I didn't really need to even have Roy and Riza in this story. It seemed to make sense that they would make an appearance at an event like this, but they don't really have much to do. I guess Roy just wants to keep an eye on Grumman.
"…and even though I am unable to be with you at this time, please know that you have my very warmest regards as well as my continued support. My very best wishes to all of you. Yours very sincerely, Henrietta Bradley."
As Riza folded the letter, she smiled at the crowd as they replied with applause and ululating calls. As this died away, she leaned toward the microphone again. "And let me add that both Brigadier General Mustang and I echo that sentiment from the bottom of our hearts!"
This was met with an even more enthusiastic response. Riza couldn't help but break into a broader smile, marveling at this peoples' capacity for—perhaps forgiveness wasn't the right word. Generosity might have been closer.
When they first presented themselves to the Ishvalan people after reconstruction had begun, the feeling they met with was challenging, but not accusing. It wasn't how dare you show your faces here but rather now that you're here, show us what you can do. What Ishval had become had once been only a distant dream. Now it was a reality, and Riza was deeply grateful that despite all she had done to help exterminate these people, she was able to have a hand in helping them flourish. That seemed to carry more weight than what she had done all those years ago.
"And now," she continued, "may I present His Excellency, Fuhrer Montgomery Grumman."
Grumman stepped forward to the microphone, tipping his hat to Riza as she passed. She smiled back at him but then couldn't help smirking a little to herself. The Fuhrer's reception from the Ishvalans was cordial, but not as warm as the one she got.
She returned to her folding chair between Roy and Scar, who had Christine on his lap. Riza was content to let her stay there. It amused her to think that the man who had once terrorized the country was a gooey mess when it came to small children. The brigadier and the khorovar had already addressed the crowd. Scar had kept it fairly brief, mainly advising that the festivities not get too out of hand, probably nothing they hadn't already heard. Roy had given a stirring talk about his heartfelt commitment to the Ishvalan people (without trying too hard to sound like a campaign speech), which was well received.
"You look smug," Roy remarked.
"They liked me best," Riza replied with a sly little smile.
"Well, you're prettier than the rest of us," Roy replied.
"That's got nothing to do with it."
"No, of course not. Then again," Roy added with a nod toward his mentor and rival, "His Excellency hasn't said anything yet."
Grumman cleared his throat softly and spoke into the microphone. "You know, every time I do one of these things, they always save me for last. By that time, everybody's sick of the speechifying and they're itching to get on to the good stuff. I don't think I could say anything that hasn't already been said, except…" He threw in a bit of a dramatic pause, "Let the games begin!"
A roar erupted from the crowd and Grumman beamed at them. No one could hear Riza mutter that old fart, but Roy didn't need to read her lips to figure it out.
The first event was the football game. The two amateur teams that had evolved over the past few years were made up mostly of Ishvalans but also several soldiers and even one Amestrian civilian. Jean Havoc played wingback for the Jackals. The other team was called the Scorpions. They had even managed to get themselves some proper equipment, like shoes and team jerseys. The Jackals wore red and the Scorpions wore gold. There had been some discussion off and on about forming a professional team and joining the Eastern Regional League, but in the meantime, they just played for fun. The losing team would stand the winners a round of drinks.
The citizens of Ishval were evenly divided as far as team loyalty, supporting whichever team had friends or family. Many of the spectators held sticks with either red or gold streamers on them, waving them in the air when their team made a goal. Standing on the sidelines, Rose found herself cheering for the Jackals, particularly when they won. She had nothing against any of the players on the opposing team; she had simply developed an aversion to scorpions.
From the football field it wasn't too far to hike to get to where the horse race would soon get under way. The track, which was roughly a mile and a half, had been marked out around the perimeter of what used to be a field of barley. There were seven racers, four of them Ishvalan—all members of the tagma—and three Amestrians soldiers. Rose and Stanno found a spot at the edge of the track close to the starting/finish line just as the racers were leading up their horses.
Rose didn't know much about horses or riding, but when she was little, her grandparents would take her with them when they went to the racetrack in New Optain. She recalled that the races themselves were two minutes of sheer excitement, and the stretch of time in between seemed interminable. While her grandfather stood in line at the betting window and her grandmother sipped lemonade and gossiped with the other ladies, Rose would play under the bleachers and eat corndogs and cotton candy and drink root beer. She was struck with a wave of nostalgia.
"I could really go for some cotton candy right now," she said wistfully.
"I'll bring it up at the next chieftains' council," Stanno said. "Next year's festival, you'll have all the cotton candy you want." He put his arm around her shoulders and lowered his head to speak close to her ear. "You'll be here, won't you?"
Rose giggled and turned to smile at him. "I wouldn't miss it for the world!"
Havoc moved among the spectators, taking wagers and writing them down in a small notebook. Gambling was one of the few vices Stanno had never indulged in, being a highly potential loss of money. He had taken a risk on the hotel, though, and it would probably be some time before he actually got any money back on it. But with Rose under his arm, smiling up at him so sweetly, he could honestly say that the risk had been more than worth it.
He wanted nothing better than to pull her into his arms and kiss her there and then, and each passing hour brought on a new urgency to do just that. But he could lose everything he'd gained up to now by doing something that bold. He would wait until the moment when odds were more in his favor.
Colonel Miles' adjutant, Command Sergeant Major Benjamin, headed calmly toward the starting line, his horse's reins in one hand and his other arm around his wife Sima, who held a toddler in her arms. The sergeant relinquished his hold on his wife to salute his commanding officer.
"Show 'em how it's done, Benji," Miles told him, returning the salute.
"Leave it to me, Colonel," Benji replied with a grin. He turned to Sima and kissed her before leading his horse to the starting line.
Coming up behind him was Kaihan. He waved and grinned as several girls in the crowd called out his name. Stanno scowled. What a poser! It wasn't that long ago that Kaihan was slouching around his goats, picking his teeth and scratching his ass. Stanno barely managed to keep the sneer of disgust off his face.
As Kaihan passed by them, he stopped. "Rose!" he called. "Wish me luck!"
Rose waved back at him. "Good luck!"
"No, no!" Kaihan beckoned to her. "Not like that!"
Rose scoffed lightly. "Well, how then?" She left Stanno's side to move closer to Kaihan.
Stanno stared after her. Where are you going? What are you doing?
Kaihan tapped his cheek. "Like that."
Rose smirked indulgently and leaned in to kiss Kaihan's cheek. Kaihan quickly turned his head and planted a kiss on Rose's lips. While many of the nearby spectators whooped out a chorus of appreciative eh-hs, Stanno's mouth dropped open. An instant later he clamped it shut so he wouldn't be caught gaping.
Rose gave Kaihan a playful shove. "You sneak!" she cried with a laugh. "You'd better win now!"
Kaihan grinned with triumphant mischief. "I can't help but win now!" he declared.
As he led his horse at a trot toward the starting line, Rose rejoined Stanno, a smirk still playing on her lips.
"That was pretty cheeky," she remarked.
Stanno just nodded, managing a game smile. Cheeky doesn't come close, that bastard!
He couldn't and wouldn't blame Rose. She was open and friendly and kind and generous, perhaps to a fault, but that was one of the many reasons why he loved her. He had yet to tell her that, so he honestly had no right to complain. But it would have been gratifying if she had given Kaihan a good slap for his presumptuousness.
The riders spread themselves across the starting line. Havoc, who was taking on the dual role bookmaker and starter, raised a bright red bandanna tied to a stick above his head. When he was certain he had all the riders' attention, he brought it down swiftly, and with various yells and howls from the riders, the horses leaped forward. Hooves thundered on the ground as the racers began to cluster together, moving in toward the inside of the track. Three riders began to pull ahead of the others. Benji was holding the lead position, followed closely by the other soldier and one of the tagma riders. Kaihan was in fourth place on the tail of his fellow tagma officer. Stanno silently urged any of the others to put even more distance between them and Kaihan. He didn't even care who. As they flew past, he could see the look of grim determination on the tagma captain's face. As much as a kiss from Rose would inspire any man to strive for the impossible, Stanno hoped that it simply wouldn't be enough and that Kaihan would not only lose, but lose miserably.
Being a former field of barley, the track was rectangular rather that an ellipse and the riders trampled across the corner as they made the first turn. On the far long edge of the field, Benji pulled out a little further ahead, eliciting cheers of encouragement from the spectators. The sergeant was a popular figure, not only among his fellow soldiers but also among the Ishvalans. The two riders behind him shifted their positions back and forth, keeping well in front of Kaihan, who kept a tenacious hold onto fourth place. Stanno began to relax a little, assured that the tagma captain didn't have a chance even for place or show, let alone win.
The positions held steady around the third and final turns, and just as Stanno was anticipating a really satisfying gloat at Kaihan's expense, the tagma captain's horse put on a sudden burst of speed, shooting up on the outside. The other horses almost looked like they were slowing down. Stanno gazed in dismay and disbelief as Kaihan roared ahead in the final stretch and flew across the finish line half a length ahead of Benji.
Stanno's groan was drowned out by everyone else's cheers, including Rose's. Kaihan slowed to a canter and stood in his stirrups, waving to the spectators. As he passed, he waved to Rose and she waved back. What can you possibly see in him? Stanno thought, hoping Kaihan would tip out of his saddle in front of the other horses and get trampled. He wondered dismally if the captain would come and filch a victory kiss from Rose. But as he slowed his horse to a walk, the three tagma officers who hadn't raced came running up. One of them took the horse's reins and the other two grabbed Kaihan to get him on their shoulders. They paraded him through the crowd, moving away from the track and away from where Rose and Stanno stood, much to Stanno's relief.
"Man!" Rose exclaimed. "That was amazing! Kaihan's earned himself some bragging rights!"
Stanno replied dryly, "The horse is the one who did all the work."
Rose gave him a nudge. "Oh, come on! Don't be a poor sport, Stanno!" she chided in what Stanno took as an affectionate tone. That would make it all worth it.
He smiled at her to make it look as though he had been joking. There was still plenty of this day left, and he was beginning to wonder how he was going to get through it.