Several days had passed since Maria Ross left Amestris and traveled through the desert with Fu to cross into Xing. They still needed to go a little farther to reach the Yao clan's residence.
Throughout the trip, she couldn't believe she was starting a new life in a new country. She was nervous about meeting the family despite Fu assuring her that everyone was very nice. This was her first time in Xing and she wasn't sure how she should interact with the people here, nor did she want to be disrespectful.
They made it to the palace just after early evening. The two guards watching over the gate recognized Fu and let them in immediately. Once they made it halfway through the courtyard, she and Fu slid off from their horses and Maria glanced around in astonishment. There were many wooden buildings scattered around, each one roofed with yellow glazed tiles. She had never seen this type of architectural structure before.
“How far are we from the Imperial Palace?” Maria asked.
“A few days travel at least.” Fu paused, then said, "Lady Yao and the others should be here shortly.”
Maria remained quiet, feeling her shoulders grow more tense. She continued to look around until she suddenly saw two men and one woman, all dressed in silk clothing, hurrying toward her and Fu. They then reached them and everyone exchanged words in a language Maria didn't understand. When he was done speaking with them, Fu faced Maria.
"Miss Ross, this is Lady Yao, the young lord's mother," he said. He pointed his finger to the two men each as he spoke. "The older man on the left is Shi, her father, and the younger one on the left is her uncle, Xun."
"It's a pleasure to meet you," Lady Yao said and gave her a warm smile.
A stunned gasp left Maria's throat. Fu had told her during their trip the Yao clan had a few tutors that taught some of the members, including Ling's mother, Amestrian. Still, she didn't expect Lady Yao would speak to her in that language.
"I'm very honored to be staying with you and your family," she then said, returning the smile.
Xun chuckled, his teeth flashing. "This is the first time we have a foreigner staying with us. Should be very exciting."
"The both of you must be very tired," Shi said. "How about some tea inside?"
Glancing at Fu, Maria could tell from his weary face that he wanted some rest. She too was exhausted from the long journey.
"Tea sounds great, my Lord," Fu said. Shi motioned his hand for everyone to follow him.
Maria and the rest were led inside a small building. They all gathered around a low table. It was placed on a large, ornate rug that dominated the center of the room. A young servant had served tea and everyone conversed for a while. Lady Yao, Shi, and Xun asked Maria lots of questions about her life in Amestris and her interests. It was intimidating at first, but she slowly got more comfortable telling them what they wanted to know.
"Do you have any brothers or sisters?" Xun eventually asked.
"I have an older sister who lives in West City. She's a librarian." Taking a moment to drink her tea, Maria enjoyed the slight honey flavor added in it.
"I don't know if Fu has told you this," Shi said, "but my grandson has several brothers and sisters going against him in trying to win the throne."
"He did, yes," Maria said and nodded. "Must be crazy for him to deal with that."
"Ling had his fair share of enemies, but he's dangerous, especially with his bodyguards on his side," Xun said and laughed as he elbowed Fu in his ribs. Once he let go of his side, Fu glared at him and that made Maria chuckle.
A friendly silence bloomed between them as everyone enjoyed their tea. So far, she thought the Yao family was easy to get along with.
"Will you be staying here to rest for a bit?" Shi asked, facing Fu.
"I wish I could, but I need to get back to Amestris immediately as the young lord and my granddaughter are still over there. I'll be leaving tomorrow."
Shi nodded in understanding and sipped some of his tea. "Of course."
"It's great to see you again, nonetheless," Lady Yao said, a small smile settled on her lips. "I eagerly await you, Lan Fan, and Ling returning back here together."
Fu only responded with an acknowledged hum.
"I want to thank you for helping me escape and bringing me here," Maria said, wanting to let him know her gratitude.
"You're welcome. If there's anything you need, you can ask anyone here to help you."
Maria nodded as she made a mental note to remember that. She hoped the long trip back to Amestris wouldn't be too much trouble for him.
Xun had been teaching Maria one of the Xingese dialects, Dao, shortly after Fu left for Amestris. The lessons had been held outside in the gardens where there would be few distractions. Many times she stumbled on the pronunciations, but Lady Yao’s uncle was kind whenever he corrected her.
“I am happy to meet you,” she said in Dao, being careful as much as possible with the pronunciation.
"Good," Xun said to Maria, grinning at her. "Now ask 'how was your day'."
"How was your day?" Again, she made sure to say it as clearly as she could.
He nodded in approval. "Also very good. Keep that up and you'll be able to use several phrases in no time."
"Thanks," she said and smiled. "It gets a little easier after a while."
"I think that's enough for today." Xun rose out from the bench and stretched his arms. "I'll be at the library for a little while. We shall meet again around dinnertime."
She watched as Xun headed out of the gardens. Alone now, Maria glanced around at the many flowers that had bloomed. The sweet scent from them filled her nostrils. She then dropped her gaze at the pond next to the bench, the clear water flowing gently.
"Good afternoon," someone suddenly said in Dao.
Upon hearing that, Maria flinched. She turned around and in front of her was Lady Yao, offering her a gentle smile. Maria immediately rose out of the bench to bow at her.
"Good afternoon," she greeted back, used to saying that several times by now. She then straightened herself.
"I take it my uncle has been keeping you busy with all that practice," Lady Yao said in Amestrian this time.
Maria laughed. "He is, yeah. I've been enjoying the lessons, though."
"That's good to hear. Liking our palace so far?"
"Very much so," Maria said with a grin. "I appreciate you and your family watching me over."
"Not a problem at all." The smile on Lady Yao's face slowly slipped off. "It must be hard leaving your family and friends behind all of a sudden like that."
Frowning, Maria turned away slightly as she fixed her eyes on the ground. It had been over two weeks since the Yao family welcomed her to their home and she was grateful for their hospitality. The food was fantastic and the family kept encouraging her to have seconds. Her bedroom had a warm mattress as well as polished furniture. She really liked her new life in Xing, but Maria still found herself wondering how everyone in Amestris was doing.
"I do miss them very much," she said when facing Lady Yao.
"I'm sure you'll be able to get back home someday." A small smile spread over Lady Yao's face.
"I hope you're right." Dragging out a sigh, Maria doubt that would happen anytime soon.
Fu’s return back to the Yao’s residence threw Maria and the others by surprise. It was more shocking when he brought his granddaughter with him and she had an automail arm attached. They told everyone something had happened in Amestris and the both of them were being watched, hence why they needed to get back to their country for now. As for the prince, the bodyguards weren’t able to find him. Everyone was inside one of the building’s reception halls.
“You aren’t sure where Ling is, but he has the secret to immortality?” Lady Yao asked after the bodyguards finished telling them everything.
“The young lord had sent a message telling me so.” Lan Fan handed her a long cloth with Xingese handwriting. Lady Yao read it and gasped. Shi and Xun leaned over to read the message and they too looked just as shocked.
“So he has,” Shi said.
“I already knew about this 'secret to immortality'. At Amestris, we call it the Philosopher’s Stone,” Maria said. She didn’t mention it being made from dead people as she wasn’t sure if they would react well to that.
“Then you’re already aware as to why my son traveled to Amestris to get it,” Lady Yao said and Maria nodded.
“After Lan Fan has some time to recover, we’ll go back to Amestris to save him and then our family can show the Philosopher’s Stone to the Emperor,” Fu said.
Xun slammed his fist down on the table, groaning in frustration. “Looks like we’ll have to wait a while longer.”
Maria watched as Lan Fan hung her head down. She remembered her from when she was about to leave with Fu and Han. While she hadn’t gotten the chance to speak with her, Lan Fan seemed like a person of very few words. This would be the opportunity to get to know her better.
Later that evening, she was walking in the courtyard and stopped when she saw Lan Fan having her back against a tree. The young bodyguard fixed her gaze on her.
"It has been a while," Lan Fan said, recognizing her.
"Indeed, it is." Maria let out an awkward cough. "I'm sorry about your arm."
"I needed to do it in order to protect my lord."
There was a short silence, and then she asked, "How long have you been a bodyguard?"
"I started my training at a very early age. My family served the Yao clan for several generations and we're honored to be doing so."
Maria lowered her head in pity. She had been fighting almost all her life and almost got killed at such a young age. Even though she had been trained as a soldier, Maria didn't think she could do what the bodyguard had done.
"It'll probably take some time getting used adjusting to your new arm,” Maria said when she looked back at Lan Fan.
A resolved look appeared on Lan Fan's face. "I plan on getting back to fighting very soon."
"Are you sure?" she asked, taken aback by her response. "You'll likely hurt yourself again if you’re not very careful."
"No need to worry about me. I will make sure to watch myself."
Maria gave out a sigh, still worried she would be too hard on herself. Her grandfather most likely would keep an eye on her, so it shouldn't be too bad.
The Yao family wanted Maria to experience Xing’s culture outside the palace grounds, so Xun insisted on taking her to a Xingese opera performance in a nearby city, Taiping. Maria was excited to see not only see the performance, but also a major Xingese city.
It took a day for Maria and Xun to arrive in Taiping and when they did he guided her to the theater. The building was a wooden structure with a tiled roof, freestanding by itself and trees nearby. There were several posters of current and upcoming performances being advertised. Once they stepped inside, she caught several pictures of Xingese actors on the walls. She and Xun continued further on until they reached the theater hall. This was slightly different than the theaters in Amestris she went with her family and friends as the chairs and tables, enough for two hundred people at most, were lined up and there was a small stage in front. Red lanterns lit the room in a rich ambience. They took an available spot in the middle as almost all of the seats were taken.
“You know what story will be performed tonight?” Maria asked.
“It’ll going to be about one of Xing’s past Emperors and his family dealing with a war going on.” Xing flashed her a grin. “This is one of my favorites.”
Music began playing that instant and everyone turned their attention to the stage. One person, wearing makeup and a yellow robe, appeared. He started to dance while speaking, his hand gestures smooth like a soaring bird.
“That’s Emperor Yi,” Xun whispered, knowing Maria wouldn’t be able to understand most of it. “He’s worried over one of the families taking over his throne.”
Shortly after the actor playing the Emperor finished talking, another person entered. She too wore makeup and a yellow robe. Xun also introduced the character to Maria.
“And that’s Emperor Yi’s wife.”
“I take it she’s trying to comfort him,” Maria said as she listened to her speaking and doing a similar dance. Xun had already told her motions and gestures were a big part in Xingese opera. The makeup and costumes depended on what type of character the performer would be playing.
“Yes, you’re right,” he said and smiled.
Xun took it upon himself to let Maria know what was happening so she wouldn’t get lost. Emperor Yi, his family, and the generals had several discussions concerning the upcoming battle with one of the families. Some time passed until the other family invaded the palace. The Emperor and his army won the battle, but his wife and some of his generals tragically died.
Throughout the play, she immersed herself in the singing, music, and dancing. She was surprised acrobatics and martial arts were involved also. When the performance was finally over, everyone applauded and the actors exited the stage.
“I can see why this is your favorite play,” Maria said as she and Xun left the theater hall and walked outside. “The characters are enjoyable and the battles are wonderfully choreographed.”
Xun laughed, his hands on his stomach. “Indeed the battles are great. The actors had to train extensively on singing, music, and acrobatics before they get to acting.”
“That sounds rough.” Maria couldn’t imagine being able to do all that on a regular basis.
“Xingese opera believes in making every motion beautiful. Each skill should be combined to make a remarkable performance.”
Maria hummed in understanding. She supposed it wasn’t too different from Amestrian actors, singers, and dancers needing to rehearse a lot before a show, too.
“I wouldn’t mind going to see another one,” she said and smiled, already excited about the next time.
Grinning, Xun said, “Sure! I would love to arrange another visit here soon!”
The past hour Maria had been practicing more Xingese with Xun in the gardens. They were eventually interrupted when Lady Yao, Fu, and Lan Fan came to see them.
"Is something the matter, Lady Yao?" Maria asked as she and Xun stood up from the stone bench.
"I just received a letter from the Emperor inviting us to his palace...and to bring you with us."
Shocked, Maria's eyes flew wide. "Really? Did he say why?"
"He has heard about us having an Amestrian living with us and the Emperor would like you to talk to him about your country. I take it he wants to make Xing's ties with Amestris active."
"Make Xing's ties with Amestris active?" Maria asked in confusion, slightly titling her head.
"Technically your country and ours have diplomatic relations,” Xun said, “but it almost doesn't function." He scratched his head. “Didn’t think the Emperor would find out that quickly.”
Maria pondered everything she had heard. She was confused as to why the Emperor thought she would be the right person for that. What stuff relating to Amestris should she tell him about? Seemed she had no choice but to go to his palace.
"If he wants me to meet with him, then I'll do it," she said at last.
"We must take precautions as I'm sure some families will be there too and will have ill feelings towards us," Fu warned.
"I shall come to the meeting too," Lan Fan said.
"You're in no condition to fight yet!" he said in harsh disagreement. "You recently returned to Xing and need time to recover."
After considering her grandfather's words a moment, Lan Fan let out a defeated sigh and said, "If that is what you wish, then all right."
Frowning, Maria felt sorry she wouldn't be able to join them. She agreed, though, that Lan Fan should stay and heal.
"His palace is a three days travel from here," Xun said, "so we should start making preparations for the trip tomorrow.”
Maria watched as Lady Yao turned her head slightly, a distant look on her face. She and the Emperor had Ling together, so it would be awkward for her to meet with him after many years.
“It’s been so long since I last saw him,” she said in a soft voice.
A concerned expression crossed Xun’s features. “If you don’t want to come, Ai, then it’s all right.”
“No, I’ll join you.” Lady Yao’s face was set. “Father will watch over our palace while we're away."
Her uncle gasped in shock, but he then hummed in acknowledgement. Even though Maria thought it would be better if Lady Yao stayed, she wasn’t going to argue with her decision either. The trip was settled, then.
Within three days she, Xun, Fu, and Lady Yao made it to Fang, Xing's capital. As they passed through the city, Maria glanced around to see many people coming in and out of shops and restaurants. The smell of chicken and other foods filled Maria's senses, but she resisted the temptation to go eat and continued following the others.
The palace was situated inside Fang, so they moved further until they reached the gates. Two armored guards stood in front, noticing their presence.
"Is this the Yao family?" one of the guards asked in the Dao dialect.
"Yes we are," Lady Yao responded back in the same language. More words were exchanged between her and the guards, but Maria wasn't able to understand the rest of it. The men stole a curious glimpse at Maria before running off.
"What just happened?" Maria asked.
"The guards are letting the Emperor know we have arrived and we'll get to speak to him shortly."
The guards returned a few moments later, one of them gesturing his hand for the group to follow them. Maria already figured out that the Emperor was ready to meet them.
Like the Yao family's residence, the Emperor's palace consisted of several buildings in Xingese architecture. While they were walking, Lady Yao explained to Maria the main ones served different purposes and have statuettes on the roof that represented the status of the building depending on the number of them. It fascinated her that the Xingese had that kind of system. She also mentioned the palace having libraries, residences, storage areas, and several temples.
Eventually they halted in front of a large building with a yellow roof on top and the guards left them alone. Maria noticed cravings of a dragon on the roof's corners, which she thought made beautiful decorations.
"The Hall of Everlasting Peace," Fu said. "The Emperor often holds court here, so this is where you'll meet with him."
After everyone took the stairs, they stepped inside The Hall of Everlasting Peace. Red columns surrounded the building and up ahead the Emperor himself sitting on the throne chair. He greeted the group a warm smile and said something, but Maria couldn't understand him.
"Your Highness wants to welcome all of us for coming into his palace," Lady Yao translated for Maria, "and he's especially glad you made it here."
Maria swallowed, a tight knot forming inside her throat. While she was flattered to hear that, the nervousness over meeting with the Emperor was there.
"I'm curious as to what things concerning Amestris you want me to talk about," she said to him.
She listened as Lady Yao translated to the Emperor what she had asked. He nodded and began speaking to Maria, but again she wasn't sure what he had said.
"The Emperor has heard most people in Amestris are very nice," she said. "Is that true?"
Before giving her answer, Maria glanced at Fu and Xun. Fu folded his arms and made a single nod while Xun offered her a supportive smile.
"It varies from person to person, but everyone that I came across with is friendly."
As the Emperor regarded her a moment, she worried if that was a good response. He then said something in his language.
"Can you give an example?" Lady Yao said for her.
That left Maria flabbergasted. Her eyes shifted away from the Emperor while she pondered over what example she could talk about. When Maria thought of one, she looked back at him.
"A few years ago, a friend of mine knew I loved reading and bought me a few books as a birthday gift. I cherished them ever since."
Once more she waited for the Emperor's response. He spoke for a bit and chuckled, which made Maria's body tense.
"Books are excellent gifts indeed," Lady Yao said, smiling. "It's great that your friend remembered one of your interests."
Maria relaxed her shoulders and smiled back. The compliment pleased her very much.
The rest of the meeting she talked more about Amestris to the Emperor. She mentioned different cities, food, holidays, and entertainment. It took a while due to Lady Yao translating for them, but other than that Maria enjoyed talking to him.
"From what you have told him, Amestris sounds like a great country," Lady Yao said to Maria close to the end of the meeting.
"It is a great country and perhaps one day you'll visit it."
After Lady Yao let the Emperor know what she said, he replied back.
"His Highness says it's unfortunate he wouldn't be able to due to his ill health,” Lady Yao said.
Frowning, Maria said, "I'm sorry to hear that. Hopefully you'll get better soon." Despite that, he wanted to talk with her and the Yao family today.
The Emperor chuckled when he received the translation and responded to Maria.
"He appreciates the well wishes and is happy he got to speak with you."
A small smile settled onto Maria's lips. She too was glad to have the chance to talk with the Emperor. As Maria drank in every detail of the room, she caught someone hiding behind a beam, their hand holding out a kunai. Her stomach dropped.
"Is something the matter, Maria?" Xun asked, noticing her uneasiness.
"Everyone, watch out!"
What happened next went by fast. A Xingese man suddenly appeared with his kunai in one hand and was rushing toward the Emperor. Fu immediately jumped in front of the Emperor while Maria took out her gun from her holster to shoot the intruder in the arm, causing him to stop and drop his weapon on the floor. Everyone gathered around him.
"Why are you here?" she asked in the Dao dialect.
He glared at her while clutching his bloodied arm. He then answered her question, although Maria wasn't sure what he said.
"He says he was hired from the Kwok and Pang family to assassinate the Emperor and make it look it was caused by the Yao family," Fu told Maria.
The Emperor stared at the assassin and said something, sounding very angry. Maria already figured out he couldn't believe they would go great lengths to frame the Yao family. A thought then occurred to her.
"Does this have anything to do with me?" she asked the man in the same dialect. He answered her question, and again she didn't understand most of it.
"The two families harbor ill feelings over the Yao family for a while now," Fu said, "but your visit makes excellent timing. This was actually planned during the meeting."
In that instant four guards hurried inside and reached to the Emperor. He explained to them what had happened, motioning his arm at the assassin; the guards didn't hesitate to take him away.
"The assassin is being taken to prison and will be properly punished," Fu let Maria know. “He’ll also have a talk with the Kwok and Pang family.”
Everyone went silent a moment, and then the Emperor said something with a huge grin on his face. When Xun laughed, Maria arched an eyebrow at him and he caught that.
"His Highness thanks you for saving his life. Because of that, he's raising the rank of our family."
She had saved the Emperor's life--Maria couldn't get over that thought. Luckily she acted fast or else he would've been assassinated. This was something she would never forget.
"It's not a problem," she said and smirked, proud of her accomplishment.
As more time passed by, Maria was glad to be living in Xing. She still thought about her friends and family sometimes, but she wasn't as upset about it as before. The country's culture was fascinating and she got to experience many new things, saving the Emperor among one of them. She still had a long way in learning Dao, although with enough practice she should be able to get better at it.
One late afternoon, she and Lady Yao were at the training grounds watching Fu and Lan Fan as they practiced martial arts at one another. Even though Lan Fan had an automail arm, she was still able to block her grandfather's strikes fairly quickly.
"Miss Ross, Miss Ross!" someone suddenly called, and that caused everyone to turn around.
Maria gasped when she saw Han, the man that had helped her and Fu crossed Xing. Glancing around, she noticed everyone else looked just as surprised.
"Han, what are you doing here?" she asked when he reached them.
"I was contacted by Mr. Havoc as he's interested in buying imported Xingese goods."
"Buying imported Xingese goods?" Lan Fan asked. "Why does he wants those?" Maria was also confused at first, her finger tapping on her chin.
It was odd for Havoc to request something from Xing unless he planned on something big. She then realized what that message really meant.
"Something's about to go on in Amestris and I'm needed."
"Are you sure? I fear it'll be too dangerous," Lady Yao said in a concerned tone.
"I'm already aware of that, but I can't stand back and do nothing. I have to go."
Lady Yao took a moment to consider what Maria said. She then bowed her head.
"If that is what you want, then I won't stop you," she said.
"Looks like you're finally going back home," Fu said, smiling a little.
Finally going back home. For a while, she thought that wouldn't happen. And now she was given the opportunity to do so. Maria offered Mr. Han a smirk.
"Mr. Han, let Havoc know the goods will be on their way."