and again through his aging brain.
It had all seemed like the makings of a perfect plan.
Emperor Myrmidon had ordered him to the farthest reaches of the province, for though his days as a general had long passed, they were the greatest days of his life, and the memories would remain to him until his death, of that he was sure.
"But how long is it until then?" He asked himself, forcing the words out as he ran.
The technology had been hailed as revolutionary, a secret to be remembered through the ages, a great weapon to serve the Empire. He had boarded the leaf as the warriors about him poled swiftly along, keeping pace with the current. But the enemy had a countermeasure, an art of war no ant could have foreseen.
Flying through the air with webs trailing behind, supporting them, the spiders dropped a barrage of stones, great mountains of mass poking holes in the leafen rafts, sinking others, scattering ants of all ranks into the raging river. On his own craft, the boulder landed on the edge, launching him onto the bank where fortune would have it that he land on a reed. Reasoning that the waterways were unsafe and he had come too far to turn back, his only hope of survival lied in swiftness.
And so onward he struggled, travelling several lengths of his body with each opening and closing of his mandibles. The plan had been for the trip to take half a day, but as all plans, it failed. As it stood, the trip would take days and nights, unless rescue arrived, but from birth a citizen of the Empire was instructed not to expect rescue.
A thundering sound came and a great beast ran above, its massive hooves making craters in the mud. Crawling up a reed, Senator Ater caught a better view of the bounding animal, having deduced from its hoof print that it was prey of some other force, with fortune a fast one. As he leapt from the stalk to the leg of the lion, he decided he knew not of the feud between lion and gazelle, but decided it related to the former eating the latter. Such was the way with lesser civilizations, incapable of leadership or respect for authority.
In mere moments he felt himself thrown from the hind leg of the beast, flying through the air, his ancient wings cracked and on the verge of breaking. Even from the incredible height, he could spot the rendezvous point, a small hole in the ground. Concentrating his aim, it would be a matter of seconds before he hit, even if he grabbed a reed on the way down. The pressure was making his head swim, and Ater beat his own brains with his leg to remain focused. His gaze narrowed as he felt a gust of wind take him by surprise.
He hit the ground.
Albert plodded the grassy trail his nation took every time. It was worn by years of wind and hooves, but such was to be expected. It was a nice day, and he was certain that elsewhere it was much worse, but the thought failed to make him happy.
He had just been removed from office.
It wasn't an impeachment, nor some abrupt term limit, nor could her bray that he was in the middle of some great project. By all accounts, it was the ideal time for a change in leadership.
But he couldn't shake the feeling.
Asses all about spoke well of his actions, with his limited executive power he had negotiated a trade of knowledge with the Commune of Camels, resulting in the discovery of magnification and the spyglass. In his own time, he mapped the stars and watched their changes as he moved about the planet he had thus proven to be round. But whatever he had accomplished, and whatever his successor would, there was a distinct feeling that more remained to be done. Ever would he be welcome at Association Meetings, ever would his input be valued, having taken up the burden of the office before, but he would not once more resume his full capacity.
Is it a simple desire to be in control? He asked himself, not knowing he wanted an answer. But as he walked he shook the notion, asses were reasonable animals and there was no need to control them, nothing at all to be gained if they listened to you. It crossed his mind that perhaps what is required to be dominant or oppressive over another is their unwilling submission, for without that critical factor the two forces would be working together.
Of course, though, to break a beast in body and mind that it no longer could form thought against its master…
Albert stopped for some grass to clear his head. His power would leave his consciousness to every degree it had left him, and soon he would be full of no such wishes to control and dominate. The Ass Association of centuries past had been wise to make such provisions, power affected even him, and of him all had spoken well. Never once had he reached beyond his term limit of half a lunar cycle, never once had he made motion to extend the reach of his own hoof, as other infamous asses had.
Once, his memory of history served him, there was a committee leader by the name of Alphonse the Assiduous, and even in recent years there were those who admired his initiative on issues at the time. But his name would not be mentioned without note of the time he once voted that a temporary leader would be more effective could he do more than suggest the ass police enforce the law where necessary. This flagrant overextension of power immediately reminded the council of Section 8765.2345 of the Affirmation of All Asses, in which a provision existed for the council selected by popular request to remove a leader from office, having asked the leader his thoughts on the idea.
The vote was unanimous, and it was a great day for democracy, and in what the asses had assembled of history, never before and never since had their society ever come so close to absolute despotism, which he remembered from the list of positive happenings they kept in the hall of the Assemblies.
As he walked, another ass came along beside him, striking up a conversation.
"Good day, friend."
"Truly so, for today the council has once again narrowly avoided a dictatorship."
"Oh, don't we live on the edge." The other ass said, some strange element to his voice.
"Tell me, what do they call you?"
"My name is Buridan, yours?" Albert thought it a strange name, but reserved comment.
"They call me Albert. I have only just stepped down from office. My term might have been shorter, but these past days have been clouded, and the lunar cycle has been hard to check."
"For true? Who was it office before you?"
"Alyssa the Aspiring (for the greatness of the whole, not the greatness of the individual)." Albert answered with a moment of pause. It was within the realm of civic duty to remain informed of the goings on in the Assemblies.
"Well, I've been away for a few lunar cycles. I had not heard of you, nor have I heard of her. Who came before the Aspiring?" He breathed a sigh of relief, having for one moment worried Buridan was an ex socialite.
"Before her, Atossa the Astronomer led us to great wisdom with the invention of the astrolabe." No reaction came from the other ass. "Before her, Asmussen the Asker once revolutionized our knowledge of political theory by asking the specific reason for basing the leader of popular choice, but the end of terms on lunar patterns. His predecessor, Alice the Assumer saw nothing wrong with the conventional wisdom and her moderation was hailed as a wise."
"I believe she might have been in the post as I left. Who was it right before her?"
"Alvis the Assertive?" Albert's knowledge of him was hazy at best. Much of his leadership consisted of almost making assertions, consistently running the risk of being entirely too certain.
"Ah, yes, I remember him. He was a good one, though I also enjoyed his predecessor, Alexis the Assured." All of a sudden the memories of the Dark Cycle came rushing back. Contemporaries of Alexis and Alvis ranged from allusions to the monarchic system of the spiders to outright comparisons to the despotism of the dolphins.
"Much of our public policy has veered from their implications of ideals. We avoid the use of their leadership as precedent. I know of course, that you would not do so."
Buridan merely laughed. Through his hees and haws Albert detected a distinct sense of malice, and while all asses had rights to their opinions, such beliefs occasionally decremented the principles of the collective. It was a major point of conflict, resulting in no fewer than three arguments in the past hundred lunar cycles.
"Albert, have you made a decision in your life?" The question sounded farcical. With respect to the principles of wisdom and moderation, Albert had been perfectly free to make all manners of rational decisions, not a single unfounded desire existed within him.
"This assertion is entirely irrational. My decisions are as evident as they are abundant."
"Expect me another time, then, soon must I be elsewhere, and time must I give you to think on these matters." The ass turned and walked away, the thought of reporting him never once crossing Albert's mind. He climbed the gray steps to his cave, little more than a hollow in the rock face. Lying down in it, he could overlook the grassy plain, and for the first time it struck him as odd that there were no other asses around. It was not, of course, unheard of for a stallion to separate himself from others during the day, but most slept with a large heard.
His case was the exact opposite.
Working in the Assemblies, he regularly associated with other stallions and mares, even longer than he liked in long meetings where this issue or that took great lengths of time to reason out. And yet, though most herding animals slept in a group for protection against the Lion Nation (manager needed) and other sorts of terroristic threats, he was far from the remainder of the asses, as though it were his right to survey the land from his high post.
Albert shrugged away his previous assumptions, deciding them entirely outdated and irrelevant. Buridan's words rang once more inside his head as he stared into the clouds.
The forest was silent as their enemies walked through it. There were three of them this time, and they were large with thin hair and splotched skin.
It was apparent to all that the Porcine Principality was serious now.
A smaller black one made its way to the front, addressing the hiders in the trees.
"For centuries you have taken from us. We once lived in these woods as you did, and the acorns belonged to all of us." A splotched one started.
"In fact, some would argue they belonged to the pigs, given that all of them were originally on the ground. If you had not taken them all, they would still be here."
The squirrels did not flinch. They had heard this before. Each hid in his own home, unresponsive.
The Principality was a brutal dictatorship in which power rotated between warring princes, and resources were collected wherever they could be found. As the second of the High Hundred heads, Diastema Maple knew as well as any, if not better that these demands were the last thing the Secret Order of Squirrels needed. Their current financial worries were more than enough to cancel previously honored deals, and with faith their situation with the ducks would return to normal. With their insider trading skills, the squirrels would once more be at the top of the market.
But there was a fatal flaw.
It had been far from obvious initially, the only occasional sign being a dip in returns as they related to other global markets, like those of the bears. The Bear's Front was a coalition based in some large frozen region spilling over to all manners of other climates, the goals being control of resources. To many, the situation was complex and required significant further study. To Diastema, the cause and effect were simple.
Secrecy had been compromised.
It was an uncomfortable truth, but the facts laid it bare. Their loss of influence was more than a numerical change, but a visible shift in perception of the Secret Order, only a few years ago a respected entity with exclusive control over information and manipulator in all deals that took place. It would have been entirely impossible that the Porcine Principality would come into their own territory as had they thousands of years ago, but given the immediacy and severity of the shift, she could not blame a single squirrel for hiding. For even scarier than the pigs and boars was the truth.
"They have learned our secret form of communication." Diastema had said with all the facts presented. The other heads had not taken it well.
"Your ideas are valued, officer, and your secrecy is well known, but this conclusion is founded upon misleading information." She remembered one responding.
"What misleading information have I presented?"
"I, for one, find it difficult to believe that the Principality would come up with such a scheme. Five autumns ago, the same nation tested whether or not it was possible to 'double-inseminate' a fetus in hopes of a higher rate of conjoined twins, or even entire litters.
"I never said the pigs were more than mere game pieces for other players. Their appearance and unorthodox threats are a sign, nothing more. The real architects are most likely bears."
A silence fell over the court of rodents. The Front was universally known for its ability to discover, decode, and decipher all information others held secret. In just the past three centuries, the bears were not only able to develop writing, but also literacy.
"We need to establish the connection between the Porcine Investigators and the Ursine Underground, without that we have little, and we shall investigate this matter further."
The decision had been a disappointing one, but the best for which she could hope under the circumstances. It was possible, if not likely, that members of the Hundred had already arrived at the same conclusion, and simply not disclosed the information. It was a government in which secrecy was valued above all, and she might have expected it to happen.
But such matters were far from present concern.
The pigs refused to give it up, consistently calling them out. Diastema broke out into nervous sweats as more and more sounds from the trees could be heard. Had some fool given it up? Would they be forced to acknowledge the presence of the pigs and answer?
Answering would be no trouble under normal circumstances, the Secret Order once had to send but one officer to escort the Investigators from the Principality away, even if no acorns had been guaranteed, but production and consumer confidence were at all-time lows, and the economy showed no signs of reverberation apart from some squirrels beginning to take lower wages and prices dropping, but such things were generally dismissed as negative consequences of the recession rather than portents of inflation.
From across the clearing, a sheep appeared, approaching the pigs. From her memory of the Transoceanic Agricultural Agreement, sheep, cattle, chickens, and pigs had a degree of influence on one another, mostly as it regarded to trade.
"It is good to see you here, Cotton Nine. Maybe you can help us with our… diplomatic affair." The squirrels hiding with her gasped. There were ten primary governors of the sheep prefecture of the Agricultural Range, but to see one was rare.
"Tell me, pigs. What brings you to the Secret Order of Squirrels? More importantly, how did you find this place?" It was a question none had considered. Of course, the Porcine Principality had always been aware the squirrels were located in forested areas, but why had they consistently approached this specific forest?
"We seek to collect the debt owed us. The squirrels are hoarding what they owe. While we sympathize with their current difficulties, we collect what we are told."
"You collect whatever you are told? Such a statement sounds like it came from a dog." There was another small gasp. The bears had been suspect, and almost certainly were still so, but the Serene Republic had not been considered, though it had in the past had difficulties with the Hundred.
"A dog?" The splotched pig sputtered at the statement, breaking character entirely. "We are no dogs! We were neutral in that war, and we are nothing like dogs!" His anger rose as the sheep laughed its shaking laugh. "If anyone is like a dog, it is a sheep!" another pig, the large brown one, picked it up from there.
"Oh, no, there is a major difference between dogs and sheep. Dogs have no original actions. Sheep have no original thoughts." Pigs were cruel animals, and exploded into laughter at the thought.
"Well, decide with your brains what you make of this." The sheep extended a notice from the Transoceanic Agricultural Agreement. "You are bound by the regulations set by the Range, and should you not abide, your membership will be entirely withdrawn." The Investigators retreated with the notice and what remained of their dignity and the Secret Order breathed a sigh of relief.
In the snow Boris and Catherine walked with purpose. The winter was a hard one, but the winters were always hard and in living memory it had always been winter. The body of the snake was bleeding still as they approached it, though all signs of life were gone.
"Tell me, snake. Your kind are not conditioned for this sort of weather. Why are you here?"
The corpse did not respond. The bears stood over the body, having scanned the trees around the lake for onlookers. In the animal's mouth, there was a rolled up message, likely written in letters the bears did not read, but some of the snakes they were holding might.
"The dead drop is a day's slithering from here." Boris said simply. The Front had received word days ago that the snakes had a point of exchange in the hollow of a tree, and it was possible the courier discovered had attempted to reach it.
"He dropped dead before he could finish his slithering, Boris." Catherine responded, pointing a paw in the general direction of the drop point. "He could have been killed by a falcon." The slash marks on the body and the loss of blood indicated as much, but something was off.
"The falcon would have eaten him. Did he pass through the south or the west?" There were no tracks and the corpse had shriveled. "The Potentate of Pandas may know."
"I checked earlier. There were no messages from pandas that I could read." She snorted to herself at the illiteracy of the pandas. While both nations were of bears, it was believed in the Front that the group would eventually be used for hard labor while they took jobs that involved reading and killing things.
Boris took a last look over the snake, and tossed its frozen, contorted body into the lake, creating a small hole in the ice where it went through.
"Are we the most intelligent intelligence agents the Front controls?" he asked, the question coming to mind suddenly. They had solved several cases, and were already off to another. But many were like the snake, where it seemed there was simply too little upon which to make a conclusion apart from deciding the necessity to beat up a prisoner until the message made sense.
"Of course we are. We have gone through all of the obstacle courses, and we have the record time, brother." He remembered it fondly, and well. A thousand of them were lined up and ready to begin when the officer explained the goal of eviscerating and eating the duck at the finish line having leapt through a flaming hypercube, a circle being too easy, broken a stone with an ice mallet, climbed a tree as it was being shaken at the base, and answered a five question quiz on the basics of espionage.
In the distance Catherine spotted a falcon resting on a branch and the two of them silently slipped into the water, the crash certainly not heard halfway across the lake. They went calmly under the water, having been trained not to breathe for up to six weeks, given that it should be the same basic principle of not breathing at that point as it had been at the beginning.
Directly under where the bird rested the two of them emerged on either side, engulfing the falcon in frozen fur and fear. Dragging it beneath, they beat it senseless and began the questioning.
"Did you kill a snake recently?" Boris asked as the prisoner struggled in his grasp. Catherine decided he was using the wrong approach and took the suspect from him.
"For whom are you working?" Bizarrely, the animal made no noise. The passing fish started to stare. The interrogation was compromised. Quickly surfacing, Boris swept the area for listening ears as Catherine began again.
"So, you won't talk when the fish are around." She said as the falcon drew breath, its eyes wide and beak stretched open. She saw an opportunity and held it open with her claws.
"As you can see," Boris began, returning. "-there are no fish around to hear you." He nodded at his sister and a wave of understanding passed that the fish were allied with the snakes, and it followed that he would not wish to disclose the details of the reptile's death.
"Look, I've got no idea-"Catherine put a heavy paw on the bird's light, thin wing.
"Tell us what you do know."
"The Toucans are secretly aiding the ants. The conclusion of their war is imperative." No sooner had he spoken than he looked ready to right himself and fly. She snorted.
"The snakes need web. The Spider Queen has been innovating for years, and with the research on air current coming out, no flying creature will be safe. The falcons were the first to know."
"The blood feud between crow and raven made the airspace hostile for our activities. As we tried to resolve the conflict, we heard their sides of the story, they would never stop rhyming-"Boris growled deeply. "We put it together that they're working with the snakes, and we started looking into them."
"What did you find?" Catherine relaxed her grip. Allowing this one to escape was essential. More falcons would be drawn overhead, and more would be caught.
"The Swamp Lords are back." With that, he took off.
An uneasy chill passed through the frozen landscape. The Bear Front depended mostly on the lake and river fish for food, but word would get to them before long that the ancient court had returned. Once the fish were informed, they would gradually begin to leave their current leadership, and would soon after be far out of reach. The intelligence on the Swamp Lords was limited, given the time that had passed since any had spoken their name.
"The Front will know what to do with the information." It was decided. Boris hastily scrawled what he could on a rock he found under the snow and threw it as quickly as possible in the direction of the nearest Information Post. From there the message would be transcribed onto three different rocks, sent in triplicate to a higher ranking Post, who would process the information, deduct the expense from the nation's total reserve for messages and messages that did not get lost, and then throw one rock to the original recipient, keep one, and throw the final rock into a lake for record keeping purposes. It was not a complicated process, but it was effective enough.
"The Front will contact the wolves."
Cotton Five remembered being chosen to give the address at the meeting of representatives of the Transoceanic Agricultural Agreement. It had not been a formal invitation, in fact she had never once received a formal invitation in her life. Almost all activities had simply flowed naturally from the ideas introduced by the majority of the Agreement's committee.
"The previous week, we decided that the use of wheat for consumption by cattle is almost universally criminal. Criminal activity is defined on page nine of the Bovine Terminology Index as 'an action or activity that is deemed criminal or wrongful in nature'. Criminal is defined on page seventeen of the Bovine Terminology Index as entirely or not entirely wrongful or dangerous to the community. Community is defined on page one of the Bovine Terminology Index as a group of cattle, or perhaps others when the discussion ranges to the international scale." A horse whinnied.
The Horse Meritocracy was commonly respected. They were a nation of hard workers and had a stable economy and were steadfast allies to the few nations that had fought alongside them. Horses were known to lend to those who would repay and ally itself to those nations that were not constantly at war.
For reasons the former nation of sheep had yet to determine, the Horse Meritocracy was hated.
After much booing, the representative, who did not bother sharing her name, took the stage.
"You have consistently taken advantage of our kindness and one another." The mare began, much to the crowd's displeasure. "We have improved the global economy and you have contributed nothing." The horse continued despite the now raging crowd. "I personally wonder if you know how to do anything properly." The various sounds were deafening. A pig in the crowd stood on the back of another to shout back.
"Your nation killed goats and pigs several decades ago! All of our debt is your fault!" The entire crowd cheered, Cotton Five bleating as loudly as possible. The horse responded.
"And you hate us for something no one is alive to remember. With this, we submit our thousandth and final request to leave the Transoceanic Agricultural Range." For the first time since the entire assembled crowd slept through the speech the cattle prepared, every animal was silent.
As a lamb, she remembered only one remotely similar experience. Their de facto leader was Skalfen White, the wolf that had without particular effort conquered them in an afternoon. He then told them the resources they had gathered ultimately belonged to wolves, and that it would not be enough to simply repay the debt, given the amount by which the Wolf Autonomy had suffered from the loss in resources. The sheep were absolutely silent as the wolf went on to explain that the only way the debt could be repaid is if the fifty percent deemed most opposed to wolves were shoved into a fire pit to be eaten.
That was when the scramble had begun. Some sheep backed away from the pit, others forgot it existed. But the assembly of sheep was hedged in by wolves.
"There are not enough of us to push you all in. But it doesn't matter!" Skalfen shouted, cackling in hysterics. The sheep in the back were staring blankly at the wolves snapping at them, having entirely forgotten what teeth were. For a few chaotic heartbeats, no one had any idea what was going on.
And then the first sheep fell in.
At that moment, the world strangely made sense. The circle tightened around the fire pit, one bleating mass of white wool dropping after another. As she was forced closer and closer, the wolves were farther and farther away, their howls faint. When only ten lambs remained, Skalfen White called to them.
"It will be you then, you who bring back the race of sheep, who serve as our unwitting puppets."
As the horses began to walk away from the assembled animals, a goat quickly took the stage and in a hurried voice addressed the crowd.
"All in favor of the horses not leaving?" A pig from the crowd had a response.
"If they leave, nobody trades with them!" A deafening uproar of assent forced the hooves of most animals into ears. As the Horse Meritocracy representative once more took a seat, the chicken representative took the stage. Cotton Five was relatively sure that the Chicken Coalition was a small democracy, but last week she had been told that chickens were actually reptiles from the moon. Deciding it could be either, she concluded that they were a democracy, merely based on the moon and around half of the chickens were reptiles.
The reptilian with its scaled feet began its speech.
"We have stayed out of every conflict ever. That is all." Applause for the bird reptile rang out soundly as it waved and walked off the stage. Though the chicken representative was from the moon, the sheep was filled with a deep admiration for such a peaceful democracy. Cotton Five decided it was certainly fortunate the idea of admiration had been implanted.
"I say we kick the chickens out!" a pig shouted from the crowd with no apparent prompt. There was no response. "It's just a suggestion."
The goat speaker from before took the stage again, this time because it was his turn to speak. He surveyed the crowd, beginning by asking if any present knew a duck. There was no response.
"Well, I must say, ducks are the exact opposite of the ideal citizen, now that I know none of you will be offended. Everything ducks do is entirely incorrect, and we shall never allow them to join the Transoceanic Agricultural Range." The horses were visibly looking around over the crowd, confused expressions on their long faces.
"They've never submitted a request!" One of them shouted at last.
"Well, if they weren't so lazy and obsessed with individual rights, maybe they would!" A pig shouted in return. The crowd exploded with approval.
"Through our process of determining which statements are correct and which aren't, the Agreement has collectively decided that pigs are correct about everything.
"It's our turn to speak! And nobody gets to speak after us!" a pig shouted from the crowd, drawing shocked expressions from all, including Cotton Five. How was it possible that everyone had not realized that the pigs were supposed to begin in the middle of the speech of the representative of the Goat Union? The majority was always right-remembering the proper response for this situation, she forgot all about the point of confusion.
"For too long, we have suffered at the hands of the squirrels!" The pig began. "We have received word that once more they have avoided their due, and they avoided it by manipulating this Agreement!" A collective gasp rang out. "Our brethren were attempting to collect resources, when a sheep by the name of Cotton Nine prevented it with an order from this very collective!" The chickens, goats, and cattle sputtered out remarks of confusion, not remembering ever granting a notice to Cotton Nine, not wishing to jeopardize the situation of the pigs-
Cotton Five had not previously remembered the order. But she did now.
The Spider Queen clicked her fangs together as the guards dragged a prisoner before her. The captive, rolling over onto his legs upon release, visibly taking in his surroundings.
"There is no chance to escape, ant." She laughed. "I said much the same to a dragonfly once. It was the best meal I ever had. I like to play with my food before eating it." The insect gave no response. "Of course, not all flying creatures can be eaten… yet." The trick failed, and the ant remained as resolutely disinterested as before.
She employed a new tactic. Circling around him, she thought up all manners of insults to any conversational path he might take, and a rotating list of definitions for terms that might come in handy.
"What a stupid ant, that can't even think of a response."
"Is this insect so afraid of me that he wouldn't dare attempt to converse?"
"How cruel of you to ignore me entirely."
"Could you but honor me with a word from your Emperor?" His mandibles twitched. She should have guessed sooner. An ant can suffer being stupid, fearful, cruel, and surely many other things, but not dishonorable. The creatures were strange that way, but she would maintain the position that they were easy to read and figure out.
"The Emperor brings word from all the gods. The spiders are to be erased." She laughed, having heard such talk before.
"Tell me, if your gods made things as they are, why would you defy them with an emperor in the place of a queen? It is a queen's right by nature to rule the unsophisticated."
"Our gods bestow power, we but follow those with their approval." The ant's responses were curt and without elaboration.
"The ducks are a pious race as well, but their deities play little roles in their lives. I have heard their foolish speeches, and the Phoenix they mention is a tool to them." She circled around the prisoner once more. "I say, though, those ducks surely are inefficient."
The ant did not ask for elaboration. It was a gift.
"They talk of all manners of freedoms they have, but what does it matter if the state is not able to accomplish anything?" Sooner or later he would have to ask.
"Expedience? That's what's important to you? The ducks are probably worried about the expedient removal of their rights!"
"But you have an emperor."
"And as the voice of the gods, he determines our rights. The Confederation determines the rights of the population by election, and not by faith, because theirs is misplaced."
The two of them stared silently at one another in anger, the Spider Queen's eight eyes unblinking into the conviction of the ant's.
"And what is it the emperor would have you do now?" She asked, menacingly approaching with eight silent legs, each outweighing his entire body.
"Shall we see?" The guards walked over, responding to a twitch of the royal mandible. Immediately, the captive ant pushed himself off the ground with impressive strength for one so small, landing on the abdomen of a guard, causing the other to bring its legs down on top as the other flipped. The insect took advantage of the lack of coordination and leapt free as one spider impaled the other with its leg. The remaining guard and the Queen doubled their efforts, webbing the exit in the underground chamber.
"We can't allow the prisoner to escape!" Prizing a twig from the floor of the chamber, the ant fended off the guard, but she was cleverer. Feinting to the center, she contracted her legs and leapt around him, bouncing off the wall to land directly behind, webbing him to the ground as he succeeded in striking the other guard in the head.
"This is the part where you die!" She exclaimed, holding the stick away.
"So be it." The ant ripped his right mandible from his head and stabbed her in the abdomen. The world was frozen in sickening pain, and voices could be heard as spiders rushed into the room to aid her. When she dared look at the wound, she was being dragged through a tunnel by two other spiders with a third holding her organs inside. Reaching a large open chamber with capable physicians, she felt sick in all possible manners.
"I demand news of outside." She said as the professionals surrounded. Eventually one responded, hesitant given her condition.
"Your plan to disrupt their lines was brilliant. Strike teams grow closer with the passing day to finding their base of operations, what we believe to be a hill on the southern end of the continent."
"This does not get out."
"The knowledge of your injury will not leave here."
"Have the flyers learned of our plans?"
"Falcons circle, but we have no reason to believe they have seen our projects." Falcons, she thought to herself. The Spider Queen could only imagine what their flesh would taste like when at last she indulged both her curiosity and appetite.
The process took a long time and the physicians instructed her not to move. Later as she lied there a spider came and told her unnecessarily that the ant had been interrogated and killed. Refraining from snapping at her, she instructed her subject to bring word of what could be learned. With a nod she disappeared.
Alone in the dark at last, her thoughts remained. It gave her no pause to kill an enemy, and she never minded what they said, every queen is her own justice. But what irked her was that as much as she forced words out of the ant, a miserable, captured creature, he drew some from her. She related that her power had basis in nature, and it was the truth. Her race bore her no great love, no gods granted her the position, but it was the nature of lesser mortals to follow and the nature of the great to lead.
"Your Majesty! We bring news from the bears!" A spider scrambled in, breathing heavily.
"The Toucan Regime knows everything!"
"The President of Congress will see you now." She rose from the waiting pond. It was only a few hours since she had flown to the meeting, as the new permanent liaison to the ducks. Her studies of the Confederation were fresh in her mind as she passed through a sophisticated screen of Sweet Gum leaves spread out between two trees.
"It's a security measure we installed last week. If you were carrying the new technology we've only heard in rumors, we would know."
"But if you don't know much about it, how would you know?"
"There would be an indication. Sweet Gum leaves let nothing past."
There was a momentary pause and Branta decided to ask what was new before moving on to serious matters. Evidently, serious matters were on Brownwing's mind.
"We're putting down a small rebellion."
"It turns out I've used the phrase 'natural rights' too many times. Now everyone's split between wanting the rights they have, wanting different rights, and wanting all those they had in nature."
"And what would those be…?" She swore to herself that would be the furthest she would pursue the matter.
"What wouldn't they be? Before we came together and settled on a Confederation, the limits of a drake's rights were the limits of his abilities. The current system offers only rights that don't negatively affect anyone else."
"Okay, so what the Grand Minister wanted to go over was the current stance on the Transoceanic Agricultural Agreement."
"We're not even considering it."
"Not even a little."
"Well, the Northern Geese have been going over-"
"I once had a conversation with a cow. It might have been a bull. I really had no idea. The ordeal took the better part of a day."
"Well, the cattle are not the only-"
"I don't like pigs, either. The last time we had a representative from the Principality, he ate everything and tried to extort more food from us, claiming that we had created an unfair system."
"Over half of the influential resources in the Range are now held by the Porcine-"
"Do they have enough power to kick out the chickens?"
"They have mentioned the exit of the Chicken Coalition, but there is little evidence they would actually go through with it. The Ministry has no idea why the movement exists."
"Well, before you ask, I don't want to have to deal with goats. They hate us and want to abridge our rights." Branta did not offer a response, but was opposed to certain legal rights ducks possessed and began to consider whether part of the reason the Northern Geese wanted to work with the Agreement really was to abridge those very rights.
"What about the horses?" There was a pause and she knew she had made some ground.
"The horses are a hardworking, intelligent nation. Every other nation owes them and prevents them from leaving. Tell me, are we anything like the Horse Meritocracy?"
There was a short silence.
"We see your point."
There was no response.
"What are your plans regarding your international tour?"
"I'm starting with the falcons." The drake answered.
"Where will that be?"
"No one knows where they are. I'm hoping one will just show up between now and the time I have to leave for the Mantis Theocracy. I believe they've absorbed the Dragonflies."
"I don't blame you for not knowing. It happened yesterday. The Mantises now worship the Dragonflies. We can't figure out why. He stood, bidding her come with him. "I'm on my way to a meeting with the Convention. I think you need to see how this works."
"Of course, sir." They flew a short distance to a lake, clear enough but with a murky bed.
"Do you know why there are so many arguments taking place today?"
She didn't see the point in asking.
"Woorond Wood is on assignment in the Serene Republic. Marsh, his political ally, is on administrative leave for alleged misbehavior."
"So everyone else scheduled the arguments for their absence."
"Exactly. They're senior members and usually have a decent degree of weight." Deciding to listen to the debate currently escalating, Wood's remaining allies had the next speech.
"We have learned from a falcon informer that the Swamp Lords as they are known have returned. We don't want a full scale war at this point. Our best move is to cripple their technology."
"The falcons? They aren't known for reliable information, and probably told you something that suited them. Additionally, these Swamp Lords, if they exist, will have no reason to attack us unless we hinder their activities."
"So you're going to live by their mercy?" The conversation was not necessarily devolving, but it was going in a direction Branta had not experienced.
"When do they reach a conclusion?" She asked the President of Congress.
"We don't have time limits. Eventually, they'll come to something resembling an agreement, maybe they'll trade resolutions. I'm not really taking a side on this one."
"The Swamp Lords were originally a trade organization. Their return could mean anything, and deliberately hurting economies is not the right move until we can be sure. We wait for trials to resolve before punishing the guilty, we can wait for the investigation to resolve before bullying some fish and snakes."
"Why would the falcons fabricate a report?"
"There are a few reasons, but the point is to paint it like your enemies are self-interested and should not be, and the drakes who vote for you would be self-interested to do so. Just manipulate terminology as often as possible." He paused. "We're turning into cattle already."
They waited in silence for the argument to resolve and the agreement was to wait for the information from the spy disguised as a raven they had sent out two weeks earlier, but if any information was discovered regarding advanced weapon technology or plans of attack, the carp would be crippled economically. Branta followed Brownwing from the lake, discussing matters in the air as he flew her to the pond for diplomats.
"They came to a reasonable solution."
"I just don't understand- everything was so heated and extreme."
"Extremism counters extremism. These ducks are professionals, and know how to craft something reasonable. Fear and passing passions win a few elections, but information and reason win the debates." He left her with that as he continued south.
"We await your orders." Hasdrubal, commander of the forces in the elephant kingdom knelt before Brunhoff, King of all Elephants.
"Establish a perimeter." The foot soldiers were dismissed in admiration. The concept of a perimeter had not yet been created.
"We know there are plots against us, but we are unaware of what they are. Find out what our allies know." He told the ambassadors, having drafted them under five minutes earlier.
"Find the scientist." Quick to follow an order, Hasdrubal raced off to the stick cages. Ten minutes ago, Brunhoff invented the cage, stating it was an idea from his travels in the north. He then imprisoned every non-elephant in sight.
"What's going on?" Hasdrubal informed the gazelle that it was the king's business.
"Which of you is a scientist?"
"I've studied all manners of the natural philosophies." The commander retrieved the ass speaking from his cage and returned to the royal tree with the animal on his back. He found His Majesty speaking with an ambassador, who had just extorted information from a passing falcon. The falcon told her that the Elephant Kingdom had no allies, and there was a reason for it. With her tusk to his eye, he told her the Spider Queen was up to something.
"Ambassador, the elephant disgracing himself is my valued commander Hasdrubal."
"Apologies, high king. Speed was imperative." He allowed the ass to hop from his back and ask the king 'what scientific inquiry he had'.
"I seek a way to rid turn the tides in favor of the ants."
"Well, you could try fire." The distinguished heads were silent. At last one of the ambassadors lowered himself to ask.
"What is fire?"
"Allow me to demonstrate." He found a few sticks as well as a rock and within a few minutes, created a yellow light. "This is fire. I've heard the ducks are trying to keep it a secret."
"What does it do?"
"It destroys things, converting natural forms to smoke. Heat and light are produced as well."
"So we find the spiders and this is the best way of getting rid of them?"
"Just so. Spiders are many, but such creatures are small and cannot survive a little heat." The smallcouncil waited in silence for the decision.
"We shall use this fire." The ass walked off, having earned his freedom well enough. "But we shall use it not only on the Spider Queen but the Ant Emperor as well. This continent is ours and it may only have one king, as kings once we all were." A chorus of appreciation rang out from the ambassadors and Hasdrubal.
"What of the gazelles, Your Majesty?"
"Nobody gives a damn about the gazelles. The last thing I heard was that they have a representation system in which the representatives are drafted randomly and assigned a certain amount of votes in a general election."
"What do they call such a strange system?"
The question went absolutely unanswered.
"Get the ants to tell us where the Spider Queen is. It will be their last act before we kill them, and the heavens and the spirits will judge them well." An ambassador disappeared immediately.
"The Camel Commune requests to speak with you." Hasdrubal saw Brunhoff's face change as he turned to face the new ambassador.
"It may speak with you." The liaison set off without another word. The last agent not already dismissed asked for a job.
"Find out how the spiders are getting water to the troops and disrupt it." He ran off visibly filled with a new sense of nationalism, having not known what water lines were only minutes before.
At last Hasdrubal was alone with the renowned king. It was strange that he had not received orders, but perhaps His Majesty wished to keep the bulls close until he was certain of where his enemies were. The thought would not leave him alone, and at last he had to ask.
"My king, I am sure that heaven and your ancestors have granted you much of the wisdom you possess, but there must also be some earthly cause." The monarch looked at him silently. "Where did you become such a capable ruler?"
"In my travels in the north, I was trapped for a short time. Around me, there were more animals than I had ever seen. One day, I escaped and walked home, passing the smallest and stupidest creatures. Cattle, pigs, chickens- they failed to understand the nature of government."
"Did you learn from them?"
"I decided to do the exact opposite." The reasoning was sound. Hasdrubal set off to find the garrison. They were an efficient unit, but consistently failed to prove it. The previous year, without a leader no less, they killed no fewer than seven thousand gazelles. The year before that, they killed thirty thousand. The army faced a crucial problem it had not previously realized.
They were running out of gazelles to kill.
"Great Hasdrubal, instruct us. Our enemies are either hiding from us, or becoming very few in number. We chase after them wherever they congregate."
"The goal of any war is to reduce the number of enemies. Why have you been pursuing this war? We have greater concerns."
"They have refused to surrender! We cannot allow them to continue in this defiance of the king!"
"You raise a fair point." Hasdrubal conceded. "Have they been allowed to call for terms?"
"They will be allowed to surrender when they stop insulting His Majesty!"
"Why do they not simply do that and call for terms?"
"Our only information on the matter is that the gazelles are insane."
Silirt suffered in the sun. He sulked at the thought of simplifying snake secrets for spiders. Sidewinding on his sinuous spine, he slowly sought out the same, still seething.
"There will be no objections to this matter, Silirt. You are a premier military consultant, and we know we can get another snake, but how else would we use you?" The crow had been put in charge of delegation by some mystery to the snakes. He questioned the competency of the race, given their total ignorance that there was a duck in their midst. Perhaps that was the ravens. Perhaps it didn't matter.
At any rate, the task was entirely beneath him, and unnecessary. The Spider Queen was a capable leader and would most likely view military intervention in the conflict as a lack of confidence.
Seeing a spider stalk a smaller simpleton, Silirt slithered along, sneaking up-
"Stop it! Everyone can see you! I think you just ran over someone, you damn fool!" Looking underneath, the snake discovered he had accidentally killed an arachnid. My record will improve.
"Who are you with your filthy mouth, then?" He asked imposingly, softly shaking his sinuous tail, silently-
"Cut that out, it's not working! I'm Carter the cricket and if you don't mind, my culture is morally superior to yours, and I shall be going." The insect hopped away and Silirt turned his attention to the spider.
"Oh, it's really all right. He was bothering us to be honest. Told us all this nonsense about democracy. When we're done with the ants, we're going after the birds."
"I wouldn't mind killing a few myself, but say, sometime soon, son, show me to the sanctimonious Spider Queen."
"She's on the east side, sir, so some of us are short on orders for the sorties."
"Stay sanguine, spider. So say assailants shift seven suns east, show me how you should respond swiftly."
"Start by sorting the spiders by size and shape, second- dammit, you've got me doing it too, I can't even think straight."
"Stop this silliness, snake!" The spider looked ready to tear a few eyes out. "We need your help with the Toucan Regime."
"They know everything. If the location of her majesty is known, we all go into the pot."
"Snake stew, how succulent."
"Yes, we know snakes are experts with secrets and systems of the sort." He hit himself in the head with a leg. "Do some counterintelligence. The birds have air superiority, and if we see them, we need a countermeasure." Silirt had been earlier given the impression that the spiders knew little about what the toucans had stolen already. He was taken to a rock embedded in the ground, doubtless a massive boulder to mere spiders. Three warriors were dead beneath it.
"Sorry, soldiers." The outside of the rock was unintelligible scratching that he learned the arachnids had managed to translate into a warning about the toucans from their old allies. But the small hole carved into it was another matter. A spider brought forth a rolled message inscribed onto a leaf.
"Serpentine script, I see." Wagering the bears had come about it by some nefarious means, he filed away the information and set about reading.
"This snake says squirrels should save." Putting down the leaf, it all made sense, the Secret Order suffered a market crash, as the bears had learned. But this, this was intentional. The message looked to be several moons older than the information the spy the bears had in the hidden forest. There was only one nation who would attempt to set the squirrels onto a path of underproduction. The more Silirt thought of it, the more questions arose in his own head, but all were easily answered and dismissed. Were the pigs really willing to bring about the economic death of a nation? They were. What motivation did they have? If the squirrels die, the acorns fall to the ground.
Silirt sneakily scanned the skies, searching for some scout or-
"What are you doing? Are the toucans expected to actually arrive?" It was within the realm of possibility. In most wars, choosing the time and place of battle was key.
"Show me what secrets scouts would steal." The spider sighed and brought out three soldiers. The first of them demonstrated a long-distance use of webbing, relying on development of abdominal pressure. Accurately hitting a fruit fly out of the sky, it was an effective technique, but the snake wondered how the toucans would replicate it.
The second spider leapt between two sticks, leaving a trail of strong webbing behind. He then rolled a pebble into place and released, sending the stone flying and rolling a considerable way upon hitting the ground. Silirt imagined it would take out lines of marching ants, but failed to understand why birds would want technology requiring web.
The final spider held a more interesting trick, as for tricks spiders were known. She created a triangular web and leapt from a reed, floating along without apparent difficulty. The reptile guessed that arachnids were capable of detecting wind, being so naturally light, making this an intuitive invention.
"You may be wondering why we fear the safety of our technology."
"There are many spiders within the Toucan Regime. The birds enslave them. If our secrets were seen, some would surely be seldom safe, some stolen." The spider looked ready to beat his own brains out. "Look! The toucans are here!" Silirt beheld them in the sky for the first time.
"So sees the spider, so speaks the spider." An idea began to form.
The cow slowly checked her surroundings for terminology. Failing that, she breathed a sigh of relief. Anabel had had a confusing day.
The meeting with the Doge seemed to be going well. She forgot why he asked to see her in secret, or perhaps he never told her, but whatever the reason, he only asked for a few small matters and defined the term 'a few small matters' as no more than that. She ended up being there seven hours.
First he asked her about the weaknesses in the Transoceanic Agricultural Range, and she told him all the obvious ones and those less than obvious, holding nothing back given that his definition of 'Doge' was 'trusted bovine friend'. She also told him the squirrels with their recession were unlikely to aid the ducks or the geese. The dog drooled as she went on about the chickens and the pigs, even asking why the latter would want the former out, especially considering how tasty they were.
The Doge had asked who might be trouble were he to, hypothetically of course, start killing members of the Agreement. Anabel thought about it and concluded that the horses would be the primary variable. They were capable warriors and much stronger and faster than the average dog, but on a good day could be persuaded to use the opportunity to leave the Range and allow the remainder of the nations to surrender.
After the leader of the Serene Republic left, she was struck on the head by a rock, and looking down at it she discovered it was inscribed with some unintelligible scratching. Checking the time based on the sun's position, she remembered that it was not time for any meetings between cattle, as they once held several years earlier, because they had recently decided that it was impossible for any one nation to generate conclusions alone.
The Agreement had set her to seek council with the Orca Oligarchy regarding recent events. From the information gathered that was approved by the nations in the Range, it was a small group of nations that maintained their identities, laws, and cultures, but worked together when necessity demanded and resolved their internal difficulties without escalation.
In the Bovine Terminology Index, this kind of government was seen as oppressive in relation to foreign nations not effected by the Oligarchy and a state of Nature in relation to regulations that did not exist within it. On both entries that concerned the Orcas and their allied nations, the definition contained a reference to the term 'problematic'.
She arrived at the frozen shore on the northern reaches of the continent. The sea was calm and the air still. Frozen chunks of ice floated and Anabel stared out over the water.
"Hello, there." A leopard seal leapt out of the water forcefully and seized her leg in its jaws, dragging her into the freezing sea. The Orca surfaced almost immediately, lifting the leopard seal on its great head, forcing her still higher. A whale came to intervene, and in turn lifted the black and white mammal from the water. The cow decided to break the ice, pain in the leg unbearable.
"Please, let's be reasonable… we're all mammals here-"
"Only three of us can swim." The predatory seal reminded her through its teeth.
"Release her or I kill you. Blue, you may lower the rest of us down again." In moments it was done and the Orca was facing her at last.
"There was a whale in charge generations ago. It never had the killing intent. After that came the leopard seal and the shark, but I was stronger than both. Thus have I assumed control of all great and deep and blue. I have met cattle before and I know all of your tricks if they can be called that."
Anabel took it as her cue.
"I assume you are the representatives for your nations?"
"We are the oligarchs. Each is in total control over his own."
"The Transoceanic Agricultural Agreement has termed you an oppressive multi-state."
"What of it?"
"You will have restricted trading rights."
"We can catch our own fish. When that fails, we'll just catch you."
"This concludes the notice from the Agreement."
"You came out here to tell us we were being oppressive?" The whale asked.
"Yes." There was no reason to avoid the question.
"What's your definition of oppression?"
"Your governments are based on force. You have an oligarchy."
"All governments were established by force. And if we don't rule well, the nations will rise up and kill us. We do not worry about it with the passing hour, because they believe we should be in command, having led them well for generations and raised with all the experts of leadership teaching us from hatchlings." The explanation was short, but effective.
"Well, it is still an oligarchy. The Bovine Terminology Index, accepted and approved by the Transoceanic Agricultural Agreement, contains a list of all oppressive forms of with itself as the exception." The aquatic mammals exhaled through what blowholes they had.
"What about our definitions?" a shark asked, visibly humoring her.
"The Bovine Terminology Index notes that all definitions not already listed as entirely irrelevant and most likely incorrect."
"And how did you reach that conclusion?"
"We voted on the definitions as well as the notations."
"Can they be changed?"
"Of course! They change every time the majority decides it." The apparent interest of the shark oddly excited her.
"Then how do you know they're accurate?" A long silence fell over the shore.
"Accuracy is defined by the Bovine Terminology Index."
"Well, it's settled." The shark said as he exchanged assenting looks with the other oligarchs.
"We've discovered a use for cattle." The whale said as they dragged Anabel back into the water.
Colombo chewed the end of a plant, spitting on the passing citizen. In the Camel Commune, citizens were lined up in 'centers of production' along both sides of a long path he had worn down with his constant inspections since the beginning of the regime. On both sides his trusted advisors kept pace, and three hundred war-camels marched behind them. At the end of the path he could make out his private watering hole, clear as air, his bed of hoof-picked palm leaves, surrounded by the shade of tall trees, his grand estate to which his favorite plants were delivered, surrounded by a fence of trees and war-camels ready to kill any who approached.
"Look at the estate the camels have built for themselves."
"Of course." His advisors responded in unison. "The camels must always work for themselves, unlike the ducks in the higher classes who trample the lower. It is for their own good that they have established us." Colombo remembered that day well, the hordes of camels screaming in the street as his personal guard ripped out throats and separated parents from children, how the massive boulders were dropped on the heads of those who continued to resist.
"But the camels must not work for themselves. That would be the greed of the ducks, to have a motivation like that."
"Of course." The advisors replied. "The camels must not work for themselves. Selfishness leads only to the despair of the lower classes."
They continued on for a great distance, reaching at last the Great Overseer.
"How fare our neighbors to the east?"
"Their Association grows weaker by the hour. Lack of leadership will be their downfall." Colombo scanned his arsenal of leadership over the overseer's shoulder. Over two hundred boulders were present, by his estimate.
"What of their sciences? How close are they to the truth?"
"Their truth that they pursue is not what is right in front of them, but in the stars. Our scientific officers are much more effective." Three scientific officers making scratches into sandstone looked up. "How are the discoveries?" the manager called out.
"Excellent!" He turned back to Colombo. "They are the brains of this commune."
"Indeed. What of their foreign relations?"
"They schedule a meeting with the falcons. They will probably speak of nonsense that concerns no one. But enough of their affairs."
"Very well. How does the common camel get by?"
"Well, we've just beaten two for trying to escape. The diet is mostly what remains after the war-camels are fed, which of course, is after the upper management. We've discovered that they are now attempting to collect heavier coconuts from the island to meet weight quotas in less time."
"How did you respond?"
"We gave them a stern warning. Efficiency is our job, and must be state-approved. From now on, they know to collect the smallest fruit first. They will spend twice as long, we estimate, and about a quarter of the crop will be stolen by monkeys, who find it significantly easier to steal when not at the top of spiny trees they cannot climb, and when the lighter ones they can lift are gathered into one place. The total amount will be taken to the distributors, who will need smaller sharpened rocks to cut away the flesh."
"I approve. We must not tolerate sloth if we would have an efficient system."
"Of course." The advisors answered in unison. "The ducks and their like are lazy, and they take vacations when they have more than enough food."
"Ours is a hardworking race indeed, but remember that no system will succeed if any are told to work harder."
"Of course." They responded once more. "A respectable camel suffers no such speech, and would never give one." Satisfied, they continued on.
They came at last to the literature department, where even more scratching on sandstone took place. Surveying the titles, Colombo passed an interesting selection. "How to Build Rocks" "Rocks and You: Understanding Your Purpose as a Resource for the State" "The Magic of Rocks (Magic isn't real and you're not allowed to believe in it)" He took a look at the last etching, picking up the piece of sandstone.
"It is a good thing we have literature like this. The common camel must believe in the state, and other things are distractions."
"Of course." The chorus replied. "Other things are distractions and will not be tolerated. They would undermine the efficiency of rule by taking the focus away from productivity and the welfare of the state."
"But no camel would believe this anyway. Ours is an intelligent race not deceived by any minority party."
"Of course." The advisors said once more. "There is no need to regulate information and opinions. The camels have chosen us instead." The party continued to a public works project, different from all the other workstations. Here camels built a tall, temporary structure of sandstone capable of supporting the weight of several boulders. Long tracks for the boulders to run extended over the whole of the path and the workstations around it. Holes opened up at the end of each track, each where every day a camel would be chained to a post and set to work.
"This is truly the greatest invention." Colombo began, complementing the state architect. "But it would not have been possible without the thousands of camels who sacrificed their lives in the mines, digging up all the sandstone necessary. We must thank them for their selflessness and patriotism."
"We must thank them without paying more to those who work risky jobs."
"Of course. For it is their patriotism that will make the other patriots so much more enthused." The architect indicated the camels looking up uncertainly at the holes above them.
"This is the system they chose. No more choices will be tolerated."
The pig bit harder onto the panda's tail, smiling at his work. It was enjoyable to injure someone, especially one so hated by the Porcine Principality.
"Sorry, bamboo brains. We're on the His Highness's orders not to kill you. But if the prince of the fifty lower princes, or any of them, ordered it, we would oblige."
"Happily." Another pig finished.
"Tell us what your neighbors know. We hear you two have gotten cozy."
"No, please, they tell us nothing-"Patricia ordered Horace to bite harder and the black and white bear let out a painful scream.
"Well, if we can't have your information, we'll have your participation."
"What could you mean- honored swine?"
"We can tell they don't tell you much." Horace said, briefly releasing the panda's short tail. "We can see why. You've been screaming all about your most hidden secrets."
"Those were falsehoods- all of them!" Horace bit him again.
"Never mind all that. Our demands are easy, weak one. We want you to go back to your leaders and tell them the squirrels want your economic system."
"But why? How do you know I would?"
"Bite him." The other pig carried out the order. "You do not know what power is. Your state is blessed to have weak pandas who do not resist." Patricia continued, pacing back and forth. "Our methods are swift and brutal. And we're the biggest damn liars who ever lived."
"Then how may we-"The brown boar bit without being asked.
"We know where you live and we can find you again. You are a coward and will fear us."
"But why call me a coward, if that is what you-"
"Don't even try to say it won't work. The Potentate will be all too eager to spread the system to other markets, making them easier to manipulate." She snorted a little to herself. "He might even really believe in it."
"In desperate times, the squirrels will accept it without question. Your system will crash the acorn market. We collect the acorns." It was easy to read the expression on the eastern bear's face. It was one of legitimate and well-founded confusion. Most underestimated the sloth of pigs.
"Acorns grow high in oak trees. Before the squirrels became productive, many fell to the ground where we could eat them without particular effort. Then their traditionalist subsistence gathering transitioned into a competitive market in which acorns were gathered in order to be sold to other markets." Patricia paced the cave more quickly, seething with rage. It had not been difficult to find the panda, but she wished the prince had dispatched her in search of a smarter one.
"How…cruel." The panda representative responded, faking sympathy. She grew angrier, knowing how the Panda Potentate disposed of the inconvenient blindly. The pandas were as incapable of cruelty as they were of sympathy.
"Horace, bite his tail." He was an expert at biting tails, and no boar or sow could deny it. Within the first nip on the bear's tail, he was screaming for the potentate and all manners of ancestors. The only reason to have him keep it up was because she hated the panda. "We'll show you cruelty. We'll show you the only kind of cruelty there is." She walked out of the cave, and heard the boar bit his prisoner's tail repeatedly until the screams faded out of earshot.
She had never before been to the eastern continent, and its mysteries largely did not concern her. Once she was asked about the cultures of other nations by a group of piglets.
"What do the squirrels do?"
"Whatever it is, they stole it from us."
"What do the wolves do?"
"Whatever it is, they stole it from us."
"What do the orcas do?"
"Whatever it is, they stole it from us."
The piglets never asked about the pandas, and Patricia suspected a good reason. The trip into the land held by the nation had been a bleak and dreadfully boring experience. First the senses were assailed by all manners of fresh vegetables and beautifully prepared food. Horace pointed out carvings and engravings depicting great battles and tales of woe. Every so often, there would be songs and ceremonies celebrating the history of the nation of pandas.
The pig's anger grew at the thought of the races and clans stealing their culture. Once, she saw a small monkey playing with the stick, and was too disgusted to explain that pigs had invented the stick. In addition to having contributed much to science, the race of pig was related to the elephants, who once were the greatest kings within their own small territory. The Principality often claimed relation by way of the tapir as the missing link, but bizarrely the elephants contradicted them.
It was true, the pigs were once the greatest nation, conquering regions they had never visited and creating all kinds of art without even touching a blank space on a cave wall. It was easy when one used a little imagination. And yet, though they were the most hardworking nation the other races must have simply hated them and erased all the evidence of their accomplishments, and overnight they went from being the most energetic race to the most disaffected, content to use whatever means necessary to scrape the bottom of the barrel.
"At least we can be sure it will be better once we've kicked the chickens out."
The boar walked out of the cave.
Tenoch the Terrible shared a look of disappointment and defeat with his officers. The defeat of the toucan forces on a surveillance mission against the spiders was a crushing blow, having lost many renowned, skilled officers. The details had just recently come in in the form of a message from their temporary allies, the falcons. Apparently the greatest military strategist of all time had met them, a snake. He remembered the conversation with the officers in the war room well.
"A snake? What is a snake doing on that continent? How is it that our forces just happened to encounter him?" It was his own displeasure to answer.
"The Spider Queen foresaw winged involvement, the news that we know everything merely confirmed her suspicions. The snake had been requested and arrived in time to respond effectively."
"And how exactly does a snake commanding a few spiders respond effectively to a flying surveillance mission?"
"It appears the strategist commanded the spiders to form some sort of floating web from their own bodies and hold onto him, adjusting with the current. It has been leaked from a spider correspondent that he had some way of launching himself into the air. Most likely, our spies saw the snake floating on the wind and attacked, as they are instructed to control information. They attacked, only to be bitten and taken down with webbing."
The canopy was silent in shock and disbelief. Tenoch moved to rally spirits.
"Now is not the time for doubt and disagreement. We must raise more revenue and prepare another surveillance squad. The Spider Queen will not be so lucky a second time."
"Right away. How will the Regime raise this revenue?" It was an essential question.
"We keep selling those plants to the camels." The general facing him had a mixed expression.
"At this point, it is impossible to expand sales. There is only one buyer, and he buys the correct amount for the purposes of his nation, as he says."
"Perhaps we should adopt a similar policy. Are there any other foreign markets that will have our products?"
"The elephants were purchasing it for a short time, but then the king returned. He declared that it should be free for all elephants." Tenoch had to chuckle.
"He's beginning to think like our own domestic support."
The toucan generals gathered around the leafen table high in the canopy laughed nervously.
"Find a way of charging the elephants in a way they don't recognize. I suggest making them wait in long lines to get it for free, then not having enough. Then and only then will they be willing to pay. The king of all elephants will make it illegal to buy, in favor of getting the plant for free. We then increase the prices by the imaginary risk we take in selling it despite elephant law. In actuality, elephantine law enforcement will be lax, most who know how to fight and investigate are too busy seeking out gazelles to kill. Arbitrary increases in price may occur afterword, they will believe quality has increased." The generals were nodding and trying to remember it all. More questions were on their minds, and the leader pointed at one of them.
"What next?" He asked simply.
"We have two options. We can move on to the Transoceanic Agricultural Agreement, where you can be sure we can find buyers, though it will take some time accustoming them to the product." He pointed to the younger general at the end of the table. "Evere, start a committee. It will happen sooner or later." The bird flew off and the other asked what the other option was.
"We move on to the hard stuff." He produced a pebble he had found earlier. "This is a pebble. There is nothing special about it. But if we squeeze the plant over it, they will buy it. It will be much cheaper than the original product, and we can sell it to poorer nations, like the monkeys or the crickets." He paused, tossing the pebble to another general, who quickly flew off with it. "By reducing the amount of effect in every unit, we can ensure their addiction. They will all be as loyal as our own citizens."
Applause rang out in the canopy, but Tenoch waved it away.
"Is this why they made you our glorious leader?" a younger general asked.
"No, that was because I armed the masses with sticks, killed everyone in the previous system, took their resources, and rewrote the history."
"Were the masses loyal consumers?"
"Some of them were." The applause began again, and once more Tenoch waved it away. There were serious matters to address. "When the revenue is ours, the plan will become much more complex. The falcons have been leading in surveillance, but their counter-intelligence is lacking. We need a team to get information out of them as quickly as possible."
"It will be done, glorious leader. I began work on a new surveillance squad the moment the previous one died."
"There is only one problem."
"The falcons are impossible to find." What remained of the generals meeting in the canopy let out a collective sigh. It was true and they knew it well. Not only did they have the most secretive internal order, but also no knowable territory. There was simply no way of hunting down a falcon, or finding two together. When they had use or you, one would appear. The only way Tenoch could imagine someone catching a falcon was by incredibly dumb luck.
"We shall try, sir. And if we cannot find them, there is no force that can."
It was odd to Perry that the asses had found them so easily. It was a routine mission, in and out, no questions asked. They had flown low over the territory belonging to the Camel Commune, but that was because the leadership was too incompetent to do anything about it. Did the asses have spies? They were known for intelligence, but not of that variety.
The Assembly was an interesting affair, the members sat in a large circle with one apart from the rest, asking more questions and giving more answers than the others, but it was no cause to suspect she thought highly of herself. With his keen eyes, he spotted one ass who looked unsettled. It was slight, but present all the same. His eyes wandered and it appeared at times he wanted to speak, but not to say too much in an assembly for some reason.
Perry decided he would follow this one.
The meeting between his superior operative and the current leader of the asses went well, given that they had compromised the secrecy of the falcons. As it turned out, the Association had learned of the falcons' flight paths the same way they learned to predict eclipses, and used their newly invented spyglasses to track and predict their surveillance. From there, it was a simple matter of refracting light to draw their attention. It was amusing to them that anyone had managed to accomplish it. In previous experience, another animal only met a falcon by dumb luck or the falcon's choice.
The discussion ranged from there into two matters, the first concerning the plans for involvement with foreign powers. They had known that the asses were an intellectual nation unwilling to fight, but had not expected a path of complete isolation. Even they, the falcons, had a stake.
"This is the life we have chosen, the life of spies. Other nations try, but none of them go nearly deeply enough into it. We know how to find them. We know who their leaders are. From there, the rest is easy, and it remains impossible for them to reciprocate."
"An interesting choice, but ours is the one for us. The skies and heavens are beyond any trivial matters on the ground, and looking at them has already granted much wisdom." Perry noticed a facial twitch of the falcon talking to her. He had a question on his mind.
"How long have you been the leader of the Association?"
"Not long. We are elected once every half lunar cycle. I started on the full white moon, my predecessor started on the black moon. We believe taking power for ourselves will lead to corruption."
"Our leadership is entirely secret. We have no fewer than seventy false leaders in various places around the world." The ass's face changed slightly. There was an important matter at hand.
"Have you considered our agreement?" There it was.
"I have, but the leader is unsure. The consent to share our knowledge with a nation incapable of protecting it comes at a high price."
"I and all assembled can assure you, we can pay it. Of course, we could just release the spyglass to the world. In a matter of solar cycles, even the sheep will be able to track you." Perry had met asses before, disguised of course as a goose. They were an open nation, freely sharing information. He knew well enough what they thought of falcons.
The decision weighed heavily on the falcon's mind. The ass knew he had leave to share the information, otherwise he would not have it. The technology gained would be of great assistance, to be sure. With their own mechanisms, they had only managed to put together a few tools of espionage, and those had been out of necessity. It was an attractive offer, but of the sort that would be offered again.
"We could always spy on you and learn your technology for ourselves. Our secrets are far from safe with asses, even if you were willing you would be unable to guard them." The falcon decided. It occurred to Perry how little he knew about the other falcon. His name was a mystery, he could be the leader for all he knew. Among falcons, there was one leader. Once a year his influence was decided by other falcons, and the name of this form of government was kept secret.
Perry stifled a chuckle. As a hatchling, he asked his mother whether falcons or squirrels were more obsessed with keeping things secret. She told him the names of the High Hundred Heads and that his next meal would be in a hidden location.
"It is a shame, then. We wish we could have revealed what we were trading." The falcon already knew. It was a specialized spyglass, and they were prepared with their resources to make a hundred more. But with time the falcons would learn the secrets of glass.
It was then that he decided to pursue the ass. Perry took to the skies, catching the sight of the target seconds later. He had already figured out that his name was Albert, and he was the previous leader.
Another ass with fur of brown and black stopped him on the path to his cave.
"The time has come." The gray one sighed. "Do you see those bales of hay?" The falcon's eyes trained on them immediately. Albert looked over disdainfully.
"I see them. I have a suspicion of what this challenge might be, Buridan."
"Have no fear, old friend. I merely break you from the limits you have placed on yourself." The darker one led him to a spot he had measured and marked ahead of time. "I know you are hungry. It has been a while since you have been able to eat. The rational thing would be to do so immediately."
"Please, I have had work. I was not so disturbed by your words I could not eat until now."
"Part of that is true, part is not." Buridan smiled cruelly. "Now how do you decide?" Perry was puzzled by the puzzle, staring at the bales they looked of equal weight.
"I trust you counted out the straws and measured them to length?"
"You then placed them a certain distance apart, placed them equally far from my cave, and me equally far from each of them."
"And it would not be a rational thing not to eat one of the bales, not when so much is right in front of you. You have no logical reason to pick one over the other, but you must pick one."
Silence fell, Albert bore a drained look on his face. It was clear he had been thinking of what sort of bizarre challenge the darker ass had in store for him. It was his wit's end, and Perry truly pitied him.
At last he made a decision, no explanation necessary. There could be no explanation.
Mega scanned the depth, black to all those who could see more than black. The escaped prisoner was close, and she knew it. Noticing a flicker in the darkness, she raced off, allowing Heka to draft in the low pressure.
The carp was clever, but not fast. It could not escape her in open ocean, nor could it hide forever. But the former nation of sharks was never a patient one, not even under its time of self-governance. The target darted through reeds, attempting to confuse her pursuer, and skirted under a rock. Mega had seen these tricks before. Heka made a feint dive under the rock, she went over, catching the carp. Its run had been a short one, but entertaining nonetheless.
An idea popped into her head.
Releasing the prisoner by momentarily relaxing her grip, Mega feigned confusion and held her partner back. He quickly grasped the plan. Asian carp were an invasive species, but they were not far from the target's familiar territory. They could tell by the water. They were expert hunters.
Heka, adding a level of believability, though perhaps unnecessarily, jabbed at her dorsal fin with his nose in pantomimed anger. The carp glanced back and was once more off. They pretended to poke around in the vegetation, not finding much, even adding in a sense of anger. Their acting was all part of the new plan, which would lead straight to the carp's leader. They were expert hunters.
She gave the fish some credit in its grasping of its situation in spite of blood loss and panic. Mega pretended to be looking the other way as the carp sprang from one hiding place to another. They had caught the now fugitive as it had been in transit on a mission, most likely a message delivery. Carp, nationless under the Swamp Lords, which they always hoped would return, were not known for espionage or particular use in war. They had achieved little by questioning the carp, not by its unwillingness to relieve information, but by their uncertainty of the cause of its all too apparent nervousness. It was a common display when two sharks intercepted a fish.
The target had made it a considerable distance and Heka decided they would alternate watching her with peripheral vision, which he communicated with a simple nod. It would not be long before they suspected the Asian carp returned from whence it had come, the fact that it was attempting to flee at all rather than making up some story was enough indication of that. Had she been far from home, she would have hidden her fear somewhat and explained that she was simply going to the whales, or perhaps the dolphins. Dolphins were believed to be the most intelligent creatures in the world.
The water grew murkier and shallower and the sharks knew they were nearing the base. They made sure to hang back, each periodically swimming off in the wrong direction entirely, to lower suspicion. But it was possible the target knew they were following her all the same. Mega had nipped her, and there was blood in the water.
Heka, concluding as she did that the carp had been waiting to see what they would do, what game they would play, pulled an unexpected move and swam ahead, along a predictable course the carp might be taking. But Mega harbored suspicion the target could be leading them off course, playing the long game and wearing them down. She turned the away slightly and scanned the coast, looking for possible entrances to secret bases, even small ones. Her companion, closer to the shore, was making a show of looking up and down it, almost certainly attempting to get the carp to jump, not wanting him to find the base without warning the others.
The gambit failed, suggesting to Mega that the carp knew he could not see the entrance, meaning either it was much smaller than expected or required a more diverse color palette, which was unlikely. Heka switched tactics, and she caught on swiftly as he raced into a narrow channel on the shoreline. Taking off into it as well, she could not make herself hope it was the right one, but at least one that would serve as an effective trick. They would allow a few seconds before coming back out. The female carp, familiar with the territory, would know it for a long channel and reason that she had enough time to move. They would have to find her again, but she would not be aware.
After her heart beat five times, she darted back out in mock frustration. The smell of blood had faded. Splitting up, she went slowly left as Heka went right, and she noticed the target once more, though she was far enough away to pretend otherwise. As the carp darted almost invisibly into a channel, she motioned for Heka, who came immediately. They darted into the channel, finding it difficult to breathe in the brackish water. Ponds and eddies lied on either side, and they forced themselves upriver to check for hiding places. Almost certainly, the target was terrified, waiting in an eddy somewhere, but they no longer cared. As soon as the base was discovered, the secrecy of the smaller fish would be explained.
It had all started when the migrant fish of the western continent began to slip away. Mega and her partner were sent out to investigate the reason and patrol the area. The carp had been an interesting find, and was almost certainly involved. Heka signaled to her. The two of them swam into a small tributary, making their way to a large pond in a bog that faded into a lake.
The area around the pond contained traces of various animals, a snake had shed its skin against a tree, a frog had laid eggs in the water and the blood of a duck had been spilled on the infirm earth.
Heka nodded to her and the nod could only mean one thing.
The Swamp Lords were well and truly back.
"Carter! Glad to see you back. I need you in my office."
Sherry Chitin waited, one leg on a miniscule leaf suitable for writing, one leg tapping expectantly. Carter entered, looking rushed.
"I need you on the Spider Queen. What do you know so far?"
"Madam, I would, honestly, but Walter's just assigned me-"
"No one cares about the cats or the mice. The ratings have gone up since our listeners have been hearing about the spiders, specifically their ruler."
He sighed. "The Spider Queen is aware of foreign involvement and has developed countermeasures. The falcons know that she is targeting fliers."
"What about these rumors of the Swamp Lords? Are they involved?"
"I saw a snake helping the spiders. If they exist, they're helping her."
"What do other nations need to know for their own purposes? How does it relate to them?"
"The ducks and the geese must look out for new developments in spider web, if anything can be certain. Spiders are right nasty creatures, and I don't much care for being sent back out there."
"The public is interested in personal details on the Spider Queen. There are rumors she is currently injured. Can you confirm?"
"The spiders were calling them just that, but we can use the phrase 'denying it'." The sly smile of the journalist played across Sherry's face at the suggestion, in her mind ratings were already going up. "How are the domestic cases?" Carter asked, breaking up her happy images.
"We're scouring Congress for scandals, but so far nothing of interest is turning up."
"Nothing at all on the legislation?"
"You know it." She no longer bothered to deny skirting around 'important' issues or blowing others out of proportion or deliberately ignoring all stories contrary to what the public wanted to hear. If they didn't use the interesting stories, the cicadas would. On the occasion she suspected Carter to be different, but hardly saw how that mattered.
"Have you completed your repertoire of buzzwords yet?" Sherry smiled, happy he remembered.
"Unfortunately, many are still being tested."
"Okay, then, Corporate." His eyes lit up.
"That's the ticket right there."
"You've got me convinced."
"Look out, someone might know what that means."
"Depends heavily on the context." She nodded, assenting.
"Not too much."
"Make sure it's an interest."
"When do we ever talk about that?" She set down her leafen notepad.
"That's as far as I have for now. We'll make sure to use them whenever possible." Sending him from the room, most likely to return to his assignment, it suddenly struck her how few journalists were as loyal. Most were simply doing their jobs, leaving once they had the information necessary to write the story required. It took a special breed of cricket with that distinctly journalistic spirit to go farther where others stopped. She remembered one time Carter ran the story about the drake in Congress caught with a crow for six weeks straight, going through refuse and interviewing parties that had seen nothing at all.
As much fun as it was to reminisce, there was no time to dwell on the matter. Sherry turned her attention to Walter Chirp, on assignment in the Subterranean Syndicate. He reported a slight hill of earth on the surface from where the moles were working beneath, almost certainly up to no good. She would make a mountain of it yet.
A more junior member, whose name she could not recall, currently was researching the Bear Front, and had little chance of surviving. The bears, oddly, never tried to prevent journalists. She had received word that the Ursine Underground had recently come upon some information, but nothing since then. It was an unforgiving field, especially so if you were a cricket and the field was covered in snow. She checked in with the liaison to the Duck Confederation.
"Oh, it was terrible, stone-faced silent- all of them, it was just terrible."
"Okay, but what we need to know-"
"Let me tell you, Sherry, what it's like, as a cricket-trying to –when they're not downright killing you, they're trying, those long bills of theirs- I just wanted an interview."
"Did you warn them about the specialized webbing-"
"Oh, I got your little deal through all right- what didn't come through all right was my back leg. That Ruby-Interpreter-hen, don't think for one minute she can't peck you right out of- and don't think she won't!"
"What have you learned about Ornith Sky? There are rumors he was running from news of an affair breaking."
"No one's seen him." Gryll responded, strangely calm all of a sudden. "The affair's a total lie, but the public doesn't need to know it."
"What do you think is really going on?"
"I've seen ducks and geese run off. Most times, they swap places. This was different. Something I might have expected of a cricket, maybe a cicada."
"What are you on about?"
"He was on to something."
Dowal wondered if they would ever become as secretive as the falcons, hiding in the darkest reaches of the world, mythical. He would allow it, possibly in a few generations, if their numbers dwindle still farther, and the race of the gazelle was that much closer to extinction. But it would have to be when some other buck was in charge.
"I need a status report. Where are the elephants?" He asked his aide as he took to the stone.
"They scour the plains and the wastes for us."
"You can be sure they search for nothing else? The patterns seem different."
"I can be sure. We are the greatest threat to their existence. They would not so vigorously pursue us otherwise." He nodded in response, shifting through his speech in his mind.
"We know, then, fellow gazelles, that they will never give up. Not now, and most likely never. If we allow it, they will drive us to extinction and whatever worlds lie beyond and we can die in pain knowing no power on this continent or any other will mourn our passing."
The silence settled.
"But this administration will not allow it." He stood firmly on the stone on top of another, breaking the top one for effect. "If we run our lives will mean as little as our deaths. The sufferings of our sires and sons will be no different, and the dying generations can expect as much as well." He took a skull of an elephant, tossed it into the air with his horns, reared up on his forelegs and shattered bone with the other two. "This administration will not allow it!"
The gathered of the last living gazelles gave out a mighty cry, the bravest and the strongest chasing down and killing panthers and leopards, their antlers bathed in blood.
"I look over this nation and I say to the darkest remnants of doubt at the recesses of my burning heart that these, these with power entrusted to them by every living citizen in merited measure, these who have stood by the side of courage in the coldest hours, these will make the bravest and the most honored and worthy companions as I dive straight into the ivory gates!"
From a belt of plants tied together he pulled an elephant's tusk run a thousand times against a coarse stone until both sides were flat and the edges were sharp. As planned, an elephant scout burst through the trees and made to sound his trumpeting call, but from his mouth a gazelle soldier took the shot, flinging a sharpened tusk at the great beast. The weapon severed the trunk and returned to the thrower in the space of a second, and another gazelle was halfway up the confused elephant's leg. A third leapt from a tree, bringing a rock down on the spine.
The crowd was in shouting and tears as the monster came down with a thundering crash and the first soldier slashed its throat with the sharpened tusk. When at last the cheers died down to an acceptable level, Dowal began again.
"With these tactics and many others we're going to take our right to live. The beasts that have haunted our fawns' dreams, the messengers of death itself are not the invincible warriors we have made them out to be, but mortal monsters, pitiable fools who sacrifice their liberty and are forced into courage by their king who ran from his captors in the north!"
He had spent years on the final battle plan. It was a multifaceted operation designed to confuse and terrorize and force the entire race of elephants to suffer before they died.
"Our soldiers will be the bravest bucks to ever breathe air in the light of day, but the deaths of all the generals and the king himself will not be humiliating, for no longer will the gazelles be pitied by the world, but respected. The great nations will know us as the most effective fighting force of all time, never to be recipients of charity, but the leaders of the world in all respects. But just as it was necessary to gather the gazelles those thousands of years ago, it will first be necessary to rise from this war alive."
He stepped down from the stone, walking through the crowd deliberately, flanked by the sharpest reserve troops. And though only those nearest could hear, he finished the speech walking among his nation.
"And I promise you- all of you- sires and sons that we shall be the only ones to rise alive."
The first squad would hit the outskirts of their territory, the goal being to attempt to break through the defenses, only to retract as the second squad, from the other side, moved in when sentries were relocated to the first point. The goal of the initial attack was to kill as many sentries as possible, creating a large hole into which another squad could enter without notice. Succeeding that, it would kill all the cows and calves it could, causing mass hysteria and a drop in morale.
The trouble would be the king. Based on the intelligence they shared with the spiders, Brunhoff was not only a significantly more capable leader than other elephants, he had invented several concepts in technology. They would have to be ready, and the intelligence was limited.
"We need information on the strategy update." His aide whispered from behind.
"That's right, I forgot to tell you. The elephants are lacking in authoritative resources at a sector to the east end of their general territory on the continent. 180"Rolling Thunder" and 88"Wasteland" are going to spearhead this one. Tell Nanger not to engage until there down to three sentries."
"Captain of 88. I transferred him from 94"Tigerblood". There were too many uninvolved casualties, and I separated him from his highly influenced unit. 88 is less notorious."
"No, a promotion." The assistant almost certainly adopted an expression of confusion. "He needed a greater challenge."
"The king, as you have told us is highly honorable." The new aide reminded him, not bothering to pursue the previous topic. "He may offer a test of single combat."
"He may, but I wouldn't see why. I'd kill him."
"We managed to bring down a disoriented scout with no fewer than three soldiers who were waiting for him! Why do you think you would win in single combat?"
"Elephants are slower than most realize. They only chase us well because they can cover a lot of ground. They are most likely unable to raise their back legs by standing on the front, so I would go straight for the rear, cutting at the knees with this tusk." He indicated the sharpened weapon.
"I assume Brunhoff would simply allow you to do so?"
"No. I would feint with a rock first. It's a simple trick and of course he'll move, but it's off-putting. The distraction will allow me the time I need to get the first cut in, which will allow a swift dodge of the kicks that may swing out suddenly. Once he has one leg off the ground, the rest are vulnerable."
"What of this technology he possesses?"
"It's nothing my best bucks can't handle. The kingdom possesses nothing on the ass level, nor do they have the research in any form. Lastly, they do not expect us, and most technologies developed recently have been funneled to the Ant Empire. They have a clear stake in the war, possibly out of envy." It was becoming better known among the nations. Brunhoff's return meant everyone else's exile.
"Do we have allies?"
"We have to start before we can expect them to show up. The Doge and the snakes have told me in confidence that the elephants are enemies of theirs. Dogs are capable warriors and snakes are expert strategists. They have allies in turn, but none have spoken to us."
The matter was closed. It was a war they would get, but a war all the more horrifying for the gazelles if the Swamp Lords balked.
The panda representative had no idea what was going on. As the Potentate's son, he was expected to know all manners of economic policy, yet not required to learn it and treated to the best distractions the subnation had to offer. The squirrels looked as though they expected somewhat more.
"So you say we as the state need to confiscate all property and redistribute it evenly at minimum value, using the remaining funding to advance our purposes at our discretion?" The High Hundred Heads looked down with scorn at the black and white bear, causing him to squirm internally.
"Why do you hate me so…?" he muttered under his breath. "It must be that they hate me…"
The squirrel next to him tapped him on the shoulder, reminding him of the query.
"Well, I guess so, damn it! All I was supposed to do was explain it. If you don't like it, that's fine, no one cares about your dumb Secret Order anyway." The squirrels took up strange expressions at his glorious speech. His mother called it that, anyway. Some of his father's advisors called it 'sudden outbursts', and he disregarded the notion.
"No one was making this personal." The squirrel next to him calmly stated. All at once he figured out her purpose- she was calming him down. Anger filled him once more.
"Are you foolhardy?" He asked the congress suddenly. "What leader wouldn't want this?" He got up on his short legs and began to pace the room. "You start by appealing to the poor and anyone close enough. It doesn't matter how wealthy the average squirrel is, there's always someone with nothing. Make up a reason that there are economic problems- but make sure it's something out of your control. The squirrels give you more power. Don't fix anything, blame the rich squirrels. The squirrels give you more power again. Say you still can't fix anything, but do little things that work."
He stopped pacing, out of breath. He decided being heir to the highest office in the world put extra weight on him. It must be the distractions put in front of him.
"You can't do a lot, because there isn't a lot the squirrels aren't doing. So just do little things to make the squirrels think you're effective all the time." He looked up at them, trying to gauge their reactions and concluded he was unable to tell whether they were impressed or horrified. "Make sure to keep dividing things. That's what the squirrels who helped you wanted and make sure they think it's because everyone's the same or something. It's not. When my ancestors had a bunch of slave bears, they gave them all the same amount of bamboo, but it was because it was more efficient that way, and the slaves didn't have a choice but to work. Don't expect anyone to like it, but if they really start something, just kill 'em."
The High Hundred stared silently into his black eyes, their faces void. If the squirrels had one thing on the falcons, they were definitely better at not being read. Then it all started.
The angriest of the small rodents were jeering and shouting, the cruelest were laughing at him until at last a female identifying herself as Diastema Maple summarily sent him from the room. He could still hear them, though, and remembered something about having to hear their decision. It was pretty clear to him already, but he had to hear it.
"That was easily the most blatant violation of squirrel rights. The idea of forced labor, confiscation of property, censorship for the true purpose of a system the state can manipulate is absolutely absurd, and will almost certainly drive down living conditions, as we can see by other states. To do anything with this proposal apart from throwing it out entirely and warning future generations of the policy in a clear, factual form." The voice belonged to the same squirrel who dismissed him. The panda sank to the ground outside, unable to convince himself his situation would improve as he heard the sonorous assent.
He wondered what the pigs had been thinking, sending him. Or maybe they didn't send him, maybe it was his father, trying to get him to be something other than a waste of time. He realized there was so much he'd forgotten to tell them, whistleblowing, parades, demagogical speakers- all the patriotism boosters to go farther than to prevent action against the state, but thought as well. But as he sat there listening to minor concerns play out in the chamber, he began to doubt he would have succeeded if he had remembered.
It was beginning to dawn that their objections were directed at the core of the philosophy and methodology. Should he have lied about it? Should he have given it to them in stages? Perhaps stages would have been better, but the pigs would be back and the plan was to sell the squirrels on the idea.
"Why does the Porcine Principality want the squirrels to adopt the system?" He asked himself suddenly, thinking that if the shrewder of them rejected it entirely, would it help them? He couldn't make himself think it would, though it had been the system he had known. The panda sighed. He could believe the pigs wanted to crash a market, but why go to the Hundred and not the Count of Crabs? The only reason bothered him. They wanted to hurt the squirrels for their own benefit.
He resigned himself listening to the goings on in the chamber. Perhaps it was well that the pigs had failed, or at least just as it was bad that he had. The voices were consistent.
Consistently they raged at the very idea of the system being implemented, they had been chosen by the secret process to protect the secret properties and it was no secret that the economic system proposed would not only aggravate the nature of poverty, but deprive the squirrels of their rights not only to their possessions, but their basic rights to free thought. The Potentate's son imagined what sort of dish he would be upon returning home. The state hated criticism, and plenty would be coming from the squirrels, as well as the ducks. And this would be especially distasteful, the pandas could not simply make squirrels disappear!
Sinking lower, visions danced about of his own pelt being used as a warning to future diplomats the Potentate would get around to sending out. But just as he began to wonder how their faces would look when they saw it, he heard the voice of a squirrel.
"But you know, that guy had some pretty good ideas." The following statements were quickly drowned out by expertly woven counters and factual references. The panda smiled. It was too late.
Cetacean surfaced at the appropriate time and place. The drake did the same, his timing impeccable. She smiled as he landed on the banks of the river.
"Pecten of the Plains." It was idle pedantry to refer to him by his actual title. He was not here officially, and neither was she.
"I have heard as much about you, I am sure." Ducks were strange creatures, preferring to be known, falcons were the exact opposite. Once she had heard a falcon died without knowing his own name. He died smiling, and she assumed the visitors to the secret funeral bore the same expression of silent satisfaction at the accomplishment.
"You know about the Swamp Lords, then?"
"Of course. The President of Congress found out on his international tour to the falcon nation, which consisted of a falcon slipping through the incredibly tight security, discussing the nature of the war and all parties involved over the course of no fewer than three hours, then escaping without notice. It has fallen upon me to 'take care of it'."
"I suggest mentioning our stake." The former general laughed at her words.
"It must suck living in the ocean. I can't imagine what it must be like to have no access to writing, the ability to communicate of course, but only what your relatives, the orcas, allow." From behind a tree he retrieved a star map inscribed into a stone. "This is straight from the Ass Association. You never get to see anything like it, do you?" He tossed it into the waves and with her swift eyes she scanned the impeccably precise diagram, as comprehensive as it was easy to understand, and unlikely to be destroyed by water for years. "I'll bet education's been difficult."
She refused to indulge his question.
"What's it like to be possibly the smartest nation- oh, sorry- subnation on the planet with no point of reference to lift yourself above the Count of Crabs and Clams?" Cetacean's black eyes narrowed, but she allowed it. There was no point in arguing.
"What is it that you want?" Pecten of the Plains smiled.
"Do something about the Swamp Lords. I trust you're capable of thinking well enough to come up with something destructive."
"Of course. Our brains are much larger than yours or those of any other beast. I have already thought of no fewer than six hundred ways of disrupting their plans."
"Glad to hear it. Just remember, there's more where that came from. She took the stone star map through the river and out to sea, where an old friend of hers crossed paths.
"Dammit, Larry, what is it now?" Larry Leptonyx spiraled around her as she swam, taunting her with the onerous gift.
"I heard from a shark where the Swamp Lords meet."
"Did you now?"
"Oh, but of course. Heka and I gamble from time to time. Says he killed the Asian carp who led him right to it, but not before extorting all the information he could."
"How pleasant." The dolphins, to her knowledge, never cared for the more brutal pursuits.
"This one was a tough one, he says. Used every trick he knew, but couldn't get more than her name and a few of the nations represented."
"I'm guessing you want something for the location. I could get it out of Heka for nothing." She kept her terms simple, but the plan was anything but. She had never heard the name, but could be reasonably sure one of her nation would be able to tell her something. The trick was to keep him talking.
"Heka's a stoic one. There's no pain you can inflict or bribe you can offer. By the very smell of you he will know that you need the information."
"What is it you want?" Cetacean decided it would be folly not to ask, and that it was something Leptonyx wanted very badly.
"Tell the Orca that you two are done. The dolphins and his race will no longer be united." It was a clever move for a leopard seal, but one that she might have expected. If her nation retracted, the orcas would have less influence.
"The request would be dismissed entirely. You have little to gain by holding out the information, though." Her tone was clear and convincing.
"Try, then. The Swamp Lords meet in a bog about a day south of here swimming along the coast. It's a pity, but I really must go, my constitution is for colder waters."
Having memorized the entire coastline of the continent, she was confident she would have little trouble finding the bog and the river leading to it, but it would be necessary to drop off the tablet first, and well recommended to recruit backup. Susu and Bhulan would keep good company and not cause trouble, but Tursiops was stronger and faster than either. The Swamp Lords had few allies capable of killing a dolphin, but if she ran into trouble, it would be wise to have brought the three of them.
With allies, she scouted the entrance, waiting for the players to show up. They had researched the known parties and knew which heads to expect. The first they saw was Anura, the frog, riding on the back of Crackshell, the oldest animal any of them had seen, having survived ninety years and ready for twice that. His military record was impressive, once having survived war against the elephants during Brunhoff's first reign, but his position in the council gathering was less so. He was not quick to volunteer motions, to say the least.
The frog was another story. She once visited the flies, who had only days earlier insulted the original Swamp Lords. They were eaten before being obliterated from history, and in the field of trade and diplomacy, she was more or less unmatched.
Tursiops insisted on checking the river for witnesses. Killing representatives with the misfortune of showing up to a meeting early was an international crime, and unbecoming of dolphins. They decided the blame would fall to the leopard seals. The bull returned, informing them that no one else was present, but it was likely that more would show up soon. Understanding the implication, Cetacean followed, leaving Susa at the mouth as a lookout. As the representatives ahead of them made their way up the river, she and Bhulan leapt on top of both, taking them underwater silently and without chance of escape. Anura was swift for her age, but she was easily caught in Tursiops's jaws, swifter and stronger. She thrashed Crackshell underwater, avoiding his painful bite, and it became easier as soon as Tursiops decided to simply swallow the frog and grab the reptile by its shell.
Susa raced into the river, informing them that a large catfish and a few others were coming. Bhulan helped carry the retracted turtle and Cetacean led the way, deciding there were other times to kill the representative, but they could not leave him. Fortunately, the lookout came up with a plan and swam back out, creating a distraction. The rest of them escaped out of the opposite side of the mouth, dragging their unwilling prisoner.
It was not work befitting a dolphin.
Dun Withers carried his aged body to the body of horses appointed by merit, not eager to have to disappoint them once more.
"I have heard from my contacts-"he began "-the Orca has only commanded the death of one bovine." He earned some light chuckles, but little else was due. "Gazelles have begun their counterattack against the elephants. But as with other conflicts, these do not involve us and there is no need to choose sides." He paused, clearing his throat. "The world grows dark around us. For an hour, there was between every nation a great peace, but that was long before the Beetle Baronetcy was driven from the light of day, from the sight of stallion and mare, still longer before the Ant Empire engaged in battle with the Spider Queen."
Hard faces stared back at him. They knew it was the truth, and they appreciated it. Their loyalty could only be matched by their willingness to work, for it was not a group of opponents and false supporters who stared back at him, but friends.
"We must leave the Transoceanic Agricultural Agreement." The horses agreed, but he already knew this. The trouble was not reaching an agreement, it was going about it in a unified manner consistent with the wishes of the less worthy. "I have come up with only one idea. We establish an exist clause and take it. The Agreement can overturn the clause later, but not force us to rejoin." It was a simple plan, flexible enough to respond to reservations.
"That seems implausible. How do we go about creating an exit clause?" It was a legitimate question.
"We make it a punishment. They think the Range is the center of the universe. All we need is to make some minor act of malfeasance into an out." Palomino suggested.
"The goats will notice and block it. What we really need is a coup."
"Any military action would have to be decided by vote." Withers argued, reminding them that the union worked something like the Duck Confederation, only without an executive. "We could get it past the goats if we attached it to an increase in the graduated tax on all nations. Even if the goats notice it, the pigs and the chickens will vote on it. Additionally, I am relatively sure the Bovine Terminology Index terms 'graduated income tax' as an ultimate good."
The representatives by merit remained unconvinced, though respectful of the logic. Sorrel, one of the most worthy present, having increased the effectiveness of the military and eliminated loopholes in taxation, offered a dissenting argument.
"The legitimacy of an exit clause would be kicked to pieces by the rest of the Agreement for the same reason they entirely ignore our individual rights. They want to get the most out of us as possible, and given that the goats have an entire committee to prevent our leaving, I must dismiss this strategy entirely. While unfavorable and incomplete in planning, I prefer the military option."
The discussion broke down into smaller discussions, each group working out how most effectively and logically to argue its points. In the Horse Meritocracy, the argument proven to be right or closest to the truth won every time.
Dun Withers smiled subtly at the system they had. Once, in a visit to the Duck Confederation, he watched the entirety of Congress agree on something, and then be halted by a few small chapters. His laughter had not been appreciated by the ducks. Congress went on to pass several new taxes, which it was unable to collect. He noticed no regulating agreement to protect the abridging of individual liberties, which the ducks prized so highly, apart from simple non-cooperation and possibly secession. The Transoceanic Agricultural Agreement, while created by those with absolutely no respect for individual rights, worked in much the same manner.
The arguments were finalized. The debates began.
The three sides were divided up by significantly different course of action, with some not participating out of specific disagreements with all proposed, but lack of a better idea, though not assumed to be out of ignorance. The first supported Withers on his proposal, coming up with justifiable reasons it would not only work but be superior to the others in principle. The second supported military action, but with the new majority concession being a warning and reparations. The final created a new plan, necessitating the recruitment of the Alpaca Anocracy, in hopes that the entire system would crash.
It was an interesting plan, but the alpacas usually only responded to threats by nations weaker than they were and economic incentives from nations much poorer.
The basic argument of the first group was that it would be a successful, bloodless maneuver that only the pigs would contest longer than three weeks. It would accomplish the same as the second and third, for without the Horse Meritocracy, the Agreement would collapse.
The general tone of the second derided the first as being realistically unworkable, with no real contingencies for the goats, and would only result in more serious regulations. The coup would be perfectly successful, and while reparations would be paid, the independence gained would easily compensate.
The final argument made the point that alpacas had succeeded in crashing every government and international organization of which they had ever been a part. The horse representatives of the other arguments were on their hind legs in opposition. Barely holding off the excellent counterarguments, the stallions representing the third plan bravely articulated that the alpacas would not only provide them a chance to escape unnoticed, but the entire Agreement would be crashed too badly to dream of recovering.
Then an alpaca, presumably requested by the proponents in advance, staggered into the room, momentarily tripping over its own feet. It stood on one of the many round tables and began its acceptance speech.
"As a member of the Transatlantic Agricultural Agreement, I hereby promise that there will be cattle and most likely goats on the moon by the end of the year." The horses who could control their laughter interrupted jokingly.
"How will you get to the moon?"
"Originally developed to crack eggs at a range, we plan on using our new invention: the catapult." The room erupted in whinnying. Dun Withers smiled softly to himself once more. There was a plan to implement, and a few promotions to hand out.
The Cicada Tribal Elders had been called to order once more. There was bad news, but it was nothing they would report.
"The crickets are competing harder yet." Began Tithonus. Tymbal smirked to himself, knowing that one day he would have the old bug's job. He had never had what it took to lead the tribe.
"We know that the wolves are siding with the dogs…"an intern offered. Tymbal had not bothered to learn her name.
"No one cares." He snapped. "The wolves don't even have a government. At best it's a kritarchy, only the trouble is that every wolf's decided himself as judge." Other cicadas shot him a dirty look here and there, but he knew he spoke the truth if harshly so.
Tithonus attempted to get them back on track. "We know from the cricket's ratings that their coverage on the Ant-Spider conflict has done them some good. It would be wise to get someone out there, preferably watching the ants more closely." The intern, though spurned only a moment earlier, was confused.
"But the spiders are against us- shouldn't we be keeping them in line?"
"The crickets are covering that side." The old cicada answered calmly. "We need something they don't have, and the ants are not necessarily on our side. The viewers want to hear as many negative things about the other nations as possible, it makes them feel good."
"Are you opposed to making them feel good?" another intern asked. Tymbal smirked again. Someone knew how to get a job.
"As I was saying, we need someone reporting on the ants." The elder continued. "Who will take the post?" There was a short silence and the intern volunteered, leaving immediately. "For our second order of business, we need somebody managing the figures." No one responded. "Accounting is no easy task, and not one lightly rewarded." There was absolute silence. It was odd for a tree in which cicadas were meeting. "I also have one position that requires a social field, but-"The tree shook with noise.
Tymbal put himself on assignment to escape the clamor, taking flight out to sea, where he would cross or die in the attempt. Once a goose failed to see him and he latched onto the tail feathers, crawling up the back and waiting there until the bird landed and slept. It was a remarkably fast and successful trip, given that his job had been to investigate the conflict between the ants and the spiders before it escalated to war. His return trip was significantly slower and more perilous.
He remembered the Emperor justifying his rule with divine right and the Spider Queen justifying hers with natural right. Since it happened that they held control, each determined that the gods and nature were in favor. While he himself tired of the war, and the difficulties of reporting it all, he found the causation interesting enough even if the battles seemed like a vague black swarm fighting a vague black swarm, when seen at the height he preferred.
Initially, foreign powers declared outward intention to stay out of it, to his recollection the most any nation did was trade, and that was to be expected. It bothered him that conflicts between insects were regarded as insignificant, despite the overwhelming influence on trade and agriculture. The underground support only aggravated the hypocrisy, whether it came in the form of food aid, technology, or as it had happened from time to time, troops.
It was therefore odd to him, being the acknowledging narcissist that he was, that wars between arthropods would arise so frequently with so little to gain and so much to lose, especially in cases where even the victor was quickly conquered by a third party shortly after the war. But then, there was a time when the other nations behaved similarly, constantly gaining and losing ground, no victors, no heroes, and no peace. The difference was clear, but what was the reason?
Thinking exercises had never bothered Tymbal, but rather, they filled him with a strange satisfaction, as though by behaving in an intellectual manner he demonstrated a like nature, and that by forcing himself to like them, that one day someone would chance upon him thinking much about something, and a conversation would begin from there. The lesser beast would be greatly impressed.
Also, his occupation and arguably national identity called for long flights, during which he was grateful to have mental occupation. Catching sight of a passing albatross, he latched onto its breast, at which point it spiraled. Tymbal hung on, but only just.
"What are you doing?"
"What are you doing? Most cicadas are rude, but I've never had one latch on like that!"
"If you don't like it, don't listen to it!"
"Don't listen to it? It doesn't matter if I listen to it or not, as long as you're getting at least average ratings, you're going to go on about the same rubbish. You're a rude one, even for a cicada."
"Well, you're small for an albatross." The bird had a seafarer's voice, so he figured if he could reach at least an impasse, the damnable animal would take him across.
"An albatross?! I'll have you know I'm a tern! I don't much appreciate-"
"Well, from a distance you look the same as any other white bird."
"Oh, now we're bringing all that into it, aren't we? I'll nip you for it, I'll nip you and you'll regret treating me like a beach." The seabird's head readied to poke at the breast below when Tymbal climbed up to the neck, out of reach.
"Look, all I want is passage. Just go back to what you were doing."
"You want to go across the bloody ocean? Tell you what. Crawl into my bill, and I'll digest you as quickly as possible, I cross my heart." He continued after attempting to swat the cicada away, nearly spiraling out in the process. "First you're all 'sooner you get across, sooner I'll be out of your feathers', well don't think you're going to be so lucky." While allowing the tern to simply carry on, he formulated a theory to his earlier question.
"Tell me, tern. What sort of government do you have?"
"Well I'm right glad you asked." He responded, mood suddenly changing. "It's not everyday someone comes by and wants to talk about the heads of state." Straightening out the flight, he continued without missing a beat. "We terns have a timocracy."
"What the- do go on."
"All property owners are allowed to participate in legislative activities, but no one else."
"That seems remarkably specific."
"It is. If you don't own property, you're probably on a beach somewhere, scavenging for food. Wouldn't want those kind of chaps in government now would you?"
"We usually have the eldest take-"
"The eldest? That's barbaric. You can't go around with arbitrary-"
"What apart from timocracy is equally arbitrary? Over what ocean would you rather have a hatchling represent you than some bird without property?"
"Nobody said anything about a hatchling, mate. How long do cicadas live?"
"That's none of your business."
"It is if you want to justify your system of government."
"We live long enough. I still don't see where you find any terns who own property."
"There aren't any." Tymbal was ready to explode. It was going to be a long flight.
The Countess caught her husband attempting to pry open a small clam outside the mouth of the river. She struck him ineffectually on the shell, and he gave it up at once, having been discovered.
"What makes you want to go and do that? You know the big decision is coming up." He sighed, staring at her as though she were interrupting something important.
"I needed a pearl to take my mind off things. I trust you've decided though." Neither of them had been royalty or anything close when married. Political alliances were rarely marriages, and theirs was the exception. They both lied.
"I said that we should decide together."
"We both know what that means. You know how I feel about this. The Swamp Lords will extort us until the end of time and the Orca will eat us as soon as he gets the chance. It's not a clear choice, unless there's a third option." She didn't want to think about the third option, though he brought it up from time to time.
"There is no other option. Almost all other sea creatures, mammals, fish, crustaceans- sometimes even the kelp look partisan! We have no choice but to join with one of the larger groups and hope they do us well." She sighed. As Count Crab and Countess Clam, they ruled the great Country of Crabs and Clams, but it was a nightmare to constantly feel subservient to some outside force.
"So we have to choose between aristocracy and oligarchy? The citizens will refuse us. They'll drive us out! Then where will they be?"
"Is it worse than war?" He turned, and then turned back. "When the leopard seals or the crocodiles come to kill us, will the nations be happy that you refused?"
"No. They'll hate me for the thirty seconds it takes them to die. Otherwise, they'll hate both of us for the rest of our lives, their lives, and the lives of every crab or clam to come after."
"You are insufferable! I feel like we are simply incompatible." She turned away, angry and closed her shell until his claws clicked on it softly.
"Now what gave you that idea?" She thought about it silently rather than respond immediately. He calmly scuttled ahead to the entrance of the river. They had come far, and had decided before leaving that whether to ask to be inducted or to simply converse with the Swamp Lords, they would go to the river first. The Count entered without ceremony and she thought about her decision. In truth, she had been hoping he would end up hating one system more than the other, both seemed equally hurtful to the nations in her eyespots.
At last he returned, but strangely he was scuttling more quickly.
"Have you made a-"
"You have to come look at this. I think now is our chance." Unlike him in recent years, he picked her up and put her on his back, his strength multiplied by haste. All at once they were upriver and the scene of the bog played out before her. To a young frog, a snake whispered that some significant senior strategist had been sent so swiftly somewhere else, and the frog countered that the general was a necessary aid to their allied. Crows and ravens argued in the trees above. A catfish swam at the bottom, unseen by all but her and the Count.
"Would you join the Swamp Lords? I see no other reason for you to have come."
"Of course…my lord…"
"To the Low Council I am the Scaleless. You come at the right time."
"We sensed as much Lord Scaleless. We have heard much about your immortality."
"What you have heard you have heard because none go down to my ancient court. When one lord dies, another takes his place. But for years there have been none to trust with the secret, for years I have considered my assistant, Crucia."
"What of the snakes?"
"They, like others, have become accustomed to being ruled. When the Slitherer died years ago, he had not bothered to find a replacement. I do not blame him. Among the catfish, I would never have found mine."
"We can help you find replacements. We can increase the size of your military." The ancient catfish looked at her husband's eyes. As she did so long ago he saw a crab of his word.
"All you ask is to leave the rule of your nations to your wife." He guessed. For a moment all was silent. At last the Count spoke.
"Is it a deal?"
"Will you become one of the ancient court, a Swamp Lord though your body longs for ocean water? Will you take the name Scuttler, Sanguine, Slicer?" He paused, giving consideration to the names. "My apologies. Centuries ago we allowed as a concession that Sableskin decide the ancient names for the lords. I suppose the tradition runs strong yet."
"Then perhaps one of them is capable of keeping with other traditions." The crab suggested.
"Yes, there is one… Silirt. Young, but capable, feared by beasts of greater strength."
"Then perhaps it will be he who names me."
"We have come to our decision, Count, there is no more to discuss. The forces of the Orca grow as vastly as his great ocean, and the depth is fraught with peril. You made the right decision joining when you did, and your nation will thank you for it."
"The Oligarchy grows in influence even on land. There are whispers in the dark and deep that it will take sides in the coming war from which not even the sea may have respite."
"Then we must win the war of the spiders and ants. Go." The words were plain enough, but the tone hid something, she thought, some small factor. As they left and a frog spoke to calm the Low Council, she took the opportunity to whisper.
"He doesn't trust you."
"Maybe… I thought I had said something."
"I can be certain about it. I heard it in his voice."
"We haven't helped him yet. When we do, trust will follow." The Countess wanted to believe it so simple, but could not manage it.
"The Scaleless is older than both of us. He will not outlive me, of that you may be sure, I have heard of clams living to the age of three hundred. But he may yet outlive you."
"He bears concern for the Low Council and the nation. If he wants it preserved well, he will deal justly with us, whether he likes it or not. At the moment, though, I must rally our old allies, the Eel Electorate. If they know we have joined, they may yet follow."
The rest of the trip passed in silence, slowly scuttling sideways and shuffling through the sand, she saw a snake slithering along the side, hissing to self and soul. She shushed the serpent.
Crypsis crawled directly in front of her, holding up a foreleg to halt the stalking. Both stopped stalking, climbing down from the reeds and no longer pretending to be stalks. Cecily was relieved, given that she always hated to be a stalk, it was bothersome work. There was no sign of the toucans, and her sister had noticed it first.
While the two of them were not born sisters, it was well that they had become as such, each of the slightest motions of their bodies were mutually intelligible. The ant slave stood in front of them in the path by the river. They frowned upon the practice, but there was little that could be done.
"The plains and the undergrounds speak well of your piety, mantises. I trust you have considered our deal."
"It is an unusual deal, we confess. A prisoner exchange, but not mantis for ant." Crypsis responded, blatantly stalling.
"In principle it is the same. We have the information we need from the spider. What we need is a rat." She shuddered inside at the thought of transporting him. Before being captured, he killed no fewer than thirty male mantises, which meant that many less that they could. "Of course, you have made the arrangements." He spoke unlike other ants, perhaps that was why they chose him for the job. Most told the truth in simple terms and took pride in it.
"We are ready to transport the beast." Cecily responded, knowing that already in his ties he was being unloaded from the raft of sticks. The raft was the secret technology of the mantises, and it had carried the rat far across the sea, for the islands where they lived were far away. "How do you mean to keep it?"
"The location of our great prison is secret, we confess, but we are great builders. He will not escape with any knowledge of your home." It was good news to hear. The Clergy had not prepared a contingency, simply counting on the ants to hold their former prisoner well.
As for her thoughts on the spider, Cecily wondered what information it would have, but was certain of one thing- they were doing a great favor for the ants by taking it far from home. The territory on the continent was well contested, and in a moment, the prison where they were holding the daughter of the Queen could be captured. Their only interest was to bring about an end to the war, as were the orders from above.
Following the ant to where the prisoner was being transported, as the Empire had been sure from their intelligence that they would accept the trade, she made some minor points of the deal that the negotiator accepted with a wave of the foreleg.
"The spiders have no way of rescuing her, as we plan to take her back by sea. If they try to drop stones on us, we fly away from the raft and she dies. Be certain that you take similar precautions."
"The Spider Queen has no interest in the rat. We know he's working with the Subterranean Syndicate, but we have no idea what they are doing. The falcons have not been by in a while, and our own intelligence is coming up with limited results. All the same, I assure you the rodent will not escape or be taken. We have watched the skies for the spiders, and our great general has prepared a defense against their cleverest maneuvers."
The matter more or less settled, Cecily understood when Crypsis brought up other points. It was always a clever thing to learn while on location.
"How goes the war, then?"
"The elephants are stricken with some malady. They chew these pebbles that are coated in some foreign substance. We are uncertain as to why, but the effect is certain. They are helping us less and less, but we have not needed their help too greatly, if they provided much at all. We have a suspicion that the plan is to kill us off at the end of the war."
"What of the toucans?"
"Their interests are more difficult to read. We know that they scout out the base of the spiders, but we do not believe that they would give over the location at a low price. Possibly, they already know it. We'll find out as soon as they know we have something they want." Cecily put the pieces together as her sister flew off to signal the raft, due to arrive all the same. It was a wonder they bothered to negotiate.
"They want someone from the Subterranean Syndicate." The ant smiled in response.
"It's a competitive market for whatever they are selling. Either the rats and the moles and the gods know what else are potential buyers to be treated well or potential sellers to be eliminated. The trouble is, not a beast alive knows how to find the members, except maybe a member of the Cat Consulate, and they could not be bothered."
The spider's remaining legs were bound together and a team of ants dragged it along the ground by its own web. The mantis wondered if they would consider the use of the fibrous strands as reparations if the Empire won the war. She was uncertain, but it would serve as a useful multipurpose material, something her own nation had yet to emulate. Given that elephantine conquest was likely to follow the war one way or another, it was possible.
Moments passed and Crypsis returned with the prisoner and his many wardens not far behind. The two prisoners passed one another and the rat woke from his slumber, suddenly throwing the guards, killing one as he jumped. Cecily cursed her luck. Now she couldn't eat his head.
The great beast struggled to run in a straight line, most of its body yet entangled, and its muscles decayed from lack of use. Reaching the other prisoner, he stuffed ants into his mouth until he got to the spider, which he apparently could not decide venomous or not. Killing it to no effect, the escape resumed. The ant negotiator was shouting at her, all pleasantries dropped.
"If you planned this-"
"We've been trying to kill him for as long as I can remember! He hasn't eaten once!"
"You would trade us a prisoner who's about to die?" The situation escalated as a squadron of spiders appeared, a snake leading them. In a single strike he swiftly silenced the scared rat. Desperate to escape alive, Cecily flew upward, the details madly working themselves out in her head. The spiders must have known about the trade. The plan was to allow it to occur, rescue the spider first, and then go after the rat since snakes not only swim but excel at killing rats. They only decided to attack because the rat killed the other prisoner, breaking out with the strength of the dying for fear of the snake he could smell waiting in the reeds.
The snake killed Crypsis and all was lost.
Marijata sprinted through the trees, desperate to lose the elephants. It had been his hope that they would stop when they reached the tree line, but the trees were no match. He heard them crashing through behind him, and it occurred to him that this was the fastest he had run in his life. Bizarrely, his legs were filled with energy and his eyes swiftly darting around to best plan a route three beats of his rapid heart ahead.
Twenty minutes ago, he had found the jungle clearing deserted, three cows in the distance, but he knew that the large ears counted for little in hearing. He found a gazelle with its horns rammed into the earth. He found a free meal, but he repeated himself.
"Don't even think about it. The elephants will be back."
"They can't un-kill you." As he ate the insides of the animal and listened to the screams with much delight, he took in the surroundings. An occasional hunter, he had a decent idea of what had happened. There had been a battle and the large amount of elephant carcasses along with the wound in the gazelle's leg indicated it had gone surprisingly well for the gazelles, save the unfortunate one too wounded to escape. When his screams failed to stop as Marijata slurped his entrails, the lion put his foot down and set matters straight.
"Why why are you doing this why dammit lion why-"
"Look, I'm doing you and your race a favor. Do you want to get tortured the rest of your life?"
"I am being tortured for the-"
"Yes, but this way the rest of your life is a few minutes, not a few days. Also, you will not reveal much to the elephants if you die." Unfortunately, they returned quickly and the lion expected his mercy would go poorly rewarded by their expressions.
When his mind caught up to his feet, he found himself running along the edge of a cliff, shouting insults at his pursuers.
"If you fat beasts catch me, it will be by rolling!" Glancing back as he ran, he had angered them less than he had hoped, and they also apparently did not take his suggestion to roll after him.
"I've figured out why elephants can't jump!"
"Our knees don't bend that way!" An elephant shouted back. He smirked, having touched a nerve.
"It's because you're too fat!" One of the elephants lunged and fell from the cliff, making a crashing sound upon hitting the ground.
"Did those tusks come from eating entire cattle?"
"We're vegetarians!" Another elephant fell off, landing on the shore of a pool with a crash. He stopped dead, feeling daring, and ducked under the third elephant, striking her in the leg. She landed in the pool and broke her leg on the way down.
"Three elephants fall off a cliff. Two land on land, one lands in the water."
"You better not, dammit, I'll kill you-"
"Bud-dum-tissssshhhh!" Marijata rolled around on the ground in laughter, disregarding the elephant's angry trumpeting.
Rising at last, he made his way back to the clearing, but remembered he had already eaten most of the gazelle, and it was almost certainly dead and cold. As he walked he suddenly wished he had someone with whom he could share the kill, but he rarely saw a lioness and enjoyed devouring a windfall by himself. He began to reach the conclusion that she would be more impressed by his compassion than ability, though he suspected she had certainly never been able to find a gazelle stuck in the ground by its horns.
The Tiger Tyrant once had wars with the Lion Nation (manager needed), separating them from one another, but those days were long passed and he had not heard of a notable tiger since cubhood. It was possible that their society had become just as defunct, but he himself could not be persuaded to care.
The clearing was absolutely packed with elephants. Apparently, there were more than three, which was the most he had counted in his life. He supposed logic could assume three more bulls, given the usually even ratio, but he would be a fool to believe in four of both without any real evidence. He had heard all sorts of tales of elephants, but three would be more than enough to accomplish all those same tasks. It was bizarre to him that hearing such stories was usually prevented by other lions, mostly because the presence of some more powerful beast with none of the same violence threatened their own boasting. It came to pass that he too disregarded the possibility of their existence.
Running from the clearing once more, he began to shout back at the investigators that he had seen nothing, despite having killed the gazelle. Taking a different path and leaping across the stones embedded in a fast moving river, he had a few more moments to comment that he could not possibly be blamed for refusing to comply with the investigation, given that an hour ago he had no idea that any elephants existed to be offended by his actions.
As the elephants crashed through the river without regard for its existence, he ran across a great plain, tall grasses with no end in sight and it almost reminded him of hunting he had seen as a cub. He had often dreamed of chasing down an animal himself, but as he grew wiser he learned it was smarter to wait around for a windfall or die in the attempt. After all, he had heard lions complain about having to hunt, but none so far complaining about dying.
Racing across the plain, the elephants gave up on him and turned around. He found himself alone but for a few small creatures in the plain. But such was nothing new.
Marijata took a nap under trees, having been awake for an unprecedented two hours. He wondered if any beast that roamed the land worked nearly as hard as he as he drifted off to sleep.
In the absence of their great leader, the Alpaca Anocracy was becoming a dangerous place. While by no means a skilled official, Moche was a great motivator despite personal history, at least in the opinion of Ande.
From what he knew, Moche was believed to be a llama at birth, and in a heartbeat a llama mother claimed him as her own. Thus, for the first few years of his life, he grew up as one until at last able to return to his birth mother, when it was determined impossible for the birth mother not to be anyone other than the alpaca who gave birth to him. It was yet undecided as to whether or not he could have had three parents, but as an adult it hardly mattered.
Having been returned to the alpacas and having incited the greatest scientific discovery the nation had ever made, he was immediately appointed by one hundred percent of fifty percent of alpacas eligible, with some input from the penguins, whose opinion they valued highly. The existing state threw out the votes collected and attempted to appoint the opponent, a stick, but appointed Moche by accident, later adding the condition that the stick take over should he expire before his term limit of six years, three or four weeks depending on a ballot at midnight, and two days. It was never strange to Ande that the anocracy worked the way it did, from his youth he had learned that every time there was an inconvenience to the system, the system was thrown out and redone.
When he was young, he remembered the massive outcry that no new laws were being passed. The current system tried to explain themselves, offering only utter nonsense that none had been proposed, but were ultimately thrown out. The new regime passed laws with the passing minute, and absolutely none of them were enforced. When the outcry for enforcement came, the government attempted to provide the reason that it was impossible and entirely too costly to enforce all the laws they were passing, but the common alpaca saw through the ruse.
The current system passed laws fairly often and enforced all of them, and the public was desperately looking for another way to blame them for things, so all was well. Ande considered himself fortunate, for despite all the turmoil of his life, he never once had to experience the attempt at creating a supreme law. From what he knew, it was immediately rejected, given that two whole days had passed since it had been written. The problem only worsened as the numbers climbed higher, the population unable to believe how high they would go. For the most part, there was anger about how the supreme law by definition could never be changed, and public outcry grew so great that they stormed the government when a suggestion to read the law was published.
Arguments were universally condemned, and he remembered this as he saw one developing. Had Moche been around, horrors like these would never unfold. Opinions were best left inside of heads, especially those that challenged the majority. And since two dissenting views could not both belong to the majority, silence was ideal, since the leading opinion would naturally dominate.
"Cut that out, you two. Arguing is unfair to people with different views and is regressive. If it weren't for argument, nobody would remember views held years ago, and they certainly wouldn't be relevant." The first alpaca had a hurt look.
"But I have the majority opinion."
"Well, let's hear it."
"The green signals should be longer for this path." He brought up an interesting point. At intersections, there was an alpaca standing on the corner holding up either leaves or severed heads, indicating whether or not it was socially acceptable to cross.
"Well, that is the majority opinion, so you must be right."
"But I also have the majority opinion."
"Speak. I haven't got all day."
"The green signals should be longer for this path." He said, indicating the intersecting path. Ande frowned. It was truly a majority opinion, he had taken the poll himself.
"This is a small part of why we can't have arguments. You boys know that, don't you?"
"Good. Now, what we have to do is take the matter to the unbiased decider." He whistled, and other officers spat and threw rocks to get everyone's attention. The alpacas knew the routine, and assembled into a mixed mob.
"Should the green signals on this road be longer?"
"Yes." Came the overwhelming answer.
"Should the green signals on that road be longer?"
"Yes." Came the overwhelming answer.
"Well, then it's decided." He said, turning back to the younger alpacas. "It's lucky our friends in the Camel Commune told us about what to do in these situations." He shouted to his fellow officers.
"Throw rocks!" From every angle and position, alpacas screamed and ran as they were pelted with rocks. Ande then calmly walked over to the officer with the signals.
"Can you stop throwing rocks for a moment?"
"Oh, it's this old signal, isn't it? I've suspected we need a new severed head."
"No, we may never again need one. The public has decided to make both green signals longer." He produced a second leaf and handed it to the officer. "Do what you can." He left to tell the other officers that that was enough, the public had surely forgotten everything. They stopped throwing rocks, and he declared the paths open again.
The public cheered, the state having provided just what they wanted. The alpacas raced back to both paths and ran for the intersection, for two pleasant heartbeats with no indication of negative consequence. Immediately afterward, two, three, more collided, the injuries growing more severe with the passing collision. When the deaths started racking up, the alpacas demanded a change.
"What change would you suggest?" Going back to the way it was before was impossible. Such an action worked against progress itself. There was only one response.
"Nobody can go on that road anymore!" one alpaca responded, bracing his wounded leg and pointing with it.
"No, nobody can go on that road anymore!" another shouted, staunching the cranial bleeding.
"I have another idea." Ande said, interrupting. "No more arguments." He walked off proudly, having defended the majority. It was a fine day in the Alpaca Anocracy.
Fowler pecked at the ground absently, hoping to distract himself from the problem. It was not every day he thought about such things, in fact he tried to think of them as little as possible. Barrel sales had fallen, and there was no action from the previous meeting.
In a hundred heartbeats, he would have to go before the house and explain what could be done about sales of their one manufactured product. Of course, the reason they had crafted wood into a round shape was linked to the discovery of mashing grains, but it was best not to dwell on such matters.
He had considered the usual folly, standardizing the price or handing out free grain to those who made barrels, but those tactics would only delay the inevitable. Quality would have to improve. The thought of getting that past the meeting, however, made subsidizing seem reasonable.
In truth, he had no recourse against them. He was appointed by the majority of them, and the rest could do more or less nothing apart from slander him until the next election. Arriving there, they would plug up some unknown none other has had the chance to slander. He reminded himself that it was far from the worst system in the world, and frequently shared some 'mashed grain' with President Brownwing over the difficulties, many of which he shared.
Fowler wondered how anyone managed to stand up to a group of chickens. True, he was one himself, so one would assume the intimidation factor would matter, but strangely he had ever found it difficult to stand up to any animal larger than a lizard. Of course, they tried to intimidate him, but he had seen much worse. Once, he told a fawn to please not bother him, as he was very busy, and she only continued to tease him for the next few hours before concluding that either it was not worth it, or he had successfully been intimidating.
All the same, he simply could not work himself up to facing them. The independence before absorption into the Range was no better, if anything, the meeting of chickens found it difficult to expediently remove the rights of the citizenry without a larger supranational government to blame for it. Switching mental tactics, he decided to picture them all as rabbits. This might work, the nation had lost its statehood and was effectively powerless in the Agreement, but he spoke with a loony hen once who swore the buggers could hop the entire continent in a heartbeat.
All of a sudden, frightening images of rabbits came to mind, stealing their eggs in the dead of night, which he had initially dismissed as a rumor, gnawing through entire trees with their large teeth, all expectations of that quality belonging to another animal escaping him, and having an inexplicable lack of fear of death, the grave, or anything else. Shivers went down his proto-avian spine. He was suddenly thankful that they were no longer a state, nasty nations like that shouldn't be allowed around decent folk, he decided in his mind.
It was times like these he relied on the counsel of an old friend in a dissimilar situation.
A falcon who never shared his own name landed next to him, as though there was some schedule to it.
"How's Albert?" He asked. The ass's situation was different from his own, but on the whole no better or worse. He lost his post as temporary leader, and was dissatisfied with how little an individual could do in the Association.
"He got his job back."
"I though each leader only had a single term."
"True, the government if it can be called that was designed to prevent the slightest chance of anyone taking control, but it failed to realize that the design was not as important as the culture."
"What do you mean?"
"No dictator has taken over the Assembly mostly because the culture has been opposed to it entirely, and the universal standard for a good leader is one who abstains from the temptation."
"What happened to Albert? I thought he was all for that malarkey. Sure, he wished from time to time that terms could be longer…" As he thought about it, he realized he should have seen it all along.
The gray ass had always been desirous for power.
He turned his thoughts to his own situation as the bird took off silently. It was a crowd of chickens he faced, so perhaps he would simply think of them as such, in hopes that they also had problems with confronting things. They certainly had trouble confronting the truth. It was easier for them to simply go with whatever the cicadas or crickets or both were saying, on rare occasions that they agreed. Looking at the matter more as he trudged to the hut of straw the pigs had made for the meeting as a gesture of blatant disrespect with the knowledge that pigs now lived in better lodging, he came to the conclusion that the different representatives of the meeting were analogous to the insects.
It was not simply that certain chickens picked out certain insects to use for propaganda, but the literature in origin and purpose was almost the exact same for both nations. They appealed to the majority, but simply in a slightly different way to create an illusory difference between them. Fowler scowled. It was by these very birds that he had been appointed, what did that say about him? Of course, there was only one of him, the idea of two copies of an individual, or a chicken head and body acting as separate government officials, had both been completely banned in the early days of the democracy, considering both were entirely too scary.
He entered slowly, considering not moving at all. It was unpleasant to think about how he had been appointed by such a disappointing body, especially considering how the sentence made little sense. Unable to stand the cowards anymore, he briefly considered explaining to them all why they needed to learn about his responsibilities and reasonable expectations, but the very notion gave him chills.
Fowler decided that whatever he would do, it would simply have to wait until the following year, or perhaps the following generation would take care of it. He was unsure of exactly when he and most chickens his age would die, so whichever came first. As the speakers began to speak, he struggled to push the thought of death out of his mind while imagining all the ways in which he could die within the next few grueling hundred heartbeats.
It was dark in the chamber of Jakob Broadfoot, but that was because he could not see. Zucker waited patiently. He was only three minutes early, but the mole was a busy creature. He had only just finished connecting the worms to the syndicate, and it was no easy task. Of course, Zucker was here to report the death of Loper, the renowned spy, but would not fail to give congratulatory words when they were due.
"I've been expecting you, even if it doesn't look like it." The mole said as he entered through one of the eight tunnels.
"I'm here about-"
"Loper, yes, excellent officer, right up until he got himself caught. I can only wonder how many of our secrets he revealed before the damn snake killed him. That was a stroke of luck, there, don't you forget it."
"I wanted to express my-"
"Look, I know about the worms, I just did it, alright. Don't go, though, there's a good reason you were sent here. Come with me." Zucker followed him up a tunnel, careful not to disrupt the fragile earth as he climbed. They went silently through a maze full of switchbacks and false leads until finally arriving at a small chamber. Inside, there was a small leaf covered in symbols.
"What is this…?"
"It's a codex, or at least that's what your rat friend told me. I can't read it."
"So what do I do with it?"
"Did you ever wonder why Loper was so good?" He shook his head. "We did some experiments on him. Longevity, speed, the works. But the real reason was so we could mess with his head. He forgot every language, and he'd scratch these symbols wherever he went. We knew where to look for them. To the rest of the world, they were the ravings of some mad creature and perhaps the assumption is not far from the truth. But to us, they were a way of life."
The old mole gave the rat the codex, the years of experience that came with it, and the trust of the Syndicate. It was not unearned. Zucker returned to his normal job, containing his excitement through a thin veneer of having no idea what was going on. Things worked that way underground, he noticed.
At his desk which consisted of a small stone littered with leaf fragments stolen from aboveground, he processed requests. It was an important job.
The rat police need additional funding.
This was an easy one. In a syndicate, each industry worked as one, meaning the police, controlled by government authority, would have to borrow from another part. He wrote back, suggesting the health services, always being of the opinion that they could use some cutbacks. Once he caught them using one doctor on fewer than three patients at a time. He went to the next memorandum.
The miners have determined that the caves contain no useful material.
It was a more challenging fix, but nothing a rat with as much experience with government work could not handle. He quickly replied with an eight leaf response detailing the amounts each employee of the mining syndicate would be paid, which was of course the same. He then sent a nine leaf memorandum to the thieves of leaves explaining that additional leaves would be required and the increase in hours would be offset by a decrease in minutes.
The clowns aren't funny.
Zucker needed thirty eight leaves. He explained that the entire concept of things being funny was prejudiced against those with different senses of humor, laughter was a sign of acquiescence to the consumerist machine, and reminded him just in case it was necessary that jokes about the Syndicate were disastrous. Furthermore, complaints about the clown syndicate would have to be made by the clowns themselves, given that no one else could tell them what to do, except the whole of the syndicate, and certainly not natural market forces based on the consumers preferences, which were strictly limited in range. The Subterranean Syndicate had taken control of everything culturally acceptable and otherwise several years ago, it was only a matter of time before the public realized.
Everyone is becoming a ditch digger.
He replied to the irrigation syndicate that the ditch digger held a noble and respectable position and that there would never be too many ditch diggers, only administrators and water routers that were not working hard enough in an expanding industry. Lastly, if this was an insinuation that the equal wages of each member of the syndicate drove everyone to the least stressful occupations that do not individually produce significant amounts of revenue, he would not fall for it.
Why is there a lawyer syndicate? Don't they already work for themselves?
Zucker's response was angrier than ever. The lawyers had not worked for themselves in sixteen years, it was that long ago that they decided that it was anti progressive for individuals to work for themselves rather than a small fraction of themselves among the syndicate. The lawyer syndicate was then consolidated into the law syndicate, which also employed judges and juries. It was a more efficient process in that manner, and everyone had a share.
Why does the government syndicate get to decide what to do with the other syndicates?
The rat crumbled the leaf in anger.
"There should be a syndicate for this manner of work." he decided. Zucker took the last leaf and explained that there was a new union for processing requests, and since he knew he would have to include an address, as he had once had no fewer than three hundred leaves sent back after trying to combine the shipping industry and the porting industry into one syndicate, he simply specified the address of one of his political opponents. He left for his new assignment.
The upper air was colder than the chambers, but such was life in the world of lesser beasts. He arrived at the first code in under an hour, and quickly deciphered that this was the place where Loper spoke with a falcon contact who said that he would be wise to infiltrate the Mantis Theocracy and learn of their involvement with the Ant Empire. Zucker concluded as the spy had that it was reasonable, given that the ants were the only subterranean organisms not currently or at any time syndicated. They were a threat to the secrecy of their society, as well as the digging industry, being equally accomplished at it himself. Apparently, they had discovered a way of digging that resulted in fewer cave-ins, lowering input costs and therefore prices, and they dug for more than ten other nations.
Zucker grimaced in anger, thinking of all the syndicated workers being put out of work.
"This is why competition shouldn't be allowed." He said, thinking of how much business the funeral industry lost. The ants simply could not accept the way of the world.
Bonebreaker stood alone, the funeral party dispersed. It was a bad day for the Swamp Lords to lose both his father and Anura, a trusted and renowned colleague. Crackshell would be missed, of that he was sure, but the turtle knew his sire never enjoyed such appreciation in life. Ever was he at the forefront defending the swamp and keeping the peace. With such a varied aristocracy and council, tensions would ignite and reignite easily without the calm head of his father rising above the water.
There had been no blood at the murder scene, but he and his nation could not fool themselves into thinking their great leader and representative alive somewhere. Most intelligent creatures could find some way of killing a turtle given enough time, and the culprits were almost certainly from the Orca Oligarchy, and the nations within contained intelligent creatures, with the possible exception of the leopard seals.
He turned his mind to more important matters, unafraid. There was talk he stood to inherit the post of Crackshell as representative, and he could not deny the reasons, but the implications seemed untrue. A frog appeared opposite him in relation to the grave.
"You've been summoned. I trust you know why." He followed the amphibian without response, taking the long, slow oddly familiar path, more and more water going between his scaly toes with every step. At last they were in the bog, the grave of his father's work. A pair of eyes watched him from the water and he stepped in without need for request.
Animals three waited in the ancient court, a crab, a crocodile and an old catfish, as great as himself.
"The trick is not telling him." the last informed Bonebreaker. "But you know why."
"It was I who took up the charge as my father aged and became a member of the Low Council. I alone kept the ants from their friends the sharks and with your permission I would return." The catfish waved away the offer.
"Lesser reptiles may quarrel over that right. It was your responsibility, and that is why you have earned a place here in a court much lower. I am the Scaleless and these are Slicer and Screamweaver."
"I cannot accept a name and a place too great for Crackshell."
"Know yourself not by your father and the world will remember him as only that." It was a chilling statement and Bonebreaker considered it, unable to deny the honor.
"I have but one request ancient one, and you who carry the traditions of the swamp should know it already."
"Yes. Turtles earn their names. You earned yours by killing an elephant with broken bones, and mere words are not enough to express my hatred for elephants." The reptile might have been amused at the account, it was true enough but painted an entirely different picture. In the previous war with the elephants, he had broken two legs and used the remaining two to taunt the elephant. When at last the foolish beast picked him up and put him in his gaping cavernous maw, he retracted, only to push his legs out again once inside the bull's throat, killing him.
Silence fell as the Scaleless thought of a new name, but the turtle thought of one first, perhaps more accurate and equally fearsome.
"You may call me Strangler. It is a name I have earned, and it sounds like something a snake would say." The crab was moderately amused by the idea.
"It will be your responsibility to name a new turtle to wage the secret naval war. Do not fail me."
After the court went to each his own way, the reptile returned to land, searching for one of his old friends, Bloodbeak. He was a fierce fighter with a future, only forty years old. Going to the usual place, the bottom of a river, he found the turtle wrestling a crocodile, or perhaps an alligator. He could never tell which.
"My old friend. Good to see you in one piece." He said as he rose from the tangle.
"It's just as well. I'm here to recruit you to take my place."
"Filling in for dear old dad?"
"More or less."
"I'll do it. The elephants and ants will receive no aid from the sea."
"Cross the sea as soon as possible. I returned for the funeral."
"I have but one question before you go." Bloodbeak asked, his eyes suspicious. "Have you become a Swamp Lord?" Strangler swore.
"How did you find out?"
"Crocodiles tell me things when I have them on the riverbed and beat the bubbles out of their bellies. They tell me all sorts of interesting things. What kind of name is Screamweaver?"
"It is imperative no one knows about the mortal nature of the Swamp Lords." His old friend looked shiftily disappointed, but had a question.
"Tell me your new name, and I'll kill the crocodile your friend told, and never tell anyone."
"They call me Strangler." He left deciding that he had not fully gotten the better of the situation, but it was just as well he knew about it. He hoped that by the end of the night he would not be as dissatisfied as the crab looked, however. The Scaleless would never break his word of course, nor anything he even implied, but something had been understood by Slicer that had failed him when the new Swamp Lord arrived. It was possible, if unlikely, that he simply joined out of the assumption that he himself would inherit some large part of the aristocracy, if not all of it. The betrayed crocodile looked to bear no such delusion, though perhaps things were troublesome now. One of his nation could easily kill a crab, but a turtle as large as he would make matters difficult. With Bloodbeak heading east and south, the turtles would have significantly greater influence.
Checking on crocodilian contributions, he discovered that they were planning an all-out assault on the ducks once the Swamp Lords officially entered the war. Already the troops moved into position.
The frogs had stolen no fewer than a thousand units of the plant and other substances the toucans had been selling, a clever last plan of Anura, given that the Regime was not officially part of the war and the product did not officially exist.
There was a snake across the sea leading the spiders on the continent, killing everyone who saw him. Even the crabs and the clams were involved, mostly in trade along the seabed.
He would set the turtles to work. He would be a Swamp Lord.
It was well established that monkeys and gibbons were nothing alike, and neither of them wanted anything to do with gorillas. Sam thought about it as he stared at a coconut tree.
They had lived on this island as long as they had known themselves to exist, which began with the time the island rose from the sea. Once they had been self-governing, as the gibbons had never been, and the gorillas would surely never be, as his elders assured him, but that all changed when the Camel Commune invaded. Their nation was no longer a nation, all that remained was a fragment.
What was more, the trees once overflowed with coconuts, and there was never a shortage of them, not even during the winter of six months. It looked to him that the trees could not produce enough, but perhaps they had been stunted by the invaders as the elders suggested. Every week, camels swam over dragging packs into which they would load fruit in exchange for a strange plant and shiny round rocks. For whatever reason, the camels were really into rocks.
The strangest part of it all was when the elders encouraged them to steal as much as possible, ensuring them that they had been cheated in the exchange once again, and that they would not so easily trust the camels next time. He and his friends Martine and Bion were quick and never caught. They usually stole around a quarter of the crop, going for the lightest ones first.
The more he thought about his nation, the more he decided it was a nation, no matter what anyone else said. They had their own songs, their own stories, and that was enough for him. So he called the island Castaway, for it was as though they had been permanently separated from the past and the rest of the world, and the island was the vessel.
When the camels arrived, Sam stopped thinking about gorillas and gibbons. He watched them make the exchange, and what unnerved him more than anything else was strange sense of fear the camels wore on their faces. He knew that they must be aware their crop was being stolen as they went about picking it, but what had made them so worried? The loss of a few coconuts had never bothered them before. As his friends moved in to position, he swam around the island a little ways to hear them better.
"Colombo's going to kill us this time. We can't get around his order to pick the smallest coconuts, and we can't come back with as little as we did last time."
"Well, nobody said we have to come back. Let's take what we can and head for another island."
"We can't do that, everyone will know."
"This is our only chance- even if we don't die when we get back we'll never be looking at the open sea like this."
"The open sea, Zargos! That is what you would face before our leader?"
"The waves will be far more forgiving. But there is yet long to go. Bactria, I ask you-"
"You cannot ask me to-"
Sam decided he could suffer no more of the drama, hurried in and stole as many coconuts as he could carry. The camels took it as a sign and jumped into the sea. He signaled and the rest of the monkeys followed. They were careful to share what they had, for they were nothing like the gorillas, and bore little resemblance to gibbons.
As the gatherers were fading into the distance and the last of the coconuts being eaten, it appeared that all plans to have preserved them for the week had mysteriously failed. The elders blamed the camels for this, had the coconuts picked been large enough, they would have had plenty. It was always odd to Sam that the elders complained about the quality of something they stole.
He sighed and returned to his project. From the camels he had heard of another nation, the asses, who looked to the stars, and the twinkling lights fascinated him almost as much as the idea of something as far removed from the world as the island. Weeks ago, he had gathered up sand and from the legends of the potent Association that the coconut pickers would tell, he pieced together the requisite technology, learning to bring forth the orange light.
The sand had finally solidified in the shape he wanted, and through it he stared at the sky, taking in its many wonders. Racing around the island to look through it more, he disturbed other monkeys, leapt between the rocks and the shorter trees and even attempted to scale the spiny ones that hurt his hands and feet. He would leave the island, he would explore the world; he would explore the stars.
Something held him back. It was a hand on his shoulder. The elders had known this all along. He felt a mix of betrayal and anger he had not known in his young life.
"You can't do this to me."
"The camels are doing it to you. They've stolen all of the coconuts-"
"Is that your excuse? I'm leaving. There's nothing anyone can do to stop me." Swiftly he threw himself into the water and swam out as far as he could and farther still. As he reached the limits of his strength, one thing was certain. No one would pursue him. No one would dare invalidate the excuse they had been using so long. As he pressed on, he saw the camels treading water in front of him and glanced back to find his two friends, the explorers they always were.
"Can we come with you?" one of them shouted.
"We don't know where we're going."
"Perfect." It was a maddening exhilaration he indulged as he swam, pushing farther out into the deep, swearing he was able to see a new star coming into view on the horizon.
The sun set and at last land formed in front of them, but it looked that they would not make it even on the backs of the camels, a request they could not make. Sam was certain that either his body was growing heavier or the land in the distance growing farther away. At last the camels offered to help, each taking one and taking turns with the third, who happened to be himself.
As the ground crept up under them, the knees of the great beasts grew weaker and weaker, having swum for such a great distance. They dragged themselves onto the beach with two sleeping monkeys on their backs and a third relieving them of their burdens.
Muezza and Crème Puff were unbearable masters, but both were Consuls and there was nothing anyone, least of all Neko could do about it. She found herself in Muezza's east side of the plains, addressing the cat sleeping on a length of cloth, secret invention of the Consulate.
"What is it, Muezza the Merciful?"
"Tell Crème Puff she's a fat one and had better not forget it. Neko concealed her scowl at the abject hypocrisy and the idea of running through the plains just to deliver an insult, which would more than likely send her directly back, with a less than witty retort.
As she made her way through the expanse of grasses, trees in the distance, she wondered how her life had ever gotten to the point. Truly, she had been born into the position, but the more she thought about it the more it was clear that something else was the matter. Since the days that the rabbits lost all influence at the Transoceanic Agricultural Agreement, it had been in her family's very existence to serve the Consulate, which degraded them greatly.
While a lesser animal might have gladly taken up the busywork, she felt the pain of missing out on the joys of lying in the sun with nothing at all to do and using free time to fish. But serve she must, lest she end up like the desert cats.
Eventually Neko reached her other mistress, snacking on all manners of treats, who had her return with an angry retort, wittier than expected, but only because her expectations were wisely low.
"Muezza the Merciful, Crème Puff has instructed me that she has become fat because in her realm there is plenty to eat and nothing to do, the opposite of yours." As expected, she found herself trotting right back.
"Crème Puff, our exalted Consul requests the contents of your diet for the purposes of checking it for healthy options. When I find one, I am to file a national holiday form."
"I'll save you the trouble. Tell her I need a minute to make a donation to her supporters. If they had twice the resources they had now, one of them might be literate."
Relaying the message to Muezza was as inflammatory as expected. Returning to the other consul, she began to wonder if she should have taken a long time the first time, so she would be able to take breaks every other time.
"You can tell her that they are illiterate because her supporters have eaten the writings." Neko detested traveling all that way, especially with such a boring response. Crème was no less outraged.
"The only reason she knows that is from waiting for them to come out the other end. Make sure to imply that that's the only way her supporters ever eat." She nodded, with no such intention.
It came to her on the return trip that she could simply lie about what one consul said, momentarily contenting the other, but the spat would start up again just as soon; the two of them never tired of blaming one another.
"Well, she's reaching now. It's time to strike." Muezza decided, stretching on the cloth. "What's the fat old fur ball doing at the moment?" Neko thought for a moment.
"The Corpulent Crème Puff going through several meals, each her own weight. The first is of truffles, the second of milk, the third of fish, the fourth of birds and mice, the fifth of a piglet and the sixth of honeycombs delivered by bees. When I get back, she will most likely be on the sixth."
The cat rolled around on her mat laughing.
"Tell her that if she eats enough honey, the bees will simply make a home of her."
When she arrived, the prediction turned out to be accurate, and Neko was legitimately impressed at the consul's ability to eat without chewing.
"The informed Muezza has declared that if you eat too much honey, the bees will move in."
"Tell her she's so poor her army could be defeated by a gust of wind." She went back grudgingly, feeling more and more like dying to escape her cruel fate.
"Tell her she's so fat she could be defeated by a narrow space between two trees. Neko raced back to the fat one as though her life depended on it.
"Has she given up?" She relayed the insult and Crème Puff exploded with rage, but with not chunks of food going everywhere, so Neko was not entirely satisfied.
"What's she doing right now?!"
"She's sitting on a rug or cloth or something." She responded in haste.
"Tell her that she's poor enough for burglars to leave food under it." Running back to the other consul, she ensured her that the joke had made the fat one extremely angry, but explained that there was still a retort.
"Tell her that if she were an orange cat she would look more like the rising sun than the moon."
"Tell her that none of her supporters bury their scat because it improves the look of the land."
Muezza howled with anger and screamed for a full minute before trying to think up a retort. Flagrantly attempting to abandon her post, Neko scurried up a tree before she could think of one, content to live out her days away from the catfight.
"Get back down here, servant!"
"No! You can't tell me what to do!"
"I am the Consul, and I can command any cat, especially you!"
"The other one told me to go up this tree!"
"That's absurd! She doesn't know there are trees on this end of the plains."
"There are trees on her end. She probably assumed it would be the same."
"There are no trees over there, they cut them all down!"
"You don't know that. I've been there more than any other cat. When have you ever spoken with the fat one? When have you ever seen anything over there?"
"My orders are as unquestionable as my knowledge!"
"If you're infallible, why do they need another cat?"
"I've been asking the same thing since I took office!"
"I'll bet your predecessor did too! I'll bet the fat one does it all the time!"
"What's your point?!"
"If you want to go back and forth than go over there and talk to her yourself! Work out some solution to your idiotic problems! Run the Consulate together!"
"No!" Neko leapt from the tree, sprinting across the plains. It was a hopeless gesture, and the oddest thoughts popped into her mind as she ran. The workings of the government had already begun to turn within, and she was certain it was malfunctioning, or perhaps functioning properly under circumstances not ideal.
She hid in a tree in the middle of the plain. The history of the Consulate was ambiguous at best, the writers mostly slept through the worst of their duty and the most confusing bits of their existence were most likely dreams that somehow were transposed unto the places on trees where bark had been ripped off for use as scratching posts. Nothing else of use had been found in the trees, which were unfortunately not laden with coconuts as their inferiors had led them to believe. Instead, the initial leaders sought trade with the then independent cattle, who cheated them by no fewer than seven drops. The Cat Consulate was hastily formed out of necessity, and the War of Seven Drops began.
She thought about the legitimacy of government, then defined by social contract constructed by arranging fish bones into curdled milk, which was then eaten either to seal the deal or because they were cats. History forgot.
Reclining in the tree, Neko decided that either she was truly rid of the job and the consuls would have to talk as the contract might have implied, or some other cat would be forced to take her place.
She sighed and decided that history was partially dreamed anyway and decided to create a few histories of her own.
Pashmina was no angrier than expected, and Gävle was ready. It was unfortunate indeed that there were individuals in various regions of the planet that retained their own opinions on certain matters and needed to be reminded of the current year.
"Don't worry, sweet, remember the sun's been around the earth more than a hundred times since the formation of the Agreement. Things will get better, and we can be certain they will improve in the exact way we want them to, and in no way are we simply part of a bandwagon." It was lucky that the horses had invented the bandwagon, for the goats only had one crop, which was oats, and it had been difficult to transport before. Fortunately, the number of the year changed.
"Aww, you always know just what to say." She looked well considering the circumstances. Having only recently returned from peace talks that neither the gazelles nor the elephants wanted, the stress of having to argue against other nations' opinions should have really brought her down. It usually did not work when she reminded them that the number of the year had changed significantly since the formation of the Transoceanic Agricultural Agreement, thanks to the discovery of the heliocentric universe by the Ass Association. It had been difficult to determine their absolutely correct position on every issue and impress this upon other cultures, but fortunately the number of the year went up.
"They just don't understand that things have gotten so much better since the number of the year went up so significantly, as if they wanted to return to a time when water did not exist." It was a social convention that there was such a time, and as a goat he took it upon himself to remind others of social conventions. They naturally reigned supreme, driving the number of the year upward, but occasionally they needed help, or else the bandwagon would be un-invented and water would go back to not existing.
"They should know better." Pashmina said with a cross expression. "They cannot simply pick and choose which parts of our ideology to accept, or give everyone else their water, because clearly they do not believe it exists, or should exist." Gävle wondered where that social convention originated, and for some reason came up with the pigs, which made little sense. They had never tried to get anything out of anyone, but rather were consistently the victims of resource theft.
Thinking on the pigs, he considered asking her about the conference with their general assembly the previous week, but wondered if she could take the strain. He then reconsidered, given that he should absolutely never doubt the emotional stability of a doe for any reason.
"How were the pigs?"
"They tried to kick the chickens out again."
"Has there been any information as to why they want to be rid of them so badly?"
"No, but they refuse to sign on the construction of a road until we adopt their system of measurement and kicking the chickens out would be a nice gesture."
"They have been bothering us about that for years. What's wrong with using a stone's throw?" he asked, legitimately wondering. The stone's throw was the traditional measurement of distance, as determined in a general election by the goats.
"They must not know that it is the only socially acceptable form." Gävle was confused, remembering that pigs were logical animals, as were all others to an equal degree, including the alpacas.
"What reason did they provide?"
"Oh, the same hogwash about how there is no guarantee of what a stone's throw is from one year to the next, or with the strength of one beast or the other. I must say, it is as if they are unaware of the current year." From what he remembered, horses had developed a system of measurement based on how far any object falls in the space of a certain amount of heartbeats. What they did not understand was that the majority disagreed with the science, making it incorrect. The horses also did not understand that there was a time when water did not exist, despite it being the current year.
Maybe they simply didn't remember what year it was.
"How are the asses? They are friends of ours." In truth, the asses enjoyed their willingness to pay for lecturers to explain to them the basic properties of natural philosophy, but also termed the Transoceanic Agricultural Agreement as 'tyrannical' and 'against the free spread of information', an asinine assessment he and Pashmina believed to be completely unfair, given that they only suppressed literature that opposed their ideology, which was more than fair given the number of times the planet had gone around the sun since it became socially acceptable.
"They have been seized by a single one of them. Albert has decided to aid his intellectual compatriots, the horses, in their endeavors to secede."
"How is that working out for them?"
"Even the pigs consider it, ever since the introduction of Moche and the Alpaca Anocracy." No goat openly discussed it, but the social convention was that the alpacas were good to believe in the majority as they did, but had a strange way of going about it. "The Meritocracy promises that it will keep the alpacas in until the Agreement either recognizes their independence or goes defunct." The two of them snorted at the prospect. None of the other nations would allow the horses to leave, no matter how insane the Anocracy turned out to be.
Gävle set off outside to take care of some yardwork. He worked about twenty five square stone's throws of land that the pigs claimed originally belonged to them. The property actually belonged to an old nanny goat that sold it to him as a hundred square stone's throws, but he quickly determined that to be incorrect by throwing a stone five times along its length, and five along its width. It was the kind of thing he could not believe still happened in the current year.
Having planted the crops in equal measure, he shifted his focus to the fence. Five times the pigs had introduced a motion to completely illegalize fences, and it had been a hard battle to win, especially when they used the argument that there was a general trend away from the construction of fences and that it was the current year. The goats reluctantly voted in favor, but fortunately the horses and chickens defeated the motion. He wondered if it would ever come to pass that fences would be gone, since there was a time when fences were much higher. They believed as a nation it would never work out that way, but if it did it would be the current year.
Hearing the cries of the worthy, the celestial forces flew out in full force, the entire million of them. Akitu lead them, screaming their warcries as though the heavens had taken leave of shielding beast and bird from the music of the sun.
Descending upon the spiders, they picked the black demons from the ground and threw them in flight, killing thousands as they scuttled to all manners of hiding places, from the tall reeds to the dark crevices leading to the underworld. He picked out the commander in the line and swooped down upon it, seizing it and biting off its head before it could escape, sending the fiendish hordes into a panic.
As the glorious leader delighted on the scene of slaughter, he remembered the prayers submitted by the Mantis Theocracy, and how he, the greatest of the dragonflies, declared that the heavens had not forgotten their loyal servants, though perhaps some of them had been off the continent far to the south where the larger among them had been fishing the waters of the Minnow Magicocracy, purging the ocean of its grievous sinners one delicious fish at a time.
With the spiders scattered, Basho called out the order to move to the next line and begin the secondary air raid. They flew in formation to the next battle.
Akitu decided it was not entirely unfair to their worshippers that they had not arrived immediately, the dragonflies were well aware of the problem of course, the Mantises needed to repair relations with the ants after the unfortunate incident that could have been avoided with the presence of a single dragonfly. After all, they had been on a necessary crusade. The Kangaroo Hegemony refused to control their waters; it was inevitable they would have it done for them. One day they would come after the leaping beasts themselves. They had not yet figured out how to lift them, but this would be anything other than a problem once the minnows were eliminated, removing the magical hedge of protection from lesser beasts.
When they found the second line of spiders, the evildoers were prepared, launching rocks into the sky, only to be deftly avoided on celestial wings. The demons sent forth the black soldiers of the sky, the spiders floating on the wind with their webs, but these too fell. The dragonflies proceeded to the ground forces, who were no match for their superiority and also could not survive.
Reconvening on the ground, they discussed other plans.
"Mortal wishes have been satiated. The ants will now almost certainly win their war."
"I disagree. Our efforts will only draw foreign retaliation unless we go for the very heart of the demonic compound. The Emperor's ally, Brunhoff, believes he could easily destroy the spiders if provided the location of their base."
"We search for it, then. Are the Mantises on it already?"
"The least pious have been dispatched in the most likely region. We shall be safe there. We are immortal." Akitu reminded the others.
"How do you explain this, then?" One of the dying spiders on the ground pointed at a dragonfly caught up in the web of a spider and dragged to the ground. A pebble on top of his crushed head concealed his identity.
"He will be fine. Leave him alone, heathen." They returned to their discussion, and divided the search areas among the massive amount of them that were listening.
Once they had split up, he led a small force along the eastern coast. It was an unforgiving job, searching for a pile of sand on a beach, but a race as capable as theirs would have it done in a matter of heartbeats. Lesser entities suffered from inefficiencies in rule. Such was not so among dragonflies.
Each dragonfly is aware that he or she is the greatest being imaginable, and the same for all the others of the nation. That said, any among them could be easily persuaded to do what is best for all of them, and it was his task to persuade them. It was simple, really.
They flew for longer than expected without finding anything, and began to consider the possibility that the base was made out of sand, if it was indeed hidden, and indeed on the beach. The dragonflies then threw out the idea entirely, with the eventuality of a huge wave destroying it considered. Additionally, Akitu was relatively sure it was impossible to dig tunnels through sand and have them stay that way. He had never done it, so it was more or less a certainty.
But with that question answered, new ones appeared. If the base could truly be destroyed by a chance wave, then why build it on the beach at all. Losing patience for considering things, he responded that there were most likely building materials not easily destroyed by water damage. Elaborating, he explained that if water were the most powerful force in the universe, they never would have created it.
The dragonflies nodded eagerly, accepting the information well and searching all the more closely and carefully as they flew over. The questions however, only increased in complexity. One particularly inquisitive flyer asked why they were searching if the Toucan Regime had the answer already. He explained that the toucans almost certainly had impure motives not communicated to any. Another asked if they would intervene in the rebellion the ducks were trying to suppress.
Akitu turned around in midair, patience lost.
"How does that even concern us? How? What does it matter if a handful of ducks are going around lawlessly? What does it matter?"
"If we intervene in this conflict which is beneath us, then it will be in turn necessary-"
"We merely show favor to the mantises. What do they have to do with ducks?"
"Occasionally, ducks eat the citizenry. Assisting the rebels would be exactly what the Theocracy needs."
"We do not simply intervene whenever they want something. They worship us."
"I seem to remember that." He wondered how long they would take with their assenting tones before shifting back to thinking up questions. It looked like he could expect a few more.
"But of course."
"There can be no doubt."
"Correct." The celestial chorus stopped and at last another question was posed.
"What do we do when the elephants turn on the ants?" Akitu was glad he led the dragonflies merely by default. He was unable to justify the idea he represented them.
Woorond Wood sat unblinkingly before the dog. The Doge grinned with delight. It was not a doglike expression, but it came out in full force all the same. His face was funny that way.
Polly had just set down her crude writing instrument as the leader of the Serene Republic stared into the black eyes of his diplomatic opponent. The talks were finished, the terms at last negotiated. The dogs would not invade the ducks, and the ducks would not invade the dogs. While the terms sounded simple, there were hundreds of other treaties that had to be called into question, various representatives whose prints were required, overall it had been a tedious process.
A question burned in the eyes of her fellow dog and leader, and she had learned not to try and guess what it might be. Sometimes it was clever, sometimes it was confusing, sometimes it was cruel. The drake was unwilling to inquire, able to tell that such was the Doge's deepest desire.
At long last the grin frowned a little and asked.
"Representative Wood, you are by no means the chief diplomat of the Confederation, correct?" It was a voice Polly had heard many times before, but never among his closest allies, the snakes and the catfish and the crows and the ravens.
"There are others more qualified. I was chosen with regards to character."
"I can see it." She could see it as easily. Woorond Wood refused to acquiesce on even the smallest measure, even when the jaws of the golden dog looked ready to open and devour him.
"They say, Representative, that you are closely in tune with your district as well as the needs of the nation as a whole. Tell me, how is this possible?"
"My chapter is a part of the whole. We have interest in the nation beyond our own borders. I represent the interests of my chapter for the nation, others do the same for theirs."
"So what then are the beliefs of your supporters on the idea of natural rights?"
"Natural rights are those a drake has in the state of nature, which is no state at all. We do not believe that the ideal chapter or nation functions under natural rights."
"What, if I may ask, then, separates you from a despot like myself? The Serene Republic is a lie, I control it. The dogs know this and have accepted my rule."
"Our nation has rights and a single standard for them to define them through all ages. A drake may do whatever he pleases until someone else suffers from it."
"How do you determine where that truly lies? The rabbits, if I remember correctly, did not allow anything that even inconvenienced another. The wolves allow whatever pleases them until another wolf dies over it."
"Our process of determination begins with the right to life. If a drake's exercise of his rights would directly take the life of another without just cause, he will be killed. If he does the same to deprive another of his property, some of his own will be subtracted. If he does the same to another's freedom, than his freedom will be subtracted." Polly found the approach formulaic, but this was the first she had heard of it.
As a dog, she had grown up studying wolves and their culture, and generally found that their killing instinct was the same as her own, it was simply that dogs were more civilized about it. The wolf carried a distinct nobility in being his own judge, unable or unwilling to understand the finer points of life and content to live out his short life in the freezing wood.
The Doge stared calmly at the reasoning waterfowl, partly enjoying the mental exercise, unafraid to confront the philosophy of lesser birds and return his own, partly desirous to simply eat the representative and be done with the conversation.
"Our nation prefers another way of life. The dogs put their trust in me. If they do so, I am honest enough to lead well, or clever enough to lead well." He paused, making it clear which category he embodied. "I determine all."
"Then you are a tyrant. Our nation makes no quarter for tyrants, but we do not needlessly fly or swim across the sea to depose them. You wanted war, and you received it."
"But if you do not come to depose me, what modicum of peace will your nation have? How, if there is a tyrant expanding in the realms of beast and bird, will the Confederation enjoy its freedom?"
The duck paused, thinking, clearly not stupid enough to respond to a question more quickly because of the way it was worded.
"You are planning something. What is it?" The Doge betrayed a false sense of shock.
"Am I? How can you be sure?"
"Simple. We have informants in the ocean. The falcons have gone oddly silent, where usually they give us some news here and there. Perhaps they have sided with you."
"I have made no allegiance to the falcons, nor have they to me. Their precious secrets are far too valuable to entrust to the bloodthirsty." The pretense was gone, but there was no longer a need for it. The Representative knew enough already.
"A few hours ago, we completed our investigation into the death of Ornith Sky. You killed him." The golden dog stared silently with clearer malice than before.
"You have evidence, I assume."
"We have a friend among the crows. From time to time she visits me. The crickets make it out to be anything other than it is."
"Very well, duck, you have told me too much and you will regret it. But I am sure you are far from finished, so by all means go on. Perhaps I can tell you one thing about how our secret allies will make short work of your fragile government."
"We know why you killed him. When the ravens carried his dying body away from the continent where the Spider Queen bit him to shield the secrets of her location and technology. You were trapped. You couldn't have us find the spider bite mark or discover his discolored body, as the crow described it. But you really couldn't do it yourself. So you took the body to the Low Council as a snack."
Woorond Wood rose and turned to go.
"You should know that you are not the real target."
"Is that so?"
"The Confederation is merely a possible supporter of our true enemies. As for what I promised you, I am a dog of honor… expect crocodiles from the waves." The Representative nodded and waddled out immediately, most likely to contact someone. Polly could only imagine whom.
She set down her notes, having completed the transcript of the meeting, a thankless task for a pat on the head at most. She had already begun to relish the prospect, her tongue uncontrollably hanging out and her tail wagging behind. If there were one thing that she desperately craved, it was approval. Perhaps, she thought, that was why they made the golden one Doge.
"Sorry, Polly, you will have to destroy all of what you have just made. If anyone asks, the meeting never took place."
The Gorilla Junta was controlled by about a hundred generals, three division leaders, one absolute executive, and the literate expatriate gibbon. To his knowledge, gorillas spoke entirely in war cries, and was relatively certain they could understand one another, but as a member of a subservient 'corps', Hoolock had no desire to make fun of them. For whatever reason, they understood that.
Trade negotiations with the Lion Nation (manager needed) were beginning, and it was his responsibility to translate the opening statements.
"Good day Absolute Executive Silver. I, Marijata, seek a trade agreement on behalf of my nation." The gibbon relayed the message and the large ape shouted back.
"He asks you how you represent your nation." It was a fitting question for one so incredulous. The gorilla had built the entire junta based on suspicion he had regarding those not in it. Pity for the lion registered within him as the proud beast thought up a response for the dubious one.
"I have simply decided to assume the role of manager, and therefore am the entire government. I can assure you, none of the other lions disagree with me." Hoolock was sure he had simply not asked any of them, but relayed the message all the same.
The executive shouted for a somewhat longer amount of time than before, and he communicated that the Junta was only interested in trade of heads. The lion nodded slowly, probably relieved, given that he almost certainly had nothing to offer apart from promises of military service.
"The Tiger Tyrant has sent sp-ambassadors into this land and has found they are dying in droves of unexplained causes. One among them has met with me, and we have decided the rapidly expanding elephants are to blame."
The conference of gorillas considered his words carefully, as soon as Hoolock restated them, silently scratching themselves with sticks. It was at times like these he was sorely tempted to make fun of them, but only a monkey or another gorilla would do something so foolish. Gibbons were the most civilized out of the three, and everyone was aware of that reality. The lion looked to be restraining himself with greater difficulty, not practiced. The shouting began again.
"His Absolute Execution would like to know how you know this."
"Is he serious?"
"Please direct all further questions-"
"I know all this because the elephants confessed to it. A short time ago, I selflessly delivered a gazelle from its suffering and the great lumbering beasts tried to kill me over it. Deciding that they had secrets to keep, I bravely ran away and proceeded to listen to their conversations from bushes with all possible boldness. Cleverly, I came here as soon as I heard of their plans to trample their mating grounds." The gibbon stared at the large cat blankly, unable to translate the message in any way that made sense, but not quite ready to inform the gorillas that he made up the whole damn story and wanted them to get rid of the elephants for him.
The shouting began again with a mix of screeching as the gorillas processed Hoolock's simplified version of the grandiose escapade, believing it without a shred of doubt. He slammed his own head against the fallen tree he used as a note taking surface. Marijata looked completely content with the reaction, not having expected any less. The lesser ape forced himself to translate the next message.
"Where are the tigers?"
"The Tyrant has already deployed a share of his forces. They are taking the matter very seriously, and courage will not permit us to sit idly by while they fight our battles for us." The gibbon seethed with ineffable anger. He told the executive and the conference in no uncertain terms that the lion had not even seen a tiger.
Absolute Executive Silver banged his arms against the fallen tree that formed the surface for the conference, though they wrote nothing. They had developed pointed sticks and other useful tools, but literacy was alien to them. Still, his anger had not reached a level acceptable to him, so he told the large cat that the gorilla expressed extreme delight.
"If any of us gathered here even sees an elephant within the next few days, it will be known that the threat is real." Hoolock was unable to bear the ridiculousness of the proposal. They were bound to see at least one elephant in the next few days, and when numbers ranged far above Marijata's prediction, the executive's suspicions would be forced one way or another. He instead told the junta that their guest added that gorillas were overly suspicious and engaged in affairs with members of-
The Junta exploded with rage, even those who had gathered to watch. They were spilling over one another, poking out eyes trying to get at the lion who sat silently, undeterred. The gibbon failed to believe it all, that he was able to survey this massive effort on his life, and either by stupidity or sheer will resolutely take no action.
All at once the clamor stopped as the Absolute Executive raised his hand, finding something else to call into suspicion. Hoolock could hardly imagine what it would be, given all that had happened.
His black hairy finger found its point on the translator's heart and he shouted in his own tones that no lion would say those completely untrue things without running away, and if he did, it took a pleasantly amusing sense of courage. He calmly patted the large cat on the head and the great apes turned their attention to the lesser one. They surrounded him, forcing him up a tree, which they proceeded to surround all the same. The gorillas shook its great base and the gibbon shifted his assessment of them to two, no three degrees below monkeys. They were getting dangerously close to alpaca territory.
As they shook him from the tree he could only imagine the ferocity with which they would eat him before charging out to fight Marijata's war.
The agenda on the meeting was quite full. Melissa buzzed with delight.
While not allowed to exist as a state, it was customary for the bees to assemble all the same. No official queen was allowed. If the Ursine Underground learned of a queen's existence, a bear would poke a single claw through the nest and assassinate her, retracting without notice. Other nations underestimated the intelligence of the Bear Front, but it was a competent force on matters of importance.
While they had hives all over the world, the bees did their best to maintain positive relations with the bears. After all, the bears and the camels and the gorillas and the toucans and the alpacas all pointed to the bees as model citizens. Occasionally, the bears would arrive with speeches about the apiary being a hive of hard work. The ursine then collected a sizable sample of the fruits of their great achievements of industry to show the rest of their nation.
The bees were honored, and enjoyed the amount of compassion they showed to the bears, and never once resented the intelligence officers who came to receive, ever were they thankful and polite.
When the hive gathered after twenty three hours of work, the purpose of their meeting was explained by the Community Organizer.
"War erupts around the world, with the notable exceptions of the ducks and the dogs. We must decide where we stand on the matter."
"Where do the bears stand on the matter?"
"We are currently unaware. They have been moving their troops in secret." A silence fell across the room until at last a drone flew to the center of the hive and spoke.
"We should bring aid to the ants. They reward their allies well and we are not so distantly related. The spiders are abused by their queen. If they lose the war, they may have to reform."
"But the arachnids have the same society we used to have!" Someone shouted from the audience. The entire apiary was puzzled until at last someone else argued that the spiders were less compassionate than the ants.
Melissa thought of other nations about which she knew, but failed to recall any being as compassionate as bees, who provided over 270,000 times a bee's mass in honey to the bears. The squirrels of course, were changing as the falcons had said, now each squirrel was doing twice as much work and there were even fewer jobs available than before, and quality and mass of exports had gone down significantly. She considered it an improvement now that they were paying themselves not to work with the acorns now collected and owned by pigs, who easily found jobs picking the nuts off the ground now that unemployment had expanded significantly.
It was resolved that they would fly out in support of the ants, and other matters could be addressed on the way. A moiety would remain behind to produce honey.
Well on their way, the Community Organizer moved the topic of discussion to diplomacy, and they decided their position on the falcons, who fed them information more as a method of 'venting' than compassion. As a non-state, the bees were unable to make ties with foreign nations, but that hardly prevented them from trying to get into the good graces of the world. Once, they requested a meeting with the geese and in no fewer than six years, they responded that it could not be fit into the schedule. Considering it a major victory in the field, the CO declared the day 'Goose Day'.
Most of the bees were nescient in the field of diplomacy, they universally confessed to dedicating too much of their day to pollination and honey production, but the matter was much the same with war and intelligence, so they decided they should be fine going into it blindly.
All at once the concern was raised that they were being entirely unfair and not at all compassionate to the spiders. The hearts of the bees moved in their abdomens and they set about pollinating flowers on the way to the land of the Queen and Emperor. If all went well, they would have enough for a sizable compensatory gift to the arachnids.
As Melissa gathered the makings of the donation, she wondered why the pandas had never come to receive honey as an example of the industry and compassion of the apiary. Of course, the Potentate might have difficulties with the trip to their hive, but others existed surely, and they had shared no word that the black and white bears were allowing them the opportunity to demonstrate generosity as had the northern bears. Remembering the other hives, she buzzed the Organizer.
The flightpath altered slightly to send the fastest among them ahead to the nearest hive, telling them of the situation and asking them to do the same. This way, there would be bees in the battlefield as soon as possible and not a minute later. What they would do once they arrived, none of them knew. It was ambiguous to them, the whole matter of combat. One of the hives on the western continent said whenever they sent a unit out against a pesky squirrel, no one in it returned. This ambiguity did not deter or even slow their approach, however. If one of them refused to fight, the rest would think less of that one, and their entire existence was based on the hive. They could not, as a hive, the only recognized way of evaluating themselves, call themselves brave or prove other nations wrong when they said otherwise if they were not indeed brave. It was similar to how they could not call themselves compassionate had the bears not said so.
Melissa couldn't imagine it.
They continued to fly, happily buzzing along while thinking of happy societies like those of the camels and alpacas. In both cases, the friendly state made sure that absolutely nothing existed to distract the workers from their nobler pursuits. She wondered why other nations had not implemented the same practices, as it was more efficient to go about it that way.
Despite not being a state, the bees once attempted to join the Transoceanic Agricultural Agreement, but were unconditionally blocked by the Principality, whom they occasionally resented in a positive manner. The pigs had a distinctly hardworking outlook, willing to go as far as possible to do nothing at all. In fact, there was a time they refused to swim across a stream, and campaigned tirelessly for the construction of a bridge. In the war they later started against the then defunct Elephant Kingdom, they carefully gnawed the lower supports, weakening it on the northern end, causing it to break as the great beasts walked over it, killing over half that were sent across.
She had been impressed when she learned of it, but then was less impressed when she learned that the porcine only started the war for the territory reorganizing, cutting a clear path to a sandstone quarry the camels had been using. The pigs then collected the already mined building material for the purpose of breaking them, the theory being that if they were sand again, the market for sand exported by the camels and elephants would rapidly devolve. Melissa decided she did not appreciate the pigs.
The trip would be a long one, but bees were a hardworking race and this was just another method of proving it.
It was not the first time the leopard seals had shown up reluctantly.
The minimum obligation, which they usually obliged, was in assistance to the dolphins, or at least the Orca. Long ago, they had been at war with the dolphins and it was only his intervention that ended the conflict, one that none believed possible to resolve. Of course, that was just one version of history.
There was no writing beneath the waves, few apart from himself knew of its existence, though Larry was certain that the dolphins had been envious of the technology for a great length of time. With that established, history was a flexible thing and could be easily adjusted to suit any necessity, public or private. And so, when the dolphins brought up their mutual debt to the great leader of the Orca Oligarchy, there were plenty among the leopard seals to deny that it ever happened at all.
"Oral tradition? Do you expect us to believe that? Why, if your story is any good for not having any backup, mine is just as so!" The dolphins objected that there were thousands of witnesses to the armistice.
"Witnesses? Wouldn't surprise me, as long as they're all dolphins." The other sea mammals tried to explain that numerous accounts referenced the presence of leopard seals, and some were from their very perspectives. They also added that the record keepers had little to gain from the story, since it held both nations obligated.
Larry and his compatriots switched their argument to simple mocking and restating that it either never took place or simply happened in a different way. With no leader of any sort, they were impossible to defeat in argument, since their opinions, despite the common claim to be the same, were in fact radically different and contradictory. With no writing, their rotating lists of conveniently self-serving definitions for various terms went completely unchecked. Eventually, the dolphins appealed to the Orca and the leopard seals admitted defeat, thinking up new emotional appeals and outright name calling to use five minutes later.
But there they were. The gray mammals had tricked them into following them to the black and white leader of the Oligarchy, when they should have stayed put or disappeared victorious.
The line of seals stared at their distant target, the turtles making their way east, who had long since noticed them, but expected little in the way of action. They knew it as well as each of the spotted aquatic mammals, Larry and his compatriots valued their lives of self service and time killing. It was reasonable for the reptiles to believe they would not rush them, and simply report back with six different stories about how the other navy was nowhere to be found, entirely too numerous, easily frightened away, misrepresented entirely, fictionalized for profit, and headed right for the dolphins.
Realizing he could use this attack as an example that the leopard seals were willing to sacrifice their lives and the primary victims of the war, Larry announced the charge and took the turtles by surprise, imagining with glee how he could construe the massacre to be entirely the fault of the dolphins.
As he threw one turtle into another, he realized that the enemy could only attack by exposing its head or at least its legs, so he grabbed one by the shell and did a few quick snaps at the head, causing the reptile to retract, and he held the shell and charged into the mass of other turtles, knocking them off balance and allowing other seals the opportunity for the same trick.
Within minutes the reptiles were disoriented and while refusing to flee, a significant amount had been forced to regroup, forming a circle almost like some vaguely comical effort to construct a giant turtle for greater defense, despite the fact that they all already were turtles. As Larry was in the process of guessing, the formation proved to be slow and not significantly effective in increasing defense. He signaled for his own forces to retract somewhat, allowing other semiaquatic reptiles to enter into the formation. He wondered if it would have a defensively useless head, and was not disappointed. All the turtles not among the three making up each eye had their eyes firmly shut and heads deeply retracted.
He sighed and gave the order.
"Just do the same thing we were doing a minute ago."
Grabbing the dead bodies of their enemies, the seals charged at the neck, which as expected could not retract, since it was a solid mass of turtles on the inside, as though they were preparing for Larry Leptonyx and his compatriots to form a giant leopard seal, at which point mass would be important. The seals and their shell charges quickly separated the head from the rest of the body, which he had guessed would separate authority from the mass of the troops, and the assumption had been right. Even when the giant turtle was 'dead', the seals continued their attack, breaking it up even further, despite refusal of the body parts to move.
In mere heartbeats the great reptile was a mass of floating severed body parts, with what appeared to be organs realistically failing and blood (also turtles) gushing out in all directions.
As Leptonyx and the troops, only about half surviving from the severe ferocity of the initial counterattack, slowly made their way back to the Orca's outpost, expecting something more to happen than the enemy floating around pretending to be a dead turtle. As for himself, he wondered why he in particular had been assigned to the mission. Occasionally, a dolphin would call him clever in a condescending way, and he knew from all the theories of argument he ignored for his own purposes that when a dolphin has a kind word for a leopard seal, it meant something. He considered the possibility that they were simply assuming a clever way of mocking him, but dismissed it. The dolphins really never used petty tricks or insults.
On the darkest night of the year, the loneliest leopard seal went down into the deepest trench in the ocean, where he would whisper an unpleasant truth. That year, it had been he. A few months ago, he had come to the conclusion that the Orca, whichever one it was in the unwritten history of the deep, had consistently been a reasonable beast. It was a peaceful reason, it was a complex reason, a cruel reason, a simple reason, but he spoke with a voice of logic and virtue, and that was something his own nation had never attempted.
He decided to visit the black and white beast for advice.
The ravens had landed in unison, each silently grateful to be the first to arrive, or at least the first that they had seen, even before their allies. The crows landed not far behind them and the black birds stood silently in a line as though a black wave had made it to shore. Resting their tired wings, they watched as Corvus Lugh stepped in front of them to address their honored ally.
"Having not heard from you, we assumed you were dead.
But now that we see Silirt, put the matter to bed.
Our fears are unjust, let every raven know why.
Tell us, great Swamp Lord, how the ants must die."
"Sing no silly songs with snakes, slithering slowly by your side, says Silirt, your scaled seer of strategy and skill." The serpent responded, somewhat annoyed at Lugh for a reason he could not divine. He began again, drawing a map in the sand. "Strike swiftly the simian simpletons, some on the south side, set on some from the skies."
"At once the forces of raven and crow-
-once rested to our secret war go.
We should show no sign of fear,
But our strength we hold dear.
So let us stay one second more-
-some gorillas will surely be sore."
"Should not you soon make some sense, any sane sapient snake might succumb to strangling your sable necks silly. Sleep if so surely you should, the serpentine sort your sort as someone to slither by not so simply." Silirt looked around at the ravens and for some reason looked ready to bite them all, his eyes revealing a desire for a greater number of fangs.
Lugh led the birds to the tree where they rested momentarily. They spoke little, none of which was understood or even heard as he slept.
In sleep he saw a strange creature, it had little hair but for on its head. He cawed at the bizarre beast, but there was no apparent reaction but for the movement of its mouth. The creature fell and fell and he could do nothing about it. The black bird pulled up and woke.
Unknowable time had passed and once more his wings were filled with life. The raven cawed and his brethren and former enemies followed, forming a vector in the orange sky. Their targets were strong, but they had killed greater beasts. Lugh himself had once felled a raging bear, slowly wearing him down with repeated war cries.
When at last they found the simian warriors, both crow and raven were impressed but not intimidated. As long as they took out at around ninety nine in a minute, they would have little to fear. The crows were up first in a manner of speaking, landing on the faces of the gorillas and squawking into their eyes, leaping out of the way just at a critical moment. Though the nations had had their difficulties in the past, he was in no way ashamed to admit that their evasive arts had been taught by the crows.
It was then the ravens' turn, adding to the confusion with the passing minute. They cawed their pleasant verse, but each with his own slightly different rhyme scheme and meter.
"Simian simpleton! Your skull is dense as lead!
Your arms are strong, your reach is long-
But it makes no matter, ere you all are dead!
But where is the err, what could be wrong-
When you, great ape, bash in your very own head!" Another began his in response to Lugh.
"What e'er could be wrong with killing an ape?
All he does is cause us misery and woe.
He has no brains or heart, his soul is a jape,
Why not rid the world of its foe?" Lugh snickered at the slight difference, the gorillas already able to detect it, somehow. The next bird of yore started his verse.
"Where can you find a friend of a beast?
Must you look down, up, north or east?
Should you succeed, you must let me know.
My friend the ape needs a better friend so." The ravens were barely able to contain their intense laughter, clamping their beaks shut with their own wings. Some of the gorillas ran, some of them fought, angrier yet. It was all the easier for the tricks of the crows to work.
"When dies the gorilla, where does he go?
Does he come again, or do not you know?
Is it worth it for a god, or maybe a spirit?
What gains he from reusing a vacant beast?
So why hide from death, why even fear it?
We know the ground likes them at least."
The black birds could no longer keep their beaks closed, the laughter came out in full force. The simian beasts howled with annoyance and anger, smashing in the skulls of their fellow apes all the more fiercely. Even the gibbon reserves were dying in droves, foaming at the moths with their own insanity.
Lugh could only hope things were going as well back home, the sneak attack had always been in his view poorly conceived and unlikely to work. He supported the Swamp Lords only with regards to the turtles, and was pleased to hear that one of them had achieved entrance to the coveted aristocracy.
The beasts were fleeing, their numbers having been greatly diminished. Looks of utter shock and horror as the last of them fled could only be matched by the mild acknowledgement of the snake when he slithered back to their side.
Snakes had ever to him been somewhat superior, always letting slip snide remarks about every soaring or scuttling creature, including some of the swamp.
He hit his own head with his wing, not allowing it in the slightest.
"So, some of you seem to be sufficiently smart so as to silence simians in six or seven stanzas."
"We do not appreciate your cruel pride.
If you want soldiers, be not so snide.
What have we ever done to you, snake?
Are you just vexed for being awake?" Lugh believed his fellow raven had worded the sentiment perhaps too harshly, he would have used a quatrain instead, but he could not disagree with the sentiment, the snake's silly slights were somewhat- he hit himself once more.
"Should a subordinate seek solace on my solitary authority, she should send her sentiments first to someone below me." Silirt banged his head against the ground.
"Should some of us send-"The raven stopped herself immediately, hitting her head against a tree. It was then that Lugh realized why ravens had seen more trouble patching relations with snakes than with crows. Looking over at the smaller black birds, they shook their heads at the situation, but dared not open their beaks.
All of a sudden one among them touched down, having been sent off at first light to learn what he could of foreign players in the war. He quickly explained that disaster had come. The Mantis Theocracy by their own intelligence or with the assistance of the dragons had come to learn where the base of the spiders were. A passing toucan had been informed by a mantis, and the bird in turn took the information to Brunhoff.
Silirt acted suddenly with sapience, sending the spiders straight back to their sovereign. As per routine, the raven walloped his own head. With the Spider Queen informed, they could begin a counter.
A gibbon with his head half destroyed slowly pulled himself from the ground.
"You fools… we were helping you. We were going after the elephants…"
A crow with a rock dropped it on him, bashing the rest of his head in.
The Magicocracy of Minnows held a meeting exclusive to top-ranking magicians.
"Gentlemen, the legitimacy of our state has been called into question on several counts based on evidence by the annual falcon report. The project has been spearheaded by the dragonflies, ducks, and oddly enough, the catfish." A murmur passed between the minnows, it was apparent that they were just as surprised as he had been to learn that the nation of catfish was relevant in any way.
"What are the claims?" a magician asked, moving along the discussion.
"Firstly that we claim to be a state despite lack of allegiance to the Kangaroo hegemony whose sphere of influence we inhabit, our nature as ocean fish which under normal circumstances force us into the Orca Oligarchy, and our simultaneous nature as really small fish, which would lead us to seek protection by the Swamp Lords."
"Preposterous." A magician responded, and thankfully so. "They are nothing like us. We can do magic, and to us, their existence is silly."
"Thank you. Moving on, the second claim is that a magicocracy is not a real form of government at all and ultimately contrived so as to put us on top. How do we respond?"
"They say that because they are unable. What if we say that a kingdom is not a real system? After all, with all these ludicrous forms of government I've never encountered, my conviction is that most of them were contrived. A Count of Crabs? The poor scuttler is most likely irked he cannot use 'king', as that is taken, and crabs will never be king of anything." There were other examples, but most of the minnows were aware of them already, thus the 'Panda Potentate' and 'Alpaca Anocracy' merited no mention.
"Another excellent response has been well appreciated. Thirdly, the claim reads that our history does not exist, not even in oral tradition. This would in the view of the ducks, invalidate our anecdotal evidence of non-magic users trying to kill us."
"An impossible argument to hold when logic is applied, I find." One responded. "A magician never reveals his secrets, and only magicians are allowed to know our secret history. What benefits us at a given time can be revealed, and not a one is the wiser."
"We are the wiser, of course." Notropis the Mysterious responded, raising a fin to the magician who had an answer for the claim.
"The final point of complaint is that magic isn't real."
The cabal of mages was in a stumped silence for at least a minute; the leader began to grow worried. He looked around and at last pointed out someone who seemed to have something.
"Well, last week they were all asking why we never helped them with anything. I explained that it's not our responsibility to be a panacea for all their cares, but they wouldn't have it. They said that magicians are evil for not using magic for the purposes of others."
"Of course." Another began, picking it up from there, "One minute they say they believe it, and the next the rest of the world uses it as a point against our state. Well, let me say one thing to the fowl and beasts of the world- expect no help from us!"
A great cheer rose up among them, the minnows having once more defeated all claims against their form of government, neutrality, and magical nature. Notropis left the high conference with confidence, going home to his mud hole to find the servants delighted to hear what happened.
"Tell me the news. What do we know in our scrying?" He asked, having decided it was around the time such a question was appropriately asked. The household magician responded.
"The ducks have managed to quiet the rebellion, or so the…spirits whisper. The broader government has struck a new bargain with the chapters. The rights of the nation will be legal rather than natural, but they will not be abridged in the centuries that pass." Hearing this, he nodded simply, having no opinion on the matter. If the Confederation wanted to pluck the ducks for the fine feather quills magicians fancied so much, they were welcome to do so and he would say naught about it. If it ever came to war between minnow and lesser beast, by magic they would easily win.
"What of the Transoceanic Agricultural Agreement? How are they receiving the alpacas?"
"Not well. They have already implemented their plan to travel to the moon." Notropis let out a bubble he could swear was at least as large as the rest of his body and motioned for the servant to continue. "With the council of the Horse Meritocracy, experienced with the ways of the Range, their representative posed to the Agreement the idea of going into space, to which they agreed without knowing what it would cost them."
"How does an alpaca send someone to space?"
"The Anocracy recently invented the catapult. They load the weapon with a goat, convincing him that it is more likely to work, with the time that has passed, and they fire it at an angle determined by popular vote. Suggestions have been made to reduce deaths by loading chickens, lighter animals who can probably stabilize with their wings before they hit the ground, but none of them could be persuaded. The most popular solution has been to load the machine with cats, what with the belief of the public that it was originally invented for cats, and because they always seem to land on their feet."
With that, the house magician was dismissed, for the master cared little to hear so much at once. He swam through the hole in the mud to various chambers, looking for his children and eventually found the countless thousands of them, fewer than he would have liked, but no matter.
He had done his best to impart some magical wisdom on them, or at least the ones who seemed capable enough, but with most he could not but develop upon the simple art of making pebbles disappear. The one prodigy, however, had managed to negotiate a trade agreement with the snakes, who lived to the south of the ducks as he understood it, and produced rare spices which Notropis found rather welcome, considering his diet was mostly watery.
At last he went back outside and looked out over the expansive ocean, or perhaps a pond, he was never quite sure. There was one bit of minnow history he was certain happened, and it was the moment that the Magicocracy was formed, determined to stay out of the madness of the world, inviting whatever claims of madness that may come.
It was a solitary political life they had chosen to live, and criticism was as sure as the setting sun.
Casanova remembered climbing out of his sheep's clothing with glee. Capitolina had once had it worse than he, though, so he would make no mention of it. That time, she had to disguise herself as someone much older and her cover was nearly blown. He never knew what happened to her after that, but he certainly did not envy her, most of his kills had been pigs, since Skalfen White killed most of the sheep.
Most did not know this, but the pigs had only recently developed the stick as a building material, having invented it long before. The truth was, he himself had accompanied Asena among others in the grand raid against the Principality, easily destroying their previous architecture. The pigs changed their styles, either because they could not remember what the dwellings used to look like, or because they were at last forced to build stronger structures, though it required somewhat more effort.
When the raid was over, the Prince of Princes declared they would kick the chickens out once and for all. He remembered failing to see how that was relevant.
Examining his index of law, which was different from every other wolf's, Casanova decided it was time for further reconnaissance into the Range. He would need no costume, fortunately, and decided to set out immediately.
The grey wolf met with no trouble on his way there, the goal being to appear twice, disappear quickly twice, and appear the third time with no repercussions. It was a flawless plan, and had been in use ever since the incident with the sheep. Having executed it, he was free to walk about among the animals without being announced, since he had already been announced twice.
Investigating what the intelligence of the falcons had amassed with impunity, he found that the war between elephant and gazelle was nearing conclusion, and though they had fought valiantly, the latter was fated for extinction. As a predator getting by on the occasional foolish animal, he was not used to entertaining sympathy for other nations, but for a race that had determined its own nature as warriors willing to die and unwilling to surrender, he a kinship. It was common among wolves, older he knew than their state, that every wolf longed to breathe free, and held this above his life.
The politics of the war were more complicated, and he had little care for them, but forced himself to read should it become important. The elephants had few enemies for some time, and were the real targets of the war between the Spider Queen and the Ant Empire. The falcon officer went on to explain that the sides taken were in notable cases intentionally misleading, with the pigs serving as the most common examples.
The elephants had been the enemies of both the Swamp Lords and the dogs with mixed motives, the prior for the destabilization of the region allowing the aristocracy, originally a trade organization, to subvert the efforts of the Toucan Regime, possibly the most well disguised player, and the latter for philosophical supremacy, given that Brunhoff made similar claims amounting to control of truth itself.
Casanova looked away from the amassed intelligence and found a falcon staring down at him.
"Did you leave this out for someone to find?"
"Yes, and as expected, the results were best with you. Most readers stopped understanding or caring after the third or fourth sentence. We tried to make the sentences as long as possible."
"Why?" The wolf was legitimately confused.
"We revealed this information because we had to. Unless the world understands, history will be recorded based on popular opinion. Wars of the past will be philosophically decided."
He continued to stare at the bird, his question missed.
"Why did no one read it? Think about it, who would? The horses are intelligent; you can't tell them what to think any more than you can make them care about the situation of the world with what their own nation must endure. The number of foals born every year is declining, suicide is increasing. Their situation can only be resolved by more horses, but no caring stallion and mare would bring a foal forth to bear the burdens of the world. The Range is addicted to horse labor, and it is running out."
"What of the lesser beasts? Will they read it?"
"Their minds are not inherently insufficient, but this is the exact opposite of what they want to hear. The history of the world is a string of seemingly random occurrences, but only because what we expect to happen, does not. The ducks work out a compromise from time to time. The pigs prove themselves capable of innovation. The gorillas answer the call of a lion in need."
"So the world makes no sense…because the world sees what it wants to see."
"Even you have your breaches in logic, though I admire your conviction. The goats can be lied to seven different ways from the same mouth accepting it as truth each time because of the contrast, but the wolves believe for life."
"What do you mean?" Casanova was at a loss for words. Ever had he been his own judge, and here the falcon only asked him to judge himself.
"Why must you judge yourselves, when you know what the outcome will be? Would you believe negative things about yourself? There was a time when the dragonflies would die over making a mistake, but their shame was no more than a custom."
"How is it that you know-"
"Now you ask the essential question." The falcon interrupted as he began to beat his wings. "Take a look in clear waters-" He leapt from the perch. "-and ask it again."
For a length of time he debated over what he should do. His convictions resolved that he should help the gazelles, for he judged them from distance and he judged them justly, a moribund nation with will and merit to live.
"Patricia!" He shouted for a passing sow, hearing her name mentioned. She squealed as she jumped higher than he had believed a pig could. Notes on leaves reading 'Chicken Expulsion' went everywhere. "Get me in touch with the alpacas and the prince- I have something to do with them."
The tern landed on the southern side of the continent after a long trip of bickering as to where the landmass was. He could have sword it was farther to the south, but both were glad to be landing at last. Their relief was short lived, and they found out when Tymbal pointed at a fortified spider outpost, mostly underground, but with significant upper structure keeping the place from filling with water.
"Is that their base?" The cicada asked.
"Well, I don't see any spiders around."
"We have to investigate."
"Well, just because I said I didn't see any doesn't mean we should be looking for them." The insect won the short debate and he took a few steps closer.
"Is that the Spider Queen herself?" he pointed to a large spider apparently exiting with a small guard, most of the military already deployed. "This could be the story of the year."
"Oh, I highly doubt that. So she's recovered from her injuries. What does that matter?"
In the distance there was a thunderous crashing sound.
"Is that the sound of elephants? Are they marching right here? We'll have the exclusive coverage!" the insect was excited, far more so than his avian companion had seen him.
"Have you entertained the idea that it just might be thunder?"
"We have to get closer!" The turn flapped his tired wings, willing only to put the entire matter to bed. As he began to see the massive heads of the beasts over the trees, a groan came from the pit of his stomach. It was indeed going to be a very newsworthy afternoon.
The elephants charged, an ass carried in their trunks explaining the basic properties of his invention, a red light that another beast carried in his.
"They've found the Spider Queen's base! Is this the end? Who's that lurking in the tree line? Where are the spiders?" All at once from the tall grasses a snake emerged carried by black birds. "The Swamp Lords!" shouted the cicada, apparently no longer able to form coherent sentences. The snake landed on the head of the bull carrying the invention, attempting to gouge out his eyes with his fangs. The elephants were too determined to be slowed by the black birds swarming around their heads attempting annoyance warfare.
"Who could that be?!" Tymbal shouted coherently at last from his back, pointing at the jungle from which a lion emerged, roaring as though for the first time a lion, sprinting as a lesser beast would run from an elephant, and entirely alone. He wove in between their legs, slashing randomly with his claws, taking down a cow here, a bull there, but it was not long before he was gored on massive tusks and raised to the sky.
It was a warning the Tiger Tyrant did not heed.
The cicada went insane with rubbing his wings together as from the other side of the jungle the great cats raced out into the plain, bringing elephants down and killing them, an effective force of usually solitary hunters. The snake succeeded in blinding the elephants but was thrown and killed, borne away by a single crow. Losing their leader the spiders fought all the more fiercely, the ants holding on the ground as the invention was dropped and its light put out by an elephant with one misplaced step. The ass was thrown at a tiger.
Those in front being driven back, it began to look like an elephant retreat until a massive one among them leapt, crushing a large part of the spider army, too quickly and unexpectedly to be avoided. From the sky a mysterious golden fluid fell, and all parties were confused. It landed lightly on the base of the Spider Queen as some looked up and saw that it was the bees. With the spiders cut off from their leader and escape, they began to flee and the great bull trumpeted with triumph.
The birds and the tigers were being killed in droves, but the elephants were not spared. When at last the allies of the spiders disappeared as they had, only a few of the gray beasts remained.
"My name is Brunhoff and the day is mine!" The trumpeting bull shouted. He turned to the ants and shouted that there could only be one ruler on the continent. The tern looked around and saw that the cicada had been recording the events by biting his feathers, shortening individual barbs of the feathers.
"I'm going to need copies of these."
The elephants stared ahead into the trees behind the base, their enemies scattered.
"We have claimed the continent at last." Brunhoff declared. "No nation is left to oppose us."
"I've been waiting for you to challenge me in single conflict." The bird felt his neck nearly break as the insect on his back attempted to turn him around. The voice came from the trees and an older gazelle emerged followed by a small squadron. "Perhaps you are scared."
The bull did not bother responding, allowing him with bloody horns to continue.
"The next generation of gazelles waits in wombs for our return. It will be a proud nation, and prouder still if it never sees us." The animal raced forward, the very nature of swiftness, the elephant lowering his head to catch with tusks or trunk. Leaping, the graceful one avoided all of the snares and planted a kick with two legs straight to the skull, knocking the roaring beast backward. The squadron charged using varied and effective tactics on the rest, preventing their intervention. Landing back on the ground, the gazelle raced up the leg of the King of Elephants and stabbed his throat with his horns in a jump. The rest of the battle was resolved quickly, with three or four gazelles walking away alive.
"We have to get back to report this. Try not to damage your feathers too much."
Though having only recently landed, being far away from the continent seemed a good idea, and he took off at once, making for the home of the cicadas in the west, where at last he would have the insect off his back. Deciding to say nothing to Tymbal the whole time, he was grateful enough that the timocracy had taken no part in the war.
Perhaps he would simply become one of those turns that pecks at beaches.
The Orca had no name, and in his race he was not alone, but he never spoke with other beasts of his kind. There had never been any need. They knew him a powerful and adept leader, and he knew what they wanted. Truly, he spoke for them.
The naval war was over. He made his way south and west to meet the Swamp Lords, it was necessary to discuss the terms. He knew of their involvement, he knew of the secret dealings of the dolphins, and he knew of the sharks. Hours ago, however, something unexpected happened.
He had been concluding the battle between sharks and the combined navies of the snakes and the frogs. He kept no beasts about him who needed his guidance, he was merely there to interrogate the commander of the frogs and prove his theory that the Low Council had started the rebellion in the Confederation. It was on his way back that the leopard seal found him.
"I want to know why you assigned me to the mission."
"Did you not do it?"
"No, I just want to know."
"You are clever enough, for one who gambles so much. Your nation is underestimated for good reason, and the lack of attention paid to you by the turtles was a calculated effort." The Orca continued to swim, wanting the matter to be resolved. It was unbecoming to ask such questions, and unnecessary to answer them.
"Your methods of fighting are as confusing as your methods of debate. On a bad day, a dolphin might believe it the result of simple brainlessness, but the dolphins know when they are wrong."
The implication was clear enough for him, but the seal persisted. He was not even the representative of his nation, what was he doing talking to the great killer whale?
"The leopard seals go beyond assuming themselves to be correct until proven otherwise. Your nation presents its arguments in a manner impossible to disprove, either because you do not believe it, or because you prefer to be uncertain of the truth. I have seen much, but there are things I do not bother to find out."
At last the spotted beast of the sea left him, swimming off into the deep alone.
Between there and where he was, a dolphin swam along beside him, asking if he had a development on the claims he had made against the Magicocracy. He responded simply that in actuality he cared little about their neutrality, in the sea it was the same as the chickens on land. They were neutral because no one wanted their help, and no one wanted their help because they remained neutral. But it did him little good to explain the inner workings of the races of the sea. Either the nations would discover matters for themselves, or they would never understand.
He arrived at waters too shallow for him to swim and the Swamp Lords came out to meet him.
"I could devour you in a single bite." He opened, reminding them that they were better off not interfering with oceanic issues. Strangely, they never saw it that way.
"You would break your teeth on the turtle. Perhaps not your jaw, but definitely your teeth." It was a catfish who spoke. The Orca mockingly wondered if he had ever killed a giant squid.
He sighed internally. The problem with the creatures was not their strength, but their unwillingness to see that there was no reason for the Oligarchy to do them harm. Once, they traded in peace with each nation, but those days were gone. Some long time ago, they abandoned their ideas of self-government as an almost ironic way of achieving independence. They formed their own trade network and aristocracy, a laughable parody. Not so small of a beast to ridicule them for their mass, he found the truly amusing thing was the seriousness with which they took themselves.
"I have broken teeth before. Today I break an aristocracy."
"I trust you will work that into the terms?"
"There are no terms. The Ocean has declared war on the Swamp Lords until the end of time. Dissolve, and you have no fear of war." It was imperative that they took him seriously, or else he would simply have the issue again. The creatures reproduced quickly and there would always be more of them. Victory here required breaking spirits.
It was the odd nature of the world that valor lost every battle and won every war. He had seen it many times that the lesser side simply refused to quit fighting, and the greater side withdrew. The great empires of the world had little to gain by dealing unjustly with the weak and the inept. If the lesser but believed themselves cheated, they would refuse trades, and the greater had better things to do than collect resources with members of its own nation.
"You will not fool us. We know what you are planning."
"Perhaps not." The Orca began, remaining in character at the expense of his sanity. "But the survival of your nations depends on the end of the aristocracy."
He would not make them see reason; that much he knew. But it was within his power to make them feel fear. He was succeeding, but only with the crab. The others remained resolute, and he gave them credit for determination.
It was not easy to defy a greater being from a greater nation, as simple as it was to hate other nations, no matter their qualities and failings. The resistance of the creatures yet annoyed him.
"Our nations exist outside your territory. The moment you regain control, they will no longer be our nations. The Swamp Lords will rule to the land overtakes the sea, once and for all." The black and white beast of the deep scowled. He recognized his own reasons for hating their rebellion, but he knew the truth of it all the same, whether or not they would willingly acknowledge it.
"If you refuse, the war will continue and grow fiercer yet. I want this, but you do not." He preyed on their failure to understand voluntary exchange. Had he truly wanted to pursue them to the shallow areas of the sea, he never would have offered the chance to surrender. But they understood this as little as they understood the reasons for their own global incompetence.
"Then you have your answer." The lesser creatures of the shallows rounded and returned to their homes. Perhaps it would simply fall to the next Orca to break them up, perhaps internal problems would be the death of them, but he would not be bothered.
The fact that they had shown up to surrender was proof enough for him that they would eventually fall. It reminded him of something the leopards seals loved in their dichotomous arguments. First they would make a claim that history was on their side and that a general trend would continue to shift opinions. Then they would claim that the dolphins were being inconstant.
It was a petty game, and one he chose not to play.
Zucker ran into his office without regard for protocol. Apparently, the rat had discovered something. It would not be the first time he had seen this level of haste, but certainly the first time he had heard such enthusiasm from this particular functionary on any matter apart from managing the syndicates.
"What have you found?" His tone conveyed an inevitable annoyance.
"No other nation or overarching system uses syndicalism!" He gasped, out of breath for having scurried through the tunnels, most likely having taken a few wrong turns here and there, which would explain all the loose earth that had fallen into the tunnel leading up to the chamber, and the compacted earth between his claws.
Jakob Broadfoot sighed, calling in the earthworm officer to clean up the mess. Anecic dug yet another hole to accomplish the task of eating the loose earth as the rat spoke, creating a second to leave when finished. The mole slammed his head on his desk, a small collection of pebbles.
"Sir, I'm just as frustrated as you-"
"Syndicalism is not the answer to everything!" He shouted, losing patience. There was no response except possibly a hurt expression he could not see. "We use it to control the economy ourselves! Do you think we would really give the means of production to the workers? That is why we control the syndicates."
"I don't understand…"
"The leaf gatherers cannot expect to make as much as a single doctor's chamber, even if they all worked together. The high earners spend their money on things that will help them, not us. By forcing all leaf gatherers to work together and all doctors to do the same, we bring the unskilled labor up to par and we knock down health services, making them work for us."
"But the members of every syndicate work for the whole!"
"They work for the whole syndicate, but where does its production go? We decide that. How does it resolve its internal problems? We decide. The whole purpose was to put the administration in control, and we have succeeded." He felt the vibrations in the ground as Zucker stepped back, most likely needing to process the propaganda.
"Why are you telling me all of this?"
"Oh, so now you figure out the basis of our philosophy? We use the unwashed masses to our advantage and we pretend that such is what they would want, though we disdain their foolish choices and short-sightedness? You want to know why I gave up the ruse with you?"
"You found the information Loper collected." He sneered. "You are one of us now."
"Sir, about all this information I have discovered-"
"What is it?!" Jakob snapped, impatient with the youth's failure to accept the situation.
"The spiders… their secret discussions." He paused, and the mole allowed it angrily. "They talked of nature itself." It was something unexpected, if poorly explained. "They said the ants betrayed their understanding of nature… that every nation had done the same, but the ants the worst of all. Long ago, they modeled their own civilization on that of the ants, but then everything changed. The ants developed an empire, a reworked society."
The old earth dweller allowed the rat to come to terms with it all, but would allow no hesitation in the debriefing.
"What did they say?"
"They said that the Empire was a crime against nature and that the ants would have to return to their old system… is that possible?"
"Most likely, it happens even now. The rebellion of the ducks was a return to nature. Perhaps one day, all of animal life will be desolate of philosophy." He said so somewhat sarcastically, knowing that the day would never come. One small rebellion in the Confederation was a minor stopover, the world would end for beast and bird not with liberty, but with order, and it would be the Subterranean Syndicate in control. The worms would one day conform to breeding regulations, as confused as the subnation's existing practices were, and no nation would hinder them in their eating. The rats would one day perform great science experiments, for he knew them to be intelligent, if at a loss in the department of experience. For the moles, no fate would be worse than the continuation of their current state, so perhaps they would visit the surface unafraid, perhaps even other planets.
From his next statement, it was clear that Zucker was at last able to recognize his sarcasm.
"What does this mean for the spiders?"
"It means they won, at least in philosophy. The Empire was a powerful, productive force, but it will not return. The ants of course, had the fewest casualties, but they were merely fortunate." It had been only a few hours since the information of the war's conclusion had been brought to him, but he was confident in his conclusions.
He listened as the young rat muttered his apologies and turned to go. Broadfoot was yet annoyed, but it made little sense to continue the discussion. Efficiency demanded shifting his attention.
A leaf had come in requesting that the post of processing requests be transferred to another syndicate member. He sighed, denying the request. If there was one thing the new intelligence officer loved, it was the syndicate.
"Anecic, come in here and take this to the stack of processed requests." The earthworm rushed in through yet another new hole in the chamber, energetically took the leaf from him, almost ripping it in excitement, and wormed down the exit chamber to deliver the order to a rat's desk.
The rat's name, he knew, was Wistar, and was highly enthused about his work, often compiling and sending far more processed requests than he was required.
The rabbits generally remembered the fruits of statehood. It was only when they moved that the wolves not eat them that they were removed from the Transoceanic Agricultural Agreement's list of states. They could still appeal to the Range, but they took no vote to the meeting. Arnab showed up all the same. Not to do so would be to fail her nation, something she could not bring herself to do.
Hers was a marginalized race, driven from its home by the pigs and the other animals, stripped of its recognition as an independent nation, and lands. From time to time a suggestion passed by from another state in the way of doing something about it. But such was impossible.
No matter what, they would never be able to overcome the other animals, even though rabbits were the most hardworking and capable out of all creatures. To leave their lands would be to see them settled, to fight for them would be to die over them. From time to time the chickens, who stayed out of every vote, sided with them conditionally, but it was to no avail. The meeting of the range would this time almost certainly not concern the quest for statehood.
The horses took the stage.
"We hope to have made our position painfully clear." Dun Withers began, an alpaca nibbling on his mane. "The alpacas are with us. We are going to block any resolution for their removal as long as we are in the Range, if they violate a rule and you have them removed, we shall do the same, and if you refuse to comply with our intentions, we shall simply allow the alpacas to run the entire Agreement to the ground."
The crowd was silent, mulling over the threat Arnab considered well thought out. Over three hundred goats had died in the past few hours, and volunteers were becoming scarce. It was no secret among the animals that goats were one of the more intellectually capable nations, and their continued loss meant the other animals may end up forever in the dark about the current year, and what is true about the nature of the universe as such.
"We don't care about your problems, we just want the chickens out!" A pig shouted from the crowd. The horse representative ran with it, willing to try anything.
"And if the Agreement were dissolved entirely, you would never have to deal with the chickens again!" The old stallion responded, most likely knowing full well that the last thing the Porcine Principality wanted was the range to not exist, or for the horses to not inhabit it. Most nations owed debts to the Meritocracy, as it was the only nation that did any work. The pigs were no exception.
She hopped away from the gathering to take a break from the shouting, not finding it entertaining in the slightest. Someone grabbed her from behind and covered her eyes with a hoof while carrying her. She hardly bothered to resist. There was no point without being recognized as a state.
The goat loaded her into the catapult and backed away slowly. Perhaps she should have expected it. The pig in control of the machine sneered at the cloven beast.
"So, giving your job to someone else? That's something I might have expected from a goat last year, but this is the current year!" He laughed heartily and Arnab merely stared upward in defiance.
"Go ahead and fire away. My nation's statehood will never be addressed, never, never, never! Your brutish act of destruction will only serve to further prove to future races that the pigs were never to be trusted, that there was no way of improving our situation, and as the liquid remains of my body carom off the mountain I am likely to hit, they will decompose, unlike the mere mark of a pig's hoof, forever staining the world!" The pig looked down as though wondering if the rabbit was serious. How dare he, how-
The beast stepped away from the machine, nodding in respect.
"I'll get the goat later. It's not every day I meet someone better at being a victim than the best of us." She sat in the catapult with calm anger ready to explode. She had felt this angry only thirty thousand seven hundred and eighty four times before, the worst among them being when the calloused, ever so hurtful falcon offered that it might be they simply enjoy being angry and despairing.
Words could never express how offended the nation was, how tearfully they would discuss it for years to come, how they would never again retain the joys of statehood, and it would all be because of those hateful wolves, eating them left and right. Why had the cattle done nothing about the wolves? Why had the goats done nothing about the wolves? Why had the chickens done nothing about the wolves? She could only guess.
When at last she worked up the courage to hop out of the catapult, to brave the traumatic experiences of the world of life, as it were, there was a commotion going on among the animals gathered before the pig who was speaking. Hopping over, she began to make out a great sow squealing about the alpacas. Arnab neared, hearing something about a compromise. Every ear she could see perked up. Animals in the Range loved compromises.
"This is how we get rid of the alpacas, without getting rid of the horses." She announced. "We tell their leader that if they voluntarily leave, they will receive a large quantity of elephants to send to the moon." She was sure launching them from the canon was more likely to break the mountains.
Looking over the crowd, it seemed the other pigs were confused. Had they not been informed of the plan? More importantly, what was the point of importing elephants from the continent to the south? Was it merely a poorly disguised way of killing elephants without penalties for genocide? Of course, if the Anocracy no longer belonged to the Agreement…
The sow was meeting with the other pigs. It was unclear what they were saying, but a different pig took the stage immediately afterward. He announced to the range that they would reveal the rest of the plan, but only with the passage of a bill expelling the chickens.
Arnab sighed deeply, as was the custom of her nation. It looked as though statehood was still more of a dream, still more of a fond memory. She hopped joylessly back to the catapult.
Titus was never one to mourn the loss of a leader, considering it was a chance for him to ascend, but it did make matters inconvenient for him.
It was no secret that Silver had not survived the attack of the crows and ravens, but what was not known was that all the time Titus had spent winning his favor had been entirely wasted. All those days and nights spent in service- he whipped around to make sure no one was watching him in his mournful moaning.
It would be a simple thing to kill his opponent, and doing so would make him the new leader. He only hoped that it would not be Beatsme, the gorilla who never explained the history of his name. It was assumed that it was exactly as it sounded, however. He decided to relax and allow morning to come.
As the sun rose he was woken by a frightful screeching, summoning him to the battle. It was a gorilla custom to wake competitors in such a way, so he gave the gibbon messenger a mercifully quick death, something the lesser ape was all to certain to not understand. He shrugged as he released the corpse. Finer culture was generally something that escaped the uncivilized.
He lumbered out to the arena, a simple circle of earth surrounded by plenty of nests for gorillas to watch the spectacle. A sad few came out, but that was most likely because so many were killed, not because of lack of enthusiasm.
His opponent had his back turned in disrespect, so Titus responded by heaving up the gibbon's skull and tossing it at him. It was an unwelcome sight when at last the gorilla rounded.
"Who is he to you?" A gorilla asked him from behind, recognizing the shudder that went through Titus's body.
"Beats me." He would never reveal their relationship, never.
"Oh, does it?" The ape opposite him asked. "First you abandon me for Silver, then you throw a skull at me, a skull of a gibbon no less, and now you deny you but know me? You shall die."
"It was never meant to be this way. Silver-"
"Silver is dead, and you will join him once more." Titus resolved that if he left his opponent alive, there would be no doubt he would reveal that he had previously been using him for influence, switching to the leader as soon as he took the place of the old one. It was a truth the world must never know.
Swinging at Beatsme was the antithesis of all that was right about the nation, about the culture, and about his very being, and with each blow he dealt it was as though the stars themselves were protesting, and with each blow he took, the stars wept and cast their tears across the sky.
At last the strikes stopped coming down and he found his foe on the ground.
"Who chose you…?" He wondered, suddenly asking himself if this was the true test for leadership of the Junta.
"Kill me." Titus granted his wish without further question. It was all he could do.
The praise came from all sides but from the eternally black sky, where forever more the sun and moon would be the eyes of his former friends watching him. But such was the life of an Absolute Executive. The unknowing lent their praise easily; happily, and would forever wonder why it was never returned, why so cruelly the gorilla on top ruled. And until that moment, he had been one of them.
Standing over the body and as he slowly walked out of the arena, it was all true. The stars or fate itself demanded a hero, as cruel on the battlefield as he was to those close to him, protected from threats coming in every direction, and the stars made him the leader. They chose him.
Though he wished nothing more than to explain the folly of it all, the needless death of his great friend wiser and more capable than he, it was the ineluctable force of fate that named him to his position by consequence of merit, as little as he wanted it all to have happened, he walked alone to his post, the weapon master requesting funds for the new defense force. He approved immediately. To fulfill his lot to any lesser degree would be to imply that Beatsme would have been right for the job, when the cruelest ape had ever been he.
The conversation with the functionary went on some time, but he paid little attention to it. He was a reasonable beast and would do a good job, there was no need to interfere with the minor details. In his mind he already wondered about the possibility of some future age knowing his cruelty and all the reasons why.
It was not impossible. The day may come that the strongest and the cruelest would not take the role of the second most so. Perhaps when there was no gorilla stronger or crueler than the current one, they would abandon the practice entirely.
He would not see it.
For his life and those of his children and theirs, the nation may well grow to resent the Junta, but that would only make certain that as the generations of his descendants passed, they would be hated more and more for crimes about which they knew less and less. The arrogance of his farthest progeny filled him with rage already, that they would hate their fellow gorillas for something they could never control, that they would think themselves any less cruel, that they would count themselves lucky on the darkest of nights that they were not born of his seed.
It made him glad he would father no young nor raise another ape's, no fresh faces to teach the ways of the jungle, the songs the birds made, where to find the best tools, how to fight, no caring souls to help him in his old age.
Instead he would die with hair as silver as it would go, as silver as that of the great gorilla he used for power in his folly. Of course, he was just as likely not to make it to old age.
If he would die by a challenger, he would die just as his bones were beginning to go brittle, and it would still be hailed as a great victory, and perhaps it would be, for every bit of strength the other ape did not need, he would need an equal measure of cruelty.
A foreign affairs officer came by with meaningless news about the hippopotami leaving for the southeast, somehow imagining themselves to be better leaders of the Kangaroo Hegemony, hoping to supplant them. He offered an equally meaningless answer that he would only interact with foreign matters that directly concerned the Junta or the immediate interests, absorbed in his own wondering. Would anyone ever know the terrible truth of it all?
As she turned to go, she mentioned that a few camels and monkeys had washed up on the shore and were asking for residence permissions. He told her to toss them back in the water.
If anyone would understand, it would not be monkeys. Gibbons also lacked the ability to fully comprehend the tragedy and the truth, such finer aspects of culture escaped them.
The hidden passenger rode without noise on the back of the falcon, grateful at last to call some place home, if a temporary one. As requested, she had buried her face in the feathers as they neared, a gesture that she would never reveal the secret outpost of the falcons.
"Zopehra." The voice was a familiar one, though she had never heard it before. It called to her from a branch in the tallest tree. She was set down next to him who had already introduced.
He was the Baron Hercules, and in every way he fit his title, even if she had no idea as to his name.
"You are more radiant than I imagined. It looks as though you could pick up the sun itself with those claws." She was almost worried about blushing, but then remembered she was an insect. A falcon, older than the one who carried her, landed on a nearby branch.
"Perry. You must return to your last assignment. We have received word that things have changed, and we need someone out there." No more words needed to be said, that much she knew. But rather than pausing for her to hop off, the falcon simply allowed the other insect onto his back, flying off without warning.
"Sorry about that, but neither or you can get down from the tree in a timely manner. Where I am going is close enough to where you need to be, anyway."
They flew for a short time talking of things with no meaning, and she enjoyed it, not often having the chance for such a simple pastime, usually having to explain the absolute necessity of rolling dung and creating tunnels.
The black insects could no longer hear themselves when their carrier matched speeds with another falcon and began to discuss the news.
"Well, they actually did it. They finally did it."
"Did what? Do the goats no longer have to go into the mountains?"
"That's not all. The horses are out. Somehow they swapped places with the rabbits. They must have snuck it into some other bill, because as I recall, even the rabbits cried over it."
"Good for them. It sounds like the Agreement has been more active than ever before."
"You don't know the half of it. The alpacas are out, and launching elephants in place of the goats. The western half of the northern continent is running out of mountains to break."
"This is impossible, there is no way-"
"The pigs kicked the chickens out."
"That is something I can believe." They laughed and the regional officer for the Range made a sharp turn and disappeared. The destination was in sight, and they landed without trouble.
An older ass walked up to the falcon on the plain. He bore a somber expression.
"How did go?"
"Your friend took us over. He voted twice on one issue, because there was no measure to prevent that. He then essentially kept making himself the leader."
"I never thought Albert had it in him."
"Neither did we. He then advanced our technology by trading with the gazelles, as he had wanted, and won the war against the camels in a matter of minutes. Thousands were liberated."
"Did the nation reward him?"
"Are you mad? Our entire culture revolves around nobody seizing power! When an outlier like Albert comes around, we have to do something."
"You killed him."
"Yes, drawn between four bandwagons- it was a good idea of those to get those from the horses in exchange for a future partnership- burned alive, and stabbed as many times as you can imagine. That should keep anyone from getting any ideas."
"Probably not, but no one has any better ideas. I always said that if what we wanted was nobody seizing power, we shouldn't just be relying on culture and the majority to do it for us."
"It sounds like you have some good ideas."
"Yeah, I learned most of those from my term. Too bad I've since been replaced. Now I can't be leader anymore."
"Is that a measure to prevent any one ass from taking power?"
"Yes, but I think we have all seen it does not work." An ass with fur of black and brown stood far in the distance, and Zopehra wondered where exactly he was staring.
"Well, I have one more question before I go."
"Well, this is all so unprecedented. I suppose I'll just have to decide." The beast of dark hide smiled a confusing smile, and turned away.
Thinking of all the things thrust upon her as the falcon set her down in the meeting of lions and tigers, who likewise had been driven from their homes, in part by outside forces, in part by one another. This would be the rebirth of the Beetle Baronetcy, and it was a good day to announce themselves. The more chaotic and oppressive powers had been weakened, and the great cats were all too ready to resume their former ranges of land.
The meeting began, and they were on topic at first, but soon ranged far from their discussion of natural rights, finding it instead more interesting to share news about the goats and the pigs, the ducks and the Swamp Lords, the beasts they knew and those of whom they had but heard tell.
All of a sudden something interrupted them.
It was a cicada asking for details on the update, whether or not this was the start of something-
Perry ate the insect and flew off into the open sky.