Fifteen untied Slave Twenty-Three’s wrists from the gateway arch he had been suspended from. Twenty-Three sank to his knees, a groan tearing its way from his throat. The desert dust churned to mud, wet from the blood running down his striped back.
“Get him inside,” One, the master’s majordomo, said. “That’ll teach him to think he’s better than he is.”
Fellow slaves helped Twenty-Three to his bed in the master’s alchemy lab, muttering sympathetic words, but only Fifteen bothered to stay long enough to smear the salve Twenty-Three pointed out to him over the lashes that crisscrossed his back.
“What happened to you, Hohenheim?” The dwarf in the flask’s silky voice echoed in the still room once Fifteen had gone.
The young slave hurt too much to get comfortable. “I was arrogant and stupid.”
“Those two often go hand in hand,” the homunculus agreed. “Hmm, I hate to think I was created from stupid blood and yet, I suppose I already know that. I’ve been teaching you for years, after all.”
“Fuck you,” Twenty-Three spat, temper rising in spite of the fire the whip had ignited on his back. No, not Twenty-Three, not in this room. Here, he was Hohenheim.
“Eloquent as ever, I see.” A huge toothy grin pressed against the glass cage. “What did you do?”
“I got caught teaching the other slaves how to read and write.” Hohenheim sighed. “I thought the Master was impressed, but then he sent Slave One after me. One had me whipped.” He shook his head, regretting it as it made his back hurt worse. “No, he did it himself, ranting the whole time how I thought I was better than he was because I could do something he couldn’t.”
“I told you knowledge was the path out of slavery for you,” the homunculus said. “People will be jealous of that. Others will try to stop you. Why did you want to teach the others?”
“Because they deserve the same chances as I do.”
A huge eye peered out of the flask. “And? I know you too well.”
“It felt good knowing something the others didn’t. I liked the feeling I got when they all looked up to me for teaching them,” Hohenheim reluctantly admitted.
The homunculus seemed to purr. “Yes, arrogance.”
The door opened and the homunculus closed in on itself. The master shot Hohenheim a critical look. “I did not tell One to go so far. He overstepped himself as did you. Do you understand why you had to be punished, Twenty-Three?”
Hohenheim hung his head. “I didn’t have permission to educate the others.”
“Exactly.” His master squatted down, looking him in the eye. “You said you’ve learned some alchemy.”
“Yes.” He nodded toward the flask.
“When you’ve healed, you’re going to show me what you can do. You’re right. There’s no sense in wasting talent,” his master said.
“Yes, sir.” Hohenheim tried to hide his pleased smile. He guessed they hadn’t beaten the arrogance out of him, after all.