Chapter no 10

Caraval (Caraval, 1)

Scarlett loved her nana, but she thought of her as one of those women who never quite got over growing old. She’d spent the last years of her life boasting about the grandness of her youth. How she’d been beautiful. How she’d been adored by men. How she’d once worn a purple dress during Caraval that was the envy of every girl.

She’d shown Scarlett the dress on many occasions. When Scarlett was still small—before she began hating the color purple—she believed it was indeed the most beautiful gown she’d ever seen.

“Can I wear it?” she’d asked one day.

“Of course not! This dress is not a plaything.”

After that her nana put the gown away. But it remained in Scarlett’s memories.

Scarlett thought of the gown that night, as the doors to the turreted house swept open. And in that moment, she wondered if her grandmother had ever actually been to a Caraval performance, for Scarlett could not imagine her purple gown being of notice in such a spectacular place.

Lush red carpet cushioned her steps, while soft golden lights licked her arms with gentle kisses of warmth. Heat was everywhere, when a blink ago the world had been covered in cold. It tasted like light, bubbly on her tongue and sugary as it went down, making everything from the ends of her toes to the tips of her fingers tingle.

“It’s—” Words failed her. Scarlett wanted to say it was beautiful or marvelous. But those sentiments seemed suddenly too common for such an uncommon sight.

For the turreted mansion was not what it had seemed from the outside. The doors Scarlett and Julian stepped through led them not into a house, but onto a balcony—although the balcony was probably the size of a small home. Roofed by a canopy of crystal chandeliers, carpeted in plush cranberry rugs, and lined with gilded golden rails and spindles that arched around heavy red velvet drapes.

The drapes swished shut a moment after Scarlett and Julian entered, but it was long enough for Scarlett to glimpse the grandeur that lay beyond.

Julian appeared unimpressed, though he managed a dark laugh as Scarlett continued to fumble for words. “I keep forgetting you’ve never left your little isle before.”

“Anyone would think this is incredible,” Scarlett argued. “Did you see all the other balconies? There are at least—dozens! And below, it looks like an entire miniature kingdom.”

“Did you expect it was just going to be a normal house?”

“No, of course not; it obviously looked much bigger than a normal building.” But not nearly large enough to contain the world beneath the balcony. Unable to control her excitement, she drew closer to the rim, but hesitated at the edge of its closed, thick red curtains.

Julian stepped in and drew a bit of it back.

“I don’t think we’re supposed to touch those,” Scarlett said.

“Or maybe that’s the reason they shut when we walked in, because they want us to open them.” He pulled the curtain back wider.

Scarlett was certain he was breaking some sort of rule, yet she couldn’t help but lean closer and marvel at the unbelievable realm resting at least ten stories below. It resembled the cobbled streets Scarlett and Julian had just ventured through, only this hamlet was not abandoned: it looked like a storybook come to life. She peered down at bright pointy rooftops, moss- covered towers, gingerbread cottages, gleaming gold bridges, blue-brick streets, and bubbling fountains, all lit by candled lamps that hung everywhere, giving an appearance of time that was neither day nor night.

It was about the same size as her village on Trisda, but it felt spectacularly

bigger, the way a word feels bigger with an exclamation point tacked onto it. The roads looked so alive, Scarlett swore they were moving. “I don’t understand how they fit an entire world inside here.”

“It’s just a very elaborate theater.” Julian’s tone was dry as his eyes cut from the scene below up to the dozens of different balconies, all overlooking the same curious sight.

Scarlett hadn’t realized it before, but Julian was right. The balconies formed a circle—an enormous circle. Her spirits took a significant dip. Sometimes it took her an entire day to track down Tella on their father’s estate. How would she ever find Tella here?

“Take it in while you can,” Julian said. “It will make it easier to get around on the ground. After this, there will be no coming back up here unless—”

“Ahem.” From the back of the balcony someone cleared his throat. “You need to step away and shut those curtains.”

Scarlett turned immediately, briefly terrified they’d be kicked out for breaking a rule, but Julian took his time letting go of the drape.

“And who are you?” Julian stared down the intruder, as if this new young gentleman were the one who’d just done something wrong.

“You can call me Rupert.” He looked at Julian with equal disdain, as if he knew Julian wasn’t supposed to be there. Pompously, the man straightened his top hat. Without it he probably would have been shorter than Scarlett.

At first glance he had looked like a gentleman, in his crisp gray pants and a suit coat with tails, but as he stepped closer Scarlett realized he was merely a boy, dressed up like a man, with cheeks that still had baby fat and limbs that didn’t look as if they’d finished growing, despite how he dressed them up in fancy clothes. Scarlett wondered if his costume was homage to Legend, who was known for his top hats and finery.

“I’m here to go over the rules and answer any questions before you officially begin the game.” Without any flourishes, Rupert repeated the same speech given by the girl on the unicycle.

Scarlett just wanted to be let in. Knowing Tella, she’d already fallen in love with some new form of trouble.

Julian nudged her in the ribs. “You need to listen.” “We’ve already heard this.”

“Are you certain?” Julian whispered.

“Once inside, you will be presented with a mystery that must be solved,” said Rupert. “Clues will be hidden throughout the game to help you on your way. We want you to get swept away, but be careful of being swept too far away,” repeated Rupert.

“What happens if someone does get swept too far away?” asked Scarlett. “That’s usually when people die or go mad,” Rupert answered, so calmly

she wondered if she’d misheard him. With equal composure, he took off his top hat and pulled out two pieces of parchment. He held out the creamy papers for Scarlett and Julian, as if for them to read, but the script was impossibly small.

“I’ll need one drop of blood at the bottom of each,” said Rupert. “For what?” asked Scarlett.

“These confirm you’ve heard the rules, twice, and that neither the Caraval Estate nor Master Legend is responsible in the event of any untimely accidents, madness, or death.”

“But you said nothing that happens inside is real,” Scarlett argued. “Occasionally people confuse fantasy with reality. Accidents sometimes

result. It rarely happens,” Rupert added. “If you’re worried, you don’t have to play. You may always simply observe.” He looked almost bored as he finished, making Scarlett feel as if she were fretting over nothing.

If Tella were there, Scarlett could imagine her saying, Youre only staying one day. If you sit and watch, youll regret it.

But the idea of a contract sealed in blood did not sit well with Scarlett.

Though if Tella was playing and Scarlett chose not to, maybe she’d be unable to find her, making it impossible to leave the next day and get home in time to marry the count. Despite Rupert’s instructions, Scarlett was still a bit unsure as to the particulars of the game. She had tried to learn everything she could from her grandmother, but the woman had always been vague. Rather than actual facts, she’d given Scarlett romantic impressions that were

beginning to feel a bit off. Pictures painted by a woman who saw the past as she wished it had been rather than as it actually was.

Scarlett looked at Julian. Without hesitation he let Rupert prick his finger with some sort of thorn and pressed the bloody tip to the bottom of one contract.

Scarlett remembered a few years ago when Caraval had stopped traveling for a time. A woman had been killed. Scarlett didn’t know the details as to why. She had always assumed it was just a tragic accident, unrelated to the game, but now Scarlett wondered if the woman had become too caught up in the illusion of Caraval.

But Scarlett had played her father’s distorted games all these years. She knew when she was being deceived and she couldn’t imagine she’d become so confused about reality that she would lose her life or go insane. Still, it didn’t mean she wasn’t nervous as she stretched out her hand. She knew better than to assume any type of game came without a cost.

Rupert pricked her ring finger, so quickly Scarlett barely noticed, though when she pressed her finger to the bottom of the delicate page, it was as if all the lights went out for a moment. When she took it away, the world became even brighter. She felt as if she could taste the red of the curtains. Chocolate cake drenched in wine.

Scarlett had only ever had a sip of wine, but she imagined that not even a whole bottle could bring this much iridescent euphoria. Despite her fears, she felt an uncustomary moment of pure elation.

“The game officially begins at sunset tomorrow and ends at sunrise on the nineteenth. Everyone has five nights to play the game,” Rupert continued. “You will each receive one clue to start you on your journeys. After that you will need to find the other clues on your own. I recommend acting quickly. There is only one prize, and many who will be searching for it.” He stepped closer and handed them each a card.

It read La Serpiente de Cristal.

The Glass Serpent.

“Mine’s the same,” Julian said.

“Is this our first clue?” Scarlett asked.

“No,” Rupert answered. “You’ll find lodgings prepared for you there. Your rooms will contain your first clues, but only if you manage to check in before daybreak.”

“What happens at daybreak?” Scarlett asked.

As if he didn’t hear her, the boy pulled a cord near the edge of the balcony, parting the curtains. Gray birds had taken flight in the sky, and beyond them the colorful streets were fuller than before, while the balconies were emptier

—their hosts were letting everyone out at the same time.

Another silver rush of excitement swept over Scarlett. This was Caraval. She had pictured it more often than she’d dreamed of her own wedding. Even though she could only afford to stay a day, she already imagined it would be difficult to leave.

Rupert tipped his hat. “Remember, don’t let your eyes or feelings trick you.” He stepped up to the balcony’s rail and jumped.

“No!” Scarlett screamed, all the color draining from her face as she watched him plummet.

“Don’t worry,” Julian said. “Look.” He pointed over the edge of the rail, as the boy’s suit coat transformed into wings. “He’s fine, he just made a dramatic exit.”

A swath of gray fabric, he continued to glide until he looked like one of the large birds in the sky.

It seemed the tricks on Scarlett’s eyes had already begun.

“Come on.” Julian strode from the balcony, a purpose to his step that said he expected her to follow. “If you’d been listening, you’d have heard him say that everything locks at dawn. This game has a reverse curfew. Doors close at sunrise and don’t unlock until after sunset. We don’t have much time to find our rooms.”

Julian stopped walking. At his feet, a trapdoor was open. Most likely it was how the boy had entered unseen. It led to a winding black marble staircase, spiraling down like the inside of a dark seashell, lit by waxy sconces dripping crystal candles.

“Crimson—” Julian stopped her at the threshold. For a moment his expression looked torn, the way it had during the tense seconds before he’d left her in the clock shop.

“What is it?” Scarlett asked.

“We need to hurry.” Julian let Scarlett go first, though after a few flights she wished that the sailor had gone before her, or that he’d just left her to her own devices as she imagined he’d been about to at the top of the stairs. According to Julian, every step she took was too slow.

“We don’t have all night,” he repeated. “If we don’t get to the Serpent before dawn—”

“We’ll be out in the cold until tomorrow night. I know. I’m going as fast as I can.” Scarlett had thought the balcony was ten stories high, but now it seemed more like one hundred. She was never going to get to Tella.

It might have been different if her dress weren’t so clingy. Once more Scarlett tried to will it into another shape, but the gown remained determinedly unchanged. Her legs were shaking and a fine layer of sweat coated her thighs as she finally exited with Julian.

Outside, the air was crisper and a little bit damp, though thankfully there was no snow on any of the streets. The dampness came from the canals. Scarlett hadn’t realized it while above, but every other street was made of water. Striped boats swam about, as bright as tropical fish and shaped like half-moons, all helmed by young men or women around her age.

But there were no signs of Donatella.

Julian flagged down a boat right away, aquamarine with red stripes, steered by a young sailor girl dressed to match. Her lips were painted red as well, and Scarlett couldn’t help but notice how wide they parted as Julian strode closer.

“What can I do for you, lovelies?” she asked.

“Oh, I think you’re the lovely one.” Julian ran his fingers through his hair, flashing her a look made of lies and other sinful things. “Can you reach La Serpiente de Cristal before sunup?”

“I’ll take you wherever you need to go, as long as you’re willing to pay.” The red-lipped girl emphasized the word pay, reinforcing what Scarlett

assumed back in the clock shop—coins were not the primary currency used in this game.

Julian was unfazed. “We were told our first ride of the night would be free.

My fiancée here is a special guest of Master Legend.”

“Is that so?” The girl narrowed one eye as if she didn’t believe him, but then to Scarlett’s surprise, she beckoned them on board. “I’m not one to disappoint special guests of Legend.”

Julian hopped on nimbly and motioned for Scarlett. The boat appeared sturdier than their last ride, with tufted cushions on the benches, yet Scarlett couldn’t bring herself to leave the cobbled street.

“This one isn’t going to sink,” Julian said.

“That’s not what I’m worried about. My sister, what if she’s out here looking for us?”

“Then I hope someone tells her the sun’s about to come up.” “You really don’t care about her at all, do you?”

“If I didn’t care, then I wouldn’t hope someone has told her it’s almost sunup.” Julian motioned impatiently for Scarlett to enter the boat. “You don’t need to worry, love. They’ve probably placed her at the same inn as us.”

“But what if they haven’t?” Scarlett said.

“Then you’re still more likely to find her by boat. We’ll cover distance faster this way.”

“He’s right,” said the girl. “Daylight is approaching fast. Even if you did find your sister, you wouldn’t be able to walk to La Serpiente before it arrives. Tell me what she looks like, and I can keep an eye out for her as we go.”

Scarlett wanted to argue. Even if she couldn’t find her sister before sunup, she wanted to do everything in her power to try. Scarlett imagined this to be the sort of place where a person could be lost and never found.

But Julian and the sailor girl were right; they’d move faster in the crescent boat. Scarlett didn’t know how much time had passed since the isle’s curious sun had disappeared, but she was certain time moved differently in this place.

“My sister is shorter than me, and very pretty, with a bit of a rounder face

and long spirals of blond hair.”

Scarlett had their mother’s darker coloring while Tella had received their father’s fair curls.

“The lighter hair should make her easier to find,” said the sailor girl, but as far as Scarlett could tell, she spent more time with her eyes on Julian’s handsome face.

Julian was just as unhelpful. As they glided over midnight-blue waters she sensed he was searching for something, but it wasn’t her younger sister.

“Can you row any faster?” Julian asked, a muscle ticking in his jaw.

“For someone who’s not paying, you’re rather demanding.” The sailor girl gave him a wink but Julian’s harsh expression remained unchanged.

“What’s wrong?” Scarlett asked. “We’re running out of time.”

A shadow fell over him as several of the lanterns lining the water flickered out. The boat sailed farther and more candles died, their fading smoke casting haze over the water and the few remaining people who still lingered about the cobbled streets.

“That’s how you tell time here? The lanterns go out as it gets closer to dawn?” Scarlett’s eyes anxiously shot around as Julian nodded grimly and another set of candles turned from flames to smoke.

The boat finally came to a rocking halt in front of a long, rickety dock. At the end of it, a searing green door watched Scarlett like a glowing eye. Ivy clung to the walls around it, and though most of the building was swallowed by the night, two dying lanterns illuminated the sign above the entrance—a white serpent coiled around a black cluster of grapes.

Julian was already out of the boat. He grabbed Scarlett’s wrist, hauling her onto the dock. “Faster!” One of the lanterns above the entrance snuffed out and the color of the door seemed to dim as well. It was barely visible as Julian wrenched it open and pushed Scarlett forward.

She stumbled inside. But before Julian could follow, the door slammed shut. Wood crashed against wood as a heavy bolt slid into place, trapping him outside.

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