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bob fish

The Riderless Horse

chapter 4.

"Her Sacrifice for Our Motherland: General Armstrong to Be Given State Funeral Tomorrow," Breda reads from the front page of this evening's Central Times. A half-page photograph of Olivia Armstrong, hands on her sword hilt, glowers up from the paper. "Amestris has been rocked by revelations of Fuhrer Bradley's tragic descent into illness after a lifetime of tireless service. As more of the terrible events of Eclipse Day emerge, the full extent of General Olivia Armstrong's heroism has been revealed. Amestris today mourned a national heroine who died leading a charge against the traitors' deadly experimental weapons, powered by taboo alchemy, blah blah blah flagwaving, blah blah blah horseshit. What happened to our story? I thought the old brass were our scapegoats. They were endangering the country with the wacky alchemical experiment, and Bradley and the kid were supposed to have died in a tragic accident."

"They still did," says Roy. "But today the provisional government decided to let slip that Bradley was having a nervous breakdown and got led astray by his unscrupulous advisors."

"But we handcrafted that pile of bullshit. We had our lying witnesses, we had our oily villains, it was beautiful."

"It's called a limited hangout," says Roy. "The people smell a rat, so you reveal a small chunk of the truth, and it keeps them quiet." Roy drains some of his coffee mug. "And it was my idea. So stop whining, Lieutenant."

Breda pouts and turns to the second page. "Who's Who in the Interim Government," he reads. "Brigadier General Roy Mustang. At thirty, the youngest living officer to attain the rank this century — hey, you beat Armstrong's score — the Hero of Ishbal led the Eclipse Day counter-rebellion at General Armstrong's side — oho, we get to be the counter-rebellion now."

"What does it say about Hakuro?" asks Roy, poking his head over the top of the paper.

"Shouldn't you already know? I thought the Interim Government fed this stuff to the press."

"Yes, but I want to see if they slipped any sneaky bias into his write-up."

"Major General Laurence Hakuro. A heavily decorated war hero whose strong leadership in the East, in partnership with then-Lieutenant General Grumman, brought stability to a troubled region. The Major General took charge in East City on Eclipse Day, preventing riots and saving countless lives. What the fuck is that?"

Roy shrugs. "The press have to show us both in a positive light, that was part of the deal." He scans the paragraph. "I was hoping they'd drop in some implications that he's a dried up, bitter old fart, though. They've done a good job of being even-handed. How annoying."

"But — he wasn't even in the city on Eclipse Day, he was at the joint North-East training, and he still gets the credit for taking care of East?" Breda whistles. "Ouch. And what about this crapola about him being buddies with Grumman? You were running East with Grumman way longer."

"Sure. Grumman couldn't stand the man. We're all up to about here," Roy indicates a spot a couple of inches above their heads, "in lies by now."

The beaded curtain behind the hotel bar rustles, and Madam Christmas emerges. "Speaking of which," she says. Her mouth is set.

Roy gets to his feet. "Knox?"

"Just called. The sample was good enough. It was digitalis poisoning. Time for our next move, kid."

Ah, yes. That.

Riza and Major Miles are summoned. Privates Fieseler and Lamacq, their new recruits from morgue security, have been handed into the care of Falman and Fuery. Tomorrow they'll be requisitioned to the disaster relief team under Falman. For now, they're playing poker in the other room: true members of Team Mustang, it seems.

The meeting convenes. Miles seems a little surprised that Roy's idea of a war council includes a small dog and a middle-aged lady wearing about a kilo of diamonds. But he takes it on the chin.

"So," says Roy, "we have confirmation of the means, and proof of assassination. Now we need two things. Proof of the culprit, and a plan regarding what we're going to do with the information."

"A doctor, or more likely a pharmacist, made up the pills with a lethal dose," Riza continues, "and then someone likely switched them for Grumman's usual medicine. We're anticipating that the same person switched them back."

"Question the valet," says Madam Christmas. "And anyone who was near his bedroom. They could have slipped in while he was in the bathtub. The old bird's hearing wasn't so hot."

"I'm afraid a good few people were near the room," says Miles. "He stayed in officers' quarters at East HQ that night. I wanted to put my people on guard, but the Fuhrer wouldn't have it. He wanted his own soldiers, from East." Miles shrugs. "I think he didn't entirely trust the soldiers of Briggs not to slit his throat in the night. So, over the course of the night, we're dealing with a list of eighteen soldiers. I've got that list, though."

"What about the pills?" asks Breda. "I mean, when you get medicine, it looks a bit different depending on which pharmacist rolls the pills, right? These would have to match. And it's not like the assassins had a lot of planning time to steal pills and get them to match up."

"What's your point?" asks Roy.

"Why don't we try Grumman's regular pharmacist first?"

"He used the Headquarters Medical Centre pharmacy," says Riza slowly. "And it has a pretty small staff, from what I remember."

"Yeah," Breda agrees. "You always had to wait in line for ages."

"Right," says Roy, getting it. "So Hakuro and his people would have had links there too. Someone working there could have been a sympathiser, or perhaps Hakuro leaned on them hard."

"I can handle getting our culprit," says Miles. "Some officers from Briggs' Investigations Department are still in East. They get results fast. If I relay this to them, it's likely I can have a confession for you by noon tomorrow."

It's certainly a bold claim — but Roy believes him. "This is going to be a valid confession, yes? If the supposed culprit's half dead, it won't be worth the paper it's printed on."

"Because Hakuro's such a champion of human rights?" Breda adds.

"If it's politically expedient and he can get away with it, yes."

"I'll impress upon them the need to leave the suspect in one piece, sir," Miles says drily.

This still doesn't sit well — but they need that confession, and they need it now. "All right," says Roy. "Make it happen, Major."

After Miles has saluted and left, Roy turns to his remaining three listeners. "Now, here's our other decision. Do I have enough military support to publicly accuse Hakuro?"

Breda says, "From the reports I've seen, you've got the popular vote, sir."

"Unfortunately, that's not the most important thing right now," Riza replies.

Roy continues, "If I make an accusation but don't have enough back-up in the brass to take down Hakuro, then I force his hand — and it will come to violence. Perhaps nationwide violence. The last thing Amestris needs now is a civil war." As everyone around here should well know already.

"So, kid, what do you think?" Roy's mother fiddles with the big diamond ring on her left index finger, slowly turning the rock back and forth. It's one of those things she does when she's trying not to show she's rattled. "You spent most of yesterday and today sitting around a table with these people. Surely that's enough for you to get a handle on the mood?"

Roy can sense his mother's implicit criticism, I taught you to be smarter than that. He can see the tension in her too, and the anger. She's lost a friend. She needs to see his murderers go down. He looks her in the eye and says, slowly, "We've got to consider the whole country."

"I know that!" she snaps. "Don't evade the issue. How much support have you managed to gather?"

Riza cuts in. "We've seen quite a bit of support, Madam," she says. "The problem is that now we've removed the old brass, most of these officers are new to this much power. They're not used to running a nation. And a lot of them are still struggling with the truth of what's happened. Most of them seem to be sitting on the fence right now. They listen to Brigadier General Mustang, and they respect him. But." She pauses.

Roy jumps in. "But a lot of people don't quite trust me yet. I'm sure I can convince them, in time — but we don't have time."

"If you didn't accuse Hakuro openly," Breda asks, "what then?"

"I'd bring the matter to his attention privately," Roy says, "and use it to my advantage."

"If you mean blackmail, kid, say blackmail," Madam Christmas says.

Roy shoots her a look. "Blackmail," says Roy.

Madam Christmas just laughs, a short, sour bark, and says, "I raised you smart."

There's a moment of silence.

"Tomorrow morning," Roy says, "is General Armstrong's state funeral. By the time it's over, we're likely to have proof enough that Hakuro ordered Grumman's assassination to be able to act. The funeral looks to be an unpleasant public relations exercise — perhaps we'll gain some new information on my level of support, perhaps not. At any rate, we can't act until we have the proof. Hopefully, by funeral's end, we'll know what card we'll be playing."


Doctor Marcoh is in a terrible mood this evening. He's grouchy at Roy for evading his check-ups for two days, sure, but there's something else underneath it. He mutters under his breath as he roots through his back for equipment. He drops things. When he speaks, his hands jitter.

Roy reads letters from a board and lets Marcoh peer under his eyelids and into his pupils with a tiny flashlight that leaves red spots floating in his vision. Marcoh makes him walk in a straight line, balance on one leg, then touch his nose with each forefinger in turn.

"Can you tell me your name and today's date?" asks Marcoh.

"Roy Mustang, 22nd March 1916. I don't mean to tell you how to do your job, but what's that have to do with my eyes?"

"Nothing," says Marcoh. "I'm checking for brain damage. Who's the standing Fuhrer?"

Roy sighs. "We don't know. Not in a brain damage way, in a political clusterfuck way."

Marcoh says, "That's what I thought. What are you doing about it?"

"My best. That's why you couldn't get ahold of me these past two days."

"Yes, yes," says Marcoh. "Do your best." There's a catch in his voice. Roy meets Marcoh's eyes for a moment. "A lot of people are counting on you," Marcoh says mildly.

The examination continues without further conversation.

After Marcoh has finished poking and prodding, and declared Roy's eyes and brain to be apparently in working order, Roy hovers for a moment after shrugging on his coat.

"You look as though you have something to say." Marcoh is looking at him shrewdly.

Roy half-laughs. "Yes. Something I needed to ask you about." He draws a breath in. "You don't know this, but I've been looking for you for a long time." Marcoh stiffens in alarm, and Roy raises a hand. "No, not in a military capacity, as a doctor. I heard about you. I wanted your help. One of my officers was injured."

Roy tells the story as briefly as he can: the tunnels under Laboratory Three, the homunculus, how close they had all come to dying. He repeats Havoc's exact diagnosis, memorised long ago and explained to Roy, unsparingly, by Knox.

"Ah," says Marcoh quietly, after Roy has finished speaking. "I'm very sorry to hear that."

Something about his tone makes Roy's stomach drop. He presses on anyway. "I wondered — well, you know what I was wondering. Can you do something for him?" Marcoh is looking at him with those kind, sad little eyes and nodding, and he's still not saying anything. Roy rushes on, filling the silence. "He's a — very valued officer. The coup, defeating Bradley — we couldn't have done it without him. He smuggled arms for us, and — look, he's stuck back East in some farming village, and he ought to be here, this was his whole life. He's a decent person. You treat ordinary people all the time. Look —"

"I understand," says Marcoh quietly. Roy suddenly realises he'd nearly been shouting. "I wouldn't refuse to treat your officer. But I'm afraid I can tell you from experience that the Stone can't be used to treat a spinal injury of that severity."

"How can the treatment not work?" Roy frowns. "I thought the Stone was meant to be some kind of panacea."

"It works perfectly well," says Marcoh, "if you don't mind killing the patient."

"Oh," says Roy.

"The Stone's energy is life; given critical mass, that life will struggle for survival. Inject too much into a body, and you'll trigger a lethal struggle. Do you know how they made Bradley?"

"Oh," says Roy. He's starting to see — but he doesn't want to. They injected the Stone into test subjects. It killed a dozen men, then made a monster. But maybe — "What if it were several smaller treatments?"

"To do this safely? It would have to be several hundred treatments," says Marcoh. "With over a year's recovery time each."

"How do you even know this?" asks Roy. It comes out harsh, an explosion of sound. He doesn't mean it to. "How do you even know what's possible, without trying?"

Marcoh looks at him, and there's something in his eyes behind the kindly professionalism. "I know because I tried," he says. "Once." The last word comes out tight and grim. Marcoh's scarred mouth presses itself together hard, and his eyes — Roy knows that expression, the misery of a mistake that's beyond clawing back or fixing, that you just have to live with.

What can Roy say? He nods, and says, "Thank you."

"However," says Marcoh. "One of those smaller treatments. There would be a good amount of pain and risk, in exchange for a very modest improvement. Not walking, put that out of your mind. But — you know, small improvements that other people might not notice can make a great deal of difference to a patient. It would be his decision, not yours. I know when a patient's been pushed, you know."

Roy almost laughs. Not so long ago, he would have bet upon his ability to push Havoc into most things. But these days — not so much.

"And I have another favour to ask you," Marcoh continues. "The political situation, right now. If you don't win this — please get a warning to me. You understand, it's not because I'm worried for my own safety. My knowledge is a weapon. It needs to be kept out of the hands of people who'd misuse it. Whatever that takes," Marcoh finishes softly. The catches on his doctor's bag click quietly shut.


It's pretty awkward sitting in the back of a car with a sabre strapped across your waist. There must be a way to do it right, although Roy doesn't know it. He is sure that Olivia Armstrong must have learnt how to sit elegantly while wearing a sword before she hit puberty. If she were here, he'd definitely scope her out to see how it was done.

Of course, if she were here, there'd be no need for any of this at all.

The whole city seems dressed for a funeral today. As the car moves slowly through the streets, Roy sees black armbands on newspaper sellers, street cafs with chairs stacked on the tables and signs proclaiming they're shut in tribute to General Armstrong, and to allow our staff to pay their respects. He even sees a couple of shrines on street corners.

It all makes his stomach roll a little. Not because he begrudges General Armstrong the public mourning, although he's fairly certain she'd consider it all so much bullshit — but because the crowds lining the streets between Parliament Hall and the military cemetery, none of them knew her. While her country is mourning her, General Armstrong's entire family, bar one, are thousands of miles away at the Xingese port of Longyamen. Their telegraphed requests for the funeral to be postponed have been roundly ignored, as was Major Armstrong's personal letter of petition to the provisional government. In death, Olivia Armstrong belongs not to her family, but to the nation: or rather, to the people currently fighting over it. One of whom is Roy. He has bigger things to worry about at the moment — but still. This is vile.

As the military car turns into the cemetery, Roy turns to Riza, inclines his head towards the sabre, and says, "This is it, by the way." He unsheathes the sabre a couple of inches, so she can see the roses chased into the blade. She raises her eyebrows.

First thing this morning, Major Armstrong showed up in Roy's temporary office, exhausted but impeccable, carrying the General's sabre wrapped in a velvet cloth and a sealed envelope bearing Roy's name and the Armstrong coat of arms stamped into the wax.

He said nothing at first, and that was the most disturbing part for Roy. He'd only rarely seen the man so quiet, and it usually presaged trouble.

After Roy unwrapped the sabre, Armstrong said, "A bequest from my sister. It was her habit not to give compliments easily, but she had a great deal of respect for you. You of course have my support in any move — in any decision you might take —" His shoulders had started to shake. Roy gave him a moment, but the tremors just got worse, until his whole huge body looked as thought it was vibrating.

"Please take a seat, Major," Roy said. He'd never been any good at comforting people. He filled a glass of water from the jug on his desk and took it over to Major Armstrong. He nodded his thanks, but didn't drink. Instead, he just sat there with the water glass hidden in his big hands, head down, shoulders still quivering with tension.

Roy couldn't bear to ask him if Olivia Armstrong really did leave Roy the Armstrong estate. Damn the woman for making a joke out of it all like that.

The General's note, characteristically, got straight to the point. As Roy read it, he felt his eyebrows gradually climb into his bangs.

He looked up and saw Armstrong looking at him, eyes red and expectant. Any message from the dead is naturally hoarded. Roy remembered Gracia telling him how she'd saved Hughes' shopping lists. "She said that she's entrusting me to do a good job," Roy said, hastily folding the letter and pocketing it. "It's an honour."

Mustang —

Since you're reading this, I'm dead. In that case, as a leader for this country, you're a whisker better than the alternatives, so you'll just have to do. Don't fuck it up, or I'll claw my way out of the grave and choke you to death with your own balls.

Major General Olivia Mira Armstrong

No pressure, eh?

In the graveyard, Roy stands at attention, surrounded by rows of people he cannot trust. The caisson processes slowly towards them. The pallbearers march alongside it. Behind it, the riderless horse closes the procession, General Armstrong's boots reversed in the stirrups.

As the priest calls to the four directions, Roy notices that Riza is looking over the front rows of crowd, searchingly. Discreetly, as the service proceeds with the National Anthem, then the invocation, they both watch the faces of the country's new military command. They are almost universally stern and blank, eyes forward.

Roy isn't so shocked to find that, when the time comes, it isn't General Armstrong's brother who steps up to deliver her eulogy, but her aide. Major Armstrong stands at attention, mouth set and eyes hidden under the peak of his cap. Roy finds himself setting his own mouth in a line when he looks at him.

Major Miles' voice carries a lot better than the priest's does. Roy supposes it must be all that shouting in snowstorms.

"General Armstrong was assigned command of the frontier fortress of Briggs as a colonel — a very young colonel at twenty-eight years old, at that. For the ten years she commanded there, she was called, by both her own troops and by the rest of the country, the Wall of Briggs. She herself put it a little differently. The day I arrived under her command, she said to me, we don't just guard the wall, we are the wall. General Armstrong believed a fortress is only as strong as its soldiers, and a commander only as able as her troops. She acted without hesitation, on the day of her death and every day of her life, knowing that the wall she had built would hold fast."

"On the day of the eclipse, the Wall of Briggs defended Amestris. The Wall of Briggs defends it still."

It's the shortest funeral oration Roy has ever heard, and perhaps the calmest threat. During the deafening cannon blasts of the nineteen gun salute, he notices some of the more old-fashioned members of the brass looking distinctly nervous. Ah, now if this was Roy's funeral, Armstrong would have had Major Miles get the bears of Briggs to aim the cannons directly into their sweating ranks. The Briggs way: how nice and simple a solution that would have been.

But then, Armstrong would have been perfectly happy to start up a civil war.


After earth has been heaped on the coffin and the circle closed, Roy and Riza offer condolences and prepare to take their leave. They're skipping the wake. They have other business. As they leave, Major Armstrong, halfway into an anecdote about his sister overpowering a burglar at the age of eight, has finally given way to mighty weeping. Miles pats him awkwardly on the arm.

The answer they are waiting for is just outside the cemetery gates. A very familiar flower seller stands with her cart. Her headscarf and dress today are black — but on a morning where half the city is dressed in mourning, it hardly stands out.

"Good day for the flower trade," Roy remarks, and then regrets it immediately.

"Would you like to pay your respects with some lilies?"

They walk two blocks into the city, and around the corner where Breda has stashed an unmarked car for them. After they've gotten in, Roy opens the bouquet, and pulls out the expected folded note. The heavy, over-sweetened smell of the flowers fills the car. Roy detests the smell of lilies. He shoves the bouquet onto the back seat and opens the note as Riza pulls out into the street. It's short, but it has all the information they need.

"The pharmacist confessed half an hour ago," Roy says.

Riza nods. "So," she says quietly.

"So," Roy returns. "I didn't pick up anything new back there. Did you?"

"Other than that at least five of the old guard were worried the nineteen gun salute would be a firing squad?"

Roy laughs shortly at that.

"No, nothing useful. It's — something of a game of chance, isn't it?" Riza says. "There's a lot we can't know, but we still have to play."

Roy smiles. "You sound like me."

"Well. We've been hanging around each other a long time." She looks ahead. "Make the call."

It has to be done. Roy exhales heavily and stretches out his legs. He shoves his hands into the pocket of his dress trousers — and realises there's a piece of paper there. He pulls it out. It's been worn by laundering, but when he unfolds it, he sees, written in pencil, Emily, 5 o'clock cocktails. A note in his alchemy code: a relic from another funeral, another murder investigation.

It's been nearly two years.

Roy turns to Riza. She flicks her eyes to his briefly, then looks back at the road. "We'll go for it," he says. "All or nothing."

"Yes, sir." She smoothly takes the turning towards headquarters.

A block later, Riza brakes rapidly as the car in front of them does so too. It doesn't start again. Roy puts his head close to the windscreen to see what's going on. "There's a truck stopped in the middle of the intersection," Roy reports. The driver has gotten down from the cab and is yelling at a motorist who has his head out of his car window. "Looks like a breakdown. We should turn around."

But that's easier said than done. Cars are filling the lanes rapidly. Soon they're completely surrounded. Car horns are starting to blare from all around them, chaotically.

"Well, that always helps," says Roy crabbily. "If you make enough noise, the whole traffic jam will just magically disperse."

Riza is frowning. "This is — suspiciously timed."

Roy thinks it over for a moment. It makes unpleasant sense. "Yes," he mutters. They both look at the cars around them. A few people are beginning to get out of their vehicles and to mill around. Too many of them are young and physically fit. Is Roy being paranoid? Probably. But —

"That man's a soldier," Riza says. "The one in the grey shirt. Look at how he's standing."

Roy looks again. He spots the bulge of a gun holster under a couple of jackets. He takes a breath.

"Shit. Well, there's no point just sitting here and waiting for them," he says. "We'll get out. Follow my lead. If there are few enough of them, we'll make a break for it. If not — " he shrugs.

Riza's lips are pressed together. She puts a hand to the car door. The fingers of her other hand twitch a little firmer around her pistol.

They're ready.

"On three. One —" And he doesn't get any further. With no warning at all, the car door is wrenched open and he's already halfway out, hauled by hands under his shoulders, by people whose faces he can't see. Roy snaps small and close at whoever's got him. There's a howl but, no, the hands just tighten.

Roy's poised to snap again — when he hears two shots from the opposite side of the car, he hears Riza cry out in pain. He freezes and jerks his head around, no — and at the same time brings his hand up to snap at whoever's got Riza. But his change of course must have slowed him, because before he even glimpses Riza his wrists are held, and the other arms around his shoulders tighten, wrenching his arms out to the sides. As his fingers are being forced apart, he kicks out behind him, still straining to see her. On the other side of the car, he briefly catches sight of her, whole but struggling in the grip of two men, her gun arm wrenched up and away from her. Something is forced over his head — a sack? — and he carries on struggling, breathing through cloth, seeing in fragments through the holes in the rough material.

He thrashes and shouts and kicks, but it's just rage now, he knows they have him. There's pressure on his shoulders and he's forced to his knees. Someone grips his chin, holding him in place — and his next breath fills him with nausea. Something's wrong. The cloth over his mouth is soaking wet with something cloyingly sweet and chemical, and by the time it's registered, he already has a second lungful of fumes. He can feel the hand gripping his jaw holding a thick wad of something over his mouth. Roy knows the smell now, chloroform and ether. Shit. He holds his breath, wrenches his body sharply around, twists his wrists. The left hand comes free, but as he presses his fingers together he registers the glove is gone, so he tries to get his hands together to clap instead — and he finds he's hauled in another breath of sickly vapours. He never gets his hands together. His wrist is grasped again before he gets there, and this time the grip feels unbreakable. His lungs ache. He's getting unbearably dizzy. The ground tilts and whirls under him. No, no, no.

His head fires with pain. His legs give way. And then he falls, and falls, and never hits the ground.