chapter 16.

Dante dragged the heavy garden hose across the lawn, annoyed at the way her fingers ached. Arthritis was one of many small things she'd come to loathe about her body. A bit of redstone would help of course, but only for a while, it seemed that the joints in her fingers were determined to stop functioning—along with the rest of her body.

She gritted her teeth. At least those were still strong even after more than eighty years of use. All in all, she really shouldn't complain. She'd picked her last body wisely, even though at the time it never occurred to her that she would be stuck in it to its bitter end. With luck though its end would not be the same as her end.

At last she reached the vegetable patch. She was growing pumpkins this year and some decorative squash as well, something to look cheerful on the hearth in fall when the world started looking like she felt.

"According to an article I read," she told her row of spindly seedlings, "If I talk to you, it will encourage you to grow." She smiled indulgently at the plants, then painfully pressed the trigger to let the spray out. "I think that's complete crap. You haven't any brain matter to process the meaning of my words, or senses to hear me. Even the carbon in my breath is being blown away by the wind." She hesitated giving the last seedling in the row an extra spritz. "And yet, why not. It doesn't harm anything, and even I will admit I don't know everything."

She smiled bitterly. "If I did, then I wouldn't be in this predicament, now would I?"

She moved on to the rose bushes by the side of the house. "So then. Shall I tell you a story? How about this one: Once there was a homely, little shepherd's girl who was swept off her feet by a rich, handsome lord and given power, wealth and beauty beyond her wildest dreams. And she lived happily ever after." Dante snorted. "That story sounds like complete crap, too, doesn't it. But it's true. Well at least most of it. I've had a few unhappy years, but mostly I must say, it has been an exceedingly good life." Dante noticed beetle on one of the leaves, and used the hose to knock it off.

The roses, as expected, did not show any particular interest in her fairytale. Which was just as well, because there was a lot more to that particular story than she said. She could flood the very roots out from under the roses before she even scratched the legacy of her life. And her story wasn't altogether that accurate either—even back in the beginning she was more than just an average girl, and Hohenheim, for all his family connections, was anything but noble.

The first hint of the man she would one day marry, and later wish to kill, was his horse. It stood as incongruent as snow in July, strapped to the apple tree a few yards from her father's house. Twelve-year-old Dante had taken a moment to scan over its sleek, grey coat, and notice the silver buckles and studs on its elaborately embossed leather saddle. Most intriguing was the small alchemy circle hidden amongst all the decorative work. Although she was unfamiliar with the symbols, she guessed it was a weapon of some sort. That is where she'd put a protective sigil if she were an alchemist—close enough to activate without actually touching, should a highwayman attempt to accost her. She memorized the form quickly, vowing to experiment with it in private later.

So the visitor was an important alchemist. Why on earth was he visiting a shepherd's hovel in this backwater, miles away from the nearest anything? It was far too much to think that he'd heard rumors of her small, uneducated attempts at alchemy, nonetheless the fantasy sat on the edge of her mind like a pleasant itch.

Dante saw herself on the horse, wearing fine clothes and performing alchemy to the adoring—no worshipful peasants. The snotty girls and boys who once threw stones at her would now avert their eyes in respect.

Ridiculous. But if not for her, why was this alchemist here?

There was no way to satisfy her questions without meeting the man himself. She braced her small frame as best she could and walked into the house. She found the stranger sitting in the best chair next to the fireplace. Her first ridiculous hope was dashed when he turned to look at her, and scanned her scrawny pubescent body, snarled blonde hair, and threadbare dress with a dismissive eye.

Dante returned his distant gaze with one of her own. She saw a handsome, well-groomed man in his twenties. His long brown hair was pulled back from his impassive face with a gold clasp. She noted his hands were soft and clean, and that his ruffled sleeves were unstained. Even his boots showed no trace of mud, as though he walked on air and not the soil. Dante pushed down disconcerting pang of awe and told herself firmly that beneath all that finery and soap was just a man, like any other man.

You have to do more than be rich to earn my respect, Dante challenged the stranger with her eyes.

The alchemists eyes grew wider at her lack of deference, but she didn't flinch or back down. All elegance aside, he was no better than her, and doubtless his wealth came from connections and family rather than from hard work or wits. The only thing that redeemed him in her eyes was that small alchemy circle. That at least spoke of intelligence and practicality, but who was to say that the man himself thought to put it there.

"Dante!" hissed a voice to her side. She broke eye contact and noticed her sister, Sheila, standing in her best clothes, her face dusted with chalk in imitation of rich women in town. "Behave yourself," the older girl admonished and then crossed the room to give the Stranger a beer. "Forgive her, sir," Sheila told the stranger. "My sister has always been odd—she means nothing by her glares."

"It is ok," said the stranger, vaguely waving a hand, and he eyed Dante again—or rather not her but the slate she held. "What is that your sister is carrying?"

"It's the tally of wool sacks sheered today," Dante said. Perhaps this was a tax collector. That would be somehow disappointing.

"Show me." He reached out his hand. Dante reluctantly handed over the slate, knowing that he would not be able to make much sense of what she'd written on it. The symbols were her own pattern, and even her father didn't know what all of them stood for.

The Stranger ignored the writing and ran his hands over the smooth thin slate itself. "This was shaped by alchemy," he said. "By you?"

"Yes, sir," said Dante. The first thought was back. Perhaps her small feats had been noticed. But how? She'd done nothing more than erect a few walls, and repair some tile. She only knew one circle and it was only good for shaping clay and rock, as far as she'd been able to tell. The slate had been a practical thing—she needed it, she had the raw materials on hand, compared to her other projects, reshaping it into very thin utterly flat rectangle had been easy.

"It's very well formed, no warping or seams." the alchemist said. Dante flushed with pride. "Who taught you?"

"No one taught her, milord," said Dante's father coming in from the other room with a folded piece of parchment. "My youngest just figures things out."

The alchemist was looking at her again, this time with more interest.

"Dante," said her father, "Go to your room, I'll talk to you about the sheep later."

Dante reluctantly left the great room, but she paused on the stairway to the loft and stared at her father and the Alchemist unfolding the parchment. It appeared to be a map. For a while she sat there, inconspicuously, not really in the room, but not really away, and listened to her father discuss the old underground tunnels on the edge of their land.

Dante felt more excitement. No one knew those tunnels as well as she did. They were her retreat—anyone who dared follow her in would be scared off by the rocks that she sent falling with a piece of chalk and touch of her hand. There were paintings down there and writing. That was where she had borrowed most of her letters shapes from, where she'd learned her single alchemy circle. Of course, that was why the alchemist was here—for the ancient ruins, not because of any word of her small deeds. It made sense now.

Dante sucked a breath in.

This was it! This was her way out of this horrible dull life. A way to see, to touch, to experience the glamour, the luxury, the knowledge she knew was out there beyond her reach.

She suddenly stepped off the stairs and walked into the room. "If you need a guide, I can take you to the where the old writing is," she said.

"Dante!" admonished her father. "I sent you to your room!" He turned to the Alchemist. "Forgive my daughter her impertinence, milord."

"It is quite alright. You've seen writing, then?" Yes, there was unmistakable excitement in the man's eyes now.

"Yes, milord," said Dante. "Only I have. No one else goes in there and it's a maze. If you try to go by yourself you will get lost and possibly trapped under rubble."

"I see," said the stranger, smiling with amusement. He turned to Dante's father again. "I'm in need of a servant. How much to buy your daughter?"

Sheila and Dante both gasped. Dante wasn't sure whether to be delighted or insulted. This was what she wanted—some way to stay near enough to this alchemist to learn his secrets, and then make her fortune herself, but yet the way it was termed rankled, She was not some piece of property her father had the right to hand over for a couple cenz.

"My daughter is not for sale. I need her to manage the sheep," said Dante's father firmly. For a moment Dante hated him—Don't you dare—I will run away!. Then she saw with both hope and bitterness that he was staring at the Alchemist's moneybag.

The stranger rolled his eyes a bit, but then drew out a gold coin. Without another word her father took it.

"Hohenheim paid too much for me," said Dante to the roses. "He could have had me for a quarter that amount."

A slight out-of-place snick caught her attention. Ah, about time.

Without turning, Dante pressed her hands together. She felt alchemy boil in her body, swelling up like a storm, and like a lightning bolt she drove that power into the ground. Ironically it she used the same alchemy she'd learned on her own as a child.

Behind her earthen spikes burst up from the lawn. Dante felt a slight smugness at the sudden cry of surprise behind her. She turned around slowly to see one of Greed's entourage entangled in an organic cage made of solid stone.

Ah yes, the snake chimera. Dante walked over to her, and noted the little knife still clutched in her hand. She tutted. "Oh now, you don't think you could have hurt me with that thing—Marta? Martel, yes."

Martel writhed a bit. The spikes had missed her flesh only because Dante was feeling merciful. Her clothes were not spared, however, and the thin but tough branches pierced her pants, effectively turning them into part of her bondage. The spikes petered out at about chest level, leaving the woman free to twist in her confinement and test the strength of the bars with her empty hand.

"Did Greed tell you to attack me?" asked Dante. Although unlikely, that was a real fear. Dante was doing her best to put aside the bad blood between her and her second husband, but he might not be so forgiving. Greed was so much like herself—he simply didn't let go of his grudges.

Dante took a step closer to her captive.

Suddenly Martel's arm shot forward—elongating in an utterly unnatural way. Dante acted instinctively, clapping her hands again and pushing a wall of earth up between them. She heard a faint thwap as Martel's knife was intercepted. With one hand casually on the wall, Dante closed her eyes. She could feel the consistency of the world around her, the hastily thrown up barrier, Martel's extended arm in all its extremely complex glory, and the relatively simple stainless steel knife. With just a tiny whim of effort, Dante reshaped her wall to surround Martel's hand, cupping it in an unyielding grip.

She then went to work disarming the woman. Stone seeped liquidly between the hilt of the knife and the Chimera's palm. She could feel Martel trying to draw her arm back but the earth around it had grown hard as diamond. Dante felt the flesh crush as she forced the captive hand to open up and relinquish it's weapon.

Martel's scream was pleasantly reassuring. Dante squeezed until she felt the bones of the woman's thumb break. It would take a while for even a chimera to recover from that. Martel's shrieks took on a more desperate pitch.

Satisfied, Dante finally rounded her wall and looked at her persistent would-be assassin. Martel's normally smooth round face was twisted in pain, and her free hand held her captive shoulder tightly.

"No, Greed didn't order this," said Dante, relaxing when she saw confirmation in the Chimera's tear stained eyes. "You see, Greed is very bright and you," Dante shook her head. "You aren't so much."

Martel sneered at the insult.

Dante smiled to show that she was not at all upset by Martel's attack. On the contrary, she'd been expecting it for days now, and it was something of a relief that it had come at last. Animals such as Martel needed to establish dominance. While Dante may seem slow and fragile, she wasn't. After this bit of head butting all of the chimeras would understand their place.

"Let go of my hand," growled Martel, still showing that raw wildness.

Dante ignored her demands and closed in until she could reach a withered hand up and touch the smooth, flawless skin of Martel's arm. "Do you resent what I have done for you?" asked Dante, sliding her hand up that strangely boneless arm. The physical structure was amazing—the skin looked and felt ordinary enough but it was made up of amazingly tough fibers, usually tightly coiled, now stretched out. Under that, the muscles and even the bones had similar properties. What ordinarily functioned as a normal human arm could be made to behave like a powerful and flexible muscle. So very neat and perfectly packaged. Even after ten years, there was no sign of alchemical degradation.

Martel spat at her—but missed.

Dante gazed at her face. "You shouldn't be unhappy. Look at you. Your face hasn't aged a day since we altered your body. Not a wrinkle not a grey hair. " Dante drew a finger up Martel's arm until she reached the rest of the chimera's pinned body. She stroked the side of Martel's face. "You don't look a day over twenty-six."

Martel was trying to put up a brave fight. Dante could see the slow cogs of her mind working, finding strategies. Before she could go too far in that direction, Dante placed a hand on the spikes that contained her. They sprang to life, growing and winding their way around her torso and arms. Small, almost fibrous tentacles laced around her head, forcing it to look straight ahead. The chimera's ability to move was reduced to her eyes which stared at her in ever widening worry.

"But you aren't twenty-six are you? You are forty, or close to it. For fourteen years your clock has been stopped, and you've enjoyed strength, flexibility, fast healing. You are magnificent. A dead end for my current purposes, but magnificent nonetheless. It is a shame that you escaped the lab. So many years of data have been lost on you, but now you are back,"

"Don't you dare touch me," said Martel.

Dante smiled. "Martel, your only point of existing is to further my knowledge of the human body, and what modifications and improvements can be made to it. You will fulfill your destiny." Dante gently patted her bound cheek. "But it need not be a bad thing. The painful portions of the experiment are over. Now is simply a matter of observing, and measuring. Although, of course, I don't need your cooperation, I'd prefer to have it."

Yes, Dante wanted Martel—but there was no hurry. It would take decades, if not centuries of study before Dante would trust the research enough to subject one of her own bodies to chimeral treatment. Too many test subjects died within the first hours or days of being altered. Anyway, all that chimera research would all be moot if she wasn't able to create a philosopher's stone before this body finally gave out.

"Dante," came a new voice. "Release her."

Dante turned and saw Greed standing by the wall that captured Martel's hand.

Well, all the better. "Greed, did you know your body guard attempted to take my life?"

Greed's eyes shifted to Martel, who cringed. Ah, confirmed. Martel had attacked on her own.

"Did she?"

"Yes. Not on your order I assume?" Dante smiled sweetly, enjoying the way horror crossed the Homunculus's eyes. Oh yes, he knew what she could do if he were to presume to attack her now. He was stripped pretty raw at the moment, clinging desperately to what possessions he could still call his own. It would be easy, in fact practical, to send the chimeras back to the lab for proper study. The two boys could be put to work on the Xenotime project or possibly shuffled into lab 5's bioalchemic-weapons research. Even that Colonel she'd given Greed as a distraction and plaything could be recycled as a test subject. As for Greed, should he prove too much a liability, she could shelve him again.

Greed knew this. He also knew there was nothing he could do to stop her. They'd already had this confrontation before. He hadn't even come close to winning.

"No, It was most definitely not my order," said Greed firmly, shifting his eyes away from Dante. He glared at Martel, who withered under his gaze.

"Then I demand the right to punish her." Dante smiled. Greed really couldn't say no to that.

But he did. "Forgive me, Master." Greed's voice was soft and respectful, even as his words defied her. "But that would only confuse her and undermine my authority. It is my job to train her to follow your wishes. She will be a great asset to you when I am through."

Dante laughed a little ruefully. Well there, caught. He was right of course, and what was the point of bringing Greed home if not to use him at what he was best at.

Oh, she could undermine Greed on basic principals, and doubtless turn these chimeras into uncooperative enemies in the process. Or she could allow Greed his dignity and control and use the chimeras through him. Dante hated when her emotional desires were at odds with her practical concerns. It was always such a disappointment to have to curb her own lusts for the sake of her goals.

It was best to patronize Greed a bit. How tiresome. "Very well," said Dante at last. "She is your responsibility, Greed. I will leave it to you to see she is punished in an appropriate and effective manner."

"Don't worry," Greed said, noticing her chagrin. "I'll see she is punished, though not to the point of permanent disfigurement—if that was what you were hoping."

Martel gasped and shuddered.

Dante shook her head. "Oh, nothing like that. Your chimeras are very important to me. They were such a wonderful success, that I actually restarted the program again about three years ago. It took a while to find a replacement for the Alchemist you killed."

Dante felt a pang of resentment. She knew that Greed had no idea of the irreplaceable skill lost when Greed allowed his Chimeras to revenge themselves on the one who made them. Honestly, Tucker, the replacement she found, didn't have half the skill Morrow, the one she'd lost—but he did have the man's notes. With access to one or more of the Chimeras from the first study, perhaps he'd be more successful in creating something more useful and less grotesque.

Greed smiled, revealing his sharp teeth. Then he grew grim and turned to Martel. "My love, my sweet, my little fool. Did I not tell you to mind your manners in Dante's house?"

"Greed, sir!" said Martel, "Please. I'm sorry!"

"Sorry. I've heard a lot of that word from my family lately." Greed reached over and touched Martel's face. "Everyone keeps saying 'sorry' and then doing whatever they wish—no matter the harm. Sorry is just a word, Martel—if there is no contrition behind it. And I can tell you aren't sorry at all—not one bit."

Martel's lower lip quivered a bit, it was about the range of movement she was capable of, wrapped as tightly as she was.

"You want vengeance for what she did to you and your unit," said Greed in a softer, more understanding tone. He reached out a hand and smoothed her short hair. "I understand that urge, but my sweet, now is not the time and this is not the person. You are damn lucky Dante didn't just impale you. Then you'd be dead," Greed snuggled closer in until his body pressed against the bars. "I don't want to lose you, my love."

Martel winced. Dante broadened her smile. Greed seemed suddenly aware of Dante's presence again and bit back whatever else he was planning on saying. He pushed away from Martel and walked a few feet out into the garden before turning around and facing his wayward subordinate. His face had hardened in that time.

"You don't much like being imprisoned do you?" continued Greed. "Well then, that makes this a fitting punishment. You will stand here like a lawn ornament until such time as I see you repentant enough to be freed."

"No! Greed! Please!" Martel struggled fruitlessly against the cage. Dante could see that Martel was already uncomfortable. Dante had caught her as she was moving and as such her legs were spread apart. There was only so long she could hold her awkward position using her own muscles. Eventually she'd be forced to sag and her weight would come to rest againt the narrow rounded bands of the bars. Slow torture and humiliation in one neat package.

"You disobeyed me. Martel. Accept your punishment."

Dante saw understanding dawn on Martel's face and at the same felt a bitter amusement herself. Martel wasn't being punished for attacking Dante. She was being punished for disobeying Greed. Well, that wasn't quite as promising as Dante had hoped, but then expecting Greed to slide back into subservience would be a lot anyway.

Greed turned his back on Martel and walked towards the house. Dante considered following him, but decided against it. She didn't need to rub his embarrassment in more than it already was. She had no time for petty power games, what she needed was Greed and his people working for her as soon as possible. Every day spent coaxing him into being cooperative was a day she couldn't afford wasted.

How had it gone so wrong? Of all the people Dante had ever met in her life, Greed, both living and dead had been the one most compatible with her. He was her partner in crime, her bosom companion, her perfect bedmate. He understood all her urges, because he shared them and together they'd been an unstoppable force. Almost from the first hour they'd met they'd been inseparable.

She had met Greed for the first time, fittingly enough, at a fancy party. It was one of those decadent affairs of the rich, where one came in with one companion, and if one left with another, no one turned an eye. Dante had worn a blue satin dress worth more than her father's entire estate. Her blonde hair had been teased up with a dozen combs by her servants, and her face was powdered and rouged. She had everything she had wanted as a child—and more.

The dirty scamps of her home village would not have recognized her. She could imagine the stunned looks on her families faces if they had seen how far she'd come. That is if they were still alive—which chances were they weren't. Although her body looked no older than twenty, she had passed her seventieth birthday in September.

Hohenheim lead her into the mansion by her arm, looking as charming and handsome as always, but his expression was still distant. She was not surprised when, as soon as they were introduced to the crowd, he turned to her and murmured, "I need to talk to some gentlemen for a bit, Dante. Amuse yourself."

Dante watched him disappear between the huddles of Amestrian society elite. Inevitably, he'd find some nook and spend the evening discussing esoteric and dull philosophy with whomever cared for that sort of thing.

Sometimes she just didn't understand her husband. Look at the lights! The champagne! The young servants in their tightly tailored outfits, there to please. How could he be blind to the beauty, the possibilities. What was the point in being rich and powerful if not to revel in it?

Sometimes it angered her that Hohenheim was such a hopeless stick in the mud. Couldn't he dance with her just once? Couldn't he show the world that he was her husband in more than just name? She knew that many among Society quietly snickered about her behind her back. Look at the little gold digger abandoned by her husband again. To her face, of course, they were polite. People who were not had an unsettling tendency to disappear.

Dante scanned the room for a moment before her eyes settled on a slim blond man, probably no older than she looked. She recognized him as a younger son of a Baron. Smiling she sauntered up to him. "Care to dance?"

His lips tweaked up in a smile. "It would be my honor."

As they twirled on the floor, she saw Hohenheim sitting on a bench deep in conversation with an elderly man. Dante's eyes caught on Hohenheim's for a second wondering if he might perhaps be jealous of her dancing with a younger man. But he merely nodded and of all things, smiled her direction.

She couldn't even stir jealousy in him. Did she really mean that little?

She buried her flushed and angry face in her partner's silken jacket. She fantasized cutting her ties with Hohenheim. Just get a divorce, and call an end to this empty shell of a marriage.

No. That won't ever happen. The philosophers stone held her to Hohenhiem better than any chain could have. Now that she'd tasted immortality, she couldn't imagine ever giving it up.

No it was more likely that Hohenheim would one day tire of her. If he cut her off, everything she valued would be lost. But no—but she was too valuable to him. No one else had as much alchemic power as she did. Not even Hohenheim himself. And if there was one thing that Hohenhiem loved it was Alchemy. As long as she worked on his projects to expand his knowledge of the science, he would never turn her away. She was irreplaceable.

When the dance was over, Hohenheim had disappeared—off to somewhere quieter and more private no doubt. Once she had speculated that he was having an affair, but she doubted that now. Hohenheim seemed mostly indifferent to sex.

But she was not. She wondered if maybe Hohenheim was relieved that she turned to others to satisfy those needs. He certainly knew that she was not faithful, but he'd never gone so far as to remark upon it. She looked up at the baron's son and smiled her most alluring smile. She felt a warm pride spreading across her chest when he responded. Give the gossups something new to chatter about.

"Your husband," the lordling whispered, a note of worry in his voice.

"Doesn't care," said Dante.

"How tragic," said the man. "A beauty such as yourself deserves attention."

Dante heartily agreed. They danced for the better part of the hour before the musicians took a break.

"Come this way—" said her partner, and he lead her out of the ballroom and through some broad halls. "The real party is being held over here."

Dante quirked up an eyebrow.

Her escort suddenly came to a stop in front of a lanky servant. The man was sitting idly on a chair, one leg up across the doorway, shoe planted in the jamb, barring their way.

"This area is for servants only, milord, milady," drawled the man. His eyes challenged them. There was no trace of respect or awe for their rank. In that moment, it struck Dante just how similar this young man was to herself when she was young. The confident attitude, the sharp, perceptive way he took her in.

"Robert will vouch for me," said her partner, a bit nervously.

The servant scanned over both of them, lingering longest on Dante. He winked at her flirtatiously. Dante laughed. She decided she liked his sharp edged looks, and the way his thin brows faded into nothing. It gave him character. And something about his manner suggested that he would be an interesting person to know in other ways as well.

"I see then," said the servant, coming to a decision. "Well pay my fee and you may pass."

The servant stood up and held out an expectant hand. Dante's escort put a few silver coins in it. The servant looked mournfully at his hand for a moment, and with a muttered swear word Dante's partner put a few more coins in.

"Very good, milord," said the servant. Then suddenly he lunged forward and grabbed the back of her escort's neck. For a second Dante thought he might be trying to kill her partner, but instead the servant planted a deep kiss on his gaping surprised mouth. The man staggered back a bit stunned, wiping his lips and swearing full on.

The servant, completely unabashed, turned to Dante. "Your turn. Pay the fee if you want to go in." He pursed his lips to make the price more apparent. His complete shameless hedonism was magnetic, and she found herself wishing perhaps she'd picked him and not the frail blond nobleman.

Dante laughed and kissed him. It was long, moist and decadent and everything Hohenheim's kisses weren't. She pulled back a bit breathless and stared into the servant's brown eyes. "Well, that was very nice," she said.

"I aim to please, milady," said the servant. He gestured grandly at the door. "Enjoy the party."

Her escort grabbed her sleeve a bit roughly and pulled her past into a narrower, plainer section of hallway. They were clearly in the servant's area of the house now. "I've heard," he said turning the corner, "that these parties can be a bit, uh, wild—" whatever he planned on saying was lost as Dante pushed open a heavy double door and stepped in to the room and gazed at the people within.

For a moment all she could do was take in the sheer naughty decadence of the situation. The tile floor of what normally would be the servants dining room was covered with mattresses, bales of hay, and various sheets and bedding—anything to soften the cold floor for the bare bodies writhing on top. Dante recognized mix of nobility and servants—the latter more obvious by the lack of makeup and jewelry. In their state of undress, it was difficult to discern which station of life anyone was from. From their behavior, it clearly didn't matter. Men and women were entwined, touching, kissing, fucking—not so much paired as in ever changing groups. Men touched men and women touched women. Though most were young, there were a few frisky looking middle aged people in the mix.

"If this is too much we can go back," demurred her partner, who had turned an alarming shade of red. Dante realized this was as much his first time at as it was hers, but unlike him, she felt no particular discomfort at the notion of an orgy. In fact, the idea was very exciting.

"Not at all," said Dante. "Be a dear and unlace me." Her young escort swallowed but complied with shaking hands. Dante didn't bother to turn around and thank him. She waded into the mess and the lust wash over her.

She lost track of the baron's son rather quickly, but didn't care at all. The orgy had given her ideas. Very nice ones. A way to entertain herself and at the same time further cement her power. A few questions told her that the organizer of this party was no other than the servant who had stopped her in the hall. As the "party" wound down, she put on her clothes and hunted the man down. She found him a two other servants in a back room counting their cenz.

"What is your name," she asked him.

"Mark, Milady," the servant replied, amused by her interest. He leaned back in his chair, lazily taking a swig of beer from an earthen stein.

"I'd like to hire you, Mark," Dante said. "I have a few project ideas I could use a partner on."

"Mmm, that so." Mark shrugged. "What's in it for me?" She could see him undressing her with his eyes. She smiled to encourage the idea.

Dante walked around the table, ignoring the surprised gapes of the other two servants. She kept her eyes on the one she wanted. So much like her. She could see the hunger in his eyes. He had ambition.

"Money, sex... fun. Maybe a side of blackmail." She put a gloved hand on his well muscled shoulder. "Your savvy and effort, my connections and financial backing. We split the proceeds, Fifty-fifty. "

Oh yes, she had his number. Mark's eyes gleamed and he smiled broadly, but he hesitated. "I've got a good thing going here," he said. "How do I know you are earnest?"

Dante reached into her money pouch and pulled a single gold coin out. The wheel turns. History repeats. "Consider this to be earnest money then. A down payment on our first haul?" Oh this was going to be fun. Much more fun than Hohenheim and his dry philosophy and obsessive interests. This had the potential to be quite sweet indeed.

"Well, in that case," said Mark, taking the coin. "You can count me in."

Dante watched Greed disappear back into the house and felt a stirring of regret. Greed was not Mark. Mark had loved to share, and they had shared everything. They'd stayed up through the night plotting mischief, ways to financially ruin the old money who sneered down on her. Ways to corrupt their children into turning away from their parents. And the money their schemes brought in just made the deal sweeter.

And the sex—the sex was fantastic. liberating. Toys, positions, places, none of her other lovers had been as adventuresome as herself in bed—until Mark. Mark's perfect bisexuality was also an asset as they took turns luring home attractive people to then share with each other.

At first Dante had worried that Hohenheim would become angry about her relationship with Mark, but he simply regarded that the way he regarded everything that wasn't directly connected to his interests. When he decided to go searching for his "truths" in Xing, she stayed back.

The divorce was oddly anticlimactic. She sent her intentions to sever their marriage in the form of a letter. Hohenheim wrote her back with his blessing. Other than that, nothing changed between them. Nothing at all.

Dante looked at the chimera and felt a stirring of envy. Greed loved that creature. Greed wanted that creature. Greed probably bedded her. Her perfect man, her partner, her soul mate now had his own family, and she was not a part of it. Her perfect lover hated her.

Dante reached down for her hose and dragged it towards the gardenias. Though her back ached, she held it straight and proud.

"Maybe," she told the bushes, in a low enough voice that the Martel would not be able to hear, "Maybe I should tell you of the story of the woman who had the whole world fall into her lap. Everything she ever wanted was her. She was very very lucky—lucky at everything.

"Except love that is." Dante smiled at the flowers. "But who really needs that."