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sisyphean effort

Painted Truths

chapter 5. The Alchemy of Art

Tall shutters stood open, letting in rays of late afternoon light: deep gold, an amber color slowly starting to turn dark with the silent sinking of the retreating sun. In the distance curved a river, waters racing and shimmering beneath the fading light. Behind the frame of the river, standing like massive ivory sentinels, were the climbing—and breathtaking—towers of the imperial palace. The stones caught and flashed in the golden light of the fading day; a sight so beautiful and bright that the heavens themselves must surely bow before it. In moments like these, when the strike of amber light was just perfect, incomparable, visitors and natives alike would stop and stare at the sight—the flowing river and the towers—and think to themselves that they had stumbled into the imaginings of an artist.

Chiaro Scuro sat before his stone work table by the massive windows of his studio. He had been methodically, and agilely, grinding the colors he would use for tomorrow's work, but his hand had stopped, frozen into place by the ethereal, fleeting beauty of the image in front of him. It was part of the reason he had his studio here, this view. The loveliness of the picture before him had served as his companion and muse on several occasions, and, like a man still besotted with a wife of many years—he was suddenly struck against by its inherent ability to move him.

A little regretfully, Chiaro tore his eyes away from the scene and glanced down at the curved indentation in his work table to the yellow ochre he had been meticulously working into a fine powder. The grains of color winked merrily and mischievously from the bowl—gold, again, like the retreating light of the afternoon sun. Unbidden, a memory surfaced:

"It's like alchemy, isn't it?"

"What do you mean?" He stood, like now, before the stone grinding table.

"Your art." The lift and flash of a metal limb, pointing—"You take these stones, break them down, and turn them into paint, then the paint is turned into art." A pause. "Take an object, deconstruct it, then rebuild it—it's the fundamental principle of alchemy." A flash of gold eyes and hair—

Yellow ochre.

"The color of trouble, completely and truly," Chiaro muttered to himself, glaring into the bowl as if the color was alive, existing to give him grief. He picked up a glass vile containing linseed oil and poured it into the mix, then picked up his muller and went back to grinding, his hand working with renewed, determined vigor.

A loud—and to Chiaro's ears—aggressive knock sounded at his front door.

Chiaro did not pause in his work; instead he called, "Enter," allowing a tone of annoyance to seep into his voice. His head remained bent over his task.

The front door swung open and clattered rudely against the back wall. Roy Mustang entered the room, a large canvas covered with a velveteen vermilion-colored cloth tucked awkwardly beneath his arm. He stopped, black eyes sweeping the contents of the room, searching. A fireplace with several tongs and stone bowls, a full length wall mirror, two large canvases—also covered—on easels, darkened, wood furniture with felt coverings and sturdy, elegantly curved legs. His eyes paused only once, alighting, briefly, on a large, square ottoman that was near the fireplace. His face was stony, determined. He turned and saw Chiaro sitting before the long work table in front of the windows. He approached silently, his eyes taking in the little clay pots of color—red madder, ultramarine, white lead, and bone black—before settling on the face of the man himself.

Chiaro raised a sharp, questioning eyebrow.

Without a word, Mustang swung the canvas from beneath his arm and sat it on the floor in front of Chiaro with a muted thud. He all but ripped away the vermilion cloth, tossing it aside in a dramatic gesture. He said nothing. He waited. Chiaro regarded the painting, then Mustang's face, then the painting again. Then Mustang asked:

"Where is the boy in this picture?"

A slow, amused smile crept across Chiaro's face, reaching up to his eyes and giving them a humorous sparkle. He attempted to cover his mouth—and that insuppressible, all-too-amused smile—with his hand, but he failed miserably. His shoulders shook with silent laughter. Mustang's eyes narrowed in suspicion; he did not understand this reaction at all, and he felt his own anger—which he had been carefully bottling up until now, cork pushed firmly into place —explode outward:

"And what the hell is so funny?"

The artist only laughed harder at this, and Mustang wanted nothing more than to grab his shoulders and shake him. How dare this short—and in Mustang's eyes—completely unimportant wraith of a man insult him this way! Mustang's eyes coldly—and haughtily—raked across the figure in front of him. Long, dark pony-tail, pointed goatee, unkempt beige robes splashed here and there with brilliant blotches of paint. And no shoes. His feet were completely bare. And they, too, were also spattered with paint. What kind of person received guests in such a condition?

Mustang's glare was all icy daggers and dismay. Then, for the second time that day, the expression was completely knocked from his face as the artist waggled his index finger at him and proclaimed:

"You—you are exactly as Mr. Edward described!"

"What?"

"I believe his exact words were, 'Icy, pompous, arrogant bastard who thinks he can control everyone and everything around him.' Does that sound about right?"

Mustang's mouth opened and closed, without sound, a veritable parody of a fish out of water. He could practically hear those words echoing through the room, could hear them perfectly, even as his own mind hearkened back to a scene of his own. That timber of voice, the angry expression, the clenching of a metal fist; his mind reconstructed it all, in detail, from his own dwindling store of precious memory: "Why do you bother asking for my report when it's obvious that you know everything I do? " The defensive posture and large, amber eyes flaring with the righteousness of adolescent indignation—how he had loved that look, longed for it even now, despite the fact that he'd never gotten up the courage to say so—at this moment he would have begged on bended knees to have that back, all that seething, burning anger that was so many, many times, directed right at him.

At least it would be something.

Mustang's face darkened and he could feel himself start to tremble again, even as his fingers tightened their hold on the gilded frame of the painting he was clutching. His head bowed, heavy with the burden of memory, and beyond that, possibility. In a quiet, and for him, unusually soft voice, he asked: "So he was here?"

Chiaro looked at Mustang as if he were a man who had taken leave of his senses. Sharp, black eyebrows knitted together, "What an absurd statement! You are holding the evidence of it in your hands, are you not?"

When Mustang did not answer, Chiaro's head tilted quizzically to the side, and with a curious regard, he asked (with just a hint of hesitation), "You—you are Roy Mustang, aren't you? The one Mr. Edward spoke about?"

"You said his name again. . ."

"I did. Should I not?"

Mustang's head shot up suddenly, eyes burning black, "Where is he?"

There was the unmistakable sound of anguish in that question, and Mustang wanted to regret that he had let such emotion show itself, here, with this stranger. So unguarded. But he could not. Not with such possibility before him.

Chiaro's expression suddenly went cold, a mirror for Mustang's own perfect, indescribable agony. The painter looked into the other man's eyes, and there, in a place far beyond the sweeping scope of his anguish, he could see a frail, newly nurtured and burgeoning hope. It was a hope that he did not want to destroy. He did not want to be the black-winged messenger that would send all of this man's hopes crashing to the ground. It was all too much. But he would speak the truth:

"He is gone."

Mustang bowed his head again, his already pale knuckles going even whiter as they clenched harder on the painting's frame. Another quiet, barely heard question:

"Where?"

Chiaro shook his head regretfully. "I do not know. . ." He then moved to walk away and Mustang shouted, "Wait!—" and grabbed the painter's left hand, or rather, what was left of it. Mustang found himself looking at a reddened, angry stump, too new to go unnoticed, and which heretofore had been hidden by the man's long, bell-shaped sleeves. Mustang dropped the offending limb. "I'm sorry," he automatically said.

"Don't be. I paint with my right."

"Still. . ."

Chiaro shook his head again. "No, I don't want your pity." A slight pause. "And you did not come here for me." Chiaro smiled wanly and gestured to the furniture over by the fireplace. "Please, sit. I will make us both some tea. And then—then I will talk to you about Mr. Edward."

Mustang's head lifted. Again, that flash of hope, and behind that, hunger. Yes, Chiaro thought to himself, I may not be able to give him the man himself, but I can gift him with my memory of him. . .yes, it is only a small thing, and hardly enough, but with that look on his face. . .I want to grant him this one small consolation, just this one thing. . ."

And Chiaro hoped that his words would be as effective as his paint. . .