The unknown South West, beyond Creta/south of Drachma
Edward had only just begun to win the trust of the people of the largest lumber city he’d come across in the south-western swamp country of Cojano. Not all that many pioneers had ventured there yet, and those that did brought more trouble than their coin was worth…or so Ed was informed over a pint at the tavern he’d taken up residence in. He hadn’t made much progress in his research yet. The small library the minor city boasted – how anyone could suffer to lock themselves in there for hours on end in that heat combined with the absurd density level – charged outrageous entry fees, and their alchemic text collection was small and so outdated that whoever would be stupid enough to experiment based on its instructions was just asking for some kind of rebound. Ed scoffed and picked at his sticky shirt, hoping to draw in some fresh air through the sweat-soaked cotton. His next stop after the library was the first shaded outdoor bar that served chilled cactus juice or something equally hydrating. He almost missed the weeks he’d spent crossing the frozen tundra of Føndăl with nothing but a stout horse and an incomprehensible, perpetually intoxicated old geezer as his companions.
Balanced on the back legs of a stained and battered wooden chair, Ed drained his third glass and skimmed through Alphonse’s latest letter, which he’d received half a year ago when he was still settled near the volatile border with Drachma. Alphonse’s memo told, with some smugness, about finally passing his mastery exam in alkahestry. He then went on to give Ed pointers on how to combine the famous Healer Huan’s array with Boehme’s inverted heptagonal design. Ed scribbled some additional notes in his fifth journal as he worked out his brother’s logic behind the suggested new formula. In theory, the method was sound. If it worked, it would hardly be a significant breakthrough, but it would still be one tiny step on the right path of their lives’ work. Alphonse’s vague mentions of an increase in crime had Ed wondering about Lin’s occupation, but overall he wasn’t too worried. Alphonse could take care of himself, and if someone so much as looked at him the wrong way, the bean girl (the young woman had finally gone through some growth spurts, but in Ed’s mind the nickname stuck) was likely to wipe the floor with them. So, Ed focussed on his research and made a mental note to return to the border with Aerugo, where Winry had set up another shop, in time for their seventh anniversary.
Edward dragged himself through clouds of dancing mosquitos back to the tavern for a hearty supper after his third interview with the infuriatingly stubborn local medicine woman. He had to put up with her, if he wanted to exchange any information from the rum-runner city. The woman knew her craft, presumably at least as well as the handful of trained medical staff at the hospital, who had one and all quoted patient confidentiality and booted him out the door. Ed shoved thoughts of backwater xenophobes to the back of his mind when his nose picked up on the smell of spit-roasted beef. He was only carving into his first slice of succulent meat with the hunting knife that passed as full cutlery set in this part of town when the harried messenger found him. At first glance, the oldest grocer in town only had business with a bottle of spirits when he settled on the barstool next to Edward. However, the work-hardened man turned out to be a friend of the uncle of a regular at Havoc’s general store. The man cajoled Ed into buying him another drink and then ranted about the price of ore and how their corn harvest sale suffered from the grain-based stock coming in from the East. The man’s connections and his ability to speak in double meanings that just reeked of Roy Mustang’s code of communication had Ed commandeering the nearest phone in town from a completely bewildered and outrageous postal clerk.
Dawn the next morning had Edward backtracking east through humid mountainous terrain to the nearest half-abandoned train station. The only scheduled train for that day would be a military freight, but having once been part of Greelin’s posse, Ed had learned a thing or two about hitching a free ride on top of cargo trains. A precious water flask and lumps of bread and goat’s cheese entertained Ed as snippets of last evening’s noise—filled conversation replayed in his mind. To anyone unfamiliar with the General’s code, the pair of them had a ruffled but meaningless chat about homeless bums chatting up women; however, the picture painted by the true meaning of Mustang’s message was odd and alarming enough to send Edward packing straightaway.
“The Emperor-in-waiting doesn’t give any specifics in his missive, but he says his new quest might be of interest to you, and that he will meet you in Ishval. Anything involving Xing in their current state of unrest and a meeting in the Holy Land of Ishval is cause for concern. It doesn’t matter that you’re just a civilian now; you remain a former State Alchemist. These people have seen the layout of most of this country. They know that our current blind spot lies in the east, tied up as our regiments are in the south and north.”Mustang’s tone was terse. He was, after all, the head authority on the Independent Ishvalan Republic creation effort, and its slow progress – both legislative as well as in trade and labour – left a bitter taste in his mouth, especially in such a tactically unsound situation as this new one.“As long as they are left in peace, the Ishvalan settlers grant anyone unobstructed passage. Of late, more Amestrians have been spotted in the trading caravans leaving for and coming from the east. I need you to keep your eyes and ears open in this venture of yours,” General Mustang debriefed.
Before Ed could retort on how Mustang should save his breath and would be better off contacting Alphonse if the General wanted insight into Xingese tactical thinking, Mustang cut to the crux of the matter.
“Breda informs me that Lin left the Imperial City three months ago and is now travelling with a caravan across the Great Desert. Odd, don’t you think, for the crown prince of all Xing to personally go traipsing with merchants and legal aliens to meet up with you of all people, when not even a year has passed since the annexation of the last opposing clan.”
Ed’s grumbles about “gluttonous, squinty-eyed idiots who should really know better than to stick their nose in things that don’t concern them” were ignored.
“Pay attention, Fullmetal.” Ed’s spine automatically straightened in response to Mustang’s ‘commander of the army’ tone, even as the blond cursed conditioned habits. “The first report had us convinced that you and your brother were part of that merry band, along with your clones. Alphonse, however, has a solid alibi and is sadly tied up in a zhichí yàz shōmyeong ritual.”
The dialect of the Xingese clans rolled without a hitch off Mustang’s tongue. Ed almost wished the General would choke on the lyrical language. He snarled at the underlying threat to his family when, for once, he hadn’t even done anything. Ed reined in his temper with a huff. “See if I’m ever nice to your offspring. Spit it out, Mustang. What is the real threat here?”
“I need you to report back to me on this venture. I need an agent I can trust with that caravan now that they’ll be reaching Ishval. When I said, ‘your clones’, I meant just that. At least a dozen people bearing a strong resemblance to both you and Alphonse are travelling with the prince, leading them. Last time Amestris saw anyone other than you boys with that genetic makeup was your father and the homunculus Father. I need to know things haven’t changed too much in our alliance with Xing. The brass needs to know that Father didn’t have a back-up plan that’s come to bite us. Grumman has assured me his guard reported no suspicious activity whatsoever from Pride, but we can’t take the risk. As Lin asked for your assistance personally, you are my best bet on disaster control.”
Ed was already planning the quickest route back to Amestris while the General was still stating the obvious. Last time the homunculi had free movement, the country almost got wiped off the face of the earth. With involvement from Xing and even Ishval, the situation sounded more than a little disturbing. Ed would just have to crack some skulls together – starting with Lin’s – until things made sense and went back to normal.
The sharp whistle of the approaching freight train broke Ed out of his reverie. It was time to hitch a ride.
Dodging Amestrian border security was almost too easy; thanks to the network of people Ed was steadily expanding. A few solid bribes and the name of the right person mentioned got you almost anywhere, Ed had learned quickly.
Ed swapped another military cargo train for a paid third-class passenger coach in Central City.
In the end, it took another week for Ed to arrive in the Ishval region with the sun setting at his back. His detour to see Winry not only helped keep his marriage stable, but had the added bonus of an update to his automail leg to include a couple of recently developed cooling units for his trip across the desert. It would make a nigh impossible voyage bearable, depending on his current standing with Lin.
Keeping the hood of his cloak up, both for a modicum of secrecy and to avoid any potential trouble with the Ishvalans, Ed looked for the rumoured caravan at all stables and public houses, working his way to the center of the first township from the outskirts inward. Eventually he found RanFan, or rather; she spotted him, leaped down from a roof to block his path and led him back to an inn the prince was renting out. Ed was told to keep his cloak on, until he was in Lin’s presence.
All the secrecy made Ed just a tad nervous. He really had thought he and Lin were on the same page… so to find the prince relaxing and eating was a welcome sight. There was never such a reassurance that Lin was just plain old Lin as when he was overindulging in good food.
Lin cleared his fifth plate while RanFan positioned herself in front of the room’s only window and another guard took position outside their door. What passed for an ‘all clear’ sign by way of knocks on the door, the window and hand signs to the prince were given, before Lin motioned for Ed to take a load off.
Lin might have grown a lot as a politician; he still valued trust and openness among friends. Once the prince had assured himself of Ed’s continued loyalty - or at least camaraderie, he cut to the heart of the matter. Hearing his friend’s tale, Ed was both stunned at the miraculous reappearance of Xerxians, scathing about the Xingese superstition and relieved that he might (hopefully) put the worst fears of the Amestrian brass to rest.
“So, you’ll come with me then, to Xerxes?” Lin formulated it as a friendly request and probably would take no for an answer from Ed. Yet, since his return to Xing, how many people would really have told the prince no on anything? Ed would bet he could count the occurrences on one hand. Now, much more than in his youth, Ed realised that within a few short years, this man who was still younger than him would have absolute rule over an entire country. It must a huge burden. From what little Lin had told, this may be a traditional quest for him, but he also made it sound like his last chance at a vacation.
Ed nodded his consent and Lin smiled broadly. “Great, how good is your Xerxian? If I could drop the small army of interpreters,” a gross exaggeration for the three men he’d brought along, “then it would be just RanFan and you as my guards. It will make camouflage so much easier.”
Ed cocked an eyebrow. “Why would you want me to pose as your bodyguard?”
Lin waved a hand around dismissively. “Well, you worked for Greed once. Don’t tell me you can’t work for me, just this once?”
Ed waited him out. Lin conceded a small victory by explaining further. “From what I’ve gathered of the natives, RanFan and I will stand out terribly unless we cling to the shadows, but you, my dear friend, you would blend right in. Yet, if worse came to pass, technically you should fall under my judgement, not theirs.”
Ed opened his mouth and then closed it again. “You’re offering your protection?”
Lin leaned back in his seat, all calm confidence. “Naturally.”
“All right, then.” Ed offered his hand and with an answering grin they shook on a pact forged.
Then Lin got into practical matters. “It’s good that you brought your own clothes, but I’ve thought of something a little different for our trip and introductions.”
At this cue, RanFan stepped forward with a wrapped bundle, which Ed discovered contained an ornate dagger in a leather sheath, as well as the black pants with white sash and black hooded vest that were part of RanFan’s uniform, a metal arm guard and a white and red horned demon mask. Ed inspected the grotesque mask for a minute. “It’s bold,” he stated with a smirk, “I like it.”
 Trial to prove one’s worth to the clan head of one’s courted intended. I got this phrase by mixing phonetic letters of Korean, Chinese and Japanese randomly and can only hope it’s just gibberish and not an insult to someone’s parentage.