Word Count: 22,000+
Pairing/Characters: Roy Mustang, Scar. No pairings.
Warnings: Probably some non-explicit nudity at some point or another-Ishbalan mores on nudity don't line up perfectly with western ideas. Likely to be some supporting-OC death. Culture-building. Mild language and some violence.
Disclaimer: Fullmetal Alchemist (Hagane no Renkinjutsushi) was created by Arakawa Hiromu and is serialized monthly in Shonen Gangan (Square Enix). Both 'Fullmetal Alchemist' and 'Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood' are produced by Funimation. Copyright for this property is held by Arakawa Hiromu, Square Enix and Funimation. All Rights Reserved
There's art for this story! Have a look at Rewire's sketches and the WIP of an collaborative painting she and Rufina are doing for a scene in Chapter 4.
Summary: Post-manga AU. One of the pieces left behind by the Promised Day is a shard of the legendary Philosopher's Stone. Everyone who knows what it is agrees that it can't be left to cause grief to future generations.
That's about all they agree on.
Against a backdrop of looming war, a blind Roy Mustang rides across the border with the Scar of Ishbal at his side and a Philosopher's Stone in his pocket, on a mission to negotiate an end to the fighting and deliver the Stone to the Ishbalan Elders. Somehow, two of the least likely messengers Ishvarra could have picked must find a way to not only work together but also to save both their people and themselves.
Thank You To: havocmangawip and Sgt. Jody Sunday (ret) for their patience and wonderful technical advice on paraplegia and blindness, respectively.
"You're damn cruel, Dr. Marcoh." Jean Havoc took a long drag on his cigarette, and let the smoke filter out his nose.
"That's a harsh thing to say," Kain Fury objected.
"True, though," Jean countered. He draped his forearms between his knees and pinned Tim Marcoh with his eyes. "A week ago I was retired military, busy thinking about ways to rearrange the shop so I could reach to do more of the restocking and taking my girlfriend for a little private picnic by the river. Here I am a week later, and I've got a decision to make, and whatever I decide, I'm gonna wish I did something else for the rest of my life."
"Colonel Mustang wanted me to offer the Stone to you," Marcoh said. "He insisted that you need it more than he does."
"That's not his decision," Jean answered bluntly. "How many people are there inside that thing?" He waved at Marcoh's breast pocket. "A couple dozen? A hundred? A thousand? Do you even know?"
"...no." Marcoh lowered his eyes. "Even if I knew how many lives had gone into creating it, there's no way to tell how many of them remain."
"That's what I thought." Jean took another slow puff and tapped the ash from his cigarette. "And there's no way to know how many people it would take to get my lower half working right again, is there?"
"It doesn't work that way," Marcoh admitted.
"Cruel." Jean sagged a little, watching Marcoh through narrowed eyes. "Damned cruel. I want to take what you're offering—god, I want it." He shifted his eyes away and put his cigarette back in his mouth, playing it back and forth between his lips for a moment before going on. "But I know that if it worked, if I got anything back, I'd spend the rest of my life trying to do enough to convince myself I'd earned it. Paid off that debt."
"It has to be used," Marcoh said quietly. "Before I die, I'm going to see this cursed thing used up, so it can never fall into the wrong hands. I chose to offer Mustang the Stone because he's someone who will spend his life trying to rebuild what was destroyed."
"Why not take it to Ishbal?" Fury asked. "You could help a lot of people there."
"Alchemy is taboo in Ishbal," Marcoh reminded the bespectacled younger man. "No practicing Ishbalan would allow me to so much as draw an array inside the house, much less restore lost limbs or cure illnesses with alchemy."
"But if it could fix them—or their kids—why would they deny themselves that?"
"As far as they're concerned alchemy's God's power," Jean answered. "So anyone who uses it is trying to be a god. Guess what they think of that."
Fury looked baffled. "But if they believe it's God's power, and humans can use it—isn't that evidence their God doesn't mind humans using alchemy?"
"Do I look Ishbalan to you?" Jean shrugged. "It's religion. It doesn't have to make sense."
"They were some of the first alchemists," Marcoh said in a regretful tone. "Most of the alchemical disciplines west of Ishbal are rooted in the work of those early scholars."
"I hadn't heard that before," Kain commented.
"It's not something many modern scientists care to admit," Marcoh answered. "We don't like the thought that we're following laws first discovered by people we think of as backward and superstitious."
"But they gave it all up," Fury said slowly. "Think about what they'd be if they hadn't."
"I think that's why they decided to give it up in the first place," Marcoh told him as he got to his feet. "They saw where alchemy would lead them."
"Hey, Boss." Jean wheeled himself over the doorjamb into his former CO's hospital room. "Did you pass the pop quiz?"
"I don't think it counts as a 'pop quiz' when I'm told about it a day before it happens," Roy Mustang answered.
"You're welcome," Jean grinned. "So did you pass?"
"They gave him partial credit on some of it," Vato Falman supplied. "He guessed "soup", and they gave him a point even though he was supposed to say what kind of soup it was."
"I was not guessing," Mustang told him. "The label was upside down and misspelled, and the can was on the bottom of the stack."
"That's a dirty trick," Jean said, not bothering to keep the humor out of his tone. "They must think you're about ready to go home, if they're pulling stuff like that."
"I'm glad you're enjoying monitoring my progress," Mustang said drily. He set down the stylus he'd been using to practice his touchscript and pinned Havoc with his sightless gaze. "I take it you've made your decision?"
Jean sobered. "Yeah."
"I'll only do it if you do."
"You heard me."
"Don't even start talking about who's more guilty than whom, Boss," Havoc growled. "I was in Ishbal, too, remember."
"You didn't wipe out entire towns in less than an hour."
"I said don't start, Roy," Jean snapped. "Make up your mind. Are we going to use that Stone full of Ishbalans to fix ourselves or not?"
Mustang's eyes narrowed. "You're a nasty son of a bitch, Jean Havoc."
"Leave my mother out of this." Jean closed in on Roy's bed. "I've thought about it, and the only way I could possibly be worth the human lives in that Stone is if I had a way to influence the whole country, if not the whole world, for the better. Only way I can think of to do that is to get you up on my shoulders so you can see over the craziness—but you need working eyes to do that. So...it's both of us or neither of us."
"Jean," Mustang rubbed both hands over his face. "You can't do that. You can't put that decision on me."
"I just did. Now the question is," Jean nudged his former commanding officer's knee with one wheel, "what are you going to do about it?"
As far back as records, family history, and local folk memory reached, the lowlands of the southern end of the Orenya river valley had been ruled by tall, broad, and blond dukes, with the occasional tall blond duchess ruling as a regent. Paintings of them marched up and down the long corridors of the family's manor house, long-gone patriarchs and matriarchs watching the current generation with expressions that ranged from gently amused to ruthlessly severe. All of them, though, had an air of complacent arrogance that told the viewer just how high Armstrong standards were...and that he didn't quite measure up yet.
The man who walked along the third-floor corridor was also tall, broad across the chest, and generally stern of expression. There, however, the similarities ended. The stranger's deep brown skin contrasted with the pale faces and hands of the ancestral Armstrongs. His clothes were plain and unadorned against the rich velvets, silks, and embroidery of the dukes. Most startling, however, were his eyes. Most of the Armstrongs had had light blue or green eyes. The stranger's eyes were a deep red, and they looked out from the center of a wide X of stark white scar tissue that stretched from his forehead to his cheeks.
"Mr. Scar?" The maid curtsied as the red-eyed man turned toward her. "Lady Olivia and Lord Alexander sent me for you, sir. They are waiting with guests in the conservatory, sir."
"Guests?" The man known only by the mark on his face moved with a stride more accustomed to covering miles of open country on foot than treading the thick carpets and parquet floors of a manor house. The maid hurried to follow him.
"Yes, sir. Lady Olivia asked me to tell you they've come to see you specifically, sir."
"There aren't many who know that I still live," The Scar of Ishbal paused to look back at the maid. "Fewer still who know where to find me."
"Would you like me to show you to the conservatory, sir?" The maid lifted her eyebrows and her chin a little.
The Ishbalan's expression lightened just a fraction. "I could find it, but as there are people waiting for me, I will follow you."
Major General Olivia Mila Armstrong should have looked out of place. She was dressed in full military uniform, with a loaded automatic pistol holstered under her starched jacket and a ruthlessly functional saber sheathed on her hip. Major Miles, her aide, stood behind her. He was also fully uniformed and armed, his stance relaxed and his expression calm. They were the picture of perfect military command officers.
The setting was anything but military. What the Armstrongs referred to as the conservatory was more of a glassed-in water garden and aviary, complete with small streams populated by schools of colorful fish and frogs living among greenery collected from every corner of the earth. Bright-colored songbirds fluttered and twittered in large wire-mesh cages tucked artfully among the trees.
The Major General's brother, Lord Alexander Luis Armstrong, fit the surroundings. His "morning suit", complete with gold cufflinks inlaid with precious stones to form the family crest, wouldn't have been out of place in the previous century. He was a giant of a man, but he was up and pulling out a chair for Riza Hawkeye before she could open her mouth to tell him to keep his seat. "Good morning, Lieutenant Hawkeye," he rumbled. "You are looking well and lovely."
"Is she?" Roy Mustang smiled as his aide took his hand from her elbow and set it on the chair beside the one Alex Armstrong courteously held for her. "That's good to hear—I've been getting reports that I've turned her prematurely gray."
The big man turned to look into the faint gray circles where Mustang had once had sharp black irises, and said in a tone of soft regret, "To my eyes she is the picture of good health, Colonel."
"I've been telling you I'm fine, sir," Hawkeye sat, allowing the Armstrong scion to move her chair into place under her. "Thank you, Major."
"Like he's going to believe you?" Jean Havoc sized up the narrow arched bridge crossing the stream between himself and the table, then backed up and carefully aligned his wheels. "If you lost a finger and he noticed you'd tell him he counted wrong."
"Do you need help, Lieutenant Havoc?" Alex Armstrong took a step in Havoc's direction.
"Nope, I've got it." Havoc eased himself over the bridge. "You could move a chair out of the way, though. I brought my own seat."
"Of course. I apologize, Lieutenant, I should have thought of that." Armstrong shifted the chair on Mustang's right aside.
"Don't worry about it. And don't call me Lieutenant, I'm retired." Havoc paused at the foot of the bridge to turn in place and sweep his eyes around the lavish horticultural display. "Impressive place you've got here. I thought the house was gutted in the fighting."
"The conservatory was protected, as you can see," General Armstrong said crisply. She pinned the last of the new arrivals with an ice-blue gaze. "I take it you're Tim Marcoh?"
"Yes." The doctor moved as slowly as a man thirty years his senior.
"Please make yourself comfortable, Doctor," Alex Armstrong put in. "Would any of you like some tea, or perhaps something more substantial, after your journey?"
"I wouldn't say no to a cup of coffee," Mustang answered.
"I wouldn't say no to a ham sandwich," Havoc added lightly.
Armstrong nodded, then made eye contact with the footman standing unobtrusively near the door. "Thomas, please ask Celestine to prepare some coffee and sandwiches for our guests." The man bowed and vanished without a sound.
"Now that the laws of courtesy have been satisfied, tell me what you're really doing here, Mustang," Olivia Mila Armstrong flicked her gaze from the Flame Alchemist to his lieutenants, then to Dr. Marcoh's thick-scarred face.
"We're here to see Scar," Mustang answered.
"Yes, and I've sent for him," the general replied. "But you're not here just to exchange pleasantries."
"No, I'm not," Mustang faced General Armstrong. "I don't want to explain it twice, though. As long as I'm imposing on your gracious hospitality, I'd like to have Major Miles hear this, too."
"I'm here," Miles spoke up.
Mustang's eyebrows rose. "I should have guessed you'd be within earshot. Good."
The door to the rest of the house opened, and the Scar of Ishbal strode through it, trailed by a middle-aged maid.
The big Ishbalan swept the group at the table with his eyes, then said, "Three State Alchemists at one table. What are you planning, I wonder?"
"Yeah, nice to see you again too," Havoc muttered.
"We have a problem, and we're here to ask for your opinion," Mustang answered.
"Or my help?" Scar chose a spot on a low wall near the table, and sat, resting his hands on his knees. "In exchange for lifting the price on my head, perhaps?"
"We have no right to ask anything of you or your people," Alex said soberly.
"No, we don't," Roy agreed. "That's why we're here. Dr. Marcoh—show him."
The doctor sighed, and turned in his chair, taking a small clamshell case from his jacket pocket. "This rightfully belongs to your people." He opened the case and offered it to the Ishbalan.
Scar hissed softly, and took the box from Marcoh's hand. "A Stone of Souls." He touched the thumb-sized piece of dull red crystal, then closed the case around it. "Why did you bring this to me?" He shot Havoc a penetrating look, then turned his eyes to Dr. Marcoh. "You could save lives with these deaths."
"Those deaths were Ishbalans," Dr. Marcoh answered. "I used it the day of the eclipse, and to heal wounds for a few days afterward."
"Why didn't you continue?" Scar shifted his gaze from Marcoh to Havoc to Mustang. "Doubtless there are many you could restore, with the power of souls in your hand."
"I'm not a god." The doctor lowered his face into his hands, hiding his eyes. "I can't make the decisions of a god. Who should I save, the mother of six children or the six-year-old child? The twenty-year-old soldier supporting his mother or the sixty-year-old farmer raising his dead son's children?" Tim Marcoh looked up at the Ishbalan vigilante with despair in his gaze. "I couldn't bear the weight of that responsibility, so I offered the Stone to Colonel Mustang."
"Then the colonel turned around and offered it to me," Havoc put in. "I decided I won't take it for my back unless he takes it for his eyes, too."
Mustang spoke up with his eyes pointed at his hands, tightly folded on the table. "I've made a lot of decisions for my men. Some of those decisions will haunt them, and me, until we're all dead. But this one...I know how I feel about what I did in Ishbal." He turned toward Scar. "You're the only Ishbalan I know of who understands what the Stone really is and why it imust/i be used up."
Scar's eyes widened a fraction, then he growled low in his chest. "Did you come here to ask my permission to use my people to restore yourselves?"
"We're here to ask your opinion." Mustang's face and voice were both nearly expressionless. "We can't leave something with this kind of power lying around. Even if it weren't made of human lives, the Stone is far too dangerous to put into a vault or a museum. No matter how good the security is, sooner or later someone will figure out how to steal it—and that someone probably won't have the best interests of anyone but himself at heart."
"You-" Scar stopped, then his face twisted into a rictus of mixed rage and grief and he pressed the closed case to his scarred brow.
The silence stretched, and Mustang opened his mouth, then shut it again as Riza Hawkeye put her hand on his wrist and squeezed gently.
General Armstrong broke the silence with a curt question. "I'd like to know who told you Scar was alive, Mustang."
"And I'd like to know what you look like out of uniform," Mustang answered calmly.
"This is a matter of military security."
"I've been medically discharged, Major General." Roy lounged back in his chair. "You might want to check with your people and see about tightening your internal security."
"You're not in a position to play this game anymore, Roy," the general told him in the harsh ice of Briggs.
"Who said I was playing?"
"Enough." Scar lifted his head, his fingers closed tightly around the case containing the Stone. "It hardly matters how you knew I was here. I'll be leaving in the morning. This," he lifted the case "is something for the Elders to consider."
"That thing's a real hot potato." Jean Havoc followed the case with his eyes as Scar tucked it into a pocket.
"It's going to be harder to convince those from the camps that they're not walking into a trap without you to lead them," Miles' expression was grave.
"They would have believed me to be bait," Scar said flatly. "No one would believe that one who'd killed as many military officers as I have would be allowed to live by the military, except as a turncoat to lead more of his people to the slaughter."
"We can move the people from the camps without his help," Olivia Armstrong told her aide. "They don't have to trust us—they just have to go."
"Scar." Mustang turned back toward the Ishbalan. "I'd like to go with you."
"What?" The exclamation came from at least four voices.
"I'd like to go with you to Ishbal," Mustang repeated. "To ask your Elders whether they'd be willing to negotiate peace terms."
"Trying to commit suicide, Mustang?" The major general cocked an eyebrow.
"I'm sure this will disappoint you, Olivia, but no." Mustang kept his attention focused on Scar. "Think about it. What would make a stronger statement of sincerity?"
"Or threat." Hawkeye closed both her hands around Mustang's left one. "I can't protect you against an entire country determined to kill you."
"I know," Roy said gently. "That's why I'm not going to ask you to. I'm going alone."
"Are you out of your mind?" Havoc demanded. "There's taking a risk, and there's risking your life, there's walking up to your worst enemy naked and spitting in his face, then there's this."
"The Elders won't give you the Stone of Souls and their blessing," Scar interrupted. "I don't know what they will do, but these are our dead."
Roy frowned. "Would all of you stop insulting my intelligence? I'm not suicidal, and I'm not expecting anyone to forget the past. This is an opportunity to demonstrate that the new rulers of this country want to end the bloodshed and are willing to back that up with real concessions. A Philosopher's Stone, brought by a former soldier in truly blind trust." His smile was thin. "If they kill me, they get a moment's revenge, followed by another pile of Ishbalan bodies. We do have roughly twenty thousand of their people locked up in the camps, after all. If they stop to think before they shoot, they'll hold their fire, and at worst send me home with a message to either send someone less blood-spattered or leave them alone."
"You thought this out ahead of time," Havoc accused.
"It was one of the options I considered," Mustang answered.
"Clever," the general commented. "Very clever, Mustang. If I keep you here, you and your people continue to be thorns in my side. If I let you go, but don't back whatever you say, you'll be interpreted as either an innocent martyr for your cause or a crippled soldier sacrificed by a new regime just as bloodthirsty as the last one. So not only do I have to allow this, I have to support it." She folded her arms. "Deftly played."
"You're making some assumptions that aren't necessarily valid," Roy finally shifted his gaze. "The choice of whether I go or not isn't yours to make, for starters."
"You're assuming the Ishbalans will stop to think before they shoot," Riza said tightly. "All it would take is one sentry with a rifle."
"They are an ancient and wise people," Alex Armstrong put in. "I've read what I can find of the histories of Ishbal, and what there is of a scientific record of the culture. Many of their central teachings counsel forbearance and forgiveness."
"They're still human, and there are limits to what a human can bear." Dr. Marcoh spoke up. "I'm responsible for forging the Stone. I'll go."
"You're a good doctor and a good man, but you don't have the people or political skills to negotiate on this scale," Mustang told him.
"I can at least see a gun pointed at me," Marcoh shot back.
"His blindness might buy him a chance to argue his case," Miles broke in. He addressed Scar. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but doctrine says that once God has imposed judgement for a crime—like striking a man blind—that's the end of it."
"That's a child's simplification of the text," Scar answered. "And there are many who would rather face exile than allow a State Alchemist to live."
"Huh." Jean turned from the frowning Ishbalan to his also-frowning former commanding officer. "Guess you'll have to think of something else, Boss."
Mustang lifted his chin. "Are you refusing to take me with you, Scar?"
Scar's brows lowered, and he didn't answer for a long moment. Finally he sighed. "Your life is yours to risk. I will guide you to the Elders if you insist." His tone hardened. "But you should understand that I'm in no position to speak on your behalf."
"I wouldn't ask that of you," Mustang replied.
"I'm going with you," Riza said, gripping Roy's hand tightly.
"No, you're not. You're going to stay here and run my intelligence empire."
"It's not open to debate, Lieutenant."
Havoc turned to Alex Armstrong. "So—how long a head start do you think she'll give him? I'm laying odds it's less than an hour."
"That would be a death sentence for both of them," Armstrong said gravely.
Havoc blinked. "Run that by me again?"
"Think of how it would appear to the Ishbalan Elders," the giant alchemist said. "Then help us talk the colonel out of this."
The rural train station was all but deserted at this hour. The sleepy stationmaster had waved the mismatched party through the gates to the platform with barely a glance. Major Alex Luis Armstrong, badly disguised as a local taxi driver, had busied himself with the loading of baggage, trying without success to conceal tears and sniffling as masculine snorts of effort.
"Last chance to change your mind, Boss." The clipped speed of Jean Havoc's words gave away his tension.
"Are you suggesting there's something wrong with the one I have?" Roy Mustang answered lightly.
"Hell yeah, there's something wrong." Havoc exchanged a glance with Riza Hawkeye, then a warier look with the Scar of Ishbal. "You're getting onto a train to share a compartment with the Scar, going to Ishbal, without taking so much as Hawkeye or a tank division with you."
"I'm not going through this again, Jean." Mustang took a few steps and offered his hand. "I'll talk to you soon."
Havoc sighed, then gripped the Flame Alchemist's hand. "Don't get yourself killed, or if there is some kind of afterlife I'll hunt you down and kick your ass."
"You'll have to take a number," Hawkeye said quietly, without a trace of humor in her tone.
"You two are terrible well-wishers to have at a departure." Mustang smiled a little. "Put it on my calendar—when I get back I'll have to take a few hours to educate you both on how to do it right."
Scar moved to Mustang's side, and murmured, "The train will leave soon."
"Right." Roy turned his face toward Riza Hawkeye, and for a moment the calm professional mask dropped, and he opened his arms. "Riza—will you indulge me?"
Hawkeye's eyebrows shot up, and she hesitated for just an instant, then stepped into Roy's embrace. He turned his face toward her hair and murmured something too low for other ears to catch, pressed his lips to her cheekbone for just an instant, then stepped away to reach for Scar's arm.
Havoc stared in wide-eyed bewilderment, and watched in silence as the unlikely pair of traveling companions boarded the train. The locomotive let out a shrill whistle, then the train jerked and began to roll. Only after the clack-clack of wheels on rails had faded to nothing did Jean turn his chair to Riza and move closer. He pitched his voice low in deference to the night. "What did he tell you?"
Hawkeye startled a little, then turned to Havoc, taking something finger-sized from between the waistband of her trousers and the small of her back. "He said, 'I'll be back for this.'" She opened her hand and showed her companion the polished ivory chess queen.
Roy laid his forearm along the compartment wall and stretched his fingers, then lined up his other hand. His traveling companion hadn't yet said a word.
"I suppose this looks ridiculous to you."
"Does it help?"
"Some," Roy answered. "I'd rather not walk into the wall in the middle of the night while looking for the bathroom." He found the light switch beside the compartment door and ran his fingers over it. "Do you want the lights off? I won't be much longer at this."
"Turn them off." Scar's bunk, converted from the forward-facing seat of the compartment, creaked a little.
Roy pushed the switch and turned toward the soft click that came from the lamps he knew were mounted in the ceiling. He measured the distance to his own bunk, the backward-facing one, heel-to-toe. Scar was silent. Roy reached up to the luggage rack above his bunk and dragged down his suitcase. His pajamas lay on top of the neatly packed trousers, on the left side. Shirts and his touchscript practice books on the right side. Underwear and socks tucked in along the front edge. Roy fingered the tag sewn in the collar of a shirt. Single large triangle. White. He paused and turned to "look" over his shoulder at Scar, then frowned and turned back to his suitcase. He changed into his pajamas without ceremony, folded his clothes and lay them in the suitcase—single large square, black, narrow rectangle, light blue—then wrestled the suitcase back onto the luggage rack and lay down on his bunk. The clicking of the wheels combined with the gentle swaying of the train and rocked Roy Mustang to sleep.
He woke with a jerk and reflexively grabbed for something instinct screamed was too close, too close! A hand caught his wrist in a steel-strong grip.
"Roy Mustang. Do you know me?" The unruffled basso tones combined with the power in the hand holding Roy's wrist gave a warning that overrode half-dreamed panic.
"Scar." Roy licked his lips, and pulled a little against the Ishbalan's hold.
"Yes." Scar didn't let go. "Do you remember where we are, and your mission?"
"We're going to Ishbal. To talk to the Elders."
Scar let go and moved back in a rustle of fabric. "It's a good thing you didn't sleep gloved."
"I set my bedroom on fire once. That was enough." Roy rubbed his wrist and flexed his fingers. "What time is it?"
"The sun came up perhaps an hour ago. The steward brought a tray with food." There was a soft rustle of fabric, then Scar added, "The tray is on the floor near the door."
"Thanks—I'll try not to step in our breakfast." Roy got to his feet, and swayed a little with the rocking of the train for a moment. He reached up to the luggage rack above his bunk, and pulled his wash kit down.
"I've already eaten." Scar paused, then asked warily, "Do you need help?"
"No, thank you. I know how sleeping cars are laid out, and we're the second compartment from the front of the car." Roy traced the edge of his bunk with one knee, and stretched his other leg until his bare toes bumped the edge of the meal tray. "Did you fold out the table?" He bent to pick up the tray.
"No." Scar took the tray from Roy's hands. "But I will. Go wash."
Roy opened his mouth, then shut it and took his kit to the washroom.
"Mm." The Ishbalan's grunt didn't encourage further conversation. Roy persisted anyway.
"What is it you're doing?"
"Anar dkan." Scar's clothing rustled. "Stretching exercises."
"In a sleeping compartment for an hour?"
"Nearer two hours—I started soon after I ate." The words came slowly, enunciated with strange care, as though the man wasn't entirely sure of them.
"So that's what woke me up." Roy pushed aside the touchscript practice book he'd been studying. "How long will it be before you're finished?"
"Some patterns are as long as a day in midsummer." There was another series of soft rustles, then a hand swept just over Roy's hair and he jerked back as fingertips brushed his eyebrows. Scar went on in that unnervingly level voice. "I'm modifying this one to make best use of the limited space." He pulled away in a swift rush.
Roy lifted his eyebrows. "Sounds interesting. I wish I could watch."
"If you could I wouldn't do this."
"Would you allow a Cretan to study the ways soldiers of your country are taught?"
Roy frowned. "Point taken." He settled back into the seat and let out a sigh, then folded his arms. "But that brings up some important questions. I'd like to know more details of what I'm heading into. How many Elders are there? Do you know any of their names, or who's allied with whom? Who's most likely to at least hear me out, and who's going to shoot first and ask questions later?"
For several long moments, the only sound was the soft creaking and clicking of the wheels and springs under the car. Then Scar moved, and the seat opposite Roy squeaked a little. "Rhas otsotoj tschafarixi. I'm not sure how many Elders will be there, nor do I know their names." The preternaturally calm tone and Ishbalan accent disappeared in a rattatatat of clipped Amestrian. "What I can say is that the Elders of the northern tribes are more likely to let you live long enough to deliver your message than those of the south."
"Well, that's reassuring." Roy ran a hand over his face, then propped his elbow on the folding table fastened to the wall between the seats. "I'm open to suggestions."
"We're still within your country."
Roy frowned. "I'm not giving up and going home."
Roy growled. "Do you really want to go through all this again? Everyone who knows about the plan has already told me I'm crazy and tried to talk me out of it."
"I remember. But tell me, Flame Alchemist—when the Elders ask, how will you convince them that you aren't on a suicide mission?"
"I've got that worked out." Roy ticked his arguments off on his fingers. "One, if I wanted to kill myself there are a lot of easier ways to do it. Two, I'm carrying something the military wouldn't let go if this wasn't a legitimate attempt to end the fighting. Three, blind or not, I'm still a weapons'-grade alchemist and I was a high-ranking officer until recently." Roy's face tightened. "In a way I'm being offered as a hostage. Olivia and General Grumman are taking a risk, letting me out of the country without anyone to watch and silence me if necessary." Roy paused and raised an eyebrow at Scar. "Four—I'm traveling with iyou/i. That has to count for something."
"That could be interpreted in more than one way," Scar told him.
"What do you mean?"
"To some you were a war hero. To my people you were a bloodthirsty demon. Some called you a traitor before the eclipse. So—which are you, Roy Mustang?"
Roy was slow to answer. "I don't know. I suppose I'm just a man trying to figure out and do what's right."
"Mm." Scar's seat creaked again. "And which am I?"
Roy blinked. "Why would any of your people think you're a traitor or a demon?"
"Because I crossed the border to kill alchemists rather than staying to defend my home and my people," Scar answered quietly. "Because I used the power of God alone and without the guidance of the Elders." He paused, then went on reluctantly. "Some of the tribes trapped within your country consider me a hero. To many others I am idyehboj/i—a priest who broke his oaths." He shifted, then reached to pull the touchscript book toward himself. "Is this a teaching text?"
Roy closed his mouth on a question and answered, "Yes. I'm still getting the hang of reading with my fingers rather than my eyes."
Scar flipped one of the thick pages, then another. "Why do the lines grow smaller and closer together?"
"It's easier to distinguish bigger type set further apart, but that takes up a lot more space, and books in touchscript are oversized enough already. So the idea is to practice on smaller and smaller type until it's not much larger than ordinary book print." Roy waved in the general direction of the book. "I want to be reading at that size by the time we get where we're going, so I can type up my notes without wasting any more paper than I have to."
"What does this say?"
"Which page are you looking at?
"This one." Scar pushed the book into Roy's elbow and tapped the left-hand page. "Are these numbers?"
Roy found the top of the page, and slowly guided the first two fingers of each hand along the embossed lines, dots, and arcs. Lowering his head and peering wouldn't help, but he did it anyway.
Scar, to his credit, didn't interrupt or withdraw his question. Nor was there any impatience in the air. He simply waited.
Roy cursed softly, and started a line over twice before finally lifting his head. "There are some numbers, yes. It's an essay about the development of the locomotive."
"Some of it looks like the numbering used by our ancient...scholars who study the stars."
"Astronomers?" Roy ran his fingers over the book pages. "That's strange." He stopped to carefully examine the characters on the page. "It's a logical way to render numbers, though, if you don't mind learning a few extra symbols. 'Four million, one hundred and eighty-two thousand, three hundred and fifty' in four characters makes complicated math easier."
"Only easier to write. No easier to understand."
"So this is like the Ishbalan writing system?" Roy rested his hand on the book and turned his attention to his companion.
"Only in the...I don't know the word in this language. In our language they are the numbers of the jhastovar."
"What does that word mean?"
"A...'priest of the books'." Scar hesitated. "One who writes the records of the tribes and studies what there is to know."
"You've just told me more about your people in two minutes than I learned in all the time I spent in Ishbal." Roy leaned forward. "I'd like to learn at least enough of the language to greet the Elders politely when we get there."
Scar didn't answer, and the silence stretched.
Roy's expression of intense interest faded. "Is it taboo to teach an outsider?"
"Not many of your people have ever asked," Scar said slowly. He shifted. "Give me your hands."
"My hands?" Roy held out his hands.
"If you mean to greet an Elder of the tribes courteously you need to offer your hands." Scar flipped Roy's hands palms up. "Now—if you are greeting a man who is an Elder, you say, 'Kektan duarte eskuak warajtoj nayiz, Admi.'"
"Say that again...slowly?"
By lunchtime Roy had learned to greet an Elder without insulting anyone's parentage.
"Dammit, I know I put it right here." Roy swept his hand under his bunk. "Scar, would you hand me my shoe?"
"I'm your guide, not your nursemaid."
"Fine. Guide me to my shoe."
"Eyohnu ukakuin zyo kase aprexi iztarlohz setri enzahd."
"Let me guess-that was 'payback's a bitch.'"
"No-'that which appears on the plate tastes not as sweet as that which one hunted and caught.'"
Roy sighed and shifted his knees to sweep more of the floor with his hands. "So, which do you enjoy more, dropping those little maxims or watching me crawl around on my hands and knees?"
Scar offered another comment in fluid Ishbalan.
Roy made an irritated noise in his throat, shifted, and exploded into frustrated cursing as his shoulder banged the table support and his startle thwacked his head into the tabletop.
Scar reached under the table and fished Roy out from under it. "Hush." It was a command, and both of the Ishbalan's hands took hold of Roy's head. Roy hissed as fingers found the bruised spot under his hair.
"Let go of me."
"There's no blood." Scar let go. "Would you like a wet cloth for it?"
"I'd like my shoe." Roy shouldered Scar's knees aside and patted under his seat for his lost footwear.
"Then slow down and keep track of where you are—and remember that the train ran through a rough freight yard at a speed that almost threw us both out of bed last night."
"I'm not likely to forget my wash kit falling onto my chest in the middle of the night," Roy said grimly. "Have you had enough blind man slapstick yet? Or is this practice for a performance for the Elders?"
"I was only letting you learn from the oldest teacher," Scar answered mildly. "The children of the tribes might enjoy playing with a seeker who can't peek beneath the blindfold, though."
Roy stopped, and turned toward Scar, his expression mixed. "Am I dreaming, or did you just make something that could be a joke?"
Scar shifted on his seat, then tapped Roy's bruised shoulder with two fingers. "Is this a dream?"
Roy winced, then rubbed the offended shoulder a little. "So you do have a sense of humor. Huh—Jean Havoc just lost a bet."
"If there are bets on me I'd like to know what they are—and how to collect my fees for settling them." The raised eyebrow was there beneath the words.
Roy let out a sharp bark of laughter, turned to put his back to the wall beside the compartment door—then made a startled noise and fished a shoe out from under his rump. He ran his hands over it, confirming it was his and not one of Scar's, then dropped it into his lap and started laughing in earnest. It was the kind of helpless laughter that threatened to turn to sobs of despair, and after a few moments Scar moved again. Water sloshed from the glass sitting on the table, then a cold and wet handful of cloth pressed against the bump on Roy's head. Roy grimaced and sobered, lifting a hand to hold the cold compress. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." Scar took hold of Roy's elbow and levered him to his feet, retrieving the precious shoe and laying it beside its mate on the floor as he settled Roy onto his seat. "I'm not trying to torture you."
"What are you doing, then?"
"I'm trying to talk to you the way the Elders will, if you're lucky."
Roy took a short breath of surprise, his eyes widening. "You mean they're going to tease me and talk in Ishbalan riddles? When I'm trying to negotiate a cease-fire?"
Scar sighed. "I suppose I shouldn't have tried. There is a saying among the tribes, Roy Mustang. We say, 'The wiser the soul, the deeper the water.' What the Elders say or do rarely has only one meaning."
Roy frowned. "So how am I supposed to know which one is the right meaning?"
Scar whuffed a bit. "I am a poor teacher. Let me try again—one sazamuz action has at least two meanings, both of them equally true. Like—a house can have three floors. The cellar is a place to store things, the ground floor is for cooking and to do the work of the day, and the second floor is the rooms for the children to sleep, but they are all part of one house."
Roy blinked. "That's going to complicate things."
"It's not impolite to ask for a little time to consider and to pray before you act. If you do, though, you'll be expected to go and think quietly for at least the rest of the day and the night."
"Believe me, I'm not planning to try and rush ianything/i in this." Roy adjusted the cloth on his head. "So—how does crawling around on the floor connect to that?"
"I had more than one reason for letting you search rather than telling you where your shoe was."
"You were testing me?"
Roy's eyes narrowed. "I can think of quite a few possible motives for making me hunt. One, you might have meant to remind me...not to take your help for granted. Or to force me to fall back on my training to find my way around and locate things by myself. If that's the case I'm betting either Jean or Riza or both put you up to it."
"You would lose that bet." Scar sounded unruffled. "Is that all you can think of?"
Roy lifted an eyebrow, then said thoughtfully, "My shoe and wash kit weren't the only things that the freight yard rattled out of place, were they?"
"So you picked up everything else, and you put my shoe in a place I wouldn't trip over it on my way to the washroom this morning." Roy flashed his teeth in a wolf's grin. "Not fair—but that was part of the point, wasn't it?"
"Part of it." Scar's voice held a note of satisfaction in it.
Roy chuckled. "I'm also pretty sure that whether or not you admit it, you enjoy seeing a former enemy fumbling on his knees." He refolded the wet rag and put it in the other hand. "You were goading me, to see what I'd do when I got frustrated. On top of all of that, you wanted to know whether I'd catch on to the game and figure out why you were playing it on me." Roy smiled a little. "Something that seems simple might be anything but."
"And the more you think about it, the more meanings it has." Scar hesitated, then offered, "My teacher once gave me a piece of stone the size of my hand, and told me to carry it with me everywhere I went."
"Without telling you why?"
"He told me that when I could tell him why he gave it to me, I would be free to do what I wanted with it."
"How long did you carry it?"
"Most of my fifteenth year."
Roy leaned forward, curiosity clear in his expression. "What was it he was trying to teach you?" He flashed a grin. "Or do I have to figure that out for myself?"
"How many uses can you think of for a piece of stone?" There was a trace of humor in Scar's tone.
"Quite a few, depending on what I'm working on." Roy lolled back into his seat. "Including driving a fifteen-year-old boy crazy."
"Or teaching him several lessons at once."
"Patience being one of them," Roy responded. "I'd like to hear more about your teacher and your family. As long as we're stuck together in this train car, we may as well get to know each other."
"Very well." Scar folded his thick-muscled arms with an audible rustling of fabric. "Did you plan to be a war alchemist, when you were a boy?"
Roy hesitated for a long moment. "No." He paused, then went on. "I had dreams of being a hero, and I thought the military would give me plenty of opportunities to use my skills to improve peoples' lives."
"Why did you continue, then, when you learned of the rot of the Amestrian military?"
Roy lowered his head. "It...wasn't until we were well into the Ishbal Rebell - the attack on Ishbal - that I recognized the truth. And after that...eventually, anyway...I decided I wanted to try to get rid of the rot."
"You sought power for yourself." There was a flicker of challenge underneath the words.
"That was the only way to change things, and make the changes permanent."
Scar's voice was soft. "Do you truly believe you can build anything that will stand forever?"
Roy growled a little. "Do you really think killing the alchemists one by one would have made any lasting difference?"
"I sought to buy my people time, nothing more."
"Time for what?"
Scar's voice dropped half an octave. "To find their way to the Tani Yumtepi, and prepare for the battles ahead."
"So your solution was just to keep the killing going. Mine was to try to end it. And...what was that word you used? It sounded familiar, but I don't know it."
"Tani Yumtepi. The places the prophets take our people when varisti plague us."
"So...you're talking about real places? Not a paradise in the afterlife?" One side of Roy's mouth quirked up. "And I suppose I'm one of the fa-feristi. Was that the word?"
"Varisti. It means one who is blind and deaf to God."
"I'll try not to take that as an insult," Roy muttered.
"It's fact, not an insult. God speaks to every soul. You hear, but you do not listen. Therefore you are varisti—willfully ignorant."
Roy pursed his lips. "Does that mean your people have written off everyone who doesn't believe in your god?"
Scar's tone sounded just a bit irked. "Why do you think so many of us learned your language, alchemist?"
"I've...always assumed that was because you were...forced," Roy answered reluctantly.
"We are commanded by God to teach those who ask. Even you, with your hands covered in the blood of my people, would be taught the way of God if you asked with sincere contrition." Scar sighed irritably. "Some of us learned your language because we had to-but the priests and Elders are charged to speak to varisti in their own tongues, the better to show them the true path."
"But that makes me ask again: if the conflicts had never happened, would you have had nothing to say to someone like me? If I only asked about you and your people, and not this...path...you talk about?
A hint of exasperation crept into Scar's tone. "Had your people never made war on mine, you would be welcome as traders, and we would speak to you in your tongue, and ask that you respect our ways while you are guests in our country."
"You'd have no interest in the culture and customs of other people, except to try and evangelize them?" Roy's eyebrows climbed in disbelief. "Are you really that insular?"
"Are you that unfamiliar with the concept of traders?" Scar shot back gruffly. "Those who go to other nations carry back wisdom as well as silk and jade." His voice fell into a chanting rhythm as he went on. "My people have long been visitors to Xing, and their old men have sat with ours and spoken of the flow of water while our old women sat with theirs to speak of the wisdom of the loom and the garden."
Roy fell silent, and for a moment he strained to see his companion's dark face. "I...see. So I suppose we forfeited our own chance for that sort of interaction."
There was a long pause, then Scar replied with a hint of resentment. "No. Time and lives have been wasted, but while we live as God's people, we must obey God's will."
"I can understand why you're so grudging about it." Roy turned toward the window and spread his hand against it. "I suppose it's up to us to try to make you want to talk to us."
Scar growled low in his throat. "You assume a power you do not hold, alchemist."
Roy shook his head, still talking to the window. "I don't mean by forcing you. I mean...maybe I mean by trying to make ourselves the type of people you'd want to trade with. Maybe I'm...asking what it will take."
There was a long moment of silence, then the Ishbalan asked, "What is it you expect, Roy Mustang?"
Roy shrugged. "I don't really know. But don't you think you and I are in a unique position here?"
"We are men of war attempting to sheathe our swords while still on the battlefield."
"That's one way to describe it." Roy turned back toward his companion. "I suppose the big question is how genuinely each side wants to sheathe those swords."
"My people never wished for anything but to live in our lands and according to God's will. We are not conquerors."
"Believe me, I know that. All the conquering came on our side, and I regret that more than you're ever likely to believe. But I'm trying to understand how to make peace now."
Scar paused again. "The Elders will test your sincerity. They will ask for things you will find difficult to give."
"I suppose it's too much to ask, after everything that's happened, for any of you to make a gesture that will help us - me - do this."
Scar sounded warily puzzled. "What is there we could do to aid you?"
Roy smiled a little self-deprecatingly. "Well, the usual response to that sort of question is 'Meet me halfway.' But I don't think that's anything we can really hope for."
Scar sighed softly. "If you survive to meet the Elders, it's likely they will at least listen to what you say." He paused for a few clicks of the wheels on the tracks. "If the choice were mine, I'd ask you to prove that you speak for those in power in your country—and that they sincerely want to make amends—by sending your soldiers home."
"Making sure I'm not just a distraction or a lunatic." Roy leaned forward and put his hands flat to the table. "I think I can talk the Major General and General Grumman into that."
"Olivia Armstrong is a hard woman," Scar said, "but she applies the same discipline to her own mind that she demands of those who serve her. You might tell her the soldiers in Ishbal might be put to better use elsewhere."
"The only question is where to put them to use." Roy lowered his head, his sightless eyes tracking something between his hands.
The rail line ended at the village of Wild Creek, which was in fact little more than a logging camp. There were only two passengers remaining in the single passenger car when the train pulled in well after dark.
"The car is this way, sir." The voice was reedy with age and accented with the rounded vowels of the northeastern territories.
"Lead on." Roy Mustang shouldered his knapsack and lifted his suitcase.
A gnarled hand touched Roy's fingers. "Let me take that for you, sir."
Roy hesitated. "The radio set is lighter."
"And more fragile, I'm sure," the man replied. "I'm a clumsy old farmhand—I don't mind a heavy load, but my hands shake like leaves holding a baby or a fine wineglass."
"I trip over carpets and walk into walls regularly," Roy answered ruefully as he surrendered the suitcase. "These days I do it even when I'm not drunk."
"I tidied up the barn and cleared the house special. Picked out the best sensible horses for you. You'll ride safe tomorrow morning."
"Good. Scar, will you give me the radio and your elbow?"
The Ishbalan wordlessly shoved the hefty box containing the radio into Roy's calf, then nudged Roy's bicep with his left elbow. Roy bent to pick up the radio in his left hand, and took Scar's arm with his right.
Scar held his elbow stiffly away from his body as he followed their host toward the car parked at the far end of the train platform.
"You're going to get a cramp if you keep this up," Roy murmured. "I know it's strange, but please relax a little. How far are we from the steps?"
The thick muscle of Scar's arm relaxed a fraction. "A dozen times my height. Maybe a little more."
"Seventy-five to eighty feet. All right." Roy lifted his head and cast about. "I don't hear too many people."
"I count seven, three of them small children." Scar kept his voice pitched for Roy's ears only. "No one has given us more than a moment's attention."
"I've always marveled at how easy it is to go unnoticed if you act like you belong wherever you are." Roy's lips twisted into a hint of a sardonic smile.
"Or if you are someone others would rather not see," Scar answered. "Here are the steps."
"So an Ishbalan with a large and distinctive scar on his face and a blind Amestrian get off a train and drive off into the countryside, and no one's the wiser." Roy chuckled and carefully felt his way down the steps to the car. "It makes me wonder what I've missed in the past."
"Me." Scar answered. "More than once."
Roy started to ask, then thought better of it.
"Is this really necessary?" Roy, dressed in a light Ishbalan tunic and trousers, worked his fingers over the nest of loose leather loops and straps that was supposed to be an Ishbalan-style riding sandal.
"Amestrian clothing traps sand, holds the heat in during the day, and lets it out during the night," Scar answered.
"If you say so." Roy set the sandal aside. "But I think my feet will be safer in good thick shoes."
"We'll be riding for at least ten days. Perhaps longer. Your shoes will be full of sand within two." Scar paused, then said quietly, "Fitting sandals can be difficult even with eyes to see."
"I suppose so," Roy answered stiffly as he bent to take his shoe from beside the nightstand.
Scar took a step and caught Roy's hand before it touched the shoe. "I'll thread the straps to fit you."
Roy hesitated for a long moment, then gritted his teeth. "All right. Thank you." He sat down on the bed.
Scar picked up the offending sandal. "Pick up your right foot."
Roy obeyed. "Will we have to do this every time I put my shoes on?"
"No. Once they're threaded to fit your feet, you can leave them as they are and simply tie and untie them." Scar put the sole of the sandal to the sole of Roy's foot. "Hold this."
Roy took hold of the thick leather uppers around his ankle and flexed his toes as Scar's hands worked the leather through the numerous loops and eyelets.
"Here." Scar put the ends of the lace into Roy's fingers. "Tie them how you like."
"I'll do the other one," Roy said as he looped the laces around his ankle and tied them in a tidy knot.
Scar waited without comment for the half-hour it took Roy to work out the loops of the sandal.
They rode on a soft forest trail, the horses' hooves turning up the scent of deep black soil and green leaves. Scar rode a rangy gelding who chewed his bit, and led Roy on a mare named Ghost because, as the old farmhand had said, "she's soft-footed and grey as a meadow spirit." A second lead rope tied to Roy's saddle led a phlegmatic pack pony. Roy's attempts to strike up a conversation got him only noncommittal grunts and some muttered Ishbalan phrases. Eventually he gave up and let Ghost's motion lull him into a near-doze.
"This is good enough." Scar stopped his horse, and his saddle creaked as he dismounted.
"We're stopping for the night?" Roy flexed his stiff fingers.
Roy gingerly got off his horse, and let himself grimace as his feet hit the ground. "Well, I'm going to be sore tomorrow. How about you?"
"...The anar dkan will be harder in the morning." Scar took Roy's elbow and steered him away from his horse. "Sit here under the tree while I see to the horses."
"Give me the packs and I'll get dinner started," Roy answered amiably.
"I'll see to that after I've finished with the horses."
Roy frowned. "I'm not helpless, Scar."
"Believe me, I've noticed that," Roy answered with asperity. "But I can peel carrots and cut up potatoes without hurting myself." He arched a brow in the Ishbalan's direction. "I'm also pretty good at getting a fire started."
There were some rattles and softer rustles, then Scar put a sizable fry pan into Roy's hands. "The paring knife is in the largest potato. I'll gather firewood after I'm done with the horses."
Roy nodded, and settled to his knees in the damp leaf litter to start preparing their dinner.
They broke camp early the next morning and rode east along the trail until it ended at a set of packed-earth ruts.
"Put up your hood."
"Why? It's not that cold." Roy frowned and shifted in his saddle. "Or do I need to hide my race?"
"Neither. We've been riding under the trees, but now that we're in the open the sun will bake you, and sun sickness is nothing to trifle with." Scar paused, then nudged his horse to the left. When he spoke again there was a tinge of curiosity in his tone. "If we were riding from the east you could pass for an Easterner, so long as you didn't speak."
"I can pass for Xingese to almost everybody except the Xingese," Roy answered, settling the hood of his Ishbalan-style cloak over his head. "I'm fluent in one of the northern dialects."
"Were you born in the east, then?"
"Only if by 'east' you mean the Eastern District of Amestris." Roy shrugged. "What part of Ishbal did you come from?"
There was a moment's silence, then Scar answered, "Kanda."
"Is that where we're going?"
"No. There's very little left to go to."
Roy paused. "I suppose not. Where are you taking me, then? To the—what was the word you used the other day? You were trying to buy time for people to get there."
"Tani Yumtepi. That's not where we're going, either."
"Is this another guessing game?"
"We're going to Xerxes."
"Xerxes? I thought we were going to Ishbal."
"You wouldn't live more than a day, if we went into Ishbal. Their Elders would give me the choice of killing you myself, or watching another slit your throat as the sword came down to behead me."
"That's..." Roy fell silent and lowered his head.
"Those who live in Xerxes haven't been facing the soldiers daily. They're more likely to accept the stone you carry, and spare your life." Scar paused for a few of his horse's strides. "If there is any chance for a future between our peoples, it lies with the Elders of Xerxes."
"I thought Xerxes was just a ruin with a few bandits preying on the eastern caravans."
Scar whuffed in his chest. "There was a time when that was true."
"What's true about it now?"
"Now there are Elders living amid the ruins."
"Mmf." Roy set his dinner pan aside and stretched his back. "Scar, which way is Central?"
The big Ishbalan grunted a bit, then reached and gave the radio box under Roy's left elbow a push, turning it. "If you followed the line of the right edge of the box you would walk straight to Central City."
"Ah. Thank you." Roy pulled his watch from the belt pouch on his right hip, and used the key on the other end of the watch chain to open the radio box.
"Do you want help?"
"I won't say no if you offer to handle the aerial," Roy answered. He laid out the headset and microphone, then found the heavy steel crank handle and fitted it into place.
Scar allowed Roy to demonstrate fitting the radio mast together, then stringing the antenna to it. He worked in soft rustles of fabric and whiffs of horse and dust. "This radio is smaller than the ones I saw during the invasion."
"It's a newer model," Roy answered amiably as he turned the crank. "I haven't looked into how they did it, but the engineers of the Communications Division have been making field radio and phone sets smaller and lighter every year. This one is only one box with a fifteen-foot aerial, but it can put out a signal that will reach from Xerxes to Central at night, and I could keep talking all night on one winding, if I had that much to talk about."
"What do you plan to talk about tonight?" The antenna clips clicked softly.
"Not much." Roy shrugged as he cranked. "To be honest, this is a 'don't panic' call. My people tracked us until we crossed the border, but now that we're outside Amestris we can't be so easily watched."
"I saw them." A dangerous tone crept into Scar's voice. "You ordered them to watch me?"
"No." Roy's eyebrows lifted. "I just know my people. They probably had a car and hotel room booked in every town we passed through, in the hopes that I'd change my mind."
"Mm." Scar lifted the aerial and set it into its socket. "I'll see to the dishes while you tell them I haven't killed you."
"Thanks." Roy grinned a bit. "For the dishes and not killing me."
"You've spared my life." Scar picked up Roy's dinner pan. "Had someone said to me last year that I would travel with the Flame Alchemist, not as a prisoner but as a guide, and that I would choose to defend your life rather than end it..."
"I would have laughed in that guy's face, too." Roy paused and shook out his hand and arm before resuming his cranking. "War makes for strange bedfellows. Trying to end a war makes for even stranger ones." He stopped at a loud click from within the radio, and disconnected the crank handle. After some probing of the touchscript labels glued around and on the switches and dials, he put on the headset and set his fingers on the telegraphy key. His first few attempts netted him nothing, but on the fifth try, a lengthy, rapid series of clicks and beeps rattled in his ears. Kain Fury's mastery of telegraph code made him hard to keep up with, but Roy eventually verified his identity, and Fury shifted to voice transmission.
"This is De Salars Worldwide, how can I be of service?" The code phrases translated to Are you all right? and I have news for you.
"I'm one of your customers from New Optain, and I've heard of some potential opportunities I'd like to look into." I'm fine, what's going on?
The rest of their conversation was couched as a discussion of investments in everything from wheat crops in southern Amestris and sapphire mines in Bharat to the shipping lines of Caledonia and the fisheries of Mundo. Scar moved around throughout, scouring the dishes clean with handfuls of sand, checking on the hobbled horses and drawing more water from the desert well for them, and feeding the tiny campfire. When Roy took off the headset, Scar asked, "What did your people say?"
"So far, things are under control, but there are some people and situations they're monitoring."
"Such as?" Scar approached, and lifted the antenna mast free of its mount.
"Such as Drachmani spies suddenly converging on Central." Roy frowned. "Their agents generally aren't anywhere near as good as ours, but they're acting like they've got a large scale plan and timetable this time."
"No doubt there are others who can find out what that plan is."
"There are. I just wish..." Roy sighed. "I don't like not being there to handle it personally."
"You made your choice, Roy. Now you must follow it through and allow others to deal with the Drachmans."
"I know, I know, I can't run everything." Roy put the microphone into its padded nest, then paused and turned toward Scar. "You called me Roy."
"It's your name."
"Yes, but you haven't been using it. You've called me 'alchemist' or used my full name."
"Are you offended?"
"No. Pleasantly surprised. Or am I reading too much into it?"
"You call your friends by their personal names only, and use the tribe name to strangers." Scar pried the last few antenna wire clips open with loud metallic pings. "My people use the personal name for everyone who lives among us. To you it may seem too familiar."
"Believe me, I'll consider it a victory if they use any part of my name rather than calling me a demon or something." Roy coiled the antenna wire. "But what should I call you?"
"You must have a name, or something I could call you that's not just a reference to a mark on your face."
Scar laid the sections of the mast beside Roy's knee. "Call me what you like."
"Is it offensive to ask for your name?"
"No. I just don't have one to give you."
Roy turned toward his guide. "What are you talking about? I'm sure your mother didn't look at you the day you were born and say, 'I'm going to name him Scar.' If it's none of my business say so, but I'd like to have something more appropriate than a military intelligence tag to call you."
Scar didn't answer immediately. When he did speak his words rippled low, like a stream flowing in rills and eddies of pain and grief. "The child my mother held died with all the rest of his family at the hands of a State Alchemist. I'm going to take a traveler's bath. Keep watch." He moved away from the fire and their bedrolls and refused any further conversation.
The horses' hooves crunched a little in the sand of the desert. Roy swayed lazily in his saddle. "Scar?"
"Mm." The grunt was of someone distracted by something else.
"Have you been to Xerxes before?"
Scar's answer came back snappish. "Why do you insist on questioning me every step of the way?"
Roy straightened up and frowned. "I'm not questioning you. I'm trying to make conversation. It's not like I can read a book or admire the scenery."
There was a long pause, then Scar said, "I've never been to Xerxes myself, but I know the way there."
"I didn't mean to imply that you don't," Roy replied placatingly. "Frankly, I'm bored and I'd be willing to talk about just about anything to pass the time."
"Talking overmuch makes a man thirsty," Scar said gruffly. "But we aren't far from a well." He paused. "Perhaps you will answer a personal question." The intonation rose and fell strangely, making the words neither a statement nor a question.
Roy lifted an eyebrow. "Perhaps I will, once I know what the question is."
"There were many stories about you, when I walked the roads in your country. Some of them were clearly false. Others seem plausible."
"That was intentional." Roy grinned at the memory. "We had a lot of fun, concocting those stories. Which ones are you wondering about?"
Scar hesitated. "Many people believe that you have children. That you keep seven wives and all of the children you fathered on them in some hidden place."
Roy's eyebrows rose. "I'd forgotten about that one. That was one of Falman's—he was really good at the conspiracy rumors. We set it up to see who would start following pregnant young women who happened to congregate in out of the way places."
"Do you have children?"
"No." Roy paused. "Do you?"
"No." Scar let his horse take a few strides before he went on. "So long as I am exiled, I cannot marry."
"I see." Roy turned toward his guide again. "Is there any way to get your exile revoked?"
"It could be done," Scar answered. He changed the subject. "I once saw several drawings and paintings in a market stall. The dealer claimed that they were of you—several years younger...and without your uniform."
"Or anything else." Roy's cheeks heated a little. "I knew I'd missed a few of those."
"So those drawings were truly of you?"
"I can't say for sure whether what you saw was actually me, but I did work as an artist's model during my apprenticeship."
Silence, then, "Why?"
"Money," Roy answered with a shrug. "My parents' savings paid most of the first year, and my foster mother helped as much as she could, but—well, I decided I'd find a way to pay my apprenticeship fees myself."
"But why—posing?" Scar sounded a little revolted.
Roy's face darkened a little. "I was sixteen and didn't have too many marketable skills—all the bars in town already had all the bartenders they needed. I was either working for my master or studying with him from a little after dawn until suppertime." His attention turned inward. "He didn't really want an apprentice, so he tripled the fee to try and get rid of me. The artist couple in town always needed models—there aren't too many people willing to be naked in front of strangers, much less naked and holding a pose for a few hours. They liked my 'exotic' face and skin tone...and the fact that I'd let them dress and pose me in ways most models wouldn't tolerate." Roy whuffed to himself. "At the time, I figured that if they'd pay me more for it, I could stand a backache or a few weeks letting a coat of Bharati skin paint wear off."
"But now those pictures are sold in the streets."
"And only those who know me well—or know a few things about me that pancake makeup couldn't hide—can be sure that those sketches and paintings are really me, and not just some kid who sort of resembles me, or leftover propaganda arranged to bring me down by a military rival." Roy grinned. "The face really isn't what most people look at in those pictures anyway." He went on before Scar could reply. "Maybe I can ask you a personal question?"
There was a moment's pause, then, "Ask."
"How does an Ishbalan—what was that word you used?-a warrior-priest end up studying alchemy?"
The silence was longer this time. Scar finally answered, "The word you asked for is 'yevarshedaht'. It means 'a priest with a sword.' Your other question...it's likely you'll hear many versions of the story from the people of the tribes." He took a breath, let it out slowly. "I had an older brother, once. He chose the path of the jhastovar, the...scholar and keeper of records."
Roy settled his hands on the pommel of his saddle and kept his face attentive and his mouth shut.
"I chose the path of the yevarshedaht. My brother believed he could defend our people by learning the ancient powers our ancestors used to defend themselves." Scar paused, then said quietly, "It would further disgrace the memory of my family among the tribes, if they knew the full extent of what he did."
"There are a lot of secrets that will die with me," Roy answered, matching the Ishbalan's pitch.
"Mm." Scar rode a few more strides, then went on. "My brother studied the Xingese art of alkahestry, as well as Amestrian war alchemy, and he combined them with the alchemy of our people. He designed two arrays, then had them tattooed on his arms." He faltered a little. "We were taking our family to the Tani Yumtepi when Zolf J. Kimbley came."
"Kimbley," Roy sucked in a breath. "Oh gods, no wonder."
"He was only one of the monsters unleashed on us," Scar said gruffly. "Kimbley caused a house to explode. That was the last I knew. When I woke, my face was bandaged and...my right arm had been replaced by my brother's."
"I found his body later, as well as the remains of the right hand I was born with. I would have bled to death. My brother...preferred to let me live. So he used the power he held to give me his right arm...and the destruction within it." He fell silent.
Roy didn't prod him for anything more.
Roy woke to a rough, horse-scented hand covering his mouth and Scar's voice hissing in his ear. "We have to move. Now. Put on your sandals and cloak, the rest can wait. Don't say a word until I tell you it's safe. Pack the camp while I catch the horses."
Roy nodded, then sat up and hurriedly tied his sandals. He stuffed their canteens of precious water into the first bag that his questing fingers touched, then wrapped up the clinking forks and dinner pans in his bedroll and buckled it into an awkward bundle. Scar returned with their horses, saddled them without giving them so much as a mouthful of water, all but threw Roy up into the saddle, then mounted and kicked his horse into a ground-eating canter, with Roy's mare and the pack horse pounding along behind to keep up. Roy grabbed Ghost's mane and clung for dear life.
Not until his horse began to falter and stumble did Scar allow the animals to drop back to a walk. He said nothing until the horses' hard breathing subsided, then sidled his horse up beside Roy's mare until his knee brushed Roy's. "Keep your head down. We are being watched." His left hand closed on the back of Roy's neck. "Stay quiet a little longer." He left his hand on Roy for several strides, then let out a held breath. "They've withdrawn. We'll stop at the next well for the horses' sake, but we need to get past the Pillars by sunset. Ask your questions now—and tell me where you put the water."
"I'm not sure which bag I put the canteens in—it's one of the pack horse's bags. Who were they?"
"Men of the Zabir tribe. They've claimed this land since the last time I came this far north."
"You mean you talked to them?"
"No. I saw the yevarshedaht's sash. It was the Zabir pattern."
Roy looked baffled. "I think I'm missing some things here. How do you get from seeing someone's sash to running like hell across the desert?"
Scar paused for a moment. "Zabir is one of the tribes that once lived on the plains of Daliha."
Roy sucked in a short breath. "Oh." He dropped his head almost to his chest. "And now they know I'm here."
"They know who I am, and they saw me command a blind man with black hair who obeyed me without question. When I put my hand on your neck, it was a message that you ride under my hand—my protection."
"So you were trying to convince them that I'm not the man who butchered their families." Roy nodded. "They'll wonder why we ran, though. If we were innocent we could have stayed."
"If God is with us they'll think you're either an innocent traveler or my servant, and we ran because I fear being caught and tried by their Elders." Scar kneed his horse into a faster walk. "That would make more sense to them than my putting myself between a State Alchemist and the rifle of a yevarshedaht."
The sun sank, and a light breeze swept the cool scent of a desert evening through Roy Mustang's hair. Ghost plodded, barely picking up her feet, and Scar's horse had all but stopped chewing his bit.
"How much further are we going tonight?"
"To the next well," Scar answered in a strangely flattened tone that didn't disrupt the peace of the night. "Another two or three miles."
"You said you've never been this way before. How do you know where the wells are?"
"There are signs."
"You mean arrows drawn on rocks or something?"
"Nothing so obvious. I know what to look for." Scar's tone indicated he'd said all he had to say on the subject.
The horses' hooves clopped on stone, and the sound rang off of stone walls. Roy straightened in his saddle. "Scar? Is this Xerxes?"
"Yes. These are the ruins of ancient Xerxes."
"Xerxes." Roy turned this way and that. "I wish I could...will you tell me what it's like?"
Scar gathered his thoughts a moment, then answered, "It must have been beautiful, before the city died." He hesitated, then went on in something that would have been named a sheepish air coming from a less formidable voice. "Some of the houses are still standing—I see one that's three stories high and has part of its roof. There were gardens in the walls, once-there are weeds and some flowers growing in them even now." He stopped his horse. "My people called it "Golden Xerxes", because in the light of dawn the stones of the city seemed to be made of gleaming gold."
An almost-dreamy smile settled on Roy's face as he listened. "That sounds beautiful. I'd give almost anything to see it." His face shifted to a more pensive expression. "I used to think that if I hadn't become an alchemist I might have been an archeologist or a historian."
Scar let a moment pass before he answered. "There is much to learn here. The people of Golden Xerxes loved beautiful things. In some sheltered places the paint on their walls survives. This street must have been named the Street of Lions-there are lions carved into the garden walls and onto the lantern-posts." He nudged his horse back into motion.
"Are there still lions in this area?"
"Perhaps. There is water here, and where the water is, the game will be-and the lions will hunt."
Roy smiled. "I don't know about you, but the thought that they could be out there, watching us, feels right. There should be lions in a place like this."
Scar hesitated, then answered, "It is...right, to see wild things doing as wild things are meant to do." Some of the gravel in his voice softened as he said, "I once tracked a herd of wild horses, meaning to capture one for myself. I followed them for five days-then missed my throw, and they ran. I walked the rest of the way without regret for their freedom."
Roy nodded. "My friend Maes and I went camping in the mountains when we were on leave one spring. We saw a mother bear with two cubs across a creek. She reared up and glared at us. We both had ways of defending ourselves if she had decided to attack, but we got out of there pretty quickly. She gave us a bad scare, but I've never held it against her. She was keeping her cubs safe." He smiled at the memory. "I think it was after that weekend that Maes proposed to Gracia, actually."
"Was he your friend from childhood?"
"Maes? No, but he might as well have been. We were roommates at the Academy."
Scar rode in silence for a long moment. "Would he also have come here to see the ancient beauty and ask about lions?"
Roy chuckled. "He'd have been all over this place. And he wouldn't come just to see it himself. He'd take so many pictures nobody would ever forget what it looked like."
Scar answered with just a tinge of humor. "He would have to pass his camera to his children, and they to their children. This city is larger than your Central City."
Roy smiled in fond reminiscence. "He'd have tried. I think he must have had about five hundred pictures of his little girl by the time he...died." His smile faltered and faded.
The horses' hooves and the soft whisper of the wind through the scoured ruins were the only sound for several seconds before Scar asked, "Was it his death that you meant to avenge in destroying the demon Envy?"
Roy sucked in a sharp breath, then swallowed. "Yes. He was the one I..." His hands clenched into fists atop the pommel of his saddle.
Scar let a moment pass before he answered. "My brother's killer is also dead, but...my grief remains." He kneed his horse into a faster walk. "Pray that our peoples learn to look past their pain more quickly than we did."
"Yes." Roy took a deep breath, and slowly let it out. "We've got to make sure they aren't as...as blind as we were." He hesitated. "And I'm sorry about your brother. I'm...I'm glad at least that it wasn't me."
Scar sighed a little and went on with the ache clear in his voice. "My brother told me that we must be the ones to break the chain of hatred." He paused to persuade his horse to climb up a set of low, wide steps. "He was a stronger man than I. He believed until Kimbley came that our people could be reconciled." His words went soft. "He gave his life to save mine, and there are times when I wish he hadn't."
Roy's eyes widened, and he took a moment to form a reply. "For what it's worth...you're a strong man, to have pulled back from the brink. And I...I'm grateful to you for pulling me back too. Whatever you actually intended, I think you saved my life and my sanity."
A bit of Scar's usual gruffness returned. "I saw you turning toward the same path I walked." He paused. "In that moment, alchemist, you heard two voices. The one you heeded spoke God's words."
"You certainly threw a thunderbolt at me, whoever gave it to you."
"As I spoke, I heard my brother's voice, not mine." He sighed. "It took me far too long to hear his voice in my soul and listen to his wisdom."
"But you did, and I'm just one of millions of people who are alive today because you did. So—thank you."
Scar made a soft sound of surprise, then answered, "You are welcome, Roy Mustang." After a beat he continued, "You honor me with your trust."
Roy smiled with just a tinge of irony. "Trust is the first step."
They rode through the ruins in companionable silence, getting off here and there to lead the horses through narrow passages between the walls that still stood. Scar commented on the occasional interesting feature; a long-dry fountain full of fanciful animals, some graffiti scratched on a sheltered wall in characters only scholars would recognize, the remains of a wide, gracefully curved staircase reaching up to nothing but air...
Scar stopped his horse. "Ready your arguments. They've just revealed themselves."
"All right." Roy straightened in his saddle. "Are they coming out to talk?"
"You're still breathing."
"I suppose that's a good start. How many of them?"
"Maybe fifteen-" Scar stopped. "And there is an Elder with them. He carries a shotgun at his back. He speaks for one the northern tribes. Get down—do you want me to offer the greeting?"
"I'll do it." Roy swung down from Ghost's back, then offered his hands, palms up, toward the sound of approaching steps. "Kektan duarte eskuak warajtoj nayiz, Admi."
Tough, broad hands closed around Roy's for a moment. "Kekat juajin nuen, dutzu." He let go and went on in a scoured baritone.
"His name is Nikai," Scar translated, "and he speaks for the tribe of Ganeha. He asks for our names and our business here."
"Does he really not know who you are?"
"I am who you name me to be. Don't assume he doesn't understand your language. What is your answer to his question?"
Roy's brows furrowed. "My name is Roy Mustang, and I've come to return something to the Ishbalan people, as well as to ask for peace terms."
There was a murmur even before Scar finished translating, and some restless shifting of feet as the Elder spoke again.
"The Elder says there was a war alchemist with that name. One who killed with fire."
Roy lifted his chin. "I am that man."
The sounds that followed that statement needed no translation. Roy's spine stiffened as the hiss-zing of swords leaving their sheaths meshed with the click-clack of shells locking into rifle barrels.
"Baju." the Elder's voice said softly. There was a reluctant shuffling of sandals on stone.
"The Elder is coming closer—he may touch. Don't resist." Scar's tone was heavy with warning, and perhaps—it may have been fear.
"Wouldn't dream of it," Roy answered through gritted teeth. Something brushed his forehead and he startled, then schooled his face to impassivity as a dry, somewhat gnarled hand pushed his bangs aside, then took hold of his chin and turned it this way and that. The Elder spoke into the choking silence, and let go of Roy.
"The Elder asks when you lost your eyes." Scar's tension all but vibrated in his words. "Sazamuz, alchemist."
Roy frowned. "On the day of the eclipse. Around three months ago."
There were some comments in response to the translation, then another question from the Elder. "Why did your people choose you to come to us?" Scar translated.
"Tell him there's more than one valid answer to that question," Roy answered. "Perhaps we could sit down someplace and talk about it over a cup of tea."
Scar hissed softly. "Are you out of your mind?"
"No. It's been established that we could kill each other—they have swords and guns and you and I have dangerous alchemy. But no one's seen fit to draw blood yet. Let's just say the sabers are rattled enough. Tell him."
Scar reluctantly translated, and silence fell again. Then the Elder said something that brought some argument from younger voices.
"Scar—what are they saying?"
"The Elder says your words should be heard in the temple courtyard before the tribes make any decisions." Scar's voice all but vibrated under the tension. "The younger men argue that you should be put in chains and on trial for your life."
Roy's face tightened. "I thought the Elders held command authority here."
"It's not as simple as your military rankings. The Elders lead because they are the wisest and they hear God most clearly." Scar took a short breath as the argument ended under a clipped phrase from the Elder. That roughened voice spoke at some length, then Scar said something in reply. The Elder gave a curt response, and Scar shifted into Amestrian with a noticeable Ishbalan accent coloring his pronunciation. "Elder Nikai puts a choice into your hands. If you choose to remain among the ruins, you and I will be bound only by your good word, and Nikai will carry your words to the other Elders. If you want to talk to the other Elders, your hands will be tied and I will be bound and blindfolded."
"I can understand why they don't trust me around their leaders, but why hobble you?"
"A man who's broken an oath before God will easily break one given to men. What should I tell them?"
"I don't like this, and I hope you'll forgive me, Scar, but..." Roy held out his wrists, crossed one over the other. "I'd rather talk to your people directly."
Roy tripped again, falling against the Ishbalan on his left this time. The man grunted and shouldered Roy back up. Again. Someone behind him made a comment, and the Elder answered. Roy rolled his shoulders a little and flexed his elbows as much as he could with his hands tied behind his back.
They were moving into the inhabited part of the ruined city—voices and the rustles of clothing announced the presence of women and even a few children. The chatter rose fast, then took on an ugly, dangerous tone. People closed in, and the men leading Roy spoke sharply. The crowd pulled back a few feet, then something slammed into Roy's ribs and he gasped. Shouts became a roar, then swords sang from sheaths and strong hands shoved the Amestrian back into someone's chest. Scar grunted as Roy staggered into his midsection, then the exile raised his voice and yelled a phrase that caused a growl from the surrounding crowd.
A break-action shotgun snapped shut and Nikai roared "Tetar Z'oht!" The male voices around Roy answered with a phrase from his nightmares. "Sartu Zhevath!" Only as the silence fell did he realize that Scar's voice had been among those repeating the Ishbalan battle cry.
Elder Nikai's voice rose, and went on at some length. There were some murmurs and growls, then a voice thick with fury calling out an argument.
A reedy female voice interrupted, and the angry one snapped a reply. There was a sharp rap on the uneven stone street, then the reedy voice delivered a comment heavy with scorn and some people laughed.
"What's happening, Scar?" Roy sidled around until he found Scar's fingers, then manuevered the rope around his wrists into the reach of that deadly right hand.
"There are some here who lost families and homes to your flames," the vigilante answered. He touched the rope with just two fingertips.
"So I'm on trial?"
"No. The Elders are reciting from the Kneetavaga, which commands the tribes to show mercy to the penitent."
"How likely is it that I'll get out of this alive?"
"The yevarshedaht stand around us. The Elders have said they will hear your words, and ordered you brought safely to the temple. For now we are protected." Scar relaxed his hand, dropping away from contact with Roy's bound hands.
"How likely are the ivchadot to obey those orders?"
"As likely as an Amestrian war alchemist is to obey his." Scar took a deep, slow breath, then let it out. "This may fall to your advantage. Be calm and think."
"Be calm. Right. It's not like this is the first time this year I've been surrounded by people who want to tear me limb from limb."
There was a rustling, then a strong hand took hold of Roy's elbow. "There will be no more stones thrown today, Roy Mustang," Elder Nikai said in accented Amestrian. "Walk with me."
Roy startled, then followed where he was led.
The Elder led Roy on an uphill path over uneven stone streets. The Ishbalans massed around them, and Roy could smell bodies as well as cooking and baking scents and the odors of animals. Voices murmured and a few dogs barked. They approached a fountain whose cheerful burbling contrasted with the low grumbling of the people around them. Nikai stopped, and matter-of-factly pulled apart the knot in the rope around Roy's wrists. There was a hiss from the crowd, then Nikai raised his voice for a sharp comment. The reedy female voice added something else, and the tension eased a fraction. Nikai switched into Amestrian and said, "Here we remove the sandals and wash." He took Roy's wrist and guided his hand to the cool stone of the lip of the fountain's highest bowl.
Roy hesitated, then slowly crouched to untie his sandals. There was restless stirring around him, then a grunt and a scuffing of sandals.
"Scar? Are you here?"
"Yes." The vigilante sounded strained.
"Are you all right?"
"For now. Be careful, Colonel." Scar's voice came from somewhere to Roy's right.
"I'm trying," Roy answered. "What am I expected to do here?"
"Take off your sandals, then wash your feet, your hands, and your face. Leave your sandals—no one wears shoes past the outer gate." Scar subsided as the female Elder's voice spoke in a chiding tone.
Roy composed his face and took his time rinsing his feet in the lowest bowl of the fountain, then washing his arms to the elbows in the middle bowl before splashing water from the highest bowl on his face and into his hair. A cane tapped lightly behind him, and someone else splashed water from the fountain before the voice of the female Elder said, "I am Rehena. I speak for Naor. Perhaps you will walk with me." Damp, worn fingers touched Roy's forearm.
"I'm honored, ma'am. But—I'd like my friend to come with me."
"The exile will walk behind you," the Elder said calmly. "Come. There are matters of nations to discuss." She took Roy's hand in a strong, cool grip, then put his hand on her shoulder and led him at a stately pace across a wide plaza paved in stone polished to glassy smoothness, then up a short flight of wide steps and into a building that echoed cavernously with the sound of running water. Rehena paused and said, "Here is the river. The water washes away all that is false. This place is holy. Do you understand this?"
"I'm not sure, Vrua. Do you mean that I should stay here? I don't want to offend your people."
"I say that if you step into the river, you will say what is true. We are not so easy to insult as you think." She patted Roy's hand. "There is no bloodshed in the toz. If you will keep to this, we will hear your words here."
"That's a restriction I can live with," Roy answered. He stepped into the flowing water and let it rush over the tops of his feet for a moment. More people were coming into the temple from behind him, moving without speaking. He smelled stone and water and bodies, and heard rustles of movement. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then let it out slowly before opening his eyes again.
"There will be a place for you to sit," Elder Rehena said, taking Roy's hand again. "Come." She led Roy to a woven mat placed in the middle of the floor. "Sit here, son of a foreign woman. We will all sit and hear your words."
"Thank you, Elder." Roy sank to the mat and waited.
Someone stumbled and fell hard to his knees beside Roy.
"Scar?" Roy reached and found a forehead ridged with thick scarring, and the edge of a blindfold.
"Yes." Scar coughed a bit, then shifted his weight and straightened up.
"Why are you still blindfolded?" Roy tugged at the thin fabric bound over his guide's eyes.
Scar jerked his head away. "Leave it. I'll explain later."
Mystified, Roy obliged. "This would be a lot easier if at least one of us could see the faces of the people he was talking to."
"I'm not talking to anyone here," Scar said heavily as he sat back on his heels. "I am only your interpreter."
Roy frowned. "I thought you were going to back me up on what happened a few months ago, and why we're here."
"I would, if my word had any value."
Roy's frown deepened. "If I don't end up executed for war crimes after this meeting I'm going to have a lot of questions for you."
The hubbub around them gradually quieted, and a man's voice, deep and rich, started a chant. The people seated around Roy hissed, then murmured as the chanter repeated himself. A few more men joined the chant, sounding hesitant at first.
Roy leaned close to the Ishbalan beside him. "Scar—is this some kind of greeting ceremony?"
"No." Scar let out a breath as first one female voice, then another, added a swooping countermelody to the men's sonorous thrumming. "No. This is...a song to purify the people." He paused, then murmured in what sounded like wonder, "Sazamuz. Listen with your soul, Roy Mustang. God is truly here."
"I'll take your word for it." Roy listened, turning this way and that as more voices joined the song and the tempo accelerated. His expression showed polite interest at first, but as the voices split into ever more complex intertwinings of phrases and music, his face clouded. The music ended with a sharp, antiphonal shout that rang around the stone walls and ceiling of the temple and startled Roy out of his reverie. The burbling of the stream cut in the floor accentuated the abrupt silence.
Nikai spoke, and Scar translated in subdued tones. "He names himself Nikai, who speaks for the tribe of Ganeha. He says that you have been allowed to come into this holy place on his word, and that of Rehena, who speaks for Naor. The other Elders will name themselves as they speak. You sit here before the tribes, and they will listen. The Elder asks your name, and the names of those you speak for."
"My name is Roy Mustang, and I'm here on behalf of my country," Roy answered in measured, formal diction.
Scar translated, then relayed the next question, "The Elders ask who sent you. Who chose you as the emissary, and what authority backs your word as a negotiator."
Roy paused. "Tell them I chose to come here on my own, and both General Augustus Grumman and General Olivia Armstrong will back any agreement I make."
There was a brief discussion among several aged voices following that, then someone new spoke up.
"I am called Shan," a woman's voice said in clear Amestrian. Scar stiffened beside Roy. "I speak for the tribe of Kerevah. I ask who this man beside you is."
"He's my guide...and he's become my friend."
"What is his name?"
"I've asked him that myself, Elder Shan. He's told me he has no name."
"What do you call him, when you speak to him?"
Roy hesitated. "I say 'Scar'."
"A good enough name for an exile," Elder Shan agreed. "Do you understand why he has no name?"
"From what he's told me, he was a...I think the word is ivachadot?"
"Yevarshedaht. You say 'warrior priest'. He gave an oath on his name, before God and my people. When he broke that oath, he broke his name. He is an exile."
"He's told me that, too. But—please forgive my ignorance, Elder, but I don't understand exactly what being an exile means among your people."
"Ignorance is no sin. He broke an oath taken before God and the tribes. Therefore he may not stay among us."
Nikai spoke up, also in Amestrian. "His word has no strength to us—but if you are willing to risk your name we will allow you to keep him to serve as your eyes."
Roy paused. "Are you asking whether I'll vouch for him?"
"We say that if you ask it, and give an oath on your name to accept responsibility for his actions, we will not drive him into the desert to live or die as God pleases." The Elder's flat, unyielding tone gave no hints to which option he preferred.
"I see." Roy sat very carefully still. "Is it possible for an exile to be accepted into...the tribe...again?"
"While there is life, all things are possible," Rehena answered calmly. "Would you trust him with your name?"
"Elder, I've trusted him with my life." Roy reached, found the exile's right shoulder, then followed it to the back of Scar's neck. His tone hardened. "I traveled here under his protection. Now I say he's under my protection. I'll take responsibility—and if he's sent into the desert I'm going with him."
A loud murmur rippled through the temple as those who understood Amestrian translated for those who didn't.
Elder Shan spoke up. "You have said what you have said, and we have heard it." There was a strange finality to the words. "Now, I would know why you have come."
Roy let go of Scar. "I'm here to return something precious to your people, to negotiate an end to the war...and to offer what reparations we can."
Another aged male voice spoke up in Ishbalan, and Scar translated. "He is Reuven. He speaks for Naor. Rehena is his sister. He asks what precious thing you carry."
Roy reached into his belt pouch and took out the clamshell case. He opened it and turned it toward the Elders. "This, Admi. My people call it a Philosopher's Stone."
Scar took a moment to translate the next question. "What is this jewel, that you believe will cause more tears than we have already shed?"
Roy bowed his head, and laid the case on the stone floor in front of him. "It's an alchemical amplifier. Stones like this gave extra power to the alchemists who were brought to your land. I used one when I was sent to Ishbal. I didn't know-" he swallowed hard. "I didn't know then how the Stones were made."
There was some discussion among the Elders, then Reuven spoke again. Scar translated in a leaden tone. "Say what you know of the making of this Stone, alchemist."
Roy took a deep breath. "The Stone is made by capturing human souls and trapping them in a crystalline form."
Scar explained that in considerably more words than Roy had used, and a hiss of indrawn breath seemed to suck all the oxygen from the room, then that breath rushed out all at once and the air thickened to the point of crushing the life out of the foreigner. Babble started, then rose, none of it friendly. Another aged man spoke up, his voice trembling in barely-controlled rage. "This Stone is made of our people? Our children, our wives, our brothers, lie trapped in this demon thing?"
Roy closed his eyes and lifted his head, carefully relaxing his shoulders. "Yes. It was given to me so I could use it to retrieve my sight. But I - I can't do that. I brought it here to you, to ask forgiveness, and to offer my help in freeing these last prisoners."
Shrieks and roars of outrage greeted Scar's translation. A sword sang from its sheath somewhere near Roy's ear.
Nikai's voice barked, then an old woman's cracked soprano rose in a wordless, nasal wail. The singer chanted something in ululating tones, then dropped low and glided up high again. Another old woman joined her, the lament the more painful for its labored rhythm and unadorned rise and fall. Nikai spoke in time with the wailing, and Scar translated into Roy's ear. "There will be no blood shed in the temple, but the tribes must mourn the dead of the Stone, and the Elders must pray and learn what God meant in sending you here carrying this sign of murder."
"What does that mean? Do we need to go back out into the desert to wait?"
Scar offered the question in tones that fell into the pattern of the chant that was now spreading through the temple, and he translated following the rise and fall two octaves below the women's voices. "We here waiting-" He paused, and when he spoke again his grammar was correct but his words were marked by a noticeable Ishbalan accent. "The Elder says that you are free to go, if you choose—but if you do, he cannot offer you any protection from those who would shoot you in the heart for the sake of the dead."
Roy closed his eyes and took a breath through his nose, then let it out and listened to the dirge for a long moment before opening his eyes again. "What's our other option?"
"Roden na tozari. 'Prisoners of the temple.' We will stay on the east balcony, and be guarded by the yevarshedaht, until the songs for the dead are done."
"Prisoners awaiting execution?"
"No." Scar made a low noise in his throat. "The translation isn't perfect. The Elders are waiting for your answer. Trust me when I tell you that you won't be put in chains—and that your chances of survival, much less success, will all but vanish if you choose to go into the desert."
Roy paused for a long moment. "All right. I'll trust you on this. Tell them we'll stay here."
The chanting went on unbroken as the yevarshedaht escorted Roy and his guide out of the worship room.
He was led on what seemed an interminable march through cool stone corridors, down a sloping ramp, then up a flight of narrow, high steps that tripped Roy up and drove him to his knees. Two warrior-priests gripped his biceps, and finally pushed Roy into a room that smelled of stone and water—then a heavy body was thrown into his back, making Roy skip forward and windmill his arms to stay on his feet. "Scar?"
"Roy." The vigilante sounded exhausted and pained. "Are you hurt?"
"Just my pride—and our chances of making any headway." Roy turned back toward Scar's voice. "You?"
"No." He switched into Ishbalan and spoke to someone beyond his shoulder. The answer came back iron-hard. Scar sighed. "Would you free my hands, Roy Mustang?"
"As long as it's not going to get us into more trouble." Roy reached and found Scar's arm, then followed it down to the rope knotted tightly around his wrists. He frowned and traced the knot tucked against the back of Scar's left hand.
"Pull on the loop near my smallest finger," Scar said in low tones.
Roy did as he was told, and the rope loosened. Scar let out an involuntary whoosh of air and pulled his hands free. "My thanks."
"Don't mention it. Where are we?"
"This is the small bath-we will bathe here." Scar rolled his shoulders with several loud pops. "When our bodies are clean the yevarshedaht will take us upstairs to the balcony." Scar moved past Roy and settled to a bench to start undressing.
Roy hesitated, listening to Scar's movements and to the slight play of water. Then he shrugged and started toward Scar. "I feel like it's going to take most of an ocean just to wash the top layer of dirt off of me." He took off his overrobe. "Where do I put this?"
"There is a shelf on the far wall-move four or five steps forward. The shelf is-the height of your waist." Scar paused, then dropped into the gruffness that covered his embarrassment. "The sponge bowl is here beside me. The soap and sponges are ready. When you are clean you can sit in the pool. The steps into the water are two of my height forward, on your right." Scar dropped his clothing on the shelf and dunked a sponge in the bowl near the bench. A strong scent of soap wafted into the air.
Roy found the shelf and measured its depth with one arm, then lowered his head and took his gloves from his belt pouch. "I'm not comfortable leaving these here in the open while I'm in the water. Is there a locker or a trunk where I can put them for the time being?"
"No. But they will be safe."
Roy frowned. "Will you tell me if anyone gets too close to them? It's not just that I don't want to lose them, though that's true. But if anyone who was experimenting with alchemy even the slightest bit were to get hold of these..."
"Alchemy is forbidden," Scar reminded him. "But no one will touch that shelf without my knowing it." He poured water over himself with a deep sigh of what might have been relief, then went to scrubbing his hair. "Could another alchemist use your alchemy, if he had your gloves?"
Roy slowly stripped, tucking his gloves under his tunic on the shelf. "Another alchemist could certainly activate the array on the gloves, and could begin to alter the chemical elements." Roy fumbled, then found a deep ladle and a clean sponge. He faced carefully away from Scar and scrubbed as quickly as he could. "But he'd have no control, without a great deal of practice. If there was a spark in the room, he could set off a chain reaction that might burn everything in the vicinity to a crisp or suffocate anyone nearby."
"Mm." Scar ladled water over his head. "What will you do, when the Elders ask you to surrender your gloves?"
Roy paused, then worked his fingers in his hair. "I've thought about that, but I'm not sure yet. Letting them go would be a good demonstration of good faith, and it wouldn't completely incapacitate me, but I think it would be a demonstration of good faith on their part to let me keep them." He rinsed the soap from his hair before going on. "I think I'd have to insist that if my gloves were taken away that they be put under lock and key—and I carry the key. If there's even one kid in this city with significant alchemical potential-"
"Doubtless there is more than one," Scar interrupted. "You would be wise not to mention it in anyone's hearing but mine, though, if you notice it." He moved away, and a moment later splashed into the pool several feet behind Roy.
Roy snorted. "Don't worry, I'm well aware that this isn't the place for an alchemical recruiting drive." He rinsed, then turned and took a hesitant step toward Scar. "Is there a rail on the steps?"
"No—and the pool is deeper on this end." The water splashed a little.
"I wouldn't have expected a desert culture to use pools that big." Roy gingerly felt his way across the floor with his toes until he found the first step into the pool. He eased into the water, took a step toward Scar—and swore as his shin banged against a solid stone edge and he fell, scrabbling for the edge of the pool in an attempt to regain his balance.
Scar hissed, and got up to give Roy a hand back up to his feet. "I apologize. It didn't occur to me to warn you of the bath seat."
"I noticed." Roy turned and sat down on the bench that had surprised him. He picked up his right leg and felt along his shin, then experimentally rolled his ankle before examining his toes, grimacing. "Nothing broken. Just bruised as all hell."
"This day hasn't been kind to you." Scar settled back down in the water. "Your ribs are already black."
"I'm trying to tell myself that if I don't see the bruise, it's not really there." Roy leaned forward and dunked his head in the sun-warmed water flowing in from a pipe that entered from below the water level. He came up, rubbed the water through his hair, then took a breath and dunked again. He settled back against the wall of the pool, the water lapping gently around his shoulders. "Are we alone now? I can't hear anybody, but it would help to be sure."
"The yevarshedaht are near the doorway, but they won't disturb us."
"I didn't notice a door closing."
"There isn't one."
Roy stiffened. "There isn't a door?"
"No." Scar took a deep breath, then let it out in a slow sigh, stretching his arms along the rim of the pool.
"So we've got an audience to our bath?"
"They're both married men, if that soothes your Amestrian modesty."
"Not particularly." Roy pushed his dripping bangs out of his face.
"Given those pictures I saw in the market-"
"That was different," Roy said curtly. He changed the subject before Scar could comment further. "Tell me—how do you know they're married men? Did they tell you?
"No—their sashes are textured. An unmarried man's sash is woven flat."
"And the colors tell you the tribe," Roy said thoughtfully. "Do you know all of the tribal patterns?"
"I know the patterns for most of the southern tribes, and the larger and more powerful tribes of the north," Scar answered.
"Let me guess—they don't always get along?"
"The history texts talk of times when the tribes had friendlier relations with foreigners than their neighbors to the north and the east."
Roy sighed. "This is getting more complicated every minute."
After they had bathed and put on clean clothes brought by one of the warrior-priests, Roy and Scar were led up long flights of stairs and along stone corridors to a door that led outdoors, where a faint breeze stirring across Roy's skin carried the sound of chanting voices.
Roy turned in place as the door closed and audibly locked behind him. "Scar-where are we?"
"The eastern balcony of the temple. Our packs are here, and there are water jars and food baskets for us. And-" Scar pulled Roy's left wrist down to the tight-fitting lid of a pot "-here is the chamber pot. Remember where it is—if you kick it over you'll clean it up."
"Right..." Roy straightened up and took a careful step away from the chamber pot. He found, then ran his hands along the waist-high railing of the balcony, following it and feeling for obstacles in his path. "So this is our camp for the night?"
"For the next five days. Maybe more, depending on which rituals the Elders decide to sing."
Roy turned back toward the big Ishbalan. "Five days?"
"It takes time to sing the dead back into the River's flow." Scar passed Roy, and lifted their luggage. "I'm going to spread my blankets and eat something while there's still some light."
"Food sounds good." Roy moved toward Scar, still following the rail. "You mentioned some baskets?"
"Yes—against the wall. To your right and forward a little. The water jars are the height of your chest, with dippers tied to the handles." Scar moved something—a box that scraped noticeably on the stone of the balcony, then a second box that rattled a little as the man set it down.
"Scar—what's that?" Roy felt his way to the box, then ran his hands over it, fingering the sturdy but unlocked latches. "This is my typewriter, but-" he reached for the second box. He turned it around and found the locked hasp. "This is the radio." He turned toward the Ishbalan. "How could they not recognize this as a radio set? If you saw one during the war I'm sure many other people did."
"Yes. Ask instead why the people took the trouble to bring everything we carried with us to this high balcony. Ask why you still have your gloves."
"Forget my gloves, ask why I still have my head." Roy rested his hands on the lid of the radio, pensive. "This is another test, isn't it? To see whether I'll wait, when I have the means to call in armies or," he fingered his belt pouch "level the entire city." He frowned. "That's one hell of a risk to take."
"A test, and a demonstration," Scar replied. "Every minute you choose not to use alchemy to kill or even make yourself comfortable demonstrates that you have the patience and respect of a thinking man, but it also proves to the tribes that the Elders were correct to let you live."
Roy stroked the lid of the radio set and listened to the sound of chanting coming from the open windows and skylights of the temple. "It seemed like the Elders and the people they speak for have very different opinions on what to do with me."
"That's another reason why the Elders chose to sing the dead into the River before beginning talks with you. The days of mourning will give them time to pray, to read, and to remind the tribes of the wisdom in our history." Scar spread his bedroll out, then opened one of the baskets. "I know it makes no difference to you, but the sun is almost gone, and I'd rather see where you spread your blankets."
"Preferably somewhere you won't step on me in the middle of the night," Roy said ruefully, rubbing his side a little. "I've got enough bruises for one week."
A shriek woke Roy out of a sound sleep, and he bolted upright as a woman's high scream rang through the chill night air. "Scar!"
Scar started to answer in bleary Ishbalan, then took a breath and said in Amestrian, "The woman isn't hurt." He jumped as a male voice roared somewhere close. "The screams are for the dead."
Roy listened as something crashed in the night beyond the temple. "This is part of the funeral rituals?"
"For those who died by violence, yes."
Cries and howls rose from all over the city, accompanied by thumps and crashes and another very familiar sound. Roy went taut and grabbed for his belt pouch, digging into it to pull out his gloves.
Scar put his hand atop Roy's. "No."
"There's a house on fire out there!"
"Not one anyone is using." Scar's fingers tightened. "That fire is a message to you. The souls caught in the Stone couldn't have died at your hand, but there are some in this city who carry a grudge against the Flame Alchemist."
Roy frowned. "Can you see where that fire is?"
Scar moved in his blankets. "Yes."
Roy took his gloves and got up. "Point me in the right direction and give me a range estimate."
Roy turned back toward his guide. "What do you mean 'no'? I can put fires out as easily as I can start them, and if there's no one in that house I don't need to worry about accidentally smothering someone."
"I know. But think of the message you'd send by putting out those flames."
"I am thinking of the message. Stopping that fire means I regret the damage I caused, and I want to stop it before it spreads further."
"That's what you would intend, but it's not how the tribes of Daliha would interpret it. That fire is their grief, and it's not yours to say when it will fade. It will burn itself out, sooner or later, and leave only ashes." Scar shifted a little. "Sit down and put your gloves away."
Roy stood at the rail a moment longer, listening to the howls and screams, then sat back down on his bedroll, spread beside Scar's and sheltered by one of the thick pillars supporting the balcony roof. "Will this go on all night?"
"Some will scream until dawn, but most will go to bed in an hour or two."
"I see." Roy put his back to the column and draped his blankets over his bare feet. "If we're going to be up anyway, maybe you could explain some of what happened today."
"Maybe I will." Scar moved, and sat down with his back to the temple wall, facing Roy.
"Let's start with why you almost jumped out of your skin when Elder Shan started talking. I take it you know her?"
"Yes," Scar said heavily.
"Is she a relative?"
"Yes and no." Scar hesitated, then reluctantly went on. "She speaks for my mother's tribe."
"Why did you jump when she spoke up?"
"I didn't know she—or any of her tribe—had come here." The end of the sentence carried a finality that said the subject was closed.
"I see." Roy startled as something crashed just below the balcony, followed by a chorus of shrieks and howls. "And we're 'prisoners of the temple'. What does that mean?"
"It means the Elders are willing to protect you, for the time being. They will pray and consult the books for guidance."
"And see whether or not I'll be patient and wait until the funeral rituals are over." Roy closed his eyes and set his jaw as stones crashed down and cut off a woman's scream.
"Yes." Scar took a breath and let it out.
Roy breathed in slow, deep sighs while pots and pans clanged and children wailed for their parents. "Is this going to happen every night?"
"No. This is the night of remembering the killing."
There was a sound of scratching on stone, then a male voice yowled within inches of Roy's ear. The next instant the Flame Alchemist was on his feet with his back plastered against the temple wall and a ball of fire in his gloved right hand. Someone loomed to his right, and he yelped and skipped back along the wall, bringing his other hand to bear with a fistful of flames at the ready.
"Roy." A voice thrummed low and urgent. "Think in the now. Do you know me?"
Another shriek erupted somewhere in the courtyard close below the balcony, and Roy backed further along the wall until he ran into one of the water jars and lost his footing. He scooted sideways and opened his eyes wide, but found no light. Something had gone wrong, the fire was gone...
"Roy. Remember where you are." A man's voice, gravelly and with a light Ishbalan accent.
Ishbalan. Roy scrambled, and groped behind himself for shelter while still straining to pick out some patch of denser shadow in the darkness, a glint from a weapon, anything to help pinpoint his enemies-
A younger man's voice spoke in Ishbalan, and the man snapped a harsh reply, then switched into Amestrian.
"Roy." His name swam through the fog of screams and fire. He snapped his fingers and heard the soft fwump of ignition and his own panting, fast and desperate, but he couldn't see...
"Roy Mustang. Listen to me. I am the Scar of Ishbal."
Scar of Ishbal...Something snapped in his head even as the screams went on. He froze in stark terror.
"We're calling him 'Scar' for now, since we haven't got a name for him and the only description we have is a big Ishbalan with an X-shaped scar on his face. Hard to see how anyone could miss a guy like that, but we haven't got a single lead."
"Roy Mustang." The voice spoke again. "Do you remember the name of your horse? She is a grey mare."
"What?" He heard his own voice, strained and sharp. There was heat warming his palms, but no light...
"Your horse." The Ishbalan spoke as though it was an entirely reasonable thing to ask in the middle of a firefight. "Do you remember her name?"
"Horse?" he repeated, incredulous. The question didn't fit...
...he took a deep breath as he remembered.
"Oh gods." He swallowed and let the fire in his hands puff out. "Did I hurt anyone?"
"No. You only gave a foolish ungwaiyar a scare he won't soon forget."
"Scar..." Roy ran a hand over his face. "Her name is Ghost—because she's soft-footed and grey. And I..." he wriggled his own fingers, then snapped them in front of his face, letting the fire warm his nose as well as his hand "...I'm totally blind." He extinguished the fire and let his hand fall to his side. "So whatever I see..." He shook his head and got up. "I've lost track of where I am."
Scar moved, then pushed Roy's shoulders around. "Your blankets are five of your steps straight forward," he said gruffly. "But you'll give me your gloves before you move."
Roy opened his mouth to protest, then thought better of it. "Any idea who that guy was?" He took his time stripping off his only weapons.
"The one who screamed in your ear was an ungwaiyar of the Uryia tribe," Scar answered. He didn't let go until Roy surrendered his gloves.
"Ungwaiyar. One who is in training to be a yevarshedaht."
Roy found the temple wall, and slowly traced it on his way back to his blankets, using his left hand to find the water jars before he ran into them. He sank down and sat, taking slow, deep breaths of the cool air until his heart slowed and the tremors in his shoulders and legs faded.
Scar settled down on his own blankets, spread beside Roy's. His breathing wasn't loud, and he barely even shifted his weight until Roy spoke.
"You've done that before, haven't you?"
"Broken into a waking nightmare? Yes."
"That was a good question to ask. About Ghost."
"I guessed it wouldn't be one you'd expect from an enemy."
"That's not a question I'd expect from a friend, either." Roy relaxed and leaned back against the wall even as the caterwauling went on in the city. "Thanks."
"Thank you." The sharp edges of Scar's words softened just enough for a hint of humor to slide under them. "For holding your fire long enough to let me ask the question."
Roy let out a short bark of laughter, then ran his bare hand up over his head and into his hair. "You do puns now?" He shook his head to himself. "You've got a lot more..." He paused, then turned to face his companion. "You don't happen to play chess, do you?"
"I've seen it played."
Roy lifted an eyebrow. "Are you interested in learning?"
"If it will make this night seem shorter, yes." Scar shifted, then stretched his long legs. "The moon is bright enough to see a game board."
"Where's my typewriter?" Roy got up and groped until he found the box. "I put the set in here for safekeeping." He lifted the lid and fished out the worn-smooth wooden case, then opened it with businesslike precision, orienting it. "Now, this set is missing the white queen, but I think we can work around that."
"How is it you plan to tell the pieces apart?" Scar asked. "I don't see any markings on them to indicate which are black and which are white."
"Nor do I," Roy answered with a sardonic grin, "but I don't need to. Here." He offered the black knight to Scar. "It's hard to see, but unmistakable to the touch."
"It's smoother than the white ones."
Roy nodded. "Heymans Breda came up with it after he and I had some games that went awry because I lost track of where my pieces were. I didn't want to cut into the chessmen—they were a gift—but Breda pointed out that there's a noticeable texture difference between rough lacquer and smooth varnish. I've had the board modified a little, too. Now," he said more briskly, "you set up your pieces in a mirror image of mine..."
Someone in the city was singing. Roy drifted up from a vague dream, and sucked in a deep breath of cool morning air. The singer was male, and his voice rose and fell with practiced ease.
The sense of Scar's presence was gone. Roy hesitantly patted the exile's blankets, but found no warmth to indicate the Ishbalan had recently left them. "Scar?" Roy sat up.
"Mm." The voice of Roy's guide came from beside the temple wall.
Roy fumbled in his clothing from the previous day and found his pocketwatch. He probed its face and hands for a moment, then his brows furrowed. "Five-thirty in the morning? The funeral screams didn't stop until-"
"Hush." Scar's harsh whisper carried the exasperated irritation of a parent chastising an errant child. When he spoke again his voice was much softer and more reverent. "This time is for God. Listen, and imagine the sun rising bright over Golden Xerxes." The singer's voice rose and fell, gaining strength, then an odd echo...another singer far in the distance.
"These are the morning songs," Scar murmured. "My people have sung them at dawn for at least two thousand years."
"Two thousand...?" Roy paused to listen for a long moment. "What are they saying?"
"They are thanking God for their souls, their bodies, their parents and their children." Scar paused as a third voice joined the first two in a weird, off-balance harmony. "They give thanks for the brightness of the day, the warmth of the earth, and the depth of the water." He fell silent again.
Roy lowered his head and listened, his back against the cool stone pillar. After a while he straightened and turned toward the exiled warrior-priest. "Scar—what do you see?"
Scar didn't answer immediately. He let out a slow breath, then said, "My people were right to name this place Golden Xerxes." He paused for a moment. "Picture in your mind the fallen city under the moonlight. The sky turns first grey, then red, and the light turns stone to fire, for a moment." He let that sink in. "The sun begins to climb the horizon. It comes up behind the towers and the collapsed palaces of kings. A living man might almost think he saw the ghosts of the ones who built this place, swept along in the morning mist before it vanished. The light on the walls turns to gold." Scar shifted his weight, then said in a tone that mixed wonder and regret, "God is here, Roy Mustang."
Roy blinked, then turned and got up, stepping carefully around the radio box and going to the rail. He took a deep breath, and despite himself, he strained to catch something, anything, of the light of Golden Xerxes. He closed his eyes and gripped the balcony rail tightly with both hands for a long, breathless pause, then deliberately relaxed and lowered his head. "Maybe so." He leaned on the stone and swept his unseeing gaze across the gradually waking city. "Maybe so."
After the morning songs ended, Roy stretched out and went back to sleep. He woke to Scar's hand on his shoulder.
"Roy. Wake up and straighten your clothes. Elder Shan is waiting to see you."
"Mwhat?" Roy propped himself up on one elbow and rubbed the back of his neck. "Someone's here?"
"Yes. Wake up. Vrua Shan is waiting. She's brought tea for you, and two of the yevarshedaht of her tribe are with her."
"I see." Roy swept himself into a tidy kneel, then ran one hand over his disorderly bangs and got to his feet. "I take it she's here about the fireworks last night?" He put out one hand and found Scar's arm.
"Wait and see." The twitch of Scar's skin under Roy's fingers belied his curiously monotone delivery. He lowered his voice still further. "Be mindful of Kuveh."
"Coming from you that's a frightening statement."
"Kuveh and Elahi both have their swords. I have your gloves, if you want to be armed."
Roy hesitated. "Can our guests see us?"
"Then I'll do without them for now." Roy took a firmer hold on Scar's elbow. "I can defend myself if I have to."
Scar led Roy down the balcony at a decorous pace and spoke in a barely-audible murmur. "She will test you, to see what kind of man your country considers good enough to negotiate with us. If Kuveh speaks an insult, Shan put it into his mouth. Be strong and wise."
"Right," Roy answered. "Stay close, I'm going to want your opinion afterward."
"Yes." Scar stopped, and slipped out of Roy's grip. "The cushion is right in front of you. Here is the Elder, with Kuveh to her left and Elahi on her right."
"The morning is good, Roy Mustang," the Elder said from her cushion. "Perhaps you will sit and share tea with me." There was a dry rasp in her Amestrian.
"Thank you, Vrua, I'd be happy to have a cup of tea." Roy sat down and folded his legs. Scar settled down to his right, and Kuveh said something in Ishbalan. Scar's answer was curt, and Shan interrupted, then shifted back into Amestrian. "Perhaps the exile will go somewhere else while we talk of matters, Emissary of Amestris."
"I'd rather have him here, ma'am." Roy leveled his brows and turned his face toward Kuveh, projecting do you really want to take me on? toward the warrior-priest. "Unfortunately, I'm not yet familiar enough with your language and culture to do without an interpreter, and these negotiations are far too important to all of us to risk them on a simple misunderstanding."
"You would do better to ask someone wise enough to keep his word, but the matter is a small one." Tea poured, and a cup touched the stone in front of Roy. "Here is the cup. I will drink tea with you, Roy Mustang, sent from Amestris."
"Thank you." Roy gingerly touched the cup. It was warm but not painfully hot, made of glazed ceramic, and taller than teacups in Amestrian cupboards. "This is one of the matters on which I'm not sure of the expected courtesies, Elder. Is it the custom for me to drink first, or is there a toast to make?"
"It is only tea." The Elder slurped audibly. "Do as seems good to you."
Roy picked up the cup in both hands and took his time bringing it to his face. The tea had a minty tang.
"There are many questions we would ask of you, but perhaps you have questions to ask us." The Elder audibly set down her cup.
"I do." Roy lowered the cup into his lap. "Foremost among them is the question of exactly who I'm talking to."
"I am Shan. Through me you speak to my tribe, and what you say to me I will say to my brothers and sisters among the Elders."
Roy nodded. "I understand that much, but I'm not sure who's included in your tribe and who isn't. For instance—if there are people of your tribe still at home in Kanda, do you speak for them, or is that someone else's job?"
Elahi spoke in a low growl. Shan answered in a reproving tone, then shifted back to Amestrian. "I speak for those of my tribe who choose to call me Grandmother. You mean to ask without asking—I say that message riders have gone into the desert. They will go and ask the Elders of the place you call Ishbal what the tribes there will do. They may choose to come themselves to speak for their people. They may send a sash with the riders. The sash will show that what we say to you, that tribe will also back. Some may send a knife." The pitch of her words fell, then rose again as she went on. "It is strange that you rode to this place when you say you mean to end the war that raged far to the south."
"My friend here," Roy nodded at Scar "told me that it would be better to talk to you first."
"Those words were wise," the Elder allowed. "My brothers and sisters who sit as Elders even now speak to the tribes, and remind the children and grandchildren that you could have traded the Stone of Souls for your eyes." She paused, then continued in a slow, low-pitched thrum that carried the weight of more than old age. "That you did not tells me something about you. That you chose to put not the Stone but your life into the hand of the exile, who was your enemy, tells me something else."
"He and I have both changed our minds about some things since the war." Roy set his teacup down by his knee. "Now my whole country is changing its mind. That's why I'm here."
"Our children and our grandchildren have brought us messages saying that the old king of your country is dead, and the new king has not yet been chosen."
Roy made his face and voice stay neutral. "That's true, ma'am."
"You said before the tribes that you chose yourself as the emissary."
"That's true, too."
"There are some who will say that your people said, 'Let him go and talk while we choose our new king, so our neighbors don't come to us with naked swords.'"
Roy frowned. "I admit that that's a reasonable suspicion, but it's not the truth in this case. The people backing me regret what our country has done to yours. They wouldn't have let me carry the Stone to you if they didn't truly want to end the fighting."
"What of those who don't back you?"
"Those who do back me are taking care of that, among other things."
"What have they told you of events in your country, when you talk to them on the radio?"
Roy lifted an eyebrow, then took the time to retrieve his teacup and drink before answering. "When I last talked to them, three days ago, they told me the army's pulling out of Central and letting the city police take over keeping the peace. They also passed along some messages from my family."
The Elder chuckled a little. "Then perhaps you should talk on your radio and tell them you are well."
"I will, Elder, if I have assurances that your people won't consider that a threat."
"Some will, but if they say to me, 'Destroy the radio, before it sends messages of war,' I will speak and remind the tribes that even if you spoke to your people and told them to send the tanks to this place, they would find nothing and no one but you and the exile, perhaps alive, perhaps dead, when they came." There was desert stone, weathered but not cracked by sand and sun, in her dry tone. "Yours are not people born to the desert and the horse. You don't know how to find the water, or hunt the animals here. Your trucks and your tanks cannot eat what grows near the wells, and your clothes are made for cool shade and not bright sun. Our hunters and messengers would see your armies long before they saw this city, and we would close the wells with stones and go."
"I see." Roy lowered his teacup into his lap and encircled it with his hands, rubbing a finger over its glazed surface. "I would expect there to be a few who would want to stay and defend their homes."
"Some would," she answered. "But there are matters that stand higher still than pride and the killing of invaders."
Roy slid his empty eyes toward Scar, then aimed them back at the Elder. "On that much we agree."
"It is written in our books that we are the Elders to all the races," Shan said gravely. "We must be the ones to break the chain of a hand for a hand, a life for a life, a city for a city, lest all the blood in the world spill out and turn the River red for the rest of time."
Scar shifted beside Roy.
"That's an admirable standard." Roy angled an eyebrow toward Kuveh without turning toward him. "It's not an easy one, though, especially when it's your loved ones you have to leave unavenged."
"Dead is dead," the Elder said bluntly. "Can you bring the dead back to life, alchemist? Perhaps with the Stone of Souls, full of the dead?"
Roy sucked in a short breath, then let it out and shook his head. "No. I could try, but I wouldn't succeed. It wouldn't matter how much power I threw into the array, I couldn't recreate someone I'd lost." He let some of his searing grief show. "I didn't understand the why of that until recently, but I've seen what happens when someone tries to break that barrier."
"What does happen?"
Roy took his time answering. "Some say the ones who are torn apart by the transmutation are the lucky ones."
"What do you say?"
Roy lifted his head and frowned. "I say those who try it and survive are the best arguments against trying human transmutation. Maybe the ones who die iare/i lucky. The ones who don't are changed forever, and it's not just a physical transformation."
"Why does such a thing fail?" The Elder's voice gave no hint of her thoughts.
Roy's frown deepened. "Does it matter?"
"What matters is what you know and will tell your people."
"Ah." Roy carefully relaxed his body and smoothed his expression. "It's not time to write my memoirs and tell the world what happened yet."
"Yes, you are young. Perhaps too young for the burdens you carry?"
"I'm older than I look, ma'am," Roy answered blandly.
"Not old enough to know that a secret is heavier than the earth, more dangerous than lightning, and more sought by men and by women than all the riches that ever were or will be." The Elder leaned toward Roy. "We are taught by our grandmothers and our grandfathers, down a thousand years and another thousand years—when the ones who know say nothing to those who ask, sooner or later there will be tears and blood again."
"That's true, but there are also people who think that they can do better than everyone who came before," Roy answered quietly. "And even a few who are crazy enough not to care who gets hurt as long as they get what they want."
"Yes. There are always some like that." The Elder poured herself more tea. "That is why there are Elders, and the yevarshedaht."
Roy paused. "Forgive me if I've misunderstood, Vrua, but do you mean that there isn't any knowledge you would withhold from your children?"
The Elder tutted. "We have books that are closed. The children who want to read these things must study to be jhastovar, yevarshedaht, or must ask us, the grandmothers and grandfathers, to sit with them in the windows to read." She took a mouthful of her tea.
Roy waited a moment. "How much of this time in history will you write in the closed books?"
"That remains to be seen," Shan answered. "Perhaps some. Perhaps none at all. These days and years must be remembered by your people and mine." She paused, and when she spoke again there was only an old woman's grief in her voice. "There are nights when I wake with the sounds of the bombs still loud in my ears, and other nights when my grandchildren run to my bed and cry beside me because they dreamed of their father getting up from the street where he died and coming to carry them back to the grave with him."
Roy nodded without lowering his head. "These days the only things I see are memories. Some of them are good—but everyone I know who fought in Ishbal has nightmares we can't explain to someone who wasn't there." He tilted his head a little. "We can talk about whether or not it's a good idea to pass on everything we saw and did—but can we agree that we don't want any more children to see their dead fathers in nightmares?"
"That is where your nation and mine will begin, when it is time to speak of matters of nations. Know this—the jhastovar will write all that is said and done here." The elderly woman got up with the help of Elahi. "Think and pray on the wisdom of taking your nightmares into silence and the River with you. Better your grandchildren learn from your words than they suffer the same torments you did to learn what you knew but did not say." She moved and put a hand on Scar, saying something brief before returning to Roy. "Perhaps we will have tea again."
"I'd like that." Roy got to his feet. "Thank you for the tea and an interesting conversation."
"Be at peace, Emissary." The Elder picked up the cushions and left at a dignified pace. The door closed and locked behind her, leaving Roy and Scar alone on the balcony again.
"Well—I think I passed that test, whatever it was." Roy passed a hand over his face, then followed the rail back toward his blankets. "What did she say to you?"
"She told me to be a wise slave to you."
"What?" Roy narrowed his eyes and pressed his lips into a thin line. "Is there any way I'm supposed to take that that isn't an insult?"
"It's not directed at you," Scar got up, filled their cups from the water jar, then downed and refilled his own before coming back to put Roy's cup into his right hand. "The message was meant for me, and it offers me a reason to hope."
"Scar..." Roy sank to his blankets and massaged his temples with his fingertips. "You've lost me. Would you explain just how being told you're a slave can give you hope?"
"The Wise Slave is one of our stories. The slave of the story wins more than his freedom..." Scar trailed off.
"More than his freedom?" Roy prompted.
"Dyenes Yeta matevi shahntar," Scar breathed. He set down his cup with a clatter.
"The Elders are taking your mission seriously, Roy Mustang," Scar answered with an audible flutter in his chest. "Vrua Shan just proved their sincerity."
"Any time you want to go back and fill in the gaps between all those leaps of logic, let me know," Roy said a little testily.
There was an edge of hysteria in Scar's chuckle. "Sa-sazamuz. I'd forgotten." He took a deep breath and collected himself. "Elder Shan knew you would ask what she said to me. You're an intelligent man, and therefore curious. So she told me to be your wise slave, knowing I would tell you—and that I would explain what this meant." He drained his cup in one swig, then went on. "The wise slave was a warrior taken captive and sold as a naked slave—no better than a dog. His master was a cruel foreign prince, who tried to break him with humiliation and beatings."
"I don't think I like the role I'm being assigned, here," Roy said darkly.
"It is as much your country as you personally," Scar answered. "The foreign prince knew no better—he'd been driven out of his country by his own brothers, because there was a prophecy that the youngest brother would gain the greatest power and rule that kingdom and more. The wise slave taught him that the way to gain that power was to treat those who served him—even his horse and a slave who wore only an iron collar—with respect, because a follower who chooses to follow is far better than a man who serves because he fears a whip."
"I still don't see how that's not an insult," Roy said stiffly.
"Elder Shan is no fool," Scar told him. "You put no chain around my neck, and even if you had, I could have walked away from it if I chose. You've trusted me. We were enemies. Now you risk offending an Elder to insist that I stay close to advise you."
"I thought she was just testing me to see whether I'd back down without a fight."
"She was. She also wanted to know your opinion of me. She knows what I think of you simply because I led you here, to my people, rather than breaking your neck as you slept."
"And I haven't roasted you alive." Roy smiled a little. "I hope that counts in my favor."
"You have the power of a State Alchemist, but you've chosen not to use it against me, even though I killed your brother alchemists," Scar answered seriously. "Shan wants to believe this is the end of the bloodshed. By making me the wise slave she made you the foreign prince—the man who only needed a guide to help him find the right path."
Roy sat in profound silence for a long moment. "She said all of that in one sentence." He shook his head.
"We say, 'The young man talks all day and his words blow away in the wind. The old man speaks once and his words are carved in stone.'"
"Or written in history books." Roy took his cup and went to the water jar. "It makes me wonder what hidden meanings they'll find in whatever I say to them."
"The Elders will treat you as the foreign prince. In the story, he became a good man with the help of his slave, and his people chose to follow him into battle against his cruel brothers. When the foreign prince won the throne of his kingdom, he sent the wise slave home to his people with a thousand men to help build up the city walls and dig new wells to water the fields. The wise slave wore a collar for the rest of his life—but the collar he wore to his grave was made of gold and precious stones." He put a hand on Roy's shoulder. "For now my collar is iron, but in time I may return to my people wearing gold." He squeezed Roy's shoulder gently, then got to his feet and went to rinse out their cups.
"No pressure or anything," Roy said softly to himself. "So—are we likely to have any more guests?"
"I don't know. Some of the other Elders may come to talk to you and take your measure. Nothing will be done officially until the dead have been sung back into the River and the messengers have returned from the south."
"So we've got a lot of idle time on our hands."
"Mm. Time enough for you to learn another phrase or two, perhaps."
"I'm still working on the last one. Boksa ag kizzay kadlu saayeej eyda." Roy said carefully.
"Bazai a kekzai katilu sahij eda," Scar corrected. "Push your tongue closer to your teeth."
"Your people get a lot of exercise just talking," Roy said ruefully. "Bakzay."
"Yours talk with their tongues halfway down their throats," Scar answered amiably. "My teacher used to say that someday he'd like to know what you swallowed that you were working so hard to retrieve."
Roy laughed. "We're not the worst there is. Have you ever heard a northern Caledonian talk?"
"No," Scar answered. "I read stories about them as a student, though."
"Track someone from there down sometime and buy him a beer," Roy grinned. "Then ask him how to say 'I like a dark beer' in his language."
"You speak from experience." The question was barely a hint in the rhythm of the words.
"A lot of experience. My friend Hughes' parents were Caledonian, and his father was from the far north of the country. Maes taught me a few phrases, but he was born in Amestris, so didn't have the right accent. His mother sounded like a purring cat when she talked, and his father could roll his words around until he sounded like a thunderstorm warming up." Roy's face softened a little into the memory. "Maes and I meant to go and see his family's hometown, and find out whether the fish were as big as his father swore they were." His smile faded. "We never got around to it, and I never made the time to go and see it for myself." His head lowered. "Now I never will."
Scar gave the ache the silence it merited, then asked, "What of your parents?" He paused. "On the road you said that you can pass for Xingese to anyone but the Xingese, and that you speak the language."
"One of them," Roy answered, his tone brittle. "Fahenja knen d'nikee ukundiyiti nvawa hui chen."
"What did you say?"
"I told you that I might be a skinny little kid, but you're stupid, and I'll grow up someday." Roy settled back against the pillar and rested his head against the stone. "I used to say that a lot, usually to kids who didn't understand a word of it but chased me all the way home anyway."
"You showed them up in school?"
"Not then." Roy shook his head. "At that age I was just the skinny little slant-eyed halfbreed who didn't understand much Amestrian beyond 'two Steam Donkeys doubled' and lived in a bar that was supposedly a front for a brothel." He raised one shoulder, then dropped it in a slow shrug. "I was the easy target."
"How old were you?"
"Seven, my first year at school." Roy rolled his head along the pillar to focus on his guide and tutor. "What about you? Somehow I doubt you were ever called little."
"My brother called me his baby brother," Scar answered with something that might have been wistfulness in his tone. "Even when I grew taller than he, I was 'baby brother' with him. He said he remembered the day I was born, and..." He trailed off, then went on after a long pause. "He said that when he first held me he didn't believe I would ever grow even as big as he was—and he was only in his sixth the year I was born."
Roy smiled a little. "Strange, isn't it, how our perspectives change, and we only notice it in retrospect?"
"Retrospect. Hindsight. Looking back." Roy sat up a little straighter. "Which reminds me—we should get back to my lessons. Can we try that 'have a cup of tea with me' phrase again?"
"So long as you promise not to try it on anyone but me until you can keep your Amestrian tongue from substituting a goat for God and the moon for tea."
"I only did that once—and I think anyone with a sense of humor would laugh instead of accusing me of blasphemy."
"Best not to take the chance. Give me 'tea'."
"That's the moon again."
"Dammit—say tea and then moon."
"You see how easy it is to confuse them? They sound almost identical."
"No, they don't. You aren't hearing the distinctions. Listen."
Those passing through the courtyard below heard the two voices drilling Ishbalan phrases and occasionally arguing over pronunciation for much of the rest of the afternoon.
Roy waited until the Ishbalans had finished their evening services and what according to Scar was a funeral procession but sounded more like a particularly enthusiastic festival parade. Then he unlocked the radio box and began laying out the aerial. "Too bad we didn't end up on the west side of the building."
Scar took a moment to answer. "The signal will be blocked?"
"I hope not—but I have a feeling all this stone" Roy paused to tap his knuckles against the stone under his feet "will prove to be too much for even comprehensible telegraph code to get through."
Scar came closer, and ran the antenna wire through his fingers. "Would it help if this wasn't under the roof?"
"Yes, but I'm not about to risk transmuting anything here."
"You think too quickly of alchemy," the Ishbalan told him. "Put your hand on the wire and call to me when there's no more of it to pull."
"What? Scar, what are you doing?" Roy hurriedly stood as his companion moved.
"Taking the wire out from under the roof." Scar grunted a little, and air shushed past Roy's shoulder. "Tell me when there's no more of it." Clothing rustled, then Scar's bare feet padded along the roof.
Roy sank down beside the radio box, and let the wire run through his fingers. There was more of it than he'd thought, but eventually the reel clicked. "That's all of it, Scar!"
The Ishbalan exile thumped back onto the balcony floor a minute later. "It's tied between two of the small spires."
"I guess you're not afraid of heights," Roy answered.
"I started running the walls and climbing the temple the year I was six," Scar said in a matter-of-fact tone. "I'll take the wire down as soon as you've finished talking to your people. Boys on roofs rarely notice something new until they fall over it."
"I know the feeling," Roy said ruefully. He bent to the task of cranking the radio's battery.
The signal crackled with static, but it was recognizably Vato Falman's voice, repeating complex alchemical equations in northern Xingese and demanding the solutions to the puzzles.
Roy frowned, but did the math in his head and answered in rapid Xingese. [Six hundred fifty-two to the nitrogen well and ninety each to silver, lead, and gold wrapped in a reversed dragon. Triple thirty-fives on each corner of the second round, oriented all to the north and sealed with frozen fire. It waits for the dawn.] It's me, what's gone wrong?
[Where is the salamander?] Where are you and are you all right?
[On the stone in the sand, under the moon and beside the standing lines.] I'm in Xerxes, and safe for now. Scar's with me and he's not showing signs of turning on me.
There was a hissing, then a loud pop in Roy's ears and another voice, using a high-level military code. Olivia Armstrong could make even a radio signal chilly. "Verified. Report, Mustang."
"Hello, Olivia, how nice to hear from you," Roy drawled in the same code pattern. "Scar and I are fine, thank you for asking. Our hosts have given us accommodations with what Scar tells me is a lovely view of the city, and as far as I can tell they might even decide not to execute me. How are you and the rest of my friends back home?"
The major general snorted. "Your people are here. They've been climbing the walls for days and they're perched like vultures waiting to snatch every word from the speakers. Does that satisfy your inflated ego?"
"Not even remotely, but never mind. What is it you wanted so much to tell me that you took the time to sit in on the radio call?"
"I have things under control here. What I want is to know what you've accomplished, besides saving your own skin."
"For now, I've got the local Elders saying they're willing to talk about opening negotiations. They've sent messengers south to coordinate with the leaders in Ishbal." Roy relaxed back against the pillar beside his blankets, and said casually, "You might want to make sure the soldiers in the area know those guys on horseback are arranging peace talks. It would make my job a lot harder if any of them got shot by a jumpy kid who's heard a few too many stories about Ishbalans." Roy rubbed his chin. "In fact, why don't you just pull those soldiers out?"
"Have they asked for that?"
"Not yet, but I'm fairly sure they will, as a sign of good faith. Let's beat them to the punch—pull the jumpy kids and everyone else out."
"No." Olivia's tone brooked no argument. "Ishbal is too volatile."
"It's going to stay volatile until something changes, General," Roy answered. "Look at it this way—right now we've got supply lines running all over Ishbal, as well as the administrative problems of running a district full of people who currently hate us. We've also got Drachma and Aerugo and Creta to consider. Pull our men out of Ishbal, and we'll have more troops to distribute to our other borders, where the threat is a lot more potent than a remnant population living in a ruined country and carrying weapons that were second-rate twenty years ago."
There was a long moment of static hissing in Roy's ears, then, "You know what their warrior-priests are capable of."
"All too well—how many more men do you want to sacrifice to them to hold territory taken to finish a monster's project?"
"Retreating will make us seem vulnerable."
"Seem, Major General. Not be. It could be a useful deception—who would you most like to draw into the trap of thinking us weak?"
"You have a point." The commander of Briggs spoke without hesitation. "I'll consider your request, Colonel."
"That's all I ask."
"What else do you have to report?"
"I'm learning quite a bit about Ishbalan culture. Did you know they sing at dawn every morning? Scar tells me the songs are thousands of years old."
"That's not what you're there to do, Mustang."
"Isn't it?" Roy asked mildly. "I need to know the people I'm negotiating with, if I'm going to bridge the gap between our country and theirs." His tone hardened. "Especially since we not only cut that gap, we filled it to overflowing with their blood."
"You're not there to beat your chest over your own guilt, either, Colonel. You're there to arrange peace terms so we can turn our attention to other threats."
"It's the same thing," Roy said bluntly. "Right now these people are busy holding funeral rites for their god knows how many of their family members. They've asked me to wait until they've said their goodbyes, and that's what I'm doing."
"And how long do you think it will be before they decide you've waited long enough?"
"According to Scar, at least five days, and he wouldn't be surprised if it was more than that." Roy shifted his weight. "Which is probably safest for me. I think I'm still alive because their Elders decided to hold the funeral first. Besides, nothing will be decided until those messengers come back from the south."
"How sure are you of Scar's loyalties?"
"About as sure as I am of yours. His agenda and mine are pretty closely aligned, at least on the 'let's try not killing each other for a while' part. I'd like to talk to my people now."
"Tell the Elders we expect a significant concession for pulling our soldiers back to the border." There was another lengthy hiss of static, then Falman's voice came back on.
"We were listening, sir. Are you really all right?"
"I take it the major general has stalked off to terrorize someone else?"
"She left, sir. I don't know where she was going." Falman's wording was a warning. We're not entirely secure, sir. Internally or externally.
"I see." Roy grimaced. "Well, is there anything else you have to tell me?"
"Jean wants you to know he's seeing a bottle blonde." We've got eyes on the Major General. She's up to something.
Roy lightened his tone. "Is he? Tell him not to let her find out he knows about the bottle, or she'll break it over his head." Play along with her and lie low until I give you the cue.
"Will do, sir. Is there anything else?"
"Say hello to Madame and her girls for me, would you please? I miss the egg wraps." Tell my foster mother to tap her sources and send you anything the least bit unusual, I don't want any surprises.
"Yes, Colonel. Take care, and check in a little more often." We'll have someone on the radio all night, every night.
"Will do. Good night, all of you." Roy flipped the switch and sagged against the pillar, taking a deep breath before lifting the earphones from his head. "Well—it seems politics and intrigue in Central are doing very well without me. What a letdown." He started packing away the radio.
"I'd like to hear what you said in all of that nonsense," Scar answered. "I'll get the antenna." He was up on the rail and then up the pillar to the roof in a moment.
"I'd like to know how you can climb like that without being half monkey and half cat," Roy murmured to himself as he packed the radio.
The typewriter bell rang, signaling the end of a line. Roy muttered under his breath, but pressed the carriage return and began another line of extremely cryptic notes, typed at the smallest setting with the lines as close together as the machine allowed. He was already on his third sheet of paper.
"Do you have that much to record?" Scar spoke over the clatter of keys and typebars.
Roy paused for a moment. "Not really. It just takes a lot longer than it should because I'm still relearning how to type." He hit a few more keys, then turned toward his Ishbalan guide. "Is the noise bothering you?"
"I'm not the one sitting next to the machine," Scar answered. "I would expect someone to come and ask you to stop for the evening prayers, though."
"I will—I can only take the racket so long myself." Roy went back to his notes, typing a few characters, then checking them with two fingers of his right hand. He typed until the bell rang, thumbed the carriage release...and groaned as something within the machine ground, then made a loud clunk. "Dammit." He opened the tool drawer built into the bottom of the traveling case and took a small screwdriver from its padded nest.
"It's broken?" Scar sounded more than a little nonplussed.
"It's dirty," Roy answered. He took a small brush, a rag, and a small bottle of machine oil from the drawer, then closed and latched it. "It must have picked up more dust on the trip than I thought." Roy set the typewriter up on its left side, then loosened the captive screws and pulled the back and bottom plates off.
"Do you need help?"
"Not for a simple cleaning," Roy answered. "If there's something mechanically wrong I might need your eyes." He braced the machine between his knees and started the time-consuming process of testing, cleaning, oiling, then retesting each lever and spring.
Scar lapsed into the peculiar silence that reminded Roy of the outcrops of the desert. The reddish-brown stones Roy remembered seemed only marginally more rooted to the land and indifferent to the passage of time than the Ishbalan apostate.
Roy's woolgathering ended with a sharp metallic ibang/i and the squall of outraged fingers. His reflexive yank only cost him more skin, and Roy swore, trying to get his right hand around the carriage and pull it back against its springs to release his left.
"Don't." Scar abruptly loomed, and he took hold of Roy's right wrist. "Let me look."
Roy closed his right hand into a fist, but did his best to take some deep breaths and let the Ishbalan size up the problem.
Scar grunted, then reached past Roy's trapped hand. "The mechanism is jammed in the front." His arm moved, and there was a sharp spung from the innards of the typewriter. "There are levers wedged together." Another movement, then Scar's shoulder pushed against Roy's chest and the big man muttered something in Ishbalan. "You didn't notice the loose rod."
"No, I didn't, because I can't SEE!" Roy roared in Scar's ear.
There was a single swift motion, then a big hand daubed with dirt-fouled oil grabbed Roy around the throat. "That is no fault of mine, alchemist. You chose this life." He let go and worked his way back into the typewriter's mechanisms. "Don't expect those of us who never had that luxury to cry for you."
Roy forced a hissing breath out through his nose and ground the heel of his right hand against the bridge of his nose, and restrained any further sound until Scar's careful poking and fiddling freed the carriage and Roy's throbbing fingers. The vigilante picked up the typewriter, set it down close to his blankets, then returned a moment later and put their first aid kit and a small bowl of water by Roy's knee without a word.
Roy took his time cleaning and bandaging the multiple small cuts on his hand, then putting away the kit and cleaning the bowl. He settled back down on his blankets. "Thanks."
"I'm sorry," Roy ventured. "You're right, I shouldn't take my frustrations out on you."
"No, you shouldn't." Scar paused a moment, then went on grudgingly, "But you were in pain."
"I still am, but you were only trying to help." Roy draped his left hand across his lap.
"You're still learning your limits." Scar picked up the tools Roy had dropped, then settled back down. Metallic noises and the smell of oil floated on the almost-still air.
"I suppose I am." Roy turned his face into the minimal breeze. "Though I prefer to think of it as finding my current limits so I can either push past them or find ways around them."
Scar worked for a minute or two, then said abruptly, "Who do you fear most?"
"What?" Roy paused, then shook his head. "That's a long list."
Roy turned toward his companion. "Because there are so many opportunities for one person's mistake or malice to destroy everything we're working for."
"And you mean to do what is necessary to fend off that mistake or malice." Scar turned and spoke toward the evening sky. "A large goal, and a dangerous one."
Roy nodded. "Beyond dangerous, on more than one level." He smiled thinly. "There's a little of your sazamuz back to you—ask yourself why the person I'm most afraid of is myself."
Author's Notes: A lot of this story grew out of discussions with kashicat about what would have happened if Roy hadn't used Marcoh's Stone to buy back his sight. However, I have added, rewritten, and rearranged so much that whatever faults you may find in this are mine, not hers.
For definitions of and commentary on the Ishvaran words and phrases used in this story, please visit the Ishvaran Glossary at .net/s/6926114/1/Ishvaran_Glosssary . I'm using it for this story, and my co-conspirator Fractured_Chaos and I are using it for a story set in the same world. It's called Arcanum Paterfamilias, and you can read it at .net/s/6926015/1/Arcanum_Paterfamilias