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sisyphean effort

Painted Truths

chapter 14. Visitations and Revelations

Elysia Hughes had a seat by the window on the train, and she leaned her head against the glass and watched the scenery blur by in a monotonous fashion. Green fields. Sheep. Green Fields. Sheep. More green fields. More sheep. White dots on verdant green, over and over. She was far out of Central and well into the countryside now, and she could feel herself being lulled by the soft, rhythmic rocking of the train as it sped over the tracks. Her eyelids drooped closed. Then a shadow fell over her, darkening the black behind her eyelids in a way that was unfamiliar. Then a man in a uniform said:

"Your ticket, Miss?"

Elysia jerked up in her seat. "Oh, yes, it's right here." She pulled the ticket from her coat pocket and handed it over. The man checked her ticket and turned to move on. Then he paused and said:

"Isn't that a little cumbersome to carry around like that?"

The man nodded at the large, covered canvas that was awkwardly wedged between the wall and the seat. Elysia glanced at it and looked slightly embarassed. "Uhm, yes, but I didn't have any easier way to carry it." She smiled apologetically.

"So are you an artist?"

Elysia's brown eyes widened. "Oh, no," she said. "I inherited this, um, painting—I didn't paint it."

"So it's one of those family portraits—dead ancestors and all of that?"

Elysia didn't hesitate. "Yes." Edward had been—was still—family to her, was he not?

The man in the uniform smiled and continued on down the aisle. "You have a safe trip now, miss."

Elysia watched the man's retreating back, then turned and looked at the covered portrait. She reached out her hand and smoothed it over the concealing cloth, fingers checking, nervous, almost as if she were expecting something to have gone amiss while she had dozed off. Still there, still real. Ever since she had found Edward's portrait in Uncle Roy's library that day, life had taken on a surreal quality. If she was honest with herself, she had to admit that she was now quite caught up in the grips of what could only be termed an obsession. She couldn't leave the painting alone: she had, in fact, taken it out of Uncle Roy's library and put it into her own room, and she had spent every day, for the last several days, contemplating the portrait and its possible meaning. Something there. . . something there. There was knowledge, she knew, to be gleaned from this one single painting, something that connected Edward to Uncle Roy's death in Aquroya, but Elysia couldn't quite grasp it. It slid, like slippery grains of unwieldy sand, through the net of her subconscious, unknowable, untouchable. She only knew that there was something.

So she had decided to set out and find someone who might be able to figure out what that "something" was.

Elysia thought back to that day of discovery in the library. To Hodge and everything he had personally revealed to her, and the things that, together, they had managed to come up with: that Uncle Roy had found this painting while on a diplomatic mission in Xing last year. That only living people sat for these portraits. That Uncle Roy had asked for the address of the artist. That his behavior had seemed strange after returning home. And then the incident in Aquroya afterwards. . . and the odd statement from the gondolier on the Grand Canal, who swore that he saw Edward at the fuhrer's residence that very night. The man had been discredited, of course: Edward was dead and the gondolier had been more than a little inebriated (it had been carnivale, after all). So the gondolier was considered an invalid witness.

Well, Elysia didn't think it was invalid.

The train slowed and eventually came to a lumbering stop at a train station that was little more than a ticket booth and platform. Glassworth—her stop. Elysia gripped the portrait and slid it over the aisle, careful, her steps mincing, as she headed for the exit. She managed, with lack of grace, to get both herself and the painting onto the platform, and wasn't the least bit surprised to find herself alone. The town she was headed for was tiny, and she feared—no, actually dreaded—that she was going to have to walk the quarter mile into town while lugging the painting. She sighed and stared off in the distance to a tramped-down dirt road. There was no turning back now. So she started walking.

It was the longest, most trying walk ever. Elysia could have shouted for joy when she finally came over the hill and saw the little, unadorned wooden sign which read "Welcome to Glassworth." She could see the main street directly ahead—for it was the only street there. Feeling hopeful, Elysia sped up, dragging the portrait with her, as she headed toward one of the largest structures on the high street: the general store.

There were a few people here and there by the storefronts, and all of them stared openly at Elysia as she passed by them: such a tiny girl dragging a huge canvas. Elysia felt conspicuous, and she ducked her head, holding the portrait directly in front of her like a protective shield. She drew closer to the general store, and noted the ramp leading in: Jean was in a wheelchair, she remembered. Elysia opened the front door, a little brass bell chiming merrily overhead, and was nearly bowled over by a large black and white dog.

"Black Hayate, down!"

The dog immediately sat still and Elysia jerked her head around at the sound of that familiar voice: Riza Hawkeye was walking towards her, in a simple skirt and blouse, blonde hair loose and tumbling, a scowl on her face. Elysia watched as she drew up short, her scowl fading and her burnt sienna eyes widening as they fell on Elysia. "Oh my God. . . Elysia?" she said, uncertainty coloring her voice. It had been almost three months since they had last seen each other—

—at Uncle Roy's funeral in Central, thought Elysia.

"Hello, Riza."

Hawkeye turned her head and shouted, "Jean—come out here! We have a special guest!"

"Guests? I don't want any guests; I got a ton of orders to fill here—" Jean Havoc's wheelchair rolled into view, and his sentence abruptly broke off the moment he set eyes on Elysia. "Elysia! What are you doing way out here? And look at you! I swear, you get prettier every day—you're practically all grown up now—isn't she, Riza?"

"Yes she is." Riza agreed.

Black Hayate was up and moving again, this time sniffing at the edge of the covered canvas. "Black Hayate, no!" said Riza. The dog looked ashamed and slunk off into a corner. Riza's eyebrows knitted together. "What have you got there, Elysia?"

Elysia picked up the portrait and held it out in front of her. "Well, this is actually what I'm here about." Elysia looked around her; no other patrons were currently in the store. So it was now or never. She slowly, and very carefully, began to unfurl the covering from the canvas, unwrapping it like a well-preserved mummy, until it stood there in its full black, red, and gold glory. Elysia heard Riza suck in her breath, long before taking in the shocked look in her eyes. Jean let out a long whistle. No one said anything. It wasn't necessary; Elysia understood the inherit power, the impact of the painting. The reaction was no longer new to her.

"Do you see the date in the corner?" asked Elysia, pointing. "It's from last year. This artist only paints people who sit for him—living people."

Elysia allowed the words to hang in the air, and waited. But the reaction she got was not what she expected. A single look, a telling glance, passed between Riza and Jean. Just a small, almost nearly insignificant look—there and gone in the breath of an instant—of silent communication, of collusion. Elysia blinked, and looked questioningly at the both of them. No, not possible that she missed it. It had definitely been there. She opened her mouth, and the words came tumbling out in quick succession:

"I think that Edward is alive and he had something to do with Uncle Roy's death in Aquroya."

She spoke madness, she knew. In the naked light of day, in this store, in a small town, such a conspiracy theory sounded absurd, even to her own ears. Even though she knew, she knew, that her gut instinct was right, that there was something there. . .

And then there was that knowing look on Riza and Jean's face, there and gone again, a flash of knowledge, of familiarity.

And not enough surprise from them, thought Elysia. Not by a long shot. Or grief, for that matter. Riza had cried openly at Uncle Roy's funeral. Riza, who was always so strong, so contained, had shed a rainstorm of tears for the beloved, late fuhrer. Now it seemed as if she felt nothing; her reaction to Elysia's odd accusations was blank, nothing.

Nothing.

A sudden realization began to dawn: small, winking, like a candle, then brighter, hotter, like the sun, blazing. . .

A frown came over Elysia's delicate features. "You know." she hissed in a whisper. A direct accusation, and it was out of her mouth before she could stop it. Riza actually stepped back. Riza, the "Hawk'e Eye," who was afraid of nothing, of no one, was actually backing away from the accusations of a teenage girl. Riza's expression was dumbfounded, disbelieving. She turned to Jean for help.

"Jean—"

"Riza, don't." said Jean, and there was a finality there, a giving in. He turned his wheelchair around, and glancing back over his shoulder, he told Elysia, "Come on, follow me."

Elysia walked into the back office with Jean, her hands still desperately clutching the portrait. She watched as Jean went around to a banged up, cluttered desk, take a key out of his pocket, and unlock a small side drawer. From this drawer, he pulled out a single cream colored envelope. The only thing written on it was the address of the general store. He offered it to Elysia: "Go on—read it." He flicked the envelope towards her, waiting. Elysia, fingers now shaking uncontrollably, reached out and took the profered letter. With utmost delicacy, she removed the matching cream-colored paper and unfolded it. In silence, she read:

Dear Riza and Jean,

First, let me say that whatever pain I have caused you both was completely unintentional, but unfortunately necessary. This letter is my way to make up for that. I know you both believe me to be dead, lost to a fiery grave in a far away city, but it is not true. You know far too well what I'm capable of to believe such a thing. You both remember the Maria Ross incident. Well, that time was a shoddy, incomplete ruse compared to what I have done now. Believe me, and believe what I tell you next as well—

He is with me.

I don't have to say his name. Riza, you, of all people, should know. I thought I had stopped believing in miracles, but they are, in fact, possible. He has made me believe them. And of all the things that I have regret doing—Ishval, the massacre, all of it—nothing, nothing has compared to the regret I have felt for the thing I did not do, the thing that I could not, in good conscience, do those many years ago, which was to stop him from leaving. I have regretted not doing that for far too many years now, even though my heart knew at the time that I could not—would not—stand in the way of his goals. So I let him go.

Well, that's all finished now.

My career is finished as well, but I am at peace with that. Did I not do as I promised? Did I not achieve the goals that I set out to achieve? The country is at peace and so I am. And I hope I remain in your good graces. And I also hope that you are both happy for me, as I have, now, the very happiness that I have wanted for so long.

You should burn this letter after reading it. I don't know if you will or not. But please guard this secret, as well and as long as you have always guarded all of my secrets. You are my most loyal friends, and I depend on you in this.

R.

The paper had started to sprout darkened spots, and it took Elysia a few moments to realize that the spots were, in fact, her own tears falling on the page. Not tears of sadness or despair—no. They were happy tears. Tears of gladness. Because now she knew for certain—she knew—that she had been right all along. And it was all okay. In fact, it was better than okay—

Because Uncle Roy was alive!

He was alive and he was with Edward and everything was alright with them. Elysia smiled, and wiped her sleeve across her smudged, dampened eyes. It was all okay. The knowledge wrapped around her, snug and sure as a warm, winter blanket, and in the back of her mind she had another fleeting thought:

How so very happy her own father would have been at this . . .