Chapter no 28

Caraval (Caraval, 1)

Scarlett’s instincts told her to run, but her body refused to move. Bold colors swirled inside her.

She heard the man say his name—Count Nicolas dArcy—as she felt Julian’s arm tighten around her shoulder.

“I think you’re mistaken,” Julian said confidently. “You must have my fiancée confused with another. She’s been getting that all week. Haven’t you, love?” Julian squeezed her shoulder in a way that felt very much like a warning.

But Scarlett remained in too much shock to move. The buttons had never been clues. The black box, containing the dress covered in buttons, had not been from Legend or her sister. D stood for dArcy.

Like Legend, it seemed her fiancé was also fond of playing games. Though the longer Julian kept his arm wrapped around Scarlett, the less amused Count Nicolas d’Arcy looked.

Scarlett could scarcely believe this was the same man who’d written her so many lovely letters. He didn’t appear to be mean or anywhere close to unattractive, yet he also didn’t feel anything like his letters. The count she’d corresponded with had seemed as if he couldn’t wait until they met so there’d be no more need for secrecy. Now she wondered if he hadn’t just written down all the things he imagined she wanted to hear, for this young man seemed far from transparent. He looked like the type who enjoyed keeping secrets.

“I hope you’re not disappointed.” The count adjusted his cravat as a back door opened behind him and the tailor returned, along with another man.

Lavender. Anise. Rotted plums.

“Love, I think we need to leave now.” Julian wrenched open the front door at the same moment Scarlett’s father came into view.

Every shade of purple flashed in front of her eyes.

But Julian didn’t hesitate. The instant the count reached for Scarlett, Julian shoved over a pedestal of glass eyes and used the distraction to pull her under the arch of the door into a curtain of silver rain. Scarlett gripped his hand as her father’s angry words chased from behind.

“Do whatever it takes to stop her!” he called.

“Scarlett, you don’t need to run!” The count’s voice was not as harsh, but he ran fast, especially for a finely dressed gentleman.

Scarlett tugged Julian toward a covered bridge that she hoped was the same tricky bridge from two nights before. But it wasn’t. Her father and the count continued to pursue them, through winding streets and brightly lit shops, past people who clapped as if it were part of the show.

“This way—hold on.” Julian tore Scarlett from the slippery main road, toward the canals, ripping through a crowd of people all trying to reach shelter. “Hop in.”

“But there’s lightning!” Scarlett said. “We can’t get in a boat.”

“You have any better ideas?” Julian grabbed two oars as he leaped inside a crescent vessel.

“Scarlett!” her father shouted through the rain. “Don’t do this—” His words were cut off by a strike of lightning and a clap of thunder. In the silver- streaked night, Scarlett witnessed something she’d not seen before.

Her father looked afraid. Raindrops ran down his cheeks like tears. She was sure it was just a trick of the light, but for a moment she imagined her father actually loved her, that maybe deep down he really cared. Beside him, the count’s expression was concealed by the dark, but while they’d run, Scarlett would have sworn he’d appeared excited by the challenge she’d presented.

Scarlett looked away and clasped her wet knees to her chest as Julian’s oars cut through the water. Even if her father was still capable of kindness,

and even if the count had actually seemed like the type of man she’d thought he would be, Scarlett still couldn’t have brought herself to go back to either of them.

She’d already made her choice, and she’d made it before she’d run out of the haberdashery with Julian. She didn’t know the exact instant when it happened, but an arranged marriage to a man she knew only through letters was no longer something Scarlett wanted. Finally she understood what Tella meant when she’d said there was more to life than being safe.

She watched Julian take another heavy pull with the oars while more lightning spiderwebbed across the sky. Before meeting him, she’d believed she could be content as long as she married someone who could take care of her, but Julian had brought out a desire for something more.

She remembered thinking falling for him would be like falling in love with darkness, but now she imagined he was more like a starry night: the constellations were always there, constant, magnificent guides against the ever-present black.

“Crimson, did you hear what I said?”

Scarlett dropped her gaze from the sky to the soaking-wet boy in front of her. “What?”

“We need to get out of the boat!” Julian shouted through the rain as they bumped against a darkened dock.

“Where are we?” “Castillo Maldito.”

“No—” Threads of violet panic returned. Nigel already told her Tella wasn’t in the Castillo. “We need to keep searching for my sister. I was wrong about the buttons, but there has to be—”

“We can’t stay on the water,” Julian cut in. “The lightning will kill us.” As he spoke more bolts of silver-white slashed the sky.

“But if my father finds her first—”

“Do you even know where to look right now?”

When Scarlett didn’t answer, Julian grabbed her hand and hauled her onto the dimly lit, shaking dock. The only light came from the Castillo’s massive

hourglasses and the churning red beads inside them. Aiko must have been telling the truth about the rain washing all the magic away, for the Castillo no longer glowed. It had turned from golden to tarnished. In the courtyard, abandoned tents flapped in the wind, their tuneless beat replacing the vibrant music of the birds from nights before.

“We need to find somewhere to dry off,” Julian said.

“I’d rather keep the boat in sight.” Scarlett huddled under a nearby arch, where she could see the docks and anyone else who might arrive. “Once the rain stops we need to start searching again.”

Julian didn’t answer right away. “I think the game, or at least your part in it, should be over. I should never have brought you here. I can take you to a safe place, off the isle—”

“No!” Scarlett cut him off. “I’m not leaving here without my sister. After what I’ve just done, my father will be even more furious when he finds Tella, and he will take it out on her.”

“And what about you? You’ll just keep sacrificing yourself? Marry Nicolas d’Arcy?”

Scarlett wished she could just ignore his question. If she stayed in the game and her father caught her, he wouldn’t kill her, he’d make her marry the count, in a way that almost felt like death. But if she didn’t marry him, how else could she protect her sister? “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Julian made a sound like a growl. “So you’re still planning on going through with your engagement?”

“I don’t know if I am or not! But what other choices do I have?” Sheets of silver rain fell harder.

Scarlett waited for Julian to say something. To reassure her in some sort of way. To tell her he could be her other option. But even as she thought it, she realized how ridiculous it was. Did she really think he was going to say he wanted to sweep her away into another life, or marry her?

When more lightning tore through the night, Scarlett had her answer. Julian stayed close by her side, but his expression was closed off. She recalled the way he’d dusted lint off his shoulder that first night. He might not have

wanted her to be the count’s bride, but that didn’t mean he planned on being with her instead.

“I’m so stupid.” Her voice danced a line between breaking and shouting. “None of this means anything to you. You saw my fiancé, got jealous, acted rashly, and now you regret it.”

“Is that what you think?” Julian’s words came out deep and rough. “You believe I’d risk crossing your father, put you in danger like that, because I’m jealous?” He laughed, as if the jealousy were a ridiculous assumption.

“You’re such a liar,” Scarlett snapped.

Julian flattened his lips into a harsh line. “I’ve already told you that.” “No,” Scarlett said, “you lie to yourself. You pull me to you whenever it

seems you’re afraid of losing me, but whenever I get too close, you push me away.”

“I’ve only pushed you away once.” Julian’s voice hardened as he took a step closer. “I was definitely jealous, but that’s not the only reason I wanted you out of there.”

“Then tell me what your other reasons were,” Scarlett said.

He edged forward, until there was almost no space between them. She could feel the wet of his clothes, clinging to hers. Slowly, he wrapped an arm around her waist, as if giving her the chance to pull away. But she’d already made her decision. Her heart beat faster as his other arm encased her, tightening around her upper back, pulling her closer to the hard planes of his chest until their lips were feeling the same cold air.

“Is this close enough for you?” Julian’s mouth hovered over hers. A whisper shy of kissing her. “You’re sure you want this?”

Scarlett nodded, afraid saying the wrong thing might push him away. With Julian it wasn’t about protection—she just wanted to be with him. The boy who’d saved her from drowning in more ways than one.

His hand slid down to the small of her back, gentle and firm, slowly pulling her closer once more, while his other hand slipped under her hair and around her neck, rubbing the tender skin there, before it forged a new path.

“I don’t want you to regret any of your choices.” Julian’s tone almost

sounded pained, as if he wanted her to pull away, but everything about the way he continued to touch her made her feel the opposite. His fingers were now at her mouth, tracing the line of her bottom lip. They tasted like wood and rain, damp from running through her wet hair. “There are still things you don’t know about me, Crimson.”

“Then tell me what they are,” Scarlett said. He’d shared about his sister and Legend, but there were obviously more shadows in his life.

Julian’s fingers were still at her mouth. Slowly she kissed them, one by one. Just a gentle press of her lips, but she could feel how it affected him by the way his other hand gently dug into her lower back. She had to concentrate to keep her voice from turning breathless as she looked up at his face half eclipsed by darkness and said, “I’m not afraid of your secrets.”

“I wish I could say you shouldn’t be.” Julian stroked her lip a final time, then covered her mouth with his own. Saltier than his fingers and more intense than the hand now moving down her spine or the one tightening around her waist. He held her as if she might slip through his grip, and she clung to him, loving the feel of the muscles that lined his back.

He mumbled words against her lips, too low for her to hear, but she imagined she got a strong impression of what he wanted to say, as he coaxed her lips apart, letting Scarlett taste the coolness of his tongue and the tips of his teeth as he grazed her lower lip. Every touch created colors she had never seen. Colors as soft as velvet and as sharp as sparks that turned into stars.

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