Chapter no 8

Caraval (Caraval, 1)

The rotund man who had just entered the shop looked a bit like a clock himself. The mustache on his dark, round face stretched out like a minute and hour hand. His shiny brown frock coat reminded Scarlett of polished wood, his brass suspenders of cable pulleys.

“We weren’t stealing,” Scarlett said. “We—”

“You should only speak for yourself.” The man’s baritone voice fell several octaves as he focused two narrowed eyes on Julian.

From dealing with her father, Scarlett knew it was best not to appear guilty.

Dont look at Julian.

Yet she couldn’t help but glance. “I knew it!” said the man.

Julian reached for Scarlett, as if to push her toward the door.

“Oh no, don’t run out! I’m only kidding,” the stranger called. “I’m not Casabian, I’m not the owner! I’m Algie, and I don’t care if your pockets are stuffed with clocks.”

“Then why are you trying to stop us from leaving?” Julian’s hands were on his belt, one reaching for his knife.

“This boy’s a bit paranoid, isn’t he?” Algie turned to Scarlett, but she was feeling sage-shaded colors of suspicion as well. Was it just her, or were the clocks on the wall ticking faster than before?

“Come on,” she said to Julian. “Tella’s probably worried to death about us by now.”

“You’ll find whoever you’re looking for faster this way.” Algie stepped over to the rosewood grandfather clock, opened its glass door, and tugged on

one of its weights. As he did, the metallic puzzle clocks on the wall shifted. Click. Clack. Their pieces snapped together, rearranging into a magnificent patchwork door with a notched count wheel in place of a handle.

Algie waved an arm theatrically. “Today only! For a bargain price the two of you can use this entrance—a shortcut into the heart of Caraval.”

“How do we know it’s not just an entry into your basement?” asked Julian. “Does this feel like a door to a cellar? Look with all of your senses.” Algie touched the door’s notched wheel and at once every clock in the shop went


“If you leave this shop the other way, you’ll be spit into the cold and you’ll still have to pass through the gates. This will save you precious time.” He released the handle and all the timepieces started moving once more.

Tick-tock. Tock-tick.

Scarlett wasn’t sure she believed Algie, yet there was obviously something magical about the portal on the wall. It felt a bit like the dress she wore, as if it took up a little more space than everything else around it. And if it were a shortcut into Caraval, then she would find her sister faster. “What will it cost us?”

Julian’s dark brows slanted up. “You’re actually considering his offer?”

“If it will get us to my sister faster.” Scarlett would have expected the sailor to be all for shortcuts, but instead his eyes darted around almost nervously. “You think it’s a bad idea?” she asked.

“I think the smoke we saw is the entrance to Caraval, and I’d rather keep my currency.” He reached for the front door.

“But you don’t even know the price,” said Algie.

Julian threw a look at Scarlett, pausing for the click of a second hand. Something unreadable flickered in his eyes, and when he spoke again she would have sworn his voice sounded strained. “Do whatever you want, Crimson, but just a friendly warning for when you do get inside: be careful who you trust; most of the people here aren’t who they appear.” A bell chimed as he stepped outside.

Scarlett hadn’t expected him to stay with her forever, yet she found herself

more than a little bit unnerved by his abrupt departure.

“Wait—” Algie called as she started to follow. “I know you believe me. Are you just going to chase that boy and let him decide for you, or make a choice for yourself?”

Scarlett knew she needed to leave. If she didn’t hurry, she’d never find the sailor, and then she’d be utterly alone. But Algie’s use of the word choice made her pause. With her father always telling her what to do, Scarlett rarely felt as if she had any genuine choices. Or maybe she paused because the part of her that had not quite let go of all her childhood fantasies wanted to believe Algie.

She thought of how effortlessly the door had formed and how every clock had gone silent when Algie had touched the door’s peculiar handle. “Even if I was interested,” she said, “I don’t have any money.”

“But what if I’m not asking for money?” Algie straightened the tips of his mustache. “I said I’m offering a bargain; I’d just like to borrow your voice.”

Scarlett choked on nervous laughter. “That doesn’t sound like a fair trade.”

Was a voice even a thing someone could borrow?

“I only want it for an hour,” Algie said. “It will take you at least that long to follow the smoke and make it into the house and start the game, but I can let you inside right now.” He pulled a watch from his pocket, and wound both the hour and minute hands to the top. “Say yes, and this device will take your voice for sixty minutes, and my door will lead you right inside the heart of Caraval.”

She could find her sister right now.

But what if he was lying? What if he took more than an hour? Scarlett was uncomfortable trusting a man she’d just met, even more so after Julian’s warning. The idea of losing her voice terrified her as well. Her cries had never stopped her father from hurting Tella, but at least Scarlett had always been able to call out. If she did this and something happened, she’d be powerless. If she saw Tella from a distance, she’d be unable to yell her name. And what if Tella was waiting for Scarlett at the gate?

Scarlett only knew how to survive through caution. When her father made

deals, there was almost always something awful he failed to mention. She couldn’t risk that happening now.

“I’ll take my chances with the regular entrance,” she said.

Algie’s mustache drooped. “Your loss. It really would have been a bargain.” He pulled open the patchwork door. For a brilliant moment Scarlett glimpsed the other side: a passionate sky made of melting lemons and burning peaches. Thin rivers that shined like polished gemstones. A laughing girl with curly spires of honey—

“Donatella!” Scarlett rushed for the door, but Algie slammed it shut before her fingers grazed the metal.

“No!” Scarlett grabbed the notched wheel and tried to turn it, but it dissolved into ash, falling into a gloomy pile at her feet. She watched hopelessly as the puzzle pieces shifted again, clicking apart until the door was no more.

She should have made the trade. Tella would have done it. In fact, Scarlett figured that was how her sister had gotten inside in the first place. Tella never worried about the future or consequences; it was Scarlett’s job to do that for her. So while she should have felt better knowing Tella was definitely in Caraval, Scarlett could only worry about what kinds of trouble her sister would find. Scarlett should have been in there with her. And now she had lost Julian as well.

Hurrying out of Casabian’s shop, Scarlett rushed onto the street. Whatever warmth she’d felt inside immediately vanished. She hadn’t thought she’d been there very long, yet the morning had already disappeared along with early afternoon. The hatbox shops were now obscured in a din of leaden shadows.

Time must move faster on this isle. Scarlett worried she would blink and the stars would be out. Not only had she been separated from Tella and Julian, but she’d wasted valuable minutes. The day was almost over, and Legend’s invitation said she only had until midnight to make it inside Caraval’s main gates.

Wind danced along Scarlett’s arms, wrapping cold white fingers around the

parts of her wrists her dress didn’t cover. “Julian!” she cried out hopefully.

But there was no sign of her former companion. She was totally alone. She wasn’t sure if the game had started yet, but she already felt as if she were losing.

For a panicked moment she thought the smoke had disappeared as well, but then she spied it again. Past the darkened storybook shops, sweet-smelling rings of it still made their way into the sky, rising out of a massive brick chimney, attached to one of the largest houses Scarlett had ever seen. Four stories high, with elegant turrets, balconies, and flower boxes full of bright and pretty things—white candytuft flowers, magenta poppies, tangerine snapdragons. All somehow untouched by the snow, which had started falling again.

Scarlett hurried toward the house, a new chill sliding over her as footsteps approached and she heard a low chuckle emerge from the flurry of white. “You didn’t take Grandfather Clock up on his offer?”

Scarlett jumped.

“No need to be scared, Crimson, it’s just me.” Julian emerged from the shadows of a nearby building, just as the sun finished setting.

“Why haven’t you gone in yet?” She pointed toward the turreted house. Half relieved not to be alone, half nervous to see the sailor again. A few minutes ago he’d rushed out of the clock shop. Now Julian sauntered closer as if he had all the time in the world.

His tone was warm and friendly when he said, “Maybe I was hoping you’d show up?”

But Scarlett found it difficult to believe he’d just been standing there, waiting for her, especially after the abrupt way he’d left her. There was something he wasn’t telling her. Or maybe she was paranoid from having lost Tella in the clock shop. She told herself she’d be with her sister soon enough. But what if Scarlett couldn’t find her once they were inside?

The wooden mansion appeared even larger close up, sprawling toward the sky as if its wooden beams still grew. Scarlett had to crane her neck to see the entirety of it. A fifty-foot-tall iron fence curled around it, formed into shapes

both vulgar and innocent: They seemed to move, even to perform. Prancing girls being chased by naughty boys. Witches riding tigers and emperors atop elephants. Chariots pulled by winged horses. And in the center of it all hung a brilliant crimson banner embroidered with the silver symbol of Caraval.

If Tella were there they might have giggled together, the way only sisters could. Tella would have pretended not to be impressed, though secretly she would have been delighted. It was not the same with this strange sailor, who looked neither delighted nor impressed.

After how he’d helped her that day, Scarlett had to admit he wasn’t quite the scoundrel he seemed, but she also doubted he was the simple sailor he appeared. He eyed the gate suspiciously, the set of his shoulders tense, the lines of his back rigidly straight. All of the laziness she’d witnessed on the boat had vanished; Julian was now a boxed coil, tightly wound as if preparing for some sort of fight.

“I think we should go farther down and look for a gate,” he said. “But see that flag?” Scarlett said. “This has to be where we get in.” “No, I think it’s farther down. Trust me.”

She didn’t, but after her last blunder, she also didn’t trust herself. And she didn’t want to be left alone again. About twenty yards down they found another flag.

“This looks exactly like where we were before—”

“Welcome!” A dark-skinned girl on a unicycle pedaled out from behind the banner, cutting Scarlett off. “You’re here just in time.” The girl paused, and one by one, glass lanterns hanging from the tips of the gate lit up with flames. Brilliant gold-blue sparks—the color of childhood dreams, thought Scarlett.

“I always love it when that happens.” The girl on the unicycle clapped. “Now, before I can let either of you fine people through, I need to see your tickets.”

Tickets. Scarlett had forgotten all about the tickets. “Ah—”

“Don’t worry, love, I have them.” Julian placed an arm around Scarlett, tucking her unexpectedly close. And had he called her “love”?

“Go along with it, please,” he whispered in her ear as he reached into his

pocket and retrieved two slips of paper, both a little wilted and wrinkled from their dip in the ocean.

Scarlett held back from saying anything as her name appeared on the first. Then the unicyclist held the other note up to one of the gate’s candlelit lanterns.

“That’s unusual. We don’t normally see tickets without names.” “Is there a problem?” Scarlett asked, suddenly uneasy.

The unicyclist looked down at Julian, and for the first time her bright demeanor faded.

Scarlett was about to explain how she’d received the tickets, but Julian broke in first, his arm pressing harder against her shoulders in what felt like a warning. “Caraval Master Legend sent it. The two of us are getting married. He gifted the tickets to my fiancée, Scarlett.”

“Oh!” The cyclist clapped again. “I know all about the two of you! Master Legend’s special guests.” She looked at Scarlett more closely. “I should have recognized your name. I’m sorry. So many names, sometimes I forget mine.” She laughed at her own joke.

Scarlett tried to muster a chuckle as well, but all she could think about was the arm wrapped around her and Julian’s use of the word fiancée.

“You’ll want to make sure you hold on to these.” The unicyclist reached through the gate, passing the tickets back to Julian, and for a moment her eyes fastened on him as if there was something else she wanted to say. Then she seemed to think better of it. Breaking her gaze, she reached into the pocket of her patchwork vest and pulled out a scroll of black paper. “Now, before I can let you two in, there’s one more thing.” She quickened the pace of her pedaling, kicking up milky slivers of snow from the ground.

“This will be repeated again once you’re inside. Master Legend likes everyone to hear it twice.”

She cleared her throat and peddled even faster. “Welcome, welcome to Caraval! The grandest show on land or by sea. Inside you’ll experience more wonders than most people see in a lifetime. You can sip magic from a cup and buy dreams in a bottle. But before you fully enter into our world, you must

remember it’s all a game. What happens beyond this gate may frighten or excite you, but don’t let any of it trick you. We will try to convince you it’s real, but all of it is a performance. A world built of make-believe. So while we want you to get swept away, be careful of being swept too far away. Dreams that come true can be beautiful, but they can also turn into nightmares when people won’t wake up.”

She paused, pedaling her cycle faster and faster until the spokes of the wheel seemed to disappear, vanishing in front of Scarlett’s eyes as the wrought-iron gate parted.

“If you’re here to play the game, you’ll want to take this path.” A curving lane to the girl’s left lit up with puddles of burning silver wax that made the way glitter against the dark. “If you’re here to watch…” She nodded right, and a sudden breeze swayed hanging paper lanterns to life, casting a pumpkin-orange glow above a sloping trail.

Julian dipped his head closer to Scarlett. “Don’t tell me you’re considering just watching.”

“Of course not,” Scarlett said, but she hesitated before taking a step in the other direction. She observed the candles flickering against the full night, the shadows hiding behind the darkened trees and flower bushes that lined the sparkling route into the game.

I’m only staying for a day, she reminded herself.

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