For Heather, thank you for continuing to support my very bad habit of lying (or at least stretching the truth) with your story starters.
White knuckles turn to bloody fists.
Sofia paused, taking deep, calming breaths. She didn’t like where her paintings went, but she didn’t have a choice. She held the brush up, the red paint burning in her vision, her fingers shaking. She wanted to stop, but she could no more stop painting than she could stop breathing. She could hold her breath for a while, but eventually she would cave in and give her body the oxygen that it needed.
The brush moved against the canvas like a lover’s touch, coaxing more detail, bringing the scene to life. The subjects were still faceless, and mostly formless. She always left the faces for last. The ring appeared next, and the audience, blurry and uninteresting. The contestants were tight, locked together in a battle of no mercy or quarter. Tears burned in Sofia’s eyes, and left a cold trail down her cheek when she blinked to clear her vision.
She hated the pain, and the fury, and the ugliness she saw, but it was too late to stop now. She heard the door open, but did not turn her head, dark eyes trained on the canvas, her hands steady as they drew forth the images, shaking only when she held them back from their work. Henri hovered behind her, eyes that were the same color as hers watching her and the painting, but she ignored him.
Finally came the most difficult part. The people were the hardest to call, the hardest to paint, and the hardest to see. She connected with them in the painting, and their pain was hers. The expressions were twisted, and hers matched theirs as she painted. Their skin was bruised and broken, their eyes filled with the monster they were made to become. She finished the shadows and the shading, the subtle lines and colors that made them something more, that made them come alive, and drew back to see her work as a whole.
Something was wrong, something was missing. It wouldn’t let her leave the painting, or put down her brush.
“What is it?” Henri whispered.
She shut out his voice. He would be angry at her insolence, but he wouldn’t disturb her while she painted. The brush dipped towards the pallet again, taking the blue-black color from the corner. The paint swirled onto the arm of the contestant with his back to the outside world, only a profile of his face to view. The tattoo was simple, and unmistakable. She began to shake anew as she stared at it, and the brush fell from her grasp.
Henri grabbed her arm. “What is it?”
“It’s finished,” Sofia told him, her voice soft, taking refuge in numbness while her thoughts clashed and clamored on the other side of her mind. “I can see no more.”
“Who is the victor?” Henri demanded, though he let go of her.
“The one you see,” she said. “It’s always the one you see.”
Henri looked at the painting, at the contestant with his face in full view, eyes wild and bloodshot, his arm locked around his opponents neck, then nodded at someone standing in the shadows. A man came to remove the painting, then the door opened and slammed shut again.
“You did well,” Henri praised, and it was like a knife in her gut, her eyes fixed on the tattoo she knew so well.
The world spun around her and swallowed her. Henri caught her as she fell, and she heard fear in his voice as he yelled for someone to help. Not fear for her, only fear of losing his control of the fights, and another part of her withered. Something was pressed to her mouth, and she tasted cool water.
The spinning slowed, and the room came back into focus.
“Air,” Sofia murmured. “I need air.”
“Take my sister outside,” Henri ordered, and one of his henchmen appeared at her side, lifting her with surprising gentleness. The trek through the stark passageways was like a march to the gallows, the tattoo and the man who wore it following her like a ghost.
The fresh air did little to make her feel better, but she savored it anyway. The promise of rain hung heavy against her skin, and lightning flickered in the grey sky. They had Leo, and he would die tonight. The painting was like a window, and she could see a little to each side, not much, but enough, and the paintings never lied.
She painted truth, only truth. She clenched her hands to stop them from trembling. Leo.
“Are you ready to go back inside?” the henchman asked, his voice not unkind.
Henri always took care of her, in his own twisted way, and no one was ever cruel or rough with her. She had her run of the place, but was never allowed outside without supervision. She was not a prisoner – the fighters were prisoners – she was a precious treasure to be kept safe and secure.
“Yes,” she nodded.
When she stepped through the doorway, the thought that Leo was somewhere in this fortress of cement and iron hit her like a physical blow. In the moment just before she succumbed to darkness, something Leo had told her echoed from an invisible memory. You control the painting. Don’t let it control you.
For the first time in a very long time, something akin to life kindled in her chest. She wondered where the fighters were kept prior to their matches. She wondered if she would be allowed to see them. A plan so simple and daring it could never work except maybe it would was set into motion before she could stop the words from coming out of her mouth.
“Take me to the contestants.”
The henchman looked startled, and Sofia took advantage of his hesitation.
“The contestants I painted this morning. I want to see them.”
She could see him struggling, trying to determine what Henri would want him to do.
“Please, I must know,” she said, using the same flat voice of defeat she used with Henri when she didn’t want him to argue with her. “I have to know before I can paint again.”
That was enough to spur the man to action – he had no desire to incur Henri’s displeasure – and the man led her through stark corridors and metal doors, until he stopped in front of a plain white door.
While Sofia held her breath, he drew a badge across the lock sensor, the light turned from orange to green, and he pushed the door open. The small room on the other side was dark. A figure stood with his back to them. At first Sofia thought it was the wrong man, but then he turned, and the light from the corridor fell across his profile, highlighting the mark on his arm.
Leo looked at her for a long moment before recognition brought a light to his eyes. They stared at each other, lost in an eternal moment of silence. In the peace she found in his eyes, she realized the single important detail she had missed in the shock of seeing Leo in the painting. The other man in the painting hadn’t been Leo’s opponent – it was the henchmen standing at the door of the cell.
You control the painting.