The high, round moon gleamed mother-of-pearl over the canals and waterways, its reflection shattered into a thousand pieces across the waves, sparkling and indistinct. The clock tower near the broglio struck one, the sound dark and low like a church bell, the water creating a natural, bouncing echo. The city of Aquroya had finally started to wind down, and carnivale was coming to a close, and silence mostly greeted the single candles that had been lit and placed in each of the darkened palazzo windows. Here and there came the distant strumming sounds of vagabond troupes of musicians and a few hardy, steadfast revelers, but these sounds were small and distant, redolent of worshipers calming down and coming quietly to mass.
The fuhrer's residence on the great piazza was dark and quiet as well, its lit candles flickering solemnly in its numerous windows. Three stories high and imposing, it stood, a bulky, flaking sentinel along the Grand Canal. On the third floor, high above, was a small balcony, with a sweeping, panoramic view of the piazza below. On this balcony stood a darkened figure, still as death, a shadow forged before the double doors which led into the third floor landing.
A second, darkened figure was currently making its way across the concave dome that covered the balcony—its progress stealthy, graceful, and deliberate. A black cat creeping. Without noise or warning it leapt down onto the balcony and plunged a serrated blade into the unmoving, waiting figure standing on the balcony. The figure toppled and fell with ease: too much ease, in fact, and the assassin was suddenly wary, but not quick enough. Another figure, also dressed in black, materialized from the inky recesses of the adjoining alcove and with a single roundhouse kick, the assassin's throat was neatly slashed and he fell, silent, caught by the elbow and deftly lowered to the now-bloodstained floor without a sound.
One down, thought Edward.
Edward drew back, his black clad form melding into the shadows of the balcony's alcove, and he stood, unmoving and barely breathing, like a spider in a web, waiting. It was too bad that the dummy he'd set up had managed to entrap only one of the assassins, but so be it. He could improvise if he had to; he'd learned a lot of new tricks from the Iron Maiden, and he intended to put them to good use.
"You're holding back," said Vida, the Xingian palace arms master, "Where is your killer instinct?"
A slash of his automail blade, and the Maiden parried with one of her sai, the prongs catching the metal and throwing him off balance. He stumbled, breath caught in throat, and he waited with tingling nerves for the pain of an oncoming blow. None came. Edward regained his balance and turned to find Vida standing perfectly still, regarding him, her favored whip in one hand, her sai in the other. For a single moment, it seemed a rare shadow of empathy might have crossed her cold, mis-matched eyes. It was there and gone. "My dear alchemist, it's foolish of you to rely on that single weapon. What would you do if you had more than one opponent? With that blade and your reach it would never be enough—do you not understand? Here, stand for a moment and watch." Edward glared as she called a pair of palace guards over, ordering both of them to attack her from either side at the same time. . .
The blood on the balcony floor gleamed oily and black, glinting in the darkness like an evil rorschach. The body lay just inside the doorway, out of sight. The sheer curtains covering the alcove fluttered, high and ominous, caught in a sudden burst of wind, causing Edward to tense and hold his breath. Nothing. He relaxed and waited. Nothing but silence greeted his straining ears. If the fight didn't kill him, then the waiting surely would. He found himself lightly and impatiently shifting from foot to foot, his body alive with anticipation, agitation. If he had to admit it to himself, he'd been spoiling for a fight ever since Xing. Even fights with incalculable odds like this one; his body verily hummed with the energy, the need of it. C'mon, he thought, and let's get this over and done with. Just what are you waiting for?
In answer, two more masked figures dropped down from the dome on either side of the balcony, serrated knives in hand, their movements dead silent as they advanced into the alcove. Edward backed onto the third floor landing, equally silent, the only sound a single, menacing clap as he transmuted the leather and metal of his biker's jacket. One whip and one sai: just what the lady ordered. The figures halted, and the moment strained, tensed, until the crash and shatter of breaking glass signaled the entry of another assassin from the opposite side of the hallway. Shit. Edward sensed movement from behind and without waiting he flicked the whip out at the assassin in front of him, caught his throat, and pulled him to him, deftly sliding out of the way as he did so. There was a hiss of breath, loud as a wail under the quiet light of the moon, as the figure found himself impaled on the hallway attacker's advancing, arcing blade. In quick succession, Edward clocked the hallway attacker on the back of the head with his automail, while flinging the sai at the second one from the balcony. It struck home and the assassin crumpled to the ground.
Four down, thought Edward.
There was a recognizable snap and the familiar whoosh of crackling flame as another attacker from the broken window was set alight: he screamed and tumbled along the hallway walls blindly, finally pitching himself down the stairs that led to the second floor landing. At the head of the stairs appeared Mustang, still in street clothes but with ignition cloth gloves on, his eyebrow arched, expression pleased, smug even. He watched the attacker fall, idly, then turned to Edward, "Falling asleep on the job already?"
Edward huffed. "How nice of you to finally join me—fashionably late as ever." Edward walked over to the fallen assassin with the sai sticking out of him—his appearance suggesting a dark and motionless voodoo doll—and he pried the weapon free, his hands making a sweeping gesture. "In case you haven't noticed, old man, the score is currently four to one. Where have you been?"
"Making sure everything's ready down below."
Edward tensed and nodded curtly, his ire from Mustang's late entrance swallowed up by the knowledge of everything that was still left to do. And we still don't know how many assassins are waiting, he thought. An uneasy, fear-fueled feeling curled down in the pit of his stomach, taking up residence like an unwanted parasite. Light flickered, orange and gold, from the mouth of the second floor landing, and Edward realized that the fallen assassin had set the curtains on fire, and it had started to creep up, up the painted stucco walls. He looked to Mustang, eyes questioning. Mustang just shook his head.
There was a second crash from below and the very obvious sound of broken glass, and Edward and Mustang headed down the stairs, dodging flames as they went. On the second floor, another window shattered inward, catching Edward unawares as he attempted to move past it, raining shards of glass down on him like sparkling jewels, cutting, creating pinpoints of red on his skin as another attacker hauled him down to the floor. The two of them rolled in a dark parody of love, Edward pushing, trying to hold the assassin off, his metal fingers digging in as he tried to get the attacker to release his throat. Another audible snap and this assassin too was set on fire, the flames dancing mere inches from Edward's face as he just barely managed to roll away from the conflagration. He got on his hands and knees.
"What the hell, Mustang! Watch it with those sparks, will you!"
"Don't be such a baby," replied Mustang. "I had it perfectly under control." Mustang sounded as confident as ever, but there was a doubtful look on his face, suggesting that, for a brief moment, he had not been as in control as he appeared. And am I the cause of that? thought Edward. Edward stared at Mustang, and their eyes caught and held. Mustang reached out to Edward, pulling him to his feet, his touch gentle in a way he was still unused to. Edward thought back to earlier that evening, to the dim, enclosed space of the gondola's felze, and he remembered Mustang's touch the way it had been then: covetous, hungry, and filled with a burning, arcane knowledge. Edward immediately pushed that memory away, setting it adrift to the back of his subconscious, knowing that if he didn't, then he would never be able to focus on the task at hand: namely that of keeping the both of them alive.
Again, that uneasy feeling returned as Edward realized that the majority of the second floor was now engulfed in flames. Smoke chased them, like an angry, fire-breathing dragon down to the first floor. More flame here, and Edward thought, What the hell have we done? Above, a huge, Aquroyan, wrought-iron chandelier swayed and lurched, the sound ominous and grating in the crackling quiet. Edward slid to a stop at the head of the stairs: through the growing, graying fog, he could make out several black-robed figures, semi-circled, as if in black mass, standing, waiting, on the tiled surface of the main floor below. He didn't think twice—he clapped his hands together and slapped them on the nearby wall, watching as blue, metaphysical sparks shot, in beautiful electric blue, up and over, like creeping vines, to the chandelier. One heaving snap and the whole thing fell, the sharp, iron candelabra inverted, deadly, hurtling toward the ground and those awaiting figures with the deadly accuracy of a dozen flying arrows. An ungodly crash, a flare of smoke, and then—
He was shoved in the back with such force that he fell headlong down the flight of stairs, falling, falling, and somewhere in the distance he could hear Mustang calling his name. Roy! His body sang a hymn of pain as he came to a crashing stop at the base of the stairs. A strange thought occurred to him then: Why is he so damn persistent? Why? I am completely undeserving. . . And Edward realized, through the thickening, engulfing fog that was taking over his brain, that he didn't know if he meant the emperor or Mustang. "Edward, where is your 'I?' " Chiaro's voice then, invading, distant. I am undeserving, he thought again, Why?
And his last thought, before all awareness left him completely, was that Al would arrive in Dublith tomorrow, and there would be no brother there to meet him. He could see his younger brother's face, breaking up, eyes tearing, receding into the darkness that was now claiming him for its own. . . And within that sound—in that inescapable, all-consuming darkness—a loud, thunderous roar could be heard, coming on as fast and hot as fear itself. . .
That sound was the second floor of the palazzo caving in.