Legendary (Caraval, #2): Chapter no 13

Legendary (Caraval, #2)

“Now this is an interesting surprise.” Genuine amusement lit a pair of silver-blue eyes, as dazzling as crashing waves, shadowed by untamed hair so gold it could have been turned into coins.

“It’s you.” All the air escaped Tella’s lungs.

The boy from the sky carriage—the same indolent young nobleman who’d threatened to toss her from a coach and dropped a half-eaten apple onto her slippers—flashed a delinquent smile. “You can call me Jacks.”

In a move far more gentlemanly than anything she’d seen him do the other night, he took her free hand to brush a kiss across her knuckles. His narrow lips were soft and cold, bringing a fresh chill that tripped all the way up Tella’s arm as he spoke low words against her hand. “I didn’t actually think you’d be brave enough to wear the dress.”

“I hate to see a good gown go to waste,” she said, flippant, as if his presence had not completely unhinged her. Elantine’s heir wasn’t supposed to find her so quickly. He wasn’t really supposed to find her at all. And he wasn’t supposed to be the reckless boy from the carriage—that didn’t fit with the image she’d had.

The heir—Jacks—had sounded ruthless and far from lazy. Yet this young man with his bloodshot eyes and untamed hair appeared to be the epitome of careless. The bone-white breeches clinging to his lean legs were clean, but his scuffed sable boots looked as if they were meant for a stable rather than a party. He didn’t even bother with a tailcoat. His bronze cravat was tied all wrong, crooked against the throat of a pale shirt that could have done with quite a bit of ironing.

Tella wondered if the wicked rumors about him were wrong, or if Jacks chose to cultivate an idle image on purpose. His golden hair fell over one eye, yet he looked down on Tella with all the confidence of an emperor as he said, “Shall we dance?”

Dante cleared his throat and tugged Tella closer.

Jacks’s mouth twisted, his smile far more feral than friendly. “Surely you’re not trying to keep me from my fiancée at my own party.”

Dante’s grip tightened. “Actually—”

“Don’t mind him, he’s just jealous,” Tella cut in, before Dante could do something unfortunately noble, like confess the charade was all his doing. Not that Tella understood why she was protecting the person partly responsible for this predicament. Or that Dante even needed protecting. Perhaps she just wanted to prove that she didn’t need him taking care of her.

Tella removed herself from his grip.

Dante clenched his jaw so tight she heard his teeth grate together. But Tella didn’t spare him another look. She could manage this on her own.

She held out her hand.

Jacks ran one slender finger over his savage smile, leaving her hand untaken.

Then he took her by the hips. Cool, sinuous, and solid, his arm snaked around her, reeling her scandalously close to his side.

She swore Dante actually growled this time, as Jacks drew her away and into the sweaty crowd of revelers.

The heads of several guests had turned to look at Dante after he and Tella first entered the party. But now Tella swore every set of eyes followed the reckless young heir now clutching her waist. He kept her extremely close as he guided her past fountains dripping sinful liquors, and partygoers flirting with performers costumed like cotton-tailed foxes and half-human leopards.

“I’m surprised you haven’t tried to run,” he said. “Why would I do that?”

“Because,” he spoke into her hair, each word as slow and languorous as the lazy strokes of his fingers against the bottom of her rib cage, “I don’t think I made a very good impression during our first encounter, and by now

I’m guessing you’ve heard the rumors that I’m a soulless madman who will do anything to get the crown.”

“You’re saying they’re not true?”

“If they were true, you’d already be dead.” His lips remained pressed against her hair. To anyone they passed it probably looked as if he was truly enamored, on the verge of inappropriate, almost as if he were trying to start more rumors. Tella didn’t know what she’d expected would happen if the heir found her, but it was definitely not this.

“If I’m a murderer,” he murmured, “do you really think I would have let you live after hearing you’d claimed to be my fiancée to get into the palace?”

“If all of this is your way of saying you don’t plan any retribution for a little fib, then we should part ways. I’m actually here to meet someone else.”

Tella felt Jacks’s cold mouth move downward, frowning, against her hair.

“I’m disappointed, Donatella. I thought I was your friend. But not only were you late, now you’re trying to escape me.” His idle tone turned sharp and something terrible twisted inside of Tella’s gut. “Is this because you don’t have my payment?” Jacks looked down on her with a smile so disturbing it could have made an angel weep.

Unholy saints from hell.

Tella fought to breathe as all her plans and hopes began to crumble.

Jacks couldn’t be her friendShe couldn’t have been writing letters to the heir to the Meridian throne for more than a year.

She stumbled but Jacks’s arm tightened, keeping her from falling and holding her much too close as they continued through the revelers. This had to be a mistake. Tella’s friend was supposed to be a lowly criminal who dealt in secrets, not the unpredictable and murderous heir to the throne, who, from the pitch of his voice, did not sound inclined to forgive her for her failure.

Tella tried to pull away.

Jacks held tight, his nimble fingers stronger than they looked. “Why do you keep disappointing me?” His hands clung to her as if she really were

his fiancée while he guided her closer to the colossal cage in the center of the ballroom. The irony was not lost on Tella. She’d contacted him to help her escape the prison her father had turned her life into, and now Jacks was ushering her toward a new set of bars.

Frightened blue petals rained down from her skirts. Tella’s pounding heart told her she needed to run away as soon as possible. But if she fled, she had no idea who else to turn to to help her find and save her mother. Tella was starting to feel desperate. The pounding of her heart drowned out all the soaring party music. All she could hear was blood rushing through her ears.

But there was still hope.

Jacks might have been heir to the throne, destined to inherit more wealth and power than Tella was capable of imagining. But for all the privilege and connections that brought, it seemed as if certain things—like Legend’s true name—weren’t within his grasp, or he would have never helped Tella in the first place. All she needed to do was convince him that she was still useful.

Tella exhaled deeply and grabbed one of his hands. She leveraged his surprise to tow him behind a triple-tiered fountain spilling falls of crimson liquid that smelled like wine. From the outside it probably looked as if they couldn’t wait to put their hands all over each other. Inside, Tella felt as if she were walking along a fraying tightrope.

“I’m sorry,” she said as soon as they were alone. Her gaze went everywhere except for him. As much as she wished to say it was part of an act, this was one of those moments she was truly afraid. “I didn’t mean to panic after finding out who you were. I’m so grateful for all you’ve done; the last thing I wanted was to disappoint you.”

She swallowed and looked up at him with wide, pleading eyes. If he was capable of sympathy, it didn’t show. There were ice storms warmer than the way he watched her.

“I’ve been looking for you since the moment I arrived,” Tella rushed on. “I don’t have Legend’s name, but I can get it by the end of this week—”

Drunken words tumbled around them, cutting off Tella as another couple drifted toward the fountain they were next to.

Inside a heartbeat Tella’s back was pressed against the uncomfortable ridges of a nearby pillar and Jacks was pressed to her—a show for the unwanted company.

Tella shut her eyes.

Jacks’s mouth dropped to her neck, cool lips hovering over her skin as he murmured, “I’ve heard promises like yours before, but they are always lies.”

“I swear I’m telling the truth,” she whispered.

“I’m not sure I believe you, and I no longer just want Legend’s name.” Another graze of his breath as Jacks’s cold mouth traveled higher, ghosting over her jaw without actually touching her skin.

Tella opened her eyes and sucked in a sharp breath.

His gaze was ravenous. She knew they were only playing a role for the couple drifting by, yet Tella imagined Jacks’s mouth widening enough to bite her, the same way he’d sunk his teeth into that white apple the other night.

Then as quickly as he had pressed her back against the pillar, he was pulling away. The couple that had happened upon them had already stumbled off to somewhere else.

Jacks’s eyes stayed on her, narrowed in a way that could have just as easily been displeasure or amusement at her growing discomfort.

“I like you, Donatella, so I’ll give you one more chance. But, since you failed to bring me the information I asked for, I’ll need to alter the conditions of our agreement. If you succeed with both tasks, then, and only then, will I consider reuniting you with your mother.”

“So you know where she is?”

Jacks’s nostrils flared. “You dare to question me when you’re the only one who’s failed to keep her promises? If you’d brought me Legend’s name, you’d be looking at her now. Instead I’ll give you until the end of this song to make your choice.”

The music all but stopped—save for one clear cello note that might expire any second.

“Tell me what you want,” Tella said.

A faint twitch at the corner of Jacks’s mouth. “I now need two things from you instead of one. I’ve worked very hard to become Elantine’s heir, but the rumor I’m engaged to you has put my position in jeopardy. It’s already spread across the court. If it’s exposed as a lie, given my reputation, people will expect me to kill you. If I don’t, I’ll be seen as weak, and then I’ll be the one who’s killed.”

“What are you proposing?”

“According to every whisper in the palace, a proposal has already happened.”

“Are you asking me to marry you?”

He laughed. “No.” But for a moment, Tella swore Jacks cocked his head as if considering her. “I don’t wish to wed you. I only need you to pretend you’re my fiancée until the end of Caraval. Once the game is over, we can say our engagement was part of it and dissolve it with no harm done.”

It should have been an easy yes. Tella had faked an engagement before. Yet something about this bargain struck her as off. It felt like making a deal with one of Legend’s performers. There was no way it could be as simple as Jacks made it sound. There had to be something else he wasn’t sharing.

“What else do you want?” she asked.

“I need to make sure you can follow through with this request first. If you can convince everyone at this ball that we’re deeply and truly in love, then I’ll tell you the second thing I want.” Jacks stole Tella’s hand, his soft leather gloves pressing firmly against her bare skin.

“Time to see how good of an actress you are.” He flashed his dimples, all carefree, boyish charm. But Tella could not forget how quickly he could turn from careless to cruel as he drew her away from their hidden alcove toward the looming cage where everyone was dancing.

More fragile blue petals fell from her gown.

Tella took a steeling breath. She didn’t know what she would do if she failed, and she wasn’t quite sure what she’d have to do to succeed in convincing the entire ball they were in love.

The thick bars of the cage smelled of metal and royal ambition. The air was almost too thick to breathe, sweltering with warm bodies, perfume, and whispered seductions. Jacks’s fingers tensed as they entered. Briefly Tella

imagined he didn’t like cages either, but it was far more likely he was trying to keep her from running off.

There were even more dancers clustered inside the cage than she’d realized. Overlooked ladies and the occasional couple rested on the raised satin cushions strewn about the edges, while colorful skirts and suits twirled atop the marbled green dance floor as if they were flowers being tossed by the breeze.

Tella spied a few familiar faces.

First she saw Caspar, who’d played the role of Legend in the last game, as well as the role of her fiancé. Dressed in a tawny suit that make him look foxlike, he appeared to be whispering secrets to another handsome young man, who probably had no idea Caspar was a performer. Just beyond, lounging on a cushion, Nigel frightened off nobles and made them blush all at once as he traced the barbed-wire tattoos inked around his lips.

Then there was Armando. An attentive courtier in a scarlet gown pawed at his white coat with her red fingernails. But rather than enjoy her attention, Armando’s gaze fixed on Tella. The cage grew warmer as his emerald eyes followed her. This wasn’t the mocking way he’d looked at her earlier. His interest clung to her as if she were the night’s first act of entertainment.

And he wasn’t the only one staring.

No longer was everyone only looking at Jacks. Tella swore their intrigued gazes and painted eyes had all jumped to her. Tella liked attention, but she wasn’t sure she enjoyed this level of scrutiny. It made the stifling cage feel suddenly small. The light inside had turned from whiskey colored and celebratory to unnerving shades of brassy plum. She especially felt the women, judging her freshly mussed curls and her nearly backless gown as they whispered to one another words that Tella didn’t need to hear to imagine. Few things were quite so brutal as critical ladies.

A trio of girls around her age, all dripping jealousy, actually tried to trip her as she passed.

“Relax,” Jacks murmured. “We’re not going to convince anyone we’re engaged if your eyes keep darting around as though you can’t wait to escape.”

“We’re inside of a cage.” Tella tilted her head toward the dense bars above, where iron chandeliers crawled with blue and white vines that swayed back and forth as if they, too, wished to flee.

“Don’t look at the cage. Keep those pretty eyes on me.” Jacks took Tella’s chin in his fingers, cold, even through the gloves. Around them, hissed words and torrid conversations mingled with softer sounds of flowing liquor, hushed laughter, and animal rumbles. But when Jacks’s lips parted a second time, Tella only heard the melodic sound of his voice as he whispered, “I know it’s not just the cage that’s scaring you, darling.”

“You’re giving yourself far too much credit.”

“Am I?” He dropped his hand from her chin to her neck, soft leather resting against her pulse. He stroked slowly, just a delicate brush of his gloves, which unfortunately made her cowardly heart beat faster.

“Relax,” he repeated. “The only thing you should think about is that you’re more desirable than anyone else in this room. Every person here wishes they were you.”

“You’re definitely giving yourself too much credit now.”

His laughter was surprisingly disarming. “Then tell yourself everyone wishes they were me, dancing with you.” With a grin he must have stolen from the devil, Jacks looped an arm around Tella’s hips and swept her onto the dance floor.

For someone who’d made it sound as if he was concerned about his reputation, it surprised Tella how much he acted as if he couldn’t care less about what everyone else thought. Another dance was currently under way and he cut directly through all the other couples. He was completely disrespectful, yet far more skilled than anyone she’d ever danced with.

Jacks’s every movement was carelessly graceful, matching the musical cadence of his words as he murmured in her ear, “The key to a charade like this is to forget it’s an act. Invite the lie to play until you become so comfortable with it that it feels like the truth. Don’t tell yourself we’re pretending to be engaged, tell yourself that I love you. That I want you more than anyone.” He reeled her closer and ran a hand up the back of her neck, toying with the ribbon around her throat. “If you can convince yourself it’s true, you can convince anyone.”

He spun her around the floor again as thick berry-red ribbons twirled down from the top of the cage. Each one dripped feather-clad acrobats who tossed out handfuls of stardust and cut-glass glitter, covering the world in imitation magic as Tella and Jacks continued to whirl and twirl until everything spiraled into gold-dust and haze, flower petals, and fingers weaving through hair. And for a moment Tella dipped her imagination into the treacherous fantasy that Jacks had described.

She remembered the first time they met. She’d thought him insolent and indolent yet distractingly handsome. If he’d not been such a beast she might have wondered if he tasted like the apple he kept biting, or something else a little more dangerous. Then, for the sake of their charade, she imagined he’d felt the same attraction, and that from the moment Jacks saw her in that carriage, he knew he wanted Tella more than he’d ever desired any other person in his life.

This dance wasn’t about keeping his murderous reputation so he could win the throne; this was about winning her.

It was why he’d given her such a gorgeous gown. Why he danced with her now.

Tella pretended love was a place she wanted to visit, and tested out a flirtatious smile.

Jacks dazzled her with an uneven grin.

“I knew you could do this.” He brought his mouth to her ear and kissed the tip of it tenderly, as soft as the brush of a whisper. Her chest fluttered as his mouth dropped lower, and he kissed her again with a little more pressure, lips lingering at the delicate corner of her jaw and her neck. Tella’s fingers curled into his back.

The music around them surged, violins dancing with harps and cellos in a decadent and debauched rhapsody, threatening to transport her to another time and place.

Every person inside the cage was still watching them spin with rapt interest. The ballroom teemed with eager eyes and sneering mouths as Jacks’s lips continued to dance over Tella’s throat the way their steps waltzed over the floor.

“Maybe we should give them something to really gossip about.” His knuckles brushed her collarbone, drawing her attention back to him. “Unless I still frighten you.”

Tella gave him a wild smile, even as her heart leaped against her rib cage. She needed him to know that she could do this. “You never frightened me.”

“Care to prove that?” Jacks’s bright eyes fell to her mouth.

A dare.

The blood in Tella’s veins surged hotter.

Tella didn’t usually think before kissing a young man. One moment she just found his mouth on top of hers, or hers on top of his, followed by tongues seeking entry as hands fumbled around her body. But she didn’t suppose kissing Jacks would be like that. She had a feeling his skilled hands knew exactly what to do, where to touch her, how hard to press. And his lips—they were being playful now but she didn’t know if they would be gentle with her mouth or a little rough, and her pulse raced at the thought of either possibility.

Jacks cupped her cheek and twirled her in another circle. “Help me convince them,” he whispered.

Tella didn’t know why she hesitated.

It’s just one kiss.

And she was suddenly very curious. He would be the emperor one day, and he wanted to kiss Tella while all of the most important people of the Empire watched.

She slid her hand up to his neck. His skin felt colder, shivering beneath her fingers. Clearly Jacks was not as serene as he appeared.

“It seems as if you’re the one who’s nervous now,” Tella teased.

“I’m just wondering if you’ll think differently of me after this.” Then his mouth was crashing against hers. He tasted like exquisite nightmares and stolen dreams, like the wings of fallen angels and bottles of fresh moonlight. Tella might have moaned against his lips as his tongue slipped between hers and explored.

Every solid inch of him pressed against every soft, curving piece of her. His fingers knotted and tugged at her curls. Her hands roamed under the

hem of his shirt, discovering the firm muscles of his lower back. It was the way people kissed behind locked doors and darkened alleys, not a kiss for lit dance floors where everyone in the Empire could see. Yet Jacks didn’t seem to care.

His fingers found the ribbon around her neck and slid beneath it, crushing her lips even closer to his. He wasn’t tasting her, he was devouring her, as if he’d just found something he’d thought he had lost. Then his hands were sliding underneath the ropes of jewels crossing her bare back; he must have torn off his gloves because his fingers were icy and bold against her heated skin, clutching and claiming and making her wonder if this wasn’t a charade after all.

She whimpered. He groaned.

It was the sort of kiss she could have lived in. The sort of kiss worth dying for.

God’s teeth.

A kiss worth dying for. Only one person in the history of the Empire had ever kissed like—

Jacks bit her, sharp teeth digging into her lip hard enough to draw warm blood.

Tella pulled away abruptly, shoving her hand against his chest. There was no heartbeat.

Blood and saints. What had she done?

In front of her Jacks seemed to glow. His skin had been pale but now it appeared otherworldly in its radiance.

The ribbon once tied around her neck dangled from his slender fingers like some sort of prize, and a drop of the blood he’d spilled when he’d bitten her now rested at the edge of his narrow mouth.

Tella was going to be ill.

“What did you just do to me?” she breathed.

Jacks’s chest heaved almost as much as hers, and his eyes had gone feverish around the edges, but his voice was lazy once again, almost dispassionate as he said, “Don’t cause a scene right here, my love.”

“I think it’s too late for that.” She wanted to call him by his name, the Prince of Hearts, but she wasn’t quite ready to utter the words out loud.

His dimples reappeared, cunning this time, as if he knew exactly what she was thinking.

She waited.

Waited for Jacks to tell her she was wrong. Waited for his assurance that his kiss would not kill her. Waited for him to tell her she should know better than to put too much faith in old stories. Waited for him to tease her for being so gullible and believing that he was a long-lost Fate who’d returned. Waited for him to tell her that he was not the Prince of Hearts.

Instead, he licked the blood at the corner of his mouth. “You should have brought me Legend’s name.”

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