“We’re still getting reports from Yousewell that are . . . somewhat suspect,” Grumman said as he moved his bishop to block the path of Roy’s rook. “But Central doesn’t seem concerned. I don’t think they’ve even read the last two memos I sent.”
Roy took his time considering the board. “The last unit they sent out that way never made it.”
“Yes, and we know how that worked out.”
Roy made his move and declared a “Check. I highly doubt the loss of men has made them gun-shy. You know we’re just battlefield fodder to them.”
“Some of us more than others,” Grumman said as he blocked the play. “What concerns me now is that they’ve been leaving us alone.”
That had been bothering Roy as well. He hadn’t expected his reports to be accepted by the generals so easily. “One might think they had something else on their minds.”
“It does seem that way.” He countered Roy’s last move and declared “Checkmate.” He smiled at Roy’s indignant frown. “Looks like the brass aren’t the only ones preoccupied right now.”
Roy sighed and leaned back in his chair. “I’m . . . still a bit shaken. That’s all.”
“Mmm. I don’t envy you there,” Grumman said as he cleaned up the board. “But would this have more to do with what didn’t make it into your report?”
Roy stared hard at his superior. He trusted Grumman more than any other general, but that wasn’t saying much. “It’s nothing the military doesn’t already have knowledge of,” he measured out.
“Hm. Officially or unofficially?”
He smirked at the move.
Grumman idly tapped a piece against the table. “Hm. . . . You’re one of the alchemists who got one of those ‘amplifiers’ during the war, aren’t you?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“It wasn’t hard to figure out from the damage and casualty reports,” Grumman elaborated. “Even if I hadn’t been a field commander then.”
“I wanted to know more, of course. It concerned me. Throwing around that much power. But when I enquired back at Central, General Raven sidestepped the question and asked me how I would like to have an immortal army.”
It took all of Roy’s discipline not to react.
“I suppose he didn’t like my answer.”
“If I may, Sir?”
“‘Immortality is useless.’ Must have sounded less than enthusiastic.” He placed the piece in its proper cubby with the others. “Right after that I got pulled from field command and transferred out here. You know the East is one of their dumping grounds, right?”
“I had had my suspicions,” Roy admitted.
“Anyone they don’t want to deal with. Anyone who loses favor or whose vision doesn’t align with theirs. The Brass dumps them here. Here or Briggs.”
“Get the undesirable ones out of the way and keep them busy with the two most volatile regions of the country?”
“That seems to be the idea.”
“Still, it doesn’t seem very wise to group all your potential dissenters in one place.”
“Not unless there’s some reason for them to think those dissenters couldn’t be a threat.”
Roy fell quiet, everything Ed had told him playing over in his mind once again. It seemed to have been all he thought about for weeks now.
“I can’t help but wonder,” Grumman continued, “if those unusual creatures you hinted at in your report are connected to that ‘immortal army’ Raven tried to temp me with.”
“I couldn’t say, Sir,” Roy hedged. “But . . . I do have some reason to suspect that they’re tied somehow to those—‘experimental substances’ we had the privilege of ‘testing’ back in Ishval.”
Grumman nodded. The old man looked tired, but Roy didn’t miss the shrewd calculation in his eyes.
“It’s a heavy accusation to throw around—”
“I haven’t made any accusations, Sir.”
“No. Of course you haven’t. You’ve been very careful about that.”
The general was watching him with fond amusement, and finally Roy acknowledged the play with a smirk.
“But as I was saying, if any part of this is true—we’re going to have our work cut out for us.”
Grumman dismissed him with a wave. “Now get back to your team. Tell them to stop slacking off and leave for the day.”
He suppressed a grin as he stood and saluted.
The talk weighed on him as he walked back to the office. It was one thing to entertain his own paranoid suspicions, but quite another to have his superior corroborating.
Roy was so lost in thought when he got back to his office that he only absently noted the phone ringing. He picked it up with a distracted “Mustang.”
“Sir. It’s Lieutenant Colonel Hughes calling from an outside line,” the operator told him. “Shall I put it through?”
* * *
The impact threw him into the back of the phone booth.
Hughes hung there for a split second as the world around him seemed to explode before he slid to the ground. His entire chest was on fire.
A heartbeat passed.
Was he dead?
His heart seemed to still be beating.
Was that—that thing that had taken his Gracia’s shape still—
Hands grabbed at his shoulders with frantic urgency. He looked up and met the eyes of a young man bent over him—his brain automatically catalogued mid-teens, blond, pale eyes. Unfamiliar. But something about him. . . .
The kid snatched the dangling receiver and shouted into it, “Get an ambulance here, now! Corner of—of—Griffen and Main!”
Just as quickly he dropped the phone and whirled around, and Hughes finally took in the world beyond the phone booth. The—creature—that had attacked him was picking itself off of spikes—spikes that hadn’t been there a moment ago. Something in the kid’s hands crackled and flashed and he charged at the creature, with a deadly-looking blade aimed to kill.
Hughes took a careful breath and looked down, tracing the red bloom on his chest back to its source.
Missed his heart. Just. Punctured lung. Major bleeding. Likely fatal—but not immediately.
His next breath sent him coughing, splattering even more blood. Definite punctured lung. He clenched his teeth and clamped down on the reflex. Took a shallow breath.
He could hear a tinny voice on the other end of the phone line. Roy. Raising a leadened hand he grabbed the receiver and pulled it toward him—not long enough. He gritted his teeth and pushed himself closer, managing to slide just those few inches. “Roy.”
“Hughes! What happened? Who’s injured? Who was—”
“Roy. Shut up and listen.”
He breathed in, suppressing another cough.
“It’s the military. The military’s in danger—from the top. It’s—” The cough overwhelmed him and he had to pause as the blood threatened to clog his throat. “It’s old—” he forced out. “Been going on for—centuries—”
He nearly blacked out from the coughing fit. Hughes pressed back against the wall of the booth and forced himself to take steady, even breaths.
The sound of Roy saying his name was distant. Must be the phone line.
“That array,” Hughes continued as soon as he had the breath. “It matches up. Every war—major skirmish—matches up. The only—point missing—is—”
The receiver slipped from his hand as he choked and coughed. Didn’t matter. He’d passed along enough.
Roy’s voice sounded desperate but he couldn’t lift his hand to the phone this time. Nothing wanted to move.
He could hear sirens approaching, and wondered in a detached way if they would get there before he bled out.
His eyes focused on the young man, locked in a deadly dance with the monster. Funny. In the evening light the kid looked golden.
* * *
The earliest train got them to Central mid-morning. They were met at the station by a young sergeant whose name Roy forgot as soon as he said it. He briefed them on the way: Hughes was out of surgery, and conscious. Major Armstrong was currently overseeing security.
Which meant no one higher up had moved in yet.
“Is there any record of what Lieutenant-Colonel Hughes had been investigating before he was attacked?” Roy asked. Sounding neutral was easy when he felt so numb.
“I’m afraid not, Sir,” the sergeant—Blosh or Brock or something, he would have to ask Hawkeye later—told him. “The records room was in disarray. It doesn’t seem as if the lieutenant-colonel had been taking notes.”
He wouldn’t have been. Hughes was too cautious to leave notes.
When they got to the hospital the sergeant escorted them to a room in the ICU. Major Armstrong was standing guard along with one of his lieutenants. Roy nodded at their salutes. Hawkeye took up position beside them to wait as Armstrong opened the door.
Gracia stood as he entered. Roy hesitated, but she waved off his attempts to apologize, saying she could use some breakfast and needed to check on Elysia. One look at her told him she hadn’t slept any than he had. But she put on a brave smile as she leaned over to kiss her husband’s forehead before she left.
Roy held himself in check as the door shut. He needed to evaluate the situation the same as he would for any other comrade. The tubes and oxygen mask. The thick bandages. The medical report he had been briefed on. “I hope this was worth it.”
Hughes’ weak chuckle sounded more like a wheeze. “Well, the .32 in my chest suggests it’s worth something.”
“This is a fine time to be joking—”
“Ah, what else am I going to do?” He shifted against the bed with a wince. “If I didn’t laugh I’d have to admit just how spectacularly in over our heads we are.”
Roy lowered himself into the visitor’s chair with a sigh. “This wasn’t. . . .” Despite his best efforts his throat threatened to close up. He swallowed. “This—damn it, you weren’t supposed to be the one in danger.”
“Best laid plans, Roy. I signed on for this with my eyes wide open. Same as you.”
He lifted his hand. Roy gripped it between both of his, and stopped pretending he had any kind of composure. He squeezed his eyes shut and bowed his head, and for a long moment simply sat with his face pressed against this friend’s fingers.
“God, Maes,” he said once his voice had returned. “Don’t scare me like that.”
Roy collected himself, lowing their hands to the mattress. “Is it safe to talk?”
“As safe as it can be,” Hughes said. “Armstrong has done what he can about the room, and everyone outside is either his man or mine.”
“You want to know what won’t make it into the official debriefing.”
“Every bit of it.”
“Well. . . .” He shifted again. “Officially, I didn’t recognize the attacker. That’s true enough. But it’s because I’m not sure I ever saw the thing’s real shape.”
“Unless there’s more than one of those form-changing monsters, it was your friend Envy.”
Roy’s jaw clenched. “Was he alone?”
“No. A woman in black attacked me at headquarters. Lust, I’m guessing?”
Hughes grimaced. “Envy—he tried to fool me by looking like Lieutenant Ross, and when that didn’t work. . . .”
“Whose form did he take?”
He sighed. “Gracia. That son of a bitch—he shifted right in front of me. I knew it wasn’t her—”
“But you hesitated,” Roy supplied. “And he was counting on that.”
“Don’t let her know. I don’t want Gracia to get the idea that any part of this is her fault. Even indirectly.”
Roy squeezed his hand and nodded.
“Son of a bitch . . . knew I couldn’t attack my own wife. . . .”
Hughes was fighting unconsciousness. Roy knew he should leave him to rest, but one more question ate at him.
“Hughes? Who was that on the phone? The one who told me to call the ambulance.” The frantic, anxious voice kept playing over in his mind.
“Oh. . . .” He blinked himself back awake with some effort. “Some kid. Came out of nowhere. Just . . . started fighting that monster. . . .”
“Who? What did he look like?”
“Mm . . . do you remember the story of Xerxes, Roy? The vanished city-state out in the desert?”
“What does that have to do with any of this?”
“. . . Fascinating mystery . . . all we have of them are the ruins and a few accounts from ancient Creta. . . .”
“Hughes. . . .” Roy was trying not to get frustrated.
“Ancient Cretans . . . called them the Golden People. This kid. . . .”
“. . . What about the kid? Hughes?”
Roy sighed and laid his hand down on the blankets. After watching his friend’s chest rise and fall several times, he stood to leave. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do with that last bit of information, but he had other things to tend to.
Out in the hall Roy turned to Major Armstrong. “Has the investigation into the attack been started?”
“For the time being, I have been left with the task of ensuring Lieutenant-Colonel Hughes’ safety. But I’ve been given to understand that we have a fair idea of the identities of the ones behind it.”
“Well? Has anyone gone to arrest them?”
“I’m sorry, Sir. We have an idea, but we don’t know who or what they are.”
“I am ordering you to explain.”
“I’m sorry, Sir. I cannot.” After a brief pause, he repeated, “My task right now is ensuring the safety of Lieutenant-Colonel Hughes.”
“I see.” He nodded. As he started to step away, he added, “Oh—you’ll be off shift in a few hours, is that right?”
“Ring me up at the hotel. We’ll grab a drink.”
Once they were away from the hospital Lieutenant Hawkeye turned to him. “Sir? Do you think the Major will be more forthcoming off duty?”
“No, not at all. I suspect he’s already told us everything his orders would allow. There are other matters he and I need to discuss.” He paused on the sidewalk and pulled out his notebook and pen. “In the meantime, I need you to contact these people. It’s important that I speak with them today, as soon as possible.” He tore out the short list of names and handed it to her. “I’ll meet you at the hotel in an hour.” He hesitated for a brief moment before deciding that, personal feelings or not, he did have legitimate, impartial reasons for looking into this. “I have some research to do.”
* * *
Roy had given himself barely half an hour, so was aggravated to find the library in a state of what could only be called controlled panic. When he finally did manage to flag down a librarian he found out that they’d had a break-in the night before.
“We’ve been suspecting someone was breaking in here for several days now,” she told him, “but now we’re sure.”
Nothing was missing, and as far as they could tell the most valuable or sensitive materials hadn’t been disturbed. But books from all over the general collection had been pulled from the shelves and left dumped on the floor. Theory was that their burglar had gotten spooked.
An attack and a break-in on the same night was a hell of a coincidence.
With all the commotion Roy could do no more than skim through the materials. Enough to tease his growing suspicions, but not enough to find any real answers. But as much as he wanted to delve into this new wrinkle in the mystery, certain things couldn’t wait. Hawkeye would have done what he requested by now.
The rest of the day was a blur of planning, negotiating, contingencies, and more planning. He was already exhausted but time was of the essence.
By the time he could stop and take a breath it was well into evening. The library would be long closed. It was probably just as well; right now he didn’t feel up to much. All he wanted to do now was get to the hotel and crash—and maybe have a drink. He deserved a drink.
Roy paused at a newsstand. He knew he shouldn’t, that as tired as he was it would be hard not to let emotion seep through, but he couldn’t help himself from glancing at the headline in the evening paper:
Officer attacked outside Central HQ succumbs to injuries
Sirens jarred him out of his reverie. He jerked his head up and saw a column of smoke, a thick black slash against the sunset. Right where Central Library would be.
This was too many coincidences.
He was stopped by the MPs several blocks from the blaze. He considered pulling rank or flashing his watch, but he knew there was no point. One look told him that the fire was already too large and the area too uncontrolled. That didn’t stop him from clutching at the glove in his pocket and making the attempt, but the moment he shifted a quantity of oxygen away from one area the updraft undid his efforts.
No accidental fire would have spread this far, this fast. Someone had wanted the Central First Branch Library destroyed.
A hand grabbed his arm and he jerked back, his glove was halfway on and his fingers tensing to snap before he registered just who was glaring up at him.
After everything today, he really shouldn’t have been surprised.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Ed snapped at him. The firelight had turned him coppery. He looked almost etherial. “And why the hell aren’t you doing anything? You’re the fucking Flame Alchemist!”
“Don’t you think I’ve been trying?” he snapped back. He grabbed Ed’s shoulder and pushed him to a nearby ally, where he could all too clearly see the suit of armor looming there in the shadows. “I should be asking you what your business is. Aside from breaking into the building we’re now watching burn.”
Ed tripped and stumbled. “U-um—”
Roy scoffed and hauled him upright. They were around the corner now and should be out of sight of the MPs. “I should be arresting you. Breaking into the First Branch is not something the military takes lightly. Not to mention whatever connection you may have to this sudden and suspiciously timed fire.”
“We’ve got nothing to do with it!” Ed protested. “Why the hell would be want to burn it when we’re trying to—”
“Broth-er,” Al cut in just a moment too late.
Roy smirked, and allow his temper to cool somewhat. Ed was entirely too transparent.
“You should be arresting us, Sir?” Al prompted after his brother had finally stopped incriminating himself.
“Mm. I should.” He looked between them. Ed’s peculiar hair was vivid even in the shadows, set off by the black clothes he was wearing. Golden. “But I owe you.”
He smiled at Ed’s oblivious reply. “The man you helped by the phone booth. Outside headquarters.” He watched the realization dawn. That was all the confirmation as he needed. “He’s—a friend of mine.”
Surprise and then sorrow flickered across Ed’s face. “But—he died. He died anyway. The papers—”
“Ah. Yes.” He finally let himself show some satisfaction at a job well done. “You see, the thing about newspapers—they’re only as accurate as their source.”
Ed stared at him for a moment, and then a grin of understanding spread across his face. “Son of a bitch. What did you do? Where is he?”
“Somewhere safe. Which is more than I can say about the two of you,” he pressed. “I’m not sure you fully appreciate the risk you’ve been taking.”
“We were looking for something!” Al jumped to explain. “Something that—that had information about the military and . . . and the Stone.”
Roy could have guessed as much. But he wasn’t convinced that justified it.
Ed glanced up at his brother. “We—shit. Someone could get into a lot of trouble if we tell you.”
He sighed. “If it helps, we are—technically—not even having this conversation. Because officially, the two of you were among the missing-and-presumed-dead in Liore.”
Ed’s face went through a complex of emotions, finally landing on a grin that looked a little too forced. “Just like your friend is officially dead?”
The brothers shared another look, and then Al started; “A couple years ago, when we were chasing rumors of the Stone, we . . . ran into someone. He wouldn’t tell us much, not then, but—after what happened—and what you told us—”
“He used to be military,” Ed added.
“I guess. Point is, since we had to go home to get my arm fixed anyway and his town’s on the way. . . .”
“And . . .” Ed rubbed the back of his neck. “He finally told us some shit.”
“After we told him what happened with Scar and everything—he told us where he hid his research notes,” Al clarified.
“The First Branch Library?” Roy guessed. “Who else knew?”
“No one!” Ed insisted. “We haven’t told anyone!”
“And we’ve been careful!” Al added. “We’ve been staying underground—literally—”
“Except. . . .” Ed cringed. “Except maybe last night. When I ran out after Envy.”
Roy sighed. “Well . . . I can hardly be angry at you for that. But . . . I guess that’s the end of it. If your friend truly did have a record of inside information, it’s gone now.” He immediately ran though several possibilities but in his exhausted state came up with nothing that sounded feasible. A defector—a former state alchemist, from the sound of it—would have no reason to trust him, even if he decided it was worth the risk to establish contact. “But we could have used that information. After what Hughes told me. . . .”
He caught himself. He liked Ed and, yes, even trusted him, as well as his armored brother, but this was bigger than his personal feelings. Caution was important.
Ed scratched a hand through his hair. “There’s . . . someone else we could talk to. Who might know even more. Maybe not about what M—ah, this guy had been doing, but . . . about the rest of it. But it’s. It might not be the safest thing.”
“Brother. . . .”
“How much of a risk are we talking here?”
“Well—probably no one will die?”
Al sighed and muttered something about exaggeration.
Roy scoffed. “At this point? That sounds like an improvement.”
He looked back at the remains of the library, weighing his options. None of them were good. “Where is this other source of yours?”
“Give me two weeks, and I’ll meet you down there. Until then—for the love of sanity lay low.”
“Fine, fine. You better be there.”
Ed turned and got two steps down the alley, then paused.
“Say um . . . At Liore. How—how many—”
Roy sighed. He briefly considered not answering, but by now they were past the point where he could protect this young man from anything. But that didn’t stop the urge. “Thirty-eight.”
Ed sucked in a breath, and beside him Al made a distressed noise.
“Thirty-eight soldiers dead or missing,” he repeated. “Nine survived with injuries.”
“What—what about—Lieutenant Havoc,” Al asked. “And—and the one that Gluttony. . . .”
“Sergeant-Major Wills unfortunately lost his arm thanks to Gluttony, but he was in good spirits the last time I spoke with him. As for Havoc—” He smiled. “—It’s all we can do to get him to follow doctor’s orders and rest. He despises being inactive.”
It was hard to tell in the dark, but Ed seemed to relax a little. “Hey, um—” He rubbed his right arm. “Tell that guy—Wills?—tell him if he wants a new arm, he should head to the Rockbells. In Resembool. Tell him to give them my name—can’t guarantee it’ll get him a discount, but he’ll be getting the best damn automail money can buy.”
“I’ll pass it along. If you promise me that the two of you will stop flirting with getting arrested.”
“All right, all right. We’ll . . . see what we can do.”
“Hmph. Just where have you been staying?” There were places where even an animated suit of armor would go unreported, but they weren’t exactly the safest corners of Central.
“With some of the refugees,” Al said. “The Ishvalans.”
That was probably the least-bad place for them, considering.
He motioned for them to make themselves scarce. “That wasn’t a promise,” he muttered.
Ed waved back over his shoulder.