Chapter no 33

Caraval (Caraval, 1)

Scarlett told herself not to be dazzled.

She knew Legend was a viper. A serpent in a top hat and tails was still a snake. It did not matter that this snake was almost exactly how Scarlett had always pictured him. He might not have been quite as handsome as she’d imagined, but still, he was made of dashing elegance, laced with intrigue and illusion, set off by a twinkle in his dark eyes that made her feel as if she were the charmed one, covered in magic only he could see.

He appeared younger than she would have thought, a few years older than she was, without a wrinkle or scar on his face. The rumors that he never aged must have been true. He wore a royal-blue half cape, which he quickly tore off and draped around Scarlett’s shaking shoulders. “I’d suggest you take off your wet clothes, but I’ve heard you’re on the modest side.”

“I won’t say what I’ve heard about you,” Scarlett spit out.

“Oh no!” Legend clapped his hands to his chest in a show of mock offense. “People have been saying nasty things about me?”

He laughed—a rich, spicy sound. It bounced off the cavern’s walls as if there were a dozen different Legends hidden behind the stones. The noise continued, even after he stopped laughing. It wasn’t until he snapped his fingers that the horrid echoes stopped. But Legend’s manic smile remained, twitching and restless, as if he were thinking of a joke he had yet to share.

Hes mad.

Scarlett edged back as her gaze quickly cut to the water, where Julian should have been emerging behind her. But now the water wasn’t even moving.

“If you’re waiting for your friend, I don’t think he’s going to be joining us. At least not yet.” Legend’s lips turned cruel around the corners, leaving her drenched in a cold blue-violet feeling that went deeper than the wetness soaking her clothes.

“What have you done to Julian and my sister?”

“It’s really too bad,” Legend said. “You’re so dramatic, you would have made a fantastic performer.”

“That’s not an answer to my question,” Scarlett said.

“Because you’re asking the wrong questions!” Legend shouted. Instantly he was right in front of her again, taller than she realized and even madder than he’d been moments before. His eyes were all black, as if the pupils had devoured the whites.

Scarlett reminded herself that the tunnels beneath the game did strange things to people’s heads. She stood her ground without flinching, and repeated, “Where are my sister and Julian?”

“I already told you that’s not the right question.” Legend shook his head, as if she’d disappointed him. “But now that you’ve brought them up a second time, I’m curious. If you could see only one of them again, Julian or your sister, who would you choose?”

“I’m finished playing games,” Scarlett said. “I took your leap of faith, I don’t have to answer any more questions.”

“Ah, but the rules say you need to find the girl before you can officially win.” Green lights danced around Legend’s head, adding a glittering emerald cast to his fair skin. He was magical to be sure, but in all the wrong ways. “Have you wondered at all why the game is played during the night?”

“If I answer you, will you tell me where to find my sister?” “If you manage to do it correctly.”

“What if I’m wrong?”

“I’ll kill you, of course.” Legend laughed, but this time it was hollow, like a bell without a clapper inside. “I’m just kidding. No need to look at me as if I’ll sneak into your house at night and strangle all your kittens. If you answer incorrectly, I’ll reunite you with your male companion, and together you can

continue searching for your sister.”

Scarlett highly doubted Legend would keep his word, but he was blocking the stairs in front of her, and behind her was a river that she doubted led anywhere good.

She tried to remember what Julian had told her about Caraval their first night there. They say they dont want us to get too carried away, but that is the point.

“I imagine the game wouldn’t be the same in the light,” Scarlett answered. “People think no one sees all the nasty things they do in the dark. The foul acts they commit, or the lies they tell as part of the game. Caraval takes place at night because you like to watch, and see what people do when they think there are no consequences.”

“Not bad,” said Legend. “Although, I’d think you’d have realized by now that what happens here isn’t really just a game.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Once people leave this isle, the things they’ve done here don’t just unhappen, no matter how much they might wish them undone.”

“Maybe that should be your warning when people enter,” Scarlett said.

Legend chuckled again, and this time it sounded almost real. “It’s terribly unfortunate this is going to end so badly. I might have liked you.” He brushed her chin with one cool knuckle.

Scarlett slipped a little as she took a nervous step back, shooting another futile glance behind her toward the unmoving waters. “I answered your question. Now where is my friend?”

“It amazes me,” Legend said. “I’ve only told you the truth and you won’t even allow me to touch you. Yet you think yourself in love with someone who has done nothing but lie to you this entire game. Your friend has told you not to trust me, but you cannot trust him, either.”

“Coming from you, I’ll take that as an endorsement.”

Legend sighed dramatically, tipping his head back. “Oh, to be so hopeful and stupid. Let’s see how long that lasts.”

Just then, heavy footfalls sounded on the sandstone steps behind him. A moment later, Julian appeared, perfectly dry, and aside from the wound

Scarlett’s father had inflicted, entirely unharmed.

“We were just talking about you,” Legend said. “Would you like to tell her, or should I?” Legend’s eyes glittered, and this time there was no madness in them at all. He was the perfect picture of a gentleman in a top hat and tails, fully sane and dreadfully victorious.

Water dripped from Scarlett’s hair down the back of her neck, turning hot where it touched her skin. She couldn’t believe Legend had kept his word, but more than that, she didn’t like the sound of what he’d just said, or the possessive way he was looking at Julian.

“It seems to me your fiancé is meant for decorative purposes only, but he was right about one thing,” Legend said. “I don’t do anyone favors. It would make no sense to go to all that trouble to put an end to your engagement only to let you leave the isle with someone else. Which is why I’ve had Julian working with me for the entire game.”

No. Scarlett heard Legend’s words, but she refused to process them. She didn’t want to believe it. She watched Julian, waiting for some sort of signal that this was another part of a greater deception.

Meanwhile the master of Caraval regarded Julian as if he were one of his prized possessions, and to Scarlett’s horror Julian smiled back, the straight edges of his teeth flashing in torchlight. It was the same wicked grin she’d first noticed on Del Ojos Beach; the smirk of someone who’d just succeeded in playing a very cruel trick.

“Originally, I’d planned for you to favor Dante,” Legend said. “I thought he would be more your type, but I suppose it’s good I’m wrong on occasion.”

“Dante and his sister were part of the game too?” Scarlett blurted.

“Don’t tell me it wasn’t a brilliant deception,” said Legend. “And try not to look so upset. I had people warn you. Twice, in fact, you were told not to believe anything.”

“But—” Openmouthed, Scarlett turned to Julian. “So your sister, Rosa?

That was all a lie?”

For a moment it almost looked as if Julian flinched at the name Rosa, but when he spoke again, there was no emotion in his voice. Even his accent was

altered. “There was someone named Rosa, and she died the way I told you, but she was not my sister. She was just an unfortunate girl who got too swept away in the game.”

Scarlett’s hands trembled, but still, she refused to believe it. It could not have all been false, merely a game to Julian. There had been moments she knew were real. She continued to watch him, hoping for some flicker of something, a glimmer of emotion, a glance that told her this act with Legend was really the game.

“I guess I’m better than I thought.” Julian’s smile turned vicious, the kind made for breaking hearts.

But Scarlett had already been broken. For years her father tore her down. Over and over, she had let him. She’d allowed him to make her feel worthless and powerless. But she was neither of those things. She was done allowing her fear to make her weaker, to eat away at the meat on her bones until she could do nothing but whimper and watch.

“I still say you did me a favor,” she said, turning back to Legend. “You said it yourself. My ex-fiancé is more of a decoration than a man, and I’m better off without him. Now give me my sister and let us go home.”

“Home? You still have somewhere to go after tomorrow, now that you’ve thrown your entire future away? Or”—Legend cut another look toward Julian

—“are you saying this because you’re still under the illusion that he cares for you?”

Scarlett wanted to say it wasn’t an illusion. The Julian she knew had let himself be tortured for her. How could that not be real? She refused to believe it, even as Julian looked at her as if she were the most foolish girl in the world. And he was probably right.

She’d not realized something that had been true until that moment. Since Julian had brought her to the island, the look had been there, that extra spark; whether frustrated or angry or laughing, there was always something there that said some facet of her touched something inside of him.

Now there was nothing there. Not even pity. For a dangerous moment Scarlett doubted everything she believed to be true.

Then she remembered. In case something unexpected happens.

The pocket watch. Scarlett’s hand went to the cool piece of jewelry around her neck, her heart beating a little faster as she clutched it and recalled Julian’s words on the carousel.

“What do you have there?” Legend asked.

“Nothing,” Scarlett said. But her words came out too fast, and Legend’s hands moved quicker, spreading the velvety fabric of the royal-blue cape she still wore, his icy fingers pulling out the watch.

“I don’t remember seeing this on you before.” Legend cocked his head toward Julian. “A recent gift?”

Julian denied nothing as Legend popped the makeshift necklace open. Tick. Tick. Tick. The watch’s second hand wound its way up to the twelve, and a voice started pouring from the locket. It was barely above a whisper, but Scarlett clearly recognized the timbre as Julian’s.

“I’m sorry, Crimson. I wish I could say what I’m sorry for, but the words

—” He cut off for several tense clicks as the second hand continued its lap around the numbers. Then, as if it wounded him, Julian’s voice ground out, “It wasn’t just a game for me. I hope you can forgive me.”

The edge of Legend’s eye ticked as he snapped the watch shut and addressed Julian. “I don’t remember this being part of any plans. Care to explain?”

“I think it’s rather self-explanatory,” Julian answered. He turned back to Scarlett with the look she’d been searching for, his brown eyes full of all sorts of unspoken promises. He’d wanted to tell her the truth, but it seemed as if he physically couldn’t. Some spell or enchantment wouldn’t allow him to say the words. But he was still her Julian. Scarlett could feel the pieces of her battered heart daring to move back together. And it might have been a beautiful moment, if Legend had not chosen that same instant to pull out a knife and stab Julian in the chest.

“No!” Scarlett wailed.

Julian staggered and the whole world seemed to tilt and sway with him.

The jade lights of the cavern muted to brown.

Scarlett rushed to his side as blood bubbled up from his beautiful lips. “Julian!” She dropped to her knees as he fell to the cavern floor. Legend

hadn’t hit his heart, but he must have punctured a lung. There was blood. So, so much blood. This must have been why he’d looked at her so coldly, making no effort to reveal the truth with so much as a glance. He had known Legend would punish him for his betrayal.

“Julian, please…” Scarlett put her hands over the wound, soaking her palms in red for the second time that day.

“It’s all right.” Julian coughed, more blood staining his mouth. “I probably deserved this.”

“Don’t say that!” Scarlett ripped the cape from her shoulders and pressed it hard against Julian’s chest, trying to stop the bleeding. “I don’t believe that, and I don’t believe this is how it’s supposed to end.”

“Then don’t let it end here. I’ve already told you—I’m not worth crying for.” Julian reached up to brush away one of her tears, but his hand fell before he reached her.

“No! Don’t give up,” Scarlett begged. “Please, don’t leave me.” There were so many other things she wanted to say, but she feared that if she said her good-byes, it would make it easier for him to let go. “You can’t abandon me. You told me you were going to help me win the game!”

“I lied—” Julian’s eyes fluttered. “I—”

“Julian!” Scarlett cried, pushing harder against his chest as more blood soaked through the cape and onto her hands. “I don’t care if you lied. If you don’t die, I’ll forgive you for everything.”

Julian’s eyes shut, as if he didn’t hear her.

“Julian, please keep fighting. You’ve been fighting me this whole game, don’t stop now.”

Slowly his eyelids lifted. For a moment it looked as if he was coming back to her. “I lied about how I got bashed in the head,” he mumbled. “I wanted you to have your earrings back. But the man was tougher than he looked.… I got into a little trouble. But it was worth it to see your face.…” A ghost of a smile moved his lips. “I should have stayed away from you … but I really

wanted you to succeed.… I wanted to—” Julian’s head fell back.

“No!” Beneath her hands, Scarlett felt his chest fall a final time.

“Julian. Julian. Julian!” She pressed her hands to his heart but nothing moved.

Scarlett didn’t know how many times she repeated his name. She said it like a prayer. A plea. A whisper. A good-bye.

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