Search

Chapter no 22 – DAY FOUR OF CARAVAL

Caraval (Caraval, 1)

The world tasted like lies and ashes when Scarlett woke. Damp blankets clung to sweaty skin, wet with nightmares and visions of black roses. At least Aiko had not lied about remembering the dreams. Scarlett’s memories of her last moments alive were still blurry but her dreams were vivid. They felt as solid and real as the heavy arms encasing her.

Julian.

His hand rested just above her breast. Scarlett sucked in a sharp breath. His fingers were cool against her skin while the marble ice of his chest pressed to her back with an unbeating heart inside. Her body shuddered, but she didn’t so much as whimper, afraid it might wake him from his deadly slumber.

She could picture the way he’d looked in her dream, wearing that top hat. A callous expression. Exactly the type of look she would have pictured on Legend, and Julian was certainly as attractive as she’d always imagined Legend to be.

She recalled the innkeeper’s frightened eyes when she’d first seen Julian. Scarlett had thought it was because they were Legend’s guests, but what if it was because Julian really was Legend? He knew so much about Caraval. He’d known what to do when she’d been dying. And Julian could have easily put the roses in her room.

A sudden heartbeat pressed against her back. Julian’s heart.

Or was it Legend’s heart?

No.

Scarlett closed her eyes and took a steadying breath. She’d been warned

about this, the game playing tricks on her. It couldn’t be true. She didn’t know when it had happened, but somewhere, at some point, in this strange world full of impossible, Julian had started to mean something to her. She’d begun to trust him. But if Julian really was Legend, everything significant to her had only been part of a game to him.

Julian’s solid chest rose and fell against her back, as heat slowly returned to him. Scarlett felt warmth wherever their bodies aligned. The space behind her knees. The small of her back. Her breath came out in uneven wisps as he leaned farther into her, his fingers drifting up to her collarbone.

A prick of blue on the tip of one of his fingers brought a flush to her cheeks as she remembered his blood on her tongue and the way his lips had felt as he’d tasted her. The most intimate thing she’d ever done. She needed that to be real. She wanted Julian to be real.

But …

This wasn’t just about what she wanted. Scarlett remembered every time Julian had told her that Legend knew how to take care of his guests. According to her dream, he did more than just take care of them. He’d made that woman fall so madly in love, it had driven her to suicide. Legend likes to play twisted games with people, and one of his favorites is making girls fall in love with him. The words from her dream gurgled up like vomit in Scarlett’s throat. If Julian was Legend, he’d been enticing Tella before the game even started. Perhaps he’d even seduced them both.

Nausea coated Scarlett’s stomach at that awful possibility. With disturbing clarity, she recalled those last moments before she’d died, and how she would have given him more than just her blood if he’d only asked.

She needed to escape from Julian’s arms before he woke. She was still trying to hold on to the hope he wasn’t Legend, but it was too much of a risk to assume otherwise. She would never throw herself out of a window for any man, but her sister was more impulsive. Scarlett had learned to temper her feelings, yet Tella was driven by her volatile emotions and desires. Scarlett could see how both Legend and this game could easily drive Tella to the same unhappy ending as Rosa, if Scarlett did not save her.

Scarlett needed to leave and find Dante. If Rosa had been his fiancée, she imagined he would know if Julian was really Legend.

Holding her breath, Scarlett took Julian’s wrist and carefully pried one hand from her waist.

“Crimson,” he murmured.

Scarlett sucked in a gasp as the fingers that had been on her collarbone lingered up the column of her neck, leaving a prickly trail of ice and fire. He was still asleep.

But he would wake up soon.

No longer bothering with caution, Scarlett slid off the bed and landed in a heap on the floor. Her clothes now looked somewhere between a mourning dress and a nightgown, black lace and not enough fabric, but she didn’t have time to change into her new dress, and in that moment she didn’t care.

As she pushed up from the ground, she calculated that it must be exactly one day since she had died. It was the cusp of sunup on the seventeenth, giving her only one night to find Tella before she had to leave for her wed—

Scarlett froze as she caught her reflection in the mirror. Her thick dark hair now had a slender streak of gray ripping through it. At first she thought it a trick of the light, but it was there: her fingers shook as she touched it—right near the temple, impossible to hide with a braid. Scarlett had never thought of herself as vain, but in that moment she wanted to cry.

The game was not supposed to be real, but it was having very genuine consequences. If this was the price of a dress, what else would it cost her to get Tella back? Would she be strong enough?

Red-eyed, and still looking half dead, Scarlett didn’t feel particularly tough. The chain of fear around her throat choked her as she thought of how little time she had. But if Nigel, the fortune-teller, was right about fate, then there was no omnipotent hand determining her destiny; she needed to stop letting her worries control it. She might have felt weak, but her love for her sister was not.

The sun had recently risen, so she couldn’t leave the inn, but she could make the most of her day by searching La Serpiente for Dante.

As she stepped out of her room, candlelight flickered across the crooked hall, buttery and warm, but something about the space felt wrong. The scent. The usual hints of sweat and fading fire smoke were mired with heavier, harsher scents. Anise and lavender and something akin to rotted plums.

No.

Scarlett had only a blink to panic as she watched her father step around the corner.

She darted back into her room, locked the door, and prayed to the stars—if there was a god or saints, they hated her. How had her father gotten there? If he found her and Tella now, Scarlett had no doubt he would kill her sister as punishment.

Scarlett wanted to think the sight of her father was a cruel hallucination, but it made more sense to believe he’d figured out her sister’s kidnapping ruse. And maybe the master of Caraval somehow managed to send him a hint. Tell me who you fear the most, the woman had said, and Scarlett had been foolish enough to answer.

What had she done to make Legend hate her so? Even if Julian wasn’t Legend, it felt very personal now, though Scarlett couldn’t fathom why. Perhaps it was all the letters she’d sent? Or maybe Legend just had a sadistic sense of humor and Scarlett was an easy person to torment? Or maybe—

The beginning of Scarlett’s dream rushed back in awful shades of purple, followed by one name, Annalise. During the vision she’d been unable to make the connection, but now she remembered her nana’s stories about Legend’s origin. How he’d been in love with a girl who’d broken his heart by marrying another. Had her grandmother been Legend’s Anna—

“Crimson?” Julian sat up in the bed. “What are you doing against the door like that?”

“I—” Scarlett froze.

His wild dark hair framed a face cloaked with convincing concern, but all she could see was the soulless look Julian had worn as he watched the funeral procession of the girl who’d killed herself after he’d made her fall in love with him.

Legend.

Her heartbeat pounded. She told herself it wasn’t true. Julian wasn’t Legend. Yet she pressed harder against the door as Julian pushed up off the bed and stalked toward her, his steps surprisingly sure and even for someone who’d just awoken from death.

If he was Legend, somewhere in this magical world he’d built was her sister. Scarlett wanted to demand an answer. She wanted to smack him in the face once again. But tipping her hand right now would not help. If Julian really was Legend, and this twisted game was all some way to get back at her grandmother for breaking his heart, the only advantage Scarlett had was that he did not know she’d discovered him.

“Crimson, you’re not looking too good. How long ago did you wake up?” Julian lifted his hand and brushed cool knuckles to her cheek. “You have no idea how much you scared me, I—”

“I’m fine,” Scarlett cut him off, and slid to the side. She didn’t want him touching her.

Julian clenched his jaw. All his earlier concern was gone, replaced with— Scarlett wanted to think it was anger, but it wasn’t. It was hurt. She could see the sting of her rejection in shades of stormy blue, ghosting over his heart like sad morning mist.

Scarlett had always seen her own emotions in color, but she’d never seen another person’s. She didn’t know what shocked her more, that she could now see the color of Julian’s feelings, or that those feelings were so wounded.

She tried to imagine how Julian would be feeling if he weren’t Legend. Before she’d died, they’d shared something extraordinarily special. She remembered how gently he’d carried her up to their room. How he’d given up a day of his life for her. How strong and safe his arms had felt as he’d cradled her on the bed. She could even see the evidence of his sacrifice; in the midst of the dark stubble lining his jaw, there was a thin silver streak—matching the new stripe in her hair. And now Scarlett wouldn’t even touch him.

“I’m sorry,” Scarlett said. “It’s just—I think I’m still shaken up from what happened. If I’m acting strange, I’m sorry. I’m not thinking clearly. I’m

sorry,” she repeated, which may have been too many sorrys.

A muscle ticked in Julian’s neck. He clearly didn’t believe her. “Maybe you should lie back down.”

“You know I can’t get back in that bed with you,” Scarlett snapped. It was what she would have said before, but her words came out harsher than she intended.

Julian wiped every emotion from his face, yet the turbulent colors hovering over his heart told Scarlett he was far from unfeeling. His hurt now mingled with a shade of something Scarlett had never seen. The color was indiscernible, not quite silver or gray, but she swore she could feel the sharp emotion behind it—maybe it was because they’d shared blood?

Her lungs were tight, and so was her throat. Every breath hurt as Julian strode over to the other door. “I wasn’t planning on getting back in bed with you,” he said.

Scarlett tried to respond, but now her vocal cords were closed and her eyes were stinging. It wasn’t until Julian stepped out of the room that she could breathe once more, and she realized: when he left, it felt as if he was closing the door on her as well.

* * *

Scarlett stood with her body pressed against the wall, fighting the urge to run after Julian, to apologize for acting so strange and awful. When he walked out the door, she would have sworn he wasn’t Legend, but she couldn’t risk trusting him and being wrong.

No, Scarlett corrected herself. She could risk being wrong.

Everything Scarlett had done since arriving at Caraval involved risk. Some of those things had not ended well, but others had pleasantly surprised her— like the intimate moment she’d shared with Julian. He’d never have given her such a precious gift if she hadn’t first made a mistake by losing two days of her life.

Maybe taking a chance right now was exactly what she needed to do. If not

for her own sake, she needed to do it for Tella. Julian had been her ally since she’d arrived, and Scarlett might need his help more than ever, with her father on the island now.

Oh, saints, her father! Scarlett hadn’t even told Julian he was there. She definitely had to find him now and warn him.

Anxiously, Scarlett opened the door. The wretched scent of her father’s perfume still lingered, but the only person in the hall was the vile man with the bowler hat who’d stolen her earrings. He paid no attention as she darted past him and onto the stairs. She didn’t know where Julian had gone, but she hoped he hadn’t left—

Scarlett froze at the next landing.

Julian, as confident as if he really was the master of Caraval, strode out of Dante’s room, opened Tella’s cracked door, and stepped inside.

What is he doing?

Julian hated Dante. And why Tella’s demolished room? What was—

Above her, the inn creaked with the weight of multiple footsteps. Three sets. As they drew closer to the stairwell above, she could hear the words of one man echoing down in her direction.

The first half of his sentence she couldn’t make out, but she recognized her father’s voice and caught what he said next. “You saw her walk by just now?”

A tremor worked its way through Scarlett’s body.

“Less than a minute ago. Now, where’s my coins?” It must have been the miserable man with the bowler hat speaking.

Suddenly she was back on Trisda, curling into stairwell shadows, afraid to move lest she get caught. But she had to move. Any moment her father would be down the stairs. Scarlett couldn’t afford to be afraid, or debate what she should do. Her boots barely tapped the floor as she scurried down the path Julian had taken into Tella’s room. She tried to latch the door, but the lock was broken.

The room was empty.

No sign of Julian anywhere.

But he’d definitely come in here.

Scarlett told herself there was a reasonable explanation. And then she remembered.

The dying garden she’d found in Castillo Maldito. Neglected and abandoned. The garden had been carefully cultivated as a place people would not linger—much like Tella’s room. Scarlett imagined Julian entering, pushing aside bits of wreckage, finding a floorboard with the symbol of Caraval, and then pressing his finger against it until another board slid open, leading him into a hidden tunnel.

A tunnel she needed to find.

Outside, the sound of footsteps grew louder, a harsh chorus to her frantic search. Dropping to her hands and knees, she scanned for an entrance. Splinters dug into her fingers as she crawled across the floor. Somehow the battered space still managed to smell like Tella. Sharp molasses and wild dreams. Scarlett moved with more urgency; she had to find her sister before their father caught either one of them.

Inside the fireplace, all the bricks were covered with soot, but her eyes latched on to a lighter smudge, as if someone had just pressed his thumb to it. Underneath, the symbol etched into the firebox wall was dirty, hard to see, but the tip of Scarlett’s finger tingled as she touched the same spot. For a panicked second nothing happened. Then, slowly, the fireplace shifted, bricks grinding apart to reveal a set of rich mahogany stairs. The sconces lining them burned with glowing orange coals, revealing a well-worn path down the center, as if someone traveled them often. Scarlett imagined Julian taking these steps every time he’d snuck away or disappeared.

It still doesnt mean hes Legend.

But Scarlett was having a harder time believing that now. If he wasn’t Legend, why else did he have so many secrets? Even if he wasn’t seducing Tella whenever he was away from Scarlett, Julian was definitely hiding something.

A damp chill wrapped around Scarlett’s exposed calves as she started down. Even though she was very much awake, her dress remained thin as a nightgown and fell barely past her knees. Two flights of smooth stairs led to

three diverging pathways. On the right a trail of petal-pink sand. In the middle, one of polished glowing stones creating dim puddles of light. To her left, brick.

Torches covered in white flames lit the open mouths of all her options. Each route contained multiple sets of boot prints in a variety of sizes. She imagined any tunnel could hide her from her father, but only one could lead to Julian—and possibly to Tella, if Julian really was Legend.

The tunnels could also lead to madness, Scarlett thoughtBut she would rather face that possibility than her father.

Closing her eyes, Scarlett listened. To her left, trapped wind beat against walls. To her right, water rushed. Then, down the middle, larger, heavier steps beat forward. Julian!

Quickly, she followed, relying on the steady press of his footfalls to guide her. They seemed to grow louder as the temperature of the path became colder.

Until the footsteps stopped. Vanished.

Wet chills licked the back of her neck. Scarlett spun, afraid someone was behind her, but it was only the silent corridor, full of stones that were rapidly losing their glow. Scarlett started running faster, but her foot caught on something. Tripping forward, she reached out to steady herself against a damp wall, only to lose her balance once more as she caught sight of the object she’d stumbled upon.

A human hand.

Bile rose in her throat. Acid and acrid.

Five tattooed fingers stretched out as if reaching for her.

Somehow she managed to hold back her scream, until she looked down the hall and saw Dante’s twisted dead body, and Julian standing over it.

You'll Also Like