Fullmetal Alchemist Fan Fiction ❯ Arcanum Paterfamilias ❯ Chapter Four: Uzrahji Minzha ( Chapter 4 )

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Arcanum Paterfamilias -- Chapter Four: Uzrahji Minzha
Authors: mfelizandy & fractured_chaos
Genre: Drama/Political Thriller. Futurefic, Genfic, Plotfic, Light Romance. No Sex.
Rating: Teen, for violence and Ed's potty mouth.
Chapter Word Count: 7700
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!

“Why are they wearing black, Dad?” Theo frowned as Vasupati, the caravan master, talked with the captain of the camel train from the south. “Black only draws in the heat, and it’s depressing.”

“It’s a religious thing,” Edward Elric shrugged. “They think wearing white is a death omen, because ghosts are white.”

“But there’s no such thing as ghosts.” Theo, astride Bindi’s neck, rubbed the elephant’s tough skin. The elephants’ services as mounts had cost three times those of a camel or a caravan horse, but Theo had developed a love of elephants upon his arrival in Bharat, and Edward’s work there had left him with money to spare. Besides, Bindi, Aishi, and Chandra smelled better than any camel he’d ever met.

“No, but people make up all kinds of crazy stuff to make sense of whatever they don’t understand.” Edward glanced at Vasupati, who waved to get his attention, then beckoned. “Looks like we’re getting going. Tell Bindi to move along, kid.” He tapped Aishi, his elephant and Bindi’s mother, on the back of her right ear and got her moving.

Agey brahna!” Theo chirped happily, nudging the animal’s right ear with his foot. Bindi blew through her trunk, flapping her ears as she started off toward Vasupati. The caravan master put a foot onto his elephant’s lowered trunk and rose gracefully to sit on Chandra’s neck.

“This is Sango, the master of the caravan from the south,” Vasupati said in thickly-accented Amestrian. “He serves the Queen of the Zamaradi Parimba region.”

The caravan master threw back his hood and grinned up at Edward and Theo from the back of his copper-coated horse. “Uslama bambarani siknema,” he said in the rapid syllables of the northern jungle lands.

Kushafeyri ramoja,” Edward answered. He lowered his hood. “Put your hood down, Theo, it’s good manners to show your face to an Aerugan the first time you meet. Vasupati, would you tell Sango my name and Theo’s? My Aerugan’s so rusty I’m afraid I’ll insult his mother or something.” He looked down again and met the other caravan master’s eyes.

The Aerugan’s smile vanished.
There was a scream and a bang from the stables, causing Naomi to jump and the foal to startle and hurry back to the fence to squeal for her mother. An instant later, Nizhyim charged out. "Master!"

Tiras reined in Yshara near the gate, and quickly dismounted. "Kharyvi?"

"Yes, Master. She strains, but the foal doesn’t move. Now she won’t get up." Nizhyim was about twenty and usually cheerful, but his skin showed an unhealthy gray and there was no trace of his usual smile on his face.

Tiras swung open the gate, and led Yshara into the paddock. As he passed Naomi, he laid a hand on her shoulder. "You stay out here and groom Yshara, it'll keep her calm." To Nizhyim, he said, "Run and fetch Doctor Alphonse. I'll try to settle the mare."

Naomi gulped, but didn't argue with the horse master. A horse in pain was a dangerous animal. She’d seen it herself when Tiras had tried to put ointment on Iuzad’s infected ear. The stallion had knocked out two of the horse master’s teeth and cracked his ribs badly enough that Tiras had had to content himself with sitting on a stool for more than a week while his apprentices did all the work. He’d even needed to send Nizhyim to bring Doctor Alphonse to calm Iuzad with foreign drugs so the infection in the stallion’s ear could be treated. “Never forget that, lekhaya,” Tiras had told her, watching the varisti animal doctor lance the boil on the drugged horse. “A horse may carry you and do what you ask of him for twenty years, but startle him or cause him pain, and his hooves may be the end of you.”

Naomi gave Yshara a gentle pat on her neck, and began to remove the horse’s tack. Once she had the saddle and blanket hung on the fence-rail, she ran a hand along the mare’s side and came around behind her. She selected a curry comb from the pail of grooming tools hanging on a peg by the gate, and began to rake it over the horse's coat, putting her shoulder into the work to relax Yshara’s muscles as well as clean her. While she worked, Naomi murmured softly in the temple tongue, letting the words follow the circular sweeps of the curry. “Ishvarra, Dyenes Yeta, [You who pours out the water of the world...”]

Her prayer stalled as she saw Qamarah and Ghani lead five saddled horses out, and tether them to the paddock fence. One of the horses was Yitamar, Makhu's stallion. Naomi watched from around Yishara's chest as the senior yevarshedaht and his four ungwaiyar mounted up, then rode out of Xerxes.

As soon as the party was on its way, Ghani returned to the stable, but Qamarah remained, watching as the riders reappeared at the base of the hill, and galloped away down the road. Lyron, one of the ungwaiyar who rode with Makhu, was Qamarah's older brother, and the girl looked worried.

Naomi came up beside her, and watched as the group became nothing but an indistinguishable spot in the distance. "Dren said there were two caravans coming together," Qamarah said, softly. She faced Naomi and smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes. "They will reach the caravanserai in time to keep the peace."

"They'll return home whole and singing." Naomi quoted the ancient wish that was always said when warriors were headed into a potentially dangerous situation.

"From your mouth to Ishvarra's ear," the other girl responded. She started back to the stable, but paused and shaded her eyes as she stared at the road. An instant later, Naomi heard the slow clop-clop-clop of hooves, and frowned. A single man in a sand cloak appeared over the hill, leading a weary horse. As Qamarah went to meet the rider, Naomi noticed his dark, round glasses and his funny sideburns, and something tugged at her memory. Then, with a start, she remembered who he was. The last time he had been to her home for dinner with Papa and Momma, Naomi was only six. She had been fascinated by his funny accent and the heavy blue jacket with brass buttons and stars on his shoulder.

Miles payid Henbredg was the only Ishvarun Naomi had ever seen who belonged to the Amestrian military.
Alphonse finished taping the gauze over the dog's left hind shank. "There you go, Kenbi," he said as he smoothed the fur on the dog’s head. It was one of the few places not stained with blood. The dog was coming out of the anesthetic and groggily thumped his tail twice in response to Alphonse's gentle stroking. “You did a brave thing today.”

He was a lucky dog. The boy had had the presence of mind to bring the dog and his tearful little owner to the “varisti animal doctor” in the Foreign District. Ishbalans respected their dogs, but unless the animal was a particularly prized hunting or herding dog, his master would sooner euthanize him than bring him to Alphonse for treatment that could be both expensive and possibly sacrilegious. Not that he charged much for his services on dogs. Most of his income came from treating the animals Ishbalans would willingly call for help with: goats, cows, and horses.

Alphonse lay his hand on the dog's side, closed his eyes and listened a moment. He'd already sealed the wounds, but the new skin was still fragile and could easily tear. The shallow scrapes and cuts were already well on their way to healing, and the deeper gashes were knitting. Kenbi would keep all four of his legs, and would be ready to leave the clinic in a few days.

He cradled the dog in his arms, and carried him from the exam room to the kennels. He passed by the waiting room, noting that it was empty; Ysanje was still gone. Alphonse glanced at the clock that hung on the wall over the reception desk, and realized it was later than he'd thought. Ysanje had probably gone straight to the temple after taking Kenbi’s little owner home. His apprentice was devoted to learning veterinary medicine and surgery, but she was also devoted to her faith; to the point of pinning up strips of paper covered in ornate Ishbalan calligraphy all over the clinic and insisting that a daily prayer to Ishballa made Alphonse’s skills sharper, medicines and herbs more efficacious, and the animals’ chances of recovery better.

She worked hard and asked intelligent questions, though, and she didn’t balk when assisting Alphonse in minor surgeries. Some of his techniques, however, were better not demonstrated to his apprentice. Alphonse was fairly sure Ysange knew how he knew so accurately what was wrong inside an animal, and as long as he didn’t push it in her face, she wouldn’t denounce him for using alkahestry within the city.

He wasn’t surprised that she’d prepared the kennel before she left. Kenbi would have a soft bed and a long prayer slip covered with the graceful characters of the sacred version of Ishbalan while he recovered. Alphonse laid the still groggy dog on the padding, and petted him again. "You'll be out of here soon," he said, "then you can go back to protecting your little girl."

”Still working miracles, Alphonse?” The voice spoke Amestrian and sounded a little amused. “One of these days you’ll get caught using alchemy, and then you're going to lose a lot of business.”

Alphonse grinned as he shut the kennel gate and rose smoothly to his feet. "It's alkahestry, and the people here tolerate it a little better than alchemy." He turned and his grin grew wider. "Hello, Emissary, Miss Riza," he greeted as he approached Roy and Riza Mustang with his hands out.

Roy reached out and found the younger man's hands, clasping them in his own. "Alphonse," he chided, "it's Roy. You know that."

"It never hurts to be polite," Alphonse responded. "How are you both? It's been... two years?"

"Oh, accusations, intrigue, games and drama... and when I’m not with my daughters there’s politics, too," Roy said with teasing carelessness. "I won't bore you with the details. Word has gotten all the way back to me of the wonderful veterinarian in Xerxes."

Alphonse chuckled as he gazed at his empty waiting room. "Yeah. Business is booming."

The door to the office burst open and a young Ishbalan blustered in, panting and wild-eyed. One of Tiras' apprentices. “Doctor Alphonse!”

"What is it, Nizhyim?"

"It's Kharyvi," the young apprentice gasped out. “She strains but the foal doesn’t come.”

Alphonse nodded. "I'll get my bag." To Roy and Riza, he said, "Sorry. The mare’s having trouble. I'll catch up with you later."

The horsemaster’s apprentice followed Alphonse’s gaze, and actually took in the identities of the other visitors in the clinic. “M-my apologies, Emissary,” he faltered.

“[You are forgiven],” Roy said with some dignity. “Al, I’d like to talk to you, sooner rather than later.”

“Tomorrow morning?” Alphonse asked as he started for the supply closet.

“As soon as your practice permits.” Roy lifted an eyebrow toward Nizhyim.

“I’ll ask Ysange to watch the clinic after the morning rush,” Alphonse answered from the depths of the clinic. “I’ve really got to lock up and get to the stables, though, or we could lose the mare as well as the foal.”

“Go save some lives, then.” Mustang allowed himself to be escorted out, then he and Riza strolled back toward the consulate while Alphonse jogged after the nervous Nizhyim.
The texts said that good work becomes a prayer. That while the body worked the soul was free to listen to God. Grooming was that kind of work for Naomi. It wasn't difficult to lose track of time amid the soft chuffing and whickering and the sounds of tails swishing and sweeping. All was quiet inside the stables, now that Doctor Alphonse was there to help deliver Kharyvi's foal. It wasn't until she heard the light scratch of sandals over hard-packed clay and straw from around the stable that any sense of time passing struck her.

A light, friendly voice called, "You know you missed Temple, right?"

The calm shattered. "God knows everything and She can be anywhere She wants to be, so if She wants me She'll find me," Naomi answered petulantly, as she bent over the hoof she held cupped in her hand. From her vantage point, all she saw was a pair of well-worn sandals on dark brown feet pass by the other side of the mare, but she knew who it was.

"So will your father, and he'll make you walk the whole Sinner's Path for skipping." The speaker grunted a little, hoisting himself up onto the top rail of the fence surrounding the paddock.

"If you only came to scold me you can go right back home, Asher." Naomi scowled around the mare's chest at the older boy.

He rolled his eyes. "I came to find out if you're all right. I heard you got into a fight with Ewan yesterday, then I ran into Jesu a little while ago. He told me Yoshafah made you cry this morning. But if you'd rather roast yourself in your temper, I'll go."

"No... no, stay." Naomi sighed. She untethered Yshara, and led her to the pasture gate. Asher jumped down and opened the gate from the other side, while Naomi let the mare and her foal loose into the pasture.

As soon as the gate was secure, Asher leaned toward her, his eyes narrowed as he peered at the bruising under her eye, then smirked. “Ewan actually managed to punch you? Did he cheat and get a couple of his friends to pin you down?” he asked as he returned to his perch on the top rail.

Naomi leaned on the fence beside him. “I was watching his right. I forgot he’s left-handed.”

Asher huffed a small laugh. “He must’ve really made you mad, then.”

Naomi sighed and rested her chin on her arms. “Yeah.”

The afternoon sun caught the streak of white in Asher’s hair as he looked past the gamboling horses in the pasture, thinking his own thoughts. That was one of the things that made him a good friend; if he didn't have anything to say, he didn't say anything. He didn't chatter like the stupid girls, and he wasn't impressed by their dumb games, either.

Naomi followed Asher's gaze. A crumbling old tower amid the not-yet-rebuilt section of Xerxes stood easily three times the height of most houses, and it looked out over ruins that stretched almost to the horizon. The city had been huge and important, once.

"I wish I could see it the way it was before God ruined it."

"So do I," Asher answered. "You'd think God could have showed the Old People that they were only humans without destroying a city like this."

That was another good thing about Asher. He thought about the same outrageous and sometimes sacrilegious things Naomi did, and he didn’t see anything wrong with thinking them.

"We probably won't get to see it all rebuilt, either," Naomi said wistfully. "We're stuck in between."

"I wouldn't say we're stuck between," her friend murmured. "We've been right here at the beginning. Our parents were refugees who came here to hide. They brought life back to this old city, but we're the ones who are going to make it great again."

"We could talk until we turned to dry dust, but no one would ever listen to us. I don't think they'd listen even if we were a hundred years old." She scowled. "Not as long as we're the varisti-blooded children of the yevarshedaht."

"I don't believe that," Asher said, as Yshara came up and nudged him. He reached out to give her a light scratch along her neck, and the sleeve of his tunic fell back, exposing two bands of tattoos wound around his wrist and forearm.

"All right, so maybe they'll listen to you eventually. There are more people from the southern tribes here now, so it's not so strange." Naomi traced Asher's tattoos with her eyes while the older boy petted Yshara. Like his father Makhu, Asher's skin was much darker than most Ishvarun, so the heritage tattoos almost blended in until you got close enough.

"Your mother isn't varisti any more than my father is a slaver, and even if they were, 'it is not for you to condemn the child for her birth,'" Asher told her, his tone going a bit flat. He'd used that phrase from The Book of Bitter Water for as long as Naomi could remember. She preferred to use her fists when someone called her "half-breed" or even "foreigner" behind her father's back.

"Ewan called her sivar, and he's not the only one who does." Naomi folded her bare, unmarked arms along the top rail of the fence and scowled, then whispered, "And Yoshafah said Papa had been in exile."

"Ewan's stupid, and he listens to stupid people complain," Asher said, giving Yshara's neck a final pat as the horse moved off. "In a few days, you'll be a woman and he'll still be a bully who gets beat up by girls."

Naomi huffed a little, then her expression lightened as Sarab kicked up her heels and took off at a gangly run. "And after that, I can come here instead of going to Temple every morning and evening."

“That’s as may be,” Tiras’ voice said from behind them, "but right now Doctor Alphonse and Kharyvi need your help, minya." Tiras nodded at Asher, and laid a hand on Naomi’s shoulder. "Your hands are small and you can reach into Kharyvi to help turn the foal’s head." Naomi's jaw dropped, and she felt the blood drain from her face. Tiras almost laughed. "You're not going to faint, are you?"

She clamped her mouth shut with a snap, took a deep breath and straightened. "I'm not some sissy girl, Zhoji Tiras."

This time, the horse master did laugh, and patted her shoulder. "That's my lekhaya." He nudged her toward the stables. "Go, give the varisti animal doctor the hands he needs."

Naomi darted into the stables. Asher watched until she disappeared, then shot a questioning glance at Tiras. "Why aren't any of the other apprentices helping?"

"Naomi's hands will fit better," Tiras said in feigned innocence. At Asher's disbelieving scowl, the stable master chuckled. "It's good experience for her... and it will lessen the trouble she gets into for skipping Temple today."
“What’s got your big ugly nose out of joint?” Isni lounged on the largest of the flat rocks, his loose, desert-shaded clothing blending easily with the stone.

“It pisses me off that they picked up that other train,” Jedrej said as he scanned the caravanserai through his field glasses. His thick fingers swallowed the lens casings, and he fumbled with the focus wheel. The camp below wavered through the glass, then swam into sharp focus.

“I don’t see how it makes any difference,” Isni shrugged as he casually rolled off the rock and stretched for his entire length before sitting up on his knees beside Jedrej. “They can’t outrun us, after all.”

“It increases our chances of being seen.” Jedrej lowered the binoculars to scowl at the long-limbed blond man. “And you almost blew our cover when we crossed the border, asshole.”

The blond chuckled and stretched his arms over his head. “I couldn’t help it. I was hungry.”

“We were too close to the caravan for that. You could’ve waited until dark.”

“If you weren’t so goddamned slow, I would have.” The blond’s lip curled. “We’ve nearly lost them three times because of you.” He rubbed his stomach. “I’m still hungry.” He leaned forward and grinned down at the busy caravanserai. “What a delicious banquet.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Jedrej said. “We have orders to follow. You can go catch lizards to fill your bottomless stomach. I’m not going to make Her mad.”

The blond’s eyes narrowed as he continued to watch the caravans make camp under the setting sun, then his hand darted out and he snatched the field glasses from Jedrej.

“What the fu--” Jedrej protested before the strap snapped across his throat.

The blond grinned wider and he nearly purred. “The plan’s just changed,” he said. He handed the glasses back to Jedrej and pointed.

Jedrej adjusted the field glasses again and swept them over the camp. The travelers had lowered their hoods, and two people from the Bharati caravan didn’t belong. Unlike the brown-skinned and dark-haired rest of the train, the man and boy were paler, though not as pale as Isni’s northern-bred skin, and both the travelers had gleaming gold hair. “A couple of travelers. So what?”

“Look closely. The kid’ll be worth a fortune,” the blond said.

“We don’t have time for side trips,” Jedrej snapped.

“Kidnapping the brat would be within the scope of our orders,” Isni countered. “And we’d get a bonus for the trouble.”

“Just how does kidnapping a boy from a caravan fit into the job?” Jedrej demanded.

“Your eyesight’s getting worse every day,” Isni said insolently. “If you could see past your nose without those,” he waved at the field glasses, “you’d know that that boy alone could make not just our fortunes but Hers as well.”

“And just where do you think we can keep him while we carry out the rest of our orders?” Jedrej asked.

“The caves,” interjected the third member of their group.

Jedrej turned to look over his shoulder at the hooded man sitting calmly beside their packs. He pointed off to the distance, and Jedrej brought his field glasses up.

At the edge of his weak eyesight he could see the purple shadow of a mountain range. “The Uryia cliffs? There aren’t any caves in those mountains.”

“The mozhkarishki know where they are.” The man’s voice offered no hint as to his opinion of the matter.

“So who’s gonna drag the kid all the way out there? It’ll take all three of us just to get rid of the caravan guards.”

“A day or two won’t make a difference in our plans, and the nomads who live there will watch the boy.”

“I ain’t trusting a bunch of Ishbalans,” Isni growled. “Not with something as valuable as that brat.”

The third man threw back his hood, revealing dark-brown skin and silver hair. His red eyes glittered. “They have no love for the Amestrians,” he said, “and even less love for the traitors who have sided with them.” His lips quirked. “Do you truly not know who the varisti who travels with the Bharati is, Gozenyi?” His tone made the honorific a mocking insult.

“Just some Amestrian.” Jedrej grunted. “We have more important things to do than screw around with ransom notes.”

“The kid’s worth a pound of gold each to us,” Isni said.

The Ishbalan huffed. “Idiots.”

A muscle in Jedrej’s jaw twitched and his big hands clenched on the field-glasses. “So who is he?”

The Ishbalan didn’t answer for a long time. He just watched the camp.

Jedrej brought his glasses back up, and watched the boy and his father working together erecting their tent. Neither of them looked the least bit interesting, or valuable. “Is he some high official?” Jedrej considered a moment. “They’re not dressed like they’re rich. If we kill the father and take the boy, how will we get our pound of gold each?”

“The father won’t be easy to kill,” the Ishbalan said, then a grin slowly crawled across his face. “But I can do it.”

“So... who is he?” Jedrej asked again.

“A legend,” the Ishbalan said. His eyes darted to the far side of the camp, and his face went tight. He hissed. “I knew that stench was familiar.”

The blond’s stomach grumbled loudly and he chuckled. “Horse sounds tasty.”

“The horse and his rider are mine,” the Ishbalan growled.

“Will the two of you stop thinking with your stomachs?” Jedrej barked.

“This has nothing to do with food,” the Ishbalan said curtly. His narrowed red eyes tracked the copper-coated horse as he followed his master. The Ishbalan’s lip curled into a feral snarl.
Jesu scrubbed frantically at the stains on his robe, but all he seemed to be doing was spreading them.

A shadow filled the doorway of the wash-shed, and Jesu’s heart sank. He slowly turned his gaze upward, and tears stung his eyes. Papa’s expression was curious at first, then his eyes went to the blood-stained robe, and his face went tight. He grasped the robe, then settled to his knees next to his son. Papa took his chin, the bandage bunching across his palm, and lifted Jesu’s face, turning it this way and that. “Where are you hurt?” he demanded.

“I--I’m not, Papa.” Jesu couldn’t meet his father’s gaze, as he murmured, “It’s not mine.”

Papa sighed out a relieved breath, then settled back on his heels. He let go of Jesu’s chin, in favor of resting a hand on the boy’s narrow shoulder. “What happened?” Papa’s rumble was softened, and Jesu started to cry.

“I’m sorry, Papa. I... I skipped Temple today.”

“I know that, ’yirhi,” Papa said gently. “That doesn’t tell me why your robe is covered in blood. Were you fighting?”

Jesu shook his head. “I was in the ruins. I saw some other kids... they were Kadrhym tribe. Ewan was with them, and he made fun of a little girl, and she ran off.” He didn’t meet his father’s eyes. “She went right into that big palace you’ve said is going to fall down someday and crush anybody who’s under it. I didn’t want her to get crushed, so I followed her to tell her to go be mad somewhere else...” he faltered.

Papa’s face tensed. “Is this her blood?”

“No!” Jesu looked up to his father’s face. “I’d never hurt a little girl. I’d never hurt--” he stopped and bit his lip.

“You wouldn’t hurt anyone,” Papa finished. “That shows a certain wisdom, my son. A good man, strong and wise, knows that the first strike is usually thrown by the loser.” He crouched to look up into Jesu’s face. “I do want to know whose blood this is.”

“Kenbi.” Jesu sniffled. “A stray came up and attacked the girl-- she had her dog with her, and he ran in to grab the stray dog before it could bite her.” He sniffled again, staring down at his hands. “I used my sling to chase the mean dog away, and... and I carried her dog-- she said his name is Kenbi-- to Doctor Alphonse.”

“Was she injured?”

Jesu shook his head. Papa just looked at him for a long moment, then he let out a whuff tinged with amusement. “You started the day doing something that shamed both you and me, but you ended it doing what makes me proud to call you my son.”

Papa stood and reached for a bar of soap on the shelf over Jesu’s head, then he sat next to the boy on the wash-shed floor with his legs crossed. “Let’s get these stains out before your mother sees them.” He picked a deeply stained place on the front of the tunic, and rubbed the soap into it. “Do a small part at a time, and from both sides of the fabric, to take the blood from each side. Don’t rinse it immediately. Let the soap have some time to work.” He put the fabric into Jesu’s hands. “Work on it while I clean my belt.” He took the jar of leather soap from the shelf and removed his belt, unthreading it from the scabbard straps and laying his sword aside.

“Zephan has told me that you’re having trouble with some of your exercises.” Papa worked the soap into the leather of his belt with strong hands. “He said you are doing well in all your other studies, and you show promise in your training, but you hesitate when you spar with either bare hands or a weapon.”

Jesu sighed, and stared down at his hands scrubbing more soap into his stained tunic. “I’m sorry, Papa.”

“Why do you apologize, ’yirhi?” Papa’s big, soap-scented hand settled on top of Jesu’s head, and his fingers combed through his hair. “If the training was easy, we’d have more yevarshedaht than horse masters, or metal workers, or farmers. A city cannot run on warriors alone.”

“But...” Jesu hesitated. “I’m supposed to be like you.”

“Jesu.” Papa’s voice forced Jesu to look up at him again. “Even if it was possible, or God’s will, I would not want you or your brothers to walk the paths I’ve walked.” For a moment he was a stranger, a stern patriarch looking at Jesu from behind a layer of so-familiar pale scarring with ancient and terrible eyes. Then he closed his eyes and turned his face away, and when he opened them he was Papa again, rubbing the strong oily soap into his belt. “You must follow the path that is best for you, ’yirhi.” There was a tightness in Papa’s face that Jesu didn’t understand. “Your mother and I will discuss you skipping Temple tonight.”

While Papa concentrated on cleaning his belt, Jesu worked on the stains in his robe. Every now and then he'd roll his eyes to his father's strong hands, watching as tendon and muscle moved and flexed under his tough skin. Papa's big hands had built the family altar in the small grove of fruit trees in the back of the garden, setting heavy stone upon stone. He taught his ungwaiyar how to snap enemy bones with bare hands, but Jesu could remember Papa cradling Zhevah just after she was born -- his baby sister had been almost small enough to fit in just one of Papa’s palms. To Jesu, those hands could do anything, but today the left was wrapped up in bandaging, and Papa was favoring it. Jesu had heard gossip about what happened down south. The rumors... he didn’t want the rumors to be true. Papa hadn’t said anything about his injury or what really happened.

The oily leather soap soaked into the bandage wrapped around Papa's hand, and the snug wrapping loosened. Papa wriggled his fingers and unwound the bandage, exposing a deep gash in his palm that had begun to bleed a little. It looked deep and painful and scary.

"Papa?" Jesu said, voice wavering. "What happened at Saza's Temple?"

Papa gazed at him for a long moment, his face set and his jaw tight. He took a deep breath, sighed it out slowly, then relaxed a little. He gazed down at his palm and said, "Remember what I said about the first strike being thrown by the loser." He turned his eyes to Jesu. "A wise man will not just deflect the blow aimed at him." Papa held up his palm so Jesu could see the wound. "He'll remember that flesh will give before steel."

Papa rose, and ruffled Jesu's hair with his uninjured right hand. "I'll tell your mother about your robe, so she won't get upset. Behave for Kezhiya tonight."

"Yes, Papa."

Papa paused before he left the wash-shed. "'Yhiri" When Jesu glanced up, Papa smiled a little. "You're growing into a good man. I am proud to have a son such as you."

Jesu stared at the space where Papa had stood, wondering about the sadness in his eyes.
“That was Nizhyim,” Ysa said as she closed the bedroom door with a soft click. “At least we know where our wayward daughter is, now.”

“Did you have any doubt?” Mishyael said. He slid his sash between his fingers to unfold it, then draped it over his shoulder. “But why was Nizhyim sent to tell us?”

Ysa reached up and smoothed his sash over his chest. “She’s helping with the birth of a foal.” She reached around his waist and worked the stray folds and crinkles out, then expertly tied the sash in the complex knot of a yevarshedaht. “He said she’s going to be there for awhile.”

Mishyael laid his hands on his wife’s shoulders, and sighed. “I’ll pack her dinner and take it to her.”

“You’ll be late.”

“That might be a blessing, nayinha.”

"You could always claim illness," Ysa teased.

"And have to explain myself to Elder Shan tomorrow morning? I think this dinner will be less painful."

Ysa snickered. "One of these days you're going to have to tell me why that tiny old woman makes you tremble."

Mishyael hmpfed and gazed down at his left hand, wriggling the fingers stiffly.

Ysa took his hand, and lightly kissed the fingertips. She gazed up at him, concern knitting her brow. "When are you going to see Mei about this?"

"Soon. I promise, nayinha."

Ysa arched a brow. "Don't give me that, Beloved." She sighed and wrapped her arms around his waist. "You did nothing wrong. Stop punishing yourself."

Mishyael held her close, rubbing her back. "I'm supposed to set an example for our children."

Ysa leaned back to gaze into his eyes. "And you set a fine one, Misha. You kept anyone from being killed."

Mishyael fingered the shell at the end of his wife’s braid, but his gaze was somewhere far away. "What's gone wrong?" he asked softly. "Two of our children skipped Temple, and the twins-- I would have thought them old enough to show better judgment."

Ysa snuggled against her husband's chest. "They're growing up, Beloved. They're at the age of asking questions." She paused and gazed into his eyes for a long moment. "Naomi asked me if I knew what happened to your face last night."

Mishyael stiffened. "What did you tell her?"

"That it's your story to tell. She'll find out sooner or later. My guess would be sooner. Better that she hears it from you."

"Better that she doesn't hear it at all," he answered gruffly. "Better to look forward to the future."

"If you don't look back now and then you might not see the lion stalking you until it's too late." Ysa sighed. "They're growing up. They have to know."

"Not yet," he said softly, as his arms tightened around his wife. "Not yet."
Alphonse leaned on the stall gate, chin resting on his arms, watching the newborn foal nurse. Naomi sat on a pile of saddle blankets in the tack room across the aisle, her head leaning on her friend Asher's shoulder, sound asleep. She’d worked with all of her strength at an awkward angle to get the foal’s head and legs into position, then taken Alphonse’s instructions without question while trying to get the baby to take her first breath. Tiras had mostly carried the girl to the stable wash rack, then given her a shirt and trousers that didn’t fit but were at least clean. Her hair was all but loose, tied in a simple ponytail at the back of her neck with a strip of rawhide lacing. Asher looked up at Alphonse, gave him a small smile, then shifted his arm and helped Naomi lay her head on his thigh. The mare was eating and calm, and both mother and baby were in fine health. It was the kind of scene that made the veterinarian's work worthwhile.

Tiras turned from watching the mare to look at the exhausted girl, and smiled fondly before turning back to watch the spindly-legged foal nurse.

"She'll make a good apprentice, sir," Alphonse said softly.

Tiras smiled warmly, his expression going soft again. "She would... if she chose to be one."

Alphonse's brows pulled down. "You don't think she will?"

Tiras whuffed softly. "She thinks that's what she wants, but her soul will lead her elsewhere. She's curious, and soon Xerxes will be too small for her." Tiras leaned on the gate and jutted his chin at the foal. "She'll have a good horse to take her where she wants to go, though."

Alphonse straightened and stared at Tiras. "You’re going to give her that horse?"

The horse master snorted. "No. She will work for the filly. But she helped with the birth and didn't back away from the challenge or faint. She gave the little one her first breath, and soon she will give her a name." He gazed at Alphonse, his lips quirked in a crooked smile. "She's already claimed the foal as hers, even if she hasn't said so aloud. I know she will take excellent care of her, and bring back new wisdom for this old city. I will grant her one of her dreams to encourage her to go and fulfill the others."

Alphonse huffed softly and smiled. "Equivalency plus one.”

"You indulge my daughter too much, Tiras," came a deep basso voice from behind them.

Alphonse and Tiras turned toward the speaker. "I have no daughter of my own to spoil, Mishyael," Tiras said lightly.

Mishyael held up a tied cloth package. "Nizhyim came to me before the sun went down, but when Naomi didn't return home for dinner, I thought to bring it to her."

"You should be proud of her," Alphonse said. "The foal would have died and I would have had a hard time saving the mother without her."

"Naomi is devoted to horses. Sometimes to a fault.” Mishyael said. A tinge of paternal fondness took the censure out of the words. “I expect I’ll have to drag her to Temple after she makes the Crossing.”

"She will be serving God working here, Senior,” Tiras spoke up. “Your girl didn't carry water or fetch rags." He nodded in her direction. "Her hands are small and strong. She turned the foal’s head and helped bring her into the world."

“Then she did the prayers of gratitude for a healthy birth,” Asher added from the tack room. “She said them right, too.”

Mishyael's eyes widened, then his glance darted to Asher, who grinned at him from ear to ear. The Senior’s gaze settled on Naomi, and his expression softened.

Alphonse Elric had once seen a full-maned lion settle down among a litter of cubs and allow them to pounce on his tail and wrestle with his massive paws. He’d sat transfixed on his nervous horse until Mei insisted they reach the city before sunset. Watching the stern senior yevarshedaht get his tattooed arms under his drowsy daughter and boost her to her feet with a low rumble not unlike that lion’s soft grunts held Alphonse the same way. He didn’t dare twitch lest he break the spell. He watched father and daughter leave the stable, with one of those legendary arms on the girl’s shoulders and one of her strong young hands on the yevarshedaht’s belt.

Tiras moved, and Alphonse startled. The veterinarian looked into the stable master’s deep red eyes, and the older man just smiled a little. They’d witnessed something private, and it wasn’t theirs to speak of.
They sheltered in a drafty abandoned barn that night. There was no door to pull closed against the impending blizzard. The roof was missing some of its corrugated metal, but at least there'd be ventilation for the campfire, which would be a good one. There was plenty of flammable junk stacked up in the back of the barn to save the band of fugitives from going out and looking through the snowdrifts for fuel.

Everyone went to work making camp. Everyone except the girl. She quietly sat among the packs, just as her benefactor had told her to, silently playing with the shard of a shell.

“I still want to know why she can’t at least help with the firewood,” Yoki grumbled as he and Alphonse did what they could to block and fill the gaps in the walls near their sleeping blankets. “Even a simpleminded child can be of some use, once you’ve beaten the idea of earning her keep into her.”

“She doesn’t understand,” Alphonse said again. “She’d only hurt herself, and that would slow us down even more.”

“I don’t see why we have to drag her around in the first place,” Yoki groused. “If he’s going to bring a pretty toy along he should at least--” he choked as a hand wrenched his hood from behind and yanked him around.

The Scar of Ishbal glared down at his captive, who writhed and danced around on the balls of his feet to try and take the pressure off his throat. “Mercy, Master,” he gasped.

Scar grunted his disgust and tossed Yoki to the ground, going back to the work of skinning the rabbits he’d tracked and killed on their long march.

The rest of their group turned back to their jobs without comment.

Alphonse Elric transmuted a few boards into a solid wall, then got to his feet and went to get one of the long-rusted shovel heads from the corner full of useless tools. It wasn’t hard to transmute into a steel pan, and Alphonse went out and picked a clean-looking snowdrift. The pan full of snow gave him an excuse to go and crouch near Doctor Marcoh. The former State Alchemist was glumly cutting up vegetables Mei had stolen from someone’s root cellar. Alphonse didn’t like the stealing or the fact that Mei was doing it, but the others had to eat, and it wasn’t safe for any of them to be seen by even an ordinary farmer. He set the pan near the tiny cookfire, and watched the snow crystals melt and collapse for a while.

“Strange, isn’t it?” Marcoh’s voice was soft and matter of fact.


“Water. Have you ever studied it?”

“Not much,” Alphonse admitted. “Brother and I have been busy with other things.”

“I spent some time on the crystal forms of snowflakes and ice, years ago.” The doctor lifted his ravaged face to look Alphonse squarely in the eyes. “It gave me new insight into the nature of water. It’s unique on Earth. We can’t survive without it, and yet it will kill us if we don’t remember and respect its power.”

“Oh.” Alphonse turned his gaze back toward the snow melting in the pan. “I guess I’d never really thought about it.” He paused, then lifted his head to watch the tacitly-acknowledged leader of their fugitive band neatly dressing out another rabbit. He worked quickly and with skill, then paused as the girl came up beside him. She put her hand on his arm -- that right arm that killed and destroyed so easily -- and she held up her little sliver of clamshell. Its string had broken, hanging loosely through the small hole in the shell. Scar’s expression softened just a little, and he cleaned his fingers on a rabbit pelt. He took the broken ends of the string and knotted them, then dropped the string around the girl’s neck and delicately lifted her hair out from under it. She picked up her bauble again, turning it this way and that so the mother-of-pearl caught the light of the setting sun.

“I think I understand,” Alphonse murmured. “Water’s always the same thing, whether it’s ice or snow or a river or just a glass of water you drink on a hot day. We just see it in a different form.” He turned to Marcoh again. “And the same thing goes for people.”

The scarred doctor glanced up at Alphonse, and his face twitched into something that might have been a smile under all the ruined skin.
A/N: While this is not a companion piece to mfelizandy's "Estvarya", there are some common elements. Mainly the Ishvarun culture and language (and both stories' primary location), but I highly recommend reading it. -- fractured_chaos

NOTE: For the definitions of Ishvarun words used in this chapter, please go to our Ishvaran Glossary

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