Fullmetal Alchemist Fan Fiction ❯ Arcanum Paterfamilias ❯ Chapter Three: Olschka Zimyair ( Chapter 3 )

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Arcanum Paterfamilias -- Chapter Three: Olschka Zimyair
Authors: mfelizandy & fractured_chaos (aka: "Whips'n'Dozers")
Genre: Drama/Political Thriller. Futurefic, Genfic, Plotfic, Light Romance. No Sex.
Rating: Teen, for violence and Ed's potty mouth.
Chapter Word Count: 10,000
Main Canon Characters/Pairings: Scar/OC. With nods to: Roy/Riza, Ed/Winry and Al/Mei. Hints of: Jean/Rebecca and Ling/Ran Fan. Appearances by other canon characters.
Warnings: Spoilers for the end of the Manga/Brotherhood. Futurefic set primarily in the Manga/Brotherhood universe. Some past incidents have been changed to render this story “Divergent”. Elements from the first anime have also been woven in.
Summary: Fifteen years after the ‘Promised Day’, secrets better kept buried come to the surface. Against a backdrop of political tension, a family fights to keep from being torn apart by one man’s dark past.
Disclaimer: Fullmetal Alchemist (Hagane no Renkinjutsushi) was created by Arakawa Hiromu and is serialized monthly in Shonen Gangan (Square Enix). Both 'Fullmetal Alchemist' and 'Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood' are produced by Funimation. Copyright for this property is held by Arakawa Hiromu, Square Enix and Funimation. All Rights Reserved

Special Thanks: To evil_little_dog and alchemyotaku75 for the beta, and dzioo for the awesome artwork!
Thank You To: havocmangawip and Sgt. Jody Sunday (ret) for their patience and wonderful technical advice on paraplegia and blindness, respectively.

Written for the 2010/2011 FMA Big Bang Challenge

Chapter Note: The “Ishvarun Golden Horse” is based on the Turkmenistan Akhal Teke, because they are just that awesome!

For Abisha, the best part of his job as watchman was the mornings. The undulating dunes stretched as far as the eye could see, and in the pale light of dawn, they appeared almost surreal in shades of purple and grey. From this height, the landscape was alien and almost magical. As the morning air warmed and caressed the chilled sands, a light mist rose, and for the briefest of moments, the past aeons of the desert and ancient Xerxes whispered just below the thrumming of a human heart. Abisha felt... tiny, but not insignificant, and he would always murmur a prayer in thanks to Ishvarra at this moment. “Yishvarra, Dyenes Yeta. Yols hatemzherit...”

By the time his prayer was complete, the moment would be past and the ever-shifting dunes would grow warm and red. The vastness of the brilliant blue sky warred with the emptiness of the golden sands. Many called the desert around Xerxes desolate and lonely, but to Abisha it was clean and vast and closer to God than even the toz.

Soon the sun would climb high enough to wash out the rich hues of the sky and the sand, and Abisha would spend the rest of his shift gazing across the distance through field glasses, but for now, he meditated and appreciated the gifts God had seen fit to bestow upon him.

Majid, who watched through the nights, went about his end-shift duties: dousing the beacon fires and sweeping out the ashes, then hanging the mirrors over the side. When the sun rose above the mountains far to the east, he turned over the binoculars. If anything happened in the night -- traders at the caravanserai a day away or changing winds warning of a storm -- he would tell Abisha, but if it was uneventful, he would merely bow and leave. This morning, however...

"Taj and Kamilah have been bickering all night," Majid said as he handed over the glasses, his brow raised in amusement.

Abisha rolled his eyes. "They're always bickering."

"Yes, but this time she actually caught him in Sarafina's bed."

Abisha scowled. "Listening to gossip?"

Majid shouldered his pack and chuckled. "Voices carry a lot further at night, my friend." He nodded in the general direction of Kamilah's home, far down the hill from the temple. "Keep an eye out. If she's finally had enough, you might need to send an ncksun with a cloak to save Taj's dignity."

"If Taj would just acknowledge Kamilah’s baby as his, he wouldn't have to worry about his 'dignity'."

Majid snorted. “If he had the sense to do that, he wouldn’t have climbed into Sarafina’s bed in the first place.” He waved and disappeared down the long spiraling stairs of the tower.

Abisha uncapped the field glasses and made the first sweep of his quadrant. He visually marked the place he knew was a day's walk from the city. The caravanserai was one of four that ringed Xerxes, and offered a good place to camp for the night for weary traders who had crossed the Great Desert. They were rough, with no inns to provide hot meals and comfortable beds, and only the remains of ruined walls to block the winds. But there was fresh water and feed stores kept stocked for the camels and horses.

The first sweep offered a distorted shimmer of a possible caravan to the south. The farmers were already at work in the fields that skirted the eastern edge of the ancient city. The tumbled ruins circling the base of the hill were quiet. They were populated by only a few marked exiles and thugs. It wasn't unusual for a visitor or a child to go exploring and be robbed or injured. The safety of the people within the city's walls was as much a part of his job as keeping an eye out for caravans or the unlikely invasion, and Abisha took his responsibilities seriously.

He caught sight of a single rider on a horse was coming up the road. At his casual speed, Abisha estimated he'd reach the city in about three hours. He was dressed in typical Ishvarun desert robes, but his hood was down, exposing white hair pulled back. The horse was not moving at a gallop, but at a mere trot, and there wasn't a pack pony following behind. If the rider was carrying a message, it wasn't urgent, but he would still send his ncksun (and where was that boy? He was already half an hour late) down to alert the stable master.

Abisha brought his gaze down toward the maze of narrow alleys and tightly packed apartments which were built one atop of another with little thought toward navigation or design. From the tower, they looked for all the world like children's building blocks carelessly dropped in a pile.

There was a flicker of movement off to Abisha's left, where Kamilah lived, and he focused in, then sighed out a soft chuckle. The morning sun had yet to warm the cobbles and walls of the alley, where a naked man, cupping his genitals in an effort to retain the last shred of his dignity, shuffled and danced in the chill air while banging on Kamilah's locked door.

Behind Abisha, he heard dragging steps climbing the tower, accompanied by soft groans and wheezing. He glanced over his shoulder as Yishai, a pudgy boy of about ten and the nksun on duty for the day, reached the top of the stairs. He fell against the wall and slid down, red-faced and gasping for air. Abisha felt a little sympathy for the boy. He’d been indulged far too much for his short life. The Elders had practically ordered the boy's parents to send him through nksun training both to keep him out of trouble and to run some of the fat off of him.

"Catch your breath," he said. "You're needing to find a yevarshedaht and tell him that Kamilah evicted her urike, then hurry to the stables and tell Tiras that there’s a rider coming in on a tired horse." At the boy's stricken look, Abisha shrugged apologetically. "Duty calls, son."

With a groan as his only protest, Yishai came to his feet and trudged down the long, winding stairs of the tower.

"At least it’s easier to go down," Abisha called after the nksun. He caught the edge of a mumbled curse and chuckled.

Abisha brought his field glasses up, and made another scan of the desert. The shadowed shimmer far to the south was larger now, but still too far away to properly identify as a caravan. He swept the sand to the east, and found another wavering blob appear over the brow of a distant hill. "Looks like things are going to get busy, soon."
“Naomi, get up! You’re late!” Ysa’s voice rang through the household.

Mishyael rubbed his eyes as he emerged from the bedroom, then winced when running feet pounded across the floor overhead.

"Coming, Momma!"

“Did you give her permission to keep a horse upstairs?”

Ysa glanced at him, and her expression softened. "Tea?"

"Please," he croaked.

She headed toward the kitchen and Mishyael started to follow, but jumped back as his daughter galloped down the stairs. "Day's blessing, Papa!" Naomi called as she charged out the door and neglected to pull it shut.

He closed the forgotten front door and resumed his journey to the kitchen. A joyful squeal and a tug at his trouser-leg alerted him just in time to avoid stepping on Zhevah. He bent and scooped the infant up in his arm, and was rewarded with a baby bear-hug around his neck. He loosened her grip and tapped her on the nose. "Day's blessing, lekhaya," he said, as he planted a kiss on her tight little fist, "where have you been exploring this morning?"

She babbled and gurgled, and he listened intently. He opened her fist and looked down at her palm, which was grey with dust. "Have you been out to the garden? Or are you starting one of your own?"

Kezhiya came trotting down the stairs with a broom in hand. "Sorry, Zhoji," she said, bowing deeply. "I overslept this morning."

"I think every--" There was a high-pitched yelp, then something crashed and shattered in the kitchen, and he could hear Ysa cursing softly. "--body did. Nayinha, can I help?"

"I've got it," she called.

Mishyael skirted around Kezhiya and stopped at the kitchen door. His wife was on her knees picking up the shards of a broken teacup. On the counter beside her, fresh herbs were spread out, waiting to be tied and hung to dry. "Are you sure?" he asked.

Ysa produced a cloth from her apron and wiped up the puddle spreading across the polished clay tiles, then rose to her feet. "Of course." She tilted her head and glanced at something under the table. "Just watch where you walk."

Mishyael knelt to get a better look at what had his wife’s attention, then blinked. Beneath the table, a small, brown ball of fur with soulful dark eyes gazed back at him and tentatively wagged its tail. Zhevah babbled in delight and nearly dove out of his arm, and Mishyael reflexively caught her with his free hand. "There is a dog under our table," he said as he stood, "why?"

"Doctor Alphonse brought him by this morning," Ysa said, her back to her husband as she poured more tea. She turned and handed him the steaming cup. "Remember? He asked us if we'd like to take a puppy from a litter he'd found. Of course that was a few weeks ago; they had to grow some first."

Zhevah lunged for the hot tea in his left hand, and he sloshed a little over the bandages as he jerked it out of her reach. He hissed, then set the cup down on the counter and shook the burn from his hand.

"Here, let me take her," Ysa said, reaching for the infant. She settled the baby on her hip, lightly bouncing her. "He said the puppy won't get very big, and he'll be a nice pet for the kids."

The puppy darted out from under the table and started running circles around Mishyael. He twisted and turned in his spot, watching the yipping, wriggling, bouncing ball of fluff. "'Pet'? You mean 'useless'. It's too small to do any real work."

"Not every animal needs to be food or a worker, nyeri," Ysa said, lightly.

"Amestrian logic." He sighed, "But I won't argue with you over something so small."

Ysa snickered softly at the unintentional pun as she set Zhevah in the swing hanging from the kitchen ceiling. She gave it a gentle push, then turned back to her herbs. The puppy barked and bounced back and forth chasing the swaying swing.

Kezhiya swept past the kitchen doorway. The puppy decided her broom was an easier target than Zhevah's toes, and darted off, yipping. "Shoo!" the girl snapped as she tapped her broom on the floor. The puppy yipped and whined, then scrambled back under the relative safety of the table.

Mishyael picked up his teacup and blew across the top of the hot amber liquid. "Are you having lunch with the emissary’s wife today?" he asked softly.

Ysa stopped in the middle of tying a bunch of sage, and laid her hands lightly on the edge of the counter. Her green eyes stared straight ahead, darkening a little. "Yes," she whispered.

He reached out and brushed a stray lock of copper hair from her cheek. "Why do you do this when it only brings you grief, nayinha?"

"I have to know. I have to know they're all right." She hesitated a long moment, then faced Mishyael, tears glittering at the edge of her lashes. "I can never go back, but I can still make sure they're doing well."

He wrapped an arm about her waist, pulling her close to him, then nuzzled her hair and laid a soft kiss at her temple. "Roy Mustang has the power to protect them. You know they're safe."

She cuddled in closer and hugged him tight, putting her ear to his chest and the reassuring sound of his heartbeat. Mishyael stroked her back and waited.

"I would think," a feminine voice teased lightly, "that after all this time, you two would stop acting like newlyweds."

Ysa pulled away, brushing at her cheeks. Mishyael glanced up, scowling. "Don't you have ceremony planners to terrorize?" he said, although there was little heat in the comment.

Imena, Makhu's wife and Ysa's closest friend, stood in the doorway of the kitchen, three bolts of fabric in her arms. "Unlike the slugabeds in this household, my family was up before daybreak, and the preparations for the station dedication are well in hand. I’ve already checked with Fadil about the serving tables," she sniffed.

"Excuse me, Jzhallei," Kezhiya murmured, as she sidled past Imena, and began to sweep the kitchen.

Imena held up the brightly colored material, all woven with beautiful, intricate patterns, and grinned. "I came to take your wife's cloth to the market, since she has appointments today."

There was a knock on the door. Mishyael took his tea and went to answer it, instead of responding to Imena's sarcasm. He opened the door to a broadly grinning Makhu.

"Day's blessing, Old Man," the dark-skinned man greeted, then his eyes zeroed in on the cup in Mishyael's hand. "Ah, tea! Excellent!" he said as he reached for it.

Mishyael jerked the cup out of the younger yevarshedaht’s reach. “Get your wife to stay home in the morning and make you some tea before she goes out to tell the city how to run itself.”

Makhu stepped around Mishyael’s shoulder and reached for the teacup. “I’d rather she went and ran the city. Why do you think I do more cooking than she does?”

“Because you’re always out pounding around on horseback showing off to other dustheaded boys,” Mishyael said amiably as he ducked under Makhu’s arm and turned his back. He took a quick sip of his tea and crouched all the way down, teacup close to his chest and carefully level. “You should try going home while your dinner is still hot, you might find your wife’s cooking is much better when it hasn’t stood waiting for you for three hours.”

“Unlike you, I don’t need to run home to warm my creaky old bones by the oven the moment the sun goes down,” Makhu replied. He got his fingers around the teacup and put a knee to Mishyael’s collarbone, then startled at a tug to his thick ponytail.

“Don’t you have work to do, my tea-coveting love?” Imena tugged her husband’s braids again. “I seem to remember that there should be several small boys waiting for you to come and teach them the things men should know. Including, perhaps,” she said with a glance to Mishyael, “the preparation of a pot of strong morning tea to clear the night’s fog from the brain.”

Makhu straightened, and called to the kitchen, “Would you indulge me with a cup of tea, Ysa? I throw myself on your tender mercies, since I'm going to be sleeping with the goats for the next three days."

Ysa glided up beside Mishyael with a steaming cup in her hand and the puppy at her heels. She held the cup out to Makhu even as she exchanged an amused glance with Imena. "Try jewelry, Makhu. Preferably gold. She might let you sleep in the house."

Makhu turned to his wife with mock earnestness. “Would that work?”

“I can hardly be bought so easily, city boy,” Imena said in a fine imitation of offended hauteur. “When you can offer me an herb garden with climbing roses and a choir singing my praises, I’ll consider letting you make your own tea in my kitchen.”

"Did you have a reason for disturbing my day off, Makhu?" Mishyael asked before the morning could devolve entirely into farce.

Makhu downed his tea, then handed the cup to Ysa. "Ah. Yes. Elder Shan requests your presence at her home. Now." He bent to unfasten canine teeth from his trouser leg, then fend off a small dog convinced that the end of his sash was a tug toy.

Mishyael grimaced. "Whatever for?"

Makhu shrugged. "No idea, but I'd wear my good running sandals, were I you."

"And it’s not something you can handle?"

"No," Makhu said, "she specifically requested you." He bent to free himself of the puppy’s attentions to his sandals. “I didn’t know you’d decided you’re so decrepit you need a guard dog, Old Man. This one has the right attitude, but he seems a little small.”

Yet another knock sounded on the door, and Mishyael shot a questioning look at his wife as he reached out to answer it. He didn't see anyone at first, then glanced down. A pudgy, red-faced nksun gazed up at him expectantly. "What now?" Mishyael growled.

Yishai flinched and jumped back a step, and Mishyael sighed. "I apologize for being harsh. What is it you need?"

"Kamilah evicted her urike, Senior. He's still at her door, naked."

Both Mishyael and Makhu groaned.

"I never saw that coming," Ysa said derisively. She took the cup from Mishyael and headed back into the kitchen. Imena huffed and followed her.

He glanced at his empty hand, then at his wife's retreating back. He faced Makhu, and gestured at the boy. "Your duty, sovar." He smirked. "I have an urgent meeting with Elder Shan."

The puppy yipped and tugged at Mishyael's trouser-leg. He scowled down at the ball of fur, then a wicked grin split his face as he turned to the nksun. He opened his mouth, but was stopped when Ysa called from the kitchen, "Don't even think about it, husband. The dog stays."

"How does she do that?" Mishyael asked Makhu, who was stifling his laughter.

"She's a woman. She knows."

Mishyael let out another beleaguered sigh. "Maybe I'll get some tea at Elder Shan's." He waved Makhu out the door and followed.

"Pray she doesn't lace it with arsenic," Makhu quipped.

"That might be a blessing, the way this day has started."
Naomi threaded the narrow, twisting alleys as quickly as she could. She was already late for Temple, and she just knew Mahala was going to dump extra homework on her for this. It didn't matter that Naomi and her family had dinner at the Amestrian consulate last night, her teacher would still scold her in front of the whole class for her lack of foresight and punctuality.

"Well now, look at this." The voice was a rasp, too close, and Naomi jumped. Then she hissed at herself. She should have remembered and gone another way. Of course, now it was too late. Yoshafah was Ewan's uncle, and he hated Papa. Why, no one ever said. The man scowled at Naomi. "Are you a boy or a girl or something else entirely? Did the varisti witch birth a demon, to beat on our children and corrupt our Elders the further?"

Naomi’s temper rose, the edges of her vision going fuzzy and her stomach twisting itself in knots. "I'm no sivar, and neither is my mother, and anyone who says we are is going to regret it."

Yoshafah snorted. "If you were a true child of God you would know that truth can't be destroyed by the force of the sword, or the fist." His pale red eyes glittered from the shadow of his house, which always needed cleaning. His wife had been dead since before Naomi could remember, and she didn't blame the woman for dying young just to escape him.

Naomi drew herself up. "I know that story, and the one about the righteous weaver woman, too."

"No doubt you do. But hear this girl, as little of the truth of your mother you know, you know even less of your father. Ask him, before your kevarkal. Ask him who gave him the mark on his face. Ask him why he was exiled. Ask him how many men have died at his hand." Yoshafah's smile was predatory. "Ask him... because I'm not the only one who will ask at your Questioning."

Naomi knew her mouth was open and there were tears in her eyes, but somehow she couldn't regain control of her face, much less think of something to put Yoshafah in his place. She turned and fled.

She took a shortcut through the crowded textile district. She skirted around the huge steaming vats of cotton and linen being stirred by workers with large wooden paddles; ducked and darted around wet curtains of freshly dyed fabric in vivid shades of saffron and indigo and ochre. Her head and heart were pounding, and she couldn't quite stop the angry tears streaming down her face. Why would Yoshafah utter such hateful words about Papa? Why would he say Papa had been exiled? An exile couldn't become yevarshedaht, much less a diplomat.

Naomi came to a halt near the silk weaver's shop, and quickly ducked into a nearby alley. She cautiously peeked out of her hiding place. Jesu was talking to a Xingese silk merchant. Naomi sighed in relief; he hadn't spotted her, so he couldn't tattle on her for being late. Realization hit her, and she formed a devious thought. If she was late, and Jesu saw her, it was because he was late, too. And from his casual manner, it didn't look like he was in any hurry to attend his lessons, which meant...

She swiped at the tears on her face, and crept out of her hiding place to sneak up on her younger brother. She stopped just out of arm's reach, and said, "If Papa catches you skipping Temple, he's gonna make you walk the whole Sinner's Path."

Jesu nearly jumped out of his skin, wheeling around into a defensive stance. As soon as he realized it was his sister, he relaxed, then immediately scowled. "I won't be walking it by myself."

A rude retort died on Naomi's lips with the sudden excited babble of the crowd. Instead, she grabbed her brother by his sash, dragging him back into her hiding place. "Wha--" Jesu protested, but Naomi shushed him, then leaned and peeked around the wall.

The crowd was parting, opening a clear path for the Emperor of Xing, chatting animatedly to the small herd of vassals accompanying him. He was followed closely by what appeared to be a stack of parcels with short legs. Naomi gestured to Jesu to remain silent, and pointed. As the Emperor passed by, they got a clear view of Izyan, the Emperor's packages in his arms, piled over his head. In the wake of the imperial wave, a shadow passed overhead and Naomi glanced up in time to catch a glimpse of a black-clad leg and foot, and gold tassels disappearing over the roof of the silk weaver's shop.

When it was safe, both children darted out of hiding and ran through the alley in the opposite direction of their bratty little brother, laughing the whole way. They burst from the textile district, startling a young Bharati couple haggling with an old woman over the price of dried figs. As they passed a fruit vendor, they each snatched an apple, tossed a coin into the cart, and kept running until they reached the edge of the ruins. They settled in the shade of an eroded wall that still held the ghost of a circle carved into it, and ate their snacks in companionable silence.

"So why were you in the textile market?" Naomi asked, finally.

Jesu shrugged. "I was curious." He glanced sideways at his sister and grinned. "Did you know silk is made from worms?"

Naomi faced him, her brows pulled down in concern. "That wasn't what I meant. Why are you skipping Temple?"

"Oh." Jesu was quiet for a long time, picking the seeds from the apple's core. When he'd pried them all out, he threw the core as far as he could, then scattered the seeds near where he sat. He sighed. "I... I didn't want to take the tests again." He gazed at Naomi. "What were you doing there?"

Naomi yawned and pulled her knees up to her chest. She wrapped her arms around her legs and rested her chin on her knees. "I was taking a shortcut." She buried her face in her arms.

"What?" Jesu asked.

She sighed and stared out at the ruins. "I ran into nasty old Yoshafah. He said something really mean."

"That old man is always saying mean things, swai. None of it is ever true."

Naomi gazed at her brother for a long moment, then stared out at the ruins again. "Yeah. If Yoshafah said his mother was a Queen of Aerugo I’d know she was probably a dirty bandit from Drachma.” They were quiet for a long time, each lost in their own thoughts. After awhile, Naomi wrinkled her nose and looked at her brother. "Worms?"

Jesu laughed. "Well, not actually the worms, but their cocoons. The silk farmers feed them mulberry leaves and when the worms make their cocoons, they throw them in boiling water to get the silk."

Naomi grimaced. "Yeah but... worms? Ick!" She shuddered. "And Momma is planning to make my dress out of that!" She grimaced and shuddered again. "I think I'll just go to my kevarkal naked."

Jesu looked horrified. "Please don't."

Naomi responded with a punch to her brother's arm. "Like I really would." She fell back against the wall and stared up into the cloudless sky. "I'll just tell Momma I want a dress of linen, instead." She winced, then. "Momma."

"What about her?" Jesu asked.

"She's gonna kill us when she finds out we skipped Temple."

Jesu gulped. "That's nothing compared to what Papa's gonna do." His eyes went wide, and he looked like he might faint. "Think we could just keep hiding out here until they get over being mad at us?"

"I think that would only make it worse," Naomi said, "because they'd worry about us, on top of being mad."

Jesu sighed and stood. "Then I guess we'd better go get it over with."

Naomi grasped his arm, shading her eyes as she gazed up at him. "Wait."

"We're already in trouble, Naomi. Why make it worse?" He sat back down anyway.

"Zhoji Jean told me something once," Naomi said with a grin, "about prisoners in Amestris who were about to die."

"Uh, this isn't doing anything to make me feel better, swai."

"Just listen. He told me that when they were about to die, they were granted a last request. Like, I dunno, a fancy dinner or something."

"And how is that gonna keep us from being killed? Or worse, becoming another of Emperor Ling's slaves?"

Naomi giggled and got to her feet, pulling her brother up with her. "It's not. But since we're in trouble already, let's go do something fun, before we have to walk the Sinner's Path, or be a slave for a week."

Jesu grinned. "Well, it is early."

"Right," Naomi said. "Let's go see Tiras and work with the horses."

Jesu groaned and rolled his eyes. "I thought you said something fun."

Naomi snapped straight and frowned. "That is fun."

"For you, maybe." Jesu grinned and shrugged. "You go play with the horses. I think I'll go back to talk to that silk merchant."
"I'm sure you remember that I protested your reinstatement." Shan tilted her head, rolling her eye toward the scarred yevarshedaht. She wore no patch over the remnants of her right eye this morning. She snipped a branch from the miniature tree on the bench in front of her. The bonzai had been imported from one of the island nations far to the south, at a price that equaled half a year’s pay for a senior yevarshedaht.

"Yes, Elder," Mishyael said. "I remember."

The morning sun barely pierced the shade of the Elder's lush garden courtyard. Many of the plants were in bloom, heavily perfuming the air. They required a lot of water, but her tribe indulged her wish for such a garden in deference to her age. Elder Shan’s grove was one of the best kept secrets in all the lands of Ishvarra.

She cast a measuring gaze over the top of the bonzai, then waved the yevarshedaht to his knees with the hand holding the clippers. "I witnessed the murder of those Amestrian doctors, and I led the funeral songs for the woman who gave birth to you and the man who called you son. Your brother was not the only young man we laid to rest, but there should have been another sword raised against the soldiers. I have not forgotten that.”

Mishyael shifted, but kept respectfully silent.

After a long moment, she nodded. "Nevertheless, you finally heard the voice of God over the clamor of your hatred and directed your justified anger toward the target She chose." She returned to trimming her miniature tree. "And you still will not attempt to excuse your actions. For that, I offer a grudging respect."

"Yols hatemzherit," he murmured, as he put his hands down to the paving stones and bowed his head.

"Ye'en!" she snapped.

A muscle in his cheek twitched at the insult, but he remained bowed.

"Do not, for one moment, think that I have changed my mind," she said. Her polished cedar cane tapped against the clay tiles as she approached him. She rested her hand on the back of his head. “Nor think that I am the greatest threat to you and your foreign wife.”

"Forgive my impertinence," he said through gritted teeth.

"There has been talk," she said. "Some are saying that Scar has returned." She brought him upright again with a dry, cool palm on the scarring that spread across his forehead and down over his nose and eyes to his cheeks.

"That talk always starts when Ishvarun clash with the Amestrians," he said as he sat back on his heels.

"Yes. I read the reports Miles paiyid Henbredg sent.” She returned to the bench, and trimmed another branch from the tiny tree. “You resorted to alchemy to stop the mob."

"A moment of weakness, Elder. Forgive me."

She waved her clippers dismissively. "That has already been addressed by the triumvirate. You prevented death rather than causing it, and the attackers drew first, so the cause was sufficient." Her single red eye glittered over the top of the small tree. "Do not allow that to become a habit." She came around the edge of the table, then put the closed blades of the clippers under his chin and nudged him up to his feet. "You are an exceptional yevarshedaht, I expect you to use the skills Ishvarra gave you to resolve any more conflicts."

"Yes, Madam."

She laid the clippers aside, and gathered the branches and leaves from the table. "I understand you had a confrontation with the smith's apprentice, Biyal?" she said as she took the waste, and hitched her way to the compost.

"A minor incident. Nothing more."

She tossed the litter into the moldering heap, and shuffled back to him, her cane tapping a light tattoo on the tiles. When she was nearly toe-to-toe with him, she glared up at him. "There is more to it than a 'minor incident'."

Mishyael straightened and frowned down at her. "I don't understand."

She took his arm. "Walk with me. Let me show you my little Paradise."

Mishyael obeyed. Elder Shan stopped at a raised bed of aromatic vines, and pointed at them. "Mint. It's a very useful plant, yes? The tea you can make with it can soothe a nervous stomach, and it's delicious baked in some pastries." She faced him. "But mint has to be planted in a confined space, else it'll take over the whole garden."

He remained respectfully quiet.

Again, she nodded, seemingly satisfied. "I charge you with finding out who Biyal associates with. Report only to me."


She scowled. "I am trusting you, yevarshedaht." With that, she dismissed him.
Naomi trotted down the wide stairs and under one of the arched structures that wound around Xerxes. The aqueducts carried water to everyone in the city and separated the fancier houses and the temple, from the market. Shadows at the edge of the tall structure’s shade darted by, and she twisted around. Glancing up and shading her eyes from the sun, she watched a line of ten nksun run past. Each of them dropped down onto a nearby roof and rolled back up to his feet. They then jumped from roof to roof, down the hill and into the heart of the market. Naomi watched them until they disappeared from her sight, then she turned and continued down the stairs.

She side-stepped an old woman with a basket of vegetables, then narrowly dodged a running ungwaiyar with an armful of scrolls. She stopped to watch an elegant Xingese woman stroll past. She was dressed in a long green-blue gown with wide sleeves and a long, embroidered sash. Her hair was more elaborate than any Ishvarun’s Naomi had ever seen outside of a wedding. It was held up by combs and picks in a strange, looping design. She wore a headdress which sparkled gold, strings of glass beads that twinkled in the sunlight, and tassels that gracefully swayed with each of the woman’s small steps. She was followed by three other Xingese women and two men, but none of them were dressed as fancy as she was. Naomi was sure the woman was someone important, but she’d never seen her before.

After they’d passed, Naomi continued on, weaving around people haggling over spices, and a pair of Bharati men chatting in their own language at the incense seller. Over the murmuring of shoppers, Naomi heard shouts and the sing-song voices of merchants beckoning buyers to their tents and shops. As she neared the broad, open space of the pavilion that Shifa’s tea shop overlooked, she heard a rhythmic bang-bang-bang. She glanced up and saw Tengfei on his hands and knees on top of the wooden awning. He was swinging a hammer, pounding nails into a square of wood near the lower edge. Naomi could remember when Shifa and her Xingese husband had replaced the patched canvas awning with a stronger, wooden one. Now the wooden one was covered in patches, and sooner or later Shifa and Tengfei would replace that one.

As the Xingese tea merchant drove another nail into the square of wood, the ten nksun ran by on the ledge of the roof, their arms out for balance. One of them stumbled and fell down onto the wooden awning. Tengfei calmly reached out and snagged the boy by his ankle as he rolled by. Naomi giggled as Shifa emerged from the shade, teapot in hand, and glanced up at the boy, who was hanging upside-down over the edge of the scalloped trim. The boy grinned and waved, then reached under the trim to grasp a support bar. Tengfei let go of the boy’s ankle, and the nksun gracefully flipped and dropped to the ground. He bowed respectfully to Shifa, then darted into the narrow walkway between the tea shop and the noodle cook, and zig-zagged up the walls to the roof. He shouted for his classmates to wait, then took off after them. Shifa shook her head, then ducked back under the awning. She stopped at a table with two women, and filled their cups.

The awning sloped low, and Naomi couldn‘t see the back of the women’s heads until she was almost right next to them. Her heart skipped a beat, and she slipped into the alley the nksun had run into. She peeked around the corner, and huffed in relief. Momma and Jzhallei Riza hadn’t seen her. They were sitting close together, looking at pictures.

Momma picked up her napkin and dabbed at her eyes, and Naomi gasped. Momma was crying, and Jzhallei Riza was rubbing her back to comfort her.

Naomi grit her teeth and clenched her fist as Momma put the pictures in an envelope and hid them in her robes. Naomi made a vow she would find them, and find out who and what made Momma cry. She took a deep breath and escaped down the alley, on toward the stables.
Sango knew the moment the caravan had crossed the ancient border of Xerxes by the twitch of Akilah's ears. But the Ishvarun-bred horse didn't balk; he was too well-trained and smarter than the rest of the humans in the train.

"Superstitious nonsense, my friend," Sango said, as he rubbed a dark hand along the animal's regal neck. The horse's coat gleamed in the sun like polished copper, and the white in his forelock sparked like quicksilver as he nodded and whuffed softly. Akilah was a badge of the favor of the Queen of Zamaradi Parimba, gifted to Sango when he was promoted to the Queen's Master of the North, and he was a fine mount.

The train he led was a different matter. The men were all from the lower clans, uneducated and superstitious. They’d started praying and waving their hands in signs to ward off evil spirits the moment they’d crossed the old border.

Usually it was easy to ignore the rapidly spoken charms of the lower clans' traders. This trip, however, had been plagued by the stench of superstition from the moment they left the Queen’s lands. Even the camels seemed nervous, and Akilah’s ears never stilled. "Fools," Sango hissed in disgust. He'd traveled this road many times, and he’d never met with any restless spirits.

He reined in Akilah, and waved the rest of the train to a halt. The praying became more fervent and the camels groaned in protest, but Sango ignored them, peering through his telescope off to the east. The other caravan wasn't far, now. Maybe an hour.

Nuru, his second, and the one who interacted with the lowborn, set his camel and dismounted. He approached Sango, crossed his arms over his chest with a thump, and barely inclined his head, as though greeting another of the brass-earring class rather than a gold-bracelet man. The sleeves of his black robe fell back to reveal the stump where his right hand had once been. Nuru had been one of the Queen's advisers, with all the wealth and privilege that came with the station, before he was caught stealing from the coffers, punished, and made into a trader’s steward. "The others are concerned, Captain," Nuru said.

"The others are behaving like frightened old women. There are no ghosts on this road." Sango pointed with his scope off to the east. "Another caravan is headed this way. We'll join them for the rest of the journey to Xerxes."

"But the schedule--"

"We are ahead of schedule. You and those superstitious fools keep pushing the camels to run ahead of your ghosts. They will welcome the chance to rest. We can wait an hour. The added numbers will provide protection from the real dangers of this road."

"Yes, sir," Nuru said, reluctantly. He turned and headed back to his camel, ordering the rest of the train to set their own and wait.

Before he made it ten feet, Sango added, "I will not forget your disrespect, Nuru. But for now, I need a camel driver."

Nuru bowed properly this time. "Understood."
Between keeping an eye on Kamilah and her urike (she finally relented and threw a robe out the door at him, but she still refused to let him back into her house), witnessing two kids skipping Temple (there was nothing Abisha needed to do about that; their father would hear about it soon enough), the ruckus that always seemed to follow the Emperor of Xing (including the Emperor's shadow guard gliding along the rooftops, as graceful as any yevarshedaht), and watching the lone rider dismount to walk his weary horse the rest of the way to the city, it had been an interesting, although uneventful, morning.

Abisha turned his attention back to the caravans from the south and east. Both were making good time, although the one from the south had appeared to be moving faster than was typical for a train of that size. He was able to make out more detail now, and counted twenty camels, but only six riders in black robes. Aerugan, then. There was also one horse and rider, leading them. Abisha assumed he was the captain; likely from the house of one of the Five Queens.

The eastern caravan was on a direct intersection path to the southern one. The number of riders compared to the number of camels made the southern train unlikely suspects for bandits, but very little was out of the question in the open desert of the traders' roads.

It was time to report the caravans’ approach. Abisha let his field glasses hang around his neck and turned to Yishai. The boy slowly looked up from the book he was studying, and sagged. "Again?"

"You need to build your stamina if you're going to become a yevarshedaht," Abisha said as he jerked his head in the direction of the long, winding, tower stairs.

The boy scowled and came to his feet. "I'm not going to live that long, under your command," he said as he headed down the stairs once again.
Naomi strode through the long stable, waving at Nizhyim, who was leaning on the gate to Kharyvi's stall. This was the mare's first birth, and the most experienced of Tiras' apprentices was keeping a careful watch on her. Fifteen year-old Ghani, the youngest of the apprentices, was pitching straw into a freshly-cleaned stable further down, Qamarah, the first female Tiras had ever taken as an apprentice, was in the storage room organizing the supplies. Naomi liked Qamarah; she didn't make puppy-eyes at the boys in town, and wasn't afraid to get dirty, like most of the silly girls in Xerxes. She glanced up from the small blackboard she was making a list on, and smiled, as Naomi poked her head in the door of the storage room. "Day's blessing, Naomi. You're here early today."

Naomi grinned. "Where's Zhoji Tiras?"

Qamarah pointed with her chalk. "Down to Yishara's stall."

"Hatemzher," Naomi said, and turned to dash down the aisle, nearly running over Zihyar, the kahanyin, who was carrying Iuzad's dress saddle out of the tackroom. "Oops! Sorry, Zhoji", she said. She tilted her head curiously. "Is something wrong with Iuzad's saddle?"

"Nope," Zihyar said, as he shifted the saddle in his grip. "Tiras just wants to make sure it's in top form for the dedication ceremony."

Naomi's eyes widened and her grin spread.

Tiras was leading his prized mare, Yshara, and her four month-old foal, Sarab, out of their stall, and his expression lightened when he saw Naomi. "Your timing is perfect. Come and help me; the little one needs grooming."

Tiras was a master of horses. He'd arrived in Xerxes twelve years ago riding Iuzad, the long-legged stallion, and leading three mares. They were all that was left of his village and his tribe's herd of Golden Horses, the graceful and intelligent horses of Ishvar. Naomi hadn't been the only one to fall in love with the animals, but she was one of the few who was willing to work as well as ride. A Golden Horse of Ishvar would gleam like gold, or sometimes copper or steel, if she was healthy and properly groomed. "Properly groomed", by Tiras' standards, meant "nose to tail, ears to hooves". He would make allowances for the restiveness of foals and the tempers of stallions, but not the inattention or weariness of humans.

"There. That's enough, let go." Tiras patted Sarab’s short neck as Naomi let go of her right rear hoof. "She's learning to trust and to balance herself. Now the brush, slow and gentle."

Naomi brushed the baby's sides, letting Tiras' calm voice soothe her. When that part was done, she took the soft cloth hanging on the rail and wiped down the foal’s tender legs.

"Good. Now for the last hoof." He put a hand to the filly's left shoulder as Naomi bent to pick up the tiny right front hoof. "Not high, I know your back's tired but she's little and wobbly. Better."

With Sarab's grooming lesson finished, Tiras sent Naomi into the barn for Yshara's saddle and bridle, then waited while the foal frisked and Naomi tacked the mare. He gave the girl a leg up with his usual phrase. "Up you get, lekhaya." He walked alongside her until the little one trotted up beside her mother, following and nudging her. He put a hand on the filly's back without comment, left it there for a few steps while her ears twitched, then took his hand away. "I'm going to put her on the halter. Wait for a moment."

Sarab's lesson in following where she was led, with her mother on one side and Tiras on the other, was short. Babies tired easily. Momma said that was why Zhevah was sometimes fussy. Naomi didn't quite believe it. The foal ran around and was "studying"; Zhevah never did anything but wriggle and cry. She couldn't even walk, so what did she have to make her tired?

"All right, Naomi, you'd best tighten your sandals and run home, if you're to get to afternoon Temple clean."

"I can wait a little longer," Naomi said, though she slid off the horse's back and let the old man take Yshara's reins.

"Ishvarra might not mind, but your father will dunk you in the public fountain if you try to cross the temple threshold smelling of horse." Tiras briskly swung up onto the mare's back in a soft, fluid motion. "Hold the little one while I take her mother through the gate, please. Yshara needs to stretch her legs and remember her steps."

"I can wash fast." Naomi let Sarab nibble her sleeve as Tiras rode the mare through the gate into the pasture beyond the paddock.

"Stop her chewing on you, minya, she has to learn her manners now." Tiras nudged Yshara with a heel and sent her into a slow, easy canter.

”I don’t see why I have to go when you and your other apprentices don’t,” Naomi said crossly.

Tiras chuckled even as Yshara executed a flawless flying lead change and cantered toward her foal and the girl, working without any apparent cue from her grizzled rider. "I worship Ishvarra by caring for these creatures She's gifted us with." As the mare trotted closer to Naomi, he slowed her and leaned down. "And I don't have a father who is a senior yevarshedaht."

"I'm almost an adult," Naomi complained, "I should be able to decide whether to go to Temple or do something useful with my time."

"This is true," Tiras said, "and you’ll have that decision to make soon, with the kevarkhal. But being an adult also means accepting the consequences of your decisions."

Naomi sighed. "I'm probably going to have to walk the Sinner's Path tomorrow, anyway."

Tiras chuckled. "The rope is around the lion’s neck? Well enough. The decision is yours."
Alphonse Elric knelt in the aisle of the kennels with one end of a rag in his hand. The other end was held in the jaws of a small, brown puppy, who was yanking on it with all her might. Her tiny, thin growls echoed off the clay tiles and walls. "You're the last one," Alphonse said, as he gave a gentle tug on the rag. "I'll bet you're lonely in here all by yourself." The rag came loose from the puppy's jaws. She yipped and pounced it again, determined to win the tug of war. Alphonse laughed softly. "I suppose I could take you home with me." He let the puppy yank the rag from his hand, and chuckled when she attacked it and shook it with enthusiasm. "Mei might get mad at me if I bring another stray home, though," he said, ruefully.

"Doctor Alphonse!" Ysanje, his fifteen year old assistant, called from the waiting room.

"Sounds like an emergency," Alphonse said to the puppy. He picked up the small dog and placed her in her kennel, then latched the gate. "I'll come back and play with you some more later," he said as he stood and left the kennel area.

He heard the incoherent sobbing before he reached the small waiting room, but it didn't prepare him for the sight. The little girl couldn't have been more than six, but she was covered in blood and her face was buried in the neck of a dog that might've been white, were it not for the red stains smeared over his short coat. Ysanje was kneeling next to the little girl, doing her best to calm her. “Doctor Alphonse is the best, minya,” his apprentice told the child. “Your brave friend will be fine, you’ll see.”

The dog struggled to stand as Alphonse approached, but his torn haunches gave way, and he collapsed with his head in the girl's lap. There was pain in his eyes and tension around his floppy, torn ears, but he didn’t make a sound.

"Hey there," Alphonse said softly as he slowly knelt and offered the back of his hand for the dog to sniff. "What happened, hmm?"

“Ewan said I was an ugly stupid baby with an ugly stupid dog and I tried to hit him but he hit me instead and I ran away and Kenbi came with me and I was throwing a ball as hard as I could and he was bringing it back for me when a big mean dog came and tried to bite me but Kenbi jumped on him--” the child hiccuped, then took a deep breath and rushed on, the words tumbling over each other, “and the mean dog bit Kenbi all over and then a big boy came and he threw stones with his sling until the mean dog ran away, and he carried Kenbi most of the way but he didn’t want to get in trouble and Kenbi can’t get up!” The child buried her face in her pet’s furry neck, and he wagged his tail a little. That was a good sign; an active tail meant there probably wasn’t crippling spinal damage.

Alphonse settled down beside the little girl and put a hand on her shoulder. “Kenbi’s a very brave dog, and you’re a very smart girl to have brought him here. Can you sit up for me, so I can look at him?” He threw a glance to Ysanje, and she nodded, slipping an arm around the little girl’s shoulders. Alphonse’s apprentice had been studying with him for almost two years; she knew the necessity of comforting owners as well as tending their pets. She would work the child’s name, and the names of her parents, out of her while Alphonse handled Kenbi’s injuries.

There were several shallow wounds that he could repair easily, but the deep gash on the dog's rear shank was going to need more work if he was going to save the leg. At least the little girl didn't appear injured.

"Kenbi saved me," she said, and buried her face in the dog's fur again. When she looked up at Alphonse, her eyes were beseeching. "Please, Doctor. Please fix him!"

Alphonse smiled and ran a hand over the dog's heaving side. "I'll do my best, I promise." He gazed down at the dog. "I'm sorry, Kenbi, but it's going to hurt a little when I pick you up." Alphonse cradled the dog in his arms and winced when Kenbi yelped and whimpered as he rose to his feet. He gazed down at the little girl. "Can you do me a favor? Go home to your mom and dad; they're probably worrying about you. Tell them what a hero Kenbi is, okay? And say a prayer to help him get better." He smiled. "You can come see him tomorrow. He'll want you to visit him while he heals." He faced Ysanje. "There are size small scrubs in the supply closet. They'll be big on her, but it'll be better than having her walk across town in bloody clothes. Make sure she gets home safely."

Ysanje nodded and helped the little girl to her feet. “Come along, minya, let’s get you cleaned up, then we can go tell your momma and papa what a brave dog Kenbi is, okay?” She wrapped an arm around the child’s shoulders and led her to the back of the office.
By the time Yishai returned, Abisha was able to make out the lead animals in the east train. Elephants. Three of them. Abisha could remember seeing only one in his life.

“What do you see, Watchman?” The voice was a surprise. It was usually Yarak who came to see what the watch had to report.

"We have Aerugans coming from the south, Senior." Abisha handed the field glasses to Mishyael, the senior yevarshedaht. He gestured toward the second caravan. "And a train from the east. They're being led by elephants."

Mishyael peered through the binoculars and turned the wheel to focus. "Bharati," he informed the watchman. "They'll meet up with the Aerugans within the hour."

"Should we alert the guard?"

Mishyael gazed toward the south. "It's unlikely the Aerugans are robbers; too many laden camels. They're waiting on the Bharati to combine forces the rest of the way." He swept back to the eastern train and his lips pulled up into a ghost of a smile. "Although I suspect that the arrival of that caravan will cause a stir." He lowered the glasses. "We'll err on the side of caution." He nodded at the young nksun. "Find Makhu and tell him to gather his ungwaiyar and ride out to the eastern caravanserai."

"It'll be dark before they get there," the boy protested.

Mishyael laid his hand on the boy's head. "Ishvarun horses are as sure-footed in the dark as they are in the day, ‘yirhi, and Makhu knows the path well. He'll arrive when the trains do, and the night will be quiet."

Yishai bowed and ran off.

"The Bharati caravan is friendly, but keep watch all the same," Mishyael said as he returned the glasses to Abisha. "Trouble always seems to follow that one." He gave a curt bow and left the watchman to puzzle over the cryptic comment.

Abisha brought the glasses up and focused on the caravan. He could pick out the elephants and the camels through the heat shimmer now, but the riders were all wearing sand cloaks and were thus indistinguishable from each other. The riders on the back of the second elephant, and the smaller one behind her, were interesting and unexpected, though. The smallest elephant carried a youth, that much was clear, but it was the adult rider in front of him that caught Abisha's attention. His face was shadowed by a hood, like the others, but a rope of braided gold draped over his shoulder.
NOTE: For the definitions of Ishvarun words used in this chapter, please go to our Ishvaran Glossary

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