She is six and can't see the parade. They were late leaving for town—something on the farm was sick or balky or lost, as usual—and they have to stand on someone's front lawn because there's no room left on the sidewalk. She tries to push past her brothers, but they won't give way. Then her cousin Tom squats down in front of her and she climbs up his back to his shoulders. Okay, Maria, hold on tight! he says, and grunts and staggers up like a calf taking its first steps. Taller than anyone else, she sees the men in their blue coats marching together, tramp, tramp, tramp, gold buttons flashing in the sun. That's the army, Tom says. They keep the whole country safe.
Lilacs were blooming in the courtyard; it smelled of home.
Maria Ross laid aside the brush she had been using to practice writing Xingese and massaged her right wrist. Not for the first time, she wished for a fountain pen—why so clever a people had failed to invent one still mystified her. She found it difficult enough to remember how to form the strokes of each character correctly and in the approved order; the difficulty seemed to quadruple under the strain of maintaining the brush in the proper attitude while holding her sleeve out of the way. And to think that Mrs. Stetson used to post my handwriting exercises as an example to the class, she reflected ruefully. Portly Mrs. Stetson, every seven-year-old's substitute granny. But it was blonde Miss Porter, the idol of the school, who filled the vase on her desk with white lilacs every spring, their fragrance so strong it flooded her classroom and spilled out into the corridor. The flowers in the courtyard were purple, not white, but the odor was the same. Ross's nose prickled as she inhaled, but she caught herself before her eyes could begin to water. Steady, Lieutenant. Just because you're repeating the second grade doesn't give you license to act like a second-grader.
She turned her attention back to the book from which she had been copying sentences. The Xingese equivalent of "The man sat; the lad ran" and "Bess has a cart and two goats" had proved to be pointed aphorisms like—"Any book you open will benefit your mind" or "A man of honor will feel ashamed by a single question to which he does not know the answer." Ross tried not to take the advice too personally, though she couldn't help being depressed by the contrast between the primer's models and her own wobbly imitations. Or as we'd say back home, "Art's long; life's short." Sometimes it seemed that everything in Xing was an art. Writing. Eating—at least she had finally mastered forking up rice with a pair of kuaizi, which brought her level with Mr. Fu's four-year-old great-grandniece. Even the language was more sung than spoken; though she had a good ear and was quick to catch differences in intonation, she couldn't always reproduce them. Everyone pretended not to hear her gaffes: they handed her fruit when she asked for fairies and if the children giggled, someone rapped them on the head. Equally polite, she refrained from pointing out the Amestrian consonants that tripped up her hosts. In their mouths, her name sounded like loss.
She counted herself lucky that she was alive to appreciate the irony.
Her third day at the academy and she's being yelled at—screamed at—by a senior cadet about the disgraceful state of her personal appearance, from the lack of shine to her shoes to the incorrect angle of her cap. As he rates her for failing to pull her jacket sleeves down over her shirt cuffs, she wills herself not to flinch, not to cry, and above all not to slam her right palm against her tormentor's face. The Führer strongly encourages the recruitment of women into the military, but it remains a male-dominated institution, the officer corps even more so than the ranks. Only six cadets in her year are female; they all know that for every helping hand they receive, three feet will be thrust out to trip them and half the school will applaud their fall. So she stands there in her impeccable uniform and agrees that yes, senior, they are a disgrace, the broken fingernails of her dirty hands ...
When a cuckoo's call joined the evocative perfume drifting over the transom, Ross raised her eyebrows. He's playing my song—but she hoped that she would serve her hosts better than the cuckoo did its nestmates. With a sigh, she cracked her knuckles and took the brush from its rest, loading it with ink and laboriously inscribing another line of characters. So many words, some of which she never encountered except on the page, while some that were part of her daily vocabulary she hadn't yet learned to write. Lao wai, for instance: foreigner. No one used the term to address her—that would have been rude—but she heard it frequently in the conversations that went on around her. True aliens were rare in this small provincial city, but many citizens who were not ethnically Xingese passed through on their way down the trade route from the empire's northwestern frontier to its heartland. To the locals, they were all lao wai. Ross paused again, tapping the brush's wooden handle against her chin as she admired her benefactor's cunning. Mr. Fu had chosen his cuckoo's refuge well: her foreignness was constantly noted but never seriously marked.
He had placed her in the care of a kinsman, Fu Baojia, a teacher of martial arts. Master Fu's training hall, along with the family home and a dormitory for the students, sat at the end of a quiet street in a nondescript middle-class neighborhood. Gossip held that Ross had journeyed from the west to learn Xingese fighting techniques; the inquisitive soul who wondered why here and not at one of the far-famed "mountain schools" of the south was quickly reminded of those schools' equally famous misogyny. Ross grimaced, stretching her legs beneath the elmwood desk and feeling the leftover ache in her calves from today's practice. She had always taken pride in scoring high enough on her annual physical fitness reviews in Amestris to "pass like a man." Here it was all she could do to hold her own with the rawest of the beginners, female or male. It didn't help that she attended only the morning session, but Master Fu had declared that her afternoons were to be devoted to language study. She had seen sense in that and acquiesced, although it would have done her no good to complain. Master Fu's authority was as absolute as a commanding general's—and besides, it's no fun to grumble about the brass when there's no one to grumble with.
Today's homework finished, Ross cleaned her brush while the last few strokes (and several random blots for which she was going to catch hell from Teacher Wang) dried on the paper. (No chance this week of graduating from proverbs to something more engaging, like fairy tales or poetry. She wondered whether Xingese second-graders ever scrawled rude comments in the margins of their schoolbooks. Maybe if she offered to teach the children Amestrian insults in return ... No.) Grinning, she dropped the brush into the pot with the others; the rest of the study's "treasures" were stowed in the lacquered cabinet opposite the desk when not in use. Ross pushed her chair back with a raucous scrape of wood against tile and rose, automatically and ineffectually trying to settle her jacket and pants into order.
The wrong order.
If the lilacs were an acute distraction, her clothes were a chronic one. Every time she drew on long flannelette trousers and a triangular doudou instead of drawers and a camisole—every time she crossed her arms and felt satin instead of serge—every time she reached down to switch a non-existent cavalry skirt out of the way before she sat, her heart stumbled for a beat or two. She tried to be grateful that young Xingese women wore pants rather than the voluminous pleated skirts of their mothers and grandmothers, but she missed the regulation blue woolen breeches and coat and white cotton twill shirt (stiffly starched collar, badly set-in sleeves and all) that, like every junior officer, she had drawn from stores and then had tailored to fit. Xingese clothing gloried in excess fabric, gathering in the surplus with belts and ties. Putting on her high-collared jacket in the morning was like wrapping herself in a tent: a colorful, beautifully-worked tent, as gauzy as mosquito netting in summer, wadded and quilted against the chill in winter, cotton or silk in all weathers. Not even the hand-me-down muslin party frocks of her childhood (left unaltered for you to grow into, dear) had prepared her for a society in which the wealthier you were, the baggier your outfits.
She is a newly commissioned second lieutenant and the first time she wears her dress uniform is to Tom's funeral—Sergeant Thomas Ross, logistics and supply, killed by an IED while driving a truck from Heres to Kirjath. The war in Ishbal eats men like a hungry cow, slowly grinding them into unrecognizable lumps. Her uncle sobs; her aunt will not look at her as she offers her condolences. She stands with her brothers at the back of the crowd as the casket is lowered into the grave. She has told her family that she will be posted to security in Central, a plum assignment, unlikely to send her to the front. They do not believe her. They glance at her and see Tom, who was once handsome and tall as she, and turn their eyes away.
Ross gathered up her writing materials and padded across to the cabinet in her stocking feet, shaking her sleeves back into dark blue folds along her arms as she went. Indigo dye was cheap and common—a peasants' color, Ross Xiaojie, shy Fu Ting had hesitantly informed her, but no one would mistake her for a peasant in this get-up. Her shirt was machine-woven cotton; her generously-cut jacket and pants satin with wide cuffs of peach silk embroidered in a pattern of flying cranes. Custom as well as caution had prevented Ross from searching out colors closer to Amestrian blue and gold. Yellow, she had been given to understand, was reserved for the emperor and his intimates, as red was for celebration and white for mourning.
The cabinet had no lock, but its doors were so tightly framed it hardly mattered. Ross yanked at the left-hand one until it flew open, fanning her nose as she jumped back. Not that anyone here would complain if I lost half an inch off the end, she thought as she put her writing kit away. The unused ink-stick went in the drawer with its fellows; the paper filled an empty spot on the top shelf. She let her fingers trace the edge of the stack, unwillingly reminded of all the letters she had written home since leaving for the academy: reassuring letters, saying little of consequence and dwelling instead on the amusing or annoying minutiae of military life. You'll never guess what happened today ...
Ross closed the cabinet and leaned her forehead against the doors. Safer, now, for her family to know nothing at all. Better for them to think her dead than to live waiting for a repatriation that might never—that might not come for months, until Major Armstrong and Colonel Mustang brought Brigadier General Hughes's real killer to book. She wondered if the murderer had been among the officers standing in solemn ranks around her at the funeral. No such honor would have attended whatever farce of a send-off her charred doppelgänger had received. Straightening, Ross drew in a long breath. Colonel Mustang saved my life, she thought. So what if I had to mortgage my name to pay off the debt?
Except it's not just my name. It's my family's name.
She scowled and refused once more to imagine how her parents would live with the scandal: their daughter a traitor, a disgrace to the uniform she had donned every day for a decade. Not true, sirs. The impromptu court-martial she'd faced in the desert had found her innocent of all charges and sent her ... not into exile, no. To a new post. Seconded to the diplomatic service as an intelligence officer. Ross surveyed the study, sparsely but comfortably furnished, the fixtures and fittings showing their age in nicks and worn spots, but all neatly arranged and lovingly polished and dusted. More cultural data for the mental reports she filed against the day a superior officer would require her to deliver them. The first year home she'd probably spend catching up on paperwork, she guessed, pulling her lips into a smile, but at least they'd give her a fountain pen to fill out the forms.
Security is housed in the old War Department building, with its bad ventilation (Sergeant Bloch runs a pool about which odor from the commissary will dominate on any given day) and lack of openable windows. Fortunately the CO is easy-going about matters of protocol and doesn't care if his staff works in their shirt-sleeves. Hell, Ross, he says one sweltering afternoon full of dry sterile thunder without rain, you could work naked for all I care, but Bloch doesn't need the distraction. She stiffens, affront driving a rod up her spine, but to her surprise he apologizes. Sorry, Lieutenant, that was crass. I think the heat's melting my brain. And he means it. Of course, sir, she replies, but her hands bend the manila folder she is carrying into a tight roll.
Turning back to the desk, she ran her fingers through her dark hair, still cropped short in defiance of Xingese custom—her only overt defiance. But your hair is lovely, Ross Xiaojie, Fu Ting had protested night after night from behind the screen that divided the room they shared, emboldened by concealment. I could show you how to dress it, if it were longer ... Ross had demurred as politely as possible, finally hinting at a vow not to grow out her tresses until she returned to the land of her forebears. Fu Ting had dropped the subject after that, but every now and then Ross caught the women of the household gazing wistfully at her head and guessed what they were thinking. I'm not here to get married; I'm here to hide. On this topic, the discrepancy between act and motive did not trouble her. Lieutenant Maria Ross has short hair. Period. End of story.
The clock on the curio shelf, ticking as quietly as a beetle, informed her that the dinner hour was approaching. First, Ross decided, she would lock her embarrassing scribbles away in the chest at the foot of her bed; then she would volunteer her services in the kitchen. No one was yet willing to let her help cook, but there were always dishes to be washed. Her shoes waited by the door; she slipped them on and walked down the stone steps to the inner courtyard. Only one of the lilacs was in full flower, but the other three were budding swiftly: another few days of mild weather and their fragrance would overwhelm every other smell in the house. Someone should bring a few branches over to the training hall, she thought, wrinkling her nose.
As she headed for the gate to the outer courtyard, she caught sight of Fu Ting's mother sitting at the table under the walnut tree. Fu Shimo was peeling and slicing ginger into a blue bowl—cutting toward herself, Ross noticed, wincing. The gray-haired woman seemed intent on her task, but Ross knew what Xingese courtesy demanded. Tucking the papers under her arm, she crossed to the table, put her hands together and bowed from the waist. "Xia wu hao," she said as clearly as she could. "Good afternoon, Fu Shimo."
Fu Shimo glanced up and smiled. "Good afternoon, Ross Tudi," she said.
Every meeting with an elder is a chance to acquire wisdom, right? Ross bowed again. "Please, may I learn what that plant is called?" she asked, nodding sideways (it being even more impolite to point in Xing than in Amestris) at the nearest lilac.
"You may," replied Fu Shimo, fussily skinning another knobbly root. "It is called ding xiang."
"Dyung shhyang," Ross repeated, doing her best to mimic the falling interval on the final syllable.
"That is so, Ross Tudì," said the older woman.
Ross knew better than to deem that a commendation of her accent. The true test would come when she mentioned ding xiang to Teacher Wang tomorrow afternoon; he judged it a dereliction of duty to let the least error pass unreproved. Ross bowed a third time, preparing to take her leave, then hesitated. "May I pick a flower from the lilac, Fu Shimo?"
Fu Shimo was silent so long that Ross decided she must have used the wrong verb for "pick" or mangled "lilac" out of all recognition. But before she could open her mouth to beg pardon for her mistake, Fu Shimo said, "You may."
"Thank you very much!" Ross replied and, hurrying like a child who fears that permission too hastily given might be as hastily withdrawn, she jogged over to the blossoming bush and plucked a spray of purple florets. Turning it once in her fingers—it's just the same, isn't it?—she wove the stem into the loop-and-toggle that closed her jacket across her breast. When she looked back at Fu Shimo, smiling gratefully, the other woman's expression was ... not approving. Perhaps a corsage in one's buttonhole was as much a violation of Xingese sensibilities as it was of the Amestrian military dress code.
Ross couldn't bring herself to care.
The lilacs would wither all too soon, but until then she intended to indulge herself, carrying the scent of home with her wherever she went. No matter if she paid for it later with dreams so vivid that, waking, she felt the pangs of loss as raw as on her first morning out from Xerxes. Spring fever, she thought wryly, but kept a protective finger on her prize as she bent her head to Fu Shimo and continued briskly on her way.
The arresting officers take her statement and hand her over to the prison staff, who photograph and file her under her new identity—prisoner W6186—and in their turn deliver her into the hands of a wardress, who strip-searches her impassively (one must be so careful these days) and tosses her a pair of scratchy gray pants and a shirt.
She puts them on.
She still feels naked.