Chapter no 35

Caraval (Caraval, 1)

Starlight everywhere.

Constellations Scarlett had never seen domed a vast, inky night. The world was made of a rimless balcony, its floor a stretch of luminous onyx, with oversize cushioned lounges in shades of stardust, and small fire pits growing incandescent blue flames.

High above the rest of the world, it should have felt cold, but the air was warm as Scarlett crawled through the opening, the buttons of her dress softly tinkling against the polished floor. Everything about this place reeked of Legend, even the scent of the fire pits, as if the logs were made of velvet and something slightly sweet. The air felt soft and poisonous. Closer to the room’s back wall, a massive black bed, piled with pillows as dark as nightmares, mocked her. Scarlett didn’t know what Legend used this room for, but her sister was nowhere—

“Scar?” A petite figure sat up in the bed. Honey-blond curls bounced around a face that might have been angelic, if it wasn’t for her devil’s grin.

“Oh, my love!” Tella squealed, jumping out of the bed and capturing Scarlett in an embrace before she made it halfway across the room. When she hugged Scarlett with her fierce arms, it made Scarlett believe happy endings were possible. Her sister was alive. She felt like softness and sunlight and seeds for growing dreams.

Now Scarlett just needed to bring back Julian.

Scarlett pulled away only to make sure it was really Tella, who often embraced her but not usually with that much enthusiasm.

“Are you all right?” She looked her sister over for signs of any cuts or

bruises. Scarlett could not allow her excitement to let her forget why she was there. “Have you been treated well?”

“Oh, Scar! Always the worrier. I’m so glad you’re finally here. For once I was starting to fret.” Tella sucked in a deep breath, or maybe it was a shiver since she was standing in only a thin, pale-blue nightdress. “I was beginning to fear you were never going to come—not that it isn’t so lovely up here.”

Tella waved her arms toward all the stars, ones that felt close enough to grab and tuck inside a pocket. Too close, in Scarlett’s mind. Like the raised edge around the balcony, so low to the floor it almost wasn’t a barrier at all. A prison disguised to look like a master suite with a palatial view.

“Tella, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s all right,” Tella said. “I was just getting awfully bored.”

“Bored—” Scarlett choked on the word. She didn’t imagine Caraval would have changed her sister as much as it had changed herself, but bored?

“Don’t mistake me. There have been perks, and I’ve been treated well— God’s teeth!” Tella’s round eyes widened as they dropped to Scarlett’s bloody hands and dress. “What happened? There’s blood all over you!”

“It’s not mine.” Scarlett’s throat felt tight as she looked down at her palms. Just one drop had given her a day of Julian’s life. It made her ache to think how many days were splattered all over her body—days he should have lived.

Tella grimaced. “Whose blood is it?”

“I’d rather not explain right here.” Scarlett stopped, not quite sure what to say. They needed to get out of there, away from Legend, but Scarlett also needed to find him again if she was going to collect her wish and save Julian.

“Tella, we need to leave.” Scarlett would move her sister to safety, then she’d come back for the wish. “Dress quickly; don’t bring anything that will weigh us down. Tella, why aren’t you moving? We don’t have much time!”

But Tella didn’t budge. She just stood there in her fragile blue nightdress, a rumpled angel, looking up at Scarlett with wide, worried eyes.

“I was warned this might happen.” Tella softened her voice, using that awful tone mostly reserved for unreasonable children or old people. “I don’t know where you think we need to run to, but it’s all right. The game is over.

This room, it’s the end, Scar. You can sit down and take a breath.” Tella tried to guide her to one of the ridiculous cushioned lounges.

“No!” Scarlett pulled away. “Whoever gave you that warning lied. It was never just a game. I don’t know what they told you, but you’re in danger— we’re both in danger. Father’s here.”

Tella’s eyebrows peaked, but she quickly smoothed her expression out, as if she wasn’t alarmed at all. “Are you sure it wasn’t just some sort of illusion?”

“I’m positive. We need to get out of here. I have a friend…” Scarlett couldn’t say Julian’s name—she could barely say the word friend—but she forced herself to stay strong for Tella. “My friend, he has a boat and it’s going to take us where we want to go. Like you’ve always wanted.”

Scarlett reached for her sister, but this time Tella was the one to step back, pursing her lips. “Scar, please, listen to what you’re saying. Your eyes have played tricks on you. Don’t you remember the warning they gave when we arrived: don’t let yourself get swept too far away?”

“What if I told you this year’s game is different?” Scarlett said, and as quickly as possible, she tried to explain Legend’s history with their grandmother. “He’s brought us here for revenge. I know you’ve been treated well, but whatever he’s told you, it’s a lie. We need to leave.”

As Scarlett spoke, Tella’s expression had shifted. She started gnawing on her lower lip, though whether it was fear for their lives or for Scarlett’s sanity, Scarlett could not tell. “You really believe this?” Tella asked.

Scarlett nodded and hoped desperately that their sisterly bond would overcome Tella’s doubts. “I know how this sounds, but I’ve seen the proof.”

“All right, then. Give me a moment.” Tella bustled off, disappearing behind a large black dressing curtain near her bed, while Scarlett worked to push one of the lounges until it covered up the trapdoor, cutting off the stairs she’d used to get there. As she finished, Tella reappeared, wrapped in a blue silk robe, holding a cloth in one hand and a water basin in the other.

“What are you doing?” Scarlett asked. “Why don’t you have on proper clothes?”

“Sit down.” Tella motioned toward one of the many cushioned things. “We’re not in danger, Scar. Whatever you’re afraid of, I know you think it’s real, but that’s the entire point of Caraval. It’s all supposed to feel real, but none of it is. Now, sit, and I’ll wash off some of the blood. You’ll feel better when you’re clean.”

Scarlett didn’t sit.

Tella was using the voice again, the one for crazed children and delusional adults. Not that Scarlett could blame her. If she hadn’t come face-to-face with their father, and if she hadn’t seen Julian die, if she hadn’t felt his heart stop, his warm blood on her hands, or watched as the life drained out of him, she might have been able to doubt it was real.

If only she could doubt it.

“What if I can prove it?” Scarlett pulled out the funeral invitation. “Right before I came up here, Legend left me this.” She thrust the note into Tella’s hand. “Look for yourself. He plans to murder you!”

“Because of Nana Anna?” Tella scowled as she read. Then she seemed to be fighting a laugh. “Oh, Scar, I think you’ve taken this letter the wrong way.” Tella smothered another giggle as she handed the note back to her. The first thing Scarlett noticed were the edges. No longer black, they were now

lined in gold, and the script was altered as well.

Dear Miss Dragna,

As my special guest, I’d like to invite you and your sister to a party, usually reserved for my Caraval performers. It starts one hour after sunset. I know I’m not the only one who hopes to see you and your sister there.

Yours, Legend


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