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sisyphean effort

Painted Truths

chapter 6. For a Muse of Fire

Warning: flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks. Strictly Chiaro's POV.

3 months earlier. . .

Chiaro went from window to window in his studio, clicking each of the tall wooden shutters closed with an echoing clang! His mood was seething, and he chose to take his anger out on the safety of the inanimate objects before him. The source of his annoyance was a message that had been sent from the imperial palace only an hour earlier.

"I have another commission for you from the emperor," said the messenger.

Chiaro was again seated at his work table. He never bothered to get up and answer his door for visitors, and those who knew his ways marked it as part of the "eccentric personality" of the artist. It was also this "artist's personae" which allowed him to get away with many things, but not everything—like a commission (if it could be so called, for Chiaro knew that it was, in fact, an order, and one he could not turn down) from the emperor himself.

"But I've only just started Princess Daiyu's portrait!"

"Then you will do both." An antagonizing smile, full of self-importance (if only second hand, as a mouthpiece for the emperor's commands).

Chiaro sighed and thought of the bottle of imported whisky hidden beneath the table. "So—who is it now?"

The messenger shrugged. "Some boy who is translating books from Amestrian in the palace library." Another antagonizing smile, and also a hint of amusement, as if he were reveling in some private joke. "Blond, too—not from Xing."

Chiaro's shoulders sagged. A librarian? And blond? He had a nasty suspicion that he was going to need a whole new color palette. And he had not paid the apothecary for the last batch of colors he had purchased. . .

He again thought of the bottle hidden beneath the table.

The messenger, satisfied, turned to leave. He opened the studio door and paused. "Oh, and I'm told he has a metal arm. . ."

Chiaro's head snapped up. A metal arm? For the first time in days—no, make that weeks—Chiaro found himself intrigued with the possibility of a new portrait.

And he was so sick of painting simpering princesses. . .

Chiaro clicked the last of the shutters closed and turned to look at the painting on the easel in front of him. Princess Daiyu was a sweet girl—if a little vacuous—and surprisingly innocent. Of course, now that she had been presented at court, all that would probably change. The competition among the clans, each of them vying for the emperor's favor, was ruthless, and wore down even the kindest and noblest of personalities. In Chiaro's rendering of her, the princess stood before the tall windows in full sunlight, her pale, cornflower blue robes draped becomingly around her willowy, delicate form. A shy, almost imperceptible smile adorned the small features of her face. She leaned outward toward the blue of the sky, like a flower in full sunlight. Yes, very pretty indeed. Chiaro wondered how long it would take for the Xingian congregation to break her.

At least he had captured her before that had a chance to happen.

A heavy knock sounded at the door. Chiaro, in typical fashion, called, "Enter," and picked up a large felt cloth to drape over the princess's portrait. Chiaro allowed no one to see his work before it was completely finished.

The door slowly creaked open, but at first no one came in. Chiaro watched from nearby, mostly hidden by Princess Daiyu's over-sized canvas. A single, dark-clad arm slipped around the door frame, hesitating, then a figure, dressed head-to-toe in black, in a material which reflected light in a high, eye-catching sheen, walked through the door, moving with careful steps toward the fireplace. He stopped before the fire, eyes raking the contents of the room, his stance defensive, as if expecting to be attacked, not painted. Long blond hair caught back in a loose braid, high cheekbones, amber eyes large and slightly tilted in the corners, profile perfect and straight and illuminated becomingly by the light of the fire— so this was the librarian that Chiaro was supposed to paint?

He was beautiful.

Chiaro was definitely going to need a new color palette. . .

"Is there anyone here?" the boy called.

Chiaro forced himself to stop watching and moved silently from the concealing safety of the easeled canvas. He came toward the boy by the fireplace, a welcoming smile firmly in place. "I am here. My name is Chiaro Scuro, portrait painter to the emperor of Xing. And you are?"

"Edward Elric." More hesitation as he lifted his hand in greeting. Chiaro grasped it.

It was not the metal one.

Edward lowered his head. "You're staring awfully hard." A pinched look.

"I will be staring at you for several weeks—it's my job, so get used to it."

Edward began twisting his gloved hands together in a pained, nervous gesture: "I've never done anything like this before. . .and if you must know, I would rather face off with a whole herd of chimeras than sit still for hours on end while you paint me. But. . ."

"The emperor commands it," Chiaro finished for him. Edward only nodded and lowered his eyes. There was something there, an obvious concealment of purpose, but Chiaro brushed it aside for the time being. After all, they would have hours together, plenty of time to discover what secrets were hidden behind those beautiful golden eyes. . .

"Then we are both the emperor's creatures." Chiaro smiled a smile of collusion. "Now if I may take your coat, I think we can get started." Chiaro held out his hand. Edward regarded it dumbly, then slid his jacket off his arms, the numerous zippers and buckles clinking together loudly. He dropped it by the fireplace like a black banner of surrender. Chiaro stared again, and Edward fidgeted, shifting from foot to foot, eyes melded to the fireplace grate.

Not used to being looked at, this one, thought Chiaro. He doesn't see himself clearly at all.

Ah, but such obliviousness was rare. Chiaro was reminded suddenly of blue orchids.

Beneath his jacket, Edward wore a black sleeveless shirt, and, like a firefly, Chiaro felt himself drawn to the light-reflecting metal of his right arm. He approached Edward warily, like he was a stray cat prone to bolt at the slightest loud or sudden movement. He stopped before Edward, palms up in supplication, and asked, "May I?" His gaze indicated the metal arm, and Edward lifted it towards the painter, allowing him to grasp it and exam the design in close detail. Chiaro held up the arm, his touch delicate (as if he were not, in fact, grasping cold, hard steel), his expression admiring, as if he were looking at a strand of the most beautifully cut diamonds. A rare smile came over the painter's face. "Yes, this will be a challenge to paint!" he exclaimed with a happy sigh, releasing the arm and stepping back a pace.

Edward looked at him as if he were mad. It was a look that Chiaro was used to and he dismissed it, turning to walk to the far wall by his grinding table to take out a new blank canvas. He moved with purpose, situating it onto an empty easel, conscious that all the while Edward stood, shifting, impatient and at a loss, by the low, crackling fireplace.

"What do I do?" the blond finally asked.

Chiaro came back over to the fireplace, and with a violent shove of his bare foot, he kicked a large, dark, and perfectly square ottoman over to the right of the grate. The backing wall was dark, and the only light was from that of the fire on the left side. "Sit on this," Chiaro commanded. When Edward didn't move, Chiaro hopped onto the ottoman and arranged himself: leg bent, knee up, in profile, his wrist resting on his knee, head turned toward the canvas. "Like this," he instructed. "Do you see?" Edward nodded, and then he and the painter switched places, with Edward shifting uncomfortably on the ottoman, but with him, in the end, finally getting close to the pose that Chiaro had demonstrated.

Chiaro stood back and took in the scene, and he noted that Edward was trying so very, very hard not to move or lower his eyes. It must have been a trying effort. Then Chiaro said: "Too much black."

Edward remained silent, a question in his eyes.

"You need a strong color," Chiaro murmured to himself, drifting away from his subject, almost as if Edward wasn't there. The painter walked over to a closet and started sifting through it, muttering to himself all the while, until he had finally found what he wanted. "Ah-ha!"

Chiaro swung back around to Edward in triumph: "This!"

In his hands, he held a bright red, hooded cloak.

"Well, of all the damn irony," said Edward.

A confused look flitted across the painter's face. "What? You don't like it?"

Edward smiled his first genuine smile of the day (and oh, what wonderful things it did to his face, thought Chiaro), and replied, "Nothing—it's nothing at all."

"Just drape it over your left shoulder—like this—just for the added color." Chiaro walked over to Edward and lay the cloak across his flesh arm, his hands arranging it just so, his touch gentle, reverent, like a supplicant being allowed to adjust the mantle of a saint. Chiaro then went back around to look at the newly added detail. "Now raise your right arm just a little bit more. . ." Chiaro traced the air with his finger. Murmuring to himself (a habit that he found impossible to break, even with the most esteemed of subjects present): "The reflected light of the arm leads the eye up to the face. . .the eyes especially. . .yes, that is what I want: all the focus there." He then turned sharply and went back to his canvas, taking up a bit of charcoal with which to do the initial line drawing.

"So now I just sit here?" Chiaro could hear the impatient, petulant tone over the comfortable barrier of his canvas.

The charcoal scritched across the stretched cloth, maddening.

"Well, you could talk to me about yourself," suggested Chiaro. Scritch, scritch, scritch. "Think of me as your confessor, if you will, and this canvas as the screened wall of the box between us." The scritching stopped: "I won't tell the emperor anything."

"I don't go to confession; I'm an atheist." An instantaneous response.

"See—it's not so very hard, is it? There was no real reason in the world for you to tell me that." The scritching resumed. Then Chiaro asked, "Why are you here, in Xing?"

A marked look of sadness overtook the boy's features, and Chiaro cursed himself for asking what was obviously a loaded question right from the beginning. Still, the boy responded:

"It's—it's my brother. He is ill, in a very serious way. And I had an idea that maybe Xingian medical alchemy could help. . . I wanted to see Dr. Chao Wong."

Chiaro nodded to himself, unseen, behind the canvas. Dr. Wong was the esteemed healer to the imperial family, a skilled alchemist who combined the alchemic arts with medicine. His specialty area was respiratory illnesses. Chiaro could guess the cause of the boy's illness.

"He has consumption." A statement, not a question. A single dark eye peered around the border of the canvas—the look of sadness on the boy's face had deepened, completely overtaking his features, and Chiaro, ever the consummate artist, thought: That expression will never do for this painting.

"So," began Chiaro, "Have you been able to see Dr. Wong?"

Edward shifted uncomfortably, nearly relaxing out of the pose, then straightened once again as he suddenly remembered not to move. A bare hint of a smile appeared. "Yes. . .yes we have. But it wasn't easy though. I waited around the palace gate for days, days, but they would not let me in."

"So how did you manage it?"

"I was getting desperate, waiting like that, so when the emperor's carriage finally came through the gates—I threw myself in front of it."

So reckless, thought Chiaro. "Throw yourself to the wolves next time," he muttered, too soft to be heard. But that trick had obviously gotten the emperor's attention, for better or for ill. . . Yes, thought Chiaro, the emperor would have liked such a melodramatic gesture. His family and his congregation bore him; his eyes are sick with it—he looks for anything, anyone different, not like those around him—anything to alleviate his own permeating sense of ennui.

"I am glad you have been able to see the good doctor. Is. . .has he been of any help?"

"Too soon to say yet." Edward's amber eyes took on a far away look: "But I am feeling optimistic."

"Good." Scritch, scritch, scritch. Chiaro's hand paused, considering, then he asked: "You are from Amestris, correct? What did you do there?"

A long sigh. . .Of what? Regret? Or perhaps nostalgia? Again, that single black eye appeared around the edge of the canvas, considering. Still, that expression will not do.

"I used to be a state alchemist."

"What does that mean?"

Edward's lips curved upward in a wry, half-smile, "It means I was a dog of the military."

Behind the safety of the easel, Chiaro arched a fine, dark eyebrow. "I thought that Amestris was, in essence, a military state. Your people—don't they look up to the military, and to your fuhrer—"

"Don't get me started on that bastard fuhrer!" A flash of anger, hot, intense, and mixed with something, something else besides—

There!

Chiaro's hand flew across the canvas. That was the expression he had been waiting for. He was smiling to himself, pleased to have found the key that would unlock the holding cell of emotion that would allow his painting to be something more, something alive. It was like touching fire! It was perfect. . .

He just had to get Edward to keep talking about the fuhrer. . .

Note: The chapter title is from Shakespeare.