Rayne allowed Hawk and the others past her, reaching out to Lesallai. Though her touch was gentle, it was enough to stop the eladrin. Rayne tilted her head toward the rest of the group, and Les nodded, allowing some distance to form between themselves and the others before they stepped into shadows cast from the sunrod.
“Careful…” Les said without looking at Rayne, though the tone was quiet and gentle. “Kikrik will think you’re conspiring with the enemy.”
“Let him,” Rayne replied, which drew a cautious glance from the eladrin. “Like I was trying to say back there, I’m sorry. About what happened before. I had no right to feel entitled to your secret, and I didn’t mean to hurt you with the things I said. And it wasn’t fair of me to assume that all defilers are like Kavros.” That didn’t feel like enough, so she added, “I’m sorry,” again.
Les hesitated, turned, and finally looked directly at Rayne with a shy-looking half-smile. I think she’s surprised, Rayne thought. I wonder if anyone’s ever really apologized to her before. Rayne’s years as a slave had certainly taught her how… She had the definite impression that the apology made the eladrin happier than Les was willing to show.
“I… I accept,” Les stated quietly with a slight bow that might have looked silly under other circumstances. “Um…” The eladrin looked almost at a loss for words for once. “For what it’s worth, I’m… I’m sorry, too… If you felt betrayed. I never meant to hurt you.”
“I know,” Rayne said. Les’s words were genuine, not like the sneering lip service the eladrin had paid to Kikrik before. Les is so good at telling lies, Rayne thought, yet she stumbles over truths. It takes her real effort to share with me like this. Not that it’s easy on me, either… “It’s all right. We’ve got to stick together, after all.”
“Just so.” Les’s gaze flicked down the tunnel, where the rest of the group had wandered out of sight, before drifting back to Rayne. “If… If you like,” Les said, tentatively, “I could tell you more about my time in the Lands Within the Wind.” Les looked down at the ground for a moment, obviously struggling with the words and the thoughts, as though they were something never spoken before. “It’s only fair, I guess…”
Rayne nodded. “Yes, I’d like that. Very much.” Whether this information was presented as a peace offering or not, she wanted to hear it. More than anything, Rayne thought, I’d like to know why you’d ever leave such a paradise…
Les looked up and continued a slow, measured walk. “I had a family once, a very loving one… a sister, a mother, a father… all wonderful and dear to me… when I lived in the Lands Within the Wind.” The eladrin’s voice came out deliberately measured, almost in beat with the footsteps, as though they helped to tell the story. “We had a house in a glade near a crystalline stream. We had a garden. There were cobbled paths, and a bridge…” A choke entered Les’s voice for a second, which Rayne almost didn’t catch. “It was green. It was lovely…” Les paused to breathe.
“I wish I could see it,” Rayne said.
“As do I. Alas, no outsider ever has.” A few more steps later, Les started again. “I was born into the arcane gift; I could manipulate the world’s life. My mother was terrified at first, but that was only because she blamed herself… You see, she had the same gift. But she had forsaken it, and hidden it. Still, she needed me to understand what I had, in order for me to hide it. She taught me some control, until…” Les broke off for a second, seeming lost in the memory. The air stiffened as Les stopped talking, but kept walking slowly, taking very deliberate steps, pain evident in the stride.
Rayne finally breached the silence, very gently and quietly: “Until?”
Les stammered for a second. “My… my sister, she was like you are… like I am now… I loved her with all my heart, and she me in return. She… she was trained by our father, to control the shadows… I was always the destroyer of life… She was being trained to be a taker of it.” Les paused again, glancing ahead and stepping in and out of shadow to make sure the others were still too far ahead to hear.
Forgiving the eladrin’s paranoia, Rayne said, “Your sister?” If she was like me, she thought, but isn’t anymore, then she must be dead. No one walks away from the Gray.
Lesallai appeared satisfied and stopped, but only for a moment. “Her name was Allalantha…” The name came out saturated with sorrow, and flickers of shadow cringed around Les’s hands and features as it was spoken. Les choked on a sigh. “Allalantha Lollanthas… my beloved twin sister…”
Rayne mouthed the name, trying to work out its syllables to fit her mouth. Lesallai’s pain in telling this story bled through the eladrin’s every word and gesture. This means much more to her than I expected… more than I could have imagined. If we are, or were, so alike, does Les see Allalantha in me? Do I remind her of this love she’s lost?
“We were tutored in secret. I’m not sure why. Mother told me that my training was for my need to never show, and never unleash, my ability. Sadly, I was young and foolish, as we are all when so young.” The words flowed more smoothly, as though Les needed to get it out. “Allalantha and I would play with our strengths at night in the garden. We found it enticing, our contrasts playing on each other. Her shadow would swallow me, and the light of the world radiated from me, lighting her up as the world around us withered.” Les paused again. “It… it was beautiful… She was beautiful, her face matching mine, like watching myself highlighted that way. We were identical twins, you see. A mirror of life, light and darkness.” Les’s tongue was laced with more emotion than Rayne had ever heard uttered from that effeminate voice.
“But something changed,” Rayne said, finding it difficult to imagine being so intertwined with another living soul… difficult, but irresistible.
“We got careless, and it cost us everything,” Les continued. “Days later, the elders of our people came. I remember the day well… we awoke alongside each other. We were but sixteen, so very young for our people…” Les glanced up to meet Rayne’s eyes for the first time in this speech, tears barely glistening on the eladrin’s eyes. “You know our people live to see centuries pass…? We were but children!” Les’s voice strained on the last word, causing Rayne to crinkle her brow in sympathy.
“I was fourteen,” Rayne said, “when I became a slave. And some Profiteers younger than I were simply executed. This world’s cruelty has no respect for innocence.”
Les glanced at Rayne for an instant before looking away again. “That’s why I’ll never kill a child. For any sum of money. Because the world doesn’t have that much money, and it has enough ways to murder innocence without my help.”
Rayne wondered, if the Hidden asked her to murder a child, what she would do, before her mind returned to the topic at hand. “What happened, Les? To you and your sister?”
“We awoke in each other’s arms, and dressed together in our gowns.” Rayne thought of herself at sixteen, and wondered: Just how intimate were the twins, physically? Do the eladrin frown upon such closeness between siblings? Or between eladrin of the same gender? The Profiteers never cared about such things, to be sure, but scandalous stories sometimes reached their ears from city-states less civilized than Balic…
“The colors of our robes were the only things that allowed others to tell us apart,” Les continued, recapturing Rayne’s attention. “That, and our eyes… Hers were a stormy blue when I gazed into them, mine a cerulean… near crystal blue…” Les still hadn’t looked back at Rayne; that, and the faraway light of the sunrod, kept Rayne from seeing the hue of her eyes. She’d seen it before, but wanted, very strongly, to see it now.
Les brought her arms up to hug herself, as though cold, and appeared to shake off a memory. Rayne wondered if Les needed to be held; uncertainty kept her from reaching out. “The gowns were beautiful. Mother made them. Mine in greens and blues, Allalantha’s violets and gray. We decided to pull a childish prank and wore each other’s gown for the day…” A smirk lifted on Les’s face for a second.
“We brushed each other’s hair and inspected the clothes. I swear, it was like I’d stepped out of myself, and was looking at me… Her long hair. Her smooth, elegant features. The only tell was the slight difference in our eyes.” Les slowed in her pace. “We gave each other a once-over and then went to breakfast. Mother and Father knew what was up the second we came down; they were always rather insightful.” Les let out a choked chuckle and continued. “We hadn’t finished our meals before a pounding on the door startled us all… We heard the voices of our elders shouting, manic and strained, demanding ingress. Father went to let them in…”
Les stopped dead in her tracks. “They forced their way in when Father got to the door… We didn’t have a chance as they shouted ‘Anathema’ and pointed to my sister.” Les’s voice grew weaker. “She was wearing my clothes…” The voice dwindled to a whisper. “They were after me. Mother and Father intervened, striking out, but the elders were powerful. Allalantha and I watched as they slew them in cold blood for raising a “defiler” in our green lands. That was the first time I heard that term.”
Hardly the last, Rayne thought. She’d lost her own father to the Sea of Silt. Whether viewed as an accident, or a quirk of wrathful nature, he had simply died – alive one moment, swallowed by the sea the next. No one had murdered him.
Les took a step forward and stopped. “We stared at them, their blood pooling on the ground, until we began to run. We used our natural born ability to flee outside, but they stopped us before we got outside the gates of our yard.” Les took a few more staggering steps, as though the very memory kept her from moving. “They descended upon her like a force of nature… their shamanistic powers cutting and burning her. They killed her for being me.”
“Black shadow,” Rayne swore. “Les…”
Les’s voice turned dark, icy. “With her last breath she stared at me, my own face staring at me, urging me to do something… I did. I unleashed everything I had… I pulled every ounce of life from everything as far as I could see… I killed every one of them by simply draining them, and as I did, I pulled the last breath of my beloved twin sister Allalantha into me, and with it carried her shadow.”
Rayne stood, unable to conceal her stunned expression as Les took a step past her. “I think I’ve said too much today,” Les stated quietly. “I’m sorry.”
“So am I,” Rayne said, fighting off tears of her own, shocked to see how much invisible pain Les always carried on her back. Rayne thought about moving to hold her, again, but she somehow knew that the gesture would only confuse Les, possibly drive her away. “You… you were very close.”
Les paused for a long moment, as though afraid to admit it. “Yes,” she finally said, on the brink of tears. “We were in lo- We… I… we loved each other, Rayne. As much as any living creature can…” Les made an effort to compose herself, clearly caught off guard by this discussion.
“I’ve never had that,” Rayne said, hoping it would help. “I was so young when I lost my father. I had friends among the pirates, but we were never ‘close.’ And I may have loved Kavros… and I thought he loved me… but when his time came, he didn’t hesitate to hold a knife to my heart.”
Les dabbed at her eyes and gave Rayne a sideways glance. “To hear you tell it, though, when you had your chance, you didn’t hesitate, either.”
Rayne nodded. “I couldn’t afford to. He would have professed his love for me again, and I couldn’t let him. I might have started to believe it.”
“Love is a strange thing,” Les said with a sigh.
“Is it worth it?” Les turned her full gaze on Rayne, who spent a moment trying to remember what shade ‘cerulean’ was before continuing. “Is love worth it, when that closeness leaves you open to this… inevitable pain of loss? Or betrayal?”
“Yes. No. Perhaps? Such intimacy does leave you open to the greatest of happiness, to beauty beyond compare. The world itself is made brighter…” A sad smile crossed Les’s lips. “And so, then, when it’s taken from you… when it’s snuffed out, it leaves you with the greatest loss, the deepest pain.”
Cerulean is the best word for it, Rayne decided. “You have a wonderful gift for words,” she said.
“You’re kind to say so. O, for an audience as accepting as you!” Les made a sudden gesture skyward, steering her demeanor back toward more familiar and comfortable ground. “If only everyone appreciated my gifts so.” Les flourished with a bow.
Rayne couldn’t help but smile. “Do you often find your wit falling on deaf ears, then?”
“I am utterly unappreciated in my time. Think of it: if you hadn’t saved me from the ssurran, my body of work would now be the talk of Tyr.”
“Because a dead artist is the most beloved,” Rayne said, repeating a Balican aphorism.
“Or some such. Believe me, though: The worst audience is in here.” Les pointed to her forehead and smirked.
“Is that why you write things down and burn them?” Rayne asked.
Les’s eyes dipped for a moment and she stopped in her tracks. “You’ve seen me do that?”
Rayne nodded. “Once or twice.”
“That’s me writing to my sister. I feel her inside me with her shadow. I write in hopes that wherever she is, she will read it.” The wry half-smile returned to Les’s lips. “Also, I don’t care to be caught with evidence that I can read and write. As you well understand.”
“I do. I just talk to my Shadow. That is, I talk to it in my head.”
Les arched one delicate eyebrow and nodded. “Don’t let that get out,” she said with a smile in her voice. “You might be branded as an undesirable.”
A wicked thought flashed through Rayne’s mind, quickly replaced by another, more practical one. “There was something else I wanted to ask you about.”
“Oh? What of? I don’t think I can speak of my past any further right now…” Les said, mildly pained.
“No, it’s not that. The preserving magic that Ralo performs… could you do that?”
A shadow passed over Les’s face. “I’m not sure. I don’t know if I even wish to. My methods have served me well for many years.”
“Could you try?”
“My capability is not in question; my desire to do so is. It doesn’t matter how I do it…” Les began walking the corridor, back toward the others. “I’ll always be a defiler to Kikrik, and those like him.”
“You know we need him.”
“Maybe,” Les said, “but I have no care for his concerns.” The eladrin’s tone turned cold, emotionless. “Zealots like him never see beyond the blinders they wear. No matter how good I may be, or I may try to be, my gift is just a stain on my soul. So damn him. Damn his prejudice. And damn anyone who thinks or feels the same way.”
Rayne drew in a breath through her teeth. “I understand how you feel, but I don’t want to get caught between you.”
A small measure of warmth returned to Lesallai’s face. “I don’t want that either,” the eladrin said with sincerity. “I can’t keep you out of it.” Les smiled lightly. “You’ve made that abundantly clear. But I won’t allow you to get hurt because of me.” Les rested her hand gently on Rayne’s before pulling it away and turning.
“Then will you work the preserving magic?” Rayne asked. She found it hard to look Les in the eyes – in her cerulean eyes – and felt like the stupid little girl she’d once been, always underfoot on the Profit’s decks. “Will you try? For me?”
Les exhaled heavily. “I will try,” the eladrin said with closed eyes.
“Thank you, Lesallai.” It came out sounding like “Les-Sally,” but Rayne hoped that Les would appreciate the effort over the effect.
Les’s eyes opened. “You know,” the eladrin said with a grin, “I don’t make promises like this… Ever.”
“It’s a lot to ask of you, I know.” In truth, the gravity of her request hadn’t truly dawned on Rayne until this moment. “If, um… if there’s anything I can do for you, in return, you have but to ask.”
“Don’t worry,” Les said with a fey wink. “I’ll think of something.”