Bojing Han’s parents had come from both Xing and Amestris, which meant that occupying the proverbial space between had been somewhere he had lived long before he’d become a courier, delivering letters across the Great Desert.
Coming up on forty years old now, it was nearly impossible for him to consider what he’d be doing, if not this. The sheer possibility of having decided on another profession in his formative years seemed impossible, even as others had done it and continued to do it all the time, becoming profound scholars or expert alchemists or skilled seamstresses and savvy shopkeeps. But it isn’t as though he isn’t also a master in his field; like the cacti and the horned lizards, Bojing thrived in the oppressive heat, knew the waves of the sand like the back of his own tanned hands, and could explain in detail how exactly to safely make the daunting, but not impossible trip between Xing and Amestris, so close and yet so far.
See, it was like this: depending on how fast one walked, an ambitious traveler might make the trip from the drawn border of Xing to the drawn border of Amestris in just under three weeks if they had exactly the right amount of supplies and walked an exact and constant pace for the entire journey. However, if one had the exact right amount of supplies, then they either needed a large pack to carry it all on their back, which would undoubtedly be heavy and slow them down, or they needed a cart and mule, which would reduce the travel time, but also require three times the amount of water, a prize hard to come by in the vast desert. It hadn’t been nicknamed “The Badlands” for nothing, after all, and that wasn’t even considering the miles left to walk in either country after they’d crossed the border, but before they’d eventually hit real civilization.
Which is why when Bojing’s contractors and colleagues asked him what he thought of Shikotan, the border town between Ishval and nothing that had popped up at the announcement of a railroad that would cross the Great Desert, he’d answered with great enthusiasm. The square postage stamp of land that made up Shikotan was truly on top of the Amestrian border, so far east, that even Ishval at its peak hadn’t claimed the dead space. To whomever was concerned about the region’s reconstruction efforts, this location meant that there was no chance of quickly building an apartment complex, a train station, a meager row of shops, a post office, and running into haunted ruins or a sacred burial ground; to Bojing, it meant about 10 hours less between hitting the Amestrian border and hitting the showers and a warm bed as reward for a voyage well-made back from Xing. And so, right when Shikotan was beginning it’s bloom into a growing, functioning, working town, Bojing set up shop in a small apartment on the second floor of the new residential building.
His business model worked as follows: customers mailed their post intended for Xing by the fifth of the month to 553 4th St, Apt 2S with their payment and letter contents packed inside. Bojing then departed from Shikotan with all of the post, his supplies and his cart, and his mule, Emma, to cross the desert within two weeks, assuming he didn’t fall upon rattlesnakes or something of the sort. From there, he either repackaged the Amestrian mail into new envelopes and let the Xingese postmen carry it off the rest of the way, or he commissioned his cousins in the Han Clan to cash in on the high-dollar deliveries to the royals in the Imperial City. In instances of the latter, Bojing met his cousins in the western city of Haidong, where he’d rest for a few days in some hostel above a good restaurant before starting his journey back to Amestris with more letters to send through the Amestrian post office in Shikotan.
It was hard to feel threatened by new business when one was making money, and well, to say that Bojing was making money was an understatement.
“What have I for a wife?”
It is a question so thoughtless, so insipid, that Mei thinks she must have misheard at first. She glances just to the right of the throne at Lan Fan, who’s steel gaze and painted, unmoved mask still could not conceal the way her chi had plucked a chord out of tune at such a remark. The guard looks toward her in the same instant, and with a strained glance and a simple blink, conveys that Mei’s own chi had moved as well, perhaps like a walnut being crushed, or like a rock, doing the crushing.
They’re thinking the same thing: an Emperor without a wife is more than a preposterous notion, it’s so deeply unheard of that it must be the measure of outrageousness given as an example that all other outrageous things must be compared against. Only in a world where pigs flew and the sun rose in the west did the Emperor of Xing not have an Empress at his side, though Ling Yao seemed bent on being the exception to every rule these days.
Something about being in the throne room in particular made it clear that Lan Fan would not dare talk out of turn, even if she was the favorite between the two of them, and so Mei takes it upon herself to ask Yao to clarify.
That said, she didn’t mean to snarl. “What did you just say?”
Now in her defense, she still doesn’t sound quite as tired as she feels, with another long audience between the Emperor Regent and his father’s personally appointed Senior Council—the Chancellor, the Chief Minister, the Imperial Secretary, amongst other Hands—having just ended moments ago. These audiences were usually impromptu, with discussions of the future and the Crown Prince’s ascension to the throne increasing in frequency the closer the Emperor (not Regent) was to his final breath, and as it turned out, even the Son of the Son of Heaven had much to learn from those on Earth. So much, that the meetings were long and strenuous, and discussion could last hours into the night if the elder advisors were so kind as to continue serving the food that Yao would inevitably decide to play with before he ate.
“I said,” The Emperor Regent swings his legs up to lounge across his throne because he knows, specifically, that it doesn’t offend Mei as a government advisor, that it simply irritates her on a molecular level, the way he loves playing with his food. None of it mattered and no taste of power or royalty changed him: the way he pulls back his hair now, to look older, the new robes, that make him seem regal, the crowns or the titles, to signify his grand importance to their nation. The Emperor Regent is still a Yao, through and through. “What. Have I. For a wife?”
He enunciates every other word like he might need to for a child, and her resentment is only fueled by the distance between the height of his throne and the cushion upon which she sat below his pedestal. Mei feels her tired eyes narrow into a glare before she can remember her propriety. “Surely, I don’t have to explain that to you.”
“No, you don’t,” Ling replies with a grin, just as controlled and measured as he had used with the other Hands not ten minutes ago. “And surely I don’t have to explain in return, Princess Chang, the deep love and devotion and not at all competitive atmosphere of having a wife and several consorts and dozens of children clawing to get closer to you just because they love you and not to, I dunno, obtain personal power or safety for their immediate families?”
Well. It’s not as though he doesn’t have a point.
“No,” Mei ultimately replies with no bite, eyes cast to the floor, where she can see her blank reflection staring back at her in the black marble, the ornately carved ceiling depicting the Xingese sky above her head, “you don’t.”
He leaves her like that for a moment, or at least she thinks it’s intentional; Mei watches herself blink twice before she looks up to find the Emperor pulling a loose thread from the sash he was undoubtedly wrinkling with his poor and nonsensical posture. Before she can so much as open her mouth to scold him, he peeks up at her lazily, “But?”
Mei’s brows tug close together. “But what?”
“But there’s more you want to say, isn’t there?” Ling loops his finger about the thread he’d been tugging at and gives it a sharp pull. It breaks off with a perfect snap. “As a most trusted advisor, you’re welcome to speak freely here, Princess Chang. You always are.”
At todays’ audience, the rest of the council had made the situation clear, and to say that The Emperor Regent was causing alarm with his utter lack of interest in courtship was an understatement. Historically, Xingese princes with status were at least courting by Yao’s age if they hadn’t been otherwise called to a military post or a theological vocation. For princes most likely to become Emperor, high above both the church and the military, potential matches were likely considered by his family once he’d survived enough combat training to keep himself alive for his clan, one of those matches eventually being promised as a fiancée long before his 17th birthday. This was all historically speaking, however, and for this generation of royal siblings, the first murdered few of the Emperor’s sons and daughters made clear how the reality of the bloodthirsty road to the throne was starkly different from the antique practices from an idealized Xing that the older Hands had expected. Mei’s clan never set aside a match for her—whether it’d been to insure she’d focus on learning alkahestry or because they didn’t expect her to live this long, she’d never know for sure—but even she had been surprised to learn that the Yao’s hadn’t chosen anyone for Ling either. And if she was surprised, how could the Hands, in their holy, safe, walled city, ever really know what living and dying was like for the Emperor’s children out there? And how could the Hands, in all of their dealings with the father, have anticipated a son, a character, and a handful such as Ling Yao?
“They talk about you, you know,” Mei says, resting her cheek in her hand, her elbows on the long table stretched in front of the throne, much lazier than she’d ever be allowed to in a real audience. “The other Hands, other members of the court, both.”
“I know,” Ling smirks, crossing his legs over the arm of the throne they dangled from.
“One could assume. If these audiences are anything to go by, the Hands like to talk about me, to me, quite a lot.”
“Yes, but the Hands only tell you what they’re willing to say to your face,” Mei continues; something in Lan Fan’s chi or glare or overall foreboding presence tries to will her into tagging a ‘My Lord’ or something similar at the end of her statements, but Mei would not, since she’d been so sincerely asked for honesty. “For example,” and the corners of her mouth do curl honestly, “no one asked you if that notebook you keep is full of chess strategies instead of real notes.”
The cackle that erupts from the Emperor’s lips is childish and devious and echoes in the otherwise empty chamber. “I’ve always preferred mancala, but do go on.”
“Some of them wonder openly whether you’ve no interest in a wife because you’re already part of a torrid affair with another woman—”
“Oh, now would it really be an affair—"
“Or a man—”
“—if the Emperor is carrying it out? I implore you.”
“Or your guard.”
The Emperor doesn’t say anything to that, not to her anyway. “Relax, Lan Fan, everybody talks,” Ling tosses his placations over his shoulder jovially, his words skimming the corners of the gold throne and the decorative curtains to land beside Lan Fan’s ear. She exhales sharply through her nose, like a beast called to heel. “And so what? Nothing of any actual work I do? My attempts to build a bridge between all of Xing’s clans? Investment in infrastructure and trade—”
“But that’s the thing about all of your work, how easily can it all be undone?” Mei presses on. She catches how wide Ling’s eyes are when he flicks his attention up to her, and she gulps. Mei doesn’t particularly like what she’s about to say, doesn’t care much for what she’s already said about court dealings, hates court politics all together, honestly, but all of the reasons why she didn’t want to go down this road only secured it’s importance. This was what Yao had deemed her a Hand for, and Mei, like any other princess, was bound to seeing her duty through in every instance.
“There is no clear line of succession without a wife and at least one heir, the seat to the throne opens back up to our generation the moment that something happens to you,” Mei explains, her role as a political consultant well-rehearsed by now. “Knowing all of the other siblings want exactly what you have, and that some might still plot to stake their claim, what happens, then, if you and the Emperor die at the same time? Who keeps up any of the hopes and dreams you ascended to the throne with, and who makes sure Xing doesn’t tear itself apart trying to find out?”
Yao nods slowly at the morbidity of his situation, the snip of a thread away from pandemonium at any time, before he grumbles, “It would be insurance of my status.”
“Right,” Mei finally lets herself exhale. “The status, you know, that none of your council seems to think you’re taking seriously.”
“I understand the seriousness of my claim, believe it or not. I just don’t know what I’d do with one wife, let alone fifty,” Yao admits, crossing his glimmering vermillion sleeves across his chest with a small, private sort of smile. “But then, neither did Father.”
Something in Mei’s gut flinches at the term—she knows the Emperor is technically her father as well, but to hear Ling refer to The Emperor so casual and mutual inspires something in her kind of like a devotion, kind of like a connection, but mostly like a fear.
This isn’t the first time they’d had this conversation. For as much hot, wide, open space there’d been on the way home from Amestris, there’d been just as much room to talk, and after a week of old habits dying slow and painful in the sun, there’d been another week of, well, speaking. Talking to pass the time, speaking to communicate a need for necessities, chatting to ignore the dead body under a series of musty white sheets in the cart behind them. What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get home? Who will you speak to first? What did you miss most when you were gone? What do you think your clan is going to say about, well, all of this?
“Have you ever—” Yao had paused, rather uncharacteristically at a loss for words. Mei remembers clearly: the wagon’s front bench was certainly wide enough to seat three people, and his face wasn’t visible to her from where he’d been sitting on the other side of Lan Fan, who had been given the all-important jobs of watching the mule that pulled their wagon and also acting as a physical shield, lest the royal siblings begin fighting again. It made all the more notice when he leaned down close to his lap to look at Mei’s face, searching for a physical confirmation to whatever might she answer with when he finally asked: “have you ever met our father?”
It was a heavy question, one that doubled in weight at the word “father”, rather than “Emperor”. “One time, sort of. My mother and a few other members of the Chang clan had an audience with the Emperor a few years ago after some rogue members of the Wu clan burned down our harvest for the winter.” The desert was hot, but it seemed to get much hotter all of a sudden. “We had to ask for spare rations.”
“And did you get them?”
“Oh.” Yao straightened out like her words tied him to a ruler, but she could still see his hands and where they’d balled into fists in his lap. “I’m sorry.”
Mei didn’t like to think about that day either, but also didn’t like how accustomed she’d become to it with time, too. “It’s not your fault,” she had replied, deflated.
“No. I’m sorry, dear sister, that you had to go through that at all.”
“You know, dear sister.” And now such a phrase of endearment was only used teasingly, mockingly, in the same way a jester might pull a card trick. The Emperor’s grin only falters for a moment before he seems to rememebr something, and Mei’s stomach drops when he finally adjusts his posture to reach under his throne’s cushion to pull out a letter. The envelope is addressed, obvious even from where Mei sat on the floor, in Amestrian script. “Our Royal Family Black Market Courier mixed up some of our mail again.”
Mei scowls openly, and doesn’t hesitate in rising to her feet, hopping over the cushions on the floor left behind by the other Hands in order to close the distance between her and the throne. “Did you open it?” she presses, and when she goes to reach up toward the envelope Yao flicks his wrist, and with it, the letter, back towards him.
“No, I didn’t. I respect you and your privacy,” he replies, gauging her interest before handing her the letter gently. She’s halfway back to her seat before he tags on, “But you should know people talk about you and your insurance, too. Almost as often as they talk about me and all the potential consorts I’m not wooing.”
“They do?” Mei asks before she can consider schooling her tone to sound sure and fixing her words up to sound confident and unmoved. Judging by the Emperor’s knowing face, she’d just sounded a little too much like the well-loved Princess who’d never been the subject of gossip in her own tight-knit clan, because, well, she’d grown up well-loved as a Princess of a tight-knit clan, revered as an alkahestrist, protected so she could grow into a protector, if not a wife.
“As the court is apt to do, of course,” The Emperor replies, melting back into something more mischievous, but also impulsive. Methodical. He’ll prod with a fork before the point is made, and she’s on the plate this time. “Sometimes they tell me that you get letters not from potential suitors but because you’re corresponding with a foreign spy, divulging all of my plans of the railroad to some insurgency group.”
Mei looks down at the letter in her hands, and the way Alphonse dots his I’s. “Sounds fun,” she says, with a shrug.
“That’s what I said,” The Emperor grins at her, though his chuckles dissipate quickly. “Though, they also said that perhaps you were writing love letters to someone you’d met in Amestris.”
She moves on to the precise way the envelope’s flap had been secured shut, the stamp placed a little off center from the corner’s edge, a fold where the letter had perhaps fallen to the bottom of the courier’s sack. “And what did you say to that one?” Mei asks.
“I said I wasn’t too worried about that,” the Emperor sits tall, with his spine parallel to the back of his throne. “It’s not like anyone in the Imperial Court has married outside of Xing in nearly three hundred years.”
Before she can stop herself, the envelope crinkles in Mei’s fists. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
In their long cart-ride home across the Great Desert, in the week where Mei and Ling finally decided to treat each other like people, if not siblings, and in all the questions they’d asked one another, neither of them had anticipated, quite what the rest of their lives were going to be like upon touching ground in Xing. After getting a good bath and hugging their mothers and presenting the Emperor with Yao’s victory, there’d been nothing tangible to show of the future that was set to become, let alone the chain of events that had unfolded to lead them here. The weakness of the Stone delaying the Emperor’s death, but not rendering him immortal. The speed with which Yao had moved from Crown Prince to the official head of the Xingese government, The Emperor Regent to millions of subjects, a king, a deity, with plans for schools and roads and trains, if not the end of every possible dispute between his clans. Time cut short: Mei rolled up her mat at the Chang complex for a room in the Emperor’s Court, exchanged her duties as an alkahestrist for a small clan for duties as an Honored Hand, who mostly just talked about alkahestry and small clans. They’d only spoken, back in that rattling cart, of everything that they’d get when they got home, not what they would have to give up.
Mei’s letters were really just about alkahestry, and when they weren’t, they were about the children Alphonse tutors in his tiny farming town or trips to Rush Valley. They were often about Ed and Winry and the way that siblings are supposed to, apparently, tell jokes or take care of each other. If they both were especially optimistic, they were as tangible as the dreams Mei had when she’d first left Amestris, idealism written out in the form of one day getting to meet up again in Xing, like that too wouldn’t be asked of her, once more, to sacrifice. What did she need to do, to keep one thing, just for herself? Cry? Beg?
“Relax, Chang, please.” Yao is exasperated, like he’s had to call to her attention a few times. “There’s no crying in the throne room, not when I put in a good word for you.”
“You did?” Mei asks, and her throat is unexpectedly wet. “What did you say?”
Yao smiles, small again, and a little sad. “I said you’re entitled to a few more years of getting to be a greedy princess before I lose one of my Hands.”
Mei scoffs and wishes, for once, that she could be so selfish. “And to that they say?”
“I work you too hard.”
He talks a little like he’s joking, a little like he’s confessing, but it’s all together too much, and Mei is shaking her head. She also wishes (her second, if anyone’s keeping track) that she could not be such a crybaby for once. “No, you don’t,” she huffs one shakey breath, wiping her cheek a bit too rough. “This is my job, this is my responsibility. To my clan, to the people of Xing, to you and the hopes you have for your subjects—”
“But it’s not what you wanted. You didn’t go to Amestris like I did to become a ruler. I understand that.”
“But we don’t always get what we want,” Mei retorts.
“‘Always’ doesn’t mean ‘never’, Chang. Just because there’s a tradition doesn’t mean there’s no exceptions.” She wonders, absently, if this is what it was like with Alphonse when he described bartering with his brother like children. She wondered how often other siblings treated their feelings like deals to be made. “Look, do you want to get married?”
Mei’s nose curls in time with Ling’s. “No.”
“Me either. So, we’ll just have to find other ways to honor our statuses, won’t we?” And for once, she notes, Yao sounds like an Emperor.” I, for one, am very much enjoying the plans laid for the Sunscape Route, and you have what? Your monthly alkahestry instruction with Alphonse Elric?”
“So, you did open the letter?”
“I did not, Chang. You’re just predictable—you have your romance serials and your alkahestry and your Panda, what else is there?”
Mei takes that as her cue to take the nearest cushion and fling it at the Emperor’s head. Instead of unsheathing her dagger, Lan Fan actually, really snorts with laughter.
“Thank you?” Mei finally says, after her giggles subsided, wiping her cheek free of totally different tears this time before she deadpans, “but don’t you think you’re getting a little ahead of yourself with this one? It’s just a few letters, not a marriage proposal.”
“Yeah, whatever.” And the Emperor Regent is gone, replaced once again with an irreverent and unsophisticated Yao. “Lan Fan isn’t the only one who can sense chi, you know. I have real, actual skills, in case anyone forgot, in case we’re still talking about more, obviously false, popular beliefs.”
Mei returns to her chambers that night closer to the sunrise than the sunset, meeting the day with another letter to send off with the courier before the week was through and ink smudged along her hand.
When pressed further, by his colleagues and contractors, whether he was worried about the railway putting his courier business out of commission, Bojing simply laughed at the prospect. “But won’t the speed of the train make a mule and buggy obsolete?” they say. Hysterical. A riot.
Bojing’s clients don’t pay him for speed, they pay him for his expertise, the guaranteed success that can only be promised by another human being, steady hands, a beating heart. Not the big metal beast under construction a few blocks away, steel and vicious. When this railway sinks into the sand just like the one before it, Bojing poses, then who will be obsolete, hm? Then who will be out of commission?
“Certainly not you, Mr. Han,” says General Mustang, and that’s the correct answer, and why General Mustang’s gossip-worthy post—always one to an undisclosed Madame in Yangshuo and to one to the Emperor about the railway destined to fail—get transported with the utmost care and concern.
Bojing has spent some time, with all the time he has to spend in the desert, reading wild crime novels, with handsome detectives and mysterious femme fatales and the black market mafia men who stand for their own justice. Bojing has also spent time with actual black market men, crossing the desert in stuffy silence with their suspicious gold rings and the wares they planned to sell abroad, however, no black market salesmen, real or not, ever seemed to be as black market as General Mustang, who was willing to pay any price to assure his post was well taken care of and quickly dispatched. He offered escorts, military-grade trucks, additional funds as insurance, questioning his comfort in the buggy—Bojing only takes the money, the least of the offers likely to become a liability. When Bojing’s cousin returned from the Capital City with two heavy coin purses and her jaw hanging so wide that a fly was sure to wander inside, he found out that while the Emperor was not available to meet face-to-face, he was absolutely willing to double Mustang’s price.
Though, if it’s their money to spend, it’s no business of Bojing’s to criticize where it goes. He saves most of his rewards, all except the raise he spares for his neighbor, an elderly Ishvallan woman who collects the mail that is sent to his apartment when he leaves and doesn’t care about him enough to open it before he comes back. After he gives her a raise, he finds that he comes home to more food than he’s ever prepared for himself after twenty years as a working man, and departs again with enough well-wrapped rations that he no longer needs to ration his rations. Whenever he opens another pack she’d sent him off with, he chews fondly and thinks of his mother and the food she used to make before they’d moved safely out East.
The Brigadier General stays late doing paperwork and the rumor mill churns. He stays late as a front for something dramatic, obviously, though no one’s been able to come up with a solid alibi. A secret affair? A political ruse? Both, tied up in one salacious and scandalous spider’s web? At this point, Riza has heard a slew of theories regarding her commanding officer’s activities after hours, but here she was, in the office she shared with her commanding officer, after hours, and on this particular day, the truth is not stranger than the works of fiction imagined by the much fresher officers of Eastern Command. The reasons why the General stays late are much like the reasons he does most anything, simple, if not twofold:
First, when reconstructing a land laid to waste, the scarcest resource of all was time, and the Brigadier General was simply very busy seeing that the Ishval Restoration Project proceeded smoothly.
Second, the Brigadier General, in the last year or so, began to require the need for a pair of thick, round glasses to read, and he was simply too vain to wear them during the day when someone might see him. To equalize the amount of work he needed to wear glasses for and the amount of time he was willing to wear them, he started his paperwork at the hour most men started home for a warm meal, and if the General was staying late, then naturally, his adjutant would have to as well, if only to see his tasks through.
She can hear the disappointment echo from the water cooler crowd at the notion that this is as good as the story gets, but for Riza, it is not as though it’s going to get much better than this.
Without a coup to plan or homunculi breathing down their necks, Riza and the General were set keeping their noses to their desks these days, their rule-bending tendencies limited to the portable radio the General kept in his desk drawer that came out at about the same time as his reading glasses. The further the sun went down, the louder the radio became, and they typically stayed until the summer sky bled navy and purple, dotted with stars. On the least of these nights, they sat and worked in silence and missed a sparing glance out at the setting sun—Eastern Command faced west, towards Central, and from the higher floors they worked on, the view was really something if they only thought to look up (easier said than done, sometimes). On the best of these nights, Riza feels like there was never a time where they had worked in Central—where most of the buildings were too high to catch a view of the sunset from Command—or had been separated from their team with long black tendrils to bind their wrists, and that the Promised Day had been little more than a series of bad dreams.
Again, it’s not as though the story is going to get much better than this, than companionable late nights in the office, the end goal always tucked in with some file or curled at the end of a signature, but by her assessment, the worst of the tale was likely behind them.
Tonight, however, they’re just here to nail down the simple tasks, rounding out a twelve-hour workday with whatever would take the least amount of thought and finesse. When Riza returns from the mailroom to see the General carefully checking the math of what looks like another financial report—frown deep, but eyes wide and childish under the magnification of his lenses—she successfully fields her expression away from any smirks or laughs at his expense, set instead on shuffling through the stack of post they’d really let pile high over the course of a few short days.
Most of the letters look similar to one another upon a first glance, and upon hypothesizing, would contain much of the same content that most of their mail had these last few weeks and months prior. The size and weight of three in a row definitely contain expense reports from their contacts at the Labor Union, detailing line by line, item by item, the exact materials and wages required to rebuild the physical Ishval, from the smallest of farming towns to the greatest of holy sites. Another two, slightly smaller envelopes, by Riza’s estimation, are likely to be progress reports regarding the status of the General’s pride and joy, the First Transsunscape Railway—"the actual first of it’s kind, not like the last one at all” she can hear him say, even as he remains silent—progressing satisfactorily in linking the corners of Ishval to trade capitals in Xing, Amestris’s new and, gently put, unexpected ally.
Riza, cutting into the large thick envelopes to confirm her guesses, knows well that people don’t talk about the General for fun, first and foremost. As twofold as the General’s intentions, they talk about him because of his unusual plans—progressive and expensive—for the Eastern region, that surely appeared to anyone who knew him for his reputation to have something of gossip behind them. How on Earth was he getting the funding (Grants from the Fuhrer, like anyone else, but their friendly relationship and the promise that the trade opened up by the railroad would pay for the costs itself didn’t hurt much at all)? How was he watching over the reconstruction from Eastern Command (through the correspondence of contacts and friends who were decidedly not State Alchemists, with great trust that his greatest dissenters in the region wanted to see it all rebuilt even more than he did)? How could he even start to get it all done (with twelve-hour workdays, overseen by his adjutant, mostly)? Why, of all things, a very expensive, very risky railroad between Ishval and Xing (honestly, Riza wasn’t sure)?
The various ‘hows’ were simple, it was the double-sworded ‘whys’ that were probably the more interesting to dissect. How the railroad was being built was decidedly much less fascinating than the animated glint in the General’s eye when the railroad merely came up in conversation. Of course, it’s not as though the watercooler crowd asks for her take on much, which is to say, they ask for her take on nothing at all when they fall silent as she walks past.
The remaining letters are a little more diverse and interesting, and with the sky close to indigo now, she takes her time going through them, knowing it’d likely be her last task for the night.
“What’s that one?” asks the General, though when she turns in her seat to meet him, he’s back to being bent over another document, eyes to his desk.
“It’s a save-the-date from Rebecca and Havoc,” Riza replies; she hadn’t said anything about it, though she’d probably been smiling at it for too long. January 6, 1917, formal invitation to follow.
The General simply shakes his head as he turns the page of a packet in his hands, stray hairs falling stubbornly to his forehead from where they’d been pulled back. “Aren’t you in the bridal party, Captain Hawkeye? Why would you need a save-the-date?”
“I could ask you the same thing, sir.” Riza holds up the letter and this time he looks up to squint, and if he can make out the writing across the front, he would see the addressees listed as
Colonel Brigadier General Mustang & Captain Hawkeye across the top line.
A huff. “Why waste the paper? Sending an invite to a wedding we’re already going to, to Eastern Command, no less?”
“They must think we live here, sir.”
“Well, they aren’t wrong, per se,” The General replies, indignant. “Very well, Captain, save the date.”
The next letter is another standard-grade, military issued envelope, and Riza recognizes the PO box as the catch-all for any military contact out in Ishval and identifies the small, square letters as those of Major Miles. Looking over at the General’s desk, his input pile has certainly shrunk in height, but wasn’t done, and while she wants to report on the letter’s presence, any good news, bad news, or average news from Miles’ work on the ground was likely to distract the General for the rest of the night.
When she decides a lost hour tonight was better than a lost morning tomorrow, she clears her throat and announces over the buzz of a radio commercial, “There’s a letter here from Major Miles, sir.”
The General doesn’t look up to reply, “Go on, open it, then.”
Riza sets off once given the cue, methodically and precisely cutting open the brown parchment paper to designate a perfect opening for the letter to slide out. Except the letter comes second, after first and unexpectedly, a photograph, printed in color.
It doesn’t take long for Riza to discern what, exactly, the photograph is of, but it does take her much longer to process, let alone find words to even speak, let alone say something at all. She’s cautious when she holds the photograph up to her face, pouring over each minute detail like someone much younger might pour over a seek-and-find game for a hidden meeting in the picture, but it was what it was: a pure exaltation of joy. She perhaps wouldn’t recognize such a thing if it hadn’t landed, full-force, in her hands first.
“What does it say?” The General asks, still face-down in his paperwork.
“He sent a photograph,” Riza pauses, the snapshot nearly touching her nose as she took in each centimeter with the ease she took in air to her lungs, “a photograph of a wedding, sir.”
She’s had no reason to see an Ishvallan wedding before, and therefore had no way of knowing that the bride didn’t wear white, but a gown of many colors, vibrant and lively against the dusty tan sand. She would’ve had no way of knowing the sheer number of people who would be in attendance and wouldn’t have anticipated what looked like an entire city to stand for a commemorative photo afterward. Riza scans each face in the crowd and is surprised by the number of pale Amestrian faces present, in support, amongst rows and rows of shiny, bright, happy Ishvallan people, with smiles in every shape. It doesn’t take much effort to find Major Miles in the crowd, even in civilian’s dress and, ironically, missing his sunglasses, now that he was out from the cloudy north, but Riza is taken aback when she spots the priest—Scar holds a holy book close to his chest, like a father to their son, and his strong brow molds soft like clay, rather than stone. She’s just thinking to herself, how healthy he’s come to look, when she realizes where, exactly they are:
In the background, illuminated by the golden hour, is the very first temple the reconstruction had erected; Riza had only seen the expense report, some preliminary sketches sent to the builders, but hadn’t even considered to imagine it in real time.
“Lieu—” She’s back inside of her body now; the General still messes up her title, periodically, and especially when they work late like this. “Captain, is everything alright?”
“Yes, sir,” Riza affirms, “though, I think you should she this.” She rises from her own seat to close the space between her desk and his to hand him the photo outright—he holds it up to his nose, then far away, before deciding to slide his glasses up to rest on his forehead and squinting at it instead, going very still when he realizes what exactly he’s looking at. For a moment, she can’t even hear him breathe, only the slow rhythm of a love song coming from the radio.
“And there’s one thing I want you to do, especially for me, and it’s something that everybody needs.”
She thinks, absently, the last time she heard this song, she was waiting at Roy’s bedside in the rehab wing at Saint Dwynwen’s Hospital in Central, wondering what was to come next for them.
The longer the General takes to say something, the more Riza refers to the letter. According to Miles, the wedding ceremony was the first service held at the temple upon its completion. “Their mutual friend”, as Miles so fondly liked to describe Scar, had both acted as officiator and insisted upon sending them a photograph of the event.
“‘He wanted you to see,’” she recites directly from the page, “‘exactly what your work was turning into before you pass through next month.’” The General nods with some sort of understanding, but for something further off than her or Major Miles’ words.
The General quickly comes to the same conclusion she did, surely. It’s in the glare of his eyes and the concentrated way he holds the photo in scarred hands: the restoration was never supposed to reach them. The romance of teamwork and elbow grease to uplift Ishval to her rightful glory was gifted along with the region to its native people; the bulk of the General’s work was set to be from a distance, where he could push through the less glamorous parts without frightening anyone with the mere mention of his earned titles. It was simple, and with little space to fold twice: no incentive, no reward, no victory, and that was supposed to be as good as their story got, when reconstructing a land that the two of them, specifically, laid to waste.
They hadn’t asked to be included on anyone’s joy. And yet.
Though in no hurry to do so, the General eventually takes his last glance at the photo before he hands it back to Riza with an exhale, the song on the radio fading into something else entirely. “Well, we’ve only just begun, anyway, and it won’t be long before they have everything they need,” he says, tempered, as he taps a finger to the expense report on his desk twice over. “What, with the railroad set to finish in the next year.”
And there it is—if the first fold was what he told their superiors, their doubters, the press, the world about the railway, then somewhere under that, right here, was the General’s second fold.
Riza is careful as not to smudge the photograph in with her fingertips, folding it back neatly within the letter, buys herself a moment to consider her course of action before she says, “Sir, can I ask you a question?”
“Why the railroad?”
The General has to look up at her from where she stands opposite his desk, though any scrutiny he could attempt to convey was lost behind the great circular glasses. “Hawkeye? You’ve been in on every planning meeting, every blueprint I have.” No, no, no, that’s not what she meant, and she wants to stop him before he launches into another elevator speech—she’s heard it before, she’s heard it half a dozen times since even before he’d been reinstated to his post after the Promised Day. “The train is going to be—” an economic and structural lifeline, yes, she knows “—insurance that Ishval will be irreplaceable—” in the greater scheme of Amestris’s very fabric, right. “And with the progress science and alchemy has made in the last several centuries—” no, there’s absolutely no chance of this one sinking into the desert sands.
The General eventually stops himself to take a breather. “You know all of this,” he concludes with a frown.
“I understand what the train means to Ishval, sir,” Riza replies with a curt nod, “but that’s not what I’m asking. What I’m asking is what does this train mean to you. Is this not different to you from every other part of the restoration that we oversee?”
A pause. Roy makes a face, not unlike one he might make playing cards and most unlike the expression he should be wearing as an over-worked and ostentatiously well-behaved General—it occurs to Riza, when he reaches for the radio to shut it off, that he’s either deciding how much she already knows, or how much he ought to tell her.
“You really—” he starts, then stops just to look her in the eye; Riza considers, alternatively, whether she has something on her face, though unlikely. “You don’t remember.”
Without the radio, the following silence is nearly piercing. “Remember what?”
“Hawkeye.” No, that’s genuine shock, unfortunately, painting Roy’s face something thoughtful, rather than meticulous. Very little could prepare her for what he asked next: “Who do you think saved your life on the Promised Day?”
“Well, it was—” She stops. Riza’s mouth is open, but no words manage to find their way out and beyond. Even if she could physically reach into the box she might keep her memories tucked away in, out of reach for most of her working days, she doubts she’d even begin to find what she’s looking for.
The scar on her neck remains, white and mottled, but she just doesn’t remember: who saved her life on the Promised Day? “I don’t remember. I don’t remember at all.”
Roy nods, like he too, was trying to recall a specific memory from long ago. “Granted, in your defense, you’d lost a great deal of blood and took a few minutes after you were healed. You could very well have missed your savior and their identity.”
Her savior? In the sewers of Central City? “Was it not Scar?” Riza pressed, incredulous. “One of the chimera?” Roy shook his head. “It wasn’t you?”
He forces a half-smile, something tender. “I don’t have the ability to heal any kind of flesh wound. No alchemist does.”
“Then who—” a pause. “No alchemist?”
The glasses hanging off the tip of Roy’s nose are taken off then—he fiddles a bit with a cloth and smudge as he starts to explain. “The railway is admittedly different to me than most of the other projects we oversee, you are correct.” A puff of hair, and more circular scrubbing, to take off a smudge. “It’s certainly a favorite, and everything you know about it is still true.” After a quick look-over, Roy pulls open the top drawer of the mahogany desk to set them gingerly inside. “But I perhaps may have given this particular project a little extra push, knowing it’s existence could wrap up a small debt of mine.”
“The debt that came from my life, saved,” Riza doesn’t glare, rarely will she do so with any intention, but she can tell by where he diverts his attention that it’s a hard gaze to bare. “It’s not like you to mix your personal debts and your professional ones.”
“Oh.” Roy leans back into his chair once he closes his desk drawer, folding his arms and unfurling a smirk—she got him cornered, but he doesn’t act like he lost. “I don’t know about that, Captain, I think it’s become more like me than anticipated.”
When she doesn’t say anything to that, not right away, he continues, unprompted. “You’ll think I’ve been foolish.”
“I already think you’re foolish.”
“That, as well.”
There’s nothing romantic about bleeding out in a sewer, Riza thinks, though she supposes she didn’t technically bleed out in the end. Waking up safe was a luxury, maybe, and seeing the Roy Mustang’s face first upon returning from the endless void of unconsciousness had been, if anything, a relief.
She perhaps wouldn’t recognize such a thing if it hadn’t landed, full-force, in her hands first.
Roy rises from his desk rather suddenly, leaving the expense report behind without a struggled signature to grab his coat. “Sir, where are you going,” Riza states, rather than asks.
He grins, something tender. “Come on, let’s call it a night. I have a feeling I might need some time to explain.”
Money isn’t everything, of course, but at the end of a month’s hard work, Bojing knows what to do with money. He does not quite know yet what exactly to do with the “thank you” letters.
And to be honest, Bojing has no reason to care about Alphonse Elric at all. He’s just another customer, paying his rates like all the rest, even if his letters are being hauled across the desert only to be handed off to royalty. Royalty in Xing was dime a dozen—plenty of people knew at least one royal cousin—but to be given a thank you note? Just for doing his job? They were starting to stack up, and Bojing still hasn’t decided how to feel about the small cards addressed to him at the start of each month.
When Bojing’s clients mail him their post to haul across the desert, they put their letter in an envelope, like they would any other letter, with the address for their contact in Xing written on the outside. That letter then goes in another letter, addressed to Bojing’s apartment in Ishval, along with their fee. It’s a simple set-up, so simple that Bojing has never had a customer mess up their order, even once. Not until Alphonse Elric.
Alphonse technically didn’t mess it up either. Technically. He just? Exceeded expectations? Added too much unnecessary junk, with the nerve to address it to Bojing. It starts with a holiday card, and then the holidays end and it’s a nondescript decorative card with painted flowers along the front. Alphonse sends a few of these before he switches it up with a postcard, painted like the Cretan coast, but ultimately returns back to his standard card format, his most recent version having a kitten on the front.
Each short note says something of the same: a hello, a wish of good health and wellness, an expression of gratitude, and an entirely capitalized “TRAVEL SAFE” before the flourish of his signature. Bojing’s neighbor tells him to relax and accept the gratitude that flows through the boy from Ishvallah above. Bojing says no. When he gets back from that month’s journey to Xing, the cards are tacked up on the bare wall in the bare kitchen, the only color in the apartment (and a disorderly ragbag at that) certain to catch his eye every time he went for a drink of water.
Bojing does not care about Alphonse Elric. They are not friends. And yet.
The fire that burns in the tallest tower of the Ancestral Temple, high above the castle’s other rooftops, is probably best witnessed as both the beacon of mourning and the promise for the people of Xing it’s intended to be when there isn’t a thunderstorm overhead.
Lan Fan isn’t one to daydream out of windows, especially when the night’s downpour made it next to futile, but The Emperor—no longer Emperor Regent—was only just now getting a chance to warm up, and it wasn’t as though he needed her to remind him how long to hold his stretches anymore. At least thirty seconds per stretch, maybe longer for someone who spent most of his time on a throne, and before late, Lan Fan would allow herself to honor his last-minute request for a few rounds of one-to-one sparring in good conscience. Until then, the fire atop the tall tower glows, a vibrant, demanding orange floating in the darkest teals and browns and blacks of night; ready and waiting, she watches the flicker with intent.
Mostly, with these grandiose traditional displays of Xing’s pain, Lan Fan thinks with great empathy for the guards in positions like hers, cycling in and out of that top chamber at all hours to make sure the fire burns continuously; as long as the pyre is lit, Xing is grieving, and the fire was set to burn in honor of the deceased Emperor for another twenty-seven days. She knows well, an innate sense of how the guard in the temple must feel right now, at the close of another twelve-hour guard shift on his feet, sometimes fanning the flames, sometimes stacking more wood to burn. It must be hot in there, or at least warm enough to doze off…
The lightest tap of a bo staff hits her right on her shoulder—the one still made of flesh—totally square with where her usual armor would be had she not exchanged her full Emperor’s Guard garb for something more apt to training. “Lan Fan.” When she snaps back to attention, the Emperor is closer than she thought he was and growing nearer, leaning over her back to follow her line of sight out the window. “You seem to be much more upset about that than I am.”
A people without their King, even as another takes his place, Lan Fan thinks, is simply something to be sad about. “The Son of Heaven was carried home,” she replies, somehow stern. “It’s the end of an era, Your Imperial Majesty—”
But his hand goes up to stop her there, and so, Lan Fan stops. “Hold on, just hold on. I know it’s been a while but, if we’re going to spar,” The Emperor grins and the corners of his eyes crinkle like his matching canvas pants do, altogether very unlike the grin he shows his council these days, to the people he meets in conference or for meals or for worship. “My name is Ling, Lan Fan. You can call me Ling. You used to call me Ling.”
Her grip on her staff loosens momentarily; the last time she’d called the Emperor “Ling”, they’d been closer to wearing diapers, if not the traditional beginner’s sparring uniforms, white and plain, like they wore now. “That’s unacceptable,” is all Lan Fan replies with when she takes too long to consider her response more carefully.
He scoffs at her, if still playful, in jest, tossing the staff between his hands as he strides away from the window and the downpour across the small training room towards the mats. “You’re right, Lan Fan. That is unacceptable. The Emperor might have to reprimand you for it,” he says, stepping back into a challenge stance as effortlessly as counting to ten. Thunder claps outside.
It’s been a little while since Lan Fan’s has gotten to just spar, in airy canvas pants, no blades in sight; the last time it’d been this simple was probably her second automail recovery last year after making the trip back from Amestris. It seems like another lifetime away now, easing back into traditional forms and learning old technique from the ground up with all the time she hadn’t been allowed during the first recovery. With patience instead of urgency, and method over strength, each of the basics came to her arm with the ease that she might’ve waved to her grandfather with, from the tips of her metal fingers to the length of her scarred back. To this day, her automail arm still couldn’t quite throw kunai with the same trajectory and speed as her good arm, but it improved daily, and reminded her, when her grandfather couldn’t, of the basics.
That said, if it’s been a while since Lan Fan has gotten to just spar, it’s surely been twice as long for The Emperor. And it shows.
“You know,” he says, panting slightly after a few rounds that went faster than this storm’s lightning, his attention back towards the window. He’s agitated, still agitated, but not with Lan Fan’s superior sparring skills, which unfortunately meant something else burned him. “All this grief for my father and the last nail of that railroad is about to go down in the middle of the desert. History in the making, and not a soul seems to care.”
Lan Fan blinks, not understanding the alternative. “Do you resent that your people grieve their old King?”
“No, no, I just,” he grimaces, falling back into another challenge stance. One. “Honestly, Lan Fan, between friends, I wish I understood it.”
Their bo staffs click upon meeting, two, the sound crisp and rhythmic, front strike to block, three and four, block to overhead, five and six. The Emperor continues, “I only got a chance to know my father as my father after I presented him with the Philosopher’s Stone. Before that, who did I have? My mother and our servants, Master Fu, you, the rest of our clan—those were the people I was closest to.”
The transfer of weight between feet, the methodical intake and disposal of oxygen to and from the lungs, seven, eight. “I know people in Amestris better than I knew my father.”
Nine. Ten. “I knew homunculi better than I knew my father.”
It’s that greed that gets the better of The Emperor, in the end, where one messy strike made by the skin of secretly sharp teeth is diffused by Lan Fan with little effort at all. “Then there’s the fact that I’ve been Emperor for less than two years and I’ve already done something no one else has in generations,” he says, casually, even with the tip of her bo staff at his neck, before they move to reset. “A railroad, Lan Fan? Xing has nothing to lose with this as a way forward into a brighter future.”
Nothing he’s saying was untrue, Lan Fan supposes—perhaps she’s missing something. “Have you ever been on a train, Imperial—” The Emperor shoots her a look, and she pauses. “Master Ling?”
“No,” he admits, “have you?”
If her grandfather were here, he would have no qualms in reprimanding even the Emperor as he shrugged out of prone, turning his attention again back at the fire in the window—Lan Fan swears the glint of light above his pupils is not sadness, but made of the same flame. “What if we did?” he says, suddenly, like he couldn’t stop the thought that entered his head from immediately making itself known. He turns back to her, enthusiasm familiar. “Lan Fan, you have a whole weekend off and a train ticket to Amestris—”
“No, no, no—hypothetically speaking.” They fall back to challenge once more, and The Emperor only presses the question again as their bo staffs connect, this time with more vigor. “What do you do with a whole weekend off?”
Crack. “I—who is with you?”
Crack, tap. “Lan Fan, no. I’m asking you, what would you do if you had two days off to not worry about your bodyguard duties—”
Tap, tap, crack. “If I had a day off—”
“Two days off.”
“—two days off to not be your guard, why on earth would I decide to travel to Amestris?”
“Because you have tickets?”
Crack, a dodge, a parry—the Emperor ducks out of Lan Fan’s reach and retaliates seamlessly. Tap. “More than one?”
“Are you coming with me?”
“Yeah, but like—” his efforts are futile, ultimately, and one foot out of balance gives Lan Fan the open she’d need for a jab to the throat. He’s gotten negligent, she thinks. “No one would recognize us over there. We’d look like tourists instead of royals, and since we’re not running around tearing up the place like we did last time, it’d be less work for you.”
Lan Fan brings her bo staff down to her side. To have “less work”, to just be a tourist passing through a foreign land instead of searching for a fable—this was a vow she hadn’t chosen, but also hadn’t considered. “I see,” she replies.
“So,” The Emperor balances his staff atop his foot and his chin upon where his hands rested on the staff, “what would you do with a weekend off?”
Aside from the strange taste left in her mouth at the notion of the Emperor being open and susceptible to attack without her at her most alert, a few days in Amestris seemed? Well? Silly. Why travel somewhere like Amestris just for a few days off? To be exhausted by the time it’d take to get there? To take in lung-fulls at a time of the desert dust in Rush Valley? To wonder who or what one-eyed creature would be watching her every move over her automail shoulder in the city streets of Central? To witness the sharp teeth that seemed to appear on the Emperor’s face in flickers, even now, took up a more irreversible residency. No, she wouldn’t be able to relax. Not there. Like the guard in the tower, the Emperor’s absolute safety was her pyre, and that’d only be threatened with a trip back to Amestris. Though the end made something of the means, her fond memories of their time abroad must’ve been fewer and further between than the Emperor’s appear to be.
That said, they weren’t non-existent.
“I’d get a hamburger,” Lan Fan concludes with a nod.
The Emperor laughs with his head tossed back—his teeth average and blunt—as he falls into a challenge stance once more. “Me too. That place we ordered from in Rush Valley? Delicious.”
“I’d just sit somewhere and eat for a whole weekend, and then get on the train and come back home.” Lan Fan strikes, One, two, three, head, neck, shoulders.
“I’d get two hamburgers, and then get a cheeseburger to offer to Ed Elric and then also eat that,” The Emperor offers, blocking each of her strikes with the ease he’d been lacking earlier.
Lan Fan smiles, dodging a blow to her gut. “You’d visit Edward?”
“Yeah! Why not? It’d be nice to check in. I bet he’d introduce us to a few locals, and I bet he's twice as entertaining when his country isn't on the verge of imploding.” Four, five, six, he tries for her ankles now, then the crown of her head, then the hand with which she holds her staff. “I bet he could throw a good party.”
Tap, crack. “A party?”
“Yeah, you know, a real one, not like a banquet or anything formal. Just for fun. We’d dance.” The air parts with an audible whip as two bo staffs meet nothing but the audible sadness that the Emperor had been hiding earlier.
“But, Master Ling,” he misses a beat when she calls him by name. His mistake, honestly—“Wouldn’t you get a stomachache?”
Tap, tap, a strike to his left shoulder, a strike to her right ankle, all while he evaporates and chuckles out a clarifying, “What?”
“If all you did that day was eat and then you decided to dance all night,” their staffs crack together once more, but it’s too late for him; Lan Fan drops to a squat and swings her staff to catch the young lord at the ankles. “Wouldn’t you get a stomachache?”
He falls with his back to the mats with a thud, and before he can so much as wince, the tip of Lan Fan’s staff is to his nose. He goes cross-eyed to look at it before he laughs again, jovial, sad. “Pfft. When have I ever done that?”
If her grandfather were here, he’d say they were going too easy on one another. If her grandfather were here, he’d ask why they seemed sad today. If her grandfather were here, he’d have to know that all of Xing was mourning something, but she’s thankful, if anything, he never had to witness the fall of his king.
“Friends don’t let friends get sick, Master Ling,” Lan Fan says as she offers him a hand up. “Especially not in foreign lands.”
“No, I suppose not.” The thick patters of the raindrops to the roof are lighter now, Lan Fan can tell, and the last of the thunderclaps must have been lost to the cracks of their bo staffs. The Emperor, standing tall and proud, dips into a bow in gratitude for her time. “We’ll have to be more conscientious when it comes to our trip’s itinerary, Lan Fan, when we do go,” he says with great confidence.
“Of course,” Lan Fan replies, offering a deep bow in return before she straightens out again, taking the time to consider her response. “That’s not the only thing to consider, though.”
“Hm? What else is there?”
“With absolute honor and respect, Master Ling, you’re out of practice.”
“Just a bit, right?” The Emperor asks as he reaches out a hand to take Lan Fan’s bo staff with, getting ready to clean up.
“Lan Fan.” Her mistake, honestly; the Emperor shakes his head as he takes on the challenge stance again. She matches him without hesitation. “Fine, if that’s how you want to be. Fine. But you’re going down this time!"
So if it’s not for the money and not for the notoriety, not for fame or the pursuit of political power, why exactly did Bojing continue to risk his life by crossing the Badlands, month after month after month?
There’s music out here, Bojing can hear it. Sometimes it’s the Cretan guitars that make even stone statues want to dance. Sometimes it’s traditional Ishvallan hymns and the harmonies followed as closely as the prayers. Sometimes it’s the jazz of the radios in East City, the whines of the saxophones and the cries of the trumpets. The melodies lift and soar with the wind, riding on the tiniest particles of sand, and whip past Bojing’s ears to kiss his temples. His parents are out here, somewhere, their memory eternal in a way the horizon can only try to be. Maybe their parents are here too, and their parents before them. The rhythm of his life—to Ishval, to the sands, to Xing, back home, to Ishval, to the sands, maybe the ruins, maybe the mountains, to Xing, back home—swells in cacophony and doesn’t find it’s tune until meets Bojing’s eyes and he fully understands the course charted ahead of him. It’s who he is, the man who will take breaks from sitting on his cart’s wooden seat to map out to the beats with his body; to anyone else, he might look crazy, dancing alongside his mule through the desert when the sun was just getting ready to set.
Lo lai lo lei—he doesn’t know if it’s him, or the choir of souls who keep the desert inhospitable for those anyone elses, singing loud for him—Lo lai lo lai lo lai lo lai.
He’ll do this until he dies, he hopes. Even if he makes enough money to buy a house and pay people to sit in it, to eat until he gets too fat to leave his big house and all of his paid-for friends. Badlands or not, The Great Desert is his domain.
Bojing comes back from the East and even before the outline of Shikotan can be made out, he watches the tall crane that picks up the railway carts and sets them on the track right outside the brand new train station. Every movement rocks the ground with great metal moans, birthing the long metal monster that sits upon the track like a dragon observing his hoard. When Bojing finally stops Emma, just to get a good look at his nemesis, the new prized son of both Xing and Amestris, he’s admittedly still not impressed.
He’s not impressed until he hears the workers test the wheels.
From dawn ‘til dust, they run the wheels across a few miles of track, keeping the steadiest four-four rhythm Bojing has ever heard in his life, chugging smoke like the region’s best hookah pipes. He’ll grant, next time he’s asked, that the train is interesting. Fascinating. A wonder, if he was being generous.
Perhaps, when he can get a little time to himself, he’ll take the train to Xing and back, just to see the desert from a cushioned seat.