Legendary (Caraval, #2): Chapter no 12

Legendary (Caraval, #2)

Tella thought she knew what to expect inside of Idyllwild Castle.

She’d been to Caraval before; finding Tella had been the entire purpose of the last game. But while that sounded exciting, in truth Tella had been forced to spend most of her time sitting like a trapped princess in a tower, waiting to be found. She’d snuck out on occasion. But slipping into the back doors of Caraval’s gaming rooms and spying on her sister from the shadows was not nearly the same as being one of the real players and entering Legend’s decadent world with the intent of getting swept away.

Tella had no intentions of being swept away now. It was past midnight, and she needed to find her friend before he left. But, with every step she took inside the castle, Tella had to fight the urge to forget why she was there and just enjoy the game.

The air tasted like wonder. Like candied butterfly wings caught in sugared spiderwebs, and drunken peaches coated in luck.

Again, she wondered if Elantine’s heir wasn’t so bad. Perhaps only the rumors about him were terrible, started by people jealous of his position. His ball looked like a celebration she would have put together. Though Tella had no idea if that actually said something about her or her host.

She continued to grip her luckless coin, hoping her friend was still at the party. But even as Tella searched for him, she couldn’t help noticing every surface of the celebration was a riot of indulgent activity.

From the grand ballroom’s arched entrance it looked as if another Fate had come to life in bursts of furry and feathered colors. The Menagerie—a card that represented the start of a new story or adventure.

Women and men with bodies covered in feathers and heads crowned with tiny curved horns dangled from the ceiling, twirling and spinning around thick sheets of gold or magenta silk that hung like massive party ribbons. Below them, performers in costumes made of fur, more feathers, and paint slathered over skin prowled and crawled as if they were wild chimeras escaped from another world. Tella saw performers dressed to look like tigers with dragon wings, horses with forked tails, snakes with lion manes, and wolves with ram horns, who growled and nipped and sometimes licked at the heels of guests. There were a few low balconies where shirtless men with wings as large as angels’ and fallen stars pushed grinning couples back and forth on giant swings hanging from canopies of thorns and flowers.

Tella heard Dante snort by her side.

She might have spent a little too long eyeing the beautiful men who looked like fallen stars and angels, futilely hoping one might be the friend she sought. The rest of her just wanted to take it all in. She’d dreamed of parties like this. She knew she didn’t have time to waste. But her eyes strained to see every glistening inch as her fingers longed to touch, and her mouth strained to take a bite, not just of the food, but of the party itself. Of the dragon wings, and the careless laughs, the way people tossed their heads and cast around glances that ranged between shy and ravenous. It all looked so innocent and wicked at once, and Tella longed to experience every tempting piece of it.

At the top of the ballroom stairs she tilted her head to look up at Dante, who could have been her shadow with all the sharp points of his inky tattoos peeking out from his shadow-dark suit. “Why aren’t you dressed like a leopard with butterfly wings, or a unicorn?”

A sliver of a grin. “Not even Legend could make me dress like a unicorn.”

“But unicorns are magical, and then all the ladies would want to pet you.”

This time Dante’s snort sounded more like a laugh he was trying to hold back.

Tella couldn’t help smiling; she might not have liked him, but she enjoyed that he found her funny. She also appreciated that he seemed uninterested in all the ladies who looked his way and appeared as if they really would be willing to pet him, even though he wasn’t dressed like a unicorn.

“Greetings!” Jovan, one of Legend’s friendliest performers, dropped in front of Tella and Dante like a marionette. Thick ribbons were attached to her dark brown arms and legs, keeping her feet just off the ground as they happily kicked, ringing the silver bells on her shoes.

Jovan was the first face people saw when they entered Caraval, but she really did so much more than welcome players into the game. She was often a walking clue card disguised as a friendly face, pointing guests in the direction they needed to go. Her amiable disposition was an invaluable skill, also used to reassure those in danger of going mad that it was really only a game.

Unlike most of the other performers, Jovan was not costumed like a chimera. She was dressed like Jester Mad—another Fate from the Deck of Destiny.

A patchwork mask concealed half of Jovan’s face with bright rainbow colors that matched the right side of her cape. The garment’s other side was entirely black, exactly like the hood that cloaked the left half of her face. A mercurial Fate, Jester Mad symbolized happiness destined not to last.

“Welcome, welcome to Caraval, the grandest show by land or by sea.

Inside you may come face-to-face with a Fate, or steal bits of destiny—” “It’s all right,” Tella cut in. She genuinely liked Jovan. During the last

game she’d helped Tella sneak out from her tower room more than once. But Tella didn’t need to hear Jovan’s speech right now. As enticing as Caraval was, there was little point in playing the game if Tella’s bargain with her friend fell through; he was her only solid link to her mother, and saving her was more important than anything. “I’ve already heard it. You can skip it and hand us the first clue.”

“Maybe you just think you’ve heard it.” Jovan jingled the bells on her shoes. “This greeting is a little different from last time.” She cleared her throat before reciting the rest from memory.

“As fantastical as Caraval might feel, the next five nights are very real. Elantine has invited us here to save the Empire from her greatest fear.

For centuries the Fates were locked away, but now they wish to come out and play.

If they regain their magic the world will never be the same, but you can help stop them by winning the game.

To do this you must be clever and follow the clues to find the dark object that can destroy them forever.

Once you have it, Legend will give you a prize so rare I’m not allowed to utter it here.”

Jovan kicked her feet when she finished, ringing the bells on her shoes once more as the ribbons on her arms and legs lifted her up, up, up into the frosted fog covering the ceiling. As she ascended, a red card with charred edges dropped from above like a singed chimera feather.

Tella picked it up; the exact same words Jovan just spoke covered the tiny page. “That’s it? When Scarlett played, I thought she signed a contract in blood.”

“Every performance is different. When your sister played, we had to work at making everything seem more dangerous than it was, because it was only a game.”

Tella snorted. “If you’re trying to tell me it’s real this time, it’s not going to work. I’ve already heard the whole speech about not being swept too far away.”

“But have you heard it tonight?” Dante’s voice dropped as he brushed closer, fingers grazing the petals on her dress.

Tella’s eyes fell to the singed welcome card in her hands. As Dante had said, it didn’t contain any warnings about being swept too far away. In fact it mentioned the opposite: As fantastical as Caraval might feel, the next five nights are very real.

Tella didn’t believe it for a heartbeat, and yet she couldn’t resist looking up at Dante and asking, “If the game is real, does that mean everything between us is real?”

“You’ll have to be more specific than that.” He plucked a petal from her skirt, rubbing it between his fingers as he started down the stairs without


In other words, no.

Nothing between them was real, because Caraval wasn’t real. People loved Caraval because it was a fantasy come to life; no matter how twisted the game became at the end of it all, it was still only a game. Tella could not let herself be swept away by it.

At the bottom of the steps Tella squeezed her coin once again and scanned the crowd for anyone who might look a bit like a criminal, hoping to find her friend. Though a part of her had begun to fear he’d already left. It was well past midnight now and his last letter had warned that he wouldn’t wait.

But Tella wasn’t ready to give up. Her searching gaze wove past actors on stilts, covered in cream and chestnut fur, and men decorated to look like swans with fangs, rowing upside-down polka-dot umbrellas through the flower-covered streams that led toward the center of the ballroom.

“I don’t think you want to go that way.”

Tella turned and nearly smacked into Dante’s chest. He was right behind her once more, standing taller than any boy had the right to. She had to strain her neck to watch his line of vision travel past a woman wrestling with a wolfman and a young gentleman playing fetch with a handsome half- tiger, until finally Dante’s vision landed on the massive silver cage in the center of the ballroom.

Tella stiffened.

She had glimpsed the cage’s thick iron bars upon entering, but she’d not realized all the dancers on the ballroom’s dance floor were inside it. From afar they looked more like captive animals. Her shoulders shuddered. No wonder Dante had been laughing earlier.

“You really weren’t joking about hating cages?” Dante asked.

“Who enjoys cages?” Though from where Tella stood, it appeared half of the ball did.

“They’re fools,” she went on. “This is Caraval—Legend might trap all of them in there and tell them they can’t get the first clue unless one person agrees to stay inside forever.”

This earned her another deep laugh. “Is that what you think Legend does?”

“He tried to keep me trapped up in a balcony during the last game.”

“But you snuck out. If Legend had really wanted to hold you captive, he wouldn’t have let that happen.”

“Perhaps I’m just an excellent sneak.”

“Or maybe you only think you are.” Dante’s fingers skimmed the nape of Tella’s neck, just a gentle touch, but Tella had a vivid flashback to the way his hands had felt right before she’d left him in the forest that morning. He’d let her go. He’d pretended not to care or notice, yet he’d found her shortly after. He’d teased her about the cursing, and been kind enough to

return her coin with just a little more teasing.

“You know,” Tella mused, “if I didn’t hate you, I might actually enjoy your company.”

All hints of Dante’s smile vanished. “We should leave.” “What—”

He grabbed Tella’s hand, swifter and tighter than any of the times he’d taken hold of her before. It all seemed to happen at once, giving Tella only a moment to realize that his eyes were no longer on her. They were narrowed on something—or someone—standing behind her.

“Trying to run off with my fiancée?”

The superior drawl skimmed the back of Tella’s shoulders, as cool and polished as a freshly sharpened sword.

Elantine’s heir.

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