Chapter no 15

Caraval (Caraval, 1)

The tattooed young man told her his name was Nigel as he guided her past the sleek borders of the tent, onto sand steps that led her down into a den covered in pillows and filled with a fog of candle smoke and jasmine incense.

“Sit,” instructed Nigel.

“I think I’d rather stand.” The sea of pillows reminded Scarlett too much of the bed in her room at La Serpiente. For a moment she flashed back to Julian as he stretched across it and unbuttoned his shirt.

When she looked back at the cushions, Nigel had positioned himself in a similar pose, naked arms spread across the pillows, leaving her with the urge to run back up the stairs.

“Where is your ball of crystal? Or those cards people use?” she asked.

The corner of Nigel’s tattooed lips twitched, but it was enough to make Scarlett edge back toward the steps. “You have much fear.”

“No, I’m just cautious,” Scarlett said. “And I’m trying to figure out how all this works.”

“Because you are afraid,” he repeated, looking at Scarlett in a way that made her believe he was talking about more than just how hesitant she’d been to enter his tent. “Your eyes keep finding the painted lock on my lips. You feel trapped and unsafe.” Nigel pointed to the heart on the other side of his mouth. “Your eyes land here as well. You want love and protection.”

“Isn’t that what every girl wants?”

“I cannot speak for every girl, but most people’s eyes are drawn to other things. Many want power.” Nigel drew a finger, inked with a dagger, over the dragon on his abdomen. “Others want pleasure.” He ran a hand over the wild

circus on his thighs, along with a few more tattoos. “Your eyes passed over all these.”

“So is this how you tell the future?” Scarlett inched closer, growing more intrigued. “You use the paintings on your body to read people.”

“I think of them as mirrors. The future is much like the past; it is mostly set, but can always be altered—”

“I thought it was the opposite,” Scarlett said. “The past is set but the future is changeable?”

“No. The past is only mostly set, and the future is harder to change than you would think.”

“So, you’re saying everything is fated?” Scarlett was not fond of fate. She liked to believe if she were good, good things would happen. Fate left her feeling powerless, and hopeless, and with an overall feeling of lessness. To her, fate seemed like a larger, omnipotent version of her father, stealing her choices and controlling her life without any regard for her feelings. Fate meant that nothing she did mattered.

“You’re too quick to dive into fear,” Nigel said. “What you think of as fate only applies to the past. Our futures are only predictable because as creatures of this world we are predictable. Think of a cat and mouse.” Nigel revealed the underside of his arm where a tawny cat stretched its clawed paws toward a black-and-white-striped mouse.

“When a cat sees a mouse, it will always chase, unless, perhaps, the cat is pursued by something larger, like a dog. We are much the same. The future knows what things we desire, unless there is something greater in our path that chases us away.” Nigel moved his fingers to trace a midnight-blue top hat on his wrist and Scarlett watched, mesmerized. It looked almost exactly like the one Legend had worn in her dream, making her recall the time when all she wanted was a letter from him.

“But even those things that might alter our course, the future usually sees clearly,” Nigel went on. “It is not fate, it is simply the future observing that which we crave the most. Every person has the power to change their fate if they are brave enough to fight for what they desire more than anything.”

Scarlett tore her eyes from the top hat and caught Nigel smiling at her once more. “You’re intrigued by that hat?”

“Oh, I wasn’t really looking at that.” Scarlett didn’t know why she felt embarrassed, except that she should have been thinking about Tella, and not Legend. “I was just looking at the other images on your arm.”

Nigel clearly did not believe her. He continued to grin, tiger-wide. “Are you prepared for me to tell you what I see in your future?”

Scarlett shifted her weight, watching as more smoke wove around the pillows at her feet. The lines of the game were beginning to blur again. Nigel made more sense than she wanted him to make. As she looked at the fire- breathing dragon on his abdomen she thought of her father—his destructive desire for power. The wild circus on Nigel’s thighs reminded Scarlett of Tella

—her need for pleasure to help her forget the wounds she liked to ignore. And he’d been absolutely right about the lock and the heart on his lips. “What will it cost me?”

“Just a few answers.” Nigel waved a hand, flicking wisps of purple smoke in her direction. “I will ask you questions, and for every one you respond to truthfully, I will give you an answer in return.”

The way he said it made it sound so simple. Just a few answers.

Not her firstborn child. Not a piece of her soul. So simple.

Too simple.

But Scarlett knew nothing was that simple, especially not in a den such as this, a place designed to trap and seduce.

“I’ll start with something easy,” Nigel said. “Tell me about your companion, the handsome young man you traveled here with. I’m curious, how do you feel about him?”

Scarlett’s eyes immediately returned to Nigel’s lips. To the barbed wire around them. Not the heart. Not the heart. Her feelings for Julian were not like that.

“Julian is selfish, dishonest, and opportunistic.”

“Yet you’ve agreed to play the game with him. Those must not be your only feelings.” Nigel paused. He’d seen her look at the heart. Why it mattered, Scarlett wasn’t sure, but she could tell it did. She heard it in the way he asked, “Do you find him attractive?”

Scarlett wanted to deny it. Julian was the barbed wire. Not the heart. But while she didn’t always like Julian as a person, she couldn’t honestly deny he was extremely appealing physically. His rugged face, his wild dark hair, his warm brown skin. And even though she would never tell him, she loved the way he moved, with total confidence, as though nothing in the world could harm him. It made her less fearful when she was around him. As if boldness and bravery did not always end in defeat.

But she didn’t want to tell Nigel this, either. What if Julian were listening outside the tent?

“I—” Scarlett tried to say she didn’t care for his appearance, but the words stuck to her tongue like molasses.

“Are you having a problem?” Nigel waved his hand over a cone of incense. “Here, this helps loosen the tongue.”

Or forces people to tell the truth, thought Scarlett.

When Scarlett opened her mouth again, the words poured out. “I think he’s the most attractive person I’ve ever seen.”

She wanted to clap her hand over her mouth and shove the words back inside.

“I also think he’s thoroughly full of himself,” Scarlett managed to add, just in case the scoundrel was listening outside.

“Interesting.” Nigel formed a steeple with his hands. “Now, what two questions would you like to ask me?”

“What?” It alarmed her that Nigel only wanted to know about Julian. “You don’t have any more questions for me?”

“We’re running out of time. Hours slip by like minutes here.” Nigel’s hands drifted toward the dying candles lining his den. “You have two questions.”

“Only two?”

“Do you wish that to be one of your questions?”

“No, I just—” Scarlett clamped her mouth shut before she accidentally said something she shouldn’t.

If it were truly a game, it didn’t matter what she asked. Whatever answers she received would be make-believe. But what if parts of it were real? For a moment Scarlett dared to let her thoughts tiptoe into that hazardous place. She’d already witnessed magic in the clock shop, via Algie’s clockwork door and the enchanted dress from Legend. And Nigel’s incense had made her speak the truth, which evidenced at least some more magic. If the man before her could truly tell the future, what would she want to know?

Her eyes returned to the heart at the corner of his mouth. Red. The color of love and heartache and other things both virtuous and vile. As she looked at it then, she thought of the count, of his lovely letters and whether or not she could believe all the things he’d said. “The person I’m going to marry, can you tell me what sort of man he is—is he a good, honest person?”

Scarlett immediately regretted not asking about her sister first. She should have been thinking only of Tella—that’s why she’d gone into the tent in the first place. But it was too late to snatch the question back.

“No one is truly honest,” Nigel answered. “Even if we don’t lie to others, we often lie to ourselves. And the word good means different things to different people.” Nigel leaned forward, close enough for Scarlett to feel as if all the scenes on his body were watching her as well. He stared so intently, she wondered if there were images painted on her face that only he could see. “I am sorry, but the man you will marry is not what you would call good. At one time, perhaps, but he has turned from that path, and it is not yet clear if he will turn back.”

“What do you mean? How can it not be clear? I thought you said the future was mostly fixed—that we’re like cats, always chasing after the same mouse.”

“Yes, but every so often there are two mice. It is not yet clear which one he will continue to chase. You would be wise to be careful.” Again, Nigel looked

at Scarlett as if she were covered in pictures only he could see. Pictures that pulled his face into a frown, as if she too had a heart near her mouth, but it was shattered into pieces.

She tried to tell herself it was all in her head. He was attempting to trick her. To frighten her as part of the game. But her marriage to the count was in no way connected to the game. There was nothing she could gain by Nigel’s cryptic warning.

Nigel rose from his cushions and started toward the back of the tent. “Wait,” Scarlett said. “I never asked my second question.” “Actually you asked me three questions.”

“But two of those weren’t real questions. You never fully explained the rules. You owe me another question.”

Nigel looked back at Scarlett. A tower of motley images, topped off by a vicious smile. “I don’t owe you anything.”

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