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bob fish

The Riderless Horse

chapter 2.

Three hours after the death of Fuhrer Grumman, Roy sits around a table of high-ranking officers, making frantic calculations in his head.

It's at times like this that Roy finds himself cursing, just for a moment, the human limits of his body. If he hadn't lost last night to exhausted sleep, could he have anticipated this turn of events? Perhaps even have saved Grumman's life? This is the sort of time that Roy has sometimes found himself seeing one of Alphonse Elric's advantages in life: to be a sleepless, ever-watchful sentinel, sword-proof and hollow, perfectly gifted to be a protector. But no — Alphonse, miraculously, is frail and human now, and Roy could never wish the boy's former fate upon anyone. No matter how handy it might come in for playing politics.

Over the last sixteen hours, Roy's people took command of Central, organising rescue crews and emergency services at his direction. While they saved lives and kept the city running, the soldiers of Briggs had rounded up the remnants of the brass, and Roy's old Ishbal comrades tried to separate the guilty from the slightly less guilty from the merely suspicious. It's growing obvious that during these crucial hours, someone else was very busy too.

And this morning, while Roy and Riza attempted to calm and unite a fragmented, panicking military and to launch a secret murder investigation, Major General Hakuro was speeding towards Central on the Presidential train that should have carried Fuhrer Grumman, telephoning allies as he went.

Now Roy finds himself sitting in a divided room. Tentative supporters of reform and of Roy are emerging, starting to show their growing confidence in him. Meanwhile, sympathisers of the old guard, their faith in the Bradley regime so brutally smashed, are already looking towards Hakuro as an uncorrupted vessel for military rule and the power they're desperate to retain. This morning, the more this mess of an emergency government fights to agree on the nuts and bolts of running the country, the more Roy realises that the military is now poised on a knife-edge. Everyone in this room must be asking themselves the same question now: who will be Fuhrer, Mustang or Hakuro?

Roy always thought of Hakuro as a mediocre officer, lacking in initiative. Grumman always dismissed the man as an anally retentive lackey who'd hauled himself up the ranks by toeing the line. It seems that they both underestimated the man.

On the other hand, at least now Roy has a prime suspect.


Item number one on the agenda is the size of a mouse. He lies curled in the palm of the former First Lady of Amestris, his tiny mouth sucking on the nozzle of the eyedropper full of milk she holds. Ignoring the room full of officers, uncaring of how far from ordinary this is, she stares only at him, with the soft, besotted gaze of any new parent.

For a good minute, the officers around the table just gawp. The ones at the back are standing, craning their necks to get a better look. They look like rubberneckers at a crime scene — which, in a way, is exactly what they are.

"This," says Roy, "is the reality of what's happened. You've heard what the Homunculus did: the children he created, what he tried to do to this country, and who helped him do it. We can spin it all we like for the people" — for now, he thinks — "but we, in this room, we need to know the truth."

Brigadier General Fosco is white as paper. Two days ago, he thought he was working his way towards a seat at the table of scoundrels, and until five minutes ago, he was ignorant of the truth about this country. When he first saw the little homunculus, in the middle of a sip of tea, he choked so hard that for a moment Roy thought he was going to swallow the teacup. Fosco says, "I don't agree. Further discussion of this ought to be restricted to the brass. Surely that's plain?"

"Restricted to whom?" says Roy. "We're the top of this country's military now. We are the brass. Without a standing Fuhrer, this information can't get any more secret."

There are murmurs at that, nods of assent, a few shocked faces. Some of the officers around the table seem more on the ball than others. Roy is taking a mental note of which of them.

Riza stands behind Mrs Bradley, one hand resting lightly on her shoulder. She's officially there to keep Mrs Bradley calm, but Roy hopes the other point of Riza's presence in the meeting is taken: where Brigadier General Mustang goes, Captain Hawkeye will go.

Finally, Roy's eyes turn again to Major General Hakuro. From the stunned and horrified expression on his face, it's clear that what he claims is true: that Hakuro was innocent as a newborn of any knowledge of the homunculi. Very useful information. Although, Roy thinks as he looks again at the tiny homunculus happily wriggling his baby limbs, that was probably the wrong turn of phrase here.

Hakuro clears his throat, plainly gearing up to start directing everyone, to wrest informal chairmanship of this meeting back from Roy. They've been grabbing the floor from each other, back and forth, since the start of the meeting, like two small boys who can't share a toy. "To move to the question of what we're going to do with the surviving, uh, creature —"

"Please keep your voices down," says Mrs Bradley with calm, maternal firmness, to the roomful of officers who hold her life in their hands. "You'll upset the baby."


The soldier bearing the field telephone full of bad news has saluted and left the hospital room. Roy pulls in a breath, then another. Riza sits down on the edge of the bed, fingers winding around the bouquet in her lap. Roy comes and sits next to her, then puts his hand on her wrist.

She looks up. She looks uncharacteristically confused, a little lost, and oddly young. "It's — a suspicious death, at the very least, even if there wasn't this message," she says quietly. "We're dealing with an assassination, aren't we?"

"I agree."

"We'll need to move fast." She frowns, and visibly draws herself in. The slack muscles of her face tighten, and she becomes Captain Hawkeye again. Grumman is — was — her grandfather, the last surviving member of her family of birth. In other circumstances, Roy's first thought would and should be of her. But right now, there's the whole country to think about.

Roy watches her rapidly reread the card that came with the flowers.

Congratulations on your promotion. Take care of the girls and make sure that they get well soon. My love to your mother, Maria x

Maria is straightforward enough: that's Grumman's oldest code-name — and according to Roy's mother, his alter-ego and hobby too. Messages from Maria always hide coyly phrased secrets, business in the guise of flirtation. Congratulations on your promotion: a double meaning, and a wry joke. The very idea that Grumman could joke and tease at the hour of his death is so typical of him that Roy feels his throat contract. Not now, he tells himself.

"Girls?" Riza is frowning. Her mind, like his, is trying to tune into the code.

"You and Amestris. He's used that phrase before." Roy runs a hand through his hair.

"Funny," says Riza, not sounding as though she finds it funny at all. "But I can't see any more in this."

Roy nods. "It's a goodbye. And he passes the torch. But I don't understand. Why isn't there more information?"

Riza undoes the bow that holds the flowers in their white paper wrapping. Together, they pick through the bouquet. They examine the paper and the ribbon, they hold the envelope and the card up to the light. There's really nothing else.

"Dammit," says Roy suddenly, explosively. "There must be more. Why wouldn't he give us more?"

Riza looks him in the eye. Her lap is full of purple flowers. "Whether we've grasped the code or not — whether it was a murder or not — we still need to get moving. Now."

And so they do.


It's been a tiring morning. The throb of pain behind Roy's eyeballs intensified steadily over the course of the meeting, and Riza looked increasingly pale and uncomfortable.

Now they stand in the private room of an old-fashioned restaurant that Roy was mildly amazed to find open for business today amid the citywide chaos. Roy follows Riza's assessing gaze around the small room's dark panelled walls and yellowing prints, to the square table set for two in the centre.

"Yes," says Roy, "I'm sure it's safe. This is one of my mother's places. The proprietor owes her a substantial favour. Hughes and I used to use it a lot."

"I remember hearing," Riza says softly. She checks her watch. "Do we have time for this?"

Roy pulls out a chair for her. She flicks her eyes skywards, and he grins annoyingly. "Look, we need to debrief somewhere secure. We also need to eat lunch. Private room, menu rapide. It's a completely sensible solution."

Riza gives him that look again. "Back on form already," she says, smiling and shaking her head. Then she winces, and mutters, "Stitches." She opens up the catches of her uniform jacket, then reaches a careful hand in. There's a scratchiness to her voice that Roy doesn't like. How deep did that cut go through her neck, before the little princess knit it together? Clan loyalties be damned, Roy is never going to be able to crack another Chang joke. He mentally apologises to the shades of his Qiongya clan ancestors.

The first few minutes of their lunch are all business. The assassination, unmentioned, is a quiet presence behind all their talk of provisional government and disaster relief. By the time Roy and Riza's steak and gratin potatoes have arrived, they've moved on to going over the meeting's results. The new brass seem to be accepting the truth about Fuhrer Bradley, although many of them showed signs of being unable to take in the whole situation in its enormity: their country was created to die, to be fuel for an alchemical monster. Mrs Bradley will retain care of the little homunculus for the moment. They're under guard at a townhouse the military keeps for visiting officers. The remnants of the old brass will be court-martialled. Efforts to save them are vain. Some died yesterday, and some are missing. Roy suspects that one or two will have managed to slip out of the country in this chaos. Sadly, they can't be the first priority right now.

The new brass is as divided upon the question of Roy as Grumman predicted they would be. Roy is irrationally furious with the old man: both for being right and for going and dying like that.

"I made the wrong call, didn't I?" Roy rubs his hand across his face. "I thought the old guard would take advantage of my vulnerable spots, that I wouldn't have learnt how to guard myself but they just took advantage of Grumman's instead." He knows he's being self-indulgent, but he can't not say it. "If I hadn't handed him the Fuhrership, he'd still be alive."

Riza seems uncomfortable with this whole line of thinking. "Anyone in that position would be a target. You know that."

"What do you think? Honestly?"

"I would have supported you, if you'd taken the Fuhrership." Roy must look really pathetic right now, because she gives him that look, the little smile and the kind eyes. "It's too easy to play these games, though, isn't it?" she says softly. "If Grumman hadn't been assassinated, you'd be thanking serendipity and saying that letting him pave your way was by far the best route, and that you wished you'd thought of it sooner."

"You really do know me too well."

"'What if' games " She shakes her head. This conversation is so close to the bone, to the old core of their partnership: that unwise gift she'd given him so long ago, and what they decided afterwards. She means, Roy thinks, 'what if' is pointless. What if I'd waited to make you the Flame Alchemist, what if I'd given you my father's work when you'd grown up enough to be trusted with it? What if you'd listened to your mother and hadn't joined the army, what if I'd gone to university instead of officers' academy, what if we'd met again in a bookshop instead of on a battlefield?

Roy looks ahead of himself, at the bad painting on the opposite wall. What if they'd never discovered the rotten heart of the military? If they'd stayed innocent, would someone else have found it? Would someone else have carried their sin and their responsibility? And would someone else have found a circle full of blood in the cellar of a house at the edge of a one-horse town? Would anyone but them have seen beyond the taboo and the penalty and have made that strange offer to the brothers who yesterday saved Amestris from the demon that created her?

"I know." Roy finally says. There's a lengthy, fruitful moment of silence. "Once a soldier starts to second-guess everything — it's not good. We have to keep moving forward."

She nods.

"And that," says Roy, "leads us to the next task. We're both thinking the same thing about Fuhrer Grumman's death. If Hakuro had him killed, I can use that information to take power. We need to root out the truth about this."

"They'll be trying to bury it." says Riza. "So we'll have to get to it first. Roy." He looks up too sharply, still surprised to hear his first name in her voice. She smiles a little awkwardly. "It just occurred to me. We'll want our people staying in one place, things as they are. Unless that would make us too straightforward a target?"

Roy shakes his head. "No. That's too bold a move for Hakuro. We should be concerned about assassination, but not like that. Together, we'll present too much of a threat."

"Right, then. I think we should commandeer a medium-sized hotel. We can sweep the building, secure it, and be able to talk in private."

The idea is an excellent one. There are so many things to be discussed and decided. They can put others to work on this code, too. Breda's good with crosswords. Perhaps he might see something they've missed?

"Riza?" he says. "Are you — how are you doing?" It suddenly occurs to him how much less intrusive it would have felt to ask Captain, how are you?

"All right," she says. "I haven't really had time — we'll just keep moving." She looks down. Frankness feels strange. But wouldn't it be just as strange to return to their old habits, after everything yesterday brought to them? "You know," Riza says, "Lieutenant General Grumman and I never got to know each other so well. Back in East City, he'd invite me to lunch sometimes. But with everything that's been going on," and her voice quietens very slightly, "I hadn't seen him in a long while."

Roy reaches out, impulsively, and squeezes her hand. His healed wound twinges. Riza looks up, eyes a little round with surprise, but then she gives him a little smile, squeezes back gently, and lets go.

From somewhere outside, a clock chimes the hour, and it's time to return for round two.


The new brass's afternoon session ran even longer than Roy had anticipated, so in the end, he gets to Parliament Hall at sunset, ten minutes after Major Miles' time on General Armstrong's honour guard has ended. The hall has been closed to the public now, but Roy still has to make his way through a silent crowd to enter. At the gate, he passes piles of flowers that rise to his shoulder. Who knew that General Armstrong was so loved outside of Briggs? Perhaps she wasn't, until yesterday. Heroes are quickly made in this country. Roy should know.

Miles, however, turns out to be still in the hall. As soon as Roy enters, he spots the flash of white hair, the sunglasses worn even in a dark room. He's sitting on a bench at the edge of the room, facing towards the coffin, with his head bowed in his hands. If it wasn't so antithetical to the Briggs spirit, Roy might have thought he was praying.

Major Miles and General Armstrong were as close as they seemed, then. Perhaps even as close as rumour has it? But Roy knows what it's like to be dogged by rumour, and to speculate now about the nature of Miles' loss seems somehow indecent.

Roy approaches the bier. Four soldiers in the Briggs uniform stand at each corner, facing outwards. Roy doesn't know any of them, but he notes that one of them is a captain: like Miles, he is too high-ranking to be doing this job, but yet here he is. Roy stands to attention, snaps a salute to the coffin. Then, in the absence of anyone else present able to grant him permission, he gives himself leave to stand at ease.

General Armstrong has been laid out in the dress uniform, not the Briggs uniform. He's sure she wouldn't have chosen that, for all that the long tunic and trousers gives her a Fuhrer-like air. Her clothes have been chosen to make her look more like a hero of the people than the Wall of Briggs. The spinning of her death has begun — and from the looks of things outside Parliament Hall, it's succeeding. Her hair has been left down. That's against protocol — it always was. Hair that reaches below the collar should be worn tied or pinned. Apparently, no one ever dared to correct her, and it seems no one dares still. Even dead, it seems she can't quite be controlled. Roy looks at the sword hilt clasped in her hands. He can't help but notice that this isn't the beautiful antique sabre she wore everywhere — the weapon, presumably, which killed Bradley. It's just a plain dress sword. Roy supposes the Armstrong family are going to put the original under glass or something, or perhaps pass it on to the next bloodthirsty generation.

Her closed eyes are sunken, her cheekbones too prominent, her skin sallow and waxy. Roy ought to be unshockable now; but somehow, it still shocks him to see the invincible Major General Armstrong herself so unmistakably dead. Roy realises he hadn't quite believed it, until now.

Roy closes his eyes. He thinks of Olivia Armstrong's bellowing and intransigence, her bluntness and incorruptible honesty, her pride in her men and her hidden cunning. He thinks of the idiotic competitive games she drew him into at joint training, her tactical brilliance and her peculiarly hostile mode of flirting. He can't sum her up.

She might have lived. She might have, but she didn't. Their faction were undoubtedly stronger and safer with her alive, tenuous as the alliance could have been. Perhaps the weak link in the chain, the thing that made their enemies feel strong enough to strike, wasn't Grumman at all. Perhaps it was Armstrong's absence? But that isn't a question for today. Keep moving forward, Roy tells himself. He closes his eyes for a moment, then turns from the bier.

After a few moments, Miles looks up slowly and registers Roy's presence. He stands, salutes the coffin and then salutes Roy. It's the proper order: after all, Armstrong does outrank him.


Roy leans forward against the battlement. The roof walkway of Parliament hall: Roy picked a good spot for this conversation. The only access is the steep, worn little spiral staircase they've just schlepped up, so it's private. And they have the spectacular view of the old city to stare at, so Miles can avoid eye contact when he needs to. Roy remembers avoiding people's eyes a lot, in the first few days after Hughes. It helped keep a lid on things.

"Hard to take in," says Roy. "She always gave the distinct impression of being immortal." He supposes that she is now, after a fashion. Being a legend suits her already.

"Not how she saw it," says Miles quietly. "She was always ready. Just like any other soldier."

Hypocritically, Roy nods. He knows how childish it is, but still he's never been able to let go of the idea that none of his people are allowed to die. Not that they always let that stop them.

Miles looks out at the square below them. "So," he says. "The story."

His account is to the point, but impeccably thorough. It reminds Roy oddly of Riza's way with a debriefing. No one entered or left the Fuhrer's office between 0502, when Miles saw him enter, and Miles' knock on the door just before six. When there was no answer, Grumman's secretary advised him to go on in, since the Fuhrer was a little hard of hearing. Roy doesn't comment that in his experience, Grumman's deafness was highly selective.

Inside the office, Grumman was sitting at his desk. At first, Miles thought he was asleep. Then he thought he was unwell. Then he noticed that he wasn't breathing. After the entire staff of East City HQ's infirmary descended, it turned out Fuhrer Grumman was already dead when Miles knocked on his door.

"Suspected massive heart attack,"says Miles. "And there we have it."

"No one entered the Fuhrer's office at all?" asks Roy.

"No."

"And did the Fuhrer seem well when he arrived at five?"

"Perfectly."

"Did he eat or drink anything that you know of?"

"Just a glass of water. I saw his secretary pour it from a jug on her desk. I drank two glasses myself from the same jug. So no luck there, I'm afraid."

Roy watches a woman on a bicycle, two hundred feet below them, wind her way over the flat cobbles of the square. She cycles for a few yards, then stands in the saddle, letting the momentum she built carry her on. That woman died yesterday — if only for a few minutes. So did Grumman. So did Miles, and so did everyone — everyone. Before he left the hospital, Roy was already hearing that besides the injured, right now there's an upsurge in heart attacks, strokes, embolisms. So: having your soul sucked out of your body, swirled around a monster's gut and then heaved back into you. Who knew, but apparently it isn't good for the system. Could Grumman simply be one of the unlucky ones? Except for that note.

"Sir," says Miles. Roy startles out of his thoughts and looks up. "However you can use me, I'm here."

Roy hesitates. He'd bring this man onto his team in a second. But doesn't Miles have his own battles to fight? "I imagine," Roy says carefully, "that you might get permanent command of Briggs, things as they are."

Miles' head cants towards him sharply. Then he says, "I've considered that. On the train up to Central, Hakuro wasn't letting me anywhere near his carriage. But I can take a good guess at what he's up to. Am I right, sir?"

Roy nods and gives him a wry grin.

"As highest ranking officer, I command Briggs for now. Briggs is a part of Amestris. The whole takes priority over the part. We've left good men and women holding the wall. The soldiers of Briggs are yours to command, sir." Roy can barely make out his eyes through the sunglasses, but he can still feel the intensity of Miles' stare.

Roy wants to say a lot of things that are probably better left unsaid. After a moment, he pushes off the wall to stand upright, fully facing Miles. "Thank you, Major. I appreciate it. I'll be making use of you, then."

Miles turns to him, salutes, and grins a hard, purposeful little grin.


Illustration by dreamer1789. Go leave a comment for her here!


"Nice choice of hotel, chief," says Breda from behind the bar. "Shame about the complete lack of staff."

"Captain Hawkeye picked the hotel," says Roy.

"I picked the hotel, sir," corrects Lieutenant Catalina. "The captain delegated." Her grin is cheeky, with a hint of nerves around the edges. Apparently whatever stories Riza told her over the years haven't completely killed her respect for him.

"Classy joint, Catalina," says Breda. He puts a couple of pitchers of lager on the bar, and Fuery hoists them up and trots over to the tables, depositing one on each.

"Lager in a meeting?" says Falman.

"Yup. It's been that kind of couple days," says Breda. "Chief?"

"Oh good," says Roy. "So I still get consulted around here, that's nice, Lieutenant. Yes, I would love a glass, thank you."

Ross and Brosch bring out trays of little beer goblets, jugs of cold lager and water are distributed, tables are moved, and seats are taken.

Roy surveys his kingdom. Everyone from the old team, bar one — although without Havoc's smartass remarks, it can never completely feel like the old team. Major Miles, sitting at a table with four Briggs officers Roy has never met, with his sunglasses off and his eyes fierce and tired. Second Lieutenant Ross, back in uniform, sitting by Sergeant Brosch and Catalina. Charlie, Dino, and the rest of Roy's old Ishbal comrades.

"Where are Fullmetal and Alphonse?" asks Fuery.

"Hospital," says Riza. "And they're staying there."

"So they really did it?" asks Breda. "Huh."

Roy notices the room is quieting. He grins, and raises his voice. "Alphonse is human, and recovering," says Roy. "Fullmetal is much the same, still a cheeky little shit, blew the arm to smithereens yet again. So, yes. I'd say they did it."

"That's — amazing," says Ross, shaking her head. She gives Brosch a jolly little punch on the upper arm, and he grins goofily.

"Good for them," says Major Miles quietly.

Roy lets the babble of voices rise for a few moments. In the midst of this clusterfuck, at least they have one or two miracles to celebrate.

"And where's Major Armstrong?" asks Fuery, turning to Roy again.

"Sorting out his sister's estate," says Riza.

"Oh," says Fuery quietly. "I forgot."

"He only left for Armstrong Manor a couple hours ago: he's been helping out the rescue crews all day," says Breda. "When I found him, he'd just stopped a mansion block from collapsing on Jordan Boulevard."

Roy blinks. "I live off Jordan. Mm. I should probably have someone check my apartment building's still standing."

Breda snorts at him. "Least you've probably got a flat, sir. The rest of us are living out of our kitbags right now."

"I've missed the whining, I really have. Major Armstrong?"

Breda shrugs. "He seemed kind of stoic. He was pretty quiet, for him." Armstrong, who'll burst into noisy tears because he hasn't seen you in a month. Roy doesn't like it.

Breda continues. "Your hunch about who delivered those flowers was right. The major gave me an address for the lady in question, but we don't have much in the way of new information. She says Grumman telephoned her at about six o'clock in the morning, gave her the order, and hung up. She couldn't even say if he sounded ill or not. No one but radio hosts sounds healthy at that time of morning, she says."

Roy exhales heavily. "Thank you." Then he raps sharply on the table, and calls the meeting to order.

"So," he begins. "I can confirm the basics for you. Yes, Amestris is currently without a standing Fuhrer. Yes, the old brass are all off the board one way or another — but not everyone in the military are our allies. And yes, we suspect that foul play was involved in Fuhrer Grumman's death. We're going to get to the bottom of it. And we're going to win this."

The meeting moves thankfully fast. Riza briefs the room concisely on the rest of the situation, and then everyone else reports in, group by group. It seems that everyone has been keeping themselves nice and busy. With his people around him, Roy is starting to feel a little more like himself.

Afterwards, most of them are dismissed for the night. Roy keeps back his old team, along with Major Miles and Lieutenant Ross.

"Here's what we're looking at," says Roy to the table. "Grumman's assassination — and I'm certain that's what it was — was opportunistic. Someone saw a chance to make their move."

"Hakuro saw a chance," says Major Miles.

"What the new brass want most of all right now is someone in charge who shares Bradley's virtues, but is innocent of his crimes," says Roy. Elbows planted on the table, he laces his fingers together and leans his chin on them.

"So Hakuro jumps in and makes out that an old-fashioned bastard like him is the natural choice to take over, huh?" says Breda.

"Grumman's death is being passed off as natural causes right now," Roy replies. "But if I can prove Hakuro assassinated Grumman, I take away his uncorrupted status —"

"- which will make the Brigadier General the clearest candidate for the Fuhrership," Riza continues smoothly.

"I'll be able to take power without a war," Roy picks up. "Just as we planned."

"Yes," says Riza, "if you can pass yourself off as a vaguely safe pair of hands."

Roy sighs theatrically and decides to move on. "So, working out how this thing was done — and proving it — is our most important task right now. Grumman left us a message" — which he apparently chose to fill with annoyingly obscure code —"and we need it cracked."

Riza fetches the flowers, now wilted. The note is passed around, the paper is held up to the light.

"The note definitely sounds like it's in code," says Breda.

"One of the commonest forms of military code," says Falman, "is to use key phrases with hidden meanings."

"We've got those," says Roy. He runs through them. "But it doesn't tell us anything more."

"Could there be something like invisible ink?" asks Brosch. The look Roy gives him must be a bit more scathing than he means for it to be, because he looks down at his boots and says, "Sorry sir, I guess it shows that I don't really know much about cryptography. Most of the criminals I'm used to dealing with aren't that enormously smart."

"Oh!" says Fuery suddenly. "I just thought. What about that old-fashioned thing, where the type of flower given has different meanings?"

"I think my grandma has a book on that," says Ross. "But, um, she lives five hours out west. And she still thinks I'm dead, so phoning her now might be a bit tricky."

"Everyone's grandma has a book on that," says Breda.

"What about the library here?" asks Fuery. "It looks sort of chintzy, maybe it would have something like that?"

Roy inclines his head. "Off you go, Sergeant. Good work."

Fuery sprints off. By the time he returns, Breda has found some loaves of stale bread, cheese and a vast tub of pickle in the kitchen, and everyone is assembling impromptu sandwiches. Roy looks up from his first bite to see Fuery brandishing the book. The grin on Fuery's face slowly fades into slight mortification at the sudden attention everyone is paying him.

Riza takes the book and flips through it. "Foxgloves," she reads. "Insincerity."

There are a lot of furrowed brows around the table right now.

"That's " Falman doesn't finish.

"Not exactly helpful," says Breda.

"I suppose," Riza shrugs, "it's appropriate enough. If you took insincerity to mean untrustworthiness, and that to mean betrayal "

"So the secret message in the code is I was assassinated?" asks Roy. He rubs his eyes. "Which we already knew, from the fact that there was a message at all."

"It looks quite complicated," says Fuery. "I mean, there's a whole book of how different combinations mean different things. Maybe we're just reading it wrong?"


Two hours later, they're still there, and in much the same position. Fuery is still poring over The Sentiment of Flowers. Riza has copied the note and is searching for acrostics and suspicious letter patterns. Falman is reading another book dug out of the hotel library, Every Schoolboy's Guide to Cryptography. Miles is sipping tea, and looking like he's thinking. Catalina is doodling. Ross's eyelids keep drooping; Roy's seen her discreetly shaking herself awake at least twice. They are, to be frank, getting a little desperate.

"It still could be that old wives' tale about picking foxgloves offending the fairies," says Breda. "Crime, taboo — it could be like, a metaphor for human transmutation."

"And how's that relevant to anything?" says Roy. He's getting crabbier by the minute now. The pressure is on, and they're getting nowhere. What the hell is the point of leaving a coded message that's too obscure for anyone to understand? Why couldn't the old bird ever, ever do anything the simple way? And on that, it suddenly strikes him again that Grumman really is dead. He shuts his eyes. His headache, clearly tired of him ignoring it all day, surges up to kick him vigorously behind the eyeballs. He tries not to hiss.

"Headache?" asks Riza.

Roy pinches the bridge of his nose. "The whole damn thing's a headache."

Riza suddenly cants her head — that sharp little motion that tells Roy she's seen something he hasn't — and Roy follows her gaze to the bar's door. It's open, and his mother is standing framed in the doorway, suitcase in hand.

She always did know how to make an entrance.

"I heard already," says Madam Christmas. She's been friends with Grumman nearly all Roy's life. Her lips compress briefly. Roy feels a horrible pang, but it's quickly overwhelmed by the gladness and relief of seeing her again, safe and well. He gets up hastily, takes her suitcase and her arm, and walks with her to the table. "I'm not that decrepit," she mutters, but she pats his arm anyway.

"Breda," says Roy, "please get Madam Christmas a good whisky served straight and a tall glass of iced water."

"Make it a single malt, sonny," says Madam Christmas, settling in a chair, "and don't be stingy now. What are we doing here?" She waves a hand over the flowers, the book and the note.

"Fuhrer Grumman had these flowers sent to me a few minutes before he died," says Roy. He hands his mother the note. "I'm sure there's a code, but we're having no luck turning up anything."

"Hmm," she says noncommittally. She puts down the note and picks up a wilting stem of purple flowers.

"We were wondering if the message could be the flowers themselves," continues Roy. "We got this book, on nineteenth-century flower codes, but we can't get anything out of that either. It's frustrating. Why send us this message, but make the code so obscure?"

Madam Christmas gives him that look. She lets it sit for a moment, as she's always liked to do, to impress upon Roy that he's being an idiot. He resists the urge to squirm. "You think it's obscure?" she asks, raising an eyebrow.

"It's not?"

"Foxgloves," she says slowly, "are poisonous."

"Oh," says Roy. "Well, we never had a garden."

"They're poisonous," she continues, "because they're full of digitalis. It interferes with the heart, slows it down."

"Oh," says Roy.

"However, in small doses, it's useful. Doctors prescribe digitalin for some heart conditions."

"Oh," says Riza.

"Grumman had been on it for years," Madam Christmas says. "Digitalis doesn't taste so great, though, you can't just dump it into someone's tea."

"They switched his heart medicine," says Roy.

"Yeah, that's where I was going with that, kid," says his mother. "Now how about you get to work proving it?"