And there's sand in her hair.
And there's sand everywhere.
And she is beginning to regret this.
The first presidential trip to Xing has been stuck in the same spot in the middle of nowhere for fifteen minutes, on account of their car being heavier than the soft sand underneath could stand They wait outside – inside, when stopped, the heat is unbearable, despite the improvised shades they put on the windows, made of bits of cloth here, and the driver's spare shirt there. President Mustang is now talking animatedly with the guide, one hand over his head to block out the sun. And Maria Ross is pacing around, stepping onto the curve of the dune as if dipping her toe in fresh water, and she looks utterly careless, unconventionally careless for the responsible of their security in this journey. But maybe this isn't the place where you'd expect an assassination attempt to take place. No, they should worry about dying of sunstroke sooner.
`If you would be so kind, ladies,´ President Mustang gathers her and Ross, prompted by the driver. `I think we'll have to push.´
Rebecca misses the train, the new train line that got him halfway through this blasted desert.
It only takes a bit of nudging for the car to stand above the sand, finding a more solid spot. But this is not the glamorous business-of-state trip Rebecca has been promised.
`Are you not worried your subordinates would ruin the country while you are gone for so long, sir?´ asks Ross.
A trip to Xing is an uncommonly long time to be away from state matters.
`I'd worry they do better without him and on our return they kick him out of the presidency,´ replies Rebecca.
Mustang says nothing; he looks at her through the rear-view mirror, amused but silent, soon back into concentrating on the scenery. As with Ross this is not his first journey into the desert and Rebecca feels left out of their particular acquiescence with the path, their calm acceptance of the hardships the landscape might throw their way. In contrast Rebecca is fidgety in her seat, feels restless. She looks at Maria Ross and not for the first time she feels a bit of envy at the coolness of the woman.
Six years ago General Grumman – no, newly appointed *President* Grumman offered her a job in Central.
`Oh, I don't know,´ she told him over tea. Grumman took his tea very seriously. `I am not a career soldier. I just want to meet a rich guy and get married.´
President Grumman chuckled; she knew he had heard her say this a million times over the years, and there was an element of self-parody in repeating it now. She knew she'd accept the offer. She didn't really have anything better to do.
`But you have been such a great help to me over the years,´ he said. `You are not going to leave a frail old man to fend for himself in this scary city. Are you?´
Rebecca rolled her eyes. She might not be a career soldier but she was doing a good job of getting promoted without meaning to.
In truth, though, she could not imagine herself as something other than Grumman's subordinate. It had been too many years. Secretly she was very proud he made it to President, of course. As if she had somehow contributed to it. Which she had.
`But it's much better now,´ Ross is saying. `There's been a great improvement in communication since the last time I had to make this journey.´
`You mean this was worse?´ Rebecca finds it hard to believe it.
`We try,´ Mustang says from the passenger seat, his voice is almost official, like in campaign. `There's been a great deal of advance in the technology of the cars. They are better equipped to make the trip. And we've tried to make some roads but...´
`Roads tend to get eaten by the sand,´ their driver adds. It might very well be the first time he's spoken since he picked them up in the frontier.
`Yes,´ Mustang concedes. `And the railway project is has changed everything but it will take years before it's completed...´
`We cannot keep driving into the desert. The car will be useless in a few hours,´ Ross declares.
`So?´ Rebecca inquires.
`We can go up to a certain point,´ the driver explains, `after which...´
She fills in the gaps.
`We'll have to go on animals.´
The other three seem to find her horror extremely amusing; she thinks she even sees Maria Ross grinning from the corner of her eye but when she turns around the woman is thoughtfully looking out of the window.
They have to spend a night in the open, camping in the desert. The old academy skills come in handy when she has to help put on the tent. She doesn't feel much like a soldier these days. The silence of the desert –full of buzzing of insects, small animals scratching their way underground, the constant hiss of sand being carried by wind– unnerves her.
`The first time I crossed the desert I was taken aback by the hopelessness of the journey,´ Ross tells her that night. `It was so hard and it felt like it was never going to end. I was quite naïve before that, I had never done something so difficult. But there was going back. If I went back I would be killed. My life was no longer my own and so I knew I could endure it.´
Rebecca knows the story, of course. Riza, who is never one to boast about her own involvement in the revolution, told her a long time ago. How Maria Ross had been framed for the murder of Maes Hughes, to throw Mustang off the scent of the real culprits. But he and his men suspected foul play and got Ross out of Amestris to save her life. Rebecca knew the story before she even became a close acquaintance of Maria Ross'.
In the desert even usually laconic people embark on long monologues, as if one should not waste the sound of words out here and needed to make them mean something.
`I'm so glad to see a familiar face around here.´
She approached Maria Ross in her first visit to the cafeteria in headquarters for lunch. It was so different from the one she was used to in East, more of a familiar affair. Here there were lines and lines of tables stacked very close together to maximize the – huge – space. She had felt quite lost as she opened the door to that big hall. Upon seeing Ross sat, alone, eating, she felt the rush of sympathy one might have for an old war comrade, many years after the war is over. War comrade was a fitting description, Rebecca supposed.
`You are not wearing a uniform,´ she remarks.
`I'm still waiting for the papers to be processed. It's not easy giving me back my rank. I was a dead woman until recently. And before that, I was a murderer.´
Rebecca smiled. Yes, resurrections must take up a lot of paperwork.
The Imperial City is built upon many, earlier version of the city, so that when a stranger approaches it the different parts jar and one does not feel like the city has ever been at peace with itself. In a way the city reflects the different royal families making war against each other, for often new emperors have tried to erase all traces of the previous heirs, knocking down palaces and rebuilding them to suit their particular tastes.
The Yao family has always been famous for their domes, the spiral staircases leading to them, the flag at the highest point of the city.
As they enter the city Rebecca looks up, the Imperial palace almost rolled open at their feet. The city at their backs – food stalls with yellow fruit Rebecca has never seen, the chatter of commerce, children playing and the sound of a language she does not speak – seems to keep silence as soon as they pass through the finely carved doors of the royal residence. Xing is a poorer country than Amestris but Rebecca compares this place to the humble office from which the Amestris government makes decisions and can't help but feel amused. Mustang, no doubt, must be thinking something along those lines.
`Your Highness,´ he calls, not without humour, to the young Emperor.
But it's Ling Yao and his bodyguard, a slender girl – Lan Fan, Rebecca remembers the name – bowing to them, the visitors now. Inside the palace is cool and pleasant and she can barely imagine the desert right now.
The Emperor fixes them a cheerful glance and extends his hands to them.
`How good you came right now, friends,´ he says. `You are just in time for the Ceremony of the Painting of the Eyes.´
`The Painting of the Eyes...´
She looks at Ross for a clue but Ross shrugs.
There is s particular ceremony whenever a new holy statue is finished. The last thing to be done are the eyes. The eyes are what gives life to the figure and they are done by a different person than the rest of the statue. In ancient times it used to be the Emperor who painted in the eyes but now it's a specialized craftsman or craftswoman. A strict ritual is undertaken: the artists has to fast for three days before the painting of the eyes and wake up before dawn for a week to make himself holy enough to give life to the statue.
Rebecca and the rest of the envoy are ushered into a candle-lit room in the palace. A wiry old man in long sleeves is crouched before the statue. He is dressed like a prince, jewelled, groomed. Besides him a young girl is holding a tray with brushes, black paint, and a mirror.
`The artists is not allowed to look the statue directing in the face while he pains, nobody should look at something holy being created,´ the Emperor whispers. `He has to use a mirror. And then when he is finished we feast and we party for three days.´
Xing's calendar is full of celebrations, quirky inheritances, forgotten names, quasi-religious contemplations and baffling feasts. For the people of Amestris, the newly formed atheist republic, it could be quite confusing. Emperor Yao has abolished many of the old customs (mainly those dealing with war between competing families backstabbing each other to gain the throne) and his few years in the capacity has gained some fame as a radical monarch. But he still likes the days of feasting and the pomp and joy commemorating old glories, he likes the comfort of complex rituals.
It is the first time Rebecca lets herself be charmed by Xing, as she watches the artist turn his face away from the statue he is painting. She inhabits a world without this kind of comforts; a new world where men is left alone, no gods or rituals like this to fall back on. Yes, for a moment she feels drawn to this other world, how the light from hundreds of candles make the jewels in the artist's bracelet shimmer.
Inside the palace a familiar face finds them.
`Ah, Miss Chang,´ Mustang calls over to the lively figure of a young woman sprinting towards them, a passing guard hissing no running in palace to no effect.
`You are early. We didn't expect you until next week.´
`The journey has been nice and swift.´
Nice and swift? Those are not the two words Rebecca would use to describe their trip.
`When was the last time I saw you? A year ago?´ Mustang studies the figure of the tall girl. `Were you this gorgeous then? I swear you get more beautiful every time we meet each other.´
Rebecca and Ross exchange a look of scepticism but the girl seems to enjoy the attention.
`You saw each other last year?´ Ross inquires. Rebecca remembers, vaguely, Mei visiting the office months ago.
`Miss Chang comes to Amestris very often,´ the President explains.
`Don't say it like that!´
`Like I have a secret.´
`Well, it's no secret.´
Again the women look at each other, feeling left out of the joke, but then a guard comes to tell them that their bedrooms are ready and Rebecca almost jumps at the word bedroom.
`We can have a bath!´
After the uncomfortable days crossing the desert a bath for Rebecca is the greatest achievement of civilization. She opens the window of the room she is to share with Ross and the sunset light makes it look even grander.
`Now this is a proper diplomatic mission,´ she comments. `A palace! A bath! Look at these beds!´
Ross is just outside, counting the steps between their room and President's Mustang.
`We have two soldiers from Amestris with us, and Emperor Yao has assigned two of his best guards to accompany us. Nothing bad is going to happen.´
The other woman paces back to the room and closes the door behind her.
`You are right,´ she says.
`Of course I'm right. Stop worrying.´
Ross walks over to examine her bed. The room is huge. She runs her fingers over the stitches in the pillows, a look of contentment comes over her. For all her trying to play the tough woman here Rebecca knows she is just as thankful for these worldly comforts.
`It's just –´ Ross starts, her back turned to her companion. `I don't have that much experience as bodyguard. Not a good experience, anyway. I don't know what I should do. To be honest I'm not so sure why the President called me here with him. There must be many other soldiers more capable for this task. I don't think I have the patience to be a bodyguard.´
`It's a long trip. Maybe he wanted someone he could trust completely,´ Rebecca says. The other woman turns to her, unconvinced. `Maybe he wanted to travel with someone he likes, someone fun.´
Ross frowns, her nose wrinkling, as if she is not too used to being associated with the word “fun”. Then, something gentle in her eyes as she stares at Rebecca, as if saying I am fun, I'm just too busy to show it. And Rebecca wonders if what she has just said applies to herself. Mustang could have chosen someone else to come with him, someone closer.
They never became friends in Central City.
It seemed like there was always too much to do. Rebecca didn't know, when she accepted the job, that being the subordinate of President Grumman would be so much more work than being the subordinate of General Grumman. And Ross, once she officially came back from the dead, always seemed equally busy. The way she flew through promotions, one would think the woman was in a hurry.
Rebecca invited her to go out to some bar a couple of nights but Ross always had something to do.
`I'm beginning to think you have a boyfriend and won't tell me,´ she accused during lunch one day. They still had lunch pretty regularly, despite the disparity in their schedules.
Ross shook her head, almost a smile there for a moment.
`When am I going to meet someone?´ Rebecca's whine about men had become quite a joke by now. `Hey, you must know some good man. Single? And rich?´
`As a matter of fact I do,´ Ross teased as they both saw Alex Louis Armstrong approach their table, face lit up in joy upon seeing the two women.
The first night of feast after the ceremony of the Painting of the Eyes is luxurious.
The artist is served first, even before the Emperor – one of the very few occasions in which this happens – and there are games and exhibitions prepared for everyone. A long golden rope is tied to both ends of the banqueting hall and an expert acrobat makes a show of the old art of Xing. President Mustang and his envoys are also honoured but their arrival has taken a backseat, with all the fuss about the holy statue and its eyes.
As the feast continues they retire to a more private corner to dine. The Emperor has to preside all entertainments but even Lan Fan is given a moment of respite from her obligations and she joins the table where Ross, Rebecca, Roy and Mei are eating.
As their conversation moves to the subject of their families – and the intricate Xing bloodlines, curling and rebelling like a wild river – Rebecca realizes that she is in the company of orphans. Of all the presents she is the only one with both her parents alive. She knows from Maria's file that her mother died when she was a teenager and Mustang was brought up by an aunt, when he was orphaned at a very early age. She hears the stories of her new companions: Lan Fan was brought up by her grandfather, and Mei Chang happily declares she brought herself up, mostly, though distant relatives and neighbours helped. Think about the saying it takes a village to raise a child and you'd be very near understanding her childhood.
Then President Mustang is called over to present the gifts from Amestris to Emperor Yao himself.
`Maybe here I could meet some rich man to marry,´ Rebecca looks around her, winking at Ross.
`You've been saying that since I've known you but you still haven't married anyone,´ the other woman replies.
`I'm marrying Alphonse Elric,´ Mei declares very suddenly. Lan Fan very subtly arches an eyebrow. The younger girl blushes a bit but tells Ross and Rebecca: `Well, I am. Someday. So then I'll be a citizen of Amestris like you.´
`Hopefully that's not the only reason you'll marry him,´ Ross teases.
`Oh, no, it's not.´
Rebecca turns to Lan Fan, suddenly emboldened with the conspirational mood of their table.
`And you, Lan Fan? You are older than Mei. Do you think about marriage?´
The girl straightens her back, clearing her throat. She looks alarmingly solemn when she replies.
`As a Imperial Guard I won't ever marry. If I married I would have children and I would be unable to perform my duty for a time. It's out of the question.´
`But you'll be unable to perform your duty as you get... you know, old.´
`My grandfather was an excellent warrior even when past seventy. And he died fighting, trying to stop King Bradley. I will honour him by being just as capable when I'm an old woman.´
`But you could marry the Emperor,´ Mei adds.
`Oooooh.´ Ross and Rebecca are both excited by this development.
`Shut up, Mei.´
`But you could.´
`Even talking about such matters is treason.´
`Arg, give me a rest.´
Hanging out with young girls is quite fun, Rebecca thinks, as she watches Mei joke-punches Lan Fan in the arm, the bodyguard stiff with surprise at the other girl's lack of manner. Inside the palace. And at such an important date.
Their days they spend in the capital are uneventful, for the most part.
President Mustang spends his hours locked in reunions, maps between him and the Xing experts, negotiating trade routes, military agreements, cultural and technological exchanges. Rebecca herself has to meet with many a powerful counsellor, as the responsible for public relations of the Amestris government. A grand title and though she has been doing this sort of thing for a couple of years she still cannot get her head around its importance. She feels helpful, but exhausted.
Ross has not much to do, in contrast. Mustang's reunions take hours and she lets the other guards stand by the closed meeting rooms while she paces up and down the palace, explores the land surrounding it, talks to Mei Chang.
It goes on and on.
The best part are the breakfasts. President Mustang, Rebecca and Ross enjoy the meal in a private hall, in the eastern wing of the palace, sunlight beautifully coming up to touch pale stone so gingerly. Mustang leafing through some book on Eastern alchemy or writing a letter as he eats and Ross checking the day's schedule again and again until she memorizes it. The palace cook even asked if there was some Amestris food they wanted specially prepared for them, something typical of their country's cuisine. The three of them looked very confused at the question. Amestrian cuisine? Maybe sausages, Rebecca adventured.
The palace breakfast would do much more nicely. The people in Xing were very fond of watery fruit in the mornings, and that, with the dry climate of this part of the country, suits them just fine. By their fourth day in the capital it has almost become a habit, this meal shared by the three of them, maybe the only quiet moment they can all share in the busy day.
Today, though, Rebecca notices her President joining her and Ross with a somehow unhappy expression. She is sure he is not aware of it, but the man has no poker face whatsoever.
`You look tired,´ she tells him. Because he does. Not physically – she has seen him tired, it's not like this. `Don't tell me – you are homesick.´
He gives her a subtle nod. A smile.
`I miss Riza,´ he says simply.
She and Ross look at him as if he has just said something alarming, something very disappointing.
Rebecca rolls her eyes: `You men don't have any kind of stamina whatsoever. Can't you spend a couple of weeks without whining?´
Mustang shakes his head, but concedes the point. His expression is bright now. Rebecca thinks back on her words to Ross: Maybe he wants someone fun.
`You are very right,´ he says, straightening up in his seat and attacking the honey-covered pears in front of him. `It's quite embarrassing. Please don't tell her.´
`Of course I'll tell Riza. I'm her friend, I'll tell her and we'll have a good laugh at your expense.´
`I am your President. I could make you swear secrecy.´
Ross laughs at the scene. This is probably the first time I see her laugh openly, Rebecca thinks.
The first time Riza visited her in Central after the uprising, after the change of regime, she had a good laugh making fun of her old friend's lack of consistency.
`You said you were going to retire,´ Riza argued.
They were pacing the grounds behind Grumman's residence –a presidential residence now, mind you, and Riza seemed to find it even more amusing than she did, how her grandfather had become the most powerful man in Amestris almost by accident. They both were happy that day, with sunlight on the garden, while their two bosses had tea together.
`I was going to retire,´ Rebecca told her. `But I could not let an ailing old man fend for himself. Could I?´
Riza giggled, as if she had a secret.
`I think, Rebecca, that you want people to believe you have no ambition. But I think you do. You are very ambitious.´
There was something patronizing about the way she said it. Maybe she thought Rebecca wasn't aware of the extent of her ambition. Maybe Riza was right, that day. Maybe it would take years before Rebecca realized what she meant.
They are here for a reason; they cannot linger in the capital. Mustang wants to see the condition of the country beyond the imperial city. The northern face of Xing, the impoverished part of the kingdom. A proper presidential visit, including outposts, forgotten trails, decaying towns.
`I want an engineer to go with you on the trip,´ Emperor Yao tells them. `He will be your guide. His name is Ling too so you can trust he is an honest man. I need to find out how much it would cost the country to extend the irrigation scheme to the North.´
He dispatches two royal guards to accompany them in the journey. It's still a small affair: President Mustang, three Amestris soldiers including Ross, and Rebecca, and now three men from Xing.
`I also want Mei to go with you,´ the Emperor adds.
`Is that so?´ Mustang asks not Ling Yao but the girl.
`She has an interest in the history of those parts.´
`Xing alchemy is not a unified theory, I've discovered,´ she tells the visitors. `Each regions have different ways of applying the energy of the earth for medical purposes.´
Mustang stands back, impressed: `Are you writing a book?´
`I have offered her the position of royal physician many times but...´
`I am not a doctor! I have an interest in history and of course I want to learn to better my skills but I wouldn't assume –´
`She will go with you, anyway,´ Yao seems to consider the subject closed. `That is, if you can stand the company of a brat...´
The city is not ripe with luxury, exactly, beyond their comforts inside the palace, but Rebecca predicts that harsh days on the road await them. So she indulges in a mid-day bath before they leave for wilder landscapes.
She sees Lan Fan giving Mei a bundle of small, yellow flowers, and saying something to her with a very serious expression on her face. But something in her eyes becomes soft, a glimpse of something Rebecca has never seen in the imperial bodyguard until now. Mei nods and says her farewell.
`What was that?´ Rebecca inquires when Mei joins the convoy, hinting at the flowers the girl still holds in her hand.
`Oh, these are the flowers that signify those who serve the Emperor most loyally,´ she explains, saying the name in Xingese, because it has no translation, a sharp, short sound. `We are going to be passing by the village where Lan Fan's family comes from. All the imperial bodyguards to the Yao side have been born there for the last two hundred years. When the chosen child becomes four years old the member of the family holding the position takes a leave to go back to the village and take the child to the capital. Lan Fan's grandfather went to fetch her when she was four and she has not been there since. She asked me to offer these flowers at the village's temple, to honour Fuu.´
Once she saw Maria Ross buying flowers at a roadside stall in Central, meeting her by mistake.
`Where are you going with those?´
Ross seemed to hesitate, deciding if she should let Rebecca know or perhaps keep it to herself.
`I'm going to the cemetery,´ she told her finally. Rebecca felt she could guess the reason, but let Ross say it anyway. `Visit Lt- Brigadier General Hughes' grave. I haven't been since I've returned to Central. I think I was putting it off.´
Rebecca didn't know what to say. She didn't have much experience of death in people close to her. She had been lucky, she guessed, unlike many of her friends.
`He was my superior,´ Ross talked on, as if to herself. `He was well-liked. We all liked him but... you know, I wish I had known him better. I feel a bit fake buying these flowers, going to see his grave.´
`Do you want me to come with you?´
Ross didn't have to think about it.
`No. Thank you but no. I want to go alone.´
She suspects that Ross knows more about Xing than she lets on. She can see it in the way the other woman trusts the trail they travel on, the way her body relaxes against the curves of the path, and she doesn't seem disturb by the wind or the sand or the heat.
`My time in the country was not long,´ she tells Rebecca. `But it did leave a mark.´
On their breaks the two Palace guards show the two soldiers from Amestris and Ross movements from their ancient techniques, how to become part of the breeze so that your enemy doesn't hear you arrive behind him.
It was Mustang's idea of economy, perhaps, but he had called both Rebecca and Maria Ross to a meeting together. He was in Central just for a few hours.
Still Rebecca thought it was strange, that each of them could hear the other's reply to Mustang's offer to work with him. “We are all old friends here” he had said as way of an explanation.
`Thank you. I am very grateful that you thought of me. But I wish to remain in the Army.´
Rebecca had been very surprised to hear Ross, who always said she owed her life to Roy Mustang, rejecting him like that. But the man didn't seem hurt; he and Ross exchange a private look and it was as if he knew her answer before he even came in the room.
Rebecca was even more surprised to hear what would be, ultimately, her own answer.
`You want me to be your campaign manager? Are you a fool? I have no idea about politics, no skills...´
`You are good with people,´ he had said and it had sounded very definitive. `You are smart and lively and I think you can help us, better than anyone, raise the money we need for the campaign.´
Better than anyone... It didn't sound like he was flattering her. He seemed to believe this madness.
`But I have a life in Central,´ she said. `I would have to move again and...´
`So you accept the offer?´ he pressed, but it was obvious he was almost grinning by this point.
Rebecca nodded, uncharacteristically modest. She thought it was weird that Ross was present for the conversation, that this woman who was almost a friend but not quite was witness to this decision.
`Our country is very fertile in the East and the South,´ their guide, Ling-who-must-be-a-good-man-because-he-shares-the-name-with-the-Emperor, is telling them. `We have an opening to the sea, fishing villages.´
Rebecca had been surprised to find considerably-fresh fish on their table the first night they dined in the palace.
`But the North...´ the man goes on, a gesture of pain. `It's very much like the Great Desert but with cold. And mountains, made of rock, impenetrable. It's the oldest part of Xing, where the first settlers are said to come from. Well, you will see.´
Now they enter a part of the country where few people speak the language of Amestris and Mei and the guide Ling double as improvised translators.
Here some winds are like old friends, they always come back; some years they come back late, some years they arrive, unexpectedly, months before they promised. There is a particular kind of wind that blows for 171 days and can bury whole villages in its wake. In Xing they call it Lue and welcome him like a prodigal son.
`The capital of the Empire was decided by locating the place most safe from these capricious winds,´ Mei tells them. `They kept moving the city, escaping from nature.´
It is hard for them to tear Mei from the needs at hand and to the next village; she always wants to stay, to help, and even though she still claims she is “nothing like a doctor” there are place where they don't have the kind of knowledge that she can offer. She lingers. The guide hurries her. Mustang, like a father secretly charmed by his child, looks at her and chastises by just saying her name. She is too old for a tantrum but they come very short of having to drag her away.
`That girl makes me feel so humble some times,´ she confesses to Ross one day while they are posted outside a house of white chalk walls, Mei attending to somebody with a broken arm and Mustang inquiring about trade routes.
`What do you mean?´
`Well, she is so accomplished. Here she is – on a mission. She is trying to do so much for her country.´
`And that makes you feel self-conscious.´
`Come on, don't try to tell me you are not one of the top guys in the army. Your situation is quite enviable. I feel like a loser around so many accomplished people.´
`Are you talking seriously?´ Ross says. `You are – you are government. You helped out when the new Constitution was written. President Mustang always says how instrumental you were in his campaign.´
`Now if you put it like that...´
`You are obviously just fishing for compliments.´
Ross smirks, almost benevolent.
The spaces between villages are nights around warmth, companionship, thin soup, and dry fruit as desert, the daily search for some branches, wood to build a small fire.
Mei falls asleep on Mustang's shoulder, like a helpless child.
`She is exhausted,´ he says fondly, drawing a blanket over her, careful not to move and disturb her. She seems like a little, tiny thing now, much younger than she really is, tucked under the man's chin.
Everybody understands and seems to respect the girl's weariness. Most of them could not do what she has been doing.
The importance of names.
In the village where Lan Fan was born they meet an old woman said to use the old rites before Alkahestry, one last expert on medicinal plants and flowers. A very wise woman with a great culture. She gives them a tea made of nettles that makes their weariness go away almost completely, instantly.
`I used to be a fortune-teller,´ the woman tells them. They realize she is half-blind, and she gently runs her fingers across their wrists before placing the cup in their hands. `I could tell you the future through the meaning of your name. Back when names meant something.´
They all tell her their names, though Mei seems too preoccupied copying the recipe of the beverage in her book of sketches.
`The age of names is important,´ the old woman says. `Maria, Rebecca, those are old names. Religious. They have been for thousands of years. Archetypes. You carry the meaning of many women before you. Now Roy, that is young name. It is not, of course, a young word. You know this. But it hasn't been used to name people until recently. Mei was the name of an ancient river, now lost. Mei, your name is proof we have always been water people.´
They stay the night in her house, having arrived quite late, the days of journey difficult to schedule, now that the maps seem to falter in their accuracy, the distances mostly guessed, milestones lost or buried.
In the morning they take a good look at the village; much like the girl Lan Fan the place seems rough but honest. The houses are humble but it doesn't have the feeling of hopeless decay other villages they have travelled past these last few days. This village is alive. Rebecca wonders if someone in these simple houses of slate roofs lives a child, some relative of Lan Fan, waiting to be picked up to serve the Emperor, to be the next bodyguard of the line.
Mei Chang disappears for a while, the tiny yellow flowers in hand, into the village's old temple.
When she comes back, as they are preparing the animals to leave, she carries a small jar full of sand.
`I'm taking some of the village back to Lan Fan. So she can feel close to her land,´ she explains.
`You two are very close friends,´ Rebecca says and it sounds like a question, because she can hardly imagine two people as different as the two friends from Xing, as different as the stern, quiet bodyguard and this young woman, energetic and joyful and loud.
Mei seems to think about it for a moment: `We are family.´
Rebecca knows she is not talking about blood ties, for somehow the two girls seem to have escaped Xing's history of fratricide and familiar envies, the tangle of bloodlines and fealty to the Emperor.
Rebecca is no stranger to long journeys, to the transformative power of travelling day after day far from home.
She spent months on the road helping to get Roy Mustang elected.
But that was very different. For Mustang and his close circle – sometimes a circle of two, if only Riza accompanied him, sometimes, if other duties allowed them, Jean Havoc and Heymans Breda, like her out of the military, would go with them – were reserved the tiny villages, the southern settlements where people spoke a language very much like that of Aerugo's, the visits to retreating army posts now that the war with neighbour countries was no longer a threat, the rapidly growing small cities of the west, industrializing.
Rebecca's role in the whole thing was different. There were always trains and decent hotel. She at least deserved that, since she was the one making sure they had enough money to continue with the campaign. There hadn't been an election in Amestris for so long that the habits of democracy were completely forgotten, Rebecca had to invent them from scratch. She met with mayors, with newly-appointed Parliamentarians overseeing the last days of transition, lawyers who had been helping come up with the new constitution. The demilitarization of the country meant that now local government held most of the power and there is where Rebecca went to secure support for the Mustang campaign.
She didn't mind it so much, being on the road. She wasn't extremely homesick – after all, she no longer had a clear idea where her home was any more. But she didn't love it. She wasn't cut out for long journey, no matter how comfortable.
She believed this then.
As they make their way north the nights become colder and the landscape turns to rock, but not green. They eat their dinner hunched around the fire now, blankets over their shoulders. They seem in a hurry to go to sleep, so that the time until the sun warms them again feels shorter.
Their guide turns out to be a meticulous man who checks that the fire is properly put out before they retire. He doesn't want to attract desert animals that might come over on the promise of leftovers – it's not a dangerous part of the country but he'd rather not have their bags raided.
Rebecca feels comforted by his caution, and watches the man kick sand into the dying fire.
`Are you not coming to sleep?´ she asks Ross when she sees the other woman linger.
`I'll stay guard a bit longer.´
`I don't think that's necessary,´ Mustang tells her gently.
`Nobody is going to organize an assassination attempt out here, you paranoid madwoman,´ Rebecca is a bit more harsh in her approach to the situation.
`The night is full of noises, is it not,´ the guide tells Ross.
She seems to struggle with the answer, as if having just been found out, caught: `Yes.´
`Wild dogs. They are nocturnal. But don't worry, they are polite dogs. They will not kill an important diplomatic visitor.´
Ross smiles back at the guide. Finally she lets Rebecca lock one arm with hers and drag her to the tent they share, come on, madwoman.
They come upon the last stop in the journey, far north and far east, but not beyond the limits of civilization. Whatever lies beyond this one last town is explorer's land, and it's not for them, foreign visitors, to trespass.
Here and there they find broken stones, a trail of it leading to the edge of the skeletal village, a remnant of a great wall.
`What is this?´
This time it's not the guide but Mei who knows the story: `Hundreds of years ago, when the desert started eating these villages, they tried to build a wall to keep the wind away. To stop the advance of the sand.´
There must have been a green and fertile land here too, once. Rebecca feels saddened by the hopelessness of villagers trying to defend their lands with weapons, swords and slingshots against the dust, only to be interred and defeated by sand.
That night they cannot sleep.
`After the revolt, after everything calmed down I went to East City and stayed there for a bit. You know this.´
`Yes. Riza told me.´
`I was giving myself some time to think about things, and I couldn't have done it in Central. We were helping Jean Havoc get back on his feet, literally. I was hanging out with them all the time, you know, Breda, Riza, President Mustang. It felt good, being one of the guys. So when Mustang offered me a position in his administration... it would have been very easy to say yes. It would have been comfortable and maybe I would have been happy. But it's not what I wanted to do. I wanted to stay in the Army. And I knew I could be of much more help as a soldier. I owe it to the people to had helped me to be honest with myself.´
`I was a good soldier. You wouldn't know to look at me but I was really good. Very skilled with guns. Quick. Cold-blooded. A real warrior. The easiest option would have been to keep at it, I guess. I was very confused when I was offer a political job. I didn't think I could do it. But because I didn't think I could do it I did it. I don't know if I like challenges but I liked this one. I'm happy. I'm very good at what I do now too. And I don't even worry too much that no rich man has proposed to me.´
In the darkness she can hear the soft sounds of Ross' chuckling.
`No rich man has proposed to you yet.´
`The night is young.´
`We still have the journey back.´
They laugh and suddenly it's just fine that they cannot sleep.
The journey back to the imperial city is done, mostly, in silence. Something has shifted between all of them. The nights are still full of tales and songs and people huddled sharing a blanket, passing a mug of tea around the fire.
They pack their things while Mustang is paying one last visit to Emperor Yao before the journey home.
Home. The word sounds strangers now than it did three weeks ago. Rebecca is not sure why but she feels that way.
`You know, when I met you I thought you were really cool,´ she tells Ross.
`Yes. A bit intimidating, actually. It took me years to realize – no, it took me this trip to see that you are really clumsy and uncool.´
`I...´ Ross blushes.
`No, I'm really glad you are not cool. Now we can be friends.´
Rebecca has learned something from Mei Chang and on their way back, before they arrive within the railway's reach, before Xerxes, before the desert becomes bearable, she stops and fills one small vial with sand.
Sand from the desert.
Sand from Xing.