I added a bit to the train station scene in Chapter 11, if you want to take a look at it before you begin this.
The hairs on Rose's arms rose as she broke into goosebumps. She was surrounded by rich, somber harmonies as the Ishvalan worshippers raised their voices in response to the chants of Saahad Bozidar. She had come partly out of courtesy, partly out of curiosity, but mostly because Stanno had wanted her so much to come. Standing beside her in the packed temple, he sang along with the others, picking a lower part of the harmony. He had a nice voice, and Rose couldn't help wondering if he was perhaps showing off a little for her. Not that she minded.
She expected to feel a bit uncomfortable, inevitably drawing comparisons to the services that Cornello had choreographed. They were sterile things where the congregation simply sat and got preached at. Sometimes they would sing out of little paperbound booklets with songs in praise of Leto, bad poetry written by Cornello and set to familiar tunes. Rose mentally cringed when she thought back on it.
There was no need for little booklets here. Everyone knew what they were doing because they'd been doing it for centuries. What raised the flesh on Rose's arms wasn't just the music. There was a kind of organic strength to it all, a unity, not just between the people but between them and the earth and the sky and everything in between. It was stirring and comforting at the same time.
The chanting went on for about twenty minutes or so, and Rose would have been content to listen for hours, but then the gathering fell silent as Bozidar turned away from the simple, rough-hewn stone altar on the dais in the center of the temple. The old priest looked around at his people with a benevolent, affectionate smile.
Oh dear, Rose couldn't help thinking. We're going to get preached at.
"Ishvala nadrii ho'avaat!" he proclaimed.
"Ho'avaat!" the congregation rumbled back.
Rose had originally thought that ho'avaat was a kind of drinking toast. It was, but she had since learned that the whole phrase was a kind of greeting-blessing, meaning may Ishvala grant you many years. To simply say many years by itself presupposed the initial exhortation.
"My children," he went on, his voice carrying even out the door, where those who had not arrived in time to find a space inside were gathered. "I will say only a few words, and I will say them in Amestrian for the benefit of our esteemed guests." He gestured toward the other side of the temple interior where Fuhrer Grumman stood. Rose couldn't see him from where she was.
Surveying his people once again, Bozidar went on. "We have kept this holy day for centuries, even in times when there was very little to be thankful for. Now, in the fourth year of our return, we are enjoying a prosperity that our people have not seen since the age of princes. Indeed, we are even making an attempt to recreate the splendor of that golden time."
Bozidar raised a finger. "But even in these days of plenty, let us never forget those years of want. Let us never become complacent, or worse yet, proud. Let the humble thanks that we offer the Creator be not only for the abundance of what we have reaped, but for each other, for that is where our true wealth lies."
Bozidar turned back to the altar. Rose was almost startled. That's it? Cornello would go on and on, alternately cajoling and threatening, reminding his flock of their financial obligation several times throughout and tossing out the occasional magic trick to keep them hooked. Rose recalled how she would strain to catch every word, hoping against hope, relying on the promise Cornello tantalized her with. Stupid bastard. Stanno had told her that brevity was something of a trademark style with Bozidar, who was not a waster of words. He wasn't kidding.
It was just as well that the sermon had been short because the rest of the ritual took a while. They had to stand through it all, as there were no seats in the temple, but Rose was used to spending a fair amount of time on her feet. After some more chants and responses came the blessing of the baskets. Each household had brought representative items that would make up their family feast: grains, fruits, meat, eggs, cheese, and honey. Each family stepped up in turn to the altar, upon which sat a large, shallow brass bowl from which the smoke of incense arose. Bozidar and one of the other priests stood at either end of the altar and held each basket over the smoke for a few moments as they spoke a blessing. While this was going on, the congregation softly sang a kind of hymn, or at least as softly as several hundred people could.
Rose glanced out of the corner of her eye at Stanno and smiled. He had turned into rather a sweetheart since the first time she met him, which seemed like a lot longer ago than just a few days. He stuck close by her when Fuhrer Grumman arrived at the hotel and she was introduced. There had been a suggestive glint in the old man's eye when he clasped her hand, which she was sure was mostly innocent, but you could never tell. Stanno had kept a protective arm around her shoulders throughout. Rose didn't think that was necessary. She was perfectly capable of fending off advances from elderly gentlemen, even the nation's leader, without creating an incident. But Stanno's concern was sweet and flattering, nonetheless.
Stanno glanced back at her, pausing a moment from his singing to give her a warm smile. She found herself thinking that she wouldn't mind advances from him, and she quickly bit her lip to keep from giggling. She probably shouldn't be thinking about stuff like that inside the temple. She composed her expression into one of reverence, and she heard Stanno give a quiet snicker and nudge her. She gave him a whispered shh and a warning nudge back, but she broke into a smile.
"I'm so glad you could both come!" Rada declared.
The inhabitants of the cul-de-sac where the khorovar and his family lived were gathered outside along with their guests. Grumman stood near the fountain listening to Shua rattle off with one of his stories. Some of the adults were trying to herd all the children together so that Mustang's wife could take a group picture. It involved a lot of squealing, giggling, and coaxing.
Stanno was not comfortable entering this little world. He had varying degrees of history with them, not all of it pleasant. A few heads turned toward him with a few surprised and (to his mind) judgmental looks. Then Rada came outside. It was clear that she was very busy getting her meal prepared, but she seemed to make a point of giving them a cordially affectionate greeting. Before she ran off, Stanno grabbed her hand. "Thank you for this," he said.
The smile she gave him let him know that she understood how much he meant that. Humility wasn't something he pulled off very well. Neither was gratitude. But she understood him well enough, far better than he ever understood her.
"Can I give you a hand?" Rose asked.
Stanno felt a mild sense of panic, not wanting to be left alone. Luckily, Rada waved her hand.
"Oh, no, that's all right!" she answered. "You're our guest!"
"Oh, please!" Rose insisted. "I'd like to help."
Rada dimpled sweetly, something that pierced Stanno's heart a number of ways. "Come along then!"
As the two women went back inside Rada's house, Stanno watched them with a sinking feeling, which sank a little further when he heard footsteps approaching.
"Well, well, well, look what the cat dragged in!" Miles remarked.
The colonel and the khorovar moved to flank him. The colonel had spoken easily, with only the barest hint of rancor.
"He was invited, Miles," Andakar said.
"Of course! I wouldn't think he would be that much of a yaakhtai to invite himself."
Stanno didn't much care to be spoken about in the third person. "I'm standing right here!" He spread his hands to indicate his feet.
"So I noticed." Miles pointed to Stanno and addressed himself to Andakar. "He's eating at your house, right?"
"Yes. He and Zhaarana Rose as well as Fuhrer Grumman," the khorovar replied. "It's going to be a crowded table."
"Good," Miles said. He dropped a hand heavily on Stanno's shoulder in what was probably supposed to look like a friendly gesture. "Because if he came to my house, we'd eat him up, and he might not go down so well."
Stanno would never quite understand how one man who had committed brutal murder could become so well-loved, while another man whose sins were neither quite so grand nor so well publicized should have the more difficult time overcoming a questionable reputation.
"Kiss my tawny backside, Miles," Stanno growled. Attitude might have something to do with it.
Miles just chuckled. "Not even if it snows," he said as he walked away.
Stanno knew better than to expect any defense from Andakar. He let out a sigh. "You're going to tell me I deserved that."
"I'm inviting you into my home," Andakar replied, a little impatiently. "Be content with that."
"Ah! No, Rada invited me!" Stanno countered. "And you do whatever she tells you, don't you?"
Andakar gave him a narrow look and didn't reply. Stanno grinned smugly to himself. It didn't exactly qualify as revenge, but it afforded a certain satisfaction, nonetheless.
"You know, I'm feeling a little guilty right now." Grumman remarked in a sort of jovial, confiding tone, addressing himself to the women as if neither Andakar nor Stanno were there. "I've got a mountain of paperwork sitting on my desk," he went on, "and a bevy of frustrated advisors wandering about the hallowed halls of Central Command, and here I am, miles away, enjoying a splendid meal in the company of two very attractive young women!" He chuckled as he reached for another skewer of grilled goat and winked at Rose. "Maybe I'm not feeling so guilty."
Rose let out a giggle. Stanno tried not to roll his eyes. It was indecent, a man of his age and position flirting so shamelessly. He leaned a little closer to Rose, touching his shoulder to hers, just to remind her that he was there to come to her rescue if she needed him. Andakar seemed content to let his wife play hostess and expertly fend off the old man's blandishments.
"Surely you're not neglecting your work, are you, Zhaarad Grumman?" Rada teased him.
Grumman swallowed a mouthful and dabbed at his mustache with his napkin. He chuckled. "Nothing that won't benefit from sitting and stewing in its own juices over the weekend, trust me, ma'am." He held up the skewer in his hand. "Like this fine piece of meat," he said. He leaned a little closer to Rada. "Where I come from, goat isn't considered haute cuisine, but this is melt-in-your-mouth stuff right here. I'd love to pass on your marinade recipe to the cooks back home."
"Oh, it's just a bit of citrus juice, vinegar, honey, and garlic, Zhaarad," Rada replied with a little shrug.
"It's marvelous!" Grumman said, taking another bite and munching on it.
Stanno was inclined to agree. The feast Rada had prepared was magnificent. The table was laden with dishes. There was the goat meat on skewers that the Fuhrer was enjoying so much, marinated within an inch of its life and grilled. There was bastiya—chicken, eggs, and almonds baked to perfection inside paper-thin layers of fyil and sprinkled with cinnamon. There were savory rice dishes, roasted vegetables, plates of olives, dates, fluffy sesame rolls, stacks of fresh flatbread, chunks of tangy cheese, and even wine to wash it down. Stanno couldn't remember the last time he'd had a meal like this.
Stanno couldn't help but envy Andakar. This house could have been his. That beautiful wife could have been his. Those children who were alternately eyeing him and Grumman with varying degrees of curiosity could have been his. Even the eldest, the one fathered by the alchemist but for all intents and purposes as much Andakar's own as the other three. She seemed to have taken after her adoptive father rather than her mother, apparently not having Rada's more forgiving nature. She watched him less with curiosity than with caution, possibly judgmental. It was all his own fault, really, no matter that he felt at the time that he was acting within his rights. The woman he was going to marry had had relations with another man, plain and simple. Which it was not, of course, but he was not the sort of man to see that, not then.
These reflections would have been unbearable were it not for the woman sitting beside him. The fact that she was Amestrian had long since stopped making any difference to him. Not only had she drawn out qualities in him that he didn't even know he had, she inspired him to search for more. She made him feel as though the impossible was something he could strive for. He could have a beautiful wife and thriving children. He could be compassionate and noble. He could make her happy. He could be a better man. All these things were within his grasp. All he needed to do was to tell her so. First, though, he would need to find not only the opportunity, but the confidence, both of which he was beginning to run out.