Chapter no 32

Caraval (Caraval, 1)

Julian’s hand was the only thing that felt truly solid as they emerged from the tunnels and entered into a realm that appeared utterly different when lit by the late-afternoon sun.

The Caraval sky was a creamy blur of butter and vanilla swirls. It made Scarlett think the air around her should taste like sweetened milk and sugared dreams, but all she could taste was dust and haze.

“Where do you want to look first?” Julian asked.

The balconies surrounded the entire perimeter of the game. Scarlett craned her neck, searching for a glimpse of movement or anything odd on any of the nearest ones, but the blanket of mist obscured her view. On the ground, shops that looked colorful at night now appeared almost blurry. The elaborate fountains, dotting every other corner of the street, spilled no water. The world was stillness and quiet and milky fog. No colorful boats traveled canals and no other people walked on the cobbled paths.

Scarlett felt as if she’d stepped into a faded memory. As if the magical town had been abandoned long ago, and she was coming back to find nothing quite as she recalled.

“This doesn’t even look like the same place.” Scarlett walked a little closer to Julian. She’d feared that the moment they stepped outside someone would try to remove them from the game, but this strange, dull reality was almost as frightening. “I can’t see any of the balconies.”

“Let’s not focus on those, then. Maybe the leap of faith means something different,” said Julian. “You said before, you thought the clue involved roses. Does anything else here remind you of your dream with Legend?”

Scarlett’s first thought was, Legend has left this place. She saw no top hats, no rose petals, no colors brighter than palest yellow. But while her eyes were letting her down, her ears picked up a gentle melody.

Subtle. So quiet it almost sounded like a memory, but as Scarlett moved forward with Julian, the soft music grew into something more solid and soulful. It hummed from the street with the rose-covered carousel, the only spot not infected with fog. She remembered it was also one of the few things that had remained in color when her world had turned to black-and-white.

Brighter than freshly spilled blood, the carousel appeared even more alive than when Scarlett had seen it last. It was so vibrant, she almost didn’t notice the man sitting at the pipe organ beside it. He was far older than most of the other workers she’d come across, and his face was wrinkled and weatherworn, and a little bit sad, mirroring his music. He stopped playing as Scarlett and Julian approached, but the echoes of his song still hung in the air like lingering perfume.

“Another song for a donation.” The man held out a hand and looked up at Scarlett expectantly.

It should have struck her as uncanny the first time she’d seen him that he would beg for coins in a place where people rarely used them.

Scarlett turned to Julian, not wanting to repeat the mistake she’d made at the hatter and haberdashery. “Does this feel like Legend to you?”

“If feeling like Legend means disturbing and creepy, then yes.” Julian cast a hooded gaze over the rose-drenched carousel and the ruddy man at the pipe organ. “You think this will lead to the balcony holding your sister?”

“I’m not sure, but I think it will definitely take us somewhere.”

Aiko had been right when she warned Scarlett and Julian they were making a mistake by going into the hatter’s. It made sense to believe she’d also been trying to help when she’d brought Scarlett to this peculiar carousel. It could have been a coincidence, but even if it was, she doubted it was also a coincidence that when not another person was in sight, they would come back here and find the organ player waiting for them.

“All right, then. Here you go.” Julian reached into a pocket and pulled out

some coins.

Remembering Aiko’s words, Scarlett added, “Can you play us something pretty?”

The song that followed was not pretty; it rasped out of the pipe organ like a dying man’s final words. But it did make the carousel spin around. Slowly at first, yet hypnotic in its graceful movements. Scarlett could have stood there and watched forever, but in her dream, just before he tossed her from the balcony, Legend had warned Scarlett not to observe.

“Come on.” She let go of Julian’s hand and leaped onto the spinning wheel.

Julian looked as if he wanted to stop her, but then he followed as well.

The carousel began to turn faster and soon they were on opposite sides, fingers bleeding as they searched through bushes covered in thorns, for a symbol that would open a passage of stairs.

“Crimson, I’m not seeing anything!” Julian shouted over the music. The tune grew louder and more off-key as the carousel twirled faster, shedding more and more petals that swept up into the sky like a ruby cyclone.

“It’s here!” Scarlett yelled back. She could feel it with every prick of her finger. There would not be so many thorns if nothing was hidden beneath them. Thorns protected roses. Again, Scarlett felt as if there was a lesson to be learned from this carousel, but before she could figure it out, she saw a sun with a star inside and a teardrop inside of the star. It was hidden beneath a rosebush, the size of a small pony, shaped to look like a stallion wearing a top hat.

Scarlett gripped the flower stems to keep from falling as she crouched close to press her finger to the symbol for Caraval. One touch and the entire emblem filled with blood.

The carousel spun even faster. Round and round. And as it twirled in a destructive dance the center disappeared, turning into a circle of dark. A hole made of black sky robbed of stars. Unlike the other passages, there were no stairs this time. Scarlett could not see the bottom.

“I think we need to jump.” Maybe she’d been wrong about the balcony and

this was the leap of faith.

“Wait—” Julian edged around the hole, grabbing one of her bloody hands before she could hurtle herself forward.

“What are you doing?” Scarlett shouted.

“I want you to take this.” Julian pulled out a pocket watch on a long, circular chain and pressed it into her palm. “Inside the cover I etched the coordinates of a boat, just off the coast of the isle.”

Fresh panic filled Scarlett as Julian’s face grew more serious. This felt too much like good-bye. “Why are you giving this to me now?”

“In case we get separated, or something else unexpected happens. The boat’s already crewed; it will take you anywhere you want to go and—” Julian broke off, and for a moment it appeared as if the words were trapped in his throat. His face grew pained as the carousel jolted and slowed, and the hole in the center started shrinking. “Crimson, you need to jump now!” He released her hand.

“Julian, what are you not telling me?”

His lips fell into a rough line, making him look sad and regretful all at once. “There’s not time for all the things I wish I could say.”

Scarlett wanted to ask more questions. She wanted to know why Julian, who moments before held her hand as if he never planned to let it go, was suddenly looking at her as if he feared he would never see her again. But the black hole was already closing.

“Please, don’t make me use this without you!” She took the chain and placed it around her neck.

Then she leaped.

She thought she heard Julian shout something about not trusting Legend as she fell. But his words were muffled by the rushing water, roaring as it welcomed her into a river of cold.

Scarlett gasped for air, arms flailing wildly to keep from sinking. She was glad she was in water as opposed to landing on a slab of rock or a bed of knives, but the current was too strong to fight. It sucked her in, dragging her down a path that felt eternally long.

Her entire body was steeped in cold but she forced herself not to panic. She could do this. The water wasn’t trying to punish her. She relaxed until the current eased up. Then, with steady, even strokes and pulls she worked her way back to the surface, kicking hard until she reached a wide set of steps.

Slowly, her eyes adjusted as tiny green lights, as infinitesimal as bits of dust, flickered to life. They swarmed the air like fireflies, casting jade illumination over two gray-blue soapstone statues guarding the entrance to the steps.

Twice as tall as Scarlett, and cloaked in robes that disappeared beneath the water, the figures’ hands were clasped in silent prayer. But though their eyes were closed, their faces appeared far from peaceful. Their mouths stretched wide, calling out in silent agony as Scarlett pulled herself onto the black soapstone staircase.

“I was starting to lose faith in you.” The click of a walking stick pressed against the stairs, as one by one each polished step brightened. Though it was not the stairs nor the murky places they led, but the young man in the velvet top hat who captured Scarlett’s full attention.

She blinked and he was suddenly there in front of her, reaching out a hand to help her to her feet. “I’m so glad you finally made it, Scarlett.”

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