So, this was all that left of the great Xerxean empire, was it? It must have been a truly astonishing place at its peak, for even now, centuries after its mysterious downfall, it was best described in a single word: breathtaking.
They had dismounted under the welcome shade of a looming row of columns. There was a small fountain there lined with rainwater. The horses required no persuasion to drink. Ling sat on the edge of the shallow pool and dipped his hands into the stagnant water, cupping his palms and bringing some of the cool liquid up to splash over his face. It felt good to wash off some of the grime and sweat that had accumulated there, though it was such a tease that he almost wished he hadn't; he really missed being clean, he'd decided. Traveling for days, baking in his own sweat and in the flying dust left him unbearably itchy - what was worse, he could barely stand his own smell. He couldn't see how Ran Fan and Fuu weren't complaining, dressed as they were. He wondered whether they had hot springs in Amestris? Or maybe bathhouses with pretty attendants? He'd trade his horse to be in the scented baths of his private quarters, being scrubbed down by a handful of select servants right now.
Fuu washed his face in the pool as well, but Ran Fan did little more than remove her mask and stand beneath a fractured pillar. He was sorely tempted to splash her, but that would require moving, and frankly he was far too tired for anything like that. They had been riding for hours today, since before the sun had fully risen. After a full three days' travel, they had finally reached the first destination in their journey.
They sat and rested for a short while, none of them talking, simply sitting and taking in their surroundings. Soon enough, though, Fuu cleared his throat and stood. "Young Master..."
He was right, Ling thought, they really ought to get moving. "Let's get going. We've got a lot to explore before nightfall."
Fuu tied off the horses while Ling stood and stretched. He raised his arms above his head, laced his fingers and bent forward at the waist deeply, then backwards. Ran Fan carefully looked away and began tying her mask behind her head. When everyone was ready, Ling led the way into the ruins.
As far as Ling could tell, all of Xerxes had been composed of impossibly large, stone structures. Most, it seemed, had been reduced to nothing more than crumpled walls and broken foundations, but even these were gargantuan and awe-inspiring. Beams of sun filtered through the misshapen ruins, casting light and shadows in a rather picturesque way. The centuries-old craftsmanship, worn from rain and desert sand, still held an incredible amount of detail. It must have been beyond words when it was whole.
They traveled deeper within the fallen city, pausing every now and again for a closer look at an embossed wall or cornerstone. It was coming to Ling's attention that perhaps it might have been wise to have brought a rentanjutsu user with them: none of them had a clue what they were looking for here. This lack of foresight only slightly disturbed Ling. It was a miscalculation, but not a grave one. It simply meant that they now had to transcribe each and every batch of foreign symbols they came upon in the hope that at least some might contain the knowledge they sought. It didn't sound like very much fun in his head, but Ling always seemed to manage one way or the other.
While scouring the crumbling ruins was certainly a tedious job, it was far from boring. There was something about the ruined stone that was unquestionably majestic. The sheer immensity of the pieces, the intricate detailing of the relief sculptures full of things like fire and raging waters, the vastness of the city itself, it all struck Ling powerfully and almost constantly as they wandered the empty, sand-washed streets. No, Ling was quite sure that he would never again find a place so powerfully moving as this.
The sun shone bright and hot in beams filtered by dust and column. Their quiet footsteps seemed to ring through the stone; otherwise, the silence in the ruined city was almost absolute. It was ethereal and surreal, an experience in which one could very easily lose oneself. Actually, Ling had already done so more than once, earning a sharp noise from Fuu each time that he did. He was only slightly annoyed at the interruptions: they were here for a reason, a very important reason, and it wouldn't do to waste precious time dawdling. Still, Ling felt like even if he had come here without this sense of urgency plaguing him that he would never have enough time to take in what was left of this once great civilization.
Moreover, Fuu's chivvying to keep moving wasn't the only thing that was bothering Ling. They were being watched. They had been, in fact, from the moment they had stepped foot within the ruins. Their watchers had made no moves against them yet. However, their numbers had been increasing as the morning grew long, and it was only a matter of time before they would strike. Too bad for their opponents that any element of surprise had been betrayed by their ominous qi.
Suddenly, the old street opened up into some sort of pavilion or courtyard. Across the stretch of dirt and straggled weeds lay a wide set of steps, leading up onto a platform that had once been covered over. Pillars that supported nothing reached high into the morning air. On the far back wall, what was left standing anyway, was part of a huge relief sculpture carved into the stonework. It was hard to tell what it was originally at this point. There were circles - were they depictions of the sun? the smaller ones looked like moons - connecting together to form larger ones, all centered around some type of lion. There was a lot of script carved into the spaces between the inner circles, lines and lines of flowing symbols grouped into chunks of unreadable text.
"Ran Fan, do you see this?"
"Yes Master," she replied dutifully, her dark eyes narrowing as she concentrated on the broken wall. Fuu had snuck up the stairs behind Ling, already copying over the mural to the parchment he carried.
"Amazing," Ling said quietly as he approached the wall. After the initial shock of the strangeness of this lost culture, he had begun to recognise fragments of the influence Xerxian art must have had on the sculpture and painting of his own country. However, these strange, intricate, almost abstract designs were so different from any style of art with which he was familiar, and Ling's cultural education had been thorough. It was really very fascinating. He wished he had studied more of this culture back at home, though he'd be kidding himself if he thought that any book or scroll could accurately portray the grandeur of it all. He raised his hand to touch the bottom part of the mural - but instead of fingering the engraving, he snatched his sword handle and spun quickly.
A dagger bounced off the flat of his blade with a loud clang, and then Ling lunged forward, bringing the sharp curve up to his attacker's throat. Ling was tall for his age, but his opponent still towered over him and was more heavily built with darkly tanned skin and ruby colored eyes. The man flicked those eyes to Ling's left. Ling pressed his blade further, then glanced over to the side. Ran Fan and Fuu were back to back, kunai drawn and surrounded on all sides by more of these dark-skinned men.
There were too many of them to count like this, but there were at least a dozen of them present. There were more in waiting too, he could feel them, just beyond the cover of the outer wall. People like this were particularly troublesome to deal with: they were foreign, their goals were unknown, and they were willing to fight dirty. A dozen plus to three was hardly fair, though it could prove interesting. There was always the chance that Ling and his followers could talk their way out of this. They hadn't stolen anything, didn't have anything worth stealing, and weren't looking to cross swords with anyone.
Ling only had a few seconds more to decide what they should do before their attackers chose for them. He locked eyes with Ran Fan, then Fuu.
He nodded. It was game time.
"I will wait for you here, Master."
"Are you sure?"
He counted himself lucky that the daggers she tossed his way were metaphorical. He gave her what he hoped was an appropriately quizzical look, and when that didn't work, he tried tilting his head to the side a bit. That usually did the - nope, not today. He still didn't understand why she always got so upset whenever he invited her in. He didn't always come here to do what people thought he might; sometimes he just liked the company.
Ling shrugged his shoulders and stepped past her to enter his harem quarters. He never pushed her to come here with him, but as it was, she followed him everywhere. He left her at the entrance with her grandfather as he always did. Behind the sliding doors was a long, narrow hall. There were no windows or murals to decorate the walls, though he knew this was only because the girls' private quarters resided on the other side of each wall. He looked back at the now closed doors and saw a rather angry silhouette, its back turned to him and its arms crossed over its chest. Well, he supposed it was difficult to know if her back was truly turned or not, but he figured it was likely, given her mood. He sighed and continued onward.
It was very unorthodox for a man to enter into these quarters, but then Ling was never one for convention. Sometimes he summoned girls to his quarters, as was the usual custom, but he enjoyed the change of atmosphere too much not to come here, too. Once out of the corridor, the front hall had a high ceiling that was brightly colored and trimmed in gold. The walls were covered in equally bright tapestries, many stretching up to reach the ceiling itself. The doorways leading off of the main room were covered with many layers of sheer curtains and strings of colored beads. It was warm and cheerful looking, so different from most other parts of the palace. It was one of the many things he enjoyed about coming to this place.
"Prince Ling is here!" Lei shouted. She was a young girl, very pretty, with large eyes that always seemed to sparkle. She had a lovely singing voice, and would serenade him whenever she could.
Ling sat down upon the cushions of the main room and waited for the rest of the girls to make their appearance while Lei disappeared into one of the side rooms. He'd been collecting girls since the age of ten, when his grandfather had gifted him with his first group. It was a royal's prerogative to collect a healthy number of consorts, his grandfather had said. It was one of the few pieces of advice he had ever given Ling that had not been solely about politics. It had been another two years before he officially began seeking out the company of the girls, though. Unlike the servant girls of the palace, the harem were educated much like himself. Since they could be called upon to go out in public and act the role of royal wife, they needed all the tools to play the part. He found he quite enjoyed their company because of this.
In no time at all, Lei had returned with Chu Hua and Yin in tow. There was usually a lot of excitement when he first arrived, with lots of fawning and unintelligible chatter; when they all talked really fast, it was hard to make out the words sometimes. The girls had all come from different parts of the country, and some of their dialects were so different from the High Xingese Ling spoke that they almost seemed like a foreign language. The girls did not disappoint this time either, soon surrounding him on the floor with their touches and animated voices.
"I did not expect you today!" Chu Hua exclaimed. "Usually you come here after your Drachman lessons."
For reasons unexplained, Chu Hua had quite the knack for foreign languages, and he often sought her help in his studies. "That is tomorrow, and you can expect me again, then. Today, I thought I might come and share a snack with you all."
"We love your visits, Young Lord," Yin said as she placed a jar of wine on the small table next to the cushions. She was already pouring it out and serving it to him without having to be asked. He took the cup and sniffed - mostly out of habit - and then sank it. It was delightfully sweet, but with a bit of a powerful aftertaste. This was best dealt with by having another cup, which he soon did. Then he asked them, "Are there any peaches today? I would love some peaches if I could." Yin hurriedly popped up from her seat and scurried off, whispering instructions to the servants for peaches. Once the servant girls were dashing off on their own, she came back over and rejoined Ling and the others. He could feel her small weight settle itself behind him on the pillows, her knees gently bumping against his lower back. She brought her hands up his back and over his shoulders, squeezing them before running her fingers up his neck and into his hair. She soon was untying it.
"Are we getting frisky so soon? You can't keep from touching me, now can you?"
"No," she confessed, "I suppose I cannot." And then she was parting his hair and running her fingers through it as she prepared to weave the inevitable small plaits she loved to braid into it. He actually didn't mind this so much. He loved the feel of fingernails against his scalp and delicate fingers sliding through his hair. Luckily, the girls seemed to enjoy playing with his hair quite a lot. Or maybe not so luckily, as he was sometimes forced to wear rather interesting styles while he visited. At least it gave the servants something to talk about.
It wasn't long before the peaches were brought out and set down beside the wine. Chu Hua picked up a slice between her tapered fingers and held it out to his lips, holding back the bulk of her sleeve with her other hand. He playfully took the peach, just barely touching his lips to her fingers, then darted his tongue out to lick the juice from his lips.
"So very sweet," he said. The girls giggled, and Chu Hua fed him another slice. It was cool and sharply sweet, and its juices dripped from her small fingertips and onto his lips. He grabbed hold of her hand to suck on her fingers, only letting go when she laughed and swatted at him as he licked more of her hand than was necessary.
"These are quite fresh." Ling remarked. "Are they from our own garden?"
"I believe they are, yes," she replied. She blushed as she smiled, then grabbed another slice to feed him.
He sucked down the next slice of peach teasingly. Lei scooted closer to him and wrapped her small hands around his upper arm, as if trying to win his attention. It worked. He smiled at her, then asked, "Anything new or interesting since my last visit?"
"Oh, have you not been told? We have three new girls this week, my Lord. And they are beautiful! One of them is teaching me a new dance," Lei paused and pulled back a bit to look him in the eye. "Would you like to see it?"
"New girls? I didn't hear. Where from?"
"From one of the eastern provinces. I believe the Chang clan sent them as a favor to your grandfather for his aid in council the other month."
Hm, strange that he didn't keep them for himself. "I see. Show me this new dance then."
She smiled and stood from her seat. Lei moved to stand in front of him, then bowed and began counting her movements. She shuffled her feet slowly, gracefully twisting her wrists and making pretty shapes with her fingers. She swooped her arm down low, trailing the sleeve in a showy performance. Then, a few moments later, she balked, pausing and freezing in place. "Oh. I guess I've forgotten how the rest goes." She flushed brightly and then bowed low. "I will practice for you."
"It was beautiful."
"You lie," Yin said, laughing as she poked him in the back. "You are full of trouble, Young Lord."
"People always say that about me. I wish I knew why." He was smirking as he said this.
They all laughed, and Chu Hua continued to fed him more of the peaches, while Yin continued to make a spectacle out of his hair. He wondered briefly if she had brought pins out to tie it up - she'd done it before - or if he was lucky enough to get away with untied braids for now. Lei sat back down and poured him more wine, finishing off the last of the jar. If he wasn't careful, he'd end up a bit fuzzy and get himself in trouble at dinner - although getting in trouble was apparently his specialty.
Chu Hua fed him the rest of the peaches, and when the plate was empty, a small eunuch appeared to collect it. He didn't recognize the boy, though he never really paid much attention of the servants; there were just too many to remember.
"So what now, Prince Ling?" Lei asked.
"We relax until someone realizes where I am and summons me," he announced. This elicited a round of giggles from the girls, which reverberated loudly off the high ceiling. He never noticed how strong the echoes in this room were until just now. Then again, it was never normally this quiet in here. Where were all the other girls?
"Is it only you three here today? Where is everyone else?"
Yin jabbed him again from behind. "Are we not sufficient company?" He'd had her for so long now, she was often far less proper than she probably should have been. Somehow, this didn't bother Ling at all.
"That's not what I said. It's just really quiet in here today is all."
"You know, now that you mention it, it is sort of empty," Chu Hua supplied. "They took a bunch of the girls for lessons today. I'm not sure where the rest have disappeared to."
"I heard someone mention they were cleaning the baths today, and were bringing anyone wishing to bathe up to the main baths instead. They don't normally do that, do they?" asked Lei.
No, they usually didn't. Things weren't adding up, and besides, something just felt off. He'd been feeling it all day. It was why he had skipped out on his history lesson and come here instead.
"Is everything all right, my Lord?" Lei asked sweetly, touching his cheek.
He snapped back to attention and took her fingertips in his own, bringing them to his lips for a gentle kiss. "Yes, I'm fine." She didn't seem convinced, so he gave her a reassuring smile.
Another eunuch, this one much older than the first boy, entered the room and delivered another wine jar. He did not recognize this servant either. There were rather too many odd occurrences today to be ignored. Ever since his father's declining health had become common knowledge, the atmosphere at the Yao clan palace had become steadily more suspicious, its energy murkier. Or perhaps it was all paranoia? Still, Ling certainly had reason enough for paranoia. He'd never have made it to fifteen without a healthy dose of it.
"I did not call for more wine."
"I'm sorry, Prince Ling," he replied, bowing, but he did not take it away. Instead, he turned away from Ling and made to leave the room.
"I did not call for more wine," Ling repeated, sternly. "Take it back."
The eunuch stopped short and seemed to tense a little, then he turned back around and bowed to Ling again. "Yes, of course. I am sorry, my Lord." He began approaching Ling again.
The eunuch froze. He flicked his eyes to the doorway behind him.
He leapt up from the pillows, drawing his sword and striking in the same movement. The eunuch pulled his own blade from the folds of his robes, and stepped forward to meet Ling's thrust. The loud clanging of the clashing blades and the girls' screams reverberated high in the empty hall. He pushed against his opponent's blade, then pulled back and cut in toward his middle. He could feel the fabric of the man's robes rip, though he'd missed his mark.
He heard the beads from the girls' rooms clink, and from the corner of his eye he spotted the movement of several dark shapes. It was hard to keep track of all their auras in a place so heavily clouded in malice and deceit. It was as if half the palace were not to be trusted. He blocked a downward cut from the first man, then spun on the ball of his foot and kicked his feet out from under him. He quickly sliced the man's throat, then spun to block an attack from yet another man dressed as a eunuch. There was no question now that these were not true servants, but spies who had somehow found their way into the palace.
"Run, get out of here!" he shouted at the girls. They had frozen in a far corner, eyes wide, clutching each other.
There were eight, no, ten attackers. He held the other man's machete at bay, but the rest of them were closing in, one of them swinging a deadly whipchain and wearing a wicked grin. He wouldn't wear it for long though. Ling heard the keening whistle of a tossed flash grenade and promptly spun back out of machete man's reach to cover his face.
The bomb went off soon after.
Even behind closed eyes, he could see the hot, white flash of light. It faded as soon as it had flashed, and then he straightened and advanced on the nearest spy. Ran Fan and Fuu took up their own men. The flash bomb had caught the attackers off guard, and a few were dazed enough to be dispatched with little effort. A man with hookswords volunteered to be Ling's next victim, stepping up and crossing his blades together. Ling had yet to master hookswords. There were so many cutting different cutting edges on them that it was difficult to keep from hurting himself. They were not for the faint of heart. That didn't mean Ling couldn't defeat him though. The man then flicked his wrist and hooked the curved tops of his weapons together. Shit.
Ling palmed the flat of his own blade and held it out to deflect the bladed handle as his opponent used the combined length of the two swords as a sort of whip. The man swung his entire arm up and over his head and then back down, circling himself with the connected blades and pressing closer to Ling.
The man threw his arm forward again. Ling gripped his sword handle with both hands to bat the blades back, lunging straight into him. His attacker pulled his swords back and took up the second handle, separating the blades and blocking Ling's attack. This was not going to be easy. Ling advanced again, but was easily blocked. He nearly lost some of his sleeve when the man struck with his left blade. Ling pulled back and started circling, trying to figure out the best angle to approach him from. He glanced around the room quickly to asses any advantages he might be able to take. Ah, yes. This would be good.
Ling went in again, his sword level in front of him. The man hooked the curve of his swords over Ling's blade, and Ling raised his sword up and pressed in, locking them together as they stared each other down, foreheads nearly touching.
"Give it up, boy," the attacker spat.
"You're going down," Ling said quietly, smiling. Ran Fan's small hand snaked in above the spy's arms, slitting his throat with her kunai as she pulled it back out. The spy hadn't seen it coming. As he went down, drowning in his own blood, a look of surprise was frozen on his face.
Ling and Ran Fan looked at each other for the briefest of moments, and then they were back into the fray. The guy with the whipchain ran at Ran Fan, and she neatly sprang back out of the way and prepared to take him on. Fuu was busy battling against two of the the spies, trying to protect the girls still trapped in the corner of the room. The remaining two spies were quick to take Ling on.
Each of the pair was armed with long swords much like Ling's own. As they came at him, Ling moved fast, blocking blows and evading others. He risked a glance over at the girls. It looked like Fuu had taken out one of his opponents and was facing off against the other one-on-one now. Ling hoped the girls wouldn't try anything stupid and get themselves hurt. He deflected another strike and then glanced over at Ran Fan. She was slowly being backed into the wall, her small daggers not giving her the reach she needed to get in on her attacker. When her foot touched the wall, the guy spun the spiked chain at her. She grabbed at one of the flag poles and yanked it down, then ducked as the chain smashed against the wall.
Ling leapt over to her and severed the top part of the pole with his sword, then charged back at his attackers head on. Hopefully, she'd be able to properly defend herself with the makeshift staff. The two men battling Ling moved in. They backed him up against the wall. He fended them off as best he could, but with two of them it was difficult to get a slice in and get the advantage. Then one of the men groaned and sank to his knees: there was a kunai buried in the back of his neck. Ling promptly finished him with a slash to the throat and went at the other spy. Now that he was on his own, he didn't prove much of a challenge, and soon Ling spilled the man's guts over the chamber floor.
Ran Fan was still fending off the guy with the chain, doing her best with the chopped pole and one dagger. Ling reached down and plucked her other blade from the dead man's neck, then threw it, hard, at her opponent. It sank itself deep into his side as it caught him when his arm was raised. He dropped the chain and clutched at the wound. Ran Fan moved in and ended him, just as Fuu took out the last of the attackers.
Ling met eyes with Ran Fan, then raced across the room to Fuu and the girls.
"Is everyone all right?"
There were nods and verbalized reassurances from everyone present. He leaned down to pat Lei's hair. "You three need to get out of here. Go to the baths. Go anywhere. Tell no one what you saw here."
"Go. I don't want to see any of you get hurt."
Lei was crying, but Yin and Chu Hua nodded, hard-faced. They carefully picked Lei up off of the floor and guided her out.
Ling looked to Fuu. "How did they get so far in? And they were dressed as official servants, no less. Something isn't right."
"No. Sheng is supposed to inspect and approve every new arrival to the palace. I don't know how he missed this. Unless-"
"Yes, that's what I feared. It won't be long before there is no one in this province whom I can trust." There had been whispered rumors the last few weeks that were very worrying to Ling; it seemed there were those who did not think he was ready to take the throne, and that with the failure of his claim, their clan's influence would decline. These rumors even went so far as to suggest that it might be more fruitful for the Yao clan to seek alliances outside their own clan, perhaps with a more powerful candidate for the throne. Despite the fact that he was sworn to protect Ling before all else, Sheng always seemed to think of himself first. Ling wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Sheng were involved in some plot to remove Ling from the running.
"You can trust me, Master." Ran Fan said seriously.
"I know," he replied. "Which is why I'm going to tell you both this: there's something I've been thinking about for a while now, ever since my father has grown ill. If I have any hope of winning the throne, I will need an edge of some sort. I've been doing lots of reading with my tutors lately. About the history of Xing and the origins of rentanjetsu. There were many mentions of 'The Golden Being,' the SAge of the West." He pounded his fist into his other palm. "I think I need to leave Xing and look for this perfect being, this immortal life, if I have any hope in succeeding my father."
"But how will immortal life help you win the throne?" Fuu asked. "Won't the current emperor use it to keep his power forever?"
"Well, that's why I need to leave Xing: the emperor has been having all of Xing's top rentanjetsu users working on this for quite some time. I need to find it before anyone else does." Ling paused and stroked his chin, getting lost in his own thoughts. His background knowledge of rentanjetsu was rather rudimentary, but he did know that it seemed to originate from the ancient civilization of Xerxes. Maybe there would be some clues there? And if not there, what about Amestris? Amestris was fast becoming known for its military prowess and its devastating use of alchemy in the battlefield. Maybe the Amestrians knew something the masters of Xing didn't?
He looked back to Fuu and Ran Fan. "I've been planning this for some time, but now it seems I'll need to expedite my trip. If I stay here, these attacks will keep coming, and it will only be a matter of time before one of them succeeds."
Ran Fan looked as if she were about to say something. Ling waited for a moment, but she remained silent.
"Young Master, are you sure you want to do this?" Fuu asked carefully.
"If I fail in this task, if I fail in taking the throne, there's no telling how far our clan will fall. Yes, we have been a fortunate province, but that has only made us more of a target for others to aim at. I can't let the fate of our people fall into the hands of someone else. I have to do this."
The both looked at him intently, but their gaze did not waver. He needed them to realize how serious he was about this. "What I'm asking you goes far above and beyond your duty to me. In fact," Ling swallowed hard, "I officially release you of your duty to me. You are no longer bound to me, and are making this decision of your own free will. If you come with me, you could be executed as traitors upon your return - assuming we all even make it back home. What I am setting out to do is very risky, but it's something I have to do. You are free to choose for yourselves, whether you will follow me into the unknown or whether you will stay and protect yourselves and your family." This was turning out to be quite the speech. He was almost impressed with himself.
"I am with you, Master." Fuu crossed his fist over his chest to lay over his heart as he dropped to one knee, bowing his head.
"As am I," Ran Fan added, mirroring Fuu's actions.
Neither of them hesitated at all to consider, as if there was ever only one option. He felt some of the tension he'd been holding dissipate. He'd been nervous they might do the intelligent thing and take the way out he'd offered, and he was very relieved to know that they would follow him out of Xing - but he needed them to be certain. He didn't want them to regret this later. "Are you sure? You'll be leaving everything behind: your family, your home. There is the chance that you will never come back. There is a chance you will be killed if you do. I want to be sure you've thought of all this."
"Don't be foolish. When have we ever given you cause for doubt? Besides, you can't refuse to eat just because there is a chance of choking." Fuu smirked.
Ling smiled. "I suppose that's true."
Ran Fan stayed kneeling, but looked up to meet Ling's gaze. Her answer was plain to see.
"Let's not waste any time in leaving, then," Ling said. "We don't know how many more of them there are."
Kumis was an interesting drink, Ling decided. Good, but - well, interesting.
He took another sip and then passed the bowl to his left, letting the liquid fizzle over his tongue for a moment as he tried to assess the taste. He'd never had anything quite like it before. When he first had seen it, he'd expected it to taste something like takju, which was sweet and milky. This was sour, though, and thicker than he'd thought it be, but not nearly as thick as the rice wine. There was a sort of bite at the end, which he assumed was the alcohol. When he'd asked about the bowl, the Ishbalan elder had informed him that it was fermented mare's milk, which made sense: fermented things often tasted a bit sour.
He watched the bowl as it left Ran Fan's hands. She handed it off to Fuu, her face contorted into some strange grimace. Obviously the taste didn't suit her, and the poor thing was exerting quite a bit of energy into schooling her face. Her dark eyes flicked back and forth between Ling and the Ishbalan woman who had served him. He was almost sorry he'd made Ran Fan remove the mask and drink with them, but not quite. He would remember this face for a long time to come. Fuu took his share and passed it on without remark. He was far more used to these sorts of things. Ling counted the rest of the men in the circle and hoped there would be enough left for a second serving. He would really like a second taste.
His hopes were dashed, however, when the bowl finished its journey around the circle and landed back in the hands of the elder woman. She tipped the remaining drink back into the leather pouch she'd poured it from, and then sat down with the rest of them. It was time for business now. That kind of stunk: after a few days in the desert, Ling really didn't feel like negotiating at all.
Within the circle sat eight Ishbalan men of varying ages, all of them older than Ling. Along with the men sat Ling and his two guards, and the elder of the group, the sagged faced, old woman whose wispy hair was pulled back into some kind of bun. It was she who had stopped the fight earlier, and it was she who spoke first, in strangely accented but clear Amestrian.
"What is it that you seek within the great ruins?"
Straight to the point. He rather liked that. Perhaps this talk wouldn't be as draining as he'd thought. "The rentanjetsu of our country is said to have been brought from the West," Ling answered. "I am searching for immortality, and was hoping to find some clues within the ruins." It was exciting to be finally putting all those language lessons to use. It made him feel rather intrepid. Besides, he always enjoyed speaking Amestrian: the consonants had been horrible to learn, but were fun to roll over the tongue now that he had the knack.
"Ren-tan-jet-su? Is that alchemy?" she asked, stumbling over the unfamiliar word.
"Yes, I believe that is what they call it in Amestris. I wish to learn more about their alchemy so that I may obtain the power I need to take the throne."
She scowled, pulling her dried lips back and scrunching her brow, creasing it even more. Then she said, "We Ishbalans know nothing of alchemy, except that it can be deadly and that it goes against God's will."
"I confess I don't know anything about Amestrian alchemy, but in our country, it works by channeling the life-stream of the Earth. It flows through all of us, and anyone who trains properly can read that flow. Or so I've been told, anyway." He grinned sheepishly and tucked one hand behind his head. "I never was very good at those studies."
"And it is just as well that you weren't," she chastened. The men of the group mumbled to one another under their breath, but quickly stopped short at a look from the woman. "We cannot help you with your task, young Prince. You will have to leave with only the knowledge with which you came here."
He could tell that she was nervous. Once learning that he and his guards were not Amestrian, the Ishbalans had been more receptive to them, but not overly welcoming. It was easy to see they wanted them out of here. He didn't have much time to try and find his answers.
"But if alchemy goes against God, then why did He create the energy flow? Why did He give us the ability to use it?" Ling remembered enough of his studies to show proper reverence to another culture's deity.
This seemed to have the opposite effect Ling was going for. The men seemed very agitated, one even going so far as to stand up and brandish a fist, though he was quickly subdued by his brethren. The old woman laughed darkly. "God does not create evil. Evil exists like the empty space at the center of a ring: the ring cannot exist without the empty space within it, as good cannot exist without evil. It is our duty to choose the good and live as God intends us to."
As soon as he opened his mouth again, he could tell his mouth was running ahead of his mind. "But one man's good be another man's sin. Alchemy is a revered and noble practice in my land. It heals the people, saves lives."
"And you look to use it to gain power, do you not?"
Ah, she was good. "Without that power, my clan would become susceptible to attack by the reigning clan. I do it to protect my people."
"And how would you protect your people with that power? By attacking your brethren clan in kind?" She shook her head, then stood up from the circle and gave him a dark look. "You have a good heart, but I can sense a want in you that is both dark and dangerous. I offer you this: humans who are so greedy to covet God's power forsake his grace. You would do well to abandon this search of yours, young Prince."
So that was it, then. It was plain to see she was done with conversation - not that she had ever seemed that eager to talk with them in the first place. Ling sighed and glanced at Fuu, who shrugged his shoulders slightly and looked over at the clan elder. Ling turned to watch her as she made to stand, two of the Ishbalan men aiding her. He figured it was safe to stand now that she had done, though he kind of wanted to stay sitting. He hadn't noticed how tired he was while they were exploring, but after stopping and resting for a bit, he was finding it had all caught up with him. In fact, he was feeling a little light-headed. Or was that the kumis?
"Master, do we leave now?" Ran Fan whispered next to him.
That was a good question. They hadn't found anything obviously helpful, though they had transcribed quite a lot of text and symbol. The Ishbalans didn't seem overtly threatening, but he wasn't sure how far their hospitality would stretch. He doubted they'd be permitted to wander the ruins more. It was probably best if they left now before trouble started. He nodded to her and stood up, brushing the debris from his pants.
Their hosts were watching them carefully - very carefully. A pair of young boys came walking up with their horses in tow. From quick observation, it appeared that their supply sacks were untouched, though it would be impossible to know for sure without actually opening them up and checking. There wasn't much to steal in there aside from horse meat, some dried rations and a few sleeping blankets, though in a place like this Ling supposed anything was fair game and a valuable find. He, Ran Fan, and Fuu made a habit of carrying most of their weapons arsenal on their person, so if it came to that, they could at least drop a flash bomb or two and make an escape.
"Your have very fine horses," one of the younger men stated.
"Yes, thank you." Ling hoped there wouldn't be another scrap: he was far too tired, and he'd hate to scare off the horses. He had no intention of walking the rest of the way to Amestris.
"They are very fine horses," another Ishbalan supplied.
"Indeed they are. Maybe we could come to some sort of arrangement, then?"
The desert men seemed very interested in whatever he had to say. Ling hoped he could manage something decent.
He'd never actually ridden a camel before. Of course he'd seen them, though none quite like this. These only had a single hump and stood nearly twice as tall on thin, spindly legs. The camels in Xing were quite popular among herders, and there were plenty of herding villages within his province. He had to wonder about the practicality of using camels around sheep and goats, though. These guys looked to be a little on the slow side for herding. In fact, they didn't seem particularly driven to do much more than gracefully lurch along at a leisurely pace. And did they ever lurch. He was actually starting to feel a little nauseous actually. It wasn't entirely pleasant, this near-constant sensation of being about to tip over off his precarious perch on the saddle. He was surprised to discover that he actually missed the horses. Still, he couldn't deny that picking up the camels had its benefits. Not only would they be able to travel longer and with fewer stops, but they now had a guided tour of the Great Desert, not to mention the help they would be provided in entering Amestris surreptitiously. Having left Xing in such a haste and in such secrecy, they had not secured proper travel documents, and would, in fact, be entering the country illegally. At least they would be harder to track without the papers, and far less likely to get caught at the border: the Ishbalans had been running supplies to the desert for months and knew all the ins and outs of Amestrian border patrol. All of this had been bought with the two horses, which they would have had to sell anyway once in the country. Desert nomads always really valued a good horse.
Ling was starting to feel pretty good about things - and then, abruptly, the whole world rushed out from under him and he was toppling forward - again.
"You lean too far forward," one of their guides informed him from the saddle of his own mount. "When he feels you on his neck, he'll kneel. Try to sit further back." It was one of the younger men who had come up beside him. His light hair was short and tied back from his face, much like Fuu's. He could not have been much older than Ling himself, maybe twenty at the most. He had a kind face and a gentle smile. It was a good look on him, especially given how hard and cross the others appeared - nobody smiled here, and their features just seemed so dark and strange.
The young man laid his own camel down and dismounted, then walked over to the young bull Ling was riding - if you could call this riding - and took hold of its bridle.
Ling was about to thank him for the help, when instead of raising the camel, the young man glanced around them at the rest of the caravan as they continued past, some laughing openly at Ling's difficulties. When he seemed happy that no one was paying them any mind, he spoke to Ling in a whisper while he pretended to adjust the camel's gear. "I was listening to you at the council. I don't know anything about alchemy myself - I doubt any Ishbalan will - however, I do know something that might help you in your quest."
Really? This was interesting. This trip was becoming more and more mysterious by the minute. "And what might that be?"
"Well, there are rumors of a really powerful alchemist in Dublith. So once you're across the border, you'll want to head south and check that out, I imagine."
"Why are you telling me this?"
The young man looked taken aback for a moment, then he shrugged and said, "It's kind of exciting. What you're doing, I mean. I'll never get the chance to do half of what you've done. It feels nice to know that I might have helped you along in your journey."
He seemed honest enough, but Ling couldn't take the young man's advice blindly. They'd have to do some investigating of their own as soon as they could. Still, that was rather kind of him. Ling clapped his palms together and bowed slightly. "Thank you."
"Don't worry about it. Hold on," he warned, and at the very same instant, he raised Ling's camel up. Ling clutched the saddle as the animal unfurled its back legs first, tipping him so he was practically facing the ground. Then it unfolded its front legs and leveled out. This did not do much to help the state of his stomach juices, but he smiled and waved to the Ishbalan man to assure him all was well.
Seemingly satisfied with Ling's situation, the young man remounted his own camel and raised it up. He glanced behind Ling, and then winked at him before toeing his mount to prod it moving forward. Ling took back what he had thought about camels only knowing how to amble: this kid had his galloping full tilt. The animal bleated as he charged up behind one of the other young riders, just narrowly avoiding the other camel before cutting in front of it and then taking off again. The other Ishbalan, obviously a friend or a brother, shouted and laughed, and then took off after him. They were soon told off by the rest of the caravan: their outburst was upsetting some of the other camels. Then they rejoined the group, laughing behind their hands and tossing false insults at each other.
The way the two young men interacted fascinated him. The trust and the kinship shared between them was plain to see. For a moment, Ling found himself longing for something similar. Being who he was, Ling didn't really have any friends to speak of - not the kind normal kids would have, anyway. True, he had companionship in both his harem and in his tutors, but none of them were on the same path as him. They couldn't relate to him the way those young men could relate to each other.
Ling glanced over his shoulder and spotted Ran Fan as she ambled up beside him on her own beast. She had her mask tucked behind her head and was making a rather strange face as she brought her camel up next to Ling's. They'd been through a lot together, hadn't they? Training, assassination attempts, adventures in escaping the council: she knew more about him than almost anyone else did. Maybe he did have a friend after all? He was still amazed at how easily she had given up everything to follow him on this mission, this dangerous quest that could so easily turn sour. That shouldn't have been a light decision for her, but she'd made it seem so. Surely that had to mean something?
"How are you enjoying the change in mount?" he asked her. She gave him a most unhappy look. "At least now you have a full saddle to yourself?" The face she gave him then implied that she would rather have been back in the cramped horse saddle. "I'm having a tough time of things too. They are very different than what we're used to."
"Yes, they are."
"Young Master!" Fuu called from up front. He had stopped his camel and was waiting for Ling to catch up to the rest of them.
Ling waved and pressed his toes against the camel's shoulder, and was delighted to find he managed to successfully get it started on the first try. Ran Fan mirrored his movements and followed at his side. He could tell she wasn't terribly fond of riding like this, for so long and on unfamiliar beasts, but he was glad that she was willing to bear with it.
He knew Fuu followed not only because he was Ling's retainer: as head of his line, he had his family's honor to defend. Against his own son, no less, who was more interested in power than anything else. Ran Fan, though - she had come solely for him. It was sort of humbling, but also a little sad to know that she thought so little of herself and so much of him. He knew he owed her far more than he could ever really repay. He could try, though.
"Thank you. For everything." He turned to look at her. To really look at her. "I know it can't have been easy coming all this way for me, but I want you to know that I'm glad that you did." He wanted power to protect his people. He wanted power to gain the throne. He wanted her to be there beside him. He needed her here, no, he wanted her here with him. She'd always held a unique place in his life, and he didn't want to lose that just yet. Maybe there was such a thing as wanting too much?
"It is my duty."
"You could have stayed behind, but you didn't." He brought his right hand to his left shoulder, brushing his fingers along the sleeve of his jacket as he brought it up, then bent forward in a deep bow. He'd only ever bowed formally like this once before in his life, when his father had come to his palace. He was almost surprised with himself, but it seemed right. "Thank you," he said, facing downward.
She didn't respond. When he looked back up at her, she had stiffened her posture, and was just watching him silently with those round, dark eyes of hers, scrutinizing him. Did she not believe him? For once, he was actually being serious. He was going to tell her this, but then he found himself biting his lip and bowing his head again instead.
Finally, she said something.
"You're welcome, Master."