Ling stood boredly wishing he were anywhere but in his father's presence. He kept his shoulders straight and his eyes properly aligned, forward and not looking at his father, since that would be considered disrespectful, nor his brothers since that would be considered a challenge. And he shouldn't look at the attendants either because that made them shift uncomfortably. Although Ling had never played cruel games with the servants, several of his brothers had and they had come to be very wary of royal attention.
The archways on the doors were quite pleasingly carved, Ling decided.
The main doors opened with a clang and people began to file in. First the merchants in their elaborate silk robes full of bright and jarring colors. To a less refined eye they would appear to rival the garments of the Royals themselves, but Ling could tell that the embroidery was crude and the thread thicker, and the designs themselves, while flashy, were not works of art the way his own formal clothes were.
Behind the merchants walked two long rows of people. They too were dressed in silk, but without design. And if anyone couldn't guess their lower rank from the outfits, it was made more than apparent by the chain that ran from collared throat to collared throat. The slaves were clean, of course, and well groomed, their clothing arranged to either show off their assets or hide their flaws.
One stood out: third down the line on the left side stood a boy whose hair was not any shade of black or brown, but rather a deep golden hue. Ling was immediately fascinated. He'd seen pictures of foreigners—he'd even met foreign dignitaries who had come to his father's court—but none of them had hair this shade. The boy appeared to be in his early teens, a few years younger than Ling himself. He wore no shirt, so that the young muscles of his chest and belly could be clearly seen. His hair had been tied back in a braid, except for long bangs which softly framed his face.
The merchants lined the slaves up and forced them down on their knees. The foreigner looked up at the royals with wide innocent bronze eyes. Ling heard a small snort next to him. "That one doesn't know his place," his brother Shan said.
Honing in on the voice, the foreign boy turned to look in Ling's direction. As strange as he looked, he was still quite attractive, and Ling heard Shan suck in a breath. Ling dared glance and saw a lustful look in his eye. Ling instantly felt sorry for the boy and hoped that he wouldn't be one of the slaves his father picked.
One of the merchants noticed the reaction and looked back at the one who had caused it. He scowled at the foreigner and gave him a largely symbolic tap on his shoulder with his switch. Immediately, the boy looked at the ground, like the others.
The emperor rose up and wandered down the line, twice, listening to the merchants talk about each one's talents. This one could cook, and that one was strong. When they reached the blond, the merchant said, "This one can do alchemy."
The emperor nodded. "We have never seen alchemy performed. Is it much different from pharmacy?"
"Great One, It is dangerous... he made walls appear from the ground and opened pits under the feet of those who caught him. He is also a very good fighter, despite his looks. With taming he could become an excellent guard. He is educated and well rounded. He is also exotic, attractive, and young. I am sure there are many uses he could be put to."
"Indeed. How wild is he."
"Majesty, He is kept mellow with drugs to prevent him from using his Alchemy. Otherwise he would have surely escaped by now. However he is very intelligent, and I'm sure he will quickly learn his place."
"Ah," said the Emperor. "Perhaps indeed. But what use is an alchemist who can't do alchemy, or a fighter who is not loyal? And We already have enough wives to keep Us entertained. Perhaps, though, one of Our son's would like him."
Ling felt his brother tense to move and jumped. He stepped forward with three quick strides and then went down to his knee. "Oh great Emperor, your humble son requests that he may have this lowly slave."
"Ah," the Emperor hesitated. "Ling!" he said as if remembering. "Lesser son, if you wish for a troublesome slave, he shall be yours, but tell your indulgent father what you plan to do with him."
Ling hesitated. What could he say, I wish to save this foreign boy from being molested by my brother? I wish to learn all he knows of alchemy so that I can one day overthrow you, and depose all my brothers and become Emperor myself? It would hardly do to say either of those things. "Great and Wise Father, I plan to have him teach me Alchemy that I may better serve you."
The Emperor chucked. "Very well he is yours." The Emperor then turned to his other sons, "Each of you may chose one of these slaves to be yours. We are feeling generous today."
The Merchant smiled and bowed, pleased, but then he gently tapped Ling's shoulder. "You must keep him on the drug," he said. "Or he will escape. He has caused us trouble in the past, but not when he has the drug in him. Mellowed he makes a very pleasant companion, a good valet, and an excellent conversationalist, despite his newness to the language."
Ling looked at the boy again. He didn't look like he could possibly cause anyone trouble, but then looks were deceiving. Ling himself took pains to make himself appear less of a threat than he really was, as a result he was mostly ignored by his brothers. When the time came and he took the throne, he imagined it would take all his siblings and his father by surprise.
The boy looked up into his eyes as the merchant released the chain that bound him to the next slave over.
'What is your name?" Ling asked.
"Alphonse Elric, and I beg your pardon, sir, but I am not a slave, nor do I intend on ever becoming one."
Ling smiled at the presumption. "Well, it is not such a bad thing to be a slave Alphonse," Ling stumbled a bit over the foreign name. "Especially not to me. But in any case a slave you are, and it's best you not fight it too hard, or you will be punished."
Alphonse frowned. "Please, sir. All I wanted to do was visit your country and find my brother. I didn't mean to cause any trouble. I have done nothing to deserve this treatment. If you release me, I will go home and not bother your country or people again."
"It doesn't matter if you deserve to be a slave or not, Alphonse," said Ling. "You are one now. And if you try to run, you will either be punished, or sent back to those merchants, who will only sell you again to someone much worse than me." Ling reached out a hand to comfort the boy. His hair was surprisingly fine and soft to the touch. "It will be fine, but please understand, you are 'home.' The quicker you accept this life the easier it will be for you. I am not such a terrible master, you will see."
Ling turned to one of the servants. "See to him, and get a supply of that drug he's on. Bring him to my chambers in an hour." He turned to Al. "We will talk more then."
Though Ling would have liked to have gone to his own rooms immediately, the Emperor had other plans, and so he was forced to stand in attendance far beyond the hour he anticipated. Almost three hours later, the Emperor finally released him and was able to go back to his room.
He heard the boy before he saw him. A soft breathy sobbing, that came to a sudden stop as soon as he pushed past the curtains to the inner chamber. He looked over and saw the boy sitting on the floor against the wall, holding his cheek. His eyes were swollen and red from crying.
Ling walked over and gently moved the boys hand. The brand on his cheek was still fresh, the skin around it puffy. "I shall get you some ointment," Ling said. "It will soothe the pain."
"Why?" said Alphonse. "Why did they punish me? Was it because I said I'd run away?"
"No," said Ling. "This isn't punishment. You are marked as a royal slave now. Anywhere you go, you will be returned immediately. Even if you should escape to your homeland, our agents will still find you and bring you back."
It was a shame to mark the boy's pretty face so, but considering his abilities, prudent. Most slaves were marked on a wrist or forearm, the face was such a prominent place. Still he couldn't fault the chamberlain for putting it there, especially since the boy had openly admitted to wanting to run away.
"Do you see now the futility of trying to run?"
Alphonse turned his head away. "I wish I'd never crossed the desert. All I wanted was my brother. Now I wonder if he is out here someplace, a slave like me."
"Perhaps. Is he as beautiful as you are?"
Alphonse snorted. "He's much more beautiful than I was... with this thing on my face, I don't think anyone could consider me beautiful."
Ling stroked the hair away from the boy's face again. "It isn't an ugly mark at all. Having the symbol of the royal family on you is a mark of distinction. In fact, you could walk through the toughest neighborhood in the toughest city in the entire country now and not be touched because of that mark. All will look at you and admire you."
"Is disfigurement considered attractive here?"
Ling found Al's hair rather addictive, he'd never met anyone with such soft fine hair. It almost seemed like fur. "Would it soothe you if I had my people look for your brother?"
Alphonse looked him in the eye with a somewhat pained expression. "And what would happen to him if you found him?"
"If he is a slave, I would buy him. If he is not a slave, I would have him captured and brought to me." Ling smiled. "I would very much like having two beautiful attendants, if he is, as you say, more attractive than you. Frankly, I find that hard to believe."
The drug could be taken as a tea or distilled and injected. Ling kept both forms around and in the morning he'd watch as Al drank it. The boy resisted the first day, but after that became used to the routine. It did not appear to effect his intelligence nor his physical abilities, but more than once Ling found Al pressing his hand in frustration to a quickly drawn alchemy circle.
"Why do you bother," Ling asked, sympathetically.
"Because I have to try," Al replied.
"I have heard back from my people in the West, and they have not seen your brother. My agents in the East, North and South have still not reported in yet. But it seems likely that he isn't in our country."
Al heaved a sigh.
Stepped in front of him and held out his arms expectantly. Obediently Al stood up and began undressing him. "Would you like a bath, sir, or a massage?"
"Massage. My weapons instructor made me hold a position far too long. I feel like one great big cramp."
Al removed his own shirt and found the scented oil.
Ling lay down on his bed on his stomach, tensing just a moment as Al's light weight straddled his thighs. Soon the boy's firm hands grabbed a hold of his back and began kneading and manipulating. "You are getting good at this," Ling said. "You learn quickly."
"Yes, sir," said Al.
"I've talked to the master valet, and he says you are a natural. My father was a fool to not take you himself."
"I'm rather glad I got you and not your father." Al found the troublesome spot and stopped to sink an elbow in it. It was almost intolerable, but then the pressure let up and the relief was nearly instant. Al's hands continued to move sensuously over his back. Ling relaxed. This was wonderful.
"You are good with your hands," said Ling. "Do you have artistic talent."
"Some have told me so," said Al, noncommittally. "I used to sculpt, but I used alchemy to do that, and you have taken my alchemy away."
"Would you teach me?" said Ling softly.
"How to sculpt?"
"Alchemy. Your alchemy, not the pharmacy we use here."
"Why not," said Ling. "I could order you to. I could have you beaten until you do."
Al sighed. "I'm not a teacher. But even if I were, you don't seem to have the right temperament for it."
"And how do you know what temperament I have."
"Books," said Al.
"Books?" Ling repeated. What did books have to do with anything.
"I have never seen you read a book. Nor do you have any in your rooms. Alchemy is a science; it takes a lot of mental discipline. Also you don't perform pharmacy. I would think if you were the type to be an alchemist, you would be at least proficient in your own form of it."
Ling rose up on one elbow. "I suppose you are right. That is disappointing. I had hoped to be able to use Alchemy in a fight, but I suppose I can make do with my own skills."
Al hesitated. "You don't need to do Alchemy. I could do it for you, if you wished."
"And why would you do alchemy for me?" Ling asked.
Al smiled, it was devastatingly sweet and innocent and utterly false. "Because you are my master." Al resumed kneading his shoulder.
"You would run the moment that drug wore off, Al. I know you aren't loyal to me." Ling thought a while. It seemed that Al too, was taken in by his façade of innocent haplessness. Perhaps that was just as well, at least until Al developed some loyalty. If only Ling could give Al a reason to want to be loyal to Ling. As good a servant as the boy was, it was clear he hadn't been born to it. He knew his mental and physical skills were being squandered.
"Well, then," said Ling, "How about you teach me something else then."
Al paused. "Like what."
"How about how to do what you are doing with your hands?"
Al sat up straight. "You mean massaging your back?"
"Well, okay." Ling ordered Al to lie on his belly on the bed. Al gave him a perplexed look but obeyed. Ling dipped his hands in the oil and touched Al's naked back. "What do I do?"
"Just run your hands down either side of the spine, not too close" Ling did so, feeling knots of tension the entire length. Ling listened to Al's pleasant, high-pitched voice talk in an increasingly incoherent and disjointed way as Ling dug out each knot in turn.
"I think maybe you might already know how to do this," muttered Al.
Ling smiled. He did, of course. "You are a marvelous teacher," said Ling.
"And you are a rather good liar," said Al.
Ling continued to work on his back until Al became boneless. A soft snore rose up from the sheets.
"You see," said Ling calmly, "I do read."
"I stand corrected," Al murmured. He finished peeling an orange and removing the seeds. His thin fingers carefully arranged the slices in the bowl near Ling's elbow, then he sat back in the nest of pillows on the floor of Ling's apartment. Ling looked briefly down at the bowl then over at Al and opened his mouth. Al looked slightly shocked, then rolled his eyes, and lifted a slice and placed it in Ling's mouth.
Ling carefully sucked the juices out of the slice. His eyes danced. Finding new ways of horrifying Al had become something of a past time for him. He enjoyed seeing Al thrown off his guard.
Al always managed to regain his composure far too quickly. But then, that was part of the fun as well. It wouldn't do to really upset the kid. There was a line, fuzzy and not particularly well marked, that Ling did not pass. It would be so easy to fall into the same decadent trap as his brother and simply use the servants for his own pleasure, regardless of their well being. He vowed he would never do that. However, there was a lot of room for mischief in that gray area between comfortable and harm.
"These are excellent," said Ling as soon as he could. "Have one."
Al carefully selected a slice and ate it. "Quite good," he said, his eyes wary, watching, the way they always did.
"You could relax around me."
"But then I'd get lazy and I would miss an order. You would become mad and punish me."
"When have I ever punished you, Al?" Ling asked, feeling a bit stung. "You have never disobeyed me. You are odd that way."
"Perhaps I've come to like being a slave," suggested Al, a small playful smile on his lips. "It's not a bad life. You are a good master."
Ling snorted. As nice as that idea was, he didn't buy it. "Perhaps you think by being perfectly obedient, I'll take you off the drug and you can escape."
Al put his hand to his now healed cheek, smile gone. "What point is there in escaping? You will just be brought back."
Ling nodded, placing the book down carelessly on it's open pages. He noted Al's brief flinch. It was truly funny what Al valued. Ling picked the book up and closed it and set it down again. This time Al approved.
"If your combative alchemy and your fighting skills were so good, how did you manage to get caught."
Al leaned back against the pillows. "I trusted people I shouldn't. I guess that's the short answer."
Ling raised an eyebrow. "Go on."
"I was walking through a poor border town, when I was attacked by three men. I clobbered them quickly, and they ran away. I figured they meant to rob me and now that they knew I was no easy mark, I didn't expect them to bother me again. Almost immediately after the fight I was then befriended by a man who owned a inn. I told him all about my life, and he seemed very sympathetic. But he betrayed me.
"Two nights later I was woken in my sleep by the same three men who attacked me earlier. This time when I tried to use my alchemy it didn't work. The innkeeper had drugged my dinner and I hadn't known. I was overpowered and hauled off."
Al looked up at Ling. "I can't really even fault the innkeeper for doing it. His family was very poor, if he hadn't sold me, he would have lost his only source of income. His wife and children had to come first. Still, it was a lousy trick."
"The innkeeper sold me to the thugs, who then turned around and sold me to another man, who moved me around in a crate for four days before selling me again to the men who sold me to you." Al shrugged. "I never understood why they were so set on turning me into property."
Ling looked at Al's large innocent eyes and fine pale skin. It was pretty clear what had attracted them. A pretty, strong, intelligent child, all alone without parents or escort to raise a fuss would be a strong temptation. There was always a market for the beautiful, exotic and useful in Xing.
"Take me off the drug," said Al. "Please. You have my word I won't run."
I wish I could believe you, thought Ling, He grabbed another slice of orange, and picked up the book again. "No. You aren't going anywhere."
Sparring with Al was a novel challenge. The boy's fighting technique was strange. On one level, it lacked grace and finesse, but on another, it was damn effective. Ling spat the dust out of his mouth and rubbed his face as he pulled himself to his feet. Al stood a few feet away, shirtless and sweating, watching him with a mixture of fear and pride.
Ling smiled to let him know that he didn't mind being "got." Al immediately relaxed and shifted to a ready stance. The sun filtered down through the tree in the corner of the courtyard.
"Is this the way they fight in your country?" Ling asked. If he could learn a new technique, one his brothers didn't know, it might be very useful indeed. The Alchemy the slave merchant described would be better, but Al still demurred, claiming the drugs that prevented his using the skill also prevented him from teaching it to others. That might have been a lie or the truth, Ling couldn't tell. In any case, he was enjoying Al's presence too much to push the issue.
"More or less," said Al. "My teacher comes from the south seas islands, there is a mix of her technique in there as well."
"You had a fighting instructor?" Al's background was still vague, despite Ling's prying questions, but he had thought that the boy had been primarily trained to be an alchemist.
"She was my alchemy teacher. She believed that in order to train the mind you had to train the body. So she taught us to fight. Me to fight."
Ling nodded, "Your brother as well?"
"The first time, yes." Al's eyes got that far away look again.
Al was elusive when it came to his past, but over the weeks Ling had come to learn several odd things about him. For one thing, despite his very youthful looks, he was the same age as Ling, a fact that had lightened Ling's heart somewhat. Some strange alchemy accident had caused to his body to stop aging for 5 years. Al kept the details close to his chest, and despite his curiosity, Ling didn't feel like beating what was ultimately moot information out of the boy.
Ling launched himself, catching Al off guard, grabbing his arm and flipping him to the dirt. Al's mouth moved silently a moment, then he coughed and gasped for air. Ling yanked the boy's arm and pulled him to a stand again. "We can stop here for today."
Al nodded, still winded. He bent forward a little and rubbed his back with his hands.
"I don't think your brother is in Xing," said Ling. "All my agents have returned. Your brother's appearance is quite distinctive. He would have had difficulty moving around without stirring some curiosity and gossip."
Al nodded again. A hand came up and touched his cheek again. The brand had healed leaving a raised welt no larger than a coin, which flushed a deep red when Al exercised. Impulsively, Ling grabbed Al's chin and reached down and kissed the mark. It felt warm and slightly rough under his lips. He felt the boy tense up. When he withdrew Al stared at him questioningly.
"I enjoy your company more than I should," said Ling. "I wish you could say the same."
"It is my honor to make you happy," said Al smoothly. Ling flinched at the formulaic phrase. He turned away and snorted at his own foolishness. It didn't matter if Al was happy or not. After all, he was only a slave.
Al brushed Lings hair with slow sensuous strokes, the way Ling preferred. Ling smiled, half distracted by the feel of Al's gentle fingers carefully parting and separating each lock, and the camel hair brush gently pulling the hair. Most of his mind was on the book in his lap, and on Al's calm voice behind him.
"The ends justify the means—On the surface I can see nothing wrong with this philosophy," Ling said. "After all we all sacrifice pain and suffering in the short term, for long term good. Studying, sparring, disciplining the mind and body are not so pleasurable, and yet the results make it worth it. Still, something about this doesn't ring right in me."
"It shouldn't," said Al. "Self-sacrifice for self betterment is not the same as sacrificing another's welfare for your own gain. The problem I see with this philosophy is that the end is always influenced by the means."
Al laid the brush down and then reached forward and swept Lings hair back towards the top of his head. Ling closed his eyes for a moment to savor the sensation of Al's fingers massaging his scalp and pulling and manipulating his hair. The brush came back for a moment and then Al looped the elastic around the ponytail.
"And yet, sometimes brutal means are necessary. Say a village becomes rebellious and challenges it's emperor. Rebellion disrupts the natural flow of trade, food, and security. Crushing the rebellion in any way possible would seem the way to go, even though initially it may cause even more problems for the villagers. Those that survive will thrive and other villages are less likely to rebel."
"Yes, you can think of it that way," said Al. "Or you can wonder why it was that the village rebelled in the first place. There must have been some need that spurred them to reject safety, trade and necessities. If you simply crush the rebellion, that need remains, and your villagers will remain unhappy even after they are back in the fold."
Ling scratched his chin. "But usually, the villages problems are expensive. How would it look if an Emperor spent his coffers making them happy? Every village in the country would rebel for a chance of a payout, and all respect for him would be lost. And who would want to be ruled by a weak Emperor?"
"Not all problems are solved with money. In my experience, it is mostly corruption and inequity that leads to problems."
Ling turned on his knees to face Al. "Is it the inequity of our relationship that spurs your rebellion, Al?" He reached out and touched the mark on Al's cheek. "Tell me this, if I were not your master, would you choose me as a friend?"
Al drew back surprised. "I... yes... I would choose you as a friend. But Master, I haven't rebelled." Al looked faintly hurt by the accusation.
"No," said Ling. "But you plan to. I see you looking out the window towards the horizon. You sigh and look sad, no matter how much I give you. One day you will try to run away, I can feel it in my bones."
Al looked at the rug. Ling was hoping for a denial, but he didn't get one.
Ling burst into Shan's apartments, sword drawn and belly burning. "Where is he!" he said to the first servant he saw.
The girl looked petrified and didn't speak but her eyes flitted towards the curtains separating the sleeping area from the main room. "Ling! Help!" came Al's voice followed immediately by a sharp smacking sound. Ling threw the curtains aside and saw Al kneeling hunched on the floor by his brother's feet, his shirt had been pulled down to expose his back and chest. Shan raised the strap again, his lean face twisted in fury.
Ling caught his hand. "Brother, you forget yourself. This is my slave, not yours."
Shan's eyes narrowed. "Is he really your slave, Ling? If so you should treat him like one. I was hunting in the woods when my dogs smelled him out. A merry chase he lead me on before I caught up to him. He killed one of my dogs and he tried to strike me. Thankfully my servants were able to subdue him. And did you even know he was gone?"
"I asked him to go into the woods," lied Ling.
Shan blinked, and for a second looked completely taken aback. "Why?"
"He is my most trusted servant. There are some wild herbs I asked him to hunt down for me, so that I may cultivate them in my garden. He has been very good, and I figured that a walk through the woods would be a fitting reward for such diligence."
Shan's eyes narrowed again, not buying the lie. "Brother, he doesn't address you with the proper respect, and he gazes on you as an equal. Do you think the other servants do not notice such behavior? It is not just you that he insults with his attitude, it the entire royal family. Leave him with me for a night and I shall train him to abide by his station." Shan's eyes shifted down to Al, who quickly averted his gaze to the ground. "Allow me to discipline him and when I am through, it will be his greatest wish to bring you joy." The leer on Shan's face was unmistakable.
"He already brings me joy, Shan," said Ling. "And when he requires disciplining, I shall do it myself."
Shan looked angry, turning from Al who remained humbly bowed, to Ling's sword, and then back again. "Very well," said Shan. "Don't let your mongrel cross my path again. You owe me for my dog. It will be quite expensive. He was well trained."
"I shall see to it you are paid," said Ling, inwardly he flinched. Al was turning out to be costly in more than one sense. Shan dipped his narrow chin once in agreement. Ling slid his sword back in its sheath and reached down and grabbed Al by the base his messy braid. "Come."
Al rose to his feet and followed Ling out the door and down the halls to his rooms. Once past the lacquered doors, Ling allowed his anger to boil over. He pushed Al against the wall pressing the palms of his hands into the boy's shoulders. "I just lied to my brother for you. You were trying to escape."
Al's head remained bent. "I'm sorry." Ling couldn't resist reaching out a hand to touch the soft gold hair framing his face. Ling's fingers wavered, close but not quite touching and then pulled back to cover his mouth. It hurt to want something, so close and yet never in reach. It hurt more than all the fights and humiliations Ling had endured.
"You should be," he said in a low growl. "You deserve punishment. Maybe I should have left you with Shan and you could see just how bad being a slave can truly be. Should I, Al? Should I take you back and say I've changed my mind?"
Al shook. "No." He stared pleadingly up into Ling's eyes, his face white with terror. Ling felt his heart melt and averted his eyes. An emporer cannot be soft, he told himself. An emporer must be steel.
"Why shouldn't I?" asked Ling. "What can you possibly say to me that will make me feel less betrayed?"
"There is nothing. I ... I had to try. I had to know if I could escape. I'm not a slave, Ling. I don't want to be one."
"You ARE a slave!" growled Ling. He pulled Al's chin up so that the boy looked him in the eye. He ran a thumb over the mark on his cheek. "You are MINE."
This was all Ling's fault, not Al's. As master, it was his job to make sure Al knew his place, and Shan was right, he'd been lazy. He'd treated Al as a friend rather than a servant. How could he aspire to rule a country if he couldn't even rule a single person?
Ling's heart solidified. "I am taking you back. It's clear I am too soft. You were lucky it was Shan who found you, and that he'd rather punish you himself than leave you to the chamberlain. If my father heard of this, he would have you tortured, not just beaten, and there would have been NOTHING I could do to stop it. I've been a poor master. I need to start—"
Suddenly, Al leaned forward and pressed his mouth against Ling's. Ling froze for a moment, shocked, then when his heart resumed beating, he pressed back, taking Al's mouth hungrily in his. It felt good—warm and moist and soft. The smell, the feel, the taste, so sensuous, so delicious.
Ling pulled away and stepped back, pressing the palm of his hand against his burning lips. Al didn't love him, he just didn't want to be punished, and by the moon and the sun, Ling was not going to be manipulated this way.
"Go to slaves quarters, Al," Ling said, breathing harshly. "Go, now. Get out of my sight."
Al flinched and the muscles around his eyes twitched. He blinked rapidly, then spun suddenly away and ran. Ling heard his footsteps echoing down the corridors outside.
Ling smacked the palm of his hand repeatedly against the wall until the sting of his flesh overwhelmed that in his heart.
They sparred in silence, except for occasional grunts when a particularly painful blow landed. Ling used the full extent of his skills, enjoying the stretch of his muscles, the sharpness of his mind. He was on his best game. And Al was clearly off his.
Ling flipped him yet again to the dusty earth. This time Al took a few moments before pulling himself up to his feet. Ling waited. Al stood and took a ready pose, but his eyes remained lowered. It was unfair. How could Al hope to give his all if he wouldn't look at Ling?
"Why?" asked Ling, finally breaking the silence.
"Master?" Al asked back in a soft voice.
"Why did you kiss me?"
Al blushed. "Because I thought you wanted me to. Forgive me. I misinterpreted... I thought I saw something that clearly didn't exist."
Ling couldn't seem to quite get his breath. "You weren't wrong. I've fallen in love with you, hopelessly and utterly, to my shame and humiliation."
Al looked up. "But then...why did you push me away?" His blush had deepened.
"Because you don't love me back, Al." Ling waited. Al's eyes were on his, and the moment grew between them. Finally Ling spoke up. "Well, what do you feel?"
"Confused," said Al. "Very confused."
Ling sighed and covered his face. It was hopeless. All his plans for becoming emperor and ruling millions with a benevolent hand were being undone by single foreigner, and a traitorous and inappropriate heart. When had he allowed Al to slip below his armor and touch his soul? It didn't matter. He needed to pull himself away.
Tomorrow, he would stop playing games with the boy and treat him like any ordinary servant. Al would bring his meals and draw his bath, but Ling would not engage him in discussion. Ling would search among his vassals for someone suited to learn Alchemy and he'd set Al to teach the loyal servant, and take no excuses. When the time came for Ling to ascend the throne, Al would stand amongst the crowd, no more, nor less than any other slave under his care.
A figure walked out into the courtyard. Ling turned and recognized one of his Father's closest aides.
Ling turned to Al, "Go back to your quarters," Ling said. "Clean up quickly and then be ready to draw my bath."
Al bowed and left. The aide watched the boy run off and then turned to Ling. "The Emperor, your father, seeks your presence immediately, most honored Prince."
Ling's heart beat triple time, but he covered it up. He plastered a silly grin that brought a reflexive smile from the aide. "I must not keep him waiting then."
The Emperor sat at his writing desk, carefully painting a scroll with a brush and ink. He didn't look up as Ling approached the dais and dropped to his knees. "Ah, lesser son, Ling."
"Benevolent Father, to what does this lowly child owe such honored attention?"
"Your gracious and patient Father has extended an invitation to the country to the West. Amestria is sending us its finest dignitaries to grace our court. It is Our hope that this visit will help cement the peace and harmony between our two countries, and perhaps open lines of mutually beneficial trade."
Ling kept his eyes focused on the mat by his feet.
"It would be prudent for Us not to antagonize these visitors, lesser son. As such, We request you keep your slave confined to your apartments or to the slaves quarters. Do not allow him to walk the halls, nor the grounds, nor to the woods while they remain Our guests."
"Yes, my Lord Father. I will keep him hidden."
"These dignitaries are used to different laws and customs, they do not have our enlightenment when it comes to such things as slaves. Seeing one of their own as a slave may unduly upset them. And it would upset US if Our guests are upset during their visit. Do you understand?"
Ling touched his forehead to the rug. "Yes, Great Father."
"Ling," the Emperors voice softened a bit, and Ling risked looking up at his father's knees. "Ling. If your slave pleases your eye, by all means, look upon him. If his touch brings you pleasure, then take him to your arms. But do not fall in love with him. He is yours to do with as you wish, but do not let him make your heart his slave."
"Your wisdom is great, oh honored Father."
"If you wish it, Ling, We shall have him trained in the arts of pleasure by Our finest courtesan."
Lings mouth went dry and he flushed. The idea of turning sweet innocent Al into prostitute made him feel vaguely ill. Unreasonable anger welled up at the thought of others touching the boy. "No father. I don't wish that. He is my valet, and so he will remain. I am not his slave."
The Emperor chuckled. "That is good. Never let your heart rule your mind. You may leave Us."
Al was waiting in the bathroom when he returned. As soon as he saw the look on Ling's face he bowed. Ling gestured tersely and Al went down on his knees and turned on the taps for the enormous sunken tub. Steaming water soon began to fill the basin. Al poured sweet smelling powders into the flow, then turned, still on his knees to attend Ling.
Al removed his shoes, then stood to undo his shirt. Ling watched as Al undressed him, item by item, until Ling stood naked and exposed. Al's eyes remained averted, to preserve Ling's modesty.
Ling stepped into the warm pool of water and watched as Al tied back his sleeves and reached for the brush and soap.
If your slave pleases your eye, by all means, look upon him.
"Al," said Ling. "Wait."
Al paused, his eyes still on the tile.
There was a fuzzy line that separated teasing from harm, innocent fun from inappropriate cruelty. Ling opened his mouth and passed that line. "Join me," he said.
Al blinked. "Master?"
"It will be easier for you to bathe me if you are in the bath with me, would it not."
Al's mouth opened a moment to protest, but then he looked at the ground again and blushed. "If you wish," said Al. Ling noticed he trembled as he unbuttoned his shirt.
"Did you bathe, Al?" Ling asked.
"Yes, master," said Al. "In the slaves quarters as you requested."
"Was the water warm or cold?"
"Cold, Master." Al carefully folded his shirt on the ground. He then went to untie his sandals.
"And did you have a tub to lie in."
"No sir, the servents tub was in use. I have a bowl which I fill from the pump." Al untied the string on his pants and let them fall. Ling saw his pale legs for the first time. They were sinewy and sleek like the rest of Al's body, and what lay between his legs was quite respectable as well.
"And do you wash with fine towels and brushes?"
"No master, I wash with a rag," Al slowly touched his foot to the water then carefully stepped in. The bath was big enough for both of them with room to spare. Al reached for the soap and brush again then leaned towards Ling.
"And your soap, does it smell of sweet flowers?"
"It smells of lye, but it cleans the dirt." Al was breathing quickly, and his cheeks were flushed. Ling felt the tremble in Al's hand as he rubbed the soft bristles of the brush against Ling's back.
They didn't speak for a while as Al scrubbed him with brush and towel. His arms, his chest, his face, then Ling stood so that Al could reach his legs. It was always a sensuous delight to be bathed, but today it went beyond normal decadence. The look of Al's body naked in the water made Ling breathe quickly.
If his touch brings you pleasure, then take him into your arms.
"Here," said Ling pointing to his erection. Al's attempted to keep his eyes averted, but it was impossible to wash someone and not look. When Al brought the towel to the part, Ling closed his hand over Al's. Al looked up at his face.
The line was past. There was no point in looking back. Ling gently removed the towel from Al's hand then placed it back on his groin. Al looked him in the eye then began stroking. Ling closed his eyes and sat on the lip of the tub, legs apart. The air felt cold on his torso, but the heat of the bath against his calves was enough to keep him from being chilled. And Al's hand, slippery with soap, felt wonderful.
They didn't speak. Ling didn't look. He closed his eyes and just let the feeling wash over him. Decadence without remorse. Al was his after all, his to do with whatever he pleased. Anything but fall in love. The friction built and Ling tensed into it. He gasped as he came. There, now he was as bad as Shan and all the others. He opened his eyes, his heart steeled to see the devastation his lust had wrought.
Al's eyes were huge, but there were no tears, nor hatred, nor disgust, only a kind of bewildered surprise and shy excitement. His cheeks were flushed and there was a faint sheen of sweat on his forehead. Ling looked down and saw that Al was hard as well.
He reached over and grabbed Al's shoulders pulling him into a kiss. Al responded tentatively, but positively. Ling reached down began stroking Al gently beneath the water. "Now it's my turn to bathe you."
Never let your heart rule your mind.
If only it were that easy, Wise Father, thought Ling.
Ling was expected to sit in attendance during the long and extremely dry negotiations with the diplomats from Amestria. He found himself looking over the men and women with some interest, thinking that these were Al's people. There was a pretty looking blonde woman that vaguely resembled Al, and Ling wondered if perhaps they were in some way related. It was ridiculous. The likelihood of any of these people knowing anything about his slave was remote. After all Amestria was almost as big a country as Xing.
There is no way she could know Al, thought Ling.
But she did. Although Al had strict instructions not to leave Ling's rooms, and the diplomats had rather strongly worded requests not to venture out of their wing of the palace, nonetheless on the fourth day of negotiations the two met in the corridors far away from where either should have been.
To Al's credit, he had been attempting to take Ling's laundry to the servants' quarters to be cleaned, the way he did every week. The foreigner had no good excuse at all. She was clearly spying.
But it didn't matter whose fault it was, the damage was done. By the time a servant found Ling to report the incident, the entire palace had been roused.
There was no helping it. Sighing, the Emperor had Al brought before the diplomats, who stared at his burned cheek and his uniform, and the elaborate blond braid and positively exploded with fury.
The one named Mustang seemed the angriest. Although he looked like he could be Xingan himself, he apparently had no appreciation at all for the culture. "I will buy his contract myself," he said through his translator. "Alphonse Elric belongs with us."
"Is he a member of the military? Was he perhaps a spy that entered Our land?" The Emperor's voice was light as if he were amused, but Ling knew that he was anything but.
There was a delay as the translator relayed the Emperors words, then Mustang spoke again. "No, he is not a member of the military, though his brother was."
"Ah then, he was a friend of yours then."
"Yes. An old and dear one."
"He couldn't have been that old," said the Emperor, laughing a little. "He is barely out of childhood, or does your military frequently amuse itself with children."
Mustang's mouth worked silently a moment. Then finally he spoke. The translator calmly repeated. "We will compensate you for the loss. I'm sure there is some monetary figure—"
"No," drawled the Emperor. "This one belongs to Us now, and we shall not release him, now or ever, for any price. If you wish to make your entire negotiations contingent on a single young man, that is your choice, however know that We are not swayed by such tactics and Our mind is made up."
Mustang spoke up again, "Please be reasona—" but his grey haired supirior put a hand on his shoulder and stopped him.
"No, we can't let our negotiations be sidetracked by this matter." The hard glance the two of them exchanged made Ling's stomach lurch. "He is just one person, after all, and a civilian at that."
"Ah then, Ling, you may take your slave back. It seems there will be no war over him today." The amusement in the Emperors voice gave Ling chills, but he bowed deeply and led Al away.
Al looked back at his friends with longing, and they at him, but didn't resist Ling's hand on his back, pushing him back to their quarters.
Ling was not surprised to find himself summoned again. He touched his forehead to the rug in front of his father's dais. "Please forgive your humblest son, " Ling said. "And do not take your wrath out on his servant."
"I knew that slave would be troublesome," said the Emperor. "Perhaps this is Our fault for allowing you to have him. Ah but there is no point in questioning the past. He is Ours now and Ours he will stay. The trouble will not go away if We were to take him from you and resell him. We have spoken, and for as long as We breathe, Alphonse Elric will serve Our household."
Ling felt his heart lifted a bit with hope.
"However, Lesser son, We gave you strict orders to control him, and you failed Us."
Ling pressed his forehead to the ground again. "Beloved and Wise Emporer, words cannot express this lowly wretch's sorrow."
"As much as it pains me to do this, my son, if you cannot control your slave, I shall be forced to take him from you. Your Brother Shan has already asked for him, and I'm inclined to give the boy to him."
Ling sucked a breath in. "I shall not fail you again."
"No, you will not."
Al knelt on the floor near Ling's bed, his eyes on his knees. His shoulders shook, but he made no sound. Ling sat next to him and stroked his hair, feeling the soft rope of his braid caress the palm of his hand. "They are leaving today. You will forget about them soon and things can go back to the way they were." Ling kissed the back of Al's neck. "I will distract you with my beauty and wit," He said lightly. "I shall make you melt under my hands."
But Al refused to be distracted or amused. "Please let me go, Ling. Let Mustang buy my life."
Ling pulled away hurt. "I can't. Even if I wanted to, which I don't, I couldn't. The Emporer has decreed that you shall be a slave of his house until he dies. I can no more oppose his word than I can oppose the rising of the sun."
"Then take me off of the drug, and I shall run away quietly."
Ling's heart dropped. The rejection was crueler than any knife could be.
"No," said Ling. "I'll keep you on that drug until you are old and gray, if that's what it takes to protect you from yourself. Even though you feel nothing for me. I love you, and I suppose that will have to be enough."
The diplomats left and Al stayed. Once again, their lives fell into a predictable pattern. As the season changed from summer through fall, the servants quarters grew colder. It was an easy decision to have the boy stay in Ling's heated apartments.
It felt good to wake with his arms around Al's belly. Though Al was never trained in the art of pleasure, he nonetheless learned. His kisses grew less tentative, and more passionate. His hand grew more confident. They moved from fumbled touches, to more educated caresses. Ling did everything in his power to please Al in return.
To the rest of the household, Ling remained his goofy self. Talk of the diplomatic mess Al had created slowly died down. Soon Al's golden hair stopped turning heads, and simply became accepted. One of the household. Just another slave. Normalcy had set in and with it complacency.
They sparred together, then bathed together, made love and then slept. They spoke of politics and culture and played games to sharpen their wits. Al was careful never to be defiant, and Ling was careful never to push him too far. It was a comfortable truce built upon the principals of mutual appreciation and enjoyment.
I won't let Al rule my heart, Ling told himself, as Al's mouth explored his body. This is merely physical pleasure. Nothing more.
Yet inevitably, in the dark of the night, Ling would whisper words of love in Al's ear. Al would pretend to sleep and not respond, and Ling felt a simultaneous rush of relief and pang of misery at being ignored. The status quo was saved. His heart was still in limbo, caught between hope and resignation.
Then one night Ling whispered "I love you, " into Al's ear. Al's breath was slow and even, as always. Ling sighed and then turned over on his side.
The voice that came back was so soft Ling almost didn't hear it. "I love you, too, Ling."
Ling closed his eyes and felt his chest tighten and he knew his heart was hopelessly lost.
Al was gone in the morning, and Ling knew he had escaped. The tea would have nearly worn off, and in a few hours Al's much talked about but never seen alchemy would be back in full force.
Ling found the note in the bathroom, scrawled hastily on a piece of scrap paper.
I love you, Ling, but I can't stay. My emotions are torn. If I remain here I will forget everything I am and everything I want out of life. I was never meant to be a slave. I was never meant to be held to one place. I miss my friends and my homeland. I miss alchemy. And I miss my brother. He is still out there somewhere. I vowed to myself I would find him.
I hope someday I will see you again, and that you will forgive me for doing this.
Ling hesitated only a moment before tearing the note into tiny shreds and flushing it down the commode. He then pulled on his traveling clothes and summoned two of his most faithful retainers.
They moved out quietly enough that few servants bothered to look as they passed.
Ling caught sight of Al's tracks in the soft mud of the nearby forest. With that mark on his face, Al would try to avoid being seen and journey towards the border using the cover of whatever wild land he could find. Ling was far more familiar with the forest than Al was. It didn't take long before they caught up to him as he tried to figure a path across a steep and wide ravine.
He stood looking out, his hair, wavy from the constant braiding, tucked for once in a low pony tail at the nape of his neck. He couldn't have been that warm in the thin silk of his uniform, but nonetheless he looked happier than Ling had ever seen him. He stood straight and breathed deep stretching his arms, a huge smile on his face.
He jumped when Ling suddenly stepped in front of him. For a moment his mouth gaped open in shock. Then his eyes drifted to the ground. "I'm sorry," he said. "I suppose I will be punished when I return."
Ling paused a long time. "If I bring you back, you will just try to run again, won't you."
Al nodded. "I am not a slave, Ling."
Ling looked out over the ravine, sometimes one needed to make a leap of faith. "Tell me," he said. "Do you think I could learn your Alchemy?"
Al smiled sadly. "I'm sure you could," he said. "You have a lot more focus and depth than I gave you credit for. You could learn anything you set your mind to."
"Well then," Ling signaled his retainers to come forward. "I suppose I better follow you, that I might learn from the best."
Ling grinned. "So Alphonse Elric, where shall we look for your brother next? I hear the South Seas Islands are beautiful and warm in the winter, quite a nice place to visit really and not nearly as muggy as in summer—"
Al silenced him with a kiss.