Title: Swallows on the Beam
Author: Shu of the Wind
Rating: T. Possibly M for violence in later chapters.
Summary: Three years after the coronation, a plot to overthrow the Emperor has been put into motion. Disguised as a noblewoman, Lan Fan plunges into the Xingese court—and into a courtship with the emperor himself. "You are my master," she said. "There is nothing that I will not do for you." He smiled then. "So why won't you kiss me, Lan Fan?" Co-posted on AO3. Ongoing.
Disclaimer: Applies for all chapters. I do not own Fullmetal Alchemist, or any of its characters. The manga, anime, and all of its relevant pieces, belongs to Hiromu Arakawa, without whom my life would have turned out very, very different indeed.
"Republic City Under Attack," from Legend of Korra.
Festivity in spring.
After a toast of green wine,
Once I sing.
Once more I bow,
With three wishes to bring.
First I wish my lord live long.
Second, I wish my body goes strong.
Third, I wish we're like swallows on the beam,
Staying together year-out, year in.
~ "Longevity Girl," Feng Yan-yi
1st April 1915
1st year of the Dawn Emperor
The coronation was a bodyguard's nightmare.
The stairs which led up the Imperial Shrine numbered two hundred ten—a queer number to choose, but one an ancient soothsayer had dubbed particularly auspicious—and even Lan Fan's legs were aching by the time they reached the landing. Precisely five steps in front of her, as was only proper, Master Ling was draped in the robes of the Ascending Emperor, crimson and gold, embroidered with dragons and firebirds. It was Chang work, she thought. Maybe Liu. She was certain she knew which one it was, but she'd heard so many plans for this coronation over the past few months that all the details had begun to slip away from her, like weeds in a marsh.
The Emperor had been dead before they returned. His health had failed entirely two months after her grandfather had delivered Maria Ross to her Xing safehouse, and her master's father had lingered in a coma that not even the most accomplished healers could shake. He'd passed—heavens bless and keep him—while they'd been staying in Xerxes, on the return trip to Xing. They'd returned to a Xinjing covered with white cloth, and advisors who were desperately trying to sort out an heir from the forty-three imperial cousins, even as Master Ling's half-brothers and –sisters killed each other in their sleep.
She'd accompanied her master to his father's grave. Dressed in loose white robes, he'd turned to her, and said, "We'll have to wade through a river of blood. Are you still with me?"
She'd bowed her head, and replied, "To the end, young lord, as always."
Ling Yao had rested his palm against the top of her head then, smoothing his thumb over her hair. Then his hand had gone to his throat, where the bottle with the Philosopher's Stone lay against his collarbone. It hadn't parted from his skin once in the whole time they'd been traveling. "The key to the imperial seat," he'd said, and it was true. None of the other imperial cousins had even come close to finding immortality. The choice had been clear.
Lan Fan took the opportunity, as Master Ling started up the final steps—the only place in the world, she thought, that she couldn't follow him—to clench and unclench her automail fist. She felt bristly with all the knives strapped to her body. Under her tunic, the stump of her arm was acting up again. Rainclouds seemed to make it unhappy, and there were some particularly nasty-looking ones looming up on the horizon which promised a true downpour.
Wait. She sent the thought to the sky, hoping beyond hope that some storm spirit caught it. Wait until the ceremony is over at least. Please. Wait that long.
There were so many people. She was only one of sixteen new bodyguards for the soon-to-be-crowned Emperor of Xing, but Master Ling had only been allowed one to accompany him up the steps to the top of the palace. She'd felt her collarbone grow hot when he'd glanced at her and inclined his head in a silent command. Despite everything they had done, despite all of the things they had been through, she had never dreamed that she would be bestowed the honor of becoming the Emperor's Shadow—because that was the only sort of bodyguard that the Elders would ever allow to come near the Imperial Shrine. Being the Shadow meant that she would be a permanent part of Master Ling's retinue, a constant presence at his side. The way she'd been all these years, only this time, it was official. It would be recognized.
The Emperor's Shadow.
Lan Fan shook her head, and went back to watching the crowds. Something had been pricking at the back of her neck ever since they'd left the palace, and it was making her nervous. In the months since they'd returned to Xing she'd had this feeling exactly three times, and each of those three times, something disastrous had happened.
She slipped a knife down into her palm, and waited.
Master Ling must have sensed her disturbance, because he glanced back at her once, quickly, and offered her a small smile before he disappeared into the shrine. Lan Fan stayed one with the crowd, keeping one eye on the door to the shrine—because there was no other way in—while scanning the world around them, measuring, calculating. Would anyone be so audacious?
The crowd murmured. The Ascending Emperor would remain in the shrine for fifteen minutes, while he was purified, consecrated, and transformed into a god. Fourteen minutes and fifty-nine seconds too long for that, in Lan Fan's opinion, but then again, nobody ever asked for her opinion. They lived in a world of ceremonies and consecrations, whereas in her universe, a second could be a devastation. It had only taken a second for her to lose her arm. It had only taken a second for the young lord to transform into a monster.
Time ticked by. She closed her eyes, stretched out with her senses. There was little she could feel other than that vague sense of dread; she was certain that a few of the other priests and alkahestrists sensed it too, because she could hear them looking back and forth, cautious, wondering, whispering. The nobles, too, were muttering to themselves. One of the Yao women was crying, and Lan Fan wasn't sure if it was in joy or in terror. After all, it had been a very long time since one of the Yao had been crowned emperor. Four generations. A century, easily.
Beads clicked. Lan Fan let out a long slow breath, and her breath frosted inside her mask. It kept slipping away from her, this qi: slimy as an eel and just as quick. For an instant, she thought she felt it right beside her, but then there was nothing. It had been masked. Her eyes snapped open, and she stared at the man beside her. One of the guards. He gave her a raised-eyebrow look, asking a silent question, but she shook her head and looked back to the shrine.
Seven minutes left, now, and her heart picked up the pace. He would be being marked, now, with sacred ink, a temporary tattoo painted on his back until he could get a real one put into place by the imperial artists. Prosperity and longevity, the words would read, in red and gold ink, encircled by the duo of imperial dragons. The artists had had decades to perfect their work; it would never fade, never discolor, enhanced as it was with alkahestry. It would be a permanent part of him, a full acknowledgment of his right to rule. The legends said that if he wasn't worthy, his body would reject it. And there had been cases, in the past, of an emperor who had been poisoned by the ink, killed by the pain. She closed her eyes again and prayed that it wouldn't happen to her master.
There. A flicker. A shadow. She sensed the intent, sharp and caustic, a biting blade against her throat, and Lan Fan opened her eyes to stare at the crowd. No one strange. But it was there, she could feel it, up and to the right. When she turned her head, she saw the crossbow and the bolt glinting in the shadow of the temple, a small metal point sticking through an open window, an instant's warning.
The door to the Imperial Shrine opened, and in the temple, the assassin let loose. At the same instant, Lan Fan flung her blade, and leapt at the new Emperor of Xing.
She hit her master like an Amestrian freight train, knocking them both to the ground. In the near distance she heard a clang of metal on metal, and the thud and gurgle of an arrow finding flesh. One of the temple masters fell first to his knees, and then to his face, blood streaking down his white ceremonial robes. The arrow protruded through his neck, short, thick, and barbed. Beneath her, Master Ling shifted, and she scrambled away. There was no time to be embarrassed. Around them, people were screaming. She waited until a few other bodyguards had snapped to attention, and then she took off running for the temple, taking the stairs three at a time in her rush.
The fourth attempt, she thought. The fourth blade in the night, the fourth poisoned cup, the fourth assassin in the night, the fourth arrow from nowhere. She drew a climbing wire from her pouch and let fly, waiting until she heard the snap of it locking around a branch before scrambling up and taking to the trees instead. It was faster, fewer crowds. She had a lock on the qi now, the oily snake, and she was right on his tail.
It took her seconds to reach the temple gate, and a breath or two more to pick out the assassin. He'd abandoned his crossbow and his head was covered, but his back was wide open as he made his way through the crowds, who had heard the screaming at the top of the rise and knew that something had gone badly wrong. Lan Fan readied another knife, and dropped down into the crowd, wishing she could be less distinctive. Lose the mask, her instincts screamed, and she pulled it off and tucked it behind a barrel, never losing sight of her prey. He looked noble; his hands were too soft for hard work, and his hair too clean for a peasant. He had the wide eyes and sweet mouth of a Chang, but the supple build of a Zhou. A bastard son, perhaps.
An opening broke in the crowd, and she didn't hesitate. She threw her second knife, and a third, and they struck true. The man screamed, and went down, blades deep in his knees, tendons severed, blood pouring down his calves and ankles. He landed on a girl, and she shrieked bloody murder, scrambling to get away. Lan Fan sped up, caught him by the shoulders, and wrenched him away from the little girl, who took off wailing.
He didn't recognize her without the mask. Not until she had the blade of her automail arm pressed against his throat.
"That's the fourth time," she said, through gritted teeth. She wasn't supposed to interrogate prisoners herself, but for this one she would make a special exception. "The fourth time you've tried to kill my master."
"Let go of me, you filthy Yao bitch!" He spat in her face. She felt it land on her cheek, drip down her jaw. She ignored it, and pressed closer, watching blood spring up around her blade, watching his throat work. A kind of rage was pulsing through her that she hadn't felt in a long time. Behind her, she could hear the clank of the guards, their blades rattling against their hips, but she had a good thirty seconds before they arrived. She had her chance.
"Are you working alone?" she hissed, and when he grinned at her, blood streaking his teeth, she pushed down, down, down. "Are you working alone?"
"You have no idea," the man said, and his smile grew and grew, until it stretched across his face, a mockery. "You have no idea, you stupid, useless—"
"Tell me or I'll sit back and let the guards kill you." He would die anyway—the attempted murder of the emperor was a dying offense—but he might just be stupid enough to believe her. She saw it in his eyes, the shiftiness. The possibility.
"I can keep you alive if you tell me!" That, too, was a lie. At least, it was half a one. She could keep him alive for a little while, though, and he knew it. The panic was welling up in her, breaking through in her voice. This was the fourth time she'd nearly failed, the fourth time since their return home that he'd nearly died. She couldn't afford to let it happen again. She wouldn't. "Tell me!"
He wet his lips.
She sensed it the instant before the arrow flew. Lan Fan wrenched her head aside, just in time for the crossbow bolt to plunge into her prisoner's throat. He choked, and blood burbled around his lips. She felt him die, still locked onto his qi as she was, and it was like a punch in the belly, like a knife twisting in her guts. He was still smiling up at her as she stood, his eyes wide and glazing.
It began to rain. Lan Fan closed her eyes, leaning her head back, and let it wash her clear of dust and blood. Under her uniform, the stump of her arm ached, and the frustration pounded through her blood like a disease. She wanted to kill something, but she'd been robbed of even that.
"Damn it," she said.
Then she turned, and waited for the guards to catch up with her.
Updated and expanded 18.2.14.