Painted Truths

by Martin Spernau

I can still remember him there, before the fresco of his glory. The hero who single-handedly took the city and brought freedom to our people. The painting depicting him as the energetic youth of legend, while in flesh he was bent and frail, leaning on his staff.

Hidden in the shadows, I stood for long moments, simply studying the two contrasting versions. The fresco, familiar to everyone alive today, loomed high, the painted hero maybe three times life-size. Rumor had it that the staff he now leaned on was the banner pole he was ramming into the bloody soil of Victory Hill in the painting.

Observing the wear of the years on both versions of man and pole, my confidence and conviction soared. I could afford the luxury of contemplation: I was sure to succeed, where so many before me had failed.

Maybe the old man nodded slightly, I’m not sure if I actually saw that, or if my mind reconstructed that from what I learned later. I admit that I was startled when he suddenly spoke:

“They sent a girl this time.”

He hadn’t turned and there was no way he could have seen me in the shadows behind him.

“Have your achievements finally earned you the honor of this mission, Sarah?” He remained facing the fresco, as if admiring his own heroic image. “Come, stand with me, young assassin. We both know why you are here, what you have come to do, and that you, too, will fail. We both have our script set out for us in this repetitive drama, so why not relax the pretense for a moment of peace, shared in talk?”

Maybe my name was an educated guess on his part. The old man was shrewd, everyone knew that. How else had he survived six hits by the best of my Guild? I left the shadows and stood beside him. It was likely a deadly trap, but it brought me much closer to my mark.

So close to a target, I could think of thirty-two ways to kill without even changing posture, not counting the five I had successfully used on other marks. Content with my situation, I indulged the old man’s wish. We shared some moments of silent contemplation, just standing there. I couldn’t detect any weapons on him, apart from the staff, which seemed far too heavy for him to wield.

Finally, he turned from the fresco and looked up at me. There were tears in his eyes. “Tell me, Sarah,” he pointed a claw-like hand at the image, “what do you see?”

Taken aback by the question, I said: “I see… I see the glorious hour of the Revolution. I see your finest victory, Sir.”

“Yes, you would be too young to say anything else. Look closer. What else do you see?”

“I see the burning city. The torn fields of war. I see the banner of the Revolution as you drive its pole home.”

He turned back to the fresco, looking at it as if seeing it for the first time, or if trying to see it as I saw it. Then he nodded. “You see all that. You see what the artist was told to paint. He was a master artist, who could paint what would take many thousands of words to tell. But he wasn’t there when it happened.”

“Are you saying that this fresco is not showing the truth? Isn’t any hero image an artistic exaggeration?”

“Oh, everything shown here is quite literally the truth, all as it really was.” He turned to me again. After a thoughtful pause he said: “Maybe you can tell me what you do not see, what is missing.”

He had me intrigued then, and so I turned my full attention to the fresco. “I do not see the brave men of the Revolution, nor do I see the army of the tyrant.” I paused, turning my attention back to him. “But that is exactly as the legends tell it. You, Sir, were the last man standing on either side.”

He nodded, approving of my observation. “Have you ever wondered about that? Why there is never talk of the Heroes of the Revolution, of all those brave men and women who fought and died for the cause?”

“The Revolution and the Tyrant’s army ground each other up in the Decades of Strife. It was your final act of defiance that broke the tyranny, Sir. There was no one with you on that hill on that day. None of the original revolutionaries survived, and the fresco reflects that.” They taught us the history of our land from early age, and I had learned my legends well. Legends… myths. With a frown I added: “That is how the Legend of the Hero of the People goes. This fresco… is the embodiment of your legend, Sir.”

“Yes, it shows more than words ever could. It depicts the truth and the glory of that day,” he shook his head with a sad smile. “And yet it omits something crucial.”

“What is that, Sir?”

“Why was it I, up on Victory Hill? Why was only I left?”

“Because you were a formidable warrior without equal.” Why else would I have taken the contract on you, I thought.

He turned to me sharply, narrowing his eyes, then smiled. “I see… that is how the world works for you, isn’t it? The last man standing is the best man? Must be. I became the Hero of the People because I was the most worthy of my peers. Because I was the strongest, quickest or most skilled, or a combination of those.”

“Or… the slyest,” I allowed, “which amounts to the same for me.”

“What if I tell you I was none of those? And today, I am not strong or quick, yet I still live. Despite numerous attempts by your predecessors, each of whom was a master or mistress of the trade.”

“The best we had. Their failures prove that you must still be formidable, Sir. None could have bested them. None but me. Yet you did, despite your elderly state. Which proves your.…”

“Superior intellect, you mean? You flatter me, young assassin. But no: I have never been very sharp or quick of mind. My ill-fated reign should attest to that. Isn’t that why your Guild first got the contract on my head? Because I am unfit to be a leader and have proven so many times?”

I nodded. After freeing our people from oppression, the Hero’s leadership had been a series of bloody disasters. He had to die to make room for a more suited leader; only he had proven to be invulnerable to any kind of attack. Somehow, he always managed to dodge out of harm’s way.

My thoughts must have been easy to read, as he gave me a knowing smile and said: “You will learn the secret of my invulnerability today. And like all those before, you too, won’t believe it. Not until you see it in action.”

“Why would I not?”

“Your whole value system centers on competition, man against man. A test of personal skill and worth, with personal superiority being proven by victory. That is why you are here, Sarah. Killing me, the unkillable Hero, will be your highest achievement.” He gestured at the fresco before us, then to himself. “Only I am… worthless. Nothing I ever did earned me the right to carry my title or position.”

I almost laughed at the absurdity of the idea. “That, Sir, I refuse to believe. Your bloody ascension and reign tell a very different story.”

“And yet it is true. I am not the worthy opponent you think. Killing me will not be the crowning achievement of your career.”

I didn’t like where this was going. The Guild knew of some heretical rumors, faceless whispers in the dark: The Hero had help. And as he had never had any known allies, this help could only be of the vile sorcerous kind.

I was prepared for that, too.

“Are you telling me you are bewitched?” I sneered at him. “That you have a vile spell of unnatural protection on your life?” I raised my hands accusingly. “In that case, you will be no challenge at all.” I clapped my hands together with a sharp snap, a cloud of enchanted silver dust puffing out.

In the distraction of the powder attack I shifted my position and flung a knife. There was no sizzle of discharging magic, no shrieking howl of a spirit banished. He coughed and sneezed, clutching his staff for support. When he recovered, he laughed.

“Ah, yes. You are sharp. None of your peers ever tried that. Sorcery would explain it, and it’s close to the truth.”

My throwing knife was embedded in the fresco. I doubt he even noticed my attack until he followed my gaze to the painted hero’s torso, where my blade oozed deadly poison.

He turned back to me, raising an eyebrow. “Now how could I have avoided that…?” He nodded then, eyes fixed on a spot behind and slightly above my right shoulder.

I didn’t wait to drive home my next attack. The long blade shot out from under my wrist and I drove it hard towards his chest. There was a clang of metal against hard wood and I found myself hurling past him. My arm with the slung blade was trapped against his staff, spinning me out of balance.

With a nod, he shifted the grip on his staff, releasing my blade.

I let my momentum carry me on, feigning a few stumbling steps to draw my sword. I kept my center low and lunged right back at him, relying on the sword’s extended reach.

The tip of his staff caught my ankle, and my sword found only air. Then my face kissed the tiles of Hero’s Hall.

I lay there for a moment, expecting the bite of his staff in the back of my neck. However he did it, he was my better. I was ready to yield to superior skill.

“Get… up. Please.” He was breathing hard.

I got to my feet and retrieved my fallen sword, turning to face him. He hadn’t moved, leaning on his staff and still facing away from me. As I plunged my sword towards his exposed back, I saw him nod again. He turned to one side, my blade slashing past his shoulder harmlessly.

“I may be a bit old for it, but this game can go on for a long while. You cannot harm me, Sarah.”

I let my blade sink. The old man’s hand on the staff was not trembling and his breathing had calmed already.

“How?” It was all I could manage.

He turned and smiled, but his gaze was fixed on a spot behind and slightly above my head.

“She tells me exactly where I need to be to avoid any danger.” Sensing my confusion, he added: “Well, actually, she shows me where not to be.”

“Who?” I fixed him with my eyes, not daring to turn away from him.

“My… Guardian Angel.” He gestured with his free hand to a spot beside us, as if indicating a third person. “You wouldn’t be able to see her. No one ever has.”

I thought I heard the rustle of silk on silk. Every muscle in my body was drawn tight, ready to snap.

His focus was now to his side, slightly up, as if facing a tall person. “She has been with me for all these years, protecting me with her hints. I always knew exactly where not to be.” A dreamy smile was on his face. Then he shook his head ever so slightly and closed his eyes.

The tip of my sword hit his chest with far more force than required, enough to drive the blade through his frail body and out between the shoulder blades. He sank into my arms, letting go of the staff with a sigh. As it hit the tile floor with a loud clatter, my knees buckled. We sank to the floor in unexpected embrace of murderer and victim.

“Why?” I asked into his ear. “Why now?”

“You… what I never.…” I had to bend down very close to his lips to hear; life was fast draining from him.

“Me? What do I have that you never did?”

“No. You… earned everything. What you are. What you achieved. I… just had help.”

He died there, in my arms, and I wept. Even though I had set out to kill him, I was utterly unprepared for the outcome. Here I was, cradling the bleeding shell of the greatest hero of our times, dead by my blade. This should have been the greatest achievement of my career, yet I felt cheated.

Maybe it was my confused state or maybe I really saw it happen. When I finally looked up from his smiling face, I saw a figure standing over us, looking down. I remember feeling the touch of a soft, warm hand on my bruised cheek, and then the rustle of great wings.

I am sure I left my blade embedded in his corpse as I fled the Citadel, my clothes covered in the blood of the Hero of the People.

Yet there it was this morning, on the bed beside me, wrapped in silk, a large white feather tied in the twine that held the bundle together.

Now I sit here, writing with that feather, and I wonder. What makes a hero? What if he hadn’t known he had a Guardian Angel? Had I been in his place all those years ago, who would I be now?