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sisyphean effort

Painted Truths

chapter 3. Re-collections

6 months earlier. . .

"Well, that went off without a hitch. . ."

Hodge tried desperately to keep up with fuhrer Mustang's long stride as they made their way down a narrow passage way. In his arms, he juggled several dossiers: the fuhrer's itinerary, notes, communications, and details on the trade agreements that were going to be the main focus of the upcoming tete-a-tete between the fuhrer and the emperor, Iiao Lee. Leading the way before them was the emperor's chief minister, Lin Chan, a short, bald man, who was all swirling robes and nasally tones. Hodge could tell from his curt remarks and almost—but not quite—impudent speech that he did not approve of this private meeting between the emperor and the fuhrer; it was an insult to the ministers of both cabinets to be shut out of such a conversation. But that had been the emperor's wish, nothing to do with the fuhrer, and it was well known that Emperor Lee often conducted his business in an eccentric manner, mostly neglecting to pay any heed to the advice of his ministers, leaving them fuming, cast off, unacknowledged. But it was also known that the Emperor could be—and often was—a capricious and cruel man, a man who would brook no insolence or disagreement from those who served under him—and therefore, the ministers said nothing against him.

"That was all pomp and circumstance, Fuery—the easy part, I would say—the real work comes later." Mustang turned his head slightly, showing his profile from behind, and Hodge thought again of the lavish welcoming ceremony they had attended earlier. Roy Mustang had looked every inch the Fuhrer of Amestris . . .

The reception hall of the emperor's palace gleamed in polished bronze and gold, hundreds of lit candles and low sconces lending it the eerie beauty and solemnity of a cathedral. Banners of purple and red streamed down the walls, all earthly representations of each of the emperor's many clans. The carpet leading to the emperor's dais was lush, scarlet, making not a single sound as Fuhrer Mustang entered with his entourage, the ensuing promenade making a beguiling spectacle for all to see. Roy Mustang wore a fitted uniform of cobalt blue decorated with numerous medals of state, so much decoration—glowing and shining—turning him into a miniature sun. The uniform was nothing to the man himself, though, merely background ornamentation. Black hair, black eyes, and white skin that angels would surely have envied—the fuhrer of Amestris was a handsome man, no doubt about it, and the eager crowd watching from either side of the aisle nodded and whispered their approval. Even under the duress of such close, unforgiving scrutiny, Roy Mustang kept his expression clear and eyes focused in front of him—he could feel the appreciative stares from the members of the Xingian congregation, and he acted accordingly and with grace, holding his head in the manner of a man who took his beauty for granted, but knew that others did not.

Mustang's procession came to a halt at the base of the marble steps that lead to the emperor's throne. Emperor Xiao Lee rose, an invitation for Mustang to proceed up the stairs onto the dais. If Mustang was the embodiment of male beauty, then the emperor was his contrast: an unforgiving childhood illness had left the emperor's face riddled with pock-marks, and an assassination attempt from a few years earlier had left an angry, jagged scar on the right side of his face. His beard hid some, but not nearly enough, of these numerous flaws. Mustang did not care to look at him, but his always coolly calculating mind merely pointed out that by comparison, he would come out of this little spectacle looking even better. Mustang felt a familiar smirk threatening to rise to his lips, but at the last minute he shut it down—this was neither the time nor place.

The emperor and the fuhrer bowed to one another, each exchanging pleasantries and wishes for a mutually beneficial meeting of minds. After all the correct and official words had been spoken, Mustang waved to one his lieutenants, who came forward with a long, velvet lined box. The lid was opened and Mustang, with perfect grace and humility (even if feigned), lifted out a beautifully crafted sword with an ornate jeweled handle set with gold filigree. The emperor nodded appreciatively, accepting the proffered gift, then he motioned for one his ministers to bring forth an offering of his own: a large Xingian vase from one of the old dynasties, sixth century, and utterly unique and valuable. Mustang accepted the gift with a low bow, aware of every moment that he was watched, making sure to project the perfect mixture of strength and humility, of confidence and utmost respect. He felt sure he succeeded—after all, he had spent years fashioning for himself the perfect image, a carefully honed and impenetrable mask of power and control. Control was what Roy Mustang prized above all things, and in this game, the game of political machinations and maneuvering, he was king. . .

"We have arrived."

Chief minister Chan halted before a door heavy with wood carvings and baroque ornamentation. Hodge noted with disapproval that he had purposefully forgotten to add "fuhrer" to the end of his address and his jaw clenched with annoyance. He looked at Fuhrer Mustang for some sign that he had noticed this little slip in etiquette, but Mustang's expression was as cool and inscrutable as ever. Head raised, eyes veiled, hands clasped tightly behind his back—the fuhrer looked like a statue cast in hard, gleaming marble—white, cold, and just as perfect. It was this coldness and perfection that sometimes frightened Hodge, making the fuhrer seem less than human.

But how could one be the Fuhrer of Amestris and remain human?

"Fuery wait outside."

Mustang followed Chan into the emperor's private study. Though he looked perfectly strong on the outside, inside he felt wearied, the wear and tear of his station creeping into his psyche like blackened, choking vines. Yes, both the welcoming ceremony and the dinner afterward had both been a success, but that sort of thing was old hat to him. After all, was he not the one who had managed a peace treaty with Creta, a cease-fire with Aerugo, and peace talks with Drachma? He had years of successes behind him, a testament to his own skills and abilities. After so many years, he thought, he should be more than satisfied with his accomplishments. After all, hadn't this been his goal all along? The fulfillment of a promise? One he had made a long, long time ago, on a smoking battlefield as he stood—dead-eyed, bloodied, and despairing—next to Maes Hughes: "One day I will be fuhrer and make all of this right."

Mustang felt the sharp sting of regret as he remembered his long fallen friend. So many people had contributed to his rise to the top, so many of them pushing, believing, bleeding—for him. He could not fail them! Mustang thought with fondness of his old crew from back then: Riza Hawkeye, who had watched his back, as promised, until the day he had reached the position of fuhrer, who had then left to live with and take care of Jean Havoc, who was wheelchair bound and spent his days running his family's general store (how had he not seen that coming?). Cain Fuery, communications and genius inventor in his own right, now rich beyond imagining. Heymans Breda, who had left the military to start a family and run a bakery, of all things, and Vato Falman, who he had last heard was teaching ethics at the University in Central. Yes, Mustang remembered all of them, had really cared, had actually dared to care about all of those people, and remembering this helped remind him why he was doing all of this in the first place.

Mustang was drawn back to the present by the nasally sound of minister Chan's voice: "The emperor will be joining you shortly. Please, help yourself to some refreshment." He gestured toward a low table containing a full crystal decanter and several empty glasses, but he made no move toward it and he did not offer to pour. Insolent again, thought Mustang, standing silent as a statue. "Oh, and please feel free to browse the emperor's private cabinet of paintings. It has been said its collection is incomparable—no other country's artists can, as I have heard the emperor himself say, outdo the imagination and skill of those in Xing." With that, he gave a short—and insincere—bow and swept out of the room.

Mustang, with his back straight and expression clear of all intruding emotion (for he did not dismiss the thought that he may be watched, even here, in the emperor's private chamber), took a crystal goblet from the table and poured himself a well-deserved glass of wine. The red Xingian flavor was overly rich and he frowned at the taste. With nothing to do but wait, he drifted quietly over to the emperor's "private cabinet." The wall was mounted with several canvases of various sizes and colors. Depictions of lovingly draped ancestors, nubile maidens, and landscapes filled with heaven-piercing towers crowded the wall. He sipped the wine and moved leisurely from left to right, taking in first the portrait of a long forgotten empress dressed in a gown of rich, shimmering green, then to a picture of a Xingian warrior on horseback, the movement of the horse startlingly real, urgent and swift, as it dashed through a darken forest, and then to a third canvas of—

Him.

Mustang froze, unable to believe what he was seeing. Earlier, he had been dallying in fond recollections of all his former subordinates, the memory of all those incredible, sacrificing souls that he cared so much about, and his mind had purposefully—and treacherously—shied away from the memory of this one. And almost as if his suppressed thoughts had a will and power of their own, here he was. Gold eyes glared over cold reflective steel, punching him the gut with the fury of accusation: "Don't you dare forget about me, you bastard!"

The goblet dropped to the floor unheeded.

He could not suppress the small whine that issued forth. It was like seeing a ghost. A beautiful, taunting, unreachable ghost. Mustang forced his hands to remain by his sides, forced himself to not reach out and touch the paint. So real. His Edward. But that was the lie, wasn't it? The unforgiving, unacknowledged lie. He had never been his Edward—only in those dreams where history re-wrote itself, where different choices were made, where chances were taken that in life at the time were impossible for the cold cowardice of his heart—only in lies and ephemeral dreams and re-creations was he ever his. Nightly, he dreamed of this. And nightly, he regretted, with all of what remained of his heart, the things he had not said and done.

Mustang felt himself tremble, in a way he had not for years, maybe not since the nightmares of Ishval. Why are you here? Why do you haunt me?

Behind him the heavily ornamented door creaked open, revealing the darkened figure of Emperor Lee. "Ah, so we meet again. And in so much more comfortable an atmosphere, don't you agree?" The emperor barely glanced at him as he walked over to the low table with the decanter and dropped a heavy sheaf of papers onto it. It was a good thing that he was paying so little attention, otherwise he might have seen the expression on Mustang's unguarded face—his eyes, his body language, all of it, screamed that he was currently in pained, open warfare with himself. Mustang the fuhrer and Mustang the man were currently dueling inside his head for control: the fuhrer shouting and ordering him into a perfect stance of peaceful calm, and the man in him crying out that it was impossible and he had to find out why this picture was here, now.

The emperor glanced over at him, smiling, "Ah, so you have been viewing all the lovely treasures of my cabinet. Exceptional are they not? The one you are looking at there was done by my beloved Chiaro Scuro—the greatest portrait painter in all of Xing—only the finest and the loftiest sit for his portraits, sometimes waiting for months for the honor to do so."

Mustang's head instantly jerked back around to the painting, partially to conceal the newly dumbfounded expression on his face, and partially to give himself time to process the words the emperor had just uttered. "Only the finest and loftiest sit for his portraits. . ." How could someone who has been dead for over ten years sit for a painting? Could it be possible? Could he have somehow found his way back? Was he alive?

Mustang stared into the painted Edward's burning eyes, eyes that flashed with determined, smoldering intent—and those eyes assured that it was indeed possible—for him.

Mustang cleared his throat, and hoping he sounded normal, remarked, "It is an exceptional piece of art. Who is the boy in the painting?"

The emperor went suddenly still, and his expression shut closed, became unreadable. He lifted his head and looked directly at Mustang, and he seemed to regard him closely for the very first time. Mustang's mind was screaming at him: "Show him nothing!" Yet he felt himself grow hot under the emperor's penetrating, appraising gaze. Mustang could feel his heart start trip-hammering in his chest as he waited for the answer. Seconds passed. Then the emperor said, with a feigned casualness that revealed all that he was concealing: "He is no one."

Inside, Mustang the fuhrer warned Mustang the man that he was treading into dangerous territory by pursuing this line of inquiry, but for once the man in him won out, neatly shoving his public persona aside. "No one? But you yourself just said that only the loftiest and the finest sit for such portraits."

The emperor arched a single eyebrow, one that had been cut neatly in half by the vivid scar that adorned his face. What was it in his expression? Amusement? Annoyance? Hostility? Mustang only knew, could feel, that he was definitely hiding something, and this certainty made his breath catch and his blood freeze. Where are you Edward?

And then, with the finality of a heavy lid being slammed down, never to be reopened, the emperor repeated:

"He is no one."

Note: the line "he held his head in a manner of one who takes his beauty for granted, but knows that others do not," is taken from the book "The Fountainhead" by Ayn Rand.