How to Create a Killer in Ten Steps
I - When he was 14, his future was bright...
He stood in front of the assembled villagers in the temple, all sharp angles and gangly limbs; a boy of 14. His knees shook, a thousand locusts were swarming around his stomach, and his shin throbbed where he'd barked it tripping up to the dais, but the questioning was finally over. He bowed to Master Abrahn (A bald old man who could still take down even the biggest yevarshedaht in the village in one heartbeat and two moves), and accepted the orange and green striped sash that signified his calling and his rank. He tied it around his waist in the complex knot of the warrior-priests, saying the prayer that went with it. Weeks of painstaking practice in the privacy of home guided his fingers without assistance from his jangling mind. When he was done, the sash draped perfectly and the young man let out a soft sigh of relief.
He faced his kinsmen, and announced in a cracking treble, "I am Mishyael i Ylena ve Jherabim. Son of Ylena; the daughter of Amirah and Khar. Son of Jherabim; the son of Inha and Serna. I claim my place in Kanda and say as a man that I will be yevarshedaht - a priest in service to my kinsmen and a warrior to protect my people."
The congregation was quiet, but numerous heads bobbed their approval. He gazed at the faces, picking out his parents near the front. His mother beamed; her round cheeks dusky, sticking out like a pair of kumquats ready for picking, and her eyes bright; her hands were clasped together under her chin so tightly that her knuckles paled. His father was far more subdued, but Mishyael could see the delight dancing in his deep garnet eyes. There wasn't a soul in the temple that Mishyael didn't recognize, but there was one face he hadn't spotted yet.
The door creaked open then, letting in the bright midday sun for a moment and blinding Mishyael. When he could see again, his older brother was standing at the back of the congregation. The temple lanterns cast a golden light that glinted off the lenses of his glasses as he offered a sheepish nod of his head in apology for being late, and a smile for his younger brother.
The naming ceremony was over. Mishyael, and the others who'd gone through Kevarkal, escaped to the temple garden while parents and grandparents gathered together in knots to brag about their children. This would go on until the feast started, but Mishyael was hungry, now. He sat at the edge of the center fountain and eyed the laden table - and the old women who were standing guard as much as setting out the steaming dishes - and wondered if he could get away with stealing a small snack to hold him over. He sighed and slumped. Snatching a bite before the meal was called was the act of a child... or a talented thief. He would probably trip and cause the table to collapse, if he didn't get his hand whacked with a wooden spoon first. Then he'd be ridiculed for his behavior. Better to be hungry than to shame himself and his family. He tried to summon the discipline of the yevarshedaht, and accept the hunger, then set it aside. Warriors of the past had walked beside their tribes in the day and watched through the night, brought the animals of the desert back to feed their people and taken only the bones for themselves. They ruled their bodies as God ruled all that She had created. That was what he had to master.
A shadow fell over him and a jamzhin was shoved under his nose. His eyes crossed as he tried to focus on the fruit and nut filled pastry, and his stomach clenched at the enticing aroma.
"Are you going to stare at it all day, little brother?"
Mishyael finally took the offered sweet, and blinked up at a silhouette that he would have known anywhere - simply because there was always at least one book under his right arm. "How did you sneak this away from the armed guards, Joziah?"
"Sneak?" Joziah sniffed. "I did no such thing." His expression became bemused. "Although, I think I might've agreed to escort old Lady Aura to a cafe for dessert later." He plopped down on the edge of the fountain next to Mishyael. White hair fell over fine brows and curious red eyes behind round glasses sparkled. "But enough of that. How do you feel now? Not that I had any doubts you'd pass," he said, setting the book on the ledge between them.
"I thought I was going to throw up," Mishyael countered, then glanced at the title and arched a brow. "Law? Not History? Are you ill?"
Joziah's face brightened and an excited grin split it. "I didn't wish to say anything, because today is your day, but... I'm going to act as interlocutor tomorrow." His head dipped, hiding a rueful flush. "That was why I was late today. I was looking for a similar case and I found a reference to an argument that went all the way to an Elder triumvirate and... I forgot the time."
Mishyael accepted the apology with a soft snort and a shove at his brother's shoulder. "You'll probably be late for your wedding - if you ever find a woman willing to put up with your forgetfulness."
Joziah was older by four years, but it could have been four centuries for all the similarities between them. Joziah smiled and laughed easily, and his enthusiasm for knowledge, not just of their own people and history, brought everyone in earshot to listen to him talk about his studies. Mishyael couldn't stand the sound of his own voice, which went from child-treble and hoarse to baritone and hoarse without warning. He knew his voice would settle eventually. Meanwhile, he said as little as he could. It left more of his attention for keeping track of his hands and feet, which never seemed to be quite where he thought they were - he'd broken two milk crocks in the past month and was now avoiding his mother's cherished blue glazed vase by a margin of his own height. Joziah acted out some of the ancient stories and foreign fairy tales he read for the children (and truth be told, some of the adults), and carried stacks of books and long-dried scrolls up and down the worn stairs of the temple without so much as a wobble. At 18, Joziah was a respected jhastovar whose word was taken seriously, especially regarding the histories that had been collected over the centuries. His teacher, old Thazhyan, was partially blind and almost completely deaf, and he'd become steadily more forgetful in the last year or two. More often than not, Joziah would be the one called upon to answer the questions of the village - not just about their own history and the records of their flocks and herds, but also about Xingese history, Bharati greeting courtesies, or Amestrian bathing customs.
Joziah had flown through his examinations and was First Chosen for his apprenticeship. He could have taken a yevarshedaht's sash - he'd almost always won the training matches that were part of every Ishvaran boy's education. Mishyael had tripped over his own traitorous feet and barely passed his physical trials, and only his knowledge of the holy texts and the temple tongue had won him a place in priesthood training. But if he couldn't master the martial skills needed to be a full yevarshedaht, he was going to be relegated to cleric status for the rest of his life. A position which would shame his parents, who would never know the joys of grandchildren - because what woman would want a clumsy cleric? His brother the bookworm had better chances - but Joziah had never yet so much as brought a woman to dinner with the family.
"Did the jamzhin insult you, little brother?" Joziah teased.
Mishyael snapped out of his musing and devoured the treat in three bites. He licked the honey off his fingers and scowled when he saw his brother grinning at him. "I didn't get lunch, remember?"
"And you refused breakfast. I told you not to."
Mishyael grimaced. "It wouldn't have stayed down."
Joziah clapped him on the shoulder. "You had nothing to worry about this morning, and you have less than nothing to worry about now. You passed and you'll make a fine yevarshedaht. And I promise, you'll grow into those limbs."
When his older brother spoke to him like that, Mishyael could almost believe his words were true.
II - When he was 18, his heart was stolen...
Mishyael held the plain brown-wrapped package safely under his arm as he deftly threaded a path through the bustling market, jumping puddles near the stockyards and dodging harried buyers who weren't looking where they were going. He ignored the tempting scents that came from the tents and shops serving up mid-day meals, regardless of the fact that he hadn't eaten yet. He'd spent the better part of the morning hunting down Master Abrahn, because he'd been expecting this package, and left orders to have it brought to him as soon as the post arrived. The problem was, his master hadn't bothered to inform anyone of where, exactly, he would be.
This wasn't the first time his master had disappeared like this, and regardless of his claims of innocence, Mishyael wasn't convinced the cagey old man wasn't doing it deliberately - everything was a test for Master Abrahn's students. It always seemed that when he'd sneak off, it was up to Mishyael to fetch him, and he'd hide himself with more skill each time. However, the acolyte had also become better at tracking him down. Today, it only took three hours to find out where his master was hiding.
Once free of the press of people in the market, Mishyael was able to break into a jog across the square, toward the village gardens. Without looking at them directly, he noted the children kicking a ball around off to his right (there were six of them - four boys and two girls, none over the age of ten), and a young woman on her way to fetch water skirting the unmarked playing field (Mishyael couldn't recall ever seeing her before, and he made a mental note to find out who she was). To his left were three women of varying ages gossiping by the well (one of them was a young mother, expecting her second child any day, the other two were middle-aged). He caught movement from the lower left edge of his sight and glanced down in time to dart out of the impending tackle of a racing toddler. She giggled and tried again, and Mishyael found himself caught up in a dancing game of tag.
He shuffled to the right, barely avoiding tripping over the young woman with the pair of clay jugs. Tattoos on her biceps identified her as a newcomer from one of the Southern tribes. Her head was bare to the sun and her long white hair was elaborately plaited and adorned with shimmering glass beads in shades of red and blue and purple. She sidestepped Mishyael's startled lurch and stare with a sinuous swing of elegant hips, and threw him a brief, haughty glance before undulating off toward the well, smooth and graceful and deadly as an asp.
A gleeful squeal broke him out of his thrall just in time for him to avoid getting knocked over by the enthusiastic toddler. "Have a care, Asya," he laughed, and jumped left, "you don't want to knock a big ox like me down on top of you!"
"Misha!" She giggled and ran at him again.
He pirouetted, his sash and abayah flying around him in a whirl of green and gold. He bent as he came up behind her, scooped her up in his free arm and swung her around. "Ha! I caught you, this time."
She squealed again and wrapped her arms tight around his neck.
"Asya!" a feminine voice called. Mishyael pivoted to meet Miri, the small woman who had been at the well gossiping, and whose face and eyes were shaded by a sensible hood. She tilted her head up and scolded the little girl, "Asya! You're interfering with Acolyte Mishyael's duties." Her smile and the light tone of her voice took any sting out of the reproach.
"If there isn't time in my day to make a child smile, I'm not managing it well," Mishyael said as he extricated himself from the clinging child and handed her to her mother.
"She adores you," Miri said, settling the child on her hip and adjusting the girl's legs comfortably around her swollen belly. "She calls you her Saza."
"Because you found me and brought me home just like Saza brought Yiribet home!" Asya piped up, beaming. "So I'm going to marry you, just like she did!"
Mishyael's brows shot up, then he bowed graciously. "I am honored, Miss Asya. I shall do my best to make you a respectable husband."
Miri giggled, then shifted her daughter higher on her hip. She inclined her head and turned to trundle off. "Okay, you," she said to Asya as she walked away, "It's time for a nap." At the sound of the little girl's protests, Miri added, "If you want to grow up and be beautiful enough for a yevarhshedaht, you must rest in the afternoon."
Mishyael chuckled softly, then something flicked at the very edge of his vision. His heart sank even as he spun. Master Abrahn would have a cutting remark and an exhausting session of public physical discipline exercises for his distractable acolyte.
Joziah stood a few yards from Mishyael, a stack of books under his arm, a half-eaten pear in his hand, and amusement glittering behind his glasses. "Leave it to you to win the heart of the prettiest girl in Kanda," he said around a chunk of fruit.
Mishyael straightened his abayah and approached his brother. "You have it backwards. It was she who stole my heart." He hung his head in mock shame and gave an exaggerated sigh. "I'm so weak."
"I wasn't talking about Asya, little brother." Joziah grinned and nodded toward the well.
Mishyael followed the glance and felt his cheeks heat. The hoodless woman was bent over the water jugs, affording him a view of her backside that only made him blush harder.
Joziah grinned mischievously. "You seem to have developed a taste for flashy Southern girls. Her name is Khendra, by the way. She's Lady Shan's grandniece."
"Th- that's nonsense!" he stammered. "It's just the first time I'd ever seen anyone from the Southern tribes before." He snapped his spine straight, puffed out his chest, and added archly, "It's shameful how they disregard Ishvarra, baring their heads and defacing their bodies like-" His eyes narrowed and he glared at his brother. "Wait. How did you-?" He realized then, that he'd been caught in his own snare. He'd not only been distracted by the girl, he'd also failed to notice his brother's approach. If Master Abrahn found out his student hadn't noticed someone until he was within striking distance, he'd drag him into the desert for days of awareness training.
Joziah thew his head back and laughed... which became a coughing fit when he choked on the bite of pear.
Mishyael whacked him once between the shoulder blades, dislodging the chunk of fruit, but also nearly knocking Joziah off his feet and scattering books everywhere. When the older brother stopped coughing, Mishyael knelt to help gather the leather-bound volumes, glancing at the titles as he picked them up. They were Joziah's usual reading material, which prompted Mishyael to ask, "Brother what is so fascinating about Xingese history and myth?"
"Their histories reach almost as far as ours do, and some of their stories are very similar to ours." Joziah brushed dust off a weighty tome, and went on. "Besides, in order to understand a people, you have to know the paths they took in the past to reach the place they are now," Joziah said as he gestured at the second book in Mishyael's hand. "They have arts that would be a benefit to our people."
The younger brother glanced at the title and raised his brows. "Alkahestry?"
Joziah rose and nodded. "It's a healing art. It uses the power of the earth to mend broken bones, to ease pain..." He dropped his eyes and stacked the books. "Even to take the age-film from old eyes."
Mishyael frowned as he stood and gave the books back to his brother. "Thazhyan is blind, brother. That is God's will. This alkahestry sounds like apostasy to me. There was a reason our ancestors renounced the use of God's power of creation."
"Apostasy?" Joziah thought about it a moment as they began to stroll toward the garden. "I suppose you could see it that way." He smiled and shrugged. "The way I see it, God created the power and taught us to use it to steward Her creation. It's there to be used, why not use it?"
Mishyael stopped in his tracks, stunned. "Don't talk like that. You're not turning your back on God, are you?"
"What? No, of course not! I'm questioning some of the choices our human ancestors made, not the existence or nature of God." At Mishyael's scowl, Joziah grinned and slapped his brother's back, nearly knocking him off his feet, this time. "Don't worry, little brother. I don't think God is going to break if I read some books written by one of her exiled children."
They'd reached the meditation gardens and Master Abrahn was sitting on a blanket, facing, of all people, Lady Shan. Between them was a mat with several polished stones scattered across the checkered playing field. The pieces were ranked at four levels, the 'elders', the 'masters', the 'priests', and the 'acolytes'. Mishyael was familiar with the strategy game - Master Abrahn had defeated him many times. Today, however, it appeared that Lady Shan was going to be victorious - Abrahn only had an elder, a master, and an acolyte remaining on the mat. Mishyael wished he'd found his master earlier - he would like to have watched this game.
He knelt on the ground and waited until the two of them acknowledged him to present the package. "The delivery you were expecting arrived this morning, Master."
"Ah, excellent!" Abrahn said as he tore the paper away and held up a book.
Mishyael frowned at the title, then glanced at his master. "Amestrian language?"
"And just in time, too," Abrahn said.
Mishyael glanced from his master, to Lady Shan and back. "'Just in time'? For what?"
"I will be making the announcement at afternoon prayers-" Abrahn said.
"Ishvar has been annexed by Amestris," Lady Shan interrupted. "Those foolish superannuated bastards in the triumvirate dismissed the majority vote of the village Elders - they even dismissed Master Elder Roug Roga's protests - and accepted the insulting treaty the Amestrian Fuhrer offered without negotiating." She slapped a piece down on the mat, with enough force to rattle the glass beads woven in her hair, and snatched Abrahn's master up. "Every last one of them pissed themselves when the declaration was sent."
The profanity, coming from an Elder, chilled Mishyael's heart almost as much as the message. "Then the Elders need to convince the triumvirate to reverse the decision."
He barely felt his brother's hand on his right shoulder. "Calm, little brother," Joziah murmured.
"They feared the Fuhrer would take Ishvar by force," Master Abrahn said, as he made a move with his elder that, from Mishyael's view, would ensure his defeat. "We don't have the weapons to match them in battle, nor do we have the numbers. For now, it is better to submit and wait for our moment, than to fight and risk the lives of our children."
"Instead we'll lose those children to their military, and their universities," Lady Shan said, as she moved again and took the elder. "More of our children will be seduced by the frivolous lifestyles they can find in Amestris, and our bloodlines will become diluted. We will be weakened as a race."
"It is unlikely that we'll become that weak, Elder," Abrahn chuckled, his hand hovering over the mat. And that was when Mishyael saw it. What appeared to be a certain defeat for his master, had turned into a sneaky victory. Lady Shan had been paying more attention to Abrahn's "power" pieces, and ignored his single remaining acolyte, which, in one move, brought her entire army to defeat. "As a people, the Ishvarun are resourceful and strong."
Mishyael shook his head and came to his feet. "Master, how can you speak so calmly? The triumvirate - those we trusted to lead us along God's path - handed us over to be little more than slaves."
Abrahn rolled up the mat and dropped it into a leather-clad tube. "And we will endure," he said, scooping up the pebbles and dropping them into the tube with a clatter, "just as we did when the Aerugans enslaved our ancestors." He stood and faced Mishyael, laying a hand on his shoulder. "It would be foolish to fight at this time. The Amestrian army is too strong. A war would destroy our land and our people, leaving us just a remnant living in a desolation."
"Instead, we wait. We let them in, learn their language and bow to their foreign ways," Joziah said quietly, "We become the dogs in their laps, until they forget to fear us. Then we turn our teeth on them and bite through the silken robes.
Mishyael's world jerked sideways as he turned to face Joziah. His smiling, scholarly older brother had disappeared, leaving a grim old man with a young face in his place.
Disclaimer: Fullmetal Alchemist (Hagane no Renkinjutsushi) was created by Arakawa Hiromu and is serialized monthly in Shonen Gangan (Square Enix). Copyright for this property is held by Arakawa Hiromu and Square Enix.