My English teacher offered my friend and me the chance to get a scholarship, but in order to decide which of us he should recommend, he needed a sample of our works. After we both forgot about the opportunity entirely, he reminded us that he needed our stories by the end of the week, so I ended up writing this in the space of the last couple days as my submission.
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 faith and 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.
The only ray of light I once saw is gone, and Julian Lin was the one who destroyed it. I will ensure that the last thing he sees on this earth is his faith crushed utterly by my hand—just as he ruined mine.
Ray—you may know her as Elisa Burnes—was a drop of sunshine in this earth's endless night. Whenever she danced barefoot into the multicolored garden, laughing, the sunlight would glance off her golden hair as though ashamed to touch her for longer than a moment. Her eyes sparkled turquoise, like a tropical sea, and she was graceful as the leaping waves as she twirled in her simple white dress.
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. Nothing gave me greater joy than to hear her sing while I sat in my room with my window open, cleaning my knife with closed eyes.
Even Ray's speaking voice was soft and mellifluous, so much so that I could hardly hear the words for their sound. Her eyes were expressive enough to do most of the talking for her; her tongue was too slow and gentle for the harsh sounds of this language. 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 her from asking, though, no matter how darkly the shadow fell across my face at her shy words. "Cor," she would say hesitantly, when I would kiss her good night and rest my hand on the door in preparation to leave, "where do you go when you leave the castle?"
I would always smile sadly and reply, "For a walk around the world," and flee into the night, closing the door to her warmth. Why should she know of the true ugliness of this earth? Why should I darken her fragile light before she even knows its worth? Someday, perhaps, she would come to understand, but I refused to be the one to tarnish her perfect innocence.
Julian Lin was my assistant in this endeavor. He stood almost as tall as I do; his skin and hair were almost the same shade, an ambiguous brown. He spoke little more than Ray, and asked even fewer questions. Julian's only duty, as my servant and sole confidante, was to carry on my work whenever I was called away on business: to keep an eye on Ray, and ensure that she knew as little as possible of the outside realm.
It was a simple enough task for us both at first—but as Ray blossomed from a girl into a maiden, her tongue quickened, and our hearts hurried alongside it. 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 to her with a sympathetic smile playing on his lips, but said nothing. Though he rarely spoke to her while in my presence, he was closer to her age, and he was her caretaker when I was away: I knew, from the way she smiled at him so radiantly, that Ray was more attached to her servant than to me.
Me—her own brother, and the one dedicated so utterly to preserving her happiness! I strove to correct this as soon as I noticed it, and approached her carefully, banishing Julian from our presence whenever we were together so as to draw her attention away from someone so unworthy.
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 diffidence towards me, her songs gradually became new, dissonant questions, prodding at the thin walls between the castle and the world outside.
"What's outside the castle walls?" asked Ray suddenly one aimless evening, glancing up at me with wide eyes from her position lying on her stomach by the fireplace. I looked up sharply from the book I held—a tedious old tome about the true meaning of happiness. Why would she ask such a perilous question?
"A town called Burne," I responded carefully, closing the book and laying it to rest on the table to my side. What more could I say? If I were to talk about the hills covered in a soft green blanket of lush grass, or the forest teeming with more kinds of plants than anyone could count, or the swift-running river tumbling over the rocks—she would be dazzled by the surface beauty of the world. Ray would quickly be devoured by the swift and silent shadows, lurking just beneath the illusion of security.
"Why can't I go there?" she asked, but fear flickered in her eyes as she noticed my expression, which I immediately strove to suppress. Guilt isn't in my nature; I prefer not to regret my many regrettable actions, and instead move quickly forward with my life. However, the last thing I wanted was to frighten Ray away from me after all that time I had spent growing closer to her, and some sensation like remorse momentarily flooded my heart.
"Because it's dangerous outside these walls," I explained quietly, as patiently as I could, and she turned back disbelievingly to observe the leaping flames. "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 rebelliousness in her gleaming eyes. Gone were the days when she could be expected to believe my every word.
Exasperated, I glanced at the doorway to find that Julian stood there, leaning against the wall and observing the scene. He offered me no support and her no opposition as his eyes, shimmering in the firelight, lingered tenderly on her face. I scowled; 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 nothing of the outside world; had Julian gone back on his oath to protect her? I picked up my musty book again with such vehemence that it startled him, and—much to my satisfaction—Julian finally tore his eyes away from Ray. As he departed hastily, her light dimmed once more to equal the fire, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
However much I may have disliked the way he looked at her, I had no choice but to leave Ray in Julian's hands; my business called me away more and more, and I could find no one to trust more than him. He had been in my service almost all his life, after all; bonds like that take time to forge, and my work afforded me little time to build another such trusting relationship.
Furthermore, Ray gave no outward indication of her 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. Her songs, meanwhile, lost their wistful edge and instead extended into tales of epic journeys, spun entirely from her wild imagination, and reverberated around the garden.
"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 her 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, either—though she still shone with an 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 Burne."
"The spaces in between towns are dangerous," I corrected, swallowing, and glanced over her searchingly; her glimmering eyes burned with genuine and disastrous curiosity. Would she never learn? "The towns themselves are generally mundane."
"But you spend so much time outside the castle," pressed Ray after a short pause, pushing her chair back petulantly, and I tensed at her accusatory tone. She had never spoken so insolently before; had five days without me to guide her truly changed her so completely? "Why do you leave so often, then, if you think—?"
"I like walking around the world," I responded, slipping into the familiar lie and cutting her off before she could provoke me any further. "And I'm not worried about the danger, because I can protect myself," I added sternly, seeing the next defiant question hovering in her burning eyes.
Her curiosity shattered and was replaced with a half-reproachful, half-crestfallen glance as 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.
Julian merely stood watchfully by, and I thought I saw him smile at her as he turned his head discreetly away from me. I knew then that I had not succeeded in separating them. My more and more frequent absences continually undid all the progress I made to keep them apart.
Neither Ray nor Julian were anywhere to be found that evening, so I was forced to leave without saying good night. But as I skirted around the outside of the garden walls, Ray's voice carried to me on the wind, singing a low and haunting tune. I shivered in my cloak, appalled at the harsh turn her ordinarily gentle voice had taken.
Julian, the cause of her undoing, would be unable to keep her safe from the world any longer. I had to find a way to rid her of him.
The whole journey, there and back, I mused on how I could dispose of Julian Lin, to no avail. Each solution caused a multitude of other problems; if I banished him, I was certain Ray would follow. Killing him would only corrupt Ray 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.
No one greeted me as I returned to the castle; it seemed deserted, and the approaching dawn was very still and quiet. I stood and listened, waiting to hear her singing, but heard only silence. Heart pounding, I grew more and more frantic as I scoured the rooms, but found no trace of either Ray or Julian.
As I entered my own room, I found that my window had not been closed, and Ray's voice drifted up to me from the garden. My heart leapt at first at the knowledge that Ray was still where she belonged, but almost stopped altogether when I recognized that there was no song on her lips, but instead a series of battle cries.
I raced down the stairs, clutching my cloak around my shoulders, and stood at the open doorway to the courtyard. There, with disbelieving eyes, I watched Ray (wearing some of Julian's old clothes) perform a graceful series of kicks; Julian nodded in approval with 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 light glowed precariously brightly in the dim morning.
I might have either laughed or growled as I observed her movements from the doorframe, arms crossed. Julian turned to look at me very slowly, as though I was a mere phantom, and his eyes widened. Ray halted mid-kick at his expression and turned to observe my presence with equal surprise: her light faltered. Most of her initial fear hardened into anger within a few moments, but she made no move either towards me or away; the world was deathly still and quiet, and the sun hid below the horizon.
A sudden motion startled me: Julian fled in a desperate attempt to save himself from my wrath. It took me a moment to convince my shocked muscles to pursue him as he darted in and out among the flowers—but something was in my way, and that was Ray.
Her leg struck my stomach as she kicked with all her limited strength, and I backed away, more shocked than hurt; I only barely resisted the impulse to draw my knife, reminding myself that this was not one of my missions. Ray swiftly came after me once more, but I dodged her amateurish kick this time and grasped her wrist, perhaps more harshly than I initially intended.
A sense of deadly calmness took hold, the same that always flooded me before the kill. As she went limp with shock at the roughness of my touch, I swiftly drew her arm up behind her back and held her in place by throwing my other arm across her throat. Ray's ragged breaths quickened suddenly with pain and fright, and her sea-green eyes filled slowly with saltwater—but she refused to cry.
I gradually loosened my hold when she did not move, and when Ray made no attempt to attack again, I released her altogether, scanning the garden for signs of Julian—but it was no use. He was gone, and he had taken Ray's last remnant of luminosity with him. "It's all right," I said quietly, and embraced her; her tears soaked into my heart as she finally wept. "I'm here now, and I'll make things right."
As Ray looked into my eyes dully, the sunlight trickled gradually through the gate—but the breaking dawn was the only light in the garden, and no sweet melody greeted the rising sun.