Chapter no 29

Caraval (Caraval, 1)

That night the moon stayed out a little longer, watching with silver eyes as Julian took Scarlett’s hand and wrapped it carefully in his own. He kissed her once more, gently and deliberately, reassuring her without words that he had no intentions of letting her go.

If this had been another sort of story they would have stayed like this, twined in each other’s arms until the sun woke up, casting rainbows across the storm-ravaged sky.

But most of Caraval’s magic ran on time, soaking up the hours of the day and turning them into wonders at night. And this night was running out. Nearly all the glowing red beads in both of Castillo Maldito’s hourglasses had tumbled through into the bottom. Like drops of falling rose petals.

Scarlett looked up at Julian. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I think I know what the last clue is. It’s the roses.” Scarlett recalled the vase of flowers she’d found next to the box containing her dress. Foolishly she’d assumed they’d been sent together. Scarlett didn’t know what they meant, but they were all over the game. It made sense to believe they were part of the fifth clue; they had to symbolize something besides a sick homage to Rosa.

“We have to get back to La Serpiente and look at the roses,” she said. “Maybe there’s something on the petals, or a note attached to the vase.”

“What if your father sees us when we go back there?”

“We’ll take the tunnels.” Scarlett dragged Julian through the courtyard. It was already chilly out, but the air felt even colder when they reached the

abandoned garden. Skeletal plants surrounded them, while the dreary fountain in the center dripped a melancholy siren song.

“I don’t know about this,” Julian said.

“Since when did you become the nervous one?” Scarlett teased, though she felt ochre shades of uneasy as well, and she knew it wasn’t from the garden’s enchantment.

She’d just made a huge error by going to the haberdashery, and she wasn’t eager to make another mistake. But Aiko had been right when she’d said some things were worth the pursuit regardless of the cost. Scarlett now felt as if she were trying to rescue herself as well as Tella. She’d not given much thought to this year’s prize—the wish—but she was thinking about it now. If Scarlett did win the game, maybe she really could save them both.

Scarlett removed her hand from Julian’s and pressed against the Caraval symbol embedded inside the fountain. Just as before, the water drained and the basin transformed into a set of winding stairs.

“Come on.” She waved him forward. “The sun will be up any minute.” Scarlett could already picture it, bursting through the darkness, ushering in the dawn of the day she’d originally intended to leave. And for the first time, despite all that had happened, she was glad she’d remained, because now she was determined to win the game and sail away with more than just her sister.

Scarlett reached for Julian’s hand again as she stepped onto the stairs. “Why does it seem as if you’re always trying to leave the moment I show

up?” Governor Dragna appeared at the other end of the neglected garden, followed by the count, whose dark hair dripped water in his eye; no longer did he appear excited by this challenge.

Scarlett yanked Julian down the damp steps to the tunnel entrance, gripping his hand as her father and the count gave chase. She didn’t dare look behind her, but she could hear their pursuit, the thunder of their boots, the shaking of the ground, the pounding of her own heart as she spiraled down the stairs.

“Julian, you need to go ahead of me. Find the lever to shut the tunnel, before—” Scarlett broke off as her father and the count reached the stairs.

Their shadows stretched out in the golden light, clawing at her from afar. It was too late to keep them out of the tunnels now.

But Scarlett and Julian were almost at the bottom of the steps. Scarlett could see the tunnels went off in three different directions: one lit by gold, one almost pitch-black, and the other illuminated by silver-blue.

Ripping her arm free from his protective grasp, she pushed Julian toward the darkest tunnel. “We need to split up, and you need to hide.”

“No—” He reached for her.

Scarlett danced back. “You don’t understand—after tonight, my father will kill you.”

“Then we won’t let him catch us.” Julian wove his fingers through hers and raced with Scarlett into the golden passage on the left.

Scarlett had always liked the color gold. It felt hopeful and magical. And for a brief, shining moment she dared to dream that it was. To hope she could outrun her father, create her very own fate. And she almost did.

But she could not outrun her fiancé.

Scarlett felt his gloved hand band around her arm. A moment later her head snapped back, every piece of her scalp on fire as her father’s fists took hold of her hair.

She screamed as both men tore her away from Julian. “Let her go!” Julian shouted.

“Don’t take another step, or this will get worse.” Governor Dragna wrapped one hand around Scarlett’s throat as he continued pulling her hair.

Scarlett bit back her yelp, a pained tear rolling down one cheek. From the twisted angle of her neck, she could not see her father, but she could imagine the sick look on his face. This would only get worse.

“Julian,” Scarlett pled, “please get out of here.” “I’m not leaving you—”

“Not another step,” Governor Dragna repeated. “Remember the last time we played this game? Do something I don’t like, and my darling daughter pays.”

Julian froze.

“Much better, but just so you don’t forget again…” Governor Dragna released Scarlett and punched her in the stomach.

Scarlett fell to her knees as the air left her lungs. Her vision blanked as she hit the dirt. She could only feel the pain, the echo of her father’s fists, and the dirt she’d fallen into staining her hands as she struggled to stand back up.

Around her, voices bounced off the walls. Angry ones and frightened ones, and when she stood, the world had changed.

“Is that really necessary?” “Touch her again and I will—”

“I think you missed the point of my demonstration.”

One by one she matched the words with the men as she took in the new scene. The count’s well-groomed expression had shifted to something cloudy and uncertain as he helped Scarlett stand. Across from them, too far out of her reach, her father stood with a knife to Julian’s throat.

“He just won’t stay away from you,” said Governor Dragna.

“Father, stop this,” Scarlett rasped. “I’m sorry I ran away. You have me.

Just let him go.”

“But if I let him go, how do I know you’ll behave?”

“I agree with your daughter,” said the count, his arm now curling around her, almost protectively. “I think this is going a little too far.”

“I’m not going to kill him.” Governor Dragna’s eyes crinkled at the edges as if they were all being unreasonable. “I’m only giving my daughter a little extra incentive not to run away again.”

A slick mud-colored feeling coated Scarlett’s insides as her father adjusted the knife. She thought nothing could be as painful as watching him hit Tella, but the blade, so close to Julian’s face, created a whole new world of terror. “Please, Father.” She trembled and shook with every word. “I promise, I’ll never disobey you again.”

“I’ve already heard that worthless vow, but after this I think you’ll finally keep it.” Governor Dragna licked the corner of his lips as he flicked his wrist.


The count clamped a gloved hand over Scarlett’s mouth, muffling her

screams as her father slashed his dagger across Julian’s beautiful face. From his jaw, across his cheek, all the way up to below his eye.

Julian sucked in a cry of pain as Scarlett fought to reach him. But she was powerless to do more than kick, and she feared her father would do more damage to Julian than he already had. She’d probably shown too much emotion as it was.

Scarlett waited for Julian to fight back. To grab the knife. To run away. She remembered his rows of sharply defined brown muscles. She imagined, even bleeding and injured, he could overpower her father. But for a boy who had started out so selfish, he now seemed determined to keep his ridiculous word and stay with her. He stood stoically as a wounded statue while Scarlett crumbled inside.

“Now, I think we’re done,” said her father.

“You know”—Julian turned to the count, speaking through a bloody smile

—“it’s pathetic when you have to torture a man just to get a woman to be with you.”

“Maybe I was wrong about being finished here.” Governor Dragna lifted his knife once more.

Scarlett tried to break free from the count, but his arms stayed bound around her chest, cutting into her like ropes.

“You’re not making this any better,” the count hissed. Then louder, to her father, in a tone that sounded bored, “I don’t think that’s necessary. He’s just trying to get a rise out of us.” The count smirked as if he couldn’t have cared less about Julian’s words, yet Scarlett could feel the quickening of his heart and the heat of his rapid breath against her neck, even as he added, “And for the saint’s sake, give the man a handkerchief; he’s dripping blood everywhere.”

The governor tossed Julian a tiny square of cloth, but it was barely enough to soak up the blood. Scarlett could see the droplets fall to the ground as their grim party began trudging forward.

The entire journey back to La Serpiente, Scarlett tried to think of ways to escape. Despite his wound, Julian was still strong. Scarlett imagined he could

have easily run away, or at least tried to fight back. But he marched silently by her father’s side while the count clutched Scarlett’s limp hand.

“It’s going to be all right,” the count whispered.

Scarlett wondered what type of delusional world he must live in to think such a thing. She almost hoped they’d find a dead body again, giving her the chance to break away. She loathed herself for the idea, but it didn’t stop her from thinking it.

When they emerged from the tunnel into Tella’s razed room, the count made an effort to dust off his coat, while Scarlett debated the benefits of running. It was clear her father had no intention of letting Julian go. He eyed Julian the way a child might ogle his younger sister’s doll right before chopping off all its hair, or its head.

“I’ll release him tomorrow, at the end of the night, after you’ve behaved yourself.” Governor Dragna wrapped an arm around Julian’s shoulder, while the cloth held to Julian’s cheek continued dripping blood.

“But, Father, he needs medical attention!” “Crimson, don’t worry about me,” Julian said.

Obviously, he didn’t know how much worse this could get.

Scarlett tried a final time. She could see no way out of this for her, but maybe it wouldn’t be too late for Julian. If he got away, he could still save Tella, too. “Please, Father, I will do whatever you wish, but you have to let him go.”

Governor Dragna grinned. This was exactly what he wanted to hear. “I already said I’d release him, but I don’t think he wants to leave yet.” He squeezed Julian’s shoulder. “Do you feel like leaving us alone, boy?”

Scarlett tried to meet Julian’s eyes, tried to beg him to leave with a look, but he was being more stubborn than ever. Scarlett wished he’d turn back into the careless young man she’d met on Trisda. His selflessness would accomplish nothing here unless he had a death wish.

It seemed it was up to her to find a way to end this.

“I’ve got nowhere else I need to be,” Julian said. “Are we all going to go upstairs now, or do you plan to have us sleep in here?”

“Oh, we’re not sleeping together—at least, not all of us.” Governor Dragna winked and a tremor went through Scarlett. He was looking at her with the type of expression that might have lit up another person’s face before bestowing a gift—but Governor Dragna’s presents were never pleasant.

“Count d’Arcy and I have been sharing a suite, but it’s too cramped for four people. So the sailor will stay with me in there, and Scarlett”—Governor Dragna drew his words out in slow, unmistakable syllables—“you’ll be sleeping in your own room with Count d’Arcy. You’ll be married soon enough,” he went on. “And your fiancé has paid quite a sum for you. I don’t see why I need to make him wait any longer before enjoying what he’s bought.”

Scarlett’s horror escalated as her father’s mouth slanted into a new smile. This was so far from how she’d imagined things. It was horrid enough that she’d been purchased like a sheep, that a price had been placed on her, saying this was all she was worth. “Father, please, we’re not married yet, this isn’t proper—”

“No, it’s not,” Governor Dragna cut her off. “But we’ve never been a proper family, and you’re not going to complain, unless you want to watch your friend continue to bleed.” The governor stroked the unmarred side of Julian’s face.

Julian didn’t flinch, yet he no longer wore the placid expression he bore in the tunnels. Everything about him had intensified. He caught Scarlett’s eyes, a silent fire burning in his. He was trying to tell her something, though she had no clue what it was. All Scarlett could feel was the nearness of Count d’Arcy; she imagined his hands eager to claim her body, as her father’s hands were eager to inflict more pain upon Julian.

“Call it an early wedding present that I’m not mutilating him further right now,” said Governor Dragna. “But if you say another word aside from yes, my generosity ends.”

“No,” Scarlett said. “You will not touch him again, because I will not do another thing unless you release him this moment.”

Scarlett turned to the count. He did not appear as if he was enjoying this.

Wrinkles marred his perfect forehead. But he did nothing to stop the governor, and just the sight of him, standing there in his crimson cravat and silver boots, made her ill to her core.

Tella had been right. You think your marriage is going to save you, but what if the count is as bad as Father, or worse?

Scarlett didn’t know if Count d’Arcy was actually worse than her father, but in that moment he felt just as vile. He no longer held her hand softly as he had in the haberdashery; his grip was firm, assured. The count had more strength than he let on. He had the power to stop this if he desired.

“If you let this happen”—Scarlett paused to meet the count’s eye, searching for a trace of the young man she’d exchanged so many letters with

—“if you use the threat of his punishment to control me, I will never obey or respect you. But if you let him go, if you show some of the humanity I read in your letters, I will be the perfect wife you paid for.” She recalled Julian’s words in the tunnel and added, “Do you really want a bride who will only sleep with you because another man will be tortured if she doesn’t?”

The count’s face flushed. Scarlett’s heart beat faster with every darkening shade on his visage. Frustration. Embarrassment. Wounded pride.

“Let him go,” the count grit out. “Or our deal is over.” “But—”

“I won’t argue this.” The count’s elegant voice turned rough. “I just want this done.”

Governor Dragna did not look pleased to part with a toy he’d barely played with. Yet to Scarlett’s surprise, he released Julian without further argument, shoving him toward the door. “You heard him. Leave.”

“Crimson, don’t do this for me.” Julian shot a pleading look toward Scarlett. “You can’t give yourself to him. I don’t care about what happens to me.”

“But I care,” Scarlett said, and though she wanted to look at Julian’s beautiful face one last time, to show him how she thought he was the furthest thing from a scoundrel or a liar, she didn’t dare meet his eyes. “Now, please, leave, before you make this harder.”

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