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"Ooh, Zhaarana, don't you look fine!" Pashmina breathed.
"Thank you!" Rose couldn't resist the temptation to give a little twirl. She loved this dress. It was black with a pattern of bright red flowers and it hugged her figure in a very flattering way. Her new red wool shawl went with it perfectly, and she would need it today, since the day had dawned overcast and rather cool.
"I hope it doesn't rain," Rose said. "There's so much going on today, it would spoil it."
"I know!" Pashmina agreed emphatically. "That would be awful!"
Both Atash and Pashmina were practically giddy with excitement, and Rose was happy to get caught up in it.
She had learned that the day's festivities would begin with a ceremony of thanksgiving in the temple, which involved blessing baskets of food that would then furnish a lavish midday meal. This in itself was the usual observance on this day, but this year marked the first attempt at recreating the harvest festival as it had been done in Old Ishval, which involved games, races, dancing, and singing. This information had been gleaned partly from the surviving histories that the Ishvalans were able to rescue from the war.
More in-depth and colorful details had come from the recorded accounts of the Xingese ambassadors and merchants who had visited Ishval during its princely era. The festival was an eagerly anticipated event every year, a time when the Ishvalans really cut loose, at least according to the Xingese. Once the more solemn rites were observed, the festivities could get a little out of hand, due mainly to copious amounts of alcohol. This was something that the khorovar and his chieftains were hoping to discourage.
In this more modern era, the competitive events would include a football match between mixed teams of Ishvalans and Amestrians, a horse race, and something a little more unique to present day Ishval, a race through the streets between the rickshaw pullers. They would each have a couple of girls in their 'shaws, just to add a little more of a challenge. The khorovar was of the It's-All-Fun-And-Games-Till-Someone-Loses-An-Eye school of thought, but the race was popularly supported.
Another observance from ancient times was the royal procession. In Old Ishval, the prince would ride through the streets to greet his subjects and receive their adulation. One of the chieftains mentioned it, but the khorovar nipped the idea in the bud, saying that it would be a cold, snowy day in Ishval before something that would be allowed to happen.
The evening would see more eating, drinking, and the Ishvalan tradition of dancing in the streets, something that had a more distinct meaning to Ishvalans than it did to Amestrians, being more than just jumping around in the middle of the street when something good happened. The word for it, breomahata, literally meant "knotted rope." It nearly died out during the civil war, but with Ishval's rebirth it came back with a vengeance.
Since the marketplace was as good as shut down while everyone made their family preparations, Pashmina had brought rolls and honey from home and she set up Rose's breakfast in the dining room. Atash was outside, decorating the doorway with bundles of barley, millet, and rye, something that would be seen on every house in Ishval.
Rose was about to go into the dining room when a voice called from outside the front door.
"Ishvala nadrii ho'avaat!"
"Ho'avaat!" Atash was heard to reply.
The young man stepped into the lobby, followed by Stanno, dressed in what were probably his very finest clothes. He wore a neatly pressed linen shirt, dark trousers tucked into leather boots, a carefully tied chuva,and over all this, a long dark red wool coat. He looked handsome and dashing and exotic, and the very fact that he did made her feel too shy to tell him so.
Instead, she exclaimed, "You look really nice!"
It fell woefully short as far as she was concerned, but Stanno didn't seem to notice. He smiled and inclined his head modestly, but not before giving her a pleased look of appraisal. "Ah, Zhaarana, a woman of your beauty praises me twice over!"
Well, that was a pretty thing to say, a lot better than what she came up with. Back home, sometimes the workmen that came to the counter for lunch would venture to tell her gosh, you look purty today, Rose, uh-hyuk! Which was nice, but it never raised a blush to her cheeks like this did.
Leaving her to blush, Stanno turned to Atash and Pashmina. "Is everything ready?"
"Of course it is!" Pashmina declared. "Everything is as neat as a pin!"
"Is Fuhrer Grumman coming straight here?" Atash asked.
"I don't know yet," Stanno replied. "Be prepared for anything."
"Oh, gosh!" Rose breathed, still a bit incredulous at the turn of events. "I'm going to be staying in the same hotel as the Fuhrer!" She gave Stanno a slightly anxious look. "Are you sure that's all right? It's not a security problem or anything?"
Stanno stepped up to Rose and took her hand in both of his. "Of course, it's all right," he said with a warm, reassuring smile. "It's my hotel and I said so. Besides, the Fuhrer ought to count himself lucky he gets to be under the same roof as you."
He lifted her hand to his lips and gave her knuckles a quick kiss. A pleasantly sharp tingle shot up her arm and she had to let out a giggle. As he left for the train station, she found herself very much looking forward to his return.
"You might want to wipe that look of murder off your face, red-eyed brother."
The khorovar made no effort to follow his advice and merely grunted in reply.
"Ah, now, Miles," Shua remarked, "you can't blame the fellow. Grumman decides at the last minute that Ishval is more attractive than everything else demanding his attention." He leaned toward Andakar. "Makes you feel like a melon he's wagging his head over like some old baata in the marketplace!"
Andakar gave a grim smile. "My thoughts exactly."
Stanno had just arrived, being the last of the chieftains to do so. Even Dejan and his singers had gotten there ahead of him. At least he got there before Kaihan and his tagma, whom he had left in his dust back on the road. This day was getting better and better.
He doubted whether Rose had dressed up solely for his sake, but he went ahead and cherished that notion privately. He certainly had her in the forefront of his mind when he was getting ready this morning. God she was beautiful! He was nearly at a loss for words, but he acquitted himself rather well, dredging up the old charm that had served him well back in the day. This time, though, he meant it.
"Grumman's a canny old bastard, all right," Miles was saying. "There isn't anything he doesn't weigh up to the last ounce, whether it's melons or political strategies."
"Well, it did get him reelected," Shua remarked. "Much to the brigadier's sorrow."
"We tried," Andakar said. "Mustang carried Ishval, if you can overlook the irony."
"I didn't vote for him," Miles put in. Everyone knew that, anyway.
Shua laughed and clapped him on the back. "No offense to our warrior princess, but I'm not sure I want to be married to the leader of the country. Too much work."
Miles gave a conceding shrug. "She's not the handshaking, baby-kissing type."
"Not like our Roy-boy."
"Which is why he's trotting along at Grumman's heels," Miles smirked. "Protecting his interests."
Shua chuckled and rubbed his hands together. "Watching the two of them out-smarm each other ought to be worth a few laughs."
"Still," Miles went on. "Grumman is the leader of this country, and we will show him all due respect."
"Of course we will." Shua wandered over to whisper something to Dejan while his girls giggled nervously amongst themselves.
It seemed almost odd that Ishval should be so excited about this visit. Grumman had been out here before, after all, back when Ishval was still rebuilding. They had since come into their own, and the excitement came more from a chance to show off a little. This harvest festival was a celebration not only of their growing prosperity and good fortune, but the rebirth of their culture, for which they had Ishvala to thank, not Grumman, as Andakar pointed out more than once. Stanno listened a little distractedly to the political chit-chat. He was more concerned about getting back into town and getting all the formalities over with so he could relax and properly enjoy Rose's company.
Andakar made a quiet clearing of his throat sound. It could have been a preface to saying something or just clearing his throat. The fact that it was quiet and no one else seemed to notice it made Stanno think that it might have been directed at him. He glanced at the khorovar, who was still gazing down the track.
"I'm to ask you if you want to join us for the holy day meal," Andakar said, keeping his voice low.
Stanno nearly gave a start. He was sure that Andakar had spoken to him, but he would have thought that he was the last person he would say that to. "Are you serious?"
Andakar turned a look on him that clearly said do I look like I'm joking? Actually, he looked like that most of the time.
Since his return to Ishval, the only time Stanno had been asked to share in another family's holy day meal was a couple of years ago. The woman who ran the tea stand down the street had invited him to join her, her mumbling grandmother, her homely sister, and her snotty-nosed nephew. He couldn't wait to get out of there. He was purposefully rude so as to never be invited back. It worked.
This was different. This was significant. This was acceptance into a circle that, as far as he knew, had been closed to him. Andakar's invitation, though, was a little less than inviting. "Not your idea?"
Andakar gave a stir of his shoulders, as though something wasn't sitting on them right. "Rada told me to ask you."
Stanno nodded. He found himself wishing he could have been a fly on that wall. There were only two people in the world who could intimidate the infamous Scar of Ishval. One was his master, the other was his wife.
As curiously tempting as the offer was, though—to dine with the khorovar, with whom he was, after all, a social equal—he had other priorities. "That is a handsome invitation," Stanno said, "but I may have other plans."
"Zhaarana Rose is being invited as well," Andakar replied, a little terse weariness in his voice.
"Ah." That put a much different complexion on things. Stanno tried very hard not to grin. Oh, Rada, you dear, clever girl!
Andakar raised an eyebrow at him. "The two of you disappeared yesterday, so I hear. For some time."
Now he had to grin. "Oh, now, I didn't think you listened to gossip, Zhaarad Khorovar."
"I'm just stating a fact."
"Of course. Well, as it turns out, you heard correctly. We went out to the foothills to plant acorns."
Andakar gave him a curious, slightly suspicious look. Stanno shrugged. "No, really. That's what we did." He paused. Well, why not? He added quietly, "And I told her all my wretched secrets. She still likes me."
Stanno met the challenge of Andakar's gaze and found something he didn't think he would ever see. A glimmer of approval. A tiny one, to be sure, but it was there.
Miles checked his pocket watch. "O-eight-fifty," he announced. He looked down the track where it disappeared into the distance, and then he pointed. "There! I can just see the smoke."
By now, the tagma squad had finally trotted up. Kaihan dismounted, tossing the reins of his horse to one of his men, and he stepped forward to join the group on the platform. Stanno spared him a mere glance as he came to stand beside him.
Kaihan glanced around at the gathering and nodded approvingly. "A fine showing, I'd say!"
One of the other chieftains, Kamyar of Wahir, gave the overcast sky a dour look. He was the sort that gave nearly everything a dour look. It was probably why he had been elected chieftain of his district. He made such dire predictions about everything that no one was ever disappointed when he was wrong. "Looks like rain," he muttered.
Andakar remarked mildly, "Only Amestrians complain about the rain, Zhaarad Kamyar."
Kamyar gave a vague roll of his narrow shoulders. "Even so…it could ruin the festival."
Stanno glanced up. This late in the fall, it was generally clear and dry, the summer rains being long gone. For it to be cloudy at this time of year was not unheard of, but it wasn't common. It had grown a little chilly as well. He thought it was rather pleasant. If it rained, they could move indoors. He and Rose, sitting together, perhaps in his favorite tavern, perhaps at a tea house, or even at the hotel, gazing out at the rain…
"You've got sawdust on your coat."
"Hm? What?" Stanno frowned down instinctively at his coat, which was spotless. Then he heard Kaihan chuckle. Stanno spared him a withering look of disdain. "Moron!"
Andakar shot them a quick, warning frown, and Kaihan straightened himself up sharply, trying to look deferential and impressive at the same time. Bootlicker, Stanno thought darkly. He was just on the verge of making a comment about goats, but he remembered the promise he had made Rose. Kaihan should consider himself lucky.
The sound of the locomotive could be heard clearly now, and in a matter of minutes the black engine came into view, slowing down and giving a loud whistle as if in greeting. Steam billowed in the cool air as the Fuhrer's train pulled into the station, its brakes squealing gently and its pair of small Amestrian flags rippling in the breeze.
It was a short, private train, made up of the locomotive and tender and two passenger cars. The windows had dark green curtains, shielding the passengers from view or, more likely, the aim of possible assassins. It was sleek and clean, unlike the goods-and-passenger train that came through every couple of days. That was an aging workhorse. This one was a thoroughbred. Stanno raised an eyebrow. Must be nice, having something like that come with the job.
After a few moments, the door to the first passenger car opened and two people stepped down. One was a large man wearing a dark suit and dark glasses. The other was a woman in uniform. The Fuhrer's bodyguard and secretary. They stood stiffly at attention while, a moment later, Fuhrer Grumman stepped down from the car. He wasn't a big man. There was nothing particularly imposing about him. He had a grandfatherly, almost comical look about him, and it wasn't hard to picture him haggling at a fruit stall. This, of course, belied the corkscrew mind that lay beneath.
He was followed by Brigadier General Roy Mustang, who stepped down carefully, his arms being full with a small child wearing a pink coat and matching beret. Just behind him came Mrs. Mustang, dressed in a soft grey suit jacket and narrow skirt.
Miles stepped forward first and snapped a salute. "Doishteve na Ishval, Excellency!"
Grumman returned his salute. "Thank you, Colonel!" He glanced up at the sky. "I thought it was always sunny in Ishval," he joked.
"We're having a cold snap, sir," Miles admitted. Stanno was sure he heard a patronizing tone.
"Well, then, maybe I won't have to break a sweat for once. Governor Ruhad!" Grumman moved past Miles, holding out his hand to Andakar.
"Sir." Andakar took the Fuhrer's hand and made only the merest nod with his head. That was about all the deference anyone in the government got from him. Grumman seemed to realize that he would have to be satisfied with it.
"I'm looking forward to this shindig of yours, Governor," Grumman went on.
"We're honored that you could join us, sir," Andakar replied, although not by much, knowing Andakar.
"Thank you, thank you!" Grumman said jovially as he moved along.
Stanno offered him a bit more of a bow than Andakar did. Yes, perhaps it should have galled that this Amestrian thought of himself as their overlord, but to give him credit, he didn't throw it around. It was either genuine respect for the people he governed or very good politics. Stanno suspected more of the latter.
Grumman considered Stanno for a moment with a furrowed brow, then he brightened. "Stanno Dreva, Chieftain of Kanda, if I recall!"
Well, that was fairly impressive. Either that or he did his research on the trip out. "I'm honored that you remember, sir," Stanno replied, shaking the man's proffered hand.
"I never forget a face," Grumman replied. Turning to Kaihan, he said, "Yours, I think, is a new one."
"Zhaarad Fuhrer! Captain Kaihan of the tagma!" Kaihan smartly laid his right fist across his chest and dipped his right shoulder down in a bow. It was something he'd picked up from the histories about the old days, when the tagma was the prince's personal guard. Stanno rolled his eyes. Presumptuous little shit.
"Ah, yes!" Grumman said with a nod. "Very good, very good!" Leaving Kaihan to simper, he moved on to the other chieftains, all the names of whom he remembered. You had to hand it to him, he knew how to work a crowd.
Shua then approached him, holding out his hand. "Glad you could make it, Zhaarad!"
"Ah, Shua!" Grumman greeted him like an old drinking buddy, which he probably was. "I hope this hotel of yours is five star."
"Oh, well, now, I never said that," Shua replied with a shake of his finger. "But you've got some very lovely company. She certainly adds a bit more shine to the place."
"Oho, is that so?" Grumman chuckled, giving a quick preen to his mustache. "A mystery lady! Very intriguing!"
Stanno frowned a little to himself. That was the last thing he thought he had to worry about.
Shua then gave a nod to Dejan, who turned to his girls. His daughter Mika had the double-headed drum strapped to her shoulders and she watched him, poised and ready, while he brought his zurla, a wooden double-reed horn, up to his lips. He began to play a quick, lively introduction, the zurla making a loud, shrill sound. It took Grumman a little by surprise, but he kept a beaming smile on his face, clapping along as the girls sang merrily.
The song was Grandfather Went to the Marketplace, which told of the misadventures of a hapless old man sent by his wife to the marketplace, where he was distracted by the pretty girls, completely forgetting his errand and getting hotly scolded by his wife. Grumman apparently hadn't done quite enough research to know this, something Shua, who must have dreamed this up, must have been counting on.
It was all Stanno could do to keep a straight face. The other Ishvalans were either attempting to do the same or were trying to hide scandalized expressions. Stanno glanced quickly at Andakar, whose face was nearly unreadable except for the twitch in the muscles near his mouth as he suppressed a grin. Miles looked darkly disapproving. Even Mustang, who knew enough Ishvalan to get by, was biting his lip.
The girls ended their song and Grumman applauded them lightly. "Thank you, ladies! That was lovely!"
Miles stepped forward, gesturing toward the transport vehicles parked by the station building. "If you'll come this way, Excellency, we'll take you and your party into Ishval." Behind the Fuhrer's back, Miles gave Shua a wry look of reproof, which Shua completely ignored.
Leaving his staff and the train crew to take care of the luggage, Grumman headed for the olive drab trucks. "Haven't ridden in one of those for a while," he remarked with a chuckle.
General Mustang and his wife followed along with Andakar, who had taken charge of their daughter. Considering how easily he could frighten small children, the little girl seemed perfectly happy to be perched on his arm.
Stanno felt a nudge at his shoulder. "Give me a lift back," Shua said. "I'm giving up my seat to Grumman."
"Fine." Stanno headed toward the back of the train station where he had parked his truck. It was a less stylish vehicle even than the transport trucks, but at least he owned it.
The two men climbed in and Stanno turned the ignition and shifted into first. As they drove away, Shua rolled up the passenger window and leaned back, bursting into uproarious laughter.
"Oh, God, that was perfect!" Shua cried when he could finally breathe. "Did you see Miles? I thought he was gonna shit a cactus!"
Stanno had to grin. "You're a bit too clever for your own good, vatrish. One of these days you'll get yourself in trouble."
"I've spent most of my life getting out of all the trouble people tell me I'm in for," Shua replied, still chuckling.
Stanno shook his head. "And what was this business about telling Grumman about Rose?" he demanded. "He was nearly drooling on himself! This is a hotel we're running, not a brothel."
"Oh, go on with you!" Shua chided him impatiently. "You've got nothing to worry about, particularly if you let the old boy know the girl's spoken for. Unless, of course," he added slyly, "you can't work up the courage."
"Who says I haven't?"
Shua gave Stanno a shrewd look. "Is that so?"
Stanno just smiled, letting Shua call his bluff if he wanted to. Rose's eyes had grown wide and practically glowed when she saw him this morning. He had been bold enough to kiss her hand. There was a time in his life when he would have pressed his advantage and gotten a lot bolder than that, back when a woman with no family was fair game. But where, after all, had that gotten him?
He never thought he would start thinking like Andakar, of all people, but he had since come to realize that what a woman with no family needed was a champion. And by Ishvala, that would be him.
That song Dejan's girls sing is based on a real Macedonian song, "Old Man Goes to the Market." Other than the title, I don't know what it actually translates to. One of these days, I'm going to set up a Tumblr page so I can post all the music that accompanies this series.