The Ashes of Her Song
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.
The only ray of light I once saw is gone, and Julian 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 the endless night. Whenever my sister danced barefoot into the garden, 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. 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, however, 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, "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 light before she even knew its worth? Someday, perhaps, she would come to understand, but I would rather die than corrupt her perfect innocence.
Julian, my most trusted of servants, was my sole confidant 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; his only duty was to carry on my work whenever I was called away: to watch over Ray, and ensure that she knew as little as possible of the outside realm.
It was a simple enough task for both of us at first—but as Ray 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 were I to forbid her from seeing him outright, I would only have sealed her fate; I resolved to insinuate myself in her good graces carefully, 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 diffidence towards me, her songs gradually became new, dissonant inquiries, prodding at the thin walls between our castle and the world outside.
"What's it like outside these 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 at her in sharp surprise from my book—a tedious old tome about the true meaning of happiness. Why would she ask such a perilous question?
"A town called Burne," I began, closing the book, and fell silent. What more could I say? If I were to speak of the surface beauty of the world, fields and forests full of life, Ray would quickly be devoured by the swift and restless 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 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 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 dangerous," 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 defiance 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 see Julian 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 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—Julian finally tore his eyes away from my sister. As he departed hastily, her light seemed to dim once more, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Ray must not consume herself by burning so brightly.
But however much I may have disliked the way Julian 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 else to trust. 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 connection. I had no choice but to hope, rather than believe, that he would obey.
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 own 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 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."
"The spaces in between towns are dangerous," I corrected, swallowing, and glanced over her searchingly; her glimmering eyes were alight with genuine and catastrophic curiosity. "And the towns themselves are generally mundane," I added more forcefully; there would be nothing worthy of interest for a girl such as her.
"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 one week without me to guide her truly changed her so completely? "Why do you leave so often, then, if you say—?"
"I've seen more of the world than anyone should," I responded, cutting her off as gently as I could before she provoked me any further: 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 her insistent eyes.
Her curiosity shattered and was replaced with a crestfallen yet reproachful 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, as it had never done before.
But Julian merely stood watchfully by, smiling at her as he turned his head discreetly away from me. I knew then that I had not succeeded in separating them; 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 had faltered: even solitude would prove a better companion for Ray now.
Neither of them were anywhere to be found that evening, so I was forced to leave without saying good night, despite my apprehension. 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.
The whole journey, there and back, 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 my sister would follow. Killing him myself 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 prowled the halls, waiting to hear her singing, but there was only silence. Heart pounding, I grew more and more frantic as I scoured every room, but found no trace of either Ray or Julian. Had he corrupted her already—was I too late to save her?
As I entered my bedroom, I found that I had not shut my window; as I moved to close it, Ray's voice drifted up to me from the garden—no song on her lips, but instead a series of battle cries. I raced down the stairs again, clutching my cloak around my shoulders, and stood 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 precariously bright in the dusky morning.
I might have either laughed or growled 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: 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, and though I wished only to pursue the traitor, I had no choice but to face my sister as she came after me once more.
I was prepared this time; it was all too easy to dodge her desperate kick and grasp her wrist, though perhaps more harshly 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 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 she made no attempt to fight back 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." And as Ray looked into my eyes dully, the sunlight trickled through the gate—but the breaking dawn was the only light in the garden, and no sweet melody greeted the rising sun.