sisyphean effort

Painted Truths

chapter 7. Compromises

They were pulling a body out of the river.

Chiaro watched from one of the long windows of his studio, a rapidly cooling mug of black coffee cradled in his hands. The late afternoon light was fading, running yellow-gold into dark amber, the color turning everything it touched into burnished brass. Across the river, the palace towers gleamed idly in the late day sun. It was lovely to look at, just like always, but. . .

Nothing ruined a pretty view like a dead body.

Behind him, the repetitive sound of metal on wood: clink, clink, clink.

Chiaro knew, without turning around, that Edward was tapping his metal foot on the floor in a bored, subconscious motion. Eventually, he would switch to the other foot, and the tone would change. It was Chiaro who had suggested that they take a break; after spending the whole first half of the day on Princess Daiyu's portrait, his hand was starting to cramp. Chiaro was, in essence, a lazy person who preferred to work at his own pace: snail-like. Getting up at the break of dawn to mix two different color palettes, charring the ivory and ochres in the fireplace, all of it was proving to be a lot work, work that the artist was starting to strain under. It was like having two beautiful, demanding—and in the end, very expensive—mistresses. A lot of work, a lot of hassle, and not very much pay-off.

"You're a terrible model, you know," remarked Chiaro, his gaze still resting on the steadily growing crowd by the river bank. The victim appeared to be young, male, with a cap of glossy, wet, blacker-than-black hair. So young and so very dead. The color of his skin was already turning in hue, going cold. White lead and azurite. Chiaro glanced down at his palette.

"That pose is a pain in the neck—literally, my neck won't stop cramping. Why did you pick that pose; are you some kind of sadist?"

"Because it is the right one." Chiaro turned away from the window. Edward lay sprawled across the ottoman, head hanging upside down off the side, regarding him, his pose as lazy and insouciant as a cat's. Then, almost as if he could hear the comparison in Chiaro's head, he stretched, long and luxuriously, and Chiaro thought of the little black cat with yellow eyes that had been hanging around his door just that morning, meowing and complaining, it's large gold eyes blinking back at him lazily. Black cats were bad luck.

"I'm starving; do you have anything to eat around here?" Always hungry, just like a cat. Then Chiaro froze, remembering:

Princess Daiyu stood before the open shutters of Chiaro's studio, her expression serene and unconflicted as always, basking, like a sunflower, in the early morning glow. "Master Chiaro?"

"Yes, your highness?"

"Do you know the Lady Rong Zhao?"

The phrase, "nasty piece of work," instantly flew into Chiaro's mind. Rong Zhao was the emperor's first favored concubine, and she ruled over the other ladies of the palace with an iron, velvet-gloved fist. Chiaro merely nodded, expecting the princess to say next something along the lines of, "Lady Rong is being so horrible to me," or "Lady Rong threatened to have black tar poured over my hair while I slept (that last had been known to happen)." But, instead:

"Do you know Lady Rong's favored method for dispatching her rivals?"

Chiaro's hand froze in mid-air. It was a well known, but never spoken of, fact that Lady Rong would poison (and had in the past) the food of anyone she considered a threat to her station inside the palace hierarchy. Only a few months ago, the lovely Lady Biyu had fallen victim to her underhanded methods. Chiaro chuckled nervously, fobbing it off, saying, "But your highness, you can't have any possible reason to think that Lady Rong would try to do you any harm. . ."

The serene smile was gone. "Oh no, I do not think that Lady Rong would ever try to do anything like that to me," Then the princess's eyes cut to the side, a light of unexpected seriousness in them. "But you are also doing Mr. Elric's portrait, are you not?"

Perhaps not so vacuous after all. . .

"Oi! Chiaro, are you listening?" Edward's voice cut through his train of thought, snapping him out of the memory.

A warning, then. But what to do?

Chiaro, while painting the portraits of various individuals, often found himself acting the role of Father Confessor. And even though he always managed to listen with an intent and sympathetic ear, he made it his own strict policy to keep a certain boundary of impersonality between his subjects and himself. And he never—never—involved himself in palace politics. Oh, he heard much, too much, in fact: things that would curl the toes and make him glad once again that he did not actually live there ("But my dear emperor—I cannot give up this view—truly it is my muse and so inspiring!"). He was very much glad for the distance and the sanctuary of his own personal space. But—

"Don't eat the food in the palace!" he blurted suddenly.

Edward frowned, "But I was asking you for food."

Undaunted, Chiaro hissed: "The Lady Rong may try and poison you."

Confusion marked Edwards features, "Who the hell is Lady Rong?"

"She is the emperor's first concubine," he whispered, his eyes darting around nervously as if he expected the lady herself to jump out from behind the shutters at any moment.

Edward laughed mirthlessly. "You are seriously trying to say that the emperor's, er, concubine, wants to poison me?" He laughed even harder. "That is the craziest thing I've ever heard."

Oblivious fool, thought Chiaro. The painter's eyes turned dark, pleading, and then he reached out—something else that he made his policy to never do—and grabbed Edward's arm. "Is it? Is it, Edward—think!" Black eyes bore into gold ones.

Edward snatched his arm away. "I am not sleeping with the emperor!" he announced, his voice low and gravelly with anger. He plopped back down on the ottoman, his face taking on an air of resignation. "I won't. This painting—this painting is the compromise, and once Al gets better, we are both leaving Xing." Edward rubbed his face with both hands, metal and flesh, his body threaded with barely suppressed waves of pent-up aggression. "Just a few more treatments and we can go. I just have to hold until then."

Chiaro's expression was dubious. Did the boy honestly think he could rack up such sexual debts and get away without payment? He obviously did not know the emperor's methods at all. Likes to play with fire, this one. Chiaro watched Edward's face change: brow creased, eyes deep in thought, the lines around them speaking of a relentless anxiety. Chiaro hoped he would not get burned. He hoped he could get away from the emperor and Lady Rong. He hoped. . .

Damn him for making him care anyway. . .

Chiaro's decision making abilities had obviously grown poor. He was breaking his own set of carefully crafted rules. He should have kept the wall of the canvas firmly between them. It was in his nature to care about paintings, not people. So why was he doing this? Why did this boy have to be so interesting? Chiaro had obviously been on his own for far too long. The painter sighed a drawn-out, but resolved sigh:

"Come then, we will find you something eat."

And Chiaro knew, once you started feeding a stray cat, you could never get rid of it.