It was barely an hour and a half before his appearance at the event downstairs that the Emperor was flown in. Landing on the roof of Arès Villa in a transport gunship, he was whisked by attendants down the stairs at a brisk pace, through the upper halls quartered off from guests to his private bedroom. It was half past four on Richelieu, though it was two in the morning on Paris and the French monarch was never one to sleep in transit. His eyes felt heavy, though that – as his secretary reminded him on the platform – could easily be fixed with a slight application of makeup. When he had raised concerns about the tightness of that day's schedule, that had not exactly been the first thing on his mind. Once in his personal quarters, he quickly stripped, stepped into the shower, and found himself alone for the first time since he got out of bed that morning. Silence found him at last as he stood in the jet of water, letting the water roll over his swollen eyes, stiff shoulders, and aching back. Yet even his showers were planned down to the second, as a knock came on the door to remind him that he had a minute left.
"Oh, come on!" he called, "That can't have been four minutes."
The knock came again.
With a dissatisfied grunt, Alexandre hurriedly washed himself and emerged, a towel wrapped around his legs, into what was supposed to be his private bedroom. An army of staff, attendants, secretaries, and advisors, met the goose-prickled Emperor in what had sadly become a common routine. Because they had been delayed, his secretary ruled his time like a tyrant; he needed to dress, shave, dry and stylize his hair, apply makeup, eat, look over and edit his remarks, and memorize key attendees and their faces – all at the same time.
"Alright people," His secretary bellowed with the voice of a drill sergeant "let's move!"
This was his penance for choosing a secretary with a military background. Like a pack of jackals, his staff closed upon him. The next thirty minutes were a blur. When they finally released him, the exhausted man with dripping locks over his eyes had been replaced with the person of the Emperor, dressed in a fine tailored suit of a deep navy blue, dark matching tie, and crisp sky-blue shirt. The symbols of his office were pinned to the lapels of his coat, on his left the gold-and-red rose insignia of the Legion d'Honneur, and on his right the gold tripoint star of the French Empire. His greying hair was parted and slicked back, accentuating the contours of his features chiseled with experience. He looked like the statesman he meant to be, and that was enough.
"How much time?" he asked, still inspecting his reflection in the mirror on the side of the wall. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted the Empress lurking at the edge of the room.
"Thirty-six minutes, your Excellency," came the rejoinder from his secretary, who was evidently pleased with himself.
"We're done here?"
"Yes sir, we're done."
"Good work everyone," the Emperor flashed a grin. "Now get out, all of you. Zou! Out!"
Many of them laughed as they made for the door. It took time for the tide of people to cram themselves through the narrow doorway, but before long the door had closed and Alexandre was alone with Anestasia of Hal'Sk.
"What do you think?" Alexandre asked, spreading his arms out regally for her.
The Empress Consort of the French gazed over his form with cat-like eyes of chestnut. She had met the occasion with an elegant formfitting white robe with gold embroidering. A lime green sash wound around her waist and was held in place by a silver bird of prey pendant, the insignia of House Hisan. A light cloak of deep blue silk flowed around her shoulders. In her early twenties, she was wonderful to look on with her angled face, sharp features, and ridged forehead. Yet, it was not for love of her beauty that Alexandre had married her. It was her throne he could not resist. She was the forbidden apple which he had picked, and which had caused him no end of trouble since. With slow, pondering steps Anestasia circled around him until he felt her hands dusting off the back of his jacket. Dandruff flaked everywhere.
"You don't look like an Emperor," she uttered in that deep voice of hers. "What did you use in your hair?"
"What?" Alexandre turned around to face her. "I'm not––I used baking soda and vinegar, like they said. It's ––"
"I know," her lips pursed, puzzled. "Wait." She went into the bathroom, and emerged holding a jar of white powder. Her bemusement had turned to stark amusement as she looked at him. "Alexandre, read the label. This is baby powder."
Alexandre's face turned red.
"How can you be an Emperor without knowing the difference between baby powder and baking soda?" she teased.
"I'm a politician," Alexandre fumed. "Fifty senators, eighteen thousand representatives in the French Parliament, more than a hundred sovereign states and heads of state, I can list them all by name, their major constituents, affiliations, dilemmas, goals, you name it... And you expect me to know the difference between baby powder and baking soda?"
"Oh, if this is below you..."
"It's not," he said, taking the powdered jar with a look of exasperation. "I'm in politics because that's all I know. I have power because I'm good at it. This," he waved the jar, "is someone else's problem."
Anestasia disengaged and shook her head with a saddened grin which faded away. A sigh followed.
"What?" Alexandre demanded.
Her tone had hardened, her razor-thin eyebrows descended, she was no longer kidding around. "Your impulse is to justify yourself. Stop that. It used to be that Emperors did not need to explain––they just did. That's what made them different from the rabble, the false pretenders, the upstarts. Pretenders pretend, Emperors rule. This was so with your Kings and Emperors of old as well, from what I hear."
"Yeah, well that was a long time ago." Alexandre had returned to the mirror to adjust his tie. "What is baking soda good for anyway?"
"It's used in bread. It's also good as shampoo along with vinegar – which is what you just tried – general deodorant, toothpaste, cleaning agent, fire extinguisher..."
Alexandre raised a hand. "Alright, I get it," he turned back towards her, folding his collar back down. "And how does a princess come to know so much about baking soda?"
"It comes with the territory," Anestasia flashed him a sad smile. "I've been waiting on men my whole life."
Chapter 1 Edit
In the grand hall downstairs, Ambassador Wyatt Ruel ably wound his way through the crowds of assembled guests and dignitaries. Champagne glass in hand, he shook a hand here, gave a compliment and a warm embrace there, and took the liberty of avoiding those he was not necessarily thrilled to speak to. He received many toasts, and many an ally patted him on the back and sought his favor or a kind word. After three years of hard work, this was his night. He would withdraw from his position as the chief negotiator of the UGA to the Greater Hal'Sk Empire in glory the next morning and retire from public life entirely. This he had promised himself and his family. They would settle down somewhere, finally have a life and raise their youngest in the stability of a home not under constant threat of being bombed by some radical faction or another. He would be able to find work wherever he wanted.
The assembly was grand, as befit the occasion: the stabilization of the Greater Hal'Sk Empire after years of internal turmoil and conflict. Three crystal chandeliers illuminated the hall, casting scintillating light on neatly set tables, all manner of appetizers and refreshments, and the exquisite dress of honored guests. Draped over the balustrades on the second floor, the banners and flags of those in attendance stood as a forceful testament to the powers represented in the room. Among them, the descending black eagle on white with lime green details of the ruling House gi Hisan of the Greater Hal'Sk Empire. The other Hal'Sk Great Houses were represented as well in the form of the Empress' quartered eagle-and-fox, the three-headed eagle of ni Matikar, the white crescent on sky blue of ni Valdair, the crouching red fox of ni Foxwyne, and the burnt cross of Jaydan. Further down the hall were the flags of the nations which had participated in peacekeeping efforts, the yellow planet-on-black-and-yellow banner of the Drodo Empire, the gold-on-white emblem of the Pan-Andromedan Ecumene, the yellow cog-and-star on red of the Algolurn Popular Republic, and the black-blue-white flag of the Farengeto Trade Coalition. Alone among the secessionist republics, the flag of the Krall Provincial Authority hung among the ranks of sovereign nations, representing one of Ruel's greatest victories.
Distrustful of the Emperor Alexandre's handling of the peacekeeping efforts in the Hal'Sk Empire, each of the French Empire's constituent republics had demanded separate representation in the name of the troops they had sent, a demand which Ruel had been forced to accept. The French Empire, therefore, was represented six times: the flags of French Andromeda, Galactica, Gran Colombia, Lower Katar, and Corsica adorned the far wall, and the French tricolor appeared twice in quick succession, to make the absurdity of the situation absolutely apparent. Ambassador Ruel remembered with a degree of frustration the difficulties that that cohabitation had created, but all of that was water under the bridge. He had finally gotten all of those bickering republics to agree, and it was all over. Finally, a wall-length banner bearing the colors and markings of the United Gigaquadrantic Alliance adorned the space above the stage, soaring higher than all the others with its arms wide open in the open gesture of a mediator, a diplomat, and an all-encompassing force for peace. Every time Ruel looked up at it, his chest swelled with pride.
After more grips, more grins, more toasts, and more drinks, Ruel completed his second tour of the room feeling warm and alive. He had paid his respects to Emperor Galokar, received a sweet kiss from Empress Madelina, a lusty one from her lady sister, and found himself in back-breaking embraces with the Foxwyne brothers. However, he had once wandered too close to the far corner of the room and was coldly received by Anestasia and her entourage. A great asset in diplomacy was the ability to discern when one is not welcome, and Ruel promptly bounced back to the other side of the room. Then he had an awkward interview with the man who had been tapped as his successor, a Terran by the name of Francesco Davide. However, just as he was about to join the table of one his colleagues at the embassy, he spied a new arrival of particular interest walking through the entrance to the grand hall.
"High Councilor Balbus Marinus of the Talven Empire!" announced the manicured doorman.
Heads turned with some curiosity at the new arrival, the foreigner who had just a day before promised a hundred million troops to the peacekeeping effort – more than the UGA's entire deployment that year. A couple dignitaries boldly strode up to him outright, extending greetings, flatteries, and invitations. Soon, the leader of small stature found himself engulfed in a small crowd. Through the tumult, Ruel glimpsed Anestasia gazing intently at the Talven arrival over her wine glass, though her dignity did not allow her to join the throng. There was a connection there Ruel did not know about, he noted. Marinus was a foreign head of state new to the Hal’Sk court and to the peacekeeping efforts, though he would not be uninitiated for long. He knew that Madelina and Anestasia were quick to pounce on new arrivals, inducting them into their circles of friends and allies. Ruel had a knack for picking up on this sort of thing – it was one of the skills which had allowed him to keep his job for three years – though he knew he would find no use for the intelligence in the short time he had left. It passed from his mind.
Moments later, the churning of the crowds brought him face-to-face with Marinus and his party, a group of eleven solemn Talva led by the High Councilor himself. Balbus Marinus was shorter than his companions and unmistakably held the most authority. A short creature with two arms, two legs, hooves, tough grey skin, two eyes stacked vertically on a tall head, and four fingers which ended with curved claws, his demeanor demanded attention––though his attire did not. He was humbly dressed in what Ruel could only assume was Talva fashion, wearing a simple navy blue overcoat that was only partially separated from his mechanized helmet. As he came near, the Ambassador realized to his surprise that Balbus' eyes could look independently of one another. The High Councilor was gazing around the room with an eye while the other was focused on one of his peers, who until that moment had been speaking. A little unsettled, Ruel greeted them warmly.
“Mr. High Councilor,” he hailed him in French, “I don't believe we've met yet. I’m Ambassador Ruel––the head negotiator in the talks," he grinned as they shook hands. "Welcome to Hal'Sk politics."
Both of the Talva's eyes turned to face Ruel. "Ah, Ambassador," Marinus replied fluently, "I have heard of your noble efforts in resolving this unfortunate conflict. It is an honor to finally meet you."
"The pleasure is mine," Ruel quickly went around the small group, shaking hands, exchanging words, and memorizing names. "I've heard of your commitment, Councilor. It's good to see that our efforts still illicit interest three years later. Between you and me," he leaned in with a chuckle, plump dimples appearing on his cheeks; his champagne glass casually indicated a circle of serious-looking foreign delegates in the corner of the room. "Most of the others can't wait to get out––and I can't blame them, the fighting has gone on for far too long and the public expected deployments to be over when the Great Xonexian Schism ended. President Collins instructed me to send you his thanks, and he regrets he could not be here in person."
"I am glad that the Talven Empire has been able to provide significant assistance on this issue," Balbus' upper eye had returned to examining the room's guilded architecture. He straightened slightly, and smiled. "This may be the dawn of a new era of peace and equality for Xonexi."
Ruel raised his glass magnanimously. "Here here! That's the spirit we set out with three years ago," his eyes shone at the memory, "but we quickly learned not to speak of equality in the presence of the Hal'Sk. A bit of advice, don't do it. They go nuts when you question their society, believe me. Here, I'll show you around."
The Ambassador turned back to the crowd of dignitaries who had lined up to introduce themselves to the High Councilor. "I'll be sitting down with Mr. Marinus for a few minutes, so there's no use hanging around."
A few noises of protest rose up from the throng of people, though Ruel quickly waved them off with a comically large gesture. "Official UGA business, folks! You'll have all night to have your turn with him. For now, he's mine." The Ambassador prided himself in the fact that he could get away with the most outrageous of pronouncements, so long as he made them funny. He had crossed more a few lines before, but it was a balance he had honed down to an art over time.
"You know, you can have Hal'Sk politics mapped out just by looking at where the crowds are in this room?" he said, leaning forward on his elbows as they joined him at an empty table with just enough chairs to go around.
"Indeed?" Marinus tilted his head to the side. He looked interested, Ruel was glad to see – though he was inexperienced in reading Talva physiology. "Do tell."
"Oh yes." The Ambassador angled out his chair and took a look around him. In a couple seconds, he found the key figures he was looking for. To his satisfaction, they were exactly where he expected them to be.
"The balustrades might be better for this, but oh well. Split the room into four quadrants in your head. Over there, the first quadrant," he gestured to one side of the room. "You'll find the Reformers––the Empress of the Hal'Sk and her allies. They're the most outward- and forward-looking of the nobility, mindful of the decline of the Empire's old ways and looking to give it new life as a modern nation-state. Look closely and you'll see their sigils on their clothing: there's the Foxwynes, brothers, fathers, and uncles to the Empress, you'll know them by the blackened fox they all wear."
The High Councilor considered this. "How much influence do they hold over Hal'Sk?"
"Lord Foxwyne, the Empress' father, is critical in keeping this whole thing together––and in keeping Galokar on the throne. He's rich, and if you add up all of House Foxwyne, you have two fifths of the realm, not bad for a house just a hundred years old. Over there, there's Lord Matikar," he pointed to a broad-shouldered, mustached officer in a blazing white military uniform clearly inspired by that of the Marshals of the French Empire. With a chest full of medals, his place was particularly close to the Empress.
"Tall, young, handsome, ambitious, and so very alone. He's a distant relative of House Hisan––of a cadet branch which split off a few generations ago––but he still wears the Hisan eagle in a different arrangement, three-headed and rising. The rumors about those two are exquisite, let me tell you, though I wouldn't know if they're true. He recieves her favor frequently, that much is clear, and since last year he has been in charge of modernizing the military."
Marinus' upper eye was pointed towards Matikar, while the other was fixed on Ruel. That was something the Ambassador would never be able to get over. "And has he earned this favor?"
"Perhaps. He is one of the Empire's best generals, and popular with the troops."
"Ah. So not the kind of personage that Galokar could easily expel from the court or dismiss from service?"
Ruel smiled mischievously. "Indeed. All of them are walking on thin ice, but that's far from abnormal in a court as unstable as this one." He moved on. "You'll also find intellectuals and artists around her aligned with popular reform movements––those the Empire hasn't outlawed, anyway. The Empress has given her personal patronage to some of them."
Indeed, that side room was populated primarily by Hal'Sk, organized in groups orbiting around a single figure: the person of the young Empress Madelina, dressed in a resplendent white satin dress which fanned gracefully out at her hips into an expansive and frilly arrangement. A silver crouching fox hung around her neck, the emblem of her house. She was young, round, beautiful, perhaps in her early twenties, with fiery red curls which descended down her back and a smile which lit up the room and energized her entourage. Everyone around her seemed entranced by her good mood. As Ruel and Marinus looked on, the Empress knelt and picked up a grinning Hal'Sk girl of perhaps eight, expensively dressed in a sky blue dress with a forest green sash. All around them clapped and cheered as she gave her a sweet but theatric kiss.
Balbus gestured to the child, seeming intrigued. "Who is she?"
"That's a common girl whose image became famous during the Directorate," Ruel explained in a whisper. "It showed her her miserably dressed, hungry, scaling over a rampart set up by Directorate troops. Caught like fire at the time. I didn't think there was anything that could make the people love Madelina more, but that might just well do the trick." The flash of attendant photographers lit up that corner of the room.
Ruel shifted in his chair, checking that his guests were still engaged before moving his attention to another part of the room. He found Princess Anestasia within instants, finding her leaned over in her chair in an impossible yet graceful way, her legs crossed. Distant, surrounded by her own group of admirers yet paying attention to none of them, she absently swirled her wine glass and stole glances at Empress Madelina on the other side of the room. Anestasia was garbed in white just as strikingly as the Empress, though in a different style: slim, formfitting, and alluring to Madelina's soft, fluffy, and endearing. Both seemed to shoot weary glances at the other when they thought nobody was looking, yet on Anestasia's side of the room there was no mirth. Her entourage conferred together in small groups huddled close together, and a wide open space separated them from the rest of the proceedings, suggesting that nobody else would come near or – for that matter – was welcome.
"The traditionalists," Ruel indicated with a touch of asperity. "They're not happy. That, they've made abundantly clear. Yet whenever we would invite one of them to the table, they suggested no workable alternative. Now, they're being left behind, and they only have themselves to blame for it. At the center there is Princess Anestasia gi Hisan, or as she's known here, Empress Anestasia of Valéry, Emperor Alexandre's wife. They say she holds a shadow court here of disgruntled allies seeking her father's favor through her when Madelina refuses them, but there isn't much to it. I'll say this much for her, she has a sharp tongue and a sharp pen, but there isn't much she's been able to do from here."
Marinus was silent for a moment. "In what way is she restricted?"
"Restricted?" Ruel did not quite understand. "She's... not present. Madelina is in Galokar's bed, whispering to him every night, while Anestasia can only write and hope that her father reads her letters."
"So both achieve their goals through Galokar?"
"Right," now Ruel understood. "These women are powerful, don't get me wrong, but Hal'Sk women are not like our women. They don't have power in their own name; they don't hold land or command armies unless something goes wrong and there's no other choice. They persuade, men do, and our two Empresses are powerful persuaders." He raised his glass in their general direction. Madelina caught glimpse of the gesture and smiled radiantly at him.
Ruel's heart jumped and his cheeks burned despite himself. He chuckled nervously as he hid in his drink. "God dammit, see what I mean?"
Marinus did not seem in the slightest interested in Madelina's charms and changed the subject. "Who are Princess Anestasia's allies?"
"Well, there's Lord Valdair," Ruel admitted reluctantly, "He's the one right next to her in sky blue, you'll see a white crescent on his cape." Indeed, the thick-shouldered and bearded man in question sat, hunched over next to his princess, staring intensely into the depths of his glass of grey-colored wine. At that moment, his face contorted in anger and his fist slammed down on the table like a rock, spilling his wine on the tablecloth. Anestasia and another woman – who could only be his wife – immediately swooped to soothe him. A number of attendants and butlers joined them. "Careful that one, he has a temper. If it weren't for Anestasia, he'd already have risen in revolt––he'll continue on being a problem 'till he dies, I fear."
The High Councilor once more tilted his head, seeming uncertain. "Is his loyalty to the Princess personal?"
"I'm not sure," Ruel had never considered that, but it was unlikely knowing Anestasia. "But practically speaking, there's nobody else he can turn to. He's convinced that his family's estates are threatened by any move towards reform, as do the men around him. Take Lord Jaydan over there, you'll know him by the burnt cross he wears on his sleeves. He's the Viceroy of V'rilithisa and has significant holdings there, but none on the mainland. His great, great grandfather was a personal bodyguard and advisor to Emperor Loker the Third during the conquest of that colony, and was rewarded handsomely for his service. They've been Viceroys for five or six generations now, and recent events put that birthright in peril––as if the power to oppress thousands was a right." Ruel sighed as he looked back to Marinus, letting some of his exhaustion show. "When I speak to any of these men, I don't know whether to send them one of my diplomats or a therapist. I'm afraid neither have done much good."
"That is the price of peace," Marinus spoke carefully. "There are always those who believe that they rule as a privilege. Even as these traditionalists lose their power, oppression will find its way into societies throughout the Gigaquadrant. Diplomacy, however noble, is limited in the extent to which it can stop this." He turned to the crowds, though Ruel was relieved to see that both eyes were facing him. "How many of these people are willing to hold their power out of duty? Perhaps they took it humbly, but with time, they are overwhelmed by it. Only a few need to fall to... corruption," Marinus pronounced the word as if it were an alien concept to him. "And entire civilizations will fall with them. As the human saying goes, 'power corrupts'. The only way to fight back is to fight back."
Ruel stared at his interlocutor for perhaps a second too long before recovering his wits. In crossing borders, cultures, and ideologies, it sometimes happened that someone would make a comment which would open up a minefield of a conversation. Everything in Ruel's diplomatic training screamed at him to ignore what had just been said – to not even try to unpack it – but he could not help putting in a few words himself.
"You might find that the Hal'Sk Empire – and indeed the Gigaquadrant – is a little more complicated than that, High Councilor," Ruel said with a touch of reproach, giving him an uncomfortable smile. "'Truth resists simplicity' is another human maxim, and we have more complexity left to cover. You see that corner of the room over there populated by foreigners?"
Marinus smiled back, which was the more unnerving thing of all. "I see it."
"That's you. UGA member states with boots on the ground and a say in negotiations. Their help isn't free, of course, it comes at the price of their attempting to sway Hal'Sk domestic politics." Ruel shifted in his chair again, turning completely around to peer at the furthest corner of the room. "And over there, the fourth quadrant, the bastards, the shy, the rejects, the outcasts, the strangers, those who don't fit in anywhere." His eyes scanned further, landing on a figure he recognized instantly. His eyes went big and he struggled not to break out laughing. "Oh, and Galokar."
Indeed, the Emperor of the Hal'Sk stood alone by the raspberry punch. Galokar the First was a middle-aged man of middling height with a handlebar mustache and unremarkable features, dressed in a bright white military uniform with an ornate sword hanging limply from a sash made of intricate gold rings and forest green cloth. From a distance, even in the dim light of that corner of the room, the Hal'Sk monarch could be seen muttering to himself, swaying anxiously on the balls of his feet.
"Practicing his speech, no doubt," the Ambassador whispered, clearly amused. Try as he might, Galokar commanded little respect among friends or foes, natives or foreigners, commoners or nobles. It was too easy to poke fun at the stumbling monarch, wracked with crippling indecision, an overly trusting nature, and a tragic lack of personal charisma. It was whispered that while Galokar did not possess enough intellect to rule a kingdom, he was intelligent enough to see the mockery and contempt hidden in the smiles of men. It haunted him. The man was a stranger in his own court, and a prisoner in his own Empire.
"Indeed," The High Councilor turned an eye to face Ruel. "So where might I find France's representatives in all of this?"
"In the spaces between," a resonant voice from behind them answered. All of them turned around in their seats to behold the Emperor of the French in a stateman's navy blue suit, towering over them with a beaming smile. "We're everywhere, keeping everyone talking as much as we possibly can. France is the glue holding this whole thing together."
"Your Excllency!" Ruel stammered.
Within a second, they were all on their feet, reaching out to shake his open hand.
"Wyatt, my good friend," the Emperor looked the Ambassador straight in the eye as they firmly shook hands. Alexandre gripped his forearm in a congratulatory gesture, the warmth of which overwhelmed Ruel. "You've done an outstanding job. Though it's been a rough three years, I want you to know that I never doubted you. Well done."
It was not often that Ruel was at a loss for words. "That... That is very kind, Excellency."
"Balbus Marinus, am I correct?" The Monarch had already moved on, and was now gripping the hand of the Talven Head of State with similar enthusiasm. "I'm grateful that you've come in person for this. I get to finally meet the man I've heard so much about. A hundred million troops? I'm the last person here to say that they aren't welcome. But you know, I think more than a couple of us had trouble believing it at first. Hello. Hi. How're you doing? Welcome to France."
Alexandre quickly went down the line of Balbus' companions before repositioning himself squarely in front of the leader, his arms crossed over his chest. A small crowd around them followed him with their eyes.
If the High Councilor had been thrown off balance by Alexandre's appearance, he didn't show it. Even so, he did nothing to increase the authority of his stance, as Ruel might have expected. Both eyes were fixed on the man towering above him, with far more gravity than in his earlier introduction to the Ambassador. "Thank you for your hospitality." Marinus offered a small bow, breaking eye contact momentarily. "Ambassador Ruel has been very generous with his time, for which I am most grateful."
"I'm glad," Alexandre flashed them both a smile. "Nobody knows the Hal'Sk better than he does. I believe we'll be hearing you speak later this evening?"
"Indeed. I plan to affirm my intentions here." Marinus continued to watch the Emperor with both eyes, his posture somehow appearing to loose some of its previous discretion and discipline.
For a moment, Ruel though he saw the light in Alexandre's eyes harden as he considered his Talven interlocutor.
"Well listen," the monarch continued. "Make yourself at home. We'll be sure to talk sometime after the reception."
The High Councilor smiled, rapidly regaining his composure. "I look forward to it."