“I make it a habit to kill all the people at court who do not want to usurp me, as they are principled fellows and so eminently more dangerous than your average conspirators.”– Dread Emperor Iniquitous, first of the ‘Mayfly Emperors’
As of dawn there were eleven villains in Hainaut, if I was considered to stand among their number even with my Name not yet fully formed.
We didn’t even make up half the Named currently in the principality, though at least we did count for more than a third, yet I honestly couldn’t think of many occasions were so many villainous Named had gathered together in the same place at the same time – much less while being on the same side. Not unless Revenants counted, anyway, which in my opinion they did not. It was a lot easier to herd cats when they were dead. This was not the sort of thing to approach half-cocked, but I found there was a remarkable scarcity of knowledge on affairs this: even more than heroes, Below’s lot clutched their secrets tightly.
Fortunately for me, I had to the former heiress to Wolof in my service. And considering that Akua had once intended to rule all of Calernia, she’d paid even closer attention to the underlying currents of villainy that your average Sahelian scion would have. She’d wanted to avoid the mistakes of her predecessors, after all. Her ambition itself might have been foolish, but I had to concede she’d not gone about pursuing it foolishly. Save for one or two exceptions. When I brought up the subject in my tent early in the morning, over my breakfast, I found her almost eager to talk about it. It was subject of long-standing fascination for her, as it turned out.
“Alliances between villains have not been studied in great depth outside of Praes,” Akua told me, still sounding pleased by the line of inquiry. “And aside from the Tower itself, there are none who can rival the records of Wolof on the subject. It was of great interest to my predecessors, as you might imagine.”
Wasn’t hard to. I’d seen enough corpses I barely needed to try.
“I recall hearing the Sahelians haven’t raised the most tyrants, among the old families,” I noted a tad more diplomatically. “Though you’re up there for Warlocks, right?”
“The Mirembe of Aksum are not far behind us on the latter count,” Akua said. “Six less, I believe, though it might have changed since I absented myself. They raised very different practitioners from my family, however, and their arts have not well adapted to modern warmaking.”
I cocked an eyebrow, curious as to what Praesi highborn might consider sorcery aging poorly. Devils didn’t exactly get dusty.
“Impractical?” I asked.
“Aksum was once known as the Cauldron of Beasts,” she said. “The Mirembe have long been known for their interest in the crafting and alteration of life.”
Monster-making, she meant. Charming.
“They dabbled in heredity as well, and created the first known stable breeding program,” Akua continued. “The practices have since shifted, of course, but their work remains foundational.”
I could see why their specialties had not aged well. In the old stories the Praesi always came at Callow with a few horrifying monsters that one of our heroes ended up killing, and the stories about the orcs that could breathe under water and the sentient tigers were infamous even out west. Not a lot of those had been successes in a more than marginal sense, though, and the Reforms would have been the final nail in their coffin – especially so after the Conquest proved that the Legions as envisioned by Grem One-Eye and my father were highly effective. And since every High Seat and more than a few lesser lords now ran their own breeding programs, it’d not given the Mirembe a lasting advantage.
“That aside, I would caution you to think of raising too many tyrants as a crown worth contending for in the eyes of the High Seats,” Akua said. “The Yeboah of Nok once succeeded at claiming the Tower three generations in a row, but none of the oldfamilies were willing to allow rule of Praes to be clutched too tightly. Their lines was exterminated to the last, and the Sesay were installed to rule the city.”
“I get your point,” I drily said. “It wasn’t in the interest of the Sahelians to win too much, even when they could.”
“Exactly,” Akua smiled. “Though even over periods of relative humility my ancestors were not the kind of people to suffer lack of influence. As the Empire often boasts the largest concentration of allied villains on Calernia in any generation, grasping the nature of such alliances was a necessity.”
“Allied might be a bit of a stretch,” I snorted.
Back in the old days Praes had usually counted more Named than the kingdom, but they’d so frequently lost in part because they were as interested in backstabbing each other as actually stabbing Callow.
“Perhaps not to the extent of the Calamites,” Akua noted, “but you would be surprised. The most famous example would be the Black Knight and Chancellor of Malignant the Second, who all histories agree loved him deeply. It is why the man reigned a full decade and a half while his handling of the Empire can most charitably be describe as occasionally benign ineptitude.”
There’d been a sprinkling of occasions like these throughout imperial history, she told me, but the pattern that emerged to my ear was that the bonds were usually between smaller groups: a pair or maybe three Named, often who’d come up through a transitional Name together. About half of the time they ended up offing the ruling tyrant and putting one of them up on the seat instead. Being a tightly bound band of five, and one essentially loyal to the ruling Empress to boot, was where the Calamities had broken fresh grounds.
“The Empire usually waxes and wanes between three and eight villains at any time,” Akua said. “Though only four Names are considered to be part of the fabric of Praes.”
I didn’t need her to tell me which. Dread Emperor, Chancellor, Warlock and Black Knight. The four roles that’d been at the core of the Empire’s way of life for centuries, Yet I was now learning that there were much more nuances to those roles than I’d believed. For one, not all Names came with every generation. Praesi highborn usually saw which had had come and which had not as an indication of what should be expected from a reign.
“It is usually seen as the mark of a weak tyrant to have a Chancellor but no Black Knight,” she told me. “On the other hand, one who claimed the Tower with both a Black Knight and a Warlock but no Chancellor will be expected to aggressively contest influence with the High Seats – often with a measure of success, historically speaking.”
“But you get other Named as well,” I said. “There’s been other Assassins – in other places too, but more in Praes – and old Callowan histories speak of Necromancers too.”
Unfortunately the skill of Praesi in that branch of sorcery paired with the relative magical ignorance of my countrymen meant that old records could often only guess at if they’d been dealing with a necromancer or a Necromancer.
“Indeed,” Akua nodded. “Before the Wars of the Dead it was common for a Lich to exist, and since the heyday of fighting arenas in Maleficent the Second’s reign we’ve had recurring Gladiators. The latter is even more common in Stygia, however, and so somewhat looked down.”
“Of course it is,” I sighed “I take it Names without much precedent are also considered pedestrian?”
“The Captain and the Scribe were once underestimated for this very reason,” Akua said, then looked chagrined. “I was not immune to some shade of that foolishness, I’ll admit. I once thought very little of the Scribe.”
“She cultivates that impression actively,” I said with a kernel of sympathy, though it really had been a mistake.
The Scribe’s spies had been instrumental in keeping her contained, back when she’d been Governess of Liesse, and that was just a drop in the bucket of the quiet work done to hasten her downfall. The bloody coup against Hasenbach in Salia was a good example of what Scribe could when let off the leash, and its aftermath was still haunting the First Prince even years later.
“So I’ve head,” Akua neutrally said. “Regardless, the Empire’s traditional position as the leading light of villainy-“
Did that count as blasphemy, I wondered? Probably not unless she was talking about Light.
“- has meant that foreign villains whose defeats were not mortal have often fled to Praes for refuge. Treatment varied according to who held the Tower, but some rose quite high when the Dread Empire was expanding and looking for champions. Sorcerous, in particular, opened his court to many and gave them great authority.”
My brow rose.
“I don’t recall hearing of any foreign villains in Praes during my lifetime,” I said. “Which surprises me, considering the Grey Pilgrim has been terrorizing villains out west and south. There were bound to have been a few who wanted to get out before either he or the Saint strolled into town.”
“The end of the last two gave pause to any possible takers, I expect,” Akua drily said.
A beat passed.
“Black killed them, didn’t he?” I bluntly said.
“They came in the decades preceding our births – the Reaver from Penthesand the Blue Mage form Ashur, to be specific – but they were brought in as helpers for the Purebloods,” Akua elaborated. “Naturally the Carrion Lord brutally murdered them at the first halfway decent excuse and extended the purge to anyone associated with them. An entire branch family of the Niri of Okoro was forced to eat until their stomachs burst in what he called a warning about ‘overly ambitious appetite’.”
I coughed to hide the way my lips were treacherously twitching upwards. She noticed.
“It’s considered one of the reasons for the later succession crisis in Okoro,” Akua reproached.
“Very sad,” I got out soberly. “Not at all ironic, or in any way cathartic to hear about.”
I changed the subject before that woeful look she was giving me could lead to a reproach about the importance of not killing Wasteland aristocrats in amusing ways. Talk about not knowing your audience.
“Praes isn’t the only place to have had villain alliances, though,” I said. “We had the Sable Order, in Callow, and the Free Cities were whipped by the League of Rogues for a while.”
The Sable Order had been a chivalric order led by four fallen heroes who’d gathered a lot of disaffected knights, bandits and penniless soldiers in an army and brought the kingdom to its knees. They’d had the run of the countryside for years, until the Albans managed to finally beat them on the field. The League of Rogues – although they’d never called themselves that, and the name had come with later histories – has been even more successful, the seven villains having occupied half the Free Cities for over a decade and cowed even Ashur for a time. About two centuries back, I figured?
I remembered them in part because they’d surprised me, as a kid. They’d been unusually steadfast allies even when they began losing ground, supposedly because they’d taken oaths of mutual loyalty to each other guaranteed by devils. I’d wondered why every villain do that for two months, until I got my hands on the second volume of Wicked Deeds and learned about the very ugly way the last two had died when the devils came to collect.
“The Iron Kingdoms are arguably a greater success story than either of these,” Akua replied.
I blinked in surprise.
“Those collapsed almost immediately,” I slowly said. “And they were a refuge for villains, but hardly led by them.”
It’d been one of the history lessons from the orphanage tutors instead of one of my private forays, but I distinctly remembered being told this.
“That is what Proceran histories insist, yes,” she amusedly told me. “And so most everyone believes. Fortunately one of my ancestors, Elimu Sahelian, served as court mage to ‘Queen’ Alandra so we reliably know otherwise from his memoirs.”
“He served aswhat now?” I flatly asked.
“Court mage,” she repeated. “It is an old practice of my family, dearest. We’ve gathered many secrets and artefacts this way, leaving with them when the cause collapse. We did the same thing with Theodosius the Unconquered himself, and a dozen other lesser hegemons.”
I was quite itching to get my hands on the memoirs of whoever the Sahelians had sent to advise the man that was arguably the greatest military mind in Calernian history, but that could wait until later.
“So the Iron Kingdoms were a villain alliance?” I frowned.
These days some scholars even argued that the name ‘Iron Kingdoms’ was meaningless, that it’d simply been a very chaotic period in Proceran and Levantine history where rule of law had frayed nearly beyond repair in a certain region, but that wasn’t yet the traditional view. Properly speaking, the words referred to a bunch of bandit fiefdoms that’d briefly seized control of most of current Valencis as well as the adjourning Brocelian Forest and Cusp.
“It was led by nine bandit and raider Named,” Akua agreed, “the remembered kings and queens of iron. And while three of the ‘kingdoms’ collapsed swiftly, as you said, others fared much better. It was nearly nine years before Valencis was fully reclaimed, and it took over two decades before the five kingdoms in the Brocelian were brought down by heroes.”
I let out a thoughtful noise. Yeah, I could see why Procer in particular would have wanted to keep that story quiet. These days the Principate went all Damned this and Damned that when Named got inconvenient, but it’d been a lot younger back then. It would have been a bad blow to its prestige if a pack of villains had been able to seize one of its principalities. The kind of blow that made fresh conquests consider rebellion and borderlands mull independence. The histories I’d been taught would be a lot more palatable to the Highest Assembly, and safer to own up to.
“Neither Praes or these alliances really fit what we have as a precedent,” I finally decided.
“This is true,” Akua easily said, “but attempting to establish direct precedents when multiple Named are involved is foten a fool’s errand regardless. Valuable insight can still gained from observing what led to the victories and the failures of these arrangements.”
“Infighting,” I drolly said. “And heroes. Occasionally armies paired with the previous too.”
“Yes, very clever,” she replied, rolling her eyes. “About what I might have expected, given your terrible essay on the Licerian Wars.”
I gaped at her. Wait, what? Shit, no, it atcually made sense that she might have read that at some point. Sure, it was a piece of homework I’d written half-drunk in the backroom of the Rat’s Nest, but Malicia’s spymistress had gotten her hands on it back in the day – she’d even mentioned it, when we’d first spoken in the Tower. The Sahelians had infiltrated the Eyes and the Tower, back in the day, though I was never sure to quite what extent. Merciless Gods, though, was this the only piece of writing that I was ever going to be known by?
“At least Hasenbach won’t know about it,” I mused.
“Mother sold quite a bit of imperial intelligence through Mercantis when her coffers ran low, so she actually might,” Akua amusedly replied.
Goddamn Sahelians, I uncharitably thought. Given my luck, that fucking thing was going to end up my only written work to be passed down the ages.
“Regardless, my heart, you are correct that infighting is recurring pattern,” the shade mused. “Arguably the most important. It has been the end of a many a skillful reign in Ater, and certainly precipitated the fall of the Iron Kingdoms.”
“That’s the nature of villainy, to an extent,” I said. “You don’t become one without being hard-headed, and unlike heroes we tend to see each other as potential threats instead of potential allies. That’s a recipe for blood on the floor at the first disagreement.”
Heroes did kill each other on occasion too, I wouldn’t ignore that, but it was significantly rarer.
“Ah, but there lies the area of interest,” she smiled, golden eyes alight with pleasure. “What aspect of villainy in particular drives us to conflict amongst ourselves? I have pondered this long, Catherine, as when I dreamed of empire still I believed that the governors of my Calernian empire must be villains. It was imperative that I understand how to keep them from turning on each other as well as myself.”
I drummed my fingers against the table absent-mindedly as I thought. Villains tended to be more prone to violence, broadly speaking. They also tended to just be worse people than heroes, but that was a weak argument. Most people on Calernia were worse than heroes, by the same measure, and they weren’t as prone to infighting as villains. Names did tend to magnify your flaws as well as your virtues, but that was a weak argument as well. Villains weren’t all cut from some universal cloth, in either personality or objectives, so the consistent infighting of their alliances couldn’t really be traced back to some universal flaw we all shared.
But then that was looking at the individual, when one of my first lessons had been that the system often had the greater impact.
“Villain stories tend to reward conflict and acting decisively,” I finally said. “It’s an incentive. If it makes you stronger, helps you to win, most people will lean into the traits. When unchecked and become reflexive, that tendency results in poor decisions like backstabbing a nominal ally while heroes are at the gate.”
“Squire to the end, I see,” Akua murmured, sounding thoughtful. “An interesting answer, and not one I necessarily disagree with. Yet I arrived to a different conclusion myself. I believe that ambition is the keystone.”
“Not all villains are ambitious,” I pointed out. “It’s not like every Black Knight eventually made a play for the Tower.”
“Ambition can be a nuanced thing,” she replied, leaning forward in animation. “A Black Knight’s ambition could be to stand the greatest hero-killer of the age, or to lead the Empire to military victory. Rule need not be the driving force of them. Ambition is, to my eye, the seeking of excellence. The nature of that excellence varies with every Named.”
There was a refrain of old Praesi pride in there, I thought. The old guard of tyrants had often claimed that they were seekers of excellence, that their philosophy was one of advancement while the Gods Above were enemy of all change. Like most philosophical arguments preached by people who practiced mass human sacrifice and casual assassination, I tended to be skeptical of their claims. If anything it was the Praesi circular circus of usurpation and civil war that was stagnant, whatever the adherents of ‘iron sharpens iron’ might claim. I didn’t entirely disagree with her assertions, though.
“I’ll agree that Named tend to be driven people,” I conceded. “But I don’t buy the rest of that. There’s outliers, sure, like the Tyrant of the Hierarch. But someone like the Harrowed Witch isn’t trying to be the best anything – she’s trying to not get eaten by the brother she murdered and bound, and maybe trying to move up in the world when there’s nothing more pressing.”
“She improvised the spell that bound her brother’s spirit, highly advanced necromancy, with few resources at hand and no margin of error or time to spare,” Akua stated in reply. “One might argue that her ambition is survival in difficult times, and that she has proved highly able in pursuing it.”
“Or she was already skilled, and just got desperate and inspired,” I replied. “But fine, for the sake of argument let’s say I agree with you. Where is this headed?”
“Conflicting excellences are the cause of strife between villains,” she said. “Unlike Above’s champions, who seek not excellence but a particular outcome, rivalry is natural between us. And given the rewards of violence, as you have put it, villains are more prone to disposing of rivals and obstacles than reach peaceful accords even when these might be more practical. It is why Procer can be the region that has the most villains on Calernia, by simple numbers, but alliances between them are nearly unheard of.”
I took me a while to place the expression on her face. She was enjoying this, I realized. The discussion, the debates. I did not let it distract me, or allow my thoughts to meander down the path of who she might have been if she were not the Doom of Liesse.
“Without a common framework keeping us bound,” Akua continued, “like the Dread Empire or a greater common ambition in the vein of the League of Rogues and the Iron Kingdoms, villains will nearly always default into competition.”
Mhm. The argument somewhat held even when looked at closely, I decided. The infighting in villain alliances tended to crop up when the shared ambition was collapsing, not in the initial string of victories that most villains got to taste before their comeuppance.
“And how did your great Calernian empire propose to get around that flaw?” I asked.
It’d been idle curiosity that made me ask, but suddenly there was a weight to the tent. To this conversation. We had not often talked of the Doom of Liesse, of her plans when she had been the Diabolist. And never this explicitly. She did not openly show hesitation, but her silence and calm face made it plain to me anyway. The golden-eyed shade knew me well, these days, but that blade cut both ways.
“By making more of you,” Akua eventually replied. “Client queens and kings that were genuinely invested in the rule of their province, and capable of dominating Named within their realm. So long as my fortress stood, fear of Greater Breaches being opened in retaliation to treachery would have prevented most forms of rebellion – and I believed myself capable of triumphing in the inevitable ensuing shadow wars.”
“It was a shit plan,” I frankly replied. “You gave yourself a single point of failure and left each of your ‘clients’ a powerbase to consolidate. The moment the fortress was out, your entire empire would immediately collapse.”
“Which was why I intended to build several more,” Akua admitted, “once I had the resources of Callow and Praes at my disposal.”
I breathed out. Shit. I’d never actually considered that. Would it have worked? No, I eventually decided. The moment she got Malicia and I to surrender, Diabolist would have stood as a beacon for every hero on the continent. I’d had to bend over backwards to avoid that, and she wouldn’t have been able to manage while standing atop a fucking doomsday weapon. She’d not last long enough to make a second fortress, or it’d get destroyed while still incomplete. The Diabolist would still have made a horrid mess on the way out, though, possibly afflicting several parts of Calernia with permanent Hellgates before dying. Gods, Second Liesse had been a nightmare but it was still better than… this. I forced myself to think of something else.
“A framework,” I evenly said. “The Truce and Terms are one of those, arguably. As is the war against the Dead King.”
“The Truce and Terms are and should be considered a construct to help to wage war against Keter,” Akua said.
It was quiet, but I could hear the muted relief to her voice. Like we’d both stepped away from a ledge.
“It is the war that has gathered Named,” she continued, “and in my opinion it should be considered the ‘alliance’ within which villains will be jostling for position.”
“Jostling only to an extent,” I reminded her. “I’ve avoided a lot of fights by having such a strong position that potential rivals didn’t want to take the risk of a challenge.”
More than a few villains coveted my seat as our representative under the Truce and Terms but they were also aware that I had an army, Named allies and the Kingdom of Callow’s power backing me. It wasn’t full-proof, of course. Some had tried to take that swing anyway, unable to deal with being the second in anything. The Red Reaver had been one, and I’d made an example of him. Others, like the Barrow Sword, had picked a fight to test my strength and then fallen in line almost amicably when I’d proven I was not to be trifled with.
“Several sources of your current influence are temporary,” Akua pointed out. “Your position as representative, your queenship over Callow, your positional advantage within the Grand Alliance. They can serve as a defensive asset, prevent others from striking at you, but they should not be confused for a way to make people listen to you. If you want obedience of the villains you have gathered here, and for them to bind themselves to your Accords, you must find a way to help their own ambitions within the frame of your own greater one.”
I did not immediately reply. As it happened, I was not under the illusion that my current influence among my kind would carry beyond the war against Keter. I was in a unique position at the moment but sooner or later the stars would fall out of alignment and my authority would wane. For now, though, I still had it. And I fully intended to use it as much to carry out the war as to prepare the peace that’d follow it. Akua was still thinking of this as a warlord would, though or perhaps a Dread Empress – like a centerpiece binding important assets to her by giving them what they wanted, and pairing that fulfillment to service.
But I couldn’t think like that, not if I wanted my work to survive me. If I wanted villains to embrace the Liesse Accords, that meant convincing them that submitting to some rules was worth the benefits the submission would earn them.
“Turning wolves into wolfhounds,” I mused.
“One piece of meat at a time,” Akua Sahelian softly agreed.
The morning’s war council yielded no surprises. The Iron Prince and I would hold command of the two offensives, and General Pallas broad authority but not actual command over the reserves. I’d wasted no time in politely requesting of Princess Beatrice of Hainaut, freshly under my command, that she ‘make suggestions’ about the fantassins companies that would best suit our needs. I made it clear I wasn’t trying to leave Klaus Papenheim with only dregs, but that she shouldn’t feel shy about taking the better cut either. She was amenable to the request, and gave the impression she amenable to my being in command period. I had hopes of a good working relationship.
Mind you, she was an Alamans of royal blood. I fully expected she’d be able to put a smile on surrendering to Malicia.
With that settled, I turned to the looming matter of the council of villains. The hill Akua had told me of turned out to be more than serviceable, and so we went ahead with using it. The firepit was cleaned and deepened, then ten high seats brought out in a broad circle – Hakram would not need one, bringing his own. Seating would be assigned, I’d decided, to avoid chaos breaking out immediately instead of eventually. I considered the known tapestry of grudges in silence, looking at the seats. The Barrow Sword and Headhunter couldn’t be too close without fingers being lost so I put the fire between them, and leaving the Summoner by either the Beastmaster or the Berserker was a recipe for a snide comment preceding bloodspill so they’d have to be split up.
Hakram on my left and Indrani on my right was only to be expected, but the seat to their sides would be taken as signs of favour so I had to be careful who got them. The Rapacious Troubadour would have to get the seat by Archer, I thought. I’d left him to handle Named-finding out here with little prior warning and he’d done well, so it was owed. It would be the Berserker by Adjutant’s side, though, I eventually decided. She was fresh to Hainaut, and I’d only met her the once before leaving – just long enough to send her beyond the trenches to hunt with the Silver Huntress – but during my absence she’d apparently killed a Revenant and wounded another, which merited encouragement.
That made five seats settled, and I leaned on my staff as I worried my lip and considered the rest.
“Where do you intend to place the Headhunter?” Akua asked.
I did not glance back, having known she wasn’t far. I would have brought Hakram as well, but he wasn’t exactly in a state to make the trip quickly. Indrani was currently sleeping, having travelled a full day and night over the last stretch to get here in time, so of my inner circle it was only the two of us here.
“Between Berserker and Beastmaster, I think,” I said.
The Levantine villain wouldn’t be able to easily mess with either, considering neither was a slouch up close or a stranger to violence. She nodded, eyes pensive.
“Barrow Sword by the Rapacious Troubadour?” she suggested.
I hummed. Ishaq tended to get along with people who weren’t of the Blood – or whose savagery he did not consider to be damaging his own chances of becoming one of the Blood, namely the Headhunter – so I was actually wary of placing him too early. He was valuable because of that relative lack of enmities. Still, he had to sit somewhere.
“Then Concocter by him,” I said.
‘Cocky’ was both sharp-tongued and not physically powerful, so I had to be wary of where I placed her. If she mouthed off to the Berserker she was liable to lose a few teeth, not to mention the bloody scalp the Headhunter would be after. The Concocter would likely have pockets full of poison, I further considered, so if she retaliated the escalation would be steep and immediate. Best to avoid the trouble entirely by giving her mild-mannered neighbours.
“Summoner by her,” Akua said. “He will enjoy word of the Arsenal, no?”
The man was still miffed he’d been assigned as a combat sorcerer instead of a researcher, as I recalled, but he’d never hidden his continuing fascination for the Arsenal. It was a good pick. With a little luck he might even be too busy talking to her to insult anyone else for at least part of this council.
“Agreed,” I grunted. “Which would leave the Harrowed Witch between Summoner and Beastmaster.”
“She was in Archer’s service for some time,” Akua noted. “That should ensure civility of the Beastmaster.”
Or encourage him to lash out at the Witch as indirect vengeance on Indrani, I thought, since her connections made her very risky to take swing at these days. It’d not escaped me that Archer’s fellow pupils under the Lady of the Lake did not have the fondest memories of their time together, though Beastmaster had always struck me as indifferent where the Silver Huntress and the Concocter had been venomous. It was a measured risk, I decided. The worst the Summoner would send the Witch’s way was likely to be a few snide words about hedge wizardry, and I trusted her to be able to ignore that. She’d struck me as being steady of temperament, back in the Arsenal.
“It will do,” I said.
My gaze swept over the seats. It would have to. Soon enough we would be going to war, and I wanted every sac of venom emptied before we were on the march.