Legendary (Caraval, #2): Chapter no 17

Legendary (Caraval, #2)

Tella rode back to the palace beneath the slow descent of a falling sun. It was late afternoon, that warm hour of the day where the cerulean sky was usually tinged with gold and butter and wisps of peach light. But to Tella’s eyes all the colors above could have been called sepia at best. Everywhere she looked the sky was brownish, and dullish, and just wrongish enough to make her wonder if the afternoon was off or if it was her vision.

By the time she reached the palace she was half convinced another one of Jacks’s side effects was watching the once bright world lose all its color. But perhaps the true side effect was paranoia. Unlike the dull outside, Tella’s tower suite was as blissfully blue as before—from the periwinkle canopy above her bed to the tinted teal waters waiting for her in the bath.

But Tella didn’t have time to wash up more than her hands. She barely had enough minutes to change from her stained lace gown into a new dress from the seamstress. Made of midnight-blue satin and thick black velvet stripes that slashed down a full skirt, the gown was darker than Tella’s usual attire, but something about the combination made her feel fierce enough to battle Jacks and Legend and anyone in Valenda participating in Caraval.

With a fresh bounce to her step, which she hoped wouldn’t leave, Tella marched out of her bedroom into the main suite, and swallowed a curse at the sight of her sister.

Scarlett sat in front of one of the unlit white fireplaces. Tella didn’t know how Scarlett had found her way in, but she shouldn’t have been surprised. If Scarlett Dragna had a magical ability, it would be the power to always find her sister. Tella didn’t know if older sisters were always connected to their

younger siblings this way, or if it was something special between the two of them. Tella would never admit it to Scarlett, but knowing her sister could track her down regardless of the obstacles was one of the few things that truly made Tella feel safe, though it wasn’t always convenient or comfortable.

Tella was not proud of herself for avoiding Scarlett. She’d had a valid reason not to go to her last night, but she should have made time to check in on her that morning and to apologize for not telling the truth about Armando.

As Tella stepped deeper into the room, Scarlett’s head remained down toward her hands, where she held the pair of nude gloves that Jacks had sent that morning.

“Did you know gloves are a symbolic gift?” Scarlett rubbed the soft sheaths between her fingers. “It’s out of fashion now, but I once read that at the start of Elantine’s reign giving a pair of gloves was a custom connected with asking for a girl’s hand in marriage. I think it was supposed to be a young man’s way of saying he’ll take care of a girl by giving her gloves to protect her hands.”

“I’d prefer something a little less symbolic and a little more practical, like blood.”

Scarlett’s head shot up from the gloves. “That’s not very romantic.”

But Tella swore a bolt of red shot up her sister’s throat and color flooded her cheeks, as if the idea thrilled her more than it repulsed her. Interesting.

Tella had only said it to bring a bit of levity, but maybe she’d meant it a little, and since the statement seemed to have pulled Scarlett’s thoughts in a brighter direction, Tella continued. “I read about it in one of your wedding books. It was an ancient marital custom. People would drink each other’s blood to synchronize their heartbeats. So that even when they were parted they could sense if the other was safe or afraid by the pace of their hearts. That’s what I would want, someone who would give me a piece of himself rather than scraps of fabric.”

“So, did your fiancé give you a vial of blood before he proposed last night?”

A curse burned Tella’s tongue. Her sister was supposed to be there to talk about Armando. But it seemed Scarlett was avoiding that subject, not that Tella could blame her. Though she wished she’d not focused on this topic instead. “How did you hear?”

“I might not have gone to the ball last night, but I didn’t curl up and hide beneath the palace,” Scarlett said. “Although even if I had, I imagine I’d have still caught the rumors about the heir’s very public display of affection and whirlwind engagement to a girl named Donatella.”

“Scar, I can explain, you don’t have to worry.” “Do I appear worried?”

Scarlett might have looked a bit somber, but now that her head wasn’t bowed Tella was surprised to see there were no anxious lines around her hazel eyes, her pink lips weren’t pinched, her hands weren’t wringing, and her voice was pleasantly light.

It was actually unnerving. Scarlett worried all the time, even when there was nothing to fret about, and right now there were definitely things that should concern her.

“So you really don’t care that I’m engaged?” Tella plopped onto the tufted chaise across from Scarlett.

“Tella, I know you’re only kidding, but this is veering into slightly uncomfortable territory for me. Can you just tell me what really happened?”

Blast it all. This was exactly what Tella feared.

Scarlett continued to give her sister a smile that was both strained and a little patronizing, as if Tella were a very young girl caught up in a make- believe fairy tale. Tella couldn’t blame her. In some ways that was exactly how it felt to Tella. She was staying in a golden tower. A wicked prince had cursed her and imprisoned her mother, and if Tella failed at her task, they’d both be doomed, and so would Scarlett, who’d be left without anyone.

Tella took a deep breath. She had convinced her sister of a sham engagement during Caraval, and she could do it again. She had to do it again if she wanted to keep her sister safe.

“I know it seems sudden and unbelievable,” Tella said. “I still can’t fathom it myself. The truth is we’ve been writing letters for over a year, but

I had no idea he was the heir until last night. So when he proposed I couldn’t say no—”

“Tella, stop.” The color fled from Scarlett’s cheeks. “I don’t know what you’re trying to do, but this really isn’t humorous.”

“It’s not supposed to be. If you’d been there last night, you would have seen and understood.”

“Last night was the start of Caraval,” Scarlett argued. “Everything that went on in that ballroom was just a game. You know that.”

“Scar, I know what Caraval is.” And Tella knew how ludicrous she sounded. She could see now it had been a mistake to tell her sister about the letters—the story sounded too close to Scarlett’s own history. But Tella had the Aracle, she could prove what she was saying, and maybe it was time her sister heard the full—or almost full—truth. “This is different, Scar. And it isn’t just about me, it involves our mother—”

“No,” Scarlett snapped, her voice so sharp it rattled the chandelier. “It’s never different, no matter how much you want to believe it. I don’t care what it involves. When I played, it seemed impossible for it to be just a game. Legend planted Julian in our lives before the game had even begun. Then I saw him die, and I saw you die. And even once it was all done, and I knew which parts were real and which parts were lies, I found out I was wrong, that I broke up with a fake fiancé because I had never met the real one.” Scarlett’s voice cracked. Tella swore she saw the words shatter on the carpet and spill across the palatial floor as her sister finally fell apart.

Tella had pushed her too far. She’d also not meant for this. She had not wanted Scarlett to be deceived so deeply, or fall in love, end up heartbroken, head-sick, and confused. Caraval was supposed to bring them both freedom from fear and confinement and miserable marriages.

“If it helps, I was tricked too.” Tella shoved up from her seat and cautiously moved closer. Scarlett was taller than Tella, and yet somehow she looked small and unusually fragile as she hunched in front of the empty fireplace. “I swear I had no idea the count was played by an actor until after it was over. But I’m still very sorry.”

“I know,” Scarlett mumbled. “I’m not upset at you. I should have figured it out on my own. It wasn’t as if no one told me that it all was only a game.

I imagine it’s too late to stop you from playing, but Tella, please, be cautious.” Scarlett looked up abruptly. “I know Caraval can be magical and romantic and wonderful, but the spells it casts aren’t easily shaken off, and half the time I don’t even think people realize they have been bewitched.”

“Scar, if you’re right, and it’s all just a game, then doesn’t that mean there’s nothing for you to worry about? Unless you don’t really believe it’s only a game?”

“It’s not the game I’m worried about,” Scarlett said. “I’m thinking about your heart, Tella. I don’t know what’s really going on with you and these engagement rumors, but I know that Caraval has a way of making people fall in love, and sometimes it’s with people who might not be entirely real.” Tella wasn’t fool enough to say out loud that it would never happen to her. She also believed that when girls voiced sentiments like that aloud they were usually wishing for the opposite to occur, daring the Fates to bring the

one thing they claimed not to want.

But Tella wanted love about as much as she wished to contract a disease. There were no kisses worth dying for. No souls worth merging with. There were many beautiful young men in the world, but Tella believed that none of them could be trusted with something as fragile, or valuable, as a heart— especially when her heart had been doomed by the Prince of Hearts to be broken long ago. And even if that wasn’t her destiny, she wasn’t about to fall in love with someone who was only playing a role.

Of course she couldn’t say any of this to Scarlett right now, not when Tella could see her sister’s heart crumbling because of Julian.

The very thing he’d done to keep her was the very thing that had broken them apart. Tella should have tried harder to convince him to tell the truth. She knew it wasn’t all her fault, but she could have helped prevent some of this.

“I don’t believe it’s as hopeless as it seems,” Tella said. “I think Julian is so used to lying it’s all he knows how to do. Before now I don’t imagine he’s ever had a reason to change. But I believe he loves you; it’s clear to anyone who sees the way he looks at you. You’re the starlight to his darkness, and if you feel the same about him, you should give him another chance.”

“I want to think you’re right,” Scarlett said. “But Julian promised not to lie to me at the end of Caraval, and he couldn’t even keep that vow for one day.”

Tella had broken promises just as fast, but now was probably not a good time to bring that up. And she didn’t want to make Scarlett’s choices for her. She did believe that Julian loved her sister, but maybe his life was so entrenched in lies that he was incapable of change, and Scarlett deserved more than that. Tella just hoped whatever she did, Scarlett wouldn’t start thinking about the count again.

She perched on the edge of the stony white fireplace, next to her sister. “So do you just plan on hiding in the palace all week?”

“I don’t know.” Scarlett’s gaze grew distant as she peered out the window toward the rest of the palace and the city beyond. Her mouth twisted with a thought. Then she tilted her head, her eyes taking in all the elegant blue furniture before they lifted toward the ceiling, where a host of carved cherubs watched from above.

“Maybe I’ll stay in here,” Scarlett said. “This suite is large enough to build another suite in.”

“Which reminds me,” Tella asked, “How did you get in here?”

A piece of Scarlett’s smile returned. “I might have thrown a vase in my room last night and accidently opened an entry to a hidden tunnel.” She crossed over to the second fireplace and ran a hand along the edge of the mantel until something clicked. The scent of cobwebs and sooty secrets moved through the air and several bricks shifted all at once.

“That’s brilliant!” Tella clapped.

Scarlett’s face brightened. “If you want, I’ll show them to you.”

Tella was certainly curious. But from the closest window she could see the colors outside had changed. All the browns had shifted into promising shades of bronze. A final good-bye before the sun went down. Soon night would make her appearance; a new one of Legend’s constellations would materialize in the sky. Caraval would start once more, and Tella didn’t want to be late.

According to what Jacks had said the night before, and to what Tella suspected as well, the first clue she’d received, which spoke of a region that

provided promises of both faith and magic, made her think the second clue would be found in the Temple District. Tella hadn’t seen that part of the city yet, but she knew it was larger than the Spice Quarter and the Satine District put together. It could take all night to search.

“Maybe you can show me later,” Tella said. “It’s almost sunset, I should be leaving.”

Tella hadn’t even said the word Caraval, but just like that, Scarlett’s grin faded.

Tella reached for Scarlett’s hand. It was hard enough to leave her when Tella knew her sister was hurting; the last thing she wanted was for Scarlett to worry about Tella on top of it. “I know you don’t trust my judgment right now. But, I know which parts are just a game—”

Scarlett cut in with a sigh. “It’s not that I don’t trust you. I don’t trust Legend, or anyone who works for him, and I think you’d be wise to do the same. At least remember the stories Nana Anna told us—Legend likes to be the villain.”

Tella grinned. “How could I forget? That was always my favorite part.” But it couldn’t be true for this game. If Legend was really the villain,

then there was only one possible person he could be—Jacks.

Tella didn’t even want to consider it, though she could picture Jacks in a top hat and tailcoat, holding out a red rose while his lips curved into a wicked smile. And maybe if Tella’s fingertips hadn’t started bleeding in front of Dante that morning, she might have been tempted to think Jacks was really Legend, and all of this was just a cruel trick.

But Tella knew Jacks was the real Prince of Hearts. She knew it as deeply as she’d known that her sister would be able to wish her back to life if she died. Tella had felt Jacks’s power since the moment they’d kissed. It was different from the magic of Caraval. Legend’s power glittered like dreams come to life, while Jacks’s magic was nightmarish. Even now she felt it, incrementally slowing her heartbeat.

Beat … beat. Nothing.

Beat … beat. Nothing.

Beat … beat … Nothing.

A ticking clock inside her chest.

Tella didn’t want to be cursed, and face the possibility of death. But she wanted to save her mother, she wanted to see her again in the flesh, to find out who she really was and why she’d left. And if Jacks was Legend or one of his actors, that would never happen.

Jacks could not be Legend. But if he was, then Legend was a greater villain than Tella had ever imagined.

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