Those who say an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind forget that there is no need for sight in the midst of complete darkness. They pride themselves on their hope, and scoff at the opinions of those like me—those who think of the world in shades of black, some places blacker than others. They don't understand that the only ray of light I once saw is gone: I will ensure that the last thing its destroyer sees on this earth is his faith reduced to dust… just as he ruined mine.
Ray—you may know her as Elisa Burnes—was a drop of sunshine in this bleak and endless night. Whenever my sister danced barefoot into the garden of our Castle Hyaline, the sunlight glanced off her golden hair as if ashamed to touch something so pure for longer than a moment. Her eyes sparkled turquoise, like a tropical sea; twirling in her simple white dress, she was graceful as those leaping waves.
Her favorite pastime was singing, and her voice would not be hushed. Ray's high, clear song reached out to the very heavens; no choir of angels could match it. Even her speaking voice was soft and mellifluous, so much so that I could barely hear the words for their sound—though her eyes were expressive enough that she hardly needed to speak in the first place.
Though she was not allowed outside the castle walls, she inquired about little; she spoke mainly to observe the tiny world around her, or to laugh at some trivial incident. There was one question I could not keep Ray from asking, however, no matter how darkly the shadow fell across my face at her shy words. "Cor," she would begin hesitantly, when I would kiss her good night, "where do you go when you leave the castle?"
And I would always smile sadly and reply, "For a walk around the world," closing the door to preserve her warmth; she needed it more than I. Why should I extinguish her light before she even knew its worth? Someday, perhaps, she would come to understand, but I would rather die a thousand deaths than corrupt her perfect innocence.
Julian, my most trusted of servants, was my sole confidant in this endeavor. He spoke little more than Ray, and asked even fewer questions. His only duty was to carry on my work whenever I was called away: to watch over my sister, and ensure that she knew as little as possible of the outside realm. She would rule it someday, whether the spirits were willing or not. Until that day, there would be no need for her to concern herself with external affairs.
Restricting Ray and her thoughts to the castle alone was a simple enough task for both of us at first—but as she blossomed from a girl into a maiden, she grew inquisitive. Her restless feet paced along the garden walls as a cat paces before a door to be let out, and her piteous mews took the form of yearning melodies, lingering high in the air by my open window. No sweet scent of flowers could mask the bitterness of her arias.
Julian listened with a sympathetic smile playing on his lips, and though he said nothing, I knew from the way she smiled at him so radiantly that a dangerous affection burned within her… but I could not bear the thought of bringing her unhappiness by forbidding her from seeing him. Instead, I resolved to insinuate myself in her good graces more gradually, banishing Julian from our presence whenever we were together—slowly and subtly drawing her attention back to its rightful place.
For a time, everything went as planned; I no longer observed her sweet smiles shine on anyone else, and was satisfied that I had saved her. But as Ray grew out of her diffident obedience, her songs gradually became new, dissonant inquiries, prodding at the thin walls separating her from the world outside.
"What kind of places are out there, beyond the garden?" asked Ray suddenly one evening, glancing up at me with wide eyes from her position lying on her stomach by the fireplace. I looked up at her in sharp surprise from my book—a tedious old tome about the meaning of truth. Why would she ask such a treacherous question?
"A town called Burne, named for our family," I began finally, closing the covers, and fell silent once more. What else could I say? If I were to speak of the surface beauty of the world outside, fields and forests full of life, Ray would soon be devoured by the swift and restless shadows lurking just beneath the illusion of security. No: if she wished to travel, she ought to do so only in her mind, where she could not be disappointed by the shortcomings of reality. Surrounded by darkness, flames burned all the brighter, and Ray must not consume herself too soon.
"Why can't I go there?" she asked, but fear flared in her eyes as she noticed my anger, which I immediately strove to suppress. Regret isn't in my nature, and I'd long forgotten the meaning of guilt, yet some sensation like remorse still flooded what little was left of my heart. The last thing I wanted was to frighten Ray away from me after all that time I had spent growing closer to her.
"Because it's too dangerous," I explained quietly, as patiently as I could, and she turned back to observe the leaping flames—disbelief in her every movement. "I'll take you there when you're older," I added grudgingly, by way of noncommittal compromise, and Ray threw an almost searing look over her shoulder at me; I recognized with some alarm my own defiance in her stare. Gone were the days when she could be expected to believe my every word.
Exasperated, I glanced at the doorway… and my eyes caught on Julian, leaning against the wall and observing the scene. He offered me no support and her no opposition as his dark eyes, gleaming brighter in the firelight, lingered tenderly on her face. I narrowed my eyes; there was a slight, approving smile on his face—one that encouraged her to defy me. Under his mild gaze, her light wildly outshone the flames, and I feared she would be engulfed by her own blaze.
He was to blame, then, for her transformation. How dare he! We had once worked together to ensure that Ray knew as little as possible of the outside world; had Julian broken his oath to shelter her? I picked up my book again with such vehemence that it startled him, and—much to my satisfaction—he finally tore his eyes away from her. As he departed hastily, her light dimmed to equal the fire once more, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Ray was safe.
But however much I may have disliked the way Julian looked at my sister, I had no choice but to leave her in his hands; business called me away more and more often, and I could find no one else to trust. He had been in my service almost all his life, after all; bonds like that take years to forge, and my work afforded me little time to build another such intimate connection. I had no choice but to hope, rather than believe, that he would keep his oath. Furthermore, Ray gave no outward indication of succumbing to his subtle devilry, save her new, bolder attitude—and that in itself was not destructive to all I had worked to build for her.
Over time, some of her songs lost their wistful edge and instead extended into tales of epic journeys, spun entirely from her own imagination, and reverberated around the garden. For a time, she seemed satisfied to limit herself to the confines of her imagination, and I in turn contented myself with the idea that she had abandoned her childish desire to leave home… until the day I realized she had done no such thing.
"Is it really dangerous outside the walls?" asked Ray one morning, watching me eat my breakfast from across the table with cautious interest in her eyes. Julian had cut short her beautiful hair since the last time I saw her; it hung only halfway to her shoulders. She barely looked like herself anymore, and hardly acted like herself lately, either—though of course she still shone with that eternal, irrepressible, soft glow. "I must have read all the books in the library by now, and I haven't found anything about dangerous things in small towns like ours. Burne, I mean."
How could I explain that I feared far less for her body than her soul? "They're not that kind of dangerous," I corrected her, swallowing, and glanced over her searchingly; her glimmering eyes were alight with genuine and catastrophic curiosity. "In fact, the towns themselves are generally mundane," I added more forcefully; there could be nothing interesting enough in such primitive settlements to captivate a girl as refined as Ray—or at least, nothing worth her time.
"But you spend so much time outside the castle, brother," she pressed after a short pause, pushing her chair back petulantly, and I tensed at her accusatory tone. Ray had never spoken so insolently before; had one week without me to guide her truly changed her so completely? "Why do you leave so often, then, if—?"
"I've seen more of the world than anyone should," I responded, cutting her off as gently as possible before she could provoke me any further, and she fell immediately (but indignantly) silent. "And it's only because I can protect myself that I dare leave this place," I added sternly, seeing another question burning in Ray's insistent eyes; unlike her, I had no innocence to lose anymore. Years of wandering a world full of prejudice and injustice had gifted me with the ability to withstand anything, at the cost of my very soul. It would destroy her to see firsthand all the hate and inequality I'd tried to hide from her for years.
Even as I spoke, Ray's curiosity shattered and was replaced with a crestfallen yet reproachful glance. She excused herself from the table, walking briskly away as her white skirt swished—and what worried me most was that I could see my own quick temper rising within her like a phoenix, as it had never done before.
But Julian merely stood watchfully by, turning his head discreetly away from me as if to hide his smile. My appetite vanished as I realized that I had not succeeded in separating them after all; perhaps they had exchanged more than mere words in my absence. My more and more frequent journeys continually undid all the progress I made to keep them apart, and my faith in Julian's fidelity to our cause had faltered: even solitude would prove a better companion for Ray now.
I shut myself in the library for the rest of the day in an effort to calm myself as well as to plot my next venture; neither my sister nor Julian intruded on my solitude. By the time I emerged, I found that it was already well past the time I had intended to leave, and such was my haste that I had no time to bid Ray a good night. As I skirted silently around the outside of the garden walls, however, her voice carried to me on the wind, singing a low and haunting tune—a twist on a lullaby I had taught her long ago. I shivered in my cloak, appalled at the harsh turn her ordinarily gentle voice had taken, and finally vanished into the darkness.
Throughout my mission, I mused on how I could dispose of Julian, to no avail. Each solution caused a multitude of other problems; if I banished him, I was certain Ray would follow. Executing him myself would only corrupt my sister by bringing savagery directly into our own castle. Some other answer would have to be found, and quickly; her light must be softened and preserved.
I admit I returned to Castle Hyaline in more of a hurry than usual—a full day earlier than anticipated. No one greeted me as I unlocked the door and stepped inside; the castle seemed deserted, and the approaching dawn was very still and quiet. I prowled the halls, waiting to hear her singing as usual, but there was only silence. Heart pounding with a new and terrifying thought, I scoured every room, but found no trace of either Ray or Julian. Had he dragged her down into the depths already; could I be too late to save her?
As I entered my bedroom, my thoughts an incomprehensible blur of something very like fear, I found that I had not shut my window. As I moved to close it, I caught Ray's voice drifting up to me from the garden, but her inflections sounded so unbearably strange—like another language—that I did not recognize her at first. Another moment, and I realized that there was no song on her lips, but instead a series of battle cries.
Ice flooded my heart, and I jolted to action. Racing down the stairs again, and clutching my cloak around my shoulders, I came to stand at the open doorway to the courtyard. There, with disbelieving eyes, I watched Ray perform a set of kicks with distressing grace, as if she had performed such a precarious dance often before; Julian nodded in approval, a broad smile on his face. Her motions were very like the dainty steps she took as a young girl, but infinitely more dangerous, her glimmer perilously bright in the dusky morning.
I might have either laughed or sobbed as I observed her movements; noticing me, Julian turned his head very slowly, as though I was a mere phantom, and his eyes widened. Ray halted mid-kick at his expression and whirled around to observe my presence with equal shock; her light faltered. Yet she made no move either towards me or away; the world stopped around us, sunlight seeking shelter below the horizon.
But a sudden motion startled me before too long: Julian, wisely, fled my wrath. It took me a moment to stir myself to pursue him as he darted in and out of view among the vines and flowers—but Ray apprehended me, catching me by surprise as she lashed out with all her limited strength.
Though I wished only to pursue the traitor, I had no choice but to face my sister as she came after me once more. But I was prepared this time; it was all too easy to dodge her desperate kick and grasp her wrist, though perhaps more roughly than I initially intended. At the touch of her skin, a sense of deadly calmness took hold—the same that always flooded me before the kill. She struggled, but I was far stronger; I swiftly drew her arm up behind her back, holding her in place by throwing my other forearm across her throat.
Ray's ragged breaths quickened suddenly in pain and fright, and her sea-green eyes filled slowly with saltwater, but she stubbornly refused to cry. When she did not move, I loosened my hold… and when she made no attempt to fight back again, I let go altogether. Immediately after I released Ray, I scanned the garden for signs of Julian… but it was no use. He was gone, and he had taken her last remnant of luminosity with him.
"It's all right," I said quietly, once I found my voice, and embraced her; my sister's tears soaked into my heart as she finally wept. "I'm here now, and I'll make things right." And as Ray looked dully into my eyes, the sunlight finally trickled through the gate—but the breaking dawn was the only light in the garden, and no sweet melody greeted the rising sun.