Number of words: 4,002

Published date: March 2, 2014

Began chapter: June 10, 2013

Finished chapter: March 2, 2014

Chapter 32: Memories 2

The First Day of Venus in the Month of the Virgin in the Twenty-First Year of His Majesty's Reign

[Friday, September 9, 1481]

Since being granted permission to leave the temple on my thirteenth birthday, I had been keeping a careful watch for Van in the hopes of speaking with him again, though this hope was low, for I had thought that he must reside and spend most of his time in His Majesty's alchemists' quarters. Such is reasonable and considering that I am far too young and inexperienced to invade the privacy of the alchemists' space, entering their quarters again in the hope of finding Van would be foolish and unnecessarily risky. I have been surprised by how disappointing I found the whole situation, for I had only spoken with this slave a few times and he should hardly be important to me.

But the news I am about to write is hard to believe.

I saw Van yesterday. He wasn't wearing the rags he had been wearing upon our last meeting and his feet were no longer bare. Instead, he wore clean robes and sandals. He was carrying a large basket filled with glass bottles and scrolls and he walked deferentially behind his master, but the white tallit [Translator's note: uncertain of meaning, but most likely a shawl or type of cloth.] across his right shoulder left no doubt of his changed status.

An apprentice is not much higher than a slave - they are their master's servants just as much as slaves are – and yet he has managed to defy the position given to him by the Heavens.

After seeing this, I immediately went to Mother to ask how this could be possible. Hadn't she taught me that no man can fight against fate? Wasn't Van born a slave? Wasn't it his lot in life to remain a slave?

I may have gathered up the courage to confront Mother over these issues, but courage is not necessarily partnered with wisdom, and in my disbelief I revealed more than was proper. Mother had seen but taken no notice of Paracelsus's new apprentice and so she was surprised that I knew so much about the man. She reprimanded me for having taken interest in a slave in the first place, though the past cannot be changed and there is no need for me to ignore him now – but there is no reason for me to pay attention to him either. Mother explained that the alchemists do not keep their knowledge among their own blood for, unlike us seers, their skills are mere science and so do not pass down hereditarily as do our own. Any who show inclination and aptitude may be taken on and taught. This is true even of slaves, though Mother admitted that she has never heard of such a thing happening before. Van was blessed by Fate by being in the right place at the right time; the skill a slave would need to demonstrate in order to be worth the cost of buying his freedom from his master would have to be exceptional. As Paracelsus already owned Van, the alchemist did not need to purchase what was already his, tempering the need for Van to be extraordinarily gifted.

The First Day of Jupiter in the Month of the Water Bearer in the Twenty-First Year of His Majesty's Reign

[Thursday, February 4, 1482]

A few days ago, we received word that a group of nomads are en route for the capital.

This would not normally be news worth noting, but the people are apparently different from the black-haired Xingese of the east and the tribes of the cold northwest mountains. If the rumours are to be believed, the strangers are said to have skin the colour of mud or leather and their eyes the colour of blood.

I will not believe it until I see it with my own eyes! Red eyes and dark skin? What kind of people could they be? Where did they come from? Perhaps they will have blue hair too! Surely the rumours exaggerate.

The Second Day of Mercury in the Month of the Water Bearer in the Twenty-First Year of His Majesty's Reign

[Wednesday, February 10, 1482]

The strangers of whom I last wrote arrived yesterday on the outskirts of the city. There are around a dozen families, probably less, surely no more than two hundred people or three at the most, making up a ragged band pitching their tents outside the city toward the edge of the Bardiya Plateau. Their leader, a man by the name of Ezra, requested an audience with His Majesty. Naturally Mother, as His Majesty's advisor, was present at the audience, but Mother also demanded that I attend with her, not as a silent observer hidden in the background, but as a fellow seer seated at her left hand. This was the first significant and unusual event since my thirteenth birthday - I believe Mother was eager to show me just how important we seers are to our country's prosperity.

It turned out that Mother also wished to test me, and I describe this meeting in detail for my own benefit. One day I will want to look back and remember my first real experience as a seer.

I will admit that I was quite nervous, but also excited and curious to see the strange people who have entered our land. Most especially, of course, I wanted to see if they really did have red eyes and brown skin, as the rumours said. Mother firmly cautioned me not to display whatever fascination I felt and that I should regard them as no different from any other people. They have come to His Majesty in acknowledgement of his power, and in that they are the same as any others. In fact, if they are so cursed that even their skin defies the sun's light, the most I should show is disgust.

This was all very easy for Mother to say, for she is completely blind now and so had no reaction to hide, but I did as she instructed, keeping my face expressionless as I helped her into His Majesty's audience chamber and took my seat at her left side.

The rumours, as hard as it is to believe, were accurate. The petitioner and the three men who accompanied him, though they were dusty from travel, all had brown skin and their eyes were deep red, like blood. I will note, however, that their hair was silvery white. That they have been cursed in one way and yet blessed in another is perplexing. I was thankful that Mother could not see this, for she has always been proud of her white hair and would have been deeply offended had she seen the same in these strangers.

Paracelsus, speaking for His Majesty, asked what the strangers were doing in our great country, where they had come from and where they were going. Their story is fantastic and much too long for me to record here. In essence, Ezra claims to be the prophet of a god whom he calls "Ishbala" who has promised to lead them to a "Holy Land". He and his family and all those who believe in his visions have wandered far and hard in their search for this longed-for home.

Ezra spoke at great length. He spoke of the greatness of his god and how Ishbala was the "One God", denying that any others could exist. He related that Ishbala controls everything, that Ishbala knows the destiny of all humans and that, though he seems to work in mysterious ways, he had chosen this man's tiny family to become a great and blessed nation. He spoke of miracles that their new god had performed with utter conviction and at the same time held no grudge against his god for the suffering he and his family had endured to reach us. If anything, as His Majesty and the alchemists and Mother and I sat and listened, outwardly unmoved, Ezra only became more fervent, his voice so impassioned that it seemed he was trying to convince us then and there of the truth of his words.

Eventually, Ezra got to the point of his request: He believed that our kingdom might be his "Holy Land". The underlying message: He and his family were tired of wandering. They wished to find a home among us and they sought His Majesty's permission to do so.

Paracelsus, ever the practical one (as alchemists are), questioned Ezra. Our kingdom is so great, he explained, that we have many petitions from foreigners to live within our lands. What made them more worthy than others who were turned away? What skills did they have to offer us? What knowledge did they have of our ways, culture, and sciences? How did Ezra envision his people integrating into our society? The questioning quickly revealed that this "prophet" had given little thought to his petition and had no particular plan other than obeying the voice of his god and relying on the charity of others.

"Faith," Paracelsus said when he had finished his questioning, "may well be admirable, but it does little to benefit our kingdom." He did not look towards us and Mother's face did not change, but the remark was clearly meant as a jibe.

Ezra seemed uncertain how to respond to this. As the leader of his people, he probably had never been challenged before and had presumed we would accept his request without trouble. As if Xerxes had become great by giving handouts to every vagabond who asked them of us!

I found myself wondering why His Majesty was even bothering to entertain this man, for I knew as well as anyone that outsiders had never been allowed to permanently live among us. Yes, traders came and left, but they never stayed. I suppose the royal court decided to allow this exception because they were as curious as I was, though the idea seems funny to me, given that I had never before considered that the elders might also be prey to trivial human curiosity.

Once Paracelsus said his piece, His Majesty spoke for the first time, saying that he had heard from one advisor and now wished to know Mother's position. What did she see as regards these "followers of Ishbala"? Should they be allowed to stay in our land or not?

Mother remained silent for a long time and when she spoke, she did not immediately answer His Majesty's question. Instead, she unexpectedly addressed me.

"Tell me, Dante: How was this world created?"

The question was one I had been tested on less than a month ago. I had no idea why Mother was asking me this, but I gave the rote answer nonetheless.

"Seer, no one knows how this world was created. The creation cannot know the manner by which it was moulded, for it did not yet exist until the creation was complete."

Mother's face betrayed nothing of her thoughts or whether I had answered correctly.

"Then tell me, do we know nothing of this world's creator?"

"Not so, Seer. This world's creator has made plain the ways in which the universe functions. By knowing the laws of creation, we may know something of the creator's mind, much as the form of the vessel indicates the potter's intent."

Ezra, it was clear, did not know what to make of this exchange. Paracelsus looked unimpressed and impatient. His Majesty merely listened and waited, familiar with and favourable towards Mother's indirect methods.

"And what are the laws of creation that show us the creator's mind?"

"Seer, the law of creation is that that which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below, to accomplish the miracle of the One."

"You are confusing our guests," she reprimanded me crisply, pretending to be a good host, though I suspect she couldn't care less whether the Ishbalans understood our conversation or not. "Explain so that they may understand."

"Everything in the world is connected. The Heavens and Earth are not separate, but are eternally affected by each other. Mankind possesses the Heavens in his body. The Heavens move and the Earth moves with them. The wisest of mankind saw the great and the small and through careful observation, learned of the invisible laws that govern us."

The prophet of Ishbala lost his patience then.

"Why are you wasting my time with this cryptic nonsense?"

Paracelsus snapped at him to hold his tongue in His Majesty's presence. Ezra glowered but did as ordered. Mother continued questioning me without the slightest indication that she'd heard either of them. For all she showed, we might have been in the temple at one of my lessons.

"List the greater planets and their current positions in the Heavens," she demanded.

I have never been so grateful for my morning readings as I was at that moment. Without them, I could never have answered without referring to the ephemeris.

"Seer, the Sun is in the sign of the Water Bearer, Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune are in the sign of the Bull, and Uranus is in the sign of the Maiden."

"Interpret this."

Now was the most difficult moment, where I would truly fail or succeed. I still did not know what Mother's intention was, whether she supported the petition or not, and so the only thing I could do was speak neutrally.

"Humanitarianism and charity fall within the Water Bearer's domain. Men are moved to generosity at this time more than others. The conjunction of the three planets in the Bull indicates that security and stability are being unduly influenced. While Jupiter is the planet of luck and forecasts positive development and Neptune affects the spiritual domain - a neutral sign - Saturn is the planet of challenge. It is possible that security will be challenged but overcome, or that a period of stability will be followed by difficulties. Uranus, the ruler of change, disturbance, and revolution, appearing in the Maiden, who governs routine and reflection, suggests a disruption to the ordinary ways of life."

Mother remained silent for a moment, as if waiting for me to continue. I had the terrible feeling that I had forgotten something. When it became clear that I had nothing more to add but before the others became suspicious, Mother prompted me.

"And what is the aspect between the Water Bearer and the Maiden?"

I realized what I had missed and tried not to wince at my blunder.

"They are in opposition, Seer. Uranus is the ruler of the Water Bearer but now is opposite its subject. This neutralizes any positive influence the House may have had."

Mother tilted her head slightly to acknowledge my words and then spoke again, this time addressing Ezra.

"Prophet, you have told us of your god's greatness. Has your god told you anything of the future, of what will be the result of our accepting you into our land?"

"Do you play at being God? It is not for men to know the future," Ezra replied, sounding offended. "Ishbala asks only that we have faith in His goodness. If we have faith, our Lord will provide and care for us-"

"I take that as a 'no'. Your Majesty, my advice is as follows: These 'Ishbalans' should be driven out of our land. Allowing them sanctuary will disrupt society; our charity will be rewarded with upheaval. While good may come temporarily, the signs are inauspicious."

"Driven out?! But we travelled all this way - struggled through the desert - just to reach this place! You would throw us back with nothing? Didn't you mention a creator too? If you believe in God, then how can you have such little compassion?"

My mother, out of anger or insult or some other emotion effectively hidden, rose to her feet, keeping one hand on the chair arm to steady herself, making a small gesture to stop me from going to her side to assist her, but even while seeming weak in her milky-eyed blindness, she spoke with such authority and power that the red-eyed men flinched at her voice.

"There is a god, but only a fool believes that God is active in the world! The creator set this world in motion, set the Heavens in motion, and left us to our fate. Your people may very well become a great nation one day, but it will not be because your great Ishbala granted you his boon! The weak hope that a creator will save them; the wise read the mind of God and accept their fate. We have no need for men who think otherwise."

The Ishbalans were furious and insulted. Ezra cursed Mother and the guards were called in. Paracelsus even went so far as to step in front of His Majesty and start drawing a circle on the floor, which I know is the start of any transmutation, and yet alchemists never reveal their art in front of the uninitiated, which means he felt His Majesty was in such danger that trusting the guards' protection was not enough. No matter what Mother says, no matter that the alchemists are fools in their thinking, I will still respect Paracelsus for his action then.

There is little more to write. The Ishbalans were escorted from the audience hall, Ezra protesting that he hadn't meant any violence against His Majesty, the others also indignant and yet seeming embarrassed at their leader's lack of poise.

This was my first test in front of outsiders, Paracelsus, and His Majesty. Mother did it to give me confidence, to increase my esteem in the eyes of the royal court, and to ingrain the importance and relevance of our teachings. To meet so many goals in a single event only proves Mother's wisdom once again.

Of course, she did not praise me afterwards, but I know I pleased her. She would have reprimanded me if I had failed to pass this test.

The Second Day of Venus in the Month of the Water Bearer in the Twenty-First Year of His Majesty's Reign

[Friday, February 12, 1482]

After cooling off and reassessing his situation, the Prophet Ezra requested another audience with His Majesty. This time he appeared to us far more humble. The prospect of being forcibly thrown out of our city and country, with nothing but another long desert trek to look forward to, apparently did much to temper his inflated ego. Or perhaps it was his followers who pressured him into it, unwilling to let their leader's pride force them away empty-handed. Or perhaps it was Ishbala himself who instructed his prophet to make a second attempt!

Whatever the explanation, the prophet came alone this time bearing gifts of spices, cloth, and precious stones, certainly nothing compared to His Majesty's treasures and yet probably the most valuable things the man had to offer. And he admitted, in response to Parcelsus's questions at the last meeting, that he had not thought enough about his petition. He understood that His Majesty had to put the needs of his country first, just as Ezra had to think of his followers, and he had not meant to come as if seeking charity.

"We may not know your writing, your sciences, your culture, but we would learn. We have knowledge too, knowledge of places far from here, of which you do not know. And we have known hardship, we survived much to get here, the desert has become like a home to us. We would not be a burden, but a blessing. Your advisor spoke of challenges and disturbances to your country's stability; I give my word that this will not come from us, but could you not use us in this possible future? You may need skilled warriors, if your advisor is to be believed. Allow us to earn a place among you."

I was still too inexperienced to understand what Mother later explained to me: The man was shrewd and less of a fool than he had seemed. He had realized that there was tension between Mother and Paracelsus, that the two did not get along. He had also realized that of His Majesty's two advisors, Paracelsus would be the more easily convinced and so he allied himself with the alchemist by hinting, without it being outright, that Mother's words might not be worth taking seriously. In the same breath, he spoke to Paracelsus's yearning for knowledge, for everyone knows that alchemists are greedy for all knowledge, whether useful or not, and knowledge about other lands is something we have little of.

It was well played, apparently, for the audience was not ended with a decision, but with Ezra's dismissal and a private conference. And for this, I was reminded of the fact that I am still, in all truth, a child, for I was not invited to attend.

The Third Day of the Sun in the Month of the Water Bearer in the Twenty-First Year of His Majesty's Reign

[Sunday, February 14, 1482]

Again, I am reminded that I have a long way to go before I can counsel His Majesty. It was decided that the Ishbalans would not be driven out of Xerxes as Mother had originally suggested, and I did not understand the reasons behind this decision until she explained them to me.

Ezra had not said it directly, and yet what he had hinted at was true: We are not a country that knows fighting. The desert separates us from other lands and discourages war, for it is a struggle simply to move across the desert and who is willing to lose half their army to thirst and hunger in the attempt only to have a battle on the other side? It has been a century at least since we last saw conflict, which is a blessing and curse in one; if we are attacked now, we will not be prepared for it and we do not have the fighters skilled or experienced enough to protect us.

But Ezra's offer of protection worked against him. Instead of making us trust him, he has only emphasized that his Ishbalans could be the threat of which Mother spoke. Their group is small, but they could do great damage if scorned as badly as Mother suggested by throwing them out. If we even could throw them out. They are not honourless; the insult could backfire on us and they possess many skilled warriors.

Mother knew this, of course, and she has allowed herself to appear disgraced to Ezra in order to pacify and appease him. Paracelsus was given the upper hand, Mother not even attending the audience that delivered His Majesty's decision: Alas, he regretted that the Ishbalans could not settle here, but it was too dangerous a precedent. If others heard we had made an exception, we would be inundated with scores of immigrants until our prosperity was eaten away. Surely Ezra understood. But we would show them compassion. We would allow them to remain for the time it took for his people to rest and recover, and we would provide them with food, animals, clothing, and whatever else they needed to continue their search for their 'Holy Land'. And if Ezra wished to learn from us, Paracelsus would see to it that he received as much as he gave.

The Heavens knew. Mother knew. Our life was disrupted, our ordinary ways disturbed, our security at risk, but with charity, this risk was overcome, just as my reading showed. I do not yet know how to take what is Above and apply it to what is Below, but this in time will come to me so long as I am patient. In a different way, I feel just as greedy as an alchemist, only my desire is for wisdom, not knowledge.

Author's Notes:

Tallit: The tallit is the prayer shawl worn by Jews during various services, usually draped over the clothing and sometimes used to cover the head. I wanted to use a phrase that would be culturally impossible for the modern FMA translator to translate with certainty, much as those who have read the Bible will know that there are often footnotes where the translator was uncertain of the meaning of a certain word or phrase (for example, measurements of weight, specific insects, or articles of clothing). I do not mean to suggest that the Xerxians are Jewish, but just did not wish to invent a new word.

Ezra: The name of a Jewish/Biblical prophet who led a group of Jews exiled in Babylon to Jerusalem and enforced observance of the Torah, as well as the name of a book of the biblical Old Testament. I wavered between the names of several prophets, originally wanting to use Abraham because he was told by God to leave his home for the Promised Land (being the forefather of the Jewish faith), but thought that the parallel was too strong. I'm using Jewish themes with the Ishvalans because a) I'm familiar with biblical history more than other ancient cultures, and b) I can think of no other people that fit the Ishvalan massacre better. There are surely other genocides in history and the Ishvalan religion contains components from several monotheistic religions, but their desert heritage, focus on holiness/faith in God, and near extermination just make me want to use Jewish themes with them.

Bardiya Plateau: Bardiya is the name of a Persian king who ruled before Xerxes I. Apparently Bardiya died without the populace knowing and an imposter pretended to be him and ruled the Persian Empire for several months before being discovered and killed. I just picked the name because I liked it. If you look at the scene where Hohenheim stands on the palace balcony and looks out over the city after everyone has been turned into a Philosopher's Stone, there appear to be mountains in the far distance. Those could possibly be the Drachman mountain range, but I think Xerxes was too far away from Drachma for them to be the same mountains, so most likely they are different.

The Xerxians' reaction to brown skin: Apologies to any readers with darker skin who find this idea offensive. Because I am portraying the Xerxians as believing themselves blessed for their light skin, eyes and hair, it seems logical to me that their natural reaction to dark skin would be fear or disgust. There is more diversity in Amestris four hundred years later in terms of skin colour, but at this point in time, with only the light-skinned Xingese and Drachmans as neighbours, it seems more than likely to me that the Ishvalans would be the first dark-skinned peoples the Xerxians had contact with, and humans are naturally afraid of unfamiliar things.

Ishbalan versus Ishvalan: The 2003 anime and manga uses the spelling 'Ishbalan' while Brotherhood uses 'Ishvalan'. I'm using the different spelling to show how terms can become distorted or changed after much time has passed. Of course, relatively speaking, the change of one letter is pretty small. For those not familiar with Japanese, this inconsistency is due to the difficulty in transliterating the 'b' sound – Japanese does not distinguish between 'b' and 'v'.

Dante's astrological prediction: If anyone wants to actually compare what I wrote here, I took the astrological chart for this by inputting the date (February 10, 1882 at Tehran, Iran – modern day Persia) in a birth chart program. There's no real need for me to be accurate in this, but I've honestly been enjoying researching astrology. It's a lot more complicated than newspaper horoscopes would lead one to believe and leaving aside the truth/accuracy of it, no one can protest that astrology isn't a science in terms of complexity.

Ephemeris: A table, usually in book form, listing (among other things) the positions of the planets in the astrological signs. An astrologer uses an ephemeris to generate birth and predictive charts.

Pluto: I have omitted Pluto from any astrology references. Many of the outer planets were not discovered until the invention of the telescope. (It appears that Greece/Rome/ancient India knew only up to Saturn. Uranus was discovered in 1781, Neptune in 1846, and Pluto in 1930.) However, as Xerxes was technologically advanced with its alchemy, I am going with the theory that the Xerxians had more knowledge than our world in the 1400s and that Pluto is the only planet they didn't know about.

Vashti's blindness: Blindness has been commonly associated in many cultures with prophetic/clairvoyant powers and visions of the divine.