Chapter no 25

Caraval (Caraval, 1)

Scarlett’s legs were boneless, thin skin wrapped around useless muscles. Her lungs ached with the pressure of unshed tears. Even her gown looked tired and dead. The black fabric had dulled to gray, as if it no longer had the strength to hold color. She didn’t remember ripping the lace, but the hem of her bizarre mourning-nightdress hung in tatters around her calves. She didn’t know if its magic had stopped working or if it just reflected how exhausted and unraveled she felt. She’d left Julian at the base of the mahogany stairs, asking him not to follow.

When she returned to her guestroom with its roaring fire and massive bed, all she wanted was to lose herself underneath the covers. To tumble into oblivious sleep until she was able to forget the horrors of the day. But she couldn’t afford sleep.

When she’d first arrived on the isle she’d only been concerned about making it home in time for her wedding. But now that Legend had killed Dante and her father was here, the game had changed. Scarlett felt the press of time, heavier than the crush of all the red beads in Castillo Maldito’s hourglasses; she had to get to Tella before her father found her, or Legend consumed her like a flame burning a candle. If Scarlett failed, her sister would die.

In less than two hours, the sun would set, and Scarlett would need to be ready to start searching again.

So, she only gave herself one minute. One minute to cry for Dante and sob for her sister and rage because Julian was not who she thought he was. To fall on the bed and whine and moan over all the things that had churned out of her

control. To pick up Legend’s stupid vase of roses and dash them against the mantel of the fireplace.

“Crimson—are you all right in there?” Julian knocked and burst through the door in the same moment.

“What are you doing here?” She fought back her tears as she scowled at him. She could not bear having him see her cry, though she was fairly certain it was too late for that.

Julian fumbled for words as he cast around for a threat that wasn’t there, clearly distressed to find her sobbing and no other danger to deal with. “I thought I heard something.”

“What did you think you heard? You can’t just burst in here! Go! I need to finish changing.”

Instead of leaving, Julian quietly shut the door. His eyes took in the shattered vase and the puddle on the floor before returning to her tearstained face. “Crimson, don’t cry because of me.”

“You think too highly of yourself. My sister’s missing, my father has found us, and Dante’s dead. These tears are not for you.”

Julian at least had the decency to look ashamed. But he stayed in the room. He sat gingerly on the bed, making the mattress dip beneath his weight as more drops fell down her cheeks. Hot and wet and salty. Scarlett’s outburst had purged some of her pain, but now the tears wouldn’t stop, and maybe Julian was right: maybe a few were because of him.

Julian leaned closer and brushed them away with his fingertips. “Don’t.” Scarlett pulled back.

“I deserve that.” He dropped his hand and edged farther away, until they were on opposite sides of the bed. “I shouldn’t have lied, or brought you here against your will.”

“You shouldn’t have brought us here at all,” Scarlett snapped. “Your sister would have found a way, with or without me.”

“Is this supposed to be an apology? If it is, it’s not very good.”

Julian answered cautiously. “I’m not sorry for doing what your sister wanted: I believe people should have the freedom to make their own

decisions. But I am sorry for every time I’ve lied to you.” He paused, and when he looked at her his warm brown eyes were softer than she’d ever seen them, and open, as if he wanted her to view something he usually kept hidden. “I know I don’t deserve another chance, but earlier you said you think I can be good. I’m not, Crimson, or at least I haven’t been. I’m a liar and I’m bitter and sometimes I make terrible choices. I come from a prideful family that’s always playing games with one another, and after Rosa”—he hesitated, his voice taking on the rough, strangled, hard-to-speak edge that came whenever he mentioned his sister—“after she died, I lost faith in everything.

Not that it’s an excuse. But if you give me another chance, I swear, I’ll make it up to you.”

Across from them the fire crackled, its heat shrinking the puddle of water on the floor. Soon it would just be the roses and shattered glass. Scarlett thought of Julian’s rose tattoo. She wished he really had been just a sailor who’d happened by her isle, and she hated that he’d lied to her for so long. But she could understand devotion to a sister. Scarlett knew what it was like to love someone so irrevocably, no matter the cost.

Julian leaned against the bedpost, all kinds of tragic and lovely, dark hair hanging over tired eyes, his wicked mouth turned down, and rips marring his once pristine shirt.

Scarlett had made mistakes because of this game as well. But Julian had never held those against her, and she didn’t want to punish him, either.

“I forgive you,” she said. “Just promise me, no more lies.”

With a heavy breath, Julian closed his eyes, forehead knotted into a look somewhere between gratitude and pain. He spoke hoarsely, “I promise.”

“Hullo?” A knock on the door startled them both.

Julian jumped up before Scarlett could move. Hide, he mouthed.

No. She’d done enough hiding already that day. Ignoring his angry looks, Scarlett grabbed the fireplace poker and followed him as he crept toward the door.

“I have a delivery,” said a feminine voice. “For who?” asked Julian.

“It’s for the sister of Donatella Dragna.”

Scarlett gripped the poker tighter, her heart hitting an extra beat.

Tell her to leave it at the door, Scarlett mouthed. She wanted to hope it was a clue. But all she kept thinking of was Dante’s severed hand. With a shudder, she imagined Legend chopping off Tella’s hand and delivering it to her room.

After the messenger girl’s footsteps faded, she let Julian open the door. The box on the other side was flat black, the color of failure and funerals.

It stretched in front of her doorway, long, and almost as wide across as Scarlett. Next to it rested a vase with two red roses.

More flowers!

Scarlett kicked over the vase, spilling the flowers across the threshold of her room before pulling the box inside. She couldn’t tell if it felt heavy or light.

“You want me to open it?” Julian asked.

Scarlett shook her head. She didn’t want to open the black box either, but every second she wasted was a second they could be searching for Tella. Carefully she lifted the lid.

“What is that?” Julian’s brows formed a sharp V.

“It’s my other dress from the shop.” Scarlett released a relieved laugh as she pulled the gown from the box. The girl had said it would be delivered in two days.

But something about the dress was off. It looked different from how Scarlett remembered. The color was much lighter, almost pure white— wedding-gown white.

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