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sisyphean effort

Painted Truths

chapter 4. Jaded Pawns

Hodge Fuery sat on a beautifully carved—yet unmercifully uncomfortable—wooden chair just outside the emperor's private chamber. Moments passed and the door swung open with a bang, causing him to start and lose hold of the listing stack of dossiers he had been cradling. He dropped to the floor and immediately began sorting through the pile. His small bespectacled eyes alighted on the fuhrer's black, shining boots as they stopped right in front of him.

"Hodge, I want you to find the address of this man for me."

Fuhrer Mustang held out a small piece of paper. Still kneeling, Hodge took the note and unfolded it. It contained a single name: Chiaro Scuro. Hodge stared at the fuhrer's hands and saw that they were shaking.

He had also called Hodge by his first name, something he never did, unless under the smothering weight of some great stress. Alarmed, Hodge looked up at the fuhrer's face. The mix of emotions he saw there were so foreign, so utterly removed from what he usually saw there that Hodge sprung up with a snappy, "Of course, fuhrer," before turning and bolting down the hall as if the very hounds of hell were chomping at his heels. . .

Mustang watched Hodge's swiftly retreating figure, then steeled himself and turned and re-entered the emperor's private chamber. His mind was in complete and utter turmoil, and his two distinct—and until now, very separate—personae were both grappling for control, leaving Mustang shaky and without anchor. His eyes slowly drifted over the contents of room, the softly flickering oil lamps, the low table, the tall winged-backed chairs, the emperor sitting in one comfortably, seemingly perfectly at ease—his eyes looked at everything except the painting of him. To do so would be to risk an even greater unmooring. He could not afford that. Then his eyes alighted on a chess set that graced the wall's long sideboard. He found himself unconsciously drifting towards it, suddenly entranced by the board's obviously exquisite carved jade and ivory pieces, and he felt a small thrill as an unexpectedly rash and impulsive inspiration hit him, the idea forming like a cloud of mist in a low vale.

He wanted that painting!

Mustang knew that this irrational desire was a pathetic sort of sublimation, a two dimensional substitution at best. But he did not care. Rash and impulsive, indeed. That particular phrase described the boy in the painting far better than it did him. He could almost swear he could feel the growing amusement in the painting's eyes—taunting him with this fact. Ignoring this—and his own loud protesting voice, the one inside his head that begged him to see reason—Mustang straightened and clasped his hands behind his back.

"Would you care to make a wager with me, emperor?"

The emperor raised a single bisected eyebrow. He leaned farther back in his chair with exaggerated casualness, regarding him coolly. Slowly, so very slowly, his lips turned up in a parody of a smile. It was clear he had not been expecting this. Still, his tone was all false humor and congeniality as he asked, "Under what terms?"

"We play a game of chess, and if I win, you let me have that painting from your private cabinet. . ."

"And if I win?"

Mustang hadn't thought beyond that, and his brain scurried to come up with a suitable offering. He mentally flipped through the talking points in the dossier Fuery had been carrying. Then: "Amestris will lift all trade embargoes with Xing, and I will eliminate all import taxes." His inner voice cried foul on this: he was rashly throwing away valuable income for the state, cenz upon cenz worth, and for what? For what? A just fuhrer, his inner voice reminded him, would not do such a thing, would not entangle the personal with the political in such a manner. But it didn't matter, he was like a man possessed: He wanted that painting and he would have it!

He just had to win.

Mustang waited, afraid that the emperor would decline this offer, but instead he clapped his hands together like a delighted child. "Agreed!"

The board was placed on the low table between them. Mustang, playing the ivory pieces, moved out his first pawn. The emperor responded in kind. Mustang had played chess with Grumman in Eastern headquarters hundreds of times, over and over, until he had become a veritable master of the game. But it had been years since he had last played and the emperor's level of skill was unknown to him. He moved out his knight, then the emperor moved his bishop. Mustang stared intently at the board, mind racing, calculating. . .

He set down his second pawn with a loud clack! The emperor's jade bishop retreated. Mustang moved his knight forward. He took the emperor's jade pawn.

Clack!

"If I had known, my dear fuhrer, that my lovely art collection was going to prove to be such a distraction for you—well, I might have chosen a different location for business."

Clack! Mustang's ivory knight pulled back a pace.

"I'm not distracted at all, emperor. In fact, I am perfectly focused."

Another jade pawn moved forward. Clack! Mustang noticed that his king was open and he pulled his slim, white bishop forward. Anxiety knotted in his stomach, a chain of desperation that closed around him, inch by inch, like a slow, insidious noose. He struggled valiantly to keep all those treacherous emotions from showing on his face. The emperor watched him closely all the while, glancing now and then at the board, moving his pieces without hesitation with dry, gnarled fingers. Another move and then another, and the board began to be emptied of its pieces. Mustang searched hard for an opening, looking for a weakness, any kind of weakness that would give spark to a strategy that would grant him the advantage and bring an end to this folly. For this was folly, no doubt about it. Because he knew, absolutely knew, that if he won this game, then the relationship between Amestris and Xing would fall apart. So much rested on this one little game. The ridiculousness of it all was not lost on him.

Another clack! and Mustang's ivory knight took a jade rook. Annoyance flitted across the emperor's face. Then, in a controlled, chilled voice: "It seems you have a rather unhealthy obsession with my dear Chiaro's painting, fuhrer." The emperor's eyes bored into Mustang's with reptilian calculation. "Why is that?"

Mustang's voice was equally cold: "It's exquisite."

Clack! Another pawn was swept from the board.

The emperor's lips twitched into a sly smile. "I did not realize that the fuhrer of Amestris had such. . .inclinations." The insinuation hung in the air, a trap that Roy was meant to fall into. Instead, he sidestepped, ever graceful, and parried with his own clipped retort:

"Like those of the emperor of Xing, apparently—for it's your painting and hangs in your private cabinet, does it not?"

Clack! Another jade bishop was taken.

Anger rose to the surface of the emperor's face; it crested then dove back beneath the safe veneer of his cold, distant facade. "I have seventeen wives, thirty-two concubines, and twenty-one children, my dear fuhrer. What, exactly, do you have?"

Mustang had no answer for that. There was no answer. So he said nothing. Instead, he concentrated on the board, mentally attending to the problem at hand. And then. . .

He saw it!

Clack! Mustang moved his rook forward a pace. His heart raced and he forced himself not to give anything away as he went for the move that would put an end to all of this. Just seven more and it was done. The painting would be his. He just had to get the emperor to slip up and take his queen. Just the one small sacrifice and then it would all be over. . .

Clack!

"A pity fuhrer. . .you have left your queen open." The emperor raised his eyebrows at this and seemed to consider his next move.

"Take it!" Mustang's inner voice screamed. "Just take it!"

The emperor raised his jade knight, his hand hovering in the air.

Take it!

And then the jade knight came down with a final, incontrovertible clack! The ivory queen was swept from the board. . .

Mustang felt a slow, satisfied smirk make its way up his face.

The painting was as good as his. . .