Riza Hawkeye had promised to meet Roy Mustang promptly at eight o’clock for the Qamari ambassador’s reception… and as far as Roy knew, it was the first time in her life that she had ever been late.
Not that he was going to hold it against her, he reflected wryly, as he lounged against a pillar within sight of the Qamari embassy’s front foyer. After all, it was probably also the first time in years that she’d had to find something formal to wear besides her uniform.
Qamar was a small and distant kingdom that had, until recently, been of little strategic importance to Amestris. However, new discoveries of oil in the Qamari desert had aroused the government’s interest in trade relations. They were going all-out to court the country’s diplomats now, opening a lavish new embassy for them, with this elaborate fête for a housewarming. Roy was among several prominent State Alchemists to be trotted out as part of the military’s welcoming committee.
On the other hand, the order to attend did not include an invitation for his trusted aide, Lieutenant Hawkeye—nor for any other female officers. Evidently the Qamari lived in a strict patriarchal society where women had almost no rights at all, and were most certainly not permitted to enlist in the military. It was feared that even the presence of a woman in uniform would offend the foreign dignitaries. Thus, while the higher-ups had populated the reception with several decorative and very attentive young ladies who were happy to serve their country in their own inimitable way, no women of actual rank were to be seen.
Ever faithful, Riza was not put off by her unspoken disinvitation, but proposed to be there in civilian dress instead. Roy was touched at first by her dedication to staying attentively by his side; but after thinking about it a little more, it felt uncomfortably like yet another one of her subtle insinuations that he was helpless without her.
Then again, maybe she just wanted to keep him from distracting the girls who were there to ply the Qamari.
Before Roy could dwell on the subject any further, one of the tall, ornate varnished-oak doors to the foyer swung open, heralding a new arrival. Hopeful that it might finally be Riza, he craned his neck to look past the milling crowd of guests…
And nearly swallowed his tongue.
The shade of blue Riza wore matched the color of her usual uniform almost exactly—but this garment took the form of a deceptively simple silk dress. Long and sleeveless, it showed off her exquisite white shoulders and hugged the rest of her closely in all the right places, and it was cleverly trimmed with gold braid that further mimicked the lanyards on a uniform jacket. Her blonde hair was pinned up much more painstakingly than usual, held in place by an elaborate network of gold-and-crystal barrettes and pins and other accessories Roy didn’t know the name for. In fact, Riza was uncharacteristically dripping with jewelry: a large gold locket hung around her neck, and heavy bracelets weighted her wrists. Even the discreet stud earrings she normally wore had been replaced by showy dangles.
It took her all of two seconds to spot her commander, and there was a faint little smirk on her lips as she glided toward him.
Suddenly aware of just how idiotic his expression must have been, Roy quickly struggled for composure. “Lieutenant. You… you look—”
“Thank you,” she said gracefully, taking mercy on him before he could completely fail to find words, and the wry twist of her lips softened into something gentler. “But maybe you shouldn’t address me by rank in front of the Qamari, sir.”
“Ah. Right.” Roy tried to keep a swallow from turning into a gulp. “…Riza.”
She smiled just a little as she drifted past him, looking over the room with her incorrigibly tactical eye, and he felt almost magnetically compelled to follow.
It was sort of funny, really. When she was in uniform, bearing the lesser stripes of her rank, he had no trouble remembering that he was the one in charge; but seeing her now, like this, it suddenly felt as if she was the one who possessed all the power in the world.
She looked just as good going as she had coming, he noted. A few other men in the vicinity were already eyeing her. Part of him almost wished some poor sap who’d had too much champagne might try a move on her, because, diplomacy be hanged—the outcome would be so immensely entertaining.
For Roy’s part, perhaps the situation would not be without its advantages. Riza might not turn him down this time, if he asked her to dance with him. He had tried once or twice before, at similar deadly-dull official functions; but she had been in uniform then, and politely declined with the excuse that she didn’t feel it was appropriate.
Perhaps it would be different now. Perhaps the very feel of that sizzling dress would melt her reserve a little… Or perhaps in front of the Qamari, who expected women to be obedient to men, she would consent purely for the sake of fostering good foreign relations.
…Okay, probably not. But a guy could hope, anyway.
A step ahead of Roy, Riza halted, and gave him a sidelong glance over her shoulder. “Ambassador Tahir and his entourage, I presume.”
Roy looked forward, and murmured an affirmative. The Ambassador and his staff were arranged on and around the low couches near the center of the room, clearly enjoying the company of the young ladies in attendance—who seemed to be very good at dodging wandering male hands, Roy gave them that. Meanwhile, the Qamari security guards were trying hard to look as if they were paying no attention to the local attractions, and were being watchful instead.
Physically, the Qamari were tall, bronze-skinned, dark-haired gents. Nearly all of them were bearded. The diplomatic staff themselves wore rich ceremonial robes and gold chains, while the guards were dressed in stiff, austere white uniforms and turbans.
“They certainly look capable,” Riza said in a low voice, regarding the towering, muscular figures of the guards.
“At least according to Ambassador Tahir, Qamari soldiers are among the world’s toughest fighters,” Roy replied absently. “I heard a rumor that each of those security officers has a dozen deadly weapons concealed on his person.”
“I’m sure they easily could.”
There was just the faintest hint of something odd in Riza’s otherwise cool, detached voice. Something a bit—underwhelmed, perhaps—and it gave Roy a sudden feeling of unease. He turned to eye her dubiously.
“…You’re not carrying a dozen deadly weapons on your person, are you?”
Slowly, Riza looked at him. Her neutral expression did not change, but one blonde eyebrow arched slightly, as if in mild offense. “Of course not, sir.”
Well, then. Perhaps, after all…
But Roy Mustang knew his Lieutenant far too well.
For a long moment, as she studied the Qamari guards, he studied her. His eyes ranged over the sparkling jewelry, the slim dress that seemed to leave no underlying curve to the imagination; and then he swallowed very hard, managing to find his voice with some difficulty.
“How many weapons are you carrying?”
Riza returned his gaze with ironclad steadiness. Her bare shoulders squared almost imperceptibly, her eyes filling with a lofty professional pride.
…And for the rest of the evening, Roy was too terrified to ask Riza to dance, lest something accidentally stab him or explode.
© 2011 Jordanna Morgan