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velvet mace

Two Steps Forward


April 5th, 1887: Be Fearless

Even at eight, there was something about Frank that set him apart. While the neighborhood boys played kick-the-can on the cart-rutted road outside of school, Frank sat apart watching with quiet focus. He noticed Toby kick his own ankle hard in the tendon, then try to hide the gaff by screwing his face up and standing very still. Andrew took advantage and kicked the can away, then crowed over his skill. Meanwhile, Jeanie, was always right in the middle of the, desperate to be one of the boys despite the mud flecked frock she wore. Archer caught an ugly smile on Junior's face right before he stuck out a deliberate foot to trip Jeanie as she sidled backwards into position. She fell into his trap, going down on her butt with a painful thud. She stood up a moment later, turning and pulling her skirt to see what the damage was. The back of her dress from hem to seat was dark with mud.

"You jerk," Jeanie wailed, looking from one boy to another, unsure of the target for her ire. "My mama's gonna kill me!"

The boys all laughed. "Grace-FUL!" Toby said, limping out of fist range.

"Looks like you had an accident," sniggered Junior.

"Jeanie couldn't make the toilet!" shrieked Andrew, doubling over with hilarity.

Jeanie just turned in circles, growing more upset by the second. Watching the tough-girl fašade break, Frank felt a cold fury grow in him. Junior had done similar things to him in the past; an accidental elbow to the kidney, a foot stuck out too far in the classroom aisle. Then he'd level a look at Frank daring him to make something of it. It was easier to pretend it didn't happen. But this time something snapped and Frank decided not this time.

Frank stood up from the school steps and called out. "Junior tripped you Jeannie."

Jeanie whirled on Junior, ready to deck him, but Junior's focus had shifted. He ignored the fist that hit his arm and stalked towards Frank, all stiff limbed and as big as the nine year old could make himself. Which was considerable, Junior was farm bred and had the muscles to show for it. Frank, the middle son of a banker, was small for his age.

"You little tattle tale," said Junior. "I'm going to break your face."

Frank was on his feet, his mind whirling. He wasn't sorry he'd told on Junior. He could tell by Jeanie's face that he'd earned some points there. He'd lost a bunch with the other boys, but he could gain it back if he came out on top in this fight. But it couldn't be a fair fight. Junior had age, weight, and experience on his side.

Frank was smart. No contest.

He waited until Junior was half way up the grassy hill to the schoolhouse before deliberately thumbing his nose. He didn't want the others to think he was running away out of fear. But run away is exactly what he did next. Around the side of the building to the shed in the back.

He'd watched Junior moving during the game. He was strong, but not particularly fast. There was enough time for Frank to scramble up the woodpile onto the shed roof. He waited until Junior and the other kids had almost caught up.

"You are a cheat and a bully," Frank said.

"You're a rat. You're a little pencil necked snitch." Junior reached the woodpile and searched for a way to climb up.

Frank leaned out and grabbed a tree branch that hung over the shed. He went hand over hand about a foot before dropping on the other side of the fence that surrounded the schoolyard. Then he made a face over the top of the pickets.

"You're an oaf," called Frank. "A troll!"

Junior's face flushed with exertion and fury. The big boy found a way over the fence, but it wasn't graceful. He caught his pant leg on a nail. Frank heard the rip, and Junior's "oh shit." Served Junior right for ruining Jeanie's frock.

Junior lumbered towards him, face beet red with fury. Frank turned and ran, his heart hammering. He felt a thrill that should have been terror. He felt great. It was exciting, thrilling, fun. He laughed a little, aware of the gasps and cries from the other kids peeking up over the fence at them. They were scared for Frank and thought he was crazy, but they also were excited, and wanted to see what he'd do next.

The bushes on this side of the fence slowed Frank down a bit, and Junior was hard on his heels. Risky. Risky. He breathed harshly, not daring to look back or taunt, though the urge was there. His path wasn't random. He'd wandered all over this area; he knew where it was safe and where it wasn't. All he needed was to stay out of range for just a moment more.

Coming. Soon. HERE. Frank pushed through the tall grass then leaped, arms wide to grab a hold of the bushes on the far side of a natural drainage channel. He pulled himself to a safe position, turning his head just in time to see Junior put his foot squarely down on the steep, mud-slick groove. Junior's leg slipped out from under him like he was doing one-sided splits, then the rest of him hit the ground. The bigger boy scrabbled for a hand hold before gravity took him down twenty feet through the foliage to side of the stream.

Junior started screaming high, almost girlish shrieks of agony. Frank carefully lowered himself through the brush and saplings to where Junior had ended up, crumpled, filthy from head to toe, with his leg broken and twisted in a hideously unnatural way. Frank felt a sudden jolt of nausea coming hard on a pang of regret. I did this to him. I'm responsible.

He turned and called up the hill "Toby! Get your dad, Junior's hurt!"

Grown-ups came. They mulled and shouted, as excited and horrified as the kids. Then they got their act together and someone found a wide plank, and another person a rope, and they trussed Junior and hauled him back up the same muddy groove he fell down. Frank didn't see him the rest of the school year.

The pang of conscience went away after a while. It was a good deed, really. Especially when Frank saw that the kids at school didn't really miss Junior. The boys played kick the can after school with Jeanie, and everyone respected Frank.

Oh yeah they respected him. They avoided him a bit, treated him cautiously, but they deferred. They listened when Frank spoke. They included him when Frank asked to be included. They left him alone when he wanted them to. They remembered.

Living dangerously had its perks.

October 14th, 1902: Be Cautious

They called him Archer at Western Law Academy, a fact that pleased Frank to no end. Though he had no qualms with his first name, it had always seemed a bit plain to him. It lacked mystique. Archer had a refined military feel to it—and called up keen sight and sure, swift retribution. He took pains to be sure that others saw the same connection.

For the first time in his life, Archer was surrounded by people brighter than himself. He'd indulged in a little jealousy at first, but then squashed it down with an even greater determination to stand out from the crowd. There was more than one way to distinguish himself. More than one sort of smart. And what did it matter how well one passed a test, so long his arguments won. Intelligence was only useful if it could be put to use.

"Surely, you going to the meeting," asked his roommate, Rudger. Rudger was two years younger than Archer, curly-haired with city bred manners and very straight teeth. Handsome and untouchable, oh so wealthy. His rhetoric was as winning as his smile. Archer also knew he picked his nose when he was nervous, and he had a small stash of cocaine in a tin labeled "breath-mints". You never knew when such information might come in handy.

"I have a paper due tomorrow," said Archer, looking up from the books laid across his desk.

"This is more important than any damn paper, Archer, and you know it." Rudger fussed over his clothing, as if preening for a girlfriend and not for an impromptu student caucus. "You do read the papers, don't you, old man."

Archer, still shy of twenty-three, let the age quip pass. "I really don't see how my attendance will undo the events in Ishball. We are at war—again. I'm surprised you find it surprising."

"Politics is everything," said Rudger. "What starts in that meeting room can snowball into a force greater than even the Fuhrer can put down. This is a ridiculous, unjust war—not worth the price of Amestrian lives, not to mention the carnage done to the people of Ishball itself. They don't like alchemy—fine; if they want to live their lives in backwards poverty, unwilling to partake of civilization, all to appease their goddess, who are we to get in their way? In my view this makes them less of a threat to us, rather than more. Certainly it's not worth spilling our soldiers' blood over."

Archer put his pen down. "Will there be any new information about the war there?" he asked, more out of curiosity than any temptation to attend the meeting.

"We've found a speaker—brought her in from Ishball itself. She claims she knows some startling news about the real causes of the war."

Archer nodded dismissively. "It does sound interesting. You'll have to tell me what she says when you return."

Rudger looked consternated. "I can't believe it, you are the ultimate gossip whore, and yet here you have a prime chance of really getting the straight scoop on something truly important and you aren't interested. Would it make a difference if I said she was sleeping with the Dean or something?"

Archer smiled. "Probably—at least it would be a bit more relevant to my life." He pointed to the half-written paper on his desk. "This document, dull and stupid as it is, will have more impact on my future than what is going on four hundred miles away in a foreign city-state best known for its pretty plates and bowls. Enjoy your recreational politics—I'm busy furthering my career."

"You really are stupid," hissed Rudger.

Archer sat straight up, stunned. "What did you say?"

"Exactly what you heard. You are narrow minded and myopic and nosy and damn sometimes I wonder why you even think you can become a lawyer. We are in an escalating war, Archer. Do you know what that means? That means a draft. Come next semester, we could have helmets on our heads, instead of wigs."

"A draft, hardly."

"A draft, exactly," said Rudger, leaning over Archer. Archer smelled fear, like a strange musk, on his roommate. He turned the facts in his mind. Perhaps Rudger was right—it was a paranoid thought. There hadn't been a draft in thirty years and Ishball didn't seem that well armed.

"And what will this meeting do to change that fact?"

"We are the shapers of social discourse, we are the holders of public opinion. When we speak, the world stops to listen. Think of it, there is no way our Fuhrer can conduct a war without the backing intellectual society. He will be forced to seek a diplomatic solution. Diplomacy calls for lawyers—we could get jobs out of this. Relevant enough?"

"Sounds an awful lot like conspiracy to commit treason. Don't you think that's a bit dangerous?"

"Is anything worth having come without a bit of danger?"

Archer pushed his chair away, and stood up. "Perhaps. Very well, I'll go to your meeting. But if it turns out to be a bunch of speech happy wonks and I fail to get my paper in on time, I expect compensation."

Rudger all but pushed Archer out of their tiny dorm room and through the halls, out into the crisp night air. It had rained a bit earlier that evening, and the ground was filled with little pools of glinting reflection. The cobblestone path was well lit by electric lamps. Archer followed down the path towards Maple Hall when suddenly the sound of an idling truck engine caught his attention.

Abruptly he froze, all senses tuned up, while his skin crawled with a nervous tension he hadn't felt since Junior chased him through the scrub. Rudger walked ahead three paces, then turned and favored Archer with a curious look.

Archer barely registered it; he was listening, hearing the cricks and small clinks of a calm night. Footsteps. Far off voices in distant conversations, carrying across the lawns. He was listening for the truck. He heard it—them—two at least. From the direction of the parking lot on the far side of Maple Hall. This was not a normal time for trucks. That was not a normal place for them to stop.

"What is it?" asked Rudger.

Archer shushed him with a hand. Yes. Footsteps. Lots of them. Heavy, moving fast. Archer's heart pounded. "When does this meeting start?" he asked, his voice sounding oh so loud. Too loud.

"It's already started, we're late. We should hurry."

"No. We need to go back to our room."

"What?" Rudger's voice was too loud. It carried, it echoed. Archer stepped forward and grabbed his roommates arm, hard, and yanked him.

"The army is here," hissed Archer. "Apparently they see things your way too."

He looked towards Maple Hall, on the far side of the quad—Archer could see figures in the dark, crouching where there was no path, where the buildings created pockets of shadow so deep that he could only see them when they sprinted to new positions.

The dorm room was too far away, too obvious. The topiary would have to do. The military wouldn't be looking their direction right now anyway. Their target was in the building. Rudger resisted Archer's pull, more out of confusion than out of any true objection. Archer managed to get them both behind a trimmed hedge, where they crouched, damp grass staining their expensive woolen slacks.

Noise exploded across the quad. Archer winced as doors slammed open and gunfire erupted, echoing off the other buildings. The barrage went on fifteen minutes while around them windows were slammed shut, and people screamed.

Rudger was holding him, tightly, about the chest like a frightened six year old. He could feel the man's open mouth buried against his shoulder, hear the screams his roommate desperately needed to stifle. For that moment, Rudger wasn't rich, or polished, or charismatic. Manly dignity was forgotten. Rudger's entire being was focused on surviving. He was open, raw and terrified.

But Archer felt—he felt—serene. Excited yes. His mind was more active right now than it had been in years. He could feel his adrenaline burning through his veins, and the hammer stroke of his heart against his ribs. And yet, for all that, he felt oddly calm, like he was in his element some how. Like this moment was what he'd been born for.

It was a heady feeling. He'd just saved his roommates life. If he'd not come with Rudger—or if he'd agreed to come earlier—-his roommate would have been farther along the path, perhaps even in the meeting hall itself. Without Archer's unknowing intervention, Rudger's great intelligence would have come to nothing. Squandered. Now he'd go on and perhaps become a politician—maybe even make some great important change. This moment had the taste of destiny to it.

The sounds were dying down now. The bullets came in short bursts, with long, achingly quiet seconds between. Now was the time to move and find a safer place. He peaked out, and saw no one outside the building at the moment. "Let's get back to the dorms," he whispered.

Rudger nodded, reluctantly letting him go. It wasn't quick getting back, though the dorms were less than a hundred feet away, they moved slowly, from tree to tree, trying not to attract attention. They made it to the building with one last mad dash. A staccato round of gunfire gave them that extra speed. Inside they hid in their darkened dorm room until it grew light.

Rudger seemed to shy away from current events after that, burying himself deeply in his studies. Archer, conversely, let his own studies go, devoting more and more time to reading the papers, and pondering over the significance of every lie and half-truth.

Two months later—-more than a year shy of graduation—Archer sold his books, turned in his dorm key, and walked down to the nearest recruiting station. A week after that he unpacked his bags at Central Military Academy. He wrote home to tell his father he'd rather go to war an officer than a grunt destined for the front line.

Rudger called him crazy and a sell out. But by March the draft he predicted was in place. Western Law Academy was closed down abruptly the following fall sending it's undergraduates out into the world with no degree and no place to go. Not long after that, Archer lost track of Rudger.

May 3rd, 1915: And Don't Bite Off More than You Can Chew

The restaurant was expensive and tasteful, and very, very private: each table set in it's own alcove shielded by ricepaper screens and potted plants. It was a place to wine and dine a mistress back into unwed complacency. It was a place for shady dealing and backstabbing. It was the prefect spot to recruit Zwolf Kimbley.

The ex-alchemist leaned back in his chair, all feline grace and senew, his eyes sharp and glinting in the candlelight. He looked different from his prison photos, not as lean, not as haggard. But even in expensive grey wool and silk, he had an uncivilized edge.

"Why should I join the military again?" he said, purring out the words with the smugness of one who knows he has the upper hand. "Greed treats me pretty good. Pays me fine, too."

"He holds you back as well," countered Archer, smiling softly over the lip of his glass. The danger was palpable. This was a cat and mouse game, and Archer knew he was the mouse. Any moment and Kimbly could put those hands down—anywhere, on the table, on a plant, and transmute it into a bomb. The damage to the room would be terrible—the damage to Archer's career would be irreparable.

"In what way?" asked Kimbley, reaching for his own wine.

"Stagnation. This life you have is all you will ever get—with him. Tell me, can you be satisfied with that? He is a powerful—" Archer hesitated, "being. But so selfish. I know that he rarely gives you the chance to exercise your alchemy. He controls your movements. Even our meeting, tell me, what excuse did you give him to be here?"

Kimbly's smile died on his face. He said nothing.

"Unless you are here at his bidding."

"Absolutely not," said Kimbley.

"Tell me, will he be mad at you when you return? Will he chastise you like a father does a wayward child?"

Kimbley laughed. "His concern would not be 'fatherly'."

But he doesn't dispute the chastising. Archer nodded. "The army wouldn't hold you back. You could see the world. You could use your talent, your mind. War is coming, there will be plenty of excuses, legitimate ones, for making things blow up."

Kimbley's nostril's flared with interest. Archer had Kimbley's psych profile memorized. He knew the buttons.

"Greed is small potatoes—a minor crook with a soft spot for societal rejects. He took you in out of pity, not out of genuine need. But I need you. This army needs you. There is so much more you can do with your life than hang out in a dark seedy bar, getting drunk every night and intimidating Greed's business partners."

Kimbley's face took on a look of dull anger, but he said nothing.

Archer's heart beat faster. He could feel it, an irreparable chink in Kimbley's disinterest. The seeds of doubt were well sewn at this point. Even if the Alchemist were to throw down his napkin and call it a night, Archer had no doubt in a day or a week Kimbley would be back.

"It's getting boring," Kimbley admitted. "Same people. Same shit. Day in, day out. But the army fucked me over once, why should I give them an opportunity to do so again?"

Archer leaned forward for the kill. "Because you need us, Kimbley. You need us as much as we need you. No one can give you what we can offer. The opportunity to do your worst with no repercussions."

"No repercussions."

"Think of it. No running from the law. No hiding out. No jail. You'd be almost a free agent, reporting to me alone. And I would give you a lot of latitude—so long as you do the jobs I give you."

"No squeamishness about collateral damage?"

Archer felt his stomach flutter. He'd have to word this carefully. It was best not to create any misunderstandings "So long as the damage is suffered by the enemy—no."

Kimbley paused, and the tension grew tighter by the moment. Finally he spoke. "I'll think about it."

Silence descended, interrupted briefly by their server bringing their entrees. Archer ate neatly, his mind much more on Kimbley than on the prime rib. The Alchemist ate, silently and ferociously, attacking his food as if it might be taken away from him. Archer briefly considered the ill manners, but then decided it was for the best that Kimbley wasn't more refined. The army didn't need Kimbley to give lessons in etiquette to the people of Lior—he needed him ravage them the way he was his steak.

Kimbley abruptly reached satiation. With a quick wipe of his mouth on the linen napkin, he leaned back and gazed at Archer.

"Did you enjoy your meal?"

"It was delicious," Kimbley said. "Tell me, do you treat all your new recruits this well?"

"I cater my approach to the person I'm with," said Archer. "I'm glad you approve of my restaurant choice."

"And when I sign the papers, I can assume it will change between us," said Kimbley, drawing out his words and giving a conspiratorial you can tell me smile. "You will have what you want out of me, and all this sweet talk will end."

Archer stiffened. "I assure you that I will always treat you with respect. If you enjoy dining out, I have no objections to giving your missions briefings here." Mentally he adjusted his budget—it was doable. And rather a pleasant idea actually.

Kimbley's smile grew broader. "Tell me, Archer," he said. "Can you give me all that Greed gives me?" The change in expression was too subtle for Archer to really put a name to it, but his gut suddenly contracted. He sensed a trap.

"A state alchemists salary is quite generous."

"That's not what I mean."

"Then I'm afraid I don't understand."

Kimbleys lunged forward across the table, grabbing Archer's hand so fast he didn't have a chance to react. His grip was hot, and rough, and his fingers crushed Archer's own. For the first time in Archer's life his mind did not go into high gear.

Time froze. The calm of his heart teetered, slid, and he felt a hot rush of terror filling his middle. He could feel the roughness of the alchemy circles carved deep into the palm of Kimbly's hand. He could feel that raw, animalistic strength that threatened to break his bones before letting him go. Archer wanted to wilt under the intensity of Kimbley's gaze.

Slowly, Kimbley nodded his head forward, leaving his seat to lean out over the table. Archer tensed every muscle into tight knots while his nerves sensitized in anticipation of the inevitable explosion. Archer's mind filled in the gorey details of disfigurement and loss. This wasn't how the negotiation was supposed to have gone. How could I have been so wrong—

The soft brush of Kimbley's lips against the back of Archer's hand hurt. Archer gasped, his numb mind not quite fathoming what had happened, even as his skin reported in great detail. The Alchemist straightened up, smiling silkily over Archer's captured hand.

"It has been a lovely date, Archer," Kimbly said. "I look forward to the next."

Abruptly Kimbley let Archer's hand go and stood up. He paused there, gazing with a mixture of speculative interest and amusement. And raw, unabashed lust. Archer saw that now. What have I just committed myself to? he wondered. Did I imply something? Dear lord, does he expect me to actually romance him?

Kimbley didn't wait for Archer to gather himself into coherency. With a mocking salute, he strode away from the table.