Chapter no 24

Caraval (Caraval, 1)

This way.” Julian tugged her toward a corridor lined in bricks and lit with glowing spiderwebs.

“No.” Scarlett urged him left. “I used a path with stones.” She didn’t recall the walls being speckled with radiant rocks as well, but she’d not really been paying attention to that.

Behind them the crush of boots was getting louder.

Julian scowled but followed her. His elbow brushed hers as the tunnel walls grew narrow and knobby stones dug into both their sides. “Why didn’t you tell me your father was here?”

“I was going to tell you, but—”

Julian’s hand clamped over Scarlett’s mouth, salt and dirt pressed against her lips as he whispered, “Shh—”

He grabbed one of the glowing stones dotting the wall, twisted it like a doorknob, and pulled her into a darkened nowhere. The walls hugging Scarlett’s back were like ice, moist and cold. She could feel them soaking through her thin dress while she tried to remember how to breathe.

Anise and lavender and something akin to rotted plums were replacing Julian’s cool scent, moving like smoke under the odd door he’d just pulled her through.

“I’ll keep you safe,” Julian whispered. His body pressed close to hers, as if to shield her, while boot steps landed hard just outside their hiding spot, which seemed to be growing smaller. The frigid walls were digging into Scarlett, pushing her closer and closer to Julian. Her elbows hit his chest, forcing her to twine her arms around his waist as his taut body molded against


Scarlett’s heart raced irregularly. The coarse stubble of Julian’s jaw grazed her cheek as his hands wove low around her hips. Through the insubstantial fabric of her dress she could feel every curve of his fingers. If her father opened the door and discovered her like this she would be dead.

Scarlett tried to push away, her breath coming out quick and fast. The ceiling now seemed to be sinking too, moving closer, dripping cold onto the top of her head.

“I think this room is trying to kill us,” Scarlett said. Outside she heard her father’s steps retreat, until the sound of them faded to nothing. She would have liked to stay hidden another minute or more, but her lungs were being squashed, sandwiched between Julian and the freezing wall. “Open the door!”

“I’m trying.” Julian grunted.

Scarlett sucked in a gasp. Her flimsy gown rose up above her knees as Julian’s knuckles roamed over her backside, his palms searching for their exit. “I can’t find it,” he ground out. “I think it’s on your side.”

“I can’t feel anything.” Except for you. Her fingers brushed places she knew she shouldn’t have been touching, while her hands tried to explore the wall. But the harder she fought, the more the room seemed to push back.

Like the ocean off the island.

The more Scarlett had kicked against it, the more frightened she had been, the more the waters had punished her.

Maybe that was it.

Julian said the tunnels heightened fear, but maybe they fed off of it as well. “The room is connected to our emotions,” Scarlett said. “I think we need to


Julian made a strangled sound. “That’s not easy at the moment.” His lips were in her hair, and his hands were just below her hips, clinging to her curves.

“Oh,” Scarlett said. Her pulse kicked up again, and as it did, she could feel Julian’s heart rushing against her chest. A week ago she could never have relaxed in this situation; even now it was difficult. But despite his lies,

somehow she knew that she was safe with him. He’d never hurt her. She forced herself to take a calming breath, and as she did the wall stopped moving.

Another breath.

The room grew slightly bigger.

Outside there were still no sounds of her father. No footsteps, no breathing.

None of his noxious stench.

A moment later the walls against her back were warmer, a bright contrast to the now damp parts of her dress. As the room expanded, she could feel Julian relax as well. Most of Scarlett’s body still touched his, but not so closely as before. His chest moved in rhythm with hers, slow and even as the walls continued to scale back.

With every breath they took, the chamber heated. Soon there were tiny pinpricks of light, dotting the ceiling like dust from the moon and illuminating a glowing knob above Scarlett’s right hand.

“Wait—” Julian warned.

But Scarlett had already opened the door. The minute she did the room disappeared. Before and behind them, a low passageway stretched out, embedded with broken seashells that glowed like the stones had, the ground covered by a trail of petal-pink sand.

Julian cursed. “I hate this tunnel.”

“At least we lost my father,” she said. No footsteps sounded in any direction. All Scarlett could hear were crisp ocean waves colliding in the distance. Trisda didn’t have pink beaches, but the echoing push and pull of the water reminded her of home, along with something else.

“How did you know I could get you into the game?” Scarlett asked. “I didn’t receive my tickets until after you arrived on Trisda.”

Julian kicked up more sand with his boots as he walked a little faster. “Don’t you think it’s strange you don’t even know the name of the man you’re marrying?”

“You’re changing the subject,” Scarlett said. “No, this is part of your answer.”

“All right.” She lowered her voice. She still didn’t detect any other footsteps, but she wanted to be safe. “It’s a secret because my father’s controlling.”

Julian toyed with the chain of his pocket watch. “What if there was more to it?”

“What are you getting at?”

“I think your father may have actually been trying to protect you. Before you get upset, just hear me out,” he rushed on. “I’m not saying your father is good. From what I’ve seen I’d call him a dirty bastard, but I can understand his reasons to be secretive.”

“Go on,” Scarlett said tightly.

Julian explained what Scarlett already knew, about Legend and her grandmother Annalise. Though Julian’s version of the story was different from her grandmother’s. In his tale, Legend started out with more talent and far more innocence. All he cared about was Annalise. She was the entire reason he transformed into Legend; it had nothing to do with a desire for fame. Then before his first performance, he found her in the arms of another, wealthier man, whom she’d planned to marry all along.

“After that, Legend went a little mad. He vowed to destroy Annalise, by hurting her family the way she’d wounded him. Since Annalise crushed his heart, Legend swore he would do the same to any daughters, or granddaughters, unfortunate enough to be a part of her line. He would ruin their chances at having happy marriages or finding love, and if they went mad in the process, even better.”

Julian tried to say the last part as if he weren’t altogether serious, but Scarlett could still clearly remember her dream. Legend didn’t just make women fall in love, he drove them mad with it, and she had no doubts he was doing the same thing to Tella right now.

“So, when my friends and I learned of your engagement,” Julian went on, “we knew it was only a matter of time before Legend invited you to Caraval so he could break it off.”

Again, he made it sound so much less harmful than it was. But Scarlett’s

engagement was her entire future. Without this marriage, she’d be doomed to a life on Trisda with her father.

As the sandy path grew steeper, she struggled to walk up it, thinking back to the foolish letters she’d sent. She’d never signed her full name until the very last one, when she’d written about her wedding—the one Legend had chosen to respond to.

Scarlett could see Julian’s story making sense, but she wondered how a simple sailor would know all this. She narrowed her eyes at the dark-haired boy beside her, and asked the question that had visited her thoughts on more than one occasion. “Who are you really?”

“Let’s just say my family is well connected.” Julian flashed a smile that might have looked charming to some, yet Scarlett could see there was nothing remotely happy about it.

She recalled the gossip she’d overheard in her dream. Julian’s family had turned his sister away after learning of her illicit relationship with Legend. From what Scarlett knew of Julian she couldn’t imagine him to be so judgmental, but he must have felt the guilt all the same. It was an emotion Scarlett was far too familiar with.

For several beats they walked in silence, until she finally gained the courage to say, “It’s not your fault, you know, what happened to your sister.”

For a fragile moment, as thin and long as a stretched-out spiderweb, there was only the waves in the distance, and the crush of Julian’s boots in the sand. Then: “So you don’t blame yourself when your father beats your sister?” His words were whisper-soft, but Scarlett felt each one acutely, reminding her of every time she’d failed Tella.

Julian stopped walking and slowly turned to face her. His steady gaze was even softer than his voice. It reached out to the broken parts of her like a caress. The type of touch that moves through damaged flesh, past fractured bones and into a person’s wounded soul. Scarlett felt her blood go hot as he watched her. She could have been wearing a dress that covered every inch of her skin and she would have still felt exposed to Julian’s eyes. It was as if all her shame, her guilt, the awful secret memories she tried to bury, were laid

bare for him to see.

“Your father is the one to blame,” he said. “You’ve done nothing wrong.” “You don’t know that,” Scarlett argued. “Whenever my father hurts my

sister it is because I have done something wrong. Because I failed—”

“Help!” A scream tore through their conversation like a gust of wind. “Please!” A familiar shriek followed.

“Tella?” Scarlett started running, kicking up a flurry of pink sand. “Don’t!” Julian warned. “That’s not your sister.”

But Scarlett ignored him. She knew her sister’s voice. It sounded only a few feet away; she could feel it vibrating. Louder and louder, it echoed off the sandstone walls until—

“Stop!” Julian’s arm snaked around Scarlett’s waist, pulling her back as the sandy path abruptly ended. A few unfortunate grains skittered off the edge, falling into foamy blue-and-green waters churning more than fifty feet below.

All the air rushed out from Scarlett’s lungs.

Julian’s cheeks were flushed with color, hands shaking as he continued to steady her. “Are you all—”

But the end of his words were sliced off by evil laughter. A sour sound of nightmares and other foul things. It poured out of the walls as pieces of it twisted into tiny mouths.

It was another trick of the maddening tunnels.

“Crimson, we should keep moving.” Julian gently touched the edge of her hip, guiding her back to a safer path, while the tunnels continued cackling, a warped version of her sister’s precious laugh.

For a moment Scarlett had felt so close to finding Tella. But what if she was already too late to save her sister? What if Tella had fallen so madly in love with Legend, given herself to him so completely, that once the game ended she would want her life to end as well? Tella loved danger the same way candlewicks loved to burn. It never seemed to scare her that some of the things she lusted for might consume her like a flame.

As a girl, Scarlett had been drawn to the idea of Legend’s magic. But Tella always wanted to hear about the master of Caraval’s darker side. A part of

Scarlett couldn’t deny there was something seductive about winning the heart of someone who’d vowed to never love again.

But Legend wasn’t just jaded; he was demented, adept at making people fall not only in love but also into madness. Who knew what sort of twisted things he was leading Tella to believe? If Julian hadn’t stopped Scarlett just now, she might have run straight off that cliff, and crashed to her death before she even realized her mistake. And Tella leaped forward without thinking far more often than Scarlett.

Tella had been only twelve the first time she’d tried to run off with a boy. Thankfully Scarlett had found her before their father noticed her absence, but ever since then Scarlett had feared that one day her sister would run into trouble that Scarlett could not rescue her from.

Why couldn’t it be enough for him to ruin Scarlett’s engagement?

“We’ll find her,” Julian said. “What happened to Rosa won’t happen to your sister.”

Scarlett wanted to believe him. After everything that had just occurred, she ached to break down and fold into him, to trust him again like before. But the words he meant as reassuring forced to the surface a question she’d been too afraid to think about since he had made his earlier confession as to why he was there.

She peeled away from Julian’s hand, forcing herself to create distance. “Did you know when you brought us to Caraval that Legend would take Tella the way he took your sister?”

Julian hesitated. “I knew there was a chance.” In other words, yes.

“How much of a chance?” Scarlett choked out.

Julian’s caramel eyes filled with something like regret. “I never said I was a good person, Crimson.”

“I don’t believe that.” Scarlett’s thoughts raced back to Nigel, the fortune- teller, how he’d told her a person’s future could shift based on what he wanted most. “I believe you could be good if you wanted to be.”

“You only believe that because you’re so good. Decent people like you

always believe other people can be virtuous, but I’m not.” He cut off. Something painful crossed his face. “I knew what would happen when I brought you and your sister here. I didn’t know Legend would kidnap Tella, but I knew that he would take one of you.”

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