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sisyphean effort

Painted Truths

chapter 8. Of Insidious Intent

Chiaro's mood was maudlin. He was seated at his stone work table, but instead of working, he slumped, chin pressed onto folded arms, staring bleary-eyed into the distance to the flowing, ever-lulling waters of the river. The water curved and writhed like a snake, a darkened image reinforced by his own heavy drooping eyelids and the effects produced by the bottle of whisky that sat by his elbow. There was no solace to be found in the river's beauty today. The day had not started off well, and Chiaro could, at present, see no way of salvaging it.

He'd had it out with the apothecary just that morning, over all the money that he owed for the colors he'd been getting—twice the amount than usual—and he was way overdue for payment. Then he'd had it out with his black market supplier, Jing—for the lapis lazuli and the ivory and the rare, imported bottle of Amestrian whisky that he was currently nursing—over what he owed him. Nothing, absolutely nothing, drove Chiaro to the bottle quicker than money troubles, and lately, it seemed that all he had was money troubles. And then there was the matter of a certain blond alchemist he was painting. . .

Chiaro looked down at the arrangement of colors on his work table: White lead, yellow ochre, vermilion, red madder, red ochre, charcoal and bone black, and the very bright, very sun-like, weld. Edward's palette. Thank goodness he had finished with Princess Daiyu's portrait yesterday; the lapis lazuli that he used in order to get just the right shade of ultramarine for her gown had been costing him (even at black market prices) a small fortune. So he had that small consolation, at least.

The painter rubbed his temples and and pressed his cheek to the cool, roughened surface of the stone. Splashes of red and yellow ochre curved in front of his unfocused eyes, melding into a fiery orange. The whisky he'd been drinking was working its particular arcane magic, and he felt the noise inside his head subside, replacing his knot of anxiety with a warm and welcoming feeling of apathy. Maybe, he thought, Edward would not come today. Perhaps he would be granted a reprieve. It would be a blessing, thought Chiaro, to not have to stand in the scalding heat of that all-too-intense gaze.

No mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed. . .

A familiar knock sounded at the door, metal on oak, and Chiaro groaned. The door swung open, even without the artist's usual annoyed call of "Enter!" Heavy footsteps clunked to a stop just behind his work table. Chiaro lifted his head to speak and. . .

"What the hell happened to your face?!"

The left side of Edward's cheek was covered in an almost perfect burgundy and purple arch that just managed to graze his eye, which was vaguely swollen. By contrast, his expression was sheepish, almost apologetic. "Uhm, yeah, I sort of had a little accident."

Chiaro exploded. "How the hell am I supposed to paint you, looking like that?" The apathetic, whisky-induced haze was quickly lifting, and Chiaro was sorry to see it go. "And what do you mean by 'accident'?"

Edward reached around the painter and deftly plucked the bottle of whisky from his grasp. He upturned the bottle, taking a long swig, and almost immediately started gagging. "What the hell is in here? " he said, pulling a face. "It smells like automail maintenance oil."

"That stuff is hard to come by, I'll have you know," growled the artist, anger unabated. "If you don't like it, then give it back."

Edward merely shook his head and took another swig. Still the awful face, but at least no gagging.

"Well," said Chiaro, "Are you going to tell me how you got that or not?"

Edward started pacing to and fro in front of the long windows, bottle in hand, the full panels of sunlight only making his injured face look even worse. Bristly, like a battle-scarred alley cat. "I was sparring with the palace arms master and took a foot to the face," he said idly, almost absentmindedly, his tone implying that his thoughts were not on his injuries, but elsewhere—somewhere far off in the mental distance.

Chiaro began laughing so hard that he literally almost fell off his stool.

Then he said, gasping between laughs, "You let the Iron Maiden kick in you in the face?"

"The 'Iron Maiden'?"

"Vida, the palace arms master," Chiaro said in a low, fearful tone. "That's what everyone calls her."

"That would have been nice to know ahead of time."

"It's the metal spurs on the boot heels that does it, you know. Hence the name. . ."

"Oh, I know—I saw them really close up."

"Then why the hell did you do it?"

"Because," said Edward, eyes glittering like candle flames: through slats of sun, then shadow, and back through sun again. Stripes, like on an alley cat. "I can't afford to be lazy and let my guard down. I need to learn to be a better fighter. And that woman is an alchemist, too. She knows things." The pacing abruptly stopped. "And she's responsible for training the emperor's private guard."

Chiaro froze, thoughtful. That sounded an awful lot like Edward was planning something, and from what he'd seen so far, Edward wasn't much for planning. . .

"You know what she told me?" began Edward, "She said—and I quote—'Your reach is lousy and you lack creativity and improvisation.' That's what she said to me."

"And?"

Edward folded his arms and looked thoughtful. "Well. . . she's probably right about my having a lousy reach—and no, I never would have admitted that when I was younger. But seeing her in action—it's given me a few ideas. . ."

Two alchemists were standing together on a clear, level field. Trees and bushes and flowers of exotic, fantastical colors bloomed wildly, verdant in the surrounding green that made up the landscape of the emperor's personal gardens.

The woman Edward faced was tall, at least 5'10", and obviously not of Xingian descent. She had raven hair and her robes were a vivid scarlet and black, cinched with a wide, leather obi decorated with elaborate arrays. Her dress was slit high on each side and in brief glimpses, one could see the heavy, black lace-up boots that she wore, and the quick, altering flash of the wicked-looking sai that were tucked into the sides of each.

"Attack me," she said.

Edward clapped and transmuted his automail into a long, pointed sword—his standard mode of attack—and rushed the woman in front of him. Before he'd gotten within six feet of her, she brushed her hands together and lightly touched them to her belt, transmuting it into a long, leather whip. With one swift, elegant flick it was wrapped around his automail. She then gave it a vicious yank, propelling him forward, and the last thing he saw was her spinning around in a roundhouse kick, a heavy black boot aimed squarely for his face. . .

"She threw a bottle at my head once," admitted Chiaro.

Edward tried to raise an eyebrow, winced, then took another shot of whisky. "What for?"

"I begged her to let me paint her." Chiaro paused, remembering. "I may have been. . . inebriated at the time." It was the only accountable reason he could think of for his having gathered up the courage to approach her to begin with. "The bottle shattered right by my left ear. I'm pretty sure she missed on purpose."

"Why in the world did you ask to paint her? She's not what you would call. . .personable."

"Her right pupil is permanently dilated," the painter said in an almost dreamy, wistful fashion.

"Huh?"

"It makes her eyes appear to be two different colors: sea green and black. But, if you look closely, that's not it at all. It's the lack of symmetry that I find compelling—" and here Chiaro glanced down at Edward's automail hand "—I wanted to paint her."

Edward didn't comment; instead he drew up a stool and sat the bottle down on the table with a final, resounding clunk. Chiaro watched as he lifted a hand and touched the finely ground red ochre sitting in a little round earthenware pot in front of him. Normally, touching his private store of supplies would have sent him into a fury of shouting, but something in the young man's expression made him hold his tongue. He looked well and truly pained, a pain that went well beyond the nasty injury on his left cheek.

"I sent Al away."

The words came out so low, that Chiaro almost missed them. "What?"

"I had Doctor Wong put him on a cart, and take him out of Xing."

Chiaro was shocked, yet he forced his expression to remain completely neutral. He had spent hours upon hours in Edward's company, long enough to know that his world spun upon the axis of his brother's well-being. It was the reason for his current predicament. Edward's eyes were hard, and he didn't have to say it for Chiaro to know: He would walk across corpses and wade through blood to make sure his brother was safe. It was a simple, compulsive devotion—pure in origin, uncomplicated in its expression. Chiaro didn't understand it all.

He did, however, understand how much pain this was causing.

"But—why? And why are you still here?"

"Look out the window."

Chiaro got up and walked around his work table to the tall, open windows. He held onto the wooden slats of the shutters, leaned out, eyes scanning. By the granary that book-ended his open view to the river and the palace towers beyond, he could see (upon close, discreet observation) several figures clad in black robes and sinisterly painted masks. They were on the roof, by the mouth of the narrow alleyway, around the grain carts—numerous, lurking, their presence distant yet threateningly close, poses casual yet ominously imposing: the emperor's private guard of assassins. Chiaro felt his breath hitch, like a small rodent caught in the sights of a looming hawk—and he wasn't even the object of their hunt.

Chiaro turned from the window, his expression alarmed. "What the hell? When did this start?"

Edward's lips curved in a wry, unpleasant smirk. "Apparently, you're not the only one to have heard about Lady Rong's intent to kill me. So now I have my own private guard. . . for my protection, of course."

"Of course," repeated Chiaro, knowing full well that it wasn't for Edward's "protection." The emperor wanted to make sure that he wouldn't try and bolt, and Lady Rong's threats provided the perfect excuse for Edward to be followed. So he is tightening the noose, thought Chiaro. It was only a matter of time. . .

Chiaro watched Edward's expression—doleful but not quite defeated—as he sat slumped in front of his work table. "Do you know how long it's been since I've been away from Al like this?" His voice was rising, taking on an edge of hysteria. "But I didn't know what else to do! I didn't. . .I couldn't. . ."

"Let him remain to be used as a pawn against you," the painter finished for him. Edward glared, bristling with misdirected anger, but Chiaro just shook his head, speaking the truth that apparently Edward himself could not acknowledge. "No, you were right to send him away. You know what would have happened if he had stayed. He would have only been used against you."

"I don't know what to do," admitted Edward.

Chiaro had no answer for him. So he did what he always did in a stressful situation.

He grabbed the bottle of whisky and took a long, deep drink.

Note: The chapter title is a line from the poem "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot. The line "no mere human can stand in a fire and not be consumed" is from "Possession" by A.S. Byatt (which, incidentally, helped to inspire this story).