Reaching her arms above her head, Rose stretched luxuriously and breathed a contented sigh. Her bed was comfortable and she felt secure in her second floor room. She was sure she would have dreamed of scorpions and other creepy crawlies all night, but she didn't. She dreamed about Cornello, who was worse than any scorpion. But in her dream she drove him away with a broom, which was extremely satisfying and brought a smile to her lips when she woke up.
She sat up in bed and looked around her room, then she gave a little gasp. The morning sunlight was shining through the carved openings of the shutters, projecting a pattern across the bed near her feet. The negative space created just as delightful a design as the carvings themselves. Rose leaned forward and smoothed out the bedspread, then sat back and admired the effect.
She was aware that this was the handiwork of that perplexing gentleman who lived across the street. Well, gentleman might not be the right term, but he had an amazing talent nonetheless. Rose frowned to herself, resting her chin on her drawn up knees. If she had to come up with one word to describe him, she didn't think she could. He was a bundle of contradictions. He didn't hesitate to take care of that scorpion, and his immediate concern was for her welfare. But once there was no longer any threat, he acted like the whole thing was a tiresome inconvenience.
He could create things of beauty but then turn around and be such a churl. That in itself might not be a contradiction. Woodworking was what he was good at and it simply made him conceited. But that creativity had to come from something positive, no matter how deeply buried or smothered. Well, she was spending the day with him, maybe she'd find out. And if he was unable to make an effort to be pleasant company, she could politely excuse herself.
Rose threw off the covers and got out of bed. She crossed the room and opened up the wardrobe, staring at the clothes hanging there. She certainly hadn't expected to go on a date, something she hadn't done in years. She wasn't even sure if this outing qualified as such, but she still felt obliged to look nice. She hadn't packed too much, just what she thought would be sufficient. She considered the floral print dress for a few minutes, then she sighed and decided on the more sedate dusty pink blouse and grey wool skirt combination.
The hotel's dining room and small kitchen were still works in progress, for which both Atash and Pashmina apologized, but Rose didn't mind having her breakfast in the garden. It was a little cool, but she wrapped her new wool shawl around her shoulders and lingered over her flatbread, prickly pear jelly, coffee, and a copy of the Ishval Courier. According to Atash, the paper had started a couple of years ago as a school project by the senior class prompted by a discussion of responsible journalism, on which the school's headmaster had strong opinions. A small group of graduates went on to establish an actual office. As newspapers went, it was on the thin side, but it was fairly substantive, complete with wire service stories from around Amestris. There were also articles of local interest, but Atash had joked that there was hardly any need to print those, considering the speed at which gossip spread around Ishval.
Rose glanced at her wristwatch. By now it was ten minutes past ten. She didn't expect Stanno to be on the dot, and she was content to wait, just not for too long. She had pretty much exhausted the paper, but it did have the East City Herald's crossword puzzle printed in it. She was about to go inside to get a pencil when Stanno stepped out into the garden.
Rose very nearly did a double take. It was evident that he had taken pains with his appearance and there was a subtle drama in the difference. He was freshly shaven, which made him look younger. His clothes were clean and even pressed. Since he lived alone, he must have had to either ask someone very nicely to do his laundry or pay them a decent sum. His hair was tidier than the day before, tousled just enough to look gently rakish. Rose felt flattered.
"Good morning," Stanno said in a pleasant tone. He gestured to one of the other chairs. "May I join you?"
Considering it was his hotel, it was nice of him to ask. "Yes, of course!"
"Did you sleep well?" Stanno asked as he sat down.
"Yes, I did," Rose replied, then added, "I never thanked you last night. For killing that scorpion."
Stanno looked slightly surprised, then waved his hand. "I just acted on instinct," he said, which Rose couldn't help thinking was not necessarily a mark in his favor, considering how else he had acted. "I hate those damn things! I asked Bozidar—he's the chief priest—what Ishvala was thinking when he set scorpions on the earth. 'To keep us humble,' he told me. Those warrior priests can take your head off with one good kick. But if they find a scorpion in the temple, they coax it into a bucket and carry it outside." Stanno shook his head in bemusement. "I ask you!"
Being a little unsure what his point was and feeling rather done with the subject of scorpions, Rose said, "So what are you going to show me today?"
Stanno lifted his shoulders. "Uh…well—"
"Here we are!" Atash strode out into the garden carrying a large basket. "Pashmina packed this for you before she left for school." He set the basket on the table.
The carpenter frowned at it. "What is that?"
Rose lifted the cloth cover. "It's a picnic!" she said with delight.
"Pashmina brought one of her auntie's rugs for you to sit on, too," Atash went on. "For when you go down to the river."
Rose smiled at Stanno. "What a lovely idea!"
By the somewhat clueless look on Stanno's face, it was obvious that the idea was not his.
"You did this, didn't you?"
Rose gazed in wonder at the temple door. The admiration in her voice was gratifying, and Stanno's first instinct was to swell with smug pride and sing his own praises. But he just nodded. "Uh-huh."
In a moment of—well, not clarity, perhaps, but something a little cloudier—it occurred to him that he should keep the boasting to a minimum. This left him at a loss as to what to say, which Rose seemed to take as modesty. She smiled at him, which should have been gratifying as well. She had a nice smile. But he felt oddly uncomfortable.
Women were creatures who existed on the same plane as him but still seemed to occupy their own world. When he was younger he never gave them any truly deep consideration. They were a means to an end. The only one who had stood out was Rada, and that had ended in failure and humiliation. The sight of her had since stopped feeling like a shard of glass in his brain, but she would always represent all the things that he had failed to achieve.
Amestrian women were even more alien. During the Exile they had looked on him with contempt. He, the last of the noble house of Dreva and a master craftsman, was just a dirty down-and-out Ishvalan refugee. A day-laborer. Sub-human.
His fortunes had improved, but his opinion of women and Amestrians had taken a little longer to rise. So why he felt so eager to impress this woman was a mystery to him. Even with the less than sterling image she must have of him so far, she still treated him with courtesy. It wasn't that sort of patronizing, superior, see-how-much-better-than-you-I-am kind of politeness, either. She was probably like this to everyone. She was a lot like Rada that way. Normally, Stanno had a fair amount of contempt for that sort of sunny optimism—it certainly wasn't what had attracted him to Rada back then.
"I recognized your work," Rose went on. She lightly ran her fingers over one of the leaves of the tree carved into the door.
Stanno had spent a long time on those doors. He had done a lot of soul searching and had put a lot of himself in each detail, each groove, angle, leaf, and flower. Rose brushing her fingertips against them felt like an intimate gesture.
Saahad Bozidar chose that moment to step out through the doors of the temple, and Stanno quickly looked down at his feet with a slight scowl. His face had suddenly grown warm, and the perceptive old priest might easily be able to read his thoughts in his face, thoughts he should probably not be entertaining on the porch of the temple.
"Good morning!" Bozidar greeted them. He stepped up to Rose. "You must be our visitor."
Rose turned to him. Stanno glanced up again and noted what he thought was a faint caution in Rose's demeanor. But then she smiled. "Yes, I am. I guess it's true that news travels fast here."
Bozidar gave a quiet laugh. "Gossip always gets home before you do, or so it's said."
Stanno moved closer. "This is Rose Thomas, Saahad, from Liore," he said. To Rose he said, "This is our chief priest, Bozidar."
Bozidar held his hand out to Rose. "From Liore, you say?"
"Yes…um…sir," Rose said, shaking his hand.
Bozidar gave a nod. "Your city had a great trial, from all accounts."
Rose looked away, turning back to the carvings on the door. "We certainly did."
Stanno studied her profile. She was gazing thoughtfully at the carved designs but her thoughts seemed like they might be elsewhere. When she spoke again, her voice was bitter, which sounded strange coming from her. "I sure got caught up in it. Up to my neck."
Bozidar didn't seem surprised. "How so?" the old priest prompted gently.
Rose hesitated before replying, then the words spilled out. "I was promised that my dead boyfriend would be brought back to life, and I completely fell for it!" She faced Bozidar, almost accusingly. "Please tell me you don't make promises like that!"
Bozidar regarded her with kind concern. "No, child, I don't. Even if such a thing were possible, what has gone to God belongs to God."
Rose searched the old man's face as though to assure herself of his sincerity. Stanno could have told her that Bozidar was nothing if not utterly genuine, so much so that Stanno, cynic that he was, found the man somewhat disconcerting. But he was feeling ignored so he didn't offer his opinion.
Rose looked away, apparently satisfied with what she saw but not necessarily cheered by it. After contemplating the door once more for a few moments, she gave a slight nod, a small frown on her face. "So, no crazy miracles?"
"Crazy?" Bozidar mused with a smile. "I do not claim to perform miracles myself." He patted Rose on the shoulder as he moved away toward the steps. "But that doesn't mean they don't happen."
Rose turned to consider the old priest as he descended the steps and made his way down the street. "He doesn't seem like the kind of person who would kick someone's head off."
Stanno shrugged, assuming that she was addressing him and not just thinking out loud. "I don't know that he ever has." He smirked. "If he did, you can be sure he'd be polite about it."
Stanno didn't go down to the river that much. He certainly didn't drag along a rug and a basket of food. A bottle of halmi or a couple of bottles of beer were enough company. Often, his solitude would be disturbed by young couples escaping supervision, and he would imply somewhat severely that their parents or aunts or uncles or whoever's supervision they were trying to escape would hear about it. He never actually went to the trouble, but it was amusing to see the embarrassed kids take fright and scurry off. He hoped none of those young folk would happen by on this particular day. What he was doing and in whose company he was doing it were none of their damn business.
Stanno had hired a rickshaw to take them down to the river. Along the way, they rolled through fields of ripened grains and produce that were being harvested. Stanno explained how these crops were run as a kind of collective and had become a generous source of income. The economy of Ishval was growing steadily healthier as a result. Rose seemed a little subdued, only partly listening to what he was telling her, which, admittedly, was probably boring. He attributed her mood to her conversation with Bozidar. He was fairly sure it wasn't because of anything he'd done.
By the time they reached the river, Rose had perked up somewhat. The puller was told to come back for them in a couple of hours. That was Rose's idea. At first, Stanno gave a mental cringe, just out of habit. Two hours? Then he considered the situation. Pashmina had packed a pretty decent lunch, probably to please Rose. But she also packed a couple of bottles of beer. Maybe that was Atash's idea. He was tempted to thank the kid when they got back.
Then there was Rose herself. Stanno watched her from where he sat in the shade of a cottonwood tree. She waded out into the water up to her ankles, the hem of her skirt gathered up in one hand just above her knees to keep it from getting wet. She certainly wasn't lifting her skirt for his benefit, but he appreciated the view.
She made a few desultory kicks with her right foot, splashing up a little water.
"I should have packed my swimsuit," she remarked with some regret.
Stanno gave a slight start, which went unnoticed. Ishvala, that'd be a sight! he thought, regretting Rose's oversight more than she did.
"Maybe next time," he suggested.
Rose glanced over her shoulder at him with a little half smile. She shrugged. "Maybe." She took a few steps away, the water rising to her calves. The Halik, having accomplished its summer task of flooding the fields, had ebbed to its late fall state, flowing smoothly along to join the Beaufort many miles to the west. Rose pointed toward the deeper water. "There's a fish! A speckled trout, I think."
"Probably," Stanno replied. "They started stocking those a while ago, then some other kind of trout showed up. They swam upstream from the Beaufort, so I've heard. Must be something about the Halik that they like." He gave a short laugh. "After a thousand years, there are fish in Ishval again. We wouldn't know what the hell to do with them if it hadn't been for the Exile. Food was hard to come by and some of us learned how to tickle trout."
Rose waded over to a large rock that was sunk into the bank. She reached down into the water in the shade of the rock and fished out two beer bottles. "These should be cold enough." She made her way back up the bank to where Stanno sat and handed him the bottles, then she sat on the rug. She rummaged through the basket that sat between them and produced a bottle opener, handing it to Stanno.
He popped off the tops and handed Rose one of the bottles. "Ho'avaat."
Rose took the bottle and raised it slightly. "Cheers." She took a swallow and gazed out at the river. "My boyfriend, Patrick, was big on fly fishing."
"Oh, that's the fancy stuff, using a pole."
Rose gave a laugh. Then her smile faded a little. "He kept asking me to go with him, but I kept saying maybe next time. Then there wasn't a next time."
The people Stanno knew had died ugly deaths, and he had heard more stories than he cared to. But he found himself feeling flattered by Rose being so open with him. "What happened? Was he a soldier?"
Rose shook her head. "He worked on a farm just outside Liore. He and another fellow were changing the head on a combine. The other guy slipped and the head landed on Patrick."
Stanno drew in a quiet hiss. During the Exile, he had done a few days' work on a farm in the southwest, filling in for some poor bastard who had died in a similar fashion. It wasn't a pretty story. Being nothing more than an Ishvalan tramp to his fellow farmhands, he could easily picture them dropping some heavy equipment on top of him just for laughs. He didn't stay there long. "That's a damn shame," he said simply.
Rose acknowledged his condolence with a nod. "It was a shock, that's for sure. It wasn't long after that that Cornello opened up that fake church of his and…well, you heard," she said wearily. "Not one of my prouder moments."
People like Rose and Rada and Bozidar always seemed to have a lower tolerance for their own shortcomings than someone like Stanno, who had stopped counting. It could get annoying. "Don't be so hard on yourself," he said, a little more impatiently than he meant to. Rose gave him a surprised look, not unlike the look she had given him the night before. He wasn't going to apologize this time, but he amended his tone. "I have a lot more moments that I'm not proud of than you do, I'm sure."
Rose gave a slight shrug. "Maybe," she muttered. She sounded like she was trying to be charitable.
Stanno inclined his head. "You're too kind, Zhaarana. Anyway…" She had done him the favor of being candid, not to mention showing off her knees. He ought to reciprocate somehow. "I lost the woman I was going to marry, so I know what that can lead to do."
"Oh…"Rose mused over this for a moment as though it explained a lot. "I'm sorry. Did she die in the war?"
"Oh, she's not dead," Stanno replied. "I lost her to another man." He turned to meet the look Rose was giving him. "I daresay you're not surprised."
Rose gave a guilty little start. "I didn't say that."
"No, but you thought it. That's all right." Rose was still watching him, probably curious but too polite to be obvious about it. He smiled slightly. "Not my proudest moment. You see, you lost your young man and went on to do something stupid. I did something stupid and lost my girl."
Rose's pretense of hiding her curiosity was gone and she regarded him with an honest gaze. "What happened?"
Stanno met her violet eyes for a moment, then looked away, his heart sinking just a little. Being honest was a hard, tiring game that shouldn't be played unguarded, not with his sort of odds. He gave a quiet laugh. "Here I am, trying to get you to think I'm not such a bad fellow. Maybe if I can convince you of that, I'll tell you."
Then again, maybe it would snow.
It wasn't until nearly nine o'clock that Rose returned to her hotel. The remainder of her outing had been...perplexing. But considering who she was with, it couldn't have been anything else. The fact that she could sum it up as being a pleasant day was even more perplexing.
Salar, the young man with the rickshaw, came back for them and they headed back into town. Stanno showed her around the marketplace in Daliha, which didn't differ much from the one in Kanda, except for the chants sung by the vendors. The singing would start in one spot, then ripple along like a wave from one stall to another. Sometimes it would bounce back and forth across the street. Rose could easily stand in the middle of the marketplace for hours and just listen. Stanno, to whom this must be commonplace, let her take her time.
He took her to dinner at a small establishment at the northern end of the Kanda marketplace, a "nice" restaurant by Ishvalan standards. This was a slightly new concept in Ishval, being neither a street vendor nor a tavern, and it bore a certain Amestrian influence. They did serve alcohol: beer and wine, which were imported, as well as a liquor called halmi, which was a local product. Rose tried a sip of it straight and wasn't impressed, but the proprietor suggested she try it with some fruit juice. That went down rather well.
There seemed to be an unpsoken agreement between the two of them not to pursue the conversation they had started. She was intrigued, but she felt she should respect the man's privacy, especially since he was making such an effort to be a gracious and considerate host. Even while keeping away from certain subjects, they maintained an easy flow of talk. Stanno asked Rose about herself, and she obliged, telling him much more than he volunteered about himself. After dinner he walked her back to the hotel, thanked her for her company, bade her a pleasant good night, and left. It was fairly clear that he was putting on an act, admittedly a good one, very nearly convincing her that he was, in fact, "not such a bad fellow." But she felt a little hurt that he had shut the door on anymore glimpses of what must have been his real self. She wasn't entirely convinced that it was so bad.