"…my auntie came and got me so I didn't even see her when she got back but Atash asked her how it went and she just said fine and just sort of smiled and in the morning I asked her how it went and she still said fine and I asked her that's all just fine did he try to get fresh and she said oh no not at all." Pashmina paused for breath. "I'd have asked her more, but I had to get to school."
"Well," Saahad Imir said, "I know they stopped by the temple yesterday morning. And my brother told me that the fellow who opened that restaurant"—he pronounced the word a little jokingly, since there was no corresponding word in Ishvalan—"told him that they had dinner there. He said he practically knows the lady's life story now from what he overheard."
"I made up a basket of food for them and they took it down to the river and they were there for two hours all by themselves!"
"I wonder if he kissed her?" Pashmina mused intently.
Imir cleared his throat softly. "Well, that really would be between them."
Pashmina rolled her eyes. "Well, of course it would, Saahad! You wouldn't catch me joining in!"
"That's not what I—"
Both teacher and student gave a start, Imir's being much guiltier than Pashmina's.
Scar regarded his colleague with a reproving look. "Distractions like that can cost you. You should have known I was approaching."
Imir drew himself up. "I knew you were there."
"No, you didn't," Pashmina chuckled under her breath.
Imir jerked his chin impatiently at her. "Run along to class, laleh!"
"There's still five more minutes!"
"Then just run along!"
"Tch!" With a toss of her hair, Pashmina trotted off to find someone else to share her speculations with.
"Don't encourage that sort of thing, Imir!" Scar chided him. "This is a school, not the marketplace!"
"Oh, come down off your high holy place, Andakar!" Imir gave him a shove against his shoulder. "You're starting to sound like old Ahirom, Ishvala rest his rigid soul."
Scar took a quick glance around to make sure no one was looking, then shoved him back. "I am not!"
"Then take care that you don't, or you'll be generally despised." Imir grinned. "We're still human, my friend, and Ishvala loves us despite our faults. But it's not a sin to take an interest in the welfare of our fellow humans."
"An unseemly interest?"
Imir waved his hand. "Well, that's subjective. Listen!" He poked Scar in the chest. "This is Stanno we're talking about, as well as our Amestrian visitor, whom I haven't had the pleasure of meeting yet but who sounds like a nice girl. Don't tell me that this situation isn't worth keeping an eye on."
"Maybe." Scar conceded. "But she's only staying a week, so I don't really see much of a situation developing, God willing." A smile twitched at the corner of his mouth. "Then you'll have to find something else to gossip about."
Stanno drew his hand across the lid of the cedar chest before him and smiled. Smooth as glass, too fine to spoil with a lot of carving. What he'd done around the edges was fine, just enough to keep those rich Amestrians in mind of where these pieces came from. This one had been commissioned by the Armstrong family, who were absolutely rolling. They had conducted business by telegraph, and when Stanno let them know his price, which he had marked up as high as even his conscience would allow, they wired back Splendid! Such a bargain! While he was kicking himself, two more commissions came in quick succession, friends of the Armstrongs. His reputation as a craftsman was finally going nationwide. At this rate, he might even recover the money he'd sunk into the hotel.
He looked up to cast a sour glance across the street at the hotel just as Rose was stepping out of its front door and his heart did a flip-flop.
Not since he was in school, not since he first started noticing girls, had he experienced a sensation like that. Up to a certain age he was perfectly happy to be segregated from the girls' side of the room, surrounded by his fellow males and separated by an aisle that was not crossed. The practice was meant to minimize distraction, and Andakar was continuing the tradition—for the sake of tradition, apparently. But when they all started getting a little older, there was plenty of distraction. When the teacher wasn't looking, sly glances would be cast back and forth across the aisle and even the occasional note. It was the thrill of doing something forbidden, but it had a much subtler attraction than simple mischief like climbing onto the school's roof.
He was full of himself even then, but he was still fresh and innocent. He never thought a sensation like that, which seemed so daring and wicked then, could now seem so…pure. Then again, that shouldn't have come as a surprise, considering his dealings with women later on.
He hadn't expected to enjoy the previous day's outing as much as he did. Apart from one or two tricky moments, he didn't think he'd made too bad a showing of himself, all in all. He didn't think he had anything to worry about as far as complaints reaching Shua's ears, but Shua's opinion didn't seem to matter much anymore. Even after not making the best first impression on her, Rose still took him at face value. She did that with everyone, he noticed, but he particularly appreciated it. And as far as he could tell, it wasn't because she thought he was pathetic and she was just being charitable. She wasn't familiar with his past, either, for which he was grateful. God willing, she wouldn't find out.
He hadn't expected to enjoy listening to her talk, either, or rather, watching her talk. Her eyes glowed or clouded to reflect the emotions behind her stories, and her pale pink lips danced over her white teeth. He wasn't all that interested in her upbringing or her home town or her job or her boss, but his interest grew as the evening progressed, and he encouraged her to elaborate just for the pleasure of watching her face.
Rose began to cross the street toward him, and he managed to wipe the schoolboy gawk off his face before she was close enough to notice.
"So," she began, stopping before his workshop and peering into it with curious interest. "This is where it all happens."
Stanno glanced over his shoulder at his surroundings. The shop was generally neat, but not for any sense of aesthetics. He took jealous care of his tools and equipment and he kept the place swept so sawdust wouldn't get stuck to wet varnish or oil finishes.
He nodded. "So it is."
Rose looked down at the chest he was working on. "Ooh, is that cedar?" she asked. "Can I smell it?"
Stanno opened the lid. "Help yourself."
Rose moved around beside him and bent down, breathing in the rich aroma of the wood. "I love that smell! I have an old hope chest that my grandmother left me, but it doesn't smell half as nice as this."
"Could be Western cedar," Stanno replied. "I won't work with anything but Ishvalan cedar."
Rose straightened up. "Cedar grows out here?"
"Way up in the mountains." Stanno nodded in a roughly eastern direction. "There's pine up there as well. It's a long drive, and it's a rough road up the mountainside, but it's worth it. And there's oak in the foothills. And of course there's what's left of the ruins of Old Ishval out there."
Rose's eyes lit up. "Really?"
Stanno nodded. "For ages, it was considered bad luck to go near them. Now they're talking about digging them up. A bunch from Central University is supposed to be coming out here next year to get that started."
"You mean archeologists? That sounds exciting!"
"I suppose. Of course there are some folks who feel we should leave well enough alone," Stanno went on. "They think we'll be tempting Ishvala's wrath." He waved his hand dismissively. "I've driven along there enough times to get to my trees, and I don't think I've suffered any by it." On the other hand, it could explain rather a lot, but he kept that to himself.
"It must be gorgeous out there!" Rose breathed wistfully. "I wish I could see it!"
Stanno looked down at the chest before him. He had already lost a day's work yesterday. He didn't regret it, but he couldn't afford to lose more time. "I wish I could take you. But I have to get these chests shipped out."
"Oh, that's too bad." Rose sounded genuinely disappointed. "Maybe next time."
"Is there going to be a next time?" Stanno felt a twinge of relief that she didn't consider getting someone else to take her.
Rose nodded. "Oh, I think so! I'd love to learn more about this place. I thought it was all just desert out here."
Stanno glanced at her with a mildly mocking look. "What the average Amestrian doesn't know about Ishval could fill a library," he said, then added, "No offense."
Rose waved a hand. "Oh, none taken. I admit my share of ignorance." She smiled. "But that's what traveling is all about, broadening your mind. You know, it's funny," she mused.
"I thought it would be so different here, and it is, but in a lot of ways, it isn't," Rose said. "I mean, people don't vary that much. No, that's not quite right. They do, but…" She frowned slightly for a moment. "I guess I mean to say that I don't feel so much like an outsider here, and I really thought I would. I thought there might be a feeling of, you know, resentment against Amestrians."
Stanno rested his palms on the knees and considered Rose for a moment. "Well, there's Amestrians, and then there's Amestrians. It's fair to say that Ishvalans are still a little touchy." He paused, preparing himself to pay a sincere compliment without making it sound hollow. "You're a good person, Zhaarana. You didn't come barging in trying to take the place over, and you're not sobbing about feeling guilty. You're just…" Whatever gift of glibness he had finally failed him and he gave what he felt was a lame conclusion. "You're just you."
To his surprise, Rose smiled, looking pleased and a little surprised herself. "What a nice thing to say!"
Thank Ishvala for that! Stanno lifted his shoulders a little in modest self-deprecation that wasn't particularly sincere. "Well…"
"And you don't have to call me Zhaarana all the time," Rose added. "Just call me Rose, all right?"
Stanno gave a nod. That would be pleasant. "All right." He smiled. "So, Rose, what are your plans for today?"
"I was going to go see about picking up some postcards to send back home," Rose said. "And then I was just going to walk around, maybe to one of the other districts." She cocked her head slightly. "What about you?"
That sounded like it was full of potential, but Stanno gestured regretfully at the chest before him. "I'll be at this all day."
"Well, then, I guess I'll see you later." Rose gave him a little wave and continued on her way.
"Later, then." Stanno watched her as she walked away, playing their conversation back in his mind to see if he had said anything he would regret. He didn't think there was. Rose was surprisingly easy to talk to, but what surprised him more was how much he valued her good opinion of him simply for its own sake. That was a sobering thought. It made him feel old.
Blessed Creator, he thought, more out of desperation than reverence, I'm not even forty yet!
He focused on the swing of Rose's hips as she continued down the street. Very nice, indeed. No, the desire was still there. He frowned slightly. So was the slightest pang of guilt. That had never been there before.
His frown deepened as Rose passed Serdar, the spice merchant. She gave him a nod, which he returned, then he, too, regarded Rose's backside as she walked away in all innocence. Stanno felt a sudden urge to stuff the man's cinnamon sticks down his throat, the bastard.
Guilt and jealousy. What an attractive combination. Stanno shook his head and reached down to pick up the bucket of varnish next to his stool.
It would be nice to think that Rose was bringing out something in him. Something along the lines of a better nature, something he would like to think he actually had but had shriveled up in the face of disappointment and bitterness. She wasn't going to be here long, but when she left, he wanted very much that she left thinking well of him and that he might be one of the reasons she came back. Otherwise, well, he still had his old friends, disappointment and bitterness, as company.
Not the happiest prospect.
Rose stepped into the Havoc Sundries, having been directed there in her search for postcards. It was a fairly large shop, more like a typical Amestrian general store, and it looked like business was good. There was a mix of soldiers and civilians shopping inside, and a tall blond Amestrian man with a short beard on his chin stood behind the counter chatting genially with a woman with a baby on her hip. Almost immediately, Rose recognized them both from her trip to Resembool. There were two other older children by the woman's side, a boy and a girl, about three or four years old. The boy started to dart away, but his mother called to him sharply.
The little boy halted and looked over his shoulder. His mother spoke briskly in Ishvalan and pointed firmly to the spot beside her that the boy had just vacated. The blond man chuckled and added a few words, also in Ishvalan. Rose got the impression that he had said something along the lines of "you break it, you bought it."
As if to confirm this, he followed with, "You don't want your allowance docked before you even get one."
Mattas shuffled back to his mother's side, apparently chafing under this restriction. His mother sighed and tousled his hair. Then she looked up as Rose approached the counter and she smiled.
"Hello! It's Rose, isn't it?"
Pleased at being remembered, Rose smiled back. "That's right." She looked from her to the blond man. "I remember you both from Ed and Winry's wedding."
The blond man snapped his fingers. "That's where I saw you!" He held out his hand. "Jean Havoc, at your service!"
Rose shook his hand. "It's nice to actually meet you." She turned to the mother. "I know that you're the governor's—um, Zhaarad Andakar's—wife."
"Rada," the mother replied, shaking Rose's proffered hand.
"I remember these two." Rose smiled down at the twins. "They sure have grown."
"Yes. Mattas and Winry." Rose nodded at them respectively. "And this one is Turyan." She bounced the little one in her arms.
Turyan gazed at Rose with a beneficent smile and extended a wet finger.
"How do you do!" Rose said cheerfully to the children.
"Hi!" Mattas practically shouted back.
Rada patted him on the head. "You're inside, sweetheart. We can hear you just fine."
"What can I help you with?" Havoc asked Rose. "We're running a special on canned goods. Buy three and get a fourth for free!"
"Actually, I was told that you have postcards," Rose said.
"I sure do." Havoc took a small revolving rack from a shelf behind him and placed it on the counter. "Just recently had 'em made. Twenty cenz each or three for fifty."
Rose perused the rack, turning it slowly. There was a postcard of the Great Temple, but the detail on the doors could barely be seen. She chose it anyway, as well as one of the Halik and one of the Kanda marketplace.
"Have you enjoyed your stay so far?" Rada asked.
"Yes, I have," Rose replied. "I was even taken on a picnic by the river yesterday by Mr. Dreva."
"How kind of him!" Rada remarked, but judging by her smile, Rose was fairly certain that she knew all about it already.
"Yes, it was rather nice of him. He took me out to dinner, too," Rose went on, although that was probably common knowledge as well. She held up the postcards. "I'll take these."
"So…what do you think of our Stanno?" Rada asked.
The question was put casually enough, but Rose thought she detected a deeper curiosity in Rada's tone. While fishing fifty cenz out of her purse, Rose thought for a moment. "He's…interesting."
"Ooh!" Havoc placed a hand over his heart. "Interesting? That's the kiss of death right there."
Rada laughed and flicked her hand at him. "Oh, hush, Jean!"
"I meant it nicely," Rose countered. "I thought he was very considerate, once he hit his stride. He's also quite an artist. His woodworking is beautiful."
Rada held up her arm, displaying a wooden bangle carved to look like a wreath of flowers. "He made this for me."
"That's lovely!" Rose exclaimed.
Rada smiled at it fondly, and Rose wondered if she didn't see a little sadness in her eyes.
The sound of booted footsteps made them turn toward the door to see Captain Kaihan of the tagma enter the store.
Havoc gave him a friendly nod. "Mornin', Cap! How's law and order?"
Kaihan spread his hands. "Well cared for!" His eye fell on Rose and his smile broadened. "Ah, Zhaarana! I was wondering when I'd run into you again! Our good chieftain of Kanda has been playing host, I hear."
Rose smiled back. "Who hasn't?"
Kaihan chuckled. "Well, that's Ishval for you. But chieftain though he may be, it's unfair of him to keep you to himself."
"Oh…" Rose shrugged. "He hasn't, really."
"Well, that's good," Kaihan replied. "Because there's a very fine tavern in the north end of the Kanda marketplace that would be that much finer with you in it."
Rose heard a snicker come from Havoc's direction and she felt herself go pink. "That's…very nice of you to say that."
Kaihan inclined his head with a handsome grace. "I'd be happy to take you there this evening after my rounds." He grinned, his teeth brilliant against his tawny skin. "What do you say?"
Rose started to open her mouth, but Rada cut in briskly. "Oh, but she's dining with us tonight, Captain! We were just talking about it before you came in!"
Rose gave her a surprised look, and Rada stared back at her with a wide-eyed, earnest gaze and a big smile. It seemed deeply important—to Rada, anyway—and Rose found herself giving Kaihan an apologetic smile.
"Maybe another time?"
Kaihan seemed to deflate just a little, but he took it well. "Fair enough. Tomorrow, perhaps?"
Rose nodded. "Perhaps."
"Tomorrow, then." He gave a little bow and left the store.
Rose turned back to Rada, who spoke quickly. "I really did mean to invite you! Honestly!"
"Well, thank you!" Rose smiled. "It's not every day I get asked to dine at the governor's mansion."
Rada laughed. "It's not a mansion, believe me! And Andakar will be delighted to have you."
After expressing her thanks once more, Rose asked where the post office was. Havoc informed her that it was just a few doors down and she left the store. She stopped at a stall that sold tea and ordered a cup while she wrote on the back of the postcard of the Halik.
I went for a picnic right next to this river with an interesting Ishvalan gentleman. And no, I don't mean anything sinister by "interesting."
On the postcard with the Great Temple, she wrote,
This building seems to house a lot more integrity than our old pal Leto could ever hope for. My hotel room, however, had a scorpion in it, which is now dead. I'm fine. I'll be home Sunday night. I hope you're bearing up under the strain.
Havoc put Rada's purchases in her basket for her. "So what was that all about, anyway?"
"Whatever do you mean?" Rada asked innocently.
Havoc smirked. "Don't give me that. Kaihan's an okay joe. What made you put one over on him?"
"I didn't put anything over on anyone Mr. Havoc!" Rada replied primly. "I wanted to invite Rose to my house before it got too close to the weekend and I'd be too busy getting ready for the festival."
"Oh. Okay." Havoc grinned and handed her the basket. "My mistake."
The reference to the "ruins of Old Ishval" is something I thought of recently. I intend to insert other references to it in my other stories, particularly Sons of the Desert, which I am in the process of editing to add other stuff like that.